Sarcasm and Preternatural Politeness

Cover of "The Long Winter"

Cover of The Long Winter

The other day, we were all together in the car listening to the audiobook for The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We’d just heard the part where Ma wigs out and Pa says, “You’re right, Caroline. You’re always right.”

I turned to my husband in the driver’s seat.

“Honey, if you said something like that to me, I know it would be sarcastic, but when Pa says it, I think it’s sincere. Do you think the Little House books happened in a time that pre-dates sarcasm?”

“When was sarcasm invented?” he asked. Neither of us knew.

“Or maybe it was a matter of poverty. Laura Ingalls Wilder is basically saying, ‘When I was a child, we were so poor, we couldn’t afford sarcasm.'”

I’m writing this not (just) so you all can see how witty and clever I am, but to admit that I’m often jealous of the Ingalls family. I like electricity and indoor plumbing and I don’t think I could react with such delight at discovering my house had been buried in snow as Laura does, but I envy them how well they get along. Yes, they’re fictionalizations, and yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder likely paints those relationships through a rather rosy filter, but still I envy them.

Not only were my husband and I raised after the invention of sarcasm, as part of the tail-end of Generation X we came of age during a time steeped in sarcasm. I think about the Simpsons scene where the GenXers are at the Hullabalooza music festival and the one guy says, “Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He’s cool.”

“Are you being sarcastic, dude?” his friend asks.

“I don’t even know anymore,” the first guy responds.

We were fluent in sarcasm. It was our element. I’ve been trying to move past it over the intervening years, but it’s difficult. Learning to live without sarcasm is like learning to breathe underwater. Well, that may be an exaggeration. But when I abandon sarcasm, I need to replace it with something, and hyperbolic simile works as well as the next thing.

While the Ingallses may have missed out on some jokes by not having sarcasm, they also missed out on that biting criticism of the people they love. They missed out on that self-centered inclination that puts wittiness and coolness ahead of relationship and authentic connection.

Or maybe Pa was being sarcastic and Ma was just too preternaturally polite to call him on it. In which case, maybe it’s preternatural politeness I should envy.

My Six-Year-Old Sings the Blues

My daughter and I started By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder tonight. We’ve been reading through the whole series (skipping Farmer Boy in favor of more Laura-centered stories). This one, so far, is a big downer. Within the first two chapters, Mary’s gone blind and good dog Jack has died of old age.

I spent a good twenty minutes comforting my daughter as she cried and asked me questions about pets I lost as a child and how long it was our two cats would live.

“They’ve still got several more years to live,” she said with confidence.

“I hope so,” I replied, with slightly less confidence; the one cat is fifteen and the other is almost twelve, but I didn’t feel it necessary to make a big deal about these facts at this particular moment.

After I comforted her, she went to her dad for more hugs and crying. When she was finally calm enough for bed, I tucked her in. Every night, she listens to a story or music. Tonight I suggested she listen to her lullabies.

“Those are pretty happy,” I said. “They might make you feel better.”

“No, Mom,” she said sagely, “Happy things just make me feel the sadness even more.”

She chose Charlotte’s Web to listen to tonight.

I have to wonder, is this something she inherited from me or is it something I taught her? I know we’re not unique in preferring sad things to happy things when we’re feeling down; blues music is based on the idea that sometimes you feel better singing about the bad rather than trying to make yourself feel happy.

But since we’re mother and daughter, I assume that there’s some connection between her desire to steep herself in sadness when she’s sad and my tendency towards annoyance when people try to cheer me out of the doldrums.

“The blues isn’t about feeling better, it’s about making other people feel worse, and making a few bucks while you’re at it.” – Bleeding Gums Murphy (from The Simpsons)

Spring Has Sprung, the Grass is Riz…

A reel lawn mower, adapted from an illustratio...

Our mower is much like this one, published in a magazine in 1888. (Image via Wikipedia)

…I wonder where the flowers is.

