It is just after 4 o’clock in the morning. I know this because I hear my son’s husky voice declare, “Omigod! I can’t believe it’s 4 to the 12!” (Me either. sigh)
He is looking at Aaron’s cell phone, at the clock that dominates the screen when the phone is charging: 4:12. I see his face lit only by the eerie greenish glow of the phone, his hair all bed-heady, his eyes animated and intensely focussed.
I should be annoyed. Sleep is the most precious thing in the life of a parent of young children, and I do not take kindly to being woken up if someone is not puking or if there isn’t, at the very least, a fire.
But Zeke catches my attention with what he says next, melting away any anger that might have been forming.
“Is the north getting cold again Mom?”
We’ve been talking about global warming. We heard a report on the radio about how scientists are struggling to find a way to preserve the polar bear species outside of their quickly disappearing natural habitat without placing them all on public display. The reporter said that, for the first time, it appeared quite possible that we would live in a world without polar bears within his lifetime. Zeke was riveted and concerned. He kept asking me how this could be happening. We watched some YouTube videos of polar bears sloshing through melting ice and swimming aimlessly through endless water, in search of something solid to stand on.
One chilly morning he leapt into my lap, threw his arms around my neck, and exclaimed,
“I have great news Mom! The earth is getting cold again! Look outside! The sky is all gray! I think it’s going to rain!”
He was so exhilarated by this miraculous development, by the extraordinary fact that a horrible tragedy appeared to be reversing course, that there was just no way that I could explain to him that the whole mess was a little more complicated than that. So I just hugged him close, told him I loved him, and made him some breakfast.
This morning, though, the streets still relatively quiet, the street lamps still lit, Zeke’s mind has clearly been buzzing with activity for quite some time.
He speaks quickly, inspired:
“What if I brought a big bucket of ice up to the north? I could pour it in the water and make it all cold again!
“And when that bucket gets empty, I could bring another and another and another.”
Another idea occurs to him, “Or I could make a machine that shoots sticky snow! It could stick the snow to the other snow so that it was all one big thing again! But it wouldn’t stick to the bears! Just to snow, and the bears would have a whole big ice land for their home again!
“It could be my GREATEST INVENTION!”
My voice is thick, hoarse with sleep, and I feel genuinely sad as I say, “I wish you could fix it that way sweetie, but unfortunately the problem is much bigger than that. What will need to happen is for all of the people in the world to change the way that they live and to try and take better care of the earth.”
Zeke looks at me very seriously, his voice is world-weary (at 5) and thoughtful, “Yes. Because many people don’t care about the earth. They are selfish and they only think about themselves and their families.
They don’t realize that THE EARTH IS A LIVING THING!”
“You’re right,” I say. “It’s a very big problem and the grownups spend a lot of time arguing about what to do, when they could be trying to fix things.
Then Zeke fixes his blue eyes steadily on mine and says, with a very adult determination,
“Well, then it just might be up to the boys and girls.”
We spent some time in a small cottage in Vermont this summer. Our children shed their shirts and shoes moments after we arrived and it was a delight to watch my two Brooklyn-born boys dart about freely in all of that nature. They scampered happily through fields, amassed collections of sticks and pebbles, scaled boulders, and explored old barns.
One evening Zeke discovered a copy of The Lorax by Dr. Suess on a shelf. It begins with a little boy exploring a barren wasteland and wondering how it came to be that way. He comes across the mysterious Once-ler, the only living being there, who tells him the story of discovering this idyllic land, once filled with adorable animals and a forest of beautiful “Truffula trees”. The Truffula trees are topped with fluffy, candy-colored foliage that the Once-ler used to knit cozy garments called Thneeds. This quickly becomes a profitable business. As the business grows, the Once-ler builds factories and chops down many, many trees, to keep up with the public’s demand for Thneeds.
As the landscape changes a small mustachioed figure called The Lorax appears, saying, “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees.” He urges the Once-ler to care for the land so that the animals and plants can survive there. The Once-ler, who has become wildly successful, ignores the Lorax’s warnings and eventually the air and water become so polluted with waste from the factory that all of the animals are forced to leave. He short-sightedly chops down all of the Truffula trees as well, leaving his business unable to survive, and leaving him alone and broke on the land that he has decimated.
