Sunday, September 26, 2010

Chapter 5 (concluded)

Glancing back at Larissa, he found her staring at him.  Perhaps something was showing in his expression; that blank, studying look was what passed for concern in Larissa’s facial lexicon.  Tina rambled on, oblivious.  When she finally looked up and noticed that Larissa’s attention had been hijacked, she too looked over at Johnny.  She brightened immediately and waved at him to come join them.

“Yeah yeah yeah,” she was saying as he drew within earshot.  “Perfect, yeah, perfect.  We need a male opinion.  Point and counterpoint, ya know?”  She looked at Johnny expectantly.

“Uh, sorry, what?” Johnny mumbled, confused and still distracted.

“The great name debate,” Tina said, rolling her eyes.  As if there could be any other topic, her demeanor suggested.

Apparently, the band was between names again.  In truth, it spent more time there than anywhere else.  Johnny had long ago given up trying to keep track of the current moniker.  “Oh.  Um ... what were the choices again?”

Tina pursed her lips and rolled her eyes theatrically.  “We’re trying to think of some.  That’s the point.”

“Oh,” Johnny repeated.  He still wasn’t really concentrating on this conversation, and he suspected, from her look, that Larissa knew it.  “Um ... what was the last name?”

Tina threw her hands up in exasperation.  “Crystal Eyes!  Don’t you remember?  That one was my suggestion, but then Grinchy over there didn’t like it—like he ever likes anything—and Flesh’ said she didn’t really care, but Debbie was so supportive ...”  Johnny had to blink a couple of times before he could remember that “Debbie” was Braithwaite; no one but Tina called her that.  Tina had gone on talking, of course.  ”... so Melora said ‘screw that’ and now we’re back to square one.  I swear, one little band name ... you wouldn’t think it would be that hard, right?  But apparently there’s all sorts of legal issues and then everybody has their ‘artistic sensibilities’ ...”  Tina invested this phrase with quite a bit of sarcasm; Johnny suspected that, in Tina’s view, all this was just a quirky hobby that her girlfriend would eventually grow out of.

Larissa suddenly interrupted, which was a fairly un-Larissa-like thing to do.  “Have you asked Doug?”

Tina’s face lit up.  “No! Yes! Of course!”  She rose and flounced over to the sometime-sound-engineer.  “Doug!” she screeched over the music.  Doug, who didn’t speak much in the most relaxed of situations, looked up with a rather alarmed look.

Larissa turned back to Johnny.  She didn’t speak, but Johnny knew that she had just gotten rid of Tina, and that she knew that he knew this, and that as far as she was concerned “what’s wrong” would at this point be redundant.

Johnny opened his mouth, unsure of how to explain the problem.  “Larissa ... where are your parents?”  And then clapped his mouth shut, practically horrified at what had somehow come out.

Johnny and Larissa had known each other for at least two years, probably three, possibly four.  During that time, there were months in which they were constantly in each other’s presence, days in which the only time they couldn’t see each other was when one of them was going to the bathroom (and, truth be told, even that was often a just matter of the other one having the courtesy to turn their back).  There were also months in which they barely saw each other, but fewer of those.  They had spoken to each other in every conceivable situation: while walking, while eating, while hustling change, while huddled together for warmth, while trying to avoid getting mugged for their coats or shoes, while sitting on the Mall in the summer sunshine, while crouching, shivering, under a slight overhang in the pouring rain.  In all that time, never once had either of them asked about the other’s family.  It simply wasn’t done.  A street person might volunteer information about their past—and once they did so the floodgates were opened—but until they did, if they ever did, you never asked.  Never.  Johnny’s question was as bad as farting in public—worse, really, in street culture, which wasn’t nearly as uptight about bodily functions as the rest of society.

Larissa cocked her head to one side and continued to focus that look at him.

Johnny knew he must be red.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know ...”  He swallowed.  “I just feel ... something.  And maybe I need to ...”  He shook his head helplessly.

Larissa straightened her head and reached over and touched his hand, another rare gesture for her.  Johnny felt a momentary flush that he couldn’t sort out.

