Thursday, July 24, 2014

Geeks and Crabs

Bubba, at age 9, is an unabashed geek.  It’s one of the things I love most about him.  His current obsessions are Legos and anything and everything science-related, and as an extension (of design, construction, and physics), he loves engineering, though he doesn’t yet know to label it as such.

There are two ways Mister and I know when Bubba is in full-on geek out mode: He talks non-stop about a subject, and he starts bouncing.  He has been known to get so excited about his latest modifications to a Lego creation that he will, quite literally, follow me around the house explaining each change in great detail, barely stopping to take a breath.  When Bubba decided to see what bacteria he could culture from swabs taken around our house, he couldn’t stand still as Papa and I explained proper plating techniques.

I’m a science geek myself, so when Bubba wanted to start a “museum” of fossils and rocks and feathers and such in his closet, I didn’t hesitate to say “yes.”  When we were at the Field Museum recently and Bubba asked questions about the cell division exhibits, I had his full attention as I talked for ten minutes about mitosis vs. meiosis and sexual vs. asexual reproduction… until Mister pulled me away so we could be sure to see the Hall of Dinosaurs while we still had time.

But truth be told, as much as I adore Bubba’s geekiness, sometimes I find it a bit, well, tiresome.  At the boys’ request, I’ve sat down with them a few times to play Legos and have have been bored out of my mind.  They created landscapes and museums and ships.  And I made a box.  Not a very good one either.  My eyes might even occasionally glaze over when they show me yet another Lego creation that I cannot distinguish from the preceding dozen but that they insist is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT.  And when Bubba thrusts design after design for a rocket or a crossbow under my nose, I try to express interest, but I know so little about physics that I can’t begin to have a meaningful conversation about which design elements will work and which won’t and what chemical reaction would be safe enough but strong enough to provide the needed thrust. 

So when Bubba announced at dinner the other night that he was going to use the remains of our lobster dinner to go crabbing the next day, Mister’s and my response was something along the lines of “Mmm hmm, sure, that’s fine.”  I’m not even sure what he said really registered.  But the next day, he headed over to the boathouse to see what he could scrounge up for a crab trap.  He came back with a small, flat net to which he had hooked some ropes.  He excitedly explained that he was going to fill the net with “lobster guts,” lower it to the floor of the cove off the float, wait for the crabs to crawl in, and then raise the net.  “It’s simple, but I hope it’s effective,” he wished aloud over his creation.

Froggy was all in; he was as sure this would work as Bubba was.  I mustered a smile and a “Well, we’ll see what happens!”  Mister walked to the float with all the boys to get them off to a safe start but quickly came back and said, “We’ll see how long this lasts.”  Monkey announced that he “hated” crabbing.

Approximately two minutes later, there was a commotion, as the boys ran around, gathering additional supplies from the house and boathouse…

They had caught two crabs.

I hurried down to the float with Mister close behind me, and we watched as the boys caught crab after crab.  Froggy lowered the net to the floor of the cove.  The tide was too high for him to hold the ropes AND spread the net on the floor, but they had discovered it didn’t matter.  The crabs would crawl to the net, reach in for the lobsters, and get stuck for just long enough that the boys could hoist them out of the water.  As Froggy carefully raised the net, Bubba would slip an old, plastic flowerpot under the net to catch the crabs, then dump them in a pot filled with sea water.  Simple but effective, indeed.

“And to think, I designed this all by myself!” he beamed.

As Mister and I watched, we both confessed our previous doubts to Bubba and apologized.  Our penance was clear: We added steamed crabs to the evening menu.

As I watched Bubba proudly pick the tiniest bits of meat out of the crabs, I thought about how easy it is to encourage our children in their interests when they align with our own and how difficult it can be when their interests differ.  Maybe it’s because we honestly don’t know how to begin to support the interest.  Maybe it’s because, never having experienced such depth of interest (in the same subject or another, at this age or another), we doubt its sincerity or question its longevity.  Maybe we think the interest is frivolous and unimportant.

I’m relieved that Bubba’s confidence overrode my lukewarm response.  I’m glad that, for my many parenting faults, one thing I think I usually get right is providing lots of space and raw materials for unstructured play and exploration.  But most of all, I’m grateful for Bubba’s powerful reminder to me that his interests are something to be celebrated, not just tolerated.

