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Over the last few months, the most wondrous thing has suddenly picked up steam like a bullet train. 

My 7-year-old grandson is READING.  Just about everywhere, and everything.  Books for his younger sister, longer and more complex stories for himself, the funny papers, restaurant menus, street signs, instructions on the sides of game boxes.  He can’t get every word yet, but already he’s getting most, with more all the time.  No more questions to me about “what does this say?”  He just picks things up and reads them.

As with so many life-changing landmarks with children, there was no fanfare, no siren blaring upon the arrival of this new phase. I remember the day that my daughter (his mom) took her first steps, grasping the edge of the couch cushion at the babysitter’s house.  Oddly, there were no pealing of bells, no swelling Broadway chorus of She’s Walking!  When Buddy offered to read a page of a book I was reading aloud to his sister, he proceeded to do so without hesitation or error.  The only announcement was the surely audible pounding of my proud heart.  (And I might have swelled up some, like the stentorious Mr. Toad.)

Rich images of mesmerizing potential came quickly into view.  How could I help him to love books, like I do?  Maybe like the bookstore as much, or more, than the video store? Will he someday enjoy discussing a favorite author, maybe argue the merits of one legendary fictional character vs. another?  (For example, would the immortal “gentleman’s personal gentleman” Jeeves stay with Bertie Wooster if the legendary bachelor ever got hitched?  OK, perhaps that one is a bit of a stretch this early, but you get the idea.)

Yet with many of those same childhood miracles, there is a lingering shadow or two to consider.  Suddenly, I’m scrambling to adequately offer appropriate reading choices.  How to stock the home library when he visits?  My current inventory of children’s reading looks more like a bookshelf for Sis, at five:  more of the Goodnight Moon, Runaway Bunny, Little Owl, you know the gentle, lull-them-to-sleep variety.  Sis still likes these selections and still loves us to read aloud.

For the older brother, current popular choices run toward things about which his G-ma knows a Big Towering Zilch.  What, pray enlighten me, is the concept behind Minecraft, books and games featuring a bunch of pixillated images filled with characters made of Legos?  And even tougher to grasp, if you lightly examine the visuals, we have “Plants vs. Zombies.”  The cartoon books (thank goodness I have not yet been subjected to the actual video game) seem to contain tales of using plants to prevent zombies from eating brains.  We can all agree to vote for preserving brains, that’s affirmative, but Is this something that a grandparent wants to stock around the house?  Does the joy of discussing books with my grandson stretch to a zombie tale? 

Still contemplating the answer to that one, I already yearn for the days when I didn’t fear the open world of words and its power to deprive Buddy of his  innocence.  Last week we had a terrible mass shooting here in our city.  Should I put away the newspaper when he comes over?  A week or so earlier, we pulled up in traffic next to a car with a glittering, metallic sticker on the passenger window nearest us that shouted, “F….k this Shit.”  Buddy, in his car seat in the back, could look straight at this window.  I eased the car slightly forward and asked him a distracting question, hoping I wouldn’t be the first soul he asked to explain those words.  Maybe I’m kidding myself; maybe it’s already happened.  I decided I didn’t want to ask.  It’s a tough world out there.

 At the grassroots level of daily kid management, the wonderful world of reading also threatens one of the most historically effective operational tricks of adult supervision.  What he can read, he will very soon also spell, and then life as we know it is a whole new ball game.  How are we supposed to talk about the children in front of them, without spelling out the relevant sensitivities?

First signal of this upcoming cataclysm occurred recently when I asked his mother, in front of him, about options for dinner.  “What do you think we should give them to E.A.T.?” I asked.  Standing nearby, Buddy froze in his tracks, his face a map of intense concentration.  I watched him slowly, silently mouth the letters—E. A. T..  In a split second, his expression shifted from effort to triumph.  Certain in his comprehension, he turned to me and smiled hopefully as he suggested, “Pizza?”

As the era looms when this useful operational technique fades into obsolescence, what will emerge in its place?  What if I need to telegraph some transgression that landed him in time out, without him realizing I sold him out to the authorities?  Or—and yes, this can happen when you least expect it—he has eaten something that his system rejected, and I need to tell his mom he had D I A R R H E A?  Thank goodness, it appears that spelling trails reading by a somewhat workable margin, so perhaps there is a brief window to plot a future alternative.

Back on the literature selection front, I recently observed Buddy reading a newly reprinted volume I found of the 1936 children’s classic Manners Can Be Fun.  This book, with its cartoon characters impersonating various ill-mannered transgressions, still teaches and amuses at the same time, 80 years after original publication.  The Snoopers (and their huge noses) walk right into rooms without knocking!  “If they…asked if they might come in, people would not call them SNOOPERS.”

