Haunted by Choice

As Americans we demand choices. Choice equals happiness.

Or does it?

I have an un-American confession: sometimes I'm sick to death of choosing. That secret forced-to-wear-a-uniform-to-school envy I harbored as an ordinary public school kid washes over me once again. I want the choice made for me. Or no choice at all. It's just easier that way.

My happiest summer vacations at a kid were spent stuck at cousins' houses in rural parts of Washington and New Mexico. There was no roster of camps, lessons, or play dates. The only scheduled activity was go play. We poked at anthills with sticks, picked blackberries until we were covered in blood and juice, read the same two ratty books over and over because they were the only books lying around. There was nothin' to do and it was pretty rockin' great.

I can make a great argument for single-payer health care, but I'm more likely to sound off about the drinks in the vending machine at work (twenty-eight varieties of sugar water but not a single root beer.) Recently I started whittling the choices I offer to Child the Elder. Hungry? Here's the one thing you can eat right now. Time to read a book before bed? Mommy's voice means Mommy's choice. He complains, sure, but secretly I think he's pleased with this totalitarian turn of events.

Summer is when I give myself a break and go back to the things I want to read repeatedly. Most people in high school are forced to read both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson. They either become English majors or they run the other way, screaming, into their sensible adult lives and never discover both authors have written hilarious tears-will-leak-out-your-eyes memoirs about raising children.

Shirley Jackson's Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are her fabulously funny accounts of surviving life with four children as a professor's wife in the 1950s. She is a woman who treats hospital childbirth as a well-deserved vacation and flips a coin with her husband to decide who will talk to the detested teacher during Parent's Visiting Week. She is a one-woman taxi service minus modern car seats and has sarcastic conversations with clueless college students:

"Certainly," I said. "My only desire was to be a faculty wife. I used to sit at my casement window, half embroidering, half dreaming, and long for Professor Right."

"I suppose," she said, "that you are better off than you would have been. Not married at all or anything."

"I was a penniless governess in a big house," I said. "I was ready to take anything that moved."

"And of course you do make a nice home for your husband. Someplace to come back to, and everything so neat."

"My spinning lacks finesse," I said. "But I yield to no one on my stone-ground meal."

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny is a personal diary extract and will show you a side of Hawthorne you never dreamed existed. Think of the guy who wrote the Scarlet Letter. Now think of that same guy stuck at home taking care of a spirited five-year-old while his wife is away. He is alone and this is his debut as a single parent. In Hawthorne's experience this includes application of curling tongs to the tot's hair with predictably poor results and encouraging the boy to, um, evacuate his bodily waste on the property of the neighboring Shakers. Hawthorne didn't like the Shakers. 

Lucky for us, they wrote all of this down. Jackson and Hawthorne both knew the value of a good haunting but probably never intended to haunt me with their quirky parenting. Now they can haunt you, too.

Go play. And don't come back until I call you for dinner.