Monthly Archives: May 2013

No Food

Now that my children are both practically teenagers (well, one has always been a teenager by temperament), I sometimes feel like they don’t want me around as much. Everything about me mortifies them: the way I dress, the way I laugh, the way I chew my food—heck, they don’t even like the way I call their friends morons (especially if those friends happen to be standing right next to them at the time). However, as mortifying as I might be, every time I think they’ve gotten to the point where they don’t need me any more they turn around and actively seek me out just so they can say those three little words that every mother longs to hear.

“There’s no food.”

Wait, did I say “longs”? I meant “dreads.” And the reason I dread these three little words so much is that I never quite know when I am going to hear them next. I know what you’re thinking: don’t you usually hear them when you run out of food? Well, yes, that would be the logical time to hear them, but the fact is I usually hear them the day after I’ve gone to the grocery store, when both the cabinets and the fridge are so full that getting something out of them is like playing a game of food Jenga. “Okay, let’s see, I can pull out this can of soup—no, it’s supporting the refried beans and pasta. Wait a minute—I think the tower of tuna will support it all. Let’s give it a try… oh no! Foodalanche!”

The incongruity of having a mountain of food falling on you while there is someone standing behind you saying, “there’s no food” is not lost on me, however much it might be lost on my children. Suddenly I can emphasize with the crowds who objected so strenuously to Magritte’s famous painting “The Treachery of Images,” which, if you’ll remember from that long ago art appreciation class (or else from all the time you spent hanging out at the poster shop at the mall) was a painting of a pipe with the words, “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) painted directly underneath.

Luckily for me, however, unlike the crowds at Magritte’s art opening, (who were, perhaps, not quite prepared for his style), living with my perpetual teen taught me years ago that there are certain phrases that come out of their mouths to which a few pertinent words must be added by the listener. Those words are, “that I like.” Thus, “I have no shoes” becomes “I have no shoes that I like;” “There’s nothing to do,” becomes “There’s nothing to do that I like;” and, of course, “There’s no food,” becomes, “There’s no food that I like.” (Does that mean Magritte’s painting should have been entitled “ceci n’est pas une pipe que j’aime”—this is not a pipe that I like? Only his mother could tell us for sure.)

At this point, you’re probably thinking, okay, why not just buy them the food that they like then? While that sounds reasonable, there are more than a few problems with that plan (not the least of which being that my recycling bin only holds 24 pizza boxes at a time.) There is also the fact that, since their tastes seem to change on a daily basis, other than pizza I really have no idea what they’re going like. I suppose I could always take them with me when I go to to the store, and let them point and grunt at the items they want, but there’s a problem with that as well.

I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m so, well, mortifying. And apparently, not in a way that they like.

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Jah Unlove

The other night my son, Clyde, played in a concert. As I dropped him off backstage I looked him over one last time, trying to make sure he had everything he needed. Black pants: check. Black shoes: check. White shirt: check. White shirt tucked into the black pants: check and check and check again (“And this time keep it tucked in!”). Violin: check. Bow (yes, he has arrived without one before): check. Music: ….

“Where is your music!?” I asked frantically.

Clyde responded with a shrug. “I dunno. Don’t worry about it: the person sitting next to me always has it.”

“Who sits next to you?”

Another shrug. Followed by another another “I dunno.” And then “It’s always someone different. But they always have the music.”

I was mortified. Not only because Clyde seemed to think it was okay to rely on an apparently ever-changing roster of stand-mates to provide his music for him, but also because it was now obvious that, unbeknownst to me, someone had slipped a cuckoo into my nest. There was no other explanation, because there was no way that one of those people could have ever come from me.

I think you know who I mean by those people. I mean the ones who show up to hike Everest in flip flops, certain that once they got there other people—people like me, who like to plan things out—will supply them with the necessary gear. The ones who tell the rest of us that we worry too much, that we make too big a deal out of everything, that we should just relax, because everything, always, works out in the end. The ones I want to shake as I scream at them that the only reason anything ever works out is because someone, somewhere, had a plan. Or maybe scream that sometimes things don’t work out in the end—sometimes, in fact, things don’t work out so much so that Outside magazine writes a feature about it and Emile Hirsch plays you in the movie version.

You think I’m overreacting? I know that there is a big difference between not bringing your music to a concert and starving to death in a broken down bus in Alaska, and that winging it on Beethoven is not the same as walking barefoot down a freeway with a dog on a string while singing “Jah provide the bread,” but even though the human in me can see the difference, the mother in me cannot. The mother in me is forced to extrapolate everything into a Worst Case Scenario. And, when it comes to Clyde, I think I can argue that I have good reason.

