Jay: my cognitive inferior for now at least

Last night I came across this chart, which shows how different cognitive skills decline with age (and apologies for the poor resolution of the chart…click on it to get a clearer view).  The good news is that at 30, theoretically I haven’t peaked in any categories besides numeric ability and perceptual speed, and who needs those skills anyway. Plus, surprisingly, it looks like there’s still room to grow in a few key areas…

From "Personality Psychology and Economics" by Mathilde Almund, et al. Available at: http://www.nber.org/papers/w16822

Looking at the chart, I was also pleased to see that Jay will remain my cognitive inferior for at least a couple decades.  (Anecdotally, of course, I knew this already: Last night he insisted on eating his soup with a fork.)

In some areas, though, he’s got me.  He has to hear a book only a few times before he has it memorized.  A couple nights ago we were reading Corduroy and I stopped before the end of each sentence to let Jay fill in the rest.  He always got it and I realized I didn’t even know the name of the girl who rescues Corduroy at the end of the book. (I told this to Caroline and she said in horror, “How could you not know about Lisa!”)

He’s also got me beat on global awareness.  On Tuesday mornings there could be a hurricane raging in our living room and he’d still notice the first grunt of the trash truck out on the street.

I think Jay’s biggest advantage, though, is that he rarely doubts his ability to learn something.

Last night after dinner we were playing with Legos and Jay wanted to add a window to a tower he’d built. It was a nimble maneuver—too much for his inexperienced fingers. He had trouble aligning the Legos and a couple times he pushed down too hard. Watching Jay was like watching a dog try to extract kibble from one of those rubber Kongs.  After awhile you can’t stand the futility anymore and you just want to do it for him.  Jay, though, plugged away and eventually he got it.

Later that night after he’d gone to bed I opened a web design program I’d just downloaded.  It was more advanced than the software I’m used to and I quickly hit a roadblock.  My heart started to beat faster and my body flooded with despair.  “I’m never going to get this,” I said, throwing up my hands and snapping my laptop closed.

Then I realized that regardless of how he chooses to eat his soup, that’s something Jay would never say.

The afternoon drive

Hard rain all the way to Caroline’s office prompted a near incident with a pedestrian.

James told on me when Caroline got in the car: “Daddy did a bad thing on the sidewalk.”

Wally craned his neck at an impossible angle to see Caroline as she sat down in the front seat.

It’s not my fault if an a cappella version of this song meant something to me when I was 18.

Jay dashed through the parking lot at the supermarket to get dibs on the shopping cart with the steering wheel.

Phoenix came on the radio:

Jay gets in trouble and Daddy remembers he used to, too

Last night after Jay had finished dinner Caroline gave him the same talk she gives him every night: “First we’re going to brush your teeth, then you’re going to get in pajamas, then it’s playtime.  But if you don’t cooperate you’re going to lose playtime.”

Despite the warning, Jay bungles his way to an early bedtime a couple times a week.  Usually it’s for small-time antics like refusing to open his mouth for his toothbrush or holding his arms stiff when Caroline tries to change his shirt.

Last night was like watching one of those crash test commercials, where the car plows into the cement wall in slow motion.  After successfully brushing his teeth Jay ran downstairs instead of going to his room to change. “If you don’t cooperate, you’re going to lose playtime,” Caroline reminded him again as he two-footed his way down the stairs.  Jay just shrieked with defiant delight.

“Alright, you’ve lost it,” Caroline said as she swept him back upstairs.  Jay screamed like the world had come to an end.  He sobbed and sputtered.  Then when he realized that wasn’t going to work he got sweet.

Jay holding a stalk (a stalk!?) of brussel sprouts a couple hours before losing playtime.

“Here Mama,” he said, handing her his nighttime diaper.  Caroline thanked him.  Then in her sweetest voice she made it clear: His fate was sealed.

As I listened to this, I remembered a feeling I’d had often as a kid: the feeling of desperately wanting to take back something I’d just done.  Jay loves playtime.  If he were a rational beast he’d do anything to preserve it.  But he’s not a rational beast.  He’s a manic late-stage toddler.

So last night he went to bed knowing what Jack Handey, the old Saturday Night Live character, knew: “If you drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ‘em go, because man, they’re gone.” Except in Jay’s case he didn’t drop them.  He threw them.

I have a theory, which may be wishful, that I remember my childhood better as I grow older.   Time and experience negate memory, but they also prompt it.  As I watch Jay develop and I think about his experiences like the one last night, I’m reminded of sensations that had slipped away so gradually I didn’t even know they were gone.

