Monday, November 4, 2019

From Quiver to Quake




Increasingly my two sons want to play with each other without us, which has its benefits but also finds me in quite a triste state as I thought this exclusion would occur later and when pensive in my more planglossian moments, not until they reached double digits. Perhaps part of this has been their separation during the day as they used to attend the same preschool and play together there but have now developed friendships completely outside of each other’s association. This has been beneficial for both, but in particular for M, who seemed to be struggling within his brother’s shadow at their joint preschool until L left.

The boys concoct their own games which are for “brothers” only and invariably revolve around natural disaster relief. Their quotidian tasks are fighting fires, halting mud slides and tsunamis, finding people trapped in buildings after earthquakes. This is decidedly different to the role-playing games I used to play as a child, to say the least, but I believe it’s part and parcel of growing up in the sunburnt caprice of California. The other day was the 30th anniversary of the big quake of 89 and we commemorated the day with all of our phones exploding in attestation of the effectiveness of our state government’s alert system which supposedly will herald the coming of the next titanic tantrum of our neighbourhood transform boundary with seconds to spare (which apparently will suffice for survival). The boys were quite frazzled. That night when I was tucking them into bed, they decided it was an opportune time for an interrogation – which seemed interminable at the time- as to our family’s readiness for The Big One. Wanting them to go to bed, I uncharacteristically tried to evade their answers and end their examination. I told them their ceiling had withstood two great quakes and innumerable smaller quakes and that there was no need to worry about the ceiling falling on top of their head (which is a fear my three year old expressly vocalized, “mama, I’m afraid, what if the ceiling falls down on us?). L retorted that perhaps our building was now weaker, having had to withstand the prior shakes. I explained to the boys that our buildings have reinforcements and flexible foundations and that our city’s skyscrapers have damping, or a pendulum to counteract the force of the quake, amongst other tricks architects and civil engineers have garnered over the years for our structures to withstand the seismic shake.
And yet. When I told them they would be safe, L responded, “yes, but doesn’t it all depend on how strong it is? And if it’s too strong?”
I decided only a confident if possibly incorrect answer would stop this mounting morbidity. “The fact that we have small earthquakes consistently means that the pressure won’t build up for a big one – so it won’t too strong for us.”
That did the trick and the boys went to sleep without further worrying about our dextral strike slip.

For the past few months, I’ve encouraged L and M to do chores around the house to get pocket money. M is quite nonplussed about the idea of owning his own money, but L has enthusiastically taken to it. I thought pocket money would teach financial responsibility, which I also hope would have the more general application of garnering executive function in addition to teaching mathematics. I’ve learnt that L -and possibly all children- learn better through functional application than abstract concepts. The first pocket money L and M obtained was a $1 each for carrying books to return to the library. They painted their pocket money jars with great fanfare. As soon as L gained $1.75 and knew that he could now afford a Hot Wheels car, he bought a small azure racer. Then he realized he had no money left. In order to entice him to save, I showed him some LEGO sets he could buy if he saved up without much hope that it would achieve immediate acceptance. However, to my delight, L determined on a particular LEGO set and has thus far saved $5.50 towards it. Of course, for what he wants that L must have some certain conception of is far too expensive for his own budget, he comes to us. “Mama, can we go back to Hawaii soon? It would really relax me” he said the other month when I picked him up from school.  I said we would see, it would relax us all, but we would have to check the family budget and schedule. L nodded as if he had contemplated my answer beforehand. “Just put it on the list”.  There’s a list?

This year L turned 5 and wanted everyone to know about it. "I've gone around the sun five times!" he would yell out to strangers on the street on his birthday (which for L lasted about four days). L decided where his party would be, concocted his own cake (which involved an orca of course) and was ready with an invite list (he is also very into creating lists in general). He is very proud that he is a whole hand and ensures that his three-year-old brother is avidly aware of that fact to the point of fatigue. While L was elated to be 5, he was also assessing his own mortality. “How much time do I have?” he asked me. I asked for what, his question posed without any seeming relation to our conversation about pin-pointing M down to one Halloween costume. “How much time before I return to being a star?” My face must have contorted into a crater of concern because L looked terrified. “I want to know how much I have left” he reiterated. “Do you know?” I shook my head, grasping for comforting words as my thoughts swirled into a hurricane of horrid thoughts. “We never know how much time we have, that’s part of the value of life, so that we learn to treasure each day.” L paused, pensive then asked, “so I can die tomorrow?” While I want to foster L’s reflection (this is the kid when asked what begins with D, quipped without a beat, “death” succeeded by “DNA”), I realized this was not headed in a direction suitable for his stability so I resolved to fabricate an answer that I hope will be true. “You will be at least 109, healthy and happy- and only then will you have a clearer picture.” Fortunately for us, we were diverted by a delivery of birthday presents from distant relatives, that arrived just in time to switch L’s rumination on the fragility of life to the excitement of receiving new toys to play with.

