You’d think that technology or social media or violent video games or predators were the biggest threat to our children. It’s worse, folks. The biggest risk to our children’s well-being is much more insidious and it hides in the skin of a hungry and vicious wolf. It is “fun,” and fun will eat your children. Because fun? Fun is really, really bad for kids.
If something isn’t “fun,” kids don’t want to do it (mine included). Unfortunately, a large majority of things that need to be done aren’t fun. Society’s relentless pursuit of fun aka Let’s Make Life A Giant Carnival Cream Puff Bouncy Castle is hindering my ability to effectively parent my children while imparting any sense of reality about the world. This “fun” shit? I don’t like it. Not everything is meant to be fun. Like “work” for example. If – as a consequence of its nature – your job happens to be fun, that’s great! You’re one of the lucky ones. I’m happy for you; really. Now piss off and get back to the candy-tester factory. My point is that not everything is fun, or should be fun. When we try to fool our kids into thinking it is, we’re setting them up for some serious disappointment when they leave our homes for the real world.
The other day I told my kids we were going out for dinner. Their response should have been something along the lines of “Thanks, Mom! It certainly is kind of you to take us for a dinner out. What a rare and unexpected treat! We love you best!” Instead, I endured a 20-minute conversation about restaurant selection based on the most important criteria of all: which establishment offered the best treasure box after the meal. The food could have been fabulous, the service impeccable, but if my kids weren’t walking away with coloring books and crayons after, it was all for naught. This is not the type of discerning diner or future dater I wish to raise.
Some things are not meant to be fun; like a trip to the dentist for instance. I should have realized dental care was becoming too much fun years ago, because whenever I announced a check-up appointment my children would high-five each other. At our dental office after each successful cleaning appointment, children are taken to the “Prize Table.” The prize table is huge and covered with all sorts of crap that will soon be living in my vacuum canister in a dusty heap with errant Cheerios, Lego pieces, and my hopes and dreams. Sitting in the dental chair for an hour twice a year now earns you a Sponge Bob pencil and a Gooey Eyeball. That Gooey Eyeball was in my son’s pocket for less than an hour before it found a permanent home on my bedroom ceiling, where it is now stares at me with a lint-covered cloudy pupil when I’m getting dressed. Thanks, Dr. Brown! You make me long for the good old days when dentists hated children.
I don’t have a complete aversion to fun. Fun is important, and when I see it forming organically, I don’t shut it down. If my kids find a way to make taking the garbage to the curb enjoyable, or cutting the lawn bearable, I let them roll with it. That’s self-created fun, and it’s an excellent coping skill for the future. Kids need to learn that sometimes (most of the time) the result is the reward. Work hard and enjoy the benefits which arise from that effort. Maybe the outcome will be fun, and maybe it won’t. Maybe the only consequence of a dogged effort will be knowing you did your best and that will have to suffice. I’ll throw you a party on your birthday and for your graduation, but don’t expect a festival because you earned a new belt in Jiu Jitsu. You won’t get a bubble machine or a cake, but you can break a jerk’s arm in six different and painful ways, and really, is there anything better than that?
My daughter complains constantly that her chores are not fun. I take this with a grain of salt because she is 15 years old and nothing is fun except going to the mall or making Vine videos of opening a grilled cheese sandwich. I am fully aware that emptying the dishwasher and dusting bookshelves are not fun; I’ve been doing these things for over 35 years. They’re not fun. They never were, and they never will be. I hate doing them, and that’s why I make her do it. It’s the circle of life and I’ve assured her that one day she may be lucky enough to have children to do her chores as well. I’m pretty sure it’s all that keeps her going. It’s also furnishing her with pragmatic expectations for the future. My kids aren’t perfect. (Seriously; I have stories). But they work hard most of the time and they know: I don’t pay for grades, I don’t turn mind-numbing chores into scavenger hunts, and I don’t give rewards when they acquiesce to vaccinations. You want a gift for sitting still for your tetanus shot? Okay! Here’s some “Not Getting Lock-Jaw” for you!
