Pillow therapy

_MG_5770A day of portentous skies erupted into an afternoon of heavy rain, and from my desk I thought of the boys: Did they make it in off the playground in time? It was a Friday and Jay and Wally had stayed late after school. Caroline was out of town for the weekend and I had a project to finish. I watched the rain for a minute, then thought I owed it to the boys to work a little faster.

A little after 4pm I walked out the front door, keys in hand, and drove quickly down the road. It had stopped raining. The trees were dripping, the pavement was slick. Water churned beneath my tires as I pulled away from a stop sign. Outside the side door to the school I found a pile of shoes, wet and caked in sand, evidence of an emergency retreat. I opened the door into a new universe, a Tilt-a-whirl of children humming busily in slow, slow childhood time.

Wally was at the far side of the room, pulling something from a shelf. Jay was a table closer by, sitting with a girl and working at construction paper. Neither saw me at first. I called out through the din, trapped at the threshold in my wet shoes, and beckoned them over. They looked up and eyed me warily.

With our arms full of lunchboxes, water bottles, art projects, worksheets, we walked to the car and rode home in surprising quiet. My mind wandered back to article I’d been working on before I’d left the house. In the back, Jay and Wally were looking at nothing in particular, the three of us still gripped by the momentum of our separate days.

At home, we unloaded from the car, apportioned the lunchboxes and water bottles between us, and made our way to the front door. “Shoes off, hands washed,” I called, once, then again. It was 4:45pm, which meant we could ease right into television, then dinner, bath, and bed. It was the kind of clear path I like, especially on days when I’m taking care of the boys alone.

_MG_5769I got the boys situated upstairs, Wally with his bottle of milk, an episode of Dinosaur Train on the television. Downstairs I started water for rice, and took a container of stir-fried beef and broccoli from the refrigerator, left over from the evening before.

There wasn’t much left to the day that could go wrong, but I still felt unsettled. It was the boys. I hadn’t seen them all day, and then after school, not much had passed between us save a few commands.

So I turned off the stove, went back upstairs, and asked them if they’d like to have a pillow fight. It’s something we do from time to time, usually on a weekend afternoon when everyone’s feeling a little bored. Now I knew it was one of the few offers that could tear them away from their show, and it seemed like the best way to reacquaint with one another.

Jay launched down the stairs with Wally quick behind him. I made it to the bed first and prepared to be assaulted. Wally struck as he usually does, with a flying jump on top of my head, his teeth gritted, his legs pinched around my chest. Jay stood above us—always more of an artillery guy than an infantryman—with his pillow cocked, waiting for an opening. When he finally struck, I offered up an exaggerated grunt. Jay shrieked and reloaded.

For 10 minutes we rolled around like that. I wrestled with Wally, countered Jay’s blows with a few volleys of my own, launched surprise tickling raids at the boys’ soft sides. At one point Jay lost his balance and fell backwards to the floor. Is this how it ends? But no, he was back up, tear free, and more determined than ever to strike a decisive blow.

When I finally called it, Jay dropped his pillow and fell on top of me for our ritual hug, the peace gesture at the end of the fight. Wally, still pincered around my head, didn’t need to go far to receive his. The boys were tired but cheery, breathing hard. “Now back to your show,” I told them. They ran off and soon the sounds of talking Pteranodons were coming once again from upstairs.

I thought about the difference between feeling close to someone and feeling like strangers. There is no instrument in the world that could measure how close the boys and I were before we battered each other with pillows and how close we were afterward, but the difference was as palpable as a foot of fresh snow. Back at the stove, I turned the burner on to make rice. I felt ready now to feed the boys and put them to sleep, with whatever it is that exists between us, replenished.

Jay in Numberland

IMG_5551On a recent Sunday afternoon, I sat at my desk and Jay lay on his back on the guest bed behind me. His legs were crossed and he held my cellphone in his hands. “It’s 2:46,” he told me. “Now it’s 2:47.” “Now it’s 2:48.”

Just a few minutes earlier we’d had one of our first real conversations about how to tell time. It had been fun to watch him grasp the concept, but now I was ready for quiet. I mustered as much enthusiasm as I could for each update, and then offered him a tantalizing glimpse of the future: “You’re never going to believe what happens after it turns 2:59pm.” For twelve concerted minutes he stared at the phone, informing me each time the minute turned, getting more and more breathless as the hour wound down. When the phone’s digital display turned to “3:00,” instead of “2:60” as he’d anticipated, Jay nearly fell off the bed.

Jay’s road to numeracy has been long. He learned the words “one, two, three…” years ago, and for a while, he’s been able to actually count small quantities of things. But as recently as this summer, his command of numbers was spotty. He’d get tripped up turning the corner from 19 to 20 and had a hard time following what, to my eyes, seemed like quite obvious patterns. On the last leg of our drive home in August, Caroline and Jay practiced counting by 5s. He was able to hold the pattern up to about 25, but then lost it completely, throwing out “40” when he should have said “35,” and making wild guesses above 50.

