Monthly Archives: December 2009


There’s been a clip going around the internet that shows a comedian on the Conan O’Brien show commenting on how spoiled most people have become. He cites as an example the impatience we routinely display when flying: we complain about the food, the small seats, the lengthy security measures—everything. What we fail to take into account (at least according to him) is how utterly amazing it is that we are flying at all. Yes, you have to take your shoes off in the terminal. Yes, they serve you thimblefuls of water, after confiscating your 2 liter bottle of Fiji. And yes, it never fails that the person in the window seat always has the smallest bladder. But come one—despite all of that, you still end up getting to sit in a chair that whisks you through the sky at 500 miles an hour, shaving not days, but weeks off of the time it would have taken you to make the same trip just one hundred and fifty years ago. It is, any way you look at it, pretty amazing.

I was thinking about that comedian when I saw a news piece the other week about a woman and her two-year-old son who had been kicked off of an airplane in Texas because her son was making too much noise. It wasn’t so much the callousness and unprofessionalism on the part of the airline that made me think of the comedian’s bit (although that was rather spectacularly awful customer service on their part), but rather the response I read in the comments section at the end of the article. By a margin of nearly ten to one, people were applauding the airline’s decision.

Not only applauding it, but saying the airline didn’t go far enough. The one comment that really struck me was the person who said that the pilots should have waited until they were in the air—and then thrown the child and his mother off at 30,000 feet.

After reading that particular piece of venom, I couldn’t help but think about the first time I travelled outside of this country with one of my children, and noticed that people in other countries had very different reactions to seeing someone travel with a child.

They smiled. A lot.

In a way I wished I had never seen that, because I think it might make it easier for me in this country—if I had never found out what a mature, rational response to the presence of a child was, I might do a better job accepting the resentment and hostility that is the unwelcome accessory that every traveling parent carries with them.

If I sound bitter, it is because I am. Throw the child out at 30,000 feet? I remember a case a few years back of a businessman who got so drunk on a flight that he jumped up on the drink cart, pulled down his pants, and did his best imitation of a soft-serve ice cream dispenser, and nobody advocated throwing him out at 30,000 feet.

Instead, they made excuses for him. “Oh, well: he was under a lot of stress.”

You want to talk about stress? Try flying with eustachian tubes the size of coffee stirrers, a bladder the size of a tangerine, and people who glare at you if you so much as breathe. Try being pulled out of your daily routine, whisked to a different time zone, and put to bed in a room and a house you’ve never seen before. All without being able to understand why.

And people wonder why children are sometimes less than perfect angels when they fly.

Pearl Buck once wrote that the true test of a country is how it treats its weakest members. Of course, she wrote that seventy-five years ago; today it would have to carry the addendum on planes.

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The other day a friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that her son had come home from school with a difficult question. Not, “Why is the sky blue?” or even “Where do babies come from?” but a much trickier question.

“Mom,” he said, “what’s a douchebag?”

My daughter, Clementine, thought it was hysterical that someone wouldn’t know what a douchebag was. In fact, she was busy chortling away about the ignorance of some people when her father stopped her by saying, “Okay then: what is a douchebag?”

“Duh,” she replied. “A douchebag is obviously a bag of douche.”

After we stopped laughing, we tried to tell her the truth. My husband even told her a funny story about going into his grandmother’s bathroom and seeing the mysterious, frightening contraption hanging over the shower rod, next to the largest bra he’d ever seen and a pair of support hose as thick as inner tubes, but Clementine refused to believe him. For one thing, the whole concept of grandmothers being old is hard for her to grasp: her grandmother drinks margaritas and tubes down the river, and the scariest thing in her bathroom is the magnifying mirror. (Oh wait—maybe that’s just scary to me.) And then there’s the little fact that, as far as Clementine is concerned, the original meaning of “douchebag” is unimportant; all anyone needs to know about it nowadays is that it is an insult of the lowest sort, on par with saying that “you look like the kind of guy who has a Fedora in his closet.”

She’s right, of course. (About both “douchebag” and the fedora.) When it comes to insults, the true meaning of a word doesn’t really matter: it’s what it means to the giver (and, of course, the recipient) that’s important. When I was in seventh grade the worst thing you could call a guy was a “pud.” To this day I have no idea what pud means, but I am willing to bet that if I were to run into one of my male classmates from 1980 and call him a “pud” to his face, he would take offense. He might even fight me over it.

I always suspected that “pud” was a made-up word—something some clever seventh grader (or, more likely, some clever seventh grader’s even cleverer older sibling) came up with as a way to insult and annoy someone. And it worked. It worked so well that soon not only was everyone at my school saying it, but it was even being written as graffiti on the bathroom walls. And then, it was banned.

