Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Kids Are Alright

This morning, YouTube brought me a special treat in the form of a video from Amarillo, Texas, that I like to call “Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Preacher Creature Adventure.” In it, an evangelical preacher (insert stock image here), is trying to piss people off by burning a Koran on a barbecue grill at a park in Amarillo. There are the usual protesters, counter-protesters, undecided onlookers, and media swirling around the fringes of the show: in the center of it all, however, is, of course, the preacher. And the Koran. Until, suddenly, the Koran is no longer there: while the preacher was busy being distracted by a particularly vocal protestor, a twenty-five year old skateboarder swooped in and grabbed the Koran from off of the grill. His parting shot at the preacher?

“Dude, you got no Koran!”

Okay, now remember how you just looked inside your head to picture the crazy evangelical preacher? No, no, it was good—you got it right. Now do the same thing, only this time picture the twenty-five year old skateboarder. Did you get the thick nerd glasses, the uncombed rat-tail, the “I just got baked” expression? Well good, because as it turns out, you got him right, too. That’s right: it was Shaggy vs. Old Man Withers, and this time Shaggy won all on his own. It’s true: Shaggy won without any help from the Smart One (Velma), the kind of Smart One (Fred), and the Dumb, But Not as Dumb as Shaggy One (Daphne).

Do you know what this means? It means, to me at least, that there is still hope for us all; that no matter how dumb, or stoned, or Texan somebody is, in the end right will prevail. In Texas, even. And why? Sheer numbers: like it or not, intolerance is slowly being bred out of us. Really. If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers for something like equal rights for gays: while currently only 25% of Americans over the age of seventy support same sex marriage, those numbers are closer to 65% when you look at Americans under the age of twenty-four—and that’s even when you poll places with a lot of Young Republicans and Promise Keepers.

It’s like a slow motion revolution.

Look, I really don’t know if the “kids are all right” or not—sometimes when I see one of them walking down the street in pants so large they could be used for emergency shelter I find myself thinking, “Leaders of the future, eh?” But then I think back to our most recent former president, and I remember that intelligence has nothing to do with it—it’s a numbers game. One that they—the youth—are always going to win. And that’s great. And it’s terrifying. And it’s inevitable.

And what’s more, it’s everywhere: did you know that in Iran over seventy percent of the population is under the age of thirty? I bet the Ayatollah does. Remember that scene in “A Bug’s Life,” when the ants finally realize that they’re the ones with all of the power, because they have all of the numbers? I picture a scene like that unfolding in Iran, only instead of ants fighting grasshoppers, it’ll be Iranian teenagers wearing black eyeliner and listening to My Chemical Romance who will be fighting the Imans.

And here it’ll be a whole generation of kids who just can’t see the point in burning the Koran. And one day, whether we like it or not, they’re going to be in charge of us all. I can almost hear their rallying cry now:

“Dude, you got no Koran!”

And, also, just maybe, “Anybody got a belt I can borrow?”

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Bike to School

I know that for some people, (myself included), the new year doesn’t actually start in January—it starts in September, with the beginning of school. For me, however, the disconnect is even more extreme: as far as I’m concerned, the real start of the year is when you see a kid kicking through piles of dead leaves on their way to school. This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever, since I grew up in Phoenix, and the only reason there might be dead leaves on the ground in Phoenix is because someone forgot to water their yard, but there you have it. Who knows? Maybe it was something I saw once on one of those After School Specials that were always on when I was a kid, one of those “Sarah T: Diary of a Teenage Alcoholic” type things. (Do they still have those? As I remember, they were wonderfully dramatic and emotional. Sort of like emotional homeopathy for your average teenager.) Anyway, no matter where the idea came from, that has always been my own personal clue that a new school year (and therefore, a new year) has begun: kid + leaves + kicking.

Notice I don’t say kid + leaves + driving. Seeing a kid sit in the back seat while his mother pilots an SUV through a pile of dead leaves just doesn’t cut it for me; it’s got to be kid + leaves + kicking. Nothing else will do, which is why I have always made my kids walk or ride their bikes to school. (You can still kick leaves while you’re on a bike—trust me.)

That’s also why I was so dismayed when I read about the child who was struck by a car while he was riding his bike to school the other morning; riding his bike to school, I might add, on the bike path. Yeah, I know: kids are idiots. They don’t always look both ways before they cross the street, they don’t come to a full stop at stop signs, and they can become so wrapped up in things like reading “Do you like me? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’” notes that they sometimes giggle themselves right out into traffic, but I think that we can all agree that everyone, idiot or not, has a right to feel secure while riding their bike on the bike path.

