This is what my son produced.
When my kids were little and they would get crabby, people would ask me what was wrong.
“Is he hungry?” they would ask.
“I don’t know,” I would say.
“Is he wet?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Awww.. he must be tired.”
“Look, lady, I have no idea why my kid is crying. He’s a kid. That’s what they do. I’m not a mindreader. Get off my back.”
Ok. I never really said that, but I wanted to. I sometimes knew the surface reason why they were crying. The cheese stick curved the wrong way. He wanted chips for breakfast. She disapproved of the way the sunlight came through the window. But I was never sure of the deeper reason, although I guessed it probably had something to do with bad mothering.
My daughter was the worst. She had rules for everything and the first rule was that you had to know the rules without asking. She felt – strongly – that she should buckle her own carseat buckles. Or, alternately and equally strongly, that you should buckle them for her. And you were not allowed to ask. That was the worst crime of all. Every car trip, I would mutter a little prayer, cross myself, make a wild guess, and dive in. I had a fifty percent chance of peace and a fifty percent chance of a rage-filled mutant screaming vile threats and curses at me. (I couldn’t understand them, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they were.)
I was not allowed to put her in the shopping cart at the grocery store. I was not allowed to have her walk with me next to the shopping cart. I was not allowed to let her ride in the basket of the cart. I was only allowed to carry her as I pushed a full shopping cart.
I have vivid memories of her fighting as she rode against her will in the cart, up one aisle and down the next, shrilly screaming at the top of her lungs. She had stamina. She usually made it to the milk before she took a breath. One benefit was that I traveled in a little bubble of isolation and essentially had the grocery store to myself. There was never any mistaking where we were and people magically disappeared as they heard us coming.
She once raged for over an hour because the four inch Happy Meal Toy man would not fit into the one inch high Matchbox car.
People would ask me what was wrong when she cried and I’d say “I have no idea. She’s insane.”
I still stand by that.
They thought I was brave because I let her wear mismatching shoes. It wasn’t bravery. It was terror mixed with emotional exhaustion. After her rabid demands to drive the car, mismatched shoes seemed trivial.
So I instantly related to this tumblr blog in which a dad maintains his sanity by posting pictures of his sons and the reason they’re crying:
Check it out for a good laugh. And when you get a chance, buy a mom or dad of toddlers a beer. They need it.
My friend was dropping his son off at their small, Christian school and could tell the boy was troubled. The eleven-year-old is an earnest, hard-working, eager to please child. Some may say too eager to please. A little too desperate to be perfect, perhaps.
So when he didn’t want to go to school, that was a big red flag.
After some gentle questioning, the boy said he was having trouble with his science small group. He was the leader, you see. The responsibility rested on his shoulders, you see. And he was proud of that and took that seriously, you see.
So what’s the problem? The dad asked.
“There’s a kid who keeps laughing. He won’t take it seriously.”
“What makes him laugh?”
“I don’t know. That’s just it. We’ll be working and he’ll suddenly start laughing. And he won’t stop.”
“Is he showing off for a girl?”
“No,” said the boy, his brow furrowed with worry.
“Is he goofing off with a friend?”
“No,” said the boy.
“Is he making fun of someone?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said the boy, sighing with resignation, “He just starts laughing and won’t stop.”
So the father gave him a few words of encouragement and wisdom, hoped for the best and nudged him out the door. It didn’t seem to work. The boy’s shoulders were stooped with discouragement. Through the open car window, he called to his son, “Hey! What’s the name of the project?”
In complete frustration and yet total innocence, the boy called back, “The Discovery of Uranus.”
So Mr. Wonderful and the three kiddos go off to the library rummage sale.
In addition to books (mostly comic), they came back with a red, lanky puppet, which is actually kind of awesome, in a Muppetty rip off kind of way.
And the Brain Baffler.
Made by the forward thinking people of Mattel in 1979, the Brain Baffler is “the Electronic Mind that plays games with human minds!” I know because it says so right on the back.
It plays eight games. See?
We were desperate for entertainment in the late 70s. Search for four numbers? What fun!
Also, it has a picture of a family enjoying the Brain Baffler to a degree not fully understood in our experience. This picture is disturbing to me on many levels.
The people posing as the happy family, you see, were paid to let people take pictures of them. Let that sink in for a minute. The man posing as a father and looking remarkably like William F. Buckley Jr., was paid to be in this shot.
Not only that, he presumably competed with other specimens of male perfection and beat them out. Out of the, let’s guess a hundred or so, models that showed up for the call, he was the most embodying the masculine ideal of the up-to-the-minute, scientifically-aware, yet fun as bananas dad the ad agency was trying to conjure.
Observe the look of sheer adoration Mom is giving Dad for his decisive and masterful pushing of a button on the Brain Baffler. She is clearly anticipating the moment they put Junior to bed (snuggling his Brain Baffler, no doubt) and she can take Dad upstairs and let him baffle more than her brain, if you get my drift.
