All parents come a little too close to the gorillas and alligators sometimes.

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It’s been a month since I last wrote anything more than a one-line love note or a grocery list. It’s not that I’ve been too busy to write, or that there’s been nothing to write about. It’s just writer’s block, really – or maybe plain old laziness. In any case, I’m back today because of two animals: a gorilla and an alligator. By now, the stories are well-known. A four-year-old boy visiting the Cincinnati Zoo climbed into the enclosure of Harambe the gorilla. The gorilla started dragging the boy around. Zoo officials made the heart-wrenching decision to save the boy’s life by shooting Harambe. A two-year-old boy visiting Disney was snatched by an alligator while wading in a lagoon. His father fought with the animal, but was no match for it. Divers recovered little Lane Graves’ body yesterday. The parents of both children have received harsh criticism – and, in some cases, pure cruelty – from around the world. These days, anyone with an opinion and an internet connection can say whatever they want to a massive audience in a matter of seconds. In some cases, of course, what people have to say is enlightening and uplifting. Other times, it’s as if we’ve handed a bullhorn to bullshit.

In all honesty, I am often quick to judge, myself. My first thought when I heard about these incidents was to wonder where the parents were and what they were doing. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt the uncomfortable sensation of my own pointing finger turning back to me. There are no perfect parents. On our confident days, we just know we’re doing a damn fine job. Other days, doubts gnaw at the edges of our underslept, overstimuated minds, and we feel like we’re doing everything wrong. The truth is, as usual, somewhere in the middle.

If the mother in Cincinnati had caught her son by the back of his shirt as he was scaling the barrier, if the father in Florida had picked up his son just seconds earlier, they’d be just like the rest of us – laughing uneasily about a near-miss, and deeply grateful that nothing bad happened. Because it happens to all of us. A few seconds here, a few inches there, a last-minute detour – and it could have been us and our children. In solidarity with these parents, I present my own gallery of gorillas and alligators:

  • When Fiona was just days old, I accidentally dipped her face below the bathwater. My mother noticed before I did, yanked her out of the bath and pounded her back until she sputtered and wailed. Would I, inexperienced, hormonal and sleep-deprived, have noticed in time if my mother had not been there?
  • A few months later, Fiona rolled off the couch onto the hardwood floor. I just didn’t know she could roll yet …. What if she had landed on her soft baby head?
  • Strolling along on a sunny day, Fiona’s car seat (with her in it) was ejected from her stroller as I rolled it over a bump, because it wasn’t connected to the stroller properly. She flew through the air, landing face down, and I cried with gratitude when I saw that somehow she was ok. She could so easily have not been ok.
  • Fiona just about severed Bridget’s pinky finger playing a door-slamming game. (And can somebody, anybody, tell me what is so amazing about slamming doors? Every time the girls get together with their friends, there’s always some point where I find myself yelling at them to stop slamming doors.)  Blood everywhere, screaming, stitches – and where were the parents? Having a coffee in the next room. Yes, that’s right, we were in a different room than our 3- and 1- year-old daughters, relaxing – and one of them got badly injured while we were at it.
  • Bridget had not one, not two, not three, but four allergic reactions to eggs before we figured out that eggs were her issue.
  • Fiona once opened the car door on the highway. And it wasn’t rush hour, either, so we were going full-speed. Thankfully, she was strapped into her booster seat, and the wind quickly forced the door shut again.
  • I turned my back for the length of time it took to tell Fiona to put on her shoes, and Bridget fell off the toilet straight onto her face. She still has a small scar on her forehead from the edge of the trash can. I suppose it could have been worse ….
  • Fiona toppled over on an escalator, tumbling down a few steps and crouching in fear as she neared the bottom. She bawled while I hollered at her from my place at the top of the escalator, clutching Bridget, to stand up and get off the escalator when it reached the bottom – and I was petrified that her hair or clothes would get caught.They didn’t. She listened to my frantic, barking instructions, and stepped off unscathed, aside from a few nasty metal-teeth gashes.
  • Bridget tried peeling potatoes …. and peeled a deep strip of skin off her finger. She bled copiously, and I worried about potential infection from dirty potato skins for days afterwards.
  • Fiona recently had an anaphylactic reaction to …. something. Her appointment with an allergist is in November, so I guess we’ll know then. Her reaction was not recognized until her face was swelling up and she was wheezing – because neither Ryan nor I thought she was that serious when she said she was winded from her time at the park.

