Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Animal Eating Disorder

There are Things living in your eyebrows. They feed on whatever they find there, and I doubt it is tiny portions of mac and cheese. There are cockroaches that can survive eating the glue off postage stamps. There are snakes that can close off their digestive systems and not eat for several months after a meal. There are also animals that have to consume their own bodyweight in food every day. Nesting birds, for example. The only logical conclusion to be drawn as a parent is that children are basically cockroach-eyebrow-thingy-snake-and-finch digestively speaking.

I have had a child who could run around, play all day, have the energy to reduce his father to physical decrepitude and still complain that he wasn’t tired at bedtime- all without apparently eating anything. Another child has pebbles in his gullet leading to his four stomachs. He’s incurably ruminative. His meadow is the fridge- he’ll gaze into it like it’s the National Gallery, and he is a collector of fine art, and he has come to replenish his vault. My daughter, on the other hand, seems to have plate amnesia. The minute there is food in front of her, she’ll get distracted by pretty much anything. An ant! And the fork will hover in the air, never quite making contact with the food below.

There have been periods when I have cooked big meals- carefully considered the tastes and whimsies of each child before selecting the ingredients- served the food up, and, after about 45 minutes, thrown most of it in the bin. I can still remember the trauma of being forced to eat as a child- sitting at the supper table as the dishes were cleared away, and the sky outside turned from summer-sunny to gloomy night. Being told “You are not leaving this table until…” I think the problem was a stew, unforgivably served with gristle still on the meat.

So I don’t force them. I have thrown away more than they have eaten. And still I cook or make meals for them, three times a day. I must be insane.

So the new approach is this. I will discover each of their inner animals. The air-kid has cockroach genes- he’s getting a full set of World Cup 2010 Commemorative Stamps on his plate tomorrow. The grazer is going to be able to go hands-and-knees in front of a trough of lucerne, and the daughter is going to get a conductor’s baton and a chamber orchestra.

I didn’t use their names this time, because it’s actually kinda funny, but a little cruel to laugh at their expense. Besides, I’m hungry, and I don’t have the time to flesh this out with details…

Monday, February 22, 2010

When an Asylum Starts to Sound Like Fun, You Know You're a Parent

The tension of a family car, rocking on the edge of a precipice. The moment before a bubble turns into a mental exclamation mark and a fine spray of soap. The match that doesn’t strike the first time while the fuse lies- menacing. That’s how it feels to have children sometimes. Not all the time, thank goodness, but some days you feel the sprung muscles in your shoulders bunched like those of a professional wrestler ready to throw another to the ground and inflict violence.

You can hear it in the voices of parents. The fixed grins betraying the lack of an inner smile, tense little lines whitening their lips in restrained frustration. You see it and you want to hug them or at least anaesthetize them until they are relaxed. You wish that the knotted clenched knuckles would be as languid as those of someone made semi-conscious by the lazy swing of a hammock.

You want to say something, like, hey, haha, kids, hey? Funny little guys- always kidding around… but you know instinctively that saying that would lead to possible disembowelment and definite strangled yelling. And nobody tells you about that tension when you’re pregnant. Even parents who are themselves in that stage of life will not admit it. There’s a code of silence. That’s why every cool inquiry about whether or not you are getting enough sleep is not to do with them actually wanting to know how many hours, but whether or not you are any better at wringing out the tension than they were, or are.

The words ‘terrible twos’ are not just there to acknowledge a difficult growth period for a child, but the also the way a parent can be left mute with unexpressed anger and helplessness by an enemy so defenseless yet invincible. You can’t beat a child. You can’t yell. You can’t use common sense or logic. You try the endless cajoling that poses as solutions-based negotiation, and yet this is met with stubbornness impossible to undermine.

You’d love to take the child, whose vocabulary is limited to stuff they like to eat with, stuff they like to play with, and the stuff they don’t, and show them a wide world made up of gross human rights violations, incredible beauty in art and scientific achievement, of millions of people who are funny, brave, clever and adjusted, but you can’t. You can’t use an adult’s weapons in a juvenile battle.

Sometimes you have to learn to speak their language. Sometimes you have to surrender, and allow them to see that their usurped territory isn’t as much fun as they thought it would be without a big person making it useful, tasty or funny. Who learns the lesson then? The parent? The child? And then there are days when everything is just right, and people stop to comment on your children. And you feel a sense of pride. Ridiculously. As if anything you ever did could have created something this perfect.

Parenting can and should be rewarding, but sometimes… it isn’t. You chase through the endless mazes only to end up on the little pad with the electrode on it, that zaps you and sends you once more into places you can’t quite associate with fulfillment and peace. So. To any of you sitting with the thousand yard stare of a new or multiple mother or father, most of us have been there. Most of us know what it is to live in a dissociated state, losing track of time and purpose. But we will come through, we have come through. Some of us have chosen to do it more than once.

