Penguin


Penguin was complaining of ear pain today, so he stayed home from school and Papa Bird took him to the doctor. Aside from an ear infection, he was saddled with an impressive amount of earwax. I knew that he had gone in to the doctor, but he didn’t know that I knew this, so I allowed him to tell me the tale. He mentioned that he was talking to his doctor, and oh she is nice by the way (his words) and she took out something and put it in his ear and she pulled out about 20 pieces of earwax. Except that when he got home he could feel another piece of earwax coming out, so really it was 21 pieces of earwax that was in his ear after all.

Owl had  a front row seat in witnessing the carnage and told me that it was very gross. Then he told me that he liked me. Then he asked me what I was eating and I told him it was a cashew, to which he replied, “That’s lovely.”

It’s funny, because even though Papa Bird is the primary caregiver, both boys really mimic my phrases and speech patterns. It’s the salve to my reality that I can’t be here with them 24-7 and lets me know my time with them – even when lower than I’d like on weekdays – must really mean something to them. Which really means something to me.

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In the annals of awesome parenting, I thought I would be pretty high up there with my recent scoring of a Minecraft Essentials book at the library. I even had to put it on hold, and when I got the message from the library that it was in, I raced over to retrieve it after work. I thumbed through it excitedly during stoplights on the way home, thinking I was going to gain major child pleasing points when I walked in the door.

As I entered, I waved the book in Penguin’s direction. He was, of course, playing Minecraft, so I had to tempt him away from Minecraft with the promise of even more Minecraft. He excitedly flipped through the book and asked me to read him the recommended tips and tricks. As I did, the most common refrain was, “Yes, I know that…I know that…Actually, it is better if you…That doesn’t work, but…I knew that…Yes…I do it this way…”

And so on and so forth throughout the book. It should come as no surprise, of course, since he regularly schools his father on how to play and has all but given up on me. I tried to play once, and he enacted that same patient voice that I engage any time I am trying to teach him something but it’s clear he’s not getting it so can I just do it for you already? He says he wants me to play with him more, but I’m not sure his love of me can withstand my total lack of player skills.

Ah well. He still enjoys me reading from the book and looking at the pictures. And if I do take him up on his offer to play again, the book will be just MY speed.

I don’t know if a love of video games is an example of nature or nurture, but Penguin, and by the looks of it, Owl, are both gamer aficionados.

When I was in high school, I had a Sega Genesis system. I was really crap with most games, save Aliens. I made an impressive Ripley and I took down, nay DESTROYED, entire alien colonies. I beat the game and then some, and it was a very satisfying feeling indeed. I also purchased this one game, and the name evades me, and I could never get more than 5 minutes in before throwing it across the room and stewing silently to myself. It was more of an RPG game, a format wholly incompatible with my ADHD. I could never figure out how to jump from one tree to another and I died in the same spot time after time, day after day. It was predictably infuriating.

When Papa Bird and I met, he introduced me to computer games, and there were a few that I found interesting. Red Alert, in particular, held my attention. He refused to play it with me, however, because I made tactical decisions and employed a strategy best summarized by the phrase, “What happens if I do this?” Shortly thereafter, we purchased a Sony Playstation and bought a game which, for me, represented the finest in entertainment. Katamari Damacy is a very simple game. You roll around and collect things on a ball, set in bizarre Japanese worlds with bizarre, comical music. It’s the closest one can get to an acid trip without dropping acid. And I loved it. Played it all the time. Still get a hankering to play it if I have a few moments.

All of this, though, is a preface to my new reality, which is the overtaking of my life by Minecraft. Not my life in the sense that I am playing it. My life in the sense that I have to beat Papa Bird and Penguin off of the computer to stand up and get some fresh air already. What I like about the Penguin’s game playing, aside from watching him plot out his moves, learn new skills and take risks in an electronic environment that I don’t think he would take elsewhere, is that it actually has become fodder for imaginative play. Now, even when we are not playing the game on the computer, Penguin plays “real life Minecraft,” using his pickaxe and sword and crates to do – whatever it is one does in Minecraft. I’m not quite sure.

