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!