Bad boys


On Saturday night, I spent time with my reciprocally adopted five-year-old grandson Cooper. It was getting late, and I couldn’t find Charlotte’s Web, so I grabbed a German children’s book.

We snuggled on the couch, and I opened to the first page. Suddenly, I realized that I was about to expose this innocent child–who got so scared by Finding Dory that we had to leave the movie theater–to unimagined levels if mischief that do not end well.

“Cooper,” I said, trying to prepare him. “This book is about bad boys. Very bad boys.” At this, Cooper hopped off the couch, walked over to the Amazon Echo on the kitchen table, and said, “Alexa, play bad boys.” And Alexa did!

Theme song established, I began translating Max und Moritz for Cooper.

“Max and Moritz tied strings into an X, then tied delicious morsels to the end of the strings and left them out for the Widow Bolte’s chickens to find and eat. When they did, it tied the chickens to each other like a string of fish, and in their panic, they wrapped themselves around the branch of a tree. The hens laid one last egg, and then they all died.” 1-10

“The Widow Bolte cried when she found her chickens dead, but decided to roast and eat them. Max and Moritz smelled the chicken roasting, climbed up on the her roof with fishing poles, caught the chickens with hooks, pulled them up, and ate them.”


“The Widow Bolte blamed her dog, Spitz.”


“Next, Max and Moritz nearly sawed through a bridge, then taunted Taylor Böck from the other side. He came after them, the bridge broke, and Taylor Böck plunged into the water.”


“After that, Max and Moritz put gunpowder in Teacher Lämpel’s pipe.”


“The pipe exploded the next time he lit it.”


“Then, Max and Moritz put bugs in Uncle Fritz’s bed.”


“The boys broke into a bakery, fell into a bin of flour, fell into a vat of dough, and the baker kneaded them up and baked them. Somehow they survived being baked, chewed themselves out, and escaped.”


“After that, Max and Moritz cut Farmer Mecke’s sacks of corn, which made the grain run out. But Farmer Mecke caught Max and Moritz, put them in a sack, took them to the miller, and asked him to grind them up. The miller did.”


“And his geese ate up what was left of Max and Moritz.”


The end.

There was a moment of silence. I thought perhaps I’d traumatized Cooper. This was like no children’s book anyone has ever read to him.

“Again! Again!” he said excitedly, hopped off the couch, told Alexa to play Bad Boys, and snuggled in for a second round.

Max und Moritz was written by Wilhelm Busch and published in 1865. It has been read to generations of German children (including myself), who did not resort to lives of crime.

Go figure.

New Year’s Day

Frost lay thick on the ground,
and people in sensible coats,
warm hats, and woolen mittens
gathered to reflect
on New Year’s Day.

But the four-year-old would not
wear her jacket.

“What were you most grateful for last year?” the guide asked.
We plodded down the trail, contemplating,
and the girl bounced past,
with the focused concentration
of a new skipper.

“What did you let go of last year?”
We stopped to recall,
and the four-year-old embraced
the legs of one stranger
after another.

“When did fear hold you back?”
As we remembered,
the girl hid among trees,
chirping occasionally to
let us know where she was.

“What will you stand for in the new year?”
This time, we walked,
and the girl stood still,
watching us flow around her
like a river.

© 2015 Petra Martin

When nature trumps nurture

Parenting a teenager is kicking my butt.

The good news is that my now 15-year-old son has made enormous cognitive leaps in the past three years, and recent testing gives us a peek into his brain that we haven’t had before. He’s been in Special Ed. for three years, but is now essentially at grade level, and the person who conducted his testing has never seen progress like his before. It was she who said, “Maybe all that cognitive development work you’ve been doing actually helped.” By that, she meant Fast ForWord, which, through “games,” strengthens the cognitive weaknesses that make reading difficult.

The bad news is that my son’s behavior in school has him in danger of being suspended because he is so disruptive and disengaged. That behavior is going to keep him in Special Ed. As is the case with many teens, my son has developed an “allergy” to me and tunes out everything I say, which effectively closes the window of opportunity I had for influencing his development through nurture. At this point nature has the upper hand.

I have turned over stone after stone and done everything I know to do for my son, and feeling discouraged, recently told a friend (who happens to be a neuroscientist), “I wonder how much of this challenge is accepting my son the way he is. I keep trying to ‘fix’ him.”

