Monthly Archives: June 2012


Dear Little Girl Who Picked Her Nose on Stage All Through the Dance Recital:

If I were you, for Christmas this year I would ask for a video camera, which I would then learn to use as quickly as possible so that I could spend the next five years or so sneaking around the house trying to capture the worst and most embarrassing moments of ALL of my family members (yes, even Grandma, Grandpa, and the dog). I would then stash that film in a secure location (maybe that same ice cave way up north where they are keeping the world seed bank?), and then, finally, send a blackmail letter to everyone on that video. Trust me on this: if you don’t take my advice, and take it soon, your family will be able to hold the “Great Gold Mining Episode of 2012” over your head for the rest of your life.

I’m not saying that because your family is evil or malicious. Not at all: in all likelihood, they won’t be holding it over your head to be mean. Just like they won’t be embarrassing you with it forever to be mean, either. No, the reason they will bring up the story (and show the video) to your future husband the very first time they meet him will not be because they are trying to make you shrivel up inside your own skin and die from extreme mortification; on the contrary, they will be doing it because they love you. Really. For the same reason they will post it on YouTube so that one day, when you least expect it, you will open up Facebook and see yourself—picking a winner—as the newest internet meme. Asking them not to do it—telling them not to do it—won’t do any good. In fact, it will probably just make things worse.

“What?” they’ll say. “What are you getting so upset about? You were three; it’s not like you still do that kind of thing—or do you?”

And, oh, how everyone will laugh. Everyone, even you, because if you don’t laugh they will call you “uptight” and “sensitive,” which will only lead to other, equally embarrassing stories about the time you had a temper tantrum when they showed the same video at your kindergarten/8th grade/high school/college graduation ceremony. And so you will grit your teeth, and smile, and watch the damn video with everyone once again. Unless.

Unless you take my advice and get the goods on them, too.

So start now. Film your dad secretly watching (and tearing up over) your “mother’s” collection of Nicholas Sparks movies. Film your mom wolfing down the last of her birthday cake (the one she passed on at dinner—“Oh, I couldn’t eat another bite—it looks delicious, though”) while standing over the kitchen sink at midnight. Film you older sister squeezing blackheads before her big date, and your older brother using your sister’s eyebrow pencil to fill out his fourteen-year-old “mustache.” You could even film your grandfather indulging in his secret passion: watching “RuPauls’s Drag Race.” (On second thought, hold on to that one—it might be worth a car when you turn sixteen.)

Don’t worry that this will turn you into a sneak. I mean, it will turn you into a sneak, but that’s okay. As the youngest, that’s already your job. And don’t worry that this is somehow proof of your family’s “disfunction.” Your family is not dysfunctional—at least no more so than most. Families are groups of people that are held together by both love and secrets—dysfunctionally so only when the secrets are unevenly distributed.

For example, like when there is a video of one family member picking their nose for five long minutes on center stage when they were three.

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Sea Lawyer

In the fictional world of Patrick O’Brian’s 19th century Royal Navy, the worst thing an officer could be called was a “scrub” (the 19th century equivalent of a “real douchebag”). The worst thing a common sailor could be called, however, was a “sea lawyer.” A sea lawyer was someone who thought they knew a little bit about sea law, but, in reality, knew nothing about it at all. In O’Brian’s world, it was a terrible thing to have a sea lawyer on board—not so much because they were so woefully ignorant themselves, but because their ignorance was contagious: it could spread through the lower deck quicker than a case of the marthambles (a 19th century term for what we now call “the crud”).

It wouldn’t take a sea lawyer long at all to convince his shipmates that if a ship was struck on a reef, then they were all free from impressment, or that if their officers lost their commission papers in an accident, they no longer had any authority over the crew. In the strictly confined world of a man of war, there was nothing worse than having a “parcel of sea lawyers,” on board.

I mention this because, recently, I have observed that the same thing often occurs amongst teenagers, especially when one of them is possessed of a little knowledge and a lot of certainty. In much the same way that a 19th century sea lawyer could lead an entire deck astray, a 21st century teenager can infect an entire class with their own particular brand of bullshit; in fact, it is easier in the teenage world, because at least on a ship there are some sailors who have been around the world a time or two before—in a room full of teenagers, there are none. This is why in the teenage world arguments are won not through merit, or even logic, but rather by how many times a story has been told. If they hear it from enough people, then it must be true (even if all those people are simply parroting the same originally erroneous source over and over again).

Take, for example, the most recent story to sweep through the lower deck at my house; the one concerning the all important getting of driver’s licenses. Apparently one of them decided (and convinced a fair number of the rest of them) that the way to “get around” having to take your driving test was to wait until you turned eighteen, at which point the state would simply give you a license when you requested it, no questions asked.

In vain did I try to refute this argument. “Why,” I asked, “would the state issue you a driver’s license without knowing whether or not you knew how to drive?” Because, I was told, “everyone” knows how to drive by the time they’re eighteen. When I pointed out that I got my first license well past the age of eighteen, and yet had to take a test, their response was, “well, things were different back then,” as if I had had to learn to parallel park on a Brontosaurus next to Fred Flintstone.

Google was no help to me in this argument. Neither was showing them the DMV manual. And, since unlike the Royal Navy, flogging is not allowed, my only hope was to wait for another, even more convincing teenage sea lawyer to come along and refute the story, or wait for reality (the most convincing lawyer of all) to saunter in and refute it herself.

