Friday, January 30, 2015

Making Memories in the Park After Dark

I was five when the Blizzard of 1978 shut down Rhode Island for several days. My father got stuck at his office in Providence, for days that eventually morphed into weeks in family lore.

Everyone lost power in our coastal community. My mother, two-year-old brother, and I trudged a couple of blocks in the dark to camp with neighbors who had a wood stove. Cross country skis were involved. (My first ones were made by Karhu, of wood, and they were red and schlepped from Finland in hand luggage.) My brother sat in a sled and held a flashlight.

(I have many childhood memories of my brother holding a flashlight. It was his lot in our family life before he grew and graduated to carrying heavy items.)

That was the storm during which people became disoriented in their yards and died. And got trapped in their cars and died on the interstate.

I'm not certain 1978 was the one from which we learned to shut down cities before a major storm hits, but it at least got people thinking about common sense planning: travel bans and parking bans and emergency plans to get hospital staff to work.

The Blizzard of 2015 was kid stuff in comparison to 1978, but it gave the Grape two days off from school, and inspired a cooking frenzy in my kitchen.

Tuesday we racked up almost two feet of fluffy powder, but the winds weren't blowing anywhere near the forecasted "DOOM" levels here in Boston. So we logged many hours on the sledding hill.

But the best part was when the whole family trooped outside for a walk and some after bedtime sledding.

Boston looked like Finland Tuesday night, before the plows got any roads cleared down to pavement, and I wanted the Grape to see.

"We're making memories," I assured R., who very briefly questioned whether a fourth full-family trek into the storm was absolutely necessary.

I can't remember the city being so quiet. Even the bars and liquor stores were closed. Everything had stopped, except for the plows.

The silence of the stores reminded me of the way holidays used to be, before the big box stores set out to ruin Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the department stores followed suit.

The Grape kept marveling at the snow covered, empty streets, and saying, "It's so beautiful." The snow was still coming down at this point, the travel ban still in place. Lila the Dog bounded ahead and we pulled the Grape in his sled. "It's like magic," he said.

I marveled that he was the only little kid out there taking it in, climbing the snow mountains to stand next to the stop lights and street signs while no cars skidded below.

"Take it in now, because it will all be salted and plowed away tomorrow," we told him.

After our walk, we went sledding in the park in the dark. It was a little before 9 o'clock and he was the only kid on the hill—the same hill that had been jam packed with his friends six hours earlier.

I thought it was a shame that no other little ones were out there to see the magic, the snow flickering against the streetlights for one rare silent night.

When something this special happens, bedtime can wait.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Happy. Smiling. In Control. Or Not?

While sitting on a chairlift last Saturday afternoon, I overheard a ski instructor telling his middle-elementary-age charges, "We're happy. We're smiling. We're in control."

You could tell by the tone of the guy's voice that he'd had a long day.

But I thought, Fantastic. New family motto. 

Who cares if it's ten degrees out? We have appropriate gear, and we, by which I mean the Grape, should be grateful we get to go skiing in the first place.

I chanted the ski school guy's words at the Grape for the rest of the afternoon as he zipped down increasingly steeper slopes with grinning confidence. "We're happy, smiling, and in control."

Control is a good thing, R. and I agreed.

Which reminded me of one terrifying challenge looming: the Drop Off Play Date.

I'm a control freak who tries not to over-parent.

I let my kid climb trees. I let him ride ahead of me on his scooter or bike, because I trust him to stop and wait at intersections. I let him play in suburban friends' backyards with other kids, without an adult out there.

I've taught him to be as street smart as possible.

Not to trust cars to stop for us.

To avoid touching needles, broken glass, shit (human and canine), half eaten candy bars, realistic looking toy assault rifles, and condoms—all items he and his friends have encountered in the otherwise lovely playground across the street.

To respect unknown dogs. 

To give space to the visibly mentally ill and to drunks passed out on benches. Particularly if they have their pants down.

All necessary city skills.

I've also taught him the manners necessary to be a good guest.

He knows to say please and thank you, to flush the toilet, and remove his shoes when asked.  He understands that he is not to jump on furniture, and that he's definitely not to use any rude language.

I still get hives thinking of the Drop Off Play Date. 

The kind where the kid's parents aren't in my social network. (I'd have no problem whatsoever dropping him off with a mom I know.)

There are the two key differences between preschool and kindergarten: you no longer have any vote in selecting your child's friends, and you don't meet the other parents twice a day, every day.

We hosted a Drop Off Play Date last Friday. The Grape and his friend, a child from the kindergarten class, had a blast. 

