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09/02/2009

2300 words in search of a theme

Hey, a lot's been going on since I last posted nine years ago.  Last in, first out, okay?

First up: the latest Duggar pregnancy, with child #19.  Okay!  People!  We get it!  Point taken!  You're fecund!  Duly noted!  Beyond that, I have nothing to say on the matter.  Oh, but Josh, the eldest Duggar child and incipient paterfamilias himself, did: “Children are a blessing and a gift if you raise them right."

Emphasis mine.  Egad.

Next, we went to the fair.  If you ever want to see id and superego square off and try to kick the shit out of each other, take a kid to the fair and cheerfully inform him that he needs to be on his very best behavior.  (Leave the "or," the threat, whatever it is, implied.  It's so much more ominous that way.)  Charlie would ask in his sweetest, most pleasing tone for five dollars to spend trying to shoot a clown in the head so he could win a toy, eleven cents' worth of plastic so toxic you could practically hear his chromosomes scrambling to reconfigure themselves as he neared the booth.  Now, I know shooting a clown in the head sounds like ten kinds of good clean fun, but I disapprove of canned hunts, so would rather Charlie learn to plug them in the wild.  It's more sporting that way.  No, I would tell him, firmly but regretfully, and watch his every base impulse claw its way to the surface, only to be decisively vanquished by his better nature.  The devil on one shoulder was obviously instructing him to protest the injustice in the most obnoxious manner possible, but the angel on the other was frantically urging him to reconsider.  Dude, it was hissing all seraphically, your immortal soul AND FUNNEL CAKES hang in the balance.

So intense was the conflict that I'm honestly surprised his head didn't explode.  But Charlie was really great, whether hollering, "Mama!  I'm a latte!  Look!  I'm in a mug!" or being taught by Pfc. Two-Headed Earnhardt Awesome to scale a portable climbing wall.

Hey!  Speaking of awesome, Ben came, too.

Ben did not, however, accompany Charlie and me on our recent trip in a U-Haul.  It was not my first time driving a 14' truck.  That memorable journey occurred when I moved from the Washington, D.C. area to New York to live with Paul.  I'd rented a truck and hired some movers to load it.  The night before the move, I looked around my half-packed apartment and knew I was totally fucked, that I'd have to work all night to get everything boxed and ready.  So I did what anyone who managed to graduate from college without developing any study skills whatsoever would do: I took some NoDoz — since this is America, where more is better, twice the recommended dose.  And spent the next several hours lying on my sofa, heart racing, nerves jangling, pretty sure I was going to die as I obviously, stupidly deserved.  My apartment did not get packed.

When the movers arrived in the morning, two young men and a pleasant but brisk middle-aged woman, I managed to drag myself cautiously off the sofa and throw stuff into other stuff: dishes into a laundry basket, clothing into the microwave, cast iron skillet into the tape slot on the VCR.  I was busily cramming three cats into a lampshade when the movers began to slide the sofa away from the wall.  And we all heard the same rubbery clunk.

A fleshy-pink bullet-shaped vibrator, and I am not saying whose, hit the floor and rolled, slowly, to the middle of the living room and stopped.

The subsequent drive up 95, with my muscles still taut from overcaffeination and my head feeling like it had been split with an axe — no, wait, a poison-coated axe.  A poison-coated flaming axe — was harrowing, especially the last rainy hour in Manhattan traffic, and I remember it with a shudder.  But that shudder rocks me only half so hard as the memory of what I said as we all stood there in my apartment, two strong men with, one assumes, the normal appetites and a woman who could have been my mother, staring at I am not saying whose vibrator.  "Oh," I said, nerves stretched to the breaking point, "I've been wondering where I'd left that."

So my trip with Charlie could not help but feel uneventful.  He and I flew to Ohio to pick up some furniture that had been in my parents' house, driving it back over the course of a couple of days.  I dreaded the trip, 750 miles in an unwieldy vehicle with a kid who is, and as I say this I glory in it, hiiiiighly interactive.  And I have to say that in my apprehension I did Charlie a disservice, because, again, he was great.  He worked industriously on some puzzle books, used his snack bag carte blanche responsibly, and obediently stopped asking troublesome questions about the NPR news report — Mama, what's sexual violence in the Congo? — when I was trying to back the truck up without crushing its many inferiors.

You know, as an aside, I think I got pretty good at driving that U-Haul.  I would like to thank the truckers of America on that long stretch of the New York Turnpike for making me feel so welcome.  It was kind of you to recognize me as one of your own, one of the elite brotherhood of the road.  Your organization's many secret finger gestures spoke with eloquence of the warm embrace you offer to the amateur camioniste who doesn't know exactly, or even approximately, what all those other gears besides D and R are for, but, hey, let's try 'em out!  Right here!  In the work zone!

The highlight of our trip was our stop in Niagara Falls.  I'd wanted to surprise Charlie with something fun on each day of our trip, and that is how we spontaneously ended up at Niagara Falls.  Twenty miles out of Buffalo I called T., who'd grown up there, to ask her how far off the beaten path the Falls were.  And an hour later, there was Charlie on the Maid of the Mist, digging a double rainbow.  (Not pictured: Charlie trying to asphyxiate himself by pulling his souvenir raincoat, a glorified dry cleaning bag, up over his face and molding it to his nostrils, and Julie practically wrestling him to the deck to stop him.  Note to Niagara Falls State Park: Blue's a really bad color for those things if you're keeping a tally of who's actually going cyanotic and who's merely trying to freak his mother the fuck out.)  Once I'd finished tearing the raincoat from his oxygen-deprived body and flinging it into the river, we had a pretty great time, and Charlie pinked up nicely as soon as we were back in the truck for the next 62 interminable hours of the trip.