Then it hit him again.

This time it was like the hook was set right into the middle of his guts and twisted, twirling his intestines around to get a firmer grip, and then it pulled.  And this time there was a very definite direction that it pulled in.

He realized that he had clutched Larissa’s hand reflexively.  She was staring at his grip on her smaller hand.  Then she looked up at him.  Still studying.

Johnny was so breathless he forgot to be embarrassed.  He let go of her and opened his mouth and just stared at the south wall of the studio.  It was that way ... no, more to the right.  He turned his head slightly until he was facing almost southwest.  “There,” he whispered.

Larissa flipped her palms up.  Her expression didn’t change, but this was as clear as if she’d shouted “What??”

Tina had returned.  “You catchin’ flies there, Juanito?”  She chuckled, although it sounded more like a snort.

Johnny ignored her.  “Where are we?” he asked Larissa.  “What neighborhood, I mean.”

“Truxton Circle,” she answered immediately.

Tina wrinkled her nose.  “This is part of Shaw, isn’t it?  Or are we far enough east to be in Eckington ... let’s see ...”

Johnny ignored this too.  He pointed.  “What’s that way?”

Larissa looked in the direction he indicated and unfocussed her eyes, as if she could see through the walls.  She shrugged.  “The New York Avenue Playground?  The northern terminus of 395?  Chinatown?  Gallery Place metro and the MCI Center?”

Larissa looked ready to continue indefinitely—Johnny knew she was perfectly happy to keep going until she hit Arlington, or possibly Mexico—but he held up a hand.  Johnny considered.  “Where we were last night, you mean.”

Tina happily joined into the conversation.  Not knowing what people were talking about never stopped Tina.  “Oh, you were in Chinatown last night?  I love Chinatown.  They have such great restaurants there.  I was at this one place ...”

Tuning out Tina was becoming second nature.  “I think we have to go back,” he said in a low voice.

She gazed back at him for a moment, then: “Now?”

Johnny hesitated.  “I don’t ... maybe ... no ...”  He ground his teeth in frustration.  “I don’t know!” he hissed.  Tina seemed to take no notice.

“Johnny Angel said to lay low,” Larissa pointed out.

“Angels!” Tina interjected.  “I don’t really believe in angels, myself.  My family’s Catholic, of course, but I ...”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny answered.

Larissa said nothing.  Tina continued to babble about angels.

Johnny looked back at the still nameless band, who were now tuning up.  “Maybe we should stay till practice is over.”

Tina nodded enthusiastically.  “Oh, yeah yeah, sure, you don’t want to miss them playing, right?”

Larissa just gazed at Tina.  Johnny spoke into the silence.  “Yeah.  Right.”


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chapter 5 (continued)

It was late afternoon now, and Johnny could hear voices bantering in the other room.  He rolled over and checked on Larissa; she was looking at him again, exactly as she had been before she fell asleep.  He wanted to speak to her, but had no idea what he wanted to say.  They lay, staring at each other in a not uncomfortable silence, as minutes ticked by.  Suddenly Larissa sat up and drank some of the water she had left on the small bedside table.  Johnny sat up too.

“Umm ... I guess we should get up now?”  Larissa shrugged.  Johnny looked out the window again.  There were more people moving about down on Harvard Street, but not too many.  Johnny guessed that it wasn’t yet quitting time for the nine-to-fivers.

Johnny stood up and retrieved his coat, which was the only thing he’d taken off.  Larissa hadn’t even done that; she’d slept in her light green jacket.  They opened the bedroom door and walked out into the main room.

“Waiting Room?” Grinch was asking.

“Done to death,” Jet replied.

There were several stacks of CDs on the coffee table and the two musicians were riffling through them.  Grinch was holding up a case with a dark red cover and no artwork.  “Yeah, but classic,” he said wistfully.  He put that one down and picked up another.  “I can’t believe you have this ... oooh, Woman in the Wall.  That would be sick.”  Johnny understood from his tone that this was a good thing.

