What Wally wants


Recently Wally asked a a new friend, “Guess what street I live on.”

Lucas, the friend, has never been to our house and is four-years-old. He surely had no idea what street we live on and sensibly replied, “I don’t know.”

“Just guess, it’s easy,” Wally said.

“I don’t know,” Lucas said.

“I promise, it’s easy, just guess,” Wally went on.

Finally, Lucas relented. “Prince Street?” he ventured, naming the street that he himself happens to live on.

“That’s it,” Wally replied cheerfully, and the two of them went back to playing.

Later, Lucas’s mom told Caroline this story and Caroline wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was Wally playing around or had he in fact forgotten the name of our street?
That evening Caroline and I talked about it some more. One thing we agreed on was that the interaction Wally had had with Lucas was not one Jay, who cares a lot about accuracy, would be likely to have had with anyone.

Jay likes facts, right answers, knowing the rules, and doing his best by them. The other day he and I brought a Wiffle ball and bat to the playground. We soon attracted a crowd, a whole lineup of kids. We established a loose batting order. Jay led the way in marking out bases. Some kids were better than others, but I encouraged everyone to run the bases, even kids who hit pop flies that got caught or who didn’t manage to hit the ball at all. The first few times I prompted kids to do this illicit base-running, Jay was beside himself. He’d caught the pop fly after all. He’d made the out. The rules were the rules and he didn’t see the aspects of the situation that made it better to set those rules aside.

I was momentarily frustrated with Jay’s inability to go with the flow, as I often am, but overall I understand him because I am like him. I also recognize in Jay another, related tendency. When we go to the park or hang out on the playground after school, he’s often not sure how to get in the social flow of things. But when there’s a ball around, a game being played, he jumps right in. It takes some kind of structure to help him know how to act.

Wally is very different. He strikes up conversations with strangers more readily than anyone I have ever met. He does very well in free-form social situations because he’s outgoing and always has an idea- let’s play construction, let’s play cheetahs and gazelles, let’s make a farm. He’d rather make up his own rules than adhere to ones that already exist. He doesn’t seem driven at all to do well by someone else’s standards.

All of this makes Wally a wonder to me, but also a mystery. It’s clear from the way he has a hard time falling asleep each night and the inexhaustible way he bounds around the house like a baby sabertooth, that something mighty makes him go. I just can’t put a finger on what it is.

Caroline has said recently that the two things that are most important to Wally are imaginary play and social relationships. I had that in mind when Caroline told me about the conversation she’d had with Wally on the way home from Lucas’s house. She wanted to get to the bottom of that address story, so she asked him, “What street do we live on?”

Wally screwed up his face like it was a weird question. “Why are you asking me that?” he said.

“I just want to know,” Caroline said back, “What street do we live on?”

“Mom, Bishop Street,” Wally replied, as though he were saying the most obvious thing in the world.

And indeed, we do live on Bishop Street, which makes me wonder all the more what Wally was up to with Lucas. Was he playing games? Trying to affirm his friend after he’d promised him the name was easy to guess? Whatever the explanation, the story is a reminder to me of how to approach Wally. When I see him, and want to understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, it’s a good idea to look once, and then look again.

Across the way from Jay


Jay started playing organized sports two years ago. Since then it’s been almost nothing but soccer: teams in the fall and spring, a week of camp in the summer, hours in the backyard, the two of us kicking back and forth.

Soccer is nearly all Jay knows of sports, but it’s new for me. The bins of sports gear in our houses growing up were filled with baseballs, gloves, basketballs, an odd football or two, all used in heavy rotation. It’s quite possible I’ve never once kicked a soccer ball with my dad.

So when I kick the ball with Jay, it’s with a sense of coming to a new place. As with coming to a new place, there is a feeling of possibility and excitement. As an athlete playing other sports, I peaked in early high school and drifted toward the bench after that. With Jay and soccer, it’s easy to imagine him having more success, in part because I don’t know enough about the progression of the sport to clearly imagine all the kids who might end up being bigger, faster, and more skilled than him.

Alongside this sense of possibility, there is also a sense of being out of place. I feel like this every time I make a clumsy left-footed kick or attempt to juggle and watch the ball fly hopelessly away. Standing across the yard from Jay, there is an undertone of masquerade. When I show him Messi highlight videos on YouTube, part of me feels insincere, like I’m trying to convince him of the value of something I don’t believe myself.

