Archive for October, 2009

The “I hate you!” issue came up at work yesterday.  My co-worker Carlos related this mom-six year old son exchange:

Son:  “I HATE you!”

Mom: “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

Son:  “I HATE you, PLEASE!”


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“I HATE you!” Jack yells at his mom Sunday morning.  

It’s six-year-old hyperbole.  The cause of this outburst is Rachel telling Jack he’s going to church.  

I overheard Jack hurl another “I hate you!” at Rachel the day before, about a toilet-related issue.  When Rachel came into the kitchen afterward, I told her that I didn’t think she should let Jack speak to her that way. Rachel shrugged. 

“It’s how he feels,” she said.  She does not believe it’s healthy to bottle up honest expressions of emotion.

Jack is Rachel’s son, not mine.  It’s totally her call. I would never dream of intruding.  But……

“What if he ‘feels’ like you’re a stupid b**ch?”  I asked.  “Can he say that?”

I agree that kids should not be required to fake their feelings.  When Alani was little I told her at a gathering at my parents’ house that she didn’t have to hug a relative she didn’t like.  “I don’t force her to express feelings she doesn’t have,” I told my dad.  “You what?” my Dad said.  His withering tone conveyed his dismissal of such a new-age, child-coddling notion.  But I stuck to my guns.  No forced hugs.

I suppose the difference between “I hate you!” and “You stupid b**ch” is that the former is an honest report of Jack’s emotional state, and the latter would be name-calling. 

Rachel doesn’t react to Jack’s Sunday morning “I hate you!”, other than to calmly tell him that, like it or not, he’s going to church.  She leaves his room.  Jack yells after her:

“You big . . . FATTY!”

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First Grade Malingerer

malingerer 001Rachel, on a business trip Tuesday, got a call from the Jack’s school.  Jack wasn’t feeling good.   Could she pick him up?  Rachel couldn’t.  I call our friend Dawn, who goes to pick him up.  When she gets there, Jack says he’s fine.  He stays in class.

That evening Jack is a picture of robust health.  He pounds down a Taco Bell cheesy gordita crunch, a quesadilla, and a handful of malted chocolate balls with no ill effect. 

Rachel and I have our suspicions. 

Last year, when Jack was in kindergarten, Rachel got several calls from school telling her Jack had peed his pants and was sitting in the school office.  Rachel rushed to the school office each time with fresh pants and underwear.  She worried that her little boy suffered from some undiagnosed form of  urinary incontinence. 

One day, Rachel wasn’t available when the kindergarten call came.  I went.  When I arrived at the school office, Jack frowned. 

 “Where’s my mom?” he said. 

A light bulb went off over my head. 

“From now on,” I said, “When you have this problem, I’m going to come, instead of your mom.”  Jack took the clean clothes and headed for the office bathroom. 

“If you’re  going to come,” Jack said at the bathroom door, scowling, “I’m not even going to do this anymore.” 

He didn’t mind squirting a teaspoon of pee into his underwear in exchange for a visit from his mom, but he wasn’t going to sit around in damp pants for a mere stepdad visit.   That was the last time we got a peed-his-pants call.

We suspected that Tuesday’s sick call was a reprise of Jack’s kindergarten pants-peeing scam, but more advanced:  If he was sick, he’d get to go home with his mom, lay on the couch and watch videos.  That night in the kitchen, Rachel told Jack he couldn’t have the school call her anymore unless he was really sick.

She tried for a bright-line rule: “If you throw up, then you can come home,” she said.

Rachel saw my horrified expression and realized her mistake:  To Jack, this rule would sound like instructions on how to get a day off school.  Puke?  No problem.

Rachel hurried to add:  “…and I’ll take you to the doctor.”

She decided this might not be sufficient disincentive, and added:  “… and you’ll get a shot.” 

Still not satisfied, she added a finishing touch:  “…in your forehead.”

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Panhandler “Veteran”

panhandlerveteran 001Alani and I are stopped at a red light on the Eight Mile off-ramp.  I’m driving her home from school.  Ahead, by the stoplight, a panhandler stands with a hand-lettered cardboard sign.  It says “VET – PLEASE HELP.”  

