Across the way from Jay

Originally published on October 14, 2015

10.14.15Jay started playing organized sports two years ago. Since then it’s been almost nothing but soccer: teams in the fall and spring, a week of camp in the summer, hours in the backyard, the two of us kicking back and forth.

Soccer is nearly all Jay knows of sports, but it’s new for me. The bins of sports gear in our houses growing up were filled with baseballs, gloves, basketballs, an odd football or two, all used in heavy rotation. It’s quite possible I’ve never once kicked a soccer ball with my dad.

So when I kick the ball with Jay, it’s with a sense of coming to a new place. As with coming to a new place, there is a feeling of possibility and excitement. As an athlete playing other sports, I peaked in early high school and drifted toward the bench after that. With Jay and soccer, it’s easy to imagine him having more success, in part because I don’t know enough about the progression of the sport to clearly imagine all the kids who might end up being bigger, faster, and more skilled than him.

Alongside this sense of possibility, there is also a sense of being out of place. I feel like this every time I make a clumsy left-footed kick or attempt to juggle and watch the ball fly hopelessly away. Standing across the yard from Jay, there is an undertone of masquerade. When I show him Messi highlight videos on YouTube, part of me feels insincere, like I’m trying to convince him of the value of something I don’t believe myself.

I find this feeling in other places, too. It mostly collects where I have ambitions for Jay and Wally. I have this idea that I’d like Jay to have a career in math or science. This says something about him, that he seems apt for that kind of thinking. This also says something about me. I had little interest in science until a few years ago, when I started talking to scientists in my work as a journalist and came to admire what they do. There’s nothing wrong with wanting your children to be things you’re not. It’s how we make progress by generations. And it feels fine to be in a new place when someone else is leading you there. But handing Jay and Wally my own new ideas and recent aspirations feels speculative and uncertain. In some ways I’d rather pass on what I know for sure, whatever that might be, and let them come to the rest on their own.

This feeling, of what it’s like to offer Jay and Wally things whose value I understand more in external terms than personal ones, came together for me this morning on our front yard. For the first time since the rain and flooding two weekends ago, Jay was going back to school, on a two-hour delayed start. This gave us some time to play together. The previous day I’d retrieved a pair of baseball gloves from the top shelf in the closet and Jay and I had played catch together for the second time ever. This morning he wanted to do it again.

As we walked outside the grass was still wet with dew and the sun was low in the sky so that on high throws, it blinded me through the trees. Jay stood a short ways from me, wearing the same glove I’d worn as a shortstop in Little League. It flopped on his hand. When I threw, I tried to throw to the side, so that if he missed, the ball wouldn’t hit him in the face. He did miss the ball, a lot, and each time would skip happily over to our neighbor’s yard to retrieve it. Yet a couple minutes before he had to shoulder his backpack and walk to school, we found a groove. One toss, two tosses, eight tosses, back and forth, the miracle of flight. That the ball could go from my hand through the air, to his glove, and back again, felt as improbable as doing the same thing with Jay that my dad had spent so much time doing with me.

Jay makes a move

Originally published on October 6, 2015

10.6.15Last Thursday on the walk to school, Jay asked me how deep a diver could go if he had the biggest oxygen tank in the world.

It was a little past 7am, not quite morning. I walked down the sidewalk, one hand on the stroller pushing Leo, the other holding hands with Jay. I explained that the size of the tank wasn’t really the limiting factor. I told Jay about nitrogen absorption in the blood, the bends, water pressure, all prefaced with a disclaimer: I’m sure I have some of the details wrong.

We turned the corner onto Pine Street. Up ahead I saw other pairs of parents and children emerging out of the neighborhood toward school. Jay thought about what I’d said and offered the example of the sperm whale, which is often on his mind. “It’s a mammal, too, how come it can dive to 3,280 feet without the pressure hurting it?”

