Jay, who may (or may not) delight in getting under my skin

Last Thursday afternoon, a little after 5pm, Jay, Wally, and I were crowded together in our pediatrician’s bathroom.  Wally, who minutes earlier had had four needles inserted into his fleshy thighs, was screaming in my arms.  Jay, who’d only remembered he needed to pee as I was strapping him into his car seat to go home, had his shorts and underwear around his ankles.

I held Wally in one hand and shimmied Jay’s clothes up his skinny legs with the other.  Eventually I managed to cover just enough of Jay’s essential parts to allow him to walk back across the pediatrician’s waiting room and I turned to leave the bathoom.  As I did, Jay declared, “I need to wash my hands,” mounted a stool, and turned on the water. I thought for sure he was trying to kill me.

Now, it’s not that I have low hygiene standards for the boys.  In fact, many times a day I fight to get Jay to wash his hands.  But in this particular case I couldn’t get out of that very tiny bathroom fast enough, and of course it was under just those circumstances that Jay felt moved for perhaps the very first time in his very brief life to be scrupulous about his hands.  The only explanation I could come up with was that he was deliberately trying to get under my skin, to see just how far he could push his increasingly fragile dad.

I often think that Jay is out to get me.  This morning I went to open the refrigerator and just as I did Jay pulled up in his plasma car and blocked my way.  And on Saturday I was cleaning Wally’s throw-up out of the backseat of the car when Jay climbed over from the front seat and put his foot exactly where I was about to put my sponge.  It wasn’t a great deal for him, either, but still, his timing was too perfect to be mere coincidence.

My tendency to perceive conspiracy in everything Jay does is one indication, I think, of the way in which I’m maladapted to be a father.  A lot of what I instinctively interpret as devious scheming is probably just natural kid behavior.  It’s natural for kids to be interested in what their parents are doing, and with Jay at arms length proximity from me many hours of every day, it’s inevitable that he’s going to get in my way from time to time.

It’s also true that my default mindset as a parent isn’t particularly compatible with his default mindset as a three-year-old.  I want to get through the day in a straight line; Jay is a spontaneous guy who moves by passion and whim.  I wonder why he’s so intent on thwarting me; he probably asks that same question about me.

On the drive home from the doctor’s office, with both boys secured in their seats, it occurred to me that there were other ways to understand Jay’s sudden need to wash his hands.  It’s possible that my first instinct was right, that he wanted to dig the knife just a little deeper.  It’s also possible that he was bowled over by the presence of a stool he’d never climbed, and a short sink designed for little people just like him, and for one intoxicated moment felt his life’s fulfillment lay in turning on that water.

But I don’t want to cut Jay too much slack.

That night at home, I asked Caroline if she thinks Jay takes any particular delight in needling us.  She laughed, because of course he’s pretty good at getting under her skin, too.  Then she said that to some extent, she thinks he does.  She explained that she doesn’t think he has the ability to imagine the feelings he elicits in us, but that he does take a particular kind of thrill in provoking negative responses from us.  He likes knocking me and Caroline off balance, even if he doesn’t know exactly what that means in terms of the emotional state it creates in us.

In that sense, Jay is more intentional than a fly buzzing around my face and he’s more intentional than Wally, who confounds us sometimes too, but he’s less intentional than say a sadist with a screwdriver.  At least a little.

Jay days and Wally weeks: The rhythms of intimacy with kids

On Saturday morning, Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I pulled up in front of Ann Arbor’s popular Northside Grill.  Caroline and Jay got out to put our names in for a table while Wally and I swung around back to look for a parking spot.  After I’d parked I took Wally out of his carseat.  I perched him on my hip and he threw an arm over my shoulder.  My heart went weak, and when we found Caroline and Jay inside, I told her I’ve been feeling particularly close to Wally these last few days.

Kids with siblings always want to know: “Who do you love more?” Parents inevitably answer: “We love you all the same.”  I never believed it. What were the odds, I thought, that my mom and dad could take whatever quantum of love they had in their hearts and divide it up exactly equally between me and my brothers and sister?

Of course, I understand now that love doesn’t work that way.  I love Jay and Wally the same, but I’ve also discovered that I don’t always feel equally close to both of them.

Saturday was a Wally day.  While Caroline accompanied Jay to get his haircut, Wally and I walked down the street for a cup of coffee.  Then there was our trip to the diner.  Later that afternoon Caroline got Jay situated in the playroom for quiet time while upstairs I put Wally down for his nap.  At night we repeated the division of labor: Caroline read Jay his books; I gave Wally his bottle.  At the end of the day, when both boys were asleep, Wally was a little more vivid in my mind; Jay felt just an inch more like a stranger.

Caroline and I find that when it comes to something like deciding which boy to take care of before bed, our choices run in streaks. We don’t have any deliberate rotation.  It’s more just a matter of which of the boys, when bedtime rolls around, we’re feeling more in synch with, and we find that’s as changeable as the weather. Some days Jay feels like an extension of my own body; others it feels like he’s floating somewhere beyond me in space.