L is a very sensitive character. He appears to be quite popular in school, but there are times, recently when he has endured some hostility which he has found quite unbearable. Usually he talks to me about it, but last week, I knew something had happened at school because he avoided one of friends, a girl, with whom he was a wonderful but apparently quite complicated relationship with and with whom he refused to speak when I was there. L never revealed the conflict that crushed his spirit that afternoon – at least he has not it divulged yet – but his silence made me realize that my boys are slowly growing up to a state when they don’t feel comfortable expressing all their feelings to me. Perhaps this is normal and I should respect their privacy and leave it alone. And yet, if we don’t know what’s wrong, how can we being to mitigate the consequences? Perhaps letting our children fall without bearing the brunt of their collapse is the only way they learn to stand up – and to perfect their balance so that they don’t fall again. One way or another, life is going to break our heart. Putting the pieces back to together may be a skill no one else can teach another -  but that doesn’t mean we can’t be there, attentative, in support.

I’m trying earnestly to glean what my sons do each day at school. If you ask them, you may think their preschool teachers just have them stare at a wall. L noticed I took a photo of the daily time-table on his preschool wall and when he asked, I explained I wanted to learn what he did all day. After that, L’s answers, which on all other topics are as loquacious as outrageous, were earnestly edited from “nothing” to “everything that’s on the schedule.” If I prompt further, L protests, “just check the schedule, mum!”

L is harnessing his negotiating power. The other week, it was quite a late bed time and my husband, who is in charge of bath time as I frantically clean up the consequence of the boys’ frenzy in their room which I believe has led me to the mastery of surface cleans, determined that there would be no book time. The boys met this with ardent protest. “I want 2 books!” L shouted. “Fine” my husband retreated from his earlier insistence and proffered a new position, “you want 2, I want 0, so I will read 1.” L pondered this offer. “Why only one?” My husband explained that they both wanted different things, so they would compromise and meet in the middle. “But daddy, I really wanted 10 books, and since you wanted 0, our compromise would be 5.”
By the time my husband walked that back, we ended up with 2 books, a victorious (then) four-year-old and two flummoxed parents drenched in defeat.

Our three-year-old was quite a “handsy” individual. He was prone to preemptive strikes, which we took to be his territorial defense against the imperialist notions of his elder brother in addition to simply enjoying tactile contact. We’ve tried several methods of easing him into a more socially acceptable response. The stress ball worked wonders. I chuckled when he adopted a blue brain shaped ball and kept massaging his brain when he was stressed. “Has anyone seen my brain?” M would yell if he misplaced it around the house. “I can’t leave without my brain!” he would plea if we were late and he didn’t have it in hand. You really can’t argue with that.

It was daddy however who came up with what finally clicked in terms of understanding he was intruding into others’ personal space – the concept of a burst bubble. If M went to hit his brother or even just talk to L too closely in an altercation, P would jump in and say “M, remember, don’t burst his bubble.” M adopted this concept avidly and we informed his beleaguered teachers of it. He accepted everyone has a bubble and nobody wanted it burst.

M increasingly requests for his brother’s aid over anybody else’s. “L, I made a mistake, may you please help me?” L adores being able to instruct his brother on whatever his brother requires aid on and thus we are left to merely observe.

M is fascinated by night and is constantly asking to go outside and do "night walks".  Now that it's late autumn and that we've switched time, M is outside at night and he relishes it. "We are going on a night walk!" he excitedly relates to anyone who is near his ear. 

