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… 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

La Quarantaine Quotidien: The Stinks

M and L have adjusted better than we feared to the quarantine, which started officially last Monday but had started for us a few days before when we decided to self-isolate against the virions that plagued our environs and that we were perhaps already incubating. L informed me yesterday that while he missed his friends, he liked that mum and dad were home every day and that he could see his friends "on the internet". They ensure to wash their hands counting to 20 or singing "happy birthday" twice (a trick L's teacher taught him), have diligently stayed away from people on the street and have asked about viruses in general, the regal virus and its fatality. As their grandmother lives 3 bocks away but we've isolated ourselves from her for the past few weeks, we have added window speaking to face time, in which we stop by each other's windows and talk, apart. The boys prefer this contact, M complaining he wants the "real baka" not the one on face time. It's a new reality, with a latent morbidity.
"Are people going to die? Is grandma?"
I didn't want to lie. I told them that many people would die but that their grandparents and friends and family were all keeping safe isolating from other people and they had nothing to worry about. This confused, hypocritical messaging to alleviate the fears of children is akin to the government in Australia ensuring parents that schools would be kept open but encouraging them to keep their kids home. A mediated messaging in which you massage the contours of the message to make it more palatable to such an extent that you end up piercing the logic of its content. "Everything will be ok (only it's not)."

During free drawing and journalling time, the kids' fascination with corona has resulted in many artistic expressions of what the corona virus looks like (alongside drawing their usual favourites, like sound and electricity, L displaying the latter as numerous balls with springs showing little balls jumping to and from each, which I proudly decided displayed his solid understanding of the basics of electron excitement).

We've had to curb the expression of our anxiety in front of the kids in order to alleviate their stress, but that has proven a difficult endeavour. A number of times I've exclaimed at the progression of this pestilence, or worried about authoritarianism, the consequences of disaster capitalism or even the fate of our family members unwittingly within reach of their ears, which never fail to register the information and prod further. M the past fews days has been waking up in the mornings and from his afternoon nap shouting for me and as soon as he sees me, has been exclaiming "Mummy! You are alive! You are alive!" with gratitude and asking for cuddles. Today, he told me he was glad I was not sick. It's readily apparent that he has internalized our anxiety. I have doubled down in my efforts to mollify their concern, yet the indubitably must be aware that there is a latent angst. I'm more cautious, more overbearing. Generally the risk of a broken arm is not something that concerns me. Kids should be kids. They need to scoot, ride a bike and do innumerable other things that contain some level of risk. Risk is inherent in life, after all. Now, I would prefer my kids were in bubbles and watch their play like the NKVD.

We have tried to keep the boys to a schedule. Of course, work variables have upended a consistent plan but our efforts have been somewhat smooth. We ensure they get ready on "go" days as before, as now we're in the "go-stay" period, and start the home-schooling with English. As the boys are 3 and 5 and have vastly different aptitudes, L can read and write sentences, M can read numerous words and write letters and few words (such as his name), I decided to do the following:
Start the day with two letters (which quickly expanded to include sounds) and ask the boys to think of words that start with that letter. After, have L write sentences which include a number of the words while M practices writing his letters. As M finishes before L, I take that time to continue mathematics with M, which L has long surpassed. Simple addition (2+1, 2+2 etc) and recognizing double and triple digit numbers. Then M has zoom class and L has his mathematics lesson. Next is sprint or scoot time around the block a number of times followed by yoga or an exercise video. Fruit and cheese snack. Geography/science/astronomy/biology (depending on the day). Lunch. M naps, then has his zoom meeting. While M naps, L reads books, connects puzzles or has his chess lesson. Then L has his zoom meeting with his teacher and friends (everyone in our household has zoom meetings daily).
After nap and zoom time, another snack. Then it's park time/outside time, in which we perform the quarantine shuffle, attempting to keep the designated 6 feet away from everyone else. Then free time. We have used dinner and night-time prep time for the boys to do free play and/or watch StoryBots or Octonauts.

