Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Perfect Time

We head out to the playground after dinner, as usual, and it's always the perfect time. It's been hot, the day loitering still and heavy for the most part, but around 7 p.m. the river sends in cooler air over the grass. Most of the visiting kids have left the day for dinners and baths, leaving colorful riots of popped balloons and shovels and misplaced spills of sand that were probably minutes ago continents or bases or pirate ships.

Almost empty now, everything is for us. Q and The Boy set to work on opposite ends, she slowly soaking herself in the dog-shaped fountains, he lugging an adopted bucket full of sand up to the high wide slide to speed himself down. I loll roughly in the middle, unneeded and unnecessary.

I become useful when it's time to swing, and there's no waiting now. We make a sport of it: we do slingshots and catapults and underdogs, and Q's laughs bubble up and out of her and all over us. "The swing makes my head look up," she says. We stop when we want to, off to explore every last ladder and bridge.

Soon the sun gets real low, and my watch confirms it; it's time to head inside. On our way out, Q pretends to fiddle with the gate latch to steal just a few more minutes before this day becomes something she can only remember. Though I sympathize, I'm on to her, so I go back to scoop her up while The Boy shows himself how he can run atop the park's low wall in his new flip flops. To do things simply because you can. I tell him to be careful, because that's my job, and he tells me "I'm gripping my toes like this when I run. I won't fall off." He doesn't.

This is the perfect time.

Friday, May 25, 2007


WE'VE been to the West Coast and back right in the middle of May. We’ve dipped a foot into each ocean. We came back from an overcast and coolish San Diego to summer in NYC—the parks department flipped on the water fountains in the parks around our apartment, and Q and The Boy make any space you share with them smell like sunscreen and kidsweat. Sand has again become ubiquitous in our house.

Like any parent, I dreaded the six hours on the plane coming and going, and my wife and I fortified ourselves as best we could against all the problems we could imagine. We packed the laptop computer and The Boy’s favorite movies, drawing pads, pens, and pencils, books currently in the heavy rotation. My wife compiled an enviable snack bag, full of hummus sandwiches, bagels, raisins, cheese sticks, gummies in both bear and worm shapes, and several cups of dried noodle soups that only require hot water to bloom into a reasonable meal. We also brought Q’s two blankets—one big and one little (“for her eyes”). We tried, in other words, to bring as much of our house with us as we could to soften the flight as well as the landing.

Funny thing was, though, that The Boy didn’t want to bring his blankets. Until recently, he depended upon two blankets—one yellow, one sky blue with white clouds—to sleep and to assuage in general. We even used them to teach him colors in Vietnamese. Now he says they make him itch.

Whatever difficulty trying has presented him, he's always been this way. At three months (or one month, in preemie terms), he left our room for his own and slept soundly with little trouble. Around his first birthday, he decided to trade the bottle for the straw cup. He worked his way into his Big-Boy Bed before age two, after only a few nights. He never really did take to a pacifier. He eats all his meals off adult plates and tableware, and has for some time. Tectonic transitions, then, have been pretty easy for him—and for us.

And they've been a little easier for Q, too. She's watched him be big, so she knows how. Her first real night in a twin bed, on a visit to grandma and grandpa in Kansas, she slept reasonably well and came out by herself in the morning. After bringing her new Big-Girl mattress home in a borrowed car this past week, she took to it right away. (She did get up three or four times for the first few nights, to which the boy added, "I told you it wasn't a good idea.")

The Boy will be four soon, and the next year will be a big one for his brain. When he comes out of four into five, psychology tells us that he'll have a better idea of how minds work, including his own. I'm sure it won't be that big of a deal for him.

But like all his transitions, it will be a big deal for me.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


AN old saying (well, at least as far back as Yoda in the myth-mining The Empire Strikes Back) goes something like this: "There is no try, only do or not do."

However fortune-cookie-ish and deliciously Delphic this advice may sound, it's false. There are all sorts of things (an infinite number, actually) that I'm not doing right now that I'm not trying to do, and I think it's at least arguable that I am doing all sorts of things at the moment without trying. (I'm typing this out into a little window on the Web, but it seems odd to say, barring any peculiar circumstances, that I'm trying to make my fingers hit the right keys as I do so or that I'm trying to breathe all the while.) We need another category of action that can pick out a certain class of doings and not doings. Enter trying.

Trying has to do with drawing close to the precipice of risk — of attempting something that might not go well or go at all. And to my ear, one can only try things (more or less) that one might reasonably think one could do. If a friend of mine tells me that he tried to lift the Empire State Building, I'm not sure what he means. He may have grabbed a grubby bit of wall near the base and made a strained face, but I'm inclined to say that he only pretended to try. (Note: Lots of questions here. Isn't trying a doing itself, and doesn't that mean that you have to try to try, and so on and so on? Fair enough. Though philosophy can be fun, let's not get too bogged down here.) We also say that something is trying when it becomes difficult or annoying. Fear, risk, difficulty, annoyance: not the best connotations associated with the word, is what I'm saying.

