Love Me, Love My Foibles

My friend Linda has a theory that the qualities that first attract you to a mate are the same ones that will annoy the crap out of you later. So if, for instance, it’s his mild- mannered agreeableness you first fall in love with, you can be sure that in due course you will find yourself screaming, “JUST MAKE A DECISION!” If, at the start, you admire her vegetarianism, eventually it will ruin every meal you eat together. And if you are thrilled by the extravagant way he tosses around his credit card while you’re courting, you will later feel compelled to snatch that card out of his generous little hands and snap it in two before your children’s entire college fund disappears.

By this logic, I can only surmise that my husband once found endearing my inability to close any cabinet or drawer I open. For awhile, he proved quite tolerant of this foible, following me around the kitchen closing doors behind me. But the magic wore off by the thousandth time he bonked his head, a milestone I believe we hit last week. I am not suggesting that this is my only or even my biggest shortcoming, but it is probably the most obvious one–and certainly the most hazardous. My brother once walked into our kitchen, looked down at a bank of drawers neatly arrayed like a flight of stairs and remarked, “A perfect trifecta!” Another time I was at a friend’s house and her husband came downstairs, found us and said, “I knew you were here because all the kitchen cabinets are open!”

I can offer no satisfactory explanation for this character flaw. I’m too busy? Always in a rush? I’m just going to open them again later anyway (the same justification I use for not making the bed)? Our house is so old they don’t shut all the way? The point is, despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to close a drawer. The good news is that while it does, in fact, drive Mr. 7o Percent crazy, he has mastered the art of letting it go. That’s the real story of marriage, isn’t it? Not all that embracing and accepting nonsense, but just letting things go. Mostly my husband achieves this by mocking me relentlessly–and always checking for protruding corners before he stands up.

Now, I have very few pet peeves of my own, but my children manage to fulfill most of them: wet towels on the bed, dirty socks on the floor, ketchup-caked plates on the coffee table, a TV blaring in an empty room. But since I view the kids as works in progress, I am more forgiving. After all, it’s my duty to break them of those habits, which explains my endlessly repeated mantra: “Hang up your towel. Pick up your socks. Dishes in the dishwasher. Turn off the TV.”

With my husband, I’ve given up. After 18 years of marriage, I recognize that his foibles are as ingrained as my open cabinets. In addition to leaving roughly 30 percent of every task incomplete, he possesses the uncanny ability to embark on a non-essential outing at the least convenient moment.

So I wasn’t really surprised when he came rushing into the kitchen last week, two hours before we were to host a Passover Seder for 21 people. “I need to go to Staples!” he said. He had been clearing off the dining room table, which was covered in bills and tax forms. “Why?” I asked calmly. “I need to buy some files for all those papers,” he said. I muffled a snicker: another of his foibles is the perennial quest for the ideal organizational system. It’s like he’s waiting for Godot, or searching for the holy grail: if he can just find the perfect storage bin or expandable wall file, his life will fall effortlessly into place. But because I’m practicing letting it go, I  kept my mouth shut and focused on heating up the matzo ball soup. And when I opened the cabinet to take out the salt, I even remembered to close it.

Posted in Division of Labor, Family life, Marriage, Reality check | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Lack-of-Variety Show

Rosie's Theater Kids

It’s 5:00 in the afternoon and I’m sitting inside a darkened auditorium watching the dress rehearsal for the annual elementary school Variety Show. I’ve got my laptop and a bag full of snacks, because I know I’m in for the long haul–though, thankfully, my daughter’s act is only number 24, out of a possible sixty-something. The show itself lasts a minimum of three hours, so the dress rehearsal takes twice as long. I wish I had a flask of vodka.

It’s called the Variety Show but I would say it’s marked by a distinct lack of variety. A huge majority of the acts consists of a small group of similarly dressed students–usually, but not always, girls–performing a clumsily choreographed and hastily practiced dance to a borderline inappropriate song.  (I just watched a refreshingly talented 4th grader sing and dance to “Get Down Tonight,” though I was relieved to hear that he changed the lyric from, “Make a little love” to “Make a little noise.”)