I find this feeling in other places, too. It mostly collects where I have ambitions for Jay and Wally. I have this idea that I’d like Jay to have a career in math or science. This says something about him, that he seems apt for that kind of thinking. This also says something about me. I had little interest in science until a few years ago, when I started talking to scientists in my work as a journalist and came to admire what they do. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your children to be things you’re not. It’s how we make progress by generations. And it feels fine to be in a new place when someone else is leading you there. But handing Jay and Wally my own new ideas and recent aspirations feels speculative and uncertain. In some ways I’d rather pass on what I know for sure, whatever that might be, and let them come to the rest on their own.

This feeling, of what it’s like to offer Jay and Wally things whose value I understand more in external terms than personal ones, came together for me this morning on our front yard. For the first time since the rain and flooding two weekends ago, Jay was going back to school, on a two-hour delayed start. This gave us some time to play together. The previous day I’d retrieved a pair of baseball gloves from the top shelf in the closet and Jay and I had played catch together for the second time ever. This morning he wanted to do it again.

As we walked outside the grass was still wet with dew and the sun was low in the sky so that on high throws, it blinded me through the trees. Jay stood a short ways from me, wearing the same glove I’d worn as a shortstop in Little League. It flopped on his hand. When I threw, I tried to throw to the side, so that if he missed, the ball wouldn’t hit him in the face. He did miss the ball, a lot, and each time would skip happily over to our neighbor’s yard to retrieve it. Yet a couple minutes before he had to shoulder his backpack and walk to school, we found a groove. One toss, two tosses, eight tosses, back and forth, the miracle of flight. That the ball could go from my hand through the air, to his glove, and back again, felt as improbable as doing the same thing with Jay that my dad had spent so much time doing with me.

Jay makes a move

_MG_6991Last Thursday on the walk to school, Jay asked me how deep a diver could go if he had the biggest oxygen tank in the world.

It was a little past 7am, not quite morning. I walked down the sidewalk, one hand on the stroller pushing Leo, the other holding hands with Jay. I explained that the size of the tank wasn’t really the limiting factor. I told Jay about nitrogen absorption in the blood, the bends, water pressure, all prefaced with a disclaimer: I’m sure I have some of the details wrong.

We turned the corner onto Pine Street. Up ahead I saw other pairs of parents and children emerging out of the neighborhood toward school. Jay thought about what I’d said and offered the example of the sperm whale, which is often on his mind. “It’s a mammal, too, how come it can dive to 3,280 feet without the pressure hurting it?”

I said I didn’t know. Jay surmised, “It has a thick layer of fat, maybe that protects it from the pressure.” We walked on, he continued chewing on the question. “But actually, the giant squid can also dive deep and it doesn’t have a layer of fat,” he said. “So it’s probably not fat that protects the sperm whale from the pressure.”**

The way Jay reasoned about the facts available to him surprised me. Afterward I remembered an anecdote reported from the chess matches between Gary Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue in the 1990s. In their initial matches Kasparov held the advantage, but eventually Deep Blue surpassed him. At one point the computer made a move that caught everyone’s attention. Observers described it as creative, like the way a human would play. It demonstrated a sophistication of thinking people had assumed the computer didn’t possess.

Listening to Jay try and formulate an overall theory of diving, I was struck the way observers of Deep Blue may have been struck. For a while now, Caroline and I have listened to streams of facts from the boys—about the biggest this, the fastest that, carnivores, omnivores, googolplexes and infinity—all pieced together with exercises in half-baked logic.

Jay hasn’t outgrown this stage completely. He could use a few more facts to work with and layers of complexity await his attempts to figure out how the world works. But he’s definitely onto something.

**Jay read this post as I wrote it, the first time that has happened. He recognized the scene I was retelling. When I got to the part where he reasoned between the squid and the whale he said to me—I was wrong, the squid can’t dive as deep as the whale so it could still be the fat layer. He couldn’t understand why I was repeating what he now knew to be incorrect information and not adding in the new depth figures he presented me with. I explained I wanted to tell the story as it actually happened. He couldn’t understand why.

Wally looks for his role

_MG_7063For a long time after Leo was born, Wally went around the house on all fours. His move looked like a hop, but if you made the mistake of asking whether he was a frog, he’d snarl defiantly in reply: I’m a baby sabertooth.

His inspiration as a baby sabertooth was the cheetah, who at top-speed moves more in leaps than in strides. Wally would take long sabertooth-bounds down the hall, far faster than I could walk and he’d do a series of shorter, quicker hops to round corners. For the last nine months he’s hunted as a fierce baby sabertooth, cuddled as a baby sabertooth, taken frolicking leaps off his bed as a baby sabertooth, mewed after his showers as a baby sabertooth in order to get me or Caroline to come in and dry him off.

