Looking for the fool at the card table

_MG_5862The other morning I walked downstairs, saw the boys in the playroom, and thought: uh-oh, Wally. They were sitting across a small table from each other, playing the card game War. In the first hand I saw, Wally flipped over a Queen and Jay played a Joker, the top card in our house. “I win,” Jay said, and Wally cheerfully handed over his card, happy just to have a seat at the table.

Growing up, I cheated a lot at War. My brother and sister, quite sharp now, were a step slow during a few crucial years and probably wouldn’t have said anything if I’d played five aces in a row. The easiest way to cheat was to replace high cards on the top instead of the bottom of my pile. The best way to cheat was to fabricate wars—Oh, did two nines just come up? What are the chances of that—and use the tiebreaker process to rook my brother and sister’s best cards.

So, when I saw Wally sit down at the card table with his big brother, I knew what he was in for. Yet that day, and the several times they played War together in the weeks afterward, I never saw Jay cheat. Sometimes he’d win several hands in a row and exclaim, “I’m getting good at this!” revealing a kind of myopic attention to his own perceived skills. Meanwhile, and perhaps undetected by cheery Jay, Wally was growing steadily less content to fork over his cards. Games grew volatile, and often ended in a fight, or with Wally refusing to play a card he didn’t want to lose.

This weekend, though, Jay and Wally sat down to play War again, supervised by their Grammy. The first few hands went fine and then a war hit, a big one: two Kings. Jay’s eyes went wide at the sheer improbability of it, when really they should have narrowed. He played his war cards, three down, one up, with the last one being a respectable Ten of Spades.

Across the table, however, it became quickly apparent that Wally meant to engage the fight in a different way. He peeked at his top card. Yikes, it was a Joker, the last card you want to lay down sacrificially in a war. So, rather than play it that way, Wally tucked it between his chin and his shoulder, and placed the next three cards in his pile face down. Then he removed the Joker from beneath his chin, placed it face up, looked across the table at Jay, and broke into celebration. Jay, seemingly in the same room as the rest of us, was none the wiser to this brazen treachery. He didn’t even object when, lo and behold, Wally’s marauding Joker came up again on the very next hand.

I’ve written a couple posts recently (here and here) about the tough lot of younger siblings, and I do feel for Wally, whose view is often obstructed by Jay. At the same time, we’re most exploitable at the exact moment we think we know something for certain. I don’t think it’s conceivable to Jay (or maybe me) that Wally could pull one over on him, and I suspect he may pay for that presumption more than once throughout their childhoods.

Related posts:

A tale of two Wallys

Last night at soccer practice, I realized you can’t treat a second child like a first child

Watching parents walk toward children

_MG_5790A few weeks ago I was checking out at Whole Foods. The cashier was a woman, probably in her early-fifties, with neat short hair and a bright face. Jay and Wally were with me, bouncing around in the shopping cart. The sight of two little kids must have reminded her of her own son. “He makes sandwiches right over there,” she said, pointing back toward the deli. “Everybody always tell me how good they are.” I asked if her son ever makes sandwiches for her at home and she shook her head. “When he’s not at work, that’s the last thing he wants to do.”

At the time I was struck by the pride in her voice when she spoke of her son’s sandwiches, and also by the contrast of such an intimate relationship stretched across the generic landscape of a grocery store.

After we left, I didn’t think of her again at all. Days went by and I made many more trips to the grocery store, and each time I approached a check-out lane, it never occurred to me that I might see her again. Then on Thursday night I found myself standing in the bakery department, trying to decide what kind of cookies to buy for Caroline’s parents and sister, who were due in the next morning. It was past eight o’clock at night and the store was quiet. It was possible to stand still in one place and not get in anybody’s way.

And as I stood there, a woman came up on my left. We made eye contact, just for a second, but in that second I realized two things: It was the same woman I’d talked with while checking out a few weeks ago, and I knew just where she was headed. We exchanged small smiles—I don’t think she recognized me—and I watched her walk over to the sandwich station. There was a young man in his early twenties, tall and skinny in a white food service cap and matching chef’s jacket, assembling a Ruben or a roast turkey club. She leaned against the counter and talked. He kept his head down on his work. I wondered whether she visited him at every break, or here and there when time allowed, or whether she’d walked over at the end of her shift, specifically to ask whether he wanted a ride home that night.

I didn’t end up buying any cookies that evening, but afterward I thought about the expression on her face as she’d flashed past me, and why in that moment it had been so self-evident where she was going. It was an expression I’d seen before, though it took me a few nights to remember where.

Eight years ago I came home from a long trip abroad. Caroline and I landed in New York City after midnight, and the next morning I took the train north to see my dad. We spent a week together, then I took the train back down to the city, and a commuter line out into the suburbs, to Larchmont station, where my mom was going to pick me up. We’d spoken on the phone a lot and we’d emailed even more, but the nine months I’d been away was many times longer than we’d ever gone without seeing each other.

I got off the train wearing sneakers and my big traveling backpack, and I stepped down a short flight of stairs from the platform to the parking lot. I looked around and didn’t see her. Then I looked around again, and there she was, walking toward me down a long line of cars. She seemed almost to be bouncing, and several times nearly broke into a run. I remember how far behind she’d left my stepfather, who’d come with her, the forgotten way her purse swung on her arm, and the broad, breaking smile on her face as she drew nearer. It felt almost embarrassing to be the object of such emotion after having done nothing more than come home.

There is an assuredness to the way parents walk toward their children. I can recognize it now in the way my mom walked toward me, and I saw it the other night in the way that mom in Whole Foods walked toward her son. So many of the steps we take in life are laced with doubt or indifference that it’s striking to see someone walk with so little regard for anything, but where they’re going.

Related posts: Overheard: a conversation between a mom and her son

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.