Buddy pointed to his favorite Manners character, Touchey, who has nine arms and hands, but no head.  Touchey never thinks about whether he should touch things or not;  “Maybe it’s because he hasn’t any head—he is all hands.”  If poor headless Touchey, with his nine hands on stick arms, can still generate a spontaneous cackle, maybe there is still time before the little-boy perspective shifts forever into a different realm.  Or maybe even in our overwhelmingly digital universe, some books, some old stories still stand tall in the test of time, with enduring charm for all ages, ad infinitum. Maybe it’s both.  I hope so.

You wouldn’t hear much these days about the Seven Deadly Sins, unless some aspiring social media “influencer” transformed them into Seven Deadly Sins that will Hamper Your Career—or some other impossibly simplified, allegedly self-helping pablum that was then shared on some garbage-filled social channel, receiving “likes” from thousands.

Well. I’ve already digressed, and we’re just getting started.

Returning now to our regularly scheduled program: I recently got reacquainted with one of the Super Seven, we might call them. Her name is Envy.

There was a time, not long ago, when Envy visited regularly, and I got to know her pretty well. You might know someone like her. Envy never fights her impossibly curly hair. She eats the occasional donut, yet never gains weight. She has a doting and faithful husband who laughs at her jokes, regularly brings home a paycheck, and will share in-depth conversations about a favorite Americana artist. Envy drives a sexy, late-model convertible, and nothing ever goes wrong with it. She travels a couple of times a year to exotic, sunny locations with smiling family, leaving the rest of us to admire, or resent (depending on the day), her Facebook vacation photos

And Envy’s powers go deeper, to more important, heart-rending matters. She has all the time she wants to spend with her family, whenever she chooses or may be needed. Envy never endured the gut-wrenching realities of looking for a job, and she never has too much month at the end of her money.  She is never afraid of being alone when she is old.  Most importantly of all, Envy never lost an adored family member to cancer.

Yep, Envy hung around a lot, during some tough times, until gradually I got sick of her. Maybe certain life changes opened my eyes wider to the value of things I had not held dear enough, or perhaps other vices just demanded my immediate attention. Either way, I realized I hadn’t seen Envy in quite some time, when suddenly, a few weeks back, she returned. Unannounced.

It was time for a much-needed break from the office, when a friend at work mentioned she was taking off at the same time. “Taking my grandkids to the beach,” she crowed. “Rented a place right on the water, where we can walk to great restaurants. Going on to Disney World from there. I can’t wait.” Hope it’s a blast, I responded, not as cheerfully as I might have, beating a swift path down the hall and out of sight before she could ask me what i was doing with my vacation. The answer wasn’t going to sound like much, in comparison.

There are indeed many blessings in life these days, but a beachfront condo and Disney junket funded by me for me and the grandkids was not one of them—-at least (she qualifies, optimistic to the very end), not in present circumstances. So, I went back to my office for a private pout and the chance to wish in solitary self-pity that I could bestow such wonders. I shut the door and turned around to see Envy reclining easily in my chair, her high-heeled, embroidered yellow cowboy boots propped up on the desk.

Get out, I began, with less ferocity than I might have.

“I just dropped in to ask about your grandchildren,” she observed, in musical tones. “How are things going?”

Get out! This time, I shouted.

“Okey dokey,” she acquiesced, easing her way to the door. “But I expect we’ll bump into each other again soon.”

A few days later, it was time for a Vacation Day with G-Ma, 2017-style, and this year’s episode was strictly local. My daughter dropped off Sis for a day with me while her brother was off on a camp expedition, and we blasted off in pursuit of Fun on the Cheap. It started at the swimming pool, then progressed to lunch and a prolonged visit to the public library. From there, we sashayed over to a local joint that purveys the most divine popsicles, all made from fresh fruits and whole creams.

As outings with Sis tend to go, the day included a sprinkling of brief but acute tragedies. Her swim float sprung a leak at the pool, and later she went down forward on her elbows and knees on the library sidewalk, shedding a bit of blood and causing severe injury to her dignity. Let’s hope, I thought, that a popsicle has healing qualities.

I parked outside the popsicle place and stood out in the sunshine, leaning in with an extended hand to help Sis hoist herself out of the booster seat in the back. As she pushed her four-year-old self upward and out, she delivered one of those smack-the-head, open-the-eyes moments. And I thought, not for the first time, that I should try as hard to learn from these children as I try to occasionally teach them a little something.

“This is the best day EVER,” she announced, hopping down onto the pavement. “We went swimming, and now we’re getting a popsicle….” She heaved a huge sigh of rapt anticipation, then inquired for the at least the third time, “What flavors do they have?”

I looked up for a brief second and noticed Envy sitting on one of the sun-dappled benches outside the popsicle store. She was watching us, laughing ironically and pointing her finger right at me. I leaned down to grab Sis’ hand, and when I looked up, she was strolling rapidly in the other direction, until she became a tiny dot on the horizon, then was gone.