My daughter’s act is no different. She and a friend are dancing to the Jessi J song “Pricetag,” which–as she informed me–had to have the words “damn” and  “hos” bleeped out. The show’s theme is “We’ve got character,” so I’m not sure exactly how that fits in, but whatever. For their costumes, they picked black shirts that read “OMG” in sparkly green letters, leggings and little black tutus. A touch of bling dangles from their necks. I’m relieved when they don’t mess up too terribly during dress; they actually have practiced, and it shows. (Another little girl addresses this particular elephant in the theater by prefacing her piano piece with: “I was very responsible and practiced every day….”)

Jessica Sanchez, Idol 2012

A handful of other kids play piano or violin solos, but they are far outnumbered by the song-and-dance acts. For this, I blame Glee, American Idol, and possibly Dancing with the Stars, which I’ve never actually seen. As far as I can tell, these shows teach kids that anyone with a gifted piano player and sparkly makeup can perform flawlessly before adoring fans after a four-minute rehearsal montage. It must also be where they all learn the move, which appears in most of the dance acts I see, that consists of lying on their bellies on the floor, heads perched adorably in their hands, kicking their legs up and down behind them.

The trouble with the Variety Show is that there are no cuts. I’m not suggesting we install Simon Cowell and force kindergarteners to undergo a rigorous audition process, but I do think it’s reasonable to limit each kid to one act, instead of as many as he or she wants. That would have the twin benefits of shortening the show and ensuring that each kid focuses on mastering one thing, instead of doing a half-assed job on two or three.

Hugh Jackman hosting the 2009 Oscars

I had to pull the plug on my daughter’s second act, another dance routine with two different friends, after they finally got around to scheduling their second practice on the day of the dress rehearsal. Even for a deadline operator like me, that was cutting it close. Frankly, it was a huge relief to lose that number, and not just because the show’s organizer, whom the Kodak Theatre would be wise to consider hiring for next year’s Oscars, kept sending me emails posing questions I couldn’t answer, like, “At what minute do they want the blackout?” I didn’t even know what song they were planning. Now, at least, my daughter can put all remaining time before the 5 pm curtain into coordinating her cartwheels with the bleep where “hos” used to go.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, School | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Every Day I Write the Book

I’ve got a new work schedule, and it involves getting the mail as often as possible. Yesterday, I went out to retrieve it twice, even though it was there the first time. That’s how antsy the new arrangement makes me. Also, I am uncharacteristically on top of vet appointments, permission slips and putting away the pots and spatulas in the dish drainer. Why? After years–decades, really–of working as a journalist on a tight weekly deadline (write Friday, publish Saturday, see your byline Monday), I am now working with someone on a book whose deadline stretches to what feels like the next millenium: Christmas.

As an independent freelancer, I am accustomed to juggling many projects at once–writing, editing, teaching, researching, blogging–but now all my time and attention are focused more or less on just one. For a deadline-driven, lifelong master procrastinator, that’s like a license to embrace distraction. It means suddenly I’ve got plenty of time for the things I’ve put off for years, like riding my bike and napping. Now, instead of conscientiously restricting my Scrabble and Words with Friends play, I am actively looking for new games. Anyone? And when I run out of fun distractions, I’m perfectly happy to tackle the mundane ones; the other day I was so desperate for procrastination that I actually washed all the towels and sheets, possibly for the first time this year.

My family, in fact, may be the biggest beneficiaries of my new schedule. As it turns out, I even prefer folding laundry and wiping down counters to writing a book. Running errands is like a dream come true: post office? My pleasure. Library books due? No problem! The dogs are enjoying their new walk routine. Even making dinner now shines like a bright reward at the end of the day, instead of the deadly chore it used to be. I mean, I have to feed my family, right? I can’t help it if the meal requires a trip to the fish market as well as the specialty food store, or a complicated preparation involving thrice-rinsed quinoa and pureed lemongrass! The pizza delivery guy must be wondering what happened to us.