I can’t pretend that I’ll no longer find conversations about Legos to be anything other than mind numbing, but maybe next time, that won’t stop me from pausing to really look at Bubba’s latest creation and the excitement on his face.  When Bubba chases me out the door on my way to Target to ask me to buy Mentos and Diet Coke for his latest rocket design, I hope I remember to rejoice in his love of engineering, rather than sigh at my growing shopping list.   Because even if I don’t share all of his interests, one thing I can get behind wholeheartedly is his excitement and curiosity -- the look of wonder on his face when he learns something new, his pride in seeing a project from idea through planning and execution to completion, how quickly he talks when theories he’s been noodling tumble out of him.  After all, that is part of what makes Bubba uniquely, beautifully himself.

Which reminds me... Does anyone know where I might stock up on supplies for building crossbows?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"Mommy, I want my tummy to be flatter."

Because I have boys, I was caught off guard when Froggy announced one morning that he wished his stomach were flatter.  It’s not that I thought boys were immune to body image issues; it’s just that it was really low on my List of Things to Worry about – way behind broken bones, accidental fires, and experiments with household chemicals, all of which we have miraculously avoided so far.  Nonetheless, I’ve heard enough about body image issues in girls to know that I had about 2.5 seconds to pick my jaw up off the floor, gather my thoughts, and get to the bottom of this.

“I love your body, Froggy. What made you think there’s something wrong with it?”

It was surprisingly straightforward to determine the root of the issue: early morning commercials.  Our boys don’t watch much TV.  What they do watch is largely limited to the early morning when I’m dozing for a few more minutes, showering, and preparing breakfast.  Because we reserve cartoons for weekend mornings, the boys watch The Science Channel, The Discovery Channel, Nat Geo Wild, etc.  As it turns out, there are A LOT of commercials for ab workout machines that target men. (sigh.)  I was frustrated that what I thought was good parenting (limiting junky TV) had backfired, but I was relieved that the flat stomach message wasn’t inadvertently coming from within our family.

The harder question to answer was what in the world to do next.  I quickly told Froggy again how much I loved his beautiful, strong body that was designed to do exactly what it needed to.  I repeated this message over the coming weeks, as it seemed appropriate, and from time to time (often as I was tucking him in for the night), I would pick a body part and tell him how much I loved it and why.  (“I loved seeing your strong legs kick the soccer ball today.”  “Isn’t it amazing how your body fought all of those germs without any medicine?”  “I love your broad shoulders because they remind me of Daddy.”)  He grinned at every affirmation.

I, also, grabbed my camera.  I’m always looking for an excuse to photograph my boys, and this seemed like an excellent one.  The first time I asked Froggy to take off his shirt, he refused.  The second time, he agreed but made me promise not to show anyone.  The third time, he balked only because I told him I wanted to shoot in the front yard, but he quickly warmed up, even flexing his muscles for me.

This week, I showed him the pictures again and told him it was time to do a little project with them.  Before I could finish my thought, he excitedly announced that he wanted to write a poem and ran off to find pencil and paper.  This is what he wrote:

[*Although I have never used the word “skinny” to describe Froggy’s body, I, also, have never presented the word as negative, just as a neutral descriptor.  I think he used it to contrast his current ideas about his body with the notion that he previously thought his stomach wasn’t flat enough.]

I think this poem positively oozes confidence.  And I feel the teeniest bit of accomplishment that maybe he is acknowledging my role in that confidence.  (I, also, LOVE that the poem doesn’t rhyme!)

Once Froggy had completed his poem, we sat down to brainstorm more about his body.  I wrote this letter to him:

Dear Froggy, 
When I look at your body, I see: 
Big, grey eyes, framed by enviably long lashes, that make me melt whenever you look at me.  
A smile that lights up your face and makes it impossible for others not to smile in your joyful presence. 
Cheeks that still hold memories of fullness from years of thumb sucking.
Strong, broad shoulders that remind me of Daddy’s and that might carry my grandchildren home from the playground one day. 
Arms and hands full of love.  Arms that give me “sweetest hugs,” tenderly bathe little Monkey, and lovingly massage my tired shoulders at the end of the day. 
Strong legs that are non-stop bundles of energy, that run, jump, kick, peddle, skip, and gallop until you fall into your bed, exhausted, each night. 
I love every inch of you. 

