Monday, September 13, 2021

From Seed to Sequoia

 There should be a boot camp for prospective parents. They should be woken up at all hours of the night with an alarm mimicking a cry and be given a hefty sack of potatoes to hold as they are directed to do a number of household tasks single-handedly, while they walk over a Lego laden floor, dodge various projectiles at their head, are randomly rammed to the stentorian soundtrack of shouting, whingeing and the occasional moans of a wounded animal who has learnt the words “but I want to play”. The beleaguered aspirers will then be tugged at constantly and be asked incessant questions while given the task of preparing a nutritious, and if not delicious at least palatable dinner, within twenty minutes with the contents of a cadaverous fridge. Then they will be requested to align numerous calendars containing a cornucopia of playdates and lessons and be ordered to provide timely transport for respective near concomitant lessons at opposite edges of the city, while negotiating peace between belligerent passengers. To finish, while our stunning soundtrack continues, they will run a marathon, in which they will ingest all their food whilst running, change into their work attire, whilst navigating the nuances of negotiation for various objects and events and be clocked on how they instruct and perform long division – and that’s just level 1. For extra points, parents will have to homeschool their kids while concomitantly finishing their own.

In level 2 they are introduced to the penultimate paradox of parenthood- that by instructing your children to question authority and think critically, you undermine your own and you provide them the tools to undermine authority figures in their lives, which may at times work to their detriment as they bring on the ire of (usually inept) authority figures. However, in failing to instill this, you do your children, and society at large, a great disservice. In a democratic society, authority is not static and impenetrable, it’s earnt and subject to change. I try to navigate this by always justifying my demands and addressing the reasons thereof. You need to eat your vegetables and fruit in order to obtain vitamins and be healthy, you need sleep to rejuvenate, recuperate and grow etc. This mostly works but for two factors. The first and main reason is that children do not always have the capacity -nor for that matter do adults- to undertake something for a future benefit that is not to their liking in the present. The second reason is that parents do not sometimes have the time to detail all the intricacies of a particular decision, for instance when you are terrifyingly tardy for an event and your children are unclad and engrossed in a game. This indubitably generates tectonic activity. 

In level 3, you are presented with the penultimate predicament of being a parent. You love your kids more than anyone, more than anything – yet, you have to tread a delicate balance between having fun and being their friend whilst also guiding and disciplining them. Numerous times I have had to chime “I would love to just be your friend and have fun, but I must be your mum -and sometimes being a good friend, is failing at being your mum”. For instance, I explained to them, a good friend may simply continue a morning pillow fight and be tardy or even absent from school, but that would be a failing as a parent. This is at times a confounding concept for children to digest and even more so for adults to swallow. It’s easier to simply have fun and give in to demands. It’s difficult, even sacrificial, to be strict. What children don’t understand, at least it appears so to me, is that when you are strict with them, you are equally strict with yourself, because you are accepting the harder road for their benefit. My kids oft say I am “very tough” and “too hard on them”, pointing out that other kids have juice and soda and eat all sorts of chips, but how am I to let my children eat a product that appears to have radioactive tangerine powder all over it? We’ve come to a tacit understanding. These will never be in our home and I’ve explained the ill effects of these, yet they know when it’s their friend’s party, for instance, they’re allowed to have the juice, chips and cake – and they do. 

M has a penchant for some biting one-liners. Leaving the house in a scurry, M assessed my disheveled aspect and commented on my capillary catastrophe with an incipient grin “your hair looks like a volcano erupting mum”. Later, when assessing people’s personal attributes, he commented “mum, you’re a lighter, you burn everything in your path”. He considered himself a tornado. I suppose razing the ground must be in the family. Playing Uno, with P picking up his 12th card in order to make a match, M burst out in laughter and said, “OK, OK, dad, enough punishment for you tonight”. Arranging the carcasses of his lambchops on his plate in a manner in which one bone utilized the others as a slope then halfway brought them all down, he cackled “it’s not a landslide, it’s a lambslide”.  During a walk, his brow creased in concentration, M pondered, “what if we are just the products of someone’s imagination?”. What could one answer to that? Perhaps we are. And whomever is imagining us has some certain and oft tasteless humour. The only answer I thought feasible was to say that we may be, but we have to pretend we are not. One morning M wondered whether we were simply cereal bobbing around a cereal bowl. I should perhaps have pondered this a tad, but his imagination sparked mine. “If we are – who is eating us?” I wondered out loud. Fortunately, neither M nor L were afraid of this prospect but rather erupted into laughter. Then they requested cereal for breakfast.

We went camping for the first time earlier in the year, amongst the sequoias. The boys had their own tent, about a metre and a half away from ours. At night, under the sparkling sky and the soothing breeze, as everyone dozed, I could not sleep pondering possible dangers to my boys, in a tent, in the woods. Wild animals, strangers, miles away from any help. When I eased into comfort, some boisterous birds bellowed out their alarm and a new day began and I begrudgingly got up. The boys were soon awake and had no qualms waking up in the early morning and warmed themselves by the fire, ironically breathing particulates from the smoke that in the city would have had them relegated indoors or wearing filtered masks. 

The boys loved hiking amongst the sequoias, loved playing with our friends’ dog, whom they designated as their protector from bears and coyotes (a position that I’m not certain he would have agreed with) and particularly enjoyed the hammock which we strung between two trees. L was fascinated by the hammock as if he’d never been on one. He became more adventurous and vigorous in his rocking and failed to heed our warnings. We assessed he would likely injure himself soon, but not enough for it to warrant medical care, due to the small height and bushy underground. Barely a second after an exclamation erupted across the serene scene, in which L shouted “WOW! This is AWESOME!”, we heard a thud. The next second we heard crying. L never had an issue with rocking recklessly on the hammock again.

It’s generally trying to get the boys into bed on time (and that’s an understatement). Yet when we went camping and the boys were their usual raucous and rowdy selves in the eve, I warned, after several attempts to instill some serenity, “you keep that up mister, you are going to bed right now”, to which M responded within the beat, “yes please”. I asked L if he wanted to go to bed too and he immediately began to walk toward their tent, mumbling “thank God”. They were out in a few minutes. 

We took the boys back to Greece this summer. At first, M was wary of the water, albeit he adores being in the pool. P thought he would acclimate on his own, but I admit I have a more aggressive parenting style. I donned M with a floatie and carried him protesting into the water. As soon as he was in, he immediately became enamoured with the sea. In a few days, he was running in with his floatie. Watching his older brother swimming and snorkelling on his own, M wanted to catch up (this is the story of his life and perhaps that of all younger siblings) and discarded his floatie. By the end of our trip, M was snorkelling on his own, while L was diving deeper down. L astutely documented each marine creature he spotted, a true marine biologist out in the field. The islands offered up a rich bounty of marine life. Yet it’s somewhat bittersweet, seeing the plastic we’ve littered the seafloor with and hearing the booming noise from the boats that blast the eardrums of our marine species. One day P got fed up with all the plastic he would sea in his own waters, amongst the marine life and began to pick up the trash. We became a sea clean up squad, carrying out plastic on each snorkelling trip. Most of the plastic on the seafloor were the tops of drink lids. People order frappés, open the lid, it’s blown away and collects on the seafloor. During one stint, we collected 42 plastic lids. The boys had as much fun collecting garbage as they did spotting the various marine life. Unfortunately, we added to the plastic predicament. As much as we cleaned up, we also added to the plastic malignancy, losing M’s floatie. Swimming after it, going at a much faster pace but starting later, I seemed to be acting out Zeno’s paradox, a swimming Achilles chasing a plastic tortoise. The current was pulling out and I noticed L was swimming out towards me. I stopped and told him to go back, which he did not do. Finally, I changed direction and swam to L, the floatie now out of reach. L explained he wanted to help me and we had to have a long discussion, which I hope he digested, why children should never follow adults out to sea. Too many times, growing up in Australia, I heard stygian stories of whole families lost to sea as they each went after someone. Parents go after kids, that’s the order and that’s a given, but in no event should children follow their parents out to sea, even if Greek waters be tamer than the inaptly named Pacific of Australia’s east coast. 

The boys had their first sleepovers. L stayed over at his good mate’s house. After being privy to another household, he concluded that we are a “crazy” family. Other families, he deduced, could manage getting out of the house on schedule without a stampede. M’s friend stayed over a couple of times at our house. The boys, as expected, were giggling and whispering to each other after the lights went out. M was embarrassed to still wear training pants at night and refused to wear them. He looked at his friend and with vermillion verisimilitude empathically stated, “I do NOT wear these”. His friend, focused on choosing a book for me to read, paid him no attention. M continues to be upset about the deep sleep bed wetting. While toilet trained from about 18 months, he nevertheless continues to wet the bed when in deep sleep. His pediatrician recommended a belt that works like an alarm to wake M up when he pees so that his body gets used to waking up at the time he pees so that he could pee in the bathroom – but I’m concerned about the collateral consequences of this disruption of his sleep. M, however, is not and clamours for this so that he could finally wear undies to bed. 

