A Couple of Cold Ones

The year that sons numbers two and three were in grades eight and five – respectively [yes, thankfully, none of my sons has passed an older brother in school] – we had a new principal at our school.  My introduction to the new principal came the afternoon of the very first day. She called me at work. Second Son [not his real name] and his associates had been tossing a few grade fives around the playground. Our sons have different last names, so she perhaps wasn’t aware that this was, essentially, a family matter with some unavoidable collateral damage.

“Oh yes,” I said, “Number Two is a bad kid.” 

I thought she’d find my approach refreshing – a welcome change from the parental rationalizations, excuses, denials and evasions that are, I’m sure, the daily diet of school administrators. 

 “Oh no,” she assured me, “He’s not a bad kid. He’s just making some bad choices.”

“Ah. I think you’ll find that those are the kinds of choices he really likes to make.”

I told her she could be confident that Number Two [not his real name] would be dealt with harshly. I’m sure he was, though I don’t recall exactly what we did. It was a while ago. Whatever, it had no noticeable effect, which disappointed but did not surprise us. We’re not ineffective parents; we just make ineffective choices.

About a month later, I was at my desk at work when the phone rang. It was Madam Principal.

“Did you know, ” she asked, “that the grade eight boys, including your Number Two, are kicking each other in the private parts?”

“Really?”

“Yes. The boys are allowing each other to kick them, in order to prove their manhood or something,” she explained.

“It suggests to me that they haven’t yet reached manhood.”

I thought of explaining that remark – how much more it hurts to get kicked in the spools after they have become nominally functional – but thought better of it. Aside from the awkwardness of even talking about blows below the belt with her,  we would no doubt have become mired in the traditional debate about the relative intensity of the pain of injured man-jewels versus the pain of childbirth. As far as I know, that controversy has never been resolved.

She went on to tell me that an alarming number of the grade eight boys had been coming to The Office asking for icepacks to pack on their packages while they sat in class. This conversation wasn’t getting any more comfortable for me. The boys claimed that the ice soothed them where they ached. What could be more more soothing, I wondered, than iced testicles. [“Testcicles,” I thought to myself. That’s funny.]  Anyway, it was upon the fifth or sixth ice-pack request that Madam Principal began to question the packers and she learned that the boys were actually voluntarily submitting to these sackings.

We called it “flashing” in my day, though I decided Madam Principal didn’t need the benefit of my personal experience on this one. Sometime in early adolescence, boys discover an acute vulnerability that all boys have in common and, quite naturally, they exploit it for fun. And what fun! It can easily get out of control.  As we get older, however, the personal cost of this great fun becomes obvious even to guys and so men enter into an unspoken covenant that we will not kick each other in the nards for fun. By age fifty, it is very rare. [Of course, if even one of us were to breach the covenenant, who knows? It’s a fragile peace.] But, this business of willingly offering up the groin to the boot is an odd gloss to the old tradition. My recollection of the olds days is that we excercised considerable vigilance to avoid being the flashee. It hurts like hell. Maybe not as much as childbirth. But a lot.   

Madam Principal had been told by one of her cold-crotched charges that this “Go ahead. Make my day” phenomenon had come from Jackass, the television program and movie about very cool guys who do crazy dangerous things and hurt themselves for personal fulfillment and to entertain others. Our boys were failing to heed the “don’t try this at home” caution. This explanation made weird sense. Boys don’t always choose the role models we would choose for them. 

Madam Principal asked for my support and assistance in eradicating this practice.

“I don’t know. If being kicked in the nuts doesn’t convince them that this is a bad idea … I’m not sure anything I can say will be any more persuasive.”

“Good point.”

I assured her I would do my best. As I always do. 

I hung up the phone and got back to work. I was the provincial government’s human rights lawyer at the time. Coincidentally, the phone call had interrupted my work on a particular human rights file. A father complained that the Department of Education had been discriminating against boys by failing to adopt policies to address the underperformance of boys in school. For many years, according to this fellow, boys’ performance had been declining and they had been overtaken academically by their female classmates. Girls were doing better than ever. It’s an issue that is not unique to Saskatchewan. Across North America, boys are falling behind.