On the other hand, my children may soon tire of all my “free time.” In a grotesque role reversal, I have interrupted more than one child engrossed in homework by whining, “I’m bored. What can we do?” And they are already annoyed by my latest alternative to working: uncovering new signs of aging in the mirror! Alarmed by a previously undetected patch of gray hair the other morning, I handed my 9-year-old a pair of tweezers and instructed her to get plucking. She dismissed me with, “I don’t see any gray hairs,” and feigned concern that she might be late for school. When I carefully lifted one to show her, she said, “Oh! You mean the white ones. Yeah, I see those.” For that, I made her inspect my entire head with a flashlight and yank them all out.

Don’t get me wrong: I am actually working, at least much of the day. I spend a lot of time reading and taking notes, and find the material quite engaging and challenging. In the back of my mind, I hear the voices of everyone I know who has ever worked on a book: Pace yourself; it takes longer than you think. So I make deals with myself: read five more pages and I can have a Hershey kiss! Send three emails and I get to go to the gym! And when things turn really desperate, I resort to: make two more phone calls and I can switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer! When I finish annotating this article, I’ll get the mail [again]! So if anyone needs dry-cleaning picked up, I can do it as soon as I finish writing this paragraph.

Posted in Blogging, Family life, Food, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, Working motherhood | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

Diet of the Week

Last week my son announced he was going to stop drinking soda and eating red meat. Given that he has subsisted almost entirely on bacon and root beer for 14 years, this came as something of a shock. Still, I was intrigued. Clearly it was driven by a desire to be more healthful, which I took as a good sign. Might it mean that he would eschew Budweiser and bong hits as well? I could always hope.

Besides, meatlessness doesn’t scare me.  I stopped eating “anything with eyeballs” my senior year of high school, living mainly as a cheeseatarian for ten years until I met my husband, a Midwesterner who believes meat should comprise at least 70 percent of each meal. Even then, I conceded only chicken and fish, continuing to avoid red meat altogether–until, ironically, I became pregnant with our son. Then one day at a party, I saw a platter of flank steak go by and, without even thinking, reached out, grabbed a slice and popped it in my mouth. I blame my boy, who displayed meataholic tendencies as soon as he could chew, devouring primarily roast beef, steak, hot dogs, bacon, hamburgers and chicken. He didn’t even like pasta; he may be the only teen in America  to have survived childhood without eating a single bite of macaroni and cheese.

His new diet will further complicate my dinnertime repertoire, which became seriously compromised three years ago when my oldest daughter embraced vegetarianism. Now I’m catering to a meat-and-potatoes guy who would choose starvation over tofu, an ovo-lacto carb lover, a non-red meat eater and a Chinese takeout fiend. It’s enough to make a mother want to invent a new dietary category: convenientarianism, as in whatever is most convenient for the cook.

Still, part of me genuinely admires my children for their independence and willpower, and part of me loves watching them figure out who they want to be. But that still doesn’t explain why, when my son told me about his new plan, I felt compelled to join him. “I’ll give up soda with you,” I said spontaneously.  I have sustained a three-a-day Diet Coke habit for at least 20 years now, and though I’ve never seen hardcore scientific evidence that it’s harmful, I know it can’t possibly be good. “But,” I added, “I’ll have to wean myself off.” I’m down to one a day now, and getting ready to take that final plunge.

It’s not the first time my boy has pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Because of him, I have ridden zip lines, rappelled down trees, and arisen before dawn to climb Mt. Washington. I have spent several consecutive nights in a tent, baited hooks and discarded the bloody heads of gutted fish. Because of him, I live with a snake. I have shopped in an Army Barracks store in New Hampshire, and fired an AirSoft gun. I have learned to play barred chords on the guitar and sat through movies like Session 9, Shutter Island and Paranormal Activity.

And because of him, the next time we watch a horror movie, I’ll be drinking bottled water with my popcorn.

Shutter Island

Posted in Boys will be boys, Family life, Food, Kids, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Throwing My Counterweight Around

One of my key roles as parent is to contradict whatever my children do or say. If a child is feeling blue, my job is to cheer her up; if she’s inexplicably giddy, I make her empty the dishwasher. When math proves frustrating, I offer encouragement, a tutor and/or a guarantee that addition and subtraction are all you ever really need in life. But if someone’s gloating about a good report card, I find it necessary to remind him or her of a certain C minus. This is not to be cruel or oppositional, but to help them maintain equilibrium–a state that is often elusive in teenagers. As I see it, if a child is fearful, my job is to be reassuring; if s/he is reckless, it is my duty to instill mortal terror. For instance, when my 14-year-old son expressed a desire to climb Mt. Washington, alone, in February, I backed up my disquisition on hypothermia, frostbite and avalanches with weather reports tracking 90 mph winds and a -35 wind chill. Then, after I caved in and booked him on a guided climb with Eastern Mountain Sports, I acted suitably disappointed when they didn’t make the summit because someone in the group suffered leg cramps.