ImageHe said, “So here’s the glorious opportunity that kids provide us: lots of practice by what they say and do in not letting our own adrenals be the boss of us. Remember the old Pink Panther movies? Inspector Clouseau had this manservant, Kato, whose primary job was to try to catch him off guard with a surprise attack. Your son is your Kato, inviting you to become more skilled in the game of mastering your own neurophysiology and escaping from Adrenal Hell.”

He’s right. Not only do I need to view the dynamic between myself and my son differently, I owe every mother I’ve ever judged an apology. I radically overestimated the amount of influence one can have over one’s children.

Though I did everything I could to establish a solid foundation that my son could eventually build a life on, the “house” he builds on that foundation is up to him. Now my task is to let go of the illusion that I have control over this outcome, hope my best was good enough, and comfort myself with stories of what men I respect today did when THEY were teens–including my dear neuroscientist. It is truly a wonder that our species survived.

Oh, and from now on, I’m calling my son Kato.






You could fuel amazing feats of
strength and courage on
the love I feel for you.

You could be faster than
a speeding bullet.
More powerful than a locomotive.
Leap tall buildings in
a single bound.

My love is your superpower.
Now, get out there and
make the world
a better place.

© 2012 Petra Martin

Being afraid–and liking it

Night before last, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a local author. “I just had a thought,” I said. “Maybe you can help me think it through. You know how some people love to be scared? They go to scary movies and pick out the scariest rides at amusement parks? I wonder if some people are like that in real life and just like to be scared.”

I’ve never sought out scary things on purpose, having found real life scary enough. I can only guess that people who deliberately expose themselves to frightening situations must feel safe in all other areas of their lives. No one experiencing the real-life horror of a concentration camp, for example, would queue up to see Friday the 13th.

Now, let’s say that we are eternal, and knowing that makes us feel completely safe as disincarnate beings. We can dip our toe into the sea of mortality whenever we want. Let’s further say that our sense of safety leads some of us to seek out the contrast of deliberately bringing scary situations into our lives when we’re incarnate.

“Am I one of those people?” I wondered. “Am I saying ‘yes’ to scary things just for the experience of it? If so, I’m ready to knock that off right now.”

This morning, while walking through the forest, my thoughts veered toward something frightening, and I stopped myself. “You’re making a choice, Petra,” I said. “You’re choosing to walk into the horror show. Why do you do that?”

I’m beginning to realize that most of the fear I’ve experienced  in life has been anticipatory. My scary pie chart would look something like this:

Enough of that. Here’s to staying off roller coasters and out of horror shows.

The seven deadly sins

I looked up the seven deadly sins the other day, and was saddened to discover that, over the centuries, emotions have made up a significant portion of the list.

Now, “deadly” sins are cardinal sins. You don’t just die if you commit these. Committing a deadly sin puts you in danger of eternal damnation, and each of the sins was traditionally paired with a specific punishment in hell. For being prideful, for example, you could expect to be broken on the wheel, for feeling envious, you could expect to be put in freezing water, and for feeling angry, you could expect to be dismembered alive.

Besides the emotions of pride, envy, and anger, the list has also included the emotion of despair. The fact that emotions made it onto the list at all explains a lot. I have often wondered how emotions came to be so suspect–how feeling, acting, and relying on them came to be taboo. But I can see now how being threatened with eternal damnation for feeling an emotion could motivate you to suppress it.

  1. Genetic Modification
  2. Experimenting on Humans
  3. Polluting the Environment
  4. Causing Social Injustice
  5. Causing Poverty
  6. Becoming Obscenely Wealthy
  7. Taking Drugs

When you pray, move your feet

There’s an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” It has never made sense to me to sit on the couch praying, when there was something I could do to achieve my heart’s desire, so that saying sits well with me.

But I have also been accused of feeling that I need to “earn my keep” in the Universe–that I must always do, and cannot just be. I’ve never really known how much I should be doing and how much I should be leaving to the Universe.

The other day, I read a quote by Abraham Hicks that’s really been bugging me:

Trying too hard IS resisting… for this reason — think about this — if you decide that you want to go to the grocery store and buy a quart of milk, do you ever find yourself trying too hard? Or do you just go get it?

