Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In which Primo wants to talk about his dad's man parts and I get sick to my stomach

Primo: My dad says he regrets letting them circumcise me and my brothers.

Me: Well, I do think it's mutilation. If we'd had a little boy, I would have been against it.

[More conversation about the issue, pros and cons]

Primo: Maybe it's not such a bad thing. My dad [who is, I gather, not, which is far more than I want to know about that issue] says that he has problems with -

Me: Stop! I do not want to hear about your dad's [parts]!

Primo: But -


Monday, January 17, 2011

In which my mother slaps me and I deserve it

Remember how I told you my dad was not a violent man? My mother is not a violent woman, but I did once give her cause to slap me across the face. Even now, I know I deserved that slap for being a mouthy, uppity, bitchy kid.

My dad stopped spanking us when I was little. He decided it was not a good idea to hit his own kids. I don't remember when this event came to pass. Perhaps it was after the time when I, a budding four year old Cassatt, drew on my bedroom wall with crayon.

I knew I wasn't allowed to do that. I knew.

When my dad instructed me to wash the crayon off the wall, I respectfully declined. I should add here that it wasn't exactly our house to deface. We lived on base housing. The way base housing works is that the walls are white when you move in and need to be white when you move out. If you want to paint the walls purple, that's fine, but they need to be white when you move out. At move out, the house gets inspected and it needs to pass inspection.

There are some pros to this micromanagement on a military base. Nobody's lawn goes unmowed. There are no rusting, wheel-less cars propped up on cinder blocks in the front yard. People drive the speed limit. There is no litter. Parents don't worry about their kids walking home after dark.

But - the reason it's like this is because your career suffers if your lawn isn't cut. Or if your kids act up. Yeah - if the MPs catch a kid doing something he's not supposed to be doing more than a few times, they don't bother calling the parents. They call the (usually) dad's boss. How would you like it if when your kid was caught speeding, the cops called your boss instead of you?

Houses need to pass inspection.

That doesn't leave a lot of room for personal expression in the decor.

Crayoned walls do not pass inspection.

When my dad told me to wash the wall and I refused, he told me again.


He told me if I didn't, he would spank me.

Oh heck to the no. You are not the boss of me! was my four-year-old mantra.

He spanked. My dad was good on follow through. No empty threats from him.

I refused.

This went on for a while, threatening to spank, spanking, until I finally, furious, with tears running down my cheeks, hiccupping, surrendered and scrubbed that wall.

After that, my dad devised more creative ways to punish us. If I slammed the door, he made me walk through the house ten times, opening and closing each door quietly. Acting up in church - which was a given, seeing as we, at the ages of 5, 7 and 9 were not bribed with food, toys or books but actually expected to sit, kneel and stand still for an entire hour - was met with sitting in the corner. Really, kneeling in the corner. Straight up. No slouching. Hands behind the back. A kid in each corner on most Sundays.

Lots of grounding. Which didn't bother me so much because I didn't want to go anywhere anyhow.

My mom was the master of the slow burn. She was more of the silent treatment, "You've really disappointed me" guilt-trip type, but I don't remember any big dramatic punishments. You should know that I rarely did anything worthy of punishment once I was past my drawing days. I was a boring kid who just didn't challenge authority much. Unlike the rabble-rouser you see before you today.

But one day, I wanted my mom to buy something that I could not afford with my 50 cents a week allowance that was supplemented by my 50 cents an hour babysitting jobs. I could have dug up dandelions for half a penny apiece (full root must be attached) or washed my dad's car for any loose change I could find under the seats, but either I didn't want to work or neither of those jobs would have yielded enough cash.

I was badgering her and whining and she snapped and told me to knock it off.

"Why do you care?" I asked. "It's Dad's money."

Oh silence.

Oh bad silence.

Some background.

My mother was the valedictorian of her high school class. She went to college on a full scholarship but dropped out after her freshman year to marry my dad, whom she met at the bar of the bowling alley of their hometown after she had taken her younger twin brothers to a high-school basketball game. The twins went home with someone else. My dad drove my mom home at 2 a.m. They necked in the car, then he got stuck in the snow. He called his brothers to haul him out rather than wake my grandfather, whose motto about kids coming in late was, "Don't bother to go to bed [because you need to milk the cows in an hour anyhow]."

She had three babies right away, for that was how things worked back then. My dad went to war. She stayed back here with three kids under five. He came home, we moved. And we moved. And we moved. Every time we moved, my mom managed the process.