M is fond of rules, particularly when he is the enforcer and not subject to them. His swimming lesson concurrent in the same pool as his older brother, who loves to show off and goof around in his class, M is wont to look over and direct him to attention, “L! Stop goofing around and concentrate!” It thus should not have surprised me that when he trampled into dog faeces while we were on a walk, his ire would be directed to all dog owners. Why did this happen? He demanded to know. I explained that it was the right thing to do, it was also the law and not complying subjected one to a penalty, but that sometimes people didn’t follow the rules, either because an emergency occurred at the time they were meant to pick up after their canine companion or they just didn’t care to follow the rules for whatever reason. M took umbrage at this latter point. For several weeks, when spotting a person walking their dog, he would go up to them and notice them of their duty, “excuse me, excuse me dog owner! Are you picking up after your dog? Because it’s not nice to step in poo. It happened to me and I didn’t like it at all. So, pick up after your dog. It’s the law you know”. That was his spiel. Flabbergasted owners would cringe crimson, stand to attention and thrust forth their expectant doggy bag to convince the 4year old in front of them that they fully intend to comply with the law and social mores. M would simply nod his approval of their affirmation and move his ire unto other dog owners. 

Months ago, before the Delta surge, with minimal cases in SF, I thought it may be OK to take M on a short bus ride. I had picked him up from preschool and didn’t have the car with me. I offered a walk instead. M was disconsolate. He refused to leave and the only reason he expressed was that he wanted “daddy to come pick [him] up”. After parsing it out, morsel by morsel, M finally divulged his fear “you have the vaccine, I don’t. I’m afraid to go on the bus with other people and get COVID- and I’m just a kid!” That was enough of a reason for me not to take him on the bus (and he still hasn’t taken one). We ended up staying in the park, watching the grass cutting robot, reading books and being dappled by sunshine instead.

M is very keen on composing music. He has been recording songs for his band The Hooks, which is only composed of an electric guitar, drums and vocals, or rather his acapella version thereof with hits such as “Superman Fire Smash”.

L is a very encouraging soul. He compliments people on their work and encourages people to keep going. He has encouraged me to publish my children’s stories (a work in protracted progress). He additionally insisted that I had to illustrate them. I balked at this. My pictures are more readily identified as scrawl. L’s response was to take personal offense. My husband reminded me that my perceived lack of confidence (which could also be described as realistic assessment of my talents) was discouraging to the kids and their own confidence, so I modelled vibrant self-esteem and agreed to draw. L wouldn’t let me off easily. He sat with me and ensured I finished all 24 rough drawings to get an idea of how the book should be illustrated. Every couple of days, he asks me to report my progression (which is admittedly quite protracted). 

L is very chivalrous. He always opens doors for girls, helps them carry things and when boys pronounce that no girls are allowed to play, he vociferously rallies against this injustice – “everyone should be allowed to play!” L is very adept at navigating social situations and discerning the respective and oft conflicting wants of all the parties. He then structures and negotiates deals. He has diplomatic qualities that I suspect he may only finesse as he grows. I hug him (and his brother) each day as his line leaves for the classroom. For instance, in true L style, rather than instruct me not hug him, he asked me to blow him a kiss. I got the subtext, remaining impressed at his diplomatic manner. Yet, as chivalrous, diplomatic and even romantic as L can be, he nevertheless asked me the following question, which initially perplexed me and led to a vibrant discussion on the difference between human and most animal relationships: “how many girls can I mate with?” 

M is less diplomatic but has more of an engineering mindset. He can assess how things work with an acuteness I lack. He is obsessed with the mag-lev shinkansen and wants to be a train engineer. He enjoys learning and explaining how things work. In particular, he is interested in magnetism and electricity. When I went to pick him up at school, I stealthily waited while he was instructing a friend on how mag-lev trains were faster because there was less friction. His friend seemed disinterested, she was looking away from him, yet he earnestly continued to exuberantly explain the science of these vehicles as if he had enchanted an invisible audience.

M and L started full time school this semester. M found school difficult at first. The first two days, he missed his preschool friends and complained he didn’t have any. In two days, he was telling us he was making friends and he now has a firm crew. Even with friends, he was telling me school was too long. It’s true that a boy who just turned 5 has a long day when it starts 6:40 am, to get ready for school and is picked up nearly ten hours later. I’ve tried to get him earlier and some days I can pick him up right after school. While he at first admonished me for leaving him at after-school care, M now demands he is taken to it so he can spend time with his friends. L, on the other hand, was adamant from the get-go that I would leave him at after-school care for as long as possible so he could fraternize. When I protested that I wanted to also spend time with him, L informed me that right when I picked him up, study session began “and wouldn’t it be good for me to do that?” I was not surprised to find that this was not accurate. “Well, how did I know?” L rebutted, “if I had never stayed long enough?” Indeed.  

M has taken to frequent exaggeration. He loves to don the truth with glib garb that receives a gasp or giggle. While M has heard the didactic story of the boy who cried wolf numerous times, he has not listened to it and has failed to heed its warning. His kinder teacher brought in a snake for a week. M not only said he touched the snake, but that the snake coiled around him. We assumed this was his exaggeration. Low and behold there is a video of M with the snake coiled around him, a gigantic grin on M’s his face as he exclaims how awesome the experience is. When I took L into M’s classroom, which was his prior classroom, L was stunned to see a train set. “My God!” L cried. “You weren’t lying about the trains!” he exclaimed to his brother. The next second, L’s shock slipped to sorrow and he hugged his younger brother. “I’m sorry brother I doubted you” he said sententiously as if on a stage. “I am SO sorry, you did not lie and I was a bad brother for I did not believe you and I am SO sorry!” M brushed it off. “Yeah, I never lie” he lied. 

The other day, on discussing life, the universe and everything, six-year-old L declared, matter-of-factly that the most important thing in life seemed to be money. P and me were appalled and began to attack his statement right away. L held to his pronouncement. What about love? What about family? “If you don’t have money for medicine, your family members may die. If you work all the time, you never see them” he rebutted. Then he proceeded to pontificate on his point.  “Health is important, but for health, you need medicine, vaccines, hospitals – and the government needs money for these. A clean environment is important, but the government needs money for clean energy and to clean up pollution. Housing, water, sewerage, schools – these are all necessary, but you need money for these”.  There really was no arguing his point. In the current structure of our society, he’s right. One only has to look at the vaccine divide in our world or the fact that most children in the world today in the year 2021 die from lack of clean water. It’s diarrhea, not COVID that is, and has been, the world’s most pernicious pandemic. The better point is to instruct it should not be that way. L certainly takes that to heart. On divulging this discourse to a friend recently, my friend thought it interesting that L thought it was the government’s responsibility to protect the health of its people and the environment. It was a point I missed, perhaps because I see it as elementary. What else is the government for if it does not protect its peoples’ health, their environment and foster education?  

For our generation, the monster isn’t hiding under the bed. It’s in our air and seas. M has been embroiled in climate anxiety. L, on the other hand, has a Panglossian view of our green energy future. “We’re all going to die in 200 years” M remarked. “The polar ice caps are melting, we’re done for”. I tried to cleave his concerns. “We know the problem and we’re working on it – coming up with alleviation and mediation strategies. How to stop climate change and deal with its consequences”. M looked at me with an inch of incredulity and a pinch of disdain. L decided he need to intervene with his unflappable optimism. “M, don’t worry, we are going to have hydrogen boats and clean seas”. M pointed to one of our science books. “This book says that if we don’t radically change things, we are all dead – and why don’t we have hydrogen boats now?” (this goes back to L’s earlier point, it’s too expensive). When the monsters are real, you can’t simply nudge them away. This is not resolved by censoring scientific study and retaining the truth for a less tender age. Our planet is in a pernicious predicament and we can no longer shield our children from it  (if that were the wise thing to do) because it’s not simply a matter of statistics in books that we can shut. It’s in their lives, directly affecting them and revealing its raw consequences. The smoke affects their air. The plastic is in their water. The sky flamed incarnadine. For us, as adults, that life may radically change is both worrisome and unbelievable. We can profess it, but we cannot viscerally digest it. We are too invested in our pasts building our future, which to some extent structures and confines our vision. This is bolstered by the fact that the expected future looks grim. Perhaps this deeply embedded ignorance is to some extent survivalist. For if we accepted that there was no future, that all was already lost, how could we live each day? Apathy is ceding defeat before it occurs and we must not succumb to it. So, while we must instruct our children they will inherit the errors of generations past, they also inherit their knowledge to build upon. We must teach them to be resilient, precautionary and in tune with nature. For that is the ultimate parenting goal, to raise humans better than ourselves. Every sequoia begins with a seed. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Hooks

L, at a fresh six, has decided he is more of an adult than a child. He directs his brother to finish his chores and he negotiates deals on behalf of his brother. If he wants to watch an episode of Magic School Bus, understanding that his brother adores the same show (which is admittedly pretty informative and entertaining) he maneuvers a deal between the kids and the parents, professedly on his brother’s behalf. The parents are offered the consideration of M’s reading of two books and a few addition problems, while M is offered an episode of  his (and their) favourite show. L, with endearing and earnest eyes, lays out the benefits of the deal to each party and blithely brokers an agreement for which his fee is the enjoyment of his brother’s consideration. He has well learnt how to understand and manipulate people’s interests to achieve solutions that benefit each party, while also benefiting himself and- importantly- without having to express his self-interest. This diplomatic finesse is also utilized when L is introduced into stressful situations. When his friend, who attends a private school and had the benefit of in-person learning, unlike the children at public school which have been neglected by their district for twelve months (in acute hypocrisy to the district’s professed intention to support equality for it is the struggling, working parents that rely on schools being open both to educate their kids and allow them to earn income who were most in need of schools reopening), teased L by claiming he did not go to a “real school”, L, obviously upset, simply protested that he did and made no other issue of it. However, later, when we went around the table to express gratitude, L displayed that he did not take lightly to the slight and expressed he was grateful for his school, his class and having the best kindergarten teacher ever (he does avidly adore his teacher and she is amazing but I understood there was also an ulterior motive to this proclamation). It is through this delicate diplomacy that L navigates the world. I would not be surprised if this talent, combined with his earnest concerns for our world and his intention to change it for the better results in a political career or some other advocacy. His main interest is the protection of the environment and in particular, the protection of our oceans. 