It’s time to take artificially constructed fun out of childhood, because we are creating a gratification-seeking populace who won’t do anything unless there’s the promise of a chocolate milkshake afterwards. I can reasonably assert that our kid’s future middle-management supervisors are not going to offer them a trip to a treasure box for cardboard crowns when they close the Anderson file.
If we tell kids to pretend they’re scullery maids in a King’s kitchen when they’re scrubbing pots and pans, we are removing their chance to create their own fantasies. Doing dishes can be a time to sing show tunes or imagine ways to run away, or to just do the dishes. By making every chore and job fun we prohibit a child’s ability to seek joy on their own terms. If someone tells you what to pretend, is that pretending at all? That’s imagination restriction, and that blows. If kids make fun on their own while working, that’s awesome! But parent’s constant pursuit of fun for their children is a misguided attempt to bring joy to kid’s lives and while it’s admirable, it’s very harmful. It’s like Charlie Sheen continuing to make sitcoms; we may understand the motivation behind the endeavor, but ultimately it’s better if no one is exposed to that shit.
We are just into our second month of dog ownership here and by all accounts it’s going better than I had expected. Harlow is sleeping through the night – a feat my 10 year-old son has not yet achieved – and my worries about leaving the dog in a crate for an hour have been mostly unfounded. I work from home, but there are times I need to run out quickly when she can’t come with me. I already have two kids so I know it’s okay to leave something in a cage for a few minutes while you go to the movies, but what about longer than a hour or two? Would she begin to hate me and view her crate as a prison? Would she shit defiantly on my bedroom floor in retaliation? Would she report me to the authorities? The answers to these questions seem to be “no,” “yes,” and “it remains to be seen but there some unexplained charges on the phone bill this month.”
Harlow (can I interject here for a second to say how freeing it is to use someone’s real name here on my blog? I am “Jeni,” yes, but I don’t use my kids names to prevent them from having a huge Google footprint before their time. That’s a shame really, because my kids names are pretty awesome and suit their personalities perfectly). Where was I? Yes. Harlow. One thing Harlow hates is to be away from home. She got away from me last week during a walk by yanking hard on her leash when it wasn’t right on my wrist because she’s eight pounds and who the hell knew something that small could run so goddamn fast? I stepped on her paw in the melee and she ran as though someone had fired a starting gun and first prize was a mountain of dirty socks. I couldn’t catch her and started to visualize what it was going to be like telling my kids the dog they had for two glorious weeks was now gone, and probably for good because seriously so fast at the running. I finally made it home – even running full tilt it took me a few minutes to get there – and there was Harlow, sitting on the front porch and looking at me like I was the asshole. Oh, and she eats everything and then apologizes by shitting on it. We love her despite this, because:
So, if you are considering a puppy for your family, I made a few handy charts to help you decide if a dog might fit into your family:
So there you have it. You’re pretty much screwed either way, because if you don’t get a dog, you’ll be hearing about it for years, and if you do get one and it’s a jerk, you’re gonna love it anyway.
Babies cry. Sometimes they cry a lot, and sometimes for seemingly no reason. You’d think that most people would understand this, but even I wasn’t aware until I had my second baby. Because Baby Number 1? She didn’t cry. Like ever. One time, she made a sound that I thought was a cry, but no. It was a squeaky toy. That baby was awesome and glorious and so easy! But she was a curse, also, because being spoiled by her temperament was a huge slap in the face come time for Baby Number 2 – or, as we called him affectionately- “Scream in a Diaper.”
This boy cried long and loud and the noise didn’t stop until the minute he turned 85 (this is a projected date). When he cried, we did what we could, which was comfort him however he wanted, because my ex and I aren’t assholes. But some people don’t pick their babies up when they cry and if you don’t believe that, come with me to Walmart on a Saturday morning. We can hang out in the yogurt aisle where it is apparently more important to choose between Vanilla Greek Non-Fat and Lime Coconut Sugar-Free.
