The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit
One summer Sunday when I was about 8 years old, our friends Anne and Peggy and their two kids, Lee and John, came over to our house. I'm not sure what the adults were doing—sitting in the house or the yard talking or cooking, probably—but the four of us kids were playing outside. We had a GMC pickup truck with a cap on the back at the time, and my father had tricked it out with carpet remnants and curtains. (My sister and I had slept back there during the long drive from Boston to Disney World the summer before, if I have my timeline right.) Because the back was separate from the front, my father had also installed an intercom system in the truck. We could push a button on a little controller and ring my parents up front to tell them that we had to pee or whatever. (We didn't have to tell them we were hungry, because my mom packed a great big grocery bag of snacks for us.)
Anyway, on this particular Sunday the truck was parked in the driveway, and we were playing around it. I must've asked if we could play *in* the truck at some point, because I know my mom told us not to play with the intercom. I have no idea how long after this admonishment it was that we started playing with the intercom, but play with it we did... until we broke it. And boy, were my parents angry. Not ONLY had we played with the intercom when they'd specifically told us NOT to, but we'd BROKEN IT.
I know that the day we broke the intercom was a Sunday because on Sundays at 7pm we always watched The Wonderful World of Disney before going to bed, and on this night, as punishment, we were sent to bed early—at 6:30pm instead of 7:30 or 8 (or whenever Disney was over). I'm not sure whether my parents realized that by sending us to bed early they were also forbidding us to watch Disney (probably), but they almost certainly did not realize when they doled out the punishment that missing Disney meant missing Part 2 of The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit.
When I realized that I'd be missing Part 2 of The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, I practically rent my pajamas. I was a certifiable horse nut by this time, and I'd been looking forward to watching the second half of Gray Flannel Suit for an ENTIRE WEEK. I couldn't believe my parents could be so cruel. And lord knows, if I'd realized that this—THIS!—would be the punishment, I'd have listened more carefully to my mother and never even breathed on that damn intercom. My self-absorbed 8 year-old mind never saw it coming, however.
How my parents could have remained calm and resolute when I was sitting at the top of the stairs crying and shrieking, "it's not FAIR!" and "I KNOW YOU'RE DOWN THERE WATCHING IT WITHOUT ME!", I'll never know. What I can guess now is that they were trying to watch 60 Minutes (not so much to avoid further cruelty to their daughter, but rather because they didn't care a whit for The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit), but with my sobs and pleadings drowning out Morley Safer, they were probably doing more teeth-gritting than TV-watching. It took incredible stamina, and I'm sure it also took a temporary—if only for the hour that I wailed—toll on their marriage. It's a difficult thing to present a United Front in the face of a despondent 8 year-old.
To this day, I've never seen the end of The Hose in the Gray Flannel Suit (I remember trying to find it on video when I was in college, and being unsuccessful), and I've obviously never forgotten the shock and horror of the unforeseen consequences of my actions. I behaved badly, not only disobeying my parents, but doing actual damage, too.
I thought of The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit when I told the Beaner that there would be no bedtime story tonight, after he called me an inappropriate name. At first he treated the news as he usually does: mostly by ignoring it, and partly by flouting it. I helped him into his jammies, and then he dove under his loft bed to retrieve a book. "Let's go brush your teeth," I said. "I want to read a book," he replied. "No," I said, not unkindly. We marched to the bathroom for a final pee, and he looked grim while I brushed his teeth. When we returned to his bedroom, he again asked to read a story. "No," I said again, removing the book he'd tossed on the bed. He started to whine.
"I'm sure you're sorry NOW that you called me a ________," I said, cutting off the beginning of the tantrum without really raising my voice, "because this is what it got you. This is not me doing this to you. This is you doing this to yourself. Your bad behavior loses you TV privileges. It loses you classroom privileges. And tonight it lost you story privileges. YOU control your destiny. YOU can decide to earn these things you want by behaving well, by not using potty language, by controlling your body and respecting your parents, teachers, and classmates. I know you can do it. It's up to YOU." I turned out the light, turned on the HEPA filter, and closed the door, and then I came back to the head of the bed and reached for his hand. I wanted him to know that I wasn't walking out on him, that I still loved him and would stand there and hold his hand until he fell asleep, but he WOULD be falling asleep. There would be no story.
He thrashed about to show his displeasure, and I told him it was pointless to tantrum now. He was expected to go to sleep. He tossed about for a while longer, but more in his usual mode of pre-sleep restlessness and less in protest. "I'm sorry I called you a ________," he finally said. "Thank you," I replied. "I appreciate your apology." He apologized two more times in the next five minutes, and then I said, "Your apology is accepted. I don't want you saying that word any more now." A couple minutes later he said simply, "I'm sorry." I thanked him again and told him that now it was time for sleeping. His body twitched with sleep for the first time about a minute later, and the second twitch—the one that tells me I can withdraw my hand without waking him—came a minute after that.
I know the first two apologies at least were designed to get him the story, and I harbor no illusions that his behavior will improve markedly after tonight. I also have no worries that missing out on a story tonight will scar him for life. I do hope, however, that it leaves a mark. A little horseshoe-shaped brand on his psyche to remind him of consequences wouldn't be a bad thing at all.