The girls have been left alone in the house, and in the car. There’s been carpet burn because we weren’t close enough on the stairs, road-burn because we weren’t in reach during bicycle incidents. We’ve arrived at our destination and seen that one or the other of our daughters wasn’t strapped in properly. We’ve found ourselves in a scary situation because one or the other of the girls is choking on a food they weren’t ready for yet – or crammed in too fast. Both girls have broken away in a parking lot or across a street. They’ve both disappeared in stores. More than once, I’ve scanned the horizon at the beach and waited breathlessly for their sleek, wet heads to surface. They go to the park by themselves, and I wonder while they’re gone whether this is a healthy part of their development or me jumping the gun for convenience. Both Ryan and I have been distracted while driving. In fact, find me one person on the face of the planet who has not been distracted while driving kids around! But we’re ok. The kids are still living, breathing, fighting, lipping back, making messes and eating money – by the grace of God, by the hand of fate, by a hair, by the skin of their teeth. What would the headlines look like otherwise? I remember my brother almost falling into the Grand Canyon, and my father catching him by the back of his overalls. Stupid family drops preschooler in the biggest hole on earth. I remember being on a trip to Florida with my family when I was a child, and parking beside a beach and dashing for the cool blue water. My mother lingered behind and read a sign that warned of the danger of a Portuguese man o’ war infestation. She called us back to shore, and explained that this was not a good place to swim. We moved on. Stupid family ignores warning signs, swims in infested water, loses child to venomous creatures ….

There are so many times when the outcome could have been horrendous, heartbreaking, crippling. But it wasn’t. We got away. These families didn’t, who knows why – and they deserve our sympathy, not our ridicule. Imagine the emotions of the mother in Cincinnati as she saw her child at the mercy of a 450 lb gorilla and waited helplessly to see what zoo staff would do. Imagine the desperation of the father in Florida as he fought off the alligator. His son was dragged into the water by a prehistoric reptile, never to be seen alive again. What punishment could be harder than that? Yet asshole armchair quarterbacks do not hesitate to add to the pain by blaming the parents, who were doing their best.

In as much as we are all Nigeria, Charlie Hebdo, France, Syria, Orlando …. we are also all that mother, that father. The only thing standing between us and them is the luck of the draw. We are humanity, and the death of one diminishes all of us. Love and mercy today. That’s all.

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The dangers associated with being alive are a fact of life – whether kids use backpacks or not.

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I thought I might write about dandelions today. Since there are so many of them around, it seemed timely. But the nodding yellow puffs on my lawn (and your lawn, and her lawn, and his lawn, and everyone’s lawn) will have to wait – because something else caught my attention: school security policies. A few years ago, a man with a sawed-off shotgun entered a school in Buckingham (not far from Ottawa), threatening to kill everyone. He wandered the corridors for about fifteen minutes, while the school was in lockdown mode, and the secretary called 911. The incident ended well, with nobody hurt and the gunman apprehended by police. This resulted in a change in security protocol at the school Fiona and Bridget attend. People used to be able to wander in and out at will. The doors are now locked at all times. There is a buzzer that you press to alert the secretary to your presence, and she unlocks the door for you.

According to this article, students at one Long Island, NY, high school will now have to carry all books and belongings in clear plastic bags – backpacks are no longer allowed. In addition to this, they are locked out of their lockers for the rest of the school year. For a little while, all but one washroom for each gender had been shut down, and students had to sign in and out to use the toilet. This restriction has been eased a little: there are now four washrooms open to the students (yes, four toilets for over a thousand students), which will be monitered, but nobody will have to sign in or out. These measures have been adopted in response to a recent rash of threats, including at least one reference to a bomb.

