A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Home for the holidays
Ah, yes. The summer weather has arrived, and with it the end of school. Keefeís definitely got more spring in his step having successfully endured the school year, and the few days remaining will be filled with games because his teacher knows sheís squeezed the last drops of effective learning into her mob of twitchy grade fours. As a high school drama and English teacher, Janís experience is somewhat the opposite: she just put in ludicrous amounts of overtime running the school play and has final assignments, exam marking and report cards to look forward to. She too, though, has the end-of-the-tunnel light glinting in her eye. So what now? While virtually every kid in the western world feels like they finally get parole, parents seem to be split on the joys of schoolís end. As I meet Keefe outside the school doors to walk him home Iíll try to mentally size-up the other parents' feelings about the day by watching their faces. This simplifies things, or this complicates things? Wonít it be great to have them home? Where am I going to put them now? How are we going to fit in the billion things we want to do? What the hell am I going to do with them?
If youíre curious, Iím in the simplifies, great and billions columns, although the latter is negotiable. Last summer, Keefe went to a couple of different day camps, and we discussed lessons in everything from guitar to horseback riding before deciding where to squander our limited budget. We had just taken possession of our new house and were frantically renovating, decorating and unpacking, and didnít plan anything like a vacation apart from that. This year, we plan to see rare and exotic sights like the basement floor, do the cheap-o vacation to stay in my sisterís new house in Ottawa, and, as in previous years, I have great intentions to make more time to write. Keefe has openly said that he wants to have the entire summer to "just do nothiní," so can make plans with his friends on the fly. As Robert Persig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, "We want to make good time, but for now this is measured with emphasis on 'good' rather than 'time', and with that simple shift in emphasis the whole approach changes." I want to find some cheap used bikes and ride through the local botanical gardens together. Iíve composed a long role playing game I want to share with Keefe and some of his best friends, and I want to sing together every day, make up silly songs and maybe record ourselves. I want to feel the sun on my face and breathe deeply of the fresh air. All of this is potentially free, or at least cheap, and invokes the restorative quality thatís missing in a cram-in-everything-you-can vacation.
Naturally, nothing is ever entirely that simple. Itís ironic how complicated it can be trying to create more simplicity in your life. Last week's newspapers alone reminded me of several things I rather wish I could forget. Urban air quality continues to deteriorate, with more smog days last year than ever before and this summer expected to be worse. The ominous specter of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (what Aunt Doris refers to as 'CHIB', or 'cow hole in brain' disease) has reared its malformed head over Alberta's prime beef industry. SARS has killed 33 people within an hour's drive of me so far, and Monkey Pox recently joined it in today's lexicon of communicable infection terrors. Mosquitoes carrying the West Nile Virus engender so much fear that the city where I live plans to fog extensively with malathion, an insecticide linked to human birth defects and other abominations. Governments held over the NAFTA barrel can't propose labeling genetically modified foods because sacred sales figures might be affected by a natural caution about veggies developed by trial and error in a Monsanto lab. Is it me, or does it sound like about the most dangerous thing I could do right now is have a bunch of people on our back deck for a friendly barbecue? I mean, what's left? Throw in a few child abductions and some international relations and we might as well spend the summer budget fortifying the rec room and never go outside.
But you can't hide from life and claim to be living it. When Hugh makes volcanoes erupt in his sandbox, he hardly thinks about getting dirty. As with any of the other issues that bedevil me, my response to all of this is pretty simple once I look at my family for inspiration.
First of all, it reminds me that time is short, and therefore one is compelled to savor it. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow, would I feel good about the time I shared with the boys today? The end of school means that our children are suddenly more available, so we get to pencil more time together. As family came first when we were born, reconnecting as a family comes before the larger circle of our friends.
We turned down several tempting invitations this weekend to declare a spa day, pampering ourselves with foot scrubs and tub soaking goodies, and the simple time spent laughing together in the bathroom was so restorative to the spirit I was astounded. Celebrate schoolís end as a big welcoming home with a favorite meal or a late breakfast in bed, or read the new Harry Potter book aloud together. Even if youíre back to work on Monday like every other shmuck, make the weekend yours to really honor the growth and changes the year brought. For anyone with school age children, this is a more meaningful New Yearís celebration than the arbitrary winter one. Break out the bubbly and make resolutions. Seize the day!
Secondly, I am driven to be informed. It might mean a lot less anxiety if I didnít read the damn papers to begin with, but slamming my head into the sandbox like an ostrich in a cartoon isnít going to bump the odds in our favor. Janís frustration at my appetite for morbid realities notwithstanding, education is never a waste. Thereís a place beyond being paralyzed by things you read in the papers, which is an impulse to action. Changing our grocery shopping habits can boost our immune systems, and Iím building a bat house for cheap and entertaining mosquito control. With an election year coming, I become an activist however I can. Maybe Iíll write some folk songs about the issues and sing them for the local radio station. Even the GM foods have an entertaining home schooling lesson in them. Do you know they splice genes in corn and wheat by shooting them with a .22 shell full of stainless steel needles dipped in a DNA solution? Some of the DNA slams into cell nuclei *at random* and then they see if the plant that grows exhibits the traits they hope it will. Okay, Mother Nature - freeze! Do what we tell you or weíll shoot you again. Is there a potential comedy routine here, and if so, whoís laughing?
Itís also nice to learn how little our fears are often based on. Those Alberta beef farmers are being laid low by a single cow. Violent crimes like child abduction are up to 30% less common than they were a decade ago, depending on where you live, but media coverage of them has gone up over 600% in that time. I can gripe at Keefe about the wisdom of wearing a hat, especially as he is very fair skinned, but a sunburnís not going to kill him. Itís just the childhood price of feeling the sun on your face and he can pay.
So finally, when I come to the limits of how
I can improve the odds
and Keefe rolls his eyes at being cooped up
with his parents for
Peteís sake... I let go. Weíll have the
best time we can, everyone in
the house will get to fulfill some whims, and
Iíll sample Keefeís sense
of this time being free and easy as much as
I can. I donít imagine
that weíll be white water rafting any time
soon, but I can have that
barbecue and feel like Iím being a wild
man. Look at me: Iím living on
the edge! Pass me one of those beers, would
you? Itís a beautiful day.
Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe. Send feedback for Michael to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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