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iTouch vs. Live Touch – A Tale of Two Dragons

Back in May, my then 9 year-old son, Tyler, used guilt to manipulate Howard and me into adopting a baby bearded dragon. We named him Smiles and I immediately fell in love. My son’s promises of care were quickly forgotten, and Howard and I took up the responsibilities of feeding Smiles and cleaning his tank and paying any general attention to him. (I know, super great parenting. If you need to know more about our awesome technique, you can message me.) The only time Tyler acknowledged Smiles was to take great offense when he overheard me referring to him as mine.

Real dragon

I had pretty much accepted my new chores, only half-heartedly resenting them, the same as all the rest. I mean, what was one more thing to add to the list, besides one more thing to add to the list?

Still, I didn’t completely give up on Tyler. Each morning, I’d lay out some lettuce and veggie stuff and ‘suggest’ that Tyler feed Smiles. Unfortunately, by the time Tyler finished his breakfast, and realized he hadn’t finished last night’s homework and did something ‘extremely important but only took a second’ on his iTouch, it would be time for the bus.

In the afternoons, I’d ‘suggest’ that Tyler pay Smiles a bit of attention.  After ‘suggesting’ a few times, Tyler would sigh and walk into the room that housed Smiles tank, look at him for five seconds and say, “Hi, Smiles.” Then go back to the iTouch.

I tried not to let any of this get to me. I mean, we allowed ourselves to be suckered into getting the creature. Then, we covered up our parental misstep with another, by not making Tyler take responsibility for his responsibility. This was as much our fault as his. We sucked at being parents and now we were paying for it through our labor.

Then came the morning at the bus step, when I saw the game Tyler was so enraptured with for the past few weeks, that he could barely say hello to me, much less Smiles.

Handing me his iTouch, he said something like, “Okay, in exactly an hour, you need to…” And then, he went into some complicated instruction while I zoned out, much like he does, I imagine, when I instruct him.

It was a game called Dragon Vale. Guess what you do in Dragon Vale? I think you know… Yup, you breed, feed and house little dragons. You need to pay careful attention to these little creatures or they will not grow. Can you stand the irony?

Uh, not real dragon

“Uh, Tyler,” I tried. “You know you have a real Dragon that you can care for.”

Tyler nodded in the way that says, I didn’t hear a word you said you silly adult, don’t you see that I have something extremely important I need to tell you? And immediately, he returned to instructing me.

The bus came and left me holding his iTouch displaying a cute cartoon dragon, that you couldn’t actually touch.  I looked at him just long enough to close out the screen. Then and there, I vowed to be a better parent and help teach my kids to be more responsible. We would work on it together, putting out one fire at a time.


Are We There Yet???

We were in the car for two and a half hours already. Howard, me, the three boys, Smiles, our bearded dragon and two salamanders we had hijacked on our last visit, who we now intended to return to the wild. The boys had played their video devices and watched a movie. It was time for the badgering to begin.

“Are we almost theeeeere????” Michael whined loudly.

“About 20 minutes.” I called back.

“Lizard check!” Howard yelled.

Smiles tank was precariously positioned in between seats and luggage, with an overhead heating lamp plugged into the cars’ adaptor hanging over it, since it should never be below 80 degrees. Howard had been randomly calling for checks on Smiles every five minutes or so.


“I can’t take it!” Michael cried. He was not a great traveler. None of the boys were but Michael was the loudest. Plus, his distress seemed to morph into physical symptoms. “My belly hurts!!!”

“We’re going to stop at the next exit. You can use the bathroom.”

“Lizard check!” Howard yelled again.

“No!! I don’t want to stop.”

“You can go to the bathroom.”

“I just want to be there!” He howled.

“Lizard check!”

We were stopping at the next exit whether he liked it or not. Already I could feel a restless excitement, my mouth watering in anticipation. It was like, how you can hold in your pee until you finally get to the door of your house, but then the urge becomes unbearable. Getting your keys out, opening the door, it’s almost as if there’s no way you can hold it one more minute when you’ve been holding it for an hour. That’s how I felt one exit away from Twin Cone, my country crack.

Twin Cone is one of those off-the-highway, stand-alone ice cream joints that scream 1950. It has flavors like Panda Paws and Play Dough. We pulled in and I took everyone’s order. My family is too lazy to even get out of the car. The waitress must deliver the goods to their waiting hands. Michael decided it was too much work to even go to the bathroom.

I get in line and tap my foot impatiently till I finally place my order – a cup of vanilla, a cone and a cup of peanut butter chocolate chip, a Play Dough, a Sponge Bob pop and sides of chocolate sprinkles and crunch. I run each ice cream over to the car as it’s completed. I also try a sample of low-fat chocolate yogurt. It is adorable on a mini cone, but tastes borderline disgusting. I dip it in sprinkles and eat it anyhow. I’m not one for waste.

