Hey, Kid! Let’s Do Lunch.

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By Elizabeth Speth

I am not a good parent.

This is not false modesty.  Do not rush to comfort or reassure me when I say this.  It’s the truth, and my children will likely confirm the fact.

I’m not petitioning to be arrested here.  I more or less understand the basics of childkeeping.  Minimally, you must feed them, keep them clean and teach them to be kind.  You get bonus points if you mostly refrain from embarrassing them, and help pay for college.

You don’t leave them unattended.  Bad things happen to unattended children.

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But the rest of it has really eluded me, though I have read countless parenting books and compared notes and rubbed elbows with my betters.  I have struggled and chafed mightily against my failings.  In the nearly thirty years I have wrestled and warred with parenting, the only philosophy I have managed to pull from the smoking wreckage is this:

Take your child to lunch.

I mean it.  Every chance you get.  In a proper restaurant, with napkins that must go in your laps, with a menu that demands deliberations and choices.  Sit across the table from each other, and relinquish your leadership role.  Be equals.  Be people out to lunch.

That’s right.  My only parenting tip involves parenting time off.  All  fun, and no work.

You don’t cook, clean, or assume responsibility for the enjoyment of the food.

You take a break from the heavy slog of molding, teaching, shaping, guiding, refusing.

Go ahead and place the pressure of parenting on your server.  Let her make conversation for a while.  Let him engage your child, find things on the menu to entice the kid’s mercurial tastes, figure out what is going on in that tiny, inscrutable head.

Let your child’s critical attention and fragile expectations fall upon that tray-carrying, apron-shielded angel of mercy.  Order yourself a cocktail, sit back, and sigh.

If the meal disappoints, if the experience is a bust, if the carrots are cut in the wrong shape and the fish arrives with an eye still in its head, the server is the jerk.  Not you.  See?  Win-win.  And still no dishes.

You? Are the good guy.  There’s a gratitude factor, however reluctant, that comes to you when you say:  ‘Order whatever you’d like!’  And you must do that. And you must mean it. Lunch is a no-holes-barred experience, a rarified world of exemptions and permissions.

And, really, how many other times in your life can you really say that to your child?  ‘Have whatever you want.’  Doesn’t that feel marvelous, rolling off your tongue?  How bad can the damage be?  It’s the lunch menu.

Go ahead, Kid! Have a virgin margarita with whipped cream that’s mostly sugar and comes to the table looking for all the world like dessert even before your cheese enchilada arrives.  I want you to!  Do I suspect you won’t like calamari at all, with its little squid legs still attached under that crispy coating and silky orange aioli?  Yes!  But that’s what takeout boxes are for, and, here, fill up on these fabulous chips with salsa!  Shall we order guacamole?

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The rules are simple.  Everyone eats as much or as little as they like.  The kids get to talk about anything.  Anything.  If they tell you they have taken to peeing in their closets, shoplifting, or skating off the steeply sloped roof of the high school cafeteria at night, all you are allowed to say is:  ‘Oh really?’

Pregnancy scare? Second thoughts about college?  Flag down that busboy for more butter.  If you are tempted to parent, take a sip of wine.  Blink, nod, order the cheese plate. Or a second sushi boat.  Or spicier curry so you can justify your watery eyes.  Later, when you have dementia and wear diapers and have terrible confessions of your own, they may return the favor.

Of course, there will be some inadvertent parenting that goes on.  Obviously, your child has to behave — you are out in public.  Insist upon politeness to all who care for you during your meal.  Please, and thank you, and eye contact are non-negotiable.  Teach them how to tip well — very well — so that it will be that much better when you come back.  Explain to them how hard the work is, this making happiness for strangers out of chilled plates and lettuce and baskets of bread.

You will of course tweak these rules and guidelines for yourself, but, I beg you, take your children to lunch.  Do it because they are here now (that won’t always be the case), and you are here now(the clock is definitely ticking on this fact), and don’t you have to eat lunch anyway?

Do it because of the lies they will tell you for the rest of your life.

I’m not talking about naughty lies.  I’m talking about all the times they will say things are fine when they are not.

