Monthly Archives: July 2008

War I

“Mom, what was it like when the war ended?”

I hesitate a bit before I answer Clementine’s question. It’s a difficult question for me to answer–not because of what was going on in the world in 1975, but because of what was going on in my life; it’s hard to admit that I was more interested in the end of Sonny and Cher than the fall of Saigon. All I can say in my defense is that, to a seven-year old, there was lots of more interesting stuff going on: The Streak–considered by most discerning seven-year olds to be the BEST SONG EVER–was playing continuously on nearly every radio station; The Wallace and Ladmo Show–The Simpsons of its day (at least in Phoenix)–was on TV every single weekday morning; and, to top it all off, Mattel had just introduced Barbie’s new best friend, the “Kelly” doll, something that finally gave me reason to hope that one day I, too, would grow up to be a statuesque redhead.

All these things float through my mind as I drag out my answer, trying to put off the inevitable moment when I’ll have to admit to Clementine that–on this, too–she is much more hip now than I ever was at her age: when I was her age I didn’t even know what a war was. And even though I would like to be able to tell her that I remember watching protests on TV, or that every car either sported a “Make Love, Not War” or a “Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker, or even that every conversation I eavesdropped on contained funny-sounding words like Mai Lai, Da Nang, or Saigon, the truth of the matter is that I was much too wrapped up in starting a Monkees tribute band (I would be Peter Tork) to notice. Eventually I manage to come up with a lame: “Well, why do you ask, dear?” in reply (hopefully said in the thoughtful and sagacious manner of Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver —right down to the pipe in my mouth).

“Oh, I was just wondering what it was like–you know, the rationing, the air raid drills. Did you have a victory garden?”

And that’s when it hits me: all this angst was for nothing– she’s not talking about the Vietnam War; she’s talking about World War II. I spit out my imaginary pipe in indignation.

“Hey! I wasn’t even born when World War II started– or ended; Grandma was barely born then. What makes you think I’m old enough to remember World War II, anyway?”

She gives me a look that clearly says, “What makes you think I’m stupid enough to answer a question like that?” before sidling away, but it’s too late: the damage has been done. Suddenly I’m one of The Ancient Ones; a genuine piece of “living history.”

But how can that be? What about my nearly perfect recall of 1975 (well, my part in it, anyway)? How, I think, can I be old when I can so clearly remember what it was like to be young? But then I really think about 1975, and I wonder: what do I really remember? After all, even though I can obviously still recall the facts of my youth ( the names of everyone on Wild, Wild, West, or the lyrics to “Hotel California,” for instance), I find I have fewer and fewer memories of the essence. Of what it was like to have to eat something I found disgusting. Or to share a room with someone I (at least temporarily) despised. Or even to be more interested in the Monkees than in the tragedies unfolding all around me. And that’s when I finally realize what my answer should have been all along:

“What was it like when the war ended? It was great.”

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Whenever I hear a story about someone who–despite having lived in their house for over 50 years–just recently found Al Capone’s missing loot hidden behind a wall, or one of Shakespeare’s lost plays in the bottom of an armoire, I always think the same thing (and no, it’s not “I hope you choke on it, you lucky stiff”).What I think is “Well, obviously this was a house that had never had any children living in it.”

Not because the children themselves–those “inquisitive little darlings”–would have explored every single corner of the house on their own (that would involve turning off–and then looking away from–the TV), but because the presence of those same children would have automatically guaranteed that the house had been turned upside down and inside out many, many times over the course of those fifty years, as the children (and their parents) went through the motions of a little game that I like to call “gone.” As in “where is your homework/new dress/snorkel/trombone?” “Gone.”

Whoever said that wherever you find children you’ll also find childish things had no idea how true that statement would prove to be; this becomes painfully obvious once you understand that the key word in the above sentence is “you.” As in “you” will find “their” things, because it is certain that “they” won’t. That’s why I’m positive that if someone had been living in a house for fifty years–with children–the house could not possibly contain anyone’s lost treasure. There’s just no way that treasure could have withstood all those searches for missing soccer cleats, saxophone reeds, and iPods (or, as the case would have been fifty years ago: leather football helmets, ukulele strings, and 45 records). The fact of the matter is that in a child-ridden house, Al Capone would not have been able to stash so much as a stick of gum. Hidden behind secret panels, tucked away behind spinning fireplaces–none of it would have mattered, because no matter how well Mr. Capone might have though he had hidden it, nothing would have stood up to a mother trying to find a missing violin in the final 15 minutes before the big recital.

