dec 006 hShit, we’re late. I gun the green light. I shouldn’t be rushing.

“Shoot, we’re late!” I call to my daughters in the backseat.

Ah, what does it matter if we’re late (again), I rationalize to myself. It’s only a swimming lesson.

“Oh no!” my older daughter, Julie, says.

“It’s going to be okay,” I reassure.

“But it’s a swimming lesson!”

“We’ll get there.”

With the November 20 release of Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl as a $5.99 pay-per-view feature-length film on his personal website, Clark (Kids, Bully) joins the ranks of indie directors (see Hal Hartley) who’ve been circumventing the system and, as he notes on his site, cutting out “the crooked Hollywood distributors.” Earlier this week Marfa Girl proved a hit at its Rome Film Festival premier, earning the Golden Marc’ Aurelio for Best Film. The synopsis from Clark’s site:

At the end of the day I taught one class. That was my training over. Two hours of listening to Debbie talk and seven hours of watching teachers teach. I’d really learned nothing except that appearance was all that mattered. The kids clearly weren’t learning anything, and most of the Korean teachers spoke almost no English. The place was a joke. If I decided to jump about and spout gibberish I would have been considered a good teacher… as long as I smiled and wore a tie.

There is a place with roller coasters and wave swingers surrounded by champagne vineyards.

It is a two hours’ drive.We leave first thing in the morning because my daughters buckled themselves into the car soon after the break of dawn like precocious, barrette-wearing roosters.I hop behind the driver’s seat with a bottle of water and a disc of complied songs about summertime.The empty two-lane roads trace the swerve of the first track:Surfin’ U.S.A.

Through pasture and low forest, the white sun burns off the fog and the sheep would own the land if they could pull their faces out of the grass for even a second.The boulangeries in the unassuming villes have already sold out of pain au chocolat.My wife remarks that several weird, distant cousins live in a town we pass, but when, for God’s sake, would we ever find the time to visit them.In the backseat, the girls mouth the refrain “inside, outside, U.S.A.”

When I was in elementary school, my motto was “Another day, another A.” I didn’t go around chanting it in the hallways or anything like that; I wasn’t quite that smug (at least not publicly). This mantra of mine was more like a private joke, something my mother and I could laugh about when I got home each afternoon. After all, school was so easy. Why shouldn’t I boast about it? It made us both giddy. And as I piled up A’s, I also piled up awards: scholarship awards, citizenship awards, perfect attendance awards. I looked forward to the end-of-year assemblies, daydreaming about the accolades I might receive this year. By the time I reached fourth grade, Mrs. Corbet’s class, my obsessive grade-mongering was beginning to take on maniacal proportions.

I’ve been thinking lately about something our pediatrician told us: that toddlers are sort of like teenagers.  As my twenty-month-old daughter Harper begins to precociously behave like a textbook two-year-old, this has started to seem more and more true to me.  Now, I’ve never parented a teenager but I do vaguely remember being one, and I often see them milling about our neighborhood pretending to be unprivileged and pissed off.  And I think it’s really true, that toddlers really are a lot like them. 


There we were this past Mother’s Day, my eight-year-old daughter and I preparing dinner on our own.  My wife had requested linguine with clam sauce, so I’d assigned my daughter the job of washing the clams.  An essential step, but still pretty dull.  Her mind wandered.

“Daddy, here’s something I’m wondering about. You know those first people on earth?  What were their names again?  Adam and Ivey?”

Freeze frame and cue the voiceover.

My daughter gets good grades in school.  She’s in the top reading group.  She can talk a blue streak and at times she’s a pretty interesting third-grader to be around.  So how has she failed to register the correct names of that iconic couple from the Garden of Eden, whence whose loins, if you believe the Bible, all humans descend?

It’s her parents’ fault, of course.  We don’t put a lot of emphasis on religion in our family.  We go to church exclusively on Christmas Eve, when the story never changes and there’s no talk of Genesis.

My daughter has friends who are far more observant than we are — regular churchgoers.  She’s even accompanied one of them to Sunday school a couple of times after sleepovers, but that was a catch-as-catch-can situation.  For all we know they talked those mornings only of God’s love or some such thing.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s mostly a New Testament subject.

Earlier this year at the dinner table my daughter asked why we don’t go to church more.  “Why should we?” my wife asked, tamping down her discomfort.  Like many well-bred Episcopalians she cultivates a certain skepticism about religion, attributing to it more social than spiritual function.

My daughter’s reply suggested that she’d been fielding questions from a few of her peers who go to church, er — wait for it — religiously.  What she said was, “Everyone goes to church more than we do.”

This isn’t strictly true.  She has Jewish and Hindu friends who never go to “church” and some Christian friends who attend rarely if ever.  But some kids must have expressed to her the sentiment that going to church was something everyone should do, and now our laxity had redounded upon us.

