Monthly Archives: March 2011

Lying Liars II

Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about the essay her son wrote for school. It seems that his essay read something like this: “In ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ Scout and Jem lose their innocence when an incident occurs that causes them to lose their innocence. This incident occurred the summer they lost their innocence.” Not too surprisingly, my friend made her son 1) actually read the book, and 2) rewrite the essay so that it didn’t reek quite so much of BS. Her argument to him (of course he argued) was that, one day, when the time comes for him to make his way in the real world, the world of jobs and paychecks, people will be much less forgiving of someone trying to get away with such blatant ignorance, and he should probably start preparing for that now.

It was a good argument, I thought. A valid one. And then I happened to be glancing through the classifieds here in “the real world,” and I saw an ad that read as follows: “Wanted. Assistant Manager. The Assistant Manager assists the Manager in managing,” and I realized that BS Essay Boy actually had the right idea after all, and that the painful truth of the matter was that his mother (and by my support, I) were the ones who were guilty of not living in the “real world.” Not only that, but we were also guilty of telling our children yet another big, fat, whopping lie concerning that world.

The lies started in elementary school, when we told them that it was important that they learn to add and subtract without a calculator. “In the real world,” we said (there’s those magic words again), “people are expected to be able to do simple sums in their heads.” Of course it wasn’t long after that that I had to stand by in total agony as my kids watched a cashier’s brow furrow up like an unmade bed when I handed her a ten and a quarter for a purchase totaling $5.19. (I considered covering their eyes to shield them from the horror of it, but I only have two hands, meaning that I could have shielded either one whole child or half of each. It would have been pointless, anyway: there was no way I could have possibly shielded them from the puzzled humming sound coming from her pursed lips as well.)

Then there was the science fair project where we insisted they use their real data, even though it didn’t support their hypothesis, because “that’s how the scientific method works,” and “people who don’t understand the scientific method can be tricked into anything—even voting Republican.” The next day we opened up the paper to find that yet another school district had decided to adopt a set of science books that included a section on “intelligent design.” (Next up: geography books that question the existence of Delaware on the grounds that “no one we know has ever actually been there.”)

This was followed by a stern lecture against playground fighting on the grounds that “violence never solved anything,” only to hear the news that we are getting into yet another war in the Middle East. (Although perhaps the playground lecture should have been “violence never solves anything—especially if you lose all of the time.”)

Perhaps we’re just going about all of this in the wrong way. If we were honest (with ourselves as well as them), we would probably admit to them that what we call “the real world” is actually just a code name for “the world we really want.” But even so: I still believe that in both versions it’s a good idea to actually read “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

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The 10 Plagues

It seems to me that every winter since I’ve had children has been remarkable in some sort of epic literary fashion. There was the winter of a thousand snow days, (Anna Karenina), the winter of a million lost gloves (Three Little Kittens), and the winter of the endless muddy boots (Long Walk—er, mop). This winter, however, felt more than epic: it felt biblical. That’s because this was the winter that my house took on a decidedly Egyptian feel.

There were several reason for this. One was that we got another cat (a dreadful one), one was that our fridge was always stocked with hummus (hummus being one of the few foods that Clementine will eat), and one was because there was revolution in the air (but that’s nothing new). But the main reason my house felt so Egyptian this winter was because for a while there it felt like we were being visited by the ten plagues, one at a time.

Not the traditional plagues, of course. We didn’t have any rivers of blood, or frogs falling from the sky—but then again, the winter isn’t quite over yet, is it? It’s funny: last winter we just had one enemy to face—the dreaded snow day (or rather snow week, as it turned out). This winter, however, there have been so many different ailments—or plagues, if you will—that I can’t help but think of the ten trials visited on Pharaoh in the Old Testament.

The first plague, for us, was the stomach flu: the kind with puking and moaning. It wasn’t just us, of course: every child I know was stricken with some form of puking illness. And while puking is annoying on many levels, it is mostly for the amount of laundry it generates. (Question: How old do you have to be before you make the connection between “I’m feel like I’m going to throw up” and “I should probably get out of bed”? Answer: Old enough to do your own laundry.)

Next came the regular flu, the kind with coughing and moaning, which, in theory, should lead to less laundry, but in practice, does not. This is because of the fact that in at least half of the children I know, coughing always leads to puking. (Again, same question: How old do you have to be before you realize that coughing fits inevitably lead to puking? And again, same answer: old enough to do your own laundry.)

After that came the pink eye, something that involves no moaning whatsoever—at least not on the part of the patient. Of course, the problem with pink eye is that otherwise healthy (read: active) children must stay home for twenty-four hours, which doesn’t seem like that long until you factor in that they always manage to get it one at a time, meaning that that initial twenty-four hours can stretch out indefinitely, if you have enough children to infect and reinfect each other over and over again.