The look Junior is giving Dad is nothing less than unadulterated hero worship. The Brain Baffler is no match for Dad. Is there anything in this universe or the next he can’t do? Soon, technology would ruin this special relationship. In a few short years, this boy will have to program Dad’s VCR for him. He will have to set the auto turn on on the coffeemaker and eventually explain the Tevo. One day, of course, this child will patiently download Dad’s Rod Stewart and Donna Summer compilations on to Dad’s iPod and doggedly explain to him, with a longsuffering smile, how to access his playlists.
But in in 1979, Dad was the master of his technological domain, lord of all buttons.
The late 70s were a magical time.
Furthermore, this picture disturbs me because these people actually wanted their hair to look like that. They had people working, with the best tools and products available at the time, to make their hair look like that.
That Princess Diana in the front, smooth bowl cut in the back thing on the little boy with the airplane wing shirt lapels? On purpose.
The saucy curl on Dad’s forehead? On purpose.
I have the same cognitive dissonance whenever I see Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. There was someone, probably a team of people, whose whole job it was to ensure that Luke Skywalker’s hair always looked EXACTLY LIKE THAT.
Anyway, back to the Brain Baffler. We would have been thoroughly confused when we turned the Brain Baffler on and it malfunctioned by not turning on, except there was reassuring and bold print instructions on the back of the Brain Baffler itself.
I can’t. I can’t even. You win, Brain Baffler. My brain is baffled.
New battery inserted, we switched the Electronic Mind on.
It made a disturbing whirring noise, almost sinister. Then it said:
But, GAME YES was what we were looking for.
After punching buttons at random (JDONFKDKCNODKYEKDNGODKAYFNDKOWNGDYHC, said the Brain Baffler), someone thought to check the extensive manual that came with the Brain Baffler.
Ahhh.. Game Number. Got it.
So we punched “1” for Anagrams, or as we call it in modern times, Word Scramble.
The Brain Baffler gave us the following letters to unscramble: “FFFFJFFFJ.”
Um, Fiji? Without the I’s?
Then, the Brain Baffler said this:
I guess we lost.
Unfortunately, the sinister whirring sound continued. Occasionally when we pushed a button, the Brain Baffler emitted a high screaming sound that made the dog come running.
I guess her brain was baffled too.
I want to explain to my kids that the 70s and 80s weren’t as weird as they seem in retrospect. They were an innocent time in which we paused from hitting trees with sticks long enough to be fanatically grateful for any electronic mind that was willing to give us the time of day.
I mean, Pong was awesome. Can I get a Dy-no-mite?
But the Brain Baffler proves me wrong. We were deeply, deeply weird.
The way I got there surprised me. It starts with the existence of evil.
Heartbreaking and inexplicably evil events like the shooting of little children at Sandy Hook Elementary School bring us face to face with the reality of evil.
There is much evil in the world, but somehow those sweet little children have pierced our hearts like few other events have.
Perhaps it’s because it’s easy to believe young children are innocent and good.
They’re not, of course. Any parent of a toddler can tell you babies come equipped with selfish desires, the twisted urge to dominate those around them, and murderous rages. If a two year old had any real power, no parent would survive their toddlerhood. A two year old would gladly murder Mom or Dad for nothing more than a denied cookie.
It’s the process of maturing and building empathy that allows humans to overcome their inherent willful selfishness, or at least channel it into socially acceptable vices. A distressing number never do.
But looking at the little victims of Sandy Hook, nonetheless, we are moved. Perhaps because they knew so little of the world. Perhaps because they were so unformed. The pathways in their mind and soul were unshaped, pathways that would eventually lead to character or cowardice, love or hate, grace or nature. They were question marks still, a bundle of possibilities waiting to be expressed.
So we rail against an evil that would shoot that question mark and take away its potential for an answer.
We rail because somehow, independent of us and society and shifting values and debates, independent of whether you believe in God or not, the child matters. There is something good there, something undeniable.
In order for evil to exist, something good must be violated. Evil does not exist on its own. It is only a destruction of good.
Evil is the flip side on the coin of good. Without good, there can be no evil. Something intangible, something ineffable, something beyond you or me or that child was violated when a young man took a gun to that school.
This is true, of course, of families killed in Syria, children starving in North Korea, or a young criminal gunned down on the street of Chicago. In all of them, something good existed and was extinguished. Something evil happened.
But it’s easier for us to see that contrast when twenty fresh young children are senselessly murdered. We feel the disturbance in the force, as Obi-Wan Kanobi said. The disturbance is always there, but we sense it now.
Nor does evil require our knowledge to be evil. An unknown and unmissed child murdered, the crime never to be discovered, is equally a violation of that ineffable, sacred thing that matters so much to the fabric of the universe.
If there is something sacred and good about each human, despite all the drudgery, want, and evil that constantly violates the sacred on the earth, that something must exist independent of us, our knowledge, our opinion, even our existence.
There must be a an ultimate Good from which all other good flows, a wellspring of goodness that fills the universe, that exists outside of us, above us, beyond us.
