L, at a fresh six, has decided he is more of an adult than a child. He directs his brother to finish his chores and he negotiates deals on behalf of his brother. If he wants to watch an episode of Magic School Bus, understanding that his brother adores the same show (which is admittedly pretty informative and entertaining) he maneuvers a deal between the kids and the parents, professedly on his brother’s behalf. The parents are offered the consideration of M’s reading of two books and a few addition problems, while M is offered an episode of his (and their) favourite show. L, with endearing and earnest eyes, lays out the benefits of the deal to each party and blithely brokers an agreement for which his fee is the enjoyment of his brother’s consideration. He has well learnt how to understand and manipulate people’s interests to achieve solutions that benefit each party, while also benefiting himself and- importantly- without having to express his self-interest. This diplomatic finesse is also utilized when L is introduced into stressful situations. When his friend, who attends a private school and had the benefit of in-person learning, unlike the children at public school which have been neglected by their district for twelve months (in acute hypocrisy to the district’s professed intention to support equality for it is the struggling, working parents that rely on schools being open both to educate their kids and allow them to earn income who were most in need of schools reopening), teased L by claiming he did not go to a “real school”, L, obviously upset, simply protested that he did and made no other issue of it. However, later, when we went around the table to express gratitude, L displayed that he did not take lightly to the slight and expressed he was grateful for his school, his class and having the best kindergarten teacher ever (he does avidly adore his teacher and she is amazing but I understood there was also an ulterior motive to this proclamation). It is through this delicate diplomacy that L navigates the world. I would not be surprised if this talent, combined with his earnest concerns for our world and his intention to change it for the better results in a political career or some other advocacy. His main interest is the protection of the environment and in particular, the protection of our oceans.
L’s brokering of dealings has been to my advantage for I have weakened my negotiating position with my dealings with M. If I attempt to negotiate a deal with M these days, he looks at me intently and solemnly states, “you are trying to trick me to do something again, right?” If I don’t resort to L’s brokerage and his fee, I remain with two resources, both of which appeal to M’s ego and his visceral desire for conquest. I can ask for help, because he is of a most succorable character and will not refuse one aid, or I can pose a challenge and that baits him just as well. If I explain that no four year old or five year old has ever done X, M’s interest is immediately piqued.
M is also a little activist but his approach is more akin to a bulldozer that rams everything in his path. He has no qualms expressing his pedestrian ire, for instance, at cars that block the footpath. Adults are not used to children’s criticism, particularly when it is so impassioned and on point and generally comply. The people that choose to ignore M, do so at their own risk, because unless I drag him away, he will continue to berate them. “Do you think you own the sidewalk? What about people walking?” etc. Riding in the car, M, who acutely observes all rules and patterns, will immediately censure the driver for failing to put up a timely signal, failing to break smoothly, or inching past a red light. P was surprised that M informed him- before he noticed the pattern- that there was a bug in our car's system and that the moon roof only worked properly when the car was stationary and could not perform all functions when the car was moving.
M adores the piano. He does not attack the keys, but already navigates a melody. His interest in music and his acute ear impel us to support this interest and fortify his talent. He has informed us that he has a band and they are called “The Hooks” (after further prodding it was divulged to us that the plays all the various instruments in his band). He is also fascinated by engineering and has declared he will create a faster and cleaner train than the mag-lev or the hyperloop. Power to you, M.
M has a dire drive to conquer over his brother. So much so that that his interest in chess piqued so that he could beat his brother. Indeed, during one game in which he inserted himself to aid my endeavour against L, he immediately pounced on L's weakness, which is to make use of easy prey without giving thought to the consequence, and ended up exchanging our pawn for L's queen to L's stewing strife.
M adores his brother, but he is also wary that everyone loves his brother and worried that he may not receive the same reception. When L informed him that he may have the same kindergarten teacher, M was at first excited but then concerned. "What if she doesn't like me? What if she doesn't like me as much as L?" M asked me quietly one day. He confessed that L was better at school, better at reading etc. Indeed, L is far ahead of M. M, the self-professed "book spider" reads, but its an effort for him, while L has long surpassed that and reads effortlessly (indeed, he has a voracious appetite for reading, shouting to all and sundry that books are his favourite vehicle because they transport him to other worlds - and so much so- that I've oft had to admonish him for walking and reading, lest his intellectual pursuits lead to physical strife). Even though I've explained to M numerous times that his brother is twenty-two months older and was no advanced at his age, M feels the difference in their aptitude acutely and I'm still not sure how to best navigate his insecurity in this regard.
