Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Body Language, or, Pagliacci's Lament

So . . . here I am. Actually, that's me on the left (age 5 or so), the "ghost" on the right is my sister (probably around age 3). Don't be fooled by the smiles on our faces, they masked a pathos beyond our years. Actually, I believe my sister expresses our feelings pretty well in her body language. You can see the fatalism symbolized in her sad little hands resting on her tiny lap.

I suppose it wasn't as bad as it could have been. We were dressed for a Halloween outing. Imagine if my mother liked dressing us up this way on other days.

Despite our deep yearning for real costumes (you know, those store-bought kinds with the plastic masks that instantly slicken and stick against the mouth and face with excited breath-moisture), they were years away when this photo was taken.

At this point, I have a terrible -shameful- secret to reveal. I was the type of kid who, when tired, hungry, insulted, or slighted by my mother, I would resort to outbursts of crying in the hopes of publicly humiliating her. Not dad, though. He would have had no problem publicly humiliating me with a spank-around-the posy. That's the one where he holds you by one hand, high over your head, while trying to swat your butt with the other. It looks a bit like an impromptu merry-go-round interpretive dance; spinning slowly in a circle while you try to run away from the spanking; jumping and leaping.

Because society tends not to tolerate displays of violence practiced on brat-children (except perhaps in private), mom had to find her own clever solution. Her approach was to take away what little remaining dignity and power a small crying child has in this situation.

The whole point of crying is to attack the person you are targeting. The attack is supposed to go one of two ways. One way is to make the adult feel terrible for having caused such a precious angel to cry; a universal success whenever blood is present. In the absence of blood, this technique only really works on strangers or relatives who don't know you so well. It will fail when used against parents. So, with parents, that only leaves the second attack strategy. In this case, crying only has a chance to work in very limited settings. Specifically, you need settings where it is really embarrassing to have a crying and screaming child present. Such as, church, supermarkets, check-out lines, airplanes, and so on. Basically, anyplace public that has lots of adults.

My clever mother found a way to defuse this second attack. Effectively. Permanently. This was the "Fat Man" or "Little Boy" of the parent-child war of the wills. She simply placed her hand over my mouth, then removed it; and . . . repeat. The effect is instantaneous. The most annoying sound in the world (crying brat) converted into a ridiculous bleat is enough to make the most stern bank manager you can imagine bust a gut. Playing the crying-child-bagpipe will stop a crying child from crying. The child sees his or her attack flipped judo-like back on them and turned into an entertainment for adults. Their only move is to retreat; withhold the entertainment by shutting down the crying so the adult cannot "play the pipes" any more.

So, that's my mother. How does this relate to the photo? Well, being a kid, one has very little power over the situation. Every Halloween I had a choice. I could either let my mother shove my head into a ridiculous pillowcase and go get free candy, or, I could stay home. You see my (our) choice above.

One consolation we had, though, was that we were allowed to pick out our own Halloween bags. Sadly, and despite our yearly optimism, they were never more than 10-15 percent filled by the end of the evening.