A couple of weeks ago, Wroth — as we affectionately call our story editor and chief punster — gave me a call. “Sonja, I’d like some pictures of your kids for our parenting series slideshow.”

Not skipping a beat, I replied, “Piercings and all?”

I wasn’t sure my two teenagers quite fit the eco-kid image. But then I asked a more serious question: “By the way, I was just talking with my Nikki about global warming. She’s been having nightmares about it. Are you covering that kind of thing?”

“No shit, nightmares?” Wroth doesn’t mince words either. “Why don’t you write about that? It would be a great addition to the series.”

She knew I had been itching to compose ever since joining Grist’s ranks three years ago, and now she was calling me on it.

As the fortysomething office manager to this brood, I am kept on my toes, between all things accounting, the complexities of catering to eclectic demands, and the occasional odd task like trying my darnedest to find organic scotch for David’s recent birthday. (Note: I failed, as this commodity is apparently rare.)

Surrounded by vegetarians, organic shoppers, and green living personified at Grist, I’ve even started filling my home life with green. Can’t help it. We needed a new washer and dryer, so we got the front-loader-bad-ass-use-six-gallons-of-water-or-less-energy-efficient-as-hell model; new windows replaced the old aluminum single-pane pains; new insulation top, bottom, and sides; not to mention the can’t-wait-till-we-have-it dog-poop-composter.

So life is good — except for the Ursula problem.

You know how every fairy tale has a good guy and a bad guy. Well, when my oldest was six, I took her to see The Little Mermaid. True to Disney form, Ursula sent my little one under the seat with her wicked laugh, her larger-than-life tentacles, and her generally really mean ‘tude. I spent the remainder of the evening, and late into the night, trying to calm my daughter down enough to sleep.

Her reaction seemed to come out of nowhere — she hadn’t flinched when I took her to The Lion King or read her the story of Cinderella. She did once freak out when a life-size Big Boy came lumbering down the restaurant aisle toward our table, but I have to say even I thought the Big Boy was a lot creepy. As parents we don’t see this stuff till it smacks us in the face. Those cosmic moments, those pivotal incidents that shape us and impassion and embolden us, seem to sometimes be plucked out of the air.

I had another one of those moments recently, when my daughter told me she was having climate nightmares.

Not to hit you all over the head or anything, but what the hell are we doing to our kids? I am all for exposing kids to the darker side. I believe children need to see the bad things of our world — with our hand on the small of their back. They need to have us guiding them as they venture through the wilds. But now kids like my Nikki are finding the ultimate reason to ignore calculus — they don’t think they will be here to use it in 50 years.

Wow.

It has dawned on me that we may be quashing the one human quality that could conquer this great crisis: hope.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

The night before Wroth called me about pix for the parenting series, my youngest daughter laid me flat. Surrounded at work all day by gloom and doom — but with a sense of humor! — I wasn’t ready to see how much this issue had affected my teenager. Here’s a loose account of what happened.