But over the last month things have begun to fall into place, and Jay’s on fire with the power of a new idea.

Driving around town, he asks for nearly second-by-second updates on our speed. “29…32…33…34 miles per hour,” I told him in the span of a single block between our house and Whole Foods. The only time he ceased his interrogation was to ask, “Aren’t you speeding?” It was enough to make me wish we were back talking about whether a giant is taller than a house.

When he’s not thinking about time or speed, he’s got age on the mind. He’s especially into the idea that the age gap between two people holds steady throughout their lifetimes. “When I’m 2,000-years-old, you’re going to be 2,028,” he told Caroline last night at dinner, which of course was both true and not true.

Last weekend Jay had his best chance yet to practice his counting. We have a tree in the middle of our backyard that drops large nut-like seeds, which make the soccer ball bounce at odd angles and also shoot like bullets out of the lawn mower. I offered Jay a penny for each one he picked up. He went around pushing his dump truck, periodically announcing his total in a tone of disbelief: “One-hundred-and-sixty-two,” he exclaimed after about 10 minutes. It occurred to me that in a couple years I’ll have to worry about him cheating at this kind of activity; for now, he’s so excited to be able to count correctly, there’s no chance he’s going to deliberately skip ahead.

If there’s one place numbers come up most often, it’s during bedtime books, which recently have been about wonders of the natural world- dinosaurs, Mars, volcanoes, and the like.

Jay’s beginning to develop an understanding of place value, and whenever we read an amazing quantitative fact, his eyes go big and he repeats the number back in amazement. Last night, for example, we read that lava can flow for hundreds of miles, and that barracudas evolved 50 million years ago. Wally, who understands that his brother is obsessed with numbers more than he understands numbers themselves, turned to Jay looking for a reaction: “Did you hear that, Jay, FIFTY…MILLION…YEARS…AGO.”

We leave those books in the boys’ room after lights out, and lately they’ve been looking at them together in the morning. Jay, as into numbers as he is, will take them anywhere he can find them. This morning, when it was still dark outside, he yelled up to our bedroom, “My workbook has 321 pages!”

My eyes flicked open and I croaked in reply, “What time is it?” The words were out of my mouth before I realized I’d asked him exactly the wrong question.

I take it back! Being a parent actually makes it EASIER to do nice things for other people

_MG_5745Two years ago I wrote about how becoming a parent had made me slack off in my commitments to people and causes outside our immediate family (you may remember that post as the story of returning a lost phone to a man with no shirt and a big tattoo). I gave two reasons for this. One, I was busier, and more willing to take shortcuts when it came to civically minded activities like recycling. Two, Jay, Wally, and Caroline come first, which means to some extent, everyone else comes second.

Two years later, I’m ready to revise that view.

On a recent Saturday morning a friend dropped her two-year-old daughter off at our house so she could take her older daughter to music lessons. The following Monday night we had a friend and his three kids over for dinner during a week in which his wife was out of town. On another Saturday, Caroline took two sisters from James’s class to a birthday party so that their father, who has a newborn, could get a break.

A couple things have stood out to me about these experiences.

First, and most importantly, each action did genuinely make someone else’s life better. During stretches when Caroline is out of town, I know just how grateful I am when someone hosts the boys and me for dinner. When we offered to watch the two-year-old while her sister had music lessons, their mom’s relief was palpable. Often it’s hard to know if your efforts to improve the world really make a difference. Here, on a very small scale, there was no doubt about the effect.

Second, each of these actions was pretty easy to do. On most Saturday mornings we’re hanging around the house, and adding another two-year-old to the mix—especially one Wally likes to play with—isn’t all that hard. We cook dinner just about every night, and it’s easy to turn pasta with blue cheese and grapes for four into baked manicotti for eight. Plus, like us, our friends have young kids and were happy to eat dinner at 5:30pm.

We all want to do things that help other people, yet it’s often hard to figure out how to act on that feeling. About a year ago I read an article on the “pay it forward” phenomenon at drive-through restaurants, in which people spontaneously decide to pay for the order of the person behind them in line. The article noted that at a Chick-fil-A in Houston, 67 people in a row had done this for complete strangers. When I mentioned this to Caroline, she said there’s this pent up desire in America to help others, and so when something like “pay it forward” comes along, people jump at it.

If there is this pent up desire—and I agree with Caroline that there is—it’s because the possibility for generous action comes up more in some circumstances than others. One of the very best things about being a part of a church is that it provides many opportunities to do nice things for other people, both as community service and for the other members of the congregation. To take another example, I think of Caroline’s parents, who are active in their co-op building. Their membership in that community sets the stage to perform and receive generosity: people in the building can feed each other’s pets, or lend each other their empty apartments during the holidays.