I understand that you can’t always get to your baby immediately and there’s nothing wrong with seeing if whatever the problem is will work itself out for a few minutes. But when it escalates to ear-splitting levels, do something. DO SOMETHING NOW. Because if there’s anything worse than the sound of my own baby crying, it’s the sound of your baby crying.
People don’t always know what the crying is about, but since 1998 – and the meteoric rise of the internet – Western civilization needs to know the answer for everything. Nothing is off-limits to scientists or savvy entrepreneurs, who’ve invented everything from battery operated marshmallow roasting sticks to diapers that analyze a baby’s urine. Some parents will buy anything in the pursuit of “better” parenting, and people know this, because not only can you now analyze your child’s waste, you can also interpret their cry. I’m picturing a magic 8-ball of sorts here, but it’s actually much more complicated. CTV News says of the process:
“The system operates in two phases. During the first phase, the analyzer separates recorded cries into 12.5 millisecond frames. Each frame is analyzed for several parameters, including frequency characteristics, voicing, and acoustic volume. The second phase uses data from the first to give a broader view of the cry and reduces the number of parameters to those that are most useful. The frames are put back together and characterized either as an utterance – a single ‘wah’ – or silence, the pause between utterances. Longer utterances are separated from shorter ones and the time between utterances is recorded. Pitch, including the contour of pitch over time, and other variables can then be averaged across each utterance. In the end, the system evaluates for 80 different parameters, each of which could hold clues about a baby’s health.”
Yeah. Dumb. I don’t think we need this, and here’s why: it sounds complicated and stupid and almost entirety pointless, as well as expensive. The resulting analysis won’t be converted to actual words, like “I ‘m being stabbed by a diaper pin, moron!” so even in medical applications I don’t see a lot of value in something that researchers just say “could hold clues.”
I’m going to save science a whole lot of money here, and supply you with your own printable list of why your baby is probably crying. I call it:
Why Youse So Sad, Baybeez?
Step One : This is the most important step, and the one that will end 67% of all crying – PICK THE BABY UP. Do not rock his car seat with your foot, do not say “shhhh…shhhh” while shaking his stroller, do not ignore baby while everyone else in the canned foods aisle plots your death, do not ignore the baby. Babies cry because they can’t talk and if they could they’d be saying “Pick me up, you lazy bastard!” Picking up the baby will automatically alert you as to whether or not the baby feels too warm, or too cool, or if their tiny arm was stuck inside their onesie in a twisted configuration. It also enables you to look closely for teething issues or other discomforts. Attend to discomfort accordingly.
Step Two: Baby still crying? We’ve got this! Take a deep breath and check diaper for uncomfortable levels of stuff often found in diapers. Rectify.
Step Three: Still crying? It’s okay; it happens. Try offering baby food of some sort. A boob, a bottle, a Philly Cheese Steak if that’s what they’re into. Whatever. Give nourishment. Continue rocking movement while administering food and love.
Step Four: Secure baby in approved car seat and get in the fucking car. Drive around for a bit. If after a hundred miles the baby is still crying, re-route GPS to a.) your Mom’s house; or b.) the doctor.
So there you have it. Call me a Luddite if you will, but I think that science sometimes makes life more complicated with it’s crazy inventions and “progress.” (Except for blenders; if you think I’m smashing my ice for a frozen blueberry vodka lemonade manually, you’re sniffing glue.) If scientists insist on putting time and resources into machinery which will help to explain the great mysteries of parenting, I would ask them to consider creating a machine which would actually serve some purpose. How about a special pair of glasses that can decipher why my teenager rolls her eyes?
It seems hell just froze over.
In other news, we are getting a dog.
(To be fair there was no “first” news posted here which would indicate what is to follow actually counts as “other” news, but you’ve probably got a lot going on in your life which makes anything I say count as “other” news. It also means I couldn’t think of a good lede.)
I’m not sure if it’s due to a momentary lapse in reason, or a half-forgotten promise after a few glasses of wine, or guilt, or an undiagnosed head injury, but the end result is that by Saturday afternoon of this week I will be standing in the frozen tundra nursing a headache caused by attempting to make a small puppy pee using only my (admittedly limited) mental powers.
