The Story About the Toddler, Volume 24.

Our daughter Cordelia just turned three. I still call her a toddler, although she really isn’t. She doesn’t toddle. She runs.

A child turning three is a big change, in a way. She’s not two anymore. Two year-olds have this horrible reputation for being difficult and obnoxious, a reputation that is entirely justified. Saying that my child is two usually gets me a sympathetic look, at the very least.

But a child who is three is basically the same as a child who is two. There is no overnight miracle change. I mean, the morning after her third birthday, she didn’t come into our bedroom and say, “Hello, Father. I stayed quietly in my crib for several hours so as not to disturb your slumber. Here is the omelet I made you. It has chevre. That’s goat cheese.”

That is not what happens. A three year old is still the same pain in the ass as a two year old. It’s just that now the sympathy is gone. The world’s attitude changes. It basically goes from, “Oh, they’re so difficult.” to, “Ummm … Isn’t is about time you put the screws to that little monster?”

And the answer to that question, of course, is yes. So now we begin our year of battle.

Cordelia is still young enough that she changes rapidly from month to month. She has just developed several new traits. She can talk a blue streak and easily maintains a very crude conversation. She can also request that books be read to her before she goes to sleep. And she requests the same four books, in the same order, every night, or else. So, basically, I am the father of Rainman.

She is completely potty trained. She doesn’t even need a diaper at night. If it’s four in the morning and she has to pee, she doesn’t peacefully, quietly wet herself. She comes and wakes us from a sound sleep so we can help her use the toilet she knows how to use. Which is just more confirmation for my Parental Law Of Unintended Consequences: every physical or mental advancement your child makes will create a new problem for you.

Also, she can climb out of her crib now. She is free to roam the house. This newfound ability to wander around has given my obsessive-compulsive traits something excellent to latch onto. Before, when I felt compelled to check to see if the kid was still alive, I just had to look in her crib. Now I have to look in every fucking room in the house. And the garage.

Cordelia’s Birthday In the Necropolis

Since it was Cordelia’s third birthday, we decided to take a little vacation. We flew her down to my parent’s new place in Desert Hot Springs, California. The town is called this because, displaying the poetry at the heart of the California soul, it is in the desert. And there are many hot springs.

Though my parents live in an RV (a fact that, even after being given years to get used to it, still fills me with the shuddering horrors), they have bought a winter home. It is a high-quality mobile home in one of many rental parks down there, where old people maintain one and two bedroom units for decades, until death seizes their withered forms with his skeletal hands. I don’t want to dwell too much on the demographics of the place, but let’s just say I kept seeing the Grim Reaper standing on streetcorners tapping his watch impatiently.

These elderly citizens go there year after year, sitting in natural hot springs, absorbing the desert heat, and having conversations like this:

Codger A: “Hey, Bob.”
Codger B: “Hey, Frank.”
Codger A: “It’s a hot one today.”
Codger B: “Sure is. Say, you hear Joe died?”
Codger A: “Oh, really?”
Codger B: “Yeah.”
Codger A: “Damn shame.”
Codger B: “I have taken his woman as my own.”

Now my parents aren’t really that old. But I’m afraid living there, in the gravity well of so much advanced age, is going to start withering them almost immediately.

But it’s a great place to take a kid. There are lots of hot springs to let her float around in, and, since she is potty trained, I can let her do so without guilt. If she urinates in the pool, it will be her rationally arrived at decision, for which I’m sure she’ll have her reasons.

Also, since pretty much everyone there is so old that even their grandchildren have grandchildren, the presence of a young, fresh, person to spoil is a great relief. Though they can be sort of aggressive. I didn’t mean to have to pepper spray that nice Jewish octogenarian to get Cordelia out of her claws, but I had a movie to get to.

How Cordelia Spent Her Holiday

Beats me. She was with my parents. My wife and I were in nearby Palm Springs, seeing movies and watching rich, stupid people live their lives.

Palm Springs has a lot of wealthy people and decomposing celebrities. Gerald Ford lives there. Can you believe it? He’s still alive! There is one place on Earth that still thinks that Gerald Ford is relevant to ANYTHING. I mean, seriously. Isn’t there a length of time after which you stop being an ex-president?

When we weren’t seeing movies, we were eating cake. We bought Cordelia a big, delicious birthday cake from a really good bakery. But she’s three, so she can’t eat much. And my dad is watching his diet and my mom is diabetic. And my wife is a tiny person, and can’t fit that much cake into her tiny tummy. So the bulk of the job of eating this cake fell to me.

