Monday, September 13, 2021

From Seed to Sequoia

 There should be a boot camp for prospective parents. They should be woken up at all hours of the night with an alarm mimicking a cry and be given a hefty sack of potatoes to hold as they are directed to do a number of household tasks single-handedly, while they walk over a Lego laden floor, dodge various projectiles at their head, are randomly rammed to the stentorian soundtrack of shouting, whingeing and the occasional moans of a wounded animal who has learnt the words “but I want to play”. The beleaguered aspirers will then be tugged at constantly and be asked incessant questions while given the task of preparing a nutritious, and if not delicious at least palatable dinner, within twenty minutes with the contents of a cadaverous fridge. Then they will be requested to align numerous calendars containing a cornucopia of playdates and lessons and be ordered to provide timely transport for respective near concomitant lessons at opposite edges of the city, while negotiating peace between belligerent passengers. To finish, while our stunning soundtrack continues, they will run a marathon, in which they will ingest all their food whilst running, change into their work attire, whilst navigating the nuances of negotiation for various objects and events and be clocked on how they instruct and perform long division – and that’s just level 1. For extra points, parents will have to homeschool their kids while concomitantly finishing their own.

In level 2 they are introduced to the penultimate paradox of parenthood- that by instructing your children to question authority and think critically, you undermine your own and you provide them the tools to undermine authority figures in their lives, which may at times work to their detriment as they bring on the ire of (usually inept) authority figures. However, in failing to instill this, you do your children, and society at large, a great disservice. In a democratic society, authority is not static and impenetrable, it’s earnt and subject to change. I try to navigate this by always justifying my demands and addressing the reasons thereof. You need to eat your vegetables and fruit in order to obtain vitamins and be healthy, you need sleep to rejuvenate, recuperate and grow etc. This mostly works but for two factors. The first and main reason is that children do not always have the capacity -nor for that matter do adults- to undertake something for a future benefit that is not to their liking in the present. The second reason is that parents do not sometimes have the time to detail all the intricacies of a particular decision, for instance when you are terrifyingly tardy for an event and your children are unclad and engrossed in a game. This indubitably generates tectonic activity. 

In level 3, you are presented with the penultimate predicament of being a parent. You love your kids more than anyone, more than anything – yet, you have to tread a delicate balance between having fun and being their friend whilst also guiding and disciplining them. Numerous times I have had to chime “I would love to just be your friend and have fun, but I must be your mum -and sometimes being a good friend, is failing at being your mum”. For instance, I explained to them, a good friend may simply continue a morning pillow fight and be tardy or even absent from school, but that would be a failing as a parent. This is at times a confounding concept for children to digest and even more so for adults to swallow. It’s easier to simply have fun and give in to demands. It’s difficult, even sacrificial, to be strict. What children don’t understand, at least it appears so to me, is that when you are strict with them, you are equally strict with yourself, because you are accepting the harder road for their benefit. My kids oft say I am “very tough” and “too hard on them”, pointing out that other kids have juice and soda and eat all sorts of chips, but how am I to let my children eat a product that appears to have radioactive tangerine powder all over it? We’ve come to a tacit understanding. These will never be in our home and I’ve explained the ill effects of these, yet they know when it’s their friend’s party, for instance, they’re allowed to have the juice, chips and cake – and they do. 

M has a penchant for some biting one-liners. Leaving the house in a scurry, M assessed my disheveled aspect and commented on my capillary catastrophe with an incipient grin “your hair looks like a volcano erupting mum”. Later, when assessing people’s personal attributes, he commented “mum, you’re a lighter, you burn everything in your path”. He considered himself a tornado. I suppose razing the ground must be in the family. Playing Uno, with P picking up his 12th card in order to make a match, M burst out in laughter and said, “OK, OK, dad, enough punishment for you tonight”. Arranging the carcasses of his lambchops on his plate in a manner in which one bone utilized the others as a slope then halfway brought them all down, he cackled “it’s not a landslide, it’s a lambslide”.  During a walk, his brow creased in concentration, M pondered, “what if we are just the products of someone’s imagination?”. What could one answer to that? Perhaps we are. And whomever is imagining us has some certain and oft tasteless humour. The only answer I thought feasible was to say that we may be, but we have to pretend we are not. One morning M wondered whether we were simply cereal bobbing around a cereal bowl. I should perhaps have pondered this a tad, but his imagination sparked mine. “If we are – who is eating us?” I wondered out loud. Fortunately, neither M nor L were afraid of this prospect but rather erupted into laughter. Then they requested cereal for breakfast.