She’s a cutie, I’ll give you that, but I’ve made it clear to my children that she is a shared responsibility. (I am fully aware this will probably happen.) The 15 year-old jaded teenager in this house cried when we told her she was finally – FINALLY – getting a dog, although she’ll deny that and tell you it was hairspray in her eyes. She’s wanted a dog since she was old enough to know what a dog was, and my 9 year-old son loves anything covered in fur.
She is unnamed as of yet, a 13 week-old 3/4 pug 1/4 French Bulldog who still lives with both of her parents and one brother. The guilt at taking her from her mom and dad is affecting me more than I care to admit, which is surprising considering I am generally a terrible person.
She should be a good match for us, because according to first-person owner accounts and stacks of puppy literature both pugs and bulldogs are good house pets for mellow families who aren’t very active. If this dog likes cheese-based foods and Will Ferrell movies, it’s gonna be a love match.
Singing is something I have done forever. I’d rather sing it than say it, so everyone please take a moment to thank the universe that I don’t have a video blog. I am a decent singer, and while I wouldn’t win American Idol there’s a good chance I’d get far enough through the process to meet Simon Cowell in all his tight black t-shirted glory. So, to recap: No William Hung, but no record deals in my future, either. Oh, wait; Hung got one, didn’t he? So maybe.
A recent conversation between my two children went something like this:
“It’s too bad Mommy is so old because she could be on American Idol.”
“She still could! Remember that one time they had that really really old lady on? She even won!”
But this isn’t a story so much about what I can do. It’s more about how being told you can’t do something often shuts you down for a long fucking time. I’m very big on honesty and I work hard to make my children understand that what you like to do and what you’re good at aren’t always the same thing. When the two overlap in the Ultimate Venn Diagram of Talent and Desire, well, that’s when angels sound the trumpets and the cheque comes when they say it will and the diner cooks your bacon so perfectly you could just cry from the distilled pinpoint of joy it brings and life is good. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen. I was once told by someone close to me that I couldn’t sing, because “my family couldn’t sing.” But this person hadn’t heard me utter a note, and in fairness I hadn’t heard any of my family sing before, so the combination of my tender age and lack of critical thinking skills made me believe them. I won’t say I never sang again, but the words stuck with me. Years later I heard several of my aunts sing together and they were good.
So I sang anyway. I sang at school in plays and in the choir and in cars with boys who were more interested in what was under my Led Zeppelin t-shirt than hearing me sing Led Zeppelin. I sang to my children and I am singing in my head right now as I write this. But I was afraid to get better because what was the point? I was not “a singer.”
Well, today I am going to my very first professional voice lesson. I am excited and terrified. I am worried that without hearing the pitch or timbre of my voice – without being privy to one utterance – this teacher will declare me unable to sing because 40 year old women who try new things are just “bored.” I have no illusions about singing professionally and that’s not what I want anyway. I just want to learn how to hit some higher notes (I have a low speaking and singing voice) and I’d like to not run out of breath halfway through A Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet with my daughter. (Guess who’s part I sing?)
I am not “bored.” I have too much shit to do to be bored. I am ready to blow-up sensitive electronics in a soundproof room while having fun and celebrating something I do well. And I’m thankful to the man who gifted me with these lessons; the man who tells me I have a lovely voice and I shouldn’t be afraid to use it. The man who, instead of shushing me and telling me to be quiet, says, “Hey Jeni? Can you sing that one again?”
Note: I went to the lesson. It was completely awesome and I can’t say enough about how I loved it. I did scales my teacher said my range was better than I told her I thought it was and we talked and I cried even and then the teacher heard me sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News” and she turned to me and said, “Oh, yeah. We’re gonna have some fun.”
Every year we all say that “next year” will be the one when we won’t stress as much during the holidays, and that we won’t “do so much.” There’s sometimes even crazy talk after a glass of mulled wine about doing a “handmade-only gift exchange next year” but anyone who’s tried to handcraft a gift for a teenage girl who doesn’t happen to be building an Amish hope-chest understands that this is what I refer to as “crazy talk.” No, sir! you protest. Next year will be different! Well, that’s bullshit and you know it and I know it, but for the sake of not wanting to alienate a reader, I’ll let the assertion stand.