I said I didn’t know. Jay surmised, “It has a thick layer of fat, maybe that protects it from the pressure.” We walked on, he continued chewing on the question. “But actually, the giant squid can also dive deep and it doesn’t have a layer of fat,” he said. “So it’s probably not fat that protects the sperm whale from the pressure.”**

The way Jay reasoned about the facts available to him surprised me. Afterward I remembered an anecdote reported from the chess matches between Gary Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue in the 1990s. In their initial matches Kasparov held the advantage, but eventually Deep Blue surpassed him. At one point the computer made a move that caught everyone’s attention. Observers described it as creative, like the way a human would play. It demonstrated a sophistication of thinking people had assumed the computer didn’t possess.

Listening to Jay try and formulate an overall theory of diving, I was struck the way observers of Deep Blue may have been struck. For a while now, Caroline and I have listened to streams of facts from the boys—about the biggest this, the fastest that, carnivores, omnivores, googolplexes and infinity—all pieced together with exercises in half-baked logic.

Jay hasn’t outgrown this stage completely. He could use a few more facts to work with and layers of complexity await his attempts to figure out how the world works. But he’s definitely onto something.

**Jay read this post as I wrote it, the first time that has happened. He recognized the scene I was retelling. When I got to the part where he reasoned between the squid and the whale he said to me—I was wrong, the squid can’t dive as deep as the whale so it could still be the fat layer. He couldn’t understand why I was repeating what he now knew to be incorrect information and not adding in the new depth figures he presented me with. I explained I wanted to tell the story as it actually happened. He couldn’t understand why.

Wally looks for his role

Originally published on September 26, 2015

For a long time after Leo was born, Wally went around the house on all fours. His move looked like a hop, but if you made the mistake of asking whether he was a frog, he’d snarl defiantly in reply: I’m a baby sabertooth.

His inspiration as a baby sabertooth was the cheetah, who at top-speed moves more in leaps than in strides. Wally would take long sabertooth-bounds down the hall, far faster than I could walk and he’d do a series of shorter, quicker hops to round corners. For the last nine months he’s hunted as a fierce baby sabertooth, cuddled as a baby sabertooth, taken frolicking leaps off his bed as a baby sabertooth, mewed after his showers as a baby sabertooth in order to get me or Caroline to come in and dry him off.

And on the occasions when he has not been a baby sabertooth, Wally has not been sure who he is. One night in New Hampshire this summer I heard him crying in his bed. It was past ten o’clock and I was surprised he was still awake. I went in, got him to calm down a little, and in big, wet sobs he told me the most heart-breaking thing I’ve been told as a parent: “I don’t want to be the middle brother.”

But he is the middle brother, and by light of day he seems torn about whether to play up or play down in his search for identity and affection. There is all the time as a baby sabertooth, punctuated by moments in which Wally seems ready to move on to something else. Also this summer, on the front lawn of an island house we’d rented off the coast of Freeport, Jay engaged in a series of one-on-one soccer games against the slightly older kids in the house next door. The games were riveting and a crowd of adults, beers in hand, gathered to watch. From my spot on the sidelines, cheering on Jay, I saw Wally poke his head out of the house a time or two, but thought that mostly he wasn’t interested in the spectacle.

An hour later, at dinner, with Jay sitting red-faced and punch-drunk from the exertion, Wally made a big show of asking my brother to pass him the salad, which neither he nor his brother ever really eat. He scooped a heaping spoonful onto his plate and made a big show of putting a forkful into his mouth. Then he raised his head, looked squarely at Jay, and said with feigned nonchalance, “I guess I’m the only kid eating salad.”

His aspiration to be older, maybe to outgrow his middle role, has come out in other ways, too. He doesn’t much care for watching old sports games on YouTube, the way Jay does, and when afternoon television time rolls around, he usually opts for cartoons on Netflix instead. But one day recently he told me proudly, “Today I want to watch basketball,” as though there was no way to separate being like Jay from growing up.

