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Cry Me a River

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My wife and I have five kids. We started with three boys and then, once we'd officially learned the basics, went on to have twin girls. I thought I knew how to parent, but going from males to females was like going from basic math to trigonometry.

I have a basic understanding of boys because I was one. Boys require food — lots of it — and occasionally, you have to buy them new T-shirts and jeans. Emotionally, boys are much like dogs. They want to eat and want a comfortable place to sleep, and they try to avoid being bathed.

Girls are a whole other ball of wax. Conversations (events that don't really happen all that much with boys) can turn on a dime. You can be joking around and suddenly find yourself in the doghouse. A simple question such as "How was school today?" can result in stamping feet and slamming doors. You learn to phrase things delicately, almost the way a nervous bomb technician has to be careful to cut just the right wire and none other.

The biggest problem I've run into, though, is dealing with tears. Boys don't cry all that often. A major bone has to be broken, or a cut has to be deep enough to require stitches. Once in a while, they'll get caught doing something they shouldn't and then cry in a cynical attempt to look vulnerable. Girls cry whenever... (I was going to come up with a list here, but it would take too long. Girls just cry whenever, period.)

Last week, when our daughters turned 16, I took them to the driver's license office to get their learner's permits. Where we live, that requires taking a number, sitting in a hard chair for 40 minutes, and then taking an 18-question computer based test focusing on speed limits, sign shapes and road rules. If you get any more than three questions wrong, the machine shuts down, and you have to come back and take it again. You can take the test as many times as you want.

When we arrived at the testing center, both girls were bubbling over with excitement. They were bouncing up and down in their chairs so much that it looked like I was bringing them to a doctor's office for emergency Ritalin injections.

Just minutes later, though, when one of the girls passed the test and the other didn't, it became a total sobfest. One daughter was wailing because she didn't make it and went to the car to weep in peace. The other was crying out of sympathy. The guy behind the counter, who had to fill out the papers for the learner's permit and act as grief counselor, was very understanding, but you could tell he'd seen this too many times and was eagerly counting the days till retirement or death.

So, days later, I had the unenviable task of bringing one daughter back for a second shot at the test. On the drive back to the testing center, I stopped and pulled the car over in a parking lot. I looked my daughter in the eyes for a heart to heart. I hoped she'd pass, I told her in my most reasonable and calm voice. I was sure she'd pass. But if she didn't, she had to promise, cross her heart, hope to die, that there would be absolutely no tears.

She looked at me as if I were a small, innocent child and she had to explain there was no Easter Bunny. There would be tears, she assured me, in an equally reasonable and calm voice. Plenty of them. Like I'd never seen. And they'd last the whole drive home.

So it was with a little trepidation that I sat in one of the hard chairs, waiting as my daughter's number was called and she headed to the testing computer. I buried my face in a magazine. Maybe if I slipped out the door and drove home, she could take a bus home, and the bus driver could act as grief counselor.

Minutes later, the parent sitting next to me had to tap me on the shoulder to point out my daughter, standing by the computer, bouncing up and down and giving me two thumbs up. She'd made it.

As we walked toward the door, I leaned over and whispered that I was happy she passed but even happier that I didn't have to deal with the waterworks. I looked over, and found, to my total aggravation, that she was, despite all logic and reason, crying.

"What?" I said, a hint of desperation in my voice, looking around to make sure no one saw us. "What?"

"These," she said, wiping away at her cheek, "are tears of joy, stupid! There's a difference!"

To find out more about Peter McKay, please visit www.creators.com.

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