Growing Pains

"Can I let the dog inside?"

"Can I let the dog in?"

Today is Bree’s birthday, and she is ensuring that the whole family does not forget.  Thirteen years old. An unlucky number for even the most loving parent or older brother.  For marking the threshold into the teenage years, my baby sister, the youngest of my siblings has emerged into the second-most-difficult epoch of her life since she began teething.

She welcomed this Dark Age by chatting with her friends for an hour . . . each.  Afterwards she scanned through several photos on Facebook, confirmed the release date for The Disney Channel’s Princess Protection, and played a round of Tetris. Then she found me on the couch, commencing a thirty minute tirade on how yesterday I had only managed to take her to the scrapbook store, and not managed to rent any movies.

“You promised,” she pouts even as I type.

“I said we would try to do both.”

“You lied.  Promise breaker.  I really wanted to go to the tape store,” she says, transcending the pout into a whine.  I continue to work, which only seems to infuriate her more.  She flops down on the couch.

“What are you watching?” she asks, clearly disgusted by the black and white screen.

Ten Angry Men.  Watch it.  It’s quite good.”

“Hmph, I could be watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, if someone had gone to the tape store yesterday.”

“I drove you to the scrapbook store,” I remind her – teenage girls can be quite forgetful.  “We spent nearly one hundred dollars on cardstock and stickers.”

“But I really wanted to rent movies.  The scrapbook stuff – I told you – was only if we had time!”

“And I told you that we should leave after about fifteen minutes.  You told me that you wanted to look around some more.  You wanted to find something . . . what was it?  Ah yes, something cute and fashionable.  You settled on that prom dress sticker.”

“You said ‘should’ not ‘must.’  I would have left if you said ‘must,’” she argued opening the sliding doors.  “Can I let the dog in?”


“Pleeeease . . . she’s such a good girl, Murph.”

“I’m allergic.  No.”

“She’s my puppy.”

“It’s not your house.”

“It’s not yours either.”

“No, but the proprietors have left, putting me in charge.  Thus, my word outranks yours.  No dog.”

“Promise breaker,” she pouts again walking off towards the table, stuffing chocolate kisses into her pockets.

Being the older brother in a large family often plays out like a referee in any major sport. It is your job to maintain peace and order often by reinforcing rules that you hold little credit in creating.  Thus at any one time, you are simultaneously loved and hated by any number of groups in the house.

“Why can’t I go out?”

“Mom said ‘No.’”

“Pleeease . . . if I’m home in an hour no one will know.”

“Well, mayb . . . no.  Absolutely not.”

“Murph, you’re a real killjoy, you know?”

“Can I cut the grass now?”

“Dad said not while he wasn’t here.”

“Come on!”

“Sorry, bud, I . . .”

“Murph, you suck!”

“Dad, wants you to clean your room, Kev.”

“After this movie . . .”

“Now, man, if it’s not done, I get in trouble too.”

“One more second.”


“Sheesh, who put the stick up your butt?”

As such you feel more like a Grinch than probably any other member of the family.

With the two youngest I took particularly care.  It is often common knowledge that as families increase in size the rules and strictures that govern the older siblings tatter and fade among the younger brood.  Nap time, a 2PM tradition that often pulled me away from Tom and Jerry cartoons, thus giving Mom a one to two hour rest, gradually was ignored with Kevin and Brigid.  The age at which the younger siblings could organize sleepovers likewise dropped from fourth grade to second grade.  The words ‘Dumb’ and ‘Stupid’ – horrid curse words in our time – became more acknowledged as well in the daily vernacular, though never allowed in reference to each other.  ‘Fart’ still to this day earns fifteen minutes with a bar of soap.

Thus, as the family grew, the older siblings took greater responsibilities in watching and caring for the youngest.  I burped, changed diapers, babysat, and rocked Brigid and Kevin to sleep.  We watched them as they took their first steps, said their first word, and sat on the toilet sucking on a bar of Irish Spring for the first time.  In a way, we took an active role in raising my siblings.  Thus it pained me to see my little sister slowly grow into a teenager . . . and a total pain in the my neck.