But you know you’re lying; by this time next year your holiday gift list will have grown exponentially and you’ll probably be hosting that neighbourhood mixer you swore you’d never participate in. And what’s that? Oh yes; I even see a cookie exchange in your future. So yeah; you’re a liar, but it’s okay because so am I, and I’ll be right there with you trading Air Miles for something “Extra-Blaster-Turbo-Action-Starter-Pack” for my son despite the mountain of gifts for him already under the tree. We mean well and what counts when the fiery end finally comes is that we meant well, right? (I am no fun at Christmas parties.)
With so much to get done during the holidays it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Once you factor in baking, decorating, and wrapping gifts, there’s hardly any time left for sobbing into your eggnog because the only Christmas card you received was from your divorce lawyer.
In case you “swear-ta-God-cross-my-heart-stab-me-with-an-icicle-if-I’m-lyin’-I’m-dyin‘” mean it about less stress next year, here are some tips to get you started.
Elf on the Shelf
Get rid of it. If you’ve got more than one kid, the truth is you don’t need an Elf, unless it’s a real one who brings you chocolates and knows how to fix the dishwasher – we could all use more of that in our lives. If your children have siblings, you’ve already got a built-in Elf on the Shelf every day of the year. I’ve got two kids, and I’ve even given them incentives for reporting unsavoury behaviour. For example, one tattle earns a square of toilet paper. Two tattles? You get a sheet on your bed tonight! Three? That’s the big time, helper child, and you just earned yourself a full glass of non-powdered milk with dinner. During the holiday season nothing happens in this house without me being aware of it, and if something is so well thought out that it involves both children, I don’t want to know.
Just say no. Seriously, does anyone even do this anymore? If you must participate in this tradition, make it easy for yourself: simply drive around the neighbourhood with your car windows open, cranking an Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas CD.
Today’s home chef has the ability to make treats rivaling those found in European bakeries. Thanks to specialty shops and pushy friends selling Pampered Chef products, you too can churn out delectable, gorgeous treats just like those in a bakery. Have I said “bakery” enough times to indicate you should just GO TO A BAKERY? No one will know. Jab a few holes in the cookies with your finger, and maybe throw a couple into the toaster oven to burn the bottoms if you’re worried about appearing too perfect. I wish I had your problems.
Fancy papers, ribbons and bows, personalized name tags…Where does the madness end? You’re already getting a present. Now you expect me to spend 30 minutes carefully wrapping it in gold foil paper with coordinating hand-punched calligraphy name tag? Take a cue from my ex-husband: wrap everything in the bag it came in and seal it up with whatever roll of tape is in the junk drawer. Some of the nicest things I ever got came in duct taped Walmart bag. (And by nice I mean “okay.” And by “okay” I mean “not good at all.”)
Right now my lawnmower is sitting out, mid-lawn, where it ran out of gas in August. I just threw some lights on it and called it a day, so maybe go elsewhere for decorating tips. I hear they do that shit over on Pinterest.
Planning nutritious meals for your family while you’re busy with things like shopping and crying, or wrapping and crying, or trimming the tree and crying can be hard. Fret not, friends, and wipe those tears away! Blow your nose on your light-up Christmas sweater because I bring to you one of the greatest gifts God ever bestowed on the Universe: the grocery store rotisserie chicken. This golden BBQ bird has saved my hide (and potential calls to Children’s Services for suspected neglect) many, many times. In fact, in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” the verse “partridge in a pear tree” was originally “A chicken in my buggy.”
Make your parties “BYOBAFAYNLUEICU”: Bring Your Own Booze and Food and You’re Not Leaving Until Everything is Cleaned Up. Enforce this. Take people’s coats, their keys, whatever items you can pillage from their pockets during hello hugs, and hide them under piles of crusty dishes and empty wine bottles. When guests help clean up the mess, they find their stuff! This is also a great way to keep guests entertained, and eliminate the needs for additional party games. Win/Win. Plus, you’ll secure a reputation for being the “hostess with the mostest” by employing this technique.