But I was surprised that the mom, whom I couldn't confidently pick from a crowd, allowed me to pick her kid up in a car, and keep her kid at my house for four hours.

This is evidently what we're doing now.

I invited another new friend of the Grape's to come over, with her mom, whom I also don't know. The mom thanked me for the invite, but said she'd drop the child off for a couple of hours. She wrote, "It's time to let her spread her wings a bit."

These moms don't know me and we have no friends in common.

But am I the weird one?

I could be drunk all day. I could keep a loaded gun by the door. I could leave the kids in front of the TV and go get a massage. I could send them to the playground unsupervised while hosting a tryst.

The playground is, after all, visible from my bedroom window.

It's obvious to me that I don't do any of the above, but why is it obvious to a complete stranger?

Or do normal brains just not go there? Is the fact that we were all admitted to the same private school supposed to suffice? Because I'm pretty sure private school parents can be bad apples just as easily as public school ones.

I get angry with myself for thinking this way. It's paranoid, unattractive.

It does take a village, and at some point, we need to trust the village. Which is a hard thing for a control freak to do.

Even though I understand that the village self polices, to a point. If a child goes home and reports weirdness, I presume that reduces the chances of a repeat visit.

I've asked the Grape if he wants to go on a Drop Off Play Date, and so far, mercifully, he's told me, "When I'm six."

At which point, he probably won't receive any invitations, because he's declined too many.

I keep reminding myself: He is a full year younger than just about everyone else in kindergarten. A year is a huge deal at this age.

Maybe when he's six, I'll be ready to relinquish a little control.

I'll be more like these other moms, gushing, "Thank you so much for taking him off my hands for a few hours!"


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Santa, Report Cards, and the Chinese Nativity Set

The Grape's school provides a detailed report card at the end of each semester. It rivals power point presentations from my distant past, in terms of weight and thickness.

His contained no surprises, though one line item concerning library skills needled me: "Differentiates fiction from non-fiction."

The librarian, quite rightly, marked this as a "developing skill" for the Grape, which I interpret as progressive school speak for a C+.

I love libraries. I get that children need to learn to navigate the library. I just hate the timing of this curriculum point.


Because of Santa, and his magical team of elves, reindeer, and mind-bending transportation logistics, all of whom stand solidly in the non-fiction category in our house.

The Grape likes categories, and like lots of little kids, sees things as black or white. Watch gangs of little kids play. They never incorporate nuanced villains or flawed heroes.  It's good guys versus bad guys. Period.

The Grape came home from the school library and set to work organizing his books into fiction and non-fiction piles. The fiction pile towered high.

He held up one of our family's inter-generational favorites: Santa Claus by Mauri Kunnas.

We read it in Finnish, but it's available in English and other languages. It has gorgeous illustrations and painstakingly detailed explanations about how the whole Santa Enterprises situation works: the post office and translation department, the stables, the airfield, the toy workshops and warehouses, the support staffing, the elf schools, the espionage, elf downtime.

It's all depicted as a culture of generosity, cooperation and friendship.

Kunnas writes with nearly Rowling-esque detail, and I highly recommend the title for any child who loves Christmas and picture books.

"Non-fiction," I proclaimed firmly, with only small pangs of guilt sticking in my gut. No protest from the Grape. He placed the dog-eared copy at the top of the non-fiction heap with visible relief on his face.

I do not know whether there is a God, but I love my kid's faith in Santa.

For every thing of wonder and beauty in this world, there is also tremendous cruelty and suffering on a scale impossible for most of us to comprehend. Santa fits with my philosophy of letting the Grape be little, unaware of the real evil in the world, for a few precious years.

Santa represents the best of childhood: magic, innocence, generosity without agenda. He shows up whether you remember to leave out cookies or not.

Despite what his detractors argue, Santa need not be about capitalist excess. In our house Santa brings gifts few in number, though admittedly high on wow factor. Santa dazzles; relatives provide.

I felt unprepared to fight back when moments later, the Grape declared Frozen to be non-fiction, too. "Because Princess Elsa, the real one with powers, came to my cousin's party."

I asked if he was sure. He said yes, while conceding she did not, in fact, use those powers to transform the premises into an ice castle.

I dropped it.

We have, at best, two years of the Santa magic left. I refuse to do anything that could jeopardize that beautiful, pure childhood wonder. I can deal with the Princess Elsa issue around Valentine's Day.

Just when I thought we were clear of this perturbing question, we reached the stickier wicket of Baby Jesus.

