"You need to teach that boy how to go on offense."
Before you can fully understand how concerned I was when these words left my wife's lips I have to review something about the nature of twins. In each pair, one is the good, the other the evil. The boy my wife was speaking about in the sentence above is the evil. You never teach an evil twin how to go on offense.
Some will take offense at my recognition of this concept but those of us responsible for raising twins have special insight, a mutual understanding of each other's plight. Universal amongst parents of twins, we pick each other out in a crowd and speak a shared language. We all understand; it’s never formalized; it’s often unspoken. On the playground two moms will come up next to each other, one will ask "how old are yours?" The other will say "four" and nod. There'll be a silence or an exchange of pleasantries, then one of the moms will ask, "which one?" There's rarely hesitation. A finger stabs forward towards an adorable little girl in a lovely pink dress accompanied by the word "her" (or on a bad day "that.") We never ask which is the good twin. We appreciate the good, but it's the evil that binds us.
And don't feel bad for evil twins. Unlike good twins many don't even know what they are, and when they figure it out it's their nature to take pride in the discovery. I'm in a unique position -- I'm the father of twins and married to one as well. So I have two distinct impressions of the same beast and that gives me a little more insight than most.
This wasn’t always the case. For my boy it was simple enough to figure out -- we have a video of him punching his brother in the head in-utero that we play when friends and family come over. But my wife took longer than most to figure out who she was. Once we had had our twins for a few months and the Good/Evil concept lifted from cheap movie plot to a basic foundation of reality I put the question to my wife, "so which are you? Are you the good, or the evil?" using my deeper voice for the second clause of the question. I suspected the answer already, but she had never thought it through. She hemmed and hawed for a bit as she weighed both sides. Harder to do from within the experiment mind you, she worked through arguments for and against. Eventually she came to a point where she said, "so I really can't say either way. I was great in school and always got excellent grades” and she took that as a sign of goodness. But it's a rookie mistake. Good grades mean nothing. Evil geniuses are far more common than good ones. She continued, “. . . but . . . you know . . . you know my brother Kevin was really NEVER much trouble for my parents at all. Always home on time, never lied to them . . . and when I think back to some of the . . . OH MY GOD I'M THE EVIL TWIN!"
Stunned by the realization, her hands went up to her face and she hurriedly sat down, nearly missing the chair. I tried to console her by offering alternatives. “Maybe it’s not so sharp a line in your case.” But no, she assured me as she stitched together the evidence that she was clearly the dark one. She displayed the scar on her chin, four stitches she had self-inflicted banging her head on concrete when she hadn't gotten her way as a toddler. She reminded me about the trip to Amsterdam she had taken against her parent's permission at age 19, accompanied by her brand new European boyfriend who looked much older than 20 "for some reason." But she assured me the best evidence was to be found on her brother -- the scars that all good twins carry both outside and within. At first upset and frantic, her look turned to understanding over ten or so minutes. Once the concept had seated itself her wry smile broke long enough for her to say, "wow, you know that explains A LOT." She was already comfortable in her enlightenment, casting her lot firmly in the latter half of the G.T./E.T. divide.
But eight years on both of us are so aware of the nature of “the boy” that I couldn't believe what she had proposed for him. When one E.T. speaks of teaching a fellow darkling how to go on offense, it's cause for concern. As a husband I’m not allowed to actually present my opinion verbally, so I gave her the look. I wanted an explanation.
Here's the background. There's a girl in the neighborhood the same age as my twin boys. Belle is small for her age, and in spite of being a single birth, she's just evil. She's one of those manipulative kids that uses social rules to her advantage, getting other kids in trouble by pushing them down paths they shouldn't and wouldn't normally walk. I have a daughter so I'm aware that all girls do this as part of their normal social lives, but this girl pushes the rules hard, much harder than most and solely for the purpose of stirring up trouble. To date she has been lucky -- she hasn't felt the repercussions that come when someone balks and crosses over the line in a big way. But it's only a matter of time. With the school year coming to an end she had taken to the habit of walking up to my one boy (you know which one) saying, "you can't hit a girl" and then popping him in the shoulder. Oh my. Adults had stepped in in the past, but in the school yard and on the bus that's not always going to happen. And given her size the admonishments she received had been light.