For most of last week I was feeling particularly close to Wally and wanted to be the one to put him to sleep each night.  But then yesterday Jay and I had a really nice afternoon together while Wally napped (we talked about trucks on the couch and ate popsicles on the stoop), and as a result at the end of the day I was feeling more eager to help him brush his teeth and read him his bedtime stories—to in a sense bring our relationship to a close for the day.

I haven’t discerned any real pattern to how my sense of closeness with Jay and Wally moves over time.  Often it seems like as soon as I realize I’ve been feeling closer to one or the other of them the balance starts to swing again, as if in response to some natural law of relationships that impels people apart when they get too close together.  I’d like to feel equally close to both of them all the time; short of that I feel like things are okay as long as I don’t go too long between Jay days and Wally weeks.

The biggest surprise for me in all of this is just how subtle and elusive intimacy can be, even with a really little kid: Here today, gone tomorrow, and entirely absent unless I work for it.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

No one ever told me it takes time before you love a child

My approach to storytelling

This morning on the literary website The Millions I have a review of a live performance of The Moth, the popular first-person storytelling series out of New York City, that I attended recently in Ann Arbor.  The night featured five storytellers who’d been chosen based on their performances at previous Moth storytelling events (which often take the form of open-mic nights at bars).  I had high expectations for the event and they weren’t met.  I decided to share my review here because I think the reasons I found the performance underwhelming shed some light on the way I approach storytelling on this blog.

That night, three of the five participants told stories that fell under the category of “The Worst Thing that Ever Happened to Me.”  One woman told about her mom cheating on her dad and getting pregnant; a man told about staffing a suicide hotline and hearing a college girl kill herself over the phone; and another man described the tumult of being married to a woman with epilepsy.  In my review I explain why I think people so often choose to tell these kinds of stories:

After Erin finished I started to think about why it is that people gravitate to the most tragic or dramatic moments of their lives when given a chance to tell a story. There are, I think, two reasons. The first is that the storyteller feels an obligation to give his audience something novel — a story we’ve never heard before — which leads him to alight on the most singular experiences in his life. The second is that the worst moments in our lives are precisely the ones we want to be able to capture in a narrative, to master through the process of sharing them with other people.

I go on to explain why I think that very dramatic, tragic stories are hard to tell well.  The reasons I cite have to do with the difficulty of turning these kinds of experiences into stories, and with the disruption that sensational content creates between the storyteller and the audience:

The more sensational the content of the story, the less attention, I’ve noticed, storytellers pay to the actual craft of storytelling. If you’re telling a story about walking your dog it’s plainly obvious that you’re going to need to spin it well in order to keep anyone’s interest. But when the content of your story is on its face interesting, it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is “lay it out there” and people will be gripped, which isn’t true at all.

The second pitfall is even more damning: Intensely personal stories have a tendency to crowd out the audience. The best storytellers meet their audiences halfway, engaging them, pushing them, and calibrating their emotions while also leaving room for listeners to bring their own feelings and experiences into the act of listening. But I guarantee you that no one in the audience was thinking about their own marriages when Peter finished his story. He’d monopolized the emotional energy in the room, which made it hard to think about anything but him.

On Growing Sideways I usually tell stories about the small moments that make up our life together as a family, rather than focusing on more obviously headline-worthy events.  This isn’t entirely a deliberate choice- it’s just that the small moments are the ones that grab my attention.  Most of my posts are inspired by a sudden spike in feeling or a moment that impels a double-take and makes me want to figure out: What just happened there?  For example, my last post about eating popsicles with Jay and Wally on the hill behind our house.  As I was watching Jay share his popsicle with Wally I felt this surge of warmth; later, I wanted to write a post exploring that surge and trying to figure out where the energy in that moment came from.

I also seek to be very conscious of my readers as I’m writing my posts.  I want to share moments from my life in a way that opens the door for readers to think about moments from their lives.  Raising kids is a great topic through which to facilitate this type of exchange because it is such a widely shared experience.

But at the same time that parenthood is a widely shared experience, the way parents actually live it it is so particular.  We may know that at 6:30pm on a weekday night families up and down the block are sitting down to dinner, but dinnertime still feels like such a unique thing in the way we live it in our house: There’s the particular way that Jay asks for more milk, or Wally throws his food on the floor, or the particular emotions that Caroline and I carry over from our days right up to that moment when we sit down across the table from each other.  Family life is universal but each of us experiences it in a way that is deeply unique and intensely private.

So when I tell stories on this blog I try to strike a balance between the universal and the particular.  I want to provide enough color to make the scenes vivid and recognizable, but not so much detail that the emotions or ideas I want to evoke start to feel locked inside my family’s experience of them.

You can read the rest of my review of The Moth here.

Summer Brothers

Saturday around 5pm Jay, Wally, and I headed out to the shaded hill in our backyard to eat popsicles, which has become a late afternoon ritual for the three of us during this run of really hot weather.  I had lime. Jay had strawberry.  Wally sat on my lap.

Wally likes popsicles though he can’t do much with them.  I always share mine with him, alternating bites as he chirp-chirps for more.  For the most part he just kind of lets the popsicle sit in his mouth, enjoying whatever melts off while it’s there.  After awhile, when the popsicle starts to soften, he’ll nibble with his eight front teeth.

