Monthly Archives: May 2012

Road Map

When I first started writing this week’s column I thought it was going to be about my daughter, Clementine, getting her driver’s permit. One of those, “Look out! The girl who is stymied by the geometry of folding a t-shirt is about to learn how to parallel park!” type things. And I may still write that column one day. After all, getting your driver’s license is, for most Americans, as much of a rite of passage as graduating from high school or getting arrested for the first time (or maybe that’s just my family.)

However, as it turns out I was completely wrong about what type of experience getting her learner’s permit would be for Clementine. Yes, it was a rite of passage. And yes, it was a necessary step on her road to adulthood, but not in the way I thought it would be. Here’s the thing: I thought this particular rite of passage would be all about learning following distances and other difficult but necessary rules, but instead it was about something completely different. It was about how to deal with bureaucracy: specifically, how to deal with the people who have been working in a bureaucracy for so long that their souls have been sucked up inside the little machine that issues the numbers.

You’re probably rolling your eyes as you’re reading this. “What?” you’re saying. “You had an unpleasant experience at the DMV? How unique.” But to tell you the truth, this really was my first truly unpleasant experience there. (I’m not counting the time I had to explain that the ’79 Pinto I owned wasn’t insured because it had grass growing up through the floor boards. To be fair, I was the moron in that exchange.)

On my most recent encounter, however, the problem wasn’t so much that I was a moron, as that I was under the mistaken impression that a passport, original birth certificate and school ID was enough proof of citizenship to get a driver’s license. I mean, you can become President of the United States with less, right? Still, I was wrong, and so, like the majority of people who had been in line in front of me, was sent home to get even more proof of citizenship. This was the moment when Clementine got her first real lesson on the perils bureaucracy.

“You know,” the nameless woman behind the desk said to Clementine. (Nameless at least as far as she knew: apparently unknown to her, some previously disgruntled client had scratched a name into the “Welcome” plaque on her desk. I don’t, however, think that it was her given name—unless her parents had a wicked sense of humor.) “If you had read the entire study guide, like you were supposed to, then you would have known what forms of identification to bring.”

I considered pointing out to her that her job title was “Customer Service” and not “Customer Chastisement.” I considered telling her that personal commentary of that sort was best saved until she got home, when she could tell her sixteen cats all about it. I considered asking her if she had been born bitter, or if it was only something that happened once she got really old. I considered all of these things, and then bit my tongue and turned away, took Clementine back home and located the rest of the documents (luckily, a sworn statement from the Hawaiian Secretary of State wasn’t involved—this time).

“Wow,” said Clementine as we left. “What a (name scratched on ‘Welcome” plaque).”

“Yes,” I agreed. “And you’re going to meet her (or her twin) at least once a year for the rest of your life. Welcome to adulthood. Now let’s hurry back so we can take another number before they close.”

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Bite Me

I used to feel guilty whenever I bought a frozen pizza for my kids. Not because of the cost (I only ever buy them on sale), and not because of the nutritional value (I consider a pizza to be one of the most balanced meals around: carbohydrates from the crust, protein from the pepperoni, calcium from the cheese, lycopene from the tomato sauce, fiber from the—well, who needs fiber, anyway?). No, the reason I felt guilty about buying a frozen pizza is that since I know very well how to make both pizza dough and pizza sauce, somehow, by not putting these skills to use, I thought that I was being a neglectful mother.

I didn’t entirely come to this conclusion on my own, of course: over the years countless TV shows, magazine articles and even websites had all told me—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—that the only “real” way to have dinner with your family is to sit around a “real” table that has been set with “real” plates and “real” silverware and eat “real” food. (“Real” in the latter case meaning made from scratch: conceivably the table and plates can be store-bought, in a pinch, but a real mother probably would have made them, too).

For the first few years after my daughter was born I believed this with all my heart: it didn’t matter that the actors on the TV shows were all happily eating a catered dinner separately in their trailers, or that the magazine articles and websites were all probably written either by someone who had never spent more than five minutes with a child or who had kept their own children at bay with uncooked ramen while they trying to meet their deadline: I was convinced that if I didn’t serve a proper meal, in a proper location, at a proper time, well, then, my kids would grow up to be drug addicts, serial killers, or worse. (“Tell me, son: how did you get into conservative talk radio?” “Well, you see, there was this frozen pizza…”) And then, one day, I read an article that not only threatened doom upon the family that didn’t cook and eat together, but even went so far as to suggest that buying products like pre-washed lettuce and shredded cheese was nearly as bad as feeding your kids fast food in the back seat of a Buick—that by denying your family the chance to “go through the process” of cooking together, you were denying them the true benefits of a home-cooked meal.

And I thought, “Bite me.”

