Sitting with a girl on a bench

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Last weekend Jay spent some time with a friend, a girl, a precocious kindergartener who a few months ago told me and Caroline, “It’s not good to want the things that other people want.”

It was Sunday, sunny, and we were in the park.  Caroline and I were sitting with our friends on a picnic blanket.  I could see Jay and his friend off in a far corner of the park kicking a soccer ball.  After a minute, Jay, who can barely contain this side of himself, got rascally.  He wouldn’t kick her the soccer ball, kept it all to himself, maybe said a teasing word.  The girl retreated to a nearby bench, turned her back to Jay, pulled her knees to her chest.

Uh oh, I thought, what is he going to do now?

Jay approached her cautiously from the side, still holding the soccer ball.  He leaned in.  What could he possibly know to say?  She turned even more decidedly away from him, and lowered her chin to her chest.   Jay circled around to the other side of the bench.  She turned away again.  He circled back.  Maybe he found the right thing to say.  He sat down beside her and she didn’t turn away.

I watched this all from a distance, smiling and also a little sad to think about all the  situations he’s going to bumble into in his life, and how sometimes or often he may not know how to get himself out of them.

Jay and his friend sat together for a minute, close on one side of the bench, their legs dangling below them.  Then I saw him start to squirm, and recognized my old familiar son.  He didn’t excuse himself, just started to run across the park toward me.  I met him halfway.  “I need to go pee,” he said.  “I know,” I said.  And we went looking for a tree.

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Let’s walk on the beach today

One of my favorite Frog and Toad stories is “Dragons and Giants.”  It begins with Frog and Toad looking at themselves in a mirror, wondering whether they’re brave. To find out, they go on an adventure up a mountain where they have scary encounters with an avalanche, a snake, and a hawk.  At each turn they stand their ground and yell, “I am not afraid,” until finally, convinced  that they are in fact brave, they run back home and hide under the covers.

My last post was about coping strategies that kids and adults use to minimize or deny the big, unavoidable fears in life.  I was thinking over the weekend, though, that there are also two, somewhat opposing ways to confront those fears head on, the way Frog and Toad did.

The first, I think, is to make long-term plans, and to invest in relationships most of all.  The most calamitous moment of my life was when I found out that my mom had died, seven years ago this month.  I’ve written before about how in the aftermath of her death, the only way forward seemed to be to start building our family again.  Two years later, Caroline and I got married, and less than a year after that, Jay was born. Forming relationships and giving yourself over to other people, even knowing that they can be taken from you in a second, seems to me to be the best way to say, “I am not afraid.”

If the first way is to make long-term plans, I think the second is to act spontaneously. On Sunday morning, while still in our pajamas, Caroline and I were talking about how much we missed being in Maine.  Our summer there was feeling far away, when Caroline remembered that the beach is just 100 miles from Columbia, and pointed out that we didn’t actually have any plans that day.

Routine is one of my biggest coping strategies.  I think that if I can get my daily schedule calibrated just right, and stick to it, I can guard against life spiraling out of control.  But the pull of the beach was powerful, so I took the boys into the backyard while Caroline did some research online.  An hour later we pulled out of the driveway, with directions to a seafood restaurant just outside of Charleston written on an index card.

Two hours after we left home, we were eating crab cakes on a deck overlooking a waterway lined with shrimp boats.  And after that we drove to the beach. The approach was lined with palmetto trees, which still haven’t gotten old.  Caroline and I shared a moment of disbelief, that in the time it takes to go grocery shopping, we’d arrived in a scene that felt like a vacation.  The ocean was still warm on the first weekend in November, and Jay and Wally quickly partnered with an eight-year-old girl who had come well-equipped with sand shovels.

The rest of the afternoon featured some stressful moments, but overall felt triumphant.  It feels good to say, sometimes, that you’re not afraid to make your own way through the day.

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Coping strategies

The other evening we had a friend over for dinner and the subject of childhood fears came up.  She explained that her daughter, who’s 5, had been very afraid of a fire breaking out in their house.  That is, she said, until they made a plan for dealing with fires that included things like the locations of fire extinguishers, evacuation routes from the house, and designated meeting places outside.  Once her daughter had a plan, the mom said, fire stopped seeming so scary.

