Monthly Archives: August 2008


“Mo-om,” says Clementine, stretching that one syllable out into two or three (all the better to fit the amused disdain in), “nobody calls it a bookbag anymore.”

Well, I thought, there goes my sense of accomplishment. And I had just been feeling so proud of myself for managing to string together the sentence “Clementine, please put this bookbag in your room,” when usually what escaped my lips during one of these semiannual house organizing tirades was something more along the lines of “You over there–yeah, you–Clem-Cly-Clem–the taller one–put that thing–that thing that holds other things–in that place–the one with the bed. Oh, you know what I’m talking about: just do it.”

At which point my husband will make some comment like, “Gee, it’s so nice to have a writer in the house,” to which I will respond with some brilliant comeback like: “Oh, shut up…you.”

But this time I had been able to reach deep into my vocabulary and withdraw just the word that I had been looking for: bookbag. A bag that holds books. What could be wrong with that word? How could such a simple, perfectly descriptive word be classified as unhip? And yet, according to the look of eye-rolling disdain that had accompanied Clementine’s retort, that was exactly what it was: unhip. Worse than unhip, it was somehow archaic. How had that happened? Had I, myself, been unhip for so long now that the words I used were no longer merely unhip themselves, but were actually dangerously anachronistic?

I mean, c’mon: it wasn’t as if I had dredged the word up out of the 19th century or something; it’s not like I had told her to “tote that there satchel into the parlor, young lady–and while you’re at it, tell yer Pa to get his brogans off’n the davenport.” And yet, according to Clementine’s sneering reaction, it was.

Yes, according to Clementine’s reaction I had now become so completely out of touch that if I wanted to get something picked up off of the floor I would need to learn an entirely new vocabulary. Somehow, I’m not buying it.

Yes, I realize that every generation has its new version of “cool.” (Except, oddly enough, for the word “cool” itself–that word has proven to be rather uniquely timeless.) I know that “sick” becomes “sweet” and that “totally” becomes “way,” but unless we’re in the middle of a cockney rhyming slang renaissance, I sincerely doubt that, like Clementine says, there are completely different words for absolutely everything these days. In fact, I rather suspect that she is trying to pull a fast one here–do a number on me, give it some spin (whatever they’re saying now). And while I can’t help but resent it, I also have to admit that I do rather admire her for the attempt.

When you think about it, it’s really a brilliant plan; after all, what better way to avoid complying with my draconian (at least according to her) cleanliness rules than by pretending not to understand what I’m talking about? Here’s how it works: I ask her to “make her bed,” and she says “um, alright.” I tell her to put away her shoes and she says “oh-kay…” Later, when I ask her why those chores still aren’t done, she says something like: “Oh, did you mean you wanted me to fix my flop and stow my kicks? Why didn’t you just say so?” (Even better, if I am so foolish as to try and use those exact same terms back to her the next day she can always pretend that they are already obsolete, and respond with “Shot who?”)

Brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that it’s no wonder that I am now reduced to cave language. Word. True dat. And, let’s not forget, fo shizzle.

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The ironic thing is that the only reason I saw the protesters at all is because I was sneaking out the back way of McDonalds; I was ashamed to be seen taking my child into a place like that. It’s true: I was embarrassed to be seen patronizing a business that supports factory farming, uses high fructose corn syrup, and serves as a distribution center for millions of little plastic toys–you know, the ones that pause momentarily in your child’s toy box on their voyage from Chinese child laborer to American landfill. Not to mention that everything I was purchasing had been shipped hundreds, if not thousands of miles, and that, in order to get the stuff I had sat in the drive-thru for 20 minutes, exhaust idling all the way. Really, I chided myself, all you need to do is toss the wrappers out the window on the way home and you will be the perfect storm of neglectful consumerism. I was so deep, in fact, into my little fit of hippier-than-thou self-loathing that I nearly drove right past the protesters standing out in front of our local Planned Parenthood. I other words, I nearly drove right past one of those pesky teachable moments.

With the beginning of the new school year, and with the promise (threat?) of middle school just around the corner, I’ve been bringing up the subject of bullying a lot. Or rather, the subject of the bully’s greatest asset, The Bystander. At least the word itself is easy to explain: just like a butterfly is something that “flutters by,” a bystander is someone who stands by and does nothing while bullies do their foul work, thereby allowing the bullies to think that what they are doing is defensible, and right. What I tell my kids is this: we don’t have a bullying problem–we have a bystanding problem. If one day everyone in the world decided that they were through bystanding, then the next day would see the sun rise on a much different and better world. Don’t be a bully, I tell them. Don’t be a victim. But above all else, don’t be a bystander. Of course, that’s the easy part; the hard part is then matching my actions to words.

Which is why I almost ignored the small collection of fanatics gathered outside our little clinic. (Although, with their quaint, yet lurid posters–very Norman Rockwell meets Alfred Hitchcock– it would have taken quite a bit of denial to have kept driving). As it turned out, I ended up pulling into the parking lot so fast that I had already parked the car and turned off the ignition before I really thought about what I was going to do, something that did not escape my son, Clyde.

“Mom, what are we doing?”

Ah yes: Clyde; in my haste I had forgotten that he was in the car with me. Suddenly I began to have second thoughts, which soon became third and fourth thoughts as the protesters started yelling at me–yelling at Clyde–as we sat in the car. What was I doing? Was this really something he needed to see? After all, I could always drive home, drop him off, and come back later…or not. It wasn’t like this was really my fight–was it? Then I looked back at Clyde, trustingly waiting for me to make the next move–to do the right thing–and suddenly the decision became clear. I pointed at the protesters thirty feet away.

