Thursday, March 29, 2018


I was lucky enough to experience my pre-teen years in the halcyon days of the 1970s and early 1980s. This was a time free of the shackles of smartphones and social media, and reality wasn’t found on television. It was a time of Hardy Boys and bionic men, talking cars and galactic battlestars, and you couldn’t help but smile every time somebody whistled Sweet Georgia Brown. But it wasn’t all Farah Fawcett on rollerskates.

Society had barely time to reconcile their relief and anger as the Vietnam War came to a close before having to stress about the second Cold War that was heating up and the omnipresent threat of annihilation from Nuclear Armageddon that was all too real. Paradoxes abounded. A recession was followed immediately by a financial boom, and the sexual revolution was curtailed by the AIDS crisis. On the radio classic rock was just rock (and was awesome) and disco was staying alive. In reaction to both genres, and the state of the world, counter culture punk came out kicking and screaming and new wave leapt of its shoulders, and we saw the emergence of metal and rap. It all existed at once, and it was ours baby. It was a schizophrenic time. For every excess there was a cautionary tale just around the corner. It was all very confusing and chaotic and completely awesome. It was bat-shit crazy.

Kids were allowed to be kids but given adult responsibilities and independence. 10 year olds could operate gas-powered whirling-bladed lawn mowers and get up at 5am to deliver newspapers so they could earn a wage to waste on kidstuff like comic books, Wacky packages, and Atomic Fireballs.

Children were to be seen and not heard but not really seen as you were out of the house before your parents awoke with a hangover and not back in until the streetlights came on. The waking hours that you were home you were relegated to the basement rec-room, or banished to the bedroom due to acts of mischief or maleficence.

If you ran afoul of Stranger Danger (who apparently had a predilection for white vans) a child could seek refuge behind the closed doors of a complete stranger’s house because they had taped a piece of paper in the window that proclaimed them a “Block Parent”.

Navigating this landscape of contradictions wasn’t easy, but we had some guidance from the Saturday morning gurus.

I learned that robots could put their arms back on but I could not from Astro. I learned not to drown my food from The Bod Squad. I knew exactly what conjunctions function was, and that Lolly's was the place to get your adverbs. Being a champ not a chump was One To Grow On. The responsibility of knowing that only I could prevent forest fires weighed heavy on me. It wasn’t until my difficult teen years that I discovered that knowing was only half the battle.

But not all lessons were easily come by. Even disciplinary measures were subject to the discordant and incongruous climate. Parents executed a form of discipline/education called Tough Love. This was an authoritative form of parenting that put principles before popularity. Parents were not desperately vying to be your “friend”, they were too busy being your parent. This meant that they were doing their job to better prepare you for the real world, to make you autonomous. This was accomplished by meting out punishment, or teaching life lessons, in an overtly harsh or stern manner. A contrarient style of being cruel to be kind. Children were made to take responsibility for their actions and learn through failure, mistakes, and pain. And my mother was a master at it, a third degree black belt.

Get caught smoking, no problem, mom would sit you down and make you smoke as many back to back cigarettes in one sitting until you turned green and puked.

Want to know if the curling iron really was hot because it didn’t look that hot, she’d encourage you to not just touch it but to grab hold of it. By the metal.

Leave your GI Joe’s out after being told to put them away? Well the questionable solution was to pack them up and donate those American soldiers to the Vietnamese family the church sponsored.

Harsh? Perhaps. Forgettable? Not a chance. You only made these mistakes once.

What made my mother a master is that she never just taught a simple lesson; she taught lessons that were multilayered and compounded. To obtain information and confessions she played the roles of both Good and Bad Cop, switching between the two seamlessly. She was adept at police interrogation techniques like Entrapment, Emotional Blackmail, Manipulation and Brutality.

Allow me to illustrate.

