Monthly Archives: December 2010

War II

As anyone who has children can tell you, one of the hardest things to find is a decent book of parenting advice. This is probably because most parenting books were written by people who—although perhaps were successful in parenting their own children—almost certainly never successfully parented yours. If they had successfully parented your children, then that would be a different story. Those books would not only fly off of the shelves, they would single-handedly save the publishing industry.

And who knows? Perhaps one day we’ll have the technology to make this possible; perhaps one day every parent will be given the opportunity to sit down and write their younger selves a “how to” guide to parenting their own children. Then again, we might have this technology already, and the government is just preventing us from accessing it out of fear that we’ll use it to dispense advice on how not to be a parent at all. Perhaps they are afraid that, after times of great parental stress (like Christmas Eve) the population might drop below sustainable levels. I know that there have certainly been times in my parenting life when I would have gladly gone back to a period, oh, say, ten months before my daughter Clementine was born and left a note saying, “A word to the wise: three shots of whisky is sufficient. No need to drink the whole bottle.”

Unfortunately, however, (or perhaps fortunately), we don’t have access to parenting books from the future. What we do have, though, is the next best thing: the world’s best parenting book from the past. It’s true. You might not have noticed it before, because, for some reason, it’s not filed under “Parenting Advice,” but rather under “Military History,” but there really is a perfect book of parenting advice on the shelves right now.

It’s called The Art of War.

I’m not sure who this Sun Tzu is, but he really knows his way around children. (Even though, amusingly enough, he refers to parents as “warriors” and children as “the enemy.”) Inside the pages of this slim volume, he packs in one piece of excellent parenting advice after another. Take the part about plans and planning, for instance. In that section he directs parents/warriors to “lay plans, but not be a slave to them.” Ain’t it the truth? I can’t tell you how many theories I had about raising children—before I actually had them, that is.

Next he suggests that, in order to maintain your army’s core strength, you should limit the amount of conflicts you engage in. Otherwise known as “pick your battles.”

The he suggests that when you must battle, you be the one who chooses the battlefield. In other words, wait until you get home from the mall.

Other valuable pieces of advice include knowing the art of strategic retreat, attacking as a unit (Mom and Dad on the same page), defending existing positions before seeking to win new ones, exploiting the enemy’s weakness, and, whenever possible, outmaneuvering them.

The beautiful thing about this book is that even the advice that seems far out now will eventually, the more you engage your enemies in battle—I mean, raise your children—start to make sense. Take one of the last rules, the importance of developing a good spy network. While this might seem ridiculous when your kids are five, it’s the best advice ever when they are fifteen.

Which is why I still haven’t discounted one of the other odd pieces of advice in this invaluable book: attack by fire. I’m not saying I think I’m going to be using that particular piece of advice any time soon, but just in case, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. And, of course, fire extinguishers. Lots of fire extinguishers.

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Take Warning

I’ve always been conflicted about exactly how much I should scare my kids. I don’t mean the jumping out of closets type of scaring: as far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much of that sort of thing. Prepares them for future zombie apocalypses, and all that. No, I mean the type of scaring that involves things that are far worse than zombies in the closet, if for no other reason than that they are more likely to happen. Things like chopping their fingers off with that butterfly knife their crazy uncle gave them for Christmas, or having to work jobs that require them to wear funny hats for the rest of their lives because they majored in keg tapping in college.

The question is: should you simply tell them to be careful waving that stick around because they could hurt somebody, or should you tell them to be careful waving that stick around because your best friend in grade school put his eye out playing with a sharp stick that looked exactly like that one. (Even though he wasn’t your best friend. And he didn’t exactly put his eye out. But he did get hurt. And dammit, just put down that stick already.)

In other words, is it okay to go overboard a little when you’re trying to warn them of the potential consequences of their unwise choices?

Which is better? The light touch: “If you run out into the street without looking you might get hit by a car, and it will be like the worst ouchie you have ever had. Ever. Plus you’ll miss the party.”
Or the heavy-handed approach, otherwise known as the “James Joyce describing the torments of hell” touch: “The next time you run out into the street without looking a ginormous truck is going to come along and squash you like a bug and you’ll be in the middle of the street, screaming in agony for hours until you finally, gratefully, die.”

In years past, I was always a fan of the former. My reasoning was: why scare them into potential squirrelishness? In other words, why take a chance on creating one of those flinchy kids, the kind that are afraid of everything and everyone, and who, unfortunately, usually end up being the kind of kids that other children delight in tormenting (thus perpetuating the cycle of flinchyness)? Those kids—the ones who go to the pool but won’t get wet, or who scream when they see a strange dog across the street—kind of drive me crazy. Seeing one of those kids hyperventilate because a bee landed on the picnic table next to them always makes me think: take it easy, kid—the world’s really not that scary. Or at least, it used to. Then my first child turned into a teenager. And I realized that, for one thing, the world actually can be a pretty scary place, and for another, to a teenager, the only good warning is a terrifying warning.