He looks about 50.  Too young for Vietnam, but too old for the Gulf War.  Can you hold yourself out as a veteran if you didn’t fight in a foreign war?  Are you a “vet” if you served as an army postal clerk in North Carolina?  I don’t think so. 

Once, when Alani was younger, I ignored a panhandler at the same spot, looking straight ahead while our car idled five feet from him.  I explained my tight-fistedness by telling Alani that I gave to other charities, that it wasn’t always safe to let a panhandler approach your car, that …. 

My then eight-year-old daughter interrupted:  “He’d probably just use it to buy drugs, anyway.”


I dig my wallet out of my pocket this time and extract a dollar.  I hold it up so the man on the ramp can see it through my windshield.  He immediately trots toward my car, hurrying in case the light changes or I change my mind.  

His hurry – for a dollar –  embarasses me.  He’s someones dad, reduced to this.  I had always enjoyed the unspoken certainty that I was superior to the men on the ramp.  Harder-working. Better-educated. Smarter.  Now, with the wolf of  Michigan’s recession prowling my own neighborhood, it is an uneasy kinship I feel, not superiority.

I hand him a dollar bill, and he trots back to his post.  The light turns green.  I wave to him as we drive by.  He gives us a not-very-crisp military salute.

“That was nice,” Alani says from the back seat.

Sure beats:   “He’d probably just use it to buy drugs.”

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ballerina 001Rachel comes down the stairs.  She’s holding something.  She stops in the front hall, facing me.

“I want to be the woman who inspired these,” she says.

She’s holding a plastic bag full of cards.  She comes over to sit on the couch next to me.  In the plastic bag is every card I ever made for her.  On some I drew a picture, on some I printed out pictures from Google images, and pasted them on a blank piece of cardboard.  She saved every one, and the envelopes.

The first one was after our second or third date.  She’d told me that her favorite movie when she was a girl was the Sound of Music.  I found a picture of the 1965 movie poster and pasted it on a card:  Julie Andrews running on the crest of a hill, guitar case and valise in hand, pink skirts fluttering in the wind.  The stern Captain Von Trapp watches with his hands on his hips.

The last card, from January, is a drawing I made of a dancer lacing her shoes.  Rachel had just started ballet class.  She loves ballet, but had not taken a formal class since she was in college.  She fretted that it was silly for a forty-year old woman to take ballet, but came home from her first class excited as a teenager.  She demonstrated pirouettes in the kitchen.  One of the things I love about Rachel is that she follows her passions, and I wrote that in the card.

But that last card was nine months ago.

Rachel missed the cards, but mostly she missed me being inspired to make them.  I think about last winter, when I stopped doing it.  It’s when my dad got sick and started radiation treatments.  I began making regular trips to South Bend to help, and waking at 3 a.m. to worry.

“I know,” Rachel said.  “But we’ll always have things like that.  My parents will die.  One of us might get sick. Things will happen.”

She’s right.  The tumult of life will toss us like a boat in a storm, but our marriage is our rudder.

I spot a picture of a wild rose on one of the cards, and open it.  It’s a poem by Wendell Berry, “The Wild Rose”, that I wrote out for her.  It goes like this:


                          THE WILD ROSE

               Sometimes hidden from me

               in daily custom and in trust

               so that I live by you unaware

               as by the beating of my heart


                Suddenly you flare in my sight

                a wild rose blooming at the edge

                of thicket, grace and light

                where yesterday was only shade


                 and once again I am blessed, choosing

                 again what I chose before.

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I’m explaining barbed wire to Jack, who is six. 

We’re driving in Detroit after dropping Alani off at theater practice.  

Jack opted to go with us rather than with his mom to Michael’s soccer game.  Of the five of us in this house, Jack is the most likely to disregard the two-tribe stepfamily divide.  Out of habit, Rachel would generally take Jack, and I would take my daughter to theater practice.  I decided to shake things up, and invited Jack to come with Alani and I.  Jack considered, questioning his mom closely about the playground equipment at the soccer field, before casting his lot with Alani and I.

We drive through a decrepit part of Detroit after dropping Alani off, past lots fenced with barbed wire.  Jack asks why they have barbed wire.  I tell him to keep out people who might steal something.

