The Choice

She didn’t want to go to the park to take the dog for a walk. At one point, she adamantly refused. Not at one point. Immediately. Had she not done so, I might — might — have considered letting her stay behind, considering what she wanted to do instead, but that immediate refusal made that impossible. K and I pointed out a few simple facts: she hadn’t gotten much exercise today; she was dying for a dog and now not willing to help; there was time for that other activity when we got back; and so on. So she went on the walk with the Boy and me, with Clover leading the way. (Next training task: get her to stop pulling on the lead.) And it’s safe to say she enjoyed it. We laughed a bit, chatted a bit, and she danced down the trail a bit — all typical. And in the car on the way, she did what she wanted to stay behind to do: she read one of the mountain of books she checked out of the library yesterday.

She wanted to stay behind to read.

I can’t get some of my students to read a paragraph without griping, but she wanted to read. She’s chewed through an unbelievable 2,700 pages so far this school year, and she’s gotten hooked on a new series, which I’m ashamed to say I can’t even identify. Given her year-long obsession with mythology, it’s not hard to guess about the subject matter. But that number, which she shared during breakfast today — 2,700. That’s just impressive. I’ve read 39 books in 2017 so far. That’s probably a touch over 3,000 pages, but that’s over the course of almost nine months. She’s read almost a third of that in a ninth of the time.

So the choice was this: force her to get some exercise and share in the companionship of a walk or let her read. Had she not forced my hand with her fussing obstinacy, I’m not sure what was the right choice.

Today’s Picture

I was too lazy to import and work on the handful of pictures I took of the morning light in our backyard, so here’s one of a fruit and vegetable vendor in Warsaw over the summer getting ticketed for not having the proper paperwork.

Note

Where’d I get that 3,000 pages? I was tired. Somehow I did the math in my head so incredibly incorrectly that it’s laughable, but now that I realize that, I’m too tired to go back and rewrite it. L’s better at math than I am, too.

Oravsky Hrad — Redux

A fourth (or is it fifth? or third?) visit to Oravsky Hrad. This time, a few changes. A simplified camera set up to accompany a simplified tour due to the ages of our tourist. And a few random thoughts that unwound along the way.

Thought One

In the crypt of the chapel at Orava Castle there are three coffins, two small ones and a large one. The tour being in Slovak and only partially comprehensible to me, I’m not sure if I understood it all, but I believe the two coffins are those of one owner’s children, an eight month old and a four year old. I had one of those moments: I remember what family life used to be, even for the riches and most fortunate. Infant mortality was unbelievably high (compared to now), and even living past five or six was not assumed. Having children might mean burying them before they were a year old, and it might mean burying multiple children. They could have died for any number of diseases that have now been virtually eradicated through improved hygiene, a better understanding of disease and its transmission, and effective vaccines. Yet for them, each child’s death was something of a mystery. Sure, they recognized and categorized diseases based on symptoms, but the actual cause was a mystery, as was any possible prevention.

And so I am grateful that I live in a time when protecting my children against measles, for example — a potentially fatal disease that, according to the WHO, would have resulted in “an estimated 20.3 million deaths” between 2000-2015. I’m grateful that I live in a time when I can take my child to the doctor and get a diagnosis and medication to help the child. I’m grateful that I’ve never once wondered whether my children will die of measles or small pox before they turn five. As I looked at the smallest casket, I felt fairly sure that her parents would have given almost anything to have that kind of security.

Thought Two

Orava Castle was the set for Nosferatu, a 1922 film adaptation of Dracula. I remember hearing that the idea of a blood sucking tyrant came from Vlad the Impaler. Here was a man who could do just about anything to just about anyone and became famous for a particularly brutal way of killing. He seems to be the exact opposite of what we have in most countries in the Western world today, where the rule of law treats everyone — theoretically — the same. Anyone from a homeless person to the President of the United States can be subject to the same law.

Yet what is most surprising about Vlad is that he was a real law-and-order guy. While there were plenty of people who were killed for arbitrary things, a great number were killed due to transgressions of Vlad’s severe moral code.

Further, Vlad was involved in fighting the Turks and preventing the spread of Islam in Europe. Despite his brutality, he was considered an orthodox Christian, and the Pope had little to nothing to say about his viciousness. He was, after all, fighting the Turks — the rest is insignificant, right?