Aww. Isn’t it cute?

I settle in the car, positioning my cup and the side of topping for optimal dipping. Everyone is busy licking and getting sticky. I place a spoonful in my mouth and let it melt on my tongue. Ah. I’m ready for another hit when Tyler asks for water. I pass it back and go for my spoon again.

“Mommy! It’s dripping!” Julius calls out and I place my ice cream down to rummage through my bag for wipes. I clean his lap and then his face.

“I need one too!” Tyler says. Why does my 10 year-old look worse off than the 4 year-old?

“I’m good” Michael says, by far the neatest of the three.

“Can you check on Smiles?” Howard requests, apparently his scheduled “lizard checks” from the boys not sufficient. His cone is almost polished off, while I’ve barely begun.  Checking on Smiles would require a trip to the back of the mini-van, kind of like walking through an airplane mid-flight with everyone’s luggage stored in the aisles.

“Can I eat my ice cream first?” I snap. There was a rising pool of melted vanilla around the edge of my cup that was making me edgy. My crazy needed to be fed.

“My belly hurts!” Michael wails. “I can’t eat this!”

I turn around and see his ice cream teetering on the edge of the seat. One bump and it’s on the floor. “Tyler,” I say nervously, “get me Michael’s cup please.”

After an exaggerated “why do I have to do everything” grimace, he hands it over where I place it safely in the garbage (Howard).

I get two spoons in before the calling winds up again.

“Mommy it’s dripping!”

“Mommy I’m done!”

“Oh no! I spilt!”

“Lizard Check!”

I’m about to explode, but decide to just ignore everyone and drink my ice cream. I stir in some sprinkles. It is cool, creamy goodness. I’m not answering anyone for a few minutes. I’m on a break.

“Are we almost there?!” Michael whines.

“Almost.” Howard says. “Less than 10 minutes to the bungalows!”

“Yay!” The boys cheer.

“Who wants to go river rafting?!” He booms.

“NO!” The boys protest.

“Then it’s settled!” Howard roars, with that crazy glimmer in his eye. “We go rafting!”

Everyone in the back seats begin to cry.

I continued eating. There was nothing I could do anyway. We were almost at the bungalows. The fun was just getting started.

Mom Gets Lizard. Mom Loses Lizard.

This is the day I lost my Smiles.

For clarification, Smiles is our new baby bearded dragon. Also, Smiles isn’t technically mine. My nine-year-old son Tyler is his official owner, as he’ll happily declare for all to know. He was the one who begged for him mercilessly, who cried when we said we would think about it, who brought out the big guns and lamented his first born status of having to share everything with everyone, namely his two annoying brothers. Smiles, named for the wide, open mouthed expression on his face, was his – except when it became necessary to feed, care or pay any general attention to it, then as it turns out, Smiles is mine.

I can’t say I mind, I took a quick liking to the reptile. Maybe it brought me back to my younger days, scanning the bungalow colony woods in summer scouting for those bright orange salamanders. My friends and I would catch them, count their spots, declare their age, and put them in pitiful little Tupperware tanks that we would decorate with grass, dirt and rocks. No animals were ever so loved by their captors, who routinely forgot to feed or give them water. Or in the case of my sweet younger brother – or at least sweet in this retelling – forgot to punch air holes in his plastic home. It took him awhile to figure out that his prized critters weren’t actually sleeping. I remember once leaving them out on the bungalow porch too long in the sun. You don’t want to know what I found when I returned from camp later that day. Let’s just say, to this day I don’t eat dried apricots.

Even with the 30 year time passage, I should have known better, but I guess I’m just an old nostalgic sap, I liked him. I really liked him. He isn’t orange or spotted like the “Sallys” of the old days. He’s a more lizardly grey brown, all the better for blending my dear. And he’s not smooth bellied and sweet; Smiles is a predator. Just watch him catch a cricket. Even lounging on his branch feigning sleep, in a flash he’s on the move. Snap, there go another cricket. I try not to think too hard about my transition from loving the innocent soft salamanders of old to the wizened, scaly dragon I identify with now. There’s something frightening there but again, I’m not thinking about that. Smiles knows what’s what. You’ve got to appreciate that.

In the week we’ve had Smiles, we have definitely bonded. I talk to him, bring him fresh vegetables, stroke his head, take him out to cuddle – don’t judge me, my boys are getting bigger. Sometimes, when I come close to the tank, Smiles runs up to the nearest branch and stares at me with a gaping smiling mouth. At least that was how I perceived it, until I read a book on bearded dragons that said that they sometimes show dominance and aggression with their wide menacing expression. Ouch. I don’t care what that book say, Smiles loves me.