This struck me because her daughter’s relationship to fear is so different than Jay’s (and my own, too).  Over the summer I made up a story for Jay most nights before bed.  The story—at his request—usually involved some kind of elaborate vehicle that could do things like go underwater, dig deep holes, climb mountains, and, always, go really fast.

Each night the vehicle would go on some kind of adventure—like a race across the desert or to rescue a lost animal—and in the course of the journey, challenges would come, like a flat tire or a snowstorm.  Jay always responded the same way, by inventing some new feature for the vehicle that let it overcome whatever was in its way.   Except once, when the car and its driver stopped for lunch at a diner, and robbers came to break into the car.  Jay stopped me and told me, very seriously, that there can’t be any bad guys in the story.  I protested at first—every good story needs bad guys—but Jay insisted, so the robbers went away.

And that, I would say, is how Jay prefers to deal with all kinds of bad thoughts—through a kind of magical logic that makes the scary thing easy to overcome, or denies it altogether.  It sounds like a childish approach, except of course adults do it all the time, too.

Recently there was a shooting a few miles from our house in which a pedestrian, a freshman at the University of South Carolina, was caught by a stray bullet and paralyzed.  My first instinct after reading that story was to search for ways that the freshman was different from me—her age, maybe, or the time of day she was out, or the color of her skin—anything that would let me believe that the random tragedy that had struck her, couldn’t happen to me.

Lately I’ve been thinking about adult life as one big coping strategy.  The older you get, the more you become aware of the awful things that can happen, and the more you realize you’re not exempt from them anymore than the next person is.  Yet we all still have to get out of bed each day, we have to build our lives even knowing that it can all be undone in a stroke.  And I think a lot of the things we do are motivated by a desire to find ways to insulate ourselves from the sense of imminent chaos.

I thought about this  while watching commercials during the World Series.  Samsung had this advertisement that ran frequently for its new tablet computer.  You can watch it below.  The commercial features a family and shows all the ways that the tablet facilitates their lives: the dad lounges on a couch and trades stocks, two brothers fist bump after some kind of multimedia triumph, the mom videochats with her mom about a stuffing recipe, the whole family dances together and then sits down to watch a movie retrieved via app.

 

As the scenes go by, music builds, and the message is clear: This product will take the messy, uncertain reality of your life and transform it into something neat, orderly, and purposeful.  It’s a powerful message that definitely moved me a little closer to buying a tablet.  But it’s also a trick.  A tablet computer isn’t going to make you immune to cancer or less likely to get hit by stray bullets.  It’s not going to resolve the uncertainty that comes with raising kids or the difficulty of finding a way to be happy. It’s the kind of magic tool Jay might invent to make problems go away, except this one you can buy for $400.

Coping strategies get a bad name, as a form of denial, a way to distract ourselves from the things we don’t want to see.  But they’re also a necessary part of life, and in one sense maybe the whole of life.  It’s interesting to think of the diversity of ways people choose to live their lives, as different responses to the same underlying problem.

Joined through sausage and laundry

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Sunday night for dinner we had pasta with red sauce, and two links of sausages cut into medallions and fried.  Caroline cooked it, I served it, and before I put the food on our plates, I counted the pieces of sausage.  There were 25, which meant nine for Caroline, nine for me, four for Jay, and three for Wally.  I found it satisfying to think of our family in this way, dividing up we have in proportion to what we need.

Later that same night, after the boys were asleep in their separate rooms (an arrangement I’d like to change), I lay upstairs in bed while Caroline stood nearby folding laundry.  I watched her pull items from the hamper, one at a time, fold them, and place them in their separate piles: one for Wally, one for Jay, and one for me.  We’ll wear those clothes in the course of our separate lives, Jay and Wally at school in their shorts and stripes, me at home at my computer in jeans and a button shirt.  But it’s nice to remember, too, that we’re tangled at the roots, our private lives wound around one another’s.

I’m used to thinking about the ways that family ties hem me in, but when I counted out the sausage, and watched Caroline sort our clothes, I felt nostalgic more than anything else.  My own childhood feels so long ago.  It seems certain that when all is said and done, these entangled years will prove to be the rarer thing.

