Monthly Archives: April 2015


One of the hardest conversations I have ever had with either one of my children is probably not the one you think it is. It’s not the sex talk, or the drugs and alcohol talk, or even the “it’s impossible for someone to consent to sex when they’re incapacitated by drugs or alcohol” talk. No, the hardest conversation I’ve ever had with them is the one where I explain that they are not geniuses. Or prodigies. Or even whiz kids. At best, I tell them, they are very talented amateurs. Which means that they, like the rest of us, are going to have to work.

This idea is very difficult to convey to them because it is contrary to one of their most cherished beliefs: the belief that if you have enough talent you don’t have to put any effort into being successful. This is also known as the belief that your success or failure is simply the result of a lucky or unlucky draw from the genetic lottery. That some people are better than they are at certain things because “they’re just good at that stuff.”

I’m not arguing against the notion that people have talents and skills that lean in a certain direction, but rather the idea that successful people become successful out of luck. Because, as Thomas Jefferson supposedly said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

In order to get this message across to a classroom full of children, I once brought them every draft of a book I had spent the previous year working on, including the finished work. It was a ridiculous amount of paper—well over 2000 pages all told, every page filled with corrections. As I dropped every draft into the towering stack with a thud, I told the students that this (thunk) was what a book (thunk) really looked like (thunk thunk). And then I dropped my slim novel, all bound and pretty, right on top.

I was hoping to benefit from both the picture and the “thousand words” (actually several hundred thousand words) approach. At least as a writer (one with no regard for trees, apparently) I had some kind of visual proof of all my hard work—it would have been even harder to make my oint if I was a composer, or an athlete.

I don’t know if I was successful: the majority of the students’ eyes passed right over the absolutely monumental pile of rough drafts and went straight to the finished product, because that was the part that looked the most familiar to them. That was the part that looked like books they see in the bookstore.

The irony is that you only really know when you’ve put enough work into something when other people think you’ve spent no effort at all. When the the party, or the presentation, or the novel or the performance comes off without a hitch, and people all smile and tell you “you’re so good at this.” And you smile back and say “thanks,” but what you’re really thinking is, “yeah, I am—but I also worked really hard.”

Sometimes I think that the worst thing that can happen to a kid is to have a natural aptitude for something, whether it be music or football. Because eventually their natural aptitude is going to take them as far as it can, and after that they’re going to have start putting in some work. Meanwhile, the other kids, the ones with no “talent,” are already used to putting in the effort, and so never experience a hiccup in their progress.

Actually, I think that’s the reason so many “talented” kids quit things: they’re not prepared for the fact that after the talent, there still comes work.

Lots of it.

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Once More With Feeling

There are a lot of advantages to having more than one child. Hand me downs. Being able to work on the theory that “practice makes perfect.” The option of spreading your nursing home bill out amongst a few different people. But sometimes it seems that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, especially when I find myself experiencing the worst kind of deja vu. I am speaking, of course, of having to go through two separate incarnations of the, “Please, for the love of god, just clean your room,” phase.

I hate these conversations, mostly because I find myself always sympathizing with their point of view. After all, their rooms are the only place in the whole entire world that they can call their own. The only place they can express who they are and what they are feeling at that moment in time, and sometimes, just like the rest of us, they feel like their inner self is best represented by Taco Bell wrappers and crusty socks. (Lord knows there have been plenty of times when I have felt that pouring the contents of my soul out would look remarkably similar to cleaning out my purse after a cross-country road trip: a horrifying melange of crushed breath mints, empty ball point pens and Starbucks receipts.) And yet, and yet, for all that I support the non-lethal expression of inner angst in the form of “dirty dish therapy,” the fact of the matter is that after a while the rest of the family gets kind of tired of waiting in line to scoop their morning cereal out of a pint glass with a fork.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Well, why don’t you just make a rule about no food in their bedrooms?” And yeah, that’s a great idea, and a great rule (one I follow in my own bedroom, actually), but the problem with making rules is that you then have to enforce them. And being an enforcer requires a certain amount of diligence and vigilance that I just don’t possess. At least when it comes to food in the bedrooms. Because, honestly, I don’t really care if they bring food into their bedrooms (see: expression of inner angst, taco bell). At least, I don’t care enough about it to have to perform the daily room inspections that would go along with enforcing the rule. (Or risk looking like an impotent blowhard who makes up meaningless rules. And if my “no food in the bedroom” rule is proven meaningless by my unwillingness to enforce it, maybe that means all of my rules are open to interpretation. I’m not saying there’s a direct link between ignoring the “no food in the bedroom” rule and the “don’t smoke crack” one. I’m just saying it’s never a good idea to undermine your own authority.)

