Put a Sock in It

December 4, 2006 at 12:58 pm (Uncategorized)

Over the past couple of months, my almost three-year old son, Andrew, has developed some bad habits. And like a good Americans, I’m going to blame someone else for it.

We’ve only recently begun to let him watch anything on television. For the first two years of his life, we were zealous about not letting his eyes come into contact with any flickering image on the cathode ray nipple. (Yes, I know, we are so very, very insane, but he’s our only kid, so we haven’t been forced to become less neurotic yet.) Then, a few months ago, we let him start watching construction “movies,” which my husband Jay quickly characterized as “dump truck porn” for the five and under crowd. Set to the same disconcertingly jazzy music of those XXX films (not that I would know anything about them), the thirty-minute videos show excavators , bulldozers, and dump trucks leveling hillsides and destroying serene patches of nature. One video even featured a series of hillsides and bridges being blown up by demolition crews. And then, it re-showed the explosions, in reverse, in slow motion. Let me tell you, it just doesn’t get much better than that. I’ll know who to thank when my son becomes an amoral strip mall developer denuding the Everglades or some forgotten meadow of the Rockies. “My dream to pave over the last remaining wildflower began when I was two and my Mom showed me exploding hillsides…”

Andrew’s exposure to things video widened with the addition of two Thomas the Tank Engine movies. Like most other small boys, Andrew is smitten with these train characters. (So smitten, in fact, that I recently shelled out $17 for a new engine.) Part of the allure of the Thomas cast is the various engines’ distinct personalities. For instance, Thomas is a good-hearted engine who wants to do the right thing, and usually does, but sometimes is tempted to do “naughty” things like roar past a warning sign and fall into a mine shaft. (He get pulled out.) Gordon, the Big Engine, has one main fault– his overweening pride, which sometimes leads him into a ditch or into trouble with the capitalist overlord of the railroad, Sir Topham Hatt. James, a red engine, has few redeeming qualities I can discern. Mostly, he’s rude and sassy and disobeys direct orders. Herein lies the problem.

In one of the movies, James is goaded by an equally obnoxious engine who he eventually tells to “shut up.” This quickly became one of Andrew’s favorite phrases. His second favorite comes from a children’s book in which one bratty character tells another to “Put a sock in it.” We read the story once, but the line stuck in my little boy’s head. Plenty of parents think saying shut up is no big deal. However, I was raised in a household where saying shut up was somewhat akin to telling someone to f*@$ off. It was very bad to say, and we were forbidden to do so. As unjust as I found this rule when I was a kid, itching to tell my older siblings to shut up, now I agree with the dictum. Ordering someone to “shut up” is the ultimate in dismissiveness and disrespect. Hearing it just makes my skin crawl.

I think it took Andrew about 8.3 seconds to figure out that I became angry when he said either “shut up” or to “put a sock in it.” Not that I was really subtle about it. “Go to time out!” I bellowed the first time he told me to shut up. “NOW!” I screamed, when he hesitated. Each iteration of shut up landed him in a corner, facing a wall, with his Mommy threatening to wallop him. And he kept on saying it. Over and over, sometimes telling me to put a sock in it for good measure.

The other night, somewhere in the middle of my second week in the campaign against “shut up,” Jay sat me down and said that perhaps Andrew would continue to employ these two hated phrases as long as he got such a splendid response from me. It must be fabulous for a two year old to realize he can make his mother apoplectic with two simple words. What a sense of power that must give him. I can just hear the gears in his little head revving, “I can make Mommy mad.” Jay suggested that I stop getting angry and just sort of nonchalantly embarrass Andrew into not saying shut up. “Make him think it doesn’t bug you,” Jay said, “And then tell him, ‘Wow. What a silly thing to say. When you figure out something good to say, come find me.’”

As much as I hate to admit it, it works. All of the sturm und drang is gone from the shut up exchanges, and I can almost visibly witness Andrew losing interest. Jay’s point is an excellent one – and one that might just keep our child alive until his eighteenth birthday. Sometimes, you have to just let things roll off of you.

Typically, I’m not very good at going with the flow and such forth. But our success in the great Shut Up Wars of ‘06 made me think about other areas of my life when chafing at something isn’t necessarily the best strategy. For instance, what if I tried to give in to my illness a little bit, instead of constantly fighting it every day? What if I admitted I was sick, and not able to do as much as I’d like in any given day? Would my sarcoidosis – like Andrew’s incipient foul mouth – become less ominous and threatening if I let it roll off me?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long to have the opportunity to test my theory. The change in the weather has brought a host of respiratory infections to our town, and I was first in line to catch one. My cold quickly turned into a sinus infection that landed me in bed on high doses of antibiotics. “I’m just going to be sick,” I told myself. No forcing myself out of bed to find the Christmas and Hanukkah decorations. No dragging myself to the Historical Society to take notes on an oral history for an upcoming article. I even stayed home from a friend’s birthday party that I was dearly looking forward to attending.

Did it work? Did my sense of sickness lessen once I stopped haranguing myself to get out bed and go to the gym? In a word, no. There are few universal rules of life. What works for the toddler’s vocabulary does not necessarily work for the thirty-five year old with chronic sarcoidosis. All I did was get really, really depressed. I read a lot of novels, and got depressed by those. I read news stories on my laptop in bed, and got depressed by those. Staying home alone, in bed, with little impetus to shower or go to work – succumbing to sickness, in other words – made me feel like I was living in a dark trough somewhere.

I decided yesterday to tell my sinus infection and the underlying sarcoidosis to put a sock in it. I got out of bed, bathed, and took Andrew to the library and then out to the bakery for a cookie. We played a mean game of “I Spy” as we shared the cookie and noticed all the fascinating cars on the road (sadly, no explosions, in real time or slow motion, though). Then we had dinner with new friends. I was still sick, but, hey, Kleenex is portable. I felt alive and, better yet, Andrew didn’t say “shut up” the whole day.

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