Searching for kindness during an airport delay

Last Thursday night I ran into trouble coming home from Philadelphia.  My flight was delayed an hour by weather, which meant I was going to miss my connecting flight to Columbia.  I waited in line to rebook with the gate agent, resigning myself to the probability that wherever I slept that night, it was unlikely to be at home.

I was eighth in line (how can you not count in times like those) and tried to remain calm about the small-scale fiasco.  The woman behind me was not calm at all, though.  She was on the phone with her mom.  “I can’t stand this fucking city a minute longer,” she said in a thick working class accent.  “I’m going crazy, I think I’m gonna have a panic attack.”  Then she called a man named Dan.  More cursing.  More talk of losing her mind.  “Remember that time you started sweating and passed out,” she said.  “That’s going to be me unless I get out of this filthy fucking city.”

My heart did not go out to her.  As I listened to her I thought: What kind of person swears like that in public?  Doesn’t she see that the rest of us are dealing with this unfortunate but unavoidable snag like normal, well-socialized human beings?  Like me, for example, didn’t she see that I’m not throwing a fit even though I really want to get home to my family tonight?

We advanced slowly in line.  I watched the passengers ahead of me talk with the gate agent.  Some got rebooked on other flights, others received only bad news and took up way too much time making the agent run futile queries.  One guy had the agent check for flights into every little airport within two hours of Savannah.  Meanwhile, I thought about the direct flight to Columbia that I knew was scheduled to leave from Terminal F in an hour, and I pictured other delayed passengers at other gates snapping up the last remaining seats.  Behind me, the woman called her mom back and continued her rant.  Her distaste for Philadelphia was so vociferous, I felt like I needed to speak up for the city.

Finally, I was next in line.  The passenger at the desk received good news: There was room on a later flight to Chicago.  While the agent printed this lucky passenger’s new boarding passes, I got antsier, anticipating my turn to learn my fate.  But just before I stepped forward, I was hit with a very unexpected feeling.  Suddenly I felt cheap and small to be maintaining my position in line while the woman behind me clearly needed resolution faster than I did.  I paused a moment and then turned to her.  She was off the phone now.

“Do you want to go ahead of me in line,” I asked.  “It sounds like you’re having a harder day than I am.”

She was startled at first and gave a quick reply about how I didn’t need to do that.  But then she saw things differently, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Bless you, I will go ahead if you don’t mind.”

She stepped forward and received good news, too.  Pittsburgh, apparently, was where she was so desperate to get to that night, and she walked away from the desk a changed woman.  With a boarding pass in her hand and a new lightness in her voice, she paused to thank me again, and  hurried off down the terminal to her new gate.

Later, on my flight home (things worked out for me, too), I thought about what had taken place between the two of us in line.  I was struck by how dramatically she had changed, both within herself and in my own eyes, when I’d offered her my spot in line.  Up until that moment she had seemed completely ugly, but when she thanked me, it was with a direct, human warmth I might have guessed she was incapable of.  I was also surprised at how good it felt to have done something kind, and surprised even more by my surprise: How is it that after 33 years of life, so basic a thing as kindness still startles?

And that has been my lasting feeling about the  experience.  I think about all the ways I could have responded to my somewhat crass linemate, and I’m taken aback by the fact that for 20 minutes I held her in contempt, and only at the last second, for reasons I can’t explain, did I even have the thought to do something kind for her.  The whole experience put a point on how judgment is a default setting, and kindness can feel like a fluke, and how weird it is that life would be made that way.

Living with the House Republicans

Congress is in chaos. The situation is barely more reasonable at home.

Yesterday before dinner Jay walked into the kitchen and announced, “For my cold special treat I want pumpkin ice cream.”

“Your what?” I said.

“My cold special treat,” Jay said. “Everyday I get one special treat and one cold special treat.”

I admired his attempt to make his request seem reasonable by introducing a previously non-existent category of treat.

“First of all, you don’t get a cold special treat everyday,” I said. “Second of all, you don’t get any kind of special treat everyday. That’s why they’re special.”

The words were barely out of my mouth when Jay switched demands. He spied a container of donuts on the counter that we’d bought together the day before.

“I want a donut,” he said, feverish like a puppy, and grabbed the carton.

