Saturday, June 30, 2007

No doubt, Q

Overheard conversation between my lovely wife and Q while my wife was putting on her makeup this morning. Q was pretending to put on makeup, too, running an empty brush along her cheeks in imitation of her mother.
Lovely wife: When you grow up, you're going to break some hearts.
Q: I'm going to break some hearts and squares.
No doubt, Q.

(Picture taken by The Boy, by the way.)

Friday, June 29, 2007

The (Big) Boy

I was away at Las Vegas for an academic conference for a few days, during which my lovely wife shouldered the child burden full on. (By the way, Vegas is surreal enough, but imagine a gaggle of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists meandering through casinos wearing nametags on lanyards, and you get surreal surreal.) My profession and schedule allow me lots of time with my kids, but rarely do I have them for 24 complete hours without relief, let alone 48. Respect, as my students might say.

In any event, we took The Boy to his four-year checkup this week. His annual last year was an eye-opener for me, primarily because the nurses and doctor spoke to him directly and not to or through me. Things this time followed a similar pattern, and when the nurse did ask me something (whether he can draw a square, for example), I asked him (turns out he can). He filled a specimen cup like I have to when I get my checkups (though he did so, unlike me, without a trace of self-consciousness). And this time he did manage to respond properly to the hearing test--except when Q said something right in his open ear in the middle of the beeps. After I took Q for a little walk, he finished fine with only his quiet mother watching.

In any event, here are the results:
Height: 3 ft. 5 1/4" (75th percentile)
Weight: 33.5 lbs. (25th percentile)
Everything else: Healthy.
He's so good at the doctor; he never cries however much they poke him with sharp things or shine lights in his eyes and ears. And they do poke him. A lot. Both he and Q score lollipops and stickers for their troubles.

It's obvious and cliché and everything but true just the same: He's changing fast and getting big. It's wonderful, actually.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


We wake up to low clouds the color of the street outside. Which is not a good color, given that we've planned to have The Boy's fourth birthday party in the park behind our apartment building.

He's already had one birthday party at school. Q, my wife, and I brought cupcakes for snack time on his birthday proper. (His friend James pumped his fist with a "Yeah!" when The Boy set a blue-frosted one on his plate.) Everything's a teachable moment, and his teachers had him hold a globe and circle a sun on the floor four times while the class sang. Q got to wash her dishes (and a few others besides), and we still talk about that.

In many ways, it seems like The Boy has been turning four for weeks. Even before his party at school, his grandparents got him a bike that he's ridden like mad all over the park paths, and his Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai (grandpa and grandma in Vietnamese, which is what we call my wife's parents) sent him a box of games and toys and clothes. Today, though, is the official birthday party. No playroom this time; it has been too nice to stay inside. We've invited his classmates to the park, too, along with several of his friends from the building. It turns out that unfortunately quite a few people can't make it due to illness or absence, but the number still ends up being substantial.

The weather improves; the party goes as it should. Though it seems effortless and casual in design and execution, my wife, as usual, has spent a lot of time thinking and doing for this. She had originally organized the party around a space theme, but The Boy re-insisted on Formula 1 race cars, so we have a box of little plastic rockets interred like cheap time capsules in our closet. Race cars, then. This morning, after literally putting the icing on the cake, my wife quickly draws ten or so outlines of race cars, and we tape them down outside for crayons and chalk. She's already ordered two-dozen balloon racers—super light plastic cars pushed along by balloons thin enough for the kids to blow up themselves. Those definitely are a hit. She even had the sparkling idea to make stop-light Rice Krispy treats—yellow rectangles with appropriate colored M&M's all in a row. (Q quietly disabused the treats of their candy while the rest of us were otherwise occupied. You should have seen her chocolatey face.) Everyone takes home a race-car kite as well. And instead of a galaxy of planets, my wife fashions a cake in the shape of a figure-eight racetrack, complete with lane piping (in delicious buttercream) and die-cast race cars speeding towards hand-drawn checkered flags. When she brings it out towards the end of the party (after the de rigeur pizza), all the boys gasp audibly almost in unison. It's absolutely delicious, too.

(We also lucked into some entertainment for many of the adults as well. The monstrous new condo building across the street is almost complete, and workers were dismantling the equally monstrous crane that had been a fixture over the playground for months. To pull it down, a crew brought in the largest crane truck in New York City, and many of the men were pulled to the fence to watch it work. They—um, we—haven't come all that far from appreciating cars on a cake, it seems.)

After everyone leaves and we take in Q for her afternoon nap (soaked, as usual, from the water in the park), my wife and I confirm our separate senses that The Boy had mixed feelings about the morning. When he gets hungry he gets upset easily, and that happens as we more or less expected right before the pizza arrives, but he's also draped in a lingering kind of melancholy that pulls his mouth down and pushes his head onto his shoulder.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the great analytic philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote that when a child learns language and moves from simply crying to speaking, language doesn't get in between the feeling (pain or hunger, say) and its expression (crying), but instead replaces it. Speaking, in other words, is just another type of crying. I happen to think that this picture is strictly false for a host of pretty involved reasons, but it's arguable that one part of growing up is managing one's expressions, whether crying or via language or otherwise. Language helps, no doubt, but it also probably introduces all sorts of complexities and complications that tangle us up in ways unavailable to wordless creatures. (It's also intriguing to think, if Wittgenstein is correct, that we're walking around still essentially crying to each other, e.g., when picking up a coffee from a cart on the street.)

I mention this because not only do my wife and I agree that The Boy didn't fully enjoy himself at his party, we also think that he's been expressing that fact in rather non-kid ways. When we asked whether he had fun, for example, he first said "Yes," and then, after looking down and pausing, "Just a little." My wife thinks he answers in this way because he doesn't want us to feel bad—doesn't really want anything at all, in fact, but can't help expressing himself. One of the cars from his cake did go missing, and several of his friends weren't able to make his party. But he did get many presents that he likes very much and he sees most of his friends routinely at school or on the swings or for play dates. He did fiercely love his cake, too. In other words, it's not simple, raw want that's the culprit here; it's more complicated. Honestly, we're not sure what it is exactly. (And still aren't.) That's a solid sign, I suppose, that he's growing up inside as well as out.

We become who we are by trying to figure ourselves out, by telling our own story to others and to ourselves. Work in developmental psychology tells us that we start to have lasting memories about the time that we really come into language and into telling stories, around age four or five. As I've mentioned before, this is also roughly the time at which the domain of thinking gets much more complicated for kids. He's been talking well and remembering for a while, but lately the differences have been remarkable. (I should also note here that at his party, upon hearing that Q had just turned two, one parent remarked that she "talked like a high schooler." "In both content and attitude," I replied.)

Complication can be good, too. I will never forget (in part because I write this now) how he hugged me the day of his party at school. When Q, my wife, and I first arrived in his classroom, he knew why we were there. When the room's attention all fell on him at once, he became proud, embarrassed, happy, and nervous all at once. He smiled—glowed, rather—in the light of it all, and wrapped himself firmly around me, holding there for several beats.

He didn't need to say anything to tell me everything.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Birthday Boy

Happy Birthday, son.

I am proud of you, and I love you.

Welcome to four.


(Note: Cupcakes for entire school class, care of Mom. She's going to make his party this Saturday in the park out back a formula one race car wonder. Details, no doubt, to follow.)