Locoas Parentis: It’s a Real World After All

“I’m home!” I announce as I trudge through the front door in my overcoat, laden with purse and briefcase and reading matter from the office.

“Shh,” my daughter Marcy says, motioning impatiently for me not to block the TV. “This is the best part. They’re about to kick somebody off.” I move aside to watch the screen, on which a cluster of young women in scanty clothing are standing with their hands in their pockets or arms crossed over their bootylicious breasts.

“Which show is this?” I ask.

America’s Next Top Model.”

“Who’s going to get sent home?”

“Rebecca, I hope. She thinks she’s better than all the other girls. Or else Michelle. She isn’t pretty at all.”

“Who do you like most?”

“Keenyah. She’s really funny. And she’s a big underdog. The judges didn’t like her, but she really turned herself around.”

Marcy’s days are filled with schoolwork and sports and choir and her boyfriend, but her nights belong to Rebecca and Michelle and Keenyah and dozens more like them, the cast members of the reality TV shows she adores — Making the Band, The Apprentice, American Idol, The Real World. I’ve tried to watch with her, the way good parents are supposed to, but the allure eludes me. The producers of these shows must handpick cast members for their ability to dissolve into hysteria over imaginary slights. Being subjected to an hour of Rachel and Lacey and Danny and Wes bickering on Real World: Austin is like being at a convention of 7-Eleven clerks. No one thinks, but they sure have a lot to say.

Yet here’s my daughter riveted to the screen, downright vested in whether Noelle or Tatiana or Brandy is going to flub up in front of Tyra Banks. What makes her think this is anything like reality? Reality is the war in Iraq. Reality is the U.S. running secret torture prisons in Europe. Reality is those poor souls down in New Orleans who still don’t have houses.

“Doesn’t Naima have great boobs?” Marcy asks admiringly.

I spend half my time annoyed that my kids don’t take life seriously enough, and the other half worrying that they take it too seriously. One minute I want to shake Marcy and say, “Don’t you realize this is junior year? The year on which your entire future hinges?” The next minute, I’m telling her not to get so down on herself for a bad volleyball game, which is, after all, just a game.

My son Jake, who’s 13, got sentenced to three detentions the other day for buying a laser pointer from another kid in school and then “accidentally” shining said laser pointer at his science teacher. I did my best to listen to Jake’s disjointed account of the whole sorry episode, but I was seething inside. “What good,” I finally began my diatribe, “could you possibly imagine might come from your having a laser pointer at school? I mean, what were you thinking? Did you say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll just buy this nifty laser pointer and then leave it in my pocket for the rest of the day until I get home and it’s okay to use it?’” What I didn’t say was what was really on my mind: how much his lack of foresight, not to mention self-control, scares me, because, well, he’s 13 now, and it won’t be long before somebody’s offering him a joint or a beer, and if he can’t resist pulling out that laser pointer, how’s he going to resist the dare to go on and drink 15 shots in a row and wind up dead of alcohol poisoning? This is motherhood’s special hell: the ability to go from laser pointer to frat hazing death in five seconds flat.

On the other hand, he’s 13. It’s his job to do stupid things like shine laser pointers at school.

When the kids were little, my husband Doug and I were assiduous in erecting barriers between them and the real world. We kept the channels on the TV blocked so all they could watch were Nickelodeon and Mister Rogers. We used to dread visits from Doug’s dad, who spends his days parked in front of CNN. (Suicide bombings! Hostage beheadings! Fifty thousand dead in Turkish earthquake!) Then came 9/11, and Doug and I were parked in front of CNN, fending off increasingly shrill whining from the kids: It was time for Rugrats! What about SpongeBob SquarePants? It was impossible to tell them to shut up and get real. They had no grasp of reality.

In the years since, we’ve tried to find a balance in how we want our kids to view the world — something between a thrilling playground brimming with fun and opportunity, and a grim, forbidding labyrinth full of murderers and child molesters. It’s hard to do. You don’t want to overload on the fear factor, but you’re terrified it’s the one thing you don’t mention that will wind up with you talking to Nancy Grace. I know what Beth Twitty said to Natalee when seeing her off to Aruba: “Behave yourself.” “Be good.” “Be a lady.” But she didn’t say, “Don’t get drunk in bars and leave with strange men.” Even though you remember with perfect clarity what you were like at that age, it feels too much like granting permission to admit that you can conceive of your child doing such a thing.

In December, Marcy’s school choir went to Disney World for four days. Doug attended the pre-trip meeting for parents. “To say the kids are excited doesn’t quite capture it,” he reported back. “They are beside themselves.” For many of Marcy’s classmates, it would be their first plane ride. For all, it would be their first vacation without parental supervision. “We’re on our own all day long,” Marcy announced, “from after breakfast until check-in at night.” Yippee.

I’ve never been to Disney World. It’s sort of a family tradition not to go. My parents objected to the rank commercialism, the legal bullying, the “It’s a Small World” crap factor. “What a racket,” my dad still says today. He rants that the park must have paid Marcy’s choir director a kickback. “What’s it costing you to send her?” he demands, and rolls his eyes when I tell him the price.