The boys have taken to shouting at people walking under their bedroom window at night.
"Are you enjoying your night walk?"
"Have a good night!"
"Our planet is not facing the sun anymore!"
I didn't discourage this, but when they started sticking their heads out of the window, we had to have a discussion about the dangerous consequence that could result from that - the window could fall down on top of them, for instance. For L, this was immediately effective. He did not dare to touch the pane with any digit and kept his head far away. M took no heed of my advice and adventured forth to possible decapitation. I had no choice. I closed and locked the window to M's increasing chagrin. L tried to calm his brother. In an equanimous tone, he assured his brother that I was only looking out for them and keeping them safe. M, who had not listened to me, now composed himself and accepted his brother's counsel - and then apologized to me. The brothers then went back to shouting out silly ditties out the closed window, erupting in laughter.

The other day was Halloween. My boys, along with their mates, ate an insupportable amount of sugar. L, was of course, an orca, as was I, partly because L insisted, correctly, that orcas are intensely social animals and that he would be lost if he had to be alone without his pod, and partly because when I ordered a boy’s size 8, it was so enormous that it was too large even for me. L and I were orcas, P was a wizard (apparently “Will the Wise” from Stranger Things, but this reference continues to elude me) and M, after numerous iterations, was a tiger. M was intensely exited about Halloween “I’m going to growl and scare all my teachers!” he roared gleefully. Halloween costumes have been an earnest family discussion since February. In that time, M voiced his intention to be, in the following order: a rocket, a robot, a banana slug, an astronaut, a blue plane, a helicopter, later defined to be purple helicopter, back to a rocket, a bear, a polar bear in particular, back to a purple helicopter, a witch, a lion and finally a tiger. L always maintained he would be an orca. The boys decided fairly early on that I would be a clove of garlic (I do adore garlic) and P would be a bowl of spaghetti. P informed the boys that Halloween tradition did not allow for alliums nor even vegetables. The boys did not care to continue tradition and insisted on garlic and I decided this would be grand, right up until the shooting at Gilroy, after which I thought a clove of garlic would have more ominous associations than I intended. L, who aims to direct everybody, proclaimed his pretensions of his brother being an orca of me and P being fish. I told him that there was something latently disturbing, but all L retorted, was “you said we can’t just eat candy, so we’ll need some fish.” Thankfully I was allowed to join his pod.


M loves to create stories. If you ask him what he did on the weekend, he may tell you, as he informed us, that he took a plane to Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower and ate a cart of croissants. Some of his stories are more fantastical than others. He has been interested in snakes of late, particularly anacondas and the gratefully extinct titan boas. He drew an anaconda with a protruding belly and when I asked what it was doing, M looked up with ebullient emerald eyes and informed me that his anaconda was “just hanging out” after having just eaten five children. For Halloween, M came up with a “scary story” about a boy who met a “mean witch” on Halloween, whom she has lured in by her copious grant of sweets during his trick or treating crawl (I’m not quite sure of the accuracy of this terminology as nobody provides tricks rather than treats and if they did they may be subject to minority munity). When the boy ate one of the witch’s magic treats, he became a chocolate chip cookie and was placed in the witches’ trick or treat pile to be eaten by the next unwary victim. However, a bat ate the witch and the boy was turned back into a boy. M also loves to sing ridiculous songs at the top of his lungs. One recent ditty was about trying mosquito ice cream as if he was prescient about dessert options in a future environmental dystopia.

The other day when I was reading the boys a book in the Cyrillic alphabet, they asked what the letters were. They thought it fantastic that “P” was “R” and “X” was “H” and that “B” was “V”. The fact that the same letter was entirely different in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets interested them far more than the letters that were distinctly foreign. L in particular wanted me to write a dozen words, including his and M’s name, in Cyrillic, which looked quite different to him. I told him that different languages use different script and some languages use logograms, so that one character is not a letter within a word but represents an entire word or even a phrase. I told him this was the case with Kanji and L, being keen on anything Japanese, asked to learn it. I told him I would support him in learning as many languages as he wanted, from Old Norse to Mandarin. Every language is a key to an aspect of our humanity. We think differently in different languages, the grammar of each delineating our thoughts- a city which provides the landscape for the traffic of our thoughts. It’s also the most efficient way to reach another person – to speak their language. Even in English, we can change our vernacular to be familiar to our speaker and don us with the same cloth. For if you don’t speak the same language, how can you communicate?

