Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the Golden Rule goes against the grain

bush butt wipes

It was a joke the adults got immediately. It was a novelty: a roll of toilet paper printed with the likeness of the 43rd U.S. President.

At nearly $10 a roll, it was an expensive bit of uncouth humor. But we come from a long line of Tax-and-Spend Liberals, most of whom were celebrating the end of the Tax-Cut-and-Spend Neo-Cons’ rule, so it wasn't terribly surprising to find this crass toiletry among our gifts this past Christmas.

And it might have remained merely a tasteless bit of memorabilia had we not run out of bathroom tissue."Mama? Who is that man on the toilet paper?"

And in one sentence a new era in our lives as parents barged into the room, not bothering to knock. She had cracked our code; and soon, I knew, the days of spelling things we didn't want her to understand would be behind us, too.

I looked around, exposed and embarrassed. I am confronted with the fact that my behavior is in direct opposition to how I want her to behave. This little joke, at this very moment, seems juvenile and mean-spirited.

"Well," I stammered, flirting for a moment with the idea of a lie. "That's our former president. To use his likeness as toilet paper is showing distain or disrespect."
"But he's not our president anymore,” she replied “Why don't we have images of Barack Obama?"

“We approve of him,” I stammered. “We wish to show him respect.”

She doesn’t understand. Everything she’s learned up until now has pointed her in the direction of The Golden Rule … an ethic of reciprocity … Do Unto Others.
It seems as if no other time in our history has the line between adult and child — prankster and parent — been so hard to distinguish.

Yet, it falls to me — a person of a certain age — to make sure that she is prepared to be an adult. It is my job to make sure she has the skills she needs to successfully maneuver through this life. She must learn how to play by the rules. She must learn the art of diplomacy and tact. She must understand what it means to care and how to turn the other cheek without allowing it to be slapped.

But she must also learn how to question the system. She must learn that being polite isn’t always preferred.She must learn that we live in a country where people have the right to live without fear of oppression, even if that right has morphed into a kind of crass protest. She should learn that with that right also comes great responsibility, and sometimes great personal harm, too. In making choices, we are not afforded the right to determine what people think of us. And we can’t always direct how they react.

So when I write about the little roll of toilet paper in my bathroom, stashed away now for emergency use, I know I run the risk of ruffling feathers, changing opinions and even incurring the wrath of harsh judgment.

I know I can handle that.

But what I never really counted upon was the fast work of Karma.

Let’s just say there’s a reason most people steer clear of harsh dyes and printing inks in their toilet paper.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Welcome to Hell ... social networking included

I’d like to introduce Jenny, Ittybit's virtual pet Webkinz.

Jenny's pseudo real-life counterpart, a stuffed dachshund toy, has been sleeping with Ittybit since we activated the plush pet.

For those of you still blissfully unaware of this particular corner of hell; let me enlighten you:

These are -- for the most part (but not in Jenny's case, of course) – the crummiest looking stuffed animals ever manufactured. Many have stringy hair that protrudes in all directions, even if they’re supposed to be reptilian.

But the toy itself isn't the real draw; the $12-$14 you shell out for it also covers the cost of a secret code that allows entry into the Webkinz World, an online hub for video games that promote all that is wonderful and annoying about the interwebs including social interaction and consumerism.

All the things we love and hate about reality are realized in Webkinz World, too.
In Webkinz World you can get a job, earn cash to feed and clothe your little friends, and collect over-priced virtual stuff to decorate your intangible pet's imaginary house. You can play some games for hours on end, but other games are only available to players once a day. You can click on ads, shop in fake stores, put crazy-looking purchases in shopping carts and proceed to a one-click check out.

You can watch your imaginary money dwindle away as you buy $900 tables that don’t really fit into your pet’s tiny room anyway. You can work at the pizza joint for a few thousand hours and make enough dough to buy your pet an extra room.