L’s brokering of dealings has been to my advantage for I have weakened my negotiating position with my dealings with M. If I attempt to negotiate a deal with M these days, he looks at me intently and solemnly states, “you are trying to trick me to do something again, right?” If I don’t resort to L’s brokerage and his fee, I remain with two resources, both of which appeal to M’s ego and his visceral desire for conquest. I can ask for help, because he is of a most succorable character and will not refuse one aid, or I can pose a challenge and that baits him just as well. If I explain that no four year old or five year old has ever done X, M’s interest is immediately piqued. 

M is also a little activist but his approach is more akin to a bulldozer that rams everything in his path. He has no qualms expressing his pedestrian ire, for instance, at cars that block the footpath. Adults are not used to children’s criticism, particularly when it is so impassioned and on point and generally comply. The people that choose to ignore M, do so at their own risk, because unless I drag him away, he will continue to berate them. “Do you think you own the sidewalk? What about people walking?” etc. Riding in the car, M, who acutely observes all rules and patterns, will immediately censure the driver for failing to put up a timely signal, failing to break smoothly, or inching past a red light. P was surprised that M informed him- before he noticed the pattern- that there was a bug in our car's system and that the moon roof only worked properly when the car was stationary and could not perform all functions when the car was moving. 

M adores the piano. He does not attack the keys, but already navigates a melody. His interest in music and his acute ear impel us to support this interest and fortify his talent. He has informed us that he has a band and they are called “The Hooks” (after further prodding it was divulged to us that the plays all the various instruments in his band). He is also fascinated by engineering and has declared he will create a faster and cleaner train than the mag-lev or the hyperloop. Power to you, M. 

M has a dire drive to conquer over his brother. So much so that that his interest in chess piqued so that he could beat his brother. Indeed, during one game in which he inserted himself to aid my endeavour against L, he immediately pounced on L's weakness, which is to make use of easy prey without giving thought to the consequence, and ended up exchanging our pawn for L's queen to L's stewing strife. 

M adores his brother, but he is also wary that everyone loves his brother and worried that he may not receive the same reception. When L informed him that he may have the same kindergarten teacher, M was at first excited but then concerned. "What if she doesn't like me? What if she doesn't like me as much as L?" M asked me quietly one day. He confessed that L was better at school, better at reading etc. Indeed, L is far ahead of M. M, the self-professed "book spider" reads, but its an effort for him, while L has long surpassed that and reads effortlessly (indeed, he has a voracious appetite for reading, shouting to all and sundry that books are his favourite vehicle because they transport him to other worlds - and so much so- that I've oft had to admonish him for walking and reading, lest his intellectual pursuits lead to physical strife). Even though I've explained to M numerous times that his brother is twenty-two months older and was no advanced at his age, M feels the difference in their aptitude acutely and I'm still not sure how to best navigate his insecurity in this regard. 

Yet as much as the boys may fight and attempt to conquer each other, they have a fraternal bond that flexes without fissure or fracture. They cuddle together, M climbing up to L's bed in the morning, craft conspiracies against their parents, play together (my favourite of their imaginative play is "Keep Earth Safe" against "Pollution" in which they protect the earth from oil spills and other toxins) and discuss life, the universe and everything - which at times can get so acutely animated over a difference of opinion that I have to stop eavesdropping and broker peace (numerous times when M would get avidly frustrated, L, in a calm tone, would attempt to pacify him by noting "M, don't get angry, it's bad for your heart").

One of my favourite past-times admittedly is listening to their discussions in the morning, but I am also uneasy at this incursion into their privacy (it seems they haven't yet understood the auditory effects of sharing french doors between our bedrooms). During one of these supposed intramural discussions, L asked M why their pro-yia yia was so ill. "She's old" M flatly said. "Will she get better?" "No, she's old. We all get old and die. Our bodies stop working" "But why?" L continued to ask in frustration. "I don't know L, it just is" replied M with a hue of irritation, choosing to venture into a different topic. Albeit as steady and sure as M appeared to be before his brother, he continues from time to time to ask me questions about mortality, still navigating our ephemeral existence and still searching for a loophole from life's finality. "I don't want to die, I want to live forever" he oft confides in me. "Do I really have to die?" he asks as if I can somehow unlock immortality. He seemed personally insulted on learning that turritopsis dohrnii, a species of jellyfish, has the ability of transdifferentiation and thus was effectively immortal and yet humans hadn't figured out how to cheat death. I decided not to also note that smacks of jellyfish were taking over our oceans and that we may not be the apex species. "Do you know when you are going to die?" "So it can be any day?" "What happens when you die?" "What happens to your body when it shuts off?" I provide what answers I can, with some sliver of salt. One the one hand, I do not want to lie to my son, on the other I don't want him waking up each day in a noxious neurosis thinking each day he could die. It was a delicate discussion in which I told him energy never dies, it merely transforms, that the smallest part of his existence will be as him even though that is all he can perceive whilst he is on that journey, that his stardust will return to the stars and that humans usually die when they are old (which I have told him before). He pressed me on this point. "When earlier? Why?" so I pushed nutrition - "the more you eat your vegetables and fruit, exercise, use your brain and socialize, the longer you will stay healthy and live". M took this to heart and informed his friends emphatically that if they didn't finish their vegetables they would die to their dire distress. The unavoidable ripple of unintended consequences. 

L informed me the other day that he was conflicted. He wanted to be a marine biologist, but he also wanted to be an inventor. He wants to invent a way to clean the oceans – “I believe that this invention will be the most benefit of marine life” he avowedly expressed. I informed him that he can do both. There is no reason to do one thing in life, I told him. Do not think that you need to grow up and “become” something. You grow up and you do something. Labour specialization is one of the ills of our society. It is reductive and depressing for individuals who are enmeshed in the one role, thus stifling their experience. It is also not the most productive, which is the impetus for the specialization. For instance, a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving allows for holistic, more durable solutions than when one is confined with a structured paradigm that necessarily directs and informs their answers by rendering invisible that which may otherwise be the pertinent point if viewed from a wider perspective. L took this up wholeheartedly. "We don't just have to do one thing when we grow up" he excitedly began to relate this diktat in turn to his brother, in his usual loquacious manner. M's retort was characteristically laconic, compounded with a shrug indicating that he never had any intention to confining his interests according to social dictates. 

M, our self-professed "tornado of silliness", which he likes to relate to all and sundry as if in an effort to undermine any perceived control over his own faculties, is true to his name. I am less than pleased with some of the effects, for instance, discovering a titanic toy spider in my bed at night which led to the predictable consequence of an avalanche of dire decibels or their room housing a colossal spider's web, which prevented any movement therein for the several days of its conquest. The latter, which had the stamp of parental authority with my husband avidly helping the boys set up the strings across the room, as if he were intent on teaching trapeze, was professedly a leprechaun trap. I was less than pleased with the concept of aiding the boys trap anyone, even a fictional character, but the boys assured me that the their trap was really an earnest effort to provide a needed - and comfortable they noted - resting place for the tired leprechaun. All the boys in the family (father included) were so pleased with their venture that my husband became their mission's emissary in an effort to have me dot the strings with green so that it would appear a leprechaun had evaded their trap. The diplomatic mission successful, the boys were amazed at the leprechaun's feat and agreed to construct a more elaborate trap next year. I was less than pleased with that intention but I was pleasantly surprised that they then commandeered a pulley system from the string to take things up to their bed, including stuffed toys, cars and their water bottles.  

The boys have recently swapped daily baths for showers. We had been wanting to do this for a while but the clincher was their understanding of the difference in water usage. If you keep the water on during a shower, you can see how much water you use and their quick shower resulted in a lower water level, which was sufficient for these self-professed friends of the environment to switch. 