I know that video games get a bad rap. And sometimes these criticisms are deserved. I’ve no patience for violent, bloody or angry video games. But these games, the ones that let you inhabit a different world for a bit, I have to admit: I’m kind of sold on them if they hold your interest. Not excessively, mind you, but in moderation. When you are the mother of a little boy that exudes a highly cautious, highly dependent nature, the adventures they go on in the gaming world matter. Unafraid of failure, embarrassment or hurt, I’ve seen Penguin try things in a game that I could not picture him trying in real life. Motivated by a world that intrigues him, I’ve seen him translate the electronic world of Minecraft into real-world creative self-play, both indoors and out.

When I tell some people that I am raising a gamer, I get the predicted “tsk-tsk.” But I think this comes from people who never liked games, or don’t like the noise and the busyness of the graphics, or think it is a shame to sit  in front of an electronic device or just plain don’t like it, thank you very much. And I might have been of the same opinion a few years back, prechildren, when it came to gaming and my own kids. Pragmatically, I have all the evidence in the world that gaming and growing up healthy and well-rounded are not incompatible. Papa Bird is a case in point. Yet, I too was swayed by the idea that overall, games and TV  just weren’t good for kids because…. erm, because. But I’ve seen the possibility for transformative effects and I’ve liked what I’ve seen thus far.

So, it looks I’m raising a gamer. Maybe two. Owl does love his Leapster.

Throw your controllers in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care, ya’ll.

A few months back, Penguin had a nightmare and the following night, he was rather reluctant to go to sleep. He said that he was scared that he would have the same dream again and desired not to spend his most soporific hours thrashing in terror. I’m paraphrasing here, natch.

To quell the anxiety, I offered to tell a very short little tale while we were there in the dark. I made something up and it was bad, but it worked.

Side note: An interesting fact. I feel as though I write fairly well, but when asked to devise an impromptu verbal story, the stammering and banality is astounding. “There was a little boy. He liked cake and so he ate some. Ummmm, a frog was walking by and looked in the window and shouted, ‘Ah, cake! Gimme cake,’ which made the little boy jump. And, uh, he dropped the cake. And cried. No, crap, that’s not a good story. He, well the cake fell, but then he started to pick it up and eat it. No, no, it wasn’t dirty. Yeah, in our house there would be dog hair on it. Yeah, probably cat litter, too. So the frog, I mean the dog, no, the frog jumped through the window and ate the cake. I dunno, pal. Sorry. I got nuthin’.”

But back to the matter at hand. So I told my little story and Penguin settled in and fell asleep. The next night, he convinced me that my tale had done wonders for his nerves, and could I please do another one. So I did. A universal truism unknown to those that have children is this: one time is a lark, two times is a pattern, three times is expectation. When, the following night, I allowed myself to be talked into a “mouth story” (different from “book stories,” mind you), I did it with full recognition that I was now adding another 5 minutes to bedtime routine. Forever. Alright, whatever. I work all day and it’s the least I can do, right?

The problem, though, is that there are one or two nights when Papa Bird takes the lead on bedtime and I go off and stare vacantly at a wall before mustering the energy to clean up the toys, stuck bits of food and my dignity from off of the floor. And Papa Bird, not to be outdone in the mouth stories department, would concoct these magical tall tales filled with faraway kingdoms, gnomes, Army tanks, explosions and everything else that makes a little boy’s heart skip an excited beat. Try as I might to match these, I just could not ever do it. And so mouth story time became an exercise in futility, where I would try to create something fantastical and end up spitting out something flatulent. There was really no competition. Papa Bird wins this one hands down. Further, Penguin had no shame in telling me that my stories stunk and that he wanted his father to always put him to bed since his mouth stories were better.

Game on.

Figuring that I had to do something else to reclaim that space and make bedtime enjoyable again, I pulled forth the only thing in my bag of tricks that Papa Bird cannot replicate. Singing. He doesn’t really like to sing, though he lives and breathes music. But Penguin, Owl and I like singing. The boys hum or sing tunes all the time and I am constantly busting into a little song and dance routine for them when I am at home on the weekends.

I started out by singing songs that I knew the lyrics to very well, but that is an extremely limited repertoire because I never, ever remember song lyrics. After the eighth night of “Knick Knack Paddy Whack”” and “Feeling Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel, the children were spent and getting antsy. Enter the magic of technology. There are people on YouTube, bless them, that put all your favorite songs to written lyrics and turn it into a video. Huzzah!