“Then why don’t we have barbed wire around our house?” he asks.

We live in a tidy, tiny suburb.  I tell Jack it’s because we have a police station right at the end of the corner.  We drive, and Jack continues to survey the desolate landscape.

“Mike,” he says, “Is there a lot of barbed wire in Detroit?”


“How come?”

“Because they don’t have enough police to protect everything,”  I say. 

Jack moves on to related crime topics.

“How do guns kill people?” he asks.

“With bullets,” I say.  I explain that bullets are hard pieces of metal that go into a person’s body and wreck something important, like their heart.

“And then they die?”


He accepts the authority of my answers until he asks if bullets can go through teeth, and I say they can.  He disagrees, insisting that teeth are the strongest part of the body, stronger than bones, so there is no way that a bullet can break them. 

“A bullet can knock teeth out,” Jack says, “but it’ can’t go through them.” 

I admit that he may be right, and take the ramp onto I-75 north.  Jack asks what we’re going to do now.  I tell him we’ll go home, that I have some work to do.   This disappoints him.  He’d hoped for more adventure.

“I should have gone with my mom,” Jack says. 

 “Or, ” I say, “we could go to the library.”   I refuse to have my small victory over the two-tribe divide sullied by buyer’s remorse.

Jack perks up.  He wants to know which library, the good one or the boring one.  I tell him the good library, with the kids’ books and the wishing fountain outside.  

We park outside the library and approach the fountain.  Seven years ago, when Alani was Jack’s age, she stood by the same fountain and asked how long it took for wishes to come true.  I said it depended on the wish.  Alani told me that she’d wished many times to become a polar bear, but she never did become one.

I hand Jack a penny.  When we reach the fountain we see that it’s been drained.  Only a thin puddle of water remains. Not much more than a damp spot.

“Oh, no!” Jack says.

I assure him that if the penny gets wet, the wish counts.  Jack tosses his, and it plinks into the puddle. 

“Good throw,” I say. 

Jack takes my hand.  We walk toward the library.

“Mike,” he says, “My wishes never come true.”

“Keep wishing,” I say.  “They will.”

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Birthday Junkie

Wednesday morning, on the way out the door with Alani, I remember that Jack doesn’t have a birthday present for his mom yet.  I motion him to follow me out the front door, and ask him on the front stoop if he wants me to get a present. 

His eyes widen.  “I want to go with you.” he says.  Birthdays are catnip to Jack.  His birthday, someone elses, doesn’t matter.   He’s loves picking out presents for people.

I tell him he can’t, he’ll be with his Dad tonight.  His face falls. 

“Just a minute,” he says, backing toward the front door.

I tell him I can’t, I have to go.  Alani is already in the car.

“”I’ll be right back” he holds up a finger. 

“I have to go, buddy.”

“Wait!”  he disappears inside.

But I have to go.  I walk across the thick wet grass, start the car, back it out, and head down the street.

Three houses away, Alani asks, “What’s wrong with Jack?” 

“What do you mean?”

“He’s standing on the front porch, crying and staring at our car.”

I sigh.  I’m already late. “Call Rachel” I say.  I turn down Woodward and pull into the Shell station.  Alani calls.  Jack answers.

“Mike?” He’s breathless with excitement.  “You know that place, that theater place I go to? Oh….you don’t know…”  He’s frustrated.  It’s hard for a six-year-old to give directions.

I tell him I do know.  He means the community center, where he takes acting lessons. Maybe he saw something for sale there, I think, and wants me to get it for his mom. 

“Yeah” he says, “well, when you go outside, and there’s a store there…”

Oh.  There are twenty shops near the community center. 

“And they have a scarf…”

He’s not going to be able to manage anything more detailed than that.   I call Rachel later.  Maybe she remembers the shop, and looking at a particular scarf under Jack’s watchful eyes.

She knows exactly what Jack was talking about, but…

“I bought that scarf,” she says.

Damn.  We consider her giving me the scarf, me pretending to Jack that I found it and bought it, and Jack giving it to Rachel as his present.  Too tangled a web of lies, I decide.  And Jack’s with his dad till Rachel’s birthday.  Hmm.

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