Do it because they will go through terribly difficult things you will never have even an inkling about.

Do it because when they were first handed to you in the hospital, though you had carried them for months and months, you were shocked at how heavy and self-contained they were, and that’s when you understood you were truly separated, going forward.

Do it because you did and will make mistakes, and you were and will be impatient and short-sighted.

Do it even though they are hard on you.  And because only they know what the rhythm of your breath and the beat of  your heart sound like from inside your body.

Do it because you break their hearts sometimes, as much as they break yours.

You do.  You break their hearts too.

Case in point:  my mother was not the sort to take her children to lunch, or even the sort to provide lunch on any given day.  A mentally fragile and self-absorbed woman, her thoughts rarely entertained things like food, shelter and clothing.  She was consumed by her own disastrous love life, her endless quest for the perfect fad religion, and her conviction that she was a true ‘artiste’ in terms of temperament, if not exactly in terms of production.

It took me a lifetime to figure out that it wasn’t personal.  She was a bad parent, just like me.  But she did not want to be a mother, and I did. That was pretty much the only difference between us.

As a child, I was chronically lost track of, and as a result occasionally unfortunate things happened.  I did not bear up well, I admit it. An inevitable general haze of terror hung over the first twelve or so years of my life.  I was afraid of everything, although I mostly kept it a secret.

Our lives were transient, and chaotic.  Always there was a new place to live, a new classroom, a new man suddenly in a position of authority, new dangers to suss out.  This did nothing for my catatonic outlook.

One snowy morning in rural New Mexico, in the dark lull between Christmas and spring, my mother walked me to a new bus stop in a new neighborhood on a new first day of school, holding my mittened hand while I trudged beside her in wet shoes, my attention riveted on my constantly roiling insides.

The cold was ruthless.  It was wicked.  If I could remember the date, and researched it, I know it would have been some sort of New Mexico winter record low temperature.  Cows died that day.  Fingers and toes were lost.  Pipes burst, and I’m sure ballads and folk songs were written.

The bus stop was in front of someone’s house, and all sorts of children were running and shouting and doing unspeakable things to each other.  The woman who lived inside the house came out to her front steps, and called everyone inside until the bus arrived.  It was too cold, she said, for man or beast.

My mother was not a sociable sort of person, and so she indicated that I should go in, and she, presumably, would go home to thaw out.  I clung to her. “Please,” I said, terrified.  “Please don’t go.”

Go inside, she said firmly to me.

“Please come in with me,” I urged her, knowing she would leave me alone with all of the boisterous young strangers destined to be my future classroom tormentors.  “Please don’t leave me here.”

My mother got quite stern, told me to stop fussing.  But I wouldn’t let go of her until she finally, reluctantly, promised she would stay.  Outside. I was to go in.  She would not.  I knew it was her final, rock-bottom offer.  Heavy of heart and foot, I followed the others inside, and spent the next ten minutes watching her nervously through the window.  To my utter surprise, she stood sentinel there, alone, her back to the house, blowing out gusts of steam and occasionally stomping her feet.

The sight of her nearly broke my six-year-old heart with gratitude.  It just about brought me to my soggy knees.  When I could stand it no longer,  I scurried back outside to wait with her for the bus.  We didn’t say anything else about my being out there.  We didn’t speak at all.

I will never forget the incredible tide of sadness I felt that morning. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emptied out by grief.  Her parenting sacrifice was bigger that day than any of mine.  Even then, I understood that she did not want to be there.  She would rather have been anywhere else.

It wasn’t personal. I do understand that now. 

I take my children to lunch because they see my flaws, which are weighty things for them.  I take them out to lunch because sometimes parents are a terrible burden.

I take them to lunch because of my mother’s unexpected steadfastness in a sea of swirling snow, and her vulnerability, standing out there alone, waiting.

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It’s important to remember that people are vulnerable, and that’s most obvious when we eat.  Even mean people look vulnerable when they eat.

Look at the poor horse, a flight animal, whose only defense against predators is vigilance. Yet he must put his head down to eat.

Take your children to lunch because, if you must be vulnerable, you can at least be so together.

Pick your reason.  But do it.  Be people out to lunch.  Together.



