Liam and Caleb have been watching Looney Tunes lately in their after-dinner TV hour and their laughter – is there a better sound anywhere than the laughter of small children? – makes it almost okay with me that they’re watching cartoons.
(My husband says, “not cartoons. Looney Tunes. Classic, subversive, elegant.” He also told me once that my inability to appreciate Looney Tunes, along with my general dislike of “Seinfeld,” almost rendered me unmarriageable; one of my oldest friends sees my distaste for “Seinfeld” as a significant moral failing. What can I say? I take comfort only in the fact that unlike Sarah Palin in the V-P debate, I’d be able to answer the “Achilles’ heel” question.)
But I digress. So the boys are watching Looney Tunes and howling with delight at poor, beleaguered Wile E. Coyote and his futile attempts to catch Road Runner. I do have a soft spot for Coyote because of his endless optimism: this time, his Rube Goldbergian plan will work. This time, it will be different. This time, when he runs off the cliff and into thin air, he’ll keep running and not plummet to earth.
But of course, he never catches that damn bird and he always falls to earth.
Coyote is Loony’s version of Sisyphus, whom Zeus condemned for all eternity to roll a huge boulder up a hill … only to have the boulder tumble back down before he can reach the top. Sisyphus had tried to trick the gods – had in fact declared that he was smarter than Zeus (never a good idea) and as a result he suffers from the eternal frustration of a never-completed task.
Sisyphus and Wile E. Coyote have something else in common, however, other than their shared inability to reach a satisfying conclusion: they are the twinned patron saints of parenthood.
Think about it: if you ever wrote down everything you do in a given day, you’d never get out of bed. Breakfasts, lunchboxes, dishes, shopping, laundry, email, doctor’s appointments, babysitting arrangements, menu planning, food cooking, school organizing (where are the empty boxes for the art project, where is the reading book, where is the permission slip, where are the gym shoes) … and that’s even without a job, if you’ve got one. It’s like Coyote: as long as he doesn’t look down, he keeps running on air. But once he notices …WHAM.
And Sisyphus … well, look at that list. An infinite loop of chores. I stare at the dishwasher and wonder, why put the clean dishes in the cabinets? Why ask the boys to put away their toys, why put the remotes in the basket, why… wipe off the counters, swab away the pee that dribbles down the toilet (o the joy of three boys, all of whom seem to pee with their eyes shut), put away the coats, fold the laundry …
Why not just let that damn boulder thunder down to the bottom of the hill and leave it there?
I can’t control global warming; real estate prices; the environment; Sarah Palin; Wall Street; the crackers who won’t vote for Barack not because he’s black, you know, they’re not racists, it’s just that they’ve heard things, you know, and then there’s his middle name. You betcha.
I can’t control the slow shuffle of food tourists on 14th street, who meander from Trader Joe’s to Whole Foods and back again; I can’t stop the maniacs who dart through traffic on the Cross County like they’re racing in the Grand Prix; and the fate of the Mets is out of my hands.
I’m sure you have your own I-can’t-do-anything-about-it-even-though-it-makes-me-nuts list. We all do.
But within the confines of my four little walls, you see, I can impose some order. Temporary order, yes; fleeting serenity, perhaps … but at least it’s something. Who knows? Maybe Wile E. Coyote gains the same pleasure as he rigs his (doomed) rocket-blasting-roadrunner-destroying contraption; maybe Sisyphus simply enjoys the view (each time) as he gets close to the top of his hill.
I do have one – unlikely – source of comfort to help with the Sisyphusian nature of house-and-child keeping: the curmudgeonly Robert Frost, who was not a particularly good father or housekeeper, but was a hell of a poet.
Poetry, he wrote once, is but a momentary stay against confusion.
And you know what? So is folding sheets.