I woke up and realized that my own child was screaming monkey water in the next room. Monkey water refers to a red straw-equipped cup that we have with a picture of a monkey on it. If you saw the cup, you’d understand but I realize the reference might not hold a ton of meaning for you.
I think the lesson to be learned from this is to be true to your primate nature, and to get more sleep.
As a parent, you are always telling your kid what to do. You hope that a particular kind of voice gets inside their head. It’s called the ‘be careful’ voice. It starts with ‘be careful not to run into the street,’ ‘be careful not to jump around on the couch and fall off,’ and ‘be careful not to play with that sharp object that you somehow got ahold of and that you are not allowed to have.’ Later on it becomes, ‘be careful to take a job where they value you, ‘be careful not to drink and drive,’ ‘be careful to use protection when you have sex’ and all kinds of other cautionary statements that you don’t know you will need to say, yet. But you will say them all, believe me, and often.
That is the science of this, the information, the facts. There is also an art to it. The be careful voice can never have anything negative about your child in it. You want that voice in their head to guide them when you’re not around any more, and it has to be a positive voice always.
Creative life starts with dirt. You take your dirty laundry, metaphorically, and metaphorically put it out there for everyone to see. Nothing worthwhile that is creative is accomplished without digging into the subconscious, and it is dirty in there. I would like to think that we learn this first as children, mucking around in playgrounds. I don’t think that’s true. The creative connection with play is forged there, along with a sense of cooperation with playmates, and fighting with playmates, and together making something or destroying it. It is valuable, but it is missing the courage, the element of skilled daring that is required to dig into dirt and come up with something memorable that is not just more dirt.
We say ‘one more minute’ a hell of a lot around here. One more minute, and we will be leaving the playground. One more minute and we will be changing your diaper. One more minute and we will be going out. One more minute and we will be coming back. Mama texted to say she will be home in one more minute. We are staying in the bath for one more minute. We are reading for one more minute and then it will be bedtime. I will stay here for one minute to help you fall asleep. When you wake up and repeatedly shout, ‘Mama come in here right now,’ you will need to wait one more minute for me to get the almond milk from the refrigerator, put it in your sippy cup, and bring it to you.
With all this talk of one more minute, you’d think that kids would become excellent timekeepers. Well, they certainly value each moment, expanding a walk around the neighborhood that takes 10 minutes into a 45-minute adventure where everything is examined and everything commented upon, especially if it is a fire truck. Most of the time, however, they are at war with time. There’s no other explanation for the tears that flow when that ‘one minute’ is up. When it is time to go, if you are two, you fight it, even if you have been given a one-minute warning. When it is time to sleep, to eat, to clean up, to put away, to wash off, to change clothes, to come inside, to go outside, to leave, to stay, you fight it. You fight it all.
We say ‘one more minute’ so much because it is our clueless way to negotiate with master negotiators who will not budge. Therefore, they are not really negotiators at all, are they? We refuse to see that. In our parental wisdom and with boundless compassion, we think our timekeeping smooths the path, wedging an inch of reason into the toddler mind. What we fail to apprehend is that the toddler mind is pissed off, really pissed off, because the toddler has been passed over for the position of running the household. Their intractability is sharper than our compassion. There is no negotiation that will work. The only tool we have is time. Not one more minute, of course, but patience for a longer time, until they are older and can be reasoned with, at least a little.
For now, the best unit of measurement we can offer is ‘one more minute.’
Below, a recording of our toddler practicing his negotiation skills a few weeks ago. He goes to school with a few German-speaking children, so he is working through his ‘nein.’
When walking home on our quiet streets, everything merits further study. Every blade of grass is worth picking, every plant identified, every post-rain mushroom examined.
The child’s dialogue goes like this: ‘That’s a fire hydrant. That’s agave. That’s a crescent moon. That’s dog poop. That’s a mail truck. That’s a mailman. That’s a U-Haul. That’s a big truck. What’s that sound? That’s a fire engine. That’s a car. That’s a car coming this way. That’s a doggie. The dog says woof. That’s a bird. That’s a fountain. That’s a driveway. Where did mommy go? What’s that over there?’
The parent’s dialogue goes like this: ’Stay on the sidewalk, that’s dog poop, or is it a pine cone? No, it is a mushroom, but don’t touch it, and don’t eat it. Those look like blueberries, you can touch them, but don’t eat them, they are probably poisonous. What’s poisonous? It means don’t eat it. Yes, we sometimes eat mushrooms, but they are the right kind. Stay on the sidewalk. Hold my hand when we cross the street. That’s an alley, you have to hold my hand. If you wipe your hand along that dirty car, you hand will get greasy. Okay, I will wash it when we get home. Stay on the sidewalk. Stay close to me. Your hand is dirty, but we will clean it off when we get home. Mommy is waiting for us when we get home. Don’t walk in the neighbor’s plants. Stay on the sidewalk.’