Now, every night before official and final “time to go to bed,” the boys and I sing a few songs together. We lay down on the bed, power up our tablet, point it to Youtube, and see where the songs take us. Right now we are working our way through the Beatles catalogue. We’ve also taken a fondness for some older REM songs, and I keep trying to slip in some Gershwin and Cole Porter. Owl approves, but Penguin rolls over and refuses to participate. Penguin’s favorite songs as of late is “Hey There Delilah” and “Blackbird.” Owl has a deep and abiding love for “Tonight You Belong to Me.”

It goes without saying, though I will, that these are some of the sweetest moments of my day. The boys and I lay back and they rest their heads on my shoulders or chest. Penguin hums along to the tune and Owl, unable to read or hum very well, spots the first letter at the start of a lyric and just sings that through the stanza. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.” And I sing along, too, happy to find new songs, happy to rediscover old songs, happy to have a few moments in which we can all enjoy each other enjoying music in a very simple way. My hope is that the boys will remember this. Perhaps because I selfishly need to believe that it means as much to them as it does to me. And if they don’t that’s OK, too. They are going to have killer taste in music and if that is the case, parenting duty #427 fulfilled.

Throughout many of his earliest years, a common refrain would echo through our apartment. “Play trains with me.” What this meant, roughly, was that you were being asked to commit to the building of a very elaborate wooden train track – a track that a mere novice should not be playing on, but there you go. Anything less would be insulting and ripped apart in an instance. So, you would get out a piece of paper, draw a rough design and, if you were me, fail miserably in the interpretation and just see where the laying of the track took you. I did this for years. Days and days and days of hearing this request. Before work. After work. On the weekends. I can’t remember a time in which I was not asked to lay down train track and then play a rousing game of “No, don’t use that one. NO! Put! It! There!” Smash. “Mama, build a new one.”

On my better days, I would oblige the request, certain that there would be a time that this would pass and I would look back on this activity fondly. On days in which I had it up to the parental here, the mere thought of attaching this piece to that could have me break out into a cold sweat. Some days, it seemed like the most boring thing ever.  Not the track building itself, which had the power to at least tax my creativity slightly. No, it was more the relentless looping around the track with a little wooden train that tended to get, shall we say, tedious after the first five minutes.

When Owl was born, my first thought was, “Oh dear. We need to buy him his own, less cool wood trains so that he never touches Penguin’s. The Lord help him if he does.” And I did just that, buying him very juvenile-looking wooden engines and box cars when compared to the new, realistic Whistler wooden trains that I had purchased for Penguin.  This worked, for the most part. A curious thing about siblings though. The most awful dregs of a toy suddenly seem appealing and even necessary to one’s very existence when in the hands of a sibling. Once Owl was actually old enough to hold a train and maneuver it around the track, we devised a simple way to let the wee child know that a given train was approved for his use by the elder child. By very fact that they were his first, Penguin saw all the trains as his, except for the Thomas trains (“face trains” as he called them, since they were too babyish). But through something that must have been an unwitting sorcery on my part, I convinced him that it would be easier for all involved if he selected a handful of trains that were just Owl’s so that he could play with the rest of the trains in peace. Owl’s trains would all be marked with a big, black “O,” therefore making it quite clear which trains were his to enjoy. I would simply need train Owl to use just these trains and there would be no more fights. Seasoned parents are free to insert side-busting laughter here.

So, it never quite worked that way. Now, on top of the daily request that a train track be built, the further request of “Make one for Owl, but make his worse,” and “Don’t let him touch my trains” and “I think he’s looking at one of my trains” and “I’m not going to play with this track if he puts his train on it so you’ll have to make me a new one” also filled the air. Punctuated randomly by wailing shrieks from Owl as he watched his train be snatched from his hand and thrown across the room for having the audacity to be on its own simple, circular track but TOOCLOSE to Penguin’s train rounding the bend.  It was – to summarize – nightmarish.

Then a funny thing happened. Only I can’t quite tell you exactly when this was. It began quietly, as these things usually do. I noticed one day that Owl has grabbed one of Penguin’s moderately favored trains.  Instantly my heart started racing. Do I take it away, ensuring a mournful cry but preventing a possible beating? Do I feign ignorance and then watch, shocked I say, as Penguin exacts his retribution? Do I attempt to distract both of them away from the trains altogether and on to a less combative, less bloodthirsty pursuit? I could see Owl eying his brother and I know in that moment we were both waiting for the gauntlet to fall. Owl, braver than I, began flaunting the acquisition and it was all I could to run screaming from the house in suspense. At an undetermined point, Penguin glanced over and took note of the train. It took a second and in those moments, I can’t be sure what he was thinking. I imagine he realized right away that it was his train. I imagine that there was a part of him that instantly began to burn with the white-hot fever of sibling possessiveness. He stopped what he was doing and Owl, though pretending to nonchalantly play along, was clearly watching him from the side of his eye, ready to run or cower as the need arose. I practically chewed my fingernails to the bone, waiting for something – anything – to happen. And then, nothing.  A gigantic nothing. Penguin continued to play and Owl, sensing victory, immediately discarded the train because it appears that this is what little brothers do to bigger brothers. Push the envelope in what can only be an appreciation of both sadism and masochism.