And what do I get for my $700? I get to drop Marcy off at the high school (“Behave yourself! Be good! Be a lady!”), wave as the bus pulls away, and then go home to wait for news of plane crashes, abductions, sniper attacks and thrill-ride malfunctions. The odds are that nothing will happen. But still … stuff does. And I am finding it hard to breathe until I know that nothing has. At the gym, I pedal away and watch the scroll line on CNN and wonder: What if the screen abruptly signals BREAKING NEWS and announces that AirTran flight 782 has nosedived coming into Orlando? There’s an online flight-­tracking site, but I’m afraid to go there. I imagine it showing a little icon of a plane against a backdrop of the East Coast, moving slowly southward. What if suddenly, just like that, the plane disappears as I’m watching? Where is the Bermuda Triangle, anyway?

“It isn’t like that,” Doug scoffs. “It just tells you whether the flight’s on time or not.”

“What if the plane crashed? What would it say then?”

“The plane isn’t going to crash.”

“But what if it did?”

“Are you going to be like this for the whole four days?”

Marcy calls on her boyfriend’s cell phone to let us know they arrived safely at the Enchanted Kingdom. She’s pretty keyed up. “I saw Jasmine and Cinderella and Snow White and Pocahontas. Mom, they are so beautiful,” she reports. “And guess who else we saw? Vanessa Williams.”

“The Vanessa Williams who used to be Miss America?”

“Uh-huh. She was giving a concert. She is so beautiful.” Wow. Who knew Mickey had the power to erase a background in soft porn? “Mom, you would love it here. Everything is perfect. The grass is perfect, the palm trees are perfect, the castle is perfect.” The words are spilling out of her. “Everything runs the way it’s supposed to. It all works perfectly. Even the weather was perfect. I wore shorts today!” She laughs, sitting on the bed in her hotel room overlooking the pool.

Here at home, they’re predicting snow.

On the morning Marcy’s due to fly back, the snow hits, all along the East Coast. I watch the clock on my computer at work, having memorized her schedule for the day. Breakfast, 7:30. Bus to Epcot, 8:30. Bus to airport, 4:15.

Takeoff is set for 6:30 p.m. I’m stuck at the office. Doug calls from home at 7, knowing I won’t have checked the website. The plane is still on the ground. I drive home. An hour later, her flight still hasn’t taken off. And two hours later. Three hours. “My God,” Doug says. “They were supposed to be here at 10:30. It’ll be more like 2 a.m.”

Four hours. Marcy calls, sounding chipper. “We’re still at the airport!” she reports. “Nobody seems to know what the problem is. It’s kind of fun, though. They’re being much nicer to us now than before the plane was delayed. They’re giving us full cans of soda instead of those little half-cans.”

That’s when I realize it doesn’t much matter what Doug and I tell the kids about the wide world out there. When you’re 16, a four-hour airport delay is just part of the adventure, and six extra ounces of Coke is enough to earn your gratitude. Marcy’s looking at the world through a wide-angle lens, anxious to take it all in; my focus is just the opposite, broad in hindsight but narrowed down now to her.

When I look back on my life, I see the times I didn’t buckle up, the cars I got into with friends who’d had too many beers, the bleachers I fell off at the Grateful Dead concert, the insane, reckless things I did and yet came out scot-free, intact. What I can’t confess to my daughter is my fear that somewhere there’s a Cosmic Calculator tallying it all up, and that the fact her father and I escaped unscathed only makes it more likely the hammer will fall on her, perhaps this night, as she flies home from the Magic Kingdom in a swirl of snow.

I close my eyes and picture Marcy and her friends in the airport, sipping from their big cans of soda, laughing together as they show off the trinkets they’ve bought and the photos they’ve taken. They’re happy. “All we want is for them to be happy,” we say, because with what we know of the real world, it seems so unlikely they will. Not just because Natalee’s killer is out there, and he’s tall, dark and handsome, a regular Prince Charming. But because even if you should be lucky enough to avoid that sort of high drama, real life turns out to be what the fairy tales and reality TV programs never show, the long, tough day-to-day haul of striving and dwindling and disillusionment and loss that’s glossed over as “happily ever after.” And who would tell a child that?

“They’ve taken off,” Doug says from his computer screen.

I’m dozing on the sofa when the phone rings. “Mom? We’re home. Can you come pick me up?” It’s 4 a.m. I’m limp with relief as I scrape snow off the car. At the high school, the kids are giddily exhausted, jabbering about their adventures, firmly convinced that these past four days, this intense immersion in Never-Neverland, was more like the real world than their regular routine.

“I hugged Mickey goodbye,” Marcy says, sleepy but smiling, a sprinkling of pixie dust still in her hair.

The day after Jake buys the laser pointer at school and gets three detentions, he goes to Turkey Hill, buys another laser pointer, takes it into school, and shines it at his teacher.

It isn’t funny. Still, I can’t help thinking of that scene in Disney’s Fantasia, the one where Mickey, the sorcerer’s apprentice, knows he shouldn’t put on his master’s hat — but does. My son’s defiance is a form of innocence, really, born of a splendid, singularly teenaged sense of invulnerability (“I won’t get caught, not me!”) that will get hacked down to size soon enough. If it doesn’t kill him first.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Marcy says suddenly, as snowflakes storm the headlights. “There weren’t enough rides to go on. The food was really expensive, and it wasn’t very good. The chaperones were stressed out and crabby the whole time. And the lines were so long.”

I feel gratified, justified. Didn’t I tell you? That’s the real world! And yet I’m mournful that the magic wore off so soon. There are years and years of reality and imperfection in her future. What does she have to look forward to? To live for?

“Still,” she says, and yawns extravagantly. “We had a really great time.”