Look: the idea that there there is only one “right” way to raise your kids is both ludicrous and limiting: in my own case I know for a fact that my mother and I spent more quality time tubing down the Salt River together—where our “table” was made of water and “balanced meal” meant that the ice chest full of fried chicken fit perfectly inside its own tube—than we ever did eating an ordinary home-cooked meal at our perfectly normal dining room table back home.

Just as you can never possibly understand the dynamics of a particular romantic relationship unless you are in it, you can also never really understand how another family works unless you are a member of that family. So while it may be true for one family that the key to their success is to sit around a dinner table together eating their home-cooked meal (with cheese that they shredded all by themselves, after making it six months earlier with milk from their own cows), another family might experience the most bonding while waiting in line together at Starbucks. Or tubing down the Salt.

Or maybe even waiting for that frozen pizza to cook.

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In Debt

When I was in Thailand on my honeymoon, I went souvenir shopping at an antiques market in Bangkok. Since I was determined not to be the type of traveller who needs a small army to carry her bags, I was very particular about the sort of “souvenirs” I would allow myself to buy—nothing large or unwieldy, and nothing breakable. With this in mind it was easy to pass up the ornate birdcages and hand-carved teak sofas and content myself with looking at the smaller trinkets and pieces of jewelry. Until I saw the fish platter.

I don’t know if it was actually meant to serve fish, but it was big enough to serve an entire stream full of trout. I called it “the fish platter” both because of its size and because of the fact that it had a subtle fish pattern painted directly into the light green glaze: it was an incredible example of traditional Thai celadon pottery. It was also enormous, and delicate, and expensive (relatively expensive—at sixty dollars it was our entire daily budget and then some). And so I did the reasonable thing, the prudent thing, the smart thing, and I left it there in Bangkok and came back home.

Where I have thought about my fish platter, with regret, ever since.

I tell the story of the fish platter when I am trying to explain why I don’t always do the sensible thing, and why I sometimes encourage the same lack of sensibility in my children. Take, for example, the subject of student loans. While many parents (and teachers and counselors) tell their kids (and mine, too) about the evils of student loans, and about the importance of graduating not only without debt, but with a degree that can be converted into a high-paying job as quickly as possible, I have taken the opposite tack.

“Oh, so instead of getting your degree in web design at a local college you want to study turn of the century Parisian gender equality issues? With a double major in underwater archaeology? At a private liberal arts college that costs thirty grand a year? Great! I’m sure there’s a scholarship for that somewhere, and for the rest, well, there’s always student loans.”

I know that this might seem odd coming from someone who is so cheap they have steadfastly refused to buy band-aids for the last twenty years (if it’s bad enough to require a band-aid—by which I generally mean spouting arterial blood—then you should probably go to the hospital, at which point they will certainly put a band-aid on it themselves.) However, my reasoning behind encouraging my children to study whatever it is that strikes their fancy in college (and to borrow money to do it, if necessary) is actually based on my cheapness, so in a strange way it all makes sense. Here’s the thing: although it might cost you a hundred grand (or more) to follow your passion in school, the benefits of actually finding something you are passionate about is, in my opinion, priceless beyond measure. And when you think about it, isn’t finding our passion the reason why we go to school in the first place? I mean, go to school beyond learning the basics of how to read, write, and understand DNA evidence well enough to be a useful member of a jury.

I know that I am in the minority here, but I firmly believe that the primary purpose of going to college is not to be able to find a job, but rather to be able to find yourself. (We go not to find the value of x, but rather to find the value of us.) And, like finding anything that’s lost, sometimes you have to look in the strangest of places.

Places like underwater archaeology seminars. At thirty grand a year.

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L’Age Ingrat

While there are many lines from “Spinal Tap” that are quoted in my house, the line that is quoted the most often has to be, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.” We use it mostly when we want to comment on one of the pithy pronouncements that are so often made by the teenagers who drift in and out our house, pronouncements along the lines of, “Work is hard.” (That’s why they call it “work,” son). Or, my personal favorite, “School is for idiots.” (Yes, it is…that’s why we sent you there.)

Until recently, I was quite content with this line; in many ways it was (and still is) the perfect way to explain the teenage years, the perfect summation of that period of time when you are smart enough to realize that everyone around you—teachers, parents, cops—is not as smart as you once thought they were, but not yet clever enough to realize that you, too, fit into that “Dumber than originally anticipated” category. It was short, to the point, and, all too often, could be delivered in a bad British accent. What more could you want from a phrase? Well, as it turns out, the more that I wanted was actually a less, because, as I learned recently, there is a phrase that sums up the teenage experience so much more succinctly (in a quarter of the words, no less), and, better yet, can be delivered in a bad French accent. The phrase I’m referring to is l’age ingrat.

