The Life Cycle of an Empty Threat
That's it. I've had it. You're done. Do you hear me? You are NEVER, EVER, EVER doing something EVER AGAIN. Also, there is NO WAY you are going to do that thing that you were looking forward to doing. That thing is SO NOT HAPPENING. You can JUST FORGET ABOUT that thing.
Really? Do you REALLY think you're still going to be able to do that thing? Because you could not be more wrong. There is NO WAY. Not after what you did.
You still owe me an apology. For what you did. I hope you don't think I have forgotten. Because I HAVE NOT FORGOTTEN.
Yes, but what are you EVEN apologizing FOR? It doesn't count if you don't even acknowledge what you did.
Christ, do I have to remember everything? You're in trouble. I remember that. You must have done SOMETHING.
Fine. Go. Whatever. But next time? Next time you do whatever it is that you did? You are going to be VERY SORRY. I mean it.
Nobody ever remembers the telephone conversations I conduct from the shower, the text messages I answer in my sleep, the calls I pick up on the first ring while staggering beneath grocery bags filled with stuff requested in text messages I scan while pushing a shopping cart.
I'm not asking for a math prize or anything, but once I answered a series of texts at 12:35 a.m. to discuss the implications of the Fibonacci sequence. I'm pretty sure it was last night.
I take calls in my downstairs office that come from upstairs bedrooms where the teenagers believe room-to-room telephone communication is as normal as ordering Pop-Tarts over the internet. Because why wouldn't you?
But my semi-heroic availability for supply wrangling and problem solving will never be part of our family narrative. It's the unsung kind of semi-heroism. I get that. No one wants to hear a song about last minute requests for poster board or emergency Nutella runs.
Still, it rankles me to hear the story that has sprouted in its place. In this version, I am The Mother Who Never Answers Her Phone.
"You never answer your phone," my son complains from California, where he has left 8 voicemails for me in 15 minutes. "I was at work," I say. Approximately 16 minutes have elapsed since his first call.
"Where is your phone?" he says. "You need to put it in your pocket and turn the volume all the way up."
"I'm not wearing cargo pants," I say. "What is your emergency?"
It rings three more times before I pull into the driveway.
"You never answer your phone," she says as I walk in the door.
"I'm here," I say. "What do you need?"
The number of calls, e-mails and texts I manage to answer is not worth mentioning. I am not even going to mention it. It would be like mentioning that I just walked in the door from work with an armful of groceries when the relevant fact is that people were hungry 10 minutes ago.
I'm not really complaining. When your firstborn leaves for college, every call home is like a valentine. Roses are red, violets are blue, I need money. Also I dropped a weight on my iPhone.
My daughter's text updates are a little slice of sssoMETHINGGG. I don't really know what she's saying a lot of the time, but I'm pretty sure I need to buy poster board. Or possibly Nutella? KthnxbyeLOL.
I set a special ring tone on my phone so I would know when one of them was trying to reach me. It sounds like chirping baby birds. It was so sweet when I heard it the first time. I may have smiled.
But sometimes it sounds as if I am hatching chicks in my purse. What the fuck can they need now?
Whatever it is, I am on it, whether it is a wee hours discussion of the Fibonacci numbers or an emergency iPhone replacement plan.
Did you know the fibonacci numbers show up everywhere? Like they're in pinecones. Pineapples too. Anything that starts with pine. The girl is babysitting and wants me to keep her company by text.
I am asleep, I reply. Will ponder tomorrow.
Ponder now, she says. So I do.
from the telephone archives: Mommy's Customer Service Center and Wine Bar
Boy Esq. is driving me home from work after borrowing my car to do whatever it is he does all day while I am bringing home the bacon, which is just an expression because we have actually been living on Cheerios and fast food for months now.
I decide this is a good time to get a start on my going-off-to-college speech, which is still a little rough in places, but it's not like he's going to hear it anyway since he's got Kendrick Lamar blowing up the speakers in language no good mother would be car dancing to, but whatever.
When you are working as a figure skating-secret agent-comedy sketch writing-English-tutoring-corporate shill and managing a family of malcontents, you dance when you can. Sheryl Sandberg taught me that.
