Tagged with " parenting"
Mar 17, 2012 - Ancient History    3 Comments

A Drop of the Irish

I’m five-eighths Irish, and it shows in all kinds of ways. I don’t tan–I just burn badly, then peel back to freshly-drowned white. My complexion also blushes impressively at the first whiff of emotion or alcohol. I’ve got a decisive jaw and a stubborn chin, and the attitude to back them up. I look damn fine in any and every shade of green. I’m hard-pressed to keep my toes still if there’s a spirited jig or reel playing. I’ve got a mighty temper, which rises and falls with sometimes alarming speed and whimsy. And I’ll take a chilly, misty, drizzly day–a “soft day,” to the Irish–over a cloudless 80-degree one hands down.

And oh yes: a significant number of my relatives are alcoholics.

My Grandpa Boyle, mobbed by the grandkids as usual. I'm top right; my sister lower right; 2 of many cousins on the left. Salt of the earth, my grandpa was.

Now don’t go getting on me for pandering to an ethnic stereotype. Not all Irish are drunks, probably not even a majority. But Irish social interactions have been lubricated by smoky whiskeys and beers as thick and dark as the new moon since time immemorial. (Don’t question me when use idioms like “time immemorial;” I’ve literally read the very earliest Irish historical documents.) And for so many people with Irish blood in their veins, it’s an understatement to say their relationship with alcohol is fraught with generations of experience and emotion.

And so it was with my paternal family. I’m descended from the Boyle clan, with a side order of Higgins, and I grew up in and near Milwaukee, home of the most epically huge and enthusiastic Irish Fest in North America. Holidays, christenings, birthdays, marriages, funerals, and occasional random weekends were spent in the wood-panelled basement of my grandparents’ home in a blue-collar suburb. (If you don’t know about the Irish and wood panelling, you need to pay more attention to Denis Leary.) On every available surface, there were either food or bottles of booze; with both, quantity over quality was the byword. Both were consumed at a steady pace, with the grit and determination of long-distance runners.

What I remember most about those parties–besides my cousins and slipping around on the tiled floor in my fancy shoes–was the volatility. The growing volume level, the slightly unbalanced quality to the adults’ laughter, and the overbroad, unmeasured gestures. The sudden snap of a frayed temper, the crack of an angry outburst. The atmosphere of precariously balanced danger. The longer the nights drew on, the more I instinctively shrank into myself, made myself smaller, so I wouldn’t upset the equilibrium.

My mom and father, high school sweethearts, in better days.

If it had only been at these parties, I’d probably be writing about this with more humor. But it was at home too, with no parties, no gaiety–just a staggering, slurring father, present in so many snapshots of my childhood. He worked hard, but there were weeknights he came home so hammered, he was still drunk when he walked out the front door the following morning. He’s a big man, 6 foot 4, and thickly built. Sometimes, he came home in the mood to play, but he couldn’t control his strength when he was drunk, and his horseplay often left at least one of us kids crying. Most nights though, if he didn’t just stumble into bed, he was angry and belligerent. I’m the oldest of us three siblings, so I felt it was my responsibility to protect us. We spent nervous hours crouched in the bathtub; the bathroom was the only door in the house with a lock.

My brother, sister, and I, right around the age when we all grew up very fast.

I was a pretty precocious kid, so when my mom finally demanded that he leave when I was about 8 years old, I was all for it. The next two years were hard, really hard, as my mom worked to support us on just her secretary’s salary–I shudder to think of what it would’ve been like if her parents hadn’t lived a mile away and been so generous with their time and resources. She knew the man who would become our stepdad from church–he was the Minister of Music, and she sang in the choir. She knew he’d been raised a teetotaler. Sure, he was 20 years older than her, but he’s a good man, and she knew he’d take better care of us all.

The rest of the Boyles knew my mom had given my father chance after chance after chance, but he refused to admit he had a problem, and they blamed the breakup on him. We’ve maintained very good relations with them all along, even after my father decided it was easier to think of us as dead for a while there. They supplied us with pictures of our new half-brothers from his second marriage, and they sent representatives to important events, like graduations and my wedding. I saw my father at a family reunion when I was 17. We hadn’t spoken for 8 years at that point; we wouldn’t speak again for another 17 after that.

My personal reaction to the alcoholism I saw rampant in that branch of the family tree was unusual, I guess. I decided as a child that I would never even taste alcohol until I was old enough to be sure that my personality was fully formed, and that it didn’t have addictive tendencies. Lots of my friends didn’t understand my adamant refusal to drink in a small town where drinking, having sex, and renting movies were the primary forms of entertainment, often performed in combination. But I’ve been fortunate to have a happy assortment of offbeat friends who took that quirk in stride.

I went to France my senior year of college–I would turn 21 while I was over there–and I went with the attitude that, if the occasion rose and I felt comfortable, I’d try a drink that year. But I wasn’t ready when I first got there, and the French college students just shrugged off my refusal of beer-based hospitality, and pointed me to the Coca-Cola. The real problem was with the French adults. “BWAH?!?!?” they would exclaim. “But you are in France! Everyone drinks in France! You can’t not have wine!”

Oops. Magic word: can’t. See, I’ve got this anti-authoritarian button that pops out when someone tells me I can’t, and it sounds like this: “Oh, I can’t, can I? Well, that cinches it. Just watch me.” And I didn’t drink the entire year–not on my birthday, not at any of the outrageously good meals, not in any of the charming cafés or brasseries, even though my hot chocolates and Cokes cost me 12 francs, and a beer would’ve cost me 7. That’s some fine Irish stubbornness for you there.

I had my first drink of alcohol on my wedding night, a champagne toast with my friends. The friends who’d been with me all through college and the year in France couldn’t stop exclaiming how mind-bendingly odd it was to see me drink. Some knew why I’d waited; they were happiest to see me let go of that shackle. Funnily enough, because I’d waited until I was a fully grown adult to start drinking, I’ve never been drunk. Between my Irish/German constitution, my plus-size physique, and my unwillingness to drink any alcoholic crap that comes along, getting me drunk is a damned expensive proposition, and I’d so much rather spend that money on books.