And so, to my surprise, I found I did believe in God. And this, initially, was only because I knew evil to be true in my heart and in the world. Evil was the one thing I could never deny existed.
Either the children of Sandy Hook matter or they don’t. Either their murder shakes the universe or it doesn’t. Either they are meaningless animals evolved in a cold, impersonal universe, or they are images of God lovingly sculpted by a Creator.
And if they matter, every human being on earth does.
My family and I just returned from paradise, a little island called Vieques off of Puerto Rico where the sand is white, the water is unbelievably turquoise, and free range horses wander through your yard at dusk. There is no McDonalds. There is no movie theater. No casinos or fancy hotels or tourist souvenir stores.
There is only sand and sun, iguanas and horses, fish caught an hour ago at the little pescaria, coconut palms and papaya trees.
Plus, some business about a storm called Isaac, but all it did was make the surf more exciting, cut off all travel to and from the island, and block phone and internet signals.
In other words, we were completely disconnected from civilization.
It was heavenly.
The whole experience had the effect of pushing the reset button on our brains. From personal experience, here is how to tell you’ve had a fantastic vacation:
1) You cannot remember your work email password. You are not sad about this.
2) You write for a living, but when You sit down to write aain, you can’t remember how. The Ideas are there- boy are they there – but you forget basic capitalization and how to spell “again.”
3) You head to your usual grocery store, make a wrong turn, end up at CVS. You have to stop the car and think about how to get back. You know exactly how to get from your island rental to the beach, but your own home is foreign territory.
4) You find sand in your camera case, your toothbrush, and places on your body you didn’t think sand could really go. You don’t mind.
5) Your son repeatedly asks for you to sell your house and move to the island. You consider it enough to actually run the numbers.
The lights went out at 10, just as we rooted for a spunky, pony-tailed US Gymnastics Olympic hopeful to stick her landing. I like to think she did.
Beset by heatwave that could make even Kim Kardashian’s hair frizzy, our air became decidedly non-conditioned. Plus we lacked such necessaries as a phone, refrigeration, method of cooking food, and Facebook.
We awoke already hot, faces bloated from heat, hair plastered to our heads, clothes damp. Yet, as promised, we set off to help a friend from church move.
Little did we know it was the mini apocalypse.
Because – well, let’s face it – I put off grocery shopping, we had a not so delectable spread for breakfast: Bagels but no cream cheese, bread but no toaster, cereal but warm milk, raw eggs, pancake batter, tuna.
You know you’re in trouble when tuna is your best breakfast option.
Our only connection with the outside world was my rapidly fading iPhone, and it ran slow and sluggish. Still, we coaxed it into giving us directions to our friend’s new pad.
“Print the directions,” my son said.
“I can’t,” I reminded him.
“Email it to Dad,” he said.
“Dad’s phone is dead,” I told him.
“Text it to me,” he said.
“Your phone is almost dead,” I said, “Plus, texts are not really working.”
Then it struck me: “Get a pencil and piece of paper and write it down.”
Man, we really were back in the dark ages.
Setting off on our mission of mercy, two kids and I figured we’d get food on the way.
When in doubt, McDonald’s!
Outside felt like one of those nasty TV shows where crabby undead start taking out their frustrations on your windshield. Trees blocked roadways. Almost all traffic lights were dark. The McDonald’s down the street was empty, lights out, as forlorn as Adele when that guy dumped her, but not as melodic. Even the golden arches were dimmed.
We spotted a group of people chatting at tables set outside a Starbucks and parked, visions of expensive muffins and overpriced sandwiches dancing in our heads.
It was closed. The little bourgoise groups were sitting, coffeeless, outside a closed store, reading a newspaper in a desperate attempt to deal with the downfall of civilization through denial.
We began to notice more eerie signs that we were elbow deep in the apocalypse. Businesses were dark, parking lots empty. Each had a low-tech paper-and-scotch-tape sign on the door, “No Power,” “Closed, no power,” “Sorry, no power.” Gas stations were deserted, except for an occasional car that pulled in hopefully, only to read the handwritten sign on the pump – “No gas. No power” – and drive off.
We grew hungrier, passing closed restaurant after closed restaurant. A car pulled to the side of the road. Then another. I wondered if they had run out of gas on their fruitless search for an open station. And then it struck me – How foolish were were to waste gas resources on a useless quest for a McDonald’s hamburger (ketchup only, no onions).
I had visions of this becoming “The Time Mom Ran out of Gas on Route 66 and We Had to Walk Seven Miles Home on an Empty Stomach in 100 Degree Heat and We Didn’t Even Get McDonald’s.”
I suspect the folks on the Oregon Trail could sympathize.
Instead of driving around further, we arrived to “help move” starving and sweaty. They had some food, but we felt a little ashamed to eat it, sort of like borrowing a cup of sugar off the Donner Party.
We ate anyway.
Turns out the veneer of civilization is only as thick as an electron.