I said something to the effect that one doesn’t do things simply to follow the crowd.

My wife, trying to recover, said, “You can go to church more frequently if you want.”

How was she going to accomplish that, I wondered.  Was she going to drive herself there?  I asked my daughter whether she enjoyed church when she went with her friend after sleepovers.

“Not really.”  She screwed up her face.  “It’s pretty boring, actually.  Maybe we can go just a little more often.  Like Christmas and — um, Easter.”

But we didn’t go this Easter.  We went instead to an Easter-egg hunt that my brother-in-law always puts on.  My daughter wouldn’t miss that for the world, though its relationship to the resurrection of Christ is tenuous at best.

You don’t learn about Jesus Christ from the Easter Bunny or from Santa Claus.  And those two cats won’t teach you about Moses or Adam and Eve either, for that matter.

So to Part II of my daughter’s question about the first humans.  Said she: “If Adam and Eve [now having been corrected] came before the Neanderthals, how come they have less hair on their bodies?”

Well, with all due respect to my observant friends, when a religious belief meets critical thinking, it takes an agile mind to respond with anything but piffle.  Or, looked at another way, I wasn’t exactly qualified to defend the view from the pulpit on this.  (I later mentioned my daughter’s question to a nominally Christian friend, who suggested that she send it to the Texas school board.)

I’m an agnostic lapsed Jew married to an agnostic lapsed Episcopalian and, for reasons that had almost nothing to do with religion, our daughter was baptized in the Episcopal church.  So, fortunately, I have prepared a fall-back position in response to schoolyard assertions about religious matters.  This position always begins with the words, “Some people believe that.”

I said, “Some people believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans and some people believe it’s just a story.  You can draw your own conclusions.  And — are you done washing the clams?”

She said she was.

We sat down to dinner an hour later.  I know that’s a long time to prepare a simple clam sauce, but my wife does most of the cooking, so I’m out of practice.


Age of Innocence

By J.E. Fishman

Essay

My daughter will be eight years old in three weeks and she’s convinced she knows with great precision how the entire world works.

“Gay means a boy likes a boy or a girl likes a girl,” she announces with confidence one day.  “And what’s the word for the regular way again?”

“Straight,” I tell her.

“Oh, yeah.  Right.”

“How does a woman get pregnant?” I ask another time.

Her shrug says, duh.  “She gets married.”

One August afternoon, we took her for lunch to Peanut Butter and Company by NYU.  My wife and I shared an Elvis Presley — peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon on grilled bread.  My daughter had peanut butter and marshmallow fluff.  We expected a big smile, but the bread slices were huge and the sandwich didn’t thrill her.

She’s peanut butter jaded, I thought.  Wait till she’s in college and missing the comforts of home.  With NYU students coming and going around us, I had another thought and raised the subject of profanity.  I requested a verbal rogue’s gallery, awaiting the forbidden list that I imagined she was already exchanging with friends.

My daughter scrunched her face and blushed.  “I don’t want to say, because, you know, they’re bad words.”

But even her sainted mother was urging her on.  I guess the summer before third grade seemed like a good time to assess her moral dissolution.

“You know,” my daughter said, “there’s the S-word…”

I nodded.  “What’s the S-word?”

She rolled her eyes and whispered: “You know, Daddy.”  Dramatic pause.  “Stupid.”

“Of course!  The S-word is Stupid.”  I breathed.  “What else?”

“It’s bad to hold up this finger.”  She couldn’t extend it all the way, though.  It was too bad.

“Why?  What does it mean?”

We were on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear THE WORD.

She said, “I don’t know what it means exactly, but it’s like sending a bad message to God.”

My wife changed the subject and we walked from Peanut Butter and Company with unexpected parental satisfaction, even, one might say, a certain giddiness.

We live in Delaware.  But in the West Village, where we keep an apartment, there are sights and sounds that don’t discriminate between world-weary old ears and innocent young ones.  There are still some explicit video stores around, for example, shops in the Village that sell sex toys and the kind of lingerie you don’t see in the Victoria’s Secret catalog — at least, not in the edition that comes to my house.  My daughter walks by them in sweet oblivion.

There are gay and lesbian bars, of course.  When we see the patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, my daughter never asks why someone forgot to invite the opposite sex.

With some frequency we also pass a certain S&M shop on Christopher Street, and the window displays don’t resemble anything from Cartoon Network or recall any of London Tipton’s adventures on “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.”  We quicken our steps whenever we pass that store, but one day, I know, the leather-clad mannequins will cry out to my daughter through the plate glass.