Here’s the problem: my 11th grade daughter has become adept at abruptly adopting my position, throwing me off balance and leaving me unsure which side I’m supposed to be on. She first hit upon this strategy a few years ago, when I suggested she bring her asthma inhaler to school on a pollen-filled May day. She refused, and came home wheezing uncomfortably. Before I could even open my mouth to say, “I told you…” she looked me right in the eye and said, between labored breaths: “Mom, you were right, and I regret not listening to you.” That stopped me cold. How do you continue to chastise someone who has just admitted not only that they screwed up, but also that your advice was spot on? She has used that line numerous times, always promptly shutting me up in the process. If the other members of my household were half as smart, they’d realize they could stand to gain a lot from uttering it once in awhile.

My take-the-opposite-tack approach is now being sorely tested by “the college process,” a name that makes it sound clinical, protracted and distasteful, like making sausage or receiving a hair transplant. My view all along, fueled by denial, application horror stories and my own rebellious streak, has been that it doesn’t much matter where my daughter  goes to college. This perspective proved useful at the start, when she and her father were bandying about the names of all those ridiculously elite colleges on every Tiger Mom’s list. But apparently I was so convincing that now my daughter sees it the same way, and is planning to apply to a bunch of quirky, random places no one has ever heard of. Since she’s stolen my thunder, I find myself with only one alternative if I am to go on fulfilling my role as counterweight: beg for Brown.

Posted in Boys will be boys, Family life, Kids, Parenting, Teenagers | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Lotsa Helping Hands Aboard the Meal Train

The son of some good friends of ours was seriously injured in a skiing accident a few weeks ago. Thankfully, after a harrowing week,  he was released from the hospital and is now recuperating at home. Just as I was contemplating what I could do to help, I received an email: “You have been invited to join the meal train…” it began. Perfect! I thought. It offered instructions on how I could sign up to bring the family meals, and listed required quantities and preferences (simple, kid-friendly foods, delivered between 5 and 6 pm). It  also included a link to carepages.com for updates on the young man’s condition.

Being the queen of procrastination, I didn’t exactly click on the Meal Train link right away. By the time I got around to it sometime the next day–while weighing the virtues of  island pork tenderloin over glazed salmon–82 people had already signed up! I calculated that at that rate, I would be supplying the family’s Memorial Day barbecue, by which point the kid would be able to skateboard down to my house and pick it up himself. I clicked on the scheduled menus and immediately began fantasizing about getting hit by a bus so that I, too, might reap such delectable kindness from friends and neighbors: chicken alfredo, pasta and meatballs, baked haddock, steak and roasted potatoes, chili, cornbread and chicken fajitas…

Irritated at being frozen out of the help effort, I took matters into my own hands: I baked brownies, which I left on their doorstep along with some Mad Libs and People magazines. A few days later, I saw an even bigger opening: I ran into the father, who informed me that he was home alone for a few days with his rapidly healing son. “Why don’t you guys come over for dinner?” I suggested. If I couldn’t get on the Meal Train, I was going to steer that locomotive right up to my front door. They showed up a few hours later, carrying a Caesar salad and some brownies (not the ones I made) lifted right off the rails! So now not only was I not contributing to the Meal Train, I was actually stealing from it. No matter; the train showed no signs of slowing. “That is some seriously good food coming our way,” the father wrote in a thank-you email to the Meal Train organizers, speculating about other injuries he might engineer to “keep it coming.”

