We’re a Disney family. Not that that makes us special. I imagine Mickey and and his entourage have indoctrinated most red-blooded American families. Because we’re a Disney family living in Orange County, we spend a significant amount of time at Disneyland, which means that we’ve ridden Dumbo forty-seven thousand times, cruised through the jaws of Monstro just as many, and given so many hugs to Winnie the Pooh that that fat-bottomed bear has my kids’ handprints permanently impressed upon his upper thighs. This may not sound like an exciting day to some people, but the truth is this: nothing guarantees early bedtime for the offspring like a two or three hour romp through the postmodern sensory overload that is the Magical Kingdom.

While I love spending time with my kids and admittedly enjoy the Disney experience, the saccharin flavor of The Happiest Place on Earth is sometimes just too damn sweet, and I can’t resist cutting it with a little darkness. Please understand that this is an involuntary reflex, and resistance is futile. I don’t intentionally act out. In fact, if I were to be tried for the murder of the Disney spirit, I earnestly believe that I could only be accused of murder in the second degree.

Most recently, my darker inclinations crept up in the Disneyland petting zoo at the Big Thunder Ranch, which is situated on the Frontierland side of the the Fantasyland-Frontierland border. I point out the border-specific locale as something of a scapegoat. Don’t we all get a little extra moral latitude around a border town (I refer you to Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir classic Touch of Evil). If you’ve never moseyed into the Big Thunder Ranch, you’re missing an incredible opportunity. By comparison, other petting zoos are third world, overrun by rambunctious livestock all too accustomed to being hand-fed by Ritalin-deficient kindergarteners. For instance, a goat at Petting Zoo X will not hesitate to snatch a handful of shredded carrots right out of your hand, often times ingesting the better part of your epidermis in the process. Added to this, discerning between feed pellets and rabbit turds requires a PhD in zoology, and keeping your toddler from eating either the pellets or the turds requires a third and forth hand and a second pair of eyes that most parents don’t have.

At Disneyland, however, the goats have walked right off the set of Bambi or Snow White. They are endowed with the seven heavenly virtues, particularly the virtue of patience, as evidenced by the fact that they seem not even to mind when my daughter — on several occasions actually — has utilized her twisty straw to play veterinarian proctologist or to administer an impromptu zoological Pap smear. The goats merely look over their shoulders and offer a gentle albeit stern look that seems to ask, “Would you kindly not probe our goat rear ends with your twisty straw?”

Even more impressive than the livestock is the cleanliness. Most college dorms aren’t as clean as the goat corral. When the goats do their business, it’s handled in a New York minute, which is pretty damn fast for friggin’ Anaheim. And because the goats have never been hand-fed, they’re clueless to the fact that being hand-fed is even a possibility, so there are no goats bleating for your attention or ramming your bad knee to get a nibble of your churro or a mouthful of your heavily salted turkey leg.

Truly, the petting zoo at The Big Thunder Ranch is where lions lie down with the lambs, a little piece of the Garden of Eden. But if original sin crept up in the Garden of Eden, it can certainly creep up at Disneyland. And that’s where I come in…

 

...return next time for Anatomy of a Goat or Where Disneyland and Sex Ed. Intersect -- Part 2...

 


I concede, like most parents, that I love my children equally. It should be noted, however, that this was not a foregone conclusion. When my son was born, it took a while for him to catch up to his sister in terms of favor. I say this in all sincerity: the first year of his life, I preferred my daughter Charlee. It was nothing personal. Sam, my son, was a beautiful baby — healthy and good-tempered. He even looked exactly like me, despite my in-laws scandalous claims that there was more Andrews in him than Leonard (they’re still getting over the fact that Charlee is the female version of me; hell, even Becky wouldn’t believe Charlee was hers if she hadn’t personally been there when Charlee dismounted from her vagina). Getting back to my point — truly, my preference for Charlee over Sam during that first year was not personal. It was narrative. Let me explain:

Charlee and I had more stories, more history, more philosophical exchanges regarding the racially subversive qualities of Handy Manny not to mention the latent homosexual inclinations of Bert and Ernie. Ya know, we had bonded. That first year, Sam was just take, take, take whereas Charlee gave back. Okay, so usually all she gave were commands, but it was something, and something was better than nothing.

