Parenthood: The Job You Can’t Quit

“I stink at being a parent, and I don’t want to do it anymore. All my kids are going to end up in therapy, and I’d just rather go hiking really.”

(via pictures funny16.com)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been here. You’ve had those days when you were just so discouraged that you couldn’t see a way through the tangled morass of hope, fear, joy, worry, doubt, and dread that is parenthood. It’s a colossal task, raising kids, and most of us are woefully unprepared for it.

There’s no magic rule book, no fool-proof training. The only models we had are our own parents. But they raised different kids in a different time when children actually played outside occasionally and didn’t carry smart phones in their pockets. The old tricks don’t always apply. And just when you do manage to become an expert on your particular kid, he/she will change. Kids do that. They grow, they develop, they enter puberty, and then all bets are off.

So here I am trying to make decisions on a daily basis that are going to affect the development and future potential happiness of our children, and I’m guessing. Most of the time they are educated guesses, sure, based on past observations of said child, the experience of other parents, and often, extensive reading.  But when it comes down to it, every decision is a judgment call, an educated guess at best, and one that is very often swayed by how much or little patience I’ve got left for the day. And lately, I’ve got to say, the reservoir is pretty darn low. I’m thinking about rationing, but I can’t figure out how to get my family to go along.

And that’s where I run into my other little problem – raising a child in the context of a family. Everybody has needs, and they don’t always spread them out so that you can deal with them one-by-one when you are well-rested-and-emotionally-prepared. That’s not the way life happens. No, life likes to descend on you like a shit-storm of need, nausea and broken appliances. It’s failing grades and juggling bills and used Kleenex and muddy paw prints on the spread you just washed. Life happens in your face, when you least expect it, or when you honestly think the very next thing will be the last straw. You know what happens when you have that thought? Something awful, usually.

Life is like someone calling your name over and over, but they never come to you. You must seek out the caller and carry out their commands. Can you get me a towel? I don’t understand my chemistry homework. Will you get those dogs to stop barking? I’m stressed, I’m nauseous, listen to my problems, fix it, fix it, fix it! It’s like being a genie with a house full of frantic wishers. And just when you think you have a handle on it all, when you have put your house in order, walked the dogs, and anticipated and prepared for every child’s (and your partner’s) every need – life will surprise you. It will wait until you have done your very best, until you are sweaty and dirty and proud of yourself, and then it will walk up, wag its tail, look you right in the eye – and then hike its leg and pee on your shoes.

So this is where I would probably be expected to add a paragraph about how it’s all worth it in the end and how the joys by far outweigh the stresses. And yes, that’s true, though I’m not feeling it so much at this particular moment. Because we all know, you have to work for that attitude. So this is my first step – writing it down. It’s therapeutic. Then I’m going to go have a cleaning frenzy all over my house, because that’s what I do when I’m stressed and don’t know what to do next. (I already had a cleaning frenzy on our yard last evening and may have been a bit too vigorous with the weed-eater and gardening shears. I’m a little afraid to look.)

So after I’ve obsessively put our house (and yard) in order for a few hours, I will be sweaty, tired, satisfied in a way only a career house-not-wife can be after a day spent cleaning, and happy to see my partner and our children when they get home this evening. And we are going to have a happy and fun Friday evening together with lots of hugs and positive affirmations. But until then, I’m going to go bleach something.

Boo! Scary Movies You Can Watch with Your Teenager

Boo.

It might strike you as odd, but picking scary movies that will thrill the kids (but not appall my partner and me with a high gore factor or adult themes) is high on the list of things we are doing to prepare for the start of the new school year. School starts again in 6 days, and our youngest son is starting high school. A challenging transition for any kid but our boy has some additional challenges. One of the many strategies he has chosen to employ is a reward system for getting through each week. This will include making our occasional family movie nights a regular event. These will occur on Friday nights through the fall semester and feature, you guessed it, horror films.

Here are some of our favorites that we’ve already seen (and think you should too)

1. Jaws (1975) PG – Have you ever noticed that some of the scariest scenes in Jaws don’t ever show the shark? We have “Bruce,” Steven Spielberg’s animatronic shark, to thank for that.  If Bruce hadn’t malfunctioned so often, the young director might never have been inspired to just imply the shark’s presence by using the camera to give us a shark’s eye view. Coupled with John Williams’ awesomely dramatic musical theme, it was a brilliantly frightening technique. (You thinking it now aren’t you? Da-dum…da-dum…dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum dadum DADADAAAA)

Spielberg wanted Jon Voight to play Hooper, but George Lucas suggested Richard Dreyfus (who he had worked with in American Graffiti).

