Character and Characters

It’s not just that I’m a parent — that’s not the only reason I’m always thinking about it, though it is the primary and most obvious reason. It’s also because I deal with kids all day every day — I see the results of others’ efforts.

Taiashia is a girl whose attitude on most days goes from bad to worse. She arrives at school mad, and she is often furious before the beginning of the first class. She is obstinate and often belligerent. She can be incredibly incorrigible with some teachers all the time and with me some of the time. She often refuses any redirection from a teacher and responds to explanations of the coming consequences with, “I don’t care.” She is generally regarded by most teachers not to be the most trustworthy pupil. She is, in short, difficult to deal with. But she is smart. Incredibly smart. Despite all her behaviors and issues, she maintains A’s and B’s in most classes.

Inventing another recipe

Earlier in the year, when I first realized how bright she was, how much faster she was on the uptake than a lot of the students in her class, I offered her a temporary spot in one of my advanced classes. “It’s the level class I’d like to place you in next year, and I think it might be a good experience for you this year.”

“I don’t want to,” was her reply.

“Think about it first. Then give me an answer.”

Helping with dinner

“I don’t want to,” she said the next day.

I had to call her guardian recently about her behavior, and I knew what I’d hear. Anyone could guess what I’d hear. Tough life. Not the best home influences. So on. A common story with such kids.

Cut to this evening. I’m scrounging the bookshelves for a book I haven’t already read and am willing to read because I am not willing to pay the overdue fine I still owe at the library. (The Girl had a bunch of books checked out on my account and, well, time got away from us…) I found a book about child rearing that had the word “character” in the title. Probably not a surprise in a Catholic home. It proposed eight elements of personality that show a person has character — things like integrity, self-discipline, joy. All elements that Taiashia lacks. Completely, it seems some days. At the same time, all things K and I are trying to instill in our own children.

Polish lessons

And the opportunities to do so abound. The Girl will face one tomorrow. Her class has earned Electronics Day, which means students can bring electronics for twenty minutes of free time at some point in the day. L’s tablet is busted; our tablet is busted; the tablet I use for school is at school; laptops are not allowed. And so our daughter was worried about what would happen if she came to Electronics Day without any electronics.

“They’ll laugh at me!” she sniffled.

How do you explain to an almost-ten-year-old that what others think doesn’t matter? How do you provide the kind of perspective that makes that possible? You can’t. It only comes with time, with experiencing it for yourself and noticing that you survived it, noticing that not everyone joined in the laughter, realizing that those people are your true friends. A tough thing for not even ten years’ experience.

K and I did the expected thing; we said what any parent would say. And when she brought it up again as I was tucking her in, I thought of Taiashia.

“What do I do?” I asked.

“Maybe pray for them?”

“Why?” she asked.

Evening fort building

“If they’re in a place in their life where it makes them feel good to make someone else feel bad, they must have a pretty bad life.” Now, I don’t think that’s entirely what’s going on with fourth graders, but by the time they become eighth graders like Taiashia, it is what’s going on. “And then remember it: remember what it feels like and be the one that stands up for others when they’re getting laughed it.”

She thought about it for a moment.

“Yeah, I guess.”

She didn’t sound so convinced, but perhaps there’s just enough seed, water, and care for something to grow there. And if not, K and I will plant again.

Immaculate

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation in the Catholic Church, which means you’ve got to go to mass. Our new parish, though, is only have a morning mass, so we went to the vigil mass tonight. At six. Which meant the Boy was ready to go to sleep before mass even began.

The notion of the Immaculate Conception has always confused me, no less now that I’m Catholic. The idea is that, to avoid the “stain of Original Sin” passing on to Jesus, God removed from Mary at her conception original sin. The mechanics of this, as I understand it, involve retroactively applying the salvific nature of her son’s sacrifice to her — which brings about an obvious question: why not just do that to everyone? In the spirit of “fake it until you make it,” I go along with it. But the whole thing leaves me a little off kilter. So, truth be told, does the whole Christian story, and I guess that’s supposed to be the point of it in some sense.