And the reason you just go get it is because you have absolute knowledge – you KNOW. You know you have the ability to go, you know you have the money in your purse, you know the milk will be there when you get there. In other words, there is no doubt and so there is no trying against anything. And so whenever you’re trying too hard, what is happening is there is a part of you that is not believing that it can be.

That all makes sense, but what’s bugging me is: where is the dividing line between trying enough and trying too hard? Where is the dividing line between praying and moving your feet? I mean, do you sit on the couch and pray for a quart of milk, visualize a quart of milk, believe in a quart of milk, have faith that a quart of milk will come to you. . . or do you just go to store and get it? What do you take care of yourself, and what do you leave to the Universe?

I’ve wrestled with this a lot, and forgive me if it’s too obvious, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

My to-do list

  • Everything within my power

The Universe’s to-do list

  • Everything else

It’s that whole you-can’t-win-the-lottery-unless-you-buy-a-ticket argument. I buy my ticket, and the Universe lines that up with the winning numbers.

But maybe I’ve become over-invested in how the Universe answers my prayers.  I mean, isn’t the lottery-ticket analogy basically saying, “OK, Universe, I want money, and here’s how I want you to provide it for me”? If I were the Universe, that’d piss me off. If my son said, “Mama, let’s go to the beach” and then said, “OK, get your purse. Do you have your car keys? Get in the car and start it. Back out of the driveway and turn left when you come to the end. Did you remember my skim board? Turn your blinker on, and then turn left on Thompson Road. Did you remember to bring a towel? OK, now turn your blinker on and turn right on the highway. Watch for traffic!” I’d say, “Forget it. There’s no room for me in this.”

But if I focus on the “what” and let the Universe figure out the “how,” doesn’t that mean praying and not moving my feet?

I’m so confused.

House cats as role models

When our cats give me a sleepy-eyed squint as I pass them throughout the day, I think, “I want to be just like you.” They are so happy. So content. They have such utter faith that their needs will be met, and unlike dogs, they don’t seem to think they have to do anything to earn that.

Me? I’m a dog. A therapist once told me, “You seem to think you need to earn your keep in the universe.” She was right. I don’t know where it comes from. Want me to fetch the ball? OK. Want me to sit? I’m on it. Want me to roll over? Play dead? No problem. Just love me!

Our cats, on the other hand, fully expect us to please and love them. And the funny thing is, we do.

There is much about the religion that I was raised in that I no longer embrace, but the following quote, which is attributed to Jesus, still has me thinking:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Matthew 6:25-34

This is apparently the creed that my cats live by. It works for them. Could it work for me?

Curious Trusting

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Curious” and “Trusting” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Emotions as messengers

I have wrestled my son to bed for the night, and am sitting on my own bed, ready to do some work on my laptop computer.

“Mama,” he calls down the hall, “I’m sad.”

“About what?” I ask, trying to determine whether this is just another ploy for a “sleep-over” with me.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Well, your sadness is just a feeling you’re having. It’s a messenger that has some information for you. What is it trying to tell you?”

After a long pause, he says, “Connor gave me a stick and made me hit Tunji with it.” (Tunji is Connor’s dog.)

“I’m your mother,” I say, “and I know how hard it is to get you to do something you don’t want to do. There’s no way Connor made you hit Tunji.”

Long pause.

“So, you’re feeling sad because you hurt Tunji?” I say.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Tunji forgives you,” I say, knowing that he’s just one tail-wagging ball of love and fogiveness. “Now you need to forgive yourself.”

“How do I do that?” he asks.

“You need to love yourself,” I say.

After a bit, he says, “I still feel sad. Can you tap?”

“Sure,” I say. And after two rounds of tapping, he goes to sleep.

Adrian was born with an instinct to provide and defend by killing, which we don’t really value or create a natural outlet for in the 21st century. Being male, he is the result of thousands of years of natural selection, in which only the best hunters and warriors survived. He loves animals, though, and is often conflicted. One minute he wants to hunt rabbits and deer to provide meat for us, and the next minute, he wants to help a local farmer’s beef cattle escape so they won’t get slaughtered. Sometimes his wires get crossed and he hurts an animal he cares about, such as Tunji.

When Adrian feels sadness and doesn’t know what to do about it, he talks to me. Sometimes, he refers to an undefined jumble of negative emotions as a “clump,” and we sort through it to figure out what he’s feeling and why. This typically happens at bedtime, when he begins to reflect on his day.


Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Sad” card from the Mixed Emotions card deck.