Even with the sunglasses on Jet managed to convey that he was looking at the taller man as if he were crazy.  “And who’s going to sing that?  You?  You’re hardly a Beautiful South voice, and Fleshlight is even harsher.”

Grinch snorted.  “No, you’d have to sing it.”

“No.  Just ... no.  Find something for Fleshlight to sing.”

Grinch threw up his hands.  “She can’t sing!  Screech, maybe, but sing?  I don’t think so.”

“You’re a dick.  She sings just fine.  You just have to find something in her range ... PJ Harvey, maybe or ... ah, here we go.”  He held up a case with a yellow octopus on a purple background.  “Shutterbug.”

Grinch cocked his head to one side.  “I don’t think she can do the breathy parts.  Find something off American Thighs; I like that better anyway.  Or go back to your original idea ... Me-Jane, or ... hell, anything off Rid of Me.”

Jet glanced up and saw Johnny and Larissa in the doorway.  “Ah, welcome little dudes.  Care to join us?  We’re looking for songs to do covers of.  Everybody wants covers.”

Johnny looked back and forth between them.  “But I didn’t recognize any of those songs you were talking about.”

Grinch grumbled under his breath “yeah, that’s sorta the point.”  Jet just grinned widely.

Johnny decided to abandon this tack.  “Hey, thanks for the bed.  That was really cool of you.”

Jet nodded.  “We’re off to practice pretty soon.  You guys wanna come with?”  Johnny thought he saw Grinch roll his eyes, but the big man didn’t say anything.

“Ummm ... no, I guess not.  We’ll just take off now.”

Jet fiddled with one of his earrings.  “Don’t be silly.  You wanted to be out of the limelight for a bit, no?  So hang for a while.”

Johnny took a second too long to respond, and Larissa planted herself on the floor next to the table.  “Uh, yeah, okay,” Johnny said as Larissa started going through CDs.  He leaned against the wall and watched the three of them pick up and discard.  The two musicians stopped occasionally to quibble over some song or other; Larissa just worked with quiet determination.

After perhaps half an hour of this, which Johnny found calming in a weird way, Larissa suddenly held up an orange-ish case.  “Fat Man and Dancing Girl,” she announced.

Grinch took the disc from Larissa, read it, and laughed raucously.  “Suzanne Vega??  You own Suzanne Vega?”  He grinned ruthlessly at Jet.

Jet was staring open-mouthed at Larissa.  “Where’d you even find that?” he asked.  “I thought I’d lost it.”

Larissa shrugged.  “Under the couch.”

Grinch was still chuckling.  “Look, even if I agreed to shred it up to Suzanne Vega”—he invested the name with a heavy dose of sarcasm—“who’s gonna sing that?”

Larissa looked calmly back at him.  “Braithwaite.”

Grinch stopped laughing.  “Braithwaite can sing?”  He looked to Jet for confirmation.

Jet shrugged.  “Sure, she used to sing all the time before she hooked up with Fleshlight.  Mostly acoustic: Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, that sort of thing.  She could do Suzanne Vega, sure.”  He had taken the CD from Larissa and was staring at the back of it.  “You know the song?” he asked Grinch.

Grinch snorted again.  “Do I know a Suzanne Vega song?  Seriously?”

Jet waved this away.  “It’s sort of trippy, actually.  You’d like the words ... and we could really punk it up, like the Pixies doing Head On, or ...”

“Dinosaur Jr doing Just Like Heaven,” Larissa supplied.

Grinch was now staring at her in disbelief.  “How old are you, kid?  You must’ve been in diapers when that came out.”  Larissa just gazed back at him.

Jet ignored this byplay.  “No, no, this is good, this could ... Alice, my lass, you are a genius.”  He popped the CD into a boom box sitting beside his chair.  Grinch groaned something about having to actually listen to Suzanne Vega, but Jet was too excited to be stopped.  They lapsed into a discussion of the arrangement and how it could be deconstructed.  Johnny sort of liked the song he heard coming out of the speakers, but he suspected it wouldn’t sound very much like that when it came out of Grinch’s guitar.

He looked down at Larissa, who had stood up and was now leaning against the wall beside him.  “How do you do that?” he asked conversationally.