An Interview With My Husband

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By Elizabeth Speth

It was a risky proposition, corralling Neil with a series of probing and provocative questions.  I knew it could skid sideways at any point.  There was the possibility of profanity, of inappropriate and suggestive responses.  Political rants were likely.  If his critics are to be believed, Neil can be counted upon to gauge what is expected of him, only to execute an immediate and opposing course of action.  He might have clammed up completely.

We have all heard the stories — the mismatched shoes at work, the crumpled hat, the sleeping at the desk.  The inappropriate texts accidentally sent to his children.  Who is the man behind the mess?  Was finding out worth the almost inevitable fiasco?

After a long negotiation process, several cancellations and no-shows, he arrived late on a cloudy morning for our interview at the dining room table.  He declined to remove his sunglasses.  He was restless, edgy.  Periodically, he stared into space, and several times he rested his forehead in his hands, closed his eyes, and appeared to sleep briefly.  I had hoped a glass of wine would help.  Or whiskey.  Neil is famously fond of a good bourbon.  He declined those offers, and requested espresso.  I knew we were in for a challenging discourse.

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Elizabeth:  Thanks for sitting down with me, Neil.  First let me just say that there are no right or wrong answers.  However, I do expect  you to give me the answer I want.  If you don’t get the answer on the first try, I’ll ask you again, and eventually I’ll just change the answer to my preferred response.  So there’s no pressure on you.  My first questions is:  Can you give me a three-sentence biography? Only the high points, please.

Neil:  Born in New York.  Happy Childhood.  Married well.

Elizabeth:  Describe your life in one sentence?

Neil:  All itches scratched — no holes.

Elizabeth:  Uh.  Ok.  What is your philosophy as a father?

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Neil:  As a father?  Lead by example.  Of course I’ve fallen woefully short.  My intent is to provide a secure foundation, support their decisions.  I’m a kind of loosely authoritative figure.  Just this side of arbitrary.  Maybe the other side of completely arbitrary.  It doesn’t matter, because they never pay attention to my parenting.  So don’t expect me to tell you if it works.  I guess my parenting style is ‘be ignored’.  

Elizabeth:  Perhaps it’s still being formulated….

Neil:  The truth is, I spent too much of my parenting time thinking about the wrong things.  Stressing about work.  I should have spent more time developing my parenting style. Don’t write that down — that’s off the record.

Elizabeth:  Of course. Next questionYou are not a vain man, not overly-encumbered by ego.  Yet you do allow yourself a couple of small vanities.  You are meticulous about your weight,  and you never leave the house without cologne. Discuss.

Neil:  I don’t think I take myself too seriously.  We all have ego.  Mine was spent in achieving my professional goals.  That was enough impetus to get me where I needed to go.  Ego should be used to motivate you to achieve goals.  It should be harnessed, like a work horse, but then you should be done with it.

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Elizabeth:  What defines ‘manhood’ for you?  You have sons.  What would you like them to know about being men?

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Neil:  I don’t put much stock in manhood.  I believe in being a good person.  Politically, I’m a conservative, and sometimes people like me are accused of waging war on women.  But I don’t think in those terms.  I believe in good human values, man or woman.

Elizabeth:  Name a time you were horribly, woefully wrong about something, and I was right, but you never admitted it.

Neil:  Can’t think of anything.

Elizabeth:  Take as much time as you need.

Neil: Well, I can tell you one time you were very, very right.  You signed me up to coach youth basketball without asking me first.  If you’d asked, I’d have said no.  It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.  A great experience.

Elizabeth:  I feel that you dodged the question, but we can come back to it.  What is your favorite thing?

Neil:  Weekend horseback rides.  The American River Canyon.  My childhood.  Good health.

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Elizabeth:  What is your least favorite thing?  

Neil:  Waking up at five a.m. to go to work.  Feeling rushed.  Feeling hustled.  Feeling rushed and hustled by my wife.

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Elizabeth:  What is a thing it has taken you a long time to learn?

Neil:  Two things.  One, how to get rid of the slice in my golf swing.  That took thirty years.  The other thing you taught me.  You told me that we are never, ever going to change anyone’s mind about religion or politics when we argue with them.  Can I apply that to the horribly, woefully wrong question?