Take our house, for example. I am positive that even though it is over a hundred years old, nothing could have escaped this spring’s biweekly search for Clementine’s baseball shirt. Because she had fifteen games this season (despite my body’s protestations that it was more like 215, the calendar would only admit to those fifteen), we tore the house apart looking for her baseball shirt approximately fifteen times. During the course of these searches we found wet, moldering towels stuffed into sock drawers, broken and poorly hidden family heirlooms, and evidence that the cardinal rule–Thou Shalt Not Bring Food Into the Bedroom–was being flouted regularly. We also, eventually, found the shirt. (And before you say something clever like “why don’t you just have one place where the shirt always goes whenever it’s not being worn, know this: we did, and we do, but there is something so soul-draining about sitting out in the glaring sun, freezing wind, driving snow and pelting rain for two hours to watch a game–this being Flagstaff, this was all in the same game–that by the time we got back to the house it was all we could do to point at the equipment bag and gibber incoherently.) Which meant that, once again, the shirt was on its way for another “tour de house.” And so–in my role as chief searcher–was I.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the reason Al Capone’s treasure has stayed hidden all these years is probably because no one ever told their mother that the last time they remember seeing their baseball jersey was “down at that guy Al’s house–I think he was using it to wrap some treasure.”

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Oscar Winners Revised

Not too long ago I came across a list of last year’s Oscar winners. What shocked me was not so much how many of the movies I had never seen, but rather how many of them I had never even heard of in the first place. (You’d think that the fact that I hadn’t even seen the list until midsummer would have prepared me for how out of touch with current cultural events I was, but no.) And while I suppose that I could always try catching up on my 2007 movie watching now, I’m afraid that–given my track record–it might be 2010 before I finished with the list; which, of course, would defeat the purpose of the whole thing entirely as it would therefore put me hopelessly behind again for 2008 and 2009.

Which is why I finally decided that instead of actually watching last year’s films, (or even reading a full review of them), it would be better for all concerned if I simply imagined myself watching them; this method would not only save me heaps of time but also let me avoid the frustration and annoyance I often feel whenever I do get around to watching an Oscar winner. (I still feel resentful about the two hours of my life I gave up to watch Lost in Translation.) Following then is my list of last year’s imaginary Oscar nominees, complete with matching imaginary descriptions–filtered, as always, through a parent’s eyes.

I think No Country For Old Men must have been be the latest documentary from Morgan Sporlock detailing what happens when a grandparent endures a marathon double birthday party at Peter Piper Pizza.

There Will Be Blood was a little tougher, until I heard that it contained the line, “I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!” Then it became clear that it was about the violence that follows an ill-fated trip to Baskin-Robbins during which one child steals another’s frozen treat.

Eastern Promises is about a mother who–caught up in the pre-Olympics hype–absently agreed that, “Yes, we should go to China”–and is now being pestered to do it.

Into the Wild and The Savages are both cautionary tales about what happens when you skip the weekly room clean-up inspection for 6 weeks in a row, thinking, “Oh, they’re old enough to start taking on some responsibilities now.”

Away From Her is the suspenseful drama of a mother trying to keep her six-year-old son from bothering her stressed-out eleven-year-old daughter who is trying to finish a massive school project that is due the next day.

I’m Not There is the bittersweet story of a mother’s attempt at misdirection so that she may, for once, take a bath without a crying/complaining/tattling child hanging off the doorknob and screaming, “Mom! Are you in there?”

Atonement is a moody little film about children breaking your grandmother’s antique teapot after they have been told repeatedly to leave it alone.

Gone, Baby, Gone is a tear-jerker about sending your last-born away to kindergarten, giving you the empty house you always claimed you wanted.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a quirky little documentary about all those things which–despite their being absolutely vital to peace and happiness–repeatedly get left behind at the motel pool and not remembered until you are 100 miles down the road.

The (First) Bourne Ultimatum is one of a series of movies about the times an oldest child–drawing on her memories of being “the only one”–declares she will not put up with any more requests for “sharing.”

And finally, Once. The tale of a mother who used to see every new movie that came out, but is now reduced to only seeing those in which inanimate objects and rodents are given speaking roles–and not in a good way.

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Borracho y Loco

Here’s how a recent vacation started out for me: we hadn’t been on the road for five minutes before Clementine’s aggrieved voice floated up from the backseat.

“Are you going to get drunk on this trip?”

Now, historically, my first instinct has always been to reply to a question of that nature with some kind of wisecrack like: “Am I going to get drunk? Honey, you’d be better off asking me if I ever plan on getting sober.” However, my decade plus relationship with Clementine has taught me that it’s best not to get involved in these do-you-still-beat-your-wife type questions. So, as much as I was dying to find out which after school special that question had come from–as well as defend my (relatively good) record of sobriety–I knew that traveling down that path was a one-way ticket to the land of drama. And so instead I kept silent and tried to remember the last time I had really been drunk.

