Monday, May 15, 2006


In Which We Face the Mother of Catastrophes...

Well, there I was this weekend, thinking about writing a slightly sappy Mother's Day item about--surprise!--my Mom, and how much like her I really am, and what a good thing that was.

But then two thoughts occurred to me:

--How stupendously obvious the idea was, as blog topics go.

--And how, in actuality, it wasn't the least bit true.

To clarify: It IS true that I am like my mom. What's not true: That it's such a good thing.

In point of fact, my life would be way easier--although perhaps not as interesting--if I hadn't inherited certain traits from my mom. My big mouth, to name one. The smart-ass engine that powers that big mouth, to name another.

In recent years--most especially since I became a parent--it's dawned on me that I also have, at least in some measure, one of my mother's most prodigious yet dubious gifts: her ability to catastrophize.

Of course, every parent has this ability in some degree--there's a reason the phrase "you'll put your eye out" has reached cliche status. But Mom takes this ability to a special level of craziness. For instance, if you bought new clothes off the rack, you always washed them before you wore them, not simply because they'd been in the shop and you had no idea who'd tried them on before you. No, my mom was capable of forming worse theoretical possibilities than dubious hygiene.

"What if the person who tried that on last had impetigo?" she'd ask. "Or tic doloureux?" When I was a kid, that one always got me. Tic doloureux sounded like an exotic brand of jungle rot and the idea of it scared me so badly I wouldn't consider wearing so much as a brand-new t-shirt--even if it was sealed in a package--unless I knew it had been washed at least once (I eventually found out tic doloureux is a nerve condition that generally strikes people over 60. At the age of 7, I was more likely to get smallpox than I was to get that).

To this day, I won't drink from a can of soda or beer without first wiping the top of the can--taking special care to get my napkin or shirttail into that tricky groove that runs the circumference of the can--before opening it. Mom, you see, bought into that urban legend about toxic rat urine contaminating soda cans. Hell, for all I know, she created the legend.

Really, Mom should have worked for NASA, she was so capable of envisioning the most unlikely confluence of events that could add up to disaster, and from my childhood until today has been in the habit of asking me "What would you do if...?" just to see what sort of contingencies I was able to form. When I was a kid, I remember her driving my brother and me to school and asking, "What would you do if we were in a car accident?" And if we gave a satisfactory answer to one question, she'd up the ante with ever-escalating scenarios of disaster.

"What would you do if we flipped over?"

"...if I was unconscious?"

"...if the car was on fire?"

"...if we were teetering on the edge of a cliff?"

Never mind that my mom's cruising speed never exceeded 35 miles per hour, or the fact that our route to school featured no cliffs, embankments or bridges from which we could teeter. It didn't matter. Mom wanted to make sure we were prepared to play without padding in the big and uncertain game of life. And I suppose she succeeded, in her way. Both my Big Brother and I have always been fairly resourceful when it came to thinking of various solutions to different kinds of problems. But I also remember BB and I simultaneously bursting into tears at the idea of leaving our unconscious mother to burn to death in our upside-down car as it tumbled down the cliff face.

Nowadays, of course, Mom plays this game with me out of concern for the safety of her grandchildren. I remember her horror at learning that I, negligent parent that I am, had not yet taught Thomas and the Brownie--then 3 years old and 6 months, respectively--to dial 911 in the event that Her Lovely Self should be incapacitated (actually, the exact scenario my mom used was "trip and fall and break her neck on the basement stairs") while they were home alone. Of course, I corrected this oversight eventually, but now Mom's horrified that the kids can't reach me if they need to (apparently to let me know HLS has broken her neck and they've called 911). "I bet they don't even know how to call you at work, do they?" she asked, accusingly.

"No," I admitted. But then, the dog is fully capable of calling me on speed dial, so we should be covered there.

Joking aside, I recognize there are lots of awful possibilities--and even one or two unpleasant certainties--that you have to prepare your kids for. And I gotta tell you: It's almost more traumatic being on the parent side of the table than being on the kid side when you sit down to have those discussions.

I remember having the inevitable "stranger danger" talk with Thomas, and as I did it just killed me to watch the expression on his face. He was an anxious enough kid. Now I had just introduced him to a new danger that--based on his shocked and scared look--had simply never occurred to him.

And when the Brownie was younger, neither love nor money nor unlimited Polly Pockets could induce her to look both ways before crossing the street. Then one day she was standing in the driveway as a car zoomed by and hit a rabbit. Talk about a shocking, traumatic moment--oh, how she wept for the plight of that little fuzzy pancake of blood and guts. But don't think for one minute that I didn't use it, often by shouting "Remember the bunny!" (to the mystification of my neighbors) every time the ball rolled into the street and the Brownie started to dash after it. As my mother taught me, sometimes a little trauma can be a big reminder.

But attempting to inflict too much trauma can backfire too.

During my parents' last visit here, we were all in the van, driving to a restaurant to take Mom out to dinner for her birthday. Mom and Dad were sitting in the very back, Thomas and the Brownie were in the middle. Her Lovely Self, of course, was riding shotgun, where she could monitor my driving. I made a turn a little too fast and HLS and my mother simultaneously and dramatically gripped the arm rests on their respective seats. HLS held her tongue, but that's a physical impossibility for Mom.

