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By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1986 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
On the Care and Training of Parents and Siblings
An introduction to the whole, in which our boy propounds his rules for growing up and coming out.
My two younger brothers have driven up from Los Angeles to visit my folks in Sacramento; I call in from the metropolis, New York. Brother Andrew is on the phone, and in the background the dogs and Mother are barking. "No, you can't make pizza!" she cries. "Get out of the refrigerator! Where did you find that revolting shirt? Your socks don't match! Wash your hair! Who left these dishes in the sink? Don't you dare touch that cheese — I said you cannot make pizza! The kitchen is closed! And stop that belching; I'm not one of your contemporaries, you know!"
"Guess who hasn't mellowed?" says Andrew.
Actually, she has. My dad, as a character in my childhood, was as peaceful as a Rodin, ensconced in his chair, dreaming deep in a book (whereupon we kids would hit him for advances on our allowance — by my fourteenth birthday I was overdrawn through 1997). But Mother was a series of interrogations, moralistic harangues, and grouchings. She would even attempt making corporal correction upon us (we would simply head for the dining room and run around the table until she wore out or caught my littlest brother Tony). Two less alike parents there never were. Yet they agreed on the basics: love them, give them culture, and treat them for life as if they were permanently stuck at the age of eight.
Parents are tyrants, even the nice ones. I recommend taking the offensive as surely and early as possible, never letting up — and my system works, for I had a reasonably cute childhood, an amusing adolescence, and a profitable teenage career. My oldest brother Ned, a vaguely Fitzgeraldian figure, made a stab at defining a code for us kids, but it wasn't a conquering code. It reflected too much, stuttered, yearned. A code should confront. Ned was more afraid of taking power than of suffering engulfment. Through trial and error, I trimmed his romantically elaborated novel of wistful resistance into a terse handbook whose name was Defiance: Rule One: Don't try to love Them; just get along with Them. Love in families only makes for ghastly scenes that will haunt you for life.
Rule Two: Obeying Their rules only encourages Them to create new ones. Disobey as often as possible: for gain, for sport, for the art of it.
Corollary: Pursue the rebellion by being perversely nonconformist in all things — try, in fact, to act as if you're committing an enormity even when what you are doing is technically permissible. For instance, on the day report cards come out, you — having achieved straight A's — arrive home with your face alternating looks of shame and dread. They will pounce on your card, gloating and drooling as they dream up new and terrible punishments. Then They'll see the honorable grades, perhaps Teacher's enthusiastic commentary ("... though he does insist on organizing chic brunches during blanket hour"), and They'll begin to blush, stutter, babble. Don't grin at Them, revealing the art of the stunt: look innocent and ever so slightly wounded. They'll avoid you in fear for days.
More quotidian possibilities include eating corn on the cob with a fork (the kernels come off in sedate little rows, which for some reason exasperates all the males at the table) and developing ersatz but noisy phobias about bridges, escalators, and religious activities of any kind.
Rule Three: Never lie. Childlike honesty throws Them completely off. Moreover, as parents are virtually made of lies (e.g., "Don't be afraid of bullies; stand up to Them and they'll run away," "If you stop crying and wait till we get home, I'll make you an apple pancake," "We have no favorites; we love you all equally"), your speaking truth undermines Their ethical position. Furthermore, lying is a sophisticated art generally beyond even the most gifted youngster. Almost any effort is doomed. And, remember: your failure is Their success. It is essential to avoid any error that will invigorate Their sense of power, and Their joy in that power. The sight of a small boy pathetically trying to worm his way out of a spanking enchants Them even more than administering the spanking itself. If you must be spanked, despoil it of all savor. Be cold and adult about it, like George Will at the dentist. Or try to look embarrassed for Them, as if you had spotted Them committing some atrocious peccadillo in a secret spot. Advanced students may want to Do the Manly Thing and insist on taking it bare-bottom. With all but the most diehard parents, this will force Them to retreat, perhaps even apologize.
Rule Four: Abjure reason and justice; only strength counts. As the tenant of a house owned by grown-ups, you are not the inhabitant of a moral universe: you live in a world populated exclusively by winners and losers. Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.
Rule Five: Choose the major battles very carefully. Go to the mat over bedtime, food, and presents, major issues that will color your existence for nearly two decades. Don't overextend yourself fighting over the small things — and of course it's useful every so often to give in and let Them think They're in charge.
This was where Ned went wrong. He let Mother set policy on such vital issues as whether or not he would stay up late on Saturday nights to watch The Gale Storm Show, or precisely what comprised an acceptable vegetable plate, but would fall into a Gatsbyian gloom over the shade of brown in his new shoes. Romanticism is impedient in childhood; it turns one inward, toward poetry perhaps but away from power.