I don’t know the author of that poem (and can’t find any solid answers online), but my maternal grandfather used to say it. He had a lot of great sayings, most of which aren’t appropriate for wide audiences. He was, shall we say, a character. He had a dog named Biter. When I took my then future husband to meet gramps, Biter kept jumping up on my boyfriend.

“If he jumps up, just hit him with this,” Grandpa said, handing my boyfriend a large empty plastic whiskey bottle.

But this post isn’t about Grandpa. It’s about spring and wandering about Salt Lake City loving all of the things I love about the city and my kids and springtime in the city with my kids.

It was chilly today, but clear and sunny, a nice break in an otherwise rainy week. The kids and I left my husband (long recovered from the shock of being asked to subdue a large dog with a plastic whiskey bottle) to his job search and took a walk to the park. My son rode in the stroller and my daughter rode her walking bike. We took a roundabout route past the mailbox to mail my daughter’s thank-you notes from her fake birthday this weekend, so we got a nice, long walk in.

I loved talking about flowers and singing songs with my daughter and pointing out dogs to my son. As always, the mountains are breathtaking. It never stops giving me a thrill to see the mountains all covered in snow while the valley is all green (for a brief time before the earth is scorched by the summer sun). And I love the smell of the air in the springtime, although my daughter apparently has an acute sense of smell for dog poop because she could smell it everywhere, even when all I could smell were the blossoms on the trees.

I enjoyed hanging out with the friends we met at the park. I enjoyed that my daughter told me calmly and with barely a whiney tone in her voice that she was ready to leave because she was hungry. We all enjoyed petting Maggie the One-Eyed Wonder Dog when we passed her yard on the way home.

I was so thrilled with outdoor life that when we arrived home, I got out the mower and started cutting the grass.

I love our mower. It’s a push-reel mower. You know, the old kind with no motor, powered only by the strength of the person pushing it. With all of the recent rain, our grass was thick and lush and had grown a good six inches since we mowed it less than a week ago. It occurred to me that a scythe might have been a better tool to tackle the grass, but not having a scythe, I grabbed the mower.

The push reel mower does a decent job, but on thick, tall grass, it frequently gets caught up. When it gets stuck like that, I need to wheel it backwards a tad and push it forward in short bursts a half-dozen times to clear the blades and cut all of the grass in that spot before moving on.

Whenever I do this, I think of Homer Simpson at the end of “Dead Putting Society” (from Season Two, at least eight seasons before the show began to head downhill). He and Ned entered into a wager about the miniature golf competition their sons were in. Because the contract was poorly written, both fathers lost the bet and each had to mow the other’s lawn in his wife’s Sunday dress.

Homer’s mower is like ours and the animators have him push-push-pushing the mower when it gets caught up on the grass. I wasn’t wearing a churchy dress (I was wearing jeans and a nursing top with lace on it), but I always picture Homer when I’m mowing.

At one point during the mowing process, three boys came by and stopped and stared at the mower for several minutes. I guessed they were between 12 and 14 years of age. I got the impression they’d never even considered the existence of a person-powered mower. I had just decided to engage them in conversation about it when they continued on their way. Probably just as well; I had a feeling I might have frightened them had I spoken to them.

While mowing the lawn, it became clear to me that the stuffy nose I’ve been cultivating for the past several days is a result of allergies rather than a simmering cold. I came to this conclusion after my nose quickly began draining profusely down my face. (The thought occurred to me that the boys might have been staring in shock at the mucus pouring from my nostrils, but they were clearly looking at the mower and not at all at me.)

I remembered that every time I move somewhere new, I don’t have allergies (or they’re very mild) until the third year. The spring following our three-year anniversary in a region is always when my immune system decides that it’s time to launch a strong and futile counterattack against the local flora. I suppose this is a reason that moving every three years is beneficial for me.