I read it to him while he giggled.  Then I asked him to tell me his favorite body part and to list other body parts he loves and why.  He dictated this note:

My favorite part of my body is my chest because it’s strong and it can puff out.  I love my stomach because I like it.  I love my legs because they walk.  I love my toes because they wiggle.  I love my head because it thinks.  I love my eyes because they help me see.  I love my ears because they help me hear.  And I love my mouth because my mouth helps me eat.  I love my tongue because it helps me taste.  I love my back because it helps me move.  I love my hands because they help me build stuff.  I love my bottom because it helps me poo to get all the food out.  I love my knees because they help me move my legs to walk.  I love my feet because they help me walk, too, because they move when I’m walking.  I love my bones because they’re my body.  I love my teeth because they help me chew.

When he was done, he asked me to print out his dictation and add a picture so he could put it on his magnet board and remember why he loves his body.

After I had compiled all of our work, I asked him if I could share our conversations and pictures and notes here with you all.  He hardly hesitated before agreeing.  I know body image issues might rear their ugly head again, but for now, this feels like progress.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What's in a Name?

When I decided I was really going to do this thing, I was really going to start writing a blog, I knew I needed a name.  It needed to reflect who I am and what people might find in this space.

So I made a list.

[Actually, that’s how I tackle lots of things.  I make lists, I research, I cry, I talk my husband’s ear off.  (He prefers my list making.)]

And when I had a list of a couple dozen words I liked, I realized I kept coming back to just a few of them, including “muddle” and “joy.”

I used to think of joy as an emotion akin to happiness, maybe just a bit more so.  But I was intrigued to read about how C. S. Lewis defines “joy,” sometimes referring to it as a longing.  In Surprised by Joy, he says, “[I]t is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”

I remember the first time I recognized this feeling of joy.  I was sitting in the window seat of my previous home, looking into the front yard, onto our beautiful dogwood in full bloom.  A precious longing swelled inside of me, bringing both a tiny smile to my lips and tears to my eyes.  Joy.  It’s what I feel when I’m on vacation, reading a good book, with the ocean breeze on my face, as I hear the boys giggle in the distance while tromping through the woods.  I feel it each winter when the enormous, neighborhood sycamore tree drops its leaves, and I can see the white branches twist toward the impossibly blue sky.  It overcomes me when I catch my boys snuggled up with my husband.  Joy.  It is my favorite emotion, the one that makes me feel the most connected to God and the Universe, even more so than Love.

But being an perfectly imperfect human means that I mess up Joy often, and so my life is often better described by the word “muddle.”  It’s what I do when I need to get to the grocery store so I can bring the kindergarten snack tomorrow, but my oldest just vomited and my husband is traveling for work.  It’s how I managed an oldest who wanted to play a game, a middle son who wanted to be read a book, and a baby who needed to be nursed… at the same time.  It’s what I did when I found out weeks before moving out of state so my husband could begin graduate school that the job I accepted months before no longer existed.  One step at a time, one minute at a time.  There may be tears and sharp words – they may not be my most elegant moments -- but somehow I always muddle through.

But I try to remember as best I can, amidst the muddling, to keep my eyes open for those fleeting moments of Joy.

This is my muddled, joyful life.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

This Happened

For the entire month of June, our family battled a brutal GI bug.  The symptoms themselves were fairly routinely awful; it was, rather, the course of the illness that was so bad.  The bug had a weeklong incubation period and an approximately two-week course, so by the time my two-week course wrapped up, it was fully four weeks after Monkey had initially gotten sick.  For most of us, the illness was biphasic; we were sick for a couple of days in the beginning, then had an extended period of no or minimal symptoms, followed by a brief (but intense) resurgence about two weeks after the initial onset.  But Froggy was intermittently sick throughout his two and a half week course.  Given the unusual course of the illness, we couldn’t string together more than two or three nights in a row when someone wasn’t actively ill.  Brutal.