Mary’s holy and immaculate conception, by Francisco Rizi, Museo del Prado, 17th-century, Oil on canvas. Via Wikipedia

There are so few things we encounter these days that we could call “immaculate.” A newborn child. And I sit here, thinking about what I could add as a second item on that list, and even with the thought of adding a qualifying “perhaps,” I’m stuck. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s what Original Sin is all about. Perhaps it’s human nature. Perhaps Original Sin is human nature. Perhaps it’s not important at 10:50 on a Wednesday.

Part of growing up, I think, is that realization that “immaculate” really doesn’t exist in our world. The natural world is filled with such cruelty, with wasps that plant their eggs in still-living organisms that the larva will literally eat alive — and likely very painfully. Then there are all the natural disasters just waiting to happen, or just happening. Thinking about “immaculate” leads us to think about its opposite, whatever that might be, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that’s the point.

Mikołaj 2016

There are times when it seems the Girl’s frustration with the Boy is simply going to overwhelm her, take over her mind, body, and soul. “E!” she cries out, stretching his name into a several-second yelp. When she’s talking to her cousin in Poland, she can be positively cruel, trying to shove him out of her room so she can have “peace and quiet.” When he gets into her Legos, it’s as if he’s managed to snag a Ming dynasty vase and is attempting to juggle it.

Of course he can give it as well as he gets it, and sometimes the Girl comes and complains that E is being mean. “Well, he’s only following your example: you taught him how to do that,” K and I remind her.

Some days, it’s like playing Whack-a-Mole: one gets calmed down just as the other decides it’s about time for a little provocation. Reverse and repeat. Reverse and repeat. Reverse and repeat.

When they’re in such a mood, it brings out the worst in them in another respect, too: they become the worst tattle-tales. I guess this is just another form of provocation, though.

Watching them in these moments, it might be hard to see the love they have for each other, especially when L’s all worked up. But it’s there, strong and bright and clear. Most clearly, it comes from E, who’s not afraid to show his love and admiration for his older sister. She is everything to him, and he imitates her as much as he imitates K and me.

The Girl shows it in little surprising ways. This morning, “Polish Christmas” as they call it, she was up first. That in itself is a rarity. Still, there she was the first one up, with a little prodding. She had the first meeting of Battle of the Books this morning, and she had to be at school a little early — with chorus, that means early starts Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for the foreseeable future. It’s always hard to get her out of bed, but I thought I had the silver bullet today: “Mikołaj came — I think he left you something.” I expect her to bolt upright and start asking, “Where? Where? Where?” with a crazed expression. It would be a typical L action in many ways. Instead, she simply answered that she wanted to open her present with E.

“He’s still asleep,” I explained, thinking that would put an end to it all.

“Okay, I’ll wait.”

It was worth it.

L led E to his presents and celebrated with what Mikołaj brought him. (The prized present: a light and siren set to turn his bike into a “police vehicle” as he explained it.) Then she demanded that he lead her, with her eyes closed, back to her room to check out her presents. (The prized present: a new pair of pajamas emblazoned with L’s morning mantra: “Five more minutes!”)

In the evening, it was time for more holiday preparation: Saturday’s a big smoking day for me, and we put around twenty-five pounds of pork loin in a brine to get it ready. The Boy, who’s always wanting to cook, helped out. I taught him how to test the brine (“It should taste as salty as the ocean,” I explained) and then spit it out.

Of course the spitting into a pot was the highlight. He was not at all disappointed that we didn’t have the salt level correct the first time and had to keep adding and testing, adding and testing.

Afterward, a little work on the couch together.

What did Mikołaj bring K and me? This beautiful day.

The Real L

Monday evenings, we get that rare chance to see the Girl in her element, to see her without her being aware that we see her, that we’re watching. I say “we” but it’s really only one or the other of us: one stays with the Boy, the other takes L to gymnastics, then does a bit of shopping while she bounces about.

