September 28, 2011
Yesterday, my posting initially failed and gave me a blank page rather than the blog. I hope you like this offering more than the blank page!
When Susie and I were dropping Kenny the car off yesterday, we talked a lot about our kids. We spared them this 3-hour chore – they were resting in the apartment – so we had time to talk about what we have observed.
While nothing they have done has been shocking, we have learned more about the personalities of those most precious to us.
I have already written about Liam and the heat-seeking missile. Once Liam gets focused on something, it becomes a borderline obsession. We have had two such topics on this trip. First, he would like a Russian blue cat. We were reluctant to relent, so we gave him the ultimate challenge: be nice to Virginia. Since this declaration in Vienna, he has been substantially nicer to her and most arguments are generally instigated by her now. I mentioned the computer as well. He has scheduled time with us today to share the Powerpoint presentation he has made on the proposal.
To the reader, it might seem like we have only had a few conversations on these topics, but it is actually more like a regular barrage of mini-chats. Susie has taken to calling him “the Penguin”.
This nickname requires some explanation. Susie and I went to New Zealand for our 10th wedding anniversary about 7 years ago. While there, we went to a penguin park where we observed wild penguins for several hours. The chicks were close to leaving the nest. In fact, they were actually bigger than their parents; equal in height and greater in girth. Still losing the last of their grey downy chick feathers, they were all alone at the start of our observation. They were alone because the adults spend the entire day fishing and return at sunset to feed the chicks. This explains why the parents are thinner. They swim and hunt all day long while the penguin teens do the equivalent of watch YouTube (i.e., nothing much).
The adults feed the chicks by swallowing as much fish as they can stomach, returning home and then regurgitating the fish into the chicks’ mouths (do not try this at home). When the chicks are very young, I suspect that this task is relatively simple to execute and touching to watch. The babies cannot eat much and they are not mobile. Mom and dad come to the nest, cough up part of a cod and move onto the next task.
With the adolescent penguins, the game is different. The chicks are big, hungry and mobile. Picture the scene: the teen-chicks need more food than ever, so they are starving at the end of the day. The parents have had to hunt harder than even to get the necessary calories for their demanding progeny, so they arrive a little later and a lot more tired at the end of the day. All they want to do initially is stand and relax – perhaps have a few minutes of adult penguin conversation. The teen-chicks are not interested in that plan at all. They walk up to whatever adult is closest (they apparently feed as a community, so any adult is fair game) and beg/intimidate/hound/pester them until they are fed.
The exhausted adults try to walk away. The hungry and persistent teen-chicks follow and beg. Like Liam on a quest.
Before I leave the penguins, I want to share one story that amused both of us. We were in our observation blind for over an hour, so we came to know the penguins pretty well. We saw a particularly large and persistent chick adhere himself to a single adult. The adult would feed a little and then walk away. The teen-chick followed. She (I cannot tell penguin gender, so lets call the chick a male and the adult a female) would feed a little more and attempt another exit, but to no avail. Finally, the adult spotted two other adult penguins engaged in some form of adult penguin conversation. I like to think that they were penguin sweethearts asking each other about the day’s hunt. The single penguin saw her opportunity. Since the two adults were so wrapped up in their own conversation, they did not see her or the massive teen-chick food-vacuum approach. She (the adult) strolled up to the pair, walked around them (so that the chick was now on the opposite side of the pair), said a few quick penguin words, and then virtually sprinted away from all of them.
The couple, still chatting lovingly, then noticed that their conversation had become a bit less intimate. A third head had joined the party. That head was connected to a demanding stomach. Adult time was over. It was feeding time.
I have since wondered whether this has a name in Penguin-speak. “If you are trying to breed, you will have to feed?” “The Chick Trick?” “First stand off, then handoff?” If there is not, there should be.
Back to our story. Liam is that penguin. Any long walk can become another well-argued lobbying session to discuss cats or computers. Very tenacious.
Liam, a reluctant picture-taker, has been avoiding any photos. Susie then told him that pictures increase the chance of getting a computer. Here is the result:
Virginia also loves to talk with the adults. Her conversation, however, is much less specific. But what she lacks in focus, she makes up for with sheer volume. She can become the Human Filibuster. As a family, we attempt to avoid interrupting each other. OK, that is not entirely true. Susie and I attempt not to interrupt people and we then ask that they not interrupt as well. This courtesy, however, can become a luxury when Virginia is in the middle of a story.