I reconnected with my father when we moved back to Wisconsin for a few years. I’m the mother of his only two biological grandchildren, and I felt it would be stingy and petty of me not to let him get to know them, and them him. He hasn’t aged particularly well, but when he grows out his beard and hair, he looks like a rather jolly Irish Santa. They send us gift cards at Christmas; I send them cards and drawings from the boys. I don’t like to think how I would’ve turned out if my mom hadn’t had the steel in her spine to leave him, and when it’s time to talk to my boys about drinking and drugs, I’ll tell them what my first 8 years were like, and why I’ve made the choices I have.

Family and history–they’re the most Irish things I have to share with them.

A Gift Better Not Given

Most days, I try not to think about how my kids were formed (note: I didn’t say “how they were made;” that was quite pleasant), just like I try not to think about how my husband and I met. The odds are just too astronomical that things worked out the way they should, and on less-good days, it’s hard to believe that the universe has even one good thing in store for me after pulling off those hat tricks.

But every once in a while, especially when I see something of myself or Cam reflected back from them in flawless mirror image, my mind flits across whimsical images. Sometimes, it’s the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, hovering over their cradles and bestowing gifts. And sometimes, more magical in its own way for being true, I imagine those tiny coded zippers–unfurling, melding pieces of each of us into someone new and unique but so familiar, then coiling again, before doing a little do-si-do and starting the whole thing over again, in the blink of an eye. Amazing, but frankly, it hurts my head a little to contemplate it all.

Of the two boys, Griffin definitely looks more like me, or more correctly, my little brother–he certainly got his uncles’ engineering skills and sheer cussedness from both sides of the family. Connor’s a bit more of a mystery–his looks are changing so much every year–but there’s definitely something of his Auntie Fi in his smile and stubborn little chin. Not to mention his big, enormous head, an inheritance from his father which I had not truly contemplated until hour three of pushing at Connor’s birth.

Personality traits are much easier to spot and attribute. Cam and I are a lot alike, and were as children, and we’d like to think we’ve had a big influence on them as they’ve grown too, so it’s no surprise that both boys are voracious readers–Connor loves adventure stories, comics, and technical manuals; Griffin is my non-fiction kid, and I think we’ve read every book about animals and weather that our local library has. They’re also imaginative storytellers, and immerse themselves in roleplay that folds together Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, James Bond, the Marvel and DC universes, and a host of other settings in what we affectionately call “the Connorverse.” We’re fortunate that Griffin inherited my appreciation for villains; he’s not stuck as the droid, like I always made my sister, to her everlasting bitterness. And of course, there are the senses of humor, as abundantly demonstrated in the last post; like their parents, they riff from the absurd to word play to cultural references and back to the zany again.

Other gifts are more obviously from one or the other of us. To our great relief, both boys inherited my iron stomach for travel–no Dramamine for us, we’ll be here in the back seat, reading quietly through long car trips. Their talent and enjoyment for video games, though, that’s all their dad (and uncles). Connor inherited his father’s ability to produce vast quantities of heat from an internal nuclear reactor. Griffin, much to my chagrin, seems to have inherited my anti-authoritarian streak.

But then there are the gifts that aren’t really gifts, the things that show up that fill you up with regret when they surface in your child. Cam felt horrible the day we learned that Connor needed glasses, much worse than Connor did, in fact. And the first time Connor had a stretch of insomnia, I actually apologized to him for setting that little timebomb in his DNA. The Asperger’s, too, was an unwelcome complication from me and my family, though the relief at understanding what was going on with Connor offset any grief at the diagnosis. Griffin, too, has some sensory issues in common with Connor and me, but so far, no sign of being too far off the neurotypical end of the spectrum.

This has been a weird month for our family. While we’re overjoyed at the release of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and the attendant acclaim and delight, even good stress can be very stressful. Then I had my sudden pancreatic mutiny that landed me unexpectedly in the hospital for almost a week, and recovering from surgery for another week after that. Whatever the combination of factors, Connor hasn’t reacted well, and the deepest stretch of depression in almost two years has laid him low. He’s so fragile and off-balance: little things he could normally roll with knock him down into the trenches, and those troughs are so much deeper and hard to escape than even the usual lows that are common among Aspies. We’ve had several violent (toward himself and objects, not anyone else) meltdowns at school, as well as a hair trigger temper toward his brother and more insomnia. Yesterday’s major event, to my furious frustration, was brought on by a teacher who didn’t follow Connor’s IEP, which lets him go to a safe place when he’s overwhelmed at school, and told him that he needed to “stop being a baby” and stay, or he would “lose privileges like free time.” He’s been to the ER twice in two weeks for evaluation.

Guilt is a normal state of existence for mothers everywhere, but seeing the depression that’s derailed whole seasons of my life wrap its sticky, persistent black tendrils around my beautiful boy–it weighs like a stone on my heart. And it’s probably no consolation to him, when he says there isn’t anything good in the world for him, or anything good he can give back to the world, that I can look him straight in the eye and say, “I know exactly how you feel right now.” Sometimes, I do things that fly in the face of my own experience–I don’t particularly like or find comfort in being touched when I’m that depressed, but I hold him so tightly as he weathers hurricanes of emotion too big for his little body, and I hope it brings him calm sooner than he would find alone.

Knowing how much he’s like me in other ways is no consolation. He has my resourcefulness. He has my tendency to predict future events based on scenarios played out, like chess games, entirely in his mind. And he has my impulsiveness. Each, on their own, is harmless–even an asset in many situations. But put them together, and I’m left with the certainty that, if he decided now was the time to hurt himself, the best I could hope would be to find him in time.

The options for treating juvenile depression aren’t great, or many. We’ll step up the frequency of his visits to the therapist. We’ll work with him for plans to stay safe in every imaginable contingency; he does well with things scripted out in advance. We’ll spend a lot of time just snuggling on the couch, reading and watching TV together. We’ll work a little harder to keep him in touch with friends and family who love him so much. We’ll watch some “It Gets Better” videos. We’ll build little things for him to look forward to on the calendar for the next few months, and I’ll break myself if I have to to make sure they happen, no matter how I’m feeling.

All these plans, though, are no match for one moment of desperate action. Needless to say, I’m not sleeping much or deeply these days. I’m terrified for my baby; I would be even without any personal experience with depression. But I do have experience. When he says it’s hopeless, he’s only saying aloud something I’ve thought a million times. When he says we’d all be better off if he killed himself, he’s giving voice to a feeling etched in a dark corner of my own heart.

This broken piece of my beautiful boy comes from me. It matches a broken piece inside of me. What remains to be seen is whether my broken piece will be any help filling in the jagged edges of his tattered little soul.

