Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


Bad Guy Games

I’m not sure where all of this began, but I do know who perpetuated it.

That would be me.  And Beatrix Potter.

(Sorry Beatrix, I’m not taking the fall for this on my own.)

“This”, as my title reveals, is bad-guy games.  And, yes, I do realize that this is a sexist phrase.  Why not bad-person games?  Maladjusted human being amusements?

If only the title was the problem.

Bad-guy games are not complicated.  Think of every good vs. evil movie you’ve ever seen, and remember the plot launched by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or a Disney princess’ step-mother.  Then picture Princess Leia taking out Jabba the Hut with the very chain that had imprisoned her or Indiana Jones barreling through dark caverns to rescue whats-her-name.  Of course, a good movie (I would argue) presents complex characters–“good guys” who struggle with their darker side and “bad guys” who surprise you with their humanity.  But we’re not talking about complexity here, we’re talking about two, three and four year olds.

(And perhaps about the state of American politics?  Hmm.)

So… Bad-guy, good-guy, rescue… the essential elements, appropriated by preschoolers.

Now imagine that the two female preschoolers who live in my house have been exposed to Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny.  Their mother (ahem) thinks that this is much to be preferred over let’s say princesses whose sole purpose in life is to get rescued and then get married, and so she encourages it.  In their favorite episode, a nasty, mean badger kidnaps a bunch of cute baby bunnies (in order to EAT them) and then Peter and Benjamin rescue the bunnies when the badger is otherwise occupied with fighting another nasty and mean character.

Sure, it’s probably a little too violent for a two and four year old, but it’s Beatrix Potter.  And the girls love it, and their mother has vague thoughts about it being somehow empowering… after all if they pretend to be the rescuers and say “take that!” to mean and nasty badgers who kidnap baby bunnies, won’t they grow up to be confident women who fight injustice and protect the defenseless?  Aren’t they becoming stronger by confronting their deepest fears and taking charge of the situation?  Won’t they realize their own power and someday avoid all the pitfalls of allowing someone else (say a hormonal teenage boy) to define them?

Isn’t their mother over-thinking this a bit?

One morning last week the girls and I were playing a bad-guy game over breakfast.  The two preschool boys who live with us joined in.  “Oh no!” I (the bad guy character) said, “the rescuers are here!  Run away, run away!”  And I did and they chased me and then I gave the baby bunnies back and apologized profusely for thinking that they would be a good dinner.

And then I went back to some grown-up responsibility like clearing the breakfast dishes, but the kids kept playing.  It wasn’t five minutes later that one of them was crying, and then housemate-dad come down the stairs.  He gently corrected them, “Remember boys, we don’t play bad-guy games.”

Okay, oops.  It turns out that there have been bad-guy game situations in the past where one child (like it or not) has been assigned the bad guy role and then the rest of the kids gang up on the poor scapegoated child.  It turns out that bad guy games often lead to crying.  It turns out that there may be ways to empower children without encouraging them to kick someone else’s butt.  Maybe.  I’m still learning.

It also turns out that our children are currently obsessed with bad-guy games, and all of us parents are still figuring out the best ways to respond.

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A Little Bit Beyond Grunting

“How’s it going with the housemates?”

This is a great question.  Really it is.  And I so appreciate people’s interest in this little experiment we have going on in two-family community life.

I just never have any idea what to say.  “Uh, good…” I stammer and grunt, like a unresponsive teenager.  “How was school today?”  “Fine.”  “How is living with two adults, two preschoolers and a large dog?” “Uh… good.”

As I grunt, my mind is racing.  How is it going?  What can I say about living together that doesn’t cross the line of talking about my housemates?  It’s not that we’ve had any major arguments or “oh my goodness, you’re driving me up a wall” moments yet (at least not from my perspective), but we certainly will.  What is private?  What can be shared?  Once I start talking, will I blurt out something inappropriate?

All of this is much easier for me to process at the speed of writing (vs. the speed of conversation, which often trips up my introspective brain), and so I would like to share a few tentative observations.

Observation #1:  Life with young children can be lonely, and the presence of two real live additional grown-ups is priceless.  I can’t tell you how many times over the past weeks that one of our children has been throwing a fit or screaming about something REALLY DIRE like the tragedy of getting the blue bowl when you wanted the green one.  My eyes will meet the eyes of the other grown-up in the room.  We will smile or shake our heads, and something inside of me will sigh contentedly.  Ah… Perspective.  Company.  Solidarity with someone who understands that the green bowl is just in the dishwasher.

Observation #2:  This only works because/when we do not judge or try to micromanage each other’s parenting.

There was this great blog post on MOM101.  She says that we fight the “mommy wars” only when we are really at war with ourselves, with our own unmet expectations.  In our house, we give each other a lot of grace, that is, we offer the repeated benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps this is because each of us has been humbled by our own repeated parental “failures” and are at peace with our own imperfections?  This question leads nicely into my next observation…

Observation #3: Community life sucks when I am not at peace with my own imperfections.  Sigh.  When I am feeling insecure it’s just so easy to “put judgments” into someone else’s head, to read into EVERYTHING they say or do or don’t say or don’t do.  I am really skilled at this.  It’s exhausting.  Fortunately I usually get this way at night, and so mostly I just pray and go to bed.

