Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas List: Part 3

Christmas Gratitude List (2015), continued: 

6. Minecraft. This crazy game has given my son a thousand hours of flow. On the Xbox, on the computer, at the library after school, he spent the year building ever-more-fantastical houses in the Chinese style -- complete with libraries, dojos, and indoor waterfalls -- block by block.

With the devotion of a Talmudic scholar, he pored over Minecraft cartoons on the Internet, discovering clips the whole family could enjoy. Christmas with the Villagers, for example, includes the following exchange:

Minecraft Santa: Come sit on my lap!

Minecraft child: Hey, you're not the real Santa! You're just a fake!


Minecraft Santa [gruffly]: Get in the bag. 

This makes my kids laugh every time -- to be specific, 58 times and counting.

7. Nana Claus. While some families excel at singing around the piano at drunken soirees, my family excels at the most important Christmas activity: giving presents. Not that I'm awake at midnight on Christmas Eve -- because of course, I'm in bed waiting for Santa -- but if I were, I would be moved by all the thoughtful presents under the tree. I am especially grateful to my mom, who sends each gift pre-wrapped -- with exquisite care and attention -- by herself. When these magical-looking presents arrive, I simply lift them out of mailing box and put them aside till Christmas, after changing the kids' gift tags to say "From Mom."

8. Every Christmas, I renew my pledge to support whoever is in charge of -- or, if s/he is busy, a senior executive -- for President of the United States. It is the most stunningly effective organization since . . . well, there is no human precedent. I feel certain that, over at Amazon, it is a no-excuses culture: If the Prime team were on the job, ISIS would be a smear in two days -- or your money back. (But nobody listens to me, do they?) Thanks Amazon, for giving everybody everything they want every day, at a reasonable price, delivered to their doorstep. Too bad you are "not qualified" to be President.

9. Mr. Right. Years ago, when I began to think about post-divorce dating, I had no idea what kind of person might fit the bill. I was forty years old with two kids, weary of every type of man I'd met in the entire state of California. He could be the nicest guy in the world, but a sharp dresser with a demanding job who was always on his phone, mulling Yelp! reviews of farm-to-fork restaurants, was not going to work: "I'm sorry, I just can't . . . Sorry."

I longed for a 50-foot banner to unfurl over my head, in the sky's vastness, that read -- like the Monty Python film -- "And Now for Something Completely Different."

Miraculously, it happened. Dave's basic character is so noble and decent, I sometimes compare it to "a bar of gold." Despite being genial and handsome, he is not cool or on-trend. He is old-fashioned yet unique, and completely defies classification. This is my favorite type of person, as it turns out.

I am so grateful for him and all our happy times together.

Merry Third Christmas, honey.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Dark Side

We took the kids to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It was really good!

While The Force seemed like so much nonsense in a popcorn movie about outer space, the perennial allure of The Dark Side seemed more real. In one character especially, it was unsettling and sad.

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

And as my kids have said: "I will destroy you, Mom." And: "It is death time, Maggie."

* * * *

Horror movies about creepy kids abound, because even nice kids can be creepy as hell. Countless times, a shadowy figure has descended upon me in the middle of the night, whimpering and chanting "Mom mom" in a tiny voice. When it turns out all this creature wants is to crawl into bed with me, put its cold feet on me, and sneeze in my face, I feel strangely relieved.

In addition to scuffling around pre-dawn like the undead, kids can be so gleefully disobedient that they are, for all practical purposes, possessed. The other night, I was trying put them to bed, since it was bedtime.

This was not rocket science: Bedtime. Bed. Both have the word "bed" in them and are about bed and the proper time therefor. Used in a sentence: Get in your bed right now, and go to bed. It's bedtime! 

The kids responded like crackheads who'd never heard the English language. They jumped around, goading each other into fights, screaming and cackling.

To get my point (BEDTIME) across, I was forced to behave like a grizzled beat cop in a rough neighborhood, and not the "good cop" either. The other cop.

The kids looked baleful and hurt. Then, something in their expressions changed. You could almost see it happening: They were going over to The Dark Side.

One of them grabbed a piece of paper and a pen, and within seconds produced a giant, hairless face, crumpled in rage, saying -- presumably from both of them -- "I WILL DESTROY YOU MOM."

It is important not to seem rattled when things like this occur.

"You've already destroyed me," I replied crisply, suggesting a glamorous self in the distant past. "Now go to bed."

* * * *

A few days later, my daughter asked if she could start calling me "Maggie."

From her birth until the present day, I have called her so many ridiculous nicknames (Bunch, Buncher, Blumper, Blumpy -- I could go on), I couldn't decently say no.

"Okay, Maggie," she said. And, at night: "Rub my back, Maggie."

Calling me Maggie seemed to embolden her. As Mom I was an authority figure, sort of, but as Maggie I was just some chick with an -ie name whom she could lord it over.

One afternoon she was mad at me about something, or just bored. Standing at the table with a Magic Marker and a Dark Side glint in her eye, she penned a page-long criminal threat that began, "It is deth time Maggie" and ended ominously: "Biye biye." Next to these words was a figure with a sword in its teeth.

"That's me," she explained.

We had dinner and watched a movie about Santa Claus.

Later that night, possibly out of some vague sense of having crossed a line, she wrote me another message -- "Merry Crismas Mom" -- in her childish scrawl, illustrated with a happy elf.

I took it to work and hung it on my door, because it was literally the cutest thing in the world.

