The good thing about being a minivan gangsta is that when a few friends or relatives drop by, you can jam them into your clan van and all drive together like a happy bunch of missionaries.
Being stuffed into such close and mobile quarters may cause some minor disagreements, like whether or not “Gucci Bandana” is an appropriate song for an 8-year-old boy, but it also can promote conversation, as I found out this past summer when my former sister-in-law, Mimi, and two nieces, Maddie and Samantha, flew from Pennsylvania to stay with us. We were all on or way to Tent Rocks, a national monument that looks closer to the surface of the moon than anything Mimi could show her kids in the Keystone state.
“Mom, remember when Steve got mad at me for calling him Steve that day and then made me call him Mr. Steve?” Maddie called from the shadows of the back seat.
“Please translate,” I said to Mimi, still confused on how we landed on the topic of respect.
Turns out that in their little Truman Show of a cul-de-sac, some of the parents started feeling that this MiPod generation had somehow lost respect for their elders, so they initiated an informal campaign to have kids start addressing them as if they were irate traffic cops or royalty from obscure Eastern European countries.
“It was weird,” Maddie continued, “because I’d never called Steve by his last name and I told him that.”
“What did he say?” I asked the rearview mirror.
“He got all red in the face and yelled, ‘Then call me Mr. Steve!’”
“Sounds like the name of an unskilled clown or how the dry cleaner greets you,” I whispered to Mimi and then turned back to my little informant. “Did changing what you called him make you respect him even more?”
“No, it made me think he was an—”
“Maddie!” Mimi barked, cutting her off and freaking this driver out.
When I was a kid, we called all parents by their surnames: Coleman, Vannart, Donovan. Only the pot-smoking hippie parents urged us to refer to them as Bob and Sue, and my friend Peter’s mom, who’d show up in his bedroom with wine-stained lips and a blouse unbuttoned to her navel slurring, “Just Alice, boys. Simply Alice.” The lesson we understood innately from dealing with the legions of parents, coaches, teachers and members of law enforcement was that names have as much to do with respect as cafeteria food has to do with nutrition. You could make “Mr.” or “Sir” be synonymous with “dickhead,” given the correct intonation, reflection or obnoxious repetition. Our true respect went to people who knew who we truly were and cared about us enough to show it, folks with lowbrow monikers like Barge, Hiltzie and Murph.
I’m a teacher by day and the topic of respect is never ignored for too long, so I decided to experiment with my own child at the dinner table, which is like a minivan, only stationary and with plates.
“London, what would it be like if I had all your friends call me Mr. Wilder, instead of Rob?” I asked as conversationally as possible.
London slowly looked up from manipulating his bean burrito. “What?”
“You know,” I said, waving my fork in the air, “Joe and Dylan would call me Mr. Wilder, out of respect.”
Shaking his head in disappointment, he said, “That would make you old.”
“Dried up,” his sister Poppy added, smiling.
“Wasn’t speaking to you,” I said to the 13-year-old girl. Anyone taking algebra was too old for my experiment.
“Seriously, London, why would it…?”
“Look at me,” he said in a shaky voice, holding a ragged piece of tortilla to his chin. “I’m the oldest man in the world.”
“That’s not funny,” I lied.
Poppy giggled. “I think I can hear your brain shriveling.”
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me,” I half-sang.
“That song’s old too,” Poppy said and they both started laughing.