Yet as much as the boys may fight and attempt to conquer each other, they have a fraternal bond that flexes without fissure or fracture. They cuddle together, M climbing up to L's bed in the morning, craft conspiracies against their parents, play together (my favourite of their imaginative play is "Keep Earth Safe" against "Pollution" in which they protect the earth from oil spills and other toxins) and discuss life, the universe and everything - which at times can get so acutely animated over a difference of opinion that I have to stop eavesdropping and broker peace (numerous times when M would get avidly frustrated, L, in a calm tone, would attempt to pacify him by noting "M, don't get angry, it's bad for your heart").
One of my favourite past-times admittedly is listening to their discussions in the morning, but I am also uneasy at this incursion into their privacy (it seems they haven't yet understood the auditory effects of sharing french doors between our bedrooms). During one of these supposed intramural discussions, L asked M why their pro-yia yia was so ill. "She's old" M flatly said. "Will she get better?" "No, she's old. We all get old and die. Our bodies stop working" "But why?" L continued to ask in frustration. "I don't know L, it just is" replied M with a hue of irritation, choosing to venture into a different topic. Albeit as steady and sure as M appeared to be before his brother, he continues from time to time to ask me questions about mortality, still navigating our ephemeral existence and still searching for a loophole from life's finality. "I don't want to die, I want to live forever" he oft confides in me. "Do I really have to die?" he asks as if I can somehow unlock immortality. He seemed personally insulted on learning that turritopsis dohrnii, a species of jellyfish, has the ability of transdifferentiation and thus was effectively immortal and yet humans hadn't figured out how to cheat death. I decided not to also note that smacks of jellyfish were taking over our oceans and that we may not be the apex species. "Do you know when you are going to die?" "So it can be any day?" "What happens when you die?" "What happens to your body when it shuts off?" I provide what answers I can, with some sliver of salt. One the one hand, I do not want to lie to my son, on the other I don't want him waking up each day in a noxious neurosis thinking each day he could die. It was a delicate discussion in which I told him energy never dies, it merely transforms, that the smallest part of his existence will be as him even though that is all he can perceive whilst he is on that journey, that his stardust will return to the stars and that humans usually die when they are old (which I have told him before). He pressed me on this point. "When earlier? Why?" so I pushed nutrition - "the more you eat your vegetables and fruit, exercise, use your brain and socialize, the longer you will stay healthy and live". M took this to heart and informed his friends emphatically that if they didn't finish their vegetables they would die to their dire distress. The unavoidable ripple of unintended consequences.
L informed me the other day that he was conflicted. He wanted to be a marine biologist, but he also wanted to be an inventor. He wants to invent a way to clean the oceans – “I believe that this invention will be the most benefit of marine life” he avowedly expressed. I informed him that he can do both. There is no reason to do one thing in life, I told him. Do not think that you need to grow up and “become” something. You grow up and you do something. Labour specialization is one of the ills of our society. It is reductive and depressing for individuals who are enmeshed in the one role, thus stifling their experience. It is also not the most productive, which is the impetus for the specialization. For instance, a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving allows for holistic, more durable solutions than when one is confined with a structured paradigm that necessarily directs and informs their answers by rendering invisible that which may otherwise be the pertinent point if viewed from a wider perspective. L took this up wholeheartedly. "We don't just have to do one thing when we grow up" he excitedly began to relate this diktat in turn to his brother, in his usual loquacious manner. M's retort was characteristically laconic, compounded with a shrug indicating that he never had any intention to confining his interests according to social dictates.
M, our self-professed "tornado of silliness", which he likes to relate to all and sundry as if in an effort to undermine any perceived control over his own faculties, is true to his name. I am less than pleased with some of the effects, for instance, discovering a titanic toy spider in my bed at night which led to the predictable consequence of an avalanche of dire decibels or their room housing a colossal spider's web, which prevented any movement therein for the several days of its conquest. The latter, which had the stamp of parental authority with my husband avidly helping the boys set up the strings across the room, as if he were intent on teaching trapeze, was professedly a leprechaun trap. I was less than pleased with the concept of aiding the boys trap anyone, even a fictional character, but the boys assured me that the their trap was really an earnest effort to provide a needed - and comfortable they noted - resting place for the tired leprechaun. All the boys in the family (father included) were so pleased with their venture that my husband became their mission's emissary in an effort to have me dot the strings with green so that it would appear a leprechaun had evaded their trap. The diplomatic mission successful, the boys were amazed at the leprechaun's feat and agreed to construct a more elaborate trap next year. I was less than pleased with that intention but I was pleasantly surprised that they then commandeered a pulley system from the string to take things up to their bed, including stuffed toys, cars and their water bottles.