You can even sell your pretend stuff back to the make-believe shop (which sold you the invented junk in the first place) -- no questions asked. You will have to resort to that once you get fired from your ghost job at the shoe store that the employment office set up for you because you aren’t terribly skilled at matching shoes, and you won't be making any tips in the replacement gig you got on your own by visiting the Arcade: It's hard to make pizza when the video game won't allow you to do two things at once.

Of course, you can't do two things at once in real life very well, anyway, so quit yer bellyaching.

There are benefits to living in an imaginary place.

In this virtual world you don’t have to deal with folks dressed in floral housecoats, wearing socks and sandals, trying to negotiate a lower price for the stuff you’ve dragged curbside for your twice annual yard sale. You can just get your money back for that apple you bought for $25 bucks regardless of when you bought it.

Of course, parents can learn a lot about their kids’ priorities when they activate an account and look over their shoulders as they go hog wild.

For instance, Ittybit isn’t terribly patient when the Web site crashes and I have to sign her in again (because she can’t read or spell her sign-in and passwords.

“MOM! I feel like I’m 25!”

“Why is that?”

“Because it’s taking so LONG!”

You also may find, as I did, that poor fake Jenny gets neglected. … That your precious little peanut barely even visits her online pal, or cleans her room, or puts her to bed at night. Instead she opts to head straight for the Arcade. And instead of buying healthy fake food for her pet she buys hideous furnishings for her already cramped room.

You may even find yourself going online late at night, trying to figure out what ails the poor pooch, whose icon is perpetually sporting an ice bag, by putting it to bed or feeding it some vitamins before you head to the arcade for a few rounds of Cash Cow yourself.

Not that that’s ever happened to me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Perhaps I should skip riding that bike

In order to observe a clear example of what the opposite of athletic looks like, all one had to do was be standing on the top of a particular sledding hill, in a particular columnists’ home town, on a chilly Sunday in January and overheard the following conversation:

Big burly man in Carhart overalls: “Now … remember to steer.”

Stay Puft Marshmallow Mom in down parka and rain pants, already seated in sled with snow-suited child: “Steer? How do you steer a sled?”

Big burly man in Carhart overalls: “Are you kidding me?”

Stay Puft Marshmallow Mom in down parka and rain pants, holding on to the ground, trying to stop forward motion: “Well. There’s no steering wheel on this thing … there are no pedals I can see … Therefore I would say NO! I am NOT kidding you.”

Big burly man in Carhart overalls: “Really?”

Stay Puft Marshmallow Mom in down parka and rain pants, becoming increasingly panicked: “Really! Now, listen you: I’m sitting here at the top of a very steep hill, ready to hurl myself and my first-born child forward at a rate of speed I’ve never been comfortable with and I’ve just explained to you that I don’t understand the concept of steering a overturned plastic lid. Could you for once stop mocking me and explain how it is I’m supposed to get down there before it’s too late?

Big burly man in Carhart overalls, fully laughing now: “OK, OK. Just use your rudders.”

Stay Puft Marshmallow Mom in down parka and rain pants, now fully prepared to throw down the gloves: “Rudder? Rudder!? This is a sled not a boat … WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”

Big burly man in Carhart overalls, now gesturing with arms outstretched: “Use your arms.”

This is where I prove that communication, even under the best conditions, is merely an exercise in futility, and push off with both hands dragging behind me as if to slow down the ride. Predictably we skitter off sideways, rudderless.

Big burly man in Carhart overalls, after dropping Stay Puft Marshmallow Mom’s expensive camera in the snow, nevertheless, saves them from an embarrassing collision in the trees: “I meant put your arm down in the direction you want to go. If you want to turn left, put your left arm down. If you want to go right, put your right arm down.”

Stay Puft Marshmallow Mom, now mortified as the snickering from others gathered on the hill becomes audible: “Ok … OK. ..I’ve got it.”

And off we go …

To the left. …

I put my right arm down … and we still go to the left. ..

I lean toward the right. … and still we go left.