At any rate, it was a wonderful day, snot and watery eyes notwithstanding. I even had a totally tantrum-free flute practice and homeschool session with my daughter, and she didn’t even give me guff when I told her we could only read about one mummy this evening before bed.

“Tomorrow we’ll read about Ankhef, right Mommy?”

“Right, honey. We can read about all the mummies you want to tomorrow.”

Weekly Photo Challenge: Abundance

My response to this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge from The Daily Post.

The day before my second child was born, posing next to our tomato garden (at my daughter's request). No, it's not twins.

My husband’s comment on this photo: “I can’t help but feel partially responsible.”

I’m Accepting the Challenge

So WordPress is doing this post-a-day challenge thing for 2011. It’s just like the name implies: a challenge to post on one’s blog every day of the year 2011.

It might be kind of cheating to enter a post-a-day challenge when I already post at least once a day, but hey…I like recognition. It’s like when I would enter those summer read-a-thons when I was a kid. Of course I was going to read ten books. I was actually going to read twenty. But it was so satisfying to fill out the little colored cards, I just couldn’t resist participating. (I could make a Simpsons reference here to the episode about the teacher’s strike when Lisa freaks out and begs Marge to grade her, but I won’t.)

And I’m glad to have The Daily Post to provide post topic suggestions on days when I just don’t know what to write about (if those ever happen).

Thanks for reading, and please keep those likes and comments coming (when the spirit moves you, of course). And if you’re up for daily blogging on your own blog, I’d love to have the company! To keep track of my daily posts, subscribe to my blog via e-mail using the link to right (somewhere along that sidebar there).

No More Emotional Pink Bellies

I’ve been kind of freaking out and overwhelmed the past couple of weeks.

I mean, contemplating moving my family into an RV might, under the right circumstances, be a bold yet totally reasonable and right choice for my family. But I realize that I wasn’t entertaining the idea because I’d reasoned it out and decided it was the best plan for my family. I was entertaining the idea because I was feeling burned out and was looking for an escape from all of my anxieties and pressures. If I don’t have a grip on the anxieties, moving into a few hundred square feet on wheels is not going to improve things any. Unless, I guess, if all of my anxieties were about needing to make a quick getaway but not wanting to leave anything behind. In that case, moving into an RV might be just the thing.

But that’s not my deal. My deal is this: Coming out of a few weeks of holiday and family-crisis-related disarray, I’ve slipped back into a pattern of wanting to fiercely regain control of myself and everything and everyone around me so I can get things back in order.

So, I’ve come up with a few reminders for myself as we close out 2010:

  1. There is no need to attach moral judgment to Self Care tasks. I don’t need to go to bed at a reasonable time because it’s more virtuous to do so. I need to go to bed at a reasonable time so I feel refreshed and rested when my kids wake me up in the morning. It’s not morally wrong to eat the entire bar of Almonds and Sea Salt in Dark Chocolate (which I did AGAIN tonight). It just leaves me feeling a bit queasy, so I might choose not to eat the whole darned thing.
  2. The number of page views my blog gets is not an indicator of my own worth as a person. And checking my blog stats dozens of times a day does not cause them to go up.
  3. The decluttering and house cleaning are works in progress and will never be “done.”
  4. Breathing and meditating are not a waste of time. Constantly refreshing Facebook, on the other hand…
  5. Getting rid of the dining room table will not get rid of the clutter that accumulates on the dining room table.

It’s time to stop beating myself up. Like Bart Simpson says when he stops the bullies from giving Milhouse a pink belly in the episode, “Separate Vocations”: “That belly’s not gettin’ any pinker.” This self-flagellation is about as gratuitous as a pink belly.

I’m hereby re-commiting to being gentle with myself. I posted this way back at the end of Week 2 of the Happiness Project, but I’m going to post it again as a reminder to myself. It’s a chant from my friend David in North Carolina:

I will be gentle with myself.

I will be gentle with myself.

I am a child of the universe

Being born in every moment.