Elizabeth:  I guess.  What is the one, only, teeny-tiny only complaint you have about me?  

Neil:  You are headstrong.  You also —

Elizabeth:  That’s one.  Next question:  Do you have a system in place so you will not go to work anymore with mis-matched shoes?  

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Neil: As long as they match closely enough, does it really matter?  I have eight pairs of shoes I wear to work.  It’s really hard to get that many shoes matched up.  I look at my shoes like my children.  As long as they are being cared for and given equal amounts of attention, it doesn’t matter if they are mismatched.

Elizabeth:  Your shoes are like your children.  Got it. Goals?  Other than to raise good shoes?

Neil:  I‘d like to sleep more.  I’m looking forward to growing a garden this year.  I want to retire so life can really begin.

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Elizabeth:  Speaking of retirement, what age do you feel you are?

Neil:  Depends on the time of day.  I used to feel perpetually 35.  How old are you?  You are old.  You’ve got a birthday coming up, haven’t you?

Elizabeth:  I’ll ask the questions, Neil.  What do you feel was the greatest accomplishment of your parents’ generation, and your generation, and what would you like to see your children’s generation accomplish?  .

Neil:  My parents’ generation…  Putting a man on the moon.  It was a feat of discovery beyond all knowable borders.   A dream fulfilled.  My generation?  The internet.  That changed everything.  Suddenly all knowledge is possible.  

Elizabeth:  And your children’s generation?  What would you like to see them do?

Neil:  I’d like to see them focus more on self-reliance, on family and community.  (Note:  Neil said some things here that were very politically oriented, which I have edited out.  I will save those for when I start a blog titled:  Mostly Strident and Argumentative Things.)

Elizabeth:  What is your favorite one-liner?  

Neil:  That’s easy.  It’s:  ‘Orally.  How do you take yours?’

Elizabeth:  (…is speechless…)

Neil:  That’s in response to the question:  ‘How do you take your coffee?’  I have another one.  ‘Lying down.’  Which is what you say when someone asks you how you slept.  

Elizabeth:  That’s really all the time we have now, Neil.  Thank you very much.  

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Neil:  I have a lot of jokes like that.

Elizabeth:  We’re good.  Thank you.

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Neil posing with the author, post-interview, to show there are no hard feelings.