I read a blog post about it, called “You will understand why this high school banned backpacks”. Know what? I don’t understand it – and I wouldn’t accept it. It’s nothing but a placebo, a sugar pill to calm the screaming masses. As one commenter put it, it’s “security theatre”.  The buzzer on the front of my daughters’ school won’t stop anyone from entering. Mr. Coo-Coo with his gun and his plan won’t be daunted by having to press a button, and will probably be able to bluff his way in even if he’s questioned (which he likely won’t be until he’s in, at which point it’s too late). As for the Wantagh High School, banning backpacks and sealing lockers isn’t going to do a whole lot to make people safer, either. Kids can pack heat anywhere – not just in their backpacks. Why don’t we make them wear see-through clothes? How about x-rays and cavity searches before each school day? Oh, and an armed security guard in each classroom – and two in the gymnasium, of course. While we’re at it, why not re-think the concept of school altogether? Instead of making our precious lambs leave their bubble, why not have them take their courses online? Since it’s unlikely that we’ll all agree on a line, let’s not have one. Let’s just go all the way to Crazy Town, together, in a high-security, unmarked, windowless, peanut-free bus.

The thing is, there is risk everywhere. Leaving your house elevates your risk of being robbed, beaten, run over by a car, eaten by a bear, attacked by a dog or a rabid raccoon, stung by a bee. Driving around is dangerous. Walking instead of driving is dangerous. E.coli and listeria lurk in our bagged salads and deli meats. You could talk to other people, but what if they’re stalkers or sociopaths or sales reps for Tupperware or Avon or Lia Sophia? Escalaters, elevators, stairwells – tripping, falling and dying hazards, all. Shall we tear off the top six / eight / twenty-five floors of every building, and have everything at ground level? You could go to the library or a park to hang out, but germs! Never mind waterslides or amusement parks or ziplining – many parents don’t even let their children go to public washrooms by themselves until they’re into the double digits. Our society has become ridiculously risk-averse, even though we’re safer than we’ve ever been – and it’s disturbing.

Yes, terrible things happen – sometimes, with no logic or even warning. A bomb threat at a school reaches into every parent’s heart and strikes at their deepest, darkest fears. But we have to rise above our hysteria and really think about our response …. We cannot live like rabbits, frozen or running scared at every rustle and twig snap. How much freedom are we willing to leverage to feel safe? Because that’s really all we’re doing – we’re changing how we feel. We shouldn’t pour time and money into things that won’t help anybody just so that we look like we’re doing something. Doing nothing is better than that.

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  – Benjamin Franklin

Hide-and-seek in the park shouldn’t require a threat-and-risk assessment.

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Hide-and-seek and me, we go way back …. Like using my fork, brushing my teeth or singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, I don’t remember learning the game – it was always just there.  It was a favourite of every kid I knew. One memorable game could have ended in tragedy when my little brother hid in the dryer, and I turned it on. André was small and trusting, and I was still smarting from having been displaced by his arrival. All the people who love him are still grateful that I turned the dryer off and opened the door after only a few seconds of thumping and wailing. He came tumbling out, blubbering about how hot it was in there. It should be noted that he was playing hide-and-seek with me again just a few minutes later. That’s how awesome the game is. Or, possibly, how scared he was when I told him I’d put him back in the dryer if he didn’t play another round with me.

Now that I’m all grown up, I still play hide-and-seek occasionally – it’s a favourite of Fiona’s and Bridget’s. In fact, our whole family played it just a few days ago. We had walked to the park in the rain, in search of puddles to slop around in. Then, Fiona suggested the game. Ryan and I became big kids for a while. It was fun to cling breathlessly to a big tree, listening to the confused seeker traipsing back and forth, peeking occasionally and muffling my giggles. The best part was when it seemed like the seeker was looking right at me, but he or she couldn’t see me. Then, bursting out of my hiding place with a whoop, hearing peals of laughter and “let’s do it again, this time I’ll count” …. Ryan seems to be the most skillful hider, followed by Bridget. Fiona just loves to make noise, and can’t seem to stay hidden long enough for anyone to find her. I can’t help laughing, and I don’t time my peeks very well.

