Friday, July 17, 2015

Fields of Joy

            Last weekend we went blackberry picking in former pasture land that has been turned into an ecological research area by Ava’s university. The area is usually closed to people not doing some kind of research in it but for two weeks or so each summer the overseers open up the trails for folks like us who want to harvest blackberries from the various patches that dot the open meadow. Picking the berries is something of an adventure as they grow on stalks full of thorns that grab at your hands and clothing as you try to get at their fruit. It can be quite painful if they get stuck in your skin. In addition, as the area is being allowed to regrow from pasture into forest and brushland, wild things abound. You have to be smart about how far into the brush you’re willing to reach to get at a berry. Last year we went in a bit too far and suffered the consequences. Pip, in particular, acquired a distinct arcing trail of chigger bites all the way across his back. This year we were more cautious about stepping off the trail and managed to stay largely free of bites. We did, however, collect our share of ticks along our pant legs and were warned off from going down one branch of the trail by the agitated huffing of what we now think was a wild boar.
            Despite all of that we managed to fill a gallon sized Ziploc bag with berries after about 90 minutes of picking. Ava and Pip took the lead on this, plunging ahead along the path and grabbing most of the ripe berries within reach. Polly, dressed in a long sleeved shirt and red stretchy pants with little pandas on them, was a touch overwhelmed by the heat and hung back with me as I gleaned through whatever was left. The two of us had a nice time of things casually strolling through the meadow, Polly pointing out dark, plump clusters for me to pick, and the both of us stopping to examine anything interesting that caught our eye.
            It was particularly nice because as Ava and Pip rounded the bend and eased out of sight, Polly and I had some one on one time together. Moving by ourselves we found numerous June bugs, a brown, leaf-eating insect tucked under a briar, and a silvery green grasshopper that was smaller than a peanut. We listened to cows mooing and a donkey braying in a field across the way. We watched as red-winged blackbirds swooped low across the head-tall growth around us and finches rode back and forth on the stalks of purple flowered thistle. Polly was particularly intrigued by the numerous strands of Queen Anne’s Lace that lined the path and we found opportunities to compare its various stages of growth from fibrous stalk to hairy bud to delicate bouquet of croqueted white flowers.
            For half an hour or so, it was just the two of us together, and she was perfectly content going along with me. Her normal impulse is to stay close to Pip so as to make sure she doesn’t miss out on anything he might be doing. However, for that time, being with me was interesting enough or attractive enough to override that impulse, a fact that gave me an endless feeling of joy. At one level it’s always nice to feel engaged with someone in a process of mutually exchanged attentions. This is especially true when it comes to parents and children as I usually find myself being either the giver or demander of attention. It is the rare time that my kids and I come to a truly collaborative moment that hasn’t been engineered by Ava or me for some larger purpose. At another level, I’m always a slight bit unsure about what to expect from Polly in those kind of moments. With Pip, I’m his best friend. We talk. We play. We work together. He always wants me to do something with him. With Polly, there’s a touch of distance. I’m much more conscious of being her parent than I am with Pip. I’m always aware that she has a lifeworld that is distinctly separate from mine. She doesn’t automatically jump at the opportunity to go run errands with me or play in the yard together. She enjoys playing with me but sometimes she’d rather do something else with Ava or play on her own. This feeling of separation doesn’t create problems between us, but it does make me feel as if I have to earn things a bit more with her. I tend to coax her more when it comes to things like learning how to read or figuring out how to ride a bicycle. I’m less certain about what games she might and might not enjoy. I’ve let her do things like climb up a ladder with me that I would not have done for Pip. In this way we probably re-enact a fairly typical father-daughter relationship.