So there you have it! A season of merriment awaits you. And please, add your tips in the comments if you’ve got some to share. We’re in this together.
*this post was modified from a post I originally ran on December 20, 2012. I changed a few things and thought I’d offer it earlier in the season this time around, while there is still time to run for your lives. You can also see by this that I’ve learned nothing.
I have two children. They’re…well, they’re many things but the point of my post today is my son. He’s nine and has a name with letters in it and the word means something in Greek or Italian or Latin I’m not sure which but boy did we pick the right one for him. Other suitable name choices would have been “JustGiveMeFiveMinutesPLEASE,” “OhferChrist’sSake” or “IAmBeggingYouAtThisPointToGoToBed!” Anything in that family. He is a conventionally beautiful child. This is meant to trick you. He will have you with his pretty hair and his pretty eyes and his full lips and he will hug you with his lean, dry arms and he will squeeze every goddamn ounce of your energy and then he will make you thank him for the honour.
Today he needed socks. He needs socks every day because for some reason he puts holes into every piece of clothing his body touches. New winter coat? BAM! Sleeves ripped in a week. Fresh shirt? KAZAM! Caught it on a chain-link fence. Clean socks, right from the dryer? PRESTO! His feet shoot laser beam points of concentrated light, firing holes into the deep pocket of the formerly snuggly toe compartment.
Why can’t he find socks today? All the laundry is done. Every single piece of his clothing not currently on his back is washed, pressed (haha; just shitting you; I “press” nothing but my luck) and are tidily folded squares in his drawers and look like the small colourful flags on the front page of an atlas. His sock drawer right this very minute contains no less than 12 pairs of sweet-smelling boy socks. They are tiny and dwarfed next to even my lady socks. But all of these socks in his drawer are new, because as I said, he goes through socks like Charlie Sheen does girlfriends on a weekend bender.
“I don’t have any socks,” he reports methodically. I know this tone.
“You have many socks. They are all in your drawer.”
“But these are all new. I can’t wear these.”
“Then wear the ones you already have on,” I reply, pointing to his already swathed foot.
There’s a hole in the toe (OF COURSE THERE IS) but Jeni? Jeni no give a shit anymore. I keep his hair tidy, his teeth clean, his belly full of food, I provide social experiences and homework help and pleasurable outings and gifts and extra-curricular opportunities and a soft place to fall and a bosom to cry into and a lap on which to cuddle and hands to hold and I am tired. Hole-y socks no longer register on my parenting-rage meter. They don’t even move the needle past “Meh.” I. Simply. Do. Not. Give. A. Shit. If you ever see my ragged-footed son and think “What of his parents?” know this: I am a good mother but I have my limits.
But uh, oh. So does he, and these horrible, too-new socks are it.
“I can’t wear these ones because my toe pokes out too far. You threw away all the perfect holed socks and the rest in here are brand new!” So, too holey socks aren’t any good, nor are good new socks. He explains all of this in a voice normally reserved for those in the drunk tank or the alarmingly obtuse (Of which I am currently neither.) He says that “new” socks feel weird because they are too new and don’t sit right. The heel isn’t broken in and the toes are too tight and the cuff is stringy and there’s a weird thing in the bottom and…
I listen. I understand and I am sympathetic. I’m sensitive about some things and we all have our quirks, but after having one child who would wear, do, eat, say, or participate in anything I merely gestured at, it is with great surprise that I find myself – at 40 years 10 months and 20 days old – standing over a washing machine in an attempt to “break in” a load of tiny striped sweat socks for a pint-sized oligarch.