One must be Nietzschean. One must exercise power to gain power; and be prepared for violence. Isn't liberty worth it? True, I blush now when we all get together for viewings of our ancient home movies, when reel after reel reveals tantrums and riot: devastated birthday parties wherein I smash boxes of insulting gifts to the keening of wounded aunts; peaceful afternoons in the backyard worried by the sight of some crazed adult chasing me through the trees after a revolutionary act; festive recreation around some neighbor's pool suddenly humiliated as I push deck chairs, a chaise longue, and the local poodle into the water because the hosts were serving an inferior brand of candy bar. So: there is no glamour in power. Yet it is worth taking; one ought to win; the winner lives.
My classic seizure of power in the house was The War of the Antiques; but I hesitate to set it before my readers, for fear they might turn from me in disdain and contempt — as, indeed, many have done at our celebrated metropolitan brunches, or at predisco cocktail stations, even at one Thanksgiving I spent with my Pooh editor Jerrett and her friends, grown-up children of the sixties, of the Great American Generational Rebellion, and surely thus receptive to a saga of youthful insurgence. Shock of shocks, when I told my tale, the Thanksgiving guests sat silent in suppressed fury, the men brandishing their fists, knuckles white, and the women shaking their heads in dire sympathy for the enemy, Mother.
The antiques, yclept Mary Gregory, were vases, flagons, bowls, and utility pieces of every imaginable kind, made of colored glass and marked by silhouettes of children painted in white bas-relief. Mother conceived a fascination and began to collect, filling the house with Mary Gregory, floor to ceiling in every public room, or here or there, especially vulnerable, on little marble tables. After some years, Mother had cornered the market, for each piece was one of a kind, hand-crafted, the only version of itself there would ever be. Mother even became Known For Her Collection, an exciting suburban event. Impressively hefty magazines you couldn't purchase in Wilkes-Barre bore her name, our name, my name; one even sent a photographer to the house, where we all posed before a particularly bulging breakfront, never knowing that I was shortly to engage a very pungent history with Mary Gregory. A true enthusiast, Mother assembled subsidiary processions of Mary Gregory's imitators, easy to unmask, with their uncomely colors and uncouth silhouetting. It was about this time that I undertook application of Rule Five, and it seemed to me that threatening to smash whole rows of antiques might enable me to defy oppressive edicts.
Do you dare? you ask, boys and girls? I scarcely thought about it as a dare. I saw it as a dash to freedom. Remember, reader: it's winners and losers.
I don't recall the issue that sparked my first sortie, but it turned into a "No, I won't!" "Yes, you will!" contest, broken only when I moved to the nearest breakfront, placed my hand at the end of a long shelf, and proposed to shatter two bud vases, a pillbox, three cigarette holders, a stationery chestlet, a mail caddy, six barony cups, a mirror case, a matchbook trunk, and an animal bank (Mother said it was a napping cow, but it looked like a deranged yak taking a whizz) if I didn't have my way.
Mother refused to give in and made a grab at me; foolish Mother — she knew me better than that. The ensuing crashes brought the entire family in, and the thunder was fierce. Yet I was already at another shelf, threatening, threatening. There were a few such episodes, but at length Mother had to surrender, for if I needed to I would gamely have raged through the entire Collection, and she knew it. Oddly, one piece I had had my eye on for some time ultimately eluded me: Grandpa busted that one (by accident, but then everything grandparents do is by accident). This piece was a gigantis egg, silhouetted to death and revealing, when opened, a miniature decanter and eight tiny toasting glasses. It was so spectacular — Mother said that Mary Gregory aficionados considered it the climax of the line — that we had never used it. Yet, with a sweep of his hand, inveighing in some political context, her father dashed it to the floor. The egg was so complex an architecture that the breaking noises went on for some little time, and serially, like the minuet movement in a twelve-tone suite. First, the egg itself went crash. Then the decanter and a glass went floink, dizzle, kinkle. Then the bracings gave and the egg's outer surfaces diminished into crystal sneezes. At last the remaining glasses gave up, each with its own kmlip. Mother was holding me in despair: for only I, of all, knew what she was giving up.
I believe it's that last aperçu, of the two hostiles pledging sorrowful complicity, that sets everyone off. Oh, it's too much! Why was I not punished, beaten down, chained, imprisoned? We just didn't have that kind of family. And look on the bright side: by partitioning the collection I at least drove the price up on all Mary Gregory, thereby heavily reendowing the surviving pieces.
Naturally, such exploits are designed for large families like mine, wherein the sizable cast of characters crowds the days with incident. It helps especially if one's brothers get into trouble by themselves; this deflects attention from one's own eccentricities. Andrew, for instance, was always losing things — hats, lunchboxes, pencil cases, a galosh. Once he came home on a rainy day missing the hood of his slicker, and it wasn't even detachable. Mother raged. "Why did you lose your hood?" she kept asking. "I want to know why!"
Years later, he and I reviewed the event, and he pointed out how senseless these questions were. "It was an accident," he insisted. "There is no 'why.' It just happened."
"It doesn't just happen that you lose a raincoat hood that doesn't come off," I told him. "That's like losing a leg of your pants. You did something to it."