We lived abroad. For wives of soldiers, there are not many employment options, as the short-term, non-career type jobs that one would normally take in those situations - secretary, cashier, lifeguard - were reserved for people in the civil service or for foreign nationals from the host country.

When I was in high school, the only jobs available for me and my friends were babysitting and lawnmowing. Lifeguarding, working at the movie theater, teaching swimming, bagging groceries - all reserved for Panamanian nationals.

It wasn't as if my mom had the chance to have her own career. The jobs just weren't there and even if there had been opportunities, who wants to hire someone who's moving in a couple of years?

Had my mom not gotten married and had a family when she did - had she finished college and struck out on her own for a while - I have no doubt she would have broken barriers right and left. She is amazingly smart, scarily organized, and ruthlessly tactful. She could have climbed any corporate ladder she wanted to. She had the ability. And she knew it. She loved her family but wasn't always thrilled to have her interests subordinated to my dad's.

My dad couldn't have had a family and had his career at the same time if my mom had not been there in the background. He could have done it as a bachelor, but if they both had been working outside the house, neither of them would have ever slept.

But I was a snotty kid and thought I would be a smartass.

"Why do you care? It's Dad's money."

That was when the hand flew up from my mother's side and made contact with my face.

Oh snap.

My mother had never slapped me before.

But I had never been this bitchy before.

I'd have to say we were even. You can't take back words, even as you see them hanging there before you in all their insulting glory.

You can't take back a slap - an instinctive reaction to a breach of protocol and civility so strong that it leaves one breathless.

Many years ago, my mom apologized for The Slap. She'd felt bad about it for a long time.

Uh uh, I told her. I deserved that slap. It was earned fair and square.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

In which I punch a neighbor in the nose and she gives me a black eye

My dad was not a violent man. He was not quick to anger. I never saw him get in a fight or a major argument, although my brother surely tried his temper more than once. There was that time - but my brother ended up in the Corps at A&M and nothing more was said about it.

My dad was quite fond of political debate, though, and argued, via my daily messenger service between the two, with my seventh-grade Texas history teacher, Mr Wilson, he of the short-sleeved doubleknit polyester jumpsuits in many colors, about whether one votes for the party (Mr Wilson) or the man (my dad, a GDI).

Mr Wilson tried to convince us seventh graders that we should affiliate ourselves with a party for that was the path to political power, but the only power I wanted as a junior high student was the power to transform myself into a popular girl, an event as likely to come to pass as the sun falling from the sky. And yet I dreamed.

I needed something to pass the time in class, because it was sooo boring. I realize now that it was Mr Wilson's droning voice that made the battle of San Jacinto and Santa Ana making his escape in an enlisted man's uniform and how Texas retained the right to divide into five states seen dull rather than the actual content, for as anyone who has read a drop of Texas history knows, it is not dull at all. And now that I have read the grown-up versions of things, with the Tennessee ne'er do wells hightailing it to Texas, it is even more intriguing.

Along with Mr Wilson's political views, I also took home to my dad my whining that history was boring, an accusation that diminished Mr Wilson even further in my dad's eyes. My dad, who had been a Russian history major, was appalled that Mr Wilson was making history tedious. Texas history! Boring! Only the worst of the worst of teachers could make Texas history dull.

Yet even with all of that, my dad never found it necessary to hit Mr Wilson.

I, however, had found around then that a judicious punch in the nose is the appropriate solution in some cases. Sometimes, war is the answer and anyone who thinks it is not is perfectly happy to rest on the blood of soldiers without acknowledging the rightness of their cause. Do you really want to be an English colony still? Do you really want the South to be a separate, slave-holding nation?

I have not punched anyone for decades, but the times I did, I do not regret. It wasn't necessary to stop a genocide or to protect my property, but it did feel good. Yes. Punching someone in the nose can feel good. As long as you are not punched back. That's the key. Hit first and then get away.

The first time I punched someone in the nose, I got in my shot and it was over. In retrospect, I didn't need to hit this girl and I probably shouldn't have, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea.

My best friend Lisa and I were maybe ten. Our families had gone out for pizza. Lisa and I were through eating, so we went outside to run up and down the sidewalk. Holding hands. For that is what little girls do with their best friends: they hold hands. There is nothing sexual about it and even if there were, so what? So the heck what? She was my best friend. We held hands. So there.

Some older girls saw us and started name calling. They called us "fags," which was a word that meant nothing to me as the concept of homosexuality had not yet entered my life. I will bet they didn't know what it meant, either.