The point is, he leaves for college in less than a week - or possbily two weeks? I have it written down on my calendar somewhere - and I haven't done anything right for a very long time now. I know this because he tells me so.
Me: Just because you're going to be living across the country doesn't mean you can't ask for help. I'm available by phone or text 24/7.
Boy, Esq. (disgusted): You haven't been available to me 24/7 since kindergarten. Look in your purse. I bet you ten bucks your phone isn't even turned on.
Kendrick Lamar: Hold up is that you? With them big old thighs after school?
Me: (defensively) It is on. I swear. I turn it off during tutoring sessions, but I turn it back on as soon as I can. Really. I swear it's on.
Kendrick Lamar: And that shot my pride, I tried to improv, but no freestyle, I never do...
Boy Esq.: (shakes his head) Hand it to me. I bet it's on silent. You can't even hear it.
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah ya nails did, ya hair did, your cellphone is selfish. It only got numbers that come with a hummer her new prima donna I smelt it.
Me: I'm not going to hand it to you while you're driving. Slow down. Besides I don't need to hear it. I'm right here. Talking to you right now. In person. With real mom advice. Also, I have my credit card. Do you want fast food?
Boy Esq.: You never answer it.
Me: That's not true. I answer it all the time. How many times do you need to call me in a day?
Kendrick Lamar: I'm grown now, I'm on my own now, I'm poppin'. Change my phone now. When I get home now, I got options. Fast forward, wait is that you?
Me: Oh god. Call me right now. I swear I'll pick up.
"Oh my god," she says. "It's hatching. Is it hatching? It's hatching. What do I do?"
I have no idea what the standard of care is for whatever it is that is hatching from the cartoon egg on her smartphone, but watching her try to live up to it is the most fun I have had in a neighborhood wine bar since the woman they call "Kate" insisted on showing us her rack. Repeatedly.
The egg-watcher, whose day job includes responsibilities like cross-functional team leadership and strategic planning, offers an explanation, just in case her diligence seems a little excessive: the last time she was in charge of a virtual hatchling, something went terribly, terribly wrong.
Whether through inattention or incompetence, she does not say, but whatever occurred, it left a small boy traumatized and a 40-something professional woman determined to make it up to him, whatever the cost in dignity and spilled wine.
It's tragedy, yes, but it also means I will be hanging on to my title a little bit longer. I am Slightly. Less. Ridiculous. It's a hair splitter, maybe, but it's enough.
The nicest thing about being named one of BlogHer's "Voices of the Year" in humor writing is the instant credibility it elicits from your family members.
Everything changes. As an award-winning humor writer, you now find family members falling all over themselves to be considerate.
No longer are you subject to the unpleasant crunch of tortilla shards on your office chair or the inconvenience of discovering your desktop covered in Ryan Gosling photos.
Now your work has real meaning to the members of your family, who might even offer to help.
"All that typing must be funny to somebody," they will conclude, possibly.
My point is, I owe a great big thank you to those of you who, from the very beginning, have seen something here worth reading, and who have never once left snack wrappers on my desk. I hope to meet many of you at the BlogHer annual conference later this month, where I have been invited to share some tips on humor writing, along with the very funny Elizabeth Jayne Liu. So, if anyone has any, please e-mail them to me immediately.
Check out all the other Voices of the Year winners here.
Photo: Humor writing requires a keen eye for the absurd. Family life, on the other hand, requires that you learn to accept the absurd as completely ordinary. Balancing these two perspectives is achieved through generous servings of red wine.
If people had to give you a nickel every time they said that to you over the course of the parenting years, you could almost afford the parenting years.
But it's just a trope, meant to suggest that no matter what you might be suffering in the moment, someday, in what will seem like no time at all, you will think back fondly on the experience, presumably because irreversible brain damage caused by years of trying to hold conversations with teenagers has left you with less than reliable recall.
Also, it is very difficult to summon up a smell from memory.
My point is, it may seem like only yesterday that they were fighting to the death over whether it was a bigger share of responsiblity to forget to put the garbage out week after week or to fail to empty the dishwasher day after day. But in fact, it was actually this morning.
You want to stop time? It's not rocket science. All you need is a toddler and a public bathroom.
