Sunday, September 11, 2022

Bottles & Cans

 M had hernia surgery this year and he strutted through it like a champ. I was enveloped in insomnia the night before, urging ill thoughts away as I was riven by risk. Still mandating quasi-quarantine, one parent was allowed prior to surgery, another after. The nurses cautioned me that as waking up from anesthesia was disorienting for kids (for whom isn't it?) and that a sizable sector woke up violently. I was allowed to enter before M woke up. I was armed with his three favourite books, two of which involved the shenanigans of animate food and read through them as he roused, thinking that waking up to familiarity would smooth his reentry into consciousness. M opened his eyes in a most lackadaisical fashion. I immediately informed him that his surgery was over in order to allow him to better register his surroundings. M, registering his mother, was however, not in the least bit interested in the fact that he had woken up in a completely different room to his pre-op. He was focused on his hands. He spread them out in front of him as if he were registering the ability to control his limbs. He looked like he had dropped some acid. Then he looked at me and winked before proceeding to attempt to count to 10. He got 1 and 2 right but then his counting was all over the shop. Yet, he persisted. M likes completing what he starts. He had been asked to count to 10 on the administration of anesthesia and not having completed it, he went right back to the task. He was a champ. He was in pain, hunched over and knew he could milk it. "Mama" he addressed me, his eyes reaching for my soul, "all I want to do today is watch Dino Trucks". This was a show I did not appreciate, despite my boys praising its didactic purpose as if they were pitching development  of the property- "it's about team work and problem solving but in a fun way for kids" (I imagine the pitch meeting to rather have been something of the like of, "well, kids love trucks and they love dinos- so is anyone thinking what I'm thinking here? And just think of the merch we could sell"). M watched Dino Trucks for a solid period that day he otherwise would not have gotten away with unless he were on a plane. The doctors had advised that on the first day, you could give pain medication liberally. Yet, M didn't complain about pain until well into the evening so we gave him a tad as a night cap so he could sleep through the night. Perhaps Dino Trucks had some analgesic effect. The next few days, M would walk like Quasimodo, but with a cheer and still enjoys showing off the small scar he has on this torso from his operation, proudly proclaiming it it is his "surgery" and commenting that surgery is not so bad, because you get to eat a popsicle for breakfast. 

M asked me what consciousness was and why he lost it during his surgery. I explained that the brain does some things consciously - things that require awareness and intention, such walking, eating, speaking - and other things automatically, such as breathing. M was intensely interested in how this process occurred. I told him that he was provided medication that rendered him unconscious. He wanted more details. I explained that not only am I not an anaesthesiologist, nor any type of doctor or medical professional but that even the specialists don't understand the mechanics of consciousness. We may know how to turn it on and off, but we don't know exactly why. Both boys found this aspect incredibly fascinating. "So is that what death is like?" M asked. He seemed petrified. Accepting that our consciousness will end in one zap as with surgery is a difficult concept to digest. After all even the most modest person has themselves at the centre of their universe. "I don't know" I admitted to the boys. "I don't think so" I added. I told them that throughout my life, I've experienced things that don't make sense if our visceral beings were confined to our corporal states. There's something else (though one could readily argue that such sensation is neurological). "But I don't want something else, I want my life" M pleaded. "I don't want to die." At this point, I eschewed relating the cruel uncertainty of our existence and calmed him. "You don't have to think about it at least until you are 103". Then we can talk. "Mum, if we are 103 and 104, wouldn't you be way, way,  way too old?" L asked. That seemed like a good finale for that conversation.

We always want to provide our kids with what our parents couldn't. One thing I distinctly remember is my parents not being able to relieve themselves from work to volunteer at school events. It probably seems like a trifle thing, but I didn't want my boys looking around and seeing their friends' parents and not seeing their own. I also wanted to see them at their school event (they are usually loads of fun!). The Fun Run was true to its name. The kids ran around the school for about forty-five minutes and we cheered like mad. L and M had smiles that leapt out of their hearts. Midway through, M looked a tad cross and came up to me. I had been cheering from L and M and every kid and teacher I knew the name of. "Mum" M began earnestly, "you have to cheer for everyone!" I was admonished for not being inclusive. I explained I didn't know everyone's names. M said, "that's OK, just cheer for G[the school]". So I did. Then I heard a familiar cry. L had fallen and had a bleeding elbow. "I want to go home!" he cried. I looked at his scrape and decided he could do it. I told him if he couldn't run, he could walk. L was hesitant at first, but I told him I would walk with him and that eased him into the idea and off we went. He held onto me tight the first round and we crawled through it. The second round, he softened his grip, went faster and by the end was smiling and cheering his friends on. Midway through the third round, he began to run again. 

