Wally’s bad luck

Originally published on May 8, 2016

Just before dinner last night I noticed a small pool of water on the floor in the kitchen. Things were busy at the time. The boys had already been called to eat. Leo was pulling placemats off the table. So I left the water where it was.

The meal was a lamb and lentil ragu. Even before I sat down, a clamor went up from each end of the table for grated parmesan. We said a hasty grace over the top of Leo’s loud demands. Once served, he stuffed his face awkwardly with angel hair.

After a few mouthfuls, we started to talk, about the kids we’d met at the park that afternoon and the airplane Wally had made that morning, which he declared his best project ever. While staring into the middle distance at a vase of hyacinth, bought that afternoon for Mother’s Day, I posed the question: Which flower names are also girls’ names?

We soon came up with Rose, Lily, Violet, and Iris. Jay offered dandelion as a joke, which went over pretty well, then a minute later he repeated it, and the second time, it really sent Wally laughing.

Dinner often deteriorates into silliness. Not the good kind, as far as Caroline and I are concerned. Last night dandelion was the spark that set Jay and Wally off. Wally quickly fanned the flames with a verse of his favorite nonsense song, inspired by the title character in a series Jay has been reading lately: Junie B. Jones, Junie B. Jones, Junie-Junie-Junie-Junie-Junie B. Jones. Soon the walls were spinning all around.

Caroline and I responded with our usual litany of threats. If you don’t calm down, you’ll have to leave the table. If you don’t stop, you won’t get a yogurt. The boys usually pull back from the brink, but for the rest of the night they have little margin for error. A giggle, a dropped spoon- innocent events in normal times- easily become the straw that breaks their parents’ patience.

And so last night Wally murmured “Junie B. Jones” one too many times and got sent from the table, with orders to bus his dishes as he went. I was in the kitchen at the time, standing at the sink, and I saw Wally enter the room out of the corner of my eye. He held his plate between his hands, with his half-finished glass of milk balanced on top. He approached the counter, raised his dishes to set them down. Then he fell, his plate crashing, his glass crashing, milk splattering all over the place. Here was the moment I’d been waiting for.

From a foot away, I reacted instinctively. I grabbed him roughly by the shoulders, hoisted him into the air, and carried him briskly toward his room. “This is what happens when you don’t stop being silly,” I said, as I set him down hard on his bed.

Wally cried hysterically. Back in the kitchen, I enjoyed the sound of his wailing as I knelt down on the floor and cleaned up his milk. When I was done, I went back into his room to calm him down. Through heaving breaths he tried to talk. Eventually he managed to speak. “It wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I slipped on some water.”

Ahh, that’s right, I thought, the puddle I hadn’t cleaned up before dinner. It had been exactly where Wally had fallen. In a quick turn, I understood the injustice that Wally must have been feeling. What an unfortunate turn of events had come his way. Yet even as I sympathized, I thought to tell him- in life, there’s a lot of room to make your own luck.

Brothers abroad

Originally published on May 4, 2016

5.4.16At the airport last month, just past security, a woman saw Jay and Wally looking at a display of Golden State Warriors shirts and asked them if they played basketball. Wally answered first, for both of them. “My brother plays baseball. I played soccer, but I was too shy.”

By too shy, Wally meant he hadn’t wanted to go out onto the field last fall, which was true. But when I heard him describe himself that way, what struck me most was how matter-of-fact he was about it: My brother plays sports, I don’t, and everything about his tone of voice suggested he was OK with that distinction.

The conversation at the airport came at the end of a four-day visit to San Francisco. For logistical reasons having mainly to do with a conference and how inflexibly we knew Leo would deal with the jet lag, just Jay, Wally, and I went on the trip. The occasion was to meet the newest member of our extended family, a boy born to my brother and his wife on Leap Day. Going into the trip, I was eager to see my little brother’s first encounter with intense sleep deprivation and also to try out Jay and Wally as travel companions.

They proved their fitness right away, on the first morning when we all awoke at 4:30am. On the flight over I’d told them how last time I went to California, it was for Uncle Ryan’s wedding (the same Uncle Ryan we were going to visit now), and Jay, who was 16-months-old then, had woken up for good the first two mornings at 3am. In a small bed and breakfast with a noisy toddler, there was nothing to do but take him on a long, dark, cold walk along the Pacific. Five years later and with Wally now on the scene, both boys stayed quietly in bed until a more agreeable hour rolled around.

Beyond the sleeping, they were good companions in other ways. They marveled at trinkets in Chinatown (“Is this real gold?!), ate adventurously at dim sum, took quickly to new friends and family, and were consistently enthusiastic on each of three hilltop hikes—even if, once there, they preferred to play swords with sticks rather than admire the Golden Gate.