And though it sometimes isn’t true when we say it, it very often is. Parenting is rewarding. We’re with you, wherever you are, pointing to the good bits, the bits you sometimes miss for sheer fatigue, and the bits that haven’t come yet. Trust me, they are there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Do Those Chainsaws Come in Pink?

Real men hide their interest in ikebana. The only flowers they know are the ones they hold uncomfortably at arm’s length on dates and as sheepish apologies. They are allowed to dig around them, dump fertilizer in them, and study them in botany classes, but not really allowed to kneel down and marvel over the subtle mix of shades on a perfect iris, or arrange them in liquid-heavy vases so that they get enough light.

You don’t get men’s deodorants or other products in scents such as ‘lightly lilac’, or ‘blushing rose’. Mostly they come labeled as ‘coarse sawdust smell’, or ‘spring tide driftwood’. Because men don’t appreciate beauty or sweetness. We like it rough. We like it edgy, gritty and preferably life-threatening. What woman is going to buy a perfume with a name that sounds like something a hitman mutters at you just before his baseball bat turns your knees into blancmange?

Are these sexist comments? Is there something sinister like homophobia going on here? No. These are just observations made from walking through the shops. Not perfumeries, mind you, just the kind of shops where you get a can of beans, cheap wine and dried noodles. You get to the toiletries aisle, and there they are. The smells of men, all lined up in their shades of black and grey, accented with blues and greens. You do get the occasional neutral white one- those are for Sportsmen. Sportsmen apparently feel cleaner smearing stuff from a white bottle under their arms after a rough time on the pitch. I’m not a sportsman. Yet I have bought these. Thinking, wrongly, that sportsmen must really sweat, and those products must be super-effective. They aren’t. I won’t go into it, but I can sweat through the strongest deodorants. Not in a smelly way, just in a damp way. Short of buying a huge machine- the kind they use to flash-dry the above-mentioned noodles- and climbing into it myself, I don’t think I’ll ever be Arctic Dry, or Sahara Cool, or whatever those little bottles whisper at me with their hissing, lying nozzles.

Men are allowed to like trees. Pine trees are big. Forest fresh is popular. Baobab may have limited appeal to the novelty purchaser- for the most part we like evergreen giants, the ones straddled by lumberjacks and with canopies bigger than the local steakhouse. Yeah. Real men dig that shit.

I would consider writing to Unilever (as a random manufacturer) and asking them to produce something masculine, but with overtones of jasmine, and I can pretty much predict what the response would be, once the reader had wiped all the urine of their office chair: Men don’t want flowers. They want the freedom of the wilderness, the toss of the anarchic open seas, and the bleak void of the tundra.

Gotta admit. I like flowers. I like the way nature can do what I can’t. Reproduce in perfection the multifarious spread of scents and colours, shapes and sizes. I like trees, too, love to climb them, but you can’t give a copse of trees to your girlfriend to say you’re sorry. You can’t find a big enough kitchen counter in the world to support a Douglas Fir in a glass container filled with marbles.

So shoot me: I like flowers. I like the fuck-you blue of irises, the more velvet-than-velvet red of a perfect rose, the opiate reek of honeysuckle and the subversive oranges and yellows of a variegated nasturtium. If I could bottle the emotions you feel on seeing these, on smelling them, I’d be a happy man.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Opposite of Anger

She sits hunched over the once-white shirt, reversing the collar so that it can be worn for another season, and barely notices the Sleeping Beauty stab that betrays her lack of rest. The dark orb teeters on the edge of her hardened index finger, shimmers and falls, the first drop of a spring storm of blood, heavy and thick, syrupy but sugarless.

Later she dreams of a massive bull, scarlet eyes enraged and widened, the size of billiard balls, haunches tensed, ready to explode into the dusty streets and crash, charge and trample through the china-delicate bodies too sluggish and bewildered to predict the next slight pivot on those piston legs.

The dream turns to one of birthing, the strained faces of the midwives as the sheets turn black in the half-light, a vessel emptying, the sheets claiming the bright colour even as it leeches from the cheeks of the dying mother. And in a burst of crimson, a child slips into the world like a ruby plucked from an underground pool.