It took about nine months before Sam achieved mobility, and that’s when it became difficult to decide whom I would choose in a Sophie’s Choice type dilemma. With Sam’s mobility came personality, charisma, mischief. He possessed those qualities before, but they were soft and out of focus. The ability to walk gave his character muscle tone and definition. He and I were no longer some schmuck father and some featureless baby. We were now two guys on the prowl, cruising the world, checking shit out, feeling the wind blow through my hair and across his bald scalp. The upshot? The choice of which kid to let go when I’m wrestling them away from godless flesh-eating zombies and can only save one suddenly became much more difficult. Before I would have chosen Charlee because Sam, well, who was he? Just another baby, am I right? A glass of wine with my wife, a few hours of physical exertion, and we’d have another one exactly like him on the way. But he was no longer Sam; he (as some of you well know) became “Sammers” — and it’s a much loftier decision to shrug off a “Sammers.”

Most parents — or anyone with an ounce of sensitivity as my wife is too quick to point out — don’t like to entertain these hypotheticals, but I write comedy — most of it on the darker side — and so my mind naturally ponders these absurd questions. After much deliberation, I have a arrived at a premise that will make the decision a snap. Again, let me underscore that I now love my children equally. But in the event of a zombie attack, or in that moment when both my kids are dangling from the edge of those skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, their safety will be entirely contingent upon their behavior that day. If Sam woke up at 5:30 a.m on a Sunday and began screaming from his crib, “daddy…daddy…daddy…want out…daddy…daddy…[long pause] norm…norm…want out…norm!” then he’s a goner. If Charlee asked me the same question sixty-three times — “daddy, can we watch Wonder Pets?” — then sayonara.  If Sam begged for a banana, threw himself on the ground crying until I peeled one, and then gave it to the dog, he’d better hope he can fly — or at least bounce. My reasoning is that love is different than favor. When I think on my kids, my love for them feels endless and I can’t measure one endlessness against the other. Maybe I could if I had studied physics instead of English and Film. And favor? It’s day to day. One day Sam’s my favorite; the next it’s Char. This renders apocalyptic decision-making manageable, don’t you think?

Some of you have likely been made aghast by these confessions. Well, let me make it even worse. I tell both Charlee and Sam everything I’ve admitted here. They know that if the dead start to rise, they better be on their best behavior. Occasionally, I’ll wake them up and remark, “Hmm, feels like apocalypse weather.” It’s amazing how well behaved they are on these days. I hear pleases and thank yous in spades, and nap time occurs without incident.  (Note: this same strategy works to intimidate non-Californians — just swap “apocalypse weather” for “earthquake weather”).

In closing, I’d like to point out the picture above that includes our dog Girdie. Both of our kids have received much pleasure and entertainment from dumping their expensive, organic food onto the hardwood or directly into the dog’s mouth. As a result, Girdie has gained three or four pounds, which is substantial when you consider that she tips the scale at nineteen. I used to get frustrated when Sam and Charlee did this. But now I see it as preparation. When the apocalypse does come, or some other major conflict — a famine, for instance — Girdie ought to be nice and tender. Though I do wonder: if my kids were put in a situation like the one I described above, and their options were to save me or to save Girdie, who would they choose?

I guess I ought to learn to fly. Or bounce.

My son actively tries to kill himself every day. He teeters on the edges of staircases and escalators as if preparing to swan dive; he approaches strange dogs at the park, the kind of dogs that make Michael Vick itchy to place wagers, and he grabs their ears and sticks them with foreign objects where foreign objects ought not be stuck; he squeals as he scrambles into the street, gleefully dodging oncoming SUVs and Mack trucks; he uses forks and wire whisks to flirt with the mystery of wall sockets; he constantly tests the hypothesis that he shares genetic material with pythons and thus is able to swallow and digest large objects such as silver dollars, golf balls, and Christmas ornaments; he engages in long bouts of sleep deprivation that would render the average man insane if not deceased; he climbs everything, particularly objects that are clearly insurmountable – entertainment centers, razor wire fences, large Swedish women in or around Leisure World; and he is more than happy to have a picnic slam-bang on top of a set of train tracks.