I arrived back to pick her up tonight about ten minutes early, so I sneaked to a spot I could watch without her being aware. They were doing something on a bar roughly the width of one of the uneven bars but only about two feet off the ground, placing their hands on the bars and jumping on the bar before extending both arms upward. The Girl completed the exercise, got a high five from her teacher, then went to an aerobic ball and began bouncing up and down on it. The other girls were sitting still, waiting their turn and watching the other girls go, and L was bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, looking here and there, in her own world. They got up to do something else, and when done, L returned to the ball. Bounce bounce bounce. Up down up down up down up down bounce bounce bounce up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up down up bounce bounce bounce bounce down up down up down up down up down with such abandon and joy that I realized that she could probably just do that during the entire hour and be satisfied with time spent. I thought what a perfect metaphor this simple action, that in some ways I found annoying because I sensed that the other girls around L found it annoying, could cause her so much happiness. It was another of those “just let her be — don’t worry about what other kids think about her” moments. So they might have been annoyed — so what? So they might in some way reject her because they might think that’s childish in some sense — so what?

“You seemed to have a lot of fun bouncing on that ball tonight,” I suggested in the car on the way home.

“Yeah!” she said with her typical excitement.

“Don’t the other girls want to do that?”

“We take turns every week,” she said, looking out the window.

“And tonight was your turn?”

“Yeah — not everyone wants to do it. Some of the girls think the mats are more comfortable.”

I wondered at that. Perhaps some of the other girls just don’t care enough to put up a fight, because I can see L running for the ball to claim the first turn. That’s how she is with us, and with people she feels comfortable with. But these girls? Virtual strangers? I worry at times that she might not have the best social radar, that she might think she’s closer to some people than they themselves think they are to her. I’ve noticed little gestures from others at times, things I wonder if I should point out to L or just let her learn. Reading body language. It’s a skill that sometimes has to be taught, doesn’t it? And then there are those autistic souls who can’t pick up on those things to save their lives.

So no big epiphanies tonight. No big revelations. Just more wondering.

But not about the Boy: he was in perfect E-form when K started cleaning the oven tonight.

1-dscf2356

Rainy Sunday

“It’s cold and rainy!” I said as I came back inside from taking pictures of the Boy, who was more thrilled than I was that it was cold and rainy. After a blistering dry summer, to have finally some cold, wet weather is a blessing.

It made the rosół we had for lunch all the tastier, the cuddling with Papa and Nana all the more comfortable, and family movie in the early evening all the more enjoyable.

The automatically created URL for this post indicates that this is the fourth time I’ve used “Rainy Sunday” as a post title:

All within the last three years.

Lighting the House

Once again, a job to do: lighting the house. Once again, a Boy to help.

1-dsc_7843

“Daddy, I need to be up there with you. I need to work on the roof.” How can I possibly resist? It makes the job more difficult, but it also makes it more enjoyable.

3-dsc_7844

And occasionally, his help is actually help. “Bring me more lights,” I ask, and he chirps “Okay” and almost runs over to where the bag of lights lie on the ground.

4-dsc_7852

This lasts for a few minutes — twenty at most — before he sees the neighborhood boys out and decides he has done enough to help. Without a word, without explanation, he runs off, and I am left both in peace (how fast can I get the rest of this done now? careful not to fall!) and a little lonely, sad even.

6-dsc_7880

It’s a foreshadowing of things to come, I know. It’s already starting with the Girl — notice she’s not even in this post because she was doing her own thing. She did her cleaning chores and was left with an afteroon that she filled with chatting with her cousin in Poland on Skype, pestering E, and whatever else she might have been doing. She spent the night at a friend’s house, too.

It’s still so far away and yet so very close.

Waiting

It’s now Advent, a time of waiting. In many ways, I guess we’re waiting all our lives. There’s always something in the near future that we’ve trained our attention on, even if we’re the type to live in the present. E, for example, is waiting to be able to cook, really cook.

01-dscf2216

He plays at it a lot, but that’s often just messy play, he thinks. “I’ll never learn to cook,” he lamented tonight, but explaining to him that playing as he does — and indeed, helping as he often does, with stirring and such — really is learning to cook. “And you’ll be learning your whole life,” K explained. Still, it didn’t do much to help him. He’s waiting to cook for real.

