I typed in the string of letters from muscle memory: www.Amazon.com. The familiar white landing page appeared, dotted with colorful images of “recommendations for me.”

Amazon should have a mom setting so that it understands the cruelty of “recommendations for me,” when 95% of “my” purchases are anything but “for me.” That day it offered me enticing discounts on Paw Patrol Band-aids, a fruit leather variety case, non-toxic ant bait.

I glanced at my handwritten list, scrawled on the back of an envelope:

Mother (25)
Father (30)
Female (1)
Female (2)

Mother (34)
Father (38)
Male (4)
Male (8)

I’d only asked for one family this Christmas and they’d given me two.

Money was tight and I thought about emailing them. But I thought, hell, I’m not going to turn this down. I'm not going to be the guy who said, "Sorry, Joe, no room at the inn."

___

I got the adults Target gift cards and Kindle fires. They were on a Black Friday sale so it sounds more generous than it was.

___

Shopping for kids you don’t know is hard and I’m always grateful when charities give you lots of specific information. This group didn’t.

I had to just assume that these kids, ages 1, 2, 4, and 8, would be into the same things that my two boys had been into at those ages.

For the 1-year-old girl, I closed my eyes and thought about Buster, my son who had been one only a year ago but was somehow impossible to imagine as any different than he was at this moment in time. In my mind, it was like he’d been born with a full mouth of teeth and a designated monster voice that he used when charging around the house with a red cape velcroed around his neck.

I pushed further back into my memory to when my now-4-year-old, Chicken, was 1. Though it was further in the past it was easier to recall. My life at the time had been challenging, but simpler. While Chicken was awake I was generally with him, watching him, playing with him, Tweeting his milestones. First-time parents, right?

When Chicken was 1 he had a set of 25 fruits and vegetables that came with plastic bushel baskets. The bushel baskets were labeled with colors, and each basket had 5 pieces of produce that matched that color. Orange: Pepper, pumpkin, carrot, apricot, and, well, orange. The carrot was Chicken's favorite, the ridged cone the perfect size and shape to fit in his hand, the plastic molded greens just right for gnawing on as his first white teeth erupted through his swollen gums.

Farmers Market Color Sorting Set. $25.99.

For the 2-year-old girl? I stepped away from the computer and peered around the wall to check in on Buster, who was, at that moment, clapping together two Mega-Bloks, the Legos that look like they’ve swelled, and are perfect for hands just beginning to negotiate the delicate fitting together that they’ll spend the rest of their lives perfecting on USB ports.

Buster frowned down at the two oversized nubby blocks in his hands. He slapped them together again with a hearty smack. Nope. I went to him, said, “Frustrated?” He nodded and grunted. I held out my hands and he pushed the blocks into my palms. I showed him: “You stick them together like this, see?” I pushed the blocks together, slowly, and then I handed them back to him and ran my hands over his, guiding him. When the blocks stuck together, a square and a rectangle, he gasped and looked up at me, his mouth a wondrous oh, his eyes shining.

“I did it!”

Mega Bloks Scooping Wagon Building Set, Red. $15.75.

 For the 4-year-old boy, I walked down the hall. Chicken was in his room, lounging on the easy chair where we read bedtime stories, one leg draped over the upholstered arm stained with a blue smear of toothpaste, his face behind a Leap Frog pad. It was one of those moments where I anticipated the pangs of future parenting. Someday I’ll walk into my teenage Chicken's room and he’ll be crumpled up in a chair just like this, his legs still too long for his body, and it will take my breath away, and my heart will be broken and when I ask myself why the only thing I’ll be able to think is “time.” I remember seeing my mother tear up at moments like this, moments when she accidentally saw me as the child who used to fit on her lap. I used to think she was so weird.

“What are you up to in here?” I asked.

“Just learning,” he said. “Can I have some chocolate milk?” When I didn’t answer immediately he peeked over the top of the tablet, his dark eyes shining. “Please?”

“Sure, baby,” I said. I hadn’t been holding out for the please; I’d just been watching him. He needed a haircut. I always wait too long to get my kids haircuts. Chicken has thick, straight brown hair and enormous eyes, and when his hair is too long he looks just like how I always imagined Peter Pan.

LeapFrog My Own Laptop, Green. $18.29.

The 8-year-old was a problem; my older son was only 4. I posted on my neighborhood parents’ group: “Giving Christmas present to 8-year-old boy! Need ideas!” The Blessed Congregation of Internet Moms provided an answer within seconds: Legos. Of course Legos. It’s always been Legos.

LEGO Classic Medium Creative Brick Box 10696. #30.64.