On Saturday I gave Wally a few tastes of my lime pop and then Jay leaned over to share some of his with his brother.  The exchange wasn’t particularly elegant.  Wally leaned in, his lips straining towards Jay.  Jay reached out, his hand shaking.  Wally ended up with strawberry streaks on his cheeks, nose, and chin before he got any in his mouth.

But when he did finally get a taste of Jay’s popsicle he preferred it to my lime one, and after that he only wanted to eat from Jay.  And Jay, who is often competitive with Wally for toys and our attention, but sometimes has periods of real older brother generosity, was happy to share.  He traded bites with Wally all the way down to the stick.  It was a wonderful transaction to behold.

Caroline and I both love the moments when Jay and Wally get wrapped up in each other’s worlds.  They don’t happen too often yet, but every now and again they’ll chase each other around the living room, or rush to the window together to watch the garbage truck, or roll on top of each other in Jay’s crib like little baby muskrats.

What I like most about those moments is the sense I get that they’re developing something that is all their own: a relationship that stands apart from their relationships with me and Caroline; something special that’s just for the two of them.

I didn’t get a chance to take any pictures of the two of them eating popsicles together but I did get a few shots of them this afternoon playing in the sprinkler.

What’s more interesting than the sprinkler? The sound of our neighbor coming home from work.

Surprisingly, Wally enjoyed this (and Jay didn’t take too much advantage)

An awkward moment with popsicle sticks

A shameful moment from childhood.  When I was 10 there was a rack of used books for sale outside our local supermarket, proceeds to benefit the Congregational Church.  One day as my mom and I were leaving the store I stopped to browse the titles.  In among the dog-eared romances and obscure biographies I found a plain white paperback called The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union.  The title was written in ominous red block letters.  I asked my mom for a quarter and took the book home.

At that time in my life I identified as smart before I identified as anything else.  I made a point of using the biggest words I knew when my fourth grade class gathered for our weekly Friday afternoon book talks, and I was always looking for a chance to talk politics with my friends’ parents, mostly just to show them how much I knew about the Gulf War and George Bush’s re-election chances.

A couple weeks after the supermarket booksale, a friend of my mom’s came to visit.    Her name was Denise and she and my mom had worked together at the city planner’s office in Burlington, Vermont.  The year I was born my parents had moved from Vermont to southern Maine and my mom and Denise hadn’t seen each other much in the intervening years. When she arrived my mom and my siblings and I gathered in the kitchen to welcome her.

My mom introduced Denise to the three of us.   I know how proud I am to introduce my friends to Jay and Wally and I can only imagine that my mom felt the same way.  After we’d all said hello a tour of the house was proposed (we’d moved in just that year).  While my mom was showing Denise the living room I sprinted upstairs and found The Dilemma of Reform on my bookshelf, right where I’d left it since my failed attempt to get through the first page the night I’d brought it home. I tossed the book onto my neatly made bed.  A minute later Denise walked into the room.  After sizing up the baseball pennants on my wall her eyes fell to the book.

“Are you reading that?” she asked in a slightly skeptical tone of voice.

“Oh yeah,” I replied in my very most casual voice. “It’s really good.”

I thought about that moment on Tuesday afternoon.  We had some new friends over for dinner, a guy I met recently through the Teach For America alumni organization and his wife and their 17-month old girl Elyse.  It was an enjoyable time, but also chaotic in the way any social event is that features three little kids approaching their bedtimes.  In two hours of socializing, I’m not sure any one conversation managed to last more than 60 seconds before one or the other of the kids diverted our attention.

The main diverter was Jay.  He doesn’t deal well with situations where Caroline and I are more focused on our friends than we are on him, and in this case the situation was compounded by the fact that Wally and Elyse are closer in age to each other than either is to him.  So, Jay felt shunted to the side and he resorted to the predictable grab bag of bad behavior and cloying neediness in order to draw attention back to himself.  At one point he brought his wooden push lawn mower up from the playroom.  He pushed it in fast circles around Elyse, who only recently had learned to walk.  She spun around trying to keep up with him until she toppled over.

The quietest five minutes of the evening came after dinner when we all went onto the back deck to eat popsicles.  Jay had strawberry, which melted and trickled down over his wrists, and Wally sat in Caroline’s lap, gnawing with his eight front teeth are her lime pop.

When the popsicles were finished the kids started back up again.  At first Jay didn’t know what to do with himself, but then he saw Elyse gathering up the finished popsicle sticks and he decided to take them from her.  He secured the sticks and stood in the center of the deck and announced to Sam, the visiting husband, “I can break these.”  Then he placed a small fist at each end of one of the fruit-stained sticks and pulled down hard.  The stick bent but wouldn’t break, and so Jay grunted and pulled down harder until finally it splintered.  With proud satisfaction, he dropped the broken bits to the ground.

Jay repeated this spectacle one more time, and as he strained against the popsicle stick I thought about my own little performance with that book about the Soviet Union twenty-one years ago.  For a second I enjoyed the experience of understanding what Jay was up to, but then the sense of recognition started to run too deep and I just felt awkward.