Of course, it’s true that I don’t know the whole story. I do know, however, that of the two people involved, the child and the driver, only the driver was issued a citation, which leads me to believe that the child had a better grasp of our traffic laws than the adult driver did.

I also know that, supposedly, the child (although not his bike) is going to be fine. Which is great.

Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t change the fact that the whole incident happened in the first place, and will therefore probably lead to a lot more parents keeping their kids from riding their bikes and walking to school. This, of course, is a very bad thing—not just because the extra twenty-five minutes spent in the SUV every day will no doubt contribute to the escalating rates of childhood obesity and nature deficit disorder our kids are already experiencing, but because the less kids there are riding their bikes and walking to school, the less chance there is for me to see a kid kicking leaves on their way there, and thus, the less chance there is for my year to officially start. (What? Why yes, it is all about me. Thanks for asking.)

If it gets bad enough, this year might never start for me at all. Which would play hell with my taxes, not to mention my Christmas shopping—and my social life.

Hold on a minute: I think I feel an After School Special coming on

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At the last Green Day concert my daughter, Clementine, and I attended (the third one this summer, if you must know), we were in the back. True, we had gotten there early enough so that we were in the front of the back, but we were still in the back nonetheless. And so, when Billie Joe called out for the “people in the back” to come forward, it was clear that he was talking to us. There was a moment of hesitation, and then people started jumping over the fences all around us. Clementine looked at me once, and then she was gone, jumping that fence, and then the next one, and then the next, until finally she was out of my sight and beyond my reach.

And I was happy to see her go. I know: she was breaking the rules. The space up front is supposed to be reserved for the people who have paid extra to be there (a uniquely American way of doing things—at the European Green Day shows we attended this summer the area in front of the stage was reserved for the people who cared enough about the music to get there early), but really, when Billie Joe Freakin’ Armstrong calls for a stage rush, what are you supposed to do?

The great comic artist Lynda Barry once put it this way: “Sometimes, a window will open up, and you know that if you don’t jump through that window right now it will close on you forever.” True, she was talking about getting out of her little hick town and going away to college, but the sentiment holds true for just about anything: sometimes there are opportunities that present themselves to you in the blink of an eye, and you have to be able to act on them just as quickly.

For Clementine, the choice was easy: she loves Green Day. For her, the chance that she would be caught and either taken back to the lawn or thrown out of the venue altogether was one she was willing to take to be able to get up next to the stage one more time. The gain was worth the risk, and she was able to determine that in an instant.

I hope she always keeps that ability, because it is one that will serve her well her entire life. Not just when it comes to getting to the front at Green Day shows, of course, but also later on, when it comes time for her to get on the bus, or train, or plane, or even spaceship that will take her away from everything that is familiar and safe and fling her out into some great new city, or country, or even planet. I hope that when that time comes she rushes forward into the unknown with the same combination of enthusiasm and caution she displayed at the Green Day concert, and that she is just as willing and able to make the leap out of one world and into the next. And I also hope that when the time does come to jump through that window she still knows that landing on the other side isn’t always easy, or soft.

Like at this concert. When we caught up with each other after the show she told me that security had managed to corner most of the gate-crashers before they made it up to the stage and forced them all back to the lawn. That was okay with them, though, because that’s when Green Day started to play “Know Your Enemy,” and the gate-crashers were all able to shout out the lines while pointing at the beleaguered guards.

She was still pumped about how it all turned out hours later, for which I am immeasurably glad. Because there’s still a lot of windows in her future.

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Tales of a 4th Grade Mom

This year, my youngest child, Clyde, is starting fourth grade. I have to say that this has hit me rather hard—or, at least, much harder than I expected it to. Really—I didn’t realize that you could experience “empty nest” syndrome when one of your kids is still in elementary school, but, apparently, you can. Or at least I can.

I didn’t have this feeling before, when my daughter Clementine started fourth grade. But then again, that was also the same year that Clyde started kindergarten, so I was a little preoccupied. For one thing, I was hoping that between starting kindergarten and moving to a new school Clyde would finally be able to shed the nickname he had picked up during his previous five years at daycare: “Walk-Clyde-Walk.” Okay, to be honest it wasn’t exactly a nickname—it was what the other kids thought his name actually was. (This might have had something to do with the fact that whenever the teachers said his name they always needed to include the admonishment “Walk, Clyde, walk.”)

So, yeah, when Clementine started fourth grade four years ago I had other things to worry about (Walk, Clyde). I had other fish (or rather, children) to fry. (Yes, that is a fairly horrifying image, but I think you get the idea: I was busy.) But now? Now I have all the time in the world, and I’m moderately freaking out.