When we change the clocks for Daylight Saving Time it becomes evening here at 4pm. I won’t run out for a head of garlic in the evening because the last clove fell under the stove drawer and no one comes back from there unscathed in sunlight for another five months. It’s cold and dark when I get up in the morning, and it’s cold and dark when I go to bed. The small blue light on the coffee maker is piercing and hurts my eyes in the morning gloom, and because the kitchen faces north even in the summer our large trees in front shade the windows. In the winter they block any effort from the sun and only gray diffused light pushes against the edges of the tree’s silhouette. It’s not enough to warm the kitchen and so I make lunches, inspect heads of hair, supervise responsible breakfast choices, and pack knapsacks under the yellow glow of a pair of 60 watt incandescent bulbs.
Then I drive my daughter to high school, see my son off to the bus stop, and return home to sit at a keyboard where I proceed to think through my fingertips. I make mistakes – a lot of them; for a writer I am a horrible typist and my screen is often filled with additional characters. Ampersands and percentage signs break words in half and numbers and symbols from another language appear where they do not belong and where they are not welcome. This is seems completely appropriate.
It’s after 7pm now and all traces of daylight have been gone for hours. I am again in the kitchen and the window is a sheet of dull black, save the small white points of light reflected from the neighbours Christmas bulbs. They are LED lights and they are far too bright. They’re too harsh for a season I take part in but don’t fully celebrate. These are impressive lights and while I don’t begrudge them, they make me feel woefully inadequate for not having my own display, but ugh, ladders.
I know my ennui will pass. It always does and there are things to look forward to and I keep looking forward. We laugh everyday and I thank god or the creator or whoever wished me into existence that they gave me a sense of humor. When it’s dark at 4pm you need it.
The furniture was sparse and dated, and it wasn’t the best quality but the pieces weren’t cheap either. They came from the era when young couples struggled after they bought a home, when they saved until they could get rid of hand-me-down pieces. This was before stores offered “don’t pay a cent for 12 months” payment plans, but no matter; these were “cash on the barrel” people and they would have laughed at the thought of not paying for something you could take home that day in the trunk of your station wagon. Everything in this place was clean but dusty and the house smelled of Avon perfume samples. There were no pieces of clothing to be seen, and I looked. There was not even a forgotten coat in dry cleaner’s thin plastic. Instead, books were spread out on the closet floors: Amazing Cats, Ontario Wildflowers Field Guide, a Weight Watchers cookbook from the 1980′s, bundles of Family Circle magazine with pages torn out, maybe magazine-tested recipes mailed to friends at a time when we were connected by paper and ink and curly telephone cords.
The bathroom had blue tiles from from floor to ceiling, and all of the fixtures were blue. There was no shower curtain and I hummed to hear the acoustic effect but it sounded hollow like the inside of an empty pretend spaceship and it scared me so I stopped. With the bathroom the door closed it I felt like I was drowning. I almost drowned once, in a blue-tiled Florida motel pool the summer I was five. I fell into the deep end, right where someone had taken the care to paint a large black “8′” on the concrete patio. But they didn’t go on to explain what 8′ meant and I was five, not eight and so paid no attention and fell in. I was hauled out by a man who doesn’t like water and I was thankful but guilty. People who do not like water take that very seriously and who was I to force his hand?
I opened the mirrored medicine chest and there were oily rings on glass shelves from discarded bottles of cough syrups and ache ointments. I heard voices getting closer and although I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I felt a like an intruder here and so I closed the cabinet and straightened the small blue rug. I went into the back bedroom, where the only piece of furniture was a small table with a sewing machine and lamp. I leaned over the table and looked at the garden outside where the weeds had grown to shoulder height and wondered how long it had been since the grass was cut and why hadn’t the neighbour done it on Saturday afternoons when he cut his own. The neighbour had laundry hanging on the line and the breeze blew great clouds of dandelion fluff into the fat pockets of her fitted sheets. They had time to hang laundry but not to cut a neighbours grass. I disliked them instantly.
I went downstairs and saw some Green Shirts talking to a woman in Bermuda shorts. She had too long toenails poking out of her sandals. Dark-hair Green Shirt was explaining to Toenails that you hired the Green Shirts when you wanted to sell everything in a home. They sold the belongings of people who were moving out of the country, or into retirement homes, or into a grave. They both laughed at grave and I wondered how long it had been since either had put someone in one.
