Fit to Be Tied
My father's comforting gray hair and framed law degree often tricked people into believing he was the textbook example of fatherhood at its best. Unlike my mother, who tried to drown me by driving through the car wash with the sunroof open, Dad was seen as the more reliable parent. The one who actually paid attention during parent-teacher conferences and took us to Mommy and Me yoga classes. As it turned out, neither of my parents could be considered responsible. Mom was off buying argyle sweatshirts on sale, and my father thought "parenting" happened when he sat me down next to our arthritic spaniel and her IV bag (she was special) and taught me important life lessons while 1980s pop star George Michael crooned from the stereo.
Dad covered writing thank you notes, looking smart while reading the newspaper, and mastering the Rubik's Cube, despite a severe case of poor eye-hand coordination. Tuesday nights were reserved for learning the inner workings of cigar humidors and memorizing the grape varieties of the Napa Valley. Dad wanted me to be just like him: a well-rounded freak. As a result, he tried to instill in me an oppressive love and interest in twentieth century communism and an absolute burning hatred toward child leashes.
I'm talking about the harnesses that look oddly similar to the ones strapped to the epileptic, alopecia-ridden dachshunds in the dog park. The kind of harness that straps around the midsection and crushes a lung before it lets the pup get a good grip on the edge of a wax hamburger wrapper. Unlike the canine version, child leashes are disguised as backpacks, usually exotic animal backpacks. It's not uncommon to see a monkey clutching the ribcage of a toddler, the primate's tail slyly wrapped around Mom's wrist. Child leashes are almost unnoticeable in a large crowd. Almost.
My father hates child leashes almost as much as he despises people who drive their convertibles with the tops down on the highway. And that's saying something. He doesn't believe in putting children on leashes and parading them around like poodles in the Westminster Dog Show. Dad makes the natural association of leash with animal, something toddlers aren't supposed to be treated like, unless it's Halloween and they're trick-or-treating as a cat (or in my case for October 1999, a bed bug).
But how did leashes even make the evolutionary turn from being used to restrain Pompeian Lassies (chained, heroic dogs immortalized in ancient Roman mosaics) to being used to keep track of wobbly three year olds? I haven't uncovered a new perspective or answer through my research. But I think our control-freak ways and obsession with fear may have something to do with it. Crime rates are dwindling, but child leash sales are higher than ever. No one can explain this sudden rise in popularity. Maybe the harness's pretty color and built-in security feature has something to do with it. (An aggressive tug on the leash obviously means that a pedophile who lives too close to a school, uses binoculars to watch kids play freeze-tag, and eats his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crust cut off has just tried to add another smiling face to the back of a milk carton.)
It's important to mention that the original child harness was not designed in the shape of a dog, dinosaur, or ladybug. It didn't look like a weird, felt umbilical cord. And it wasn't used to give little Johnny whiplash if he wandered too close to the bored Asian teenager handing out tooth-picked Orange Chicken samples in the food court. Known as leading strings, the first documented example of child leashes dates back to seventeenth century Europe. (Napoleon even stuck one on his kid.) They were sewn into place on the shoulders of clothing and helped put an end to all those bumps and bruises that come along with learning to walk. (Hemophilia was on the rise, and it wasn't practical to let an entire line of succession get wiped out just because your kid wandered into the pointy corner of a coffee table.) If the child tripped over a rock and was about to careen down a well, Mom could grab the looped strings on her daughter's magenta dress and whisk her to safety. Or actually, whisk her into the hands of a nanny.
Three centuries later, toddler harnesses migrated across the Atlantic. Their introduction into mainstream American society seems to coincide with the baby boomers (my parents' generation) having children, the premiere of America's Most Wanted (my favorite show), and the realization that an adult's success was a direct reflection of their delicate upbringing (or in my case, careless upbringing). During commercial breaks, Moms listened to experts swear that harnesses cleverly disguised as giraffe backpacks were the only way to deter a paroled ice cream truck driver with a bad case of sticky fingers. Women didn't even think about how ridiculous it looked to stop for a perfume sample when a child was connected to their wrist via a three-foot lion's tail.
Listen, I'm no biology genius — seriously, I was the only kid in my class who couldn't locate the kidneys on an anatomical diagram — but it seems as if survival of the fittest doesn't matter anymore. All those kids who would've wandered into oncoming traffic, hidden in clothing racks at the mall, and looked at puppies in the shifty, nervous man's trunk were now living past the age of three. And that was all the reassurance a mother needed when deciding whether to let her son live like a three-year-old Fabio with free range of the McDonald's ball pit or like a tired, wet-socked member of the Red Army. And Chairman Mao always wins when it comes to safety.
My parents didn't leash me. As opposed to their parenting counterparts, they took a more relaxed approach in raising me. (And they figured Stockholm's Syndrome set in pretty early.) Mom and Dad didn't notice when they left matchbooks on top of my Bette Midler wig, forgot to sweep up a shattered champagne glass, or left the family spaniel's used IV needles on the laundry room floor. While my parents were wonderful in some areas — they let me spread as much butter as I wished to on my croissant and taught me more legal terminology than Judge Judy knew — they were extremely lax in the safety department. So, at the age of six, I decided that if my parents wouldn't give me the protection an elephant-shaped harness would provide, I would leash myself. I would follow every single safety precaution possible. I'd be hyper-vigilant. And shortly after, I started finding large clumps of hair on my pillow, stopped eating solid foods, and was told by my pediatrician that I was one hallucination short of a psychotic break.