I also picked up 2 rice cooker/vegetable steamers, and 2 Merriam-Webster children’s picture dictionaries.

Aroma Housewares ARC-914SBD 80Cup Digital Cool-Rice Cooker and Food Steamer with Stainless Steel Exterior, Silver. $29.90 each, quantity, 2.

Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary. $12.59, quantity, 2.


___


The boxes arrived just in time – the presents were due to be turned in the next day.  I put the boys down for their naps, saying, “I’m going to pick the stories today." I picked board books of the breed that only have one word per page.

Cat, Dog, Happy, Sad, Mitten, Hat, okay have a good nap sweet dreams!

I wrapped the rice-cookers first, then the dictionaries. Next, the Mega-Bloks wagon, which made me grin with its crumpled corners and too-long strips of stuck-together tape. I’ll just say the kids wrapped it.

The slick, brightly colored box of vegetables with their bushel baskets, the Leap Frog pad, the Legos in their plastic storage case.

I wrapped the two Kindles last, and folded the printed Target gift cards, slipped them between the leaves of two cards, and wrote the same thing on both: “To you and your family, from me and mine: Welcome to America. I am so glad you’re here. We wish you health, happiness, and safety, for you and your children. You are our neighbors now, and you are what makes America great.”

I sealed the envelopes, taped them securely to the wrapped Kindles, and then I boxed up the parcels: Family 22. Family 23.

Family 22 was the one with the 1 and 2-year-old girls. We got them the play food and Mega Bloks, sloppily wrapped with crumpled corners.

They were due to arrive from Myanmar in March.

Family 23 was the one with the 4 and 8-year-old boys. We got them the LeapFrog and Legos.

They were due to arrive from Iraq next week.

___


I can’t stop thinking about the Lego kit, the blocks cool and untouched, wrapped in blue snowman paper. The box sits in a closet, somewhere.

I can’t stop thinking about the daughter who needs a plastic carrot to soothe her aching gums.

I can't stop crying.

___


They must have been happy.

They were going to come here and if they had nothing else they were going to have rice cookers and Kindles and a few bucks to spend at Target and a few toys for their kids.

I thought it was the least we could do.

Turns out, the least we could do was so much less.




"Mom, you're the worst."

He says it with a voice deepened by the presence of a hot wad of peanut butter and whole wheat bread.

"Yeah," the other one agrees. "The worst. AH! HA! HA!" He punctuates my verdict with his "monster laugh,"

Don't worry, this post isn't going to be about how sad I got when my kids told me I was the worst.

Honestly, that shit doesn't bother me at all. If anything, I consider it a compliment. It means I'm giving them appropriate boundaries, and that they are responding to those boundaries with feelings that they feel comfortable expressing without the words "poop," "witch," "stinky bottom," "slut," "welfare queen," "nagging wife," "shrill harpy," "dyke," "femenazi," or "goddamned whore."

In the entire lexicon of words used to attempt to put women down, "the worst" is, quite simply, not.

What bothers me is how badly I wanted to be like, "NUH UH YOU ARE."



Let me ask you something:

Person A asks for a sandwich.

Person B says, sure! What kind?

Person A screams, NO!

WHO in this situation is the worst?




Not sure?




OK, let me throw another hypothetical out for you!


Person A wants a Paw Patrol.

Person B agrees that a Paw Patrol would be outstanding.

Person C says no and puts the iPad on a high shelf because Persons A and B have been extra murdery this afternoon and Paw Patrol will only fertilize the psychosis.

Who's the worst? Don't think too hard, just the first thing that pops into your mind.


Still scratching your head?

You might have lice!



But just to be sure, let's do another one:

Person A calls out from behind the bedroom door, "Mommy I carved something for you!"

Person A should not have anything in the room with which to carve. 

Person B starts to sweat.

Person B opens the door to find:

he had in fact carved a ring
out of a Ritz cracker
which begs the question
where
did he find
a cracker
in my bedroom
 

Person B says, "Thank you, Person A. That is really kind of you. I love it. Let's get the vacuum and clean up this mess."


WHO IS THE WORST? (Actually, nobody in that one. It was pretty nice of him to make me a handcrafted piece of jewelry/snack. And it was pretty nice of me to not be like "WHAT THE FUCK." So we both did #kindness with that one.)


FINAL QUESTION:

Person A has a cold and both feels and looks how one imagines one might on day 3 of an Ebola colonization... you know, the day when you're thinking, "this is either a hemorrhagic fever that's going to liquefy my organs and cause me to bleed out through both my eyeballs and asshole... or it's the sniffles. I guess we'll know more tomorrow. I'mma take some zinc."

