Monthly Archives: June 2008


I used to think that I understood memory: whether it was the fickle type (like Ronald Reagan’s during the Iran Contra hearings) or the persistent (like Proust and his madeleines), I always believed I understood how memory worked: an event occurred, and it was either remembered, or it wasn’t; there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for shades of gray. And then I had my daughter, Clementine, and I realized that, actually, there were more kinds of memory than had ever been dreamt of in my philosophies: not only were there such things as good memories, bad memories, and even false memories, but there was also something that could only be described as a contrary memory, or a memory that seemed to exist just to cause chagrin.

How else would you explain Clementine’s redacted memories of nearly every event in our family’s history?

Take pancake breakfasts, for example–the kind they hold at fire stations and American Legion halls. It has long been our family tradition to attend any and all pancake breakfasts; in fact, we have been sitting under portraits of JFK and eating rubbery pancakes off of paper plates since before we could even be considered a “family” at all–back when it was just my husband and myself. And, really, why wouldn’t we? I mean, where else will you ever get the chance to speak with the governor while an eight-year-old is trying to take your order? (This really happened–Fourth of July, 2005). And where else can you tuck into a meal groaning under the weight of it’s own carbohydrates without feeling a single bit of guilt? (Have seconds, even: it’s all for a good cause.) And so, with such a long history of public service eating, it was no surprise to find our family attending a recent pancake breakfast at the downtown American Legion Hall–a fundraiser for the local swim team, the Flagstaff Snow Sharks. Or, at least it was no surprise to anyone but Clementine.

Since this event had the audacity to take place in the morning (also known in our house as The Time of She Who Must Not Be Awakened), it was a very surly Clementine indeed that sat across the table from us, desultorily picking at her pancakes, and an even surlier one who finally pushed them aside and asked, “So, when did we decide we were going to start doing these “family” things?” In vain I tried to point out to her our family’s long history of attending pancake breakfasts, and, in fact, had just started in on a recitation of the many years we had attended this breakfast alone (complete with the corroborating evidence of the many times we had urged her to join the Snow Sharks while sitting at these very tables) when, continuing on as if I had never spoken, she added an equally petulant: “And how come you never let me join a swim team?

At this point my reply started to sound more like scatting than talking: in fact, I was so amazed that I found it difficult to even speak in complete words, let alone complete sentences.

“But I–you–we–what about–how can–crazy–don’t you remember?”

“No,” she said cooly, looking around the room and clearly imagining all the happy years she could’ve spent with her swim club pals, if only we hadn’t been so damn selfish. “I don’t.”

On reflection, I should’ve been prepared for both denials–the pancake and the swim club one. After all, she also has clear memories of all the times we didn’t allow her to learn to ski, wouldn’t let her try new foods, and how we, for years, fiendishly kept her from discovering how much she really liked baseball. To hear her tell it, it was a childhood straight out of Oliver Twist. Or at least the Clementine version of it.

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The Critic

When I was in middle school, I rode the bus with a girl named Shelly who always sat near the front of the bus so that she could pass judgement on everyone who walked by. Her observations were always correct, and always cruel: anyone capable of getting by her with their egos intact would’ve had no problem trying to pledge an elite sorority with spinach in their teeth or trying out for American Idol with laryngitis. In other words, no one passed her unscathed, least of all me. And yet, curiously enough, her early role as a tormentor seemed to leave no lasting impact on her whatsoever; a few years back she ran into my mother and asked her–with complete sincerity–how I was. “Did you tell her that I was still ‘hating her every day?’” I replied when my mother relayed the conversation to me. “No,” she said, in the tone of one who is now having second thoughts. “I told her you were ‘fine.’”

Still, despite my snarling reply, in the many, many, many years that have passed since I was in middle school I’d like to think that I have moved past that particular incident. Which is good, because if my poor little ego had still been bruised from that long ago encounter, it would be positively shredded today.

The reason? I live with a preteen girl. Or, as we like to call her, The Critic.

Here’s a sample of a typical dialogue (or rather, monologue, since I rarely bother to respond) with The Critic. “Why are you wearing a dork sweater today? Did you know you have a zit on your chin? Your teeth look especially yellow this morning. Wow, you really look tired. Those pants don’t fit you anymore. You’re not going to get up and dance, are you? Here, where people can see you?” And so on. You’ve heard of Chinese Water Torture? This is the same idea, but with criticism: drip, drip, drip on your ego.

Surprisingly though, there are actually some advantages to living with constant criticism. For instance, say you’re one of those people who hears voices inside your head. I’m not talking about the type of voices John Hinckley heard urging him to “kill the President, kill the President,” (boy, talk about a man who was born before his time), but about those other voices, the ones that like to remind you how pathetic and unattractive you are. Perhaps, like me, you would like to get rid of these voices, or at least turn them so that they are on your side. With a preteen daughter, it can be done; once she is in your head there won’t be room for anyone else’s negativity. As an added bonus, the old voices in your head may even get to feeling so sorry for you, and so resentful of outside critics, that they’ll switch over to your side.

Think about it: surely every now and then all the critics in your life (real and imaginary) must get together–perhaps at a convention–to discuss new developments. (“Ok folks, listen up: she’s finally come to terms with her hair–we’re no longer recommending you do the hair–but, with age, a new item has come up: varicose veins. These babies are a goldmine–you can hit her with both health and appearance at the same time.”)
And maybe, at the most recent one of these that was held for my critics, there was an emergency meeting where it was determined–regretfully–that due to the extraordinary volume of work being produced by the Flagstaff field operative, all other operations would be suspended for the foreseeable future.
“The market has been completely saturated,” stated chief-voice-inside-the-head U.R. Phat, in a press release discussing the radical decision. “We need to back off and consider our options.”
Hey, it’s possible. At least it would explain Shelly.