Recently I was shocked to discover my gender bias or prejudice, depending on how you look at it. My friends who had elder daughters had informed me that when their daughters had reached the age of my sons, they were requesting a new baby. I embarrassingly, assumed this was because they were girls, understanding that girls pretended to mother baby dolls whereas my boys were obsessed with vehicular objects. I had made this brash assessment from the observance of my friends’ daughters and my boys’ different interest, despite the small pool of my reference. Perhaps girls are drawn to dolls because they are given dolls to care for. In any case, my boys have recently requested that I make them a sibling, preferably a baby sister. They informed me they would take care of her. I told them they would have to share their toys, which they thought quite fine. I next decided to coax their interest away from a sibling and towards a furry quadruped, which worked fantastically (now I just need to convince P of it - I've always wanted a companion canine).

M has recently discovered super heroes from his friends at school and at home wants to dress up as a super hero and “save the people” by “fighting the bad guys”. While I understand and empaphise with his valiant intention, I don’t want him to see  bellicosity as the answer to the world’s ills. Nor do I want him to understand the world in terms of a Manichean dichotomy between immutable characteristics of good or evil. “There are no villains” I informed him. “Only villainous choices.” 


I have been trying to teach not through mere rote learning, but through interdisciplinary projects which capture and sustain their attention. To teach them geography and mathematics, I decided to do a “science experiment” on the five oceans. We looked at a globe to see where the five oceans were and then guessed which was the largest and smallest. After they estimated and we finalized our list, I wanted them to envision the difference between each and the expanse of the inaptly named Pacific at our doorstep across from which lives my father. So we took five blue Mason jars and poured in the various measurements, vastly reduced but hopefully to scale, and the boys were impressed. The Pacific was larger than all the other oceans combined and is larger than the entire landmass on our globe. The boys developed an understanding of the expanse of our hydrosphere. I decided the next experiment should be the difference between the salt and freshwater on our Earth. This would involve mathematics but also hopefully an opportunity for the boys to understand the fragility of our freshwater resources. L was imminently concerned. “But mama I need water every day! What would happen if we ran out of water?”  “Disaster” I responded. “However, as long as you and everyone else understands we have to conserve our water and not pollute it, we would be OK – and that’s why we are doing this experiment.” The boys seemed somewhat satisfied with this answer, but I realized it was not concern over our dwindling water sources but rather my methodology and manner. “You need to put salt in the jars that represent the oceans” L informed me, “so that we know the difference.”


Parenting, particularly of such youngsters, is truly walking the tightrope. On the one hand, you don't want to overwhelm them too much with the ills of the world, for fear they would be crushed by the pressure of the problems presented to them, on the other, you want to nurture their characters to be sensitive to the ills of the world - ills created by us - and learn to mitigate and perhaps even arrest them. There are some things they are not ready for at this age (at least in my opinion). For instance, the introduction of the injustice of racism and its consequence. Why? Because to teach this is necessarily to introduce this political concept (for its a political not a biological concept with "whiteness" for instance a moving measure in time) which my children are completely ignorant of - all they see is people as they should. Aside from their readiness, I'm not sure how to approach the subject appropriately and thus I'm choosing to wait (and I'm acutely aware that for other people this is not a choice they can make). I did teach them about Gandhi, but I changed the facts to be about a few people wanting to boss many others around and curbing that injustice so all are treated equitably. With respect to the environment, I find it necessary to instill an understanding of conservation and interdependence and I see no reason to wait. To some extent this may impose pressure on them, but as long as they are taught they can overcome the difficulties facing us, they will add to the solution and not the problem. O perhaps I am naive. At least it curbs their desire to have a deeper bath, which is a reckless waste of water. 

Yesterday, we took the boys to vote. We wanted to instill this civic duty in them. They wanted to know what voting was. We explained that voting was making rules. Partly, we voted for representatives, which we explained were people that while we were at work all day and they were at school were busy making rules on our behalf, for instance, that everyone must stop at a red light (a rule they already know well). We also explained that sometimes we voted on propositions and directly voted on our community's rules. L and M asked when they could vote and be involved in making rules. I told them they would have to wait until 18. When they asked why, I told them every time we decide on a dividing line, to some extent it's arbitrary, a 17 year old the day before their 18th birthday and the day after has the same level of aptitude and this particular youth may have more aptitude than a particular 45 year old. Yet, we have to draw a line somewhere and we think finishing high school is a pretty good boundary line of being able to understand and analyze social issues well enough to vote. L looked at me with concern. "It's a long time for me to wait." Yes, too long and too short, for it does go in a blink.