My older brother and I had been fighting, likely over the fact that I existed. For the devout reader this is old news, for the newer converts or those just now coming to their senses, stay awhile, bask, and I'll give you the Cliffs Notes version. My brother and I didn't get along, we were brothers in name only. He was 4 years older, 75 pounds and a foot larger than me, and used his considerable weight against me to work out his anger over the same familial dysfunctions that I was subject to. The only time I looked up to him was in the literal sense, when he would pin me down and dangle a string of spittle over my face and suck it back up at the last minute. Or not.

After enduring a particular humiliating session of bestial torment at his meaty hands including but not limited to Charlie Horses, Indian Rug Burns, Pillow Smothering, and General Pummeling, I felt a stinging need for Justice. For Vengeance. He had me as an outlet for his rage. I had nothing, no avenues of recourse, opportunities for revenge presented themselves infrequently at best.

I quickly assessed the situation.  Fisticuffs had already proven futile, and my homemade nunchucks had been confiscated earlier in the week, so physical retribution was a non-starter. He owned nothing readily available that he cherished that I could destroy. There was only one thing left to do, the secret weapon of last resort avaialbe to younger siblings across the globe. One foot planted on the stairs leading up to the Adult Realm, I looked defiantly into the weasel eyes embedded in his fat churlish face and invoked The Ancient Incantation:

“I’m telling mom”

Then promptly hauled ass to the first landing of the stairwell.

There was no pursuit. Instead, his softly spoken words wafted up to me and stopped me in my tracks. "Mom doesn't care. It's my right".

A chill went up my spine as I realized 2 things about his statement. 1) The smug look on his face told me he believed the latter statement, and 2) he may be right about the former.

Anger at this possibility welled up inside of me. I brought out The Big Guns.

"I'm telling her...that you...swore", my words were measured, as though being spoken by Michael Caine.

He recoiled as though slapped. Swearing was tantamount to kicking baby Jesus in his baby nards while pouring sugar into the gas-tank of the Pope-mobile in our household, and subject to extreme punishment. Yet another puzzling precept to understand as my father's propensity for expletives was legendary; this fell under the 70's axiom of "Do as I say, not as I do". My brother's lip curled upward in contempt. "I didn't swear. Gaylord isn't a swear. I did not swear".

"Mom doesn't know that" I levelled back. And with that I sought out The Matriarch.

I found my mother in the kitchen preparing dinner. It was 11 o'clock in the morning. I gently tugged on her Galloping Gourmet apron, "Mama?"

Deeply focussed, she curtly dismissed me with the warning "Do NOT ask what is for dinner because you know what the answer will be." I did indeed know what my mother's reply to that simple query always was: Horse shit and tram tickets. On the once a year my father transformed animal flesh into a fossil fuel his response to the same question was "You'll get nothing and like it!".