When the Turks’ invasion began overwhelming Vlad’s forces, he began a scorched-Earth policy, destroying villages on both sides of the Danube to slow the Turks’ progress. This meant destroying his own people in vast numbers.

And so I began thinking about how we take this for granted today. We don’t raise our children wondering whether or not our own leader is going to slaughter them trying to save his own power. We don’t have to fear our rulers’ whims because they are subject to the same laws we are.

Previous Visits

Tour Guide

Oravský Hrad

Mother’s Day Early

Saturday is always busy. This time of year, the lawn always needs a trim, and hedges often need their season’s taming. Tomato plants are starting to blossom, literally and figuratively, so it’s time to stake them. All fairly common late-spring Saturday work. Today, though, was a little different because of timing: tomorrow we will be going to a friend’s First Communion, so the Mother’s Day celebration had to be rescheduled.

Since I’ve neglected K’s vehicle the last few weeks, the Boy and I decided it was time to clean Mama’s car — well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it sounds better that way. So the first thing we tackled today was the interior of the car. Every surface was exposed to an area of low pressure — e.g., vacuumed — and then wiped down. The Boy to the windshield rag and wiped down the parts of the exterior that, concealed by closed doors, never really get clean from normal washing. And of course, with the two of us involved, there was a bit of playing as well.

Afterward, the lawn got its weekly trim and the Girl prepared her Mother’s Day present for Nana.

Our Mother’s Day celebration isn’t the only thing tomorrow’s First Communion throws off, though. Tomorrow is the Boy’s birthday. “I’ll be a five-year-old tomorrow,” was a common refrain today.

So after dinner came presents. It’s a sign of his growing maturity that only a couple of the presents was a toy: a small jeep and trailer set that he took to bed with him and a Lego set that he will put together with Papa on Monday. The rest of the gifts were practical, useful even. A backpack — an appropriate, camouflaged design — will get its first test in a month when we head off to Poland. “And I’ll use it in K5 for all those big books!” he explained excitedly. A new cycling helmet to match his new bike. A flashlight so he doesn’t have to keep borrowing mine. “Daddy, I just need to…” So perhaps more than a couple of toys.

I sit writing this and glance down at the clock: five years ago, we would be leaving for the hospital in about an hour. It was Sunday night, and I was just about to drift off to sleep, some time around eleven, when K woke me and said we had to get to the hospital. A couple of hours later, we were holding the Boy in our arms. And now, in a few hours, he’ll be the same age — year-wise — as L was when he was born.

In another five years? The Girl will be almost old enough to begin learning to drive. She’ll be in her second year of high school. Entirely new worries, concerns that are now non-existent, will likely consume me. Boys will no longer be icky. A moment of inattention could result in more than just a broken glass. Her grades in school will no longer be of little consequence.

Five years used to seem like such a long time…

Saturday of Work

In a lot of ways, today seemed like a typical May Saturday. Coffee, eggs, a chat with Babcia. The morning sun made the backyard glow. It all appeared typical.

But the weather — it’s Polish summer here. Today I don’t know that we ever broke into the sixties, and if we did, it was just barely. Add to it the chance of afternoon rain, and given one of my major chores of the day, the day scheduled itself. Morning work had to be the mowing.

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As I was cutting the edges before transitioning to the long, almost hypnotic straight lines, a bit of motion in the deep grass caught my eye: a fledgling was hunkered down in a patch of tall grass. I cycled back and forth, nearing the bird, and I noticed that mother was near, flying in when I was away, taking off again as I approached. I knew I’d have to move the bird, and I worried a bit about how that might impact the situation. Since I always wear gloves when mowing, thanks to eczema, I didn’t fear the old thought of transferring my scent to the bird and somehow making its mother reject it. I’m not even sure if that happens. I was just wondering whether the mother would find it if I moved it too far.

First I it near one of the round planters in the yard, but I knew I’d have to move it again when I neared the end of mowing. The second time, I moved it over to the corner of the house, to a patch of grass that I never manage to cut because I don’t have a working weed wacker. Each time, mother bird had no problem finding the baby.

Yet I knew it was doomed. The second time I relocated the baby, it fluttered out of my glove and plopped straight down: no chance of it flying back to its nest. And with two cats in the yard, I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them made a natural discovery. “Wouldn’t it just be better to put it out of it’s future misery?” I wondered. Yet how could I do it? I could think of no quick and painless, and besides, who was I to say that it didn’t stand a chance of survival.