I don’t remember what word replaced it. I think there was a minor movement at one point to start cursing in “Battlestar Galactica” curse words, like feldegarb and frak, but that was only ever really taken seriously by the nerds, and we (ahem: I mean they) were all too busy rolling twenty-sided dies in the library to be bothered with trying to spread the word about anything.

Probably whatever word it was replaced with was eventually banned, too, just like I’m sure “douchebag” soon will be at Clementine’s school (if it isn’t already). Not that that will in any way solve the problem of kids calling each other names—but it will solve the problem of adults looking like they’re not in control.

At least to other adults.

There was a recent incident in the South where students, forbidden to wear “gang” clothing to school, instead started shaving vertical stripes into their eyebrows, supposedly to denote which gang they favored. This had the predictable result of “all eyebrow shaving” being banned. Did this change anything at the school?

No. But it did make the adults look like a bunch of total douchebags.

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The other day I read an article in the New York Times about how screaming was becoming the new spanking. At first, I was happy to find this out, because screaming has always been my first choice in discipline: it’s something you can do it without having to either put your drink down or get up from the couch. It also has the advantage of not leaving a mark—at least, not a physical one. On a psychic level, of course, I’m sure that it’s a different story, but hey: they’re going to need something to talk about in their future therapy sessions, aren’t they? So yeah, all in all I was pretty stoked when I saw the headline. And then I made the mistake of actually reading the article.

Turns out, screaming is only the new spanking in the sense that it is just as bad for your kids as spanking ever was. Which means, basically, that it’s a no-no.

Okay then: no spanking. And no screaming, either, apparently. So what does that leave? Experts would probably say “talking with them,” or “setting reasonable limits,” or even “teaching accountability.” But then again, experts don’t live in your house, do they? (They certainly don’t live in mine.) In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen an “expert” in person. (Maybe that’s because every time they venture out of their protective little bubbles there are parents waiting for them armed with tar and feathers. Now there’s a headline I’d like to read: “Experts say ‘Daycare Causes Aggression.’ Parents Begin to Warm Up Tar.”)

But to return to the original problem: if screaming and spanking are both out, and all the “experts” have been lynched, then what’s left?

I say cursing. Non-screaming cursing, of course, which is actually the scariest kind. (What’s scarier, the guy who’s shouting “I’m going to !@#$ kill you!” so loudly that the veins in his neck are popping out, or the woman who quietly whispers “I’m going to !@#$ kill you,” in your ear, and then smiles?)

Of course, there is one problem with cursing: it requires a little thought. Because unless you have some variety to your swearing, you’ll end up repeating yourself to the point where they just tune you out. At least with screaming (and spanking, for that matter), you don’t really need to have any nuances. A scream is a scream is a scream, and a spank is a . . . well, you get the idea. But with cursing you need to be able to change it up every now and then or else it will start to feel stale. On a personal level, I like to keep my cursing fresh by my daily BBC America viewing (no one can curse like the British), but somehow I doubt that telling Clyde to get his “Arse into the loo and brush his bleeding teeth,” would do the trick.

Which means I’ve had to learn new and better swear words in American.

This isn’t as easy as it might sound: for one thing, we don’t get HBO or Showtime. I suppose I could go hang out in the high school parking lot and try to pick up some tips, but there are three problems with that. One, it’s creepy. Two, high schoolers tend to concentrate all of their cursing on the same word, with an occasional “mother” thrown in for variety. And three, it’s super creepy.

Besides, if my cursing is going to have any effect at all, it needs to be something new, or at least old words put together in new combinations. Luckily, I know just the place.

Who knew that one day I’d be able to say “All I ever needed to know about disciplining children I learned at the trailer park?”

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Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly stressed, or worried, or guilty, or any emotion that arises from my being stuck inside of my own head for far too long, I like to go to Clydeland. And then I always feel better.

Clydeland, of course, is the place where my eight-year-old son, Clyde, reigns supreme. It is a land free of nuances, or subtlety, or double meanings. In Clydeland, what you see is what you get.

This is the complete opposite to how I normally live my life. In my normal life, I think about stuff. A lot. Yeah, I’m the person who stands in the pencil aisle at Staples for twenty minutes debating whether to buy the “good” pencils or the cheap ones. (In my defense, it’s a complicated formula. First I have to figure out the price difference per pencil, and then how long I am likely to actually own each pencil. So while I’m standing there with my eyes crossed, I’m really doing math. “Let’s see, if cost=x and days of possession=y, then allowing for Clementine’s ability to lose anything in the first five minutes of ownership, and Clyde’s ability to break anything in the first ten, hmm, okay, let’s see, carry the six, divide by two—damn, I wish I had a pencil.”)