Where in the world did I go wrong?

“Can I get a new camera?” Bree pleads the next day.  My little sister has already shuffled my iPod a dozen times, switching alternatively between Carolina Liar’s “I’m Not Over” and Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face.”  I try suggesting another song, but almost crash into an old lady, who cuts me off and honks.

“Why did she honk at me?” I mutter, somewhat flustered.  “Girl, if you ever become a woman-driver, I’ll disown you.”  She fiddles with the iPod again, ‘Just Dance’ erupts for the tenth time.

“I might consider it if you buy me a camera,” she repeats as I pull the Explorer into the video store.

“You know, I’m not exactly . . . employed at the moment.” I stress this point, hoping that she’ll link my financial freedom with a nine-to-five workweek.  “Didn’t Santa get you a camera for Christmas?”

Together we walk into Hollywood Video, practically sneaking past the manager, who during our last several visits has propositioned me to join their Netflix-ish rental club, a surprisingly complicated point system that eliminates late fees and replaces them with lengthy calculations.  Frankly, I’m content with old system: pick up DVDs, check out, and return them on time . . . or not.  After all despite the fees, if we never had to return anything on time, the kids and I would never return anything; more and more DVDs and games would disappear in the accumulated flotsam that we have circulating around here.  My face is already plastered in several of the surrounding libraries for extraneous fines, and I cannot afford to change my name and address again for a misplaced copy of Steve Zahn’s Strange Wilderness.

godzilla2Absently I peer through the DVD covers, mildly curious about the promotions for the latest monster/sex romp movie: Jason and Freddie meet the Saw, Sobriety Sophomores and the Jello Factory, Iron Maidens in Cancun: A Documentary.  When I was five, a cursory search through the local video plaza’s latest horror flicks drove me indoors for weeks, afraid to find a fifty-foot nuclear lizard outside my window.  Suddenly I reconsidered bringing Brigid here.  Luckily enough her attention was still fully focused on digital cameras.

“Look they’re not that expensive.  Eighty bucks or so . . . hey can we get this too?  Mom says its okay as long as someone watches it with me.” She thrusts a pink DVD into my face, nearly squashing my nose.

Bride Wars?” I shudder at Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway towering over the New York skyline in matching Bridezilla attire.  “I suppose that ‘someone’ is me.”  Bree giggles.

“Alright give it here.”

“Good, now all I need is a camera . . . oh and Hotel for Dogs. Here you go . . . and I will be happy.”  I add the DVD to the growing stack in my hand.

“What happened to your old camera?” I ask.

“It . . . um dropped a little.”

“If I recall, the lens no longer retracts.  At all.  The power light flickers, beeps, and dies.  Some problem with the ball bearings due to intense collision.  Cheaper to buy a new one than repair.  Something like that.”

“I didn’t break it though,” Bree protests at my widening frown.  “My friends had it and we were at the pool and Ashley wasn’t giving it to Kelsey and . . .”

“Crash.  Snap.  Oops . . .”

“Yeah,” my little sister smiles, an adorable extremely guilty grin playing on her face.  “But I learned my lesson and now I need a new one.”

“No, no way.”

“Ok, look you owe me, Promise Breaker!”— This is apparently my new name – “All I wanted was some movies, which you promised me.  And now we couldn’t go until two days later.  Two days!”

“We’re at the video store now!  How can you still hold that over me?”

“Because you broke your promise,” she reaffirms with a huff.  “Besides I didn’t get a birthday dinner, so you owe me.”  And with that she folds her arms and walks away, refusing to talk to me for the next hour or so, which lasts for about five minutes after I buy her an vitamin water, red-flavored.

I flick her ears a bit, until finally she breaks a smile, and we drive home, singing annoying songs to no one in particular.