Bless Cordelia and her youngness. This is the last birthday at which I can eat huge slabs of her cake in front of her and buy her off with only one or two bites. And then I go to bed and am kept awake by the feeling of my own heart beating.

Occasionally, so she could still remember me, I took her for a walk about the rental park. At one point, I took her to the recreation center, where the senior citizens were provided with stacks of jigsaw puzzles. Is there anything more depressing than someone with so little time left spending it doing a jigsaw puzzle?

Cordelia kept trying to switch the pieces between different puzzles. It is interesting to think that, by thus rendering a puzzle unsolvable, one could consume with frustration the entirety of someone’s remaining life.

And Then Back To the Grind

Then we flew home. Cordelia was well-behaved on the plane, in both directions. And she was charming while we were there. I just want you to know that it happens occasionally.

Ever More the Terrible Parent

As Cordelia gets older and more capable, my wife and I find ourselves slipping farther and farther into the realm of bad parents who can’t control their children.

When we go out to dinner (which we do sometimes, when faced with the ever tricky choice between spending some time out of the house or suicide), Cordelia will sometimes jump up and run a lap around the restaurant. By occasionally wrestling our whirling dervish of elbows and knees into submission, I can keep the frequency of these laps down to one every few minutes. And then, while she is away, I endure a proper penance of self-loathing.

So I’m coming clean here. We can’t control our child.

Sure, we have the means to take the edge off of her behavior and prevent the most excessive or violent abuses, and we do so. She doesn’t scream or punch or bite. Much. But we also entirely can’t control her. And that’s kind of a good thing. To truly control a small child would require a regimen of punishment and spirit-breaking that would horrify even the most confirmed hater of children.

But it’s getting harder.

Small children are really annoying, what with their limitless energy and total lack of social graces. And, like all human beings, they hate being controlled. They will constantly push back at their parents and constantly try to get away with things. Each time you control the child, it drains the supply of parental energy. And sometimes, you just run out.

So you pick your battles, prevent injuries, and come up with elaborate justifications for the walking, talking proof of your inadequacy that is currently running full speed to the other end of the restaurant and back.

A Ghoulish Example Of This Phenomenon

My wife Mariann looks after Cordelia much more than I do, and is thus worn down to a nub.

One afternoon, she and Cordelia came in from playing on the driveway, and I notice that Cordelia is chewing on a piece of plastic. I ask Mariann what it is. She says, “Oh, that’s just something she found on the ground.” This response makes perfect sense to me, so I go back to work.

That evening, Mariann is off at Tae Kwon Do (for it has been declared that no further offspring will be had until the black belt is obtained). I’m sitting by Cordelia, and I notice that she’s chewing on the plastic again. And I see what it is. It’s a broken cigarette lighter she found in the street.

And the sad thing is, I almost went, “Oh. She’s chewing on a broken cigarette lighter. As long as it keeps her quiet. Oooh … TV!” Fortunately, at that very moment, I had a small repository of energy built up. Enough to go, “Oh! God! No! Give! Me! That!” and wrestle it away and deal with the angry screaming.

There is a real point to having two parents to raise a child. It helps to have a backup person around for sanity checks when you are in the process of doing the dumbest fucking thing in the world.

On the Bright Side

Cordelia is showing all signs of growing up to be the technically inclined, nerdy, non-girly girl we almost never admit we really wanted.

We try to offer her choices. But despite our half-hearted attempts to provide balance in her life by getting her to play with dolls, she is much more content running around the house with a screwdriver looking for things to dismantle.

Television Makes Parenting Possible

Our feisty girl still demands, and receives, a fair quantity of television. All of the shows she sees are recorded off of PBS because, supposedly, public television kids shows are based on education and teaching good values, not on cynically creating half-hour commercials for toys to feast on the gullible minds of the young.

This is such a pile of horseshit. Oh, where to begin?

First, sure, most children’s’ TV shows, public television or not, exist in large part to sell toys. But, Christ, in this age of computers and Nintendo, thank goodness someone is actually trying to get kids to play with toys! I would let Cordelia watch a show called Mass Merchandisobot XL-10 Kicks the Bad Guys In the Balls if it had a chance of making her say, “Father, please drop ten bucks to buy me a copy of Merchandisobot XL-10, so that I can play outside with it for a while instead of watching my eighteenth hour today of Thomas the Tank Engine.”

I know, I know, people love to find things to get their panties twisted up over, but if you can’t see at least a little upside to trying to sell actual toys to kids, you’re out of your goddamn mind.