Well, I wonder why? Girls don’t face the barriers to academic success that beset boys. Girls read, study, do their assignments. Boys kick each other in the nuts. Girls sit quietly in class, pay attention. Boys sit in class with ice on their gonads. Who can concentrate with frozen testes? Frozen or not, for purposes of academic performance, perhaps it’s best not to have them at all. 

I raised the Jackass nutcracking thing with Number Two that evening. While he confirmed that everybody was kicking everybody else in “the boys”, he told me that no one was voluntarily taking one to the groin. “That’s just stupid,” he told me impatiently, as if to suggest that it was therefore out of the question. He had no idea where the Jackass story came from. I suspect that those who came to The Office, asking for ice to numb their nads, did not want to rat out the perpretrator and so had to come up with some reasonable, non-culpable explanation for their distressing condition. Like kicking one another in the nuts, never ratting out anyone is unique to boys – more than that, however, it is a universal guy imperative – part of the Code – what separates us from the animals. Or something. 

“Why are you kicking guys in the balls?” I asked.

“If somebody kicks me in the nuts, I’m gonna kick him back.” 

“Well, you know Number Two, if you kick someone back, he’ll kick you again. It’s not going to matter that you were just paying him back.” I explained that people who have just been kicked in the nuts don’t have a rational sense of justice. Retaliation leads inevitably to escalation.  So. While forbearing from sacking others does not guarantee that you won’t be victimized, it is the only strategy available for minimizing one’s nut pain.

“That makes sense,” he said. 

Free At Last

“This vote is a fundamental choice between shackling farmers or freeing them.” Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, referring to the Parliamentary vote on the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act.

“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” Jean-Jacques Rousseau – yes, but he left it for Gerry to actually do something about it

“… you have nothing to lose but your chains” Karl Marx – pretty obvious what he was talking about

“Freedom’s just another word for selling to Viterra Inc.” Kris Kristopherson – from his original draft of Me and Bobby McGee. It didn’t fit the rhyme scheme, unfortunately, and was subsequently changed to something quite a bit less positive and hopeful for freedom-loving prairie farmers.

 “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire State motto. New Hampshire doesn’t have a Wheat Board. Duh.

Until now, I really have had no desire to grow wheat. Why? Because I would have to sell to the Canadian Wheat Board. That’s not freedom.

I’ve travelled across these vast, windswept prairies at harvest time and I have seen those sad, pitiable farmers, shackled to their tractors, traveling in ever smaller circles out on their wheat fields, their radios tuned to the state broadcasting system. I’ve seen them lifelessly delivering their crops of wheat and barley to the grim faced, sharply uniformed functionaries at the the CWB. I’ve seen them driving to town, anxiously checking their mailboxes, hoping to receive a cheque – in an amount determined by their oppressors, pursuant to some arbitrarily calculated average of the “world price”. Small compensation for the loss of their precious liberty. Yes, they provide for their families – but at what cost?

What if they refused? What if they asserted their God-given, but Government-denied, right to take their wheat and barley to the marketplace and sell it themselves at a lower price to the highest bidder like the free men and women they long to be? Well, those self-respecting, freedom-loving farmers would be tossed in jail along with all the law-abiding gun owners. The iron fist of the nanny State would crush them.

Dark times indeed. 

But out of this darkness…will the light of Liberation finally shine? Oh yes. After years of humiliating oppression at the hands of jack-booted, rat faced CWB terrorists, Gerry Ritz stood up for our downtrodden prairie heroes and said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall and Let Freedom ring,” or something to that effect. Bolstered by his sense of destiny and Godly mission and buttressed by the strong mandate of a majority government – that flush of democratic legitimacy that can only come from the overwhelming support of almost 40% of the 61% of eligible voters who cast ballots in the 2011 election – Gerry Freedom has slain the oppressors and cast aside the chains of We-Know-What’s-Best-for-You-ism that have prevented farmers from dealing directly with Cargill. No more of that “average world price” nonsense. We prefer the free market, thanks.   