It was the fourth time that day Jay had asked me about the donuts and I was annoyed to be having this conversation again. I strong-armed the donuts out of Jay’s hands. He crumpled to the floor, flat on his back, legs kicking. The tears came fast.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “But one little boy who weighs less than forty pounds and has been alive for only four years cannot shutdown this entire family.”

“Please,” he said desperately, beginning to gasp for air. “I want a donut.”

“We are not going to talk about this while you are throwing a tantrum on the floor,” I said, and walked out of the room.

An hour later it was bedtime. All the screaming and crying had worn Jay out and he fell asleep quickly. I watched him for a minute, calm and still on the bed, and my heart went out to him. The poor boy can’t help but get all worked up over nothing.

Wally did not fall asleep as quickly. After his lullabies he came out of his room three times. Finally Caroline applied A&D to his doorknob.

“Do you see that,” she said, pointing to the slippery knob. “Don’t touch it or you’ll get A&D on your fingers.”

Wally hates to get A&D on his fingers, but he touched it anyway. Then he cried out, “Mama, I have A&D on me.”

After a few minutes we went in to clean him up. While Caroline wiped off his hands and cheeks, I got out a bubble lock for his doorknob. Wally has defeated this in the past by pulling it apart, but this time I wrapped it in three layers of masking tape. I turned off the light, laid Wally in his bed, and closed the bedroom door.

A minute later I heard him batting at the door lock. His voice rang out with a statement as absurd as his brother’s invocation of the cold treat. “I don’t need this tape,” he said, pathetically, over and over again. “I don’t need this tape.”

Upstairs in bed, Caroline and I smiled at each other. It took Wally a long time to accept that he wasn’t going to get his way. He kept spinning the lock, crying about the tape.

“Won’t you even negotiate about this,” I think I heard him say. Then, finally, he curled up at the base of door and went to sleep.

Marking time on a Saturday

IMG_4473Saturday morning, after a rough night’s sleep, I checked my email and saw that Jay’s soccer game was at 9am, not 10:30am as we’d assumed. We scrambled to get ready and made it to the field in time. The game was similar to last week’s for Jay—stout defense, a few goals, and intermittent tears. I was able to back off emotionally from what Jay was doing just enough to notice that the experience was hard for another father, too. Next to us on the sideline there was a three-year-old boy, shirtless, who refused to put on his jersey or enter the game. “You’re acting like a baby. Be a big boy,” his dad said to him, in a low, disdainful whisper.

After the game we drifted through the day. Jay was in a mood, not uncommon these days, where he seems to do nothing but whine. Wally, who’s not much of a whiner but who does like to cause trouble, alternated between poking Jay and emptying dirty silverware from the dishwasher. I retreated into trimming the bushes on the side of our house. Caroline brought up going to the tailor. We all had things we’d rather be doing, places we’d rather be.

As I lopped branches, I thought about a dream I’d had the night before. It started with me and Caroline on the top floor of a building in a strong storm. The building broke loose in the gale, we fell towards the ground, and knew we were about to die. I had time to think, “At long last, it’s finally here.” My last thought was about Jay and Wally, and then we hit the ground.

The dream continued on the other side of life. I forget the plot, but the feeling of the dream is what matters most. Caroline and I walked around together in this new world, desperate in the knowledge that Jay and Wally were still alive but we were completely unable to reach them.

I overpruned our bushes and then we decided to take a walk, to get a gallon of milk and maybe something for lunch. Caroline pushed Wally on his tricycle and Jay stayed a block ahead of us on his balance bike. Eventually the grocery store came into view and there was a festival in its parking lot—balloon animals, a bounce house, pottery demonstrations. The boys ran like it was Christmas. Caroline and I watched—not with joy, exactly, but with a thin kind of happiness to have stumbled onto an easy way to pass an hour of the day.

And so the rest of the day went from there—lunch, quiet time, popsicles in the backyard, pirates on the swingset, a TV show, dinner, bath, bed. The boys had not been asleep long when Caroline and I went upstairs to bed ourselves.

As we settled in beside each other, it was hard to account for the day that had passed, hard not to feel that we were back where we’d been all along, poised for sleep, or that we were already waking up and it was tomorrow. But before we fell asleep we had time to talk, about how the biggest struggles are to recognize the smallest things: How many days will we all have together?