Of course it’s French: what is it about other languages that makes them so adept at coming up with a single phrase that so perfectly describes a unique situation? Think about it: the Germans have kummelspeck (“the weight you gain from unhappy eating”—literally “grief bacon”) and the Rapa Nui have tingo (to borrow from someone repeatedly until they have nothing left). I suppose it’s true that sometimes we do manage to come up with the perfect words in English, too: consider for a moment poogle, a word that describes the act of accessing the internet (usually via smartphone) while you are using the toilet. But still, when it comes to turning the perfect phrase, I think we have to bow down to other languages quite often. Like with l’age ingrat.

I wasn’t able to find an exact translation for l’age ingrat online—the closest I could find were guesses that it was derived from either “ungracious,” “ungrateful,” or a combination of the two; this is actually even better than an exact definition, because those two words, both together and apart, describe nearly every teenager I know perfectly. Asking native French speakers was no more of a help: although they all knew what I was saying (after correcting my pronunciation), they were at a loss to give an exact meaning, other than saying, “it is that age, that awkward, obnoxious, helpless, arrogant, childish, grow-up age. You know: the teenage years.”

And I did know. Maybe that’s why we don’t have a word to describe it: all we really need to say is teenager, and instantly everyone knows what we are talking about. Still, sometimes the word fails to convey exactly what we mean. We say “teenagers,” and people hear “annoying,” but what we really meant was “teenager” in the “unhappy, miserable” sense.

Perhaps what we really need is to have a tonal language, where nuances like that can be expressed with a rising or falling accent. (Although, if you’ve ever listened to a mother asking her nearly grown child to “STOP leaving your wet TOWEL on the FLOOR!” then you know we have something of a tonal language already.)

Unfortunately, another part of “l’age ingrat” is the ability to be completely tone deaf—at least where parents are concerned.

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The other day my friend Dwayne posted a YouTube video of a song called “This Is How You Load a Dishwasher.” It was a catchy little song, and so it was no surprise to me that it was still in my head a few days later when I had the rare chance to watch my daughter, Clementine, load our very own dishwasher. I started singing it in my head when she first opened the dishwasher door, and then, as things so often do with kids, reality set in. Loudly, and harshly.

If the YouTube version of “This Is How You Load a Dishwasher” had been Mozart, Clementine’s would have been Wagner. If the YouTube version had been Captain and Teneille, Clementine’s would have been Throbbing Gristle. If the YouTube version had been Justin Bieber, Clementine’s would have been Marilyn Manson.

You get the idea.

Slam! Crash ! Slam some more!

In the YouTube version the guy sang things like “put the light stuff on the top, and the heavy stuff on the bottom.” In Clementine’s version (when the crunchy guitar allowed for any vocals at all) it was, “put the bowls full of petrified refried beans in sideways, so that the water jets can’t reach them.” The YouTube version: “put tall things down below.” Clementine’s version: “Make sure the arms can’t spin.” YouTube: “Fill it all the way up, to save water and energy.” Clementine’s: “Go ahead. Wash one cup: it’s your favorite.”

The YouTube version, I noticed, also failed to contain anything other than singing and guitar; Clementine’s version, on the other hand, was wonderfully counterbalanced with crashing, sighing, and no less than seven heavy groans. To be honest, his was a ditty; hers was a full-on symphony. This became even more apparent to me when I got to witness the sequel to Clementine’s version of “This is How You Load a Dishwasher,” entitled, appropriately enough, “This is How You Unload a Dishwasher.”

Unlike other sophomore efforts, Clementine’s second album far outstripped the first, especially when it came to the lyrics. Of special interest was the way the lyrics of the first album neatly segued into the lyrics of the second: “make sure the arms can’t spin,” became into “this dishwasher sucks,” and “fill it all the way up” morphed into “why can’t we just get a new one?” all sung in tones of the lowest melancholy. It was almost like the “Unplugged” version of the first one. (“Unloaded,” perhaps?)

In the meantime, just to keep current, I’m thinking about releasing my own dish-themed single. It will be called called, “Stop Putting Dirty Dishes Back in the Cupboard,” with the B-side being “You Need to Scrape the Dishes First (NO Dishwasher Can Wash a T-Bone)”. I’m anticipating that there will be a response, much like the back and forth between Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on their albums of the 70s. (Side note: please don’t let me be the Joan Baez.)

I can already imagine her response, and in fact, have an inkling of the working title of the new album: “Why Do We Even Have A Dishwasher If We Have to Wash All of the Dishes First?” I’m expecting it to be something completely different from her first two—more of an Irish-style lament with punk undertones. I’ve also heard rumors about her performing it on “Saturday Night Live,” and in the middle of the set tearing a picture of the Maytag man in half, but that might just be internet scuttlebutt.

Still, I’m sure it will be nothing if not an exciting show.

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