The boys have recently swapped daily baths for showers. We had been wanting to do this for a while but the clincher was their understanding of the difference in water usage. If you keep the water on during a shower, you can see how much water you use and their quick shower resulted in a lower water level, which was sufficient for these self-professed friends of the environment to switch.
L the other week informed us that humans were the apex predator. "We are a predator to animals, to the environment and to each other" he solemnly declared, before professing that things needed to and would change. M is also acutely aware of our environment's fragility (after all these kids are Californian, they were putting on masks under a miasmic sky long before the pandemic and experienced a day incarnadine last year) and at times admonishes me. "Mum" he sternly interrupted by narrative on how we were to conquer mosquitos, the vicious vectors of disease, "the mother mosquito just wants to feed her babies. You want to feed and protect us, right? Why would you get rid of mosquitos? They are just being good mums. You need vaccines for these diseases, not to attack the mosquitos". It was a fair point and yet I sit where I stand - I favour humanity over mosquitos. M would have nothing of it and threw my own teaching back to me exposing my rabid hypocrisy in my avid expression of anthropocentrism (this is the cruelty of the filial relationship, it exposes your core contradictions). Yet M's point that we needed to solve the problem of pathogens and not vectors was apt - if only it were that easy to do.
Normalcy has somewhat returned. The first activity L did this year was get back to soccer. He was thrust into an intensive soccer camp for three hours a day which he adored and which fortified and finessed his skills. The first day, L proclaimed through droopy eyes that he was happy but that his "brain was putting on pajamas". Then his body got accustomed and he had more energy after class. L then started karate and was pleased, as we have been learning Japanese at home, that he could count to ten and understand words in Japanese that his sensei would intermix every so often in his commands. Then swimming lessons opened up and the boys were overjoyed. After the first lesson, M looked disappointed at his teacher and asked "this is IT? It's so short" to which she replied with an energetic smile that he would have another lesson in just a week. "Just as well" M muttered as if he were a grumbling geriatric and not a four year old.
We were concerned that the boys would have greatly regressed from not having swimming lessons for over a year, but the muscle memory kicked in pretty much right away. "We're orcas after all" L proclaimed with an eruption of a smile. This served them well - when M was with family in a pool, on top of a float, a year after any swimming lesson and a week before he restarted, he still managed to swim from underneath it to the edge of the pool while his grandmother jumped in lest he were in trouble.
M is coming up with (or remembering from somewhere who knows) jokes left and right. The other day I was explaining an aspect of our skeletal system and when he understood it, he beamed a smile and presently proclaimed, "mama, you should go to the bank and get out $20". This caught me off guard and I asked why. "Because you make a lot of sense!" M shouted back. I erupted in laughter. P later told me that he was explaining to M earlier that day that there were 100 cents in a dollar. Perhaps M penned his first pun.
L amused a procession of people on our promenade one day by serenading me with a song professing to his adoration. I must admit it was a moment to cherish. He occasionally bursts into song about how he would always protect me. I wonder where he picked up protection of his family (he noted that he will be taller and stronger than me in no time) rather than us protecting him, but I'll take his serenades any day.
The other week was the first day of school for kids in the district (for two days a week). Us usual, our house was less than orderly in the morning and we were scrambling to have the kids ready on time. L continually contorted his face in concern, "mama, please don't let us be late today" - and I heeded his instruction- we were not late. Yet L, perhaps because of my chronic tardiness respecting social appointments, raced up the hill, explaining he would rather be early than late. It was a sight to behold. All the children (and their parents) were blithe and beaming as if they were about to enter a land of unrestricted candy consumption. At pickup each child excitedly related to their parents the events of the day and L insisted on walking with his friends home. Each child professed their excitement that the morrow was another school day. It was emotional to say the least. For L, school is the most exciting and fascinating place and he continues to vocalize how grateful he is that he gets to go back in person - and how he can't wait to be there full time. I wager this studious sentiment is echoed by his classmates. I wonder whether denying children school for so long will make them more earnest to study. Perhaps they will never want to leave and end up a generation with doctorates.