Pictionary Portraits

pictionary“. . . so those are the categories. Ok now everybody, listen up,” I said standing at the head of the table, several white-board markers rolling absently in my hand. “I don’t want the same disaster we had last time. As long as we all understand the rules, there shouldn’t be any problems, ok?”

“What happened last time?” Mary asked, whispering to Katie and her best friend, CB. The rest of the girls on the right side of the table talked among themselves. They had heard this spiel before.

“People accused each other of cheating, mostly Stuart’s mom,” CB smiled with a wink, “once they found out they were losing. Also we had a lot of trouble remembering which side of the deck to choose from – there was a lot of alcohol present – and so a lot of categories and words were accidentally redrawn . . .”

“Tonight, just like the night before, we will be choosing from the red side,” I shouted above the table chatter. “Not the side with the red pencil, but the side with the red border. Now does everyone understand that?” A few nod their head. Everyone else ignores me.

“Why do you call Murph, Stuart?” Mary asked.

“Oh,” CB laughed, while Katie leaves to make another margarita. “ ‘Cause he looks like a flight steward, asking us to buckle up and to remember our seats double as floaties. Hey everyone, shut up! Stuart is discussing the Pictionary rules.”

The room quiets somewhat. CB gives me a thumbs-up.

“Thanks girl. Ok, last thing,” I quickly spurt out in the wake of the ensuing silence. For about nine months of the year, CB plays as a young elementary school teacher at a local private school, teaching when the opportunity presents itself but mostly coping with immaturity – sometimes with the children – among the parents and her colleagues. Her expertise in these matters allows her to fit quite well with the household mob.

“Who wants more margari-tass?” Katie shouts from the kitchen, which causes most of the women and all of the underage boys to cheer a hearty ‘Here!’

Though members of large families themselves, Mary and her little sister worried me a little. Their own clan was much more well-behaved then ours. They would be swallowed alive.

Once all the – legal – drink orders had been taken, I continued.

“In the past people have cheated,” I said again, with a long look at my mother. “Thus, let us remember that there is no drawing of numbers or letters. Even in the case of a two-word answer, part of the word may not be written on the board.” A few dissenting cries.

“I know, I know. But the . . . uh, ladies . . .” I look again at mom. “. . . have requested this addendum to the rule and we will stick with it.”

“You tell them, Stuart,” CB shouts.

“Thank you, final thing . . .”

“Enough of this,” Sean shouts. “Let’s play the game.”

“Last bit,” I say. “The draw-er must recognize the correct answer. No guesser may stop play or shout afterwards that he or she got the answer when no one heard it. The draw-er stops the play once he or she hears the correct answer. Now then, if that’s it . . ? Good. The first round is All-Play. The teams are boys versus girls. Let’s play.”

Sean and Mom approach the dry-erase board.

“What side are we picking from again?”

“Red,” I sighed.

“The red border or the red pencil?”

“The red border.”

“Because the pencil is red too . . .”

“I know, but we’re choosing from the red border. Like the picture frame.”

“Right, ok. What category are we doin’ again . . .?”

After a few more moments and with the (correct) card in hand, Sean and Mom take up their markers. Both must illustrate the same word. Both sides attempts to guess for control of the dice and advancement along the board. The hourglass remains untouched. No one may leave until a correct guess is recognized. They begin.


Somewhere in the South Pacific, a volcano erupts, swallowing the remains of a small village. A gunshot accidentally lets loose an avalanche, quaking the very marrow of the Himalayan Mountains. Kevin Conner, a storm chaser and journalist for National Geographic, will capture on film an explosion at a nearby farm, where a rogue lighting bolt will strike a abandoned oil tanker; the explosion sends ripples through the ground; the winds whip and scatter the remains across the county. Billy Briars, after downing a large 20oz bottle of coke and consuming a hefty helping of his Mom’s leftover bean burrito casserole for lunch, will let loose an explosive blast that will tear a hole in his britches, totally disrupting Mrs. Galveston’s 6th period English class for the next hour and transforming Billy into a legend for the next thirty years.