"Well, what about the other times? 'Why did you lose your hat? Why did you lose your gloves?' That's like asking 'Why did you get cancer?'"
The foolish boy; one must interpret. "She didn't mean 'Why did you lose your hat?'" I explain. "She meant, 'Stop losing things, you sordid fool.'"
Actually, Andrew sometimes got into scrapes that made my antique wars look like a scuffle over dominoes. A favorite example in the family is the Celebrated Pizza Incident, the most notable event of the year we spent in Venice. In the square dominated by La Fenice, the opera house, there was a trattoria with outdoor tables that served the most exquisite little pizzas to order, and, as Piazza la Fenice stood on our walk home from the Danieli boat that took us, that summer, from the Lido back to town, we became familiars of the place — Andrew in particular. He is, without question, an outstanding amateur of proletarian junk food. He would babble in his sleep, and — aside from an occasional romantic confession — the burden of his nocturnal text was "Pizza and hamburgers," repeated over and over, sometimes for an hour. Naturally, he became the most intent of us all on afternoon pizza breaks. Sometimes Mother would agree, sometimes not. One certain day, Andrew demanded, and Mother resisted. Tomorrow, she said.
But tomorrow she was too tired. The next day.
The next day she had a headache. Another time.
No. Andrew would not budge, and the rest of us stopped to wait. There were rules about such things, at any rate a custom. One remained neutral, no more than a witness. (This suggests a corollary to Rule Five: Don't take on your siblings' battles. You have enough to do winning your own.)
"You said today," Andrew insisted, his head bucking as if for attack.
"I have a headache today," said Mother, rather dangerously.
Ned shot me a look reading, "This is not suave" — his fiercest condemnation. But Jim shot me a look reading, "Let's see how it comes out" — for nothing failed to amuse him.
This is how it came out: Mother solemnly promised that we would have pizza tomorrow, no matter what. Not today, but — absolutely — tomorrow. Andrew accepted this and home we went, over the Accademia Bridge and around the corners to 127 Rio Terra dei Catecumeni. But on the way, I told Jim I was a touch worried about the grade of commitment in Mother's promise. He said, "So what? It's not about us, is it?" This is the converse of the corollary to Rule Five: Don't count siblings as allies.
Anyway, the next day, when the moment came, Mother decided it was too late, too hot, and too nervous for pizza; perhaps she resented being boxed in by a promise. Or who knows what was happening? — but Andrew had her by the contract and would not yield. "You promised," he kept saying. "You promised." As we others stood around, the two of them debated it, Andrew (about ten years old then), staunch and stony, shaking with righteousness. She had put him off for days. She had left her promise. He must collect.
"All right!" Mother roared, leading us to a table. "I'll show you! Yes! Yes! I'll show you promise! Yes, promise!"
We ordered in an atmosphere laden with airs of betrayal and counterbetrayal. But the pizzas came, hot as hell, and Andrew, forking his in a hell-for-leather escapism, accidentally flipped it up into the air and down onto his lap.
"So!" Mother cried. "Now you see! Now you'll learn! When I say no, it's no. But you insist, do you? So! God hears us. God sees! And God will make punishment! Yes!"
The hot cheese was eating right through Andrew's shorts; in fact, steam was rising in their color, and he looked as if he were in shock. Ned was regarding the façade of La Fenice as if moved to poeticize, and Tony had begun to eat his pizza. Jim simply got up, smacked the food off of Andrew's lap with a napkin, pulled his pants off, and tossed our cold drinks at his flesh.
Andrew lived. But he glowers, even rages, when this classic tale is retold. Brothers were born to glower. You can make peace with parents eventually, but only somewhat with brothers. Actually, if possible it's best to keep sibling combat to a minimum. Why spend energy on your fellow oppressed when the true war impends with the authorities? Besides, one should maintain diplomatic relations with one's brothers for later years, when they come in handy for lending money, showing up at Christmas so you won't have to, and serving as models for villains in one's fiction.
I must admit I slipped here. Fighting with my brothers was irresistible, as stimulating as a Crusade. Unfortunately, as the middle child, I had the natural military advantage only over my two younger brothers; and one's more instructive battles tend upward, in audacity: against older ones. Actually, Ned ignored me — he ignored the entire family and finally ran off to Europe without saying "May I?" and became a reporter for the Paris Herald-Tribune. But Jim and I were born to battle. He was only a year older than I, counting in years, but had a good decade on me in smarts. Some of his wisdom he passed along to me in an alternative handbook, On the Care and Training of the Entire World, with such rules as "Never let anyone know what you're thinking, but make sure they hear what you say." He was a cool number, distantly polite when my folks were around, by turns contemptuous or confidential with his siblings, slow to move but fast as the devil when he pounced: an enigma that looked you in the eye. I suppose that, given our respective natures, Jim and I could not have avoided confrontation. He liked a peaceful house, running smoothly on the theory that you verbally gave in to your parents in anything they they wanted; then unobtrusively, off the record, did as you liked.
Excerpted from Buddies by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 1986 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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