"You made that turn on two wheels!" she cried from the back. "You could have rolled the van!"

"Oh please!" I replied, not wanting to go down this conversational road. But it was too late.

"Kids," Mom said to Thomas and the Brownie, "have Mummy and Daddy talked to you about what to do if there was a car accident?"

Thomas said nothing--I assumed he was silent out of fear, this being just one more anxiety-inducing scenario to add to his repertoire. But the Brownie piped up right away.

"Sure, Grandma," she said, pointing up to the ceiling. "I would push the OnStar button."

Mom snorted. A technological innovation was no solution. "What would you do if the button didn't work?"

Now Thomas spoke up. "There are emergency releases on both sliding doors. I would use them to get out. You can also kick out the windows with your feet and you won't get cut." He paused, evidently taking in looks of astonishment. "I looked at the instruction book for the car. It tells you all about it," he explained.

Mom was impressed, but she wasn't finished yet. "What if Mummy or Daddy were stuck and couldn't get out?"

Thomas thought for a moment, then answered with consummate (and surprising) sangfroid. "During Fire Safety Week at school, they said you're supposed to just get out of the house. Everyone for himself. It's the same in the car, I guess."

The Brownie begged to differ. "I would try to get Mommy or Daddy out," she said, then turned to my Mom. "But not you or Papa."

My dad adopted a tone of mock injury, but even without seeing him I knew he was smiling. "You wouldn't help Grandma?" he gasped theatrically. "Why not?"

"Well," the Brownie said. "She's very old and heavy. And she would probably be dead already."

Complete silence from the back of the car.

"Any more questions?" I called cheerily.

"No," said Mom, sounding surprisingly satisfied. "I can see you've got them well-trained."

"My mother taught me well," I replied.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

After reading your positings for approximately 8 months it occured to me while reading this one that your mother might have been provoked. You have yourself noted your talent for incidents/accidents. Maybe she started these disturbing "what would you do if..." scenarios after a number of your very creative catastrophes?

The Brownie is a smart little cookie, always ready to step in and save the day! Not to mention Art Lad. Obviously you and HLS have done a great job preparing them without terrorizing them.

*takes deep breath*


Sorry. Having a catastrophizing mother of my own, this was just about the sweetest thing ever.

Rock it.
Oh God. I love my neice.

Hey Ass Strep, thanks for bringing that all back. Remember her saying, "Just go! Even if you hear me screaming!" Like we didn't have enough to think abot on our way to school.

You're lucky you don't have to live with her. Some days, I'm ready to put her in a teetering car and push her off myself.
Ok, the following is typed with tongue (fingers?) firmly imbedded in cheek:

Ever see the movie "Diner"? Remember when Kevin Bacon tricks his friends by faking the car wreck? I'm sure you and Big Brother would *never* think of doing such a thing. ;-)
My favorite thing about reading your posts is when I get to burst out laughing, re-read, laugh again, re-read, laugh again, etc.

Love that Brownie!
Never having lived a 'catastrophic mother' this post was illuminating! :-) But one thing for sure, that Brownie sounds like one helluva girl!
Well, it seems as though the Brownie has inherited two traits: handed down from Mother to son to daughter.

Perhaps it's comeuppance for scaring the hell out of you and BB.

One thing you'll never have to worry about is, that precious little Brownie ever taking any shit from anyone. When she grows up, she'll have the ability to verbally castrate anyone that crosses her and look just as sweet as pie doing it. Not a bad inheritance, for a girl.
My wife loves to play the worst-case scenario game, and it drives me insane. For example, who would I save from our buring house? Her or my mother? Or Her or one of our pets? If I choose one of the pets, whic one? Why? So now, inspired by my wife, I ask you: If all your loyal readers were trapped in a burning building with your mother, who would you save? All your loyal readers or your mother? (Remember, she's old and heavy.) Here's another one for you: Which is worse -- ass-strep or being set on fire in your driveway?
Yeah, so let me tell you about teaching your kids to dial 911.

This was a few years back, so my oldest daughter was about 5 and my youngest about 3.

They were teaching the olest to dial 911 at daycare, and we were having a party with alot of other parents with kids that age one night.

The oldest decides that she should "teach" the other kids how to dial 911 down in the basement.

So the cops showed up in full force at our get together ...
Yeah, teaching your kids to dial 911 is a great idea. It's also important to remember to teach them NOT to use it when playing a pretend game of "Emergency". I too, learned from embarrasing experience that the police do not find this amusing.
I was going to say how you're just giving all kinds of fodder to BigBrother, but, apparently, he's already commenting.

Can't soda cans give you ass strep, though?
Oh my goddess! I am snickering all alone in my office. Must find someone to share the funny with....

Love that Brownie. Love Art Lad.

But now, it seems I am overdue to teach my oldest (3 and a half now) about what if scenarios and dialing 911. More pressure, more pressure.

Still can't stop laughing at how Grandma be dead already, and she's too old and heavy to bother rescuing.
Do me a favor and ask your mom what one should do in the case of a catastropic inhalation of hot chocolate brught on by reading her son's blog. Because I've got the stuff coming out of my nose and all over my keyboard now...
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