This was followed by, of all things, cold sores. Yes, just regular old cold sores, but cold sores of such intensity and duration that they qualified for plague status, too. I’m not talking about little blisters on the lips, I’m talking about huge craters that looked like something out of a Stephen King novel—you know, the one where he runs over a gypsy and gets cursed? That kind of cold sore. The kind that causes you to run a fever, meaning that, yet again, you get sent home from school.

Like I said: biblical. Of course, the nice thing for Pharaoh was that, eventually, his trials came to an end: he just had to let Moses’ people go free first. Believe me, I’ve been trying to do that for years. Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard to let your people go free when they just won’t leave.

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Unjust II

It was your typical story of prejudice and judgement: a teenager walks into a store where they are immediately greeted with suspicion and contempt, treated as little better than a common thief for no other reason than their age, their clothes, their hair. And the teen telling this story to me was nothing if not convincing in their tale of woe. Oh, the injustice of it all, the sadness of man’s inhumanity toward man, the stinging shame of once again being unfairly singled out all because of their appearance. With a few dramatic gestures and carefully inflected quivers in their stricken voice they seemed to be asking me the eternal question the persecuted have always asked of their tormentors, Why me, oh lord, why me?

To an outsider, this display of wounded pride and hurt feelings must have been quite impressive. Even I was impressed by what an elegant speech it was: so passionate, so expertly argued, and so full of exquisite little details about the wrongness of judging people based on their appearance alone. To top it all off there was a poignant bit at the end about the narrow-minded prejudice that overtakes those over thirty, before finally wrapping it up with a sincere lamentation about how this, this right here was what was truly the cause of most of the misunderstandings and bloodshed in the world.

Like I said, it was wonderful. It was beautiful. And it would have been great, except for one tiny detail.

The maligned teen in question actually had been stealing at the time.

That’s not the point, I was told. You don’t understand. And while, on one level I could maybe, kind of, sort of, a little bit agree, on every other level I was unable to hold back my disbelief long enough not to come back with, Well, if that’s not the point, then what is?

The aggrieved stare I received in return convinced me that the actual point in question must be this: the ability of the average adolescent to summon up a sense of outrage at the unjust treatment they receive is inversely proportional to the amount of indifference they display at the unjust treatment they dish out. And that while some people might consider that to be a liability, or even a personality defect, in truth it is a trait that will come in handy in all sorts of professions. Televangelists. Politicians. Tobacco company spokesmen. Really, any job that requires the ability to hold two competing versions of reality in your head at the same time and still emerge feeling both unscathed and morally superior.

I’ve noticed this ability in other aspects of teen lives as well; I call it the “Get Out of My Life/ Can I Have Some Money?” syndrome. I’ve also seen it in the argument entitled “Everyone should be allowed to follow their dreams and do exactly what they please—and their parents should pay for it.” (When I point out that the first half of that argument would mean that, presumably, the parents would then also be allowed to follow their dreams and do exactly what they please, and that it is unlikely that the parents’ dreams and desires include “lifelong servitude to ungrateful children,” there is always a long sigh, as if I am yet again missing the point.)

It’s then that I understand the frustration the framers of the constitution must have felt when people brought up the conflict between “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the slavery question. Of course, at least our Founding Fathers were honest enough to say, “What part of ‘3/5th of a human being’ don’t you understand?”

Then again, Thomas Jefferson was probably never followed around suspiciously by a “loss prevention officer” at Walgreens. Although he probably should have been: he did have long hair.

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The Pinkest Eye

So I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that I would like to propose a ribbon campaign.

I know what you’re thinking: really, another one? And I understand—after all, the mooching season is already well upon us (if you lined up all of the upcoming silent auction tables they would stretch from here to that condo in Telluride that I always bid on but never win). I also know that there are so many ribbon campaigns out there already that ribbons are either going to have to start pulling double duty (actually, triple and quadruple duty, as most of the “good” colors have already been taken numerous times), or people are going to have to start digging deeper into their paint boxes (as far as I know, puce is still available). But the thing is, I have a cause that really needs some support, and even though it’s for something that we probably will never be able to stop, I still think it would be nice for those who suffer from this condition to have the same comfort that all of the other beneficiaries of ribbon campaigns have; that is, to one day be driving down the freeway and see, on the SUV ahead of them, a magnetic ribbon that says “thinking of you.”

So what, you may ask, is this condition I’m going on and on about? Well, I’m referring, of course, to the heartbreak of pink eye.