He typically has an ear-to-ear smile on his face when he’s performing these maniacal stunts, these high-flying, death defying, fate-tempting sequences of derring-do. Because of this enjoyment he so obviously expresses, I don’t actually know that he is suicidal. Suicide, of course, requires a certain amount of intent, and I can’t be sure that his intent is to deliver personally his own closing credits. But damn if it ain’t hard to tell the difference. I’d like to chalk up all of his recklessness to underdeveloped depth perception and motor skills or, hell, even just inexperience, but two things keep me from drawing these conclusions: one, my daughter Charlee’s devil-may-care spirit always contained a hint of self-preservation; and two, all my friends and family have noticed a similar behavioral pattern in their sons.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I should admit that I used to be something of a skeptic. I never put stock in psychics or astrology or ghosts or conspiracy theories (even if I did convince my daughter that our neighbor is a witch and that looking directly into the witch’s eyes will result in belly aches and the untimely death of Santa Claus). That said, I must admit that having a son has endowed me with a certain amount of prescience. I can now see into the future. ESP is real, perhaps the evolutionary byproduct of raising a boy.

Let me explain: I can tell you every single item that will be broken, dismantled, or lost five minutes from the moment Sam and I walk into your house. My son’s suicidal tendencies have made me a believer. Testify!


Becky and I enjoy a drink or two, but Roman nightlife wasn’t on our to-do list. We usually turned in around midnight or before. The softball team lumbered into our commune around four or five in the morning and passed out immediately when their brawn hit the bed. And this is when things got real —  really violent, that is.

One of the females (note: please excuse the somewhat clinical use of the word “female” – “girl” doesn’t feel appropriate as it has feminine connotations but neither does “woman” nor “lady” as they have elegant connotations, so let us stick with female in the interest of preserving a somewhat objective image) fell asleep fully dressed, her feet still planted firmly on the ground as if she passed out while sitting up and then slumped back onto her cot. This position, in concert with the female’s biology, chemistry, and what I imagine must have been enough heavily sugared malt beverage to kill a large burro, created the perfect storm of biological racket. Aside from the noises that were the subject matter of every piece of bathroom humor since prehistoric man, there was the snoring, and this was a noise far loftier than your above average broken wind. It was a forceful rumble, guttural, the sound you imagine as a child while lying in bed terrified of the closet monster and his unrelenting appetite for sweetbreads of first grader. Just as the imagined sound kept me up as a six-year-old, so did it keep me up as a grown man. And the noise was no less haunting.

I mustered up the courage to lift my head from my cot to weigh the actual danger against the perceived danger, and I was surprised to see my wife sitting on the edge of her own cot, holding the case of her glasses and staring laser beams at this cousin to the closet monster.  The image recalled a shot from a teen horror movie, the kind where a college freshman moves into her dorm and quickly learns that her roommate is an obsessed homicidal sociopath. Of course, Becky was neither obsessed nor sociopathic. Homicidal, however, was a possibility. By day, sunshine radiates from Becky’s entire person; by night, when disturbed from her sleep, Becky can conjure up all the powers of hell.

Upon seeing Becky on the edge of the bed, I simply watched, perplexed. I noticed her hand tightening around her glasses case like a clean-up hitter gripping his bat. Ever so slowly, she inched closer to the edge of the cot, positioning herself just so, pulling her arm back and wielding her glasses case like a meat cleaver. She timed the next snore, and when the ferocious exhalation cleared the female’s lungs, Becky sprung from her cot, struck the female’s hindquarters – the thunderous wallop echoing off the walls of the room –and then leapt back into her cot as deft and silent as a ninja.  A cacophony of snorts resounded from the female before she turned over onto her ample gut and resumed slumber – this time quietly. Becky matter-of-factly replaced her glasses in their case, situated herself in her cot, and fell back asleep. Who new a designer glasses case could be so deadly effective?