Zeke was engrossed by the story and as I read his brow creased with concern and his blue eyes grew wet and heavy. In his 4 years, he had never encountered the concepts of corporate greed, environmental devastation, or short-sighted selfishness that the story explores and again and again he asked me to explain why the Once-ler would act this way. As I read on I began to wonder if I really wanted my kind-hearted little boy to be aware of this negative side of human nature. He seemed so deeply effected by the Once-ler’s actions and by the powerlessness of the Lorax who speaks up, but can’t seem to bring about any real change.
Then we came to the conclusion of the book
The Once-ler summons the little boy closer and tells him that when the land was left uninhabitable, the Lorax picked himself up and floated away, leaving only a stone carved with the world UNLESS. He drops into the boy’s hand a tiny seed, the last of the Truffula seeds, and explains to him that UNLESS someone like him cares about things, nothing will change. He urges the boy to take care of the seed, to give it clean water and air, to protect it, and grow a new Truffula forest, so that maybe the Lorax and his friends can come back. And as I read the closing lines I could see Zeke’s mind working. He had the joyous light of hope in his eyes and my arms broke out in goose-flesh as I looked at his ecstatic expression and realized what a profound impression this book was making on him. He spent a long time flipping through it, gazing intently at the pictures, his eyes still lit with possibility.
On a sunny afternoon a few days later, we visited a nearby pond to go swimming. Aaron took Zeke out into the water, while I took Jack by the hand to explore the weeds by the edge of the pond, in the hopes of scoring a glimpse of a frog, a turtle, or a darting school of minnows.
We came across a group of children hard at work on an ambitious project. They were mostly spindly-legged boys, with sun-bleached shaggy hair, tirelessly carrying out the orders of their leader, a long-legged girl of about 12, her hair in thick brown braids. She directed them with a stern humorlessness and angry confidence that had clearly been learned from the adults in her life. She had broken her crew into two groups, each group working resolutely on the two sides of what I will call, “Project Salamander”.
The weeds by the edge of the pond were filled with little adorable, squishy, brownish-greenish salamanders who were covered in perfectly round yellow spots. Their eyes were cheerful black bulges and their mouths curved upwards into friendly smiles. If you spotted one, like a shadow beneath the water, you had to move swiftly and decisively, or it would just dematerialize and instantly find refuge somewhere in the deeper darker water.
Half of the kids were trapping and collecting the slippery salamanders in a large red sand bucket– they had nearly 20 when we arrived– while the other half were constructing a pond for them. It was about 3 feet across with thick sand walls. They filled it with pond water and artfully scattered silver-dollar sized lily-pads over the surface, presumably to make it more natural and appealing to their amphibious captives.
Jack, who declared his intention to be a zookeeper shortly after his second birthday, was immediately entranced. He watched the children excitedly and, like the boys working on the Project, he quickly grabbed a bucket and fell in line behind their leader. Under her business-like, watchful eye, Jack was allowed to pour a bucketful of water into the newly constructed pond and to hold a salamander and pet it.
“So Cue-oot!” he squealed.
When the small pond was complete the leader allowed Jack to place one hand on the red bucket as her crew transferred the salamanders to their new home. Disapproval registered instantly on her face when she examined the murky boy-made pond and the salamanders lying sluggishly at the bottom.
“NO!” she snapped. “This isn’t working! They blend right into the sand so we can barely see them! And they aren’t really moving!”She dipped an authoritative hand into the pond, “No Wonder! This water is too warm! It’s warming up too quickly! We need cold water! Now!” She snapped her fingers at one of the boys.
When the boy returned with cooler water from the large pond and poured it carefully in, a portion of the sand wall slid down into the water, further obscuring the salamanders.
“They are going to get away!” the leader shrieked furiously. “Collect them! Put them back in the bucket!” She counted them carefully as each salamander was recaptured and put back in the sand bucket.
The pond abandoned for now, she put her entire team on the job of catching more salamanders. They walked slowly and carefully into the water, holding white nets. After each step they waited for the sand to settle to keep their view of the bottom clear. When a salamander was spotted, they swooped their nets down and scooped the little fellow up before he could scoot off to freedom.