Thankfully, the Girl was away at an amusement park with her school chorus. Had she been there, I would have had to fend her off and deal with her eventual frustrated sadness when I would have tried to convince her that, no, we couldn’t take it into the house and try to raise it ourselves. That would be a sure death sentence.

When I walked back to empty the grass catcher, though, I saw that the chick had disappeared. Where it had gone remained a mystery for the rest of the day. Mother bird still fluttered around here and there, but I couldn’t figure out where the bird was.

And as I type this, I find myself wondering if mother bird has nestled up to the chick for the night to protect it and comfort it. And I’m glad I’m not a bird parent facing that impossible situation.

Resisting

Part of parenting is resisting. Resisting the urge to give in to tantrums because, let’s face it, it would be easier in the short run. Resisting the urge to say something sarcastic when it’s really not going to do anything but make the situation worse. Resisting the urge to change your kid’s personality because some little quirk here or there is mildly annoying. Resisting the urge to compare your kids to others’ children. Resisting the urge to use one sibling as a model for the other: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” Resisting the urge to let television be the babysitter when you’re tired. Resisting the urge to say “No” when “Yes” won’t hurt anything other than your schedule. Resisting the urge to say “Yes” when it’s so much easier. Resisting the urge disengage when tired. Resisting the urge to stop resisting the urges…

Practicing with the small suitcase we’ll be using this weekend, which he will use as his carry-on going to Poland this summer.

And part of parenting is embracing urges.

Late-January Monday

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a fairly typical Monday. Last Monday, we had no school, so K and I went out and bought a new car. The Monday before that, we were out of school because of snow. Or was that the previous Monday? Going back further there was winter break and so on. So today was a normal Monday. Up early, kids ready, off we go.

The afternoon was fairly typical as well. After chess club, I arrived home late. Everyone was in the backyard. I made my afternoon coffee, poured it in a travel mug, and headed out — only to see everyone coming in.

“I’m coming in to get dinner ready,” K said. The temptation was to be lazy, but laziness is what we got all weekend, with the rain, rain, and more rain.

“I’ll go down with them,” I suggested, and both the kids squealed and excitedly ran back down to the trampoline/swing/hammock/bridge/hiding spot area we’ve been developing over the last few years.

Afterward we had dinner. Relatively uneventful — which is really saying something. The kids lately have been bickering like mad over the slightest thing, and it turns dinner into something less than perfectly enjoyable. We decided to conduct an experiment — the “we” being K and I, for the kids would never agree to it. Not knowing what influence was primarily responsible for their behavior (for it’s not been just the bickering), we’ve eliminated all possible influences for a week: no television, no computer, no friends. Just a week to refocus and recharge. The kids this weekend had to find other ways to entertain themselves when we weren’t playing with them. L read, played with her Legos, drew. The Boy drew, played with his Legos, looked at books. The results are beginning to show: tonight, a much calmer dinner, with no hysterics about anything. In the evening, a calmness that hasn’t been in our house for a while.

 

Chasing the Unseen

I know we’re entering a new phase in the Girl’s life: chasing. It’s not just that now, with her birthday last month, she’s in the double digits. There’s more to it than that. She’s not a tween, is she? Isn’t that eleven? Twelve? Yet there she was this afternoon, down on the hammock, talking to her male friend as he sat on the other hammock.

It’s not that I’m suggesting that they were discussing anything more mature than a ten- and eleven-year-old should discuss. She still says that boys are icky. (Hopefully that will last for another couple of years, when they can comfortably become iffy at best. Maybe a blossoming interest when she starts high school?) No, it’s not what topic they were chasing down; it’s that they were talking. They weren’t playing; they weren’t running; they weren’t being silly. They were sitting and talking.

The Boy doesn’t talk with his friends. They play. They play with an intensity that makes me envious, with an energy that makes me wonder if I ever had even a small portion of it. They’re talking consists only of what they’re playing.

“Pretend I’m a policeman…”

“Let’s go to the trampoline!”

If I had to bet what L and W were discussing, I’d say it’s probably Pokemon-related. That’s what they talk about most of the time. That’s their common interest. But still — talking, not playing.

We’ve started chasing her. She’s still a little girl, but that’s ending in the next couple of years. Given my shock when I look past entries from the “Time Machine” widget here on this silly site and think, “Dang, that was three years ago?!” I know that those two years will pass so quickly that I won’t even notice if I’m not careful. And then we will be chasing her. Chasing her growth. Chasing the unseen.