It has of course not gone that smoothly. Yesterday the boys thought it a grand idea to hit each other repeatedly over the head with their respective avocado stuffed toys (or in their lingua, "stuffies"). When I intervened, they assured me that it was an innocuous activity because the toys were too soft and as an illustration of their point, L proceeded to hit me over the head with it. I was not pleased to say the least. However, at least they were fostering their fraternal bond and taking turns....

I trust parents all across the world have a new respect for teachers and I hope that one of the positives we can take from this carious circumstance is to provide them with the due compensation they deserve.

For instance, spare a thought for English teachers that as far as I know, have figured out how to teach spelling without having to turn up to work in SWAT gear.

Rather than start with "A" which would have been apples, I thought fit to continue with L's schedule. He was on the letter K. I immediately knew there was going to be trouble but insouciantly sauntered forth as if there were a phonetic basis to the lesson and asked L and M (who were at the start wagging their knees as if puppies awaiting the throw of a ball ostensibly in cross-cross apple sauce) to tell me words that started with "K".  M went first, shouting "cap", extremely proud that he said something before his brother. His brow furrowed when I explained that while "cap" is the correct "k" sound, it starts with the "hard c". Numerous hard "c" words later, the boys were about to stage a mutiny.
"Why does cat begin with a hard C but "kitten" begins with K?" M asked.
"Why does "cook" begin with C but end in K?" asked L.
I decided it was time for some etymology.
"Our wonderful language developed from other wonderful languages and we take that foreign language's spelling into account."
Blank faces.
"So "kindergarten"  and "kid" comes from German, so we use the German K. For words from Latin, we use the hard C, from French the "QU" rather than "KW" and from Greek we get "CH" -and there is also the "CK" which I believe is of Germanic origin but I am not certain."
My explanation was not exactly accurate, but I thought for a one sentence explanation to my children it could do the trick as a more simplified version of K's kerfuffle.
I wrote down "chronological" and "chromatic" and explained, whilst my calculation of the increased intensity of knee wagging fuelled my stress and added some strain to my voice as I picked up the pace to ensure I would be able to finish this lesson before outright rebellion, "chronological" , meaning in order of time, comes from "chrono" meaning "time" in Greek and "chromatic" meaning relating to colour, which comes "chroma" meaning "colour".
"But you used the "H" sound in Greek!" shouted L, exasperated. His dissatisfaction coiled into counters of incredulity.
"Look English isn't phonetic, it's beautiful and wonderful and useful and it's yours, but you're just going to have to remember. C can be hard or soft. K is always hard, but other letters make K."
"Now let's look at our K words and our "K" sound but not "K" words" I said pointing to our list. The kids eyed the "K" list, dismally short, with some derision as if English spelling were conjured by misanthropes that took indecent pleasure in Spelling Bee blunders.
"Now, let's get to writing K!"
I had M write K a number of times while L wrote down all the K words and was extremely pleased when they obediently and promptly began to write. My smile was a mile when I saw their exemplary script and flipped into the crevasses of exasperation when the next moment they were climbing up on the top bunk and ready to jump.
It was time for quick sprints outside before a snack and geography, in which L didn't fail to complain that the "Southern Ocean" should be the termed the "Antarctic" (this has been his pet peeve for many months now).

L has been dissatisfied with some of my answers to his questions. He is right to be, because his questions are surpassing my ready knowledge base, which sometimes results in a disgruntled and disappointed L shrugging his shoulders, rolling his eyes and commanding "just look it up, mum". Yesterday I noted that his makeshift plane had no wings and asked how it got lift. L said the body of the plane provided lift. I maintained this was error, and low and behold, realized that L was right. Future aeroplane design may use the body for lift. It was an embarrassing moment to say the least.

L's questions have been increasingly nuanced. He wanted to know why astronauts floated in "zero G" when there was gravity in space, with the sun's gravity pulling in the planets to orbit it. He wanted to know how a venus flytrap pollinated if it ate its pollinators (this one I had to look up and it's because the traps are at the bottom attract non-pollinating insects while the flower at the top has no traps and has a mutually beneficial relationship with its pollinators who never think fit to venture down to the plant's traps). We have since adopted a venus flytrap but it has not become the entertaining pesticide that the boys had hoped.

