Books Are Pretty

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Be Happy Or I'll Scream!

Several years ago, my husband, Steve, and I were flying from O'Hare to Augusta, Georgia to visit my family across the Savannah River in South Carolina. Sitting next to us in our cramped coach seats was an old man who tightly gripped Steve's shirt sleeve the minute he collapsed out of the aisle and onto the seat next to us.

"Uh, hello, sir," said Steve, glancing down at the liver-spotted hand grasping his elbow.

"Young man, have you served your country?" he demanded.

"I...was in the Ohio National Guard, yes sir," replied Steve, who shot me a where-is-this-going? look.

"Ah, there's a good man," said the old man pleasedly, and without relaxing his grip on his captive audience, he began to pour out a rush of stories that lasted the entire flight, war stories about his derring-do as a fighter pilot in World War II.

For a little while I politely listened, too, until I realized that my presence by my husband's side was not welcomed. In fact, I couldn't have received a clearer message had the old man handed me a parachute.

Watching Steve writhe under the old man's grip, speaking only in uh-huhs, yes, sirs, and oh, wows, I was somewhat pleased to find that sexism was working in my favor for a change. He thinks I couldn't be a veteran? He thinks because I'm a woman I just wouldn't understand what he had to say? Guess what? He's right! I'm free to read my book and watch Seinfeld on the in-flight tv! I'm off the hook for having to follow the ingrained lessons my mother forced me to obey all those years ago about respecting the elderly! Down with your war stories, old man!

To be truthful, however, both the old man and I were wrong. I love war stories. And the old man was right about one thing - sometimes, to fully appreciate them, it helps to be a soldier yourself.

Nationally syndicated morning radio host Sheri Lynch, author of Hello, My Name Is Mommy, her best selling book about pregnancy and new motherhood, has written a second book about family life with toddlers. Well, Be Happy Or I'll Scream is ostensibly a book about life with toddlers. What it really is, though, is a series of war stories, with Sheri and her husband Mark as the dogfaces in the trenches versus their daughters, three-year-old Olivia and one-year-old Caramia. Despite Sheri and Mark's best efforts to hold the fort and maintain tv sitcom standards, they are out- maneuvered at every turn by the little fascists. And of course, there is dissention in the ranks as Sheri and Mark battle each other for higher rank.

Evidently the Nazis marching down the Champs Elysees doesn't move me as much as a woman writing about her daughter giving the entire family a stomach virus she picked up at preschool. Which is horribly wrong of me, I know, but there it is.

The spine of Lynch's book is her quest to make her family conform to a sitcom ideal. Every month or so, she plans adventures for her brood, à la The Bradys go to Hawaii.

Even though Lynch is less ambitious than Carol Brady, who had an entire unionized crew assisting her, including someone for hair and makeup, after all, things still manage to go horribly awry.

When you haven't fought in this particular war, you really don't realize how agonizing it can be to take two toddlers to the Art Institute of Chicago, as Lynch details in Chapter Three. Or how carried away you can get when planning your children's birthday parties. Or the horror that dawns on you with the realization that you don't need your birth control pills anymore, because your existing children won't allow you to have sex anyway.

All these stories have been told before, of course, but then again, if the stories are well-told, as Lynch's are, they're bound to be entertaining.

The weakest part of the book comes in the end, when Lynch attempts to tie everything together and tell her readers, in a style as saccharine as an episode of Full House, the Valuable Lesson She Learned About Being a Family. The sentimental moralizing may be sugar-coating sprinkled on top to make it palatable, but the meat and guts and spilled blood are what we all secretly love reading about, and when Lynch really gets rolling in misery is when wives everywhere will follow their spouses around the house, reading the book out loud and cackling with that strange combination of sympathy and schadenfreude that other mothers can do so well.

And because misery loves lots and lots of company, I did share one of her tales with Steve, the chapter where her husband rents an RV and takes the family on a Florida vacation. This has been a dream of ours as long as we've been married, and Lynch squashed it flat. And what kind of wife would I be if I hesitated even one second in using the book to squash my husband's dream, too?

"Listen to this," I said to him as he lay sprawled out on the couch. "They rented an RV to travel around the country with, just like we want to do."

"Oh, yeah?" he said.

"Yeah. Guess how much it costs to fill up the gas tank? Eighty-six dollars."


"And guess how often they have to fill the tank? Every two hours!"

Steve stared at me, aghast, then said, "I don't think I'll ever be that rich."

He better work harder then, is all I have to say, because I don't want to miss out on the opportunity to drag my children, like Lynch did, into a restaurant called the Ragged Ass Saloon on Pine Island, the only island in Florida with no beach and 12-inch long mosquitos.

Television sitcoms and battlefields be damned, that's the kind of family memory you want.

P.S. - And since Lynch so kindly gave me the reality check on RVs, let me return the favor by telling her this: in the basement of the Art Institute is a children's library, an enclosed room with rows of books, a nice librarian, and a room full of big cushy pillows to relax in and read. One of you takes the kids downstairs, while the other one sneaks upstairs to look at Warhol's lipsticked Mao. Then switch off.
Be Happy Or I'll Scream!
by Sheri Lynch
St. Martin's Press
Published February, 2006
240 pp
ISBN: 0-312-34233-0

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