My mom (the Silver Fox) once said that her children could summarize a 1-minute TV commercial in half an hour. Virginia has this Baskin trait. If she finds her way into a detailed story about camp or school (or a recent injustice at the hands of the bigger kids), you are locked in for a long ride. Here’s an example. When we were in Prague, the tram that served our route was out of service, thus forcing us to walk over 4 miles to our apartment. On one such one-hour stroll, I honestly do not think I spoke more than 5 sentences. If you know me, I am not reluctant to talk. Yet there I was, relegated to silence as I learned about camp songs, inside jokes, pets (both real and imagined), art projects and oh so much more. I actually loved it. We walked hand in hand as she shared and shared. This walk was wonderful because I did not need to talk with Susie and she was enjoying a 4-way talk with the big kids. The challenge kicks in when the filibuster needs to be interrupted. If Susie needs to tell me something during a stream of consciousness session, she has the choice to wait for a stopping point (do not count on it) or interrupting. Here is a hypothetical example:
Virginia: “And then Caroline said, no wait, it was Maris, anyway she said that we should pet the pig first but I wanted to say hi to the goats whose names . . .”
Susie: “Steve . . .”
V: “. . . are Toats and Lily but the counselor wanted us to see the tortoise – not the turtle – but the tortoise named Walter Ann who is called that because we do not know if it is a boy tortoise or a girl tortoise who has red feet that are . . .”
S: “Steve . . .”
V: “. . .the same color as the red in my bedroom; you know the color of my fluffy pillow . . .”
S: “The apartment is on fire.”
V: “MOMMY, you interrupted me!!!”
Terrill is a different creature altogether. I might have learned the most about her. I have generally thought of her as having the easiest and more pliant disposition. She is funny and attentive. She likes her siblings. But she is not the easy-going person that I had previously thought.
I started to notice this truth as we would walk. Terrill likes to walk arm-in-arm. In a very specific way. Her arm enters from behind and her elbow is high – often in my side. She then navigates. Once “linkage” is established, I no longer have much control over where we walk. If we are going the direction that she wants, the walk is easy and I feel like I am in control. If, however, I am drifting in slightly the wrong direction (perhaps away from the cute shop that she had eyed), she becomes like a slab of granite at my side. When I eventually find the correct course, suddenly the walk is effortless again. She does not say “go there”, she just leads.
I feel like a well-trained horse.
This observation extends beyond walking. She is highly aware of every situation. She knows the way the wind blows. If circumstances are favorable to her desired outcome, she just “lets it happen”. If, however, she determines that the wind is blowing the wrong way, she springs into action. Actually, it is unfair to say “spring”. She is subtle. Like a Chess Master she is thinking 4-5 steps ahead. She is also wise to avoid stating her desired outcome – since we do not know what she wants, we cannot know when she is manipulating the outcomes. Here are a few examples.
First, she also wants a computer. Her desire borders on that of Liam, but she is essentially silent on the subject. She knows that if Liam is victorious, she will get a computer as well. [Note: Our children have not been living in a non-silicon world. We have 3 computers in a shared space at home, but they are used, older-generation Macs that are shared. Liam and Terrill want more specific computers and sole possession.] Occasionally, she will throw in a comment or two that points the conversation in her preferred direction, “so Liam will get $x to spend and get the computer of his choice?” or “Wiley will get a computer too, right?” or “if Wiley gets a cheaper computer, will he get the extra money for something else?”
Doing thus, she did not seem interested in getting anything for herself, yet she has learned the mechanism of the computer plan and what her options might be. If anything seemed to move in the wrong direction, she can then ask a follow-up question (perhaps in defense of Wiley) that will straighten us out.
Here is another example. For reasons that I do not fully understand, she has become the arbitrageur of sleeping arrangements. This position holds immense, but not immediately obvious, power. Remember when you first learned that the Lieutenant Governor has more power than the Governor? It is like that. Anyway, she has developed a system to assign beds as we go from apartment to apartment. All beds are not created equal. Single beds are the best. A double is less appealing. A double with Virginia even less appealing since Virginia is a very active sleeper (you have heard of sleep-walking?, this is sleep-aerobics). A double bed that is a sofa bed also has low desirability.
At some point, we noted that Wiley was sleeping the least with Virginia. We asked why this was true. Liam (no shrinking violet himself) responded, “I am not completely sure. Terrill has a system that we agreed to. It is OK.”
The system is cryptic to me. The boys seem to understand it. They at least have confidence that it is fair and just. Meanwhile, Terrill is like the chairperson of a committee that claims to be an equal member while controlling the agenda.
