Despite the undeniable lack of enthusiasm from my people, I generally insist we venture out into the natural world every weekend. I don’t know what it is my children find so painful and punitive about breathing fresh air and putting one foot in front of the other for a while, but they do. Find it punitive and painful. And every weekend when I, or the slightly less-inclined professor, make the dreaded ‘announcement’, I brace myself for the litany of complaints about to rain down on my head.
‘But I hardly got any time to play,’ is the one I hear most often. It’s the complaint that annoys me much more than any of the other ones (but we went on a walk yesterday, but we’re having fun, but I haven’t gotten to do [blank] yet, but I hate walking, but my foot hurts, but my back hurts, but it’s cold outside) and immediately propels me into math teacher mode.
‘What time did you get up this morning? 8? And what time is it now? 3:30? That’s sevenandahalf hours to do exactly what you want to do.’ And then I imagine African children carrying water from wells or Asian schoolchildren spending hours each day in ‘extra’ classes outside of school. ‘No child in the world gets as much time to play as you do.’
(Which, who even knows if that’s true. I’m basically just giving my boys material to use in mocking me later in life. We’ll need something to talk about at Thanksgiving.)
After a sufficient amount of complaining has occurred we climb into the van and drive – to the soundtrack of the Grievance Trio – to wherever we’re going on the dreaded walk.
Last Saturday, we did just that, making the short drive to Edworthy Park which, despite the excellent temperatures, is looking rather skeletal these days.
It had been five short days since Justin Trudeau had been elected the new Prime Minister, and the Gort still had politics on the brain. ‘Ten years of Stephen Harper and we have a $1.5 billion deficit,’ he recited from the back, as though practicing for an upcoming voiceover. The professor and I sputtered because it really did sound like we were inside a traveling political ad, and where does the kid hear this stuff? Undeterred by the barely suppressed laughter in the front of the van, the 11-going-on-45 year old sighed, ‘and now, if the Liberal Party is going to do everything they say they’re going to do….we’ll end up with a $10 billion deficit! Next time I’m voting NDP.’
‘You mean next time you vote in your mock election,’ I couldn’t resist.
‘You mean Mulcair?’ the professor couldn’t resist. ‘He lost! Big time.’
This is what happens when three firstborns communicate.
I steered the van into one of the many parking spots – another sign that beautiful, yellow-leaved Fall is a thing of the past: plenty of space to park. We spilled out of the 98 special onto the gravel and headed for the train tracks. Just as an enormous train arrived at the crossing. Not ones to stand around and wait for a huge train to pass, the professor veered left so we could keep walking – a logical move. Unfortunately his youngest son had decided crossing the tracks was where he wanted to go and, just like that, approximately 7.9 seconds after getting out of the car, we had our first tantrum.
Sadly, it was not a new Johnson family record.
We walked to the soundtrack of Percy’s unhappiness, the professor doing his best to fabricate a faux event or competition, so as to stop the trail of tears. The best he could do was initiate a race to do lateral jumps across a grassy median. It stayed the sadness for at least three minutes.
‘What are the things I’m good at, Mama,’ the Gort suddenly asked, seemingly out of nowhere, calling me Mama, instead of Mom which he uses 99.99% of the time. It meant he really wanted me to pay attention, give him a serious answer. Parenting is like this, I’ve come to conclude over the last 11 point 5 years. You’re basically on call twenty-four hours a day, to be summoned at anytime, with absolutely no notice and likely zero experience, to shape someone’s soul or offer words that they could potentially remember for a lifetime.
Here I thought I was just putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to get 3000 steps on my fitbit. But there, in the middle of my 540th step, I was suddenly expected to be part career counsellor, part insightful wise mentor-type.
My philosophy in these matters is to be honest. And kind. And encouraging. And hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me during Thanksgiving 2027. I did my best, pointing out the strengths I see and how I could imagine them developing as he grows older. And then, just as suddenly as the moment began, it ended, as he raced off to join his brothers in searching for beavers and crawling through Narnia-like twig forest.
I meandered on alone, decidedly less interested in searching out potential beaver homes. I heard the professor initiate another competition to advance the troops in a more timely manner: ‘let’s see who gets to mom first.’ And six seconds later I had two boys ‘tagging’ me in the back with the sort of heavy-handed slaps that caused me to lurch forward a step or three. All while chanting something like: ‘First is the worst. Second is the….Third is the golden egg….’
If pressed to sum up boy life in one word, it would be: competition.
‘It smells like dog poop and pepperoni,’ the Gort observed. And I smiled at the very specific, if unusual, olfactory combination.
We walked to the river to go throw rocks into the water – because in addition to competition, boys also like to throw things. Percy took this opportunity to announce he had to go to the bathroom rightaway, which is pretty much his modus operandus these days: refuse all logical and timely opportunities for bathroom breaks, wait until the last possible moment, then wait another five minutes and then announce in a hyperventilating sort of voice that he must find a bathroom. Immediately.
Thus the professor escorted him to the nearest facility while the Hen and the Gort and I stood by the river. ‘Didn’t the water use to come up to here?’ the Gort worried aloud, pointing at a line in the rocks. ‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘Is this because we’re consuming too much water?”
And I muttered something about water levels and melting snow, hoping to sound semi-informed despite the fact that I’m clueless.
The brothers picked up a flat grey rock from the sea of flat grey rocks. Remarkably, it had writing on it: ‘I really don’t think I need buns of steel, I’d be happy with cinnamon buns.’ Ellen Degeneres. The humor was lost on them. As was the concept of a quote. As was Ellen’s last name, which the Gort twisted into something like Dee-Ju-near-us. Sometimes I think all that Spanish is really messing with his English.
While watching the Hen hurl rocks into the Bow River, I got a text from the professor. The first bathroom had been closed and they’d headed to the one near the parking lot and were waiting for us there.
We meandered back and the boys migrated towards the playground where Percy was sitting on the tire swing. ‘So, why don’t you tell mom that advice you learned today,’ the professor prompted his youngest son. I assumed it had something to do with waiting too long to go to the bathroom. But instead the professor relayed the chatter he’d overheard from outside the port-a-potty his son had occupied.
‘Wow, that soap is really old.’
And then, when his son emerged from the port-a-potty and showed his father the ‘really old soap’ he’d used to wash his hands?
It turned out to be a urinal cake.
The professor recoiled, while I covered my ears and walked back to the car, having expended my stand-and-wait energy at the river. Minutes later I heard the professor yell our family creed: ‘Last one to the car gets left behind!’ Because this summer I thought it would add a ‘lovely sense of occasion’ to our gas and bathroom breaks; telling the boys that whoever made it to the car last would get left behind.
They will either be scarred for life, or learn resilience – only time will tell.
Luckily I was already standing at the passenger door. The professor unlocked the car and we jumped in, with Percy joining us shortly thereafter. ‘You only need one child,’ he shrugged heartlessly when I suggested we lock the doors and drive off. But then, in a rare display of brotherly love, he unlocked his side door to let the Hen in, motioning furiously while whispering to him to jump in lest I pounced on the lock button.
Which left the Gort, last man standing, scrambling to get in the locked van. The professor tapped the gas and the van inched forward. While a man walking his dog laughed at the spectacle that is us.