The Girl has been waiting for the Advent calendar to make its appearance. This year, E and L both have their own, but E had completely forgotten about it. Truth be told, L probably had too until K mentioned it today.

We got the calendars out, but E had to wait a while: he still hadn’t finished his dinner, so we walked around with a chipmunk-cheek of pierogi as L opened her calendar and jotted her name on it. When he was done eating, he got to do what he’s always waiting to do during dinner: crawl into K’s lap.

After dinner, it’s my long-anticipated event: chess with my son. L started learning chess, but she never really grew to love it. Too much to think about, and sitting still and concentrating — not something she’s fond of doing after a long day at school. The Boy enjoys the game, though, and he’s patient. He can wait. For a little bit. So we work on pawns only.

“When can we play with the other pieces?” he asked tonight.

“As soon as you can play well with the pawns,” I explained. By that, I meant simply that he could make legal moves and could see opportunities to capture an opponent’s pieces consistently.

“You have to wait for a little while,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, and captured a piece incorrectly.

Rain

Rain for the last few days — we haven’t had any since May to speak of. Evening: the Boy has to help K with grinding leftover meat into filling for pierogi, using our new grinding attachment.

Typical, uncomplicated Wednesday evening.

Imitation

The Boy sees me do something, and he starts doing it. He sees K do it, and he starts doing it. He sees L doing it, and he starts doing it.

1-dscf2168

L has always enjoyed playing store, though in recent years, she really hasn’t taken the initiative to play it. When her Polish near-cousins come from the Asheville area, they might play school, and they might, just might, play store, but the oldest is now in middle school and such games seem pointless with just two.

1-dscf2172

She saw the Boy setting up his store after dinner and desert — a treat from the Halloween bucket — and she just had to play. And take over. And start directing the Boy. Playing with her can be so exhausting when she’s like that, and I often worry that she might be that way at school as well. She might not have the most friends possible as a result. And part of me wants to do something about that, to guide her a bit. And I have. But nothing has changed, so I’ve decided to take K’s advice and just let it be. It’s a lesson she’ll have to learn for herself.

1-dscf2174

Risks

Part of growing up is learning to take risks and learning not to take them. It all depends on the child, I guess. For us, it’s both: the Girl dives into almost everything without much thought of the consequences sometimes, and it’s something that’s always worried us; the Boy on the other hand watches, thinks, calculates, and sometimes — often — walks away from a given situation that he evaluates to be too risky. Between the two of them, the perfect mean.

Parenting is about risk as well. At the most basic level, there’s the risk of some kind of congenital defect in our children that provides them with challenges that might seem or simply be unfair, overwhelming, disheartening. Some folks are reluctant to have children for that reason. “What if our kid is born without certain wiring working and grows to be a sociopath?” is the extreme of this worrying. It’s never really been a worry of mine, though. It’s out of my control, so why worry about it.

That fear aside, we all want our kids to grow into these super-beings that fear nothing that needs not be feared, that boldly takes risks that matter, that stand up to bullies and make perfect grades. Of course all those things have differing priorities and can all be subsumed under the general idea of “well-rounded person” in the risk department. To that end, we teach, train, and so on. But there’s only so much as parents we can do about our kids’ personalities and outlooks on life. Nurture takes you only so far; nature gives some pretty strong dispositions.

The Boy, as a four-year-old, has certain risks that he decides to take that are appropriately sized. He’s begun to turn his back on his little Baby Bjorn potty and head straight for the toilet. He’s begun standing instead of always sitting. And that involves risks. Today he went upstairs to go to the restroom wearing one pair of pants and came back down wearing shorts. “I siu-siu‘ed on my pants,” he explained, using his typical Polish-English combination: a Polish base with the English past-tense inflection.

1-dscf2151

A few minutes later, he trotted back upstairs to clean up the mess, illustrating another parenting risk: lack of proper instruction on how to clean up potty messes leads to testing the absorbency of the bathroom rug.

The Girl’s risk-taking is appropriately sized as well. She’ll swing like a maniac, but today she realized she was going a little too high and decided to stop pumping her legs. That kind of self-awareness has been a long time coming.