Another morning recently he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. I heard some scuffling, then what sounded like the kids’ stool being deposited into the hallway. The water turned on, Wally called to me, “Look Dad, I can reach by myself.” I went in and found him teetering on the edge of the sink, one hand on his toothbrush, the other holding onto the faucet, his feet dangling in the air two feet off the ground.

That night in New Hampshire and several times since, Caroline and I have deployed some genuinely felt talking points about what it means to be the middle brother. We’ve told Wally the middle brother is a special brother who holds Jay and Leo together. We’ve told him how lucky he is that he’s the only one of the three boys who gets to be an older brother and a younger brother. Sometimes he takes these ideas to heart. Other times he seizes on them opportunistically, like when he claimed that it only makes sense that as the middle brother, he should get the coveted middle stool in the kitchen. Once, maybe to test how sincerely we’ve meant all this, he said to Caroline, “You love me best because I’m the middle brother?”

Day-by-day we watch the boys plow on, Leo on his hands and knees, Jay supremely confident in who he is, Wally intently trying to figure out his place in it all. The conversation has turned recently to Halloween and to costumes. On and off through the summer Wally had mentioned he wanted to go as the “green grinch,” as in the one who stole Christmas, who I think Wally admires for his scheming. But last week he told us he wanted to go as a sabertooth instead. “OK, we can order a baby sabertooth costume tomorrow,” Caroline said. “No, not a baby sabertooth, a grown-up sabertooth,” Wally answered, his tone indicating that we’d been missing something all along.

Walking out of Wally’s room

Originally published on September 20, 2015

9.20.15I want to remember that the other night Wally called me into his room to ask a question. It was past nine o’clock, nearly two hours after we’d first said goodnight. When I heard his voice I snapped hard in reply: That’s enough! Go to sleep!

This made Wally cry. Oh come on, I thought to myself, or maybe said out loud, as I pushed open the door into his dark room. He was face down in his pillow, naked but for his diaper. The pajamas he’d shed an hour earlier lay neatly beside his bed on the floor. He was crying weak, late-night sobs that could have been avoided if he’d just gone to sleep like his brother, who was out cold beneath his sheet in his bed across the room. I thought about insisting that Wally cut it out. After a moment, though, I put my head close to his, so that I could feel his hot wet face against my cheek. I pressed down lightly on his back and told him it was OK.

His sobs started to slow. His voice began to break through. It took him a few times to get his question out all the way. Finally he asked, “Do stoplights change in the night?”

Oh, I thought. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I stammered a bit of everything in reply: No they don’t, yes they do, I don’t know, that’s a good question. Then I said goodnight, and because he’d been crying, I knew as I walked out of the room that I wouldn’t see Wally again until morning.

Afterward I brushed my teeth, took a shower, lay in bed with the feelings from my time with Wally. I felt bad, for one, that I’d snapped at a boy who’d been awake through no real fault of his own, and I felt charmed by the thoughts that bounce around his head when he’s alone at night. But the strongest feeling of all, the one you wouldn’t guess unless you knew something else, was the feeling of not wanting to forget. It was the feeling of wanting very badly to hold that moment with Wally in something more permanent than time.

Life after Leo, part II: a chance to go back

Originally published on June 11, 2015

6.11.15On a recent Thursday morning, I packed the car for a weekend trip to West Virginia. I stowed a bag for each boy, a soccer ball, a cooler, then I went upstairs to pack Leo’s bassinet.

Standing before the bassinet, I realized it had been a long time since I’d taken it apart. I remembered that you had to collapse it in just the right order or else the sides wouldn’t fold at the end. I tried pushing on the bassinet in a couple of places and looked for a lever that I vaguely remembered was key to the whole operation. I couldn’t find it. Frustration stirred in my ribs, then gave way to a different feeling—in an instant I was back in our old Philadelphia apartment, standing by the same bassinet with Jay, an infant, on the bed beside me.

In addition to the expansion of needs, which I wrote about last week, this has been the other main theme of Leo’s arrival—a sense of going back.