Here, in no particular order, is a collection of the truly time-stretching moments in parenting:
9. The time is ripe: Time spent navigating the perfect storm of potty training, a road trip and a gas station bathroom. Elapsed time: Absolute zero.
8. Quantum Time: Time spent trying to coax a toddler out of the ball pit in an alternate universe where the food makes you want to kill yourself and the musical act is a collection of large, singing animatronic rodents. You're going to have to go in, but first you're going to waste a whole lot of time.
7. Time of Your Life: Time spent trapped in a car with a teenager learning to drive. It may seem like the road itself is expanding, but it is, in fact, the very fabric of time.
6. Time is Money: Time spent trying to convince children that the lesser-priced, overpriced backpack/footwear/headphones/electronic device is a better value. Please. If you really knew anything about value you would have immediately purchased the most expensive option available, sparing yourself an experience three times as long but exactly as expensive.
5. Time in a Bottle: Time spent at children's birthday parties that include at least one slightly overweight man sweating in a superhero costume and performing tricks/bad jokes to an audience of sugared-up elementary school children who will all demand the same time-bending act at their own parties. It will go on forever, but the wine is pretty good.
4. Time is on your side: Time spent in development and launch of new systems designed to tweak household cleaning practices that currently have you doing the bulk of the work, plus everything else.
3. In due time: Time spent on deadlines that coincide with teenage daughter's sense of utter boredom and/or discovery of new pop sensation, teenage son's sense of imminent starvation and other family members' sense that you probably know where they left their keys and/or wallet. Bonus time-suck: You do.
2. Times table: Time spent participating in the timeless ritual that is called "family dinner" because no one would ever make the effort if it were called "three hours of work for a half hour of forced conversation with small disgruntled people over food nobody really likes that much."
1. Time well spent: Time spent completing college application and financing paperwork under a set of procedures that includes a multiplying set of deadlines for submitting duplicate information that will be plugged into a formula by which everyone is eventually asked to pay $allthemoneytheyhave.
Photos: From diapers to diplomas in less than 1/3 of your total life expectancy.
Driveway Theater had its world premiere in the Midwestern suburbs on May 21, 2013 under the direction of absolutely no one. Soundtrack by Sheryl Crow, for no particular reason except that no one bothered to change the music and it happened to be playing.
Morning. A driveway somewhere in the Midwestern suburbs where a woman and two teenagers, a boy of about 18 years and a girl, who is 15, are approaching a small black sedan, which is parked slightly askew. The woman's hair and clothes are also slightly askew and she has the air of someone who is trying to remember something. It is the very last time the three of them will ever be in the car together on the way to school. But she doesn't realize this until later. In fact, until just this second, as she is typing this sentence.
Girl: Can I drive?
Boy: No. You'd just have to switch drivers a mile away. It makes no sense
Girl: How come you let him make all the decisions?
Woman: (starts to speak)
Boy: Who parks like this? When are you going to learn to park?
Woman: (starts to answer)
Boy: Why are we leaving so early? School doesn't even start for 40 minutes. Why do you always let her decide when to leave?
ACT I, Scene Two
Interior of car. Woman behind the wheel. Boy in the passenger seat. Girl in back.
Woman: (addresses boy) So what would you like to eat at your graduation party?
Boy: I don't know. Food.
Girl: Spell his name out in pancakes.
Woman: Oh. Remember when I did that? Do you want me to spell your name out in pancakes?
Boy: You did that for her. That wasn't for me.
Girl: You never spelled my name out in pancakes. How come you never spelled my name out in pancakes?
Driveway of suburban high school, five minutes later. The girl has just exited the car, but the boy is still seated in the passenger seat, flipping through a copy of Wired magazine and making no move to get out. It is the last day of his senior year.
Boy: Why are we here so early? The doors aren't even open yet.
Woman: Someone just went in.
Boy: (looks up briefly before returning to his magazine.) They were buzzed in.
Woman: (reading over his shoulder from the driver's seat) Zombies are getting faster. I knew it.
Boy: I hate when they do stories like that. It's just silly.
Woman: I read that magazine for stories like that. (Pulls her wallet from her purse and pauses to choose from between denominations of currency.) Is $10 enough?
Boy: Maybe. (He takes the money but still does not get out of the car.)