Parenting — a Short Story

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By Elizabeth Speth
Once upon a time, two people who were mere children themselves decided to have children.  Or they did not decide.  Either way, it happened.
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Babies were born and they were wonderful and terrible things.  Tyrannical, foul-smelling, inconveniently spewing.  Riveting, too.  The exhausted parents couldn’t tear their bleary eyes away.  Suddenly, the babies were everything.  Something had sprung up out of nothing, and taken over the world.
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The infants stretched into toddlers, and then pre-schoolers, and that took about five minutes, give or take.  The parents watched closely, and it was a time of fear.  The ‘What if…‘ time.
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What if… something happens?  What if… there is illness?  What if… someone hurts them… ?  What if…
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Holidays were fun, though.  There was squealing, and the slap of little feet in the hallway.  In summer there was the chlorine smell of swim lessons (to eliminate a ‘what if…’) and flushed early sleep while crickets throbbed, and the sun hovered low in the sky.  The lawn mower choked on army men hiding in the grass, and died.  Even that was amusing.
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Then a tooth or two went missing, and the children changed.  They looked different.  Elongated.  Angles replaced curves, there was some awkwardness.  They kept secrets, whispered to their friends in the back seat, eyes sliding away when a parent looked a question into the rear view mirror.
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Elementary school a blur, a little time in the classroom for the parents, a ride on the bus to a science museum, the underlying disapproval of their presence emanating from the children.  The beginning of the Time of Hostility.
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Which stretched into junior high school, the first dance, don’t ask them too many questions, don’t look too long, don’t love too much, don’t worry (but worry!) because they look like adults but they still have tantrum-throwing, unreasonable, magical-thinking toddler brains behind those braces.  And they are still heartbreakingly beautiful.
High school.  The ‘Whatever‘ time.  Each child a little different, all of them preferring the cool teachers as parents, and it’s all about the friends.  The parents watch them drive off alone for the first time.  Pick a college.  Pick a career.  They are terrified.  They make poor choices, and the rest of the time they make no choices at all, it seems.  Somewhere in there, despite the parents’ subtle surveillance, they sneak their milestones.  First drink.  Maybe first drug.  First sexual fumblings.  Maybe heartbreak.  The only clue is that they grow more or less surly, inexplicably.
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A last summer of separation.  Which they feel passionately about spending with friends.
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College.  A terrible wrench, some internal bleeding.
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After a long pause, a stony silence of independence, the calls start.  They miss the parents.  They appreciate the parents.  Home for the holidays, which are joyful again.
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The parents think:  “Well, we can do this.  We like these adult children.  They are pleasant.  And we can turn our thoughts to other things.”
Then things don’t go according to plan.  The ‘What the…?’  time. Courses of study are changed.  Schools are changed.  Someone has decided he doesn’t really want to go to college at all.  Maybe a ‘gap year’.  Maybe trade school.  Maybe get a dog and hike for a few months.
Dad, tuition-drained, a child suddenly gray at the temples (when did that happen?), asks in exasperation:  ‘What the hell is going on in our kids’ heads?’
Mom:  “As if they should have it all figured out somehow. By the late teens and early twenties? Please.”  But she is very worried.  This is how things stand, as she sees it, with the children:
1. They are poor. Which is appropriate.  Isn’t everyone at this age?  Some of them will struggle with poverty for only a short time, some forever.  The world is made up of both types of children.
2. They want adventure. This is a great time for that. They are children, yes, but with no children of their own.
3. They also want the world to be quiet, so they can think for a minute, so they can figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
The parents decide to be quiet.   With difficulty, they try not to hold youth against itself. That would be the height of hypocrisy.
They mutter, they grumble.  They work to be grateful. And be quiet.
Someday, though they are but wrinkled, waning children themselves, there will be grandchildren. They want in on that.  And they want to see the process repeat itself.   They figure they’ve earned it.  The ‘What did we tell you?‘ time.
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Is Texting and Aging the New Texting and Driving?

By Elizabeth Speth

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This is an intervention.

It’s going to be awkward and painful, especially for the interventionee, my husband Neil, who has become a danger to himself and others.  Who has wrought destruction and acute embarrassment and also occasional nausea upon his loved ones.  Who needs to put down his cell phone.  And walk away.  No last-minute pictures.  No farewell texts.  It’s time to go cold turkey.

Some numbers to consider as I build my case:  According to the Pew Research Center,  83% of American adults own cell phones and three-quarters of them (73%) send and receive text messages. The average 18-24 year-old sends or receives more than a hundred text messages daily.  In the 55-64 age bracket, the number is a much lower ten or so.

In the Neil Bracket, the goal here is to get the number down to a nice, round zero.  My children will back me up here.

Our beef with Neil is based on other hard, cold statistics, like the following:

One or more times a week, Neil forgets he is on a group message chain, and sends shall we say inappropriate messages to our perpetually traumatized, gagging, horrified, eye-soap scrubbing offspring.  So far only our family has been targeted, but it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world is at risk.

It’s been going on for a while.  Neil has been chastised, he’s been warned, he’s been threatened.  There have been apologies, confrontations, ultimatums, tears, vows to go forth and sin no more.  But Neil is a recidivist.  He’s recalcitrant.  He’ll be fine for a few days, what we now know to call the Honeymoon Period, but then I get the textual equivalent of a mumble, something to the effect that he may have sent a text without his glasses again, not sure, and BOOM!  There is this, which cannot be un-seen:

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You will notice he tried to bluff his way out of this, which is typical behavior for an intervention candidate.

I actually retrieved this photo off my son’s Twitter feed.  It’s in the #Neilstrikesagain series.

More damning evidence:

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I have not included the texts that refer to specific body parts.  I have spared you that, but you can see them on our children’s Twitter and Instagram feeds.