Late on his first night home, after Jay and Wally were asleep, Caroline and I lay with Leo upstairs in our bedroom. We looked at him on the bed between us. He made some little noises, brought his hands up near his face. I was struck by how at ease I felt. I remembered that on my first night home with Jay, I felt completely overwhelmed by the task before us. Six years and a Wally later, the idea of caring for an infant didn’t feel overwhelming at all. This has made it much easier to enjoy having Leo around.

For that reason, we refer to Leo as a cherry, a bonbon, a little something extra. Caroline and I never contemplated not having kids, or stopping at one, but we might have held fast at two. As Leo grew in her belly, there were moments when Caroline and I wondered what we were doing. Life was so good, we seemed to have most everything we wanted, yet here we were, about to throw a whole new life into the mix.

And, Leo’s arrival has been disruptive in the ways I wrote about last week. But the stronger feeling, and the feeling I expect to see grow over time, is the feeling I had one afternoon just before Christmas. Caroline’s family was visiting and in a quiet moment I surveyed our house. Here was Jay playing cards at the dining room table, there was Wally reading on Grammy’s lap on the couch. Then I looked in the corner and saw Leo, two weeks old, asleep in his seat, and I felt our cup runneth over.

Leo has almost entirely complied with this idea we have of him as a sweet something extra. True, it was an ordeal getting him to drink from a bottle, but besides that, he has made being an infant look easy. He’s cheerful, amiable, fun-loving, good in the car, content. Family activity often roars away without him; Jay and Wally dash to the playroom, Caroline and I follow, and Leo is left alone in his bouncy seat on the kitchen counter. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to mind.

In life, we often wish we could relive our most vivid experiences, or wish we could do things over given what we know now. And, in most cases, it’s best to set those kinds of wishes aside. You can’t swim in the same river twice, life goes on, there is no going back.

Yet here is Leo.

Caroline and I talk sometimes about how Leo has gotten less of the royal retreatment than Jay or Wally did. We’ve taken fewer pictures of him, been less amazed when he rolled over. He has had to fit himself into a story already in-progress. But we also think about how, years down the road, there will come a time when Jay has gone off, and Wally has gone off, and it’s just the two of us and Leo at home. I think about how those years might feel, and I imagine that having Leo around then will feel a lot like having Leo around now—like an act of grace.

Life after Leo, part I: needs

Originally published on June 4, 2015


A few nights ago at bedtime, each boy needed something: Leo, crying, needed to be put to sleep, Jay, badgering me at my elbow, needed to watch highlights from a basketball game, Wally, jumping up and down on his bed, needed…something, though I couldn’t say exactly what.

When I think about the six months since Leo was born, these are the kinds of scenes that come to mind. The number of children in our house increased by 50 percent, but it has felt like the number of needs has increased by much more than that.

Many are simple needs: pour this, wipe that, change my shirt, find my ball, flip Leo onto his back again. This morning I was trying to pour Jay a bowl of mini-wheats at the same moment he was asking me to help him sound out “nightgown,” at the same time Wally was in the pantry asking me, “What’s this box?” (Answer: old formula.) It was enough to instigate a light compressing sensation on the surface of my skull.

These kinds of needs are tiring to fulfill, but they’re straightforward and just take stamina. I know if I “wipe that” enough times, eventually he’ll start wipe it himself.

It’s the other kinds of needs that have been trickier. These are needs for attention and emotional sorting-out. And I think of these needs as falling into two categories: Needs where the solution is obvious, but difficult to implement, and needs where even the solution is not clear.

Needs related to time and attention have been easy to diagnose, but harder to meet. The most obvious complication of adding a new child is that it makes it harder to carve out one-on-one time with the ones you already have. We’ve taken some steps. Caroline has gone on weekend lunch dates with Jay, usually to Chipotle. On Thursdays during the (just concluded) school year, Jay would stay after school for woodworking class. We’d take that opportunity to spend some extra time with Wally. One day he and I went to the hardware story to get a bolt for his broken-down bike. Another, we made banana bread. More often, Caroline or I would just sit with him in the playroom or on the front stoop while he played cars.