So on this gorgeous May morning, I decided that Smiles should feel the real sun on his back instead of the infrared light bulb that heats his cage. Tyler was in Hebrew School already and the other boys were occupied with a video game. It was just me and Smiles as I walked out my front door into the bright happy morning.

At first, it was a Norman Rockwell picture. Me and my lizard on the green green lawn, under the blue blue sky with the yellow shining sun, so pretty. We basked as Smiles slowly scampered from my hand to the grass and back, until I got distracted for one damn second when my neighbor’s son biked past. I wanted Julius and Michael, my other boys, outside biking as well, and turned my head to call into the house for them.

That was when it happened. Smiles took two quick leaps and scooted right into the bushes that line my front lawn. It was my turn to have a mouth open and wide and my eyes as well. “Howard!” I screamed for husband, lunging for the plants. I was quick but he was quicker, and within a second, he was gone.

The person who would throw a paper towel at a spider and then run out of the room screaming was now full body deep in the bowels of a bush crawling with creepy creatures. I was beside myself. I could not believe what I had done. What the hell was I thinking bringing a small lizard outside without boundaries? All that went through my mind as I clawed helplessly through the mulch and dirt, scratching my arms on the branches and staring maddeningly at the leaves was that Tyler was never going to forgive me.  I could see it. On my deathbed, he would bring it up… remember when you lost Smiles?

Full on panic set in as the minutes passed and I realized my hope of recovering my baby dragon was as fleeting as he was. Howard was pulling apart our front shrubs. I had my face nose to nose with a giant spider and merely blew it aside. Things were crawling on me and I pushed my face lower to the ground and deeper into the bush. The shrub thinned out and I could see through it to the other side and Howard’s face staring back at me.

I was crushed. For one of the only times I can remember, Howard had the decency not to pour oil on the fire with, “Why would you do something like that?” or “What were you thinking?” I can only imagine how desperate I looked. Although, I got some idea by my father-in-law who was there as well, slowly circling the bushes with very large feet. Every time he caught a glimpse of my crazy eyes, he started repeating this tense, optimistic mantra, “Don’t worry, hon. You’ll find him. Don’t worry, hon. You’ll find him. Don’t worry, hon. You’ll find him.”

That was when Julius and Michael decided to make their appearance running from the door. Howard and I halted them immediately, both afraid they might step on Smiles and wanting to keep them unaware of the situation, but it was useless, the little lizards were on to our game. “Why’d ya take him outside?” Michael wanted to know. “You lose Smiles?” Julius asked. Crap. There were no secrets now. In my mind I had already jumped ahead to the pet store to buy a replacement baby bearded dragon, but now with the boys in the know, there was no way out for me. The gig was up and I was officially the worst mom ever.

We continued like this, gently circling the shrub, staring hard at every branch – who was I kidding? He was four inches long and the color of bark.  I sometimes couldn’t find him in his cage. I pictured his little face that was either happy to see me or territorially posturing for dominance. I was on the verge of heavy tears. Suddenly, Howard whispered something like, “I see him.”

There was no way. On my lawn of a thousand plants, a million blades of grass, Howard had found him, sitting in the center of the shrub next to the shrub that we had just mutilated. Slowly we closed in. Howard attempted retrieval but Smiles was deep in the shrub and he couldn’t get his hand around him. He tried coming in from behind but was afraid his tail would pull off if he tugged at it.

Barely breathing, I pulled apart the bush the best I could. He really was in there, deep in a crisscross of intersecting branches, his little face looking straight up at me without the hint of a smile. A large spider crawled over his back. I waited a second hoping he’d eat it or something. No such luck. Feeling like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, I slid my hand down and around, praying that he wouldn’t bolt. He didn’t. I pulled Smiles out and into the cave of my shaking hands. Gently hugging my hands to my chest, I walked into my house, placed Smiles back into his tank and cried.

All day, I watched Smiles closely for signs of stress, but he was fine. Only I spent the rest of the day in a state of shaky exultation. We found him! In all the bushes and all the grass, we found him. It was a near disaster. It left me thankful and vulnerable. I had almost committed one of those parent crimes that children carry with them for the rest of their lives, or at least thru therapy.

When Tyler found out what had happen, his mood was light and airy. “You lost Smiles.” He almost joked. He had no idea of the tragedy averted. Later, Howard and I reflected on how differently the day could have gone. If he hadn’t looked in that bush… If he had run… we would all be without smiles for a long time. Thankfully we survived our first week as baby bearded dragon owners, and now I’m just going to shed this day like reptile skin, smile and move on to the second.