Yet even when it is discovered that the school must close the next week for fumigation and detox, the explosive chaos cannot compare with that of Murphey family shouting and screaming at the onset of our monthly Pictionary game. Girls and boys, men and women swarm the board where our intrepid draw-ers attempt to capture the necessary idea, object, action, or proper noun with a primary-color marker and an ensuing mob whose shouts threatens to overwhelm their fragile cochlea. Unwilling to fight the tide, the voices of the new-comers are swallowed and forgotten until their turn to take up the marker.

Eventually perhaps due to dumb luck, one of the boys shouts out the correct word loud enough to be heard. The draw-er recognizes the word amid the shouts and ends the round. The losing side slumps off grumbling about how the horns on that cow looked nothing like an antelope.


On each side of the table, a pair of individuals sit, who possess a mutual understanding of one another so keen and flawless that only the minimal effort is needed by either to guess the desired answer. Charley and Shannon represent just such a pair. Shannon strides up to the board. He looks at the card and picks up the pen. The timer is turned. He draws a stick man and a circle. Then he . . .

“Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark!” Charley shouts.

“You got it!” Shannon laughs.

“Fowl!” Mom complains. “He barely drew anything! A man and a circle and you got Raiders of the Lost Ark? Someone’s cheating.”

“No way,” Charley argues.

“The man is Indiana Jones . . .” Shan explains.

“. . . and the circle is the ball from the beginning of the movie,” Charley finishes.

“We should have separated those two,” Mom grumbles.

wooden_hourglass_3Nature balances itself out. Just as stronger members of the herd possess an innate ability to read minds so that actually picking up the pen is rather extraneous, others seem to paint the board with a vast array of lines, swirls, and colors, signifying anything from a chipmunk to nuclear holocaust. The resulting patterns and doodles from my brother Kevin’s drawings meanwhile glimpse the inner workings of a highly disturbed soul.

The word was ‘depressed’ or rather ‘depression.’ CB and Kevin had an all-play so both approached the board and readied themselves for a fast paced round.

“Wahoo, the dyslexic duo, up at last,” CB shouted. They began to draw . . . something. Honestly I am not sure what CB draws (Apparently by her own account CB affirms that dyslexics are horrible at drawing pictures of words.). In the end, Katie guesses the right word after CB draws a rather oblong frowning clown face complete with an I Pagliacci tear. We laugh at CB’s drawings and look over at Kevin, who has been using a vast array of colors to show – by his own account – someone cutting their wrists.

“He’s depressed,” Kev shrugged. “That’s what depressed people do.”

“No,” CB laughs, “that’s what suicidal people do.”

“So?” Kevin shrugs. “Suicidal people are depressed. I drew what I knew.”

While the rest of us are attempting to recall the names and phone numbers of various psychiatrists and asylums, CB still laughing walks over and places her arm comfortingly around Kevin’s shoulders.

“It’s ok,” she whispers. “I understand. Us dyslexics have to stick together. Next time study Stuart’s face when our team beats his. Or visit a pet store around Christmas time: dogs in candy-cane tights. Now that’s depressing.”

The game moves along. The boys’ team cruises ahead, which causes Mom to seek for an edge – any way possible:

  • “Wait, hold on. You can’t use two different colors of markers here. That’s not fair. We should win that round.”
  • “That line looks suspiciously like an ‘L’ or a ‘1.’ If you’re cheating, we should get to roll.

  • “Hold on, there was miming.Sean, mimed. Miming’s not allowed.”
  • “A dollar sign . . . is that really legal? Come on. It’s on a keyboard. We can’t allow that.”

To be honest, Mom does her fair share of miming as well. Once when during one of her turns (the word was ‘lean’), her body slowly began to dip further and further until it was clear to both sides that she was insinuating something. Luckily the point came to the boy’s which proves that cheaters never prospers or at least that bad cheaters should learn a little subtlety.