Even still, days can go by where I feel like I don’t have much individual interaction with Jay or Wally. I herd them to dinner, herd them into the bath, or I keep an ear out while they play basketball together in one room and I make breakfast in another.

Finally, there are the needs which are glaring, but hard to decipher and harder to solve. They have expressed themselves as tantrums at mealtimes, pushing on the playground, and manic jumping around before bedtime. More than once, Caroline and I have said to each other: These boys need something from us, but what? We can’t make Leo go away, we can’t add hours to the day. Often, there’s seemed to be no way to leaven their present anguish.

This has been especially true for Wally. At times, I’ve felt that Leo was a particularly cruel thing to inflict on him. I’ve watched Wally pretend, night after night, to be a baby chick/pteranodon/bear/alligator being birthed from beneath his covers. I’ve appreciated how hard it must be to find yourself displaced in a stroke as the baby of the family.

Time has helped a lot. There are still plenty of moments where I look around the house and all I see are needs, but the addition of Leo feels much less jarring than it used to. Jay and Wally are moving closer to the day they won’t be able to remember life before Leo. Caroline and I have mostly found a plan that accommodates the extra steps we need to take between waking and sleeping each day.

In September, three months before Leo was born, I concluded a post with the image of a child—the boy who would be Leo—running to catch a ship before it clears the headlands. Today I have a different boat image in mind. Leo’s aboard, and for six months we’ve been accelerating, bow up, hard through the waves. Now there’s a welcome sense of leveling off.

Wally takes a fall

Originally published on May 26, 2015

5.26.15On Saturday we went for a hike with two other families on a warm West Virginia afternoon. The trail was two miles long, uphill, and steep in places. Wally accomplished the second-half of the distance in 50-foot bursts, chasing me with a stick.

The stick was his magnet, and when he’d catch me he’d jab it through one of my belt loops. “I magneted you,” he’d say, and hold me fast in place, until others in our group caught up to us on the trail. Then I’d push the “detach” button on the magnet and run up the trail, Leo on my chest, Wally cackling and coming up fast behind me.

We had lunch at an overlook, drank water, lay in the sun, took a group photograph, headed down. Much of the way back was on an old access road, which was covered in large rocks and loose gravel. Wally, freed at last from the torture of walking uphill, only wanted to run. Instead of chasing me, he pursued an older boy, an eight-year-old who hopped easily over rocks and roots. Watching Wally careen down after him on his little, little legs, I knew it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.

So, I told Wally to stop running, and the father of the older boy told his son to stop running, too. But neither child listened. Less than a minute later, at full-speed, Wally lost his footing and pitched forward onto the ground.

I was about twenty feet up the trail behind him. I waited for Wally to cry, or to bounce up, or to otherwise let me know if he was hurt, but he did none of that. Instead he lay twisted on the ground and looked up the hill toward me. He made a pained grin, let out a high-pitched, nervous laugh. “Hahahahaha,” he said, “That’s funny. I’m OK. Hahahahaha.” I couldn’t tell what was going on. He laughed again. “Hahahahahaha, see nothing’s wrong,” he said, even as he remained down on the ground, his expression teetering between that weird, forced grin, and tears.

Finally I reached him. He wouldn’t let me help him up. Instead he got to his feet himself and went and stood by the side of the trail with his back toward me. I’d never seen this kind of behavior from him before and couldn’t tell exactly what was going on. Then he started to cry. He told me his knee was bleeding. All the false bravado from a moment ago was gone and I started to understand he’d been trying to cover up how he really felt.

I asked him if he’d like a piggyback and, still crying, he said he would. So with Leo asleep in front, I hoisted Wally on my back, and down the trail we went. After a minute Wally said to me, in that same desperate voice, “It only needs a band-aid. You were wrong, Dad, I can run.”

I said back to him, “I know you can,” and though I tried as hard as I could, I’m not sure I was able to make him believe me.