Everything about this movie is good – the directing, acting, writing , music – and they all come together around a great story (by Peter Benchley) to create the perfect storm of film horror. If your kids haven’t seen it yet, it’s time. They’ll scream when the head pops out of the hole in the sunken boat. They’ll laugh when Roy Scheider quips, “We going to need a bigger boat” after seeing the shark for the first time. (Did you know he ad-libbed that line?) And chills will run down their spines when they hear Quint’s monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis.

Scariest chairs in a movie.

2. Poltergeist (1982) PG – Another Spielberg film that stands the test of time. He adds just enough humor and wonder to give an extra edge to the terrifying bits. Though Carol Ann got all the attention for disappearing into the TV, it was the character of her scrappy brother who appealed to my youngest son. The poor boy gets dragged out of the house by a monster tree and dragged out of his bed by an evil clown toy, and not only does he survive, but he kicks the clown’s butt. What a kid. One of my favorite bits though is this monologue by the medium, Tangina, played (brilliantly, I think) by Zelda Rubinstein. Watch it on You Tube here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQMYzB6gUQc

3. The Sixth Sense (1999) PG-13 – “I see dead people.” Maybe the biggest tag line from a movie since Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back.” This ghost story directed by M. Night Shyamalan  is one of only four horror films to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. (The other three were Jaws, The Exorcist, and The Silence of the Lambs.)  Shyamalan is one of our youngest son’s favorite directors and so there are two of his movies on this list.

 4. Signs (2002) PG-13 – This story gradually turns up the suspense until you’re white-knuckled and holding your breath for much of the last half of the film. It’s another of M. Night Shyamalan’s creations and he actually plays a significant role in the story. (He appears at least briefly in almost all of his movies.) The plot is simple – family finds a huge crop circle on their farm and more strange happenings ensue – and all the possibilities your imagination can produce to explain the events are extremely scary.

Scary eighties hair.

 5. The Lost Boys (1987) R – Don’t let the R rating spook you.If it came out today, I’m sure it would be rated PG-13. A pair of brothers and their divorced mom move to a new town and become convinced it is plagued by vampires. If you were raised in the eighties like me, you’ll probably remember Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. They were both in this movie and provide some great comic moments to lighten the scary stuff. A young Kiefer Sutherland is seriously creepy as the leader of the local pack of young, big-haired bloodsuckers.

 6. Insidious (2010) PG-13 – Very scary in a mounting-suspense, haunted-house-atmosphere kind of way. A couple’s son falls into an unexplained coma, mom starts seeing things, they seek help from a paranormal investigator, and I’m not telling what happens after that. A solidly spooky story.

 7. The Shining R (1980) – Based on Stephen King’s novel about a writer who takes a job as a caretaker at an isolated mountain hotel. Add a psychic son, an evil presence, and Scatman Crothers and you get a classic recipe for terror. Jack Nicholson’s disturbing performance as the dad gone gleefully mad apparently bridges the potential generation gap in horror film viewers quite well. This was our second son’s pick for scariest movie.

Look behind you, Buffy! Or Daphne! Or whatever your name is in this movie!

8. The Grudge PG-13 (2004) – Sarah Michelle Gellar (who our youngest son previously knew as Daphne in the Scooby Doo movies) plays an American nurse living in Japan who stumbles upon a supernatural curse in the act of playing itself out. Lots of suspense and weird, creepy effects. This was one of our youngest son’s picks for scariest movie.

9. The Ring PG-13 (2002) – Like The Grudge, this is a remake of a Japanese horror film with disturbing special effects and a creeping sense of dread. In this one, a young woman investigates a strange video tape that is said to cause the imminent death of anyone who views it. I’m not a huge fan of The Ring myself, but number one son and youngest son think it’s awesomely scary.

10. Audrey Rose (1977) PG – A mysterious stranger appears and tells a young couple that their daughter is the reincarnation of his own dead child. Long before playing Hannibal Lecter (in the scariest movie I will never let my children watch), Hopkins does a great job of playing the stranger so that you’re never quite certain if his character is sincere, a nutcase or a molester stalking the child until bizarre things begin to happen. This one spooked our oldest son (who is now 24) when he was a just tender teen.

If you’re a fan of PG (ish) horror, I hope you can find something here to watch with your children that you haven’t already seen. In the meantime, I have until Friday to come up with a new gore-free fright-flick. Suggestions are welcome!

 

If you’d like to see more suggestions, try Boo 2! More Scary Movies You Can Watch with Your Teens.

