Monthly Archives: July 2012

Broken Windows

I always kind of knew that, as a mother, I was going to have to be able to wear many different hats. Chauffeur. Public health worker. Triage nurse. Fashion consultant. (Although I’m not sure if telling someone to wear socks with their cowboy boots in ninety degree weather qualifies me more as a fashion consultant or a public health worker—either way: you’re welcome.) There is one job, however, that I did not think I would ever have to take on, at least not for my role as a parent, and that is the role of urban planner.

And yet, I realized that was exactly what I had become just the other day when I found myself in the position of having to explain to my daughter, Clementine, why it was that she needed to clean up the entire living room, and not just pick her own dirty socks and sandwich crusts from the bottom of the pile. I started my explanation by asking her if she knew why people put landscaping and sculptures along freeways. (After interpreting her eye rolls and sighs as a “no,” I went on anyway.)

“They do it,” I said, “because it makes people litter less. People don’t want to be the first one to throw a piece of trash on a clean highway.” Just then she unearthed what must have been “Patient Zero”—one of last year’s unfinished homework assignments—from the very bottom of the pile. “Well. Most people don’t want to be first,” I amended. “But once that first piece of trash is down, then other people don’t feel so bad about putting their trash on top. Case in point,” I said, holding up a teacup with something fuzzy and green inside of it that could have either been a really old tea bag or a suicidal mouse on its way to a rave.

“That’s not mine,” was her immediate response.

Now it was my turn to sigh. “I know, “ I said. (Although, actually, I knew nothing of the sort—the scary truth is that there is nothing about Clementine that leads me to believe that she is not exactly the sort of person who would choose to accumulate dead green mice in tea cups. But that’s a whole other issue.) “What I’m saying is that the reason this is here is because your trash was here first. Your trash made it okay for this trash to be here. That’s why you have to clean up the whole thing.”

At that she turned cagey. “How do you know mine was here first? Maybe I put my homework under the tea cup (and the pizza box, and the crusty sock, and the tissue full of what I hope and pray is snot) in the first place.”

I held up the homework assignment again. “It’s not the Shroud of Turin,” I said. “You wrote the date on it—next to your name.”

“So? That doesn’t mean I put it there. Maybe someone is trying to frame me.”

I resisted the urge to point out that if she just used half this much tenacity to clean up the mess as she did to get out of cleaning she would be done by now, and instead just said, “If they are, it worked.” And then I launched into a lecture about Mayor Giuliano, Times Square and broken windows, and suddenly cleaning became the less painful option, the same way that, no matter how bored or sick you may be in the afternoon, silence is the better option when compared to watching the “Dr. Phil” show.

Which, I suppose, gives me one more job title for my parenting resume.
Motivational speaker.

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If there was one thing that I could teach my children and their friends, I think it would be the inevitability of cause and effect: the fact that, in certain situations, A is always followed by B. If you drop a bowling ball on your foot, it is going to hurt—always. This isn’t because the bowling ball hates you, and it isn’t because your foot didn’t get the same chances that other feet got: it is because mass equals force times acceleration. Unfortunately, most of the cause and effect scenarios I would like to teach them are not as easily demonstrated as a physics experiment—although even the most doubting among them could not failed to be swayed by my bowling ball argument, provided I have both the bowling ball and their foot, the same cannot be said of cause and effect scenarios like Not Paying Your Rent Leads to Eviction. Although they nod their heads most emphatically both when I tell them that this, indeed, will be the case, and when I explain to them that it will not be because the landlord hates them, or because the Universe is out to get to get them, but because housing equals rent times on time payment, I can still sense that they don’t fully grasp the concept. Not completely. Which is why I was so glad to recently discover something new on Facebook: the timeline.

I know that timeline is reviled by many in the Facebook world, and, in general, I am willing to go along with the reviling, since in principal I am against any type of change, especially change that involves me actually having to do something. (Yes, clicking a button counts as doing something.) But that was before I realized the true function of the timeline, which is, as far as I can tell, to demonstrate most aptly the forces of cause and effect.

Consider, for example, the timeline I saw recently. Although this particular timeline’s owner wasn’t old enough yet to have many years worth of life events stacked up, that didn’t stop him from having some pretty major ones crammed into the timeline he did have. And it didn’t stop his timeline from being a perfect example of cause and effect.

First there was the cause. Numerous posts said such things as “I am SO wasted,” “That party was sick,” and, “Legalize weed.” Other people added comments such as, “Why were the cops at your place again last night?” “Do you have my shoes?” and, “Dude—you are SO wasted.”

Next came the effect. Interspersed with the “party on” posts there began to be posts such as “Does anyone know where I can get a job?” “Why won’t anyone call me back?” and the ever popular “FML.” Soon the posts about looking for a job became more frequent (as well as much, much bleaker), and eventually were replaced with posts such as “Looks like I’m about to be homeless,” “Why can’t I ever catch a break?” and “I hate everything.”

As the tone of the posts changed, so, too, did the amount of “likes” and comments from Facebook friends, until by the end of the month each comment was met by a resounding silence from the cyber world. And then, finally, the posts stopped completely, leading me to assume that homelessness doesn’t come with DSL. Or at least it didn’t in this particular case.

To me, this was a succinct example of cause and effect, so much so that I was (and still am) tempted to print out this timeline and hang it up on my fridge as a warning to all the teenagers that inhabit my house.

Or better yet, maybe I’ll just attach it to the next bowling ball I drop on their feet.