She looked back at him with a puzzled expression.  “Do what?”

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Braithwaite’s laugh was throaty and rich.  “You want to do what?”  The chunky bass player’s wardrobe was also very consistent, although she allowed a bit of variation in terms of color: tonight her long men’s shirt was a faded black, and her baggy jeans were a crisper blue.  Her shoulder-length brown hair framed her smiling round face.

Fleshlight was performing the amazing feat of sucking on a cigarette and chewing gum at the same time.  She looked at the hastily scribbled notes Jet had handed her while keeping one ear cocked to the original song, playing on the much larger speakers in the band’s practice space.  Her honey-blonde cornrows hung loosely; the beads on the ends clacked together rhythmically as she twitched her head in time with the music.  She wore a loose, sleeveless shirt, and Johnny could see flashes of hair in her armpits.  This excited him in a mildly uncomfortable way, although Johnny was used to that from her.  But it seemed to be affecting him more tonight.  Probably because he was getting older.  Johnny had no real sexual experience with women—he had hit puberty during his early time on the streets, which wasn’t particularly conducive to finding a girlfriend, and he had mostly ignored his hormones.  He was apparently a bit of a late bloomer: he had never shaved, but had no facial hair to speak of.  But it was difficult to ignore a specimen such as Fleshlight.

Larissa was sitting at the dumpster-scavenged table that someone had haphazardly repaired enough to stand on four mismatched legs, chatting over pizza with Tina, Braithwaite’s girlfriend.  The two of them were deep in discussion, Tina talking with her hands and with her mouth full.  Her hint of a Hispanic accent became more pronounced when she lost herself in a good conversation.  Johnny had attempted to contribute to the pizza fund, but Jet had brushed him off, saying “you can catch me next time.”  Jet said that pretty much every time.  Johnny was long past the days of arguing with that type of comment, and he had put his few tattered bills back in his pocket without another word.  The pizza was delivery from some forgettable joint; it was greasy and had the consistency of cardboard, but it was hot, and Johnny had certainly not complained.

As he stood watching the band confer in two distinct knots (Jet with Fleshlight, and Braithwaite with Grinch and the band’s manager, Melora), Johnny felt a sudden tug in his guts.  He started, and looked around in confusion.  Larissa and Tina were holding forth on some topic or other that he couldn’t really make out over the music.  Doug, who occasionally showed up and messed around with the sound board, was lounging in a corner fiddling with some piece of electronic equipment.  Johnny had been here several times—he never turned down free pizza, even if the cost was having to suffer through loud discordant post-punk aural assaults—so he knew that sometimes there were small knots of die-hard fans or friends of friends, but today the warehouse-like space was pretty deserted.  The small troupe of actors and street performers who had had the previous timeslot had cleared out pretty quickly: apparently none of them appreciated the band’s style of music.  There was no one else here, nothing else happening.  He looked back at Fleshlight.  The armholes of her shirt were stretched out, and it was obvious that she wasn’t wearing a bra.  Maybe it was just ... he was a red-blooded teenage boy, after all.

When it came a second time, though, it didn’t feel like that at all.  It felt more like something was trying to get his attention.  He thought of those parodies of old vaudeville routines where the inept performer is dragged offstage by a hook ... it was as if that hook had reached into his body somehow and was tugging on his intenstines.  He felt like he needed to go: both in the sense of needing a bathroom as well as a desperate desire to leave.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Chapter 5 (begun)


The door opened, and a dark face with dark glasses stared out at them.  Johnny didn’t think he’d ever seen Jet without the sunglasses; he wondered idly if the man showered with them on.  Jet was shirtless and barefoot, in black leather pants.  Most of what Jet owned in the clothing department was leather, and nearly all of it was black.

He rubbed his short hair absently.  “Little dudes,” he said softly.  “What’s up?”

Johnny hesitated.  Jet had let them crash at his place before, but it had always been his invitation; Johnny had never actually asked before.  Suddenly he was shy.  “Hey, Jet.  Listen, sorry to bother you ... I ...”  He trailed off.  “Did we wake you up?”