Observation #4:  Sharing household responsibilities has taken a huge burden off my husband and I.  It’s amazing.  During the week we alternate meal-prep and so some nights you come home and ta-da, dinner.  In the mornings my cute-husband will often just make a big pot of oatmeal.  Ta-da, the kids are fed.  The other day one of our housemates mowed and weed-whacked the entire yard.  I almost cried.

It’s not that we couldn’t do all these things ourselves.  No, we are capable, independent Americans with power tools and kitchen appliances.  It’s just that keeping up with household tasks AND young children puts us right at the edge of burn-out… all the time.  With housemates to share the workload, there’s margin.    Margin is my friend.

And look at that, there was even enough time to write a blog post.


Helicopter Footage

I knocked on my neighbor’s back door.  A grown-up answered.

“Your garden looked great in the helicopter footage,” I said.  “You could see the lettuces.”

“Thanks” he grinned, “I’m just glad that the police dog didn’t chase the chickens.”

Now how’s that for a conversation you don’t get to have everyday? Welcome to the paradoxes of our urban/rural life.

To tell the story I have to tell the back story.  The day before the helicopters hovered a friend was visiting.  We were sitting in the yard and the kids were running wild–chasing each other, climbing trees, and throwing their weight on the tree swing.  They carried all five chickens into the playhouse and pretended that the poor beloved birds were their children.  I brought out some bread with peanut butter and cups of milk.  “Snacktime!” I called and they all rushed toward the picnic table, dappled with sunlight under the pear tree.  My friend looked at the kids, looked at the yard, looked at the chickens and said, with all sincerity, “Your kids are having a great childhood.”

What would she have said the next day?

The next day we were again out in the yard, but the younger housemate-boy was having a tough time.  I went inside to try and comfort him.  Three kids outside, one crying on the couch.  I tried sympathy, I tried humor and finally book-reading seemed to help.  The whole time, in the back of my mind, I registered that a lot of police cars had driven by the house.  This was not usually a cause for alarm as cops sometimes use our road when the main arteries are crowded.  But there were a lot of sirens, and so I asked a friend (a different friend from the day before) if she could look out the window.  I had finally gotten the little boy to calm down, and I wasn’t about to stop reading stories!

“We need to get the kids inside right now,” she said in a calm but definitive tone.  Not even knowing why, I ran for the door, pulled three protesting children off swings and out of the playhouse, and brought everyone back inside.  I still had no idea what was going on.  You can’t see the street from the backyard, and I couldn’t even look out the window because I had four screaming preschoolers to deal with.  “Let’s all go and play in the boys’ room” I announced loudly, as chipper as I could manage.  I made eye contact with my friend, but we were both mute, not wanting to upset the kids.

After we herded everyone upstairs and the kids were engrossed with the toys, I excused myself and went back downstairs to look out the window.  There were a lot of police cars, and the policemen were looking under our parked cars.  The neighbors were all out, gawking, as if a parade was about to come by.  There were news trucks, helicopters, reporters… maybe they were the parade.  My husband had just come home and I interrogated him.  There had been a police chase, I learned, and two men had stopped their SUV just in front of our neighbor’s house and got out to run.  One hid in a car and was discovered almost immediately.  One ran through the backyard two houses down and they had caught him too.  But before they caught him he hid his gun somewhere, and now the police were looking for it.

I looked out the back window just in time to see a policeman with a dog checking out our chicken coop.  I laughed outloud.  My husband looked surprised.  “Oh honey, ” I explained, “I was laughing at myself because my first thought was, ‘How embarrassing.  I didn’t clean out the coop today.'”

And then I went out to chat with some neighbors.  There wasn’t much left to gawk at, but we shared stories and watched each other (not me) be interviewed by news reporters.  It’s always funny to me how these crazy events seem to bring us closer together as neighbors.  We share the bond of our common experiences, just living our lives side-by-side and trying to give our kids great childhoods.  Just growing the lettuce that you could see from the sky.

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Chicken Honeymoon

So, I think that we are in the honeymoon stage of urban chicken farming.

On Thursday I was feeling a good bit of chicken-guilt because the poor hens had been shut in their coop for two rainy days (“It’s just so that you can understand how your factory-farmed sisters live” I told them, but they were not comforted by my solidarity pep talk).  The weather was lovely, we were home all afternoon and I decided to give ranging a try.  So I set them down on the grass and held my breath as I waited to see if they would head straight for the road.

Did I mention that chickens are really really really hard to catch?  I could just picture myself jumping fences through my neighbor’s backyards, red-faced and sputtering apologies, as I dove after black feathers.  Great.  As if we aren’t already known as the weird farming white people.

But it didn’t happen.  After an initial flutter of wings, they headed straight for a bush two feet from their coop.  Then they walked, in a group, to eat some grass two feet from the bush, and then they returned to their coop-area  to get some water.  Then back to the bush.  No drama, no chasing, no stress… just water, grass and scratching for worms.  I was so relieved that I wanted to hug them, but instead I just sat in the grass.

