The Petting Zoo–Story the Last

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We’ll soon return to our regularly scheduled blogging. First, though, we get to see the first couple of paragraphs of the closing story in “Love is Not a Dirty Word.”

I’ve been writing all week about how and why I’ve written certain stories. I wish I could point to some magical moment as inspiration for “The Petting Zoo.” I could wax philosophically about some long ago memory of reaching through the fence and touching the soft, downy fur of a baby chicken or mention the tight curls of a sheep’s wool.

Yeah.

Or I could admit that I watch way too much television and I’ve seen one too many commercials in my life. I’m pretty sure it’s Verizon (or maybe T-Mobile) but a few years ago around Christmas a mother walks into the mall with her son on one side and her daughter on the other. She looks at the son and tells him “you’re my rock” I know you’ll behave. She turns to the little girl and says, “we can’t have a repeat of the petting zoo” can we? The little girl looks up at her with as much seriousness as a 6 year old can muster and says, “I’ll try mommy, but I can’t make any promises.”

Fortunately for the mother, she sees the (insert cell phone company here) store and she’s saved from the unpredictability of shopping with her daughter.

Who cares what kind of cell phone dad is getting, I thought. I wanted to know what the hell happened at the petting zoo?

If you saw that commercial and asked the same question, here’s what I think happened.

The Petting Zoo

Christie leaned back, trying to melt into the couch cushions, wishing she could wake up when her kids where 18 and in college. She smelled strawberry and felt the sticky residue of a half finished Jolly Rancher on her neck as she cradled the phone against her ear and tried to concentrate. The ceiling fan was filthy, there were spiderwebs in three corners, and she had at least one couch cushion poking her in the thigh, but she wasn’t all that sure what her husband had just said. Her ability to have an adult conversation was in direct proportion to how well her children behaved on
any given day.

“What? Sorry. I just spaced out for a minute. How can there be spiderwebs but no spiders?” Christie leaned to the side. If she couldn’t feel the spring, maybe she could pretend it wasn’t broken. “Anyway. You weren’t there. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.” She listened to Simon talk, wondering why her glass of wine was so far away. And how it got empty.

“I think we’ve been banned from the petting zoo. For life. Our grandkids won’t be able to go either.” Christie forced herself to stand. She needed a drink more than she needed rest. Or, more likely, she needed the drink in order to rest. The Jolly Rancher smell followed her to the kitchen and she wondered if there were any good snacks left.

“I’m fine. Just trying to get off the couch. Alexas told me at breakfast she wanted to grow up to be a kangaroo so she and David used the couch as their own personal trampoline this morning. I was outside watering plants for less than five minutes. When I came in, they had grocery bags tied around their waists with a small stuffed animal in each bag. They were yelling ‘Boing, boing’ as they hopped from cushion to cushion. Our couch looks like that hideous, plaid sofa you had in college. I don’t know what’s sagging worse—me or it.”

(If you want to find out why Alexas got banned from the petting zoo, click on the link above.)

Kids Do Weird Shit: One More Reason Parenting is So Hard

About 8 or 9 years ago, the writer Reginald McKnight was on our campus doing a reading and a Q&A session for our students. McKnight’s collection The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas is a really nice collection of stories exploring the emerging post-civil rights community. His minority characters exist in a world where they are “representatives” of their race, whether they know it or not. Such is the plight of any minority in recently desegregated classrooms or office buildings. Or, perhaps, the plight of any minority even in our post-racial, post-discriminatory America. McKnight’s collection draws a bead on how we so easily reduce the one black person (or gay friend, or hispanic friend, or [insert minority here]) we know into the whole. (Creating, of course, the irony that we are not really “post” anything.)

In the title story of the collection, one of the kids walks into class every day, spits in the crease of his elbow, rubs the saliva around, and then lays his head on the desk. It smells like mayonnaise, the narrator tells us. If I had the collection with me, I would let McKnight’s much better language build the scene, but, suffice it to say, it’s odd. During the Q&A session after his reading, one of our students asked McKnight what the significance was of that scene. Clearly, the student saw the moment as allegorical or metaphorical, perhaps a commentary on the irrelevance of the public school system on integration or an attempt to rub the “blackness” off.

McKnight looked at the student. “I don’t know. ” He paused, looked at the table and then back up. “Kids do weird shit.”

He wasn’t being flippant. He added, after the laughter in the room died down, that it wasn’t the job of the writer to deliver meaning, but the role of the critic and reader to infer, develop, and think critically about the language and the story. Literature, McKnight added, is a puzzle where meaning emerges as we encounter the text.

As a professor, I loved McKnight’s answer. I’m no fan of biographical criticism and, I tell my students, we must move beyond assuming the author is master of her own work. The narrator and the author are two very different people. As D.H. Lawrence told us oh so many years ago, we must trust the tale not the teller. Authors are liars by trade. Like teenagers trying to craft an excuse after coming in past curfew, what authors write and what they say they meant are often two very different things.

I’ve thought of McKnight as good bit as a parent over the years also. Like all kids, my boys are prone to doing things that make absolutely no sense. One of my sons didn’t start talking (or walking for that matter) until it was absolutely necessary. The other came sprinting out of the womb letting us know what he wanted and when. We wondered if they both had an attention deficit disorder because one never seemed to pay attention and the other might get so focused on one thing the world could end and he wouldn’t notice.

Like most parents, we’ve watched our kids be lazy, hate school, throw fits, struggle with ethics, act half-crazy, be sweet, rude, stupid, dangerous, and everything else in between.

Fortunately, we had great friends around us whose kids did the same things and we could look back at our own childhoods for reference. When I came home one day to watch my sons jumping off the roof onto the trampoline, my wife reminded me that she and her sister used to ride a rope swing, together, off the barn roof. When my older son forgot to get rid of the red solo cup package and throw the beer cans into the neighbor’s trash instead of ours, I was reminded that I once put the whiskey bottle under the house in clear view from the back yard.

If you are a parent, pause for a moment and count the number of times you said “What were you thinking!?”

When my wife and I wondered about the intellectual ability of our kids, usually late at night after watching various particularly inane displays of what will eventually become great stories we tell our grand kids, the answer seems obvious:

Kids do weird shit.

I can’t help but think we need this reminder more often as we discuss children and teens.

There is no doubt that parenting is hard work. We have to sacrifice our own self-interests as we help our kids learn to make good choices. We also want what is best for our kids and we want them to have good, clean, pain free lives. We brought them into this world and we sure as heck don’t want to watch them suffer while they are in it.

But just because your son can’t speak complete sentences at 20 months doesn’t mean he needs a speech therapist. When little Johnny throws a fit and refuses to pick up his clothes, he’s not being a hooligan. If Suzy isn’t  reading before kindergarten, she still has a shot at going to college. If your 2 year old bites his brother (or his friends), it doesn’t mean he has the taste for human flesh. (If he lights the family pet on fire and starts running with scissors, disregard anything I’ve said.)

Certainly, I’m not advocating that we stop concerning ourselves with the idiocy that is our children, but we also need to remember that life is a marathon not a sprint. Over the course of 18 years, our kids will do weird shit but not everything they do is worthy of our obsession or our therapist. Good parents disappoint their children. Good children, at some point, disappoint their parents.

In the meantime, let’s let them be kids and, most importantly, let’s let them be weird.

 

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)