Finally, just before we left, I'd asked your advice.  Thank you for all the ideas and commiseration.  There was a lot of helpful stuff there, and I'm still working through it.  (1-2-3 Magic: read and implemented to reasonably good effect quite some time ago.  Positive rewards for incremental good behavior: star chart fully deployed and moderately successful.  Role-playing: useful and ass-hilarious.  More books to request from the library.  Aluminum foil to be crumpled!  Angry dances [YouTube] to be choreographed!  On down the line.  There's so much good insight there.  And I am totally going to try powdered detergent.)  But more than almost anything else, I'm thrilled to know that Charlie is not alone, that among my friends inside the computer we have enough junior miscreants to form our own little posse of half-scale thugs.  Who wants to carpool for their first arraignment?

I didn't have time before our trip to tell you that we had a really helpful meeting with D., the head teacher in Charlie's room.  As we talked, so many seemingly unrelated pieces of information came together into a coherent picture.  If you haven't already clicked away in horror at my trivializing civilian-on-clown violence, or my wanton abuse of over-the-counter stimulants, or my failure to store my I mean someone's and I'm not saying whose marital aid hygienically and modestly, or my admission to endangering hundreds of innocent motorists with my clumsy white-knuckled maneuvering, or my admitting to manhandling my matchless treasure of a child to get that fucking raincoat off him, or making light of the menace to our youth that gang violence presents — well, Jesus, turn off the lights when you leave, because I'm pretty sure you're all by your lonesome.  But first let me bore you with some details!

Charlie's best friend for some time had been Henry.  But lately Charlie's been expressing a certain admiration for another kid in class, whose identity I shall protect by calling him, oh, say, Dick Cheney.

Dick Cheney seems kind of...wayward.  He's a shouter, an agressive kid, a kid with ideas, most of which trend toward mayhem.  Much of Charlie's rotten behavior lately has been inspired by him; Charlie's said as much, with the guilelessness of a kid who doesn't yet know how to pass the buck and therefore speaks sincerely.  "Dick Cheney said we should attack D.!" he reported with relish one afternoon, seeming to forget that when you're gloating about the beauty of your evil scheme, your parents are probably the last people who'll applaud you for it.  ("You foiled me!" Charlie has been heard to complain.  Damn skippy.  Foiling's what I do, and, oh, how I love my work.)  Now and again Paul and I have been nonplussed by what Charlie's reported about Dick Cheney, but didn't rank it high on the list of problems, and I spent a fair amount of time roleplaying with Charlie, coaching him in how to respond should Dick Cheney attempt to incite him to action again.  "Charlie, I'll be Dick Cheney, and you be you.  Charlie!  Let's go bundle D. into the trunk of a car and drive over a reeeeally bumpy road!"  "No, no, Dick Cheney!  We shouldn't!  I don't want to do that.  [Pause.]  I'm not allowed to drive a car!"

It was a start, anyway.

Turns out that according to D. and corroborated by Charlie, Henry and Dick Cheney are now best friends, which leaves Charlie somewhere out in the cold.  My theory is that Charlie has been trying to emulate Dick Cheney in hope of regaining some of his lost luster in Henry's eyes.  (Or possibly it's because Dick Cheney is inarguably a badass, and who wouldn't want to be allies with a kid who has the tiny cast-iron balls to walk up to a kid who is accompanied by his parents and say, "Charlie!  Let's go attack D.!"?  Child, I am standing right here.)

Having a theory about where the behavior might be coming from isn't much practical good because it doesn't necessarily suggest a workable course of action, but it does help me understand my son a bit better, which is a relief.  D. has agreed that when they match the kids up for activities she'll do so with an eye to cultivating different, more positive relationships, which is a nice way of saying Keep that monstrous whelp away from my spotless angel, and that when Charlie and Dick Cheney are together they'll be more actively supervised.

And I have to be careful here because I don't want to give the impression that I think Charlie is a spotless angel.  I do think he's being influenced by another kid, but I also think we haven't yet given him sufficient tools to refute that influence, so we've been working on that.  I know that Charlie himself will corrupt some other mother's irreplaceable snowflake sooner or later, if he hasn't already.  And I feel a certain compassion for poor Dick Cheney and his parents.  Some of what Charlie's been saying at home — I don't love you anymore, I don't think Ben is special — is apparently an echo of what Dick Cheney's been saying at school.  Dick Cheney, you see, has a new baby at home, and tells the teachers, My parents don't love me anymore.  They don't think I'm special.

Christ, I'd want to whale on someone, too.  And maybe Charlie's not getting any more empathetic just yet, but maybe, just possibly, I am. 

Until we met with Charlie's teacher, I hadn't really understood how much might be going on with Charlie.  I certainly hadn't thought of how much might be going on with other kids, and how that might trickle down.  My interrogation technique needs work, because although I often ask Charlie about what's going on, he usually doesn't answer in any useful way.  I see now how important it is to have that information, even if I can't immediately shape it into a response.

So the upshot of all this is that I think we've all learned an important lesson about respecting those who worship a lesser god than ours.  Wait, no.  We've all realized that deep down inside, even when they're drunk, our parents really want what's best for us.  Huh, let me try again.  People in wheelchairs are every bit as good as people with crutches.  No, no, wait.  Something about Christmas.  No, recycling.  Crap, I don't know.  Is it enough to say that I am aware, thanks to your comments and the last few weeks, that not only is Charlie a work in progress, so am I as a parent?

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