R. and I are not raising the Grape in the church, but we want him to be culturally literate, which in Western civilization, includes Biblical literacy. The stories inspired much of the world's greatest art, architecture, literature, and music.

I love Christmas music, though only after Thanksgiving. Most of it is religious, and it rings through our house for a month. The Grape and I know most of the words. I've never seen this as an issue.

I've also got nothing against Nativity sets; I came close to buying one when we were in Naples. It was gorgeous and fragile, and represented many weeks (months?) of an artist's labor.

It also looked tricky to transport intact while traveling with a two-year-old. Next time, I told myself.

Mistake. Big mistake.

This year, without warning, we found ourselves in receipt of the world's most garishly painted Nativity set, undoubtedly made in a Chinese sweatshop (like most contemporary American holiday decor), and addressed to the Grape.

"A barn!" the Grape proclaimed happily, and set to work arranging the figures. He decided the set needed some color, so he festooned a rainbow lei on the roof.

The angel looked like a vaudeville performer. Or a drag queen who didn't quite bring it.

The latter makes more sense. If I recall correctly, the Bible's angels were all men.

The shepherd was dressed in something resembling a mini-skirt, paired with gladiator sandals.  "He looks like he's going to the Pride Parade," the Grape observed.

All the human figurines had blushing peaches and cream complexions you'd never see on any native resident of the Middle East.

After watching him play with the barn for a while, R. and I explained the characters in the scene, to be met with the inevitable question: "Baby Jesus. Fiction or non-fiction?"

"Fiction based on non-fiction," I said firmly. "Like a legend."

The Grape frowned. "Isn't Christmas Baby Jesus' birthday?"

"Most likely not. It's Jesus' birthday observed. Emperor Constantine picked the date."

"Way too much information," R. hissed at me.

I tried to redirect. "He had a strong willed mother. Kind of like you. The date worked for many reasons, and she wanted a big birthday celebration for Baby Jesus. She really liked Baby Jesus. So yes, Christmas is pretty much Baby Jesus' birthday."

The Grape smelled uncertainty. His eyes narrowed. He picked up one of the wise men. "Which one is Constantine?"

"He came later."

He dropped the myrrh man and held up the (very strangely diapered) Chinese Baby Jesus figurine."Is this the same Jesus they kill at Easter?"


"They killed a baby?"

"No, it's another observed date. Jesus was older then."

"Easter is in April!" the Grape screeched. He counted the months on his fingers.


"Fiction or non-fiction?" the Grape practically howled.

"Fiction based on non-fiction," I repeated, with confidence.

"They killed a baby? A BABY? Why didn't his family protect him?" The Grape was incensed. "Families. Protect. Their. Babies."

At this point, I felt way out of my theological depth and called my mother, who didn't have a good answer, either.

"That's a fascinating question from a five-year-old," she said.

"No kidding. Why do you think I was trying to kick this whole conversation down the road a few years?"

Our household is culturally Christian—a notion I borrowed many years ago from Jewish friends who celebrate many of the holidays and traditions with which they grew up, but don't consider themselves observant.

(I know lots of people in this boat. I've got a whole post ready to go on what that means for us. It's too much to tack on here.)

"Is the Baby Jesus story fiction or non-fiction?" the Grape bellowed, for what felt like the hundredth time.

"Ask the librarian when school starts again," I said. "Ask her whether the Bible is in the fiction or non-fiction section."

My hunch: it's shelved with mythology, a topic covered in later grades. I'll report back.

It was a cop out, but bedtime was approaching and I wanted to get back to the safe territory of dancing sugarplums and flying reindeer.

The Grape put the animals from the Nativity safely into their barn, and told me "the people should go to a hotel."

I snarfed mulled wine.

R. remarked we needed to do better.

We put the Grape to bed and I stayed up late, re-considering when we ought to introduce the concept of Biblical literacy.

I'd wanted to wait until the Grape saw the world in a more nuanced way. For him to be old enough to challenge the idea that groups with differing beliefs are all good or all bad, and to be wary of exclusionary, judgmental spiritual outfits.

To understand that religion and morality are vastly different things, and that one does not necessarily flow from the other—though sometimes they're related, like when the church across the street gives away a grocery store's worth of food to the people lined up outside. Or when my mother spends a day at her church, peeling potatoes for the homeless (true story, many potatoes).

Other times, they are not. Like when we deposit new toys at the police station for Toys for Tots, or buy coats for the school coat drive. We help because it's right, not because our church commands it.

We already point out the good and try to teach him gratitude. But we've been shielding him from the bad and the ambiguous. Maybe that's okay. At least for one more year.