Or rather, the heartbreak of being the mother of someone with pink eye, because as every mother knows, unlike ailments that actually debilitate your child, pink eye does nothing to incapacitate or otherwise slow down your child at all—all it does is keep them from going to school for 24 hours after they’ve had their first dose of antibiotics. (I’m sure this rule is responsible for more prescription fraud than all other drugs combined—“Keep your oxycontin and percocet, if I don’t get that scrip for antibiotics right now my kid is going to have to spend another day at home.”)

It’s terrible. And of course, the worst part about it is that never, in the history of pink eye, has it struck everyone in the family at once. Instead it comes into the eye of one child, migrates to the eye of another one, and then another, and then, when it seems to be gone completely, comes back to the first child again.

This cycles around and around until finally, through measures so draconian the Patriot Act blushes to see them (“All right! Everybody line up and get your eye drops!” “But I don’t live here . . .” “Shut your mouth and open your eyes! NOW!” “But I’m just the UPS guy—ahh! Put down the taser! I’ll do it!”) the outbreak is contained.

At least until the eye drop administer gets it herself.

The last time it swept through my house I got it after everyone else was (temporarily) over it, and so instead of going to the doctor myself I just opted to use some of the drops left over from the 55-gallon drum that we had ordered during the height of the infection. Big mistake. St. Conjunctiva doesn’t like it when you don’t make her the proper offerings (she likes to be worshipped at the copay altar, just like St. Otitis and St. Impetigo).

She punished me for my neglect by making me allergic to the generic eyedrops, meaning that I ended up laying my copay sacrifice on the altar not once, but three times. Pay me now or pay me later, that’s her motto.

Of course, all of this would be solved by the ribbon campaign. Or at least acknowledged. And really, that’s all we mothers of pink eye sufferers want: to be seen. Even if it is through red, puffy eyes.

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I have a terrible confession to make: I like teenagers. I know that such a thing is supposed to be taboo—while it’s great to like babies and permissible to like children we’re all supposed to be united in out fear and loathing of adolescents—but I just can’t do it. I know I am supposed to kvetch about their music, and their hair colors, and their clothes, and even about the fact that they are ungrateful for their youthful metabolisms which allow them to eat french fries (remember french fries?) on a daily basis with no ill effects, but the truth is I like their music, their Ramona Flowers hair, their super-zippery pants, and even their efficient digestions.

And yeah, I also know that as a parent (especially one who writes about her children) I am doubly not supposed to admit to this, but instead am supposed to toe the party line and complain incessantly about how sloppy, forgetful, disrespectful and naïve they are. But the secret truth of the matter is that I really, truly, actually do like them.

I’m not saying that they don’t have the negative traits they have been ascribed to them, nor am I saying that I like them because of those traits. I’m only saying that just as there is a whole lot more to being a parent than the stereotypical sitcom image of the clueless dad and the harried mom, I think there’s a whole lot more to being a teenager than the equally stereotypical sitcom image of the surly, hoodie-wearing disaffected youth and the gum-chewing mallrat.

When you think about it, it’s kind of ironic: for all of the times we accuse them of being oblivious to the fact that we, as parents, are fully formed human beings, (and not just a set of car keys and a wallet with legs), we are also guilty of the same sort of oblivion when it comes to them, treating them as just a series of increasingly difficult problems to be solved. I know that I am certainly guilty of that, especially on those days when it seems like all I can do is respond to one crisis after another.

Because there certainly are a lot of crises in the lives of teenagers—not just problems, but crises. And that intensity is what makes it so easy for us to mock them. Of course, that is true of anyone, teen or not. Consider for a moment that guy in the next cubicle, who owns every Star Wars figure that was ever produced (and two of Jar Jar Binks), or the woman three desks down, who has every episode of “Glee” memorized. Of course we mock them, but in the midst of our mockery we’re also, if we’re honest, kind of envious of their passion.

There’s a great quote by the writer Edmund White, and it goes,

“I have no contempt for that time of life when our friendships are most passionate and our passions incorrigible and none of our sentiments yet compromised by greed or cowardice or disappointment. The volatility and intensity of adolescence are qualities we should aspire to preserve.”

I always try to remember that quote when I am tempted to roll my eyes at a teenager’s description of the worst teacher, the best new band, the dumbest assignment, or the dopest hat. I try to remember that just because fanaticism is so easy to mock doesn’t necessarily mean that cynicism is the better choice.

And that maybe, instead of just being envious of their ability to eat the entire contents of our kitchens while only adding inches vertically, we should also be envious of the way they still approach the world with something many of us gave up at about the same time we gave up french fries: a little tiny bit of hope.

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