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FIRST PERSON

Small Comforts in a World of Diminishing Returns

November 28, 1996|CHRIS ERSKINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We are always exhausted, my wife and I. Kids. Jobs. Homework. Housework.

The nation's leaders tell us the economy is thriving. But to maintain the lifestyles our parents knew, it now takes two incomes instead of one. And who works 40-hour weeks anymore? The last person to work a mere 40 hours was laid off in 1991.

So in a world of diminishing returns, sometimes it's hard to know what to be thankful for.

But late at night, a room away, I can hear a little boy talking in his sleep. In his dreams, the Dodgers are winning the World Series.

For small comforts like these, I am thankful.

*

"Dad, your breasts are crooked."

I was desperate for a Halloween costume. That's how I got the breasts--two balloons tucked underneath an old sweater.

And because accessories are so important, I added a simple strand of pearls. And a blond wig. But it was my full figure everyone fixated on. Big-breasted men tend to have that problem.

"Your left one is pointing straight up," my daughter says. "And your right one . . . oh, Dad."

"You got a problem with that?" I ask, lighting a cigar.

My poor daughter doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"I am living someone else's life," she says, rubbing her temples.

"Have any earrings I could borrow?" I ask.

But the party guests love the costume. Several of the other husbands ask me to dance. At first, they are polite about it. Then they get kind of grabby. And when they talk to me, they stare right at my chest. Pigs.

An hour into the party, my daughter pulls out a safety pin. With great flourish, she pops the right breast. Then she pops the left breast.

For this, everyone is thankful.

*

It's 10 p.m. and I'm staring into a container of cookie dough ice cream. Only there is no cookie dough left in the cookie dough ice cream. There is only ice cream in the cookie dough ice cream.

This is because some 13-year-old girl stood at the kitchen counter and plucked out all the cookie dough, one sweet spoonful at a time. I don't know this. I sense this, which is about as much evidence as a parent ever needs.

Her: I want to talk to an attorney.

Me: Honey, I'm your father. If you're having a problem with cookie dough, you can tell me.

Her: I want to talk to Johnny Carson.

Me: Johnnie Cochran?

Her: Him too.

Savvy kid. She just hired a lawyer and a comedian.

Her: So what if I did eat all the cookie dough, Dad? Would that be so bad?

She goes on to explain the situation this way. All teenagers have two stomachs--one for real food and one for junk food. So eating cookie dough does not necessarily ruin a teenager's appetite, because she has this other stomach to fill, see, and why am I always picking on her anyway?

I think about this a moment. Then I look down at my own stomach.

Me: So how many stomachs does a guy like me have?

Her: I refuse to answer that.

For that, we are thankful.

*

On the other side of the globe, my best friend from college lives in a tent and a Kevlar vest. He is part of the U.S. peace-keeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. So instead of spending the holidays with friends and family, he'll spend it with his M-16.

"You'd think that the everyday citizens would just be infuriated with the leaders and want to do all they could to get along," he writes. "But that's not the case."

He talks about the suffering he sees. And the ruin from years of war. The homes and cities, he says, look like something from World War II.

My friend is a member of the Army Reserve. He could have refused the assignment. But he didn't.

For people like this, I am thankful.

*

Occasionally, I will drift off to sleep and the little red-haired girl will read a little of the bedtime story on her own before elbowing me awake.

"Dad," she whispers, waking me gently.

So I read a few more pages before drifting back to sleep. While I snore, she reads. It is a pattern I have perfected over 13 years of bedtime stories.

Weary of my catnaps, the 5-year-old cups her hand over my ear and begins to whisper again. It is not so much a whisper as it is a bad kiss. Little kids are always trying to do this, slip in a kiss or a hug when you least expect it.

"Watch it," I warn her.

"Watch what?" she asks.

"You know what I mean," I say sternly. "That kiss. You should know that most of the world's problems started with an innocent kiss. Broken hearts. Bad marriages. Overpopulation. Even wars. They all started with some little kiss."

She is unimpressed by such wisdom. It's clear she will go on with her whisper-kisses no matter what I say.

"Dad," she whispers.

"Yeah?"

"I'm the one who ate the cookie dough," she confesses.

For moments like this, I am thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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