I saw him in the living room and I walked up behind him quietly and whispered in his ear, “There were never children in this house.” And there weren’t; I knew it. “How can you possibly know that?” he asked. “Easy,” I said, and pointed to a large cut-glass ashtray on the coffee table as concrete proof that this house had never held small children for anything more than an awkward visit.
“What about this?” he asked, and led me into the kitchen. On the table was an old dollhouse filled with beautiful handmade furniture. The walls were covered in wallpaper and there was real broadloom in the bedrooms. The dollhouse bathroom had better flooring than the bathroom upstairs and there was a tiny piano and even a cat in a basket in the parlor. This house would go to the highest bidder, or end up on a flea market vendor’s table. Or it would become landfill. I told him I was going outside to look in the garden.
Why do we keep some things and throw others away? Why do we buy stuff? When we buy something – even something we think we will love forever – do we consider the day our children may sell it because it is a burden, this stuff? And, in the absence of children and family, do we think about the people who will come in, the Green Shirts, armed with masking tape and a permanent marker? Who are these people to us, these people who will decide what our treasures and what our junk is worth?
I have a framed picture I bought when my children were small. It’s of two small rosy-cheeked children. They are cherubic and soft around the edges and when I look at the picture I can feel the lovely compact weight of a sleepy baby on my lap. When I bought that picture I did not buy it with the understanding that on a sunny July morning, 50 years from now, someone I don’t know will buy it for it’s frame and smash out the print under glass. Maybe they’ll cut themselves. I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope so, just a little.
I had to find him. I had to leave. He was in the basement, looking at a pile of tools. Some were rusted and all of them were ancient, but he had a small collection started in an empty beer case and I knew we’d be leaving with them. “Pay full price,” I told him. “I don’t care how much they’re asking. Just give them what they want.“
Our home is occasionally taken over in the fall and winter by cold and flu viruses. It’s the cold variety here right now, but luckily it’s nothing serious except that it’s me and I’m not bragging, but I kinda run this place single-handedly. But getting sick is what happens when you have kids who go to school, participate in group activities, and play games like “Who Can Lick the Most Doorknobs?”
My fingers are crossed, and so far I’m the only one down with this thing. While I’m lying in bed, surrounded by damp mountains of tissues and empty pill bottles, the kids are as full of youthful energy as ever. At least, I think they are. I haven’t actually seen them for more than just a second or two in the last three days.
When I get sick my kids avoid me like I’ve got my daybook out and the dentist on the line. It’s not so much that they don’t want to catch the bug themselves, but more that they are completely incapable of showing empathy when it comes to their mother. When I broke my nose playing baseball last year, one of my children requested my still-being-used-bloody towel – to wipe their shoes on.
I’m invisible when I’m not completely healthy, and I have several theories about this. I’m pretty sure it comes down to being afraid of my sudden “fragility,” and them not liking the sudden upset in the household’s balance of power. When I’m not able to function at my usual 65% percent, they hold all the cards and they know it.
But they’re not sociopaths who are incapable of emotion or empathy. I’ve witnessed “Get Better Soon” card making marathons, and one year my daughter gave a huge portion of her Halloween candy to a sick classmate who was unable to go trick or treating. I’ve even dialed the telephone so one of my small children could make a condolence call to a friend whose gerbil had died.
But when mom gets a fever and a cough?
Tumbleweeds, friends. TUMBLEWEEDS.
When my kids are sick, I try to make their convalescence period as comfortable as possible. I serve the perfect room-temperature ginger ale – fizz removed - and the couch is laid daily with the softest lavender-scented sheets. Cool compresses are changed and refreshed like clockwork. I make sure the television clicker is close at hand and I am available for foot rubs upon request. All I can say about these two is that I am impressed with their ability to launch a Kleenex box from 15 feet away via drop kick. It’s a good thing I’m on the mend, and that I don’t get sick too often, because I am definitely not getting any soup delivered soon. That sort of treatment is reserved for sick friends and dead gerbils.