But back to PBS. Cordelia is constantly watching a show now called Thomas the Tank Engine. She is fascinated by trains. I’m sure she’ll love dinosaurs, too. Both, of course, have in common their utter irrelevance to daily life.

Thomas the Tank Engine was invented by the Reverend W. Audry, a British minister, to amuse his son. The series shows every sign of having been invented by someone who believes in a vengeful God. It details the adventures of a bunch of intelligent (sort of) trains, who drag shit around under the harsh direction of Sir Topham Hatt, their master and overlord.

My favorite thing about the series, when I can stand to watch it, is the way the trains are cruelly punished for their transgressions. At the beginning of one episode, three trains are being released from the sheds, where Sir Topham Hatt has locked them for several days for misbehaving. The depiction of a world where the naughty can be punished with several days in the closet makes this series pure porn for parents.

Also, the series has an amusing, retro attitude towards the ladies. Female trains are generally crabby, annoying, and dragged around by the boy trains, who are the active ones who have all the adventures. It’s sort of like Harry Potter, but with trains.

At the heart of it, though, despite all of its supposed good intentions, PBS or not, Thomas the Tank Engine is a marketing vehicle. It’s Pokemon for two year-olds. It has dozens of characters: trains, helicopters, busses, other trains, and you can buy all of them. And you will. Thomas got my innocent little girl to start asking for stuff all the time. “Daddy, buy me Thomas a little, please?” Thanks, PBS!

Also, your child will take that marvelous empty brain Nature gave it and fill it up with the names of all million of those trains. They will all look identical to you. But this enables the masters of the show to take a plastic Thomas, peel off the 6 sticker, put on some stripes, call it “Edward”, and charge you twelve more bucks for it. Thanks, PBS!

Cordelia has observed my inability to name the trains in this fantasy world with any reliability, so she thinks I’m retarded. So, whenever she shows me one and asks me who it is, I tell her it’s “Skunky Joe.”

I can use my imagination, too. Someday, when she’s going to bed, I will tell her train stories too, about the adventures of Skunky Joe and his rail-bound collection of inbred misfits. The rhythmic sound of the snapping spines of his passengers is music to the dark ears of Skunky Joe.

Plastic models of Skunky Joe will be a very reasonable eight bucks each. PBS, call me.

But It Gets Worse

At least, if you squint, Thomas the Tank Engine teaches valuable lessons. For example, the best reason to behave properly. (Answer: The fear of horrible punishment.) But Cordelia watches another show, too. It is called Dragon Tales. Truly, this show was vomited from the mouth of Satan himself.

Dragon Tales is about the adventures of Emmy and Max, a young human brother and sister, who have gained the ability to magically travel to an enchanted land where brightly colored dragons befriend them, teach them the valuable lessons they clearly are not being taught at home, and pretend to love them. Because we are now deep in politically correct world, there is a pink girl dragon who is smart and learned and perfect in every way, and a male dragon who is, as far as I can tell, functionally retarded.

There is also a third human child, a boy named Enrique from Columbia. As a part of the unnervingly increasing Spanish education in PBS shows, most of the time, when Enrique talks, he says something in Spanish and then the same thing in English. (“Hi, Enrique!” “Hola! Hello!”) This is the sort of affectation that, in real life, would result in a limitless and well-earned supply of playground beatings.

Enrique does Hispanic things all the time and, whenever he does, so we don’t miss the point, a bit of flamenco guitar plays. And there are Hispanic dragons, too, who speak with accents that are equal parts Cheech Marin and Speedy Gonzales. It really is the sort of sensitivity that, well, isn’t. They should just have a dragon named Chalupa and have tacos constantly fall out of Enrique’s pants and be done with it.

Combine this with a warm cloud of PC tolerance, a bland friendliness that would make Barney look like a hardcore gangsta, a dragon in a wheelchair, and (I shit you not) a unicorn that wears glasses, and you have a TV show so unspeakable that I will only let Cordelia watch it three hours a day.

But the thing that bothers me most about the show is the way it is part of demystifying and filing the rough edges off of everything in children’s lives. Dragons used to be big and badass and frightening and, you know, interesting. But now we have Dragon Tales to say to kids, “It’s OK! Dragons aren’t scary or cool! They are just as dull and undirected and useless as you are!”

But At Least It Is Not As Bad As It Could Be

As least Cordelia doesn’t watch those cartoon vegetables that try to teach her about Jesus. That would truly be the end.