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“But what I really like are Margarita-flavored wine coolers.”


Seeing as I was trying not to allow myself to be drawn into this conversation any more than was necessary, I tried to make my answering “mmmm?” sound polite, yet noncommital. Not that I didn’t find the subject interesting, mind you (who wouldn’t be interested in combining tequila and wine–talk about “two great tastes that taste great together”), but because I was trying to limit the amount of time I would have to spend conversing, period; after all, standing in a South Phoenix dollar store discussing the relative merits of various types of fine malt liquor was not exactly how I had planned on spending my weekend getaway. Of course, I hadn’t planned much of anything, which is what had gotten me into this mess in the first place.

In my defense, at least it was planned unplanning. The plan was that I would allow my almost 12-year-old daughter, Clementine, to pack her own bag for a weekend trip to Phoenix. No checking behind her back, and no asking leading questions–if she said that she was ready, then that was it: I would believe her and we would go. It would be, I thought, good practice for all those times in the not-so-distant future when she really would be the one who was solely responsible for the contents of her bag. Besides, I figured: it’s only a two day trip–how far wrong could she go if she was only packing for two days? And so, aside from stashing an extra toothbrush in my own bag, I trusted her when she said that her bag was “all packed and ready to go.” Which goes a long way to explaining the laughter I heard as my husband started putting all of our things away in the hotel drawers.

“What’s so funny?” I asked him with a growing sense of dread as he stood chuckling over Clementine’s Harry Potter backpack. Without a word he laid out her entire wardrobe for the next two days–two days that were to include nothing but swimming in the hotel pool and watching a Diamondbacks game: first, a formal, full-length dress; then a heavy sweatshirt; and finally, three gloves (not three pairs of gloves–three gloves). That was it. As he pulled each item out of the bag–each more bizarre than the next–I couldn’t help but expect the whole thing to turn into some sort of Mary Poppins-esque montage. In other words, it wouldn’t have surprised me in the least to see him pull out a snowshoe, a stuffed swordfish or a barber pole; after all, any of those items would have been just as useless and odd as what she brought.

Since I was unwilling to let go of my original belief that this was all “good practice,” I decided that I would make her actually live with the results of her packing for the duration of our trip. This, of course, lasted less than twelve hours, after I realized that, really, no one would suffer more from Clementine’s inability to enjoy the weekend than myself. However, in a last ditch effort to keep the “lesson” part of the weekend alive, I declared I would not spend any more money than necessary on replacing the forgotten items. Which is why I ended up spending my first morning not lounging by the pool, but rather looking for cheap swim wear in a dollar store.

Still, even though this particular version of the independence trial run was a failure, I remain committed to the idea of it; after all, no one expects a kid to drive a car without first taking a few lessons–why should other aspects of growing up be any different?

Besides which: those margarita-flavored wine coolers turned out to be pretty good.

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Excuses, Excuses

I used to think that, in order to be considered a true champion of the lame excuse, you had to either be a hung-over college student or an over-booked contractor. Because, theoretically, only someone with a few years of experience and almost zero sense of accountability should be able to keep a straight face (or at least a straight voice–the best excuses are usually given over the phone) while uttering such stinkers as: “I can’t come in to work this morning because my room-mate found a centipede in the kitchen, and I was up all night worrying about it,” or, “I won’t be able to finish that job at your house today after all because my dog broke his toenail.” Other classics include “I can’t come to work because my dog bit my brother’s probation officer and I have to go get him out of the pound (the dog, not the brother),” and “I didn’t call when I said I would last night because I was caught in a bear trap.” (Note: none of these excuses are made up–at least not by me. They are all 100% true lies.)

My thinking, in excluding children from the pantheon of great lame excuse artists, was that only an adult would have the chutzpah necessary to follow through on a really lame excuse. Let’s face it: almost anyone can come up with a whopper, but it takes a certain kind of cold-blooded indifference to see one through to the end. This is where it usually falls apart for kids, because while they are completely capable of coming up with a stunner (“my dog ate my homework,” anyone?), when pushed they will usually panic and blurt out the truth.

In fact, children are usually so bad at lying (and yet, perversely, so willing to attempt it) that you could almost measure a child’s movement into adolescence to the minute by their reaction to that old parental chestnut: “Tell me the truth; you know I can always tell when you’re lying.” (See what I mean? Only an adult could pull off that one and still keep a straight face.)

This link between creative truth management and approaching adulthood was the reason, then, that I was both melancholy and excited when, a few weeks ago, my daughter, Clementine managed to not only offer up a truly terrible lame excuse (like the child she is), but to stand resolutely behind it (like the adult she will become)–all the while keeping a straight face. A full grown politician couldn’t have done better. And, if that wasn’t enough to make me swell up with pride, there was also the fact that this excuse was not only lame, it was original. No “the dog ate my homework” for my girl (or even one of it’s more believable–for our house at least–cousins, such as “my brother’s rat made a nest out of my homework”), but rather a lame excuse that was, all at once, original, local, and timely (see: that’s how you know it’s true). In short, the latest entry into the lame excuse Hall of Fame was the following:

“I can’t clean my room this week because I’m nervous about taking the AIMS test.”

Here was an excuse that, while palpably bogus, was just cutting edge enough to give you pause. After all, the school had been sending home notes all week imploring parents to not only feed their children on test days, but to also allow them to sleep beforehand (something I had heretofore never realized was optional); maybe all that hype really had been enough to overwhelm a young girl’s nervous system. Maybe, I thought, I should let her slide on her chores this week.

Then again, maybe not. But you have to admit: it was a really nice try.

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