I had the "what if" conversation with her awhile back. I know her parents well and in spite of not being fully engaged they're comfortable with other parents stepping up in authoritative ways with their kids. But "what if" didn't work with Belle, and for good reason. She's a girl, and she's very small. Any physical reply (or even a verbal one) is going to bring a heavy hand down on the boy involved. She’s effectively immunized from blame. Falling to the ground crying at the slightest response from her victim has been a very effective tactic for her, so Belle has no interest in fixing the victory condition of her game. She's never lost. At worst she's played to a draw.
She tried the same game with my good twin but he just walked away. No fun there. But E.T. can’t back down from the challenge. It’s not in his nature. He takes the hit and tells her to stop, twice, three times, but no one cares. She’s so tiny she can’t possibly be hurting him.
With so little ability to control her half of the equation my wife and I have been focused on our half -- controlling our boy with his short temper and competitive nature. She has his number. She's pushed and pushed and he's gotten in trouble for any minor response in the past. I've told him to ignore her and he’s done it, but now she’s pushing harder to make sure he stays in the game.
Now that you’re caught up I’ll continue.
So I gave her the look. I wanted an explanation. In response she explained in more detail.
"You're both looking at this game from a guy's perspective." That didn't help us very much, so she continued. "C'mon genius, you play games all the time. Telling him to not fight back just keeps dragging the game on. How does he win this game?” I still didn’t see it, so she added a hint. “Okay, how does she lose?"
I was stumped. I don't produce the hormones required to find a path to victory for my boy because, quite frankly, Belle had the rules on her side. She was writing some of them. This was girl game. By not responding he didn't lose, but he didn't win either. She’d follow him if he walked away and fighting back even gently meant insta-lose when she falls to the ground howling in pain. Given that they share a bus stop each morning, he doesn't have the option to not show up.
"This isn't about winning,” my wife resorted to explaining the puzzle in detail. “It's about not losing, about not losing control. That's the game she’s playing. Whoever loses their cool first loses the game. When you tell him to ignore her you're telling him how to not lose, but you're not giving him a tool he can use to win. He needs to find a way to make her lose her temper. That's how girls lose. He needs her to lose her cool."
She called my boy over and her evil coaching began. She spoke slowly, a hand on each of his shoulders. "Here's the one thing this girl doesn't ever want to hear come out of your mouth: you hit like a girl."
My boy looked unimpressed so she pressed the point. "No girl EVER wants to hear a guy say that. It's like calling her a sissy. It's talking down to her, treating her like a little baby. That's your secret weapon. You hit like a girl. Now be careful, because when you say that to her you know what she's going to do? She's going to hit you harder. And harder and harder and harder. Listen to me -- it'll hurt, but that's OK. If it hurts it means you're winning, and all you have to do is just take it and smile. The harder she hits, the better you're doing. You think you can do that?"
My boy had smiled as she explained the details to him. He doesn't like pain any more than anyone else but he's a competitive little S.O.B. and very goal oriented. He wants to win at everything he does and is willing to do what it takes. She hadn't just told him how to win, she had told him how to figure out if he was winning, and he liked it. An evil grin crossed his face and he smirked and answered her question: "oh yeah!" The two of them grinned and cackled together, nodding their heads and rubbing their hands in celebration of their cunning plan.
Three days later I was zooming up Interstate 97 at 75 miles per hour, the normal slow lane routine during the morning rush hour. Generally I don't answer the phone on the road but when my wife calls from her cell I'm more responsive. I pulled the phone from my shirt pocket and said "breaking the law" into it to start the conversation. Speaking on the phone while driving in Maryland was recently outlawed. It’s our cue to keep the conversation short and simple.
"Pull the car over, it's going to happen.” I could hear adrenaline in my wife’s voice. She was excited. This was three days later so I didn't pick up on the thread.
“What’s going to happen?”
“Pull the goddam car over, Belle is talking to the boy and she has that look in her eye. She’s gonna hit him. I'll give you a live blow-by-blow as it happens”
The Benfield exit had been right beside me when she said "pull over" so I had jumped off the road just in case. There’s a Medical Clinic with an empty parking lot there. At this point I was already crossing the road and heading for the farthest spot. “Has she hit him yet?"
"Does she look close?" I figured she had called for a reason but apparently nothing had happened yet.
"You know she always looks close. No one sees it. Everyone thinks she's Little Miss Sweet Thing because she's so petite and cutesy but one look in her . . . ooh . . . ooh -- ok, here we go. There's something. She just gave him a little push. Just a tap on his shoulder. This is gonna happen. You pulled over?"
"Parking now. What's he doing?"