The next day was long, filled with tours of the Coliseum, the Vatican, and Circus Maximus. The heat and the bad night of sleep left us both tired and cranky, and I remember one time snapping at Becky just before we went to bed. I looked over at the female who had a deep purple bruise on her upper thigh and thought better of falling asleep while Becky was still mad at me.  I apologized for my crankiness, laid back on my cot, and prayed I would neither snore nor wake up with any unexplained bruising of my own.

Summer. 2004. We’re in Rome, Italy. The weather? Hotter than a three-peckered billy goat (Note: thanks to my aunt Norma for that analogy. I don’t exactly know what her frame of reference was to have made such a comparison, but she does manage a sizable internet porn empire, so who knows?). My wife and I are five weeks into our European backpacking honeymoon – romantic in so many ways, miserable in just as many. In some cities – Stockholm, Bruges, Florence – we spring for a decent room and an edible meal, something other than peanut butter, a baguette, and a jar of Nutella, ya know, in the spirit of newly wedded bliss. In most cities – Rome, for instance – we settle on whichever hostel doesn’t smell like the aftermath of a medieval orgy, and when that proves impossible, we settle on whichever hostel has a vacant bed, or a vacant cot as was usually the case.

En route to Rome we were warned by other backpackers to watch our backs – or more specifically our backpacks. Evidently, Romans have mastered three things: cooking, gelato, and petty larceny. Because of our newly acquired street smarts, Becky and I opted for the hostel that was closest to the train station, our reasoning being that the less distance covered searching for a hostel, the less likely we were to be pillaged by a fast-handed band of Roman gypsies. Certainly there is something to be said for feeling safe, but as it turns out, safety comes at the cost of comfort and decency. Our room was eight tenants deep, each person occupying a cot eighteen inches wide and maybe five feet long. The bedding consisted of a single sheet, so thin yet coarse that I wondered whether it might have actually been a repurposed mosquito net, perhaps a hand-me-down from some quarantined village in sub-Saharan Africa.

The first night our room was peopled with a hodgepodge of backpackers, representing five of the seven continents – a mock United Nations of sorts. The second night brought a foursome of recent high school grads (all young men from Kansas, if memory serves) and a pair of Norwegian girls who looked like they stepped right out of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. The girls slept topless, covered only by their thin sheets and a force field of equal parts confidence and naïveté. They wandered the room like Eve before the fall, completely unaware of their own nakedness. Their lack of awareness, however, was more than made up for by the four Kansas boys. They remained on their cots, locked into a sitting position. The involuntary morning erection is nuisance enough without two topless Norwegian vixens compounding the problem.

The surplus of teenage hormones seemed to raise the already blistering temperature, and we were first relieved by the departure of the young grads and the Norwegian temptresses until their replacements were brought in – six members of a traveling softball team, all female, each of whom brought to mind the phrase “100% USDA prime beef”. They weren’t fat, mind you, but they were thick, solid – beefy. They looked less like athletes and more like Vikings. There was a violence about them, a violence in their gait, a violence in their speech, and – most notably – a violence in their slumber. And it was this last violent quality that brought out the killer in my new bride.

...return on the quick for the second installment of Roman Hostel or How I Learned That My Wife Is an Assassin...



It only took a few days from the moment Becky and I had transformed our egomaniacal toddlers into selfless model citizens for me completely to devastate the progress. Our cupboards were bare, and Becky was with a client, so the kids and I were tasked with the grocery shopping. Normally this endeavor proves fairly easy because Becky and I have mastered the one-on-one defense. Reduced for the evening to a single-parent family, I was forced to adapt the zone defense, and I’m not any better at it now than I was when I played high school basketball (it should be noted that I didn’t do much playing but rather a lot of picking splinters from my tookus for the better part of two hours each Friday evening).