WHAT is GOING ON!?! I refuse to panic.

I look down and notice Ittybit’s arms and legs are off the sled and digging in to snow on the left side. She’s trying to help. I figure she’s processed the previous conversation and had decided to take steering into her own hands (and legs).

I bump her legs into the sled with my left leg and dig in with my right hand. Miraculously the sled rights itself and shoots down the hill, straight to the bottom, and slides to a smooth stop in the field.

Soon we’re climbing back up the hill for another turn, and to face the other smirking faces.

“It’s been quite a while since I’ve been sledding,” I say aloud to cheer myself up.

“It’s definitely not like riding a bike.”

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sometimes all you need is one small change

Lately I’ve been feeling as if people around me are cheerleading in a kind of Paul Revere fashion as the hours close in on another year. Their excited chant: “The New Year is coming! The New Year is coming!”

These harbingers of all things hopeful are hanging their optimism on the next digit in time.

For me a new year is only a moment not unlike any other moment wherein a person looks to the future and wonders at its potential … and then makes a liquid-y air-letting sound with their mouths and gives up hope.

What’s the point?

I rarely wait for the end of one year so that, in a wine-addled haze, I can resolve to be a better person in the beginning days of the next year.

But I’m not a cynic.

I try to change the error of my ways as it occurs to me, whenever it occurs to me, lest I forget. Not that it matters. I don't really change.

My diet doesn't get better, my clothes don't become stylish. I don't keep up with the laundry or count to 10 before I snap angrily at a child who annoys without intent. I speak my mind even when my mind is telling me to shut up.

I'm the same person I was yesterday, and the day before that and the year before that day. So forth or hence, whichever applies. Even in the New Year, despite the fact that I quit smoking 10 years ago, I know it will be the same me who tips back the glass and toasts tomorrow, a little older but none the wiser. I’m still going to see the glass as half empty.

I'm also one of those persons who THINKS I let things go when I merely tie my grievances to the longest leash I can find just in case I need to haul them back in when it's cold or raining or otherwise inclement.

I'm not particularly proud of this. I know I am a mule with the stubborn.

“Fester. Fester. Fester. Rot. Rot. Rot.”

Still … I hear the cheer. I am drawn to it the same way I am drawn to the fresh glut of media snippets instructing us how to actually stick to the resolutions we make. Just like they reported last year … only the talking head is someone we’ve never met before, and she’s wearing a blouse that implies she's in the know. I imagine she’s also got a matching handbag and she owns the secret of accessorizing. She’s a professional.

She gives me hope that maybe this year I can put the festering rot away.

Maybe this is the year I can give up my status as the sometimes spokesperson for PLUM -- The People for Less Unrest in Marriage – an imaginary think tank that hasn’t really risen to the status it deserves anyway. It’s merely acquiesced, which is not to say it has truly found agreement.

Acquiescing rarely means that no matter what the person with whom you’ve aligned your opinion thinks. It simply means you’ve given in; you’ve compromised but not in a healthy or constructive way. You’ve thrown up your hands and said: “Fine, whatever.”

As a parent, I find this a lot in my responses as well.

For instance, when Santa bought Ittybit an unfinished dollhouse for Christmas I knew that she'd want to decorate it. I could have guessed she'd want to color the roof and door knobs in marker or crayon, and furthermore, that she'd get tired midway through and start scribbling blindly.

Had it been my dollhouse, I would have left it alone. I would have wanted it to be clean and fresh and new -- the opposite of how I see my life and everything in it.

At that person, I couldn't help but to try and dissuade her from slapdash decoration. But she is not me. She has no qualms about her abilities. She sees opportunity and beauty where I see only the indecision and imperfection.

Soon I stopped lobbying for tasteful colors and decorator paint swatches, and instead tried accepting the true beauty in her patchwork of scribbles. Not to acquiesce.

After all, Santa didn't bring the dollhouse for me. He brought it for her.