From that day forth, the number of trains in which Owl could play with grew exponentially. For a long time, almost any train was game, save the Whistler wooden trains. Those were the last holdout. Then one day, as with the others, those too fell and Owl was free to play with whatever he wanted. I say this in a short paragraph, but in effect, this whole experience took about a year.  During this time, Penguin pulled further and further away from playing with trains and train tracks, more interested in things like computer games and Army soldiers and tanks. One day last summer, and I strain my memory to remember but just cannot, the very last request to build a train track was made. I have not heard it since.

As with everything in parenting, that which was once torturous has become nostalgic. The laying of track, the swooping of a train around a curve and the sound of wooden car and plastic wheels against the little grooves in the wooden track is still something I can hear if I pay attention carefully to my memories. I do wish I could remember the last day we sat down to build a track, and I also wish I had advance knowledge that it would be the last time so that we could have gone out with a bang.  A show-stopping layout and all the passion I could muster as I brought the trains into the station and then back out again. I won’t lie – I’m glad to have hung up my conductor’s cap. Owl’s not very interested in trains and so we just don’t play with them much at all anymore. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of it during our upcoming spring cleaning. For all the monotony on our daily runs, I can look back and say I’ve enjoyed my time on the rails.

Conductor out.

 

But you would be wise to not take this as a sign that I am done with my work. I am simply done working on the train. I still do a little work every other night, but I am cutting myself some slack on the train here. Plus, I feel tremendously guilty that so much of Owl’s early experiences are considerably less documented than Penguin’s at this age. For instance, did you know that he points to everything now, but in a very cute way. He arranges his hand like one might a childhood finger gun and then waves it menacingly in the direction of the thing he desires. Perspective is everything. Were he a grown man on the street, he’d be in jail. As it is, he is tiny and adorable and therefore so are his actions. Owl can also couple toy trains together now and creates his own little convoys that he drives down the tracks.

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This weekend, I craved the outdoors. The older I get, the less content I feel being cooped up inside. I find myself doing a bit of a reversion back to some of the simpler joys of childhood, and I am liking the change. In my late teens/early twenties, I slept all day and spent all night in various restaurants, bars, clubs and hang-out spots.  Never spent time outside, never enjoyed the sun. Once Penguin was born, I realized that would have to change, since I wanted him to take full advantage of nature. Well, urban nature. So I have become something of a broken record with my weekend refrain. “We need to get out of the house, shake out some energy and take part in an activity.” In the spring, summer and fall, I try to make those as outdoorsy as possible. On rainy days, we always have our museum backups. But I digress. My point is, I search for any and every opportunity to get the boys outside enjoying the fresh air, sunshine, mud, plants, sand and anything else that catches their fancy.

On Saturday, the boys and I participated in my employer’s service day. We worked on a community garden project, prepping the soil and getting the plots ready for planting. I didn’t know if we would be a lot of help, but I could not think of anything more fun for all of us than playing around in the dirt. Penguin has a natural inclination towards plants and gardening, so he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He was turning the soil with his trowel, picking rocks out of the ground and throwing them in a bucket and raking the earth with a small rake to aerate the soil. Owl was helping here and there. I brought his little plastic sand trowel and he sat down in the mud and poked at it here and there. He spent most of him time picking up little rocks and then throwing them back on the ground. He also rather enjoyed playing with the dandelions in the adjacent, unprepared plot. About 30 minutes into our adventure, a group of photojournalism students that had been taking pictures for an assignment came over to take pictures of the community garden. At precisely that moment, Owl decided to take a handful of rocks and throw them into the bucket and instantly 10-15 cameras were trained on Owl as he dropped the rocks into the bucket. From that point on, every move that the boys made was documented by the students.  Children make great subjects, so I can’t blame them. And Penguin and Owl can be a little hammy in front of the camera, so they were willing subjects. It was very sweet and I am going to try very hard to track down information about these students so that I may request copies of some of the pictures.