They also quickly established their own private society, which reminded me of how my siblings and I would fall into new roles on long car trips, when we had no one else around but each other. They spent much of each day engaged in silly banter, filled with nonsense words and funny voices, batted back and forth as they ran up the sidewalk ahead of me or waited in a long line for ice cream. Often the silliness was too much for our surroundings. At brunch at my brother’s apartment or while I nervously navigated my way across the bay, I’d try to get them to cool it, and they would for a moment—then one would steal a glance at the other and they’d be off again.

In all this, there was less of a sense of hierarchy between them than there usually is. Yes, on a visit to a farm, Jay was a little quicker to identify some plants (though Wally got his, too) and on a hike with a college friend and his family, there was no question about which one of them was going to make it to the top first. Yet in the midst of such new experiences these distinctions didn’t seem nearly as fraught as they do in day-to-day life.

It’s said that many aspects of identity are socially constructed, that your gender or skin tone comes to mean more than it needs to because of the cultural significance we attach to those distinctions. After four days away with Jay and Wally, it seems clear that birth order works that way, too. Wally didn’t gain 20 pounds or transform into a faster runner on the flight across the country. But once there, with much of the context of their regular lives stripped away, it seemed to matter much less (to him most of all) that he hadn’t.

Jay at the book fair

Originally published on March 2, 2016


As of Monday morning, Jay had $17 to his name, kept in a folded wad of bills in an envelope inside the top left drawer of my desk. He’d accumulated the money over two years as opportunities had arisen: $2 found on the ground at the park, $3 for relinquishing a Christmas present that had been given to him, but which meant far more to Wally, and the rest for clearing fallen tree nuts from our backyard- $.05 for a whole nut, $.01 for a piece of a shell.

Since collecting the money he’d made occasional moves to spend it. At one point he wanted to put it all into a Lego set. At another, he wanted to spend it all on candy when he realized he might do much better than the two small pieces I allowed him on our weekly trips to the candy store. But he never followed through on these impulses, largely because, I think, it was never in his immediate control to satisfy them.

But this week the book fair came to his elementary school and for the first time he was the master of his own money. He came home from school on Friday, presumably after having previewed the merchandise, and said he wanted to withdraw $10 to buy a book about a dog named Balto in the Magic Treehouse series. He allowed that it was more expensive than some other books, “because hardcovers cost more,” and asked if I’d throw in $2 to get him all the way there. I gave him the money and he placed it inside the pocket of the red folder he uses to bring his homework back and forth from school each day. All the while, I was aware the whole experience of watching him take these steps made me feel surprisingly like crying.

That night Caroline and I talked about why Jay taking his money to the book fair felt so heartbreaking. Caroline thought her feelings had a lot to do with remembering how excited she’d been about the book fair as a kid herself- the library transformed with tablefuls of shiny covers, like the carnival come to town.

For me, nostalgia was part of it, too, but that didn’t explain the main thing I’d felt. Earlier that day I’d restrained the urge to tell Jay to put his money away, to assure him that mom and I would give him the money he needed. I was surprised by the urge because in my head I like the idea of the boys learning to make decisions with their own limited resources, and within that discretion, far better a book than a lollipop the size of their faces. And yet still, I wanted to say, put your money back, or at the very least, to remind him that he could hold his fire because the library has every book in the Magic Treehouse series for free.

And the reason I felt that way, I think, is that there’s something reassuring about a child with an envelope full of money that he’s never touched. It’s a reminder, whether true or not, that your child is still all potential, with no missteps to his name, no desires he’s bound to pursue regardless of the costs, no vulnerability in a world where plenty of people want to do far worse than sell you a junky pen for $3. And if I could maintain that illusion, and temporarily absorb all those concerns into a single $20 bill handed to Jay, well, that’s what a large part of me wanted to do.

But I didn’t, and this afternoon Jay walked across the schoolyard to me with the handle of a thin plastic shopping bag entwined in his fingers. Inside there was a single book, plus a blue pen topped with a rubber owl that Jay said was for Leo when Leo got a little bit older. Later today, after Jay had taken a shower and changed into his pajamas, he settled into bed with his new hardcover between his hands. As I watched him crack the spine and remark excitedly that there was a map printed inside the front cover, I found myself hoping that if he draws one lesson from his first shopping foray, it’s that if you choose carefully, it’s possible to get what you want in life.

In Jay, big feelings stir

Originally published on January 28, 2016

1.28.16On Sunday afternoon, Jay, Wally, Leo, Caroline, and I gathered at my dad’s house to watch the Patriots play the Broncos in the AFC Championship game. Jay and I have followed the season closely, rooting for New England, and just before kickoff I looked at him, sitting on the couch, and noticed his arms were shaking.

“Are you cold?” I asked him.

“No, nervous,” he said in a faint voice without taking his eyes off the television screen.
Prior to that, I’d known Jay was into the game, but I wouldn’t have guessed quite that much. I know he cares a lot about sports and can have a hard time watching critical moments in a game, but that degree of expectation struck me as something I would have thought you’d need to be a little older to feel.