We went camping for the first time earlier in the year, amongst the sequoias. The boys had their own tent, about a metre and a half away from ours. At night, under the sparkling sky and the soothing breeze, as everyone dozed, I could not sleep pondering possible dangers to my boys, in a tent, in the woods. Wild animals, strangers, miles away from any help. When I eased into comfort, some boisterous birds bellowed out their alarm and a new day began and I begrudgingly got up. The boys were soon awake and had no qualms waking up in the early morning and warmed themselves by the fire, ironically breathing particulates from the smoke that in the city would have had them relegated indoors or wearing filtered masks. 

The boys loved hiking amongst the sequoias, loved playing with our friends’ dog, whom they designated as their protector from bears and coyotes (a position that I’m not certain he would have agreed with) and particularly enjoyed the hammock which we strung between two trees. L was fascinated by the hammock as if he’d never been on one. He became more adventurous and vigorous in his rocking and failed to heed our warnings. We assessed he would likely injure himself soon, but not enough for it to warrant medical care, due to the small height and bushy underground. Barely a second after an exclamation erupted across the serene scene, in which L shouted “WOW! This is AWESOME!”, we heard a thud. The next second we heard crying. L never had an issue with rocking recklessly on the hammock again.

It’s generally trying to get the boys into bed on time (and that’s an understatement). Yet when we went camping and the boys were their usual raucous and rowdy selves in the eve, I warned, after several attempts to instill some serenity, “you keep that up mister, you are going to bed right now”, to which M responded within the beat, “yes please”. I asked L if he wanted to go to bed too and he immediately began to walk toward their tent, mumbling “thank God”. They were out in a few minutes. 

We took the boys back to Greece this summer. At first, M was wary of the water, albeit he adores being in the pool. P thought he would acclimate on his own, but I admit I have a more aggressive parenting style. I donned M with a floatie and carried him protesting into the water. As soon as he was in, he immediately became enamoured with the sea. In a few days, he was running in with his floatie. Watching his older brother swimming and snorkelling on his own, M wanted to catch up (this is the story of his life and perhaps that of all younger siblings) and discarded his floatie. By the end of our trip, M was snorkelling on his own, while L was diving deeper down. L astutely documented each marine creature he spotted, a true marine biologist out in the field. The islands offered up a rich bounty of marine life. Yet it’s somewhat bittersweet, seeing the plastic we’ve littered the seafloor with and hearing the booming noise from the boats that blast the eardrums of our marine species. One day P got fed up with all the plastic he would sea in his own waters, amongst the marine life and began to pick up the trash. We became a sea clean up squad, carrying out plastic on each snorkelling trip. Most of the plastic on the seafloor were the tops of drink lids. People order frapp├ęs, open the lid, it’s blown away and collects on the seafloor. During one stint, we collected 42 plastic lids. The boys had as much fun collecting garbage as they did spotting the various marine life. Unfortunately, we added to the plastic predicament. As much as we cleaned up, we also added to the plastic malignancy, losing M’s floatie. Swimming after it, going at a much faster pace but starting later, I seemed to be acting out Zeno’s paradox, a swimming Achilles chasing a plastic tortoise. The current was pulling out and I noticed L was swimming out towards me. I stopped and told him to go back, which he did not do. Finally, I changed direction and swam to L, the floatie now out of reach. L explained he wanted to help me and we had to have a long discussion, which I hope he digested, why children should never follow adults out to sea. Too many times, growing up in Australia, I heard stygian stories of whole families lost to sea as they each went after someone. Parents go after kids, that’s the order and that’s a given, but in no event should children follow their parents out to sea, even if Greek waters be tamer than the inaptly named Pacific of Australia’s east coast. 

The boys had their first sleepovers. L stayed over at his good mate’s house. After being privy to another household, he concluded that we are a “crazy” family. Other families, he deduced, could manage getting out of the house on schedule without a stampede. M’s friend stayed over a couple of times at our house. The boys, as expected, were giggling and whispering to each other after the lights went out. M was embarrassed to still wear training pants at night and refused to wear them. He looked at his friend and with vermillion verisimilitude empathically stated, “I do NOT wear these”. His friend, focused on choosing a book for me to read, paid him no attention. M continues to be upset about the deep sleep bed wetting. While toilet trained from about 18 months, he nevertheless continues to wet the bed when in deep sleep. His pediatrician recommended a belt that works like an alarm to wake M up when he pees so that his body gets used to waking up at the time he pees so that he could pee in the bathroom – but I’m concerned about the collateral consequences of this disruption of his sleep. M, however, is not and clamours for this so that he could finally wear undies to bed. 