It’s hard to imagine how people organized help efforts for ailing neighbors before the internet. Did they post a sign-up sheet on the front door? Set up a telephone chain? These sites make the process painless and incredibly efficient. After a friend of mine suffered a serious car accident two years ago, another friend set up a schedule on a site called “Lotsa Helping Hands,” where people could sign up to assist not only with meals but also with things like laundry and weeding the garden. I know it meant the world to her family, and it helped my friend endure a long and grueling recovery.

As a Jewish mother, I completely understand the impulse to supply food to the suffering (or even to the hale and hearty). It’s a way to provide comfort when circumstances lie beyond your control. Yet there is something cloying about these sites, beyond the use of the word “Lotsa” in the title. Perhaps it’s the public nature of the offerings, but it all feels a tad … competitive: I’m bringing salad and dessert! Well, I’m bringing Lobster Newburg. Stand back: I’ve got caviar and a whole beef tenderloin! I suppose it’s in keeping with the rest of 21st century life: My kid’s playing hockey, lacrosse and soccer! Mine’s taking AP Physics, English and Calculus! It’s hard to keep up with the Meal Train. But of course, if I’d just clicked on the site right away, I’d be feeling helpful and self-satisfied, instead of guilty and useless. And my own family could look forward to a double batch of Island Pork Tenderloin, even without my getting hit by a bus.P.S. Just as I was about to click “Publish,” I received an email from Meal Train, informing me that the friends in question “are doing great on their own and no longer need meals delivered.” No thanks to me, they’ve got enough to last through Memorial Day.

Posted in Family life, Neighbors, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

No Day Without Sunshine

When I got home, I noticed a long, rectangular box perched on our front steps. The return address read, “Cushman’s, for Harry & David.” Great! I thought; some loving friend or relative vacationing in Florida sent us some citrus to get us through the winter. I opened the box to reveal three dozen shiny oranges, each nestled in its green foam cup, a random few covered with tissue paper. Then I checked the gift card so I could text a big “Thank You!” to the generous sender. It read:

TO: MY HUSBAND
FROM: MY HUSBAND
 

Mr. 70 Percent had sent himself some oranges, straight from the grove! Now, a wife more appreciative and less frugal than I might have greeted him after work with grateful kisses and a screwdriver made with fresh-squeezed orange juice. But you’re reading the wrong blog for that kind of story. Instead, I stomped around the house for awhile, irritated by this unnecessary expenditure. When he got home, I met him with, “So, what’s with the oranges?” “They’re Honeybells!” he answered defensively. “I’ve been wanting to try them and they’re only available for a few short weeks!” “Couldn’t you just have bought some at Whole Foods?”  Apparently not:  “They don’t sell them there! You can only get them by mail order.”

From The Bloggess

If I were more like The Bloggess, who once avenged a fight with her husband over towels by buying a giant metal chicken and randomly posing it all over their house, I would have hidden the oranges, one by one, in odd places: the “battery drawer,” the cookbook shelf, the vise in his basement workshop.

I understand that in the scheme of things, the oranges were not a big deal. (“They were cheap!” he assured me, falling back on his standard response whenever I question a purchase.) But they brought back bad flashbacks of the Italian plates, which my husband purchased from a gorgeous Amalfi coast shopkeeper named Catalina or Catarina 10 days into our honeymoon. (Never mind that we had already registered for both fine china and everyday dishes at Bloomingdale’s, where the salesladies tittered in excitement as my metrosexual groom ran to and fro matching napkins to plates while I stood around, bored. “Where did you find him?” one of them asked me.) I found him handing his–now our–AmEx card to glossy-lipped Catalina or Catarina, who was flipping her long dark hair all over that little Ravello shop, and very nearly divorced him before the honeymoon was even over. “More plates???” my tirade began. “Didn’t you think maybe you should check with me?? What you say to her is ‘My wife and I will talk about it and get back to you,’ not ‘Here is my credit card; charge away!'”

That was 18 years ago. We survived the honeymoon, and though I hate admitting it, those Italian plates are among my very favorite things that we bought “together.” As for the oranges, the children proved far more gracious than I: they were delighted by the “gift,” and couldn’t have cared less who sent it. They guzzled glasses of fresh-squeezed juice the next morning, and no one has had a cold all week. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised then, that once I got past the giant cardboard box parked on the kitchen table and the mounds of orange peels all over the counter,  I enjoyed possibly the best glass of juice I ever drank. Sometimes love reveals itself in unexpected ways.