L the other week informed us that humans were the apex predator. "We are a predator to animals, to the environment and to each other" he solemnly declared, before professing that things needed to and would change. M is also acutely aware of our environment's fragility (after all these kids are Californian, they were putting on masks under a miasmic sky long before the pandemic and experienced a day incarnadine last year) and at times admonishes me. "Mum" he sternly interrupted by narrative on how we were to conquer mosquitos, the vicious vectors of disease, "the mother mosquito just wants to feed her babies. You want to feed and protect us, right? Why would you get rid of mosquitos? They are just being good mums. You need vaccines for these diseases, not to attack the mosquitos". It was a fair point and yet I sit where I stand - I favour humanity over mosquitos. M would have nothing of it and threw my own teaching back to me exposing my rabid hypocrisy in my avid expression of anthropocentrism (this is the cruelty of the filial relationship, it exposes your core contradictions). Yet M's point that we needed to solve the problem of pathogens and not vectors was apt - if only it were that easy to do. 

Normalcy has somewhat returned. The first activity L did this year was get back to soccer. He was thrust into an intensive soccer camp for three hours a day which he adored and which fortified and finessed his skills. The first day, L proclaimed through droopy eyes that he was happy but that his "brain was putting on pajamas". Then his body got accustomed and he had more energy after class. L then started karate and was pleased, as we have been learning Japanese at home, that he could count to ten and understand words in Japanese that his sensei would intermix every so often in his commands. Then swimming lessons opened up and the boys were overjoyed. After the first lesson, M looked disappointed at his teacher and asked "this is IT? It's so short" to which she replied with an energetic smile that he would have another lesson in just a week. "Just as well" M muttered as if he were a grumbling geriatric and not a four year old. 

We were concerned that the boys would have greatly regressed from not having swimming lessons for over a year, but the muscle memory kicked in pretty much right away. "We're orcas after all" L proclaimed with an eruption of a smile. This served them well - when M was with family in a pool, on top of a float, a year after any swimming lesson and a week before he restarted, he still managed to swim from underneath it to the edge of the pool while his grandmother jumped in lest he were in trouble. 

M is coming up with (or remembering from somewhere who knows) jokes left and right. The other day I was explaining an aspect of our skeletal system and when he understood it, he beamed a smile and presently proclaimed, "mama, you should go to the bank and get out $20". This caught me off guard and I asked why. "Because you make a lot of sense!" M shouted back. I erupted in laughter. P later told me that he was explaining to M earlier that day that there were 100 cents in a dollar. Perhaps M penned his first pun.

 L amused a procession of people on our promenade one day by serenading me with a song professing to his adoration. I must admit it was a moment to cherish. He occasionally bursts into song about how he would always protect me. I wonder where he picked up protection of his family (he noted that he will be taller and stronger than me in no time) rather than us protecting him, but I'll take his serenades any day. 

The other week was the first day of school for kids in the district (for two days a week). Us usual, our house was less than orderly in the morning and we were scrambling to have the kids ready on time. L continually contorted his face in concern, "mama, please don't let us be late today" - and I heeded his instruction- we were not late. Yet L, perhaps because of my chronic tardiness respecting social appointments, raced up the hill, explaining he would rather be early than late. It was a sight to behold. All the children (and their parents) were blithe and beaming as if they were about to enter a land of unrestricted candy consumption. At pickup each child excitedly related to their parents the events of the day and L insisted on walking with his friends home. Each child professed their excitement that the morrow was another school day. It was emotional to say the least.  For L, school is the most exciting and fascinating place and he continues to vocalize how grateful he is that he gets to go back in person - and how he can't wait to be there full time. I wager this studious sentiment is echoed by his classmates. I wonder whether denying children school for so long will make them more earnest to study. Perhaps they will never want to leave and end up a generation with doctorates.


Monday, December 28, 2020

The Annals of an Annus Horribilis

 Perhaps it was the environment of fire, flood and most pertinently, plague, that sparked M into an existential crisis this year, or the age, which closely followed, if a tad earlier, his elder brother's path of comprehending the fragility of life, but M's year has been focused on his understanding of and pondering on his and others' miserable morbidity. Even before the pandemic wreaked its pernicious pandemonium, M had drawn an abstract painting at school that he titled "After-Life". He has incessantly asked questions concerning the nature of our existence and purpose which I have not been able to provide answers to that he deems acceptable and continues to persist in his interrogation. When does one die? How do you know when you will die? How does one die? Why do we have to die? He has also expressed his anguish at losing people he loves and of dying himself. I told him that we don't die, there is a circle of life, that we are stardust and to stars we return - energy never dies, it merely transforms. This was not good enough. "I don't want to be a star again, I want to stay being M". To which L, who was apparently robustly listening to our increasingly depressive discourse, though his concentration appeared draped over his book (L is a voracious reader, now even letting me read at bedtime to the boys, a task he has proudly taken over), quipped in an earnest and equanimous manner, as if to underpin that he had resolved his earlier fears and reticence of our unavoidable conclusion, "we all have our time, M". M evidently heard his brother's comment, for his eyes widened as he glazed his glacial gaze upon him, ruminating on his response, until finally he lashed out his challenge to the universe, "well, it's not fair!". L's retort was the sufferance of a sigh as he turned the page of his book. 

It has been quite a difficult year for L who was always and remains a gregarious extrovert craving company. With school and other curricula closed for 3/4 of the year and mere morsels of playdates, the absence of society has worn on L. He has stopped asking when school will reopen and quarantine will end. He knows of the vaccine rollout, yet he has come to understand that things take much longer than expected. When we do see other people, which is rare, he erupts in excitement to an extent that at times, his earnest want to connect may be overpowering. I wonder how he will handle the first of day of school when he is surrounded by the physical and not merely video presence of his peers and whether he would be able to concentrate on school, albeit he is very studious. Perhaps other kids have socially regressed and are depressed - for I do think that L is somewhat depressed. He won't admit that he's sad, but he does act out in ways he never did before and it's as if he is signalling pain. His world has narrowed and is to some extent a cadaverous husk of the lively one he enjoyed before, surrounded by friends, learning at school and in various classes, exploring museums. Conversely, his younger brother goes to school each day and while L has never once mentioned anything about this discrepancy, I wonder if it's an additional dent to his despondency. 

On the flip side, remote learning has allowed us to have more time with L and to progress him academically. While we follow the curriculum, we also encourage L to pursue his academic interests, which are mostly scientific. He is very interested in marine biology and renewable energy. Perhaps the confluence of his interests may lead to harnessing algae biopower- who knows! He is already subtracting and adding numbers in the hundreds, multiplying and dividing. His reading ability has exponentially increased so that now he can read anything, albeit he may not know all the words. I told him that even adults don't know all the words - "I learn new words all the time." In order to encourage his learning of Greek, I told him one way I know the meaning of new words is to understand their etymology and from this and the context within which they appear I merely use the dictionary to confirm my understanding. While English is a Germanic language with Nordic and Norman roots, many words are also of Greek origin, in particular with respect to science. In furtherance of my instruction, I told him Greek was the key to English. Take "polyglot" I said, "poly" comes from the word "poli" in Greek which means "many" and "glot" comes from "glossa" which means language (and thus we have the word "glossary"). To my avid embarrassment, I learnt L digested this lesson too well, for when he was speaking with a friend about her Polish mother tongue and its similarities to Serbian, both being of Slavonic roots, he quietly but authoritatively informed her that Greek was better than any other language because it was the key. I corrected L and then later told him that each language deserves equal respect to which he glared at me suspiciously and challenged me by pointing out that I was now contradicting my earlier counsel and had to acknowledge the misery of my mistake. 

This year I've had a myriad of moments in which I've been apologizing to L for my ill parenting. My parenting abilities have been quite amputated this year as I've struggled with balancing work and homeschooling L. Albeit I've read numerous pedagogical books and have previously implemented the tools they proffer to what I've perceived as success on the whole, I've been quite upset at my depleted parental abilities this year. In the frazzled moment of delivering my work on time and educating L, I've resorted to the fallible approach of sticks and carrots. I've raised my voice (and this is a most favourable description of the uncontrolled decibels that churned corrosive content during my numerous indiscretions). I've acted exactly as I never wanted to act with my children. I have four books on the shelf on pedagogy that I haven't even opened, preferring instead to read novels in an effort to escape my duties and selfishly revel in another's story. I know War and Peace is probably not going to be make me a better parent, but I have a firm resolve to have "me" time at the end of the day, knowing I am reading something for no purpose but enjoyment. Perhaps I may argue, in an effort to defend my position, that if I don't have this time to relax and replenish, I would deplete the resources necessary to be a good parent. I hope that L's remote learning experience next year -which may end up being the entire year of kindergarten and, counting from the beginning of the lockdown, almost two years of his schooling - is one in which I am, if not a pillar of puissance, at least sufficiently strong to not resort to threats and cajoling during difficult moments that cut at my capabilities. 