Instead of using the precious hour or so of downtime in the middle of the day to take a nap, as would be wise, Person A folds a shitload of laundry because Person B mentioned that he/she was out of "soft pants," (and Person C chimed in, "I'm out of the good jammas!") when they got dressed to go to the Children's Museum this morning.

Person B wakes up from his/her nap, walks into the dining room, and pushes over a stack of neatly folded toddler shirts. 

Person C has only one set of "good jammas." And it changes every day. If all the jammas aren't clean every single day, then the one set of jammas still in the hamper crusted with yesterday's oatmeal is invariably the only set of jammas that will not cause my son - sorry, Person C - to spontaneously self-immolate.

WHO, MAY I ASK, IS THE WORST??? It's a two-way tie, and here's a hint - it's not an A.


Nah, they're not the worst. And neither am I. They're just 2.5 and 4.5, and I'm sick.

Enjoy every minute, they said.
Today I went to a workshop about race (and yes, I was proud of myself for signing up, okay? #ThisSmugLiberal loves to get credit for taking chances and for being the only white person in the restaurant.)

I will be thinking and writing a lot about this workshop over the next few days, but one of the things that really landed on me was the fact that our country has a narrative that most of us have all agreed to support, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The narrative goes like this:

"People" are white... unless they're different.

"Different" can mean anything from Asian to extra-terrestrial, and in the case of children's literature, tends to skew more Martian than Malaysian.

As we talked about the impact of this mainstream narrative that favors white stories, I began to wonder about my own children's library, and what kind of narrative I was supplying for my kiddos.

___


So I came home and sorted every children's book in the house.




1. Stories of Color - A person of color is the main character, although there may be people of other races in the story as well.

2. Stories about Mixed Groups - Stories that picture lots of different races/ethnicities, including stories where the main character is white, but there are characters of other races pictured.

3. White Stories - Stories that only have white people in them. Zero faces of color.

4. No People Stories - Trucks, animals, counting books, etc. No people in the book.


And here's where #ThisSmugLiberal's library ended up:





1. Stories of Color: 

Yep, out of 434 books, a whopping 21 were stories about people of color. 



UGH.

And of those 21, 8 were stories about civil rights leaders and slavery narratives, and one was a Just-This-Side-Of-Bullshit retelling of the first Thanksgiving. 

UUUUUGHHHHHHH.

We have more books about PETE THE CAT than we do about Black people, Asian people, Indian people, Native American people, Latino/Hispanic people, and Middle Eastern people COMBINED.


2. OK But There's Always Mixed Group Stories:

53 of our 434 books depicted mixed groups of varying races and colors, so that's pretty good, right?

Eeeeeeeeh... not so fast. 

Of our 53 books with mixed groups, only 18 of them had a person of color on either the front or back cover, and NONE of them had a person of color ALONE on the cover. 

But 33 of the mixed-group books had a white person on the cover, and 15 of those books had a white person ALONE on the cover. 

well
but she gets a black friend so

no
she does too
you just have to...
yeah...
keep flipping...
she's definitely in there
wait go back

i mean


WAIT THERE'S ONE!
LOOK!
IN THE BACK OF THE

bus

(sigh)




3. So That Takes Us Right To Where We Always Knew We Were Going. White Stories:




I knew that whiteness was prevalent in children's literature, but I was blissfully unaware of the way we default to whiteness SO HARD.

Like, there's no reason this guy has to be white:

because
"you"
look like this
obviously
all people do

Pretty sure mermaids can be literally any color since they are imaginary creatures. Go wild, pick a color, any color, any color in the rainbow or beyond, she could be any color you could imagi--

oh
you went with
white
no i mean
it's a classic


But Mowgli is a character who is known to be an Indian boy, like INDIAN, from INDIA, grew up in the jungle, he'll definitely be--

are you
FUCKING
kidding me


But there's no historical data insinuating that this congress of agitated cavemen would have been white:

chad:
wait,
what do you mean
they want the vote

philip:
they're saying they want to vote

derek:
like a full vote?
because
didn't we already give them
like
3/5 of a vote?
that's most of a vote

brock:
yeah i'm not really sure
what they're complaining about.


One of these kids? Coulda been brown! Or a girl! OR... A BROWN GIRL! Wait, no, that's crazy talk. First, there's already a girl in this picture and she's the Statue of Liberty and nobody wants to see a page with all girls on it blech. Second, people would think it was a book about Rosa Parks and get confused about why there's a French sculptor on page 3.

the text says
"people can climb up to the crown."
and then it shows
exactly what
people
look like

But no, of course none of THOSE people would be non-white, because none of those books is about RACE. 