"He’s . . . doing nothing. I don't think he's really noticed. He's not even looking at her. She's starting this up and he hasn't even noticed? You know, you guys are stupid as hell. I went through this whole routine with him on Monday, and he doesn't even remember what we talked about. Three days ago. A girl would remember every detail I told her and oh! That was a good one! She didn't like him not looking. Right in the shoulder. Ok now he's looking at her." Evil was creeping into her voice now that the game was on for real.
"She hit him in shoulder? How hard?"
"He's saying something now. Oh jeeze, he's looking at me! For Chrissake why's he looking at me? He's supposed to be looking at her! He's got one line to remember! One line! God he's supposed to be one of the smart ones! It's a miracle you guys live long enough to . . . oh, hang on she's a little mad now. I think he said it. I think he told her . . . she's getting up close into . . . Ooh! She popped him another one! Wow! I bet that one stung. She's going to hurt him!"
"Well, yeah, You're pretty much giving her permission to . . ."
"No no no shut up. It's alright, he's alright. He's smiling. Ooh that's a gooooooooooooood smile." My wife's voice had changed fully to the evil side now, words were coming more slowly and deliberately. "That is going to chew her up. God, I'd be beating the shit out of you if you did that smile to me. We really need a parent over there ready to step in."
"Apparently not you."
"No. You crazy? I can't be involved in this. This isn't my war."
“Tina's going over there. She'll step in before the girl hurts him too much. Belle's not big enough to do any real damage, right? I mean he's tough. He's a gristly kid. And that Tina's from Alabama. They don't let that kind of crap happen in the south. She'll step in. You know, Lori's standing right there too, but you know Lori -- too busy talking about the pants she paid full price for at Chico's to notice my boy's getting beat up right behind her. Dresses her daughter like Bozo the Clown but for herself . . . OH! OH! HE'S DOWN! WOW! Right in the face! Belle is mad as hell! She's on him! That's the win! He was talking and smiling at her and BAM! She has completely lost it! That's what girl victory looks like right there baby! Stay down boy, stay down! Dental covers fights, right? I don't see blood yet." I could almost hear my wife doing a little dance as she described my youngest getting punched in the face.
"You're going over there, right? I sure wouldn't bet on him keeping his head cool. You know how he is . . . "
"Oh no he's fine -- that little shit's still smiling at her. Tina's dragged her off him so it's done, but that was beautiful. That couldn't have gone any better. You know he's short-tempered but he's smart and he’s results-driven. That was about perfect. That girl needed this to happen. Little pink-dress asshole. She had this coming. This is a favor to her. Oh wow apparently they still do that thing with the ear down south. I haven't seen that since I was a kid. It looks like Tina’s gonna walk her the whole way home that way."
--- 30 days later ---
As you can may have guessed I began writing this before the end of the school year. Hardly a precise transcript, I put most of what I remembered to paper that evening because, frankly, I might have wrecked the car if I hadn't pulled over. It's a shame I didn't let the call roll to voice mail.
Things have settled down. Belle is still her "rambunctious" self but her taunting has stopped either due to my wife's "favor to her" or more likely some level of threat from home should it happen again. My son learned as well. So did I. At 47 I'm aware that women generally have a different set of social values than men but in this case the difference was starker. This wasn't merely a matter of divergent values. The entire concept of success was different. Had the conflict been between two boys victory would have focused physical dominance. The winner in a "his" game would have been the last boy standing, and the rules are pretty clear. For two girls it's more about tactical intellect; very likely physical contact wouldn't have occurred at all. Control and chaos dominate a "her" game. But in the scenario where the two games cross, an odd set of asymmetric rules comes into play. My son was forced to play handicapped (at least from his perspective) and needed to go after the victory set from the other side of the game.
In a competition with two possible win conditions, in theory each side can walk away declaring victory. Each would be correct from their own personal perspective. But with the male/female interaction in play my son’s vision of victory was out of reach. Our eight years of drilling social rules into him to manage his temper meant he would have found it shameful to act in such a way. So he saw no palatable solution to the game, a drawn-out stalemate at best, more likely an eventual loss. That's frustration for a competitive child of his age. But when he came to understand that an alternative solution was available, an opportunity for success was created for him and he jumped at it. He needed to change his goal in the game. He needed to understand that, this time, it wasn't about winning, it was about not losing. More to the point, it was about not losing it.
Sometimes getting knocked on your ass means you're the last man standing.