I'm not as old as I look. Really. It's just that I have three boys. Who, after all, could supervise tooth-brushing twice a day for this crew without developing severe furrows between the brows and dark circles beneath the eyes?
"Did you do a good job on your teeth?" I inquire brightly when told that all morning ablutions have been successfully completed. "Yup." "OK, let me smell your breath." The eyes dart sideways. "Well, maybe I could brush a little longer."
My middle son seems to think that getting the toothbrush into the general vicinity of the mouth counts. Whether the bristles actually make contact with enamel is regarded as excessively technical. As for floss, well, you might as well be attempting to teach them quantum mechanics. Little boys want to floss their teeth about as much as adults want to pay huge tuition fees.
The boys therefore adopt a policy of creative incompetence. They twist the floss around their fingers and practically manage to wind it around their ears, but getting the little string between their teeth seems quite beyond their proficiency. With alarming frequency, I wind up demonstrating proper technique. They are suitably impressed. "You're really good at that, Mom," they call over their shoulders as they rush off.
It's the same with hand-washing, showering and other details of civilized existence. My hat is off to parents whose boys manage to keep a napkin in their laps throughout an entire meal and to drink chocolate milk without proudly showing off their "mustache." They're getting better about politely asking for items on the dinner table instead of exercising the "boardinghouse reach," but shoelaces continue to confound them.
We've stopped in parking lots, on the National Mall, at airports ... everywhere, in short, while the boys reach down to tie their shoes for the thousandth time. Well, the older two anyway. I don't want to libel Benjamin, who has just turned 6, ties an impeccable double bow and possesses more sartorial sense than either of his parents.
Ben, whose ambition at the moment is to be an orchestra conductor, wanted a white tie tuxedo for his birthday. His mother felt that this was impractical. We settled on a double-breasted black suit which he thinks goes well with a bowler. When he was 3, I had to scour the department stores searching for red suspenders. At 5, he just had to have a herringbone sport coat. And now, while delighted with his black suit, he's wondering if I could sew satin stripes down the legs. Please, Lord, don't let him find out about cummerbunds.
We are making our way through the "Little House on the Prairie" series, and I must applaud my sons for sticking with these books in spite of their fatal flaw -- namely that all of the children in the Ingalls family are female. Besides featuring brushes with danger in the form of wolves, Indians, fires, blizzards and grasshoppers (the boys become quite alert during those scenes), the books require stamina when they stray into subjects like the proper lace stitch or how to make salt pork and head cheese.
Still, the books are classics for a reason. One is filled with admiration for these pioneers who overcame more hardship in a typical week than we endure in a decade. In temperatures of minus 40, the Wilder family (Farmer Boy is the one book of the series that departs from the Ingalls family to tell the story of Almonzo Wilder's childhood) would arise every night in the wee hours, head out to the stable and run the stock around for half an hour so that they didn't freeze to death. Laura Ingalls' father was lost in a blizzard for three days only yards from his own front door. All five of them came down with malaria at the same time and -- but for the fortuitous arrival of a (black) doctor and a solicitous neighbor -- they might all have died together.
Through all of this and more, the children were taught fortitude. They must never complain. They mustn't cry. They were forbidden to speak at the dinner table unless spoken to. They were often frightened and sometimes hungry; yet remarkably cheerful and resilient. And so we learn awe, admiration, humility and, most of all, gratitude.