Feb 27, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    5 Comments

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

From the way I talk about my kids here and in social media, you might think that they’re just brilliant evil madmen, whimsical annihilists, crazed Muppets on acid, determined to drive their father and me to eat, drink, and be weepy. And you wouldn’t be completely wrong.

But there’s a really important facet to them, as well, one that helps explain their continued good health:

They’re comic geniuses.

I don’t just mean that they’re funny in that old Art Linkletter/Bill Cosby “Gosh, the things kids say!” way. All kids say unintentionally hilarious things–adorable spoonerisms, mispronunciations, hilarious revelations of their skewed perspective on the world. And sure, my kids do those too–Griffin perseveres in calling his penis his “peepod,” and his pronunciation of “Dang it” as “DANIK!” But it’s more than that. In my old age, I expect to be living very comfortably on the fruits of their mega-successful comedy careers.

They’ve always been like this, too. My chief crime as a Bad Mother is that I haven’t kept a journal of all the hilarity–if it weren’t for Facebook and Twitter, even more of those moments would’ve been lost forever. When I was little and unbearably precocious, my grandma kept a stack of index cards next to her typewriter, and whenever I would say something wise or funny, she would write it down and stick it into a little binder, which she gave to me when I graduated from high school. It was such a precious, thoughtful gift, one I knew I just wasn’t the kind of person to replicate. And my memory–Swiss cheese, mesh sieve, fishnet stockings, or whatever uselessly porous metaphor you can imagine–retains only the oddest assortment of these things.

But I’m determined to convince you that these are more-than-averagely witty children. So here are a collection of my favorites.

Connor’s first celebrity crush was Jon Stewart. Yes, that Jon Stewart. We’ve had TiVo since just after he was born, and he would sit in our laps as we watched saved episodes of The Daily Show when Cam was home for lunch. Connor learned comic timing from those folks–he laughed at jokes from the rhythm, long before the words made sense to him. We hung pictures of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the bathroom wall to celebrate successful poops in the potty at least as often as we hung Lightning McQueen and Luke Skywalker. He had a little clip-on tie in his costume basket which he would affix to the collar of his t-shirts before standing tiptoe on the bathroom stool so he could stand before the mirror and rattle off little monologues in his weird moon language: “Bwuhblahbapah, hrmhuhbeda ah rmuu gagapurba… AHAHAHAHAHAHA!” Confused, we asked him, “What exactly are you doing?” He replied, all seriousness, “I Jon Stewart.” Legend has it that, at least for a while, an invitation to Connor’s Jon Stewart-themed 3rd Birthday Party hung on Stewart’s office wall.

The cake reads "The Daily Show says Happy Birthday Connor."

Griffin was born when Connor was four, and while Connor was intrigued by the strange alien parasite who’d arrived in our lives, he felt it was unfair that the rules were different for the wee beastie than they were for him. This was especially fraught at bedtime, one of which Connor had, but Griffin, as a three-month-old, avoided by sleeping any damn time he felt like it. One evening, Connor exercised his growing rhetorical skills with three award-winning attempts to get around this obstacle. From the top of the stairs, we first heard, “I think there’s someone at the door. I think it’s for me. I’d better stay downstairs in case they come back.” No. Go back to bed. Five minutes later, “It’s not healthy for me to be upstairs alone.” Ooo, nice try, kid. No. Go back to bed. Finally, the real kicker: “I think you want me upstairs because you love Griffin more than me.” Emotional manipulation–nicely played, young padawan. No. Go back to bed.

This happened to be Crazy Hair Day at school, but I have a feeling it'll be every day sooner rather than later.

Griffin’s sense of humor grew differently than Connor’s, with a definite pitch toward the absurd. He’s my angelically adorable, punk-rock, little imp of the devil. His favorite band is Green Day. He loves atomic Japanese monsters. Griff’s talent lies in the one-liner; my talent is for failing to remember them. A recent one that stuck: “Dad, the bathroom is full of zebra smell.” He’s almost shameless in his misbehavior, which yields a humor of its own–you know, the kind that also makes you reach for the Xanax. When asked if he behaved well at school, he responded with a gleeful grin, and said, “Ms. Brown said she was going to give me a color change because I was bad in the library, but by the time we got back to the classroom, she forgot, so I was good!”

Together, the two of them are overwhelming, both comically and sometimes literally. When people don’t seem to understand what raising two young sons is like, I tell them the story of the day they both had funny things to tell me at the same time. They stood directly in front of me, gesticulating wildly with their hands, as Connor said in a campy Bela Lugosi voice, “I’m an alien! I have no head! My butt is where my head should be! I have a butt for a head!” while Griffin just yelled repeatedly, over his brother’s monologue, “WAFFLES! WAFFLES! WAFFLES! WAFFLES!”

And even on the bad days, their comic genius can pull a laugh from me. Cam and I were discussing an earlier Twitter conversation about my hatred of smoothies for their frequent inclusion of unannounced secret bananas. Connor, who’d come off the school bus crying at another bad day of school, piped up, “Secret banana? Did you just say *secret banana*?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, guess what? SECRET BANANA!!!” he yelled, and whipped a small notepad with a cover featuring a cartoon banana out of his jacket pocket.

How could I not laugh? I mean, honestly, what were the odds? The odds he’d have that notebook in his pocket? The odds he’d remember it was there, in all his emotional turmoil? And of course, perfect timing.

I’m not the best mom in the world, not by a long shot. I’m mercurial–little things set me off too easily, spinning toward sadness or anger–and my patience escapes me with my own kids in a way it doesn’t with anyone else. I’m bossy and authoritarian, and I try to make everything a teachable moment. And I can’t be active with them all the time, the way I’d like, the way my mom and grandma were with me–the pain and the fatigue set arbitrary limits and scuttle the best-laid plans, and I hate that they know from how I’m holding my body to ask whether I should maybe take some medicine.

But I am, and always will be, their best audience.



A Thousand Little Things

This is Gwen.

I’ve been working for a while now, in all my copious spare time, on organizing a fundraiser to help some dear friends. Given how closely to the bone my family lives from time to time, it may seem like an odd choice for me to use my time to make money for someone else, but my efforts aren’t about the money. The money’s just the most immediate way to begin righting a wrong.