A sound disturbs her fitful sleep, and she thinks in a crazy jumble of whiskey-sodden street Santas, office workers clad in Valentine’s uniforms the day before the disappointments of a hundred dates gone wrong, and of roses bruised and collapsing in makeshift vases. In the darkness she hears the scattering of the insects and the flutter of bat’s wings, and takes comfort in these, her blood brothers, her midnight companions.
On the clear white sand, next to a ruined castle perched on a crumbling volcano, a beach ball sits. The summer sun bounces off the vinyl, and creates primary-coloured reflections into the small footprints. Innocence trapped in sea-soaked hollows, the tide washing against the impermanence of shoreline holidays. A coke can curls into the listless surf, and a lone oyster catcher tap-dances across the dunes, splayed rufous feet accessorizing the coffin-bearer black of the feathered body.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Natural Disasters

The child vanished. A short muddle of eureka discoveries and fears of shadows in the night. A producer of tears and scentless sweat. Innocence not anticipating a sudden plunge into fissure in the road. The juddering tremors threw his mother against a tilted car, her arms splayed as if in preparation for a hug, her hair in thick braids dancing in a disjointed boogie with the vibrating air. Around them the town vanished, as erasable as a sandcastle competition at high tide, the dust clouds blasting in slow motion into the orange dusk. The collective order of hundreds of lives fragmented into drifts of divorced shoes and food cartons as misshapen as the hands that had held them a ridiculously short time before. Those ears not ringing with the screech of steel as it unknotted itself from concrete heard the feral bleat of random sirens and the serpentine hiss of shifting masses in the gritty gloom. The pet animals fell as silent as their stray kin, and birds fell in shock from shifting perches, dead before striking the kinked surface of the paved yards and newly mapped streets.

The girl smelt herself as she looked at the rear view mirror, unused to the musky scent her friend had spritzed her with. The slight fizz of excitement in her veins overcame her unease about an unfamiliar fragrance. She recalled the months of heated promises in hurriedly but lovingly written notes passed between clammy hands in breaktimes, feet scuffing the chips in the marbled linoleum tiles of the bricked hallways of the school. This was Act two of what could only be a swan-like lifetime partnership upon her, her final cygnet down left in her room with the dormant dolls and eyeless bear she still tucked under her chin at night. She’d nicked her newly grown legs while shaving experimentally with her father’s razor, and had been briefly anxious that the short dress she had chosen for this, her free-sample honeymoon, would not cover the livid scratch lines. An expanding patchwork quilt of promises, desires and commitments, meaningless without the challenge of responsibility was around her. She heard the CD player cut out as the car engine puttered to a standstill. Looked at the school hall, the dance lights like reflected traffic signals against the windows of the gymnasium. Go. Stop. She managed to say goodbye to her father without catching his eye, excuses and platitudes ready on her lips should he attempt to lay down the rules again, but this time he was silent. She saw him smile as though in confused wordlessness from the periphery of her vision, as she slid out of the seat, and walked towards the door. Her hips picked up the rhythm of the music within, and, her transformation almost complete, she sidestepped through the doorway, and into the arms of an adulthood she’d never quite master.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

See Me Glitter From Behind

You’d have to wonder why I failed science at school, when, after more than twenty years, I can remember pithy sayings such as ‘To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. That stuck in my head, and now that I google it, appears to be Newton’s third law of motion. Maybe I failed because I completely forgot the first, second, fourth and any other laws.

Digressing. So just thinking that nothing is as easy as opting for one direction; one course of action. As much as I try to wrangle those unbroken horses into submission, they produce bucking and rearing from places I would never have expected. Just as I think I am going to canter off into the sunset with Tonto at my side and the town’s folk slappin themselves on the back and wondering who that masked stranger was, I find myself lying on my back outside the saloon with the undertaker measuring me for a plywood box, and a chain-gang gouging a hole in the dirt for my shattered body.

I’d love to have my eyes peeled and in the back of my head, but I figure I’d still get ambushed and circled and outgunned. Problem is, I can’t sit out in the field with the tumbleweeds and rattlers, I feel compelled to head into town and face off the baddies with their immaculate black hats and gloves, and their skewed sense of justice.

Being a defender of the underdog is great if you are capable of defending. Not so great when you just add to the body count. So you can choose good over evil, and yet it seems to put you in line for even more attack. You decide to stop some stuff, and do things differently, but then discover that instead of finding a neatly mown path through the forest, you are crushed under the weight of some randomly falling tree. You leap out of the trenches in the hope that this time you’ll break through enemy lines, and instead you get turned into spaghetti sauce by stray machine-gun fire. You choose the road less traveled, and find it is less traveled for a reason. Stupid road doesn’t register on any GPS systems, and disappears off a cliff. And still you have to do it. Despite the likelihood that you’ll end up shipwrecked, you can’t stand on the dock waving goodbye to other people all the time. There may be dragons, but there may be fantastic things to see and do before they get you. Please tell me you get the flaming point and that the cauldron does not need me to add any more mixed metaphors?

Some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, mine seems to be planted squarely in another part of my anatomy, and, on closer inspection, is only plated silver.

All that’s left is safety in numbers. Hanging out with people also too scared to sit down owing to cutlery-related disfigurements. We shuffle and jingle our crooked paths through this world, drifting to the edge of the herd every now and then to provide a sacrifice to the prowling beasts without, so that our maimed and damaged posse of dysfunction can plod nervously and randomly towards destruction.