You’re probably thinking: what’s the big deal about fourth grade? Why not fifth, or even, now that it’s a part of the middle schools, sixth? Why freak out about fourth? I don’t know—maybe it’s because I have such clear memories of my own time in fourth grade (if you’re reading this, Mr. Williamson—hey!), but I know that fourth grade is the year that everything starts to change. I’m not saying that it’s the beginning of the end, but it is certainly the end of the beginning.

Think I’m being crazy? Think about it: fourth grade is when the characters in all our favorite books went from being the sidekicks to being the stars of the show. It’s not called Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for nothing: Fudge may be the causative agent, but it is Peter who is the protagonist. And what about Encyclopedia Brown? And the Spiderwick twins?

I’m telling you, it all starts happening in fourth grade. Forty might be the new thirty, but fourth grade is still middle-aged in the elementary world. It’s riding your bike to school by yourself, packing your own lunch, getting picked first (or at least not last) for kickball. It’s having the school bully start to notice you, and the girls start to (pretend) to ignore you. It’s bringing home textbooks instead of worksheets, and protractors instead of art projects. Really, when you think about it, there’s not much time between the fourth grade science project and the college entrance essay.

Okay, maybe I am freaking out a little bit more than moderately. And I’m sure it seems silly to be thinking about about these things now, but let me tell you, you would be thinking about it, too, if people kept coming up to you and asking you what you’re going to do (or rather, what you’re going to write) when your kids grow up and leave. (That happens to me at least once a week. Have no fear on that score, though: I’m sure my kids will be doing entertainingly bizarre things well into their twenties and beyond. Hopefully, though, they’ll be doing it in their own houses.)

I guess, in the end, there’s really no point in freaking out: fourth grade is going to happen regardless. It’s inevitable: even the most entertaining sidekick must eventually become the star of their own show. Maybe even a show called “Walk, Clyde, walk.”

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Memory Loss

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about false memories, and how easy they are to create. It seems there was a German study where students were given a series of tasks and then told to perform some of them, and simply imagine themselves performing the rest. Two weeks later they were asked to remember which tasks they had performed and which tasks they had merely imagined: a full third of them got the answers wrong.

This, of course, is not news to any parent, especially one who has had to deal with a hysterical child screaming, “But I KNOW I turned my homework in—I REMEMBER handing it to the teacher!” only to have the same homework make it’s appearance at the bottom of the laundry hamper a week later.

One theory to explain this is that, for humans, perception is reality: that is, as humans we are unable to process new information without first being prejudiced by prior knowledge. That even while we are taking in the new knowledge (my homework is missing), we are being influenced by the old (I was supposed to turn it in). This is important to understand as a parent because it helps explain how your children are never, ever guilty of misplacing anything—ever.

Here’s how it works: as soon as you ask them a question such as “Where are your shoes?” their brain is torn between the new knowledge that their shoes are apparently lost and the old knowledge that this is not something you will be happy about. With those two pieces of knowledge firmly in place their brain then begins to create an ideal marriage of the two: that while it is true that their shoes are indeed lost, it is not their fault, because they put them right over there by the door (or on the porch, or in their room, or wherever it is you told them to put them).

In fact, it is sometimes possible to watch as their brains create these enticing fictions for them out of nothing more than dread and a sincere desire not to be yelled at. “Where are your shoes?” you say, and they respond with, “Aren’t they by the door? I mean, they’re by the door, aren’t they? Where they belong? Because, ah, that’s where I put them. I remember, because I thought to myself when I got home that I’d better take my shoes off and put them by the door, like you always tell me to do, and so, that’s what I did.”

At this point, just like the German students, the story is so embedded in their brain that they can actually see themselves taking off their shoes and putting them right where you told them to. (Of course, if they examined this memory more closely they might also find that there was a big purple unicorn floating around the periphery, as well as a whole family of talking squirrels).

If you show signs of doubting them (“Please: you’ve never put your shoes away in your life,”) they will grow more and more insistent that they are telling the Truth (capitol “T”), and even begin to become indignant that you would have the audacity to doubt them. And, the thing is, they are telling the truth—or at least telling what they remember the truth to be. Face it: the mind is a tricky thing, and a child’s mind, with its leaps in some areas and regressions in others (how come the same person who can program a DVR cannot understand that leaving wet newspaper on a wooden floor is a bad idea?) is even trickier.

Still, maybe that’s the secret: use their mental lapses against them. Now if I could only make them believe I really did buy them those Lucky jeans for school this year.

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