Field Tripping

Via memecenter.com

Last Friday, I found myself in a sea of children of all sizes darting about like excited electrons bouncing off each other and the adults scattered through the crowd in their kinetic eagerness not to miss anything, building walls of human sound and mechanical noise that rose up like waves and crashed down on me. I was awash in a thundering kaleidoscope of sensory input – the swirling movement of the children in their color-coded t-shirts, the bright metal and glass of the interactive science exhibits, the human smells, the voices, the light, the collisions, the random if momentary disappearances of children I was chaperoning.

I was a little rattled.

I looked at my watch and realized, with an exterior calm that I hoped masked my panic, that it was only half over. I only had to endure another 3 hours of chaos at the museum before we would take a walk, pile ourselves back onto a crowded bus which would take us to a slightly quieter but still-crowded train which, 3 hours later, would deliver us home.  I found myself fervently wishing I could duck out for a moment of quiet and a cigarette and was already planning my escape when I remembered that I didn’t have any cigarettes. Because I quit smoking 5 years ago. Damn. I was sad.

It got better. When we first arrived at the museum, it was packed with several other groups of children on field trips from other schools. Many of them departed and others arrived, but the population of the museum never again reached the density that existed when we first arrived. Then we all had lunch in a quiet room they found for us somewhere, and I relaxed a bit. When we set the kids loose in the museum proper again, I even began to enjoy myself.

Then we visited the gift shop and found all the children that had vacated the museum floor. The rest of the day went like that – kind of an ebb and flow of sensory overload, stress and fun. After the gift shop, we herded most of the kids into a 3D theater for a 20 minute film on insects and I snuck off to the cafeteria for a much-needed cup of coffee with another parent. Later, I rather enjoyed a 20-minute walk through downtown Charlotte, admiring the beautiful weather and the architecture.

Until we arrived at the largest bus station I had ever seen and spent 15 minutes on a concrete island amidst 6 lanes of arriving and departing buses coughing clouds of exhaust while the lead teacher investigated the departure time of our bus. Fortunately, we had plenty of time to have dinner there at the station where we could choose from a dizzying variety of fast food places (three) and enhance our dining experience by observing the interesting underworld characters currently populating the station. Later, our bus delivered us to the train station where we had another hour to wait and I could enjoy the comparative sylvan paradise of a square of grass in the sun between the depot and an abandoned building.

I had quite enjoyed the train ride to the city and so looked forward to embarking on our return trip. Little did I know that trains apparently differ in character. While our first train ride that morning had been a smooth, quiet, well air-conditioned journey with 20-odd still very sleepy teenagers, the train that returned us home impressed me with its ability to rock and sway with such remarkable energy without ever actually leaving the tracks. Fortunately, I was too distracted by the rising temperature to dwell on this as our coach’s air-conditioner gradually lost its battle with the combined body temperatures of 20 over-stimulated autistic teenagers and their exhausted teachers and parents.

The first half of the trip home, one of those over-stimulated kids, a sweet but very excited boy, regaled me with his high-decibel, blow-by-blow descriptions of his favorite video game, punctuated frequently by a raucous retelling of an off-color story his dad had told him. When one of the other boys appeared and asked me to change seats with him, I gratefully fled.

After a bit of musical chairs, I spent the rest of the trip cross-legged on the floor between the last seats and the bathrooms just so I wouldn’t have to return to my original chair. My son, another mom and her son kindly joined me and her son shared his encyclopedic knowledge of F5 tornadoes which she and my son had apparently heard a thousand times, but I quite enjoyed because I had never heard his lecture before.

When we finally got home that evening, my partner had a cold beer waiting for me in the fridge and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so grateful to climb into my pajamas. I suppose I’m a little out of practice. When our boys were in elementary school and both in self-contained autistic classes full-time, I went on many field trips with them. But now that they’re older and mostly mainstreamed, there have been few trips to tag along on. But this one promised a train ride, and I thought, Cool. We’ve never ridden a train. It turned out to be a day of firsts that I think I will back on fondly – now that it’s over.

Talking with Teenagers (or Don’t Kill the Chickens or the Villagers Will Attack)

Every morning, I eavesdrop while three teenaged boys talk about things I don’t even begin to understand. I drive a carpool to the high school – our middle son, Link, and two of his friends. I consider it my training in popular culture. If I listen carefully and venture a question now and again, I might learn just a bit about the world my son lives in – because I’m fairly certain it’s not the same one I inhabit.

Our son’s favorite user interface.

So this morning, Link and his friends had a lengthy discussion about whether it was better to be a thief or an assassin in Skyrim (our son’s latest video game obsession).

“Yeah, my latest character is a level 25 thief,” said Link, “but I’ve never killed a dragon. I have all these shouts but I can’t use them because I don’t have any dragon souls.”

