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Parenting Imperfect

March 5, 2011

The Boy may just become this generation's Harpo Marx

The Diva has reached a new stage of development, one that is difficult to make public because this is a small town and her identity is known, if in a limited way. And so I'll merely give you the broadest outline: girls and their social networks are strange and, frequently, cruel.

Sadly, I have no good advice to give her, really, other than to mention that not knowing how to navigate these waters is something of a family tradition. Eventually, I tell her, it will be less fraught.

I don't find this a comfort, either. We are muddling through. I try not to think about how bad it will be in junior high.

Fortunately, I don't believe we'll have the same dramas with the Boy, provided he manages to get all the way through kindergarten unscathed. The jury is still out on that.

But from the beginning, the Boy, like most boys, has a remarkably bipolar approach to friendships: either we are friends or we aren't. There doesn't appear to be a state in between. Nor is there a hierarchy of friends. All friends are equivalent in boyland, with no besties allowed.

It's refreshing, really. I have no doubts there are downsides, like how most disagreements are solved by violence, but it's nice that his relationships are so clear.

Which has almost nothing to do with how my husband and I found ourselves watching an old Marx Brothers movie the other night. I had added "Duck Soup" to our Netflix queue _ I'd been looking for "Horse Feathers," which remains my favorite _ with the intention of watching it with one of the kids, just like I used to do with my dad.

The kids and I never managed to get to it. Still, there it was, calling to us after a long day of dealing with the emotional politics of third grade and the random head butts of small boys. It was either "Duck Soup" or an episode of "Parenthood," a show that I enjoy, mostly, but that frequently too accurately describes what my week has been like. No matter how pretty the actors are and how zippy the dialog, some battles are hard to watch again.

I will give them props for capturing all of the exquisite joys and traumas of families. But some evenings require silliness. Enter 1933's "Duck Soup," which is a profoundly goofy satire of runaway nationalism. As long as you don't expect the plot to make any rational sense, the ride is a hoot and a half.

It's been at least 20 years since I last watched the Marx Brothers. I'd forgotten most of their schtick, like Chico's bad accent and Zeppo's extreme woodeness. I'd forgotten how expertly Margaret Dumont plays the foil. There are days when I wonder if I've become her.

Groucho steals the show, of course. We knew that going in. Time does nothing to dim that.

But it wasn't Groucho who stuck with me during this screening, it was Harpo, the harp-playing, curly haired mime. In the middle of Harpo's scene with Chico and the lemonade seller, during which they swap hats and trade insults, I realized that the Boy very well might be Harpo's spiritual twin.

Harpo isn't the flashiest Marx Brother. He doesn't speak, for one, which makes it hard to compete in the wisecrack department. But what he does do is always throw sand into smoothly running gears, which provides ample ammunition for slapstick.

He's the one who cuts your tie in half just to see what you'll do. Or drops your hat so that he can kick you on the rump when you pick it up. Or hooks his leg on your arm to see how long it takes you to crack, because once you do, it will be hysterical.

As funny as Harpo is to watch, he can be difficult to live with. Ask me how I know.

The Boy is an expert at gumming up the gears. I'm starting to think that he does it not out of sheer stubbornness (although there is some of that in play, too) but to fully refine his comedic sensibilities. As one of his teachers put it, he wants to be a comedian but hasn't learned where the line is between funny and painful.

Just like Harpo must have, the Boy has spent a half-hour mastering his pratfall. He's tried to use his sister as his personal Margaret Dumont, which hasn't gone as well as he'd hoped. He can't pass a mirror without practicing a silly face. When he asks for a bike horn and a harp, we'll know his metamorphosis is complete.

Adrienne Martini is a freelance writer, instructor at the State University College at Oneonta, mom to Maddy and Cory, wife to Scott, and author of "Sweater Quest," which was published in March. Her columns can be found at

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