Later in the day, the Boy gives chase in a different way. Playing on the driveway, he crashes to the concrete as he’s chasing a ball. His palms hit with an audible slap, and I could feel the burn in my own palms.

But not a peep, only a little cry of panic as he saw the ball heading to the edge of the driveway, threatening to roll down the hill and into the creek that serves as the boundary between our backyard and that of our neighbors’ yards. He popped back up, scurried to the end of the drive only half a blink too late. Down the hill rolled the ball.

There was a time when he wouldn’t head down that far into the yard without an adult, just as L was at that early age. But today, he didn’t even hesitate, didn’t even look to see if an adult was anywhere around. He just slowed a bit to make it down the tricky part, chasing the ball with the certainty that he could catch it that only a four-year-old could hold.

Gone

The Boy was playing CandyLand with K, and after he’d won the first game, he was eager to play another.

“I’m going to win again!” he proclaimed, and for a moment, it looked as if he were going to do just that. He shot ahead with double color after double color. Then K drew the gum drop and zoomed ahead.

“Oh, I’ll never win!” he proclaimed, frustrated.

“Yes, but you might draw another candy piece and move ahead, or Mama might draw the candy cane when you’re way past it and have to go back many, many spaces,” I reasoned. But as I often remind The Girl, there’s no reasoning with a four-year-old. He continued playing a bit halfheartedly. He drew a candy piece eventually, but K had shot so far ahead by then that his chances of winning really and truly were gone.

And with that loss, his desire to play was gone as well.

I remembered the whole time they played the new buzzword in education: grit. It’s really nothing more than perseverance in the face of difficulty and setback, but educators and researchers in education like new jargon. (I suspect it’s mainly from the latter.) And so “grit” is thrown around in education blogs and educator gatherings quite often these days. It was rewarding to see The Boy showing some of this perseverance. It took a good bit of encouragement, but he finished the game, learned the lesson (?), and we had a nice close to the afternoon.

The next night, The Boy and I are working with Legos. I was building a jail for him, and he was building a mystery. Not having a plan, he found the process a little slow-going and frustrating.

“I just can’t get it,” he fussed as he couldn’t get two pieces joined. He threw them down, and for just a moment, I thought the chances of a relaxing evening of Lego-ing were gone. But just for a moment. Seeing everything as a teaching opportunity — or at least trying to — I showed him how to get the pieces together, then pulled them apart and had him try again.

“I got it!”

Two opportunities to teach that could have disappeared but didn’t. The trick for me, though, is to transfer that to my students. Everything can be a moment to teach, a learning opportunity, for the at-risk kids in my charge. They lack social skills, patience, anger management methods, volume control, grit (there it is again), a growth mindset (another edu-speak jargon term that’s hot now). Every teaching moment can’t bloom — I’d never get to the curriculum some days. The balance must be there, but there’s so much they need before they’re gone off to high school…

Inspired by the Daily Post’s prompt of the day: Gone.

Mope

We might be behind the times, so to speak, but K and I have been watching The Crown this week, and it seems there’s quite a bit of moping in that film. Most obviously, there’s Edward VIII, who gave up the crown in order to marry an American divorcee. The Duke of Windsor spends most of his screen time moping about this or that. He mopes about his allowance not being sufficient to entertain as he wishes. He mopes about how his family treats him — they’re all mad at him for the crisis he plunged the country into when he abdicated, but also they’re probably a little angry about him being a fairly open Nazi sympathizer who even went to German in ’37 and met Hitler. He mopes about how his wife won’t be allowed to come to the coronation of Elizabeth. He mopes about the pageantry of the coronation as he mocks with with his friends while watching it on television. And he seems to mope about not being king as well.

Yet in all that moping about, there are some problems of lesser, moral men that he doesn’t have to deal with. We don’t see him moping about his sibling drawing a mustache on him as he slept. The Girl has taken to “mustaching” him at night, and while he thought it was funny at first, he no longer does.

“I hate mustaches!” he declared this morning.

I do, too. They always make a man seem a little creepy to me, a little less trustworthy. I wonder if the Duke of Windsor ever wore a mustache — it might suit his personality. It certainly did Hitler’s.

He probably never moped about having to clean up his room after a play date. The man probably never cleaned up anything in his entire life.

