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Two nights ago, I went to the final demonstration for my husband’s robotics class (more on that to come). My former boss was there, with his two blond little girls in tow. They still remember me from when I worked for him, but are usually too shy to do much more than just greet me with big eyes from behind the ramparts of his legs.

This time, however, the older one’s shyness couldn’t hold out against the lure of a friendly face amidst a swirl of strangers. As soon as she saw me, she launched herself directly onto my lap and snuggled in, safe at last against the crowd. Truth be told, I was feeling a little overwhelmed myself, and the sheer warmth of that solid little body tucked into mine was just as much a comfort to me as it was to her.

As she perched on my lap, watching the goings-on intently, I rested my hand on her round little kid belly and marveled at the wonder of this small person. It was like holding a butterfly in my hand — I was so afraid to scare her away, and yet I wanted to just hang on to her forever. (Not in a scary way, I promise!)

I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Or, as a friend of mine said upon seeing a cute kid the other day, it made my uterus hurt. In that one instant, that simple, trusting gesture, my biological clock advanced by about half an hour, and my evolutionary clock regressed at least 10,000 years. All I could think of at that moment was, “Baby — GOOD.” In all of the hoopla surrounding my dad, I have done my best to ignore the relentless ticking of my internal clock. So far, I’ve done a damn good job. But there are some times when its song crescendos to a roar, and that single biological imperative is all I can hear.

This was definitely one of those times. In fact, it lasted all the way up to the minute she jumped off my lap and started wrestling with her little sister on the floor. Right about then, I thought, “OK so maybe it can wait a little longer…!”

You know those times in your life when certain things start recurring over and over again, to the point where they become a trend? Pretty soon, the trend becomes a fad. Finally, you just have to throw up your hands and accept that your life is taking you in a new direction, completely of its own volition. Sound familiar?

This is definitely one of those times for me. Yesterday, I spent almost twelve hours as a caregiver, first to a five-year-old and later to an eighty-five-year-old. Strangely enough, their needs were very similar: some food, plenty of entertainment, good company, and a little bit of exercise — but not enough to tire them out. Best part was, I received an equal amount of joy from fulfilling each of their needs.

At eight-thirty yesterday morning, my new friend Anna came over. Anna is a total rockstar. She has a marked preference for the color pink, a fabulous sense of humor, really sharp eyesight, and a great haircut. Anna is also five and a half years old. Her mother, who is quickly becoming a very good friend of mine, was going on a photography excursion nearby and didn’t know if it would be as entertaining to Miss Anna as it would be to her. So I told her to drop Anna off to hang out with us for a while. We planted seeds, went for a walk, spotted myriad monarch butterflies, and laughed at the many different dogs we saw. I made her snacks, we played Chinese Checkers (or some version of it) — it was a blast.

After Anna and I parted ways, my hubby and I headed out to my parents’ house to watch my dad for the afternoon. Now, he may move a bit more slowly than my friend Anna, but my dad is every bit as entertaining and just as wise. He too has a really cool haircut (or lack of one), and a fondness for fruit juice, cheddar cheese, and cookies. We also tend to spend a lot of time watching butterflies and taking his walker for leisurely strolls around the grounds.

I am definitely sensing a trend here. Be they young or old, I am being cast in a caregiving role more and more often in my life. This may just be a traditional part of being a woman, of getting older and taking more responsibility for others in my life. Perhaps. But I think it is more likely some form of karma, a way of giving back after having had my every need taken care of for the first quarter-century of my life. I was able to do amazing things, like go to Cuba and move to London for a year, just because I wanted to. I have been given so much, and now it is my turn to be the giver. That is clearly the current trend in my life, and I am more than happy with it. I have no idea where this path is going to take me in the long run, but then, that is what I’ve learned about these things — you can’t question it, you just gotta run with it. So here we go.

While riding the bus home the other day, I heard a student talking about her plans to study abroad in India. Judging solely by the high timbre of her voice and her valley girl inflection, my first thought was, “Oh, that one will have an interesting time of it.” I’m sure she imagines India as a very “ethnic” experience, full of bright colors, spicy food, and picturesquely poor people.

Of course I am stereotyping in the worst way, but I think it’s safe to say that most people cannot comprehend the reality of India before they travel there. (Having traveled there for six months when I was all of two years old, I can hardly be considered an expert on the subject myself.) And for a young girl in college, well, let’s just say that I know it would’ve been a shock to me. I could barely handle living in France for three months.

My second thought was that if she wants to experience a shockingly different reality, she doesn’t have to go all the way to India. There are places in California and all over the country that are just as far removed from living in Santa Cruz, places that need smart, idealistic kids to visit and learn about their world. It’s kind of like adopting kids from exotic countries when there are thousands of children right here who need good homes — the motivation is good, but you just don’t need to look that far.