I mention all of this because my wife and I recently confronted a parenting puzzle that we're not sure how to unlock. Yesterday the four of us went to the family street fair put on yearly by the good folks of the Tribeca Film Festival. Much of Tribeca that we routinely haunt gets closed down and filled with all sorts of sponsor booths, from local businesses and schools (The Boy's Montessori had its own cluster of craft tables) to ESPN, the NBA, etc. Lots of free and fun stuff. Anyway, each year the USTA has a fun setup where kids of all sizes can play. This year they even had extra-large tennis balls, bigger than grapefruits but smaller than cantaloupes, to go with the child-friendly rackets for those who want to step inside the net to take a few whacks. Q went right in with my wife, and they hit a couple together to the delight of them both.

The Boy loves tennis and has for some time. He can actually hit a real tennis ball pretty well, and he's usually the one to suggest digging the rackets out of the closet on warm days. When the U.S. Open arrives at the end of August, he always asks to go play on the miniature court usually installed in front of the Winter Garden. We like tennis, but we've tried to be careful not to bully him into the sport.

Yesterday morning, though, he flatly refused to play, saying that he can't do it and so just wanted to watch. He wouldn't even get near the court, crumpling on the ground like a nonviolent protester when I tried to go in with him. It was early, too, which meant that not that many people were watching. (It wasn't just tennis: he also didn't want to try tossing basketballs with the other kids at the little NBA hoops across the street.) We cheered and cajoled and finally threatened him with going home if he didn't at least try what he knew he could already do. In the end, he didn't cave and neither did we: He and I walked home, holding hands and not saying a word, while Q and my wife stayed to work their way around the rest of the festival.

The Boy can be daring — he'll try just about any food you give him, for example, from sushi to stinky cheese. But he has always been rather timid physically despite lately becoming long and lithe. And he's getting fast; I can't dog it down the hall anymore when I race him to our door. (That fact could have something to do with my own state of shape, admittedly, but anyway.) He doesn't recognize his own transformation all that clearly. If only he could see the big kid we see.

To be fair, it's not as if any of this stuff gets easier once you get older; self-awareness is always a tricky business. My wife and I both tend to be relatively risk averse, which is one big reason why, I suppose, we haven't bought an apartment here in NYC or fled the city altogether for the suburbs or for far-off, calmer, states. I've stuck with academia as long as I have — despite being overworked and underpaid like most professors — largely because my imagination blanks when I try conceiving of an alternative. To a certain extent I know that I could do many things, some of them even quite well, but to do any of them, I would have to try. Which means risking failure.

So I understand The Boy's predicament. To try is to open oneself up to the possibility of not doing, and the fear of that possibility can be paralyzing. And perhaps it's even worse if you try something that you have done in the past; if you don't succeed this time, you're not as good as you once were. (Gazing at 40 just off in the distance, I have some acquaintance with that, too.) Our remedy has been to remind The Boy of the successes he's had, how far he's come, what he can do now that he couldn't do just a little while before, and to give him new opportunities for little victories. We just work on kicking a ball or catching one; we nudge him to hit a tennis ball again and again, not necessarily over a net or within a service line. The point is only to connect, and when he does, we note it and try to get him to try again. This strategy has had limited success, it seems. We're certainly open to suggestions.

But it's ultimately up to him to see what he can do. And it's up to us, too. Perhaps we — perhaps I — just need to show him what trying really means.

It seems worth a try, at any rate.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Well, it hurts, certainly, but stickers and lollipops are involved

With a birthday comes a doctor's visit. And since Q just turned two, she's still in the Getting Poked A Lot window. They even need to draw blood today to satisfy the State of New York that she's sufficiently healthy.

It doesn't go well. Q's doctor, whom we really like, can't find her vein in the crook of her right arm, even after much digging around with the butterfly needle. Needless to say, Q is apoplectic. We have to turn her around so the doctor can mine the other arm for what seems like forever, and eventually the blood does snake up into the vial. My wife and I try to calm her shudders and sobs by holding her where we can and asking whether she remembers the zebras and the elephants from the circus and Grandma & Grandpa's house and anything else we think might distract. She stills; her eyes steady. She remembers—just for a moment—those things, asking back whether we remember them. We do, glad she's pushed her mind beyond the spot where the needle stabs. We'll certainly remember this day for a while—as will she, no doubt.

But then two more needles, her vaccination and her TB test, and she ramps back up all the way to eleven. Can't blame her, really.

She gets stickers for her pain and three bandages that she can proudly show her brother later. And despite being so upset, as the doctor leaves, Q remembers to ask for a lollipop for The Boy as well as for herself—and actually gives it to him first thing when we get home. (He says, "Thank you, Q. You are so nice." I think he might actually mean it.)

So a checkup then. Here, at last, is the important stuff: according to the pink graph, she's riding her growth arc just fine, still just "rocking the 15th percentile" for weight and right on the 50th percentile for height. These numbers are not unexpected. Everyone agrees that Q couldn't be healthier.

Relevant Conversation from a Few Days Ago:
Q: Do you remember the zebras from the circus?
Me: Yes, I do.
Q: 'member the elephants?
Me: Yes, do you remember your birthday party?
Q: Yeah. 'member the cake?
Me: Yes.
Q: Remember everything, daddy?
If only, Q.