Backstory: How to quell a bunk-bed intifada

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Advancing Middle East peace, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting human rights around the world - that's all fine stuff. But it's time they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for something truly difficult: stopping grade-school siblings from squabbling.

You know how it is - they start with something small, like one of them whistling while the other's still asleep. Then Legos get knocked over, and Lambie gets dunked in the hydroponic garden (Water in their room! What was I thinking ???!!) and the poking starts, and then it's a bunk-bed intifada.

Sometimes, when they're really into it, I just close my eyes and imagine a Council on Foreign Relations seminar, broadcast on C-SPAN: " 'He's Pinching Me!' - Where The Grier Family Conflict Goes From Here."

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So last week, when an argument over the ownership of a Ranger Rick magazine entered its third hour, I took action. I called a Nobel Peace Prize person for advice. Not that Ambassador Larry, as we call him in the neighborhood, actually won the thing. But a story in the Post once mentioned him as a possible winner for doing something in South Africa in the '80s. Plus, Kissinger insulted him on the White House tapes. That was good enough for me.

I outlined the situation. Ambassador Larry mused. "What's your goal?" he asked.

"Eight hours of sleep tonight," I said. "Me, not them."

"Not that kind of goal," said Larry. "You need a realistic negotiated end point. Then try to find common ground, and work step by step."

Fair enough, I thought. I put the boys in separate rooms, and started some shuttle diplomacy. At the outset the parties were far apart. Both claimed sole possession of the periodical in question. Neither had evidence to back his claim. Both were willing to employ force to advance their interests. But probing revealed subtleties. The first grader was most interested in the "Reader Riddles" section. The second grader wanted the picture of a wolf spider to take to school.

I called Larry back. "We're almost there," I said. "How do you close the deal?"

"Describe the consequences of failure," said Larry. "Then be creative in the final communiqué."

Done, and done. Following a vivid description of how well Ranger Rick would burn in the fireplace, absent a pact, the boys agreed to a compromise: each would "own" the section in which he was most interested. An adult would hold the magazine in trust, and govern access, which was to be equal, yet alternate.

Final status problems - i.e., what would happen when the next issue arrived - were kicked down the road.

I admit I was a little stung when the boys asked Ambassador Larry to be trustee. "He's from the UN," said the second grader. "You're just from Michigan."

Larry came for the signing ceremony. My wife baked gingersnaps. The first-grader sang his national anthem, which drew heavily on the theme song of "Scooby Doo."

Not half an hour later, Larry was explaining something about South Africa when I heard a faint whistling from upstairs. Then a scattering of plastic blocks, followed by the distinctive "squish" of Lambie's ears getting sucked into a pump. Chaos ensued.

As the yelling built in intensity, Larry blanched, then turned to my wife: "Have you ever thought about just building a fence between them?"

Peter Grier is a Monitor staff writer.

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