Still, she does things on our newest tree swing that make me just cringe. She likes to drop back and hang from her knees as she swings. She never does it when she’s swinging high, and she always holds on with both hands (unlike the picture below, taken before she actually started swinging). At some point, she’s going to decide that her gymnastics training, meager as it is, is sufficient to begin turning backflips out of the swing like the girl in elementary school who could do that, stopping students’ and teachers’ hearts alike. That will be a risk I don’t want her to take, but it’s a risk I’m also not sure she would take. As we approach her birthday — a little over two weeks to go — I know we’re edging ever closer to the risk-taking that makes all fathers nervous: love. Sure, it’s still a long way off, I tell myself, but those first stirrings will begin in the next couple of years or so, and she’ll begin offering her heart to boys. And we all know what that means.

Their risks are my risks, so for now I’m happy to face the little risks with the Boy and smile as the Girl pulls back a little from her ridiculously high arc.

Fresh Starts

All things come to an end, and more often than not, that end is itself a beginning. Our summer’s adventures in remodeling have finally come to a complete and total end. Well, almost — there are still pictures to hang on the walls, but we’re 99.97% finished now. And so as we prepared our yearbook, we finally took the time to unclutter the kitchen and take some “After” shots to complete our “Before” shots.

Our parish is in a similar situation: a two-year building project came to completion tonight with the dedication of our new Our Lady of the Rosary church. Like with our kitchen, there are still a few things the Father Dwight said we need to do, like completing an enclosure around the whole campus to ensure safety for the parish school — can never be too careful these days.

Father Dwight warned, so to speak, the parish that the liturgy for the dedication of a new church is long. “Really long,” he stressed. We dropped the Boy off at Nana’s and Papa’s as a result, because we really didn’t know what “really long” might mean. K comes from a country where most churches’ age is measured in centuries, and so the idea of attending a Mass to dedicate a new church was completely new to her. But Father did say “really long,” so we decided not to take a chance — the Boy can handle only so much sitting still.

Really long” turned out to be just shy of three hours. Having grown up in a church were every week’s service was at least two hours long, I would say two hours and forty-five minutes make a long service, but not a really long service.

The liturgy was lovely, and it’s fitting that Fr. Dwight be the pastor of the parish: it’s a uniquely Catholic-looking structure, and Fr. Dwight is a uniquely un-common Catholic priest. Raised a Protestant, he converted to Anglicanism and moved to England where he married, started a family, and had a lovely parish. Then trouble struck, so to speak, and he and his family converted to Catholicism, which meant the loss of his vocation. Or so it would seem. It turns out, several dozen married Anglican priests have converted to Catholicism and then been re-ordained as Catholic priests with the discipline of celibacy being waived for them. So he posed with the bishop and his wife and four children after Mass, making it an odd sight in an oddly traditional church.

The real stars of the evening, though, were the members of the choir, including L. She’s been singing in the children’s choir for several months now, and she spent more time in the church today than she’d spent in a month of Masses — over five hours.

The results, though, were stunning. A Catholic church that looked, smelled, and sounded like a Catholic church.

During the entire liturgy, I smiled occasionally as I thought, “This is not just some lovely church we’re visiting while passing through here or there. This is where we will go to Mass every Sunday now.”

Four Changes

1-bw0_7437

One

“You always use that one.” The Girl was downstairs as K worked on our yearly photo calendar and putting finishing touches on the yearbook I create and she polishes (which is not to say she was Polishing it — it remains untranslated this year). Since I was upstairs, I really don’t know what the conversation concerned other than the selection of this or that picture. It occurred to me that she is becoming a vocal and thoughtful member of our family cognitively. Her tastes and her views are no longer merely childish, and entertaining them is no longer simply a matter of being a good and patient parent that encourages a child by simply listening to her. We’ve been through that; we’re going through that with E. Now, she has her own opinions that are not based entirely on childhood fancy.

For instance, she selected the granite that completes our kitchen. It wasn’t just a matter of, “Ooh, this is pink and pretty!” like she might have as a younger child. (The granite is not pink of course.) It was a thoughtful choice that, as I recall, she made with K as they held the sample of the cabinets we’d chosen.

