Monthly Archives: July 2013

Attack Dog

When my daughter, Clementine, was in kindergarten, we were discussing the best way to handle a playground bully. I was giving her what I thought was good advice—figure out their insecurity and then mercilessly attack them about it—when she stopped me with a sigh and said, “Mom, I’m not like you. I like people.” And then she went on to handle the bully in her own way. It must have been an efficient way, because she never mentioned the bully again, and it must have also been a nice way, because I never got a call from either the teacher or an irate parent.

While I was happy that she managed to solve her own problem, I was also a little bit sad, too, because this whole “liking people” thing meant that my child would never know the joy that comes from reducing your enemy to an emotional puddle in front of you, never know the thrill of walking away from an argument symbolically picking scraps of your opponent’s flesh out from between your teeth. Never know what it feels like to “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” *stares off dreamily* Oh yes, where was I? Anyway, I was upset because it seemed to me at the time that this meant that Clementine would never get to experience the particularly brutal joy of watching your words melt skin from bone. And then, over the next few years I realized that my first analysis of the situation hadn’t been strictly accurate, and that there was at least one person in this world who would always be able to feel the venom of her cruel words. One person who would get to experience having their insecurities held before them and mocked, one person who was deserving of the harshest attacks and the most unrelenting fury.


Joy. Imagine for a second that you have raised an attack dog from a puppy. Taught it to always go for the jugular, taught it never to forgive the smallest slight, taught it to guard itself vigilantly and brutally. Now imagine that this dog grows up to attack absolutely nobody but you, and you have a slight inkling of how I feel.

Look, I know it’s not really cool to compare a child to a Rottweiler, but the truth is that sometimes it’s a tough world out there, and knowing when and how to stand up for yourself is an invaluable skill. I’m not talking about taking on muggers in a dark alley here: I’m talking about getting out of a two year service contract with a crappy internet provider. Do you really, really not want to pay that late fee? Well, then, sometimes you have to show your teeth and growl a little bit.

There are definitely times when being nice is your best option; immediately after you get pulled over, for instance. Or when you’re standing in the customs line at an airport. (Basically, any time you’re dealing with someone who has the power to authorize a full cavity search, niceness is always your best—and sometimes your only—option.) But other times nice will only get you sent to the back of the line.

Or worse.

It’s telling that I don’t have this fear of niceness with Clementine’s brother—and not because he has the killer instinct she seems to lack. (Oddly enough, he has that whole “liking people” problem, too.) Maybe I’m just too aware of how the feminine tendency to “make nice” can be a handicap as often as it is helpful. And so, I suppose, I should be happy to find out that Clementine has the ability to turn hers off and on at will.

Just so long as she imagines that the person she is dealing with is me.

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I once had a dream where I found an extra room in my house. This was after living there for years: one day I just noticed a door that I had never seen before, and when I opened it, instead of finding some kind of Doctor Who-style monster, I found an extra one hundred square feet. It was wonderful, and I immediately began to drag all of the stuff into it that previously had had no real home: the amps, the spare guitars (and ukeleles, violins and violas), entire bookshelves filled with manga and overdue library books, piles of homework and a dedicated table to do it on. It was such a relief to finally have a place to put all of the stuff that so quickly turned the rest of my house into clutter and confusion. And then I woke up. And I was devastated.

To put my devastation into perspective, I also once had a dream where I got to hang out laughing and drinking with Bob Dylan all night, and even that dream was less disappointing to wake up from than the one about the extra room. Actually, “devastated” really doesn’t even begin to describe it: for days afterward I would look in the corner where I had “discovered” the extra room and feel a sense of loss—why, I asked myself over and over, couldn’t it have just been true? (The thing that finally snapped me out of it was the slow realization that if I did, in fact, have an “extra” room, it, too, would already have been chocked full of crap.)

And so I understand my daughter, Clementine’s, disappointment during the heat wave a few weeks ago when she glared at the thermostat and discovered that, no matter how low she set the numbers, there just wasn’t going to be that satisfying click followed by a soothing burst of cold air. What I didn’t understand though was the fact that none of her dismay was caused by a recent dream about our house having air conditioning; she hadn’t been confused, like I had, by some kind of alternate nocturnal reality. No, she had just never before noticed that we didn’t have any air conditioning.

I used to believe that my children could be anything they wanted to be when they grew up: Presidents of the United States, astronauts, cowboys, Cirque du Soleil performers—whatever they wanted. And I still believe that to be true, with one notable exception: private detective is probably off limits to both of them.

These are people I could hide almost anything in the world from simply by putting it back where it belongs. People who text me from the next room to ask me when I am getting home. People who have not noticed when we have house guests—even after those house guests have been sleeping on the couch for three days. Unobservant doesn’t even begin to cut it.

There is no doubt in my mind that if a tree fell in the forest and my children were not there to hear it it would not make a single peep. At least not to them. Doesn’t matter if Wolf Blitzer himself was there to interview the tree personally: they didn’t hear it, so it didn’t happen.

I suppose in a way it’s better to live your life only concerned with the things that immediately affect YOU and only YOU; I have seen enough people reduced to puddles at the thought of tragedies halfway around the world to know that being hyperaware isn’t all that great either. But still: it would be nice if they found a happy medium.

Preferably one that didn’t involve standing in front of the thermostat and cursing quite so much.