M has my habit of doodling. My exercise books during school (a term some of my American friends thought referred to physical education rather than schoolwork) were covered in little characters. It was how I could pay attention in class. I needed a distraction to concentrate (this persisted- when I was at uni, albeit I adore and devour books, I was uncomfortable in the quiet of the library and preferred the din of a cafe as a working environment). Hence when M's kindergarten teacher was struggling with his frazzled focus, I understood his mind was as peripatetic as mine. M likes to animate his letters and numerals (he has inherited my over eager sense of face pareidolia). Eight plus three equals a smiling tree. Then M entered a phase in which smiley faces turned into male genitalia (this particular phase escaped me). Every mathematical equation ended in a penis. We discussed some issues he would face if he did that at school. He seemed to understand. When M was asked to trace "horse's hair" he avidly did so and with glee inserted BUT in front of "hair". I corrected his spelling, lectured him again on the whims of polite society and explained homonyms to him which seemed to have piqued his interest until I asked him if he had a question. M earnestly nodded. "Why do girls have front butts?"

Parenting is a great life lesson because it teaches you how to suffer loss of control and acts as a check on your actions. It also teaches you patience. These are courses you are permanently enrolled in. As soon as you pass one exam, you have another challenging one. I hope to be the perfect parent, guiding my kid in a soft manner through emotional experiences and teaching them intellectual and practical skills such that, for instance, the morning routine, is effortless. It's rather a war zone. "Mum, you are being such a hippo" my older son remarks in his soft, laconic drawl. "It's such an aggressive tone you are using" he continues (no, I do not favour in the least being compared to a large, wild, territorial animal by my son). Meanwhile, my younger son shouts back "you are not the boss of me! My brain is the boss of me! And my brain says to finish my Lego submarine!" Right. It all starts so civil and then rapidly disintegrates into  combat. There are only so many times I can support politely asking my sons to put on their shoes within the strict time limit allowed to get to school on time, before my decibels elevate (and then rapidly escalate). I trust some parents have a mastery of this, but I distinctly have a lot to learn in this department. My boys even have a nickname for me,"Bossy Woman", and a song to boot. It contains lyrics such as "bossy woman is always telling me to brush my teeth, bossy woman is always telling me to eat my veggies, oh she's so bossy". Charming. I am continually telling my sons that I would rather just be their friend and have fun, but then I wouldn't be a good mum. Sometimes we have to be stern. 

My older son is an avid bookworm. He will read for hours a day. He will sneak books to his bed to read them at bedtime. I get it, I was him, walking with a book in my hands, my mind immersed in the narrative world - until I hit a pole. That happened to me a fair few times. Arguing with my son to stop reading, something I cherish, is not something that I ever perceived could eventuate ("But mum, I need more knowledge! Give me knowledge! I devour knowledge!" L shouts). Yet here I am, pleading with my son to not ruin his eyes by reading in the dark. His retort: keep the light on. Then we argue over bedtime. Reading has its benefits, but so does sleep. In the end we meet in the middle - L goes to sleep a tad later then I would prefer and he reads (with the light on) much less than he'd prefer.

Winston Churchill once commented that English and Americans are "separated by a common tongue" and certainly even after living more of my life in the US, I still have some translation issues. Earlier in the year I asked my kids to play "scissors, paper, rock" and they laughed at my mistake. I, in turn, assumed they had mistakingly heard at school. Turns out, that antipodeans have a different term for this game to Americans (and even the British). It's completely inverted - "rock, paper, scissors". I remain flummoxed. Fortunately, my boys have a keener understanding of Australia as they spent a month there this summer - being Australia's winter. They were amazed by the Great Barrier Reef (they loved that we flew to Cairns and then began to call Sydney, "Bottles"), the Daintree and the Blue Mountains - which I had banked on, to get some sense of Aussie pride instilled in them so the pending passport wouldn't seem abstract- but I didn't expect how much they would love Sydney. They were enamoured by the birds most of all. Lorikeets, kookaburras, cockatoos, even the ibises. They thought the Blue Mountains looked like a Jurassic Park. They were amazed at the different constellations in the sky. M decided that he was going to move to Balmoral when he's older, L, a town close to the Great Barrier Reef. They picked up the Australian inflection and still have tinges of it a month later. 

Watching my boys in full-on rain gear negotiating the deluge in the CBD was quite a trip. I grew up in Sydney during our drought, when the dam was only ever 1/3 full and we had strict water restrictions. I remember winter being pleasant (one of my good friends reminded me that I think this, because Sydneysiders have a habit of forgetting that winter ever comes- but that must mean it's short and calm enough to be forgotten) and was shocked to find it so crisp. They are now growing up in drought in California while Warragamba Dam overflows, much closer to my own childhood experience.