Jet nodded absently.  “Sure.  Played the Grog last night.  Havin’ a bit of a sleep-in.”  They stared at each other for a bit—at least Johnny assumed Jet was staring back ... for all he knew, the drummer might have fallen back asleep.  Jet started a bit, as if he had done just that.  “Listen to me, I’m so rude.  Come in, little dudes.”  He stepped aside and ushered them into the dumpy little apartment.

Johnny and Larissa stepped just inside the door, which Jet closed behind them.  Jet yawned widely, flashing white teeth.  “Ummm ... you guys want some chow?”  Johnny shook his head, not really concentrating on Jet’s words.  Jet turned to Larissa.  “Alice? you?”

She gazed at him soberly for a while.  “Joan of Arc was left-handed,” she said finally.

Jet responded instantly.  “Aide toy, Dieu te aidera.  So was Lenny White.”

Larissa nodded.  “Return to Forever.  Like Jimmy Giuffre, 1961.”

Jet cocked his head and smiled broadly.  “Nice.  But no drummer, so I gotta go pollice verso on that one.”

“Hmm.  Better to say infesto pollice.  Commodus was also left-handed.”

“But not Crixus, I suppose?  A vaincre sans péril, on triomphe sans gloire.

“No.  And Crixus spoke Gaulish.  Descended from the god Dis.”

“Uhhh ... ‘Though I am weak on the floor of my basket, There are wonders on my tongue’.”

Larissa arched an eyebrow.  “That’s a stretch.”

Jet shrugged.  “Only Celtic quote I could come up with.”

Larissa nodded.  Apparently she felt the amenities had been observed.  “Just some water.”

Jet ushered them into the kitchen; it was cramped, but clean.  He put some ice in a glass and filled it from the tap.  Handing it to Larissa, he gave another wide yawn.  “So, little dudes, you haven’t yet said how I may be of service this fine day.”

Johnny still hesitated slightly.  He felt this was a big favor, although he wasn’t sure he could have said why.  “We, ah ... we’re looking for ... we need to be out of sight for a bit.”

Johnny saw a dark eyebrow appear above the top of the dark glasses.  “Trouble with the man?”

Johnny shook his head.  “No, no, nothing like that.  We just ... want to lay low for a while.  Ya know?”

“Not particularly.  But mi casa es su casa nonetheless.  You’ll have to step over the Grinch though.”  He gestured back toward the open area which served as both living room and dining room.  Johnny had missed the hot pink mohawk when he first came in, which only showed how distracted he really was.  The big man, one of two guitarists in Jet’s band, was sprawled on the floor, still completely dressed.  Like Jet, he basically only had one style of clothing, and he was wearing it now: principally it consisted of a faded olive green trenchcoat and well worn black Doc Martens.  Still, it was the hair that made the man in this case, and while Grinch experimented with different colors from time to time, it always came back to pink eventually.  A good ten inches long, it was fanned out around his head as he slept on his side.

“Oh,” said Johnny.  “I mean, if you’ve already got people staying here ...”

Jet snorted.  “It ain’t ‘people,’ man, it’s the Grinch.  Just step over him, like I said.  It’s all cool.”  He looked at Larissa again; she gazed calmly back at him.  “You little dudes need to crash?  I was gonna get up anyway.  You can have the bed.  Or Alice can take the bed and Johnny can take the sofa, however you wanna do it.”

Johnny hesitated.  He and Larissa often shared, beds being few and far between in their lives and body heat being precious, but other people sometimes misinterpreted that.  Larissa, practical as ever, simply nodded and murmured “thanks” at Jet, then led Johnny into the tiny bedroom.  They stepped carefully over the big pink mohawk on the way.