Being non-white in a children's book is a strong choice. Books about people of color can be about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, immigration to white America, how they do Christmas in another country, the importance of diversity, and teaching white people about your weirdo customs. 

Books about white people can be about all that stuff, PLUS cookies, sand castles, trips to the zoo, and wizardry.

With a non-white hero, the book has an agenda. It can't just be fun. It can't just be an adventure. If this book has a black kid on the cover, his blackness is a factor

He can't just be a person who happens to black and also found a puppy. 

He has to be a person who is black and found a puppy and brought it to his grandma who marched with Dr. King and she takes him on a lyrical retelling of the bus boycott, and then the little boy names the puppy Montgomery and his grandma is like "You've gotta fight for what you believe, Edwin," and suddenly, the book isn't about puppies anymore. It's about EQUALITY. And kids LOVE stories with NO puppies and LOTS of equality.

___

Sometimes it feels like this conversation happened everywhere:

Publisher: (lights a cigarette) UGH people are asking for more black person books.

Writer: Ew why.

Publisher: I honestly don't know, Todd.

Writer: What the hell am I supposed to do, Randy? I've got a book about a little girl who feeds ducks at the park almost locked, and I've already named her Susan and I don't need to tell you...

Illustrator: I could just color her brown if you want--

Publisher: God damn it Preston you can't color Susan brown! Her name's SUSAN.

Writer: SUSAN.

Illustrator: Sorry. Sorry. I was just thinking that people of any color could be named any name but obviously that was--

Writer: Goddamned Bolshevik is what it was, Preston.

Illustrator: OK, yeah, no, that's not--

Publisher: Preston's an asshole but that doesn't change our problem, Todd. We're getting a lot of pressure. We need to put out a black person book.

Writer: Randy. Come on. Look at me. I don't know how to write books about black people. What do they DO all day long? I mean... (shakes head, scoffs, shrugs)... Preston? You seem to know a lot about... them...

Illustrator: (mumbles) I'm pretty sure they do the same things we--

Publisher: SHUT THE FUCK UP PRESTON.

Writer: Randy. Randy! No, I've got it. I'm a goddamned pink-cheeked Irish genius.

Publisher: What?

Writer: What are black people. 

Publisher: Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh... black?

Illustrator: People. They're people. Black people are peop--

Writer: SLAVES. Black people were slaves, right? SLAVE BOOKS. For KIDS. KID SLAVE BOOKS.

Publisher: HOLY BALLS.

Illustrator: Do you think... that children will find those books... enjoyable?

Publisher: Fuck no, Preston! It'll be like taking their medicine! But we'll do a shitload of bummer slave books and after that we can do some concept-heavy books about laws and walking. 

Illustrator: Listen, not to stick my head in the lion's mouth here, but don't you think that giving children images of black kids ONLY as slaves and second-class citizens might reinforce the idea that black people only exist in a struggle against white people, who are the owners of all the power and sometimes literally of the black people themselves? And maybe reinforcing the idea of the black person as less-than, or only occupying the worlds of pain and oppression, that we might, through our work as children's book creators, instill a self-fulfilling prophecy, a sense of inferiority, and excruciating self-loathing in young, innocent black children who have never done anything to deserve this kind of cruel neglect?

Publisher: Wow Preston. 

Writer: Yeah. Wow. Is Aunt Flo in town? AGAIN?

Publisher: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA GOOD ONE TODD. OK, green light on the kid slave books. PRESTON, don't draw any FACES on the black people, okay? Silhouettes only. Make it look arty though.

Illustrator: This is super fucked-up you guys.

Writer: (high-fives Randy) They can make me write 'em, but they can't make me write 'em FUN. Ha, they'll wish they'd never asked for any black person books.

___


167 out of our 434 books had white people and ONLY white people. 

Yep. 38.4% of our children's books are ones that David Duke would happily read to his grandson.

The worst part is, they are some of our favorite books - Brave Irene, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man.

No wonder, as I stacked the books, Chicken surveyed the "white" stack and said, "Which ones are these?"

"The white people only ones," I said.

Chicken nodded. "I like books with only white people then."

___

Here's the thing that gets me right in the gut. 

My kids are white and they look at our books and they read the books and look at the pictures and they understand where they exist in the landscape of our society. 

They are the firefighters, the doctors, the baseball players, the scientists, the loving daddies, the boys who built the fort, the ones who befriended a robot or threw a pizza party for a raccoon. 

They live in houses like our house. They go to school in a school like ours. 

They have impish wit, good hearts, great ideas. They are nourished by the world in which they can see figures who look like them, doing great things, fun things, silly things, literally anything. 

I have no problem with these books.