I was exhausted, both physically and mentally.  A week and a half into the illness, I stopped sleeping well.  I startled at every bump in the night, sure one of the boys was sick again.  I over-analyzed every twinge in my body.  I worried when one of the boys wasn’t hungry.  I peppered the boys with questions about their trips to the bathroom.  I fretted over how many people we must have inadvertently exposed to the bug because we kept thinking over and over again that, surely, we must be at the end.  The big boys missed the last two days of school (plus many others) and year-end pool and class parties.  Trips to visit grandparents were postponed.  A family weekend away was cancelled.  We finally just stopped making plans to do anything.  I consoled disappointed children at each turn.  I cried every day.  Even now, a week and a half since the GI bug apparently released its grip on us, I’m relearning how to relax at night, and sweet Froggy still cannot sleep without the “puke bucket” next to his pillow.

On what turned out to be the final day Froggy was sick, he had such debilitating abdominal pain that I took him to the pediatric Emergency Room one night.  It was our fourth trip to the doctor for this illness, the first to the ER (which is especially notable because I am not a mother who takes her children to the doctor for every fever or cough).  I was desperate for someone to explain what was happening to us.  I was struggling with feelings of helplessness that I couldn’t make my children better, that I was failing them as a mother.  Froggy was in agony and scared.  And I was on the verge of tears, yet again.

Five minutes after being brought to our bay in the ER, Froggy vomited.  There was an attending just outside our bay, and I called out for help.  She came right in, quickly explained that a 4-year-old drowning victim who was receiving CPR was in route by ambulance and arriving momentarily, so she only had a minute to help us.

No.  Oh, no, no, no, no, no.  Please, no.

The history I had given to the doctors before, that I had rehearsed on the way to the ER, stuck in my throat, as the tears welled in my eyes.  I caught my breath for just long enough to provide some semblance of a history.  The doctor ordered a Zofran and hurried out, closing the curtain behind her.

I never heard the paramedics come in.  There was no audible flurry of activity.  No doors banged.  No one yelled.  The only reason I knew the boy had arrived was because I heard his mother tearfully telling the staff that her son was healthy and that she was praying, praying that the doctors could get him back.  Part of me longed to go to her, to hug her, mother to mother.

It was eerily quiet.

Until fifteen minutes later, when I heard the wail.

I hope someone was there to catch her.

I fell on top of Froggy, who wondered aloud about the wail but didn’t ask for an explanation.  I held him and silently cried, willing my body not to shake.  Under the curtain to our bay, I saw the shoes of the attending who had ordered Froggy’s Zofran.  And I heard her trying to stifle her sobs.

Our nurse returned and communicated with her eyes what I already knew: The boy was gone.

The Emergency Room remained quiet for the rest of our time there.  When I stepped out of the bay while Froggy got an abdominal X-ray, I was surprised to see several police officers standing in the halls.  Later, when we returned from ultrasound, no one closed our curtain, and I watched as an orderly and nurse solemnly wheeled the boy’s body out of the ER.

Part of the way I process tragic or frightening or unsettling events in my life is to be intentional in looking for something that I have learned.  Certainly, I was reminded that I, as a mother, cannot perfectly protect my children.  I was overcome with the fragility of life.  But these ideas are neither new nor particularly insightful.  Instead, I found myself wanting – needing – to tell and retell the events of that night, not because it provided a new perspective but because I couldn’t carry the burden alone.  I needed to tell people that this happened.  I needed connection.  I needed to continue to bear witness to the last moments of this precious child’s life.

On Saturday, June 28, 2014 at approximately 9:00 p.m., a four-year-old boy was found by another child in a friend’s pool.  While I was in the Emergency Room with my sick son, this little boy arrived with his mother.  The paramedics and the doctors could not revive him.  He was pronounced dead feet from me.  I heard the mother’s agonizing reaction to the news that her son was gone.  I heard the doctor’s stifled sobs for a life she could not save.  I watched as the boy’s body left the ER.  I bore witness to some of the last moments of a child’s life, and I am forever changed.

This happened.  And I simply need you to know.