When I commented on their impressive salamander catching skills, the leader looked at me humorlessly and said,
“Where my dad lives, we spend a lot of time catching crayfish and we have become quite skilled at it. We have found that once you can easily catch a crayfish, you can catch pretty much anything without too much trouble.”
As she spoke, the boys stood carefully at attention, awaiting instruction. By now, even I was a little bit afraid of upsetting her.
As I watched this bossy, brown-eyed girl, I flashed on the camping trips that my family used to take near the New York/Pennsylvania border when I was a child. I remember supervising my younger brother and sister as we scoured the forest floor, searching for these sweet little newts that were a bright, story-book illustration tangerine. We too would collect them in buckets, which we lined with grass and sticks to make perfect little habitats for them, where we imagined they would live contentedly as our pampered pets. I clearly remember how I would love them fiercely for an afternoon, or until something else caught my fancy.
So, I was quite taken by Project Salamander. I desperately wanted to pick up the salamanders and cuddle and kiss them too, but being the adult, I felt that it was more appropriate to insist upon my children acknowledging how amazing they were.
The boys’ cousin Nathan was with us at the pond and I lured him over to the bucket with an enthusiastic awed voice that never fails to pique childish interest.
Next I moved to Zeke:
“Come here Zeke! This is SO COOL! Look at what these kids have been doing! They caught all of these salamanders and they are so cute!You won’t even believe it!”
Zeke walked over and looked down into the bucket. Immediately his eyes went dead and in an strange thoughtless sort of move, like that of a toddler with a random destructive impulse, Zeke began to tip over the bucket. A chorus of “NOOOOO” rang out all around us and someone picked up Zeke who was kicking and yelling in a desperate fury,
“No! NO! They don’t have enough room in there!
They need the whole land!”
And my confusion at Zeke’s odd effort to ruin the children’s project disappeared as I saw his deep compassion and his furious passion. In that moment, Zeke was the Lorax and he saw beyond the charming amusement of a group of children, to the suffering of the confined salamanders, who deserved absolute freedom in the vast, cool, deep water that was their home.
As we prepared to leave our Vermont cottage, an impressively violent thunderstorm materialized. Thunder shook our little cottage. Lightening flashed across the sky and rain pounded the fields. Zeke and I were inside, finishing up the packing, while Aaron and Jack took out the garbage and got our truck.
“Oh no!” I said. “It’s raining. Do you think Daddy and Jack are getting all wet?”
My little Lorax smiled at me, and said:
“It’s okay mom. I love it when it rains. It keeps the earth healthy.”
And I remember smiling back at him, a great looping love in my heart, as I held his warm little hand and we looked out together at the staggering power of the storm.
Lately, Jack has been singing what he calls the “Lady Song”. While singing it he moves his arms slowly and gracefully. His movements are almost balletic, similar to the flowing arm movements of a traditional Hula dancer. And in a very soft, gentle voice, he will sing something along the lines of,
“Lady. Flowers. Beautiful. Christmas.”
It is always slow and quiet and soothing. He often requests that I sing the “Lady Song” (which I don’t actually know) when he wants to be lulled into sleep.
Then there is Kristin Davis. No, not the cute brunette from Sex and the City— the former “Manhattan Madam” of the glossy pink lips, bleached blonde hair, and pronounced cleavage that ran for Governor of New York State. When I am checking the mail, I frequently give some of the junk to the boys to peruse, just to keep them occupied. They will happily flip through a Land’s End catalog or look at the Phat Albert’s circular while we wait for the elevator or while I search for my keys. During the lovely Ms. Davis’s campaign we were inundated with soft focus, glamour shots of her stamped with provocative campaign slogans. One day I handed one over to Jack.
He was immediately smitten.
He gripped her head shot in his little hand. He stared at it. He kissed it. For a few weeks he would ask for his “Lady” picture before he left the house. In his seat, in the lower-deck of the stroller, he would clutch it tightly and gaze at it. More than once he fell asleep in the stroller, her photo pressed to his cheek.
I was shocked and a bit horrified by these obvious demonstrations of clear ideas about gender and female beauty that my child had developed at such a tender age. It didn’t come from me, of that I’m pretty sure. So where did it come from? Could this be nature at work?
