What exactly does one do with oneself? 

I can have dinner ANYWHERE.

I can watch ANYTHING. 

Right now I am watching a massive black plume of smoke in the distance, wondering if something is on fire. 

Later I will sit around on the bed in a state of mini panic, thinking alternately, “It is too quiet, what are the boys up to? Oh right, they are not here.” Rinse and repeat 50 times. 

 

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.

I had a simple, but exquisite weekend.

Setting: park at noon.

Action: Blowing bubbles, digging in the sandbox, shooting down slides, drawing on the sidewalk with fat sidewalk chalk, playing hopscotch, jumping over tires, following the leader.

Until I had children, I forgot how much I love the outdoors. Love it. Love grass, love trees, love parks, love breezes, love birds chirping. Love not being inside enclosed within the small walls of an apartment. Love the lack of concrete, noise and congestion. I smiled so freely and deeply yesterday that I almost didn’t know myself.

Also, since my children are inadvertently humorous and have impeccable timing, let me share this brief story. This park is very close to a church and after the service, a family with two little girls walked over from the church to the playground for a little springtime fun. Owl was sitting in the backseat in this fake car and the two little girls started climbing into the front seat, their parents watching and smiling. I was about 100 feet away, gathering some things up with Owl before heading home. Owl sat there for a moment staring at the girls and then his body suddenly melted into the ground. Keeping his eye on the two girls, he slithered down, flattened himself out, rolled under the car, A-Team style, and then started shouting “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!,” while running away and darting desperate looks back at them, ensuring no one was in tow.

Good times.

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.

Except my five faithful readers. So be ready for it. 

I’ve always been fascinated with cognitive biases. This is a psychological concept that introduce the idea that all of us have deviations from “rational thought” or “good judgement” and that these occur in somewhat predictable ways. 

I suspect that when we are involved in something very important to us, or even something that comprises a large bulk of our time, we engage our cognitive biases and create our own subjective reality. To deal with uncertainty, exhaustion, fear, anxiety, and maybe even overwhelming joy. It’s what we do to get through. 

Since I like to write and I am a academic-nerd type at heart, I thought this might be interesting. There are at least 100 biases we can engage in to create a version of reality more palatable or less stressful to us. Let’s dig in over the next few months!

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.

 

There was a great article a while back in the NY Times from a writer that took notice of time through the changes in the trees outside of his window.

I read the piece with a bit of a slack jaw because I, myself, do something very similar. I can remember the things I do, the things my sons and I do more importantly, through what is happening to the trees. The reason, I argued, that I could grow to love this apartment was because it sat right in front of a large nature preserve and it was the closest thing to outdoorsy I imagined one could get in the suburbs. It has proven to be the case, right down to the relentless summer mosquitos.

When we first moved into our suburban apartment, nearly four years ago this autumn, the leaves had turned and started to gather at the base of the trees. It was a windy day and I can recall holding a 22-month old Penguin and watching the leaves swirl up into the air and the limbs sway with no resistance to the wind.

That spring, a number of the trees burst forth with these beautiful and fragrant whitish-pink blooms. One morning when Penguin and I were outside, again with the wind in our favor, the petals all started blowing off the tree. A soft, fragrant snowstorm of petals overtook us and for a full five minutes, until the  last of the petals fell, we danced in the downfall.

Incidentally, or perhaps not, I learned of Owl’s pregnancy a few weeks later. On my more mystical days, I’d like to think this was my botanical clarion call that another blessing was heading our way.

That summer, the lush green of the trees by our apartment and the hundred feet beyond created the backdrop for so much of my time outside with Penguin. The sound of rustling leaves, so loud and yet so comforting, the soundtrack to our adventures. The stormy summer nights, when thunder, lighting and heavy winds would push the trees and the branches in every direction, creating a sound so loud it was though you were standing at the base of a massive waterfall.

In the fall, my belly large from a little Owl, I took several walks among the trees with Penguin. We slopped through the soggy leaves, smelled the peat smell of forest and crunched through the piles that managed to find a little bit of sunlight.

As the trees became bare and it became impossible for me to walk long distances without tiring, I knew that our little family of three would soon be no more and in a few weeks, a new little presence would embrace our lives. Snow dripped from the limbs and on some moon-filled nights it would be so bright back there, it was though the earth was lit from below.

On the drive to the hospital the morning Owl was to be born, I touched the branches of the bare trees outside our front door. Grabbed pine needles in my finger tips as I passed and smelled the sticky sweet sap on my fingers.

_______

There are days, more days that I can count, where I can be found staring out our back patio window. Looking to the trees. Watching the squirrels and the birds make their homes in the branches. Watching the boys run circles around the trunks and play in the dirt at the base. Marking the days of the year by the color of the leaves, the loudness of the rustling, the earthy smell in the air, the drag of the limbs by weight of snow and ice.

Right now, I see the tiniest hint of a green bud on the littlest tree by my back patio and I know that Spring, in earnest, will be here soon.