Such is the way I’ve seem a number of seemingly adult dispositions grow in Jay- with a clarity, a trueness to form, that startles me when they emerge.

I’ve heard other parents speak this way about their own children. Over the weekend, a father told me that a few mornings earlier, he’d been walking his second-grader son to school, when his son had stopped to note how beautiful the sunrise was. Jay and I were out in the neighborhood at the same time and I’d noticed it, too- a sunrise unlike any we’d had for months. The dad said he’d never heard his son remark on natural beauty like that- and because he had, the dad knew his son was ready to appreciate a long-intended camping trip on the coast of Maine.

With Jay, I find that sometimes my ideas about who he is make it hard for me to see who he’s become. The other afternoon, he, Wally, and I were sitting on my bed. Wally, as has been his inclination lately, was peppering me with questions about death: Will I be able to see even if my eyes are open when I’m dead? Will I need to breathe when I’m dead? Will I die before you do? As he went on, Jay reached over and pinched his brother’s foot. I snapped at Jay, annoyed that he’d decided to annoy his brother at a moment like that. Then I craned my head so that I could see his face, which was pointed away from me. It was contorted, on the verge of tears. “I don’t like when he talks like that,” Jay said.

And then last night, it happened again. It was before bedtime and I was reading “Amos and Boris” to Jay and Wally. It’s my favorite of the several great William Steig books, a story about a mouse and a whale who become unlikely friends. Halfway through, Jay said he didn’t want me to read the last page. I said I was going to, because I knew Wally would want to hear it, but I offered that when the time came, Jay could go to his bed and put his head under his pillows. Which is what he did, and with Jay across the room, I read to Wally:

He looked back at Amos on the elephant’s head. Tears were rolling down the great whale’s cheeks. The tiny mouse had tears in his eyes, too. ‘Goodbye, dear friend,’ squeaked Amos. ‘Goodbye, dear friend,’ rumbled Boris, and he disappeared in the waves. They knew they might never meet again. They knew they would never forget each other.

Afterward, when Jay had come out from beneath his pillows and had gone to sleep, I read the passage again. At 6, Jay has had only early experiences with friendship and he knows even less about forever. Yet in an instinctive way, as if it’s baked in alongside the capacity to walk and talk, he seems to understand the stakes in which he’s invested, just by being alive.

Revisionist history

Originally published on January 19, 2016

1.19.16On the way to Virginia after Christmas we stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant and ordered fried ice cream for dessert. It arrived at the table as a big to-do, with whipped cream, sprinkles, and a cherry on top. Wally pounced for the cherry and because the tie goes to the middle child in our family these days, we let him have it.

Wally, who is filled with deep and peculiar passions, held his prize aloft by the stem, an inch or two from his face. He licked at the residual whipped cream and took small nibbles at the cherry and then he nibbled once too hard, so that the cherry fell from its stem, down past his lap, into the forbidding darkness below the table in our booth. Caroline told him immediately it was gone. I craned my head below the table, located the cherry, and nudged it permanently out of reach, because I knew like a seer that if Wally got his hands on it, he would eat it.

Jay and Wally each has his own way of dealing with setbacks. For Jay, the emotional fallout is largely something that has to run its course. When I take it upon myself to defeat him in our nightly playroom basketball game, no amount of prior assurance from him is enough to check his anguish when the timer beeps zero.

Wally, by contrast, prefers not to take his hits head on. The other day in the car he was listing his favorite football teams the way he has heard his older brother do, and he included the Red Sox on the list. Jay jumped in to say the Red Sox were a baseball team and Wally replied, “Oh yeah right, that’s what I meant,” which is his quick and common reply whenever Jay asserts his 24-month head start in the world.

At other times Wally appears to reimagine his preferences to match the circumstances that have been handed to him. Last night Wally and Leo took a bath together, as they do every night, and Wally came up with the idea that a plastic Easter egg filled with water contained medicine for cuts. Wally told me that the egg needed to be stored in a cup that was in Leo’s hand so I told him that he couldn’t have the cup just then. Rather than make a fight, Wally did as he often does. “Oh yeah right, I forgot, the medicine needs to be stored in a different place,” he said. Then he picked up a sand toy shaped like a star, placed the egg inside it, and whistled on his way.

Wally is no pushover and more often than not he reacts to aggression and perceived slights at full volume, especially when they occur in relation to Jay. But he has other tools in his kit, including an ability to find more than one way to be happy.

Back at the Mexican restaurant, I wondered how long it would take Wally to get over the cherry and imagined his whining and crying stretching over many miles of highway driving. Yet within minutes of the cherry disappearing, Wally sat himself straight up, looked right at me, and said, “It’s okay, I only wanted to take a few little bites.” I looked back at him and couldn’t quite tell if he believed what he was saying.