Shaving the devil’s neck

The neck of my 18-year-old son was bent over the bathroom sink, and I took this as a good moment to bring up the subject of recreational drug use. Eli was heading to Gathering of the Vibes, and he had spent the morning packing the car and communicating with the two buddies he was traveling with. Time ran out, and, instead of going to the barber shop, he enlisted me to cut his hair and shave his neck.

“Eli, I know there can be a lot of fun and debauchery at these music festivals.”

Silence from the young man.

I pressed on. “On Sunday I read an article in the newspaper about this new drug – “

Eli interrupted me. “Yeah I read that. Bath salts.”

“Right, bath salts. Anyway, so a lot of times at these big public festivals, people are having a good time – and I totally get that – and sometimes doing impulsive things. Like saying yes when someone offers them a new drug. They think, oh, what the heck.”

Eli was shirtless, and my hand was on his naked shoulder. He sat on a desk chair I had pulled from a bedroom into the bathroom and faced the sink, not me. “Mom, everyone knows you should never buy anything from someone you don’t know.”

“I’m not sure you are getting my point. Eli, people are getting pretty fucked up from this drug. The damage lasts for months.” [Note: This is the first time ever I addressed Eli directly with the F-word. It was the best word in the situation.]

“Mom, I am not stupid.”

“I don’t think you are. But I do think people let down their guard when they’re having a good time and – “

“Mom, I am not interested in bath salts.”

“Well, I just wanted to bring this up so you could think about it ahead of time. I don’t want you to make a foolish decision and end up in the emergency room.”

The wet shaving with a razor hadn’t been going so well, so I wiped the white Noxema foam off his neck and tried the electric shaver. Not as close a shave, but an easier go for me.

“Mom, did you ever think that article is exactly in line with the anti-marijuana propaganda of the thirties?”

“What?” I asked him. I felt disoriented, and I wondered if I had spaced out during some point of our conversation and lost the logic trail.

“So that article in the New York Times could be propaganda, attempting to frighten people just like how propaganda in the 1930s tried to get people to fear marijuana. Notice how the reporter didn’t include any information from people who were not hurt by using it.”

Whoa. He changed the terms of the argument. I never know what to do when this happens – when a smart and quick-witted person throws me a conversational curveball. Often, I end up mute, an argument loser.

“Eli!” I was scrambling. All I could think of was his name and my tone of voice: serious, plaintive.

“Hey, Mom. Be cool. I’m just playing devil’s advocate with you. Can’t you tell?”

His neck was as smooth as I could get it with my amateur hands and tools. I wanted to abort the conversation right there. There was no way I could win, persuade him, get him to the point where he would say, Mom, thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. Obviously, you care a lot about me and want me to be safe. I am going to heed your words. If only.

However, just because someone plays devil’s advocate doesn’t mean they hold a trump card. While it would have been easier to throw in the towel (the one covered with shaving cream and tiny dark hairs), I persisted and went back to my original position.

“Eli, the point is, I want you to have a good time at the festival and not get hurt. People think they’re invincible when they’re not. Think ahead and don’t be tempted.”

“Mom, it was just the devil’s advocate talking.”

It would be so much easier as a parent to adopt a Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy. Conversations would be cheerier and sleep easier. I wouldn’t have to recognize that my children are individuals, with their own desires, choices, and consequences. Wouldn’t the world of parents and children be more harmonious if our values and behaviors were homogenous?

While I prefer peace to discord in all relationships, to believe that’s possible would be naïve. Worse than disagreement, however, is empty or absent communication, to not know or be known to the people dearest to us, including our children, including the rough spots.

Last night I texted Eli late to see if he and his friends had arrived safely at the Gathering. I went to bed having not heard back from him. This morning I checked my phone.

Just before midnight, he wrote: “Been here awhile. Amazing music! Absurd! Indescribable!”

I smiled and texted back: “Great! Drink water. Swim. Xo mom.”

He wants to have fun, and of course I want him to. It’s my job that he be safe (and hydrated — there’s a heat wave this weekend).

I want both of what we want to be possible.

Image, “Bloc d’Alun,” by daveoratox on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.

15 thoughts on “Shaving the devil’s neck

  1. Although my kids are not at the age where they would even consider experimenting with drugs/alcohol, I was totally inside your head. (must be the great writing 😉

    I hate the warning “talk to you kids about drugs” because it isn’t effective – at least not in absence of other discussion. Jen and I have always had a very open and honest dialogue with Noah and Owen about anything. If they ask a question, we answer it honestly and with all the detail that is required at the time.

    In fact, Jen just had the sex discussion with Noah about 3 weeks ago. We knew it was coming. We discussed the how and “when is the right time”. We both realized it would just happen when it happened. And it did. One day Jen was blow drying her hair and he asked a very benign, rather clinical question about the body. Jen simply asked, “Noah, do you know about sex?” To which he replied “Yeah, mom.”.

    Well, apparently he didn’t. He knew what his friends told him (which wasn’t very much). Jen asked him a few probing questions and as it turns out he knew nothing. But after about 10 minutes, he knew what he needed to know about it physiologically. Rather than go into the religious, emotional aspects of it…Jen wanted to see what questions he had first and let the conversation go from there. So the question came up (naturally)… “Do you make a baby every time you have sex?” Rather than back away and avoid the discussion…Jen simply said, “no, when you have sex, it feels good…so sometimes adults do it just for that reason.” After that she continued with the obligatory “only with someone you love” and “your are not old enough to understand quite yet…but you definitely will” type statements…as any parent would. But tried to make sure he understood it was a good thing, but an adult thing. And certainly nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of….but still something that is personal and private.