Woman: Don't forget to pick up your graduation tickets.
Woman: (sighs.) Here. At the school. They sent out an e-mail, which I printed and taped to the refrigerator door three days ago.
Boy: Can you just text it to me?
Woman: Why would I text it to you? You are already here. At the school. Where the tickets actually are. Why don't you just ask someone inside? You know, where the tickets are.
Boy: (looks at her as if she has just suggested something ridiculous.) Where are you going right now? Just go home, read the note on the refrigerator and then text it to me.
Woman: (Opens mouth to speak, but then changes her mind. Boy exits.)
Later that same morning, same suburban driveway, same car, same woman behind the wheel. A man dressed for work and carrying a briefcase gets into the passenger seat with the air of someone who is trying to remember something. No one speaks. The woman fumbles briefly with the iPod connected to the car's speakers, trying to figure out what song was playing earlier during the conversation about pancakes, zombies and graduation tickets. Some song she hasn't heard in forever. Not that you could call it a conversation. She backs out of the driveway, listening, which she knows is a mistake. A half mile away, the man exits. He does not notice she is crying, or maybe she just has something in her eye?
She returns to the house, walks into the kitchen and pulls a note from the refrigerator door. Picks up her phone and begins to text:
"Seniors will pick up caps, gowns, honor tassels and commencement ceremony tickets in the Commons at Door A."
A week ago, she had never even been behind the wheel.
Now she is hurtling across the state at upwards of 65 mph, oversize sunglasses propped on her head, long blonde hair framing her face, intent on the road. Also, the scenery, the passing cars, the experience.
She looks like Malibu Barbie. Except this is a real car. Not that anyone else seems to have noticed.
I would have said no, but nobody asked me.
There is no way she is ready to drive across the state. I only just started teaching her to drive in the parking lot at the mall. At speeds of up to four miles an hour.
This trip is a conspiracy between the girl and her father, who dismissed my objections in a single sentence: She's not going to learn to drive in a parking lot. Which made a lot more sense in the house.
From the back seat of the car, where her brother and I will be hostages for the next three hours, some pretty good counterarguments have begun to occur to me.
But the girl has been counting down the hours to this trip ever since Mr. Kamikaze told her she could drive. We're driving to her cousin's wedding on the other side of
the world her childhood the state. It's like prom and her birthday rolled into one.
She has made a playlist for the occasion.
"I don't think she should be listening to music," I say. Her father looks at me patiently from the co-pilot's seat. "Why don't you just take a little nap?" he says. Then he adds, "that's what I'm going to do." He flashes Veruca the first of many looks meant to convey that I am to be ignored.
That is when I know I am the only one who recognizes that we are all about to die.
Veruca has anticipated my musical objections. Her road warrior playlist opens with Amanda Palmer. Now I'm on board with the music, just as she knew I would be. She flashes me a victory smile in the rearview mirror.
I settle into the back seat with my iPod, New York Times and a pile of books. It's going to be fine. We're all going to die. It's going to be fine. Now we're stopping for doughnuts? Am I the only one who recognizes that this is just piling one bad idea on top of another? Now we're all going to die sticky.
The boy is harrassing her from the back seat: Veruca, do you know what those lines on the road are for? I do not look up. I can't believe anyone thought this was a good idea.
Somewhere between his second and third doughnut, the boy's thoughts turn to food. "Is there going to be food there?" he asks. Veruca rolls her eyes. She can't believe what a peasant her brother is.
"It's a wedding," she says. "Haven't you ever been to a wedding?" She spends the next 20 miles or so schooling him in wedding conventions. As if we're actually going to get there.
She comments on the scenery now going by at 80 mph; her brother comments on how stupid her observations are. Is there even such a thing as a lightning pole? It's what passes for conversation in our car, except now I'm in no position to issue the usual threats. My job is to sit here and pretend we're not hurtling down the interstate at the hands of a girl who writes on herself with Sharpies and believes she is going to marry one of the members of One Direction.
She's looking in the wrong direction, checking out the driver behind us in the rearview mirror. "There's a guy behind us in a suit," she reports. I turn up the volume on my iPod so I can't hear her not watching the road in front of her. She continues to bicker with her brother.
"Stop talking to her," I hiss. "She needs to concentrate."
