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Meerkats and Ravens

One... TwoThree.  One... Three... "Ummm... Oh hey! Hey Two!" Two, Three, Meerkat!  One just piqued a Meerkat!  I waved, just barely, quick eye contact, a tip of the head, a grin, a gentle raise of my hand in a faint parenting salute.  The meerkat's eyes flashed from mildly alarmed to mildly amused as they turned to watch One hook it down the sidewalk at a rocket pace, hands held flat for 'maximum speed' as she ran, jumping to a stop a few feet before the corner.

The gang--7 y.o. No. One, 5 y.o. No. Two, and 3 y.o. No. Three, were having a blast with their urban version of 'beneficial risky, independent play'.  They know they're free to do as they please as we wander around downtown, as long as they check every driveway, and stop to wait for me at every corner.  On the long city blocks, they tend to get way ahead.  I watch for a patch of pink polka-dotted tights, or a bouncing lock of ultra-blonde hair to flag them as they bob and weave through the crowds of San Francisco.  Sometimes they're running for the sheer thrill of the speed.  Sometimes they stop to check out new businesses they haven't noticed before.  Other times, they stop to strike up conversations with passers by whose attention they've nabbed.  I love it because we move along at a quick clip, I know where all of them are, (they're in front of me), and I get to watch their burgeoning independence.

As the kids gambol through the city, some adults, usually tourists, spotting an independent, rather small kid... well, they worry just a bit.  They look at the kid, then look again, then inevitably look up and around to scan the crowd for parents.  Meerkating, we call it.  I've learned to watch for it.  A little nod, occasionally a happy word or two, and the they're on their way.  I say it's mostly tourists because the neighborhoods the gang frequents have built up a certain familiarity with them.  When my partner and I get time for a rare date, staff near the front doors of San Francisco's downtown businesses come out to ask us where the kids are as we amble by. 

The first two kids, One and Two, learned the ropes of independent, risky play walking with, but tens of meters from me in grocery stores.  (Three learned not in grocery stores, but simply by hanging out with her sibs.)  The well-defined right angle turns of the aisles served as excellent intersections to get used to my hollered directions when necessary.  "Hard Left!"  "Hard Right!"  "U-Turn!"  The kids seemed safe enough.  They were contained inside four walls with lots of space and a pretty good line-of-sight from them to me. We soon discovered though, that grocery stores host ravens rather than meerkats.

Grocery stores--depending very much on their location within the country, and even within individual neighborhoods of various cities--can contain an odd lot of ultra-territorial shoppers.  They seem unconvinced that kids belong in their store at all, but unsupervised kids?  Surely disaster will ensue.  To be fair, the gang and I have been the recipients of amused grins from harangued parents with screaming kids tucked safely into their carts, but we've also seen the disapproving glares of shoppers certain that kids, free, happy kids roaming a grocery store must be, at some very visceral level, wrong.

Cruising through a grocery store years ago when No. Two was in fact probably 2 years old, he became fascinated with the bulk food bins.  Not with their contents mind you, but with their tied on shovels for scooping out said contents into a bag.  At the tail end of a slightly grueling shopping trip--Two had pulled out, and then re-inserted every bulk shovel he could reach--I wasn't very surprised when he peeled off from me at the checkout line to, excuse the pun ,check out yet another set of bulk bins across the aisle.  "No problem," I thought. "I'll just holler for him before I pay.  He loves the buttons on the debit-card machine.  This'll be easy."

I hollered.  Two did not appear.  I hollered again.  Still nothing.  Feeling a little nervous, I hopped out of line and went to check on him.  Two was gone.  He'd been captured by a raven.  Meerkats, verify safety and move on.  Ravens, collect.  Having found a prized treasure, they make off with it.  I'm sure they think they're helping just like the meerkats.  They are however, in my very biased, and not at all humble opinion, huge pains in the butt.  I'm sure the feeling is mutual.

A frenzied search for Two revealed that he was safe.  The raven had deposited him with a 'responsible adult', one of the store's staff who had seen Two wandering to and fro with me during the entire shopping trip.  She had immediately set out in search of me, and found me soon after.  The employee giggled, Two giggled, I heaved a sigh of relief.  All was well.

Two seems to attract ravens.  Perhaps it's the mop of shiny blonde hair on top of his head, I don't know.  When playing another of our urban games, 'splitting the route', he was captured again, this time by a more persistent raven.

We were hanging out at a playground adjacent to the museum we were headed to when my phone rang.  It was work.  My partner didn't even blink.  She took the kids and headed in so they'd still make their event on time.  I stayed and dealt with the call.

A few minutes later I was headed to the museum.  Needing to blow off a bit of post work-call steam, I took the route to the museum that went through the tunnels of Golden Gate Park.  As I emerged into the concourse in front of the museum I spotted Two.  He'd also decided to take the tunnels independent of my partner and the rest of the gang.  His approved plan was to wander up to the cross-walk, wait for Mom-person to turn up on the other side of the street, and then re-join the rest of the gang.  it was a gutsy plan that almost worked.