The boys have taken to saying "what the orca", "what the pod" noting that we shouldn't have an issue with this because "orca" and "pod" are not "bad words". And so our kids rather than swearing in the conventional way have merely made up new forms of swearing. I'm not sure what the right answer to this behaviour is but as the times have stretched our efforts to a loose degree.

The pandemic and the quarantine have provided a solid excuse for all my avid parenting failures, albeit I'm not sure as to its inherent as opposed to apparent verity. After all, I only have to look back at the beginning of this month when we woke up on a Sunday for M's first soccer lesson to realize we had forgotten to set an alarm for the new time, were already late, commanded the boys get dressed and informed them that breakfast would be en route and consist of an apple and granola bar, ushered them outside in the cold, only to discover that we could not remember where we parked the car and after ululating exasperation skirting blogging post rules and not to be repeated while circling the neighbourhood, found the car and en route in checking the location of the class, discovered it was cancelled. Parenting at its best.

L has been very proud of himself for learning to roll his "Rs" which has resulted in him being able to pronounce his brother's name. Unfortunately, M has been quite upset about this, not having succeeded this lingual feat. My husband has related that M has confided in him that he thinks I may not be proud of him because he cannot properly say his name. I've encouraged M to note that several weeks ago his brother couldn't roll his Rs either and now rolls them recursively, repeating "the rabbit went around the railroad" in a heavy staccato accent.

For the past couple of months, M is very into making deals. "I'll make you a deal" he insists when he wants something. I do this, you give me that. If I say he will get $1 for helping with a chore, he retorts with "how about $55?" and to my avid refusal, he simply counters up, "OK, then, how about $56?"

Before L's school shut down, during the month of February, L's teacher taught him about race, a subject I had skirted. L, in his five years of life, had never up to that point, been cognizant of varied skin colour. He came home excited explaining that human beings come in different colours and excitedly explained to me that his friends were all different colours. I told him the difference came from varied levels of a hormone, melanin. L explained that whatever we looked like on the outside, we were the same inside. His teacher has shown this by taking a number of different coloured eggs and instructing the children to crack them. His teacher had also taught L about segregation. "Can you believe that people of different skin colour could not drink from the same water fountain or go to the same school?" L asked incredulous. Wasn't that ridiculous? I pondered whether this was a good time to discuss the reification of race and its use to create a racial bridge between the rich white and poor, thus separating the real interest of the white and black poor (this is pursuit of economic interest by MLK is what resulted in his assassination - the man must be turning in his grave that he is remembered as a "civil rights" martyr when he realized that you can't separate civil and economic rights). While I was vacillating over how best to approach this, our lives were upended and this is a topic that I have yet to teach.

To cut the boys' bath level, which they insist should be deep, I decided to show them the trifle availability of freshwater. I poured a full glass representing all the water in the water in the world (250 ml). Then I explained that the vast majority of this is salt water and that without energy intensive desalination, which is not only expensive but creates pollution and contributes to global warming, we could not drink any of it. To illustrate I poured salt in the water, had them stick their finger in it and taste whether they approved of the salt. After their grimaces, we ventured forth to freshwater (6.25 ml). They immediately remarked on the difference. I informed them that not all of the freshwater in the world is accessible, some of it is stored in ice caps and not all of the water is renewable, as underwater aquifers have been filled over millions of years. The third cup represented accessible freshwater (2.5 mls by my calculation).
"Every time you ask for your bath to be filled to the brim, please consider how much water 8 billion and their progeny have to share."
L scrunched his face up. "What about water from space?" he asked.
How very human of him.

In this house, everyone has zoom meetings several times a day. The kids are starting to learn digital etiquette, albeit slowly. They at first shouted over the top of each other and have slowly learnt to use the vital mute button. It's amazing to see how the kids relate to each other over the internet. They find it fascinating. While we face time with relatives all the time, we've never face timed with their friends. M was speaking to his friend over face time yesterday and it was so lovely to see how the boys expressed their emotions for each other.
"I really miss you" said M's bud to him.
"I really miss you too" M fired back. "My kiss is going all the way from my house to yours. Can we play soon?"
"Yes, I want to play with you!"
At what point do men internalize and curb these emotions? Or is this new generation, which encourages boys to feel and express their feelings, developing a new masculinity, one that is less masked and more true?