As fun as it was, I couldn’t relax completely. There were many moments when I couldn’t see Fiona or Bridget – or both – because, you know, hide-and-seek. The ghost of the fear I used to feel whenever they disappeared from view when they were tiny came back to haunt me. Fiona used to have a habit of hiding in the racks of clothing at Walmart. The logical part of me knew what she was doing, but my heart would leap into my throat anyway – instinct, I guess. Then, there was the time when Bridget got lost in a Chapters store. I don’t know how she slipped away, but I still remember the rising, nauseating, screaming panic I felt in the two or three minutes it took to locate her. I can still feel her hot, tearstreaked little cheek pressed against mine when I scooped her up, wanting to yell at her and not being able to because I was hugging her so hard. The terror of not being able to see your child trumps the calming narrative that plays inside your head. “It’s ok, I saw her just ten seconds ago, she can’t have gotten far but-I-can’t-see-her-she’s-gone-my-baby-is-gone-somebody-anybody-help-us!

I didn’t say anything about it at the park. I didn’t want to give voice to my inner crazy – I didn’t want to transfer my worry to the rest of the family. But later, when the girls were tucked in and Ryan and I were hanging out on the couch with a bottle of wine, he asked me if I had felt nervous about letting them out of our sight, sometimes for several minutes straight, in the park. I admitted that I had, and he said he had, too. I felt relieved that I wasn’t the only scaredy-cat, and angry that this was a thing at all.

Really, this high level of anxiety doesn’t make sense. Crime against children is at an all-time low – at least, in our part of the world. Abductions are very rare, and usually happen at the hands of someone with whom the child is familiar. A child simply vanishing from a park in broad daylight is even more uncommon. However, that’s not the story told by the media, which splashes our nightmares as far and wide as it can, and milks every possible drop of drama out of every one. That’s not the story told by books or movies – because, as we all know, happy endings don’t sell like sensation. The influence of the media and entertainment, though, is only part of the problem. There is also the culture of fear-mongering and risk aversion in which our society has been stewing for years now. Any food could lead to anaphylactic shock, and even common medications have unexplored side-effects. Our homes are festooned with baby gates and child-proof locks and padded corners. Little Prince George is on his first world tour, and the biggest story so far is that his car seat isn’t up to the snuff-of-the-moment (car seat regulations being similar to the weather in recent years). From the big things like cancer and terrorist attacks to the little things like sunburns and food poisoning, today’s parents are, in general, the most frightened creatures in the history of the human race.

When I was a kid, I played for hours outside. Unsupervised. I could have drowned in the harbour. I could have flipped my bike and knocked myself out with only other youngsters to help me. I could have got into a van on an offer of candy, because that’s always how it was in the commercials. I could have fallen out of a tree and broken my neck. I could have been attacked by a hungry bear (we had alot of them around our town, particularly on garbage day). I could have crashed my snowmobile or fallen through the ice while skating. But I don’t remember any grown-ups shadowing us, or listing all the things that could go wrong as we dashed out the door, or making us stay inside because we were safe there. And I survived to raise the next crop – along with everyone else with whom I roamed, free-range.

Don’t get me wrong, stranger danger is real (and food danger and medicine danger and animal danger and-and-and). Kids should learn street smarts and assertiveness and common sense in general, and parents should be vigilant. But we also need to accept that there is a certain level of risk in everything – even if we never leave our child-proof homes. And not being able to play hide-and-seek in the park without that gut-gnawing dread tagging along is another tiny piece of paradise lost. I want to start taking it back. Maybe the first step is another game of hide-and-seek in the park …. Care to join us?