I invoked the Parent Police with M. I knew it was a weak move, because the prior time I had invoked it, M burst out crying. Yet I had lost my energy and resolve and rather than threatening M, I tried a different tactic. Perhaps my son will be resolving these issues with his therapist in later years, but presently, it has completed its function error free and M has complied with my requests. Always a fantastic eater, M became rather picky of late and it was trying to say the least to get him to eat his vegetables at times (meanwhile L is such a good eater and understands the primacy of vegetables in your diet to such an extent that he has repeatedly expressed regret that carnivorous animals miss out on being able ingest the vitamins they provide). I told M that it was my duty to report my failings to the Parent Police and that they would decide whether I needed to be rolled out of the family and retrained while another, better mother, that knew how to get M to eat all his vegetables and go to bed on time, would take over. During my fabricated dialogue with the Parent Police, I accepted my 40 day probation period to have M redeem his ways. M listened avidly to my conversation, his brow crevassed into a ravine of regret. "I am sorry mama" he said sheepishly, "that you had to report yourself and I don't want you to go! I will eat my vegetables and go to bed on time! I promise!" And he did - and still does. 

The day the playgrounds opened back up after nearly seven months of being closed with police tape as if they were the location of a particularly gruesome crime scene, was a jubilant if manic day with kids running wild around the playgrounds as if someone had slipped in and spiked all their water bottles. A solid segment of evidently leant on parents were utilizing their kids' reabsorption of playground delights to go through numerous conference calls while others nervously stalked their kids as if they were negotiating playground structures for the first time and desperately needed their aid. My kids were ebulliently and avidly manic, indubitably some of the loudest children there, booming out to each other as they raced across the grounds to slide down the slippery dip in tandem. It was also the day that M went so fast down the slide that he flew in the air and landed on his bum with much fanfare. While he exploded into tears, I, the award winning parent of 2020, erupted in laughter. I ran up to M to comfort him, curbing my cackle, but he turned away from me, saying, "mama, I saw you laughing when I hurt myself and I am very disappointed in your choice." Children have a way of throwing your own words back at you in a way that really churns the chains of your cardiac cogs.

M is a most determined chap. When he complained that his coiffure was covering his eyes a number of times to which we responded that he wait through the weekend, M evidently lost patience with his parents, grabbed his arts and crafts scissors and proceeded to create a capillary catastrophe of which he was buoyantly proud. Despite its rather rough aspect, it certainly served the purpose of fraying his fringe so that he had a newly unobstructed view of the world.

M also likes to cause trouble. On seeing a man with numerous gold chains, presenting in front of his rimmed car, M paused and then stated "your car is not that good. It needs a wash" to which the man burst out in laughter, to M's chagrin and shouted back, "this little man's going to be the boss, the BOSS, I tell you". M accepted this prophecy and later started directing his brother, stating "I am the BOSS" to which L simply said, "no you are not, you are not a grown up", which led M to reaffirm his stance and both their broods to boil to a bellicosity that required immediate parental intervention and consequent refocusing of their energies.

This was the first election year in which the kids were cognizant that it was occurring. The days following the election, my phone notified me that my usage had gone up astronomically as I recursively checked for updates (someone should explain to CNN that "too close to call" is not what one expects when they relate that they have an "election update") and utilized electoral college possibilities for a Biden win as constructive math problems for L. M, who calls Trump "Trumpet" something that at first I corrected, but then thought it rather fitting, started to herald even before any announcement that "Trumpet lost, lost, lost, he is gone, gone, gone" to which L quickly affirmed that many houses in the neighbourhood had Biden-Harris signs and those with Trump on the windows signalled "Nope" which he explained meant that nobody wanted Trump and his "selfish policies". I asked L what he meant, not being able to remember when I had spoken to him of the retiring administration. "Mama, you know, he only cares about making money and not the people and Joe and Kamala, they really care for the environment and for the people" said L. Then he looked at me with earnest eyes and asked "I'm right, aren't I, that they will take care of us?" I nodded. "Yes, L, they care". "I hope Joe reads my letter" L then retorted and I nodded assertively. He had written a letter to the President earlier that week as part of a school exercise. L's message to the President consisted of stating that he wanted everyone to stay safe and healthy and wanted everyone to wear masks and eat their vegetables. L called my bluff. "But if my letter is in my journal then we never send it so that the President cannot read it?" he inquired. I nodded sheepishly. "I confess I forgot." L percolated on this point. "Well, Joe is not President yet and I forgot to mention the orcas he needs to help out up north. So I will write a new letter and you will send it this time?" he asked me, waiting for my vocal confirmation before nodding his head to attest to our agreement and obliging me to perform on it, before moving on. I await further instruction...

This Christmas the boys were skeptical of Santa's existence. "He's not for real life" M confronted me one day, with L beside him. "What energy does he use to power his flying sleigh?" L began his interrogation. "How does he know if children are naughty or nice?" L continued. "How can all the presents fit in his bag?" M asked. I have never been a Santa fan. The idea of Santa is a little creepy. He exploits the poor elves who have yet to unionize, he infringes on every company's trademarks, he violates all customs laws, he whips his working reindeer and spies on children across the world. More importantly, if he loved children so much, then why utilize all his energies to get children toys for Christmas rather than ensure that every child has - each day, not just Christmas- good shelter, clean water and sanitation, access to good medical care and an enriching education? My husband is rather the Santa champion of this household. Thus, I directed their questions to him. They remained skeptical and knowing my husband cherishes the tradition, I had an idea after reading about Dr. Fauci's public declaration that he travelled to the North Pole to inoculate Santa Claus. I showed the boys Dr. Fauci's declaration and in a blitz the boys' suspicions were allayed. "So he is for real life!" M shouted. L quickly proceeded to inform his father that rather than cookies, which were unhealthy, we should leave Santa carrots and celery to give him needed vitamins for his exerting work and warned his father several times to ensure that the gas was off in our fireplace so that Santa would not get burned. The authority to which the kids subscribed to the government was apparently impenetrable - if the leading immunologist says Santa is real, then who are we to argue?

I must admit that this year Christmas was the most materialistic one we've had, in an effort to make up for a decidedly crappy year. While it is a joy to see the eruption of smiles on your kids' faces when they open up their presents and revel in their new books, games and toys, it is also a decidedly wasteful celebration. We cut down millions of trees, use millions of rolls of wrapping paper and other packaging and utilize more energy to light up our decorations. Paradoxically, this commercial and material revelry, compounded with gluttony for good measure, is diametrically opposed to the message of its eponymous immaterialist, whose birth it was originally meant to celebrate. 

It's four days to the new year and the boys are excited to see it go. We have been crossing each day on our calendar in December in an earnest countdown to the new year. Their determination to get to 2021 is symptomatic of the toll this year has taken on them and in turn on all of our children. Goodbye and good riddance. Adieu. To a healthier, better, livelier 2021!



Sunday, September 13, 2020

La Quarantine Quotidien III: A Sky Incarnadine

Compound crises are going to become common in this new millennium. After all, they stem from the same root causes of our insouciant exploitation of this planet. I’ve written on these topics elsewhere and here will focus on the parenting aspect. We’ve had periods of miasma from wildfires before. We dealt with the fire season by occupying the kids with the great indoors and were thankful we lived in a city that provided so much indoor adventure for our boys. The Academy of Sciences, the Exploratorium, the Aquarium, to name but a few and numerous indoor gyms and classes for making arts and crafts, theatre and dance. None of these options are available to people in a pandemic for they exacerbate the very things that lead to contagion – crowds and contained air. So, now our little Californians are confined to adventure in their homes. They can’t see their friends, they can’t go to museums, they can’t go to their classes, they can’t go outside. It’s a stygian circumstance for our young boys, yet they seem happy enough (remarkable!). While we were disoriented and more than a little anxious to wake up to a titian sky that turned tangerine then incarnadine before noon, as if the sky was scarred by scarlet tears that enveloped us in darkness, the boys were insouciantly ecstatic. It broke up their monochromatic existence. 

The one saving grace is their imagination and I would admit another – LEGO. Our apartment, thanks in part to a generous donation from one of my friend’s son’s, is brimming with LEGO. L in particular can spend hours constructing LEGO, whether following instructions or simply using his imagination like a proper “master builder”. They’ve had loads of fun constructing and programming their LEGO Robot which aids logic sequencing. L also likes to retire to a space in his room or his bed where he simply reads LEGO instruction manuals. 

There is of course the usual menu of books, arts and crafts, yoga, freeze dance, indoor soccer (admittedly not our wisest choice) and P recently added to our smörgåsbord by coming up with the idea of indoor hockey. We repurposed racetrack sections as hockey sticks and a ping pong ball as a puck. However, the kiddos have been gravitating towards LEGO more than any other and can spend hours building. "Let's get to work!" L would shout, decibels of determination, going to his "station" and continuing to build his city. The first day of kindergarten, which was and still is over Zoom, L built a school, replete with a classroom of desks and chairs facing the teacher's desk, with a teacher in front of her desk ready to teach. There was a garden with trees that surrounded the building and heaps of solar panels. I rushed to get my phone to take a photo as I was so enchanted by it (albeit part of me felt quite triste as it displayed how avidly he missed school) but by the time I returned, only seconds later, it was enough for our resident Godzilla to have destroyed it and reduced his older brother to tears. Such was my lesson to record the memory into pixels, I missed out on enjoying it all. 