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Biggest Loser of Them All

When I was growing up, my sister and I used to occupy our long, hot Phoenix summers with epically fierce Monopoly battles. (Remember, this was back in the days before Netflix—and, in our area at least, before cable. There were only four channels to choose from, and believe me, there are only so many times you can watch “Pets on Parade.”) And so we played Monopoly. For hours. Because with only two people, a Monopoly game takes forever—especially when those two people fight over every single piece of property like they were MacArthur in the Philippines. (“Don’t worry, Oriental Avenue: I will return for you!”)

Winning one of those games of Monopoly was the best feeling in the world: the joy of watching your money pile up, the pride you felt as your bustling suburban sprawl of houses was finally replaced with towering hotels, the sheer thrill of absolute power as you set the terms for every new deal (“I’ll give you two hundred bucks for your railroads and utilities—take it or leave it.”) Being on top in a game of Monopoly is probable the closest thing most people get to playing God: you, and you alone, get to bless or curse people, depending on your mood and their level of obsequiousness. “I’ll ignore the fact that you just landed on Pennsylvania with three houses if you promise to call me ‘Your Highness’ for the rest of the day. Oh, and go get me a grape popsicle.”

Conversely, losing a game of Monopoly was the worst. The terror of watching your money pile dwindle, the desperation as you sold off first your houses, then the property itself. The doubt that crept in about your previously unquestioned judgement. ( “Why did I waste all of that money on Boardwalk and Park Place? No one ever lands there!”) It was pure bitterness, and every Monopoly defeat tasted like ashes in your mouth. (Ashes, and perhaps a little bit of colored paper: neither my sister nor I were above such pettiness as chewing up and spitting the last of our money at the other player; when people outside our family played Monopoly with us we usually had to make up some story about the cat getting a hold of the money to explain its bedraggled state.)

Actually, when I write it all down like this, the whole thing seems pretty awful. And yet, I am convinced that it was one of the most valuable parts of my childhood. Why? Because it taught me how to lose. Not how to lose graciously. (See: Money, Chewing Up and Spitting Out, Above). And not how to lose willingly, but simply that the awful, terrible experience of losing was a real thing—real, and survivable.

You might be thinking that this is a lesson everyone learns; that unless you lead some kind of a charmed life (like, say, being born into the Bush family), learning how to lose is unavoidable. And you’d be right: it is. The difference, however, is that I learned how to lose when it was still (slightly) acceptable for me to throw myself on the ground about it and roll around and gnash my teeth; with today’s kids, I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. After all, if you grow up in a culture where everyone gets a trophy just for showing up, what do you really learn about losing?

It might seem cruel to put our children through the agony of defeat when they are so young, and therefore so vulnerable (and so vocal about), but I think that it is crueler by far to make them wait until semi-adulthood to find out that they’re actually not that good at soccer.

Or that buying Boardwalk and Park Place is always a sucker’s bet.

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Not Dora

A few years back I wrote a column about how annoying it was to get driving directions from a child: I said it was like dealing with a living pirate map. “You drive to the big tree—no, not that one, the big one…okay then, the second biggest one, whatever—and it’s the third house after the house with the little dog. Well, there’s usually a little dog there. Why are you grinding your teeth like that?” In fact, I think I said something at the time about how there was absolutely nothing more annoying—how it was, as far as I was concerned, the epitome of annoy. Well, a few years have passed since then, and I am unhappy to report that I was wrong: there is something more annoying than getting driving directions from a child, and that is giving driving directions to them.

That’s right: the child who used to give me the “Treasure Island”-style directions is now driving herself places, and it would appear that she wants to receive directions from me in exactly the same manner she herself used to give them: with obscure landmarks and cryptically vague distances. (My favorite is “It’s about halfway down.” Halfway down what? The street? The continent? The planet?) Here’s a typical scenario: the child needs to get somewhere and asks me how. I respond by giving her the address. Deep sigh from said child. “No, Mom. Just tell me where it is.” And so I try to explain cross streets. Again with the sigh, and again with, “Just tell me where it is.” At this point I know that it is useless, but I pull out a map anyway. This pushes the child right over the edge. “Why won’t you just tell me where it is?”

That’s when I realize (yet again) that “where it is” means “what is it next to.” And also that “what is it next to” means “use landmarks that are relevant to me, not you.” So that saying “it is next to the courthouse” is as meaningless as a street address, whereas “across from that alley where your friend Bobby John once threw up two nights in a row” is the gold standard. Of course, the fact that I didn’t know about the Tour de Puke, and have, in fact, never even heard of Bobby John, is, to her at least, irrelevant.

Probably the most frustrating aspect of all of this is the fact that it would be a non-issue if she would just learn how to read a map; this is especially aggravating considering the fact that I had to spend hours and hours of my life listening to Dora the Explorer when she was a child. Hours that I will never get back. What was the point of all of those times I was forced to yell “Swiper no swiping!” if they weren’t even going to learn how to read a map? What was the point of all those sleepless nights spent wondering why the monkey wore boots, but no pants (at least he didn’t wear a raincoat) if the payoff wasn’t going to be just a little bit of cartographic literacy? I mean, Cyber Chase was annoying, too, but at least there they learned the difference between a rectangle and a square.

Although, now that I think about it, the maps in Dora were pretty much pirate-style, too, which actually may explain the map reading disability they all carry today. If only Map had, one time, just given Dora a street address. If only, one time, Backpack had ever said, “Hey kid, you ever hear of Google?” Oh, well. I suppose it could be worse. After all: at least they all still managed to grow up wearing pants.

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