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The two-and-a-half-mile walk to Jet’s had been a leisurely stroll along the boundaries of some of the neighborhoods in the heart of the city: Dupont Circle, Shaw, Columbia Heights, Pleasant Plains.  Past the National Geographic Museum and the restaurants and the businesses of 17th Street, then down the more residential New Hampshire and Florida, with their close-set townhouses, up to the Florida Avenue Grill, then down 11th to Harvard, where the neighborhood got just a bit more tired, the paint just a shade more flaky, the old houses, now divided up into apartments, leaned on each other just a bit more stiffly, their architectural joints showing their arthritis.  In such a half-half-house, in the upstairs portion of the left side of what had once been a good-sized dwelling, Jet occupied 3 small rooms, not counting the miniscule bathroom.  It wasn’t new, and it wasn’t tidy, but Jet managed to keep it fairly clean, at least by Johnny’s standards (admittedly much laxer these days), and he knew that this would be considered rather comfortable living by many of the city’s other starving artists.

But of course Jet had money.  Or at least his family did.  This was something Jet didn’t like to talk about, but something that Johnny had known instinctively the first time they had met.  They recognized in each other the subtle signs of the formerly-rich boy slumming it, and they had formed some sort of strange bond over it.  Jet was probably ten years Johnny’s senior—Jet had not only been to college, but graduated, perhaps more than once—but the drummer never talked down to Johnny, or tried to “fix” him.  This counted for a lot in Johnny’s book.

He sat on Jet’s bed.  The dark sheets were tossed wildly about, and no one could accuse them of being entirely clean, but a real bed was such a luxury that the dressing didn’t matter.  Larissa had already snaked the pillow and was curled up on one side of the bed facing the other.  She hadn’t closed her eyes, though.  She was looking at him.  Not staring, not trying to figure out what he was thinking, just looking.  She didn’t even seem like she was wondering.  Johnny wondered if she even did wonder.  Probably she was too practical for that.

Johnny wondered though.  Johnny wondered why he was there, on a bed in a run-down house in a neighborhood where not five years before, he—a skinny white rich boy—might have been scared to go into at night.  Or at least to go into without one of the servants.  Or without Amiira.  By now, Johnny knew a lot of older people, and he was familiar with the combination of nostalgia and despair that leads to the wail “where has my life gone?”  Seemed stupid for him to be bemoaning the same fate at fifteen (or was he sixteen yet?).  Yet that’s the way he felt.  And had never felt before.  There had never been time for self-pity before, and Johnny wouldn’t have indulged in it if there had been.  His attention had always been focused on survival, the simple rhythm of where his next meal was coming from.  But, now, something had slipped ...

He stared out the window.  He knew now that the neighborhood had never been unsafe for him as a white boy, only as a rich boy, and these days he had nothing to fear whatsoever.  He knew now that, like the neighborhood, so much of what he had “known” was just a fantasy that his parents had constructed for him, thinking they were doing him a favor.  He knew that if his parents could hear his thoughts today, they would sit up in their cells, prison and asylum, and shriek what an ungrateful son he was not to appreciate all they given him, all they had done for him.

Of course they had never really done anything for him.  They had given him much, true, but only physical things.  Things that meant nothing, now; things that Johnny no longer owned or even remembered clearly.  The brain-parents in his mind-cells screamed ever more shrilly, about how they had done their best, and it wasn’t fair, and somehow Johnny sensed that “it’s not fair” was a common refrain in both his parents’ present lives, that guards and orderlies were sick of hearing about it and tuned them out, or beat them into silence.  Johnny wondered why he didn’t feel bad about that.  What an awful son he must be.  But he didn’t care, really.  The whole mental exercise ended in clinical detachment, not in any outpouring of emotion.

He turned back to Larissa.  Her eyes still pointed at him, but they were unfocused and he suspected she didn’t really see him.  As he watched, her eyelids snapped closed and her breathing deepened.  Johnny suspected that he had just witnessed the exact moment when another person went from conscious to sleeping.  That was, somehow, far more interesting than thinking about where his parents were.  He watched her sleep for a few minutes, then he went back to staring out the window.  The light in the room faded, although surely it was close to noon outside.  But it continued to get darker and darker, until it was completely dark, and there was a moment of vertigo, and then Johnny opened his eyes and realized that he, too, had fallen asleep.