In order to change the monotony of the boys' days during the double lockdown, we did a pajama free dance after the bath at night with glow in the dark balloons which the boys adored. M in particular was dancing as he twirled two glowing balloons to house music and it reminded me of clubs in my early 20s. It really is an aphorism to say the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Parenting is never easy and the pandemic and fires have made it even more difficult, acting as an amplifier of all the intricacies we must navigate. Parents have to juggle extra parenting tasks, including home schooling their kids, while continuing to perform at their jobs, while their kids' emotional states require an attention that few parents can hold. Employers who are sensitive to this undue pressure on parents, provide more reasonable timelines but surely this creates friction with colleagues that don't have children. Even before the pandemic and quarantine at the beginning of this year, I overheard a woman of around my age, who did not have children, complaining to another that her employer allowed her colleagues to leave early to pick up their kids from school and that because she was the only one in her small team without children, she was disgruntled that she alone had to stay at work far later. If they can leave to pick up their kids, why can't she leave too she protested... and here she walked way and I tried not to careen my head to not make it even more obvious that I was eavesdropping (my husband has said I continue to have the ill European habit of unwittingly staring at people that I'm supposedly clandestinely eavesdroping on - apparently Americans have perfected this art). To hear this woman talk, you would think that people become parents in order to skip work and offload it to others. To extend this woman's view to its logical extension, should people without kids get the equivalent of parental leave to make it fair? Being a parent is amazing, but it is also loads. Of. Work. Parents work non-stop. Particularly this year, we have no time to ourselves. The only way I can write this, is because at this very moment, my husband is taking his shift with the kids and while I had something else on the agenda, I decided to write this (procrastination is the only way I get things done)... about my kids. The comment struck me and has stayed with me. As a parent, I saw a different view, but if the crux of the issue is that you work more - at least at work - if you don't have kids - you can't but not have empathy, particularly because not having children is something that people may not have consciously decided on, while having kids is a conscious decision. So why should someone else work more so we can enjoy our kids? It's a problematic managerial issue that has been percolating for a while and is indubitably coming to a boil throughout the workforce. 

Before the fires, we took a road trip up to the San Juan Islands. Understanding on some days the boys would be in the car for four hours, we got them LEGO in buckets, art sets that buckled across their car seat and booster, and headphones for an iPad to enjoy a film then and again. It made travel much easier for them and for us. However the boys were most interested in following our map and ensuring we strictly kept to road rules, ever quick to point out that we forgot to make a turn or the like until P warned, after an avalanche of derision as to his navigation, that he would turn off the GPS since he was not utilizing it. 

The boys were understandably excited to hike through temperate rainforest and M in particular was an expert at spotting each and every slug on our path. He was most impressed to discover a banana slug at Ruby Beach in Olympic National Path but most distressed that it was on the walking path. M has incredible patience to coach a slug across the walking path, far more than at times his parents and all other hikers would consider courteous smack in the middle of a hiking path. It took some hard negotiation and bribery to pry him away from slug crossing duty.

Surrounded by pristine trees, rather than immerse ourselves in their rejuvenating air, we had to breathe through masks to avoid possibly infecting others and being infected ourselves. The hiking etiquette observed was that if you see someone walking near you, put on your mask well in advance. Most hikers abided by this bonton, albeit some went further and wore their masks permanently and some decided to be brazen and go bare faced. 

We journeyed all the way up to Orcas Island to see orcas. Alas, we didn't get to see them as they were across the border in Canada and our boat could not cross this arbitrary line. L took this omission with good grace. He marvelled at the beauty of the San Juan islands and learnt how to utilize a pair of binoculars, spotting numerous bald eagles and porpoises. Later he told us that he thought some pods we saw were orcas and we let his imagination satiate his wants. We knew that L, our sensitive soul, has latent reactions. Indeed, a few days later, L convulsed in tears, disconsolate, when he dropped a stick into a river. He was adamant he would jump in and find it. It took us a few flummoxed moments to consider that this was his due reaction to not seeing his precious pod. Alas, we could not go to Vancouver Island this year, amongst the many things that were written off....

We dragged the kids for 3 mile daily hikes, breaking it up with lunch. I am always of the opinion that we need to have the kids moving for their immune systems, their growth and their brain. Perhaps I do push it. During one hike, the boys rebelled. M sat down and refused to walk. When I tried to get him up, he screamed "I'm just a kid! I can't walk anymore! You are being too tough on me!" This arrested me and brought my husband into line too. The remainder of the hike, M sat imperiously over his dominion on top of his father's shoulders. We were fortunate to arrive back to San Francisco through areas now aflame before the fire and as we made a pit stop, surrounded by Australian natives in blistering heat (113 F/45 C), I felt right at home. My boys however were true San Franciscans and were reduced to tears in bare minutes, screaming that their eyes were burning (their idea of a beach day involves them wearing three layers of clothing). 

L's first day of kindergarten occurred in his room, over Zoom. I commend his amazing kindergarten teacher for her patience, communication and immense effort to get the kids involved, including the addition of a corn snake making a brief entrance. I heard L exclaim "Oh, he's so cute, if I only I could touch him through the screen!" L then proceeded to draw numerous pictures of Bongo. Unfortunately, I failed to adequately prepare for his first day of school and L was the lone student without a name crown. This slight he immediately noticed and while I was forgiven I was also warned to not repeat my mistake. The first day we both learnt how to navigate his hybrid home/school learning which until we started our pod involved a lot of parental direction. L's first assignment was to write about himself and this is what he wrote: he wants to be a marine biologist, his favourite animal is an orca; his favourite place the ocean; his favourite food, pasta; his favourite song, Down By the Bay (Go Raffi!); his favourite flower, red roses; his favourite activity, LEGO and scooting; his favourite film, Free Willy; his dislikes, people being mean and being late (!) and spiders. There was no question respecting books, but when I asked him he immediately said The Book With No Pictures and The Lorax

L likes his Zoom calls and his teacher, but he yearns for more social contact and says he is disappointed that he hasn't made any new friends. How exactly does one make friends over a joint Zoom call? Thankfully we started a pod with one of L's good friends and I haven't seem him so happy in a while as when he knows he gets to see his friend. 

L is a sensitive soul and has discerned that we are entering into climatic catastrophe. We can't take our air or water for granted. This causes him untold anxiety. L regularly writes "no drills, no oil spills" and "save the ocean, save the orcas" on his drawings and when he recently attended a birthday party (outdoors with one other family, such is 2020), was disconsolate at the prospect of an escaping balloon falling into the ocean and causing dire harm. Part of me was proud he cared so much, part was worried he was so anxious and that I should do a better job of shielding him from such harsh fact and part was embarrassed that he was causing a fuss at a party when the attention should have been on the birthday boy. 

I have been ill prepared for L's questions of late. A few months ago, L asked "what is a shortcut?". P proceeded to explain that it was a means to do things in a quicker way. L listened intently and countered without missing a beat as soon as P had finished his explanation, "so why do mum's shortcuts always take longer?" L has precociously recognized one of my more salient faults. Indeed our children recognize our faults at a tender age. 

Another question I was most ill prepared to answer was asked by L a few days ago. "What did you want to be when you grew up?" L asked me. I immediately answered I wanted to be a writer. L then asked "so why did you not become one?" I vacillated over my answer under L's steady gaze and countered that I have written many poems, novels, scripts and essays (indeed I'm in possession of an entire literary necropolis) but that I just haven't published them and when he pushed the point, I walked this back to "well I am still working on it". L, undeterred, continued to interrogate me. "But you are grown up and you are not a writer, right?" At this point M thankfully intervened with some of his own crises and thus far L has not brought up the subject albeit it continues to intersect and interject into my thoughts. There is nothing more motivating in this world then earning the respect of your children. 

L was asked by his teacher recently whether he had a sister. L's retort was that he had a brother and no sister but he would also love a sister. When his teacher said that was for his parents to decide, L remarked, "yes and a baby is expensive apparently, but I don't understand why- you don't buy them you make them!" This want has been fortifying through the pandemic and its attendant quarantine. If you're stuck with only your family, why not grow it? L's asked me, in front of other perplexed family members, to "stop shedding {my} wall and make a baby!"

As M grows, his acerbic humour is becoming sharpened into a spear that he targets with pinpoint efficiency. Each member of the family is a revolving target and M rolls around to us like clockwork. He is also someone that stands his ground firmly. When M was upset with being disciplined by P, he stood up on his kitchen stool pointed an accusing finger at his father and said "Stop telling me what to do man baby!" My husband froze, flummoxed. I erupted into laughter which unfortunately only fortified M's tirade. 

To our constant chagrin, M is a cemented cusser and was so from the tender age of two. A few months ago, accosted by seagulls at the beach that encircled him while we were but a few metres away, he flailed his arms, his face scarlet and on the verge of steam, he yelled, you f*ing seagulls! Leave me alone!"  We ran to him while people around us laughed, which he acknowledged with no small dissatisfaction. M lets people know when they breach the border and it befuddles adults. Crossing a street in our neighbourhood, a car went beyond the stop sign, albeit not far enough to cause a danger to us. Nevertheless, both my sons took umbrage and M in particular. "You didn't stop at the stop sign!" L cautioned. "That's dangerous!" M shouted. "Do you want to kill us?" M continued shouting to an old man as he crossed the road. I was embarrassed at this attack of an elderly man, but he did go past the sign when we and other people were crossing the road. His apologetic stammering and his fuchsia face denoted that he would not dare to make that mistake again, or at least not for a while. 