To E’s credit, though, he didn’t mope today about having to clean up his mess.

“But I didn’t make it all!” he began, and I thought it was coming. The fuss. The mope. The crisis.

“Well, you should have asked your friends to help you clean up before they left.”

“I did. And they didn’t help.”

“I’m sorry.”

And that was about all there was to it. He cleaned up half the mess in the late afternoon and the other half just before bedtime, and he was calm the entire time. He might mope later in life about his allowance, but that’s still a ways off.

The Duke of Windsor also never had to mope about a repetitive task like opening seemingly endless bags of chess pieces and putting them into draw-string bags. Since I have waited for that moment for ages — getting chess sets for the chess club I sponsor at school, thanks to the generosity of the PTSA — I didn’t mope about it either.

I guess about the only thing I moped about today was all of the Duke of Windsor’s moping…

Inspired by the Daily Post’s prompt of the day: Mope.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Four Changes

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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.

Decision, Redux

The Girl is tough. I don’t mean that she’s resilient, that she can take a metaphorical beating and get up from it. I mean she’s stubborn, so very set in her ways that she looks at me sometimes with a glint in her eye when she’s resisting and I think that if we could just get that stubbornness off of petty things, get it away from food and her obstinate refusal to try anything new, get it away from her irritation with the Boy and her stubborn insistence that everything go her way, get it away from her frustration with little failures and her insistence that the original solution to the problem (the solution that is obviously anything but) is the only solution to the problem — if we could just redirect it, steer it just a bit, give it just the slightest nudge, she would have the resilience of a diamond.

Reading after dinner

Reading after dinner

Last night, we sat the table, fighting about food. I insisted that she eat some of the veggies that went alone with the stir fry we had for dinner. I insisted. I insisted. I insisted. And she fought. “I won’t” became “I can’t” became tears of frustration and anger.

I sat thinking whether it was necessary. Am I ruining her culinary tastes, creating a stubbornness for life, by doing this? Is it really a big deal that she doesn’t eat something? Am I making something of nothing?

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Reading the recipe for tomorrow’s snack

And then there was the question of disobedience. I can’t have that — it’s pathological. I get it enough from students at school. And yet, who really wants to submit?

And then there was the question of resilience: if I let her get by with not tackling this meager challenge — in the end, it turned out to be five, five bites — what kind of a child am I raising? I want someone who will slay dragons, and she can’t even eat five damn bites of vegetables.

Opening the yogurt

Opening the yogurt

The other day in school, I had a quiet conversation with a very bright young lady who wanted to leave my class because she was so frustrated. She wasn’t frustrated with me, or with my class, or with anyone in the class. But someone had said something, and she was on the warpath. She was ready to swing, as she said.

“But you don’t have to. You can control that.”

“No, I can’t,” she replied. Her tone wasn’t argumentative or plaintive — it was matter-of-fact. “I can’t.”

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Measuring

Of course she can, and I told her that, but to someone who has such a very fatalistic worldview, suggesting that she can control something she’s always been convinced she can’t control was like me suggesting that she could control her digestive system like those tabloid gurus who the tabloid writers excitedly proclaim haven’t had a bowel movement in decades. It makes sense: if you can control your heart rate and breathing, why can’t you control every aspect of your body, including bowel movements and aging. Yet on a practical level, it’s ridiculous to me. That’s likely how this young lady viewed my suggestion that she could simply not fight, that she could unclinch her fists, take a deep breath, and let people say whatever the hell they want to about her.

I don’t think the Girl will ever become anything like that. But perhaps I’m so concerned that she might, even with the little things, that I worry I overreact.

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Measuring the flour

“Tomorrow,” I decided, “I must make better decisions.”

The Democratic party, now, seems to me to be a little like the Girl. It stuck by principles that seemed so important at the time, but in the end, one principle in particular cost them dearly. The principle? That as progressives, they are on the “right side of history,” and to be on the right side of history means to be the party that has the first black president, and what could put them more firmly on the right side of history than to elect the first woman president. And so the party put forward a candidate that was seen by Republicans and many Democrats alike as untrustworthy.

