Marking time on a Saturday

IMG_4473Saturday morning, after a rough night’s sleep, I checked my email and saw that Jay’s soccer game was at 9am, not 10:30am as we’d assumed. We scrambled to get ready and made it to the field in time. The game was similar to last week’s for Jay—stout defense, a few goals, and intermittent tears. I was able to back off emotionally from what Jay was doing just enough to notice that the experience was hard for another father, too. Next to us on the sideline there was a three-year-old boy, shirtless, who refused to put on his jersey or enter the game. “You’re acting like a baby. Be a big boy,” his dad said to him, in a low, disdainful whisper.

After the game we drifted through the day. Jay was in a mood, not uncommon these days, where he seems to do nothing but whine. Wally, who’s not much of a whiner but who does like to cause trouble, alternated between poking Jay and emptying dirty silverware from the dishwasher. I retreated into trimming the bushes on the side of our house. Caroline brought up going to the tailor. We all had things we’d rather be doing, places we’d rather be.

As I lopped branches, I thought about a dream I’d had the night before. It started with me and Caroline on the top floor of a building in a strong storm. The building broke loose in the gale, we fell towards the ground, and knew we were about to die. I had time to think, “At long last, it’s finally here.” My last thought was about Jay and Wally, and then we hit the ground.

The dream continued on the other side of life. I forget the plot, but the feeling of the dream is what matters most. Caroline and I walked around together in this new world, desperate in the knowledge that Jay and Wally were still alive but we were completely unable to reach them.

I overpruned our bushes and then we decided to take a walk, to get a gallon of milk and maybe something for lunch. Caroline pushed Wally on his tricycle and Jay stayed a block ahead of us on his balance bike. Eventually the grocery store came into view and there was a festival in its parking lot—balloon animals, a bounce house, pottery demonstrations. The boys ran like it was Christmas. Caroline and I watched—not with joy, exactly, but with a thin kind of happiness to have stumbled onto an easy way to pass an hour of the day.

And so the rest of the day went from there—lunch, quiet time, popsicles in the backyard, pirates on the swingset, a TV show, dinner, bath, bed. The boys had not been asleep long when Caroline and I went upstairs to bed ourselves.

As we settled in beside each other, it was hard to account for the day that had passed, hard not to feel that we were back where we’d been all along, poised for sleep, or that we were already waking up and it was tomorrow. But before we fell asleep we had time to talk, about how the biggest struggles are to recognize the smallest things: How many days will we all have together?

The complete, total, and unexpected emotional roller coaster that was Jay’s first soccer game

Jay’s first soccer game was on Saturday morning.  Despite how important his first practice had ended up feeling, I did not anticipate the game would be a big event. I figured that with a bunch of three and four-year-olds running around on a field, it would be barely distinguishable from a morning at the playground.

As soon as we arrived at the field, though, things got more intense.  Jay became tenaciously clingy—way more so than he’d been at his first practice. I should have realized then that while to me the experience started off as just another pleasant sunny morning by a field, to him it felt very different.

The game started with Jay sitting in my lap on the sideline. I felt pretty angry and disappointed in him. I could not believe he would not get out there and play.  But I also realized that with other parents watching there was a limit to how hard I could push him and, plus, it’s not really possible to force a kid to play soccer. So, he and I just sat on the sideline.  Every now and again, in a voice straining to sound indifferent, I told him he could join his team whenever he was ready.

Five or so minutes in, the coach got him into the game by letting him take a free kick.  He kicked the ball, stood for a second with a sad expression on his face, and then he was off.  In less than two minutes he scored two length of the field goals, including the second one with a deft cutback ten feet from the goal when he realized he was offline. He was also good on defense.  He ran back ahead of the ball and chose good lines for heading off the other team. I was completely and utterly flabbergasted—by his success and by how completely exhilarating it was to watch. Like one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life-level exhilarating. Ten minutes into the game, I’d changed from thinking of organized sports as a drag on our family time to wanting to sign Jay up for every travel team in the state.

Then the other team had a breakaway.  Jay raced back to the goal and was there to meet the kid.  The attacker was less than three feet tall, blond, three-years-old, and unshakeable on the ball.  He cut back on Jay and scored.

If you’d frozen the scene just as the ball was hitting the back of the net and asked me to predict what came next, I could have guessed all day and not come close to imagining the expression that did in fact break out on Jay’s face.  I looked up, and he was literally sobbing, his mouth open as wide as it goes, his eyes closed, tears streaming down his face.

By this time I was completely befuddled.  I hadn’t expected Jay to cling like he had, I hadn’t expected him to be as good as he was once he started playing, and I definitely hadn’t anticipated he’d take it so hard when someone scored on him.  And I was just as surprised by my own responses to Jay: anger when he wouldn’t play, complete exultation when he scored, total mystification when he cried.

And this was just from a single morning of four-year-old soccer.  How is Jay going to react when he starts getting grades, making and losing friends, falling in love and getting his heart broken, winning and losing competitions with real stakes?  And how will I feel watching this all?  After Saturday morning, I feel significantly less confident of my ability to predict any of those things.

Jay debuts on the soccer field

IMG_4482 A couple weeks ago our neighbor asked if we wanted to sign Jay up for soccer this fall.  The question struck me dumb—it had never even occurred to me that Jay might be old enough for organized sports.

We did sign him up (our neighbor’s husband is the coach) and his first practice was last Wednesday evening.  Caroline, Wally, Jay and I got there early.  We brought a pizza, a picnic blanket, and sat down in the shade beside one of the half-dozen soccer fields by the downtown YMCA.  There were dozens of kids running around in various degrees of soccer dress, parents-turned-coaches toting whistles, minivans shuttling here and there around the periphery of the fields.  At 5:30pm I walked Jay over to join his team.  He clung to me on the sideline and made a grim face when I suggested he might go find a ball to kick around.

