My Dinner With the Constitution

We got my daughter’s grades back. The worst remarks she got were in her gardening class. The teacher isn’t happy about the fact that she doesn’t always dress for gardening, and it’s apparent that because she’s outside digging in the dirt, she forgets that this is a class and she’s being judged on her behavior and participation.

We had a talk about what she might do to bring that grade up. What she said she hated most was when the teacher asked her “What are you grateful for.” It was the same question every time, and she always gave the same answer: photosynthesis. She knew the teacher was unhappy about the fact that she didn’t give the question more thought, but she didn’t care. Just being asked the question made her unhappy.

I understand that unhappiness. I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of what I call “that kumbaya bullshit” that one is asked to participate in during corporate team-building exercises. It’s not that I am not grateful for things, nor is my daughter. It’s the forced revelation that galls me. It’s none of my boss’s business what I like or don’t like about my workplace. I will do my work to the best of my ability, and if I feel there are things to appreciate, I will appreciate them. If I feel those things should be shared, I’ll share. If not, you can’t force me.

I told my daughter that the fifth amendment to the constitution protected her from ever having to say anything that would get her in trouble, and that the next time her gardening teacher asks her to give an answer to a question like “What are you grateful for?” she has my permission to say that she invokes her fifth amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. She said her teacher would likely make her to talk to the administrator, and I told her that’s fine. I stand willing to educate anyone about how the constitution applies in everyday life.

As we ate, it became apparent the kid wasn’t going to eat her veggies. After being commanded, she said that she was going to invoke her constitutional rights.

“Which ones?” I asked.

“I invoke my seventh amendment rights!”

“Great! You’ve invoked the right to a trial by jury. That means that we can ask all these good people here in the restaurant whether you should eat your veggies. If they come back with a yes, you eat them or I send you to jail.” She figured she would have 12% of the restaurant crowd on her side. She took a bite of carrots.

“Okay, I want to plead the eighteenth amendment!”

“Perfect! This means that you will not be allowed to drink hard liquor with your dinner. That’s okay, at the age of 12, that wasn’t likely anyway. But 21 is the magic number, when you turn 21, the 21st amendment, which repeals the prohibition of the 18th amendment, kicks in!”

“I want to plead the ninth amendment!”

“This means that any rights not specifically guaranteed by the federal government are up to the states to protect. The feds may say that children are required to eat their veggies, but it’s up to the states to enforce that requirement.”

“I’m invoking the fourteenth amendment, then.”

“That’s a GREAT one! The fourteenth amendment means that you are entitled to equal protection under the law. It means that any person in the United States is entitled to the same legal protections – trial by jury, ability to attain citizenship, constitutional protections – that everyone else gets. And that includes children. And this is why, when you say in class that you are invoking your fifth amendment rights, those rights are real. They can’t punish you without being in violation of the law.”

I can tell you one thing. She’s grateful to have parents who engage her in adult conversation. By the end of dinner, she was fully owning her rights.

My Life Doesn’t Look Like Yours

One of the things that always surprises and delights me is the kind of trouble human beings get themselves into despite specifically desiring to stay as far away from anything embarrassing as possible. David Sedaris wrote a piece about a time when, at a German hotel, he mistook the manager’s own apartment for the dining room and accidentally sat down to eat breakfast with the man’s family. I normally think of myself as a little too cautious, a little too petrified of public embarrassment to fall into such ridiculous events, but…

…there was the time that I accidentally swallowed the ball of my tongue stud while marching in a parade dressed as a nun…

…and that time that I tore out the rear end of my swimming suit at a popular natural swimming hole and couldn’t get anyone in my family to bring me a towel…

…the many, many times I have found out-of-context meat in Chicago…

and I remember that the mere act of stepping outside one’s front door can lead one to the strangest places.

Today, I went to an appointment with a man that I had never before seen, but with whom I will be working for a while. I had to wait for our appointment, and rather than him coming to the lobby of his building to call me in, he telephoned me, asking me to walk the 25 feet to his office. I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw him, all became very clear.

He was missing a limb.

For the length of the time he and I were conferring, he squirmed and wriggled and grimaced, making it very plain that he was in pain. After a while, he asked me “Does this bother you?” I told him no, but it looked as though it bothered him. He said that no, it didn’t bother him, he was fine. It was a little uncomfortable, though.

“Well, it must be very new,” I said.

“No, not really. This has been like this for, oh, two months.”

Two. Months.

I have now been sucked into that sitcom where the hyper neurotic woman must learn how to work with the handicapped former athlete in denial. It won’t have a laugh track, and a lot of the laughs will be the kind where you’re wincing at the same time.