For a child, I suppose, there is great comfort in hearing one’s father say ‘stay on the sidewalk.’ Why else would he make me repeat it often? Surely a child’s memory is not short. I know precisely the opposite to be the case: Like his vision and hearing, his memory is sharp and flawless. Tell him what kind of plant is an agave, and he always remembers. Point out a crescent moon, and he remembers. Tell him that is a telephone line repair truck, and he remembers. Skip a page In a book accidently, and he makes you go back. Tell him mommy is waiting for us when we get home, and he asks, ‘Where did mommy go?’ six or eight times during a 40-minute walk.
The puzzle is solved with this, I think: With a two-and-a-half year old, fact-memory is strong. He is amassing facts every moment, focusing on a mastery of things. He is building a catalogue to describe the outward workings of the world.
When it comes to emotional memory, however, the opposite is true. Emotional memory is slippery. It is porous. The answer to ‘Where did mommy go?’ always changes. It therefore merits endless asking. A mail truck is a mail truck. There is a fact to be absorbed and there is nothing to be worried about. Where mommy is merits further study, is worth worrying about, is worth refreshing your knowledge about, is worth hitting reset on until you see mommy and verify that she is indeed waiting for us at home.
I needed to complain to my wife. I walked into the bathroom as she was getting ready for the morning.
‘This is all just so stressful,’ I said to her. My tone was whiny. Normally compassionate, she glanced at me with a ‘so-what-else-is-new’ expression. The toddler-in-residence was saying no to everything, running around the apartment turning on all the lights and slamming doors. He was throwing some toys, falling over others, and rolling a big red exercise ball into my path wherever I went. I couldn’t do any yoga and meditation was beyond my ability to focus within chaos. It was 8:30. The day had hardly started and I was ready for a cocktail.
Just then the doorbell rang. It was a man delivering a bottle of Japanese whiskey and a dry California Riesling. These gifts appeared like magic. My wife and I broke out laughing. The cat, thrilled, jumped into the new box.
Of course, I had ordered those gifts, but their timing was perfect. It was as though that delivery was scripted and stagehands hustled the man into position to meet his cue. We’d never had a delivery at that time of the morning before and probably never will again.
I guess you can have synchronicity with whiskey. I waited till Friday to fix the cocktails. They were good.
Editor’s note: I’ve become a bit inhibited about writing this blog; it’s become formalized and overly structured and I have become too aware of the (large) number of people now reading it. I can sense your expectations that I should be funny and deep always. But I am often quite tired and distracted. The problem with the funny-deep expectation is that blogs are made for thinking out loud. They are life’s first draft. So this one will be sketch-like, and fragmented. Sorry. You can skip it if you like. My writing partner will have plenty of entries coming, and they will be better written.
I think teaching compassion must be the hardest thing. I am thinking this as I stand at the bottom of our three flights of stairs, weighed down by four bags of groceries, watching Bodhi scamper around testing the life force of the plants in the flower beds. He is stepping on them methodically. Do they spring back? Yes. Experiment complete. Now he is closing the gate so nobody else can enter the apartment complex. Now he is balancing on the part of the brick that means he can fall into the cactus garden. Now he is running toward the driveway and circling back when I call for him.
He knows I’m waiting and wilting in the 90-degree September heat. He knows I have compassion for him because I am waiting here holding bags of groceries, calling out instructions for his safety and security, and I have waited for him to dawdle his way out of the car, and earlier, for him to refuse food I cooked to instead eat a portion of watermelon the size of a man’s head. I have compassion for him; he displays little for me.
He is two. I have to keep reminding myself of that.
The reason I need to keep reminding myself is that he has a large personality. Physically, of course, he is small. Oh, he is huge for a two year old, very tall, and forceful and strong, and he can scream loudly, and he is a vociferous conversationalist, an omnivore of words, machine-gunning out identifications of palm trees, yoga mats, jeep trucks, fire trucks, his mother’s complete first and last name, status reports on whether cars are going fast or slow, whether lights are on or off, whether it is daytime or nighttime, whether it is snack time or what kind of sippy cup his water shall be served in, how his dinner shall be served, whether a sound is loud. This morning I asked him if he wanted watermelon and his response was “Daddy, get the orange circle plate now.”
Viewed like this, close up, his personality is huge. Viewed across the playground, he quickly becomes the small child that he really is.
He is making his own decisions now, his own man. This weekend he decided that he was going to wear his pajama top all day without changing into a shirt. I let him do it. I figure it worked for Vincent Gigante on Sullivan Street. Gigante was a big-time Mob boss who went around on Sullivan Street in New York all day in his pajamas, pretending to be insane in order to avoid arrest and prison. Because of this behavior they called him the Oddfather. I saw him many days, his unshaven silvery stubble catching the afternoon light, a gray, foggy look in his eye, the (faked) unsteady walk. The pajamas. Eventually the cops stopped buying the act and he was locked up in the federal pen, served a sentence for racketeering and conspiring to murder a few rival mobsters, and died there when not all the way through his 12-year stretch.
It seems odd to even have those kinds of thoughts and make those kinds of associations when you’re around an innocent little kid. But just because I’m around an innocent little kid doesn’t mean my mind stops. I live in both worlds. Somehow. I realize that Bodhi likes the feel of a warm pajama top against his skin in the morning and doesn’t want to give it up. Even when he goes to work on his construction site.