But then, I imagine that all of our books about white kids were actually about fish. And all my kids ever read about every day was fish - firefighting fish, doctor fish, athlete fish. These fish live in a reef, not a house like ours. Their school? Not the same one we go to. 

The fish are brave and curious and kind. They are silly and funny and sometimes they mess up but it's always okay. They have eyes and mouths like us, but... they're different. Or... we're different.

Oh, I mean, obviously the fish books wouldn't have a PROBLEM with white kids. And I think that would be clear in the way they peppered in a couple of white kids, in traditional white kid haircuts and clothes. You know, like in a fish crowd scene? Like, fish, fish, fish, white boy in Tevas with a faux-hawk, fish, fish, fish... just for balance. Just to make sure they're represented.

What would my children come to understand about their place in the world from seeing their own sketchy faces peering out of the murky water at the tremendous heroism and rich character of these fish who are NOTHING like them?

Sure, I could explain to my kids, "I know you don't LOOK like the fish, and your life looks completely different from the fish's life, but you know what, kiddo? Those fish aren't better than you. You can do anything that those fish do." Of course, I could say that, and I would if I had to. A lot of parents do.

But I don't have to, because the world met us at our door and delivered a thousand books that smile up at my children and say, "You are capable. You are interesting. You belong." I love that my children get that validation from our books.

But beautiful, kind, strong, smart children look at those same books every day and think, "It's like I don't exist. Nobody is like me. Where am I? Where do I belong? This is a good story but I'm not in it. I'm not anywhere." 

___


People are white... unless they're different

Our cultural narrative says so. Our children's books say so. So if "they" are not white, then are "they" still people? I'm really asking - do you think the books on your shelf teach your child that people of color are real, full, complex people?

Because if people of color are not "people," to our children, it will be harder for them to learn to apply their humanity to them, to feel necessary outrage when they are abused, to feel true joy when they succeed.

If we grow our white kids' self-worth without nurturing the fullness of their empathy and humility, then we've failed to give them the gift of humanity.

Because when white people grow up to feel anxious and uncomfortable about the strangeness of other races, that's when black men get suffocated to death on the street for selling cigarettes.

Because when white people grow up to feel that their own lives are interesting and valuable, and the lives of the "characters" of color they meet are merely sketched-out placeholders, that's when boys think it might be interesting to find out what it's like to sodomize a black child with a coat hanger.

___


Parents buy books for their kids to teach them about the world, right? 

We buy books to give our kids a menu of role models to choose from, and a moral center rooted in the mistakes they didn't, themselves, have to make. 

We buy books to teach our kids how to read, count, say please, use the potty, avoid pedophiles, accept death, stop biting... we buy books to use as tools to soften their humanity when it's still as jagged as those first baby teeth.

So why do my kids know more about Pete the Cat than they do about human beings of other races?

Because we're white, and I was very comfortably seated within a narrative that applauds me for being born, believing that the affirmation we got from these books was because my children are good, and not because they are white.

We have to expand what character looks like for our kids. The characters have to have every color.

This isn't going to happen accidentally. Excellent children's books starring diverse characters will not simply find their way onto your shelves. You have to go out and find them. You have to buy them on purpose.

___

Here's the challenge - look at the books on your shelves and count how many of them center stories of color. Look at the books on your shelves and count how many of them feature white people who didn't HAVE to be white. Recognize that you are part of the narrative. 

People are white... unless they're different.

Look, there is no children's book about how to not be racist. 

But "The Snowy Day" gives us a moment inside the real, full heart and deep feelings and untethered ideas of a child of color. 

It lets us discover how we are ALL delighted by the smacking sound a stick makes against a tree.

It connects us ALL with the magic, the possibility of what may lie buried in the deep, deep snow.






Correction: This blog post originally identified the kickass children's book "The Snowy Day," as "A Snowy Day." My bad.
POP QUIZ HOTSHOT.

Buster is sitting in a chair in his pajamas reading a book and working his binky.
Chicken walks up to him and sucker punches him in the solar plexus.
Buster starts coughing/gagging/screaming.
Chicken air-punches across the room, saying, "I! Just! Wanna! Punch!"