No more will Prairie farmers be enslaved to the Freedom-Hating Commie Wheat Monopoly. No. They will be free to choose to whom they will be enslaved – like, say, a multinational corporation. Preferably a big one.

The End

Postscript:

Okay, that was a bit of a departure. I just wanted to show that, in addition to stupid little jokes and sweet little swearing kid stories, I am capable of hard hitting political commentary, with an edge. I yearn to be taken seriously.

Of course, I don’t really know what I’m talking about if I stray too far from my own personal experience. And, I don’t get out of the house much. More specifically, agriculture policy, the apparent subject matter of this post, is well beyond me and not something I’m terribly interested in, to tell the truth. Some of you keener readers may have sensed that.

It may well be that there are good arguments to be made for dismantling the Wheat Board; good reasons to believe that those who support the CWB are mistaken. But we don’t get good arguments from Gerry Ritz and his government. We get nonsense about “shackles” and “freedom”. Even the name of the legislation – “the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act”. Please. Can this government pursue a policy that can’t be described in detail on a bumper sticker?

In the Globe and Mail this weekend, Gerry Ritz is quoted as saying this about the Wheat Board: “It’s beyond Big Brother. It is the Nightmare on Elm Street on every farm across western Canada.” Really Gerry? Western Canadian farm life is both Orwellian and schlock horrific? I know, you Tories prefer Dickensian and Old Testament Epic.

I may not know much – well, anything – about wheat, barley, agricultural marketing or anything else having to do with this controversy, but I know when someone is begging to be mocked. That’s you, Gerry. You’re a minister of the Crown, not a cartoon super hero. You’re doing agricultural policy, not fighting evil-doers. Get over yourself.

For those of you unfamiliar with this issue, google “Smart things Gerry Ritz has said” and listen for the soothing sound of crickets. Whoa. That’s hard-hitting. 

Sut My Dit and other Stories.

[Warning: there are some bad words in this. Just a couple. Well, mostly just the one. Yes, that one. But it’s not gratuitous; it is essential to the story.You’ll be fine.]

Who doesn’t love to hear stories about other people’s kids?

Nobody, that’s who. We all love stories about our own kids, and we love to tell those stories over and over. And over.  Our kids stories are funny and interesting and reveal profound truths. Our kids stories demonstrate just how clever and special our kids are and what a stimulating, encouraging and creative home life they enjoy. Stories other people tell about their kids are boring, almost painful, and are only worth enduring because it will justify our telling another of our own.

How can we be sure that the stories we tell about our kids aren’t just as awful as everybody else’s? Easy. What makes for a good kid story is swearing, violence or anything that demonstrates parental incompetence. People love those stories.Those are the only kind of kids stories I have.

People love it when little kids swear. The younger they start swearing the cuter they are. If you can tell a story about your child’s first word being “fuck”, well, you beat me. But not by much.

Parents don’t really want their kids to swear. It can be embarassing – in restaurants, playschool, church. If you have only one kid, it’s pretty easy to stop it. Ignore it, stop swearing yourself, pretty soon it’s gone. When you have two kids, it’s a little harder, because the older one encourages the younger. If you have three, well, your home life is pretty much out of your power to control.  By the time our third guy was talking, his two brothers were in school. Forget it.

For many years, little Mister Third Child had a speech impediment which I now miss a great deal.  He said his hard ‘C’ like a ‘T’ – so “cookie cutter” became “tootie tutter”.  Cute? Oh my yes. Cuter still, was when he told his oldest brother to “sut my dit” and when he called his other brother a “mudder futter”. It is impossible to mask parental delight when these things come out of your baby’s angelic little face – so it escalates. Kids love to please. One evening, he lay in his bed, waiting for me to lie down with him and read him a book.  Maybe the Berenstain Bears. Or The Runaway Bunny. He smiled, propped himself up on his pillow and recited “There once was a man from Nantuttit, Whose dit was so long he tould sut it.”