In the same vein I really don’t care enough about their appearance or hygiene to enforce a “no clothes on the floor” rule—I do, however, care a lot when the concert is in fifteen minutes and the dress pants come out of the room looking like they spent the weekend getting backstage passes at Coachella.

I guess the problem really is that I want to have my cake and eat it, too: I want their rooms to be able to have the appearance of chaos, but I don’t want to have to live in a house where chaos actually has a foothold. Which probably makes me the parental equivalent of a hipster. Whatever: I’ve been called worse.

Which brings me back once again to the nice part of having done this before: I have tangible proof that even this shall pass. And until then: I guess I’ll just have to start buying thicker cereal. And a really good lint brush.

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Same Same

Recently, while trolling through my latest Facebook page obsession, “Humans of New York,” I came across a picture of a man’s feet (to preserve his anonymity, I assume), and a story about how even though both his children were “raised in the same family,” they couldn’t have turned out more different. (One was a successful businesswoman and the other a near-homeless drug addict.) As is the case with anything that happens on the internet, the comments flew fast and furious, and while the vast majority of them condemned the man for talking about his grown children in public, even anonymously, quite a few took exception to his assertion that he had raised both his children the same. Clearly, the internet reasoned, he had not raised them the same, as they had turned out so very different.

This got me thinking. All debates about nature versus nurture aside, is it ever really possible to treat your children completely the same? I know we all try, if only to avoid the never-ending accusations of “You like him/her better!” (My favorite is when I get this accusation from both children within a five minute span. On those occasions my answer is always something along the lines of, “To be honest, I’m not particularly fond of either one of you right now.”) And yet, as much as we measure each piece of cake with a pair of calipers to make sure they are exactly the same, and as many times as we find ourselves putting an extra, unnecessary present under the Christmas tree “so it will be even,” it’s really never possible for them to grow up in the same environment. Not because we treat them differently, though, but because they grow up with each other.

My son Clyde, for example, is one of the most easy going kids you will ever meet, so much so that it has always been his lot in life to sit next to the known biters at school: it is a well-established fact that Clyde will not bite back. And while I’d like to take credit for his sanguine nature, the truth is that he is so good at ignoring abuse because he grew up with his own personal tormentress—his older sister, Clementine—who saw his sunny disposition as her own personal challenge. And Clementine? Well surely some of her cynical nature must come from the fact that after only five years as reigning princess her kingdom was cut in half by the arrival of the little prince.

I know from firsthand experience that something similar happened in my own family: my older sister never quite got over the betrayal of my arrival. For my part, I was able to avoid most punishments and chastisements because I had her going before me; it’s much easier to pick the right door when the person directly in front of you picks the wrong one time and time again.

Maybe something similar happened in “shoe guy”’s family. Or maybe he was a liar, or clueless, or he really did raise his children with two different sets of expectations. Or maybe he was telling the truth, and despite his best efforts, one kid was happy and the other was not.

I think that’s what probably stirred up the internet’s hornet nest the most: the idea that maybe this guy did everything right and still got an outcome that was “wrong.” Because that would mean that the same thing could happen to us, and that idea is, of course, frankly terrifying.

No wonder the poor guy only wanted to be seen by his shoes.

(If, like me, you are a fan of “Humans of New York,” check out Flagstaff’s version,“Flag Folk.” It’s pretty great.)

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This last Spring Break, because of differing school schedules my family ended up taking two different planes to get back home from our vacation. At first this had me worried: I’m almost pathological about my need to hang onto everyone’s boarding pass for them at the airport (if you’ve ever been present when my kids have lost theirs in the three steps it takes to get from the sitting area to the gate, you’d understand why). And so the thought of not having all four of them clutched in my sweaty little palm until we were actually on the plane made me quite anxious. Or at least it did, before I had spent the four hours prior to our arrival at the Miami airport sitting in a car with this very same family, and then, suddenly, the idea of taking two different planes didn’t sound quite so bad; in fact, if I hadn’t been so determined to find the nearest bar, I probably would’ve looked into changing it to three.

I have met people who say their children don’t fight with each other. Truth be told, I always feel a little sad for these folks. Sad because obviously their children’s fighting has become so extreme that they ended up suffering a mental break, and are now living in a fantasy world where children don’t bicker. Either that or they have opted for the blue pill. Because, come on: everyone’s kids fight.