Our parents and grandparents knew this. They didn’t show us “safety clips” in driver’s ed—they showed us “Blood on the Highway.” And after that, when we finally got our licenses, they didn’t just tell us not to pick up hitch-hikers—they told us awful stories that made “Texas Chain-Saw Massacre” look like a public service announcement.

And the thing is, maybe they were right. Not about the guy with a hook for a hand who hangs out at make out point to harass/dismember unwary “parkers,” but about the necessity of a really good scary story to make a teenager sit up and listen.

Who knows? Maybe it really does take all of those years of flinching to remind you to wear your seat belt and drive the speed limit. And watch out for zombies, of course.

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Ditch Day

Okay, fair warning: this is going to be one of those, “Back when I was a kid . . .” columns. Anyway, back when I was a kid, we actually went to school. Well, okay, not really—but at least we had the common decency to pretend we were going. We got up in the morning, put on our school clothes, ate a healthy breakfast, grabbed our backpacks, kissed our mothers goodbye and then headed down the street to the bus stop—whereupon we climbed into the back of a Bronco filled with teenagers and cheap beer and spent the day goofing off at the river, only to show up back at our houses at approximately the same time school let out sunburnt, dehydrated, and full of “learning.”

Today’s kids, however, will have none of that. When they don’t want to go to school they simply stand in the kitchen and say things like, “I’m not going to school today (this week/this month/ever again).” And then they turn around and go back to bed while we are still standing there, all dressed for work and gibbering.

The ensuing battle usually ends up with them being resentfully deposited in front of the school, us being late for work, and everyone else looking up “gibbering” on their iPhone. (“Oh, I see: ‘to speak inarticulately or foolishly.’ Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”)

Those of you without school-age children (the non-gibberers) are probably reading this and thinking, “Well, so what? At least this way they actually end up going to school; they actually end up learning.” Which, in a way, is true. They do end up in school. They do end up learning. Unfortunately, though, what they end up learning is only the stuff that can be found in books.

Hey, I’ve got no problem with the stuff that can be found in books (see gibbering, above). But on the road to adulthood there’s quite a bit more to be learned than how to use the subjunctive (as it were). There’s other stuff, too. Important stuff. Stuff like, well, how to ditch school. And when they stand in the kitchen and announce their intentions not to go to school they certainly aren’t learning how to ditch. (True, you could argue that they are learning how to argue, but saying a teenager needs to learn how to argue is like saying a fish needs to learn how to swim. Learning how to ditch, however, is another matter entirely—that’s more like teaching a fish how to get the worm and still spit out the hook.)

My worry is that we are raising a generation of kids who have no idea how to malinger; kids who don’t even have enough sense to hold the thermometer on the lightbulb when they pretend to have a fever. Who don’t know how to create convincing cover story for a fake sleepover. (“No one answered when you called the number I gave you? Yeah, that’s because they’re super religious—they’re not allowed to use technology after midnight on Saturday. Midnight in the Old Country, that is. So, like 6:45 here.”)

I am sure there are some people out there who are still saying, “But why would we want our kids to learn how not to go to school?” For those people, the answer is this: because the kid who doesn’t know how to get out of school (without whining to their parents) grows up to be the adult who gets every crappy assignment at work because they never learned how to “ghost” out of the boss’s way. Or worse yet, gets the crappy mission during wartime because they were the only soldier in line who didn’t know to step back when the call went out for volunteers to “step forward.”

Actually, that last reason is really all you need.

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In the past I’ve written columns about how living with children is worse than living with the most disgusting college roommate I ever had, and when I wrote those columns it was true. The other day, however, a friend of mine posted a list of all of the places he had ever lived in Flagstaff; this, of course, inspired everyone else (including me) to post back all of their Flagstaff “residences” in turn. (I put “residences” in quotations here because I’m not sure that “under a camper shell in so-and-so’s backyard” and “on Dennise’s couch” really count as “residences.” More like way stations.)

Anyway, the point is that when I listed off all of my old Flagstaff abodes (only one couch, I’m proud to say), I suddenly realized that not only had I totally forgotten one of my former residences, but also one of my former roommates. (I say “forgotten,” but it was more like “repressed.”) While I was remembering that uber-disgusting roommate from years back I finally realized two things: one, that post-college roommates can actually be more disgusting than college roommates, and two, there are worse things than living with children—like living with teenagers.