I can't concentrate. I've been looking at the same page of the newspaper for 75 miles. If we survive this trip, we've got global warming and crippling student debt to look forward to. Also, a new play. None of which matters now, does it? But I am the only one who knows this.
1. In the top drawer.
2. On the bottom shelf
3. Wherever you left it.
4. Read the directions.
5. Just figure it out.
6. Am I the only one who knows how to do this?
7. Because I am the only one who knows how to do this.
9. Five, tops.
10. Check the schedule.*
11. It's your money.
12. It's my money.
14. That's just logic.
15. It certainly looks that way.
16. Absolutely not. But possibly.
17. Yes. No, wait. No. Definitely no.
18. I, II and IV.
19. How am I supposed to know that?
20. The rate that London banks charge each other for loans.
21. We'll see. (No.)
22. If you are patient.
23. If you hurry.
24. None of the above.
25. All of the above.
*Actual times may vary.
1. When people say things like "you cannot put a price on that," it doesn't mean you won't be paying for it.
2. Sanctimonious parents often really do know what they are doing. The trick is to figure out what they know without having to spend too much time around them.
3. There is nothing dumber in parenting than starting an argument with your mother-in-law over her style of feeding, caring for, or entertaining your children. She is feeding, caring for and entertaining your children. Do the math.
4. You can spend a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of questions like "why are there marshmallows on the pool table?" but it won't improve your bank shot.
5. Be very skeptical of parenting books that promote some trendy new "system" or "method" or "way" of raising cooperative, successful and attractive children. It is virtually impossible to get kids to read these books.
6. If you do not have a system for keeping track of scissors, nail clippers, left shoes, cell phones and permission slips, the result is exactly the same as if you did, except that you will have established yourself as the go-to person for tracking it all down when the system fails.
7. It is important to keep at least one small part of your life for yourself even if it is only the part you spend thinking about taking a shower. Actual showers are where you will be signing permission slips and mediating sibling disputes for the next 18 years.
8. Keep a pen handy in the shower.
9. Don't get too attached to anything in your house that is made of glass or can be thrown.
10. When someone from the PTA approaches you for the first time, tell them you would really, really like to help, but their projects are stupid and the other parents are irritating. Then say, "I'm just kidding," and give them your husband's cell phone number and e-mail address.
11. Pedicures are a waste of time and money. Schedule them regularly.
12. Celebrity parenting advice is not as useful as you would think.
13. The best way to keep your sanity throughout the teenage years is to spend them on a tropical island with a handsome stranger and a supply of rum drinks. The second best way doesn't work.
14. Surround yourself with people who can talk about something besides their kids. Make sure at least one of them has a really dark sense of humor and a tattoo.
15. Don't look under the couch cushions until you have come to terms with the fact that what you see as a piece of furniture, your children will always see as a place to eat chips and salsa straight from the package.
16. While no one really believes that wolves are capable of raising human children, if you set the bar at the wolf standard, you will spend a lot less time frustrated over things like the fact that your kitchen looks as if coyotes have been using it.
17. If you can dream it, you can do it. Just kidding. Your dreams are finished. Get over them.
18. Make new dreams. Really, really, tiny dreams. Take a ridiculous amount of pleasure in them.
Mr. Kamikaze, just resurfacing from a deep-space investigation that has left him blinking, wide-eyed in disbelief at the landscape of the suburban homestead, offers some parenting advice from another planet:
What the fuck is he even talking about?
Here on the homefront, which Mr. K. regularly abandons in the interests of truth, justice and mortgage payments, we are up to our necks in deadline writing, biology homework, college applications and at least one romantic debacle. There is barely time for figure skating.
So when he emerges from some dimly-lit parking garage long enough to weigh in on parenting issues, it can be like hearing a voice coming out of the toaster. What the hell is that?
Sometimes, the toaster pops ups with uncommonly good ideas.
Sometimes it's like toast from another planet. "You think the kids learned words like "fuck" from me?" I say.
"No," he says. "I think they learn that it's acceptable from you."
At this point, I am laughing so hard, I can barely get a word out. "So, wait," I say finally. "You think the children are more likely to do something if it seems acceptable to me?"
He actually does. It's fucking adorable.