Back then, kids didn't have to learn about condoms and venereal disease and alternative lifestyles in fourth grade. We did learn about the biology of it, even in Catholic school, where we had the movie about the fallopian tubes and the vas deferens and menstruation, but there were no how-to diagrams, which left me baffled as to the mechanics of sex for a very long time, as the only live penis I had seen was my younger brother's and it was in a resting state, if you know what I mean, so how anything was supposed to get from Part A to Part B was a mystery. The idea that two Part As or two Part Bs might somehow get together was unimaginable.

Yet I knew just from the way they were saying "fag" that it was not a compliment.

Lisa and I stopped in front of the name callers.

"If you don't stop saying that, I'm going to punch you in the nose," I said. (Advice: if you are ever in a real fight where you are truly threatened, don't tell the person you are going to hit him. Just hit him -in the crotch - no point in playing fair with someone who means you harm - and run.)

The one girl bent over so her face was right in front of mine, then very slowly and deliberately said, "Fag."

So I punched her in the nose. And made her cry.

It felt good. But it was completely unnecessary. Better to walk away from that kind of situation than to hit someone. Still, I'll bet she thought twice before she name called again.

The next time I hit someone, it wasn't necessary, either. But it still felt good. That's the problem with hitting: it's so satisfying when done right.

We lived in a cul-du-sac in Lubbock. Nice neighbors all around us. G-mother and Alan next door, our adoptive grandparents with the candy drawer and the TV. We were not supposed to watch TV over there, despite G-mother's repeated invitations. My parents did not have a television not because we could not afford it. "Are you poor?" would be the horrified response to learning of our TV-less state, as nobody could imagine any possible reason for someone who could afford it not to have a TV.

We didn't have a TV because my parents didn't want us to waste time watching when there were soccer games to be played and books to be read. When we were visiting my grandparents, we got to watch Wild Kingdom and Walt Disney, but as soon as Sonny and Cher came on, the TV was either turned off or we were sent out of the room.

When I was in eighth grade, my parents bought a TV that only rarely was turned on. We were allowed to watch Happy Days, which my parents liked, especially my dad, as he had gone to college in Milwaukee. My mom and dad watched Mary Hartman Mary Hartman after we had gone to bed.

This TV deprivation led me to some bad decisions as a college student and as an adult, when I would watch complete trash, just because of my earlier deprivation. At the same time, I was not getting drunk every weekend (or at all) as a college student because if I ever wanted a taste of my dad's beer, he would let me have some. TV, not alcohol, was the forbidden fruit at my house.

The moral of this story is that you should let your kids have a little bit of everything so that they don't go crazy when they are on their own.

Back to our cul-de-sac. Next to G-mother and Alan was a family with three little girls. Then there was Renee's family. Renee was a teenager who wore halter tops, bell bottoms, and blue eyshadow and was an object of awe to us all. She smoked. She had a boyfriend. Who had a car.

And that's where the conflict was.

Renee's boyfriend liked to drive really fast in our little cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac with the three little girls who played in their yard. With my sister, who was in third grade - not a big kid - who also played in the yard. And my brother and his friend Lynn, who played in the yard.

My dad asked Renee's boyfriend to slow down. There are kids here, he said. They play. The run into the street without looking. You could hurt someone.

The boyfriend did not slow down.

The next time Boyfriend was spinning his wheels in the cul-de-sac, my dad called the police. Who came, gave Boyfriend a talking to or a ticket or whatever.

Renee was not happy about this.

One day, I was out playing in the yard when Renee was out. She started talking smack about my dad and I said you better shut up or I'm going to punch you in the nose and she didn't so I hit her and she hit me back and gave me a black eye.

See? I broke my own rule. Hit, then run so you don't get hit back.

Although in a situation where the hitters are known to each other and one hits and the other does not get to retaliate, there is an hit undelivered just waiting to happen. If I had hit Renee and then run before she could hit me and restore the natural order of the universe, who knows what horror would have awaited? I would have had to check my bike for a bomb every morning before setting off for school. Maybe it was better that we hit each other and got it over with.

I have not been in a fight since. Not a punching one, that is. I have had simmering resentments with female co-workers that might have been better resolved with a quick slap or two rather than with smiles to the face and daggers to the back for months on end and yes, I am talking to you, SG, who tried to connect with me on LinkedIn last week. Did you think I would have forgotten how you tried to undermine me for so long? Well I didn't.

Renee and I did not fight again. My mother witnessed the whole thing and documented my black eye with her camera.

We're weird like that.

She took the photo after whispering to me fiercely, "I'm glad you hit her."

Which wasn't exactly the endorsement of passive resistance one would expect from a parent, but there you go. The warrior gene in my family came from my mom.