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Mixing dry ingredients

In her hubris, Clinton assumed she would be the Democratic nominee, because that would put the Democrats once again on the “right side of history.” Sanders was not supposed to fight. Sanders was supposed to be on the “right side of history” as well. He got in the way, but the email leak scandal shows that the Democratic party machinery conspired to make sure he got put in his place, white male that he is. When the general election cycle began, Clinton, as the freshly minted historic nominee, knew she and her party were on the “right side of history,” and given Trump’s ridiculous and offensive behavior, it almost seemed poetic that he was the candidate, the perfect ying for her yang. Slate, an openly left-leaning magazine, can finish the argument better than I:

The party establishment made a grievous mistake rallying around Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t just a lack of recent political seasoning. She was a bad candidate, with no message beyond heckling the opposite sideline. She was a total misfit for both the politics of 2016 and the energy of the Democratic Party as currently constituted. She could not escape her baggage, and she must own that failure herself.

Theoretically smart people in the Democratic Party should have known that. And yet they worked giddily to clear the field for her. Every power-hungry young Democrat fresh out of law school, every rising lawmaker, every old friend of the Clintons wanted a piece of the action. This was their ride up the power chain. The whole edifice was hollow, built atop the same unearned sense of inevitability that surrounded Clinton in 2008, and it collapsed, just as it collapsed in 2008, only a little later in the calendar. The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise. They promised that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Electoral College. These people didn’t know what they were talking about, and too many of us in the media thought they did. (Slate)

There are other things at work there, I realize. And this all says nothing about what the political right accomplished in this election. National Review sums that up well:

This is a direct rebuke to progressive hubris. It turns out that the progressive elite’s preoccupations with identity politics, social shaming, and radical sexual change don’t motivate their “coalition of the ascendant.” In the past eight years, the progressive movement has doubled down its attacks on churches and in recent years directly confronted American law enforcement. It has attacked free speech, the free exercise of religion, and gun rights — secure in the belief that history was, as they put it, on their “side.”

The result was clear: The Democratic party lost ground with America’s poorest voters. Citizens making less than $50,000 per year propelled Obama to victory over Romney. Exit polling shows that Trump improved the GOP showing by 16 points with voters making less than $30,000 per year and by six points with voters making between $30,000 and $50,000, which more than offset Democrat gains with the middle class. (National Review)

For the right, this was not about choosing a man over a woman; it was about choosing one ideology over another. The New Republic recognized this as well:

This brings us to the problem of how the Democratic Party—and America as a whole—can recover from this calamity. There is sure to be a civil war among Democrats, with leftists arguing that a purer, less compromised version of liberalism will have a better chance of appealing to those very voters who put Trump over the top. There will be a push to expand the Democratic message beyond the identity politics that has increasingly defined the party in recent years—to welcome with open arms those blue-collar and middle-class whites who have been culturally alienated by newly assertive blue-collar and middle-class workers of brown skin. And there will be a backlash to this, an argument that the Democratic Party’s function is to redress the wrongs that have been done to minorities and make white America atone for its sins—“to force our brothers to see themselves as they are,” as James Baldwin put it, “to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” (New Republic)

In that vein, some liberals suggest that this is just a sign of the latent misogyny and racism in America, but that kind of talk seems to indicate that they haven’t yet learned much from this earthquake. What should they talk away from it? Back to the National Review:

The presidential candidate that voters believe less, like less, and think less qualified won the election. In other words, rather than endure four more years of elite progressive rule, the American people chose to gamble on a reality-television star with well-known and openly notorious character flaws. That’s how much they were ready for change.

It was all about change, Trump supporters say.

Blending too quickly

Blending too quickly

In that sense, though, Trump’s supporters are a little like the Girl as well. The Girl tends to see every setback as a complete disaster. So many little things blow up into the end of the world for her. The veggies were an impossible task. We’d asked her to do the impossible, and she just couldn’t do it, couldn’t imagine it. In the same way, many on the right saw the election of Clinton as the end of the country. Obama began the transformation into a socialist republic, they saw, and Clinton would finish it.

Learning how to do it properly

Learning how to do it properly

Change can be good. It can be scary. These are merely truisms. Yet, change often does work, and so tonight, I changed tactics with the Girl: I put her veggies on a plate and told her that she needed to scarf them down before the Boy, who was napping, and napping hard, woke up. “Then for dinner, all you’ll have is chicken and rice.” She jumped at the chance. A little reframing, a little rewording, and we got reached the same conclusion.

Eventually, the left will realize this and act on it. Frustrated Americans will vote the right out and the left in, until the cycle repeats again.