When Clyde was a toddler he didn’t know how to swim; unfortunately, this didn’t stop him from jumping into the pool, where he would sink to the bottom like a piece of furniture, and remain there peacefully until an adult (usually one who was fully dressed and more than a little bit hysterical) would jump in and pull him out. At which point he would cough, sputter, laugh and then do it all over again. It was the best! Jump in, semi drown, get pulled out. Because that’s how things work, right? Someone is always there to pull you out—aren’t they? As a toddler it never occurred to him that the hysterical adult would not be there to fulfill their role, just as it now never occurs to him that his stand-mate at the concert might not fulfill theirs.

And that’s how I am so quick to make the connection between sheet music and slot canyons. Between Beethoven and broken down buses. And why, next time, I will be sure that Clyde has his music—as well as his shoes.

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Harry Potter

Sometimes I think that the worst thing you can do as a parent is watch the news. Why do we do it? I mean, it’s not like we need any help when it comes to imagining terrible things happening to our kids—one parent I know described it as “like having a horror movie playing constantly in your head.” And yet, despite the fact that our worrying is usually turned up to to eleven already, we watch the news and it’s like our worrying finds a whole new gear. There you are, minding your own business, worrying about the normal things parents worry about—things like maybe you somehow overlooked an abandoned well in your backyard, or that your child will be exposed to anthrax on their way home from school when—wham! —the news comes on and you find out that there are horrors you never even considered. Movie theaters. Marathons. Classrooms.

Yes, there’s no denying that the events of the last few weeks and months have made it rather difficult to be a parent. Whether it is happening in Aurora, or Newtown, or Boston, or even, most recently, Cleveland, the thought that random and senseless acts of violence could be directed at children—anybody’s children—can’t help but make all parents feel a terrible sort of sympathetic horror and helplessness.

I know I certainly have, which is why I have found myself turning once again to what, for me, is a constant source of strength and comfort: the Book. The Book that explains everything—good, evil, love, hate, fear, hope, betrayal, forgiveness—in a way that makes sense to both me and my children, and always has. And not only does it explain all of these things easily and well, it does so with such charm and humor that I don’t mind going back to it again and again, even when times are not troubled.

I am speaking, of course, of that greatest of all great books: Harry Potter. What, you thought I meant some other book? No: I prefer my fictional talking snakes without any extra misogyny and homophobia, thank you.

When people first learn that we are atheist parents, with potentially atheist children (I would no more believe I could decide my children’s level of religiosity for them than I could their sexuality), they are often curious as to how we approach things like the Boston Marathon bombing and the murders at Newtown. “But who (or what) do you turn to?” they ask. And I answer them: Harry Potter.

I’m not being facetious. And I’m sure I’m not alone. Just as I’m sure that other parents in the generations before me turned to Luke Skywalker, or Bilbo Baggins, or even King Arthur, there is something that is comforting about returning again and again to a character who chooses good over evil every single time. And if it happens to be a fictional character, well, so much the better, because fictional characters are the creations of ordinary men and women who dared to dream of a world where goodness was achievable. Where in the end, good always triumphs. No matter how many trials (or books) there are along the way.

Sometimes I think that that is all our children (or anyone else, for that matter) really needs: hope. That and the belief that there is more good than bad in the world. That for every crazy person intent on hurting people there are fifty more who are willing to put down their Big Macs and go help. (You know what I’m saying, bro?)

I realize that for some people the only place they can imagine finding such reassurance is in some kind of spirituality, complete with the promise of “better worlds to come,” but as for me, I think I’ll stick with Harry Potter. After all: with Harry Potter, you get dragons.

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I’ve always been conflicted about how I should approach teaching my children about money: sometimes it seems like there’s an awfully fine line between teaching them the value of a dollar and teaching them to be fearful of imminent financial doom. On the one hand I want them to know that we, as a family, are okay: the wolves are not at the door. But on the other I really want them to understand why it is vitally important for them not to swing that brand new violin around like it is a baton: that just because I might be able to afford to replace it doesn’t mean that I want to.

Some kids seem to get this instinctively: there are always a few kids in every grade who seem to be born savers. They carefully hoard their birthday and Christmas money, and sometimes even any incidental cash they get from things like doing chores or selling lemonade, and the next thing you know they have saved up enough money to buy that new computer. Or car. Or even a boat to sail around the world. (No, seriously: I read a story about a woman who sailed solo around the world, and it said that she had bought her first boat with the money she had saved by skipping school lunch since she was nine years old. I’m sure her parents didn’t know if they should feel smug or appalled.)

