In Jay, big feelings stir

_MG_7097On Sunday afternoon, Jay, Wally, Leo, Caroline, and I gathered at my dad’s house to watch the Patriots play the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. Jay and I have followed the season closely, rooting for New England, and just before kickoff I looked at him, sitting on the couch, and noticed his arms were shaking.

“Are you cold?” I asked him.

“No, nervous,” he said in a faint voice without taking his eyes off the television screen.
Prior to that, I’d known Jay was into the game, but I wouldn’t have guessed quite that much. I know he cares a lot about sports and can have a hard time watching critical moments in a game, but that degree of expectation struck me as something I would have thought you’d need to be a little older to feel.

Such is the way I’ve seem a number of seemingly adult dispositions grow in Jay- with a clarity, a trueness to form, that startles me when they emerge.

I’ve heard other parents speak this way about their own children. Over the weekend, a father told me that a few mornings earlier, he’d been walking his second-grader son to school, when his son had stopped to note how beautiful the sunrise was. Jay and I were out in the neighborhood at the same time and I’d noticed it, too- a sunrise unlike any we’d had for months. The dad said he’d never heard his son remark on natural beauty like that- and because he had, the dad knew his son was ready to appreciate a long-intended camping trip on the coast of Maine.

With Jay, I find that sometimes my ideas about who he is make it hard for me to see who he’s become. The other afternoon, he, Wally, and I were sitting on my bed. Wally, as has been his inclination lately, was peppering me with questions about death: Will I be able to see even if my eyes are open when I’m dead? Will I need to breathe when I’m dead? Will I die before you do? As he went on, Jay reached over and pinched his brother’s foot. I snapped at Jay, annoyed that he’d decided to annoy his brother at a moment like that. Then I craned my head so that I could see his face, which was pointed away from me. It was contorted, on the verge of tears. “I don’t like when he talks like that,” Jay said.

And then last night, it happened again. It was before bedtime and I was reading “Amos and Boris” to Jay and Wally. It’s my favorite of the several great William Steig books, a story about a mouse and a whale who become unlikely friends. Halfway through, Jay said he didn’t want me to read the last page. I said I was going to, because I knew Wally would want to hear it, but I offered that when the time came, Jay could go to his bed and put his head under his pillows. Which is what he did, and with Jay across the room, I read to Wally:

He looked back at Amos on the elephant’s head. Tears were rolling down the great whale’s cheeks. The tiny mouse had tears in his eyes, too. ‘Goodbye, dear friend,’ squeaked Amos. ‘Goodbye, dear friend,’ rumbled Boris, and he disappeared in the waves. They knew they might never meet again. They knew they would never forget each other.

Afterward, when Jay had come out from beneath his pillows and had gone to sleep, I read the passage again. At 6, Jay has had only early experiences with friendship and he knows even less about forever. Yet in an instinctive way, as if it’s baked in alongside the capacity to walk and talk, he seems to understand the stakes in which he’s invested, just by being alive.

Revisionist history

IMG_20151225_113316225 On the way to Virginia after Christmas we stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant and ordered fried ice cream for dessert. It arrived at the table as a big to-do, with whipped cream, sprinkles, and a cherry on top. Wally pounced for the cherry and because the tie goes to the middle child in our family these days, we let him have it.

Wally, who is filled with deep and peculiar passions, held his prize aloft by the stem, an inch or two from his face. He licked at the residual whipped cream and took small nibbles at the cherry and then he nibbled once too hard, so that the cherry fell from its stem, down past his lap, into the forbidding darkness below the table in our booth. Caroline told him immediately it was gone. I craned my head below the table, located the cherry, and nudged it permanently out of reach, because I knew like a seer that if Wally got his hands on it, he would eat it.

Jay and Wally each has his own way of dealing with setbacks. For Jay, the emotional fallout is largely something that has to run its course. When I take it upon myself to defeat him in our nightly playroom basketball game, no amount of prior assurance from him is enough to check his anguish when the timer beeps zero.

Wally, by contrast, prefers not to take his hits head on. The other day in the car he was listing his favorite football teams the way he has heard his older brother do, and he included the Red Sox on the list. Jay jumped in to say the Red Sox were a baseball team and Wally replied, “Oh yeah right, that’s what I meant,” which is his quick and common reply whenever Jay asserts his 24-month head start in the world.

At other times Wally appears to reimagine his preferences to match the circumstances that have been handed to him. Last night Wally and Leo took a bath together, as they do every night, and Wally came up with the idea that a plastic Easter egg filled with water contained medicine for cuts. Wally told me that the egg needed to be stored in a cup that was in Leo’s hand so I told him that he couldn’t have the cup just then. Rather than make a fight, Wally did as he often does. “Oh yeah right, I forgot, the medicine needs to be stored in a different place,” he said. Then he picked up a sand toy shaped like a star, placed the egg inside it, and whistled on his way.

Wally is no pushover and more often than not he reacts to aggression and perceived slights at full volume, especially when they occur in relation to Jay. But he has other tools in his kit, including an ability to find more than one way to be happy.

Back at the Mexican restaurant, I wondered how long it would take Wally to get over the cherry and imagined his whining and crying stretching over many miles of highway driving. Yet within minutes of the cherry disappearing, Wally sat himself straight up, looked right at me, and said, “It’s okay, I only wanted to take a few little bites.” I looked back at him and couldn’t quite tell if he believed what he was saying.

What Wally wants

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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

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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.