Participation in a community facilitates generosity (which probably means that a pent up desire to act generously goes hand-in-hand with a lack of community). When you know people, you know when they could use some help, and they have the ability to ask you for help when they need it. Membership in a community also means, by definition, that you share something in common, and when you share something in common, you’re more likely to be able to provide what someone else needs. Taking care of a two-year-old is a tallish order if you don’t have any kids; it’s pretty easy if you already have a playroom full of toys and little kids of your own.

We often get the image of the beleaguered parent who can barely get out of the house in the morning, let alone swing a shift at the soup kitchen. But there’s more than one way to do good things for other people. Two years later I’ve changed my tune: Raising Jay and Wally, and belonging to a community of parents, actually creates the possibility for far more generosity than it destroys.

A tale of two Wallys

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The other night at dinner Jay displayed some new math skills: “Two fives is 10, four fives is 20, six fives is 30,” he said, as Caroline and I finished the last of our goat cheese pasta. When he got to “20 fives is 100,” we beamed at him and clapped.

Across the table, Wally had been watching all of this. As soon as the applause died down he started in on a trick of his own, counting the squares on his checked placemat. “1, 2, 3, 4…14, 16, 19, 21 squares,” he proclaimed triumphantly—and, completely inaccurately.

Later that night I thought about these dueling math displays. Both boys were displaying skills appropriate to their ages, but they probably left the table feeling very differently about what they’d done. As far as Jay knows, he’s practicing mathematics at its highest form, while Wally can see quite clearly that whatever he knows, it’s less than his brother knows.

In so many ways, Wally’s behavior is refracted through Jay when the four of us are together. Easily 10 times a day we hear him wail in utter despair because Jay has taken the marker he wanted to use, or because Jay filled the water bottles for school when Wally wanted to do that job. And when I say despair I mean despair—in these situations you can almost see Wally collapsing on the inside as a person.

Which is striking because he is so completely full of personhood. Last week I got to spend more time than usual just with Wally, on account of the cold he and I both had. We played the card game War, ate peanut butter toast, made blanket tents in his bed. What struck me most about our time together was how consistent his mood was. He was excited but not hyper, happy, talkative, and reasonable.

This was striking because most of the time around the house, I think of him as either way up or way down. When he and Jay play together—which they do pretty much the entire time they’re awake and at home—Wally’s either tearing around the house in delight or crumpling in defeat. There’s not a lot of calm, self-composed middle ground.

We all change the way we behave in response to the people around us, and some people affect us in better or worse ways. I’m glad my friends see me so often with Caroline, because I like who I am with Caroline. There are other people who make me feel nervous, or insecure, or angry, and if you only ever saw me around those people, you might regard me in a way I don’t want to be regarded.

For Jay and Wally, and their relationship as brothers, this cuts both ways. Caroline remarked over the weekend that if Jay were an only child we’d think he was perfectly behaved, because pretty much the only trouble he gives us is when he’s going at Wally. And Wally, if he were an only child…well, the change is almost too dramatic to imagine, which suggests just how strongly his behavior—and our perceptions of it—is influenced by the fact that Jay is almost always in the room.

Soup saves the day

IMG_5724It’s been some kind of week. Wally was sick, of course, and home from school for two more days after trapping me for the duration of his long Tuesday nap. We arrived home at 4:30pm this afternoon to find we were out of milk, out of trash bags, and that some moron had decided the evening’s dinner should be “gourmet ramen,” which we’ve never made before.

Caroline and I started to chop shiitakes and Jay and Wally decided to compare the number of coins in their respective plastic treasure chests (which had been acquired as promotional giveaways at a minor league baseball game this summer). Comparing your bank account to your sibling’s turns out to be as bad an idea at age five as it is at thirty-five. Wally’s no financial genius, but he quickly noticed a gaping discrepancy between his pile of booty and his brother’s. There was some wailing, some grabbing for Jay’s coins, and finally some feverish promises from me that I’d get him a bigger stack of pennies. (Come to think of it, maybe Wally is a financial genius after all.)

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Anyway, the soup. As the chicken was broiling in its brown sugar and soy sauce marinade, I was preparing in my mind to write a post about the obvious disaster that unfolds when you venture outside of your culinary safe zone at the end of a week in which everyone’s been sick. But no! The soup was incredibly easy to make and turned out quite well. The broth simmers with a hearty amount of fresh ginger, which establishes a solid foundation of flavor, and then all the add-ins require little prep and taste good: the broiled chicken, chopped mushrooms, spinach, and rice noodles.

Jay and Wally liked the soup and were appropriate with their chopsticks, if not entirely effective, for much longer than expected. Afterward, Caroline gave the boys a bath while I cleaned up and listened to Pink on the hi-fi. All told, I’m ready to say we played this week to a draw.