Sadly, he lost his impediment, and his profanity became hard and mean. Less frequent were the “hey you shoulda heard the cute thing my kid said yesterday” moments. But I still like this one.  My parents were in visiting from Swift Current [yes, adding grandparents to a swearing kid story is so effective, it’s almost not fair].  They loved going to our church when they were in town. Sunday morning, all three boys were down in the basement, playing with little cars and watching NFL Countdown.

I yelled down, “Hey, who wants to go to Seven Eleven?”

This was a Great Idea, “I do, I do.”

“Okay,” I said, “But first, we have to go to church.” Groans of dismay. My parents thought this little scene was cute and funny. However, Mr. Youngest, now about four years old, was outraged.

“I hate Church,” he yelled as he stomped up the basement stairs, “It ruins my whole fucking day.”

Well, that brought a hush to the morning. My parents stopped laughing and quietly withdrew. They didn’t speak of it again that day, but within two weeks, the story had become a bit of Swift Current folklore. They had never been so popular. Finally, a doting Grandparents’ story worth hearing. They never tired of telling the story, or of people’s reactions to it.

And for the rest of us, including a wide circle of our friends and associates, we’ve found that the expression – “It ruins my whole. fucking. day.” – has limitless applications. He has enriched us all.

Eventually, they’re not just swearing. They’re swearing at you, and using swear words to describe you. That’s less charming and amusing, usually. However, one early evening in early winter, I came home through the front door and found our youngest sitting on the landing at the bottom of the stairs, which served as our young offender open custody factility. Obviously, he had done something his mother deemed deserving of punishment. Ever supportive of my wife’s disciplinary efforts, I dispensed with my usual friendly greeting and avoided eye contact with the convict. Then, he bolted. His mother yelled from the kitchen. She was busy with something and couldn’t deal with it, but the little guy had to serve more time. I pursued him successfully and placed him back on the landing to finish out his sentence. Of course, I had no idea what he had done, so I didn’t know what to say to him.  I thought I should say something to underline and support our family correctional policy. So, I settled on something generic, something Ward Cleaverish: “I want you to sit there … and … ah… think about why your mother put you there.”

“Because she’s a bitch.”

Hm. How to respond.I had my back to him at the time. Good thing. That was very disrespectful. Indeed. But clever and quick. I was pleased and proud, but kept it to myself. Someday, maybe, he’ll use his genius for good. No point in stifling it or him. I pretended I hadn’t heard him.

All three boys became profane little bastards, though ever larger. Over the years, my coworkers were horrified by my amusing stories about my boys’ bad language.  Many of them believed that a child should not tell his father to fuck off, or otherwise use the word “fuck” around the house.  Several suggested that their kids knew that they would “kill” them if they talked that way.  More than one told me I ought to smack the kids – though I knew they didn’t smack their own kids and it is not likely the threat of a smack that kept them polite.  They all seemed to believe that my kids’ profanity was a result of weirdly bad parenting. [Hard to believe.]

By now, the youngest was a ten year old. He was furious one afternoon about some stupid, bad, evil thing I had done.  His anger led to some disciplinary (though non-smacking) response from me, to which he responded “Fuck you Dad”.

I never once said that to either of my parents. Not Ever. Not because I was afraid that I’d be hit or otherwise punished. And probably not because I thought it would hurt their feelings. It just never occurred to me. And, had it entered my mind as a possibility, I likely would have thought it unwise. “Fuck you” is a conflict escalator if ever there was one, and I was, and am, very much a conflict avoider. So. I was mad at him and mad at myself for letting my life and my kids get completely out of control. I’d failed miserably as a parent; my most important job. I was defeated utterly. I had created anti-social monsters who wouldn’t be able to function in the world outside our crazily profane family home. So, I vented. Angrily, I told him about my coworkers’ view of his language.  “You know,” I said, “they all think you talk this way because I don’t hit you enough.  They all think I should kick your ass when you swear at me.  What do you think of that?”

“Well,” he said, “You tell them all they can lick my nuts.”