Week 21 Review: The Satisfaction of Pop-Culture Exegesis, or The Unexamined Simpsons Episode is Not Worth Watching

Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

Image via Wikipedia

It’s become a bit of a family tradition for us to watch “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the first Simpsons Christmas special and the first full-length episode to air (way back in 1989). I practically know the episode by heart, but each year another little tidbit stands out to me.

The portion that’s got me thinking this year happens when Grampa, Aunt Patty, Aunt Selma, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie are all watching the Happy Little Elves Christmas special and waiting for Homer and Bart to come home. At the end of the show, Aunt Patty berates Homer in front of Lisa.

Lisa: What, Aunt Patty?

Aunt Patty: Oh, nothing, dear. I’m just trashing your father.

Lisa: Well, I wish you wouldn’t because aside from the fact that he has the same frailties as all human beings, he’s the only father I have. Therefore, he is my model of manhood, and my estimation of him will govern the prospects of my adult relationships. So I hope you will bear in mind that any knock at him is a knock at me, and I am far too young to defend myself against such onslaughts.

Aunt Patty: [pause] Mm-hmm. Go watch your cartoon show, dear.

This short passage is just so full of good stuff.

On the one hand, I’m reminded how ground-breaking the series was and how incredibly high-quality the original shows were. There was always deeper meaning behind the jokes. While the family was far from perfect, it was always clear that they loved one another and that each person was acting out of love and doing his or her best for the family, even when those efforts fell far short.

Then there’s the way this passage highlights how kids listen to everything those around them say, even when we don’t think they’re listening. And while Lisa’s monologue is a bit precocious, I’ve heard my daughter call out adults in similar ways. (An example: when my mom was visiting, we were all sitting at the table when my son started fussing. My daughter said to her brother things like, “Calm down, honey,” and other phrases meant to soothe him. My mom told my her, “He’s just fussing. He’s still a good boy.” My daughter looked at my mom and said, “I didn’t say he was bad.” Not only was she listening, but she’d caught not only what my mom had actually said but what she’d implied as well. It kind of floored me.) It’s clear to me that the writers of the show knew actual children. They would just about have to, I think, to write this kind of dialogue for Lisa.

I like that Lisa makes the assertion that she’s “far to young to defend [herself] from such onslaughts.” At first, I thought this was ironic since clearly with her vocabulary and interpretation of psychology, she has pretty strong defenses. But of course, having the intellectual capacity to reason through a situation and having emotional defenses mature enough to shield oneself against an emotional attack are two different things. Lisa’s got the intellect part all figured out, and that makes her seem wise beyond her years. But on the emotional side, she’s still quite young. I relate to Lisa.

And then the way that Aunt Patty dismisses Lisa is compelling to me. She pauses, considers what Lisa just said, and then just tells her to watch her cartoon. Does she do this because she feels embarrassed that she’s been called out by her niece? Does she not fully understand what Lisa’s just said? Or perhaps she’s just decided she’d rather not think too deeply about the implications of Lisa’s statements?

Only a child who’s comfortable with who she is and how she sees the world, and, frankly, a child who’s confident in the unconditional love with which her family surrounds her, would be able to make such a statement to her elder. Lisa doesn’t fear punishment or shame from her Aunt Patty. She speaks with her as an equal. I wonder if, as Lisa grows up (of course she won’t grow up since she’s a cartoon character, but work with me here), she’ll lose the courage to speak up like she does at age eight.

So, there. This is how I have fun. I watch a cartoon show and then analyze it. Really, this is incredibly fun for me. When I started this post, I was surly. My husband walked in and asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t really say, I just knew I was in a bad mood. I took myself upstairs to watch the scene again and get the quote right.

After about fifteen minutes, my husband came upstairs to see how I was doing (and to see if he could read one of the books he’d given me for Christmas). After a short exchange he said, “You seem happier now. What happened?”

I shrugged.

“I’m blogging about The Simpsons.”

