Monthly Archives: January 2012


“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”–James Thurber

Nobody ever talks about about the time everything went right. Well, some people do: some people are more than happy to talk about the time they won an all-expenses paid trip to Paris, and how it was the most incredible trip, perfect in every way. Of course, these people are also usually blissfully unaware that halfway through their story their audience has either stopped listening entirely or begun to plot how best to stuff them in a sack and throw them over the side of a cliff.

But this kind of person, thankfully, seems to be mercifully rare. Much more common is the person who tells a story about the time everything went wrong—and not just because it is more common for everything to go wrong (it really isn’t you know), but because people instinctively realize the truth in what James Thurber said: adversity is funny.

Or at least it’s funny in retrospect.

I tried to keep that in mind the other day when the doctor gave me the news that Clementine had chicken pox. My first thought upon hearing this particular piece of joy was the story my mom still tells about the time me and my sister came down with chicken pox one right after the other, meaning that while we only suffered two weeks apiece, she ended up confined to the house for over a month. Oh, how I used to chuckle (at least inwardly) when she would tell that story, so amused by the haunted look in her eyes as she recalled being trapped in a house in the suburbs with two cranky children for a solid month. It was funny, you see, because it happened a long time ago—to someone else. Suddenly, however, the humor of the story was not quite so apparent. Or rather, it was not quite so accessible to me anymore.

There have been times, of course, when even as something awful has been happening I realized that it would make a funny story later. One of my most treasured possessions from my early 20s is the picture I took of a friend of mine seconds after she ran into a tree while sledding. As I ran down the hill toward her, camera in hand, I remember thinking, “Once she stops bleeding this is going to make a really funny story.” That was the thought that was foremost in my mind as I snapped the picture that day. And yeah, it is a funny story, now—not only because she turned out to be okay, but because I have a picture of a bunch of people glaring at the camera in disgust while my friend presses snow to her face in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Trust me: it’s a funny picture. Now.

Which is how I know that one day the chicken pox story will be funny, too. One day it will be funny that Clementine had to miss a week of high school right before finals. One day it will be funny that she walked around the house with a sheet over her head like an extra in Paranormal Activity 17 because she didn’t want anyone to see her face. One day it will be funny to all the boys in the house that, since the rule is the sick person gets to pick what to watch, for a solid week not one single zombie died on our TV screen, but rather a whole lot of spunky heroines finally got the guy. (Actually, that was funny at the time—for me.)

Heck, one day it will be even be funny that while she was sleeping I lifted up the sheet and took a picture of her spots. Well, okay, at least it will be funny to me.

And really, isn’t that the whole point?

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The Things They Carried

I have never been a fan of “mom” purses, if for no other reason than the fact that they seem to become the catch-all for the rest of the family’s possessions. I have been to sledding hills where I watched mothers pull entire winter wardrobes out of their gigantic purses while their children—looking like they had just stepped out of a Land’s End catalog—stood there with no bags at all, free to enjoy an unencumbered day of fun in the snow. In fact, some of those mom bags were so commodious that it wouldn’t have surprised me at all to see them pull out hot chocolate, marshmallows, and a blazing fire while they were at it.

I, however, am not one of those moms; I don’t even like to carry other people’s sunglasses, let alone all of their worldly possessions. Unfortunately, however, if you’re a mom, and you have a bag, eventually your kids are going to ask you to put something in it. It is inevitable. Which is why a few years back I decided that the only way to get out of the Mom Bag business was to stop carrying a bag entirely. Which I did, and from that moment on I have carried everything I needed in my pockets—just like a guy.

This, of course, meant that everyone else had to start carrying the stuff they needed in their own pockets: no more would me and my bag be the repository for sunglasses, keys, books, gloves, and handheld entertainment devices. From now on (I said) we would all be responsible for our own stuff. That was the theory, at least.