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Where the Streets Have No Names

I never had dreams of raising the next National Geography Bee winner. (Well, okay, maybe a little. It’s always nice to raise a child who can successfully find the country we are currently at war with on a map. Of course, having one that can’t—because we aren’t at war—would be nice, too. But that’s a whole other dream.) But still, even though I never really dreamt of a child who could tell me the capital of Mongolia and which direction the Nile flowed (at least not without looking it up on their phones), I must admit that I did always sort of assume that once my kids got to be a certain age they would, at the very least, be able to tell me the name of the street on which they live.

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. They do know the name of the street they live on. Hopefully. But they certainly don’t know the names of the streets on either side of us. And they most definitely don’t know the name of any other street in Flagstaff at all.

In their defense, none of their friends do either. I realized this the first time I drove one of their friends home and they gave me directions that made them sound like some kind of living pirate map. “Turn left after the third tree,” they would say, or “It’s the house next to the big pile of rocks.” The fact that they were an interactive pirate map did not make these clues any more helpful. “Which tree?” I would ask. “The big one,” they would reply. “But not the biggest.” These kinds of “tree and rock” directions were especially unhelpful when I was driving through the woods after dark, which, unfortunately, describes the driving conditions about 99.9% of the time I was driving someone home.

What would usually end up happening was that, at some point during these increasingly frustrating peregrinations, I would simply stop and demand that they tell me what the address was and let me find it on my own. “Okay,” they would agree, the doubt heavy in their voices as they revealed the secret numbers (ingrained in them since kindergarten). And then that doubt would turn to amazement as I, using nothing but those numbers, would find their house. “How did you know where my street was?” they would ask me in awe. To which I would reply, with an equal amount of disbelief, “How could you think I would not?”

Still, I have to say that as jaw-dropping and annoying as their complete lack of street knowledge was before (not to be confused with street smarts, which they lack as well), it didn’t become totally frustrating until recently, when a great many of them started learning how to drive.

Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to drive with someone who has no idea what the names of the streets are? I mean, it’s bad enough when they are your passenger, trying to direct you, but when they are the driver and you are trying to direct them? Forget about it.

“Turn left on Leroux,” I’ll say, “and then left again on Cherry.”

“What?” they’ll respond, looking at me in confusion. (“Don’t look at me! Look at the road!”)

Never mind the fact that I have to remind them to stop at both stop signs—add in the part where I have to explain, at the last minute, which streets are Aspen and Cherry and it becomes a front seat full of screams and exasperations. “Turn! Here! Now! After you stop! Stop!”

It’s almost enough to make me become an interactive pirate map myself. Or, at least enough to make me start saying, “Arghh!”

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Failure to Launch

It used to be said that the purpose of journalism was to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” While I’m not sure if that is still true for journalism today (Fox News seems particularly confused as to which side needs the comforting), as a description of my parenting style is could not be more apt: when my children are upset I want to be the first one to make them feel better, but when they are comfortable there is nothing I like better than to stir them up.

Don’t get me wrong: by “comfortable” I don’t mean “happy.” Happy is good. Happy is the preferred state of existence for all beings. No, when I say “comfortable” I mean “complacent.” I mean “unmotivated.” I mean “sedentary.” When I think of “comfortable” I think of butts on a couch—my couch—and I am immediately filled with the urge to make those butts get up and go do something. Maybe not right this second (although sometimes, yes, right this very second, as in “turn off the PS3 and get off the couch now”), but always eventually. And always sooner rather than later. And oh-so-most-definitely always the very moment those butts have turned eighteen and have graduated from high school.

Am I the only one who still feels this way? Sometimes, judging from the number of young adults I still see living with their parents, it certainly seems like it. And this, I must admit, is something that strikes me as just unnatural and odd: when I was eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave home and start the next chapter of my life. This wasn’t because my home life was so terrible: while it was by no means perfect, it wasn’t like it was so awful I contemplated dropping out of high school and running away. However, by the same token it wasn’t such a cushy place that I was loathe to leave it and create my own version of home somewhere else. In other words, it was the perfect combination of comfortable and afflicting: I wanted to leave, but if I had to, I wouldn’t have been inconsolable if I had had to stay. (Well, maybe a little inconsolable.) Nowadays, however, at least judging from the number of twenty-three-year olds who have never left home—not even once—I’m not so sure that we, as parents, are so good at providing that “afflictingly comfortable” place anymore.

Of course, usually whenever I voice these concerns out loud people all say the same thing: it’s the economy. To which I always reply: are you kidding me? We graduated high school smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years, when interest rates were at thirteen percent and the unemployment rate was close to ten, and yet we managed to pry ourselves out of the nest soon after high school graduation. So it’s not the economy—at least not the national one.

Is it a personal economy then? Is it a paucity of inner resources, of self-confidence and gumption? Is it fear—the fear of leaving a house where there is always heat, always food, the internet and cable bills are always paid on time, and laundry detergent magically replenishes itself? Is it the fear of downsizing, of making do with less?

That would make sense: after all, leaving the nest is kind of scary. It always has been. The thing we need to teach as parents, however, is that there is a difference between “roller coaster through a dark tunnel” kind of scary and “axe murderer in the closet” fear. And the easiest, and probably the best way to do that is by inserting that lever and prying those butts off of our couches.

I’m sure they’ll thank us for it later. (And if not—well, at least we got our couches back.)

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