I was trying to figure that one out when a yahoo in a pick-up truck from the oncoming lane whipped across the double yellow line right in front of me, sped into the parking lot of a fast food joint, and then slammed on his brakes to avoid ramming into the last car in the lengthy drive-through line which left his bumper sticking two feet out into the street. I hit the brakes hard, swerved to avoid the dumbass’ backend, and had a mental conniption fit about idiots who are willing to kill me and three kids for a biscuit from Bojangles. When I tuned in to the boys’ conversation again, I heard this:

Friend O: “Yeah I killed a chicken and then I had to kill everybody.” Chuckling from the other boys ensued. I couldn’t help it. I had to ask.

“Okay, why is that funny?” Link perked up. There’s not much he loves to do much more than lecture the ignorant about his favorite video games.

“Well, you see,” he began, “You can kill a person in Skyrim and the guards will yell at you to stop and maybe give chase. But if you kill a chicken, everyone in the village will try to kill you.”

“Aaahh,” I said, because that’s what I say when something makes absolutely no sense to me. “Uh…why?” Link had no idea why, but he was heartily amused by it. And now that he had started lecturing, he was by no means finished.

“There was another funny glitch that allowed chickens to report crimes to the guards, but Bethesda found it and fixed it before they released the game.”  Friend D perked up at that point and jumped in.

“Yeah, and now some people want to create a mod with informant chickens. Then we would have to kill all the chickens.”

“And all the villagers too?” I asked.

“That’s what I did!” said O cheerfully.

My attention was again called back to the road when a gentleman driving a Volvo and talking on his cell phone (i.e. speeding jackass with an Apple in his ear) passed us (i.e. whipped in front of me almost clipping my front bumper), and accelerated smoothly disappearing into the distance (sped away loudly for two seconds before his brake lights blazed as he hugged the bumper of the large slow-moving vehicle (school bus) directly in front of us). I spent a few moments imagining the colorful language (i.e. blunt instrument) I would use if I had the opportunity to calmly explain (apply the blunt object vigorously and repeatedly to the driver’s head) the concept of “school zone” to the man (child-endangering scum bucket).

When I tuned back in to the boys’ conversation, they were still talking about virtual chickens. At least, two of them were.

While I think that most teenaged boys play video games, not all of them play them with the same intensity of focus of our son and his friend, D. (They are nerds.) O, however, was a fairly typical young man who also enjoys fishing, wrestling, horror movies, and classic rock. Our son Link and his friend enjoy video games with villagers and chickens. And sometimes they play Dungeons and Dragons. Once a week, actually, with the nerd club at school.

Now, having grown up a nerd myself, I completely understand and support the so-inclined. But I was a pre-video game nerd. So I actually played outside. A lot. And still do. Link, on the other hand, suffers from a vitamin D deficiency. And while I completely put the heaviest part of the blame for that on public schools for insisting that our child spend 7 hours of daylight sitting indoors, I also realize that our son is by nature, a sedentary troglodyte. He even looks the part: he has fair skin and enormous eyes (excellent for functioning in low light situations). He’s very slender, has no muscle tone and cringes when exposed to direct sunlight. Most of this came on with puberty. Before that, Link was happy to punctuate his bouts of electronic entertainment with frequent breaks spent running around the back yard with his little brother and our dogs, wielding a toy sword and acting out his favorite games. But sadly, no more. (Now he acts out his games with miniatures and dice while sitting at a table eating pizza with several other nerds.)

His friend, O, on the other hand, loves the outdoors. He hunts, he hikes, he swims, he fishes. Especially, the latter. So sometimes, I try to engage him in conversation about fishing (about which I know only slightly more than nothing), just to remind my son that some of his peers actually still enjoy going outside.

It is not difficult to get O talking about fishing. I ask a question and he talks about lures and lines and reading rivers and such nonstop until we get to the school. I find O’s enthusiasm interesting and entertaining. And I get a kick out of turning the tables on Link, who has spent years lecturing me on such fascinating topics as Pokemon and Star Wars (which I love but I don’t really need to know how to speak Wookie), in addition to his gold standards, video games and D & D. He’s not used to being on the other side of it, though, and the expression on his face while O waxes on about fishing is priceless.

And it gets me through the snarl of cars that is the front of the high school as I wait my turn in line, dutifully following the school’s drop-off traffic rules, and mentally cussing each jackwagon who decides to drive up at the last minute, pass all of us in line, and then try to insert their SUV into line several cars in front of me. Finally, when it’s our turn, the boys shoulder their backpacks and climb morosely out of the car, and I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition on the way home (which is not nearly so entertaining as teenagers).

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