Then again there are some things that appear to be quintessentially male, like finding "the stinks" as M likes to term it, hilarious. I'm not sure what the humour is, but my husband does and so do my boys. The stinks indeed.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Burnt Lattes

I have started to video tape my agreements with the boys and it’s worked a charm. Before the taping, we would agree to one more activity or a certain amount of time for an activity and when it came time for their exchange, I would invariably hear protestations of “but mama, just one more minute” or “just one more book (or episode, the boys love Story Bots and Octonauts to an almost indecent degree). This percolated me to a boil until I decided they needed to see their prior handshake. The first time I did it, I was looking forward to displaying to my three year old his pinky promise that we had agreed to only one minute more of trains before dinner while he was crying for JUST one more minute and was surprisingly a little disappointed I didn’t even have to show the video. All I had to do was point to it and the boys followed through on their end of the bargain. In fact, now my five year old polices my three year old on their trilateral agreements, counting down the number of books we have left to read or running to warn me that it’s nearing the end of the agreed final episode and I need to turn the TV off.

Despite having regained a hold of keeping the kids to their agreements, we’ve had some trouble with negotiating the deal in the first place with L. Recently he’s become rabidly rebellious at times, insisting that he doesn’t want to do what he doesn’t want to do. Join the club, kid. I explained to him that a large measure of our quotidian quests are unfortunately not to our liking. L quickly questioned this. “Why?” he asked. “Why does anybody have to do what they don’t want to do?” Perhaps this is the vocal process of the development of our social interpellation. First, we simply do as directed without questioning, next we question these directives and later we accept or rather succumb to the insidious social structure. I’m caught in the conundrum of on the one hand wanting to support this questioning of authority while on the other hand wanting my kid to just eat all his broccoli. How do you foster independent thinking while requiring obedience? Does one necessarily trench upon the other? I also understand that I’ve always had and continue to have a problem with authority to my detriment. I respected the teachers that earnt my respect and my report cards always noted this problem. Not playing the game has probably impeded me, so should I not guide them to a more practicable consensus with authority figures? Whether for good or ill, I viscerally cannot demand of my kids to do something without justifying the reason for it. You brush your teeth because otherwise you will have carious containments. You go to sleep to replenish, to repair and as a child, to grow and children thus require more sleep. In that sense, I want them to instill acceptance of authority without unquestioning deference.

“Why are you the boss?” L asked me once. It’s of course not as clearly delineated as L perceives it. As our time and money is mostly spent on our boys and they are our gravitational pull, one can easily argue that while we demand they, for instance brush their teeth twice daily and at times we request, constrain their movement by not allowing them to go out on their own and have instituted a curfew, it is they who really run this show and are our bosses.

As a parent rearing part of a new generation, I believe it is my duty to teach my children critical social and legal theory and for them to understand how society developed and to stand against injustice. I do not perceive our political foundations as natural and immutable states of existence (even what defines “political” after all is a political decision) or that “cultural” practices, which develop from power relations and serve to entrench them are somehow sacrosanct and worthy of deference.

I have not yet directed my kids on historical injustices albeit I have posited the question of “justice”.  I’ve read them a censored version of the Mahatma devoid of issues of race as my boys don’t yet perceive race and to teach about the injustice of racism necessarily involves teaching this social construction. Rather I distilled it to justice = respect for the universe inside the other as in you/ we’re all just a bunch of atoms. As for sexism, when my son pointed to a woman clad in a burqa in which the woman’s eyes peered through an imprisoned vision of the resplendent cobalt garment enveloping her entire form in a children’s book putatively celebrating the beautiful diversity across our world (failing to question the power relations entwined with “cultural” relations), and asked me what a ghost was doing amongst the people, I nearly cried. This was perhaps a poignant teachable moment and yet it escaped me, for I was not ready to discuss this with him. As to parent is to teach, whether we do it consciously or subconsciously by deflecting L’s question I failed him that time. I'll be ready next time we open the book. 