WHAT DO YOU DO?

a) Throw a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on the floor of the bedroom like a football coach with undiagnosed bipolar, and roar "HEEEEEEYYYYYY?!?!" while pointing at Chicken's face and glaring at him with what you can only hope/assume are the eyes of the devil herself.

b) Say NOT okay UNacceptable NO way kid UH UH ABsolutely NOT and the word "never" about 37 times.

c) Offer to punch him in the stomach and see how he likes it. When he laughs in your face, try to take that as a compliment; he knows you would never punch him. 

d) Wrap him gently in your arms. Tell him you love him more than anything. Sit down with a pen and notepad under a fluffy blanket and, together, write down all of the things you can think of about punching.

d part 2) When he says, "Punching is hitting someone with your fists and it feels so good," nod generously and say, "You're right, it does feel good to punch! But let me ask you, how did Buster feel when you punched him," and he responds, with a sly little grin, "He was happy," resist the urge to say, "OH REALLY HE WAS HAPPY? SO HAPPY, HE WAS, HUH? JUST ECSTATIC TO HAVE BEEN GUT PUNCHED WHILE READING A STORY IN HIS JAM JAMS? OH YEAH? HE WAS? WOW. WOW. You must be like AN EXPERT IN FEELINGS because when I heard him start gagging and crying with a confused heartbroken look on his little face I THOUGHT HE MIGHT HAVE FELT SAD AND SCARED but NOOOOOO you're saying he was HAPPY that his big brother the person he looks up to and trusts and loves the most in this whole world just walked up to him and HURT HIM FOR NO REASON AT ALL. YIPPEEE." But only resist it after you've gone all the way through to the end of your passive-agressive little rant in your head, because let's be real, you need it. The only thing that feels better than punching is a fully-realized fantasy of being a big dick to a little dick.

e) Say "BELIEVE ME I know how good it feels to punch somebody." Pace in tight circles chuckling at the floor and muttering, "BELIEVE ME. If you don't know, well, son, you better ASK somebody."

f) Make a big dramatic show of checking on Buster, the way a 1920's silent movie actress might check on somebody. (Big arms! BIGGER! NOW FLUTTER!) Because the books say not to reward those behaviors with attention.

g) Force Chicken to apologize to Buster because we're living in a goddamned society and you can hear all the voices of that society muttering things like "hummina hummina permissive parent hummina spoiled brat hummina hummina participation ribbons."

h) Excuse yourself from the bedroom real quick and panic-text your best mom friend.

i) Excuse yourself from the bedroom real quick and google "4.5-year-old violence CRAZY HELP ME"

j) Come back into the room very calmly as if you'd just taken a Xanax. Collect the boy from his bed and snuggle in the chair together. Begin by apologizing for losing your temper, and explain that the reason you got so angry is because underneath you were really scared that Chicken might hurt Buster, or make Buster feel not safe. Stroke Chicken's hair. Invite the brothers to hug, and when they do, wrap your arms around their bodies and take a deep breath. Believe that everything is going to be okay.

k) Watch as Buster winds up and clocks Chicken in the chest.

l) Have the following conversation which seems like the greatest fucking idea since HBO Go:

You: Hitting is not something that is okay in our family. Do I hit Daddy?
Chicken: Yes...
You: NO. NO, I DO NOT. And does Daddy hit me?
Buster: Yes...
You: NO THE ANSWER IS NO WE DO NOT HIT EACH OTHER
Chicken: Yes you doooo....
You: When have you ever seen me hit Daddy or Daddy hit me.
Buster: Ummmmmmmmmmmm
You: Never. Never. You've never seen it because we do not hit. Chicken, do you know what would happen if Daddy hit me?
(he goes very still)
Chicken: (whispering) what?
You: I would take you and Buster and we would leave Daddy and never ever see him again. Never. Not ever. Never again.

m) Sit there and watch your older son sob, but not just regular "I stubbed my toe" sobs. These are the "I'm trying to be brave even though I'm scared" sobs. The really bad ones. Start to understand that you might have gone off-track. Just a bit. At the end. 

n) Try not to cry when he puffs up his slender, heaving chest, and sticks out his jaw, and sobs, "But... but... but... but when I am big enough? (Sob)... I will go back to him."

o) YOU ARE A MONSTER. This isn't that TMZ voice in your head that says you're a monster when you forget to let the kid put his own toothpaste on the brush. This is the Dan Rather voice. The one from deep down. The one who has SEEN SOME SHIT and knows SHIT when he SEES IT. This is the voice that sucks.

p) Spend the next 15 minutes reinforcing all of the reasons that your family is not leaving anyone. Reiterate, forcefully, that NOBODY IS LEAVING. Understand that it is one of the mysteries of humanity that an accidental phrase sticks more determinedly in memory than the most well-crafted speech. Remember that time someone said, off the cuff, that you weren't that interesting or funny. Remember everything about that, where you were standing, the shoes you were wearing. Someone said something nice about you at your high school graduation. "Katie is... something... and can always be counted on for... something..." Whatever, you're not interesing or funny.