Luckily for all of us, that is exactly what reality did: refute everything. And what’s even better, she got to refute it all from behind that little desk at the local DMV.

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So Bored

Different people have different ways to mark the beginning of summer. For some, it’s the opening of the pool. For others, it’s the first backyard cookout. As for myself, however, I have always considered the first sign of summer to be the first time I hear a child say the words, “I’m bored.” (This can also be the first sign of winter or spring break, or even, if the child is dull enough, the first sign of a long weekend, but for most children it means the beginning of summer vacation.)

I’m always a little bit amazed (and a lot annoyed) when I hear a child say these words out loud. While it’s not as bad as saying “I’m dull,” it is certainly close enough to make me cringe. In fact, I wonder that they can even say such a thing without dying of shame. Although who knows: perhaps, for other people (and other people’s children), this isn’t such an embarrassing statement to make. Heck, maybe they feel the same embarrassment for me that I do for them when I say something like “I don’t like shopping,” but somehow, I doubt it.

Luckily for me, I haven’t heard the “B” word from my own children for several years now—not because they are perfect children, of course, but rather because they have learned, painfully and over time, that my usual response to that statement is to tell them a long and even more boring story. Well, boring to them at least: I think it’s fascinating and inspiring. What I tell them is the story of how J.K. Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter.

Here’s the story: Once upon a time J.K. Rowling was taking a boring train ride from her boring job as a secretary back to her boring house when the train was delayed for three boring hours because of an accident up the line. (Was it a boring accident? Probably—at least to everyone who was not directly involved. No, scratch that: it was probably even boring to them.) Since this happened in the days before internet (really!), or even before cell phones were common (double really!), she had no Angry Birds, no Facebook, and no Words With Friends to distract her. And, since she had only planned on being on the train for a short time, she didn’t even have a book. All she had was her boredom, or rather, in her case, her imagination, which, unlike 3G, always gets reception, no matter how far out in the boonies you may be.

So what did she do? Well, she used her imagination to create the story of someone else—a young boy who was also on a train. A young boy who was a wizard and didn’t know it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The first few times I told this story to my kids they rolled their eyes and said, “So, I’m supposed to go write “Harry Potter”?

“Of course not,” I answered. “’Harry Potter’ has already been written. Go create something else.” At which point they would usually go create a mess. But that was okay (kind of, sort of), because at least then they were doing something besides whining to me about how “bored” they were. Now that they are older (and while not necessarily wiser, certainly cannier), they never tell me they are bored anymore, and so never have to hear the “How J.K. Rowling Came to Write Harry Potter,” story. And while I’m not so smug as to believe I solved the problem of them being bored, I am smug enough to believe that I definitely solved the problem of them telling me about it.

Which, as far as I’m concerned, is just as good.

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“The only thing constant in life is change.”–Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Of all the things that annoy me (and there are plenty), one of the most annoying has to be the way that some people will form an opinion about you, and then—despite all new evidence to the contrary—refuse to let it go. The grandmother who still sends you ceramic unicorns because you loved them when you were ten. The friend who always tells you that parties start half an hour before they actually do because, back in college, you were always late. The boss who gives you a list of ways you need to improve, and then refuses to recognize when are you meeting those goals. It’s like your relationship with those people is in stasis, and no matter what happens in your (or their) lives, when they are dealing with you they will always return to a certain moment in time, like a computer that has its time machine feature activated daily.

Still, as much as this annoys me, I have a confession to make: when it comes to my own children I am definitely guilty of this myself. I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m one of those moms who, if left to her own devices, would have probably left the training wheels on their bikes until they turned thirty. Who just might cut their meat for them at their own wedding dinners. Who will probably still buy them socks and underwear for Christmas when we are both in the nursing home together.

I recognized this trait in myself early on, when my daughter, Clementine, was still very small—and yet not so small that she had to be held in my arms while I tried to eat my breafast. Luckily for me I was dining out with my friend Nancy at the time, who took one look at the precarious situation and said, “Why don’t you put her in a high chair?”

“A high chair?” I said, appalled. “But she’s only a baby.”

“She’s trying to crawl on the table,” Nancy pointed out.

And she was right: Clementine was. And so, from that meal on I put her in a high chair. Of course, then I kept putting her in a high chair until her feet practically hit the ground, so it’s not really like I learned anything from it. And, in fact, when my second child came along I still hadn’t learned much about allowing room for change—I didn’t even consider putting an end to breastfeeding until he dropped a half-eaten chicken leg down the front of my nursing bra. (In retrospect, I’m glad it happened that way: as oblivious as I was, I was lucky my wake up call hadn’t been him ashing his cigarette down my bra instead.)

Unfortunately, I am the same way when it comes to their emotional changes: often I catch myself thinking things like “Clementine will never eat that; she’s too picky of an eater,” or “Clyde isn’t interested in girls yet,” and then I’ll catch myself and remember that I need to reassess my assumptions—that I’ve just turned my own internal clock back to “day before yesterday” again.

When they were younger I would track their physical growth on door jambs, marking each new inch off in black Sharpie as a way to remind myself that they were getting bigger every day. It kind of worked: or at least it always amazed me. Maybe what I should do is set up a system for doing the same thing for personal growth as well. Of course, the problem with that is: where would I ever find a doorway tall enough to hold all of the changes a person goes through from the time they are born until they turn eighteen?

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