While running the zone defense as a parent, I often found myself hypnotized by the offensive chaos perpetuated by my kids run amok in the aisles of Ralphs. Do I commit to Charlee and stop her from pulling out the bottom avocado of a perfectly formed pyramid, thereby preventing the certain destructive bruising of what must be several hundred dollars of god’s perfect fruit? Or do I commit to Sam who has figured out how to disengage the cheap plastic buckle that secured him into the shopping cart and now stands a-wobble, shrieking in glee at the prospect of diving headlong into a display of inexpensive sparkling white wine? In this case the choice was rather easy, and as you might imagine, it took some time and a lot of tears before we rebuilt the avocado pyramid.

This single-parent grocery experience was a hell of a chore, and it put me into a foul mood, so foul a mood that I didn’t even think before I spoke when the homeless man outside the store asked me for change. The words came out uncontrolled, a verbal projectile: “Get a job!” I said. My proudest moment it was not, and my hypocrisy didn’t even register until later that night. I was taking turns preparing notes for class and reading the paper while Sam and Charlee amused themselves. The amusement lasted only so long before Sam tried to wrench a Dr. Seuss book from Charlee’s grip. She grit her teeth and stared daggers into his eyes. “Get a job!” she said. Sam looked to me for intervention. I opened my mouth as if to speak, but Char shot me a look, daring me to undercut my integrity yet again. I shrugged my shoulders at Sam, handed him the Help Wanted ads, and got back to work.

My daughter, three years wise, and my son, only slightly less wise at eighteen months, have resigned themselves to the fact that everything they see and everything they can fasten their fingers upon belongs to them. Actually, the verb “belong” might be too passive, too weak. Nothing belongs to them; they own. I know this because in the event that anyone tries to pry loose the object to which they happen to be clinging – be it a wooden block, a lost-and-found-under-the-couch piece of string cheese, or the strawberry blonde pig tail of the two-year-old who inched too close for her own good – a flip is switched in their brains that triggers a siren of sorts.

This siren is shrill and plays on a loop of growing intensity, increasing to a decibel level that might very well crack the Hope Friggin’ Diamond as if it were one of those cheap plastic wine glasses used to serve sparkling cider at middle-management office parties: mine! Mine! MINE! MINE!!!! In some cases the sound is less a siren and more a growl, something that begins like a moan but then rumbles and builds into a thunderous snarl. It calls to mind Christ on the cross: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?!” Translation: For the love of God, remove your thieving hands from my lost-and-found-under-the-couch piece of string cheese lest you incur the fiery wrath of an envious,  vengeful toddler.

My wife and I have begun troubleshooting this behavior. My first stab at the problem was to remind both Charlee and Sam that, except for her vagina and his penis and balls, nothing was theirs. Everything was on loan. This, like all my insistences that they be reasonable, fell on deaf ears. Becky, by comparison, implemented a seemingly more affective strategy, which was to eliminate choice words from our vocabulary: I, me, my, and mine. Her reasoning, of course, was that these first person words were empowering in a negative way. They indirectly fostered a spirit of obsessive consumption and possession. To wit:

I want that that bra from under the couch!”

“Give me that!”

“That’s my sippy cup!”

“That prescription of Vicodin is mine!” ***Note: Read Consumer Reports on childproof locks; they are not all created equally.

So we exorcised the first person singular and resurrected the first person plural: we, us, and ours. To wit:

“Let us take turns torturing the dog with the hard plastic, retractable light saber.”

We can both indulge in the half-gallon vat of Kirkland-brand Spaghettios.”

“The plastic Disney princess high heel – and it doesn’t matter that there’s only one – is ours.”

And I’m happy to report that – although the initiation process was slow – my kids did embrace this “Kum Bay Ya” spirit. Charlee is all too happy to share her dolls at the park, and Sam freely distributes his possessions to anyone in eyeshot, whether that person wants them or not (usually not since most of his possessions are in ball form, having been mined from one of his several bodily orifices.

...stay tuned for Sharing, Toddlers, Vicodin, and Hypocrisy -- Part 2...