M's 6th birthday was cold and wet, but wonderful. M is quite upset that his birthday is in the summer. "We're always somewhere else" he complains. "Last year it was Rhodes, this year, it's Sydney" he grumbled. I tried to explain that is a privilege, that he gets to spend his birthday in different places around the world. "But my friends aren't here" he explained. He notes how his brother, L, has a party with his friends and also gets to celebrate at school. M gets neither because his birthday is during the summer break. M's summer birthday also means he's one of the youngest in his grade. Most of his friends are nearly a whole year older. The standing theory today is to hold your kid back, particularly if your kid is male, to increase their confidence (I find it interesting that we seem to address men's confidence more -is that because we deem them to be more fragile or as we still subconsciously determining that their leadership is more important?). We made the decision, based on multiple factors, including that he was bored at preschool and that it made financial sense to move him to kindergarten rather than hold him back. While he struggled somewhat in kindergarten (the last day of school was so emotional for M, he cried in the morning and was so proud he was going into first grade and the "upper yard" playground), he seems to have found his way in first grade and I couldn't imagine him a year behind. 

L has inherited my klutziness and my keen ability to get trapped. I have been locked inside bathroom stalls in a number of cities throughout the world, none of which was a very pleasant experience to say the least. L had recently graduated to going with me to the bathroom, but going to his own stall. He preferred it and once we had practiced the lock a few times successfully, I allowed him to go. Just passed single digit stall use, L confidently walked into the stall next to mine at a Greek restaurant in the CBD on M's birthday. When I was washing my hands, I asked L if he was OK. He explained, his words, tinged with terror, that he couldn't get out. I told him not to worry and that I would walk him through it. While I did that, I examined the gap and determined that there was absolutely no way he could crawl out of it, which would have been my plan B. After several failed attempts at coaching L to open the door, I told him that I needed to get help. He asked me not leave him. I explained that he shouldn't worry, because I would be back in a few minutes and that as he was locked inside, no one could approach him. He would be safe. The manager came down and asked L what was going on and if he was ok. "I'm stuck and I'm terrified" L responded. The manager got to work, attempting to pick the lock. By that time, we had a small gathering in the bathroom as our family members came to provide support (fortunately no one else wanted to use the bathroom). In the end, the manager had to get a screwdriver and take out the faulty lock. "I don't know what I did" L said, confounded, to the manager as he opened the door. "It was the lock" the manager explained and apologized. 

M and L adore each other. They fight, it's true, but they are best friends. As an only child, I cherish seeing their relationship blossom. It's patently evident that nobody's light shines more brightly for M, than his elder brother, L's. When we were on Green Island, eating our lunch, L was attacked by a bird. L, in shock, erupted in tears. M immediately went on the alert. He quickly determined the culprit - who had a piece of seaweed stuck on one of his legs - and targeted the bird with a determined stare. As soon as the offender approached our table, M aggressively approached the bird, yelling at the bird to stay away from his brother, as we tried to keep M away from the bird (partly to protect M and partly to protect the bird). M will always have L's back. 

M has decided he wants to be a submarine engineer. During "free Lego" time, he has designed elaborate submarines where he has keenly outlined where the ballast tanks go, where the escape hatch should be and the like. We had not planned it, but in June and July, M was able to tour a submarine in SF, one in Pearl Harbor and one in Sydney at the Maritime Museum and became even more enamoured with them. At the Maritime Museum, he dragged me to rewatch a video of a WWII naval battle and when I was texting with some mates scheduling a dinner, he took my phone from me and admonished me. "Have some respect and listen" he commanded. I was astounded. I wasn't sure that watching a naval battle was appropriate, but then they have snuck in numerous videos about WWII which they are equally fascinated and horrified by (and they don't even know a scintilla of the real horrors). They can describe the different Allied planes and their bombs and they have replicated these in their "free Lego" time. I admonished them for making weapons. They earnestly told me that their weapons are in fact, weapons of "love". "It's not a nuke, it's a fluke - it erupts in flowers" L declared. "And my torpedo bursts into love hearts" M proclaimed. I wavered. I knew what they were up to, but their designs were so intricate and exemplary from an engineering standpoint, I wasn't sure whether to discourage it and in the end I let their imaginations run free. The boys play "war games" they imagine (M also adores Battle Ship) and can use weapons they craft in them (sometimes the weapons are natural and simple, M was fire and L was water: L shouted to M that he would "extinguish him" while M remarked that he would "evaporate L") and we fear that this may instill violence in them or render it natural. However, kids are keenly aware that their imaginative play does not actually harm anyone and I wonder whether forbidding the imaginative play could rather have the opposite effect? Nevertheless, I see a distinct difference between imaginative play with inanimate objects and shooter video games, the latter which I forbid as I see no benefit to their development and characters and which attempts to render violence realistic, which I see as inherently problematic. 

L and M love to sneak out of bed and put on weekend morning cartoons as well as documentaries and lectures. I was pleasantly surprised one day to notice they choose an MIT lecture on aerodynamics. I wondered if they were able to comprehend and digest what they were intensely watching. A few days later, L was cold in the park and without any layers, so I advised that he should run around to warm up. "Ah, friction!" L declared with great confidence in his velocity, but for good measure, rubbed his palms together.










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