And so, to get a half-hour with Polly and to get it right, to not be overbearing or too eager, to find our rhythm together, make me feel like our time in the berry field was time well spent. Polly and I didn’t leave that field with many berries in our bucket but that’s not really why we were out there anyway. Picking berries, going on vacations, playing in the park, these are things we do in order to spend real, decent time with our kids. It doesn’t always come together in the way that we want, but happily on this trip it did.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Growth, both personal and communal

            Over the last two weeks we were mostly on the road visiting my parents. They’re living the retirement dream on a lake with a dock, a boat, and a jetski, and it means that whenever we visit them water plays a large role in whatever we do. For me this is great. I love swimming and water skiing and messing around on the jetski. I’ve done those things for over half my life. For the kids it’s a more fraught proposition, as we are constantly having to balance what different adults – me, Ava, my parents – want them to do and what they’re capable of enjoying. They’ve had a gradual introduction first to the dock then the next year to the boat and last year to the jetski. This year it was time to go all in. We strapped lifevests on them both and let them hop into the water to swim around with relative freedom. And they loved it. In fact, they could not get enough of the water. We had to drag them out each day to get food into them. We spent almost four full days at my parents and never got into our cars to go anywhere. Every time we asked either child what they wanted to do the answer was, “Swim in the lake.”
            I wasn’t surprised that they liked it. It just caught me off guard how much they did. I guess I’d forgotten how much fun it is to splash and jump and paddle and kick and bob in the water. Polly in particular was giddy. She would bob up and down and do circles in the water over and over again. She blew bubbles and dunked her face. She practiced her doggie-paddle and even stretched her arms out for a couple strokes of freestyle.
I’d been a bit worried coming into the summer about getting them both into swim lessons because we had not had much water time last year and being 6 and 8 years old the window for getting comfortable in the water is wide open. It turns out that all we needed was a full week of hot weather and a body of water close at hand. By the end of our visit with my folks – which included a three day jaunt down to the glorious beaches of South Carolina – Pip was jumping in deep water and treading with the calm of one who knows he can keep his head above the surface and Polly was leaping from the wall and willingly letting her head go underwater before I caught her. They were both experimenting with what they could do, inching along a little further without us having to push or cajole. It was the kind of learning one hopes for, the kind of learning that really sticks, perhaps the only kind of learning that really works in the end.

            The one non-water related event of interest for us that came out of our visit to my parents was the opportunity to watch a couple of games of the Womens World Cup. At home our television is not hooked up to any outside source of programming so we don’t have the ability to watch sporting events as they happen or even tape them for later. My folks have both and so we took the opportunity to watch the US-Australia game on tape and the France-Germany game as it happened.
It was hard for me to watch these games and not view them through the lens of the last time I’d really paid attention to women’s soccer: 1999 Women’s World Cup. In 1999 the discourse around women’s soccer was something along the lines of, “Hey, women can play exciting soccer, too.” It was a kind of defensive posture that indicated that this idea was something of a novelty. As we watched the games this past week, I was reminded of this a couple of times when my father – not a caveman but prone to occasionally making a socially dated remark – made a big deal out of one of the German players spitting on the field and then later asked if everyone was wearing shin guards. It was as if he was surprised that what we were watching was a hard-fought athletic endeavor and not some kabuki theater presentation put on for the sake of gender equity.
Now I don’t believe that this was his actually thought process. His words came out of habitual reflex more than intent. And my immediate feelings of defensiveness were just the same. I wasn’t just watching some games. I was purposefully giving my attention to these teams as part of a larger social project. It was politics as much as it was entertainment.

Fortunately, Polly and Pip have no such habits. They haven’t watched enough sports to care whether the players on the field are men or women. They don’t hear the title “Women’s World Cup” and think of that as some lesser version of the “real” World Cup. They got to watch the games and enjoy them for the entertainment they are and not the politics they represent. They got to watch France play Germany and get attached to their attacking style and feel crushed when the final French shooter missed her penalty kick all without the baggage of wondering how it compared to a men’s game. They got to cheer when Megan Rapinoe scored that first goal for the United States against Australia and ooh and aah when Hope Solo made a couple of diving saves early on. And while we didn’t watch the final on Sunday night, they’ll get to see highlights of Carli Lloyds spectacular hat-trick and revel in the pure stunning amazement that sports can bring without being bothered by any of the old questions. Frankly, it makes me jealous.