Of course, in the case of the roommate, the main problem was that he was a tweaker, and, at the time, I hadn’t yet realized what the full effects of meth were. (Just like, even now, I haven’t yet fully realized what the full effects of being a teenager are.) And yet, I think I’ve seen enough of both of them to know that things are probably going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. Which is why, in honor of all of my disgusting roommates, both past and present, I am hereby presenting my list of the six reasons why I’d rather live with a tweaker than a teenager:

1.)Sometimes tweakers go on cleaning binges.

It’s true: when this guy wasn’t out stealing stuff to try and support his habit, he was obsessing over the grout in our bathroom. And lining up the cans of food in our pantry (both of them) by size. And picking invisible pieces of lint off of his face (when I could redirect this one to the carpet he was better than a Dyson.)

2.)They don’t break your stuff.

Also true: tweakers treat your stuff very nicely, because they never know when they are going to need to steal it and pawn it. You’ll never find a tweaker listening to your ipod in the bath tub (“I was afraid I might drop mine.”), or playing basketball next to your new flat screen TV. True, they might wreck your car, but then again, at least that’s because they were high and not because they were texting. I don’t know why the one is more annoying than the other—it just is. Maybe because nobody ever gets high and tweets “Oh Em Gee!”

3.)When a tweaker tells you they hate you (or some other hurtful thing) you know it’s really the drugs that are talking. With teens, it’s their hormones. Which, really, is still them.

4.)Tweakers always have a lighter. Okay, so that’s not really an advantage, but it’s still true.

5.)You never have to take a tweaker to the orthodontist. You can’t straighten teeth that aren’t there.

6.)The worst thing you’ll ever find inside a yogurt container tossed under a tweaker’s bed is yogurt. Or maybe a cigarette butt. Definitely nothing that brings to mind that old “Saturday Night Live” sketch “It’s not yogurt.” And definitely nothing that sends you running out the door screaming and gagging at the same time.

Which reminds me: I really need to find out if Dennise’s couch is open.

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Backpack Love

Once upon a time, I moved to a town called Flagstaff to go to school. After I had been there for a few weeks I realized that carrying my books, papers, pens, and liquor bottles around would be a whole lot easier if I had something to put them in, and so I bought a backpack. It was a good backpack, made by a local company on South Beaver Street. (Of course, like every other downtown business of the past, this place is now a bar.)

Over the years, this backpack and I have had a generally pleasant relationship. Sure, just like with any other relationship, ours has not been without its share of ups and downs. And I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t admit that there were a few times when I thought that it was all over. There was the time the zipper broke (twice) and had to be replaced. And the time when a ballpoint pen contracted the pen version of ebola and bled out in the back pocket. And once I even made the mistake of lending it to my daughter, Clementine, and she decided it was easier to cut the back pocket open than to unzip it.

But other than that we’ve had a good life together. It’s nothing special—just a plain red color—so it’s never had to suffer the indignity of, say, a Hannah Montana backpack, and go out of style. And it’s not trendy, so I don’t have to worry about people looking at all the carabiner clips on it and thinking, “Right, like you’re going to climb El Capitan anytime soon.”

True, our relationship is probably not as exciting as the relationships Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have with their backpacks, but then again, at least I never have to worry about my backpack “accidentally” going home with Jennifer Aniston. The fact of the matter is, there’s a lot to be said for safe, solid, and secure. Or at least, I thought there was—right up until I saw the relationship my daughter has with her backpack (or should I say backpacks), and I realized how lame our relationship really was.

For one thing, with me and my backpack, there’s no drama. Unlike Clementine, I have never left my backpack on a bus, a train, a plane, or a boat. I have also never left my backpack somewhere where the police have to come and investigate it. I have never left it behind when I got out of the car, never left it under my desk when I left class, and never left it sitting, forlornly, by a frozen pond.

What this means is that, unlike Clementine, I don’t get to have the joyful reunions that she and her backpacks share—those tender moments that only come after the break up. (Mmmm—make-up backpack.) I also don’t get that thrill that comes from starting a new backpack relationship—those first few giddy days when you are still discovering secret cell phone pockets and hidden lumbar support. (Or even better, the thrill of starting a new backpack relationship and then still getting to make up with your old one. Also known as—“Oh, I guess it wasn’t stolen. I guess I just left it in Lauren’s car.” )

Also, unlike Clementine, I don’t get to go backpack shopping every few weeks—except, of course, in my mind. (Oh, like you’ve never fantasized about bringing home a strange backpack—maybe one of those little leather numbers.) But then again, even though I don’t get to have the backpack drama that Clementine does, I do get to have a special relationship with each and every new backpack that she will never have—at least not until she’s out on her own.

That’s right: I get to pay for them.

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