Elizabeth and Shreyas have two daughters. Nirali is two years old and completely adorable. And Gwen is eight, whip-smart with a smile as big as the world. Gwen is also autistic. Her family has had to pull her out of the public school where she’s been going since they moved to California because of its stubborn refusal to follow the Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines Gwen’s difficulties, goals, and the school’s obligations to help her function at her fullest capacity. IEPs are legal documents, and the school has broken the law time and time again by refusing to provide the support Gwen needs to learn and participate.

If her family just pulls Gwen from the school, with no follow-up, there will be no record of the egregious offenses the school district has committed. Another family with their own bright, high-functioning autistic child might run into the same obstinacy and intransigence, and never know that their experience is part of a pattern that goes back years.

The only way to change things in the future is to fight now. And fighting is expensive.

In return for donations to help Gwen’s family fund the legal fight and prove that a private school can do what the public school refuses, I’m putting together six months of new short fiction from a fantastic roster of writers. Every other Monday (with occasional “freebie” days at random), subscribers will get something new to read. Readers of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and generally offbeat stories will recognize some of the authors who’ve already committed their talents: Matt Forbeck, Kenneth Hite, Josh Robern, David Niall Wilson, Cam Banks, Steven Savile, and more. Still more authors are still stepping forward; I’m thrilled and humbled by everyone’s generosity. You can subscribe right here.

But I’m not just doing this for Gwen and her family, much as I adore them. I’m not doing this just because it’s the right thing to do, though it obviously is. I’m doing this out of gratitude for the thousand little things my sons’ school does for them, above and beyond Connor’s IEP requirements.

I’ve written before about the misunderstanding, the ignorance, and the physically and psychologically scarring bullying Connor received from both administration and classmates at the school where he attended kindergarten. His Asperger’s Syndrome was so obvious to trained observers that, when we switched him to a different school for first grade, we were called in for a meeting about his diagnosis before the first month of school was over.

Over the years, we’ve had meetings upon meetings around that packet of papers labeled “IEP.” They’re full of jargon, full of measurable annual goals, services and modifications, assistive technology considerations, and other daunting phraseology. But that jargon translates into real help that makes a real difference. It gives him permission to walk out of any situation that’s overwhelming him to the point that he feels a meltdown coming on. It gives him access to tools like fidgets and weighted vests that allow him to focus longer and be more at ease in loud, crowded situations. It justifies the time spent in social skills group and occupational therapy, when other kids are drilling on academics that Connor mastered a grade or two ago.

All those therapies and tricks and tools are incredibly helpful. But the things for which I get down on my knees in thanks, and that I wish for Gwen and every other amazing kid trying to cope in this noisy, gaudy, overwhelming world with their quirky superhuman senses, are the things that aren’t ever written into an IEP. They’re the points of human contact, of compassion from professionals whose hands are more than full with the everyday concerns of all the other “perfectly normal” kids.

It’s the way that, when Connor had a meltdown at school after a week of substitute teachers and his mom in the hospital, the principal offered him a hug, and just held him as he sobbed under the weight of emotions too big and complex for him to sort out alone.

It’s the way that the school social worker offered to use “special funds” to buy a pack of undershirts so Connor didn’t have to wear the pressure vest that helps him stay calm on the outside of his clothes, where it might be noticed and commented upon by his classmates.

It’s the way that they recognized that his need for a break in the day could be fulfilled by an activity that would raise his self-esteem and make use of his extraordinary talents, and set up a schedule to act as a “reading buddy” to second-graders who could use a little extra attention.

And it’s the way that these amazing teachers and administrators are extending the same caring resourcefulness to Griffin, who doesn’t even have an IEP, but has needed help adjusting to kindergarten. They created a “job” for him, carrying a crate of books to the nurse’s office in the morning, and back to the classroom in the afternoon, to let him feel proud of helping as he gets some much needed movement breaks. It’s the special desk they made for him, with faux fur, sandpaper, and a bumpy silicone potholder glued to the underside for him to fidget with instead of constantly touching his classmates and their work.

A thousand little things that make our kids stronger, calmer, more confident, more self-aware, and better prepared for the thousand little things that none of us can foresee from day to day. Like those waterfalls of brightly colored ten thousand origami cranes, fashioned by hand from paper and love, a labor of such dedication that it’s believed to grant the recipient one wish. Except that the visible sign of the grace and compassion of these people isn’t as perishable and impermanent as paper.

It’s the fast, bright, smart, funny, kind, curious, and beautiful boys that their actions are helping to grow. Every parent and every child deserves an education that gives results like this.

That’s why I’m fighting for Gwen.

The Censorship Quandary

The main job of parenting is to introduce your kids to the world outside your home in a way that best helps them make sense of it and learn to survive in it. You take them places, and show them things, then stand aside and anxiously watch them discover the joys and pitfalls for themselves. You clap and cheer, and dry tears and kiss scrapes. And it’s worth noting that this job isn’t only done by parents–any adult who deals with children experiences these things, and bears the honor and responsibility for those children’s formation.

The point of divergence among parents is when to expand the fence we build around our kids, to include new information and experiences. Obviously, this is a hot-button issue, laced with words like “censorship” and “age-appropriate” and “psychological trauma” that fuel an entire industry of researchers and trade paperback sales. Morals and memories of our own formative years have a powerful impact on our choices, as do our unique tastes. Sometimes, this veers in the absolute opposite direction from how we were raised. We resolve to raise our children with or without those influences: religion, politics, bad food, naughty words, even our extended family.

And sometimes, we lean into the curve of our own years, and urge our children into the shape of the things we’ve grown to love. The phrase “Where has this been all my life?!” is a strong predictor of parental behavior; the favorite shouted phrase of teenagers throughout time and space, “When I’m a parent, I’m never going to make my kid go there/eat that/do this!!” rarely factors in parenting decisions later in life. My husband and I are geeks who are making our living from an industry based on social experiences of play–it was a foregone conclusion that we would mold our little creations to share some of our offbeat enthusiasms. I showed Connor Star Wars when he was two, the same age at which I’d seen it (when it was first released in 1977), and Griffin was about the same age when I introduced him to Godzilla and all the other Japanese atomic monsters. And sure enough, they’re evolving nicely on the quick-witted, culturally referent, and wide-ranging track we set them.

