When my son was four-ish, our late afternoon walks took us past a slowly decomposing possum carcass every day for a week. I realize, in hindsight, that a better strategy would have been to change our route, but instead I was caught off guard - day after day after day - by a toddler's precocious questions about life, death and decomposition.
And so, I ad-libbed: veering wildly between Eastern, Western and agnostic philosophy, with some cold, hard, forensics on the side.
"The possum becomes part of the earth, and then a flower might grow in that spot and then there is a little bit of the possum in the flower," I might say one day. The next day he would ask me if possums go to heaven and I was back to square one.
When my daughter was in third grade, I patiently and clinically, and without consulting a single book, answered her questions about human reproduction, with a firm sense of my own superiority to all of those squeamish, prudish parents who perpetuate the myth that this is some kind of parenting challenge. Please, people. I've got this.
Only I forgot the part that goes, "Oh, and by the way, this is something that kids should learn from their parents and not from you." The calls started coming in within 24 hours.
The point is, I am not up for any parenting awards that I know of... But I had, until recently, a few categories in which I privately held myself up as worthy of some acclaim.
Arts and crafts, for example. I doubt there is any family in the Midwest who can match us glue stick for glue stick. Over the years, we've amassed a collection of buttons, felt squares, glitter, glue sticks and construction paper that could pay for a year's tuition at a prestigious art school.
Whenever my children have an inspiration or an assignment, I head out immediately to procure supplies, with little thought as to how much it is going to cost or how I am going to get 15 pounds of glitter out of the carpet. Our home is a full-time art studio; nothing is deemed too ambitious for my little Picassos.
After all, I may have said to the parents of all the other creativity-stunted children, "you can't spoil a child with art supplies."
As a result, my children expect to be supplied like Christo at a moment's notice.
Which, as it turns out, does not go on the plus side of the parenting ledger after all.
This was made screamingly obvious during our most recent School Project Emergency.
School Project Emergencies are those assignments, which for one reason or another, are assigned within minutes of being due and always require the purchase of supplies.
But I am not a complete sap. If, hypothetically, I had tickets to a sold-out reading of one of my favorite authors and less than 45 minutes to drop off a collection of neighborhood children, feed the ones that belong to me, shower, dress and get out of the house, and if that was the moment my seventh-grader chose to tell me I had to take him right this minute to buy poster board for a science project that was due the next morning - I would put my foot down.
"No," I would say. "There is no way."
"I need it," he whines. "It will only take 10 minutes."
"No," I say again. I add a full logistical explanation of why a trip to the store is out of the question. This goes on for about the amount of time it would take to get in the car, go to the store, buy the poster board and return home. I employ every possible mode of persuasion short of a Power Point presentation to make my case.
The boy remains unpersuaded.
I, on the other hand, feel myself weakening by his subtle use of terms like "failing grade." Logically, I know that he is too
obsessive conscientious a student to fail anything. I also know that we have 15 different kinds of giant, poster-like paper products among our art supplies, any one of which could reasonably substitute.
But we don't call him Boy, Esquire for nothing. By the time he has finished his closing arguments, his college scholarship opportunities are flashing before my eyes.
How can I expect him to turn in a poster on cell structure on anything less than high-quality, freshly-purchased poster board?
It would be like trying to construct a simplified animal cell without any mitochondria.
And so, we compromise. I buy the poster board and he will not spring any more last minute requests on me. At least not today.
Photo: Christo's Simplified Animal Cell, in pink.