Some conclusions I’ve reached about fun this week:

Blogging = Fun

The Simpsons = Fun

Analyzing stuff (mostly words, written or spoken) = Fun

Dressing up my blender = Fun

Searching for and preparing recipes for desserts and brandy drinks = Fun

Being awakened by my children in the middle of the night = Not so much fun

For a little taste of the episode if you’ve not seen it or if it’s been a while or if you just can’t get enough of it:

He Sees You When You’re Sleeping

Custom Santa Suit, http://www.costumers.com

"See if you get anything but coal in your stocking this year, CJ!" (Image via Wikipedia)

Santa’s a very sensitive subject, it seems. So I’m not going to say much about him or how we handle him at our house. Instead, I’m going to link to two blog posts from opposite ends of the Santa spectrum.

The first, on Santa’s side, is from babycenter.com. It’s a post entitled, “Is Santa a fairy story or a filthy lie?” and it’s structured as a recap of a conversation between the author and her friend. An excerpt:

[author’s friend, about (who else?) Santa] “I just don’t think I’m going to lie to my child like that.”

Snort. “A lie? Really? Is that how you think about it? I mean, it’s not true, but I don’t think of it as a lie. It’s fun, it’s a little made up fairy story, like the tooth fairy. A lie is something that’s harmful.”

The only comment I’m going to make about this is to ask a question: What’s the difference between a fictional story and a lie? In my experience, when dealing with a fictional story, both the teller and the listener realize that it’s fiction. A lie, on the other hand, is when the teller knows they’re telling something that isn’t true but the listener doesn’t know it’s not true. But then, as Homer Simpson says, “It takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen.”

The author of this blog also worries a great deal about kids of non-Santa families ruining it for kids in Santa families. I don’t really understand this concern. Does she also worry that children of atheists will “ruin” God for the children of families who believe in God? I’m guessing the answer is “no,” and I’m guessing the reason is that the parents in families that believe in God generally believe in God themselves.

The other blog post is from parentingbeyondbelief.com, the website by Dale McGowan for the book he co-authored entitled Parenting Beyond Belief. His post, which he apparently re-posts every year, is called, “Santa Claus—the ultimate dry run,” in which McGowan explains how Santa Claus is a way of explaining to children the nature of God. He wonders aloud what might happen to a child’s belief in God once they find out that their parents have been misleading them about Santa.

An excerpt:

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish…

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

While the “Does that sound right to you?” path might seem a reasonable way to get a child thinking about Santa Claus, it seems only slightly less misleading than telling a child Santa is real. When I ask my daughter, “Does that sound right to you?” she knows that what I mean is, “That’s not right, but I want you to figure out why.” It’s OK to do this, I think, but a parent is lying to himself if he thinks this question conveys no bias on his part.

In addition, I don’t think it’s necessarily a sound habit to get into to ask a child, “Does that sound right to you?” McGowan prefaces his explanation by saying, “with questions of belief” these are the three paths you can take. But I’m not sure that children necessarily recognize what things are a matter of belief and what things are matters that can be observed scientifically. There are plenty of things that are scientifically reproducible and even daily occurrences that wouldn’t “sound right” to a child, but are nonetheless true (in a scientific sense). For example, “Hey, Sport! Some people believe that even though airplanes weigh tons and tons, they fly way up in the air as a result of an invisible force called ‘lift.’ Does that sound right to you?” Or, perhaps more poignant to this particular author, “Hey, Kiddo! Some people say we’re related to apes. Does that sound right to you?”

If it’s an unfair and leading question to ask your child on one side, isn’t it also an unfair and leading question to ask on the other side?

I am a fan of encouraging my children to question things, but I’m also leery of encouraging them to divide matters of belief into “right” and “wrong.” I think as a parent, it’s my job to say, “This is what we believe in our family. How does that feel to you?” and perhaps, later, “What do you believe?” And I think it’s also my job to help my children determine what things we can make conclusions about based on observation and experimentation, and what things are simply a matter of faith. I don’t want them to grow to adulthood confusing those two things.