But, inevitably, there are hitches in the unrolling of the tapestry of the world we lay at our children’s feet. Some, we never see coming. When Connor was born in the long, hot summer of 2002, we started watching “The Sopranos” on DVD to while away the humid evenings. He would actually stop nursing and look at the TV in recognition when the theme song came on. In large quantities, this show can have a deleterious effect on one’s language; I suddenly found myself saying, in the voice of Paulie Walnuts, “This f—ing guy!” whenever Connor would poop in a brand-new diaper. At the same time as we were awash in a stew of New Jerseyan profanity, I discovered that I no longer felt comfortable leaving live news on TV around my newborn son, a feeling that intensified as he grew to toddlerhood. I must admit, I am a news junkie; have been since high school. I mean, slap a vein and stick in a global 24-hour mainline–I want it all. So this discomfort came as a distinct shock to me as a new mother, a radical and instantaneous re-prioritization that told me I was no longer the same person I had always been, the first of many.

Other problems, we see coming and face with deep ambivalence. For instance: I swear. A lot. Not as badly as I did when I lived in France, but I’m somewhere between dockhand and a Naval officer on his ninth month at sea. I’ve tried to rein it in, but I just can’t force it entirely from my vocabulary, which will doubtless earn me the scorn of parents with more willpower. I’ve always believed in the concept that there are no bad words, only the wrong situations for them; calling them bad gives them more power, as most ably demonstrated by the Harry Potter novels. So I’m raising my kids to know that swear words are not appropriate for children, and are a reflection of strong emotions, and so far they get it. Connor, in particular, is still pained by my profanity, and regularly implores me to “be appropriate” around him, but I’m convinced he does this for the sheer joy of turning the tables on me. I’m also grappling with my awareness of the deeply bizarre American relationship with sex and violence. I’m determined not to be casual about violent themes and images, and to be less neurotic about anything to do with sex and gender, but the whole thing is fraught with conflict and difficulty. For now, I take it as a victory that my sons are some of the only young boys I know who don’t freak out at kissing or when I streak from bathroom to bedroom on the days I forget my robe.

We had a big turning point within the last week or so, with both boys. Griffin got himself suspended for a day by mooning his female classmates. When asked what on earth could’ve possessed him to do such a boneheaded thing, a thought occurred to me. Connor’s a huge fan of The Simpsons, and this was straight out of Bart’s playbook. I asked him, “Did you do it because you saw it on TV?” He nodded tearily, and mourned, “I did it so they would laugh.” So I’m having to re-evaluate the influences of tween tastes on the kindergarten set. Meanwhile, Cam has started playing Skyrim, and Connor is riveted by, of all things, the crafting. (I’m told WoW and FarmVille players will totally get the appeal.) He’s pleaded with us for permission to play on his own, so he can make leather and explore, but Cam firmly asserted that there was just too much violence and sexual content for a kid his age. I was more ambivalent, and argued that he wouldn’t necessarily even do some of the things we would be uncomfortable with, but I’m bowing to Cam’s vastly greater knowledge of video games.

It’s a comfort, though it seems wrong to put it like that, to say that some of the things that scared me the most as a child could never have been predicted, so sheltering my kids from everything isn’t going to inoculate them from every nightmare. The movie Gremlins scared the living crap out of me, and that was marketed directly at children, with tie-in toys and everything. And I was much more scared of nuclear war, as a Reaganbaby, than I was of anything I ever read–The Day After shook me so hard that it was incredibly hard to watch again as a grad student.

Similarly, one of Connor’s triggers couldn’t have been foreseen, or even insulated against. It took us a few years, until he could sufficiently articulate it, but extreme closeups of faces, especially not-completely-human faces, really freak him out. He went to see Spiderman 3–which is a horror in other ways, but I won’t get into that–at the movie theater, and none of the action or “adventure peril” bothered him at all. Instead, it was this one shot of Venom’s open mouth as he lunges at the camera that gave him fits. Likewise, there’s a scene in Fantastic 4 when Ben Grimm reveals his rocky deformation by turning his face out of shadow and lifting the brim of his hat. He leaves the room when that part of the movie is coming up, and that’s fine with me.

I console myself with the fact that we do so much with our children, and that guiding our kids through new experiences makes them less likely to be seeds of neurosis later in life. Sure, I’ve read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to them at Halloween–I even showed them the spooky-fantastic pictures by Stephen Gammell, which are apparently too scary to include in the latest republication. But I didn’t just give them the book and tell them to read it to themselves before bed. I was right there beside them, shivering at the gory parts and validating their fears by sharing my own. I think this prepares them for life much better than pure censorship can, and gives me the opportunity to shape their responses to their own feelings and impressions, by building a sense of empathy and honesty that I hope will serve us later when their lives get immeasurably more complex.

And if it doesn’t work, hey, I’m doing my part to support the psychoanalysts of the future.

Jan 13, 2012 - Psychology    4 Comments

So Very Proud

Initially, I wrote this post as a note on Facebook last June, but I’m moved to repost it here. It’s been a hard week for a friend and her autistic daughter, as they struggle with a school that won’t give her what’s needed or even what’s right. It’s so hard to be a parent to these children and feel like we have anything close to what they demand, day in and day out. Every once in a while, though, you get a dividend, and somehow, other parents’ dividends show up in our paychecks too. So here’s mine, for you all, today.

Connor (in the tie-dyed shirt) leading our church group in the Twin Cities Pride parade, June 2011

Connor, Griffin, and I walked in the Twin Cities Pride Parade on Sunday, under the banner of our wonderful, inclusive church family (White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church). I hadn’t realized that the Pride Festival was the same weekend as Origins Game Fair, so doing it as a single mom of two rambunctious boys had not been in my original plan, and to say I was apprehensive would be a serious understatement.

Already, the trials of single parenting had affected my commitment to volunteer for OutFront MN, when my wonderful friend and neighbor who’d planned to take the boys Friday night called a few hours before my scheduled shift to say her daughter had been sent home from day care with nits. The OutFront folks were very understanding, and I spent some compassion capital on making dinner for all of us to share on a picnic bench outside.

But I knew the parade and festival would be unlike anything any of us had ever done, and I prepared as best I could: lots of snacks, sunscreen, water bottles, first aid kit–you know how it is with boys.  We parked near the beginning of the parade (in retrospect, a big mistake, so noted for next year), and met our co-marchers. Our ranks were swelled by members of another UU church (with drums!), and we took our place behind a paramedic crew on their ambulance.