M is fond of rules, particularly when he is the enforcer and not subject to them. His swimming lesson concurrent in the same pool as his older brother, who loves to show off and goof around in his class, M is wont to look over and direct him to attention, “L! Stop goofing around and concentrate!” It thus should not have surprised me that when he trampled into dog faeces while we were on a walk, his ire would be directed to all dog owners. Why did this happen? He demanded to know. I explained that it was the right thing to do, it was also the law and not complying subjected one to a penalty, but that sometimes people didn’t follow the rules, either because an emergency occurred at the time they were meant to pick up after their canine companion or they just didn’t care to follow the rules for whatever reason. M took umbrage at this latter point. For several weeks, when spotting a person walking their dog, he would go up to them and notice them of their duty, “excuse me, excuse me dog owner! Are you picking up after your dog? Because it’s not nice to step in poo. It happened to me and I didn’t like it at all. So, pick up after your dog. It’s the law you know”. That was his spiel. Flabbergasted owners would cringe crimson, stand to attention and thrust forth their expectant doggy bag to convince the 4year old in front of them that they fully intend to comply with the law and social mores. M would simply nod his approval of their affirmation and move his ire unto other dog owners. 

Months ago, before the Delta surge, with minimal cases in SF, I thought it may be OK to take M on a short bus ride. I had picked him up from preschool and didn’t have the car with me. I offered a walk instead. M was disconsolate. He refused to leave and the only reason he expressed was that he wanted “daddy to come pick [him] up”. After parsing it out, morsel by morsel, M finally divulged his fear “you have the vaccine, I don’t. I’m afraid to go on the bus with other people and get COVID- and I’m just a kid!” That was enough of a reason for me not to take him on the bus (and he still hasn’t taken one). We ended up staying in the park, watching the grass cutting robot, reading books and being dappled by sunshine instead.

M is very keen on composing music. He has been recording songs for his band The Hooks, which is only composed of an electric guitar, drums and vocals, or rather his acapella version thereof with hits such as “Superman Fire Smash”.

L is a very encouraging soul. He compliments people on their work and encourages people to keep going. He has encouraged me to publish my children’s stories (a work in protracted progress). He additionally insisted that I had to illustrate them. I balked at this. My pictures are more readily identified as scrawl. L’s response was to take personal offense. My husband reminded me that my perceived lack of confidence (which could also be described as realistic assessment of my talents) was discouraging to the kids and their own confidence, so I modelled vibrant self-esteem and agreed to draw. L wouldn’t let me off easily. He sat with me and ensured I finished all 24 rough drawings to get an idea of how the book should be illustrated. Every couple of days, he asks me to report my progression (which is admittedly quite protracted). 

L is very chivalrous. He always opens doors for girls, helps them carry things and when boys pronounce that no girls are allowed to play, he vociferously rallies against this injustice – “everyone should be allowed to play!” L is very adept at navigating social situations and discerning the respective and oft conflicting wants of all the parties. He then structures and negotiates deals. He has diplomatic qualities that I suspect he may only finesse as he grows. I hug him (and his brother) each day as his line leaves for the classroom. For instance, in true L style, rather than instruct me not hug him, he asked me to blow him a kiss. I got the subtext, remaining impressed at his diplomatic manner. Yet, as chivalrous, diplomatic and even romantic as L can be, he nevertheless asked me the following question, which initially perplexed me and led to a vibrant discussion on the difference between human and most animal relationships: “how many girls can I mate with?” 

M is less diplomatic but has more of an engineering mindset. He can assess how things work with an acuteness I lack. He is obsessed with the mag-lev shinkansen and wants to be a train engineer. He enjoys learning and explaining how things work. In particular, he is interested in magnetism and electricity. When I went to pick him up at school, I stealthily waited while he was instructing a friend on how mag-lev trains were faster because there was less friction. His friend seemed disinterested, she was looking away from him, yet he earnestly continued to exuberantly explain the science of these vehicles as if he had enchanted an invisible audience.