So no, I don’t underthink anything. Which is why it’s sometimes nice to hang out with someone like my son, Clyde.

With Clyde, it’s all on the surface. True, he’s only eight, but something tells me that he’ll never be one of those people who will one day say, “Yeah, I know you said x, but I could tell that you really meant y.”

Case in point: the other day Clyde and I went to see “Where the Wild Things Are.” Now there was a movie that had lots of stuff happening on many different levels. It had to, otherwise they would never have been able to take a two-hundred word book and turn it into a ninety minute movie. (Yes, I know all about “Saturday Night Live” skits being turned into films. They just prove my point.) And, because the movie had so much stuff going on in it (which, for me, was heaven) I couldn’t resist trying to discuss it with Clyde on the drive home—in particular, I tried to talk to him about the parts that had been a little bit scary.

“You know,” I said. “The Wild Things weren’t real. They were just metaphors for all of the different parts of Max’s own personality.”

Clyde thought about this for a moment and then asked, “But what about the boat?” (He was referring to the boat that Max sails “through three days and nights to get to the island where the Wild Things are.”)

“Well,” I said. “The boat was a metaphor for how we sometimes have to leave ourselves to find ourselves again, and . . .”

He stopped me right there, a disappointed look on his face. “So he doesn’t get to keep the boat?”

“There was no boat. It was a metaphor.”

Silence again. Then a small, hopeful voice. “Okay. Does he get to keep the metaphor?”

I sighed. Obviously, to Clyde, a metaphor was now a type of boat, like a catamaran. Or maybe a dory.
So I said, “Yes. He gets to keep the metaphor.”

“Good. It was a nice boat.” Clyde smiled, and once again, all was well in Clydeland.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It was a nice boat.” And a lovely metaphor. But more than that, it was also nice to just be able to hang out for a little while longer in the land of Clyde.

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The other night I got a letter from the principal of my daughter Clementine’s school. Now, receiving a letter from your child’s school is never a pleasant thing, but as I opened this one up my trepidation quickly turned to disbelief. At first this was because of what the letter wasn’t about: namely, it wasn’t about Clementine’s recent choice to turn her “Just Say No” ribbon into one that said “Legalize It.” (What did they expect? You can’t spend the first seven years of a child’s schooling encouraging them to use critical thinking and creativity and then, when they hit middle school, all of a sudden tell them they have to “Conform—now!”) After I gave the letter a closer look, however, my disbelief was because of what the letter was about.

It seems that there had been an “incident” in one of Clementine’s classes (again, amazingly not centered on her), wherein certain students had been caught sharing . . . (here I held my breath, prepared to strip Clementine bare and search her for track marks) a bowl. And no, not a “bowl” in the “legalize it” sense, but a “bowl” as in . . . a bowl. Of noodles.

That’s it.

The students shared a bowl of ramen at school, and, apparently, the bowl and spoon were not properly sterilized between servings. This, of course, naturally led to the fear that perhaps there might be some cooties (I mean germs) clinging to the edges of said bowl, and that the students might have passed these germs around in a process that, in most parts of the world, is simply known as “lunch.” This fear seemed even more ludicrous when you take into account the fact that, since almost all of these students are currently going through the change (and no, not menopause—the other one), they really don’t need to share eating utensils to be able to swap spit—they’re swapping spit all the time, if you know what I mean.

I mean, really: they were sharing a bowl, for crying out loud. And this not only merited a letter home, but also a follow-up phone call (for all those students who were so humiliated by their role in the bowl-sharing that they didn’t give the letter to their parents). The worst part of the whole incident (hereafter referred to as “Ramengate”) was that, as a parent, I felt like it had an extremely detrimental effect on my parental authority. Not because someone was able to feed my child something that I didn’t personally vet, but because it made all adults—and by extension, me—look like complete and utter doofuses.

Seriously: one of the hardest jobs the parent of a teenager has is trying to convince them that we are not all blithering idiots. That maybe we know just a little, and that when we say something like, “You should try wearing gloves in the snow—they really keep your hands warm,” or “If you put your math homework in your math homework folder, then you’ll be able to find it more easily when your teacher says it’s time to turn in your math homework,” we might just know what we’re talking about. Who knows? These small victories might even lead to larger ones later on, so that when we say something like, “Any guy who won’t wear a condom isn’t worth a second glance,” they might actually listen to us.

Unfortunately, however, the first step to getting a teenager to believe that we are not all blithering idiots is to stop acting like ones. And that means not freaking out if two people end up eating out of the same bowl.

No matter how many cooties they might end up getting.

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