Posted in Family life, Marriage, Parenting, Reality check | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Hypocritical Parenting

I remember the first time I realized my parents didn’t always practice what they preached. We were at the ticket window of a museum, and I heard them ask for two Adult and two Child tickets–even though I was just over the clearly posted “child” age limit of nine. They had always instructed me to tell the truth, so I opened my mouth to protest. But then it dawned on me that my parents were simply trying to save a few bucks, and I was only a couple of weeks over nine anyway. No harm done.

I certainly wasn’t traumatized or  scandalized by that experience, but it did make me understand that there are two sets of rules: one that parents insist children follow, and an identical one that they themselves follow unless it is inconvenient or expensive. As a child, I resented this two-tier system; as a parent, I regularly exploit it. Just last weekend, I instructed my 16-year-old daughter–who has a junior driver’s license–to do something I never would have allowed if she’d suggested it: break the law by driving other children home. We were out to dinner with four other families, and some–but not all–of us planned to go see “The Artist” afterwards. Well, the restaurant service proved especially slow, and when it became clear that we would miss the previews if one of the adults drove the younger kids home as planned, I volunteered my daughter to do it. She complied, but reminded us that for another month, she was technically allowed to transport only her own siblings. Luckily, the parents of the other kids seemed completely comfortable with it, but I felt guilty and nervous until I knew everyone was home safely.

Thankfully, most of my parental hypocrisies don’t involve breaking the law. For instance, I encourage healthful eating, but am the first to skip the salad if I don’t feel like making it, or to drive through Burger King if I don’t want to mess up the kitchen. I forbid cell phones at the table–unless, of course, I am expecting an important call or am in the middle of a cutthroat Scrabble game. I admonish the kids not to swear, but occasionally let loose a barrage of expletives in their presence. I counsel them never to get in the car with someone who has had even one drink, but do it all the time. I have even lied about my children’s ages–though never at a museum. I am more likely to add years to their lives than to subtract, in an effort to make them eligible for such things as a solo trip on the Amtrak Acela or a particular summer program.

I can offer no compelling justification for this behavior, except that parenting is relentless and exhausting, and sometimes you just need to make it as easy on yourself as possible–even if it means breaking a few rules. I like to believe my children are capable of seeing the logic and good intentions behind my rules, in addition to my double standard in following them. Soon enough, they’ll be able to set high standards for their own children and then blatantly disregard them.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Reality check, Teenagers | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Teen’s Best Friend

The first clue that Petco had snookered me again came in the form of a text message from my 16-year-old daughter. It read: “I’m going to take your lack of an answer as yes, I can buy a hamster. Thanks!” (Apparently she tried to call me but I didn’t pick up.) “What???” I responded, though in truth I didn’t much mind. We still had the cage and all the accessories from our previous hamster, Kiera, who lies buried beneath a rock and a commemorative photo under the tulip tree outside our back door. When I relayed the text conversation to my 14-year-0ld son, he said, “Tell her to get a ferret instead.” I didn’t. Two hours later, she came home with a pair of cute little dwarf hamsters–Phineas and Ferb–and $40 worth of rodent bedding, toys and treats. Damn Petco.

I love pets and am generally in favor of all kinds, except reptiles. So, naturally–in addition to two dogs–we have a rapidly growing corn snake living in my son’s bedroom. (We’ve also killed off more fish than a pod of great whites; see Why Goldfish are the Worst Pets in the World.) I grew up with a yellow Lab and all manner of parakeets and hamsters, most of them named Willie or Mac. So I was pretty excited to meet Phineas and Ferb. At least it wasn’t a rat, like the one my friend Linda allowed her son to obtain, which subsequently required surgery on its toes. (They also had a leopard gecko that surgery couldn’t help after it was run over by a car.)