q) Tuck him into bed. Stroke his hair and tell him, "Did you know that you grew inside my body before you were born? Did you know that for almost a year we were one person? Sometimes I wish I could keep you inside me forever, so we could always be together, and so I could know you're safe and warm and held every second of your life. But you know... there are a few things I don't have inside my body. Like junior pedal bicycles with training wheels. And all your friends at school. And Christmas trees, and chapter books. So it's probably best that you're out here, where it's interesting."

r) Go directly into the kitchen and make two strong margaritas and while you drink them write a blog post and right at the end there realize that you just told your son that you don't have a bicycle with training wheels, or his friends from school, or a Christmas tree IN YOU. #FinalThought

s) The dishes. Not.

t) All of the above.

what's funny
no
what's goddamned hysterical
is that cocktail glass
says
hand wash


I'm not going back to sleep after that dream. I'm not a sucker.



The therapist said her daughter was named Beth but I knew that was a lie. She probably didn't even have a daughter.

In my dream my son disappeared and I couldn't remember the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. I found myself sitting at a conference table with Ryan talking to the therapist whose sleek black bob was too polished for a grief counselor if you asked me.

"If Beth disappeared I'd be at my wit's end too," she said.

I didn't know how to respond to that. At my wit's end was a place I'd been when I couldn't find my car keys.

The problem was that things kept not being where I left them. I took a sip of very cold water from a styrofoam cup, heard the hollow "tunk" of the cup land on the table, and when I reached for it again it was a cheap ceramic mug filled with overbrewed Lipton tea.

We were playing a board game, a game so long in scope that we played a little further every session but never seemed to get any closer to the end. The game board was black and craggy and held a winding dark gray path with some squares that seemed to glow red as if lava surged beneath the glossy cardboard.  I swear when the board opened the room got darker.

The problem was that one day I arrived and the grief counselor's hair was blonde and cut in shaggy layers.

The problem was that I couldn't find the picture of my son that I needed to find. There was one photograph of him leaning in toward the camera, his mouth a perfect o, his eyes shining, that I couldn't find and I had to find, I had to find, I had to find.

One night I found the faint thread of a memory that the last time I'd seen the picture I'd been filling one of those party drink dispensers with ice, water, and lemon wedges. The drink dispenser was a loan from a friend so I went to her house in the middle of the night and broke in and found the drink dispenser on a shelf in the garage but the picture wasn't there.

The next day when I went back to the therapist she said "shall we continue" and opened a Candy Land board. "Now where were we?"

One night I woke up and reached for my phone. I searched the New York Times: 4-year-old, missing, body. Nothing. I was relieved. If it wasn't in the Times, it hadn't happened. I went back to sleep.

I woke up again and went to his room and his bed was empty and I called his name and nothing answered. I shook out his blankets, just to be sure.

I went back to the therapist and a girl was sitting next to her. "This is Beth," she said. "Her sweater says Rose," I responded. It did say Rose. The therapist smiled conspiratorially, "Does it? Actually it's neither."

I found another memory that I'd been sitting on hot cement steps in a backyard I'd never seen, a yard more dirt than straw grass, a new fence of yellow wood, my feet in rubber flip flops, dusty.

I heard his voice.

I told the therapist she was a bitch, telling me I was at my wit's end. She furrowed her brow. "I never said that." I told her she was a bitch, making me play this game that looked like a descent into hell. She spoke quietly, "I have no games in this office." I looked at the shelf. It was empty.

The problem was that things kept not being where I left them. I asked, "Am I hallucinating? Am I insane?" And then the therapist said, "If you wanted to find him you'd find him," and then I woke up.
Chicken was eating pretzels out of the bag.

Buster wanted some.

behold
the bag
that seduces men's hearts
and twists their minds


OK, so, now the stage is set for this afternoon's lesson:



Parenting Two Kids 101: Fifty Shades of Conflict Resolution



PART ONE: Vigilance. Constant vigilance.

Me: I'm going to grab some more coffee.

(I walk into the kitchen and pick up the carafe. Suddenly, from the other room...)

Chicken & Buster: (unintelligible whining and screaming)


At this point you realize your presence is needed at what is now the crime scene.


PART TWO: Time to be David Caruso from CSI Miami

I walk into the room and see the following:

- Buster has his hand buried in Chicken's hair, yanking a hank of his bangs skyward.

- Chicken has his hands on Buster's shirt collar and is pulling the collar away from his neck so it's strangling him.

- Both children are screaming, teeth bared, and appear to be trying to get close enough to the other to bite him, yet maintain enough distance so that they do not themelves get bitten. It's a head-bobbing dance of vicious grace the likes of which I have only ever seen in my living room and on Planet Earth episodes.

