You Promised ~ by Shane Borrowman

June 29, 2014

Posted By: Shaunescy

Early on, my daughter showed quite a bit of diplomacy for a four year old. I first noticed it when she announced her career choice: “Dad, I want to be a doctor. For fat kids.” That wasn’t diplomatic, but her followup was: “I won’t call them fat, of course.”

Samantha continues to watch medical program—anything that involves watching people come to the ER. Her favorites are the stories that involve (a) people coming back from the tropics with a worm growing inside them and (b) people somehow managing to fall down a hillside covered with cactus...naked. (That seems to happen a freakish number of times, if reality TV can be trusted...) Rarely does she turn something off because it’s too graphic. She’s still thinking about a career in medicine, five years later, but now she may be a veterinarian.

I’d never encourage her to be a lawyer (unless she expressed interest in jurisprudence, of course), but she’s already got a lawyer’s sensibilities. I first noticed this yesterday, as we transitioned into lunch: “Sam,” I said, “do you want six chicken nuggets or eight?”

She didn’t even hesitate: “Six. I would prefer four, but apparently that’s not an option.”


In eleven words, she demonstrated an understanding of Aristotle’s division topos and the either/or logical fallacy. She knew that, logically, there was no reason she had to choose between six or eight nuggets. That was an artificial limit I was imposing on her, a rhetorical trick first labeled at least 2300 years ago.

I didn’t understand that until graduate school. When I was almost thirty. I’d planned on using that sort of argument on her for years, well into her teens. Apparently, I’ll need to think of another approach.

But that was lunchtime yesterday. Today’s lesson got me thinking about law school.

At dinnertime, we had an argument about the pace at which Sam (wasn’t) eating. This happens from time to time.

She’s not a picky eater, not at all. She was confronted by a plate of oven-fried chicken, corn on the cob, Bisquick biscuits—green salad and sliced peaches on the side. All of these are her favorite components of a good meal.

The problem wasn’t the food. Sam just wasn’t in any hurry to eat...and time went by. A lot of time. Finally, I delivered an ultimatum: “You have ten minutes to finish. If you don’t finish, you’re losing your Kindle for tomorrow.”

Done and done, I thought, brushing my mental hands together with smug satisfaction. Crisis handled. Disaster averted.

This was the sort of clear action-and-consequence sort of thing I’d always been told to do. No general statements about “being punished” or something...just a clear statement of what’s going to happen and why. Everyone else finished eating, and Sam was left alone at the table, picking at her food.

Twenty-seven minutes after my ten minute deadline passed, Sam finally finished her meal. I thanked her for finally doing a good job of cleaning up her plate, but I reminded her of the consequence.

She flipped out. Flipped out. There was shrieking. Apologies were proffered, and I thanked her for that, too, but noted that “sorry” didn’t change the situation. Begging was involved. Tears flowed.

She stomped her feet in frustration (but didn’t slam any doors, since she knows the punishment for that is to open and close the door twenty times...fully open and fully closed. Try it. That sucks.)

Then the lawyer came out.

“I told you there was going to be a consequence.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Yes, I did. I told you what you had to do and what the consequence would be if you didn’t do it.” I find that I speak slowly and in very complete sentences when I argue with Sam. It’s all that keeps me from caving in and doing anything at all to make the craziness stop.

“You did. But you didn’t tell me what itty-bitty consequence it was going to be!”

Even in the moment, I had to admire how adroit she was on her mental argumentative feet. She was making a this-punishment-doesn’t-fit-the-offense argument. But she was doing something else, simultaneously: Like any good lawyer, she made a point, and, when she had to abandon it, she did so by agreeing to half of what I was saying...while still keeping the no-Kindle-tomorrow debate alive. If I hadn’t been so certain of myself, I might have waffled.

I did doubt myself. A little. For a second.

From the very beginning, though, my wife and I have taken a firm stance: We don’t negotiate with emotional terrorists.

I shrugged, repeated that she’s not using her Kindle tomorrow, and walked away.

Now she’s laying on the floor, watching television (as the Indians slap the Mariners around for a while, at least in the first four innings). All’s right with the world, all dinner-related tantrum-inducing matters forgotten.

If her lawyerly tendencies stopped with dinner and Kindle denial, I wouldn’t ruminate on it. But a different topic comes up every few days: going to Disneyland next summer.

She has cousins who go frequently. A handful of their friends have gone. Sam knows she wants to go, too.

I know other things.

I know that Disneyland is more than a thousand miles from Dillon, Montana, and that gas costs almost $4 per gallon. Our Jeep gets maybe 28 mph.

I know that we’d need to take two days to get there (and two days back).

I know we’d spend at least three days in that particular happy place and that tickets cost (according to a terrifying bit of web surfing I just did) over $900 for this particular family of four. That’s on top of more than a thousand dollars to cover hotel expenses, plus meals.

I know I am not in that sort of tax bracket.

Sam knows no such thing, but she is convinced of something, and she keeps repeating it: “You promised.”

Those are the two words currently committing domestic violence on my heart.

Sam’s convinced I promised her a trip to Disneyland next summer. I have no memory of this, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’d do. I promise only what I can deliver...or what I think I can deliver, any way. I have zero faith in my Disneyland-in-twelve-month-going ability.

I can hold firm when Sam doesn’t eat dinner and loses her Kindle. Action, consequence. It’s tough to fight through, but I can do it.

My promise is different. I’m an English professor; it’s not like I can pick up extra nightshifts and make some overtime. My eleventh book will come out this year or early next; the previous ten haven’t changed my income bracket, so I’m letting history guide my expectations here. I write magazine articles regularly, but anything that pays by the word is, by definition, not a game changer.

When Sam reminds me of my promise, part of me wants to pointlessly rethink my career choices: professor, editor, writer. I’ve managed to pick three professions that I can

(a) be good at and

(b) still not make a dime.

“If you don’t keep a promise,” Sam told me last week, “then you’re a liar.” We weren’t talking about Disneyland then, but the principle applies, I don’t doubt.

I promised to take her to Disneyland next summer, even though I didn’t promise anything. I’m just not quite sure how. Yet.

Tonight, Sam will go to bed; I’ll read to her (currently we’re on the third Percy Jackson book) for a half hour. She’ll ask me to swaddle her tight in a flannel blanket that’s covered in a weirdly disturbing baby duck pattern. She’ll tell me she loves me. We’ll make faces and giggle. We’ll talk about the various monsters that live on “Dracula Drive”—a running joke kicked off last year by some reality show focused on American myths and legends.

Then I’ll get to work, again, and pick away at my plans for the next year. There’s bound to be something I haven’t thought of yet, I figure.

And tomorrow Sam won’t get her Kindle. She will eat her dinner with minimal silliness and at a normal pace.

I’ll keep my promises.


With Love, Dad

Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.

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