It’s not that I buy the “pets teach kids responsibility” argument, though pets have certainly taught me responsibility; if I’m not feeding the dogs or watering the snake myself, I’m nagging the kids to do it. I’m sure I’ll be the one cleaning that hamster cage when the stench gets unbearable. It’s more that I think pets provide a certain kind of quiet, dependable company that humans–especially human teenagers–often can’t. I knew my daughter needed those hamsters because her social world was falling apart. Her friends had abandoned her when she most needed them, and she was hurting. But Phineas and Ferb could provide comfort and distraction, just as my dog, Sam, did when I was 16. I remember feeling certain that he was the only creature on the planet that would ever understand me.

My mother always reminds me that as a parent, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” Don’t I know it. She is also fond of saying, “This, too, shall pass,” which I understand now but found completely unhelpful when I was in the throes of the teenaged torment. It’s not nearly as reassuring as a hamster.

Posted in Family life, Kids, Parenting, Teenagers | Tagged , | 2 Comments

For the Love of Siblings

My little brother is the only person on earth I have ever punched as hard as I could. It’s been 35 years, but I can still recall the intense feelings of rage I felt toward him for his hideous way of…  talking. Or chewing. Or maybe watching TV. But mostly for being cheerful while I wrestled with the misery of adolescence. Now I hardly ever punch him anymore, and not only because he’s eight inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than I. It turns out he’s one of the funniest, warmest, most charming people I’ve ever known, and his chewing is fine. There are few people on earth I’d rather spend time with.

I remind myself of this whenever my own children descend into that particular brand of battle I think of as sibling intolerance. Worse than sibling rivalry, which typically centers on winning parental attention or approval, sibling intolerance consists of irrational irritation resulting in unreasonable cruelty. Suppose, just for instance, that your little sister is hopping on one foot and giggling while you are trying to play “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.” Surely there is nothing more worthy of a swift kick, paired with a venomous, “SHUT UP! You’re so stupid.”

A Good Day, circa 2004

In my house, the two girls–seven years apart–almost never fight, and in fact exist in a near-constant state of mutual adoration. It’s their brother, not quite smack in the middle, who’s the linchpin, and just as capable of fighting up as down. He once pounded his big sister’s door with a hammer, in retaliation for her turning off the Wii, apparently mid-game. But mostly the two big ones just act like The Bickersons, arguing so protractedly over idiotic issues like whether a purple glass pitcher will explode in the microwave–and how many minutes it will take–that I feel like my head will explode.

My son reserves most of his intolerance for his little sister, which is ironic since she is tough, athletic and game for anything–not the pink-loving, Barbie-playing crybaby he could have gotten. He gets irritated, among other things, by: her voice (it’s loud), her agility (she’s skilled at climbing door jambs), her friends (they’re loud), her choice in cartoons and her inability to memorize state capitals. But mostly he is as annoyed by her unflagging exuberance as I was by my brother’s–only now that I’m the parent, it’s not nearly as acceptable.

Usually I model my reaction on hers. When we were driving home after New Year’s break, she was sitting in the middle seat of the minivan and turned around to look for a DVD in the back seat, where her brother was sprawled with his laptop. “WHAT?” he sneered, glaring at her. “TURN AROUND.”  She did, and I instantly saw the shocked, wounded look on her face, scrunched with the effort of containing tears. I wanted to crawl over the middle seat and throttle him. But if she’d had her usual reaction, which is to brush it off and ignore him, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it twice.

The Turkey Pirate

 Still, sometimes my heart breaks when hers doesn’t. Around Thanksgiving, she was assigned the task of devising a costume for a paper turkey, and for some reason she decided it should be a pirate, and that her brother was just the one to help her. She asked him and he grudgingly agreed; then, as the deadline approached, she kept nudging him, and he kept putting it off. Finally, the night before it was due, she sat alone at the kitchen table, decorating the turkey pirate all by herself. I had tears in my eyes, but she was humming.

You can’t make your kids be nice to each other. The best you can hope for is that they learn to adjust their expectations of one another, and then just ride it out. Even we are beginning to see signs of progress. The two big ones have started a nice tradition of going out to breakfast together on the weekends. My son, on occasion, has begun inviting his little sister to play “Call of Duty.” And if she hugs him between rounds of semi-automatic weapon fire, sometimes he even hugs her back.

Posted in Boys will be boys, Family life, Kids, Parenting, Teenagers | Tagged | 7 Comments