I’m not going to say what we do about Santa, and I’m absolutely not going to say anything about reindeer. Our family does what we do and other families do what they do. I can’t control what other children (or parents) tell my kids, let alone what other parents tell their own kids, nor would I want to (because I wouldn’t want anyone else telling me what to tell me kids). How about let’s all just hush our arguing about Santa and have a Happy Solstice?

Wait, Do I Like Cooking?

NaNoWriMo Day 24 Word Count: 43,589

Crustless GF/CF Pumpkin Pie. If it turns out yummy, I'll post/link to the recipe. Is this something someone who doesn't like cooking would do?

I’ve got a homemade Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Crustless Pumpkin Pie and homemade Pumpkin Pepper Hummus hanging out in the fridge with the store-bought veggie tray and whipped topping (both dairy and non). I’ve got a from-scratch gluten-free, dairy-free apple pie baking away in the oven. I’ve got cranberries waiting to be masticated in the mixer and a recipe for gluten-free, dairy-free (sensing a pattern here?) dinner rolls sitting on the table, hoping to be put to use in the morning. I’ve got an open canister of cashews to my right and a “Slightly Sweet” Oregon Chai with rice milk steaming to my left.

And I’ve got Billy Boy stuck in my head. I always get Billy Boy stuck in my head when I bake pie. You know, “Can she make a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Can she make a cherry pie, charming Billy?” Despite the fact that I’m not making a cherry pie. As I mentioned before, I’m making a pumpkin pie and an apple pie, neither of which I made as quick as a cat can wink its eye. In fact, I’ve been at it for hours, and not always happily.

Which leads me to ask myself: do I like cooking?

I think I do. I mean, when someone asks me if I like cooking, I say, why, yes! I do! I post pictures of foods I’ve made and recipes I like on this very blog. I participate in conversations about food preparation and procurement of exotic ingredients, like maple sugar and dairy-free, trans-fat-free butter. But when I actually go to cook something, I do an awful lot of swearing and taking the Lord’s name in vain.

And then after I’ve made the thing that I’ve been very surly-ly making, I feel somewhat let down. “Oh,” I think. “Is this all?” And then we eat it and no matter how tasty it was, it’s gone now. No trace of all of my work but a drainer full of clean dishes stacked precariously and towering three feet above the countertop because I can’t stand drying dishes. We live in a desert. It makes no sense to dry dishes.

But I digress. The point is, do I really like cooking?

Even with all of this, I still think I do. I think the only reason I get all bent out of shape about it is that I want it to turn out perfectly every time, even if it’s something I’ve never made before. (Speaking of perfectionism, I just took a little break from writing to make a protective foil ring to keep the crimped edge of my pie from over-browning. I could sense from the way the pie smelled that it was browning at a rapid rate, and it still has at least 30 minutes left to cook.) And I want the eating of the food item to be some kind of transcendent experience, something that will be a highlight of our day and make us leave the table wanting to be better people and to help humankind. That’s a lot to ask of a pie.

Instead, it’s usually more like that scene in The Simpsons episode in which Lisa is disappointed because her career aptitude test said she should be a homemaker (“It’s like a mommy,” the school counselor explains). She’s spending the day with Marge, watching what might be in store for her as a future homemaker. Marge has made breakfast and shaped the bacon, eggs, and toast into little faces on Bart and Homer’s plates.

“What’s the point?” Lisa asks. “They won’t even notice.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Marge assures her. Then, of course, Homer and Bart come to the table, scarf down their breakfast, oblivious to everything. I’ve given a fairly accurate and thorough recap, but in case you’d like to see it for yourself:

So, in conclusion, the earlier seasons of The Simpsons really stand the test of time, and I clearly didn’t waste years of my life memorizing the episodes. They come in handy on a daily basis.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!