In actuality, what this meant was that everyone was now irresponsible for their own stuff, because as soon as I stopped carrying it for them, things began to get lost. I partly blame the fashion industry for this: exactly when did they start making pants without pockets, or at least without pockets big enough to hold anything other than a fifty cent piece? I mean, some of these pockets aren’t even big enough to hold a credit card, and I don’t know anyone who travels that light. But still, just because you are unlucky enough to be wearing pocket-less pants, that doesn’t mean you have to lose all of your possessions. You could put them in a coat pocket. Or, if your coat is also pocketless (I’ve seen that, too), you could carry your things in your own small bag. Perhaps a grocery bag. Or even a baggie. Or, if you are my children, you could walk around with all of your important possessions in your hands, like someone who has just escaped from a house fire and is still a little confused from inhaling all of that smoke. And, like that confused fire refugee, you could set those possessions down somewhere one at a time, and then walk away, never to see them again.

Not that it is really that much better when they do carry a bag—that just means that they get to lose all of their stuff in one place, as opposed to several. But still, the bag (or more likely, backpack) at least allows me experience brief moments of serenity. “Where’s your homework?” I’ll ask. “Backpack.” Good. “ Cellphone?” “Backpack.” Nice. “House keys?” “Backpack.” Excellent. And then I make the mistake of asking “And where is your backpack?’ and get “I dunno,” in return, and my serenity all falls away.

There’s got to be a compromise between being the person who carries everyone’s stuff in a monstrous bag, and being the person who has to help look for an endless stream of lost objects. Unfortunately, I think I already know what that compromise is: bigger pockets. But just for me, alas.

Just for me.

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I have always been an advocate of the belief that both people and children have not changed one bit during the last few Millennium. (No, they’re not the same thing at all.) I believe that cave children had just as many excuses for not putting away their rocks and bones as children today have for leaving their game controllers and iPods lying all over the living room floor (“That’s not my rock/game. No, I don’t know who it belongs to. Wait! Don’t throw it away! It might belong to someone and they probably want it back; why don’t you just give it to me?”)

I also believe that children have confounded their parents with their choices in clothes, hair, and music since the dawn of time. (Remember, the waltz was once considered scandalous.) And I believe that each successive generation conveniently forgets all of this when the time comes for them to have kids of their own, thereby guaranteeing a long, non-broken lineage of the familiar lament, “I don’t know what the problem is with kids these days.” Still, even believing all of that, I must admit that there has been a habit I have noticed lately among children—my own and others—that I can honestly say strikes me as an entirely new phenomenon, something that, as far as I can tell, is strictly limited to the generation currently wearing the “kids these days” crown. This habit to which I am referring is the one where they refuse to turn their homework assignments in.

I’m not talking about not doing their assignments. Oh, there’s plenty of that going around, too, but that’s nothing new. And I’m not talking about saying they did an assignment when they really didn’t. (The old “dog/sabertooth tiger ate my homework” dodge has been around forever.) No, what I’m talking about is when they take the time, either through their own initiative or our incessant nagging, to actually DO an assignment, and then fail to turn it in.

And not because they forgot it on their desk (or on the bus, in the car, under the porch, up in the treehouse, etc.), but because they just don’t ever hand it in. It might be in their backpacks, at their very fingertips, when the teacher asks for assignments, and yet there it remains, for weeks and weeks, until finally they decide it has reached some kind of secret “expiration date” (“It’s too late to turn this in now”) and they throw it away.

I have conducted an informal poll among all of the parents I know, and no matter what kind of a kid they were themselves (control freak, space cadet, uber-nerd, stoner, sullen outcast) they all agree that this was something they never, ever, did. And they all lament the fact that they each have at least one child at home who does this very thing. It is maddening. And confounding.

Why do they do it? (Or rather, why do they not do it?) Could it be because they were born into a world with Wikipedia and Twitter, and are already presupposing a Brave New World where actually physically turning in assignments will be archaic: instead the homework will instantly be beamed from the student’s mind into the teacher’s head? Are they already anticipating the time when they will roll their eyes at us for ever needing to print out and hand in assignments, the same way they now roll their eyes at us when we insist on carrying an actual paper map in the glovebox?

Maybe, unlike us, they can already imagine a time when absolutely everything is stored in “the cloud.” Or maybe, just like a thousand generations before them, they are simply coming up with newer and better ways to annoy us. Yeah: that sounds a lot more likely to me, too.

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