Recently I was reading a book to the kids in which a child’s parents inform him that his grandparents wouldn’t be able to visit for the holidays. The child protests, saying, “But Grandma and Grandpa always come,” to which his parents explain that they have to do things differently this year and that that doesn’t mean it won’t be a great holiday. I thought, ‘Excellent! A perfect book to read during a pandemic! An illustration of a family adapting their traditions by necessity and making the best of it! An example of how wonderful it can be to create new traditions, or to abandon tradition altogether to make space for new ways! A story form of this life we’ve been handed, a model of how we can still enjoy all of these dozens upon dozens of annual occurrences that must be conducted in unusual fashion! So I jumped right in with, “See, you guys, there really is no such thing as ‘always,’ at least as far as we know. ‘Always’ is actually a really ambiguous adverb. Think about times that you use the word, and you’ll find that there’s a more specific, more informative way to say what you mean. ‘Always’, when we’re talking about relativity of time, is as abstract as ‘infinity’ when we’re talking about numbers.”
I hoped Liam was listening, as we repeatedly have discussed his resistance to flexing routines. For example, a few days earlier when he’d gone to do his math homework on the iPad only to realize that it was completely out of juice and needed to be charged for a while before there was any hope of it lasting through the session, I suggested that he practice violin while it was plugged in. His response was, “But I always do violin AFTER iPad!” I was hopeful that we could make a shift in both his vocabulary and his rigidity because recently we’d made progress with another disambiguation: the words “need” and “want”. I’d been impressed a few days earlier to hear him self-identify that, considering his bureau drawer full of clean underwear, he didn’t actually need the days-of-the-week underwear that were in the laundry; rather, he wanted them.
We continued our discussion about “always” as a concept rather than a concrete quantity and went on to read the rest of the story (which, as it turned out, was in fact NOT the perfect book to represent the pandemic-life paradigm, and it actually demonstrated a family that, despite being well intentioned and surprisingly adaptable, displayed severely dysfunctional interpersonal communication skills). Later that night, I noticed that the light was on in the hallway bathroom, and the door was open. In our home at this time of day, these facts clearly indicate that Liam was in the bathroom and that he’d probably be there for a while longer. I sighed and walked over to close the door and remind him yet again that he needs to close the bathroom door at times such as these. As I said this, I watched him use a piece of toilet paper and throw it in the trash can next to him. “Liam,” I said, “toilet paper always goes in the toilet. Baby wipes always go in the trash. I repeat: baby wipes go in the trash; we do not flush them. But toilet paper, after you use it, always goes in the toilet.” He responded, “Okay. But there’s no such thing as ‘always.'”
Well played, my son. You have kicked the soapbox clean out from beneath me. I shall submit my resignation letter in the morning.