And on the occasions when he has not been a baby sabertooth, Wally has not been sure who he is. One night in New Hampshire this summer I heard him crying in his bed. It was past ten o’clock and I was surprised he was still awake. I went in, got him to calm down a little, and in big, wet sobs he told me the most heart-breaking thing I’ve been told as a parent: “I don’t want to be the middle brother.”

But he is the middle brother, and by light of day he seems torn about whether to play up or play down in his search for identity and affection. There is all the time as a baby sabertooth, punctuated by moments in which Wally seems ready to move on to something else. Also this summer, on the front lawn of an island house we’d rented off the coast of Freeport, Jay engaged in a series of one-on-one soccer games against the slightly older kids in the house next door. The games were riveting and a crowd of adults, beers in hand, gathered to watch. From my spot on the sidelines, cheering on Jay, I saw Wally poke his head out of the house a time or two, but thought that mostly he wasn’t interested in the spectacle.

An hour later, at dinner, with Jay sitting red-faced and punch-drunk from the exertion, Wally made a big show of asking my brother to pass him the salad, which neither he nor his brother ever really eat. He scooped a heaping spoonful onto his plate and made a big show of putting a forkful into his mouth. Then he raised his head, looked squarely at Jay, and said with feigned nonchalance, “I guess I’m the only kid eating salad.”

His aspiration to be older, maybe to outgrow his middle role, has come out in other ways, too. He doesn’t much care for watching old sports games on YouTube, the way Jay does, and when afternoon television time rolls around, he usually opts for cartoons on Netflix instead. But one day recently he told me proudly, “Today I want to watch basketball,” as though there was no way to separate being like Jay from growing up.

Another morning recently he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. I heard some scuffling, then what sounded like the kids’ stool being deposited into the hallway. The water turned on, Wally called to me, “Look Dad, I can reach by myself.” I went in and found him teetering on the edge of the sink, one hand on his toothbrush, the other holding onto the faucet, his feet dangling in the air two feet off the ground.

That night in New Hampshire and several times since, Caroline and I have deployed some genuinely felt talking points about what it means to be the middle brother. We’ve told Wally the middle brother is a special brother who holds Jay and Leo together. We’ve told him how lucky he is that he’s the only one of the three boys who gets to be an older brother and a younger brother. Sometimes he takes these ideas to heart. Other times he seizes on them opportunistically, like when he claimed that it only makes sense that as the middle brother, he should get the coveted middle stool in the kitchen. Once, maybe to test how sincerely we’ve meant all this, he said to Caroline, “You love me best because I’m the middle brother?”

Day-by-day we watch the boys plow on, Leo on his hands and knees, Jay supremely confident in who he is, Wally intently trying to figure out his place in it all. The conversation has turned recently to Halloween and to costumes. On and off through the summer Wally had mentioned he wanted to go as the “green grinch,” as in the one who stole Christmas, who I think Wally admires for his scheming. But last week he told us he wanted to go as a sabertooth instead. “OK, we can order a baby sabertooth costume tomorrow,” Caroline said. “No, not a baby sabertooth, a grown-up sabertooth,” Wally answered, his tone indicating that we’d been missing something all along.

Walking out of Wally’s room


I want to remember that the other night Wally called me into his room to ask a question. It was past nine o’clock, nearly two hours after we’d first said goodnight. When I heard his voice I snapped hard in reply: That’s enough! Go to sleep!

This made Wally cry. Oh come on, I thought to myself, or maybe said out loud, as I pushed open the door into his dark room. He was face down in his pillow, naked but for his diaper. The pajamas he’d shed an hour earlier lay neatly beside his bed on the floor. He was crying weak, late-night sobs that could have been avoided if he’d just gone to sleep like his brother, who was out cold beneath his sheet in his bed across the room. I thought about insisting that Wally cut it out. After a moment, though, I put my head close to his, so that I could feel his hot wet face against my cheek. I pressed down lightly on his back and told him it was OK.

His sobs started to slow. His voice began to break through. It took him a few times to get his question out all the way. Finally he asked, “Do stoplights change in the night?”

Oh, I thought. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I stammered a bit of everything in reply: No they don’t, yes they do, I don’t know, that’s a good question. Then I said goodnight, and because he’d been crying, I knew as I walked out of the room that I wouldn’t see Wally again until morning.

Afterward I brushed my teeth, took a shower, lay in bed with the feelings from my time with Wally. I felt bad, for one, that I’d snapped at a boy who’d been awake through no real fault of his own, and I felt charmed by the thoughts that bounce around his head when he’s alone at night. But the strongest feeling of all, the one you wouldn’t guess unless you knew something else, was the feeling of not wanting to forget. It was the feeling of wanting very badly to hold that moment with Wally in something more permanent than time.