M has picked up some more colourful language from his grandmother, albeit unfortunately this time in English. Asking whether the next day was a “stay” day one night, I told him it was a “go” day instead. He rolled his eyes and laid his head back, “oh, fuuuuuck.” I erupted in laughter, which was probably not a sage response. Later, we were at swim lesson and the boys had been running around in the field before, when I noticed M was doing the stereotypical needing-to-pee dance and before I asked him to go to bathroom, he rushed straight to it, exclaiming “I need to pee”  - alas, it was too late. M looked down at his wet pants, embarrassed, not having had an accident during the day for longer than I could remember (more than 16 months at least), “fucking idiot” he said, shaking his head. The mothers in the dressing room, their ears pricked, cast me disapproving looks as their children’s mouth opened agape in horror. I wanted to burrow into the ground. I told M it was OK, but he was pretty upset. M does not like not achieving what he wants to achieve. For instance, we have fought over wearing a diaper at night. When in deep sleep, M has accidents. M does not want to wear a diaper and we don’t want to keep doing laundry (just think of the environment!). So we battle every few nights with M insisting that he is a grown up boy and doesn’t need a diaper. And every so often I relent- and his bedding ends up in the laundry.

M is an avid “night walker” and repeatedly requests to venture forth on them and as we adventure to shout at people excitedly “have a nice night walk!” to which they confusedly mumbling and indecipherable response or outright laugh, which doesn’t faze M one pinch. There is something enchanting about the night for M, particularly under the glisten of the moon. No one in our family has any hint of selenophobia. L loves to see the moonlight also as well as reminding all and sundry that the light does not emanate from the moon and that it is safe to directly stare at it.

’Tis the season of giving and viruses are not immune to it. A bronchial infection went round as did a rather disturbing stomach flu which resulted in me, while my husband was expiring his stomach lining in the bathroom and our febrile kids were passed out, washing the wall off my kids’ vomit that had streamed down and ruined their prized solar system poster. Fun times. When L gets sick, M also wants to get sick. He expertly performed a coughing fit and gargled out that he was too sick to go to school, needed to see a doctor and to stay home. He also requested L’s cough medicine. I told him L’s cough medicine would make him throw up. M thought this over. “but mama, I need to get the germies out, so that’s good, I need to throw up” he opined. For all his thespian abilities in emulating L’s cough or his sophistry, we held firm. He was not sick. He went to school. M notched up the stakes and deliberately drank from L’s water. “Now I’ve got my brother’s germs” he proudly announced his victory, “and you can’t send me to school or I’ll infect everyone”.

I’m used to now being called “L’s mum” or “M’s mum” and referred to as their appendage/chaperone. I noticed my kids doing this with their friends’ mothers and fathers and informed them that if they didn’t know someone’s name that they should ask them what it is so that they can call them by their name. I didn’t expect, however, to be thrown so early into quasi-romantic relations. A girl at school whom L favoured, decided that L could only speak to her and no other girl. This bothered L and before he divulged his distress, I understood he was in a brood going to school and was concerned that he didn’t want to tell me what was going on. I decided to not pry or rather realized he was getting more annoyed the more I tried to extract information from him, so I told him he was always welcome to share what went on with me, but didn’t have to. The next day, L told me that V didn’t want him playing with any other girl and that this upset him because he wanted to be friends with everyone, including other girls and that therefore he wasn’t playing with any of his other girlfriends. He also decided to draw a beautiful rainbow for V and wrote “love you forever” on it with some help from me. He asked me to put it in her cubby. I said, “why don’t we wait a day or two and then you can give it to you herself?” and hid it, deciding that this was not a wise move for my son. I also told him that he should play with everyone and tell V that he was her friend and that their friendship was not lessened by his other friendships. Perhaps I shouldn’t meddle so much. However, L seemed happier. Perhaps this did the trick. A week or so later, I came to pick L up and V came up to me, visibly distressed. “L’s mum” she tugged at my shirt. “L really, really hurt my feelings today” she blurted out close to tears. I was shocked. “What did he do?” I asked concerned. “Well, he played with me 1, 2, 3 times but he played with A 1, 2 {proceeding to count through }11 times and H 1, 2 {proceeding to count through} 7 times. That’s more times than he played with me. That really hurt my feelings.” I was immensely relieved but didn’t want to show this to the clearly distressed soul in front of me as L came back from his cubby with his jacket and backpack and looked at V in fright. “I’m telling your mum you hurt my feelings” V said. L looked at me aghast. “Now” I said, trying to pacify them, “it’s not the number of times you play with anyone, it’s how you play with them” I blathered, not even sure I what I was trying to get at. “L’s friends with everyone.” V had her own agenda. “I want a playdate with just L” she demanded. L nodded. “Yes! Wonderful idea” I exclaimed. “And I want us to have a hot chocolate bath” she requested. L and V, who are both quite expressive, sharp kids, continue to have a strong if a little tumultuous infinity and I wonder whether it’s some negotiation in their psyche of how to handle romantic feelings at such an early age. When I picked up L recently from school and he was lugubrious, I knew it had something to do with V. What happened? “V said she’d only play with me after I count to infinity!” he exclaimed. “And you know I’m never going to get there!”