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Family Rules

In a previous blog post, I mentioned a phrase about parenting that you might hear in movies or books that perhaps wasn’t so correct. Here’s another that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “kids need boundaries.” You might even have heard this one phrased as “kids want boundaries.” That latter phrasing seems a bit like wishful thinking to me.

I considered titling this post “Parental Myth #2,” but this one isn’t so much a myth as a matter of interpretation. As the father of two boisterous boys, I certainly wouldn’t argue that children don’t require any boundaries. But the problem is that we say it as if children have a burning need for boundaries that goes beyond the norm. How silly. The truth is, we all need boundaries. Lack of boundaries is tantamount to anarchy; without rules to govern civilized behavior, society degenerates into an animal-like state. Which explains why dealing with children is a bit like animal husbandry sometimes. You have to have a certain number of rules, or pretty soon you’re managing the Lord of the Flies instead of trying to organize a family.

So boundaries are good, right? And, if some boundaries are good, a whole buttload of boundaries must be great. Somehow we end up going to this extreme, turning everything into a situation of black-and-white for our children. This thing is right, this other thing is wrong. Then suddenly our children are teenagers and we’re wondering why they’re making bad choices in life. Is it any wonder, if we’ve never allowed them to make any choices for themselves? Lack of practice means that they have no experience making good choices. They’re operating in the dark.

So we need to let our children make choices, and that means letting them make mistakes. Yet, in the spirit of my philosophy of balance and paradox, this has to be tempered somewhat. The first and most obvious point is that you have to put safety first. If you let your child make the mistake of grabbing a hot stove, it’s certainly true that they won’t likely make that mistake again. But obviously you can’t parent like that: it’s irresponsible (and dangerous).

Now, beyond questions of physical safety, you have a bit more latitude. Still, it’s a question of degree. You can’t have absolutely no rules, but there’s no point in having too many. Most parents seem inordinately fond of rules. Probably the whole “kids need boundaries” thing run amok again. But you can end up with a backlash effect. Kids—like everyone else—want to push their boundaries. Hey, we all like to flirt with the forbidden. And the more rules people pile on us, the more we chafe under them. Too many rules and all of a sudden children get to cast themselves as the cool rebels, giving the finger to the man. Is that the role you really want as the parent? Strother Martin to their Paul Newman, endlessly railing about your failure to communicate? Or—perhaps worse—Jackie Gleason to their Burt Reynolds?

One of the biggest problems you have with an over-abundance of rules is that you can’t possibly enforce all the rules all the time. Hell, you can’t even remember them all most of the time. My personal approach is to have a small number of rules that apply to everyone, all the time. Yes, the rules have to apply to the parents too. Otherwise you’re only highlighting the inequality of the system. Besides, aren’t the principles that you want your children to live by the same ones you want to live by yourself? (If not, you have larger problems.)

In our family, we agreed to start out with absolutely no rules. And create the rules as we went along, introducing each one as it was needed. And we vote on our rules. The vote doesn’t have to be unanimous, but at least a majority of the family members have to agree on it for it to become a family rule. Here’s our current list:

Don’t Step on Things that Aren’t the Floor — This is commonly referred to around our house as “Rule #1” ... not because it’s the most important, but because it’s the first rule that we found it necessary to create. You would think that stepping on toys and books and whatnot would hurt your little bare feet, but apparently not. To avoid unnecessary property destruction, we had to make this rule when our eldest was quite young.

No Interrupting — Interrupting people when they’re on the phone, or trying to eat, or in the middle of talking to someone else, is another fairly common faux pas of our little ones.

Quiet Time starts at 9:00pm — We don’t actually have bedtimes in our house, but we do enforce a “quiet time.” It’s not so much that you have to be quiet, it’s more that you have to make sure that whatever noise you insist on making doesn’t disturb other people. You have the whole rest of the day to be a loudass terror; after 9:00, some people (primarily Mommies and Daddies, but also occasionally older brothers) just want to relax and do something that requires peace: watch some TV, read a book, work on their computers, etc. If you absolutely have to be with everyone else, you better learn to lay down quietly and take a chill pill. If you can’t stand to do that, go off elsewhere and be loud where no one else can hear you.