We left about 100 ft. between ourselves and the ambulance, in hopes of avoiding the exhaust fumes, but I told Connor and another 9-year-old, Diana, that they could use the space so long as they danced and rode Diana’s adorably-decorated scooter to put on a show.

This was the order Connor has been waiting for his entire life.

For the next two miles or so, Connor danced with streamers and beads. He breakdanced (well, sort of). He did fake kung-fu. He swooped like an airplane from one side of the street to the other and back again. He gave high fives and tousled little kids’ hair among the spectators. He was the one thing he has ever wanted to be–the absolute center of attention. And the crowd LOVED HIM.

Asperger’s kids have to work so hard, all the time, to make themselves and their feelings smaller, to contain themselves to conform to societal norms. I’m not proud to say that, most of the time we’re in public, I live in fear of mortification at the next boundary he violates. For him and for me, it’s a constant strain to color inside the lines, and opportunities to say, “Go, be entirely yourself, all the way, as big as you want,” are vanishingly rare. But this parade was just that opportunity, and it was a joy to unhook the leash and set him free.

Any other kid would’ve been too embarrassed to try new moves on such a stage, or to dive into a crowd of raucous strangers demanding high fives–awareness of those social boundaries would tell us to rein it in, to tone it down, to contain the joy to just smiling big and waving. Griffin was shy for most of the parade (or intent on scouring the ground for candy). But Connor was absolutely free.

I don’t know if either of my kids is gay; I don’t care in the slightest. But Pride celebrates being your fullest, truest self, without fear or judgment, and the parade gave Connor the chance to do just that, and by doing so, he gave so many other people such immense joy. I was watching the crowd’s reaction to him–they weren’t laughing at him, they were just delighted by him, exactly as he was. And my heart felt so huge in my chest, so full it choked me with tears at times. He was free of constraint, and I was free of fear. We were both so very, very proud.

Game On: Reverb Gamers 2012 #3, 4, & 5

Ironically, catching up with work at Atlas Games has put me behind on Atlas Games’ blog project, Reverb Gamers. But it’s a quiet afternoon at work, with no big restocking orders today and my bosses home with sick twins, I’m taking a moment to get up to date.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #3: What kind of gamer are you? Rules Lawyer, Munchkin/Power Gamer, Lurker, Storyteller/Method Actor, or something else? (Search “types of gamer” for more ideas!) How does this affect the kinds of games you play? For example, maybe you prefer crunchy rules-heavy systems to more theatrical rules-light ones.

This question refers to basic archetypes offered by game designer extraordinaire Robin Laws. If you’re not familiar these terms, he says most players fall into one of five categories, as summarized in an excellent blog post:

  • The Power Gamer: Get more powers and use them often and efficiently.
  • The Butt-Kicker: Enjoys combat and pwning NPCs!
  • The Tactician: Like to beat complex situations through thought and planning.
  • The Specialist: The one who plays a <insert character type here>. Ninjas and Drizzt clones are popular.
  • The Method Actor: Likes total immersion in a character’s assumed persona, whatever the costs!
  • The Storyteller: Enjoys exploring a story unfold around a character’s actions and choices.
  • The Casual Gamer: Shows up to be with friends and share the social energies of the group.

(These are also the character types in the fantastically entertaining movie The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.)  Of those, I’m clearly The Storyteller: I love telling stories with my friends around characters. I explained this more fully a little earlier.

But I’m quite taken at the moment with a different set of classifications, offered by my dear friend Rob Donoghue:

  • The Connector: Plays for story; rules are of negligible importance.
  • The Evil Muppet: Creative, whimsical, engaged, and in it for a specific kind of interaction: he wants the GM to bring the pain.
  • The Swooshy Giant Brain: Super-smart, but mostly just wants to stab things for fun.
  • The Rookie: Enthusiastic, rules savvy, in it for fun, but with not as much experience to draw on.
  • The Wildcard: Somehow both the most inspiring and most maddening player at the table, with a creative, twisted mind and enough rules know-how to take the whole game offroad.

These categories don’t make some of the assumptions that Robin’s do, the most problematic of which being the incompatibility of technical and creative emphases. Rob’s archetypes are patterned after mutual friends, which makes it personally fun, but they’re also more easily combined to reach a personal description.

In this system, I’m about 70% Connector, but at least 30% Wildcard; these proportions vary depending on my mood. It’s still all about the story for me, but some of my choices have been known to derail entire chunks of planned adventure. What can I say? It’s a gift.

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #4: Are you a “closet gamer?” Have you ever hidden the fact that you’re a gamer from your co-workers, friends, family, or significant other? Why or why not? How did they react if they found out?

I was surprised at how negatively some respondents took this question, so let me clarify. It’s pointing to the fact that some people feel that they have to hide their gaming, not suggesting that anyone should feel that they have to. And sure, if you’re writing a public response to this prompt, you’re probably not closeted anymore, but many kids had to dissemble with parents and teachers about what, precisely, they were doing with friends, so it’s not as alien a notion as it seems.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in a number of ways that have prevented it from ever being necessary to hide my love of gaming. While very devout Christians, my family is the liberal, Methodist, God-is-love kind of Christian, not the kind that’s threatened by imagining worlds where other powers are possible. To their minds, we were kids who were reading, doing math, telling stories, and not committing crimes–what’s not to love? My work never made an issue of it, either. College is all about exploration, and I was only a lowly TA or adjunct, so nobody cared enough to be upset about my hobbies. And now my hobby is my work, at least for the time being.

All this being said, I know at least two good friends who do not want a word of their participation in gaming breathed outside the confines of the houses where the games take place. Both of them feel strongly that being “outed” as a gamer would be a liability to their careers, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Yes, it’s unfair, yes it’s silly, and yes, attitudes are changing. But they haven’t changed all the way, and some fields are more conservative in their expectations and acceptances.

So it’s still very possible to know these people. You may even game with them. Just something to be aware of when you go naming names in the posts about your weekly game. They’re not just being silly, and it’s nobody’s decision but theirs to let those around them know what they do for fun.

Me playing Gloom with some kids at the Student Council Game Day last May

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #5: Have you ever introduced a child to gaming, or played a game with a young person? How is gaming with kids different than gaming with adults?

The short answer is yes. I used to pack my copy of Kill Doctor Lucky when I went to substitute teaching assignments, and at some schools, kids would come up to me in the hall and ask whether they could sign into my study halls to play whatever I’d brought that day (yes, they asked a sub. Take a moment to absorb that.)

