The older house male took the younger house male to the drugstore last week. The older house male is 41 and the younger house male is 5, but they both like small plastic devices that unfold into killer robots. I am reconciled to this. You can do a lot with killer robots. If you have boring brunch guests, you can fold up their little legs -- the robots', that is, not the guests' -- and then try to figure out how to unfold them again while you feign interest in a conversation that would otherwise cause you to slump face forward into your scrambled eggs.
Thus I was intrigued when what emerged from the drugstore bag was not a killer robot but a pink plastic snail. The snail was surrounded by a lot of packaging, the kind that makes very small things look large and weighty when they are hung on the rack, and as my son worked his way inside I heard him singing to himself.
It sounded like a nice sort of song, but that was only because I heard it misspelled. I was an ignorant person; I confess it. "Keepers," I heard. Something about keepers. "What's a keeper?" I asked.
My son looked at me with great kindness, the way one might regard a loved but particularly stupid cocker spaniel. "This is a Keyper," he said, and I suddenly grasped the nasty truth. My son was singing a television jingle. My "Sesame Street"-raised kid was performing an entire commercial here in our dining room, and the thing that lay before us, this molded bit of pink plastic approximately the size of a half-eaten pear -- this was what the television commercial was for.
There must be a day in the lives of most American parents when Madison Avenue first issues forth from the mouths of people too small to cut up their chicken by themselves, and this was mine. I watched my son examine his snail; its principal gimmick, as far as I could see, was a soft rubbery back that opened up when you squeezed it, like one of those old-fashioned vinyl coin purses.
He got some dice to put in the snail's back, but they were too big. He got an eraser to put in, but it was too fat. He found a penny and put it in, but then he tried to squeeze open the snail's back and found that it wouldn't open wide enough to let the penny drop out.
My son was starting to get mad. "They shouldn't call these Keypers," he said, and banged the snail upside down on the table. "They should call them Losers."
At that moment a less morose person than myself would have seen this for what it was, the clear sign of a future advertising account executive with a high enough income to buy his mother a couple of Alfa Romeos. But I was grinding my teeth too hard to think properly. I was descending into my Benevolent Tyrant mode, which comes around a lot when you have children and so are no longer reasonable about things. As Benevolent Tyrant I tend to pass a lot of decrees, and here was the decree of the week: Smash children's advertising.
All of it. Every single advertisement aimed at selling a product over the television set to a person under the age of, oh, I don't know, let's be arbitrary and say 12 -- every reel of film, by government fiat, should be submerged in a giant vat of sulfuric acid. This will leave us with approximately eight minutes of dead air time per half hour, which we can fill with excerpts of Bill Cosby reading brief passages from particularly interesting children's books.
I don't know how we pay for this, and I don't care, either. We may need to expropriate all the networks and replace the cartoon programming with "Sesame Street" reruns and odd serials from Australian public television; these are entirely acceptable ideas, since either option will save me from gagging over the Smurfs. Actually, exterminating the Smurfs is quite a charming idea too, but since I don't wish to be greedy, I will settle just now for shutting up the part that comes during intermission.
Our house is in Northern California, which in certain respects is rather an odd part of the world, and so our neighborhood features a politically correct toy store where you can buy Fisher-Price doctor kits and natural fiber dresses with dinosaurs applique'd across the front. Our neighborhood toy store does not sell Muscle Men or Strawberry Shortcake brush and comb sets; in general, gross little items that come with theme songs are not to be found around here unless you drive down to the emporium that makes you walk the aisle with a shopping cart large enough to hold two children and $483 worth of merchandise.
What this means is that each time there's a local birthday party, which for the contemporary 5-year-old is approximately every day and a half, some earnest lady can be found standing in the neighborhood toy store while the small person beside her sighs deeply at every proposal. Science kit? No. Watercolor set? No. My son's best friend, having entertained as many of these tiresomely organic suggestions as he could bear, finally looked at his mother one afternoon and said firmly, "I want something that's been commercialed."
I know turning off the television is supposed to make the whole thing go away, but it doesn't, because commercial television shows are like Cornnuts; you ban them from your house and find your kid a week later bingeing and glassy-eyed in somebody else's living room. There are common languages now among children of certain ages, and geography has nothing to do with them. Utter strangers can smile at each other on a beach a thousand miles from home, and if they are boys they will commence a sort of code, incomprehensible to the adult ear, in which the phrases "G.I. Joe" and "Battle Beast" feature heavily until the principals have linked arms and gone off together to harass sea gulls.
Somebody gave my son an admirable present the other day, a small kit that you can build into a variety of model trucks. One of the models was a replica of a television news van, with the minicam hanging off the back, and since my son knows something about my line of work, I figured we might fool around.
"Interview me," I said. "I'm a shrieking lady and my cat is stuck at the top of a tree."
My son squinted at me, affecting a pretty convincing reportery sort of look. "Why don't you chop down the tree?" he said. Then he looked alarmed. "No. You might hurt the cat. Better throw a suit of armor up there for the cat to put on first."
I told him I liked that idea, but that he was a reporter, so he was supposed to ask more questions now.
"Okay," said my son. "What kind of starch do you use?"
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Starch," said my son. "For your laundry. What kind do you use?"
I used to think I was one of two adults who had raised this kid, infusing him with Notions and Values and that sort of thing, but now I see that there were a lot of us, and that some probably live in nice Manhattan apartments, with doormen and everything. I am not going to make any rude suggestions about them. I just wish they would go away and look into some pleasant and fulfilling occupation like veterinary medicine. When they go, I have some items I would like to pass along; all of them are made of plastic and missing their heads or their arms or their missile-powered jet packs, and one even comes with the penny that never did drop from its little pink back.