Brothers abroad

Originally published on May 4, 2016

5.4.16At the airport last month, just past security, a woman saw Jay and Wally looking at a display of Golden State Warriors shirts and asked them if they played basketball. Wally answered first, for both of them. “My brother plays baseball. I played soccer, but I was too shy.”

By too shy, Wally meant he hadn’t wanted to go out onto the field last fall, which was true. But when I heard him describe himself that way, what struck me most was how matter-of-fact he was about it: My brother plays sports, I don’t, and everything about his tone of voice suggested he was OK with that distinction.

The conversation at the airport came at the end of a four-day visit to San Francisco. For logistical reasons having mainly to do with a conference and how inflexibly we knew Leo would deal with the jet lag, just Jay, Wally, and I went on the trip. The occasion was to meet the newest member of our extended family, a boy born to my brother and his wife on Leap Day. Going into the trip, I was eager to see my little brother’s first encounter with intense sleep deprivation and also to try out Jay and Wally as travel companions.

They proved their fitness right away, on the first morning when we all awoke at 4:30am. On the flight over I’d told them how last time I went to California, it was for Uncle Ryan’s wedding (the same Uncle Ryan we were going to visit now), and Jay, who was 16-months-old then, had woken up for good the first two mornings at 3am. In a small bed and breakfast with a noisy toddler, there was nothing to do but take him on a long, dark, cold walk along the Pacific. Five years later and with Wally now on the scene, both boys stayed quietly in bed until a more agreeable hour rolled around.

Beyond the sleeping, they were good companions in other ways. They marveled at trinkets in Chinatown (“Is this real gold?!), ate adventurously at dim sum, took quickly to new friends and family, and were consistently enthusiastic on each of three hilltop hikes—even if, once there, they preferred to play swords with sticks rather than admire the Golden Gate.

They also quickly established their own private society, which reminded me of how my siblings and I would fall into new roles on long car trips, when we had no one else around but each other. They spent much of each day engaged in silly banter, filled with nonsense words and funny voices, batted back and forth as they ran up the sidewalk ahead of me or waited in a long line for ice cream. Often the silliness was too much for our surroundings. At brunch at my brother’s apartment or while I nervously navigated my way across the bay, I’d try to get them to cool it, and they would for a moment—then one would steal a glance at the other and they’d be off again.

In all this, there was less of a sense of hierarchy between them than there usually is. Yes, on a visit to a farm, Jay was a little quicker to identify some plants (though Wally got his, too) and on a hike with a college friend and his family, there was no question about which one of them was going to make it to the top first. Yet in the midst of such new experiences these distinctions didn’t seem nearly as fraught as they do in day-to-day life.

It’s said that many aspects of identity are socially constructed, that your gender or skin tone comes to mean more than it needs to because of the cultural significance we attach to those distinctions. After four days away with Jay and Wally, it seems clear that birth order works that way, too. Wally didn’t gain 20 pounds or transform into a faster runner on the flight across the country. But once there, with much of the context of their regular lives stripped away, it seemed to matter much less (to him most of all) that he hadn’t.

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