And it’s not just Jack. Once when Zeke was about 15 months old, we rode the Q train into Manhattan pretty early on a Saturday morning. Sitting across from us were two youngish “ladies” who were wearing lots of makeup and not much clothing. They were clearly heading home after a fun-filled Friday night. Zeke was sitting in my lap while I stared into the vague middle distance, lost in thought, when my attention was caught by the enthusiastic cooing and clapping of my young son. He was mesmerized by these women. He stared intently as one of them applied lip gloss. He flirted with them, playing peek-a-boo, smiling broadly, and waving.
The women were completely charmed. They laughed and smiled back, waved at him and exchanged giggly comments about how adorable he was until they reached their stop. When they got off of the train, Zeke followed them with his eyes, waving, and eagerly shouting “Bye-Bye!”, clearly trying to extract the last bit of their alluring feminine attention.
Recently, we went to a gathering at a family friend’s house. There were two tweenish girls there. They were all braces and lip gloss, skinny jeans and flat-ironed hair, and they sat sullenly at the margins of the party, rolling their eyes, slouching and texting. As I mentally thanked the good Lord that I do not have daughters, I watched Zeke size them up and wander into their general vicinity. He lingered casually with his Lego Star Wars guys, just close enough that they just might talk to him.
Of course they noticed him. He’s an adorable, floppy-haired, pink-cheeked little moppet.
“Oh look at him! Look at those blue eyes!” they squealed. “What are you playing with, cutie?”
And Zeke went in full force, talking to them at length about the coolest possible topic he could think of– STAR WARS! It was an endless incomprehensible monologue and he shifted nervously as he described in complex detail the way he was setting up his guys and the incredible adventures they were having. My heart ached for him. I could hear, from the lowered pitch of his voice and the way he was peppering his speech with “totally cools” and “that’s so awesome, rights?” how hard he was striving to impress these girls, and as I watched their eyes glaze over and listened to their perfunctory “uh-huh’s” and as I heard Zeke’s speech drag on and on and on, it was all so painfully clear:
Girls are going to happen to him.
This little scene will be re-enacted again and again and again and his poor little heart is going to hurt, and I’m just his Mom, and nothing I say is ever going to make girls anything less than devastatingly hard.
Then one of them interrupted him and said,
“So, which one of us do you think is prettier? Me right? Don’t you think that I look just like Megan Fox?”
And instantly, I wanted to cut a bitch. Why do girls have to be so much more sophisticated and freaking conniving than sweet, sincere little boys? Doesn’t she see how hard he’s trying? Couldn’t she play along just a little bit, and make him feel good about himself?
And that was when I noticed the chocolate ice-cream painting a pencil-thin mustache across Zeke’s face. Without thinking, I automatically dipped a napkin into my water glass, walked over, and began dabbing him clean.
Time slowed as I noticed the smirks emerge on the girls’ faces and watched Zeke squirm angrily away from me. How much more uncool had I just unconsciously made my poor little boy feel? And are these the roles we are just going to fall into without thinking, moms and sons, girls and boys, awkwardly interacting until somehow self-confidence takes over for him and this stuff doesn’t feel so fraught? Or is this all just me?
A few weeks later, we took the boys to First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. Zeke and his Dad were off checking out the galleries while Jack and I listened to jazz in the atrium. Jack was dancing when I noticed him notice a curly-maned brunette in a cute red flapper-style dress. She was sitting alone, bopping her head to the music. He walked directly up to her, passionately embraced her legs, and exclaimed loudly,
“I like you!”
She melted instantly, beamed at him, and gave him a hug back. Then she took his little hands in hers and danced with him for the rest of the song. I glowed with joy. It felt so good to watch someone appreciate my delightful little boy, just as much as I do.
It occurred to me as I watched them dancing, that when we are very young, we are naturally sincere, but that it is not until we are a bit more mature that we really appreciate and value sincerity.
My boys are going to reach out to all kinds of girls, some of them the plastic polar opposite of what I would deem appropriate. And I can’t do much more than watch uncomfortably and assure them, if and when they’ll listen, that there are girls out there who will appreciate them for just exactly who they are. Even if that is the same corny shit that I found completely unhelpful when I was young and insecure and my Mom said it to me.
I’ve got my role to play.