Now I have my own kids, and they’re finally at the ages (9.5 and 5.75, as of this moment) where I can enjoy playing organized games with them. I’ve also been doing this more for other people’s kids over the last year: I helped the Student Council at my boys’ school organize a Game Day, and I taught games at last fall’s Youth Pride Festival in Anoka, MN.

I’m not a particularly patient teacher of game rules, though, and I’m married to Cam Banks, a vastly more experienced GM with the skills and creativity to roll with whatever wacky plans the kids come up with, so I’m usually only in charge of teaching board and card games. That being said, it’s been unexpectedly fun, just over the last few months, to try out new finds and old favorites on my sons. They’ve really arrived at what I consider the earliest optimal age for games. Yes, I know they can play at much earlier ages; you don’t need to convince me. I just have this aversion to one particular feature of gaming with kids (or anyone): the complete devolution into silliness.

I love joking and kidding and having fun at the game table as much as the next person, but both the mom and the Aspergian in me absolutely lose it when kids start making the pawn figures knock each other around the table, and going up chutes and down ladders, and stealing money from the bank, and drawing cards until you get the one you want. Yes, I need to relax, and yes, more play teaches them play etiquette faster. I’ll be the first to say that my reaction is more a matter of me being annoyed than them being annoying. But it’s a barrier to enjoying games, and it leads to the urge to knee-jerk refuse requests to play something.

These things aren’t as much of a problem with RPGs, but sitting down to roleplay with kids requires a level of attention,energy, and uninterrupted time that isn’t always available in the day-to-day chaos. I really enjoy roleplaying with kids sometimes; we had friends’ pre-teen son at our games for several years, and it was just fine.

Gaming with my own pre-teen son is an astonishing experience. He thinks in storyboards, and he’s had an amazing grasp of narrative since he was two (no lie), so his capacity for character-driven drama and decisionmaking is far beyond his years. He’s also got that kid-gift for lateral thinking, which makes him a real Wildcard (see earlier) sometimes.

His Asperger’s brings its own blessings and challenges to the gaming table. His volume control goes away when he’s excited, which is most of the time when he’s having fun. He’s happiest when he’s the center of attention, so he’s not good with extended cut-away scenes that don’t involve his character (Cam does an awesome job of managing game flow to minimize this). And he gets really frustrated when the rules or chance won’t let him do what he’s picturing in his head; he takes it very personally when he can’t bring those visions to fruition. But his attention to detail, steel-trap memory, and typical Aspie fixations mean that, once he’s decided to master a system or if we’re playing in a world he knows and loves, he brings a level of sophistication that is frankly astonishing.

There’s nothing like gaming with kids to blast apart all the stodgy, preconceived notions experienced gamers bring to the table. As with everything else, they’re seeing it for the first time, and their perspective shatters the jaded accretions we’ve picked up over time. It’s good to be reminded of the wonderment we all experienced the first time we discovered the power to build worlds.

The Pettiest of Peeves: Reverb Broads #16

Reverb Broads 2011, December 16: What are your biggest pet peeves? (courtesy of Emily at http://warmedtheworld.blogspot.com)

I can only come up with three pet peeves right now, and they’re all so trivial, I’m pretty embarrassed to put them out there. Feel free to mock them. But once you know about them, beware: they might start to annoy you, too!

My first pet peeve is repetitive noises. It’s a Big Red Button that is constantly pushed by my sons, because if there’s one thing kids love, it’s making the same noises or saying the same things over and over and over and over. Both of them engage in what I like to call “echolocation barking,” when they say “Mom!” or “Dad!” over and over until someone responds to them, even if they don’t really have anything else to say. They also seem incapable of singing more than one riff of a song, though they’re happy to sing that riff on endless loop. I refuse to buy The Toys That Make The Noise. And don’t get me started on video game music…

And it’s caused by a big snarly bundle of factors. I have perfect relative pitch, extremely sensitive hearing, and a tendency toward hypervigilance — in short, I really can’t stop listening. This contributes to my general insomnia; I can’t sleep without some sort of patternless white noise, like a fan. My husband once bought me one of those soundscape machines, but I had to return it after two nights, because all of the environmental sounds had a loop, and I would lie there waiting for the same pattern of notes to come back again. Pure torture.

My second pet peeve is simple: apostrophes. Sure, there are lots of other nitpicky little grammar things that make me nuts, but I could learn to live with all sorts of things if folks would just get their apostrophes under control. They’re not even hard, people! Here, I’ll let Bob the Flower handle this one:

And my last one isn’t even that bad, but it makes the holiday season maddening for me. In the song “Deck the Hall,” there is only ONE HALL, but MANY BOUGHS. “Deck the Halls” is not the correct original lyric, though it is ubiquitous these days. I got this pet peeve from a good friend with whom I sang in church and school choir for years, and now, like her, I go around at carol sings yelling, “ONE HALL, MANY BOUGHS!” and generally annoying everyone.

You don’t believe me, do you? Well, here, look!

This is original sheet music, from the Victorian era when the carol became popular

Dec 11, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

The Agony & The Ecstasy: Reverb Broads 2011, #10

Griffin as Thor (left) and Connor as the 11th Doctor (right). Did I mention they're geeks?

Reverb Broads 2011, December 10: What is the best and/or worst thing about your life right now? (courtesy of my dear friend Dana, who got me into all this, at http://simply-walking.com)

That’s easy:


But that’s just one, you say? Pish-posh, I reply. They are both the best and the worst thing in my life.

Here’s how they’re awesome:

They’re healthy. They’re smart. They’re funny. They’re adorable. They’re wonderfully geeky. They’re getting along better than ever before since Griffin started kindergarten this fall. Re that: they’re both in full-day school, which is an especially wonderful awesome thing. They love their school, and so do we. They lived to see another birthday, despite their best efforts. They ask interesting questions. They can take care of themselves a little more every day. They’re getting to be just the right ages (5 and 9) for me to introduce them to all the books and movies I’ve been waiting to show them. They have no allergies that interfere with daily life. They seem to be remarkably injury-resistant (knock wood). They’re adventurous and outgoing. They make friends quickly. They test well. Connor’s progress on his Asperger’s Syndrome moves forward by leaps and bounds every year. They still get excited, not embarrassed, when I show up to do things at their school. And they still like to cuddle, even though Connor doesn’t really fit on my lap anymore and I expect him to be too dignified to do that any day now.

