Monday, March 20, 2006


I did a bad thing last night while Melody was berating Aaron for staring down a teacher. Aaron is a high school Junior, and this particular Mistress of Numbers has something out for him. Or in for him. Or maybe he has something out or in for her. Or maybe math has something out and in for all of us, which is my conviction and has been since Freshman Algebra.

Aaron must take care because he’s working on straight A’s (from seventh grade on), and this teacher needs coddled, not outstared. It is true that she may be lacking in the ways of education, but so what. I had teachers like that, too. I was not so careful with language back then and would come home in a huff to announce, “Miss Clouse stinks.” I’m pretty sure that, between 1966 and 1978, I was perfect and nearly all my teachers, including the nuns, were hopelessly screwed up.

Melody said I should discipline Aaron. That is, she wanted me to tell him how to be a good young man.

Melody grew up on a farm. In such environments, character gets pounded into you like a three-pound pancake. Melody got up before dawn to feed chickens and milk cows. Good young men were as plentiful as sprouts of alfalfa. Melody’s real world was Laura Ingall Wilder’s fiction. As a young man, I loved purity and hard work, as long as I could write mis-rhyming poetry about it from a safe distance. Melody regrets this about me. It is the part of me she wishes she could change. I sometimes tease her and tell her, “Well, maybe you should have married Mike Hartz.”

Mike Hartz was everything a girl could want in a man. He was a stand-up cutout dude from a catalog, replete with polished shoes and a nice haircut. From a practical standpoint, Melody loved everything about Hartz. His goal was to become a History teacher. His life was planned out, right down to the kind of grass he wanted in his yard and the church he and Melody would attend. He would give Melody a three-bedroom house, a two-car garage, and a Lazy Susan in the kitchen. The guy pressed his own pants, for God’s sake. He knew how to wash his car—including the whitewalls.

Because Melody was so darn cute, Hartz wanted her for his own. Who wouldn’t? Melody was so much like him, too. She was willing, in her heart, to succumb to the two-car garage. The problem was, Melody kept calling him “Martin” on their date. (I still wonder why, after going out twice with me, she still went out with Hartz. She told me she was going to do it. “Is that okay?” she asked. “Of course it is,” I said. Then I got off the phone and cried and threw jellybeans.) At the end of the date, Melody refused to let the sex-crazed Hartz kiss her. She told him a week later that she couldn’t get “this other guy” out of her head. Hartz, the ever-practical idiot, said, “You mean I spent all that money on you Saturday for nothing?”)

While Melody built barns, planted trees and baked pies, I watched Three Stooges and Gilligan’s Island re-runs. My parents made sure my sister and I had endless supplies of Popsicles, pop, Pop Tarts, and Sugar Pops cereal to serenade our television watching. My parents did discipline us: sometimes they bought us cereal without sugar and made us watch Jacques Cousteau specials. (I’m talking about cereal like Bran Flakes, Special K and Product 19, and Cousteau specials like the one about plankton.) But my parents loved us. I can’t help it that I grew up in the suburbs. My only knowledge of farm life came from Lisa and Oliver Douglas, and Mr. Haney and Eb, on Green Acres.

I did receive real discipline on occasion. I remember Mother chasing me—and rapidly—with the hairbrush. She did make contact two out of seven times. I did get grounded for innocent childhood crimes such as forgetting to do homework, forgetting to pull weeds, forgetting to clean my “pig sty,” and forgetting to go to bed on time on school nights. (I was a forgetful child. Well, I forgot things.) I remember getting my mouth washed out with soap, and to this day I cannot say what this was frickin’ for, or how I could possibly have deserved such humiliating doses of hell in my own stinking house. Nevertheless, I succumbed to all this parental treatment; I considered it par for the childhood course. Then I grabbed a purple Popsicle and wondered if the next Stooges episode would feature Curly or Shemp. (I hoped it was Curly, but I would learn in my teen years to appreciate the genius of Shemp.)

I’ve always been a do-it-yourself discipliner. With the things that really mattered in life (learning to write, staying fit, reading, obtaining wisdom, caring for family, seeking God), I was harder on myself than others could hope to be on me. Thus, I believe that while you can influence others and set a good example, you cannot live more than one life at a time—your own. This principle is especially true of the relationship between my two oldest sons and me. They are nineteen and seventeen years old. As with my youngest son, I trained them as best I could. I spanked them early with love and intelligence (and a spoon of some kind), I carried them on my back, I hugged them (still do), I got onto floors with them, I read them scripture and many Dr. Seuss accounts. I loved their mother, supported my family, spent every spare minute giving them God, fun, and organic raisins. Now I’m tired, and I believe I deserve a rest. I want to reap now the plentiful fruit of good parenting and shrug off the rare thorn. You can lead a horse to Advanced Algebra, but you can’t make it not stare down a crummy teacher—that’s my philosophy now at this stage of the game.

So right there in the kitchen, in the middle of the berating, I started to laugh. It was the worst thing to do, at the worst time. Poor Melody. That she was so technically right and I was so technically wrong proved too much contrast for my funny bone. It was the farm versus strawberry Pop Tarts, Laura Ingalls Wilder verses Larry Fine, Product 19 versus Kellogg’s’ Fruit Loops, Melody White versus the Marx Brothers. That Melody was so serious while I experienced flashbacks of French class drove me over the back of the sofa in tears. I hated myself. The more I told myself not to laugh, the more I dripped spittle and snot. The healing of it was absolutely horrible. (I realize now, upon reflection, that my laughter was not of the healing variety, but rather a self-defense mechanism against the false accusation that I was somehow, in this case, a poor father.) Aaron just stood there, wondering what would become of his legal guardians. (Our youngest, Jefferson, had run away—in titters no doubt.) Then Aaron had to laugh himself; it was two against one now. You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Melody. She tries so hard to make us good people. God has withheld from her a daughter, a princess, a normal human being. Instead, he gave her Larry, Curly, and Moe. Melody will read this and dislike that I have written about it. If you are reading it, I am wondering how it is possible.

Upon reflection, I know. It is because my wife is the kindest, most forgiving, most well-rounded, well-meaning person on the planet.

Eat your frickin’ heart out, Hartz.

© 2006 by Martin Zender