I had a dream the other night that I thought I’d share with you. In it, I find myself sitting in a chair, facing very bright lights. My eyes adjust as I feel the heat from their unyielding beams cooking me slowly like an apple turnover in a fast food heat lamp.
Behind and flanking me are large upright panels, which are covered with a thin yellow carpet along with the floor. The carpet is a pale shade of yellow, a gradient getting ever lighter as the eye moves to the center of the panel behind me. Hung upon this center are the words “The Parent Game” in a pale shade of yellow.
Somehow, I have been sucked into a late seventies game show.
The crowd makes excited noises as a man in a pale blue suit sans tie, shirt unbuttoned on the top three buttons, revealing a forest of long curly hair, which is in turn doing its best to hide the large gold medallion with the symbol for Taurus emblazoned upon it. He’s a white guy with a huge afro. Is it Chuck Barris? I can’t tell.
“Wwwwwwelcome to The Parent Game!” he says, revealing a set of choppers as bright as an arc lamp. My pupils are probably the size of a pinpoint by now.
The crowd, which I cannot see due to the studio lights, claps. I wonder for a moment why; I mean, have you ever walked into someone’s home, and upon their initial greeting, started clapping like a trained seal?
“Who’s our first contestant?” Afro-guy asks the ether.
Apparently the ether is populated by a booming baritone voice that says, “Meet Jesse Dyer! He’s a computer programmer from North Carolina, who enjoys reading, music, and pretending to engage in other hobbies!”
This gets another applause.
“Let’s go over the rules.” Afro-guy says. He turns to me, his 10,000-watt smile dimming down to a somber, funereal expression. “We will be showing several moments in Jesse’s career as a father, and ask him to rate his performance, from one to ten–ten being ‘on par with Solomon the wise’, and one being ‘someone call the cops’ territory. We have also provided our studio audience with an electronic voting system, asking them to vote on the same scale. If Jesse’s idea of his parenting meshes with the crowd’s average votes, he gets the number of points that he scored himself on his performance. If Jesse can reach forty points before the time is up, he’ll win today’s prize. What’s today’s prize, Van?”
“Jesse will win an all expenses paid trip to EgoTown!”
Must be a nice place, judging by the crowd’s reaction. Again, why cheer for stuff that someone else is getting?
“He’ll spend five glorious days and nights basking in the light of his own self-aggrandizement! A net package worth four thousand dollars!”
Afro-guy picks up his cue perfectly, teeth blazing as he grins around, “If Jesse fails to reach twenty points, he has to pay a penalty. What’s this week’s penalty, Van?”
I want to say, hang on a sec, I didn’t sign up for this, but I can’t seem to find my voice. I mean, yeah, I had my children voluntarily, but I don’t recall having agreed to a penalty based on the crowd’s opinion of my fatherhood.
“He’ll be forced not only to suffer the shame and castigation of the crowd, but the guilt of having been a lousy father.”
The crowd boos and hisses, a little too eagerly. Nothing like the polite applause for Egotown. Could it be that, while they don’t get anything from my win, they do get something for my loss?
“Let’s show Jesse his first example of fatherhood.”
A large white screen rolls down from the lights and catwalks above the set, and the studio lights dim as, of all things, a projector starts clacking away above, projecting down onto the screen.
On the screen (sometimes blurred and jumpy), we see me, sitting in a chair, reading, while two of my kids are playing in front of me. It is incredibly obvious that they are trying very hard to get my attention, and equally obvious that they aren’t getting it. They’re acting out something or other that they’ve cooked up, and laughing at their own performance; the crowd gets a bit of a chuckle, because it really is pretty clever, but mostly cute. I don’t smile, though, because I’m watching me ignore them.
In the darkened studio, I hear the sounds of buttons being pushed on the voting panels.
The lights come back up, and Afro-guy says, “OK, Jesse, how many points would you rate yourself there?”
I can’t manage to look at him. “Two.”
“And the crowd said..” says Afro-guy, making a sweeping gesture towards a huge seven-segment LCD on the wall beside him. A bell rings as it flashes “1″.
“That’s two points for Jesse!”
He smiles like the audience ought to be clapping, but they don’t.
Again, the lights dim, and this time, we see me in the grocery store, pushing a racecar-shaped grocery cart full of kids. It’s obvious, judging by the way that I’m having to maneuver this thing with upper body strength, that it’s like pushing a contrary mule through the store. It’s equally obvious that the little ones inside the cart, spinning their dual side steering wheels and laughing like loons, are having a great time.
The lights come up, and Afro-guy looks at me expectantly. “I’m gonna say a five.”
The board lights up; 8. ”Eight? For that? Are you kidding me?” I ask the crowd, which I still can’t see.
“Sorry, no points for you.” says Afro-guy, and the next section plays out. In this one, I’m spanking a child. Click click click, goes the crowd.
“Now hang on a second!” I say, “There’s no context here. I don’t remember that; what was I spanking him for?”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to give an answer, or forfeit.”
“Eight.” I say. Ding, goes the bell, and crowd has spoken: 2
“Now wait a second! You think I like doing that? You think I do it for fun? I hate spanking them. I hate being the heavy, and I hate it when they cry, but you have to understand…”
“I’m sorry,” says Afro-guy, “We have to move on.”
“No,” I say as the lights dim; I don’t even see what’s on the screen, “we certainly don’t; we need to stop right here.”
I stand up. ”I didn’t have my children to play some ridiculous game show, nor do I raise them as I do to earn you people’s respect, nor to avoid my own shame. I raise them the way that I do because I love them, and I know that if I don’t teach them the fear of consequence for wrong doing, they won’t learn it until it’s the state’s job to administer punishment, and a few spankings are a love tap compared to what they’ll get there.
“And while I’m at it, that first segment didn’t rate a two. Sometimes, every now and then, there are things in my life that I need to pay attention to that are not my children. I’m fed up with the constant guilt we’re told we’re certainly going to eventually feel if we didn’t spend every waking moment in rapturous attention to our kids. I love them, and I play with them, and I spend time with them in lots of ways that I’m certain you people would ignore. That day in the grocery store, I had people coming up and praising me out of the blue. For what? For taking my kids to the store? For pushing them around in a cart that they like? That’s not exceptional, that’s every day, common place. I guess the point I’m trying to make is, everything’s relative. Sometimes they have my attention, and sometimes I spend time at other things. The ratio between the two is my problem, my responsibility, not yours, and I won’t make the mistake of guilt tripping over isolated incidents again.
“I don’t need this. I don’t need to behave in a way that makes you people happy. If you don’t agree with how I handle these situations, that’s your own business, but don’t think I’m going to sit here and tremble at your opinion on the matter. This game is over. I’m going home.”
Afro-guy stares at me as if I’ve crawled up from the bottom of the sea, and as the lights even out, I look out into the studio seats.
There’s nobody there at all.