She controls soup distribution. She loves soup. She insures that we have several pouches of instant soup for the occasional lunch. When she then makes the soup, she distributes the soup with a power worthy of a Seinfeld episode.
I once thought that Terrill was the easiest-going child. I now have modified this as follows. She is a pure delight and great to spend time with, as long as things are going her way. After figuring this out, I described it to Susie and looked at her. “Yep, she is like her mother” was Susie’s only response. [Note: Let the record reflect the fact that Susie said this first.]
This brings us to Wiley. He is the hardest to describe. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s comment about the USSR. Wiley is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Someone once said he marches to his own drummer, but I do not think he hears any drum at all. We like to say that we are waiting the Mother Ship to return to pick him up.
He is quite bright. He is remarkably witty. He reads humor constantly. He has digested the collective works of Dave Barry, “The Far Side”, Bill Bryson, “Calvin and Hobbs” as well as regular Onion articles. He loves “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”.
He is also not scared to take a few swings. Some of his quips fall terribly flat, but he is back in the batter’s box moments latter taking another cut.
He is our most considerate and empathetic child. He strives to include everyone. He reminds me of a passage from JD Salinger in a book called Franny and Zooey. At one point, Zooey watches a little girl play hide-and-seek with her puppy. The girl would stand behind a lamppost and the dog would momentarily panic at the loss of its master. The dog then spots the girl. It jumps and yelps with pure joy. Zooey comments that there a “nice things” in this world, but we are “morons that get sidetracked” and miss them. Wiley seems to notice the nice things. He sees the best in his parents and his siblings. He finds a way to enjoy every activity.
Here are two examples. First, we have seen a lot of churches. My love of architecture leads us to the most notable structures in every city we visit. In much of Europe, that means churches. Most of the kids roll their eyes – “not another church” – but Wiley developed a strategy to amuse himself: the Sebastian+Slaughter index. He enters each church and then walks around looking at every painting, stained-glass window, mosaic and sculpture in detail. He appreciates their beauty but he also is keeping a count of two subjects: San Sebastian being shot with arrows and the slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod. You might think this odd. You would be right. Yet the result is a happy young man that is really looking at every piece of art in every church.
Here is a second example. We went to a one hour Flamenco performance. It was actually quite compelling, but if you do not care about dance (Wiley does not) or virtuoso guitar (not much here either), it can be a tedious hour. Wiley spotted a blond German woman in the front row who provided the needed amusement. She was into the performance. By “into it” I mean that she was absolutely transfixed. She was staring with a rapt focus until a particularly stunning guitar riff or dance step, whereupon her head would snap forward or sidewise violently. Her eyes would then grow larger briefly before she retreated back to her rapt position.
Wiley found this hilarious. Problem solved – he enjoyed the show.
He is the sibling that everyone gets along with most easily. Since he worries about their feelings, they worry about his.
So how does Wiley get what he wants? Virginia wants conversation and companionship, so she employs the filibuster. Liam is the penguin. Terrill is the chess-master. What about Wiley?
He is the zen-master. He strives by not striving. At any given time, he does not really want anything in particular, yet he gets it. Sure, he would like a computer, but not enough to make a big deal about it. Yet we all see the writing on the wall. New computers are coming soon for the big kids as they enter high school. He does not worry about sleeping assignments, yet he has been getting fewer sleep-with-Virginia nights than anyone (as documented above). He sits at a concert that has no appeal and a maniac German Flamenco fan provides all required amusement. He probably does not want to go to the Prado (largest museum in Spain), yet I happen to know that it is simply packed with arrow-laden Sebastian paintings.
As parents, we wonder about this strategy long-term. How do term papers or college applications get done in the world of non-striving? Yet he has the gift of love and happiness.
I realize that this has been a long blog focused on our kiddos. Generally, I am not the parent that talks about his children all the time. I know that everyone thinks that their own child was the prettiest baby or their joke was the funniest comment. I do not tend to fall under this misperception. I know that my children looked like a combination of Yoda and Winston Churchill as babies. I know that they are often silly and that they fight more than I would like. I also know that most parents do not want to hear too many stories about other people’s children. Having said that, they are central characters in our trip. Like Kenny, San Sebastian, mountains, museums and architecture, they are constantly on the stage of our drama. Since I have learned as much about them as I have gothic painting, I just want to share.
Also, Susie reminds me that this is the purpose of our trip. We have missed the summers of lazy bonding with our children. Bonding is as much a goal of this trip as education and fun are. Remembering this goal, we are having a great trip.
On to Madrid.