L is now used to M's humour. During one fight a couple of months ago, L apologized to M (I only caught the end of the argument and was never told its cause) and M accepted his apology. L then said, "let's kiss and hug and make up" to which M, his crying now arrested and an incipient smirk on his face, retorted as he turned, "yeah, you can kiss my butt" and he bent over and pointed to the location to ensure there was no confusion. L laughed and looked at me, "that's my crazy brother!"

M likes to chide people. He told me for months daddy is his favourite, seeing it irked me. One day, I realized, I had been played by a four year old. I asked him whether he said to to elicit a reaction and he smiled, shook his head and said "I love you and daddy equally - but I love L MORE than either of you". Then when L retorted, "wow, that's so nice M!", M presently remarked, "but I love Deka {my father} most of all!" After that night, M got bored of that game.

For a year, M was stating to all and sundry he wanted to be an astronaut. Perhaps it was the multitude of tents on the streets and being privy at a young age to our inadequate housing policies and social services, but M has lately been propelled into a new career- construction. "And I mean a real construction worker, not an engineer, but using my muscles and building lots and lots of houses!" M proclaimed. Coming from a family of engineers, I took umbrage. "You can't build without an architect to design the building and an engineer to ensure the foundation will stand" I retorted. M dismissed my remark. "Plans don't build". It's going to take a little more explanation for him to understand you need both. 

M has been toilet trained for years now. However, at his insistence, he wears a diaper to bed. Half the time it's dry when he awakes, the other, it's wet. One of my colleagues had explained to me he had weaned his son of diapers by telling him that the factories had stopped producing diapers. We decided to try this tactic. M was circumspect at first. "What about babies?" We had an immediate response - only training pants were being discontinued. We were ill prepared to meet M's response. "We will get the people together, go to the factory and take it over and make diapers ourselves!" Then he started chanting "take down the rules!" to which L joined in. My husband looked at me, flummoxed then said, "well, that's definitely your son". Indeed I have a heightened anti-authoritarian streak, but I note it has not served me so well in life. Yet, I still loathe authority and only heed what I respect. So having this streak turn on me I'm sure is quite poetic, at least from a distance. And... M's still wearing diapers to bed. M is already exposing an even more fortified streak than I even have. Numerous times when he's hurt and I or my husband go to console him, he rages, "don't worry about me! Worry about yourself!"

A few months ago, I needed to get M out of the house for preschool and he was abjectly noncompliant. Having emptied all my ammunition, I concocted a novel attack and informed M that if he didn't eat breakfast and get dressed, the Parent Police would get wind of my poor parental performance and would come and take me away, inserting a more efficient mother in my place. To my surprise - lacking the shrewd hindsight I have now - M burst out crying and was disconsolate. Indeed child services would probably have taken me away had they seen the distress I caused my own son with this flippant comment, which I meant to direct him to cooperate but which resulted in a deluge of tears.

M's becoming interest in chess lately. I was amazed that he immediately could track the move of the knight across the board, which L continues to have some trouble with. I'm really pleased that they both enjoy this game and intend to foster it. I wonder if the rules will change. I imagine someone is going to direct their energies to making the game more attune to a polymorphous and equitable society (considering that in chess, everyone must sacrifice for the King, every Pawn gets to be a Queen but not a King and strives to do so albeit it's highly unlikely any Pawn will ever be a Queen, Bishops don't have to play it straight and of course, white always goes first), while failing to address the need to do this on the ground and off the board. 

This morning the boys woke us up with espresso. They came into our room brandishing their wares with expansive smiles that colonized their faces with unimpeded advance. We vacillated on the border of pride and worry. We do love coffee almost indecently and Bari, our espresso machine works tirelessly four times a day (if not more) so the boys have observed how to be a barista and- violà! 

Monday, June 1, 2020

La Quarantaine Quotidien II: The Bottomless Pit

The quarantine has continued for far more than its etymological root of 40 days, the amount of time boats had to wait to offload to prevent the spread of plague in Venezia. 

It took barely a few weeks for our boys to go from registering the lockdown as a holiday in which they could savour their parents being at home, sleeping in and not going to school to stomping around the house and shouting "we hate quarantine! Thumbs down to quarantine!" The boys asked when the lockdown was over. They missed their friends, their teachers, their schools, their soccer, swim and yoga lessons, going to the Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium and eating sushi. I told them it was a moving target based on the rate of infection, which they hardly found reassuring and expressed their dissatisfaction with singed scowls. L was not only worried about when this period of quarantine would end, but how many quarantines he would have to endure in the future. He interrogated me intermittently not only about “relaxations of the rules”, the reasons for the quarantine, including from his grandmother and the probability of future quarantine periods. L went through the generations and the globe, asking whether members of our family last experienced quarantine. I happily explained to him that nobody had experienced quarantine, not even his two great-grandmothers. I told him the last time the world dealt with such a pandemic with global lockdowns was over 100 years ago. This seemed to appease him somewhat. Yet even at his tender age of five, he is cognizant of the fact that merely because something hasn’t happened before, does not necessarily mean it won’t. Thus, he deduced that simply because the last global pandemic was over a century ago does not mean that his life will be free from future pandemics.

Despite reading numerous books on positive parenting and having implemented many practices from this pedagogical approach, the strains of working from home and caring for the kids has resulted in repeated instances of reflexive parenting.

At dinner one eve, I chided L for not eating his food and exasperated, pointed out that there are millions of children starving around the world. Yes, I became that parent that I vowed never to be. L was unswayed. He looked at me askew and asked, “so how does me eating my dinner help them? Should I give them my dinner?”

My three-year-old is also not above the snark. Pulling on my arm as I was finalizing an email for work, he said “mum, L needs you in the bathroom, it’s important”, I retorted, on the second last sentence, “I’m coming”. M tugged at my arm tighter, “you say you are coming, but you are not moving” M dryly observed. Later that day, M informed me of his suspicion of my stripped sanity, “you are crazy mum” he notified me. I requested the reason for his resolution. “You do crazy things, like losing your phone all the time.” He was right. It is insane that several times a week, the kids embark on a treasure hunt, their ears focused on my phone’s beeps to find where I haphazardly last laid my phone. More than once it’s been on one of our chargers, which perhaps best substantiates M’s point. I couldn’t just leave that comment hanging over me, however. “Nobody can be sane in an insane society” I informed M. “What is sanity?” M asked curiously.  “I don’t think we will ever know” I informed M. Perhaps L understood I was about to stampede into another stentorian tirade on social construction and interrupted me with a more simple request, “can we go scooting now?”

M and L have noticed our parenting has somewhat slumped lately. While M toilet-trained himself at his own initiative quite early, he nevertheless continues to have accidents at night and has succumbed to wearing diapers at night after fiercely resisting it for months (“I am a big boy not a baby!” he would argue as we related that washing sheets each day was a waste of our dear planet’s water, avoiding the admitted secondary reasoning of simply not wanting to do daily washing). One night last week we ran out of diapers. I informed M I was sorry but perhaps he could try and not pee in his sleep. M looked at me with fury and simply shook his head in disappointment. Waking up wet the next day, M castigated me. “How could you leave me without a diaper? You are my mother! Never do that again!” I couldn’t really counter his argument, so I simply apologized and agreed. However, I nearly did it again. On the last diaper, M looked at me determinedly and warned, “you are going to buy diapers tomorrow for me, right? Don’t forget!” Having my three year old direct my parenting is a new parent low for me.

As much as I am castigated by M for my failings, I also am showered with love. “My love goes throughout the multi-verses” M says and follows up with “and I will give you five millions pounds of kimchee” (I adore kimchee and yoghurt so M has taken up to eating both, together, which I never thought to mix). The other night M showered me with accolades, which I understood was his way of forgiving me. My favorite accolade was “best swimming lesson watcher”. With his last expiration before he sunk into solid sleep he sighed, “I miss my swimming lessons – when will quarantine be over?”

We’ve had some unwittingly zesty zoom encounters. My husband and I have tried to coordinate our schedules and sometimes have had to discuss our division and triage of work, childcare and domestic tasks unwittingly live on our children’s zoom - thankfully, we trust in the impenetrability of the mute button. However at least once our vivid domestic discussions were within earshot of the computer mic before we realized that M’s teacher had unmuted him to answer a question and wondered how many ears were privy to our private squabble (or perhaps the other parents were concomitantly too busy fighting over their dishwasher and time demarcations to notice?). We’ve both had calls and video conferences which the boys have interrupted for various deemed emergencies, usually involving an unresolved conflict between them. My favorite are bathroom needs. There’s nothing better to illuminate a strategy discussion than a youngster calling out to you to wipe his butt. Thankfully not recorded, but our three-year-old thought it fit to moon over zoom. He laughed deviously for a good few minutes after putting his pants up as if he had just completed walked on the moon, not taken his pants down in front of the camera. His teenage rebellion is going to be interesting to say the least.