Certainly I had gotten drunk before Clementine had come along; my bachelorette party stands out in particular, for no other reason than, embarrassingly enough, it is all captured on videotape. But Clementine couldn’t be thinking about that; after all, in a decidedly old-fashioned twist, she was born nearly a year after the wedding. And I know that I was drunk several times while on my honeymoon in Thailand–since the beach bars we frequented would only sell whisky by the bottle, it was actually fairly amazing that I have any recollection of Thailand at all. But again, Clementine wasn’t with us on our honeymoon (except, in a very small way, at the very end–that Thai whisky is potent stuff), so I was sure that she wasn’t thinking about those times either.

Really, the more I thought about it, the more sure I was that I had never been really drunk since she came along. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not because I have any moral superiority here, it’s just that “children” and “hangover” add up to one of the worst combinations ever–worse even than “discount” and “sushi”–although, in the end, the results from both are the same.

And so it was that–relatively secure in my own innocence–I continued to ponder Clementine’s question as we drove down the road. Perhaps it had just been idle curiosity: you know, “Are you going to wear your bathing suit? Are you going to get a tattoo? Are you going to get drunk on this trip?” Maybe. The whole thing, however, reeked of chastisement, something that has never sat well with me–even in the best of times–and sits even less better now that we are in the preteen years. After all, it’s pretty hard to take a lecture on drunkenness from someone who will probably one day (hopefully, not until her college years) experience the exquisitely painful humiliation of a Zima hangover.

In fact, it’s hard to get lectured on anything from someone who would put a carton of ice cream under a bed and then be surprised and indignant when you’re upset about the ensuing mess. But that, unfortunately, is life in the preteen lane. I get lectures on “going green” from someone who has never, at any point in their life, turned off a light upon leaving a room, and who thinks of the refrigerator as an ad hoc air conditioner.

Not only that, but I get driving lessons from someone who thinks that using the stick shift while driving a car with manual transmission is some sort of an affectation (“Do you have to grab that thing all the time?”), and nutrition counseling from someone who has already consumed their own weight in ramen noodles–twice.

Come to think of it, maybe I will be getting drunk on our next trip after all.

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Do you remember the Talking Heads movie True Stories, the one which featured a woman who had decided to spend the rest of her life in bed? Sometimes I think that my children would be much happier living with that woman, or at least more comfortable, because nothing sets them at their ease more than me being flat on my back in bed incapacitated by either sleep or illness. I don’t know what it is–there’s just something about me being vertical that brings out all of their nascent requests for help. I’m not talking about philosophical help, either: answering questions that are, by their very nature, meant to be pondered from beneath the covers. Questions such as: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (Although, when roused form a sound sleep to answer such a question, my reply is likely to be along the lines of “Because there are no good people–everyone has it coming. Now go away.”) No, I’m talking about being woken up by such burning issues as “Can you fill up my Super Soaker for me?” (To which I’m tempted to reply: “That depends. What, exactly, do you want me to fill it up with?”). Or even “Can you cut this wristband off of me? (That is from a concert I attended 3 days ago, but only now, when you have finally achieved REM sleep, must immediately come off).”

I suppose, in a way, I should be grateful: at least now that my bedroom is the preferred audience chamber, the bathroom has been given a reprieve (there’s nothing like trying to read the new National Geographic in the smallest room in the house only to be interrupted by someone handing you a plate of waffles and a stick of butter and saying, “Can you fix these for me?”). I could even look at this new change in venue as a sign that they are growing up and learning to respect personal boundaries (or at least learning to be grossed out by the sight of their mom on the toilet), if it wasn’t for the fact that a more likely explanation is that they have finally realized that the chances of my burying my head beneath the pillow and shouting, “Yes, yes, fine–whatever you want!” are so much greater in the bedroom than in the bathroom. Still–even if you factor out all those free “please excuse my daughter’s absence” notes–it can’t be all that much fun to keep going back into the lion’s den over and over again. I mean, it’s not like I respond to these intrusions in such a manner as to encourage repetition. Or do I? After all–what do I know?–I’m asleep (or at least trying to be); perhaps what seems to me to be my fiercest growl is, in all actuality, only a pathetic little miaow.

If only there was some way I could check. I know that they have sleep clinics that help people figure out their sleep disorders, but somehow I doubt that my problem would fit within their rubric. And anyway, what would I say to them?

“So, you see, I fall asleep–no, falling asleep is no problem, I don’t need any help with that–and what happens is that after I fall asleep some little person comes into my room and asks me to build them a castle made of popsicle sticks for tomorrow’s report on the Middle Ages. What? No, they’re not imaginary–anyway, what I need for you to do is to watch how I react, and maybe jot down some notes on whether or not the intruder runs from the room in tears, or skips out stifling a giggle and saying, ‘Ok, your turn next.’”

Who am I trying to kid? They’d hang up on me even before I got to the popsicle sticks. I know I sure would–if only I could.

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