“See those people, Clyde? Those are bullies, and the people they’re bullying are inside that building–we need to help them.” As I said this I grabbed my wallet to make a donation, and felt good about myself for the first time all morning–that is, until I saw what Clyde was carrying.

“Yeah. But leave the McDonalds bag in the car–nobody needs to see that.”

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First off, let me start by saying that I love music–I really do. In fact, you could even say that music saved my life.

Once upon a time, way back in grade school, I was waiting at the bus stop with my sister, Kim, who–despite being two years older than me–was my size or even smaller (she got carded going in to R-rated movies well into her twenties). With us were all of the other neighborhood kids–nearly a dozen (this was 1975, when kids still rode the bus)–who were doing their best to use up some excess energy before the bus came, because even though our bus driver was a nice man [with a quaint habit of turning down the radio every time a swear word came on, thus turning “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown” into “the baddest man in the whole (mute) town”] he was also a bit of a bad (mute) himself, and was rumored to carry a paddle up near the front of the bus to use on unruly children. ( Remember, this was 1975.)

Anyway, there we were, waiting for the bus, when out of nowhere I was laid out by an ENORMOUS (cantaloupe-sized in my original retelling, but probably more the size of a sickly plum) rock; it seemed that Sammy Gale had decided to work off his excess energy by throwing rocks up into the air. Now, being grade school students, you wouldn’t expect any of us to be intimately familiar with the work of Sir Isaac Newton, but even I knew that what goes up must come down, and therefore also knew that despite all of his protests that “it was an accident,” Sammy was far from blameless in this incident. Which was all I needed to utter the two words known to strike fear into children everywhere: “I’m telling.”

Of course, what I was forgetting was that there was no one there to actually tell at the time, and so, recognizing the impotence of my threat, Sammy picked up an even BIGGER rock (this one, I think, really was the size of a cantaloupe), and told me to “shut my mouth.” Then he stepped towards me.

And that’s when it happened: like something out of a ninja movie my big/little sister was in between us, and that odd whistling sound we all heard was the noise her flute case made as it reached terminal velocity before connecting with Sammy’s chin. The end result, of course, was that this time it was Sammy who was laid out, and Sammy who was screaming “I’m telling!” Which he did, as soon as we got on the bus. And for which the bus driver teased him mercilessly over the next few years, on account of him getting “beat up by a little girl.” (Again, this was 1975.)

Needless to say, Sammy Gale did not grow up to be a great lover of music. On the other hand, I did, which makes it even less fitting that I should now be the one who is regularly assaulted by a musical instrument: Clementine’s double bass.

Now, I know that roadies often suffer from the unstable temperaments of the musicians they serve, and, having served under Clementine in many other capacities (maid, chef, chauffeur, personal assistant), I expected no less. I expected to be yelled at, berated, cajoled, and then yelled at some more. Which I was. However, what I did not expect was to be regularly beaten about the head and shoulders as I attempted to wrestle an instrument larger than myself into a Honda, nor to have that same instrument launch itself at me like some kind of amorous drunk once I had finally gotten both of us on the road. But, what I expected the least, was to actually start feeling a wee bit sorry for poor old Sammy Gale–the little (mute).

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Throughout the years, the role of messenger has never been what most people would consider to be a “glamorous” one; however, there have been a few notable exceptions to this rule. There’s Pheidippides–the guy who ran all the way to Athens to deliver news of the victory at Marathon; there’s the Voyager 1 space probe, which even now may be delivering news (via a “golden record”) of a hip, happening, 1977-era Earth to civilizations in the far reaches of our solar system and beyond (won’t those same civilizations be disappointed when they send another probe back just to tell us that disco sucks and we reply “Yeah, we know”?); and then, of course, there’s probably the most famous messenger of all (at least in this country), Paul Revere, who rode through the night to warn of an impending British invasion (no, not the one where the Clash and the Sex Pistols came over to help us figure out that disco sucked–the other one). At first glance, you might think that these three–a Greek, a Colonial, and a machine–have nothing at all in common, but upon closer inspection it becomes obvious that all three share in one very defining characteristic: not one of them was a child.

How do I know this? Well, they all faithfully delivered the messages they were charged with, didn’t they? This means that no children could possibly have been involved, because if they had been, then not only would we all still be drinking tea and eating crumpets, but we would also still be wondering how that whole thing at Marathon ever turned out (and, quite possibly, still be listening to disco).

It isn’t just your average child’s tendency to simply forget to deliver a message that brings me to this conclusion–you know, the way that a phone message intercepted by a child has about as much chance of reaching its intended recipient as a note in a bottle tossed into the open ocean would. No, what I’m talking about is the fact that any piece of news that is delivered by a child suffers from the seemingly contradictory maladies of being both terribly truncated and extremely meandering. Take the Paul Revere story, for example: if my daughter Clementine had been in charge of relaying the warning it would have gone something like this:

Clementine (casually sauntering up): So, um, yeah, it’s by land.

Anxious Townspeople: What?

Clementine: They’re gonna come by land.

A.T.: Who are?

Clementine: I dunno. Whoever’s coming, I guess.

A.T.: Who told you this?

Clementine: A lantern.

A.T.: A what?

Clementine: You know, one of those light thingys.

A.T.: Yes, we know what a lantern is; but who was holding the lantern?

Clementine: I dunno.

A. T. (Giving up): Well, I guess if it’s important they’ll shine back.

It’s enough to make you think that maybe all those stories you hear about the tyrant kings of old “shooting the messenger” were not so much about their disappointment with the message, but rather their vexation at the way the message was delivered.

Either that, or they were just cranky from all that disco.

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