I discovered this fact anew yesterday afternoon. Along with some coworkers, I traveled up to Oakland to visit a program that assists foster kids to transition out of the system when they reach eighteen. I left my office in the redwoods, drove for an hour and a half, and emerged from the company car into an entirely different world. As the crow flies, we were less than twenty miles away from the affluent suburb where my in-laws live. In reality, the two could not be more different.

These kids (adults, really, two having only just turned eighteen a few days before) have been through more kinds of hell than most people would ever want to imagine. You don’t need to hear their stories to know that fact. Their eyes bear witness to the life they’ve lived, as do their faces, which in a few cases bore deep scars.

At first, all I could see were our differences. From the moment we walked in to the tightly-run ship of this organization, I was transported back to being a gangly, overweight teenager, unsure of what to say or where to put my hands. I was an outsider, my clothes too professional and my wedding ring too prominent, all screaming that I was different from the proud, defiant children all around me. My hereditary privilege suddenly became a burden, a physical and emotional boundary between us, when all I wanted was for them to like me.

Then we started talking. I’m not sure if it was a testament to the institution where we met or to the kids themselves, but they were incredibly candid, self-confident, and totally willing to open up to a spoiled white girl like myself.

Once we got to talking, it turned out that we did have something vital in common: our relentless drive to learn. By some roll of the dice, I was lucky enough to get parents that prioritized education, who did everything within their power to get me as far as I could go — and then some. From them I gained an innate love of knowledge, and the pursuit of it has been my guiding light throughout most of my life.

These kids may have walked a very different path from me, but they have ended up in more or less the same place. Sure, they’ve been through some tough times, but now they are going to college, dammit, and nothing is going to stop them. Too many things have already gotten in the way of a good life, and they are determined to minimize the remaining obstacles by getting a college education.

So our differences melted away in the shared language of our dreams, and I saw in them the next generation of dedicated doctors, artists, athletes, and social workers. Quite simply, these kids are amazing, and I would have never met them if I didn’t venture outside of my happy little suburban life for a while.

What’s more, I didn’t have to go all the way to India to have a life-changing experience — all I had to do was drive to Oakland.

Once again thanks to Instapundit for the launch point of today’s blog. He points to an article in the Washington Post about the lack of time that modern children spend outside.

Turns out they would much rather spend it indoors, on the computer, watching TV, etc. In fact there, one study even showed “increases in sleep time, study time and reading time” amongst children. Oh, the horrors! Imagine that – they might actually spend time by themselves, doing what they want to be doing, which by the way might just include reading, sleeping, and learning. Good God.

All I could think of was the old adage that every parent has said to every child since the beginning of the modern age – “Go outside and play!” But since it’s the 21st century and every child is over-parented as it is, we now have to write big articles about it and launch a national “Leave No Child Inside” campaign.

Seems that the lack of time spent outside leads to higher rates of depression, eating disorders, and all kinds of other childhood issues. Yeah, no duh! I could’ve told you that. I have about a third of the energy of a growing child, and I get depressed if I don’t get outside for a walk or a run every day.

The most ironic part of the whole dang article though is that the National Wildlife Federation is now advocating a “green hour” for children: a mandatory hour outside for kids. (This by the way does not include time spent playing sports.)

Yes, this is exactly what we need – more structured time for our children! Great. In the era of shuttling kids back and forth between play-dates, day care, sports teams, music lessons, the school play, etc etc etc, the last thing we need is to put another time requirement on their day.

This all brings me back to an ongoing conversation with my Significant Other, which was corroborated this weekend in conversation with my brother. I don’t know what the two of us actually did as kids, but it sure as hell wasn’t play groups, day care, team sports, or any of that nonsense. And it definitely wasn’t an hour a day spent outside.

Instead, we just were. Plain and simple. We read, we gardened with our grandmother, we played make-believe, we acted like idiots and dressed badly. I guess we must have hit each other every once in a while… but not after my brother got taller than me, which was when I was oh, about nine years old.

And guess what? We turned out just fine. Neither of us is obese or particularly imbalanced emotionally; we are good, productive members of society; we can carry on a conversation and say please and thank you (that was a more recent development for some of us, i.e. the one who is not me).

But quite frankly, in this world of over-attentive parents, I am petrified to be that one terrible mom who doesn’t fill her kids’ every waking moment with activities, the one who – gasp! – lets her kids have unstructured time. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with keeping kids busy and active. It’s just that I simply don’t know how to be that kind of person, because that’s not how I grew up.

So before I start having a “green hour” for my kids, whenever they happen to come along, perhaps I will just rely on the tried and true. I will tell them, “Go outside and play!”

Or better yet, maybe I will take them there myself.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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