This was the first year the boys discovered Santa due to the influence of their friends and their school. I’ve related before that I am not keen on Santa - an intellectual property pirate, with apparently unlimited surveillance of young children that abuses numerous labor laws in his treatment of elves- is not my idea of someone to emulate. After an internal crisis, I decided it was best to let them have their Santa fantasy. My husband, unlike my tacit tolerance, encouraged it. He baked cookies and left out a plate and a glass of milk for Santa on Christmas eve.

What did M want from Santa? Car to rocket transformers (the elf factory apparently does not produce these but he was ebullient when he received transformer toys). What did L write to Santa as his wish for Christmas? A “daddy” stuffed orca, as we have a mama and two youths, which I thought quite sweet that he wanted our whole family represented in his stuffed orca collection. L also wanted the Saturn V rocket. Instead, we bought him the Saturn V Lego kit (which comes in 1969 pieces of course). The problem with getting your kid something that you want to do for Christmas, of course, is that you gave it to your kid. My husband and I had quite a few marital squabbles over who was going to do which part of the rocket with L, even though he now does 97% of it, following the instructions without our guidance (the downside of fostering independence). Even M was getting into it by the end, displaying an increased dexterity. 

L has recently taken to playing chess. It is the one app I allow him to play as we found one that has aided his ability to understand how the pieces move and the intent of the game. My father trained him well while he was here over Christmas and from only being able to set the board last July, L now can play! I’m thrilled. We have played a few games, albeit I’ve realized that having L win to encourage his confidence has some drawbacks as now L thinks I’m terrible at chess and has advised me to practice more.

My husband has finally turned the boys to jeans. Their entire lives, they refused to wear them and wanted “soft” pants but my husband came up with the idea of “rough and tough” jeans. This concept won them over like wildfire. Now all they want to wear is “rough and tough” jeans.

The boys love going to their dentist. Firstly, they have a fabulous dentist. Secondly, the boys love being taken care of. Our three-year-old had his teeth scraped for plaque and all it took was for the dentist to show the "germies" and M insisted she continue "thank you for taking the germies off" he said as she gushed. Little does she know they don’t behave like that in their domestic environment (kids save the best of themselves for parents). M was told he has a gap which works as a food trap and now avidly flosses nightly telling his brother, “I have a food trap so I have to be really careful”.

The other day I made M cry. M had been in an irascible mood that evening and anything I did was wrong. I knew to tread carefully and was increasingly worn thin by his attack on every occurrence. It was bath time and “wash” hair day and M and I had a tortured exchange over washing his hair. The boys regularly make me “lattes” in the bath, filling their cups with bubbles (I do enjoy a latte in the mornings). They are my brilliant baristas. M, for the first time, during his tirade against everything and everyone after I had washed his hair with some exertion of force, scowled as he thrust a "burnt latte" before me. I understood this as an intentional insult and told him I didn’t like burnt lattes and put it down. M began to cry and was disconsolate. I was crushed. I just made my kid cry because I thought he was somehow trying to insult me by providing me bad coffee (the parodies of my failure are endless). I vehemently apologized to M that night but the next morning M told me at breakfast that I really hurt his feelings by refusing his latte and I decided I was one of the worst mothers in the world. I again apologized and we made peace. That night, M made me another bath latte and exclaimed, with the most serious tone "and this time it's not burnt mama"...