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-Fran├žais 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…