- Chicken is sitting on a bag of pretzels.


Me: (taking off my sunglasses) So. What's the story here, boys.

Chicken: Buster wants my pretzels but they're MIIIIIIIIIINE

Buster: I wanna have some but Chicken said NOOOOOOO

Chicken: But he just SNATCHED the BAAAAAAAAAG

Buster: But you said NOOOOOOOOO and you should SHAAAAAAAAAARE

Chicken: But then he HIT MEEEEE

Buster: But you HIT MEEEEEE TOOOOOOO

Chicken: NO NO I DIDN'T

Buster: YES YOU DID

Me: (looks off into the distance) Well, it looks like this case about pretzels...


... is full of TWISTS.



At this point you realize that justice and facts are both illusory constructs and if we are to learn anything from Rashomon we can never know what truly happened and the only thing we can do is embrace the void.


PART THREE: Time to be Coach Bombay


Me: ALRIGHT ALRIGHT ALRIGHT BREAK IT UP now BREAK IT UP. Now what do I always tell you?

Chicken: UGH. MOM.

Buster: (in his hero voice) Flying fire truck is on the way!

Me: No. No, that's not... What I always say is, you are a team, and you need to work together.

(side note: remember when "quack" was something that could be said over triumphant violins?
#The90s)

Chicken: Flying fire truck?

Buster: (Zooooooom sounds)

Me: (talking louder) Whether you're talking about pretzels, or having each other's backs when a bully tries to pick on you, or making sure you all stay safe when we're out for a bike ride. You are a team, forever, and you need to love and respect each other.

Chicken: (Siren sounds)

Buster: (Rummages in Duplo bin for fire truck wings)

Me: Okay. So. Are we good with the pretzels then?

Chicken and Buster: (Drop the Duplos and lunge at the forgotten pretzel bag, screaming brainstem words like NO and MINE and TAKE and NEED.)


At this point you realize that we are not in fact good with the pretzels then.


PART FOUR: Do what the book says to do

Me: So both of you want pretzels. Are there enough pretzels in that bag for both of you to have some?

Chicken: No.

Buster: No.

Me: Um... okay, let me rephrase. There ARE enough pretzels in that bag for both of you to share.

Chicken: Okaaaaaaaaay.... (pulls one pretzel out of the bag and hands it to Buster) Here you go.

Buster: (entire body goes stiff as he screams) NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Chicken: Well, you may have a taste and then if you like it you may have more.

Buster: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Me: Chicken, it sounds like he doesn't like that plan.

Buster: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Chicken: Well that's the way it goes so...

Me: B, can you use your words to tell Chicken what you would like to happen?

Buster: I wanna pick my OOOOOOOOOOOOOWN.

Me: Oh! Did you hear that, Chicken? That seems reasonable, doesn't it?


At this point you realize that a $23 parenting book was SO WORTH IT for results like this!


PART FIVE: Oh shit the book was right

Chicken: Okay. You can pick your own...

Buster: Yay!

Chicken: ... IF you can say the pass code.


At this point you begin to pray.


PART SIX: Fuck you, book, with your promises and LIES

Buster: Oh. (Looks down at the floor.) Please?

Chicken: Nope.

Buster: (has a rage seizure) ALDFIHAOFINAOIFHAWEORUAHFVSUHDFASDOUFHSDFUH


At this point you realize that you could have spent that $23 on duct tape and/or MULTIPLE bags of pretzels, and this problem would already be solved.



PART SEVEN: "I'm your huckleberry." 


Me: OK, OK Buster, we can do this. A pass code, huh? Give us some hints about the pass code, Chicken.

Chicken: No. No hints.

Me:
is it
"tiger?"

Chicken: No, it's a number.

Me: Oh, ok...

is it
4?

Chicken: No.

Buster: 2!

Chicken: Nope.

Me:

10?

Chicken: No.

Buster: 2! 2! 2! 2!

Chicken: No Buster, no way, not 2. It's more numbers that just one.

Me: OK, how many numbers is it?

Chicken: It's just... it's three thousand, seven hundred and--


At this point you NOPE.




PART EIGHT: The hammer


Me: NOPE.

Chicken: But! But! But!

Me: Give him some pretzels.

Buster: (silently holds out bowl)

Chicken: NO WAIT I

Me: Give him some pretzels now or I will take all of the pretzels and you will never eat another pretzel so long as you live.

Chicken: WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT

Me: ONE.

Chicken: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH

Me: TWO.

Chicken: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH

Me: THREE.

Chicken: (dumps a handful of pretzels in Buster's bowl.)

Buster: Thank you!


At this point you get up to refill your coffee.