The boys stayed for the entire event. I expected that we would only be there for about an hour, tops, but I could not get them to leave for about two-and-a-half hours. It was Owl that finally became too cold and started to want to be held all the time. On that note, we packed it in and headed over to a sandwich place for some lunch. After our nap that day, we headed to a park for a last little dose of fresh air and then called it a day.

Yesterday, inspired by the digging, I thought it would be fun to go to some sand dunes. Penguin was thrilled by the suggestion, so we gathered together all our sand toys and placed them in the car. I made us a picnic lunch and we headed off. Now, you are thinking to yourself: “But it’s late April. And you live in the Midwest. It’s not, you know, warm.” And you are correct in your thoughts. And, not only was it not warm, it was fantastically, impressively windy. Knock you off your feet windy. We started out by the lake, which was instantly recognized as an error because we could not open our eyes for fear of 2,625 sand particles mercilessly scratching our corneas. The wind was literally whipping the sand into our eyeballs and we were blinded. The boys stared at me in disbelief and I cannot blame them. At 32 and 35 years their senior respectively, I should have predicted that fierce wind and sand equals eye pain, but it didn’t register until we were all feeling the effects of sand in eye. I gathered the troops in the stoller and set back up the beach ramps to a quieter patch of sand. The nice thing about dunes is that you can find places in which the dunes are high enough to block the winds coming in off the lake. We found such a patch of calm over by the picnic area. We tucked into our food and, after a brief rest, pulled all of the sand toys out of the stroller basket and settled in for a good play. Yes, it was still chilly. Both boys had to wear coats and their noses were running a bit, but it was beautifully sunny. Yes, it was still windy, but it was very manageable and not getting sand into our eyes and mouths. In spite of these conditions, I can’t think of a time recently when I heard the boys giggling cavorting about as much as they did yesterday. It was just a thoroughly delightful time. We had a huge patch of sand to ourselves, as well as a massive sand hill that was perfect for climbing and then gently rolling/sliding down. The boys could scream, shout, laugh, run and throw themselves to the ground and no one was admonishing them to keep their voices lower or to watch out of they would get hurt. They were like little spirits freed and for a long while there, I lost myself in the enjoyment of it all. I lost track of time, of the stress of schooling and work and our cramped little apartment, and became one with the experience. It was glorious.

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I used to read Outside Magazine for the writing. The writers are surprisingly good and the stories generally captivating. I never quite got their passion for the outdoors, though. I could appreciate it, but it never quite hit home for me. I think it did as a child and then I lost what bit of that I had for a while. This weekend, though, I felt it all come back, surging powerfully as though a wave of water over a wall. It wasn’t there and then, suddenly and without warning, it was.

I think this needs to be part of my new reality – this outdoors life – but I am not sure how. I am not sure what that even means. All I know is that I really found myself on a little impromptu jaunt to a sandy dune on a cold, April afternoon. Further, I like what I found.

I am taking a slight break from searching for just the right article on stigma and mental health service use to bring you this musical interlude.

Penguin’s favorite band is Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. He will unfailingly request that we play this CD any time we are in the car. Currently, his favorite song is “Favorite Song,” so named because I once said that it was probably my favorite song on the record. However, it has now become his favorite song. If you are looking at the liner notes (and I am totally dating myself here because in the digital age, does anyone even know what a liner note is?) then you will be shocked to find that there is no song labeled Favorite Song. However, if you were to look for, say, “Om Nashi Me,” you’d be good to go.

This is the song for those not in the know:

The story I really want to share, though, is the cuteness that ensues once this song plays in the car. For a few months now, when this song comes on, Penguin starts humming away loudly, following along with the tune. He does this every time, without fail, and he doesn’t really want you to talk to him when his song is on because he wants to hum along. It’s kinda sweet. A few days ago, as I was driving in the car, I noticed that Owl was making sounds during the song, too. I thought it was just toddler verbal ramblings at first. However, over the past few days, I’ve come to realize that these particular sounds are made only in the presence of this song playing on the radio. They stop when the song is no longer on, and actually don’t commence unless the song is playing. This leads me to deduce that Owl, too, is singing along to Favorite Song.

It’s really beyond adorable, the both of them back there singing away. I will try to record a sound file on my phone and then upload it here if I can.

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