Two

This afternoon I caught a glimpse of another kind of change. We took the kids to see Disney on Ice after lunch, and it was the second time for L. The first time, she was so into Disney and princesses and pink and blue. She sat in rapt attention, almost in awe. There was Peter Pan and the Simba and everyone else she’d watched at Nana’s and Papa’s. Today, the show ended with the inevitable: a long-ish re-telling of Frozen. A couple of years ago, she was obsessed with that, with that music. She marched around Fort Pulaski singing that song, performing it for any passers-by who took the time to stand and watch — and a few did. As the song approached, I was curious what she might do. “Here it comes!” I whispered as Elsa retreated to her winter hideaway. “Here it comes!” And she smiled at me. A polite smile. The song began. I looked over at her again. “Aren’t you going to sing along?” The same polite smile, head cocked a little bit, as if to say, “Daddy, do you think I’m so childish or something?” The thing is, she can still be surprisingly childish, but at that moment, she was fourteen or more.

The Boy’s take on Disney this afternoon can be summed up in three things he said:

  1. “I just don’t like pretty things.”
  2. “I like vehicles. There were no vehicles.”
  3. [Spreading his arms out as far as they could go] “Disney on ice was this long.”

Three

As I’ve spent the last several evenings putting together our annual yearbook, pulling pictures from our photo collection and occasionally taking a bit of text from here — every year, it’s the same: I swear I’m going to make it as the year goes along and then never even begin re-gathering the pictures (and I say re-gathering because I reuse many from here) until late October — I had a conversation with K in whispers as the kids were up having their baths.

“Do you realize that almost all the pictures from this year seem to be of E?”

She nodded in sympathetic agreement. “Well, he is the youngest.” But it just seemed like some kind of favoritism. We agreed that she’d actually been kind of avoiding pictures, not showing the least bit of excitement when the camera came out, even frowning at it occasionally. Foreshadowing the soon-coming day that she actually chides me for putting pictures on the internet. “My friends might find that picture!”

Four

Before the show, we made the requisite restroom stops, and I stood outside the ladies’ room to the side waiting for them. (The Boy still occasionally chooses to go with K — only a little longer before that’s really no longer appropriate. But that’s a different story.) L was the first to emerge, and for a moment, she didn’t see me and merely walked toward my general location. There was a little bounce in her step that made her gait appear a little older, and her hair was lying on her shoulders in that casual way that older girls probably only dream of getting their hair to do — slightly unplanned, slightly messy (perhaps pouting might be the better term), yet certainly not unkempt, just casual — I could see her at fourteen, at fifteen, at twenty.

Thanksgiving 2016

In the morning, it’s cooking. And the Boy wants to help. He wants so much to be a big boy, to do the things he sees adults do, to do the things he sees me do. It’s humbling to think that I am for him the example of what a man is supposed to be.

1-dscf1970

After a few hours of work, we head to the backyard, where the leaves make a kaleidoscopic carpet and curtains. One advantage of things not being as wet as they often are — there are colors. The last few years, it’s seemed like it rained a lot during autumn and all the leaves just turned black and fell off. This year, there’s no chance of that happening. Sure, we’re eleven inches behind in rainfall now. But those colors.

Mid-afternoon, it’s back to the kitchen to finish up everything. This goes into the oven, that comes out. The turkey remains the whole time. K’s a bit nervous about the turkey: we haven’t done a turkey. Ever. It’s not “We haven’t done a turkey like this” or “We haven’t done a turkey in this gas oven” — we just have never baked a whole turkey. Nana and Papa always contributed that to the Thanksgiving dinner. Still, how hard can it be? Research a few recipes, double-check the temperature and time in relation to the weight, then wait.

In the end, everything turns out fine.

9-viv_7425

Better than fine.

Everyone goes home, K goes to bed early, and I head downstairs for an after-dinner drink and cigar. I scroll through what’s new on Netflix and see one of my all-time favorite movies is now streaming: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

How can I resist?