And here’s how they’re not:

Connor’s progress with his Asperger’s isn’t even close to “done,” and the meltdowns and arguments continue. It drives me crazy and breaks my heart to see him making some of the same mistakes, and suffering the consequences, that I had to learn the hard way. Griffin is apparently “not school-ready” (in behavior, not in learning aptitude) and we just finished a HELL of a week, filled with calls from the principal and bus referrals for stupid shit. They’re functionally deaf, despite hearing tests to the contrary. They’re stubborn. They’re obnoxious whiners. They’re demanding. They can beat video games and dismantle electronics, but cannot apparently pour themselves a glass of water. They fit their pants and shoes for approximately 45 seconds after purchase. They still need to be reminded to change their damn underwear every day. They watch the Disney Channel and The Simpsons incessantly. They have no volume control. They can’t apparently pick up or find a single damn thing without parental supervision. They want the Next New Thing about 10 minutes after they get the thing they’ve been bugging us for. They have to be reminded that hitting doesn’t solve anything. They have to be told to wipe, flush, and wash Every Single Time, I swear.

And yes, I realize that both lists are nothing unusual. And I know it’s all par for the course, and that in the long run, the good stuff outweighs the bad. But on a two-Xanax day, when I haven’t had a moment to spare to take care of myself (even when I know that taking better care of myself would help me have more for taking care of everyone else), the tunnel vision distorts the view.

Do I want to strangle them them regularly? You bet. Would I take a bullet for them without a second thought? Damn straight.

I guess kids are all about extremes. And mine are the freaking X Games.

Oct 22, 2011 - Domestic Engineering    4 Comments

Letting the Terrorists Win

I’m used to pressure. In fact, I’m one of those freakish people who actually operate better under a fair amount of it than I do when everything’s going just swimmingly. In high school, I acquired my only-partly-facetious nickname “Emergency Lass” for jumping into musical ensembles and yearbook deadlines and graduation preparations and a whole host of other situations, and not just filling the gap adequately, but kicking a fair amount of ass at the required tasks. My last semester of college ended up comprising 22 credit hours, plus 3 for choir, my wedding, grad school applications, a car accident, and a half-time job. I got the best GPA I’d ever had stateside.

Naturally, I was angry. I mean, come on! When you do well and almost die doing it, it makes people think you can handle that level of activity and pressure all the time, and you’re left yelling at their backs, “But no! Didn’t you see me almost dying!? That wasn’t normal!”

I thought I understood pressure. But that was before.

Before Real Life.

Before I was a mom.

Before I’d lived through an NPR membership drive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about extortion lately. Our kids know summer is the lean season, typically, and they tend to be a lot better about not asking for things, always a bit of a paradox, since you’d think they’d be more desperate for distraction in the depths of those long, school-less days. But for some reason, the switch has flipped, and they are really laying on the hard sell every time we turn around. If we ask what they’re hungry for, they name a restaurant. If we say we have to go to the store, they present a list of demands. I’m surprised fuel and a plane to Cuba aren’t among them, some days.

The fact that the answer is no, has consistently been no, deters them not at all. You’ve got to admire that kind of persistence, and maybe I would if I weren’t so exhausted by the constant struggle. Because their response to “no” is as consistent as my delivery: shocked outrage, followed by whining and temper, general intractability, creative retribution, sullen slouching-about. Pick one from Column A, two from Column B.

This is not, however, the much-vaunted “culture of entitlement” you read about in the news. I get really angry about this, when people say how spoiled kids are when they ask for things they want so readily. My kids feel no more entitled to Stuff than any other kid out there, and I want them to feel comfortable asking whatever question passes through their little prefrontal corteces, so when the important ones come along, there’s no hesitation there from the time I screamed at them over a stupid Happy Meal.

They’re freaking kids. Part of the psychological profile of elementary-school-age kids is that they’re little egomaniacs — their world is SUPPOSED to revolve around their own needs and wants at that age. What about human infant rearing doesn’t encourage this way of thinking? We don’t leave bottles and dry diapers at strategic posts throughout the house, on the floor where the kid can reach them if they work hard enough to roll over there. We go to them as soon as their breathing alters; why wait until they’re cranked up to a full-on wail? Let’s be totally honest here: this is as much for our own ease and peace as it is for theirs

If you’re a bad parent, if you’re actually spoiling them, they think that’s normal at any age. But at this age? It’s normal. All I figure I can do for them is be consistent in my responses, and hand them increasingly complex rhetorical tools with which to build their appeals, so they can argue well by the time they need to make the arguments that really matter.

I joked about the MPR membership drive as the model of extortion, but if the kids were really paying attention to how to get the job done, they’d listen to those masters of soul erosion. Those same familiar voices that bring us the news and entertainment I bathe my eardrums in as I putter around the warehouse or navigate the roadways turn their earnest midwestern accents toward a singular appeal for eight days. They change up the pitch, the rhythm, the variance of pathetic and logical appeals like a championship boxer, looking for your tender spots. They dangle colorful lures in a landscape suddenly dark in the artificially imposed news blackout — of course you want a chili red diner mug that reassures you, every time you feel low, that “YOU make MPR happen.”

Even the language of membership appeals to us at our basest needs: “Become a Sustainer.” Who doesn’t want to be a sustainer to something or someone? Clearly, my kids don’t think I’m sustaining them — I say no all the time! But if I say yes to MPR, just this once, I’m a Sustainer. I sustain.” My boss thinks a better name would be “Enabler.” I think she’s probably right. At least we’d be closer to the right sentiment if, after crawling into the broom closet at work and surreptitiously dialing the number to pledge a measly $5 a month, thus obtaining the prized Chico bag with MPR logo, and confessing our breathless addiction to the infectious laughter of the Car Talk guys, we had to mutter the phrase, “I wanna be an Enabler.”

You think you can torture me? Bring it. Waterboarding is so 2006. Stress positions are nothing next to carrying all the groceries in from the car in one trip. Electrocution? Who do you think you are, Jack Bauer? Kids, pay attention. Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, take note. If you want to break people down, really get everything they’ve got and leave them begging to give you more, you don’t need to beat them, bomb them, or bankrupt them. You just need to give them a nice coffee mug and tell them you really need and appreciate them. Don’t believe me? Just ask any of the 13,500 poor slobs who fell for it in the last eight days.