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.