No Extreme Drama — This rule was invented to cover temper tantrums, whining, outbursts of yelling, crying to get what you want, dramatic stubbornness, slamming doors, etc. Please note that crying in general is not forbidden: if you get hurt, or you’re very sad, crying is a perfectly acceptable response. But if you want something, and someone tells you “no,” you can’t just fire up the tears to try to get them to change their minds.

No Violence — You might be surprised that this rule is this far down the list. But it actually didn’t come up that often until our first son got a little older and started playing more and more with other kids. Like many of the rules, this is a matter of degree. Kids are going to wrestle with each other, and that’s not always bad. Heck, Mommies and Daddies like to wrestle around with the kids sometimes: there are tickle fights, and chases, and the ever-popular I’m-going-to-eat-your-belly-button game. I’m not trying to raise complete pacifists over here, but of course it’s important that kids learn to “use their words” (a maxim tremendous but trite, to quote Lewis Carroll). The rule is not “no hitting,” though, because it has to cover slapping, kicking, scratching, poking, biting, head-butting, and many other ways to torture your brother.

Clean up your Own Messes — Pretty self-explanatory. Note that this is the rule most often broken by Mommies and Daddies. Hey ... no one’s perfect.

No Serious Rudeness — Another rule that must be interpreted as to degree. If you’re just joking around, it’s certainly okay to call your fellow family member a “dork,” or even an “asshole” ... if you’re just joking. I really don’t want to raise children who can’t take a joke, and, if I’m going to dish it out, I better be able to take it too. But obviously “using your words” can end up being as hurtful as using your fists sometimes, and kids have to learn that.

No Malicious Lying — Now, you might think that lying would never be permitted under any circumstances. However, as you might have guessed from the whole emphasis on balance and paradox, I’m not fond of absolutes in any context. The fact is, sometimes we lie to be polite (some people would go so far as to claim that society is built on such), sometimes we lie in a joking manner (you’re not actually going to eat your hat, are you?), sometimes we lie to maintain a surprise (no, I have no idea what Daddy is getting you for your birthday). We invent alternate names for lies: stretching the truth, not telling the whole truth, not literally true, white lies, half-truths, it’s for your own good. All we’re really doing is trying to figure out how to say that these lies are good while the “other” lies are bad. Personally, I prefer to call a lie a lie and just admit that sometimes it’s okay. Thus the qualifier. If your lie is meant to shift blame onto someone else, or a denial to get yourself out of trouble, or to cover up something you should have done but didn’t, or is in any other way malicious ... then you’re breaking the rule.

Do not Disturb my Right to Exist Peacefully — The story of how my eldest came to attend a Sudbury school is an interesting one, and deserves a post of its own. For now, the relevant bit is that the school where my son spent the first three years of his education had a sort of a catch-all rule that most of their other rules were derived from: that everyone has the right to exist peacefully, and no one has the right to disturb that. This was such a lovely and useful rule that we promptly adopted it. It really does cover most anything that the above rules might have missed.

Now, you may have noticed two common themes running through these rules. The first is that they generally require a certain amount of interpretation. This is in direct contrast to laws (such as the laws of the United States), which are specified in such gory detail that we require an entire profession to quibble over the different interpretions of them. And we make our laws like this because “you can’t legislate common sense.” Well, actually the quote (probably) is ”you can’t legislate intelligence and common sense into people,” which, if you think about it, is quite different. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but willful misunderstanding of its individual words is? What kind of sense does that make? Well, as far as I’m concerned, teaching my children common sense is part of my job, so it’s certainly not out of line to expect them to exercise it when dealing with family rules. Around the house, this precept is known as “don’t play semantics with me!” (or, more whimsically, “I ain’t raising no lawyers!”).

The second theme is that all these rules really boil down to the same entreaty: Be polite, be respectful. The kids’ mom is fond of telling them that all we really want is for the them to grow up to be decent human beings, and to be happy. The latter doesn’t require rules (although it doesn’t come for free); any rule that doesn’t encourage the former, doesn’t deserve a place on this list.