"I know mama. I need to tell you something", I feigned demureness.
"Well out with it lad" she said, having not yet turned to acknowledge me.
"It's bad" I was building anticipation. She wasn't biting, and continued her elaborate preparations. I tried again, "Like really REALLY bad".
"I don't have time for shenanigans boy". My mother never had time for shenanigans.
Ok, to hell with the hors d'ouerves, lets get to the main course. "Your other son swore".
Attention was gained. My mother put down the clarified butter, slowly put the lid on the tub-o-lard, and finally turned to look at me, her face betraying no emotion, "What do you mean 'he swore'?"
"Yeah, he like, swore".
"What did he say?" she coolly asked.
"You know, he said a bad word", I sounded dumb even to my ears.
"I understand that, but what EXACTLY did he say?" her eyes unblinking never left mine, analyzing, scrutinizing. I suddenly started to feel a little nervous.
"Um, you know, a bad word, swear word". I hadn't thought this through.
She smiled gently. "Tell me what word he used son". No longer a question, a direction.
Oh man oh man...I really hadn't thought this through. An image of my brothers fat smug face flashed in my mind at that very moment and I had my answer. Might as well go for broke. Deep breath, "The F word". I feigned a pained look of innocence and dismay. Inwardly I was laughing maniacally thinking of the whupping my brother was going to receive. Vive La Retribution!
My mothers smile became tighter. It was a wan and strangely disturbing expression. "Tell me exactly what he said".
"Like I said, the 'F'..." she cut me off.
"Stop. Again: tell me what he said, tell me the exact words he said".
Oh I did not like this at all and began to regret this tack, but I was pot committed. "Um, he um, he told me to 'F' off".
"No son, the words. I need you to say all the words so I can make sure I understand". My stomach knotted and I felt a brick in my bowels.
My inner voice sounding like an exasperated Charles Nelson Reilly screamed 'What's there to understand? FUCK! F-U-C-K. I'm telling you he fucking said Fuck!', but what I said quietly was "I don't want to mama. I want to go now". I was now so worked up that I didn't realize I had started to cry.
My mother's face softened and she hunkered down to my level. She produced a tissue out of thin air as all mothers have the ability to do and tenderly brushed my tears away. "Sh-sh-sh-shhhh. There there now, what's all this about now? There's no need for tears. Just tell mama what your brother said and you can go. We'll put this silly nonsense behind us." She smiled a smile that was Love and Warmth and Protector and Toasted Cheese Sandwiches. Everything would be ok.
Wiping the snot from my running nose with the back of my hand I very quietly said, a whisper at most, "He told me to 'Fuck Off'".
"I couldn't hear you son, speak up" she cooed.
I very much wanted this to be over, so I took a deep breath, and projecting from my diaphragm, repeated "He told OFF".
Well that was liberating.
The elation I felt at having uttered THE taboo word to an adult was short-lived and replaced by a searing pain as I my mothers fingers clamped around my ear, twisted, and lifted me up off my feet. What the fuck? What fresh hell was this?! My bare feet (wearing shoes in the house was also obviously a punishable offense) were only making occasional contact with the shag carpeted floor as I was hauled by my burning lobe to the washroom where I was roughly shoved onto the also shag carpeted toilet seat. I was hysterical at this point, one part due to pain, one part due to confusion, and one thousand parts due to fear at what I knew was coming next.
"What did I do mama, what did I doooooo?" I pleaded through an expanding bubble of snot. I knew the answer to this as surely as I knew the answer to the dinner menu query.
"You swore. Twice. We do not use profanity in this house" she calmly explained as she reached for her implements. "We are going to cleanse that foul mouth of yours" she continued as she held the bar of Ivory soap under the warm running water of the tap, sounding remarkably like Carrie White's mother.

What happened next was all kinds of god fucking wondrous awful.

Washing a child's mouth out with soap for swearing was common practice back then, but my mother took it to the next level. She didn't just make me hold the soap in my mouth, she scoured my mouth. With a nail brush.
Yes indeed, she scrubbed my teeth, tongue and gums (especially the gums, the domain of those hard to clean words) with a fingernail brush that had been under actual filthy fingernails, lathered with a bar of soap that had been used on every single body part of every single member of my family.
A lesson not soon forgotten taught by the Master. You certainly got your money's worth. In the hands of a lesser disciplinarian the lesson would have been as pedestrian as "Swearing is bad". I took away so much more than that. Not immediately though, these were slow release lessons that I didn't realize stemmed from my mother's constabulary parenting style until I was a neurotic teen, such as but not limited to:

Swearing actually is bad. Swearing causes pain.
When you tattle on someone you are only telling tales on yourself, and no one likes a tattletale. Tattling also causes pain.
Fight your own battles. Don't outsource your dirty-work, outsourcing hurts everyone.
You can't fool your parents, trying to may cause injury.
Don't trust your parents. Actually, Trust no one. Broken trust stings like a bitch.
No one wins in a fight. Fighting can cause grievous bodily harm.
Karma's a bitch. A soapy painful bitch.
Lies will come back and bite you in the ass, lies hurt. So do nail brushes.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. I'd buy that for a dollar.

William Makepeace Thackeray said Mother is the name for god in the lips and hearts of little children. Apparently Ivory is the taste of betrayal on their lips and gums. Did my mother give me these lessons out of love? Tough Love? Like I said it was all very confusing and chaotic. 

Or maybe she was just bat-shit crazy.

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