Things got more exciting when the kids came home.  They were thrilled to discover that the chicken-holding-ban had been lifted and spent hours stalking their new pets.  We had rules of course–no running, don’t chase them away from the center of the yard, try not to scare them, no screaming… hey stop screaming or I’ll have to put them back in the coop… but overall the kids were GREAT.  Really, they deserve the caps there.

In fact, it turns out that my oldest daughter is a chicken whisperer.  She rivals the older neighbor girls as a chicken catcher, but leaves them in the dust in regards to calming and soothing the hens.  At first I was impressed because they would let her hold them.  Then I was in awe because they would stay in her lap when she was not holding them.  But then… but then… she actually got one of them to sleep in the baby swing… sorry, I have to use caps again… to SLEEP in the BABY SWING.  While she pushed it and sang a lullaby.  A CHICKEN.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

And that my friends is why we are having a chicken honeymoon.  Yes, they poop in their waterer.  Yes, I still have to walk though the wet grass at 6:30 a.m. to feed them.  Yes, we still have to figure out how to get the two-ton structure known as their coop into a shadier spot.  Yes, all this and more, but seeing a chicken fall asleep in a baby swing pushed by a four year old grinning with joy… Let’s just say that it makes up for a lot of poop.

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Dinner Conversation

In a previous post I have described the LOOK–the look that I sometimes receive when I tell people about our upcoming venture into community life.  To be more specific, the LOOK is a mixture of awe and confusion, surprise and concern, something along the lines of, “wow you must be crazy but go with your bad self”, “good for you hippies, glad it’s not me” or just “interesting concept, but I need more space.”

Last night was different.

I was at a dinner party chatting with two mom-friends, and I found myself telling them that another family was about to move in to our house.  Another family… dum, dum, dum… with two little boys the same age as our two girls.  One mom gave me the look right away, but the other… well, her face softened.

“We talk about doing that with friends of ours,” she confessed.  “It’s just ideal, you know, living with other people.  Sharing life.  Raising our kids together.  We’ve talked about it for years.  It’s just… well, I just don’t think that it will ever really happen, you know?  It’s just harder than you think.”

She (and the other mom friend, having recovered from the look) peppered me with questions–how did this come about?  Did we really think that it would work?  How long did we plan to have them live there?  How big was our house?  Did they have their own kitchen?

I tried my best to answer their questions, some being easier than others (do they have a kitchen?-no, do we really think this will work?-uhh… hope so).    But as I talked about our plans, I was increasingly intrigued by my friend’s experience.  Why was it so hard for she and her friends to make it work?  Everybody owned houses… yeah that’s an obstacle.  There was a bad experience of living with a family member… tough to try again.  She just didn’t know if they were “good enough communicators” (“not like you, Jen” she said and I pictured all my former housemates laughing uproariously).

“I just don’t know how to know if it will go well,” she concluded, and I turned her words over in my mind, picturing the (eight?) housemates who have come and gone, and imagining the ones still to come.  “I don’t know,” I admitted, “but so far, I would say it’s gone well.  Some relationships have been easier than others, there have been hard times, but it’s always been worth it.”  And to my great relief, I was telling the truth.

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Yonder is the Sea

In my late teens and early twenties I spent four summers working at Lutheran summer camps–as kitchen staff and counselor, in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  During these formative years, a fixture in my life was a woman named Mir.  Mir was the environmental education director at both of the camps I worked at (I essentially followed Mir and her camp-director-husband to North Carolina).  She was as short as her name, perpetually wearing hiking boots and packed with enthusiasm and energy for the natural world.

During the afternoon “activity time” I would sign my cabin up for one of Mir’s offerings.  She offered a slew of options, but my favorite was “Creek Critters.”  It was a simple concept.  We would gather at the creek and Mir would give us small plastic containers and largish eye-droppers.  Then we were set free to gather water samples and whatever critters we could corral (no water snakes please).  The samples would go under low-power microscopes and campers would watch tiny creek-dwellers dance across the slides.  Mir would congratulate each find as if the camper had discovered a new species.  It was bacteria and little bugs, but it was really really exciting.

The best part was the end.  After we had carefully released our critters,  Mir would stand at the bank of the creek and announce Psalm 104.  “Oh Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”  The campers–and I–were transfixed.  “Yonder is the sea, great and wide,” she indicated the creek with a grin and a wide sweep of her arm, “full of creeping things both small and great.”  Her eyes would shine as she exhorted us to take care of all that God had made, and we would return to the cabin with her words ringing in our ears.

It’s been more than a decade since I stood in those woods and heard Mir pronounce God’s manifold wisdom over creatures “great and small”, but I’ve never completely lost the sense of wonder that accompanied her words.  It came back to me this week as I was standing in my backyard, watching a swarm of children play and argue and run and fall, grinning as the goofy chickens shook and pecked and flapped and clucked, and wondering how so much life could be contained in one city backyard.

And yes, I did just compare my children to bacteria.