I don’t mean to pick on just Neil here.  Well, that’s a lie.  I do.  This is an intervention.  But I’m probably guilty of being too old to text too.  I still try get the spelling and punctuation right, and I write in complete paragraphs with strong topic sentences and metaphors, as I was taught.  This kind of effort on my part, with the help of the auto-correct feature and my own lack of appropriate magnifying eyewear,  just results in a sort of word salad, especially after cocktail hour.

Perhaps you are feeling badly for Neil now.  You would like to suggest, in his defense, that he could dictate his texts, rather than typing them.  That doesn’t work in Neil’s case, because he does not proofread.  He can’t.  He doesn’t have his reading glasses.

Take a recent evening when he texted me while enjoying a seafood dinner, and presumably libations, with friends.  The mussels were apparently particularly tender that night, prompting the following dictated message of affection:

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In the wrong hands, this could have sparked an International Incident.  This man is clearly dangerous.  Note also the fact that this was, again, a group message.

It is time to face the fact that we are the Jitterbug generation.  The demographic for whom the straightforward flip phones with large, lighted keys were invented.  They can only be used to call 911 and Reverse Mortgage companies.  We can stay out of trouble this way.

Because it’s not just the texts.  It’s the photos.  Neil has discovered the selfie, and he’s obsessed.  I know for a fact, because I have photographic proof, that he goes into his office during the work day, closes and locks the door, takes inappropriate photos of himself and SENDS THEM TO PEOPLE  (more irrefutable numbers here) at the rate of approximately too many times per week.

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See what I mean?

Like a teenager, he sends pictures of what he is wearing:

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Yes, those are mis-matched shoes.  Neil wears them exactly twice yearly.  Neil doesn’t wear his glasses when he dresses either.  But that’s a different intervention.

Neil, you know we love you.  We think you are great dad (other than the inappropriate messages to your children), a great husband, and a good, hard-working provider.

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But author Sara Gruen summed it up best when she said:  “Keeping up the appearance of having all your marbles is hard work, but important.”   

So, yeah.  We just want you to put down the phone. Maybe take up the saxophone?

Or just get some sleep.

A (Textual) Conversation With My Son (About Monkeys and Really Bad Parenting)

By Elizabeth Speth

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This poor monkey is being raised in a Monkey Orphanage by Kind But Impersonal Monkey Nuns. He is waiting for Leland to adopt him.

Leland, my youngest, wants many things.

When he was Five, he wanted a robot. That never happened.

Bitterly, he built his own robots — so many of them — out of things he stole from our closets (shoes, hats, watches, jewelry, lingerie), and he left them lying around the house like reproaches.

When he was Seven, he thought he should have a parrot. He faced a wasteland of disappointment on this score also.  I once offered to make him an egg sandwich to ameliorate his grief.  He said he would rather have counseling.

When he was Twelve, he thought his own hut on a beach near his very own rum plantation was a reasonable request. I gave him ten years’ worth of Halloween pirate costume bits and pieces (including a very nice loin cloth) and wished him my very best.

I even demanded:  “Why is the rum always gone?” to express my sympathy, with a hearty “Yo-Ho!” as punctuation.

He squinted at me, sharpened his plastic swords, and said nothing.

This year, he wanted an unsupervised alcohol-rich party at our house (his father and I were meant to furnish large quantities of alcohol, and then cool our heels at a nearby motel, ignoring the sound of sirens and the frantic buzzing of our cell phones) for his 18th birthday.

The Glorious and Much-Deserved 18th Birthday Present (in time for the creature to perform tricks at said alcohol-soaked, unsupervised party) was to have been: a monkey.

Any kind of monkey. It just had to be cute and smart, according to Leland.

If you ask him, Leland will tell you he never gets what he wants.

And, on the face of it, as I sift through the tattered pieces of his childhood under our fumbling supervision, I have to conclude that he may be right.

But the negotiations, which have evolved over the years from face-to-face disappointment to electronic embitterment, are always fun.

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Leland, dear boy, as penance, I am turning myself over to the proper parenting authorities.

Please accept my blanket apology for the Childhood of Deprivation (we know what horrors this phrase encompasses, and we won’t speak of this again).


You still can’t have a monkey.


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