M and L started full time school this semester. M found school difficult at first. The first two days, he missed his preschool friends and complained he didn’t have any. In two days, he was telling us he was making friends and he now has a firm crew. Even with friends, he was telling me school was too long. It’s true that a boy who just turned 5 has a long day when it starts 6:40 am, to get ready for school and is picked up nearly ten hours later. I’ve tried to get him earlier and some days I can pick him up right after school. While he at first admonished me for leaving him at after-school care, M now demands he is taken to it so he can spend time with his friends. L, on the other hand, was adamant from the get-go that I would leave him at after-school care for as long as possible so he could fraternize. When I protested that I wanted to also spend time with him, L informed me that right when I picked him up, study session began “and wouldn’t it be good for me to do that?” I was not surprised to find that this was not accurate. “Well, how did I know?” L rebutted, “if I had never stayed long enough?” Indeed.  

M has taken to frequent exaggeration. He loves to don the truth with glib garb that receives a gasp or giggle. While M has heard the didactic story of the boy who cried wolf numerous times, he has not listened to it and has failed to heed its warning. His kinder teacher brought in a snake for a week. M not only said he touched the snake, but that the snake coiled around him. We assumed this was his exaggeration. Low and behold there is a video of M with the snake coiled around him, a gigantic grin on M’s his face as he exclaims how awesome the experience is. When I took L into M’s classroom, which was his prior classroom, L was stunned to see a train set. “My God!” L cried. “You weren’t lying about the trains!” he exclaimed to his brother. The next second, L’s shock slipped to sorrow and he hugged his younger brother. “I’m sorry brother I doubted you” he said sententiously as if on a stage. “I am SO sorry, you did not lie and I was a bad brother for I did not believe you and I am SO sorry!” M brushed it off. “Yeah, I never lie” he lied. 

The other day, on discussing life, the universe and everything, six-year-old L declared, matter-of-factly that the most important thing in life seemed to be money. P and me were appalled and began to attack his statement right away. L held to his pronouncement. What about love? What about family? “If you don’t have money for medicine, your family members may die. If you work all the time, you never see them” he rebutted. Then he proceeded to pontificate on his point.  “Health is important, but for health, you need medicine, vaccines, hospitals – and the government needs money for these. A clean environment is important, but the government needs money for clean energy and to clean up pollution. Housing, water, sewerage, schools – these are all necessary, but you need money for these”.  There really was no arguing his point. In the current structure of our society, he’s right. One only has to look at the vaccine divide in our world or the fact that most children in the world today in the year 2021 die from lack of clean water. It’s diarrhea, not COVID that is, and has been, the world’s most pernicious pandemic. The better point is to instruct it should not be that way. L certainly takes that to heart. On divulging this discourse to a friend recently, my friend thought it interesting that L thought it was the government’s responsibility to protect the health of its people and the environment. It was a point I missed, perhaps because I see it as elementary. What else is the government for if it does not protect its peoples’ health, their environment and foster education?  

For our generation, the monster isn’t hiding under the bed. It’s in our air and seas. M has been embroiled in climate anxiety. L, on the other hand, has a Panglossian view of our green energy future. “We’re all going to die in 200 years” M remarked. “The polar ice caps are melting, we’re done for”. I tried to cleave his concerns. “We know the problem and we’re working on it – coming up with alleviation and mediation strategies. How to stop climate change and deal with its consequences”. M looked at me with an inch of incredulity and a pinch of disdain. L decided he need to intervene with his unflappable optimism. “M, don’t worry, we are going to have hydrogen boats and clean seas”. M pointed to one of our science books. “This book says that if we don’t radically change things, we are all dead – and why don’t we have hydrogen boats now?” (this goes back to L’s earlier point, it’s too expensive). When the monsters are real, you can’t simply nudge them away. This is not resolved by censoring scientific study and retaining the truth for a less tender age. Our planet is in a pernicious predicament and we can no longer shield our children from it  (if that were the wise thing to do) because it’s not simply a matter of statistics in books that we can shut. It’s in their lives, directly affecting them and revealing its raw consequences. The smoke affects their air. The plastic is in their water. The sky flamed incarnadine. For us, as adults, that life may radically change is both worrisome and unbelievable. We can profess it, but we cannot viscerally digest it. We are too invested in our pasts building our future, which to some extent structures and confines our vision. This is bolstered by the fact that the expected future looks grim. Perhaps this deeply embedded ignorance is to some extent survivalist. For if we accepted that there was no future, that all was already lost, how could we live each day? Apathy is ceding defeat before it occurs and we must not succumb to it. So, while we must instruct our children they will inherit the errors of generations past, they also inherit their knowledge to build upon. We must teach them to be resilient, precautionary and in tune with nature. For that is the ultimate parenting goal, to raise humans better than ourselves. Every sequoia begins with a seed.