Hopefully not all of the time. Hopefully not to the point of police intervention (I was going to say medical intervention, but I know of too many people whose “how I got this scar” stories start with “my brother and I were fighting.”) But they most definitely fight. This is just one of those irrefutable laws of parenting, along with “the diaper will always fail at the worst possible moment” and “other people’s kids sound better than mine in Christmas letters.” The fact is, if you have a sibling, you will fight with them. Because siblings are a pain.

Whenever my children complain to me about the fact that I saddled them with a sibling I always explain to them that I did it for them, so that they would one day be better able to handle difficult individuals. (And also so that they can have someone who can corroborate their stories of neglect, torment and abuse when they are telling their “why my mother was the worst” stories. These stories usually come about three drinks after the “how I got this scar” stories.)

As sarcastic as my explanation may seem, there is still a grain of truth to it—I do think having a sibling prepares you for the worst in people. And, believe it or not, that’s a good thing. Because, eventually, at some point in our lives, we are all going to run into someone who is really, truly, dreadful. (And perhaps, at least according to the people around us, maybe even be that person ourselves.) At that point it is always nice to have a point of reference to compare their awfulness to; a bell curve, if you will, where you can place their dreadful behavior. And, if you were lucky enough to grow up with a sibling, you will always be able to place their behavior right smack in the middle of your particular bell.

Co-worker stealing your lunch? Not nearly as bad as the time your sister ate the last piece of birthday cake—on your birthday. Neighbor blocked your driveway? Remember when your brother parked his car behind yours and then left town for a month with the keys?

And, of course, there’s always the time when you fought so much on your vacation that your mom put the two of you on two different planes.

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Word Find

I have a confession to make to all of my elementary school teachers: I can’t stand word finds. Granted, this is probably because I am so very terrible at them, but still: I loathe the little buggers. There’s just something about staring at a glut of letters and trying to find the “hidden words” that has always given me a headache, the same way I would get a headache when I was in Thailand and would catch myself trying to read the writing on signs as I walked down the street. (I think its the squiggly shape of the Thai alphabet that makes me think I can understand it if I only squint hard enough. Or sober up enough. Trust me, though: neither one works.)

Unfortunately, that same squinting/sobering technique is equally unsuccessful with word finds. Which is why I never pushed my kids to do them when they were in grade school. There are just some childhood memories that are still so painful to me that I swore I would protect my kids from them at all costs. Boiled spinach. Polyester dresses. Burt Reynolds. And, of course, word finds. Although, now that my children are older, I’m starting to rethink those earlier decisions.

The impetus for this “rethinking” came the other day, when I was trying to show Clementine the name and location of the hotel I had booked for her in Miami. I would be out of cell phone range when it came time for her to check into the hotel, and so I wanted to make sure she understood where she would be staying until the rest of the family joined her the next day. With this in mind I showed her the email confirmation, a piece of paper that, including the recipient information, salutation, and sign off, literally had less than fifty words written on it. Seven of those words were written in bold in the very middle of the page, and they were “You are staying at the Posh Hostel.”

Clementine took the paper from me, glanced at it, and then handed it back in disgust. “Just tell me where I’m staying.”

I pointed to the paper again. “It says it right there.”

Another glance. Another rejection. “No, it doesn’t.”

I looked at the paper, thinking that perhaps I had handed her the wrong one by mistake. Nope. “You are staying at the Posh Hostel,” it read. “Did you read this?” I asked.

“I didn’t have time to read it all the way through,” she replied. “Just tell me already.”

I blinked. Didn’t have time? She had spent the morning looking at cat pictures online. All morning. Suddenly I had some insight into all those word find assignments all those years ago. Perhaps this was why my teachers assigned so many of them. Perhaps they weren’t sadists who enjoyed watching children become frustrated, but rather kind, helpful souls who could anticipate that one day the world would become so complicated and distracting that the ability to tune out extra information and concentrate on gleaning the wheat from the chaff would be of the utmost importance. Maybe, even though we only had four TV channels at the time, they were predicting the day when information overload would make the ability to focus on one task not only helpful, but necessary for survival. Or at least necessary for finding out the name of your hotel.

Then again, maybe they were just trying to keep us distracted while they flipped through their Burt Reynolds edition of Playgirl. Either way, I wish I had saved a few of those word finds to share with my children. I have a feeling they’re going to be needing the practice.

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