Then there are the real live people on the street.  We were in town the morning of Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary.  Crossing Hudson after brunch, we passed close to a pair of heavily made up, strapping, broad-shouldered drag queens in heels and boas.  My daughter didn’t even lift an eyebrow, and not because we’ve had that conversation.

Speaking of drag queens, a week after our curse-word review at Peanut Butter and Company, we went to see Billy Elliot on Broadway, in which a couple of boys cross dress and the lead character’s family accuses him of being “a poof.”

My daughter is rather sophisticated when it comes to stories, having seen and analyzed every Disney show and read most age-appropriate bestsellers.  She sat riveted and only asked one or two questions during the performance.  None of these questions featured the word “poof.”

At intermission, she declared that she already liked the show so much she wanted to return with a friend.  Her mother and I looked at one another.  The script is laced with the word “fuck” — pronounced “fock” by actors playing British miners — and there are some shits and a shite in there for good measure.

I said, “We’ll have to check with your friend’s parents first, because some parents might object to the bad words.”

Astonished, she wondered.  “What bad words are in this show?”

But the whole script didn’t go over her head.  She was conversant with the story when we discussed it afterwards.  And days later she recalled in great detail the opening of Act II and asked me to remind her what the closing scene of Act I had been.  Yet certain words just didn’t seem to register.

We took the subway home to the West Village late that afternoon.  Walking down Eighth Avenue, we came to a gas station on the corner of Thirteenth Street.  At that very moment, a yellow cab pulled out, the driver looking back at the station through his side view mirror and flipping someone the bird.  Before he departed, he half turned and shouted, “You don’t have one!”

My daughter was all ears.  Naturally, she had some questions about what just transpired.

“He’s angry at someone,” my wife said curtly.

That wasn’t good enough.  “Why did he say, ‘you don’t have one’?”

I clarified: “Probably the other guy said something unflattering about a member of his family.”

“About who?” my daughter wanted to know.

“His mother,” I said.

She took my hand.  “What about his mother?”

I gathered myself.  “Some people think the worst thing you can say to someone is to insult his mother.  Probably, someone at the gas station said something in anger about the cab driver’s mother and the cab driver wanted to say something worse back.  So he said the other guy didn’t have a mother.”

My wife acknowledged this verbal dexterity with an enthusiastic nod.  Wrapped it up, I thought, patting myself on the back.  Put a bow on it.

But my daughter frowned, unsatisfied.  She pressed:  “Like what would you say about someone’s mother?”

We were heading west, not far from the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel, which is currently famous for the free peep shows that some guests are providing to strollers along the new High Line Park.

To remind you, we had just come from a show that featured a boy whose best male friend sported women’s clothes, was accused of being gay because he wanted to dance ballet, and used more F-words than a trucker in heavy traffic.  And, I might add, we were maybe four blocks from where my daughter had failed to notice the drag queen.  Wouldn’t this kid have to learn sometime?

Like most adults, I cannot recall a time when my vocabulary didn’t include the word “motherfucker.”  In this context, though, it seemed like a foreign language.

We maintained our pace.  I said, “You know, when Grandpa was a kid, one of the worst things you could say to someone was, ‘Your mother wears army shoes.’”

Just then, we came to the children’s clothing store on the next corner.  The window display was trim and bright.  No S&M equipment.  No strapping bare-chested men ready to get dirty on video posters.  No need for the F-word.

Best of all, without any effort my wife could change the subject.  When we paused to look, the word “fuck” left the corner unspoken.

Not long after that, I told my father this story.

“I hate to mess up your essay,” he said over the phone, “but ‘your mother wears army shoes’ wasn’t the worst insult you could hurl on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, even when I was a kid.”

Huh.  “No shit,” I said.

I hung up before he could tell me he wears a dress.


My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money.  She’s not greedy.  (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.)  But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.

Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions.  Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic.  She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke.  So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.

My wife donated the brownie mix.  My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings.  They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.

They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts.  My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.

I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs.  Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves.  And who’s scrooge enough to count that?

They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest.  But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this.  I said they must deduct expenses.

“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.

Aw, heck.  I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already.  We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.

Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty.  Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond.  A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window.  It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back.  Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world.  We entered with my daughter in the lead.

The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves.  My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop.  She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t.  The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.

After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.

“I think I want some gold,” she said.

It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold.  So what?  It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.

Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind.  Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps.  She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her.  She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.

In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own.  All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride.  Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home.  A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.

My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter.  She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds.  Then she sets them free and seeks another.

The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff.  My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.

“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?”  Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.

When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture.  Gone.

I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss.  “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.”  I paused and swallowed.  That unprompted thank-you was real gold.

We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.

That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer.  Then she came back downstairs, requesting help.  She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite.  Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie.  And she was spelling pyrite wrong.  I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.

The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”

So true.