    I have to admit, I was proud of both of them. And I guess of me too. Not that I ever thought sex would be a hard discussion, but it just made me realize that my kids can tell me anything. They feel comfortable around us and not a single topic is off limits.

    When you described your hand on Eli’s shoulder and HIS comfortability in that situation despite the topic at hand, he seemed generally comfortable. I hope I have that. Especially when it comes to topics like drugs that can be difficult for both parent and child. Good work Jane (and I guess Jimmy gets some credit too 😉

    • Sounds like Jen handled that perfectly. Thanks for sharing that. It’s great when you see the signs that your kids are comfortable around you, and that no “single topic is off limits.”
      Honestly, though, the challenge for me in talking about drugs and drinking is that, actually, I’m not that comfortable with this topic. And it’s scary, that Eli is actually old enough to be out there among the dangers of the world and making his own decisions. What I want to say is “No/never” or threaten somehow or simply use a scare tactic. But how realistic would that be? I really had to prod myself to have this conversation — if I didn’t communicate my own trepidation in the post, I’m glad to have the opportunity to do it in this reply to your generous comment, Bryan.

    • How old are your kids? At our house, no single topic is off-limits with the parents, but now that our daughter has turned 13, there are topics that she has, in an unspoken way, made off-limits. These are not the topics that parents consider “heavy” like sex and drugs, but more social interaction topics. Like why are the people you were friends with last year not calling you anymore?

      We do have conversations about race and class, but these can be difficult. She seems to have internalized from the world around her that certain things should need to be voiced very cautiously. Things like “Why are African-American kids that I don’t even know taunting me because I am white?” And “How come African-American kids are allowed to use ‘Jewish’ as a derogatory term?” and “I hate it when my African-American friends straighten their hair. Why aren’t they proud of who they are?” and “Why do poor girls want to have babies? Don’t they know that it will keep them poor?” Whoa, talk about difficult topics! I’m never exactly sure how to address them, but I do my best.

  2. If someone can’t shave his own neck, a PSA against drug abuse seems a reasonable charge for that service.

    More important, I’m struck by how effectively you’ve helped me understand your concern, but I’ll never know what it feels like to have a parent-child conversation from the parent’s perspective. I’m sure it resonates even more for those who do know that feeling.

    • j3, is it possible for a person to shave the *back* of his own neck? If so, I’ll get his father to teach him.
      I’m glad my concern came across here, as I hope it did to Eli in the moment. He thinks of me as conventional — “because of your strict upbringing, mom” — and I wonder if appreciates my sincerity.

      • A bi-fold mirror helps, but yes, I maintain my own hair. Part of the reason is that when I’m done cutting it I can step into the shower right then and there and not have to deal with the hair-down-the-neck irritations.

    • Although I have talked to each of the kids about sex, if I recall it was a talk with an 8 or 9 yr old Eli that was most interesting. Perhaps I should simply write a digest of all the interesting talks with the kids about sex. A good topic.

  3. yes, thank you for sharing this. i could really feel the tightrope you were walking and was especially compelled by the section where you mentioned it would be easier to throw in the towel. i feel that was a crucial moment in your conversation and i am glad you powered through your wobbly feelings to finish the task. i know this talk is a bit down the line with my kid but i know i’ll think about this post when it’s time.

  4. Jane, great text! Same here: the festival is MELT, the shaved neck is helping her packing her bag, the “drug talk” also includes “don´t go anywhere where you can´t get out” (last year´s horrible accident at Duisburg)…

    • I wonder if Eli and Pauline would have remained friends if we had remained neighbors? I like to think so, and this gives weight to that feeling.

      I wish we were seeing her this summer, too.

  5. Disclaimer, I don’t have kids! But I have thoughts about people I love and the things they do. I don’t want to lecture on drugs, I want to give kids advice picking friends – they can save your life. Drugs can kill-yadda yadda-your kids have either been there, or already heard that. I don’t advocate for drugs as as a mainstream entertainment outlet. I want kids and young adults to know that it is the company you keep that likely predicts your safety or not (especially girls!). Stick with friends you trust who truly care about you, that have your best interests at heart, that will keep you safe, watch out for you like a sibling, never let you stay at a party by yourself, never let you buy drugs from a stranger, never let you drive drunk, never berate you to try anything you don’t want to, **always** check in to you to see you can make it safely home AND have arrived safely home after a night out – likely having these friends are great predictors of your safety. And, they are worth their weight in gold…. (or iPad apps)…and are very hard to find…try to find them!

  6. Ha, Jane, us nerdy parents read the same articles and have the same conversations! I, too, read the article and had the same conversation with my kids. I’m sure it was easier in my case because my kids are younger. My kids are not at a point where they would consider using illegal drugs, but bath salts are legal in many places right now, and I could see kids seeing them as harmless because of that. It was a good opportunity to discuss the fact that even if things are legal, it doesn’t mean they are harmless – homeopathic drugs, OTC drugs, etc. Unfortunately, I think many adults don’t even realize that.

  7. Pingback: Saturday Surfing — Au Coeur

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