Nikki: The world is going to end anyway, so why bother? Her shoulders slumped as she pondered her closed books.
Sonja: I thought I had heard all the excuses for not doing your homework. What are you talking about?
Nikki: Global warming, Mom, jeez. The polar caps are melting. The world as we know it will end very soon. We can’t stop it. Humans suck.
Sonja: Wow, you really don’t want to do your homework!
Nikki: I had another nightmare last night about this. We were all driving humvees and eating pesticides right out of the box. I woke up in a cold sweat. Rolling her eyes, Nikki took a deep breath and turned her back, hunching over her anthropology book.
Sonja: Wait. Are you saying you don’t think we can fix this? Haven’t I told you about the energy crisis back when I was your age? The lines for gas were so long, they wound around the block. Stations would run out of gas after just a few hours, fights broke out, people started locking their gas caps. After that, Carter got up in front of everyone and said we would have to make immediate and severe sacrifices. Imagine that!
I turned to my partner, Nikki’s stepmother.
Jules, do you remember the crying Indian commercial? What was that saying on your mom’s refrigerator?
Jules: Save water, take a bath with a friend.
Sonja: That’s it! Nikki seems to think we won’t dig ourselves out of this global-warming mess. I wanted to remind her about times when we were her age, the dying Great Lakes, DDT, and Three Mile Island. We helped make things a lot better.
Jules: Remember Hootie the Owl? “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” We had little light bulb stickers on the switches to remind us to shut off the lights when we left the room. And there is the still-popular, “When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.” That was the beginning of the big push to clean up the earth. All the hippies were having kids and getting real jobs and feeling the effects of democracy …
Sonja: Yes, and politicians toughened laws on dumping, tons of pesticides were outlawed, people really worked together to clean up mother earth. A lot of folks made big sacrifices to get the lakes and rivers, our drinking water back …
Nikki: … and you had to walk to school knee-deep in snow, uphill both ways, I know, I know …
Sonja: No, that was your Grandma. We did have to wait a whole year to watch The Wizard of Oz on TV.
Nikki: You had TV when you were little? I thought you all sat around the radio, listening to Mystery Theater.
Sonja: Again, that was your Grandma.
Grandma: Hello? Did I hear my name?
Sonja: You had to hunt to eat.
Grandma: No, that was my grandma. She was the first white baby born in Cass County. She …
Sonja: We’re not going there now, ma. We’re talking about Nikki’s fear of global warming and the world ending soon.
Grandma: I grew up afraid of the atomic bomb. All the important people had bomb shelters. We had regular drills at school when we hid under our desks when the alarm sounded. Cities installed big sirens that were supposed to go off in case of emergency.
Nikki: How would hiding under your desk save you from a nuclear war?
Sonja: Put your head between your knees and kiss your ass good-bye.
Grandma: I’m ignoring you, Sonja. Looking back, Nikki, it was kind of stupid, but it made the whole world stop and think about the dangers of nuclear war. I think it was important for everyone to be educated about that. Just like doing your homework. You don’t really like doing it, but the consequence of not doing it is worse than getting it done.
Sonja: Ha! And we come full circle.

What the World Needs Now

OK, the conversation didn’t actually end there. Nikki went on to grumble about my generation’s failure to conserve energy and get rid of atomic bombs. And she’s right, we haven’t solved everything. But we have accomplished a lot — and I have to believe we can do a lot on the global-warming issue too. Most of all, I want her to believe that.

Give them a reason to do their homework.

Photo: iStockphoto

I really do remember growing up around the dying Great Lakes, seeing for myself how the shores of Lake Michigan transformed from rotting fish and sludge to white, sandy beaches. I have seen in just a few years our nation’s changed viewpoint about homosexuality and partner rights. Raised in a Midwest town, I watched my grandparents learn how to crash down the walls of racism, from blindly following idiocy and ignorance to figuring out that each human should be judged on his own merit.

In my opinion, it wasn’t scare tactics that straightened us humans out, it was the images of a lost or dying world, the love of all things beautiful, the epiphany that we, each and every one, can do our part. We chose, probably, to be parents — and decided a long time ago that, although it is an incredibly daunting task, we will work harder at parenting than anything else we will ever do in our lives.

Now we parents might just be overlooking this very critical aspect of the mental health of our children. Somehow we need to start making strides sooner to either convey our ability to fix this problem, or show our children how to live fruitful and productive lives in the future, under severely different circumstances. I call it planning ahead.

We are forever beating into our kids’ brains that they need to look ahead to homework and term papers and plan accordingly, time management and all that stuff. But where are our plans? I would love to see some more scenarios on life in 50 years, and what our daily world will encompass. I would love to see more action now to deal with that future.

I confess the only thing I have done about this problem since it came to light was complain about it to my partner, my mother, and anyone here at Grist who would listen. Now I’m putting it out to you: we need to figure out how to take the fear out of a changed future. We as parents need to take the reins to ensure that our children can have a beautiful, hope-filled life. Let’s get cracking, folks.