Other kids (most kids) seem to be the exact opposite: for every born saver in this world I would guess that there are at least another ten born spenders. These are the kids for whom money is something that cannot be spent quickly enough, so much so that they aren’t really even bothered about what they spend it on. The purchase isn’t important; the act of purchasing is.

And then there’s the third kind, the ones who neither save or spend their money—they just lose it. If money can be said to burn a hole through the pockets of the second group, then you could say that in this group it burns a hole through everything: nothing is secure enough to keep this group’s money from vanishing into the ether. I am convinced that these kids are the source of most of the money you find lying on the ground. (That and people coming out of topless bars trying to stuff fistfuls of dollar bills into their pockets.)

So how can you influence what kind of a money person your child will become? Truthfully, I have no idea. Some people believe that you can create savers by enforcing certain saving “rules.” Rules such as splitting any money received (whether through work or by gift) into three piles, one for spending, one for saving, and one for charity. While I think this is a great idea I’m not entirely convinced that it would be enough to turn a would-be spender into a saver; I am more of the belief that this only works with the kids that would have been savers anyway. After all, they obviously already come from a family of savers, and more than anything else I think that the way you yourself treat money is what determines how your kids treat it. Just like with bigotry, what you tell your kids doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you do: if you are making your kids save half of everything they get, and yet you yourself are still living paycheck to paycheck, the only lesson they will believe is the one they see, not the one they hear.

Unless, of course, they happen to be born with the dream of sailing around the world—then you’re golden. But it’s probably not a good parenting strategy to count on something like that. At least not more than once.

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Way back before our children were born, my husband and I spent two months in Thailand where we tried our best not to be obnoxious foreigners. Part of this effort involved things like not screaming at tuk-tuk drivers when they wanted to charge us an extra twenty cents to drive halfway across Bangkok, but the main thing we did to minimize our farang status was attempt to learn a tiny bit of the language.

With Thai that is easier said than done, because while things like verb tenses and prepositions are relatively easy in Thai (especially compared to English), the pronunciation is so difficult as to be almost impossible for Western trained ears. Not that the Thai people ever let on: they were so polite, and so appreciative of our pitiful attempts to speak their language that they encouraged us at every turn, and even put up with our childish delight when we managed to communicate simple requests like, “May I borrow a pen?” (Even when our version of “May I borrow a pen?” came out sounding more like “May I kiss your pig?”)

Actually, I’m pretty sure that it came out sounding like “May I kiss your pig?” most of the time, for the simple reason that Thai is a tonal language: changing the rising or falling inflection of a word can completely change its meaning. The most commonly used example of this is the Thai tongue twister “New wood doesn’t burn, does it?”, a phrase which sounds to most Western ears like “mai mai mai mai mai?”

As you might imagine, this caused us a great deal of confusion, and, as much as I enjoyed our time in Thailand, I was very grateful when we got back to an English-speaking country where I was able to understand what people were saying without having to bend my ears so hard around tone and inflection. Back to a land where, with the exception of a few regional variations, words all meant what I thought they meant, no matter how they were pronounced. And then, of course, I went and had children. And I might as well have never left Thailand.

Why? Because sulking, like Thai, is a tonal language. And there is as big a difference between “fine” and “fine” as there is between “mai” and “mai”—it all depends upon the inflection.

“How was your day?” I’ll ask my kids when they get home from school. The different answers (“fine” “fine” and “fine”) might, to the uninitiated, all sound the same, but to the practiced ear there is a world of difference.

“Fine” means that nothing very much happened: there is no gossip to report, no drama to relive. “Fine,” on the other hand, means that an important assignment was misplaced, a trusted friend was unkind, and they were soaked to the skin by an unexpected snowstorm. And heaven help you if the answer is “fine.” That means that you, as a parent, have failed them so greatly that it will take them a lifetime of therapy—maybe even two—to ever recover.

See the difference?

I know, neither do I—that’s the problem. When they were little I used to wish I had a “baby translator” so that I could finally understand what it was, exactly, that they wanted. Now that that they are older, however, I am starting to realize that those infant days were the high points of our communications. At least back then they seemed to think that it was worth their time to try to tell me what was wrong—even if I was too thick to understand.

Now I don’t even rate that. Or maybe I do: like I said, it’s hard to tell. Whatever. It’s fine.

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