Coming into focus

On Saturday night Caroline and I resorted to that simplest and most naïve of parent tricks: We tried to bribe Jay with a cookie.

We had tickets to see a play that night—The God of Carnage—and had enlisted the services of the same German exchange-student babysitter whom Jay had spurned a month earlier by fleeing to an early bedtime in his crib.  Hoping for a better result this time around, we told Jay that if he gave Ronja a chance, he could have a chocolate cookie before he went to bed that night.

But Jay’s fear of abandonment overwhelmed his desire for sugar.  When Ronja walked through the door at 6:45pm Jay burst into hysterics.  We calmed him down and tried to ease out of the house by having Ronja read to him as we hovered nearby, but as soon as I put my coat on Jay fell apart again.  We left him sitting in a chair by the window, waving to us as we backed out of the driveway, tears in his eyes, a single chocolate cookie in a paper napkin on his lap.

When I think back to what Jay was like during the months leading up to this third birthday, I imagine I’ll remember how much he hated to be left with a babysitter.  I also think I’ll remember these months as a time when patterns in the “wide wide world” (as the Pokey Little Puppy likes to say) started to come into focus for him.

Last Friday afternoon we were driving to pickup Caroline.  We’d been in the car for a few minutes when Jay asked, “Are we on Packard?”  Packard is a major north-south street in Ann Arbor.  We drive it almost everyday and about two months ago Jay started asking if we were on Packard whenever we’d drive anywhere.

Since then he’s added more streets to his repertoire: He asks about Washtenaw, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Hill.  He has a hard time identifying landmarks from his vantage in his car seat but there are two streets he recognizes.  He knows Thompson Street, which we turn onto from Packard, and where we meet Caroline each afternoon at 5pm outside the Institute for Social Research.  And he knows Colony Road, where we live.

The geography of Ann Arbor is slowly beginning to resolve for Jay.  The same is true for numbers.  For about a year he’s known how to count from 1-14 in the sense that he can speak, in the correct order, the words that represent the numbers.  But he’s had no clue what the words actually mean.

That’s beginning to change.  The other morning at breakfast he sat in his booster seat and held up three fingers. He looked at Caroline and said, “Is this four?”

She told him it wasn’t so he tried again. Watching him muster the dexterity to raise a specific number of fingers is a fun spectacle in its own right.  He strained to lift his pinky without upsetting the three fingers he’d already raised.  Then, holding four shaky fingers aloft he asked Caroline again: “Now is this four?”

Another counting example.  Last night after dinner Jay and I used his beloved screwdriver to take apart his Fisher Price telephone.  The bottom of the phone was held in place by six screws.  I unscrewed three of them and asked him to count how many screws were left.  Only a month ago he would have begun pointing randomly and spouting numbers willy-nilly (“One, two, four, seven”) but last night he pointed calmly to each remaining screw and counted, “One. Two. Three.” He may not be the next Ramanujan, but he’s making progress.

The most exciting recent development, though, is that Jay has begun to recognize the letters of the alphabet, and to find them in all manner of surprising places.

Predictably, his first love has been “J.”  He knows it’s a personally significant letter but he’s also figuring out that he doesn’t have exclusive rights to it.  Two-thirds of the food in our house comes from Trader Joe’s.  Over the weekend Jay found “J’s” on a jar of peanut butter, a bag of tortilla chips, a box of raisin bran, a gallon of milk, a container of yogurt, and a bottle of olive oil. (You might ask—when does it stop being exciting to find new examples of your favorite letter? The answer: not yet.)

That said, Jay is open to seeing other letters, too.  This weekend he spotted a couple “C’s” on our license plate, nabbed the “M” in “Murakami” on the cover of 1Q84, and called out an “H” on a box containing a DIGITAL THERMOMETER that we’d bought last week when it seemed like the boys might be sick forever (they’re better now).  Of course, Jay doesn’t understand the rules that govern letter placement—I’m not sure it’s even occurred to him that “Jay” and “Joe” share a sound—but you only have to run into the same letter so many times before you begin to ask yourself, “Why do I find it here but not there?”

All of this is pretty exciting to Jay but sometimes I wonder if it’s not a little overwhelming, too.  Maybe Jay had an easier time sleeping at night before he figured out just how long the distance is from our house to where his Mama works.

Still, those concerns seemed far from his mind on Saturday night when we arrived back home from the play.  The house was quiet. Ronja was sitting on the couch with a lamp on.  We asked her how the night had gone.  She said that as soon as we’d left Jay had asked her to put him in his crib.  “And the cookie?” I asked.  She laughed and told us he’d wanted to bring it with him.

Later, Caroline and I tiptoed into his room.  In the glow of his nightlight we saw him lying on his back with one leg bent at the knee.  His bunny lay beside his pillow; his uneaten chocolate cookie sat on a napkin a few inches from his head.

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