My parents didn't worry about a deranged paperboy pressing a rag full of chloroform to my face. Kidnapping didn't even cross their minds. I, on the other hand, was very concerned about being chained to the wall of some guy's basement, spending my days there nibbling on Saltines while a posse of homemade taxidermied armadillos glared at me. I wanted to take all the necessary safety precautions but my mother refused to cooperate. A can of pepper spray was out of the question, and I couldn't even convince her to buy me a rape whistle. (We finally settled on a mini bottle of Listerine and a harmonica, neither of which I thought would be very helpful in warding off an over-zealous postal worker.)
I longed for a day when I could sleep in peace without a pyramid of Campbell's soup cans in front of my bedroom door. I tried to keep living my life as normally as a stressed-out, balding, gaunt, borderline paranoid schizophrenic could, but it was difficult. Certain aspects of my life I just wasn't willing to part with, such as my afternoon scooter ride. A solo scooter ride was enjoyable, but certainly risky. There were a few suspicious people in the neighborhood (especially the retired fur trappers who held court in the pink stucco house on the corner), and I had yet to finish up the background checks on all of my neighbors. Plus, my rides were getting increasingly difficult due to a newly acquired tremor and a sore back caused by the heavy emergency pack I kept balanced on my shoulders.
Before leaving the house, I made sure to hand my mother a post-it-note scribbled with a quick description of my clothing, just in case the police needed it for a future investigation. She'd look up from a legal document and say, "Hey, there's this guy driving a red truck who's snatching up brunettes. You heard about him?"
Of course I'd heard of him. I knew the color of every car in the neighborhood, and only the fur trappers drove red vehicles. Plus, I'd recently given up television cartoons in favor of Amber Alerts. I knew every kidnapping suspect's name, weight, and horoscope sign. "Just make sure you bring your identification card, and you'll be fine," Mom said, before glancing back down at her desk.
The child identification card was the one step my parents took to prevent me from being another one of those kids who spend most of their childhood in the backyard shed of an organized sex offender. Except, my parents didn't tell me I was getting an ID. The day after I watched a riveting documentary about the dangers of illegal immigration, I was yanked out of a multiplication lesson and taken to a small room covered with maps of the world. Particularly, countries with major human trafficking industries. Upon my arrival, a man in a government-issued polo started fingerprinting me. I thought I was getting deported, but had no clue as to where. "Habeas Corpus!" I yelled, trying to think of any legal term that was relevant.
I sobbed as the man photographed me, recorded my blood type, and coerced me into signing what looked like an agreement promising to live the rest of my life in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. He sent me back to class with a shiny plastic card that wasn't printed in Khmer and a lollipop. When I slid into my desk on the verge of having a grand mal seizure, my teacher gave me a handful of peppermints and told me therapy might help. I inspected the peppermints for traces of arsenic and then suggested a child harness in the shape of a unicorn, but she didn't pay attention to that request.
After the deportation incident, my neurosis hit a new high. And my jealousy of harnessed children became even more noticeable. The only thing a leashed child worried about was if a lone bag of cotton candy was out of his reach. (That must be the toddler's version of purgatory.) Unlike me, they didn't worry about being stuffed in a burlap bag with a sock muffling their whimpered legal terms. They didn't feel the need to wear cellophane body suits (extra padding in case I really was a hemophiliac). And they didn't even have to scold their parents when it took them seven minutes and thirty-three seconds to come investigate the off-key whistling in the closet. Some kids just got all the luck.
Leash kids had responsible and rabidly safe Moms and Dads. Parents who knew not to eat oysters in R-less months. Parents who realized it was time to turn down George Michael's greatest hits and stop your kid from cutting her palm open with a box cutter (I was making a white distress flag). Parents who figured out what their kid was trying to say when she showed them a glossy magazine picture of a very happy, well-adjusted leashed child.
There's a video on the internet of a woman pulling her two-year old son across the carpeted floor of a Verizon Store. Pulling him face-down by his leash. She got some time in jail, and the kid got a turtle-shaped rug burn on his neck. Many people view this as the defining piece of evidence in the fight against child harnesses. (Has there ever been an easier scapegoat than this one?) And all I see is a kid suffering from a bad anxiety attack that left him crippled and unable to walk.
I should've been leashed. I probably should've even been institutionalized. On some level I agree with my father and think child leashes are Satan's play toy. And even though harnesses are safe, adults and toddlers can't both run around with leashes on because then it gets weird and inappropriate.
On my own anxious level, I'm all for leashes. Because I'm convinced that if I'd had the option of wearing a unicorn child harness, I'd be different. Normal, even. Maybe I wouldn't spend hours taking bubble baths, smelling lavender extract straight from the bottle, and attempting not to worry about the increase of Amber Alerts in my area. Maybe if someone else had done the worrying for me, I'd be able to drive my scooter in a straight line and not end up with a skinned knee and some internal bleeding. Maybe if I'd been leashed, I wouldn't cover my balding head with my Bette Midler wig and leave the house, praying there's no rabid Beaches fan waiting for me in his red truck with a rag full of chloroform.