Long Days and Short Years

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


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Stop Growing Already

Not to brag, but…

Our kids eat kale.  Straight up, plain kale, in all its wrinkled green glory.  Kale, which is not just a commoner vegetable like carrots, but Superhero nutrition, somewhere on the order of brussel sprouts.  Or turnip greens.  Or something else I don’t like to eat.

All of this is thanks to a simple psychological trick, um… careful methodology… called reverse psychology.

It came about in this way:  One evening my housemates made dinner.  It was a grown-up favorite–sausage and kale over pasta, sprinkled with olive oil and feta cheese.  Yum.  The cooks were wise (experienced) and kept the ingredients separate for the kiddos.  Sausage in one section, pasta in the next, and a little bit of kale in one corner.

The sausage disappeared first, followed closely by the pasta, until four kids were left with lonely bits of green and the irresistible urge to leave the table.  “I don’t care for the yucky stuff,” our youngest cherub intoned.  “Kale, it’s called kale, and you need to at least take a thank you bite,” an exhausted grown-up replied, “We’re out of carrots.”

Rebellion was brewing.  The kids looked at one another.  Four of them and four of us, and though they were smaller, they were perhaps faster and definitely more agile.  They looked at us, and then…

Brilliance.  I think that it was housemate-dad who spoke first.  “You’re right kids,” he said with an exaggerated sigh, “Do not eat that kale.  It’ll make you grow, and we like you just the way you are.”  The kids were confused, but the grown-ups caught on quickly.  “Oh, of course!”  “Why would we give you such a thing?”  “If you eat too much of that, you’ll grow up.  And you are so cute right now.”  “Don’t you dare touch that kale!”  “Candy.  Nothing but candy for these kids from now on.”  “What were we thinking?”

And the kids shoved kale into their cute little mouths.  Did they know it was a joke?  I still don’t know–they were laughing, but they were eating.  They ate the kale, and asked for more.

“No, you don’t want more of that stuff.  Don’t you want marshmallows with  sugar sprinkled on top?  Ah, come on.”

In classic grown-up fashion, we milked our little trick for all that it was worth.  For weeks.  Kale was just the beginning.  It became a nightly routine–a well-balanced meal on their plate eaten amid our feigned protests.  The drama and the laughter increased, but they ate anything we gave them.  “Please.  Please stop growing!  Please!”

Can you blame us?  It was working so well.

And then.  One night, right after dinner, I took my eldest out to buy Christmas presents.  As we were driving, she spoke from her booster seat.  “Mama, I need to have a talk with you.”  “Yes honey?”  “Mama,” she asked, “do the grown-ups really want us to stop growing?”  “Oh no, of course not.”  I laughed lightly, but she was completely serious.

And she wasn’t done.  “Mama, did you like me when I was four?”  “Yes.”  “Do you like me now that I’m five?”  “Yes, of course.”  “Then, Mama, you will probably like me when I’m six or seven too.  Mama, you have to let us grow.”

Ouch.  I took a deep breath, trying not to smile, but now also fighting back a few tears.  This was serious.

“Okay, honey.  From now on, I’ll let you grow.  I promise.”

“Thanks Mama.”  I could hear her smile from the back seat.  Satisfied, she went back to watching Christmas lights out the window, but I swallowed hard.

Did I really say that?  Yes honey, I’ll let you grow.  I’ll let you grow, I promise.

And how many times will I have to say these words again?


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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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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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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.