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In My Next Life: Living the real difference of boys and girls

Posted By Karen Young On February 9, 2010 @ 12:58 am In Features,In My Next Life,spotlight | 2 Comments

davidnicholsBY DAVID NICHOLS

Boys and girls are different. I don’t know how else to put it. I think there’s some French phrase that expresses the idea much more lyrically, and after N. and The Boy and I make our planned trip to Paris this summer I might be able to tell you what it is. But for now plain English will have to do. So let me tell you what I mean.

When My Beautiful Grown Daughter was eleven my living room was strewn with demi-sized petticoats, velveteen riding helmets, high-button shoes, and sundry paraphernalia, all belonging to the large population of American Girls who shared our house. The American Girls, in case you’re blissfully unaware, are a line of dolls designed to typify little girls from various periods of American history. Felicity has a front seat at the Revolution. Kit comes up with clever ways to survive the Great Depression. Molly does her bit to help win World War Two. And for only slightly more than the cost of The Enola Gay you can purchase Molly’s bed, chifferobe, and school desk, just like I did.

Now, a decade later, the eleven-year-old in my house is male and the living room looks like a terrorist’s arsenal. Thanks to the ingenuity of the Airsoft corporation, makers of fine replica firearms, there’s an AK-47 on the sofa. An automatic pistol graces the coffee table. There’s a revolver handily located next to the video game controller in case anyone’s foolish enough to try interrupting the digital destruction derby that is Modern Warfare II. And there’s not much chance we’ll run out of ammunition. Our floors are littered with more pellets than the rabbit cage in a petting zoo. But just to be safe we also have an assortment of sharpened sticks and pointed…things…stashed around to take care of any eye-poking or throat-slashing that needs to be done. There’s also a six-pack of Diet Coke that can easily be turned into a bomb. Trust me. I’ve seen it done.

“Are they all like this?” N. asks. It’s a good question. Whenever The Boy’s friends come to visit there’s always enough discussion over rice milk and quesadillas about the most efficient way of snapping a guy’s neck to give a mother pause. I’ll admit I wondered the same thing when The Boy first moved in. Are they all like this? I tried to recall what kind of weaponry My Beautiful Grown Daughter kept on hand at that age. The best I could come up with was a plastic baseball bat left over from an extremely fleeting curiosity about T-ball. Then the Great Truth hit me. Boys and girls are different. I realized I shouldn’t be trying to remember what MBGD was like at eleven. I should be trying to remember what I was like.

Suddenly it all began to emerge from the primordial mists of my youth. I could actually feel the satisfying click as the shoulder stock and silencer locked into place on my plastic 007 Walther PPK. (There’s one the Airsoft folks should take a crack at.) I recalled hours spent in the dark, watching Goldfinger yet again, trying to memorize every brutally graceful chop and thrust of Sean Connery’s deadly choreography. I could see the look of mystified despair on my mother’s face as I insisted on prowling around the bushes in our backyard, wearing a vinyl shoulder holster under my Sunday school suit jacket. One thing I’d learned watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that she apparently hadn’t was that it wasn’t enough to just kill bad guys. You also had to look coolly elegant while doing it. At that point a size 12 worsted blend from the boys’ department at J.C. Penney was as close to coolly elegant as I could get. Reassured by memories of my own gun-and-karate-fueled fantasies, I began to peer a couple of years farther along Memory Lane and came up with some recollections I thought might put N.’s mind at rest. “Don’t worry, honey,” I said. “This whole fighting and military thing will pass before you know it. Then it’ll all be about girls.” She gave me a look that clearly indicated this wasn’t the comforting thought I’d hoped it would be.

And that’s how I ended up back on campus at Campbell Hall, My Beautiful Grown Daughter’s alma mater, balancing a paper plate full of cheese and crackers on my knee, engaged once again in that never-ending process known as Parent Education. Honestly, I’d almost stopped reading the CH newsletters that pop up in the mail periodically. It’s a lovely school, but even the youngest siblings of MBGD’s classmates have graduated by now. Favorite faculty members appear under the headline “Campbell Hall Bids Farewell To…” with bittersweet regularity. And if I ran into any of the teachers hired to replace them I’d probably say something like “Why are you wandering the halls, young man? Get back to class.” But when the notice appeared for Dr. Gary Groch’s Parent Ed session it sounded eminently relevant.

Dr. Groch specializes in working with fathers, but I know from past experience that a fair number of moms tend to show up too, so N. comes along and it’s a good thing. The Good Doctor makes some brief opening remarks then asks the assembled dads if anyone wants to share a thought or concern or question. Of course we don’t. We’re guys. The only thing we like to share with each other is a six-pack. (Remember that whole “boys are different from girls” thing? Well, it just keeps going.) N. nudges me, jostling my cheese and crackers. “Go ahead,” she whispers. Not really wanting to open with the whole armaments issue I start by explaining our overall situation. “I have a grown daughter. Now I’m in a new relationship and we have an eleven-year-old boy. If anybody has any thoughts on the differences between….” And we’re off.

“You can expect a lot of destruction around your house,” Dr. Groch says. He tells us he keeps a vise on his desk and that tween boys who visit his office invariably delight in crushing Matchbox cars by the dozen. Clearly this guy knows his stuff. Last summer one of The Boy’s remote control trucks gave up the ghost. The adults among us were about to consign it to the recycling bin when The Boy intervened. Sure enough, he managed to wring another hour’s entertainment out of the thing by demolishing the chassis with a hammer. Dr. Groch goes on to explain that all this is part of a boy’s need to gain a sense of power in his life and that we should give him room to do it. It even turns out I’ve stumbled into doing the right thing. “Think back to how you felt when you were eleven,” Dr. Groch suggests. I confirm that I’ve been doing that, although I leave out the part about crawling around the bushes in my suit.

The discussion moves on and by the end of the evening two things are clear. One is that boys and girls are indeed different. (Apparently girls don’t have a vise vice.) The other is the closest thing to a reassuring answer as we’re likely to get to N.’s original question. And that answer is: Yes. They are all that way, so you don’t need to worry quite so much. And the bonus answer is: if yours isn’t that way, well…you probably don’t need to worry quite so much either. On our way out we peruse a selection of child development books and choose one specifically about boys. When we get home The Boy asks what it is. “An owner’s manual,” I tell him. He shakes his head the way he does when I say this stuff and gets on with the work of being eleven.

There is one thing that preteen boys and girls both do, however, and there’s no way to stop them. They grow up. When My Beautiful Grown Daughter was small she had a stuffed dog named Georgie who slept next to her every night for years. One night I tucked the two of them in as usual. But on that particular night she hugged Georgie around the neck as tightly as I’ve ever seen anybody hug anything. It was as if he were a sponge that held her entire childhood and she was determined to squeeze him dry. Then, without warning, she flung him almost violently across the room into a corner, where he stayed for some months. Eventually Georgie gained a place of honor on the bookshelf. But that was his last night in the bed.

Now we have Bearie, a honey-colored cub with a missing tail. Bearie often sits on the couch with us, watching TV in the evening. A few nights ago at bedtime The Boy picked him up and started downstairs. Then he turned back and grabbed his AK-47. “Are you going to protect Bearie?” I asked. He grinned a little sheepishly. “Yeah.” Bearie’s flight from the bed to the corner is coming. And, given current circumstances, he may be brought down by a surface-to-air missile along the way. But I’m not worried about him. They’re tough characters, these ones who get our boys and girls through childhood. They survive. And so, I suppose, shall we.

David Nichols is a TV writer/producer who has worked on such shows as “Caroline In The City”, “Grace Under Fire”, and “Evening Shade.”

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