This has happened a few times recently:

  • At story hour last week the theme was Autumn.  The librarian asked, “What falls from the trees when it gets cold?”  Hands shot up.  The librarian called on a trembling four-years-old.  “Leaves fall from the trees,” she said. The excitement in her voice reminded me of what it felt like to be called on, to be right, and to think I understood how the world works.
  • On Saturday afternoon we went to the park.  While Jay was playing I walked over and watched the end of a youth lacrosse practice.  The kids were scrimmaging.  The coach yelled out, “Next goal wins.” One kid broke from the pack and launched the ball against the baseball backstop that served as the goal. His teammates mobbed him.  They screamed in triumph.  I felt a rush in my stomach, reactivated like muscle memory—the pure joy of winning.
  • A couple Saturday nights ago Caroline and I went to a friend’s house for dinner and left Jay with a babysitter.  When he realized what was going on he begged us not to go.  “Mama stay,” he said over and over again.  As we hurried out the door, his pleas reminded me that I used to feel equally desperate when my parents would leave.  In those moments I couldn’t comprehend why it was that nothing I said could change what they were doing.

All of these were sensations and memories I hadn’t thought about in years.   When you’re a kid there’s so much going on that it’s hard to know what’s worth remembering. Plus, you’re always looking ahead, so remembering’s not something you really worry about.

But watching Jay is like returning to a place I’ve visited once before.  The first time I was there I had no idea where I was.  But on a second visit landmarks stand out, streets feel familiar, I have a sense of what’s around the corner.  It’s a nice feeling to watch Jay with that kind of perspective, and to use his childhood as a map for revisiting my own.

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We don’t get to choose what we love

As a kid I was a sucker for a big news spectacle—OJ, Diana, Monica—and spent days of my life glued to CNN.  I’m not drawn in as easily these days—partly because I’ve got less time and I’m more cynical about cable news, but more because my circle of concerns has pulled inward, to Jay and Wally and our small domestic world.

When Steve Jobs died, though, I got caught up in the spectacle.  I was compelled by both the objective measure of his mark on the world and by the way he made that mark—by letting his instincts determine his work.  It’s rare to find someone about whom you could say both “I want to accomplish as much as he accomplished” and “I want to live my life (at least in part) the way he lived his life.”

So for a week I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about Steve Jobs.  The single most amazing thing I read was an interview he gave in 1985 to Playboy Magazine, right after the debut of the Macintosh.  The interview isn’t directly related this post, but Jobs’ ability to conceptualize the computer and predict its influence is so stunning that it’s worth sharing anyway.  Here’s Jobs’ answer when asked why anyone should bother buying a home computer:

Jobs: The primary reasons to buy a computer for your home now are that you want to do some business work at home or you want to run educational software for yourself or your children. If you can’t justify buying a computer for one of those two reasons, the only other possible reason is that you just want to be computer literate. You know there’s something going on, you don’t exactly know what it is, so you want to learn. This will change: Computers will be essential in most homes.

Playboy: What will change?

Jobs: The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people—as remarkable as the telephone.

The interview is full of mind-bendingly prescient declarations like that one, and the force of Jobs’ personality jumps off the page.  At points the interview left me almost breathless.  One of my first thoughts upon finishing it was: I need to make sure Jay and Wally read this when they’re older.

But the one Jobs quote that really caught my attention wasn’t from the interview.   It was something he said at the end of his life to Walter Isaacson, the author of his official biography, which came out today.   “I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs said, in explaining why he’d abandoned his desire for privacy to cooperate on a biography.  “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”

The tension between professional ambition and family is something I think about a lot.  If my 15-year-old self were to see the life I have today, there are lots of things he’d be happy about (overjoyed, even), but I think he’d also be surprised by the degree to which I’ve prioritized taking care of Jay and Wally over other kinds of achievement.

Of course, 15-year-olds have a pretty limited perspective: They understand money and fame a lot better than they appreciate the sense of purpose and satisfaction that comes from raising a child.  But that said, I’m still surprised when I consider the choices I’ve made since Jay was born—to pursue freelance and contract work as a way to pay the bills and to spend the balance of my time being a dad.

During the 2008 presidential campaign I came to admire Barack Obama more than I’ve ever admired a public figure.  I admired his intelligence and his competence, but most of all I admired what I saw as his ability not to lose his sense of himself amidst the noise of a national campaign.   There was also a part of me that was attracted to the size of his presence—how fully he’d brought himself to bear on the world—and craved something like that for myself.

But the thing I never got about Obama was how he’d been willing to spend so many nights away from his daughters.  From 1997, when he was elected state senator, to 2009 when he moved into the White House, he probably spent more nights than not away from his family.  The things he gained in return were great, but so were the things he lost.  In a life where he’s seen and done more than most people ever will, he wont know what it’s like to have been a day-in-day-out part of his daughters’ lives.

Even now, two years into my life as a semi-stay-at-home dad, I still maintain some pie-in-the-sky ambitions: to run for office, or to write a book and go on tour.  But then I consider what’s required to achieve something great—that you dedicate yourself to it as singularly as Steve Jobs dedicated himself to Apple. Last night as I lay on the floor in Jay’s room at bedtime while Caroline read him The Lorax, I realized again that there’s no professional achievement I’d choose over being at home with my family.

Sometimes I wish I were built differently- that I burned the way Steve Jobs burned.  But I also realize that in life we don’t get to choose the things we love.