Everyone said so.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas List: Part 2

Christmas Gratitude List (2015), continued:

4. Finitude. On a rainy winter's day, few things are more satisfying than a toasted cheese sandwich. It can be assembled in two minutes, while refereeing a cage match between cooped-up children. Fast on the heels of this first, all-too-brief sandwich is the follow-up sandwich. At this point, having crashed through whatever flimsy parameters were in place, you might as well just keep eating sandwiches, with a molasses-cookie chaser -- but wait! There is only one slice of American cheese left -- so, never mind. Instead of gorging on an endless supply of cheese until you never want to see cheese again, you have been saved by the grace of finitude and left with a delightful memory.

5. Divorced women. How awesome are divorced women? We have all the good stories. As referenced in John Mayer's alt-country ballad, "You're No One 'Til Someone Lets You Down," divorced women tend to regard non-divorced women as the Junior League. Until you have gracefully hosted a party in which your ex, your children, your ex's significant other, your own significant other, and your significant other's children, mingle in a pleasant and civilized fashion, you are not going to impress us with your maturity, because we are a freaking Master Race where that's concerned. More wine?

[To be continued]

Christmas List: Part 1

Like all Californians with a wedge of fine cheese and a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, I can be a bit "entitled." There are certain things I expect from life and even take for granted: shelter, clean water, on-demand streaming video, a large array of commercial hair products from which to choose, and the ability to buy lunch at the Macy's cafe, because that is just -- as they say -- "chump change."

What problems I have fall squarely in the First World category. Most days, my biggest gripe is that "gas station robots" are not a thing, or that my kids somehow acquired a dog-shaped guitar that plays songs "sung" by barking dogs.

Though mostly oblivious to my good fortune, I have been feeling -- as Christmas nears -- a few stray pangs of gratitude. Before the moment passes, I will jot down the following:

Christmas Gratitude List (2015)

1. New Christmas tree stand. My old Christmas tree stand was forged by the Devil's minions in the foundries of Hell. It was so hard to use, it was -- for all practical purposes -- anti-Christmas. Just the sight of it, leering down at me from a high shelf in the garage, made me resolve to get a plastic tree this year. Long story short: I got a new stand, invented by people who don't loathe humankind, and a real tree after all.

2. Healthy children. At a recent pediatric visit, we discussed the fact that my daughter was not quite as tall as expected. Perhaps it was because she just turned seven and was being compared to seven-year-olds who were, on average, older. Perhaps it was because she was a "late bloomer" who would shoot up at thirteen, or perhaps it was because she was living on Twizzlers and Gatorade, with the occasional potato thrown in for fiber.* The luxury of this conversation, in the absence of  anything else to talk about, was not lost on me. In gratitude, I will be doubling the kids' potato ration in 2016.

3. Lena Dunham. While I don't endorse everything Lena Dunham has said and done, I'm enjoying her show, Girls. To anyone wondering what I'm doing alternate Friday nights: I'm watching Lena Dunham plumb the mysteries of the human heart, like the time Adam took up with a new girl while still in love with the old girl, hospitalized at the time due to a self-inflicted injury to her ear. Thanks, Lena!**

[To be continued]
*Just kidding.
** Thanks also to my sister, also named Lena.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Cluckington Island

Yesterday my son brought home his school project: a clay sculpture of mountains, rivers, and other natural features, shaped and painted like a chicken's head, with a black volcano for an eye.  He called it Cluckington Island.

Prior to this, "Cluckington Island" had been mentioned around the dinner table, but as I had no idea what he was talking about, I simply nodded and moved on.

Now seeing the thing for myself, I was impressed. My son had used a topography lesson to make a chicken-shaped world, populated by chickens, in which all human-imposed labels were irrelevant. Cluckington Island!

Nature is a big theme this school year. For months his class studied "the wetlands" across a variety of platforms. They journalled about the wetlands after viewing wetland-themed documentaries. They took a field trip to the wetlands to see, firsthand, the storied interplay between water and land. Their math problems began, Two ducks and a cormorant walk into an estuary, or maybe those were their little wetland-nerd jokes, swapped merrily amongst themselves.

"Aren't you done with the wetlands yet?" I'd ask. No, there was still much to be learned!

I tried to summon every fact I myself knew about the wetlands. It came down to a single Onion headline -- an off-color joke about "federal wetlands" --  but that hardly seemed an appropriate subject for third grade.

Anyway: Cluckington Island. It sounded like a place Thomas the Tank Engine would let off passengers before resuming his loop around a pastel-colored postwar Britain.

Back in Oakland, where my three-year-old son watched a lot of Thomas & Friends, I began to develop "feelings" for the human chief of the railroad, Sir Topham Hatt. He was so powerful and confident, so dapper in his eponymous top hat! Through narrowed eyes I regarded the potato-shaped Mrs. Hatt, who lived in a beautiful house by the railroad without a care in the world! If only Sir Hatt would turn his gaze from the tracks and see my heroic struggles, perhaps I could lure him away, for he could not bear to see me suffer in this manner . . .

I was sleep-deprived, and my thinking tended toward the dissociative. Every time we visited a place, I would speak -- jokingly! -- of running away from home and beginning a new life there under an assumed identity. If I could not be Lady Hatt, I would be someone else -- anyone else. Of course, I would -- after a period of recuperation -- send for the children, and we'd live a pastel-colored life, far away from Oakland, California, on Cluckington Island . . .

And it has worked out just that way.

"Your island is fantastic," I remarked to my son, now almost nine, as we walked across the school playground with his sister.

"Thanks," he said.