For me, the evening was one of the starkest experiences I’ve had as a parent—as in, many times I found myself looking around, watching Jay, and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m finally here.”

There are lots of times in parenting (and life in general) when it takes awhile for your self-image to catch up to the actual circumstances of your life.  This begins with the birth.  A newborn child becomes a fact in the world faster than your brain can conceive of the idea that you’re now a parent.  And that’s just the first dissonant moment.  Every time I see Wally’s long, skinny legs laid out in bed, I can’t quite fathom that this racing child is mine.

So, these moments are common, but I wasn’t expecting the experience of taking Jay to his first soccer practice to be as jarring as it was.  The issue, I think, was not soccer itself, but how public organized sports are.  For the last four years our family life has existed almost entirely in private.  Everything Jay has done, every milestone he’s passed, has been mostly just for us.  As he learned to sleep, walk and talk, I knew there were other families with older kids whose private lives were intermixed with the public demands of school schedules and sports practices.  I loved that that wasn’t us—that Jay and Wally’s entire worlds could fit inside our family life. But then last Wednesday Jay stepped out onto the soccer field. It felt like after years of floating on our own, we’d finally entered the main stream.

As I stood on the sideline with the other parents, the first thing I realized is how dependent we now are on the kindness of other people.  Jay was weepy at the start of practice and resisted joining the other kids in drills or the team cheer.  After a few minutes, the assistant coach got down next to Jay and rolled a ball in front of him and encouraged him to kick it.  Jay did, then the coach rolled the ball again.  They went like that up and down the field.  I felt so grateful that the coach made a point of helping Jay.  It also felt strange to watch someone do something for Jay that I couldn’t do for him myself.

There was also, among the parents, a nervous air.  You could tell it from the way they stood close to the sidelines, poised with their children’s sweating  bottles for the next water break, and in the slightly strained way they called out directions to their kids, “No hands, Sammy.”  The nervousness came, I think, from not knowing how their kids would respond in this new situation.  It’s funny that of all the things I know about Jay, I have no idea if he’s going to be good at soccer, and that made me apprehensive as I watched him begin to take his place among his peers.

In this, I think the soccer practice put a point on something that is obviously true about raising kids, but which doesn’t register while you’ve got them all to yourself at home: There’s a lot of uncertainty about how Jay and Wally’s lives will play out, and often enough I won’t be able to do much more than watch.

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From toilet seats to new friends, lots of choices to be made

_MG_4428We had a good and busy weekend, in which we had a family from Jay’s school over for brunch, commenced finding a church, test-drove minivans, and bought and installed a toilet seat.  The pace and diversity of activity was consistent with the general whirl we’ve experienced since moving to South Carolina.  It also highlights what I’ve found to be the overriding quality of the last month: the incessant need to evaluate options and make choices.

Nearly everything is up in the air: what time to get up on weekday mornings (it’s looking like 6:40am), where to buy produce (Earth Fare), which route to take when picking Caroline up from school (through the neighborhood, despite the stop signs),  what temperature to set the air conditioning at (75 at night), and whether to place the boys’ beds (arriving tomorrow) perpendicular or parallel to the wall (Grammy?).

We also visited a church on Sunday morning and hadn’t been there three minutes before I was weighing the architecture, the way people were dressed, the pastor’s body language, and the tenor of the choir.

Later that Sunday I stared at a wall of seventeen different toilet seats and thought:  Maybe we’ll just dig a hole in the backyard instead.

Our social life is probably the best example of how, in a new place, you end up having to make decisions about all kinds of things that you take for granted when you’re in a more settled state.  We have a number of communities through which to meet people, and a handful of “friends of friends” connections here, but as of now, no friends, strictly speaking.  It’s exciting to be casting a wide net, but also tiring (and probably counterproductive) that every social interaction comes freighted with the question, “Are we a good match as friends?”

There are a few things I’ve noticed about all this choice-making.

First, it really highlights the things that I’ve learned in life and the things I haven’t.  For example, as has been documented, nothing in my prior experience prepared me to evaluate correctly between a rotary mower and a gas mower.  I do, though, have a keener sense of what I like in a person, which helps when thinking about pursuing friendships.

Second—and this applies especially to decisions made in hardware superstores—it’s really hard not to buy the more expensive version of a product when the overall dollar differences are small.  On that same trip to Lowes where we bought the toilet seat, Jay and I also picked out a nozzle for the hose.  One was plain metal and cost $4.98, while another was rubber coated, with brass finishes, and an adjustable spray head, and cost $9.98.  The deluxe version for just $5 more! I nearly had to slap myself before I remembered that I don’t actually care at all about the quality of our hose nozzle, and bought the cheaper one.

The third and final point comes from Caroline, shared with me over dinner last night: In a way, all this decision-making feels like a race against ourselves.  A month in, we’re still gung-ho for the job of arranging the discretionary areas of our lives just the way we want them.  But, there’s going to come a time when any boxes we haven’t unpacked are never going to get unpacked, when our verve for interior decorating will fade and the fraying on our couches will cease to call out for action, when we’ll stop seeing every new person as a potential friend and just accept our social calendar the way it is.

There are good and bad things to both states, to being open to new experiences and to being content where you are. But for now, circumstances demand that we make choices, and—to follow a metaphor that’s been on my mind—we’re trying to get in as many  as we can before the cement hardens around us.