In demarcating work and childcare full-time, we’ve let the domestic realm slip somewhat. It confounds us how quickly the house is mired in mess. Part of it was intentional, albeit in truth it was more finding scraps of time and triaging other tasks until we reached the point of ripe embarrassment. The former was our attempt to turn our apartment into a fun-house, complete with makeshift obstacle courses. The boys favoured our makeshift trampoline, which had them jumping from the couch onto a living room floor that was covered with cushions and blankets. The boys on their own initiative have turned several rooms in the house into various forts, with architecture that appeared to be mainly predicated on making the most mess possible, with the floor but a mere suggestion. 

 I was worried the boys weren’t getting enough exercise so we developed an obstacle course in the garden with a tunnel to boot. They would sprint across the garden a few times, do start jumps, go through the tunnel which I termed the “commando corridor”, throw a basketball into the hoop, do sit-ups and push-ups and then sprint back. This worked well… until it didn’t. Perhaps it was the fatigue but the boys became intensely interested in bugs and plants and now we’ve started a makeshift garden. The boys even have a song they love to sing at the top of their voices as we walk through the neighborhood, “seeds, sun and water and grow, grow, grow!” 

L and M love to shout out “hello, have a beautiful day!” to strangers in the street. While I have lectured both of them of the dangers of talking to strangers alone (which resulted a few months ago in M telling a sweet lady on the bus that he couldn’t talk to her because his mum didn’t let him speak to strangers) I encourage the boys saying hello to strangers if I or another guardian is there. I continue to find it bemusing that not all people being told to have a nice day by young children find it enjoyable or feel the need to reply. At first this saddened L, “mum, they didn’t reply” but this seemed a good exercise in learning that wishing someone well should not be for the sake of ingratiation and that receiving a reply was irrelevant. L analyzed my reasoning. “But if that’s the case, why do you say we should always respond to people when they tell us to have a nice day?” Teaching children what politeness has the unintended consequence of having them in turn chide people who aren’t impolite. Children love to follow rules if they are the ones enforcing them against others. I told my boys you can’t manipulate people into manners or chide them into it and that there are numerous reasons that people may appear impolite – they may not hear you, they are rushing in an emergency, they are too surprised that unknown children are wishing them a good day to immediately retort as we pass them by. I also told them they shouldn’t wish people well simply to get the same response returned. I warned that sometimes, they are going to give people compliments or wish them well and not have them returned. L was very upset about this. In his world, all compliments should be returned. “So, if you compliment someone on how good they are at basketball, do you want them to say the same thing to you?” L nodded. “And what if you aren’t?” L simply scowled, not knowing how to process his emotions. It will take time for L to learn that compliments should be given untethered.

The boys, and particular L, at 5, are cognizant of our fragility in a climate sensitive world. This is the third time in their lives that we’ve had to hunker down at home and wear masks outside. Before, it was wildfire. Now, it’s a virus. Yet the two are not disconnected - our pillage of the environment and consequent habitat destruction, including the displacement of numerous animals, is directly connected to spill-over effects of animal viruses. For instance, it is no coincidence that the epicenter of this current pandemic is close to the Three Gorges Dam, a gargantuan hydro-electric project in Hubei, which displaced many bat colonies. If we don’t radically alter our societies, we will face more climatic calamity. As a parent, I find it my duty to ensure my children understand our mistakes and ensure they build the world in a different direction - one that is more equitable. One in which our policies are holistic and tied to an understanding that we cannot externalize our environment, which our actions impact and which in turn impacts us. My boys are intensely interested in reliable renewable energy sources and eliminating our use of “dirty dinosaur juice”. Albeit this may have some unintended consequences. After pondering the issue, L decided that geo-thermal issue was the way to go. When I informed him drilling to access this natural steam could destabilize the earth and lead to numerous earthquakes and eruptions, L decided we had to focus on super volcanoes. For us, it was Yellowstone. L asked why can’t we tap into all that steam the super-volcano has rather than fracking ourselves to death? I informed him it was a national park but on the precipice of my pontification I momentarily faltered and even wondered whether this could be done in a manner that provided a net benefit to the environment. Children’s first reaction is “why not” and we tend to lose that with age as we become more averse to risk. There is of course good reason for this. We have more to lose, for one. We also are more knowledgeable and understand the interconnexion of everything, so that one wrong can ripple to multiple others. Yet piercing the paradigm is what propels us forward. To ask is not to err. We can take a lesson from our kids and ask “why not” more often.

In an effort to make the lockdown more palatable, I asked the boys to tell me where they would want to travel when we could travel the world again. “Where is farthest from San Francisco?” my three-year-old replied without missing a beat. Both boys were certain that they wanted to visit the beautiful and desolate Port-aux-Français in the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Less than a day later, M wasn’t satisfied with our terrestrial paradigm and decided that we should travel to Jupiter. As the lockdown progressed, M set his sights on visiting the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away.  I told them we don’t have the technological capacity to achieve this, amongst other problems, which inspired L to come up with a new form of energy - viral energy. L thought it would be renewable and safe and felt pretty pleased with himself, deciding it was not the time to dig into the details. M in turn was inspired to build a “corona trap” out of pop sticks to save the world from the epidemic (he also has the unfortunate habit of “layering” corona from all and sundry when we otherwise have a pleasant promenade around the neighborhood). 

We broke the quarantine with my mother recently, who lives by us, but before we did so, for about two months, my mother would stop by the boys’ window daily in a mask and talk to the boys. Prior to ending the quarantine with my mother, L had asked increasingly detailed questions about infection and the various available masks’ levels of protection, until he came up with a plan of persuasion to allow him to see his grandmother - with both of them wearing N95 masks. Surely then he would be allowed a hug?

Home schooling the kids, I researched numerous science experiments. However, in juggling work, my grand plans became quite modest. One day, with nil preparation time available, lacking the requisite ingredients for my intended explosive science class, I decided to embark on “lazy parent science” which ended up being something the boys digested well and enjoyed. We did a refresher on matter and its different forms and then I simply took ice out of the fridge. We examined how it melted and then we boiled it to examine steam. It didn’t provide the spectacle of sublimation, with no dry ice, but it fulfilled its primary objective. 

We are fortunate to have numerous parks within walking distance, including the vast expanse of Golden Gate Park and I bring the boys’ journal so that they draw and write the various animals and types of vegetation that they have observed. Perhaps because our adventures have been limited, we notice the abundance of nature around us. Skunks and raccoons lurking our streets at night. Beach hoppers and crabs under the sand. Snails, butterflies, bees, squirrels and various types of beautiful birds that serenade us in the parks. Thankfully, they closed some thoroughfares in the park to all vehicular traffic and the boys scoot with such speed that I unwittingly provided free entertainment to numerous people as they laughed at my desperate and failed attempt to keep pace with the boys using just my feet.

One project the boys have loved has been delivering mail across the world. I write letters from animals to other animals, and they have to read the letters and “deliver” them across the globe. Through this exercise, they practice reading, geography and biology as we discuss what the animals are asking each other. For instance, Mr. Galapagos Tortoise wanted to ask Miss Kiwi whether she could fly and what she ate. In turn Miss Kiwi asked Mr. Anaconda whether he had ever seen a dolphin and if he had ever eaten one. The boys enjoyed this one and all one needs is a globe or a map and a pen and paper. 

L is very practical. When asked what his favorite animal was, he answered without a beat, “humans”. Favorite planet? It’s Earth of course. M on the other hand is fascinated with the immensely beautiful nebulous patterns of the giant Jupiter. They are both intensely fascinated with black holes, the cosmic bottomless pit. I found that they enjoy the piercing of narratives. L and M always request new stories after book-time, at bed-time. One night, I needed to leave earlier and hadn’t come up with a story. So I told them about a story about a boy that needed a story, his mother refused and as he insisted she told him the story of a boy who needed a story…. .. it was not a story, and yet it was and it was never-ending, until it came back to me… and they laughed raucously. They viscerally connect to a multi-layered reality. Perhaps that's why they are engrossed with black hole physics and the idea of the holographic universe. The bottomless pit we don't even know we're in. 

Our children inform their behavior by looking at how we act, more than what we say. Prior to the pandemic, our children would see that we would, for instance bend to pick up what someone dropped and run after them to give it back to them. Now, that is out of the question. We shout at people and notify them of what they lost, pointing to it. Not only do we not want to touch an infected item and go near another person, but we would find it rude to do so and not respect the quarantined-space of the other person. Everything that was once a show of affection and respect is now possibly a disrespectful and reckless act. It’s important to have kids understand that our change in behavior reflects the fear of the viruses and is not something that should be repeated when we are no longer in danger - but then, when will that be? 

The boys have increasingly been requesting a sibling. I wonder whether this is due to the fact that their world has narrowed to our nuclear family unit so they have focused on its expansion. My husband and I were flabbergasted when L asked for a sibling at dinner for his younger brother M to casually answer, “it would be nice, but babies are expensive.” L nodded, “yes and if mum had another boy, it would be chaos here.” This cemented to us their ability to access and internalize all conversations and to attempt to be cognizant of what we are discussing in front of them-  but then, to be human is to err, and so we repeat our prior mistakes…