He never saw the raven coming until it was too late.  As I approached, I saw the raven stand over him, peering down into his eyes, in a surprisingly bird-like manner.  I was still a ways off, but I could see that she was asking Two something.  Transfixed by her avian stare, Two looked back unblinking, unresponsive.  I walked up, said, "Hey Two!" That was enough, taking the time to blink he regained motor control and wandered over to me.

"Is this your child?"


"Well, I just found him here!"

"Uh hunh.  Yup, you did."

"Well..." uncertain of where to go with this whole conversation, the raven side-stepped away.

Two and I headed for the museum.  My work call had been tense.  Ravens are a tense lot for me, our values tending to be at the polar ends of a spectrum.  A spectrum so wide it sometimes feels like a chasm-y void.  So, it is with some chagrin, but perhaps not so much surprise, I tell you that when Two decided further explorations of the area were in order--rather than heading directly for the museum--I had a less than respectful parenting moment.  I told Two we'd be late.  I'm sure I mentioned one of us sitting in a corner.  I feel certain it was Two who would have been doing the sitting in this scenario, not me, (admittedly it should have been me).

When I looked up form my stern rebuke the raven was back, but they weren't alone.  I was confronted with a conspiracy of ravens.  They'd brought three additional adult members of their family who were bouncing along behind in their raven-like gait, chests puffed out with the clear importance of their business.

"Are you sure this child is yours?"

Floored at the query--seriously, if this kid wasn't 'mine', (a word loaded with connotations of ownership that I personally try not to use),  wouldn't I already be inside the nice, quiet museum doing something blissfully calm?  I snapped.  "God-Damn-It! What the hell do you think!?"

Paradoxically, the conspiracy of ravens now seemed completely convinced that Two and I were inextricably linked by the sacred bonds of parent and child.  They all wondered off, gazes diverting to a hundred different places, their bounces ever so slightly smaller, chests ever so slightly less puffed.  Two and I made amends, and happily headed into the museum, taking time as is two's wont to occasionally explore a bit more.

I mentioned grocery shopping as our independent urban-play boot camp.  Grocery stores still serve as one of our key playing fields, but the game has evolved.  Now, the gang does part of the shopping.  The saved time cuts our trips in half.  The gang comes back beaming with their groceries in hand.  They've learned from their experiences.  They travel as an unstoppable pack now.  Ravens be damned.

Varied urban games weave through the cloth of the gang's history.  Actual shopping didn't evolve from learning to move about semi-freely in grocery stores as I might have expected.  It evolved instead from another game, wandering back into cafe's to retrieve napkins, water, or whatever small convenience the gang or I might need at the time.  That game didn't just become grocery shopping.  Now that One knows how to make change she also handles our takeout ordering.  I get to wait outside, blissfully taking in San Francisco's awe-inspiring architecture, immersed in the moist, yet somehow crisp with cold Bay air.

The gang continually invents new urban games.  Prepping for the day--not too many years from now--that they'll be able to head out on their own, they take charge of showing me how to get places.  I give them our destination.  They run ahead, waiting at key turns to make sure I've seen them before they head for the journey's next juncture.  The whole thing is another natural evolution.  Two is a precocious geographer.  Even as a three year-old, he'd break in each new nanny showing them how to get to the places the gang went, insisting they travel on the same side of the street as the way he'd memorized the route.

We take public transit everywhere, and the gang considers it both a right of passage, and a matter of intense pride that they get on and off on their own, and find their own seats, or simply hang on if it's too crowded.  The years when Two and Three were largely regarded as too small to do such things were rough for us.  The rage expressed in the scream of a kid who was successfully extricating themselves from a bus with their siblings when a 'helpful' stranger lifted them out has few parallels.

Are there benefits to risky, independent, urban play like the ones so often touted for risky, independent play in nature?  I think so.  The gang have made friends with kids and adults all over the peninsula.  Their independence is through the roof.  The city isn't daunting.  It's, quite frankly,  theirs.  They're aware of their surroundings, whether it's weaving through crowds as they go, or gazing at the oh so shiny treasures in Gumps and Burberry's.  Even the ravens have served a happy purpose in the end.

Recently One was 'captured' by a museum guard as she was free-ranging, checking out exhibits on her own, while her sibs attended a class.  As it turns out, free-ranging is simply not allowed there until your 12.  The guard told One she should come with them.  One, not knowing the guard from the man on the moon replied that no, she wouldn't be coming with him.  Her nanny and her sibs would be coming out of the door across the way in just three minutes.  They could wait together if he liked, but they'd wait where they stood.

The flip-side of course, is that after awhile, the kids won't need me anymore, at least not for outings.  But that's OK, because oh the things they'll do without me!  I suspect they'll do them all well and with a certain independent sense of adventure and panache!


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