Thursday, July 8, 2010

Taming the Wildebeest

We are in the process of selling our house and, given the nature of the current housing market, it is a real struggle. So, we are doing everything we can to get that one magic person to walk through our door. This is includes doing open houses on as many Sunday afternoons as possible.

Early on we decided that the best way for our family to deal with an open house day was to set things up the night before and then get out of Dodge after breakfast the next morning. That way we don’t spend the entire morning trying to corral Pip’s and Polly’s natural inclinations towards chaos or fretting about what other little things Ava and I might do to make the house look just a touch nicer. To accomplish this, we have taken to going on day trips.

The past two open house days we have ventured out to a state park that is about an hour from our house. The state park has a small lake, a nice wooden, A-frame lodge, a few hiking trails, and a nature center with some rehabing raptors and a live mountain lion. We take a picnic lunch with us and go play in a creek that runs along the side of one of the hiking trails. It’s a wonderfully peaceful spot. The creek runs down between two hills and is just deep enough to cover your ankles. The running water and the shade of the summer foliage overhead keeps things cool even when the temps are breaking the 90 degree barrier. And the kids love having the freedom to play. They throw rocks in the water, traipse up and down through the shallow areas, float sticks through the mini-rapids, and look under rocks for crawdads. Throw in a few nostalgic memories of creek-walking from my own childhood and the general absence of other people and this excursion has become one of my favorite things to do as a family.

All that fun does take its toll, however, and when we get back to the house in the afternoon, everyone is exhausted. Now, this type of exhaustion can be really nice if you have the chance to languish in it - maybe have a beer or some ice cream, then put your feet up and watch the sun set. Unfortunately, the kids are not ready for that kind of recovery process yet. They are more in the coax-some-food-into-me-then-put-me-in-the-bath kind of stage. This is a fine process, too, though much less relaxing for Ava and me than the beer and sunset version.

So, two weekends ago, we had an open house, we went out for the day to the state park, and we returned home tired. We dragged the kids into the house, and they set about acting out in their established ways. For Pip this means that he becomes whiny. He wants this, he wants that. If something isn’t exactly right, tears will follow. Polly, in contrast, becomes mischievous. She’ll push the limits on things, letting her impulses to bang, throw, or yell run even more freely than usual.

One of the tricks Polly has developed over time is this high pitched screech. Modeled after a scream Pip uses when he is overly excited, the screech starts quietly and seems like it is going to build into a full scream, but as her voice gets louder it starts to break apart. Instead of a single clear tone, the sound rattles around in her throat, giving the final pitch a slight gargle at its apex. She usually deploys this screech during meal times after she’s had her fill and is starting to get bored with being strapped into her chair. The sound echoes around our kitchen and effectively ends any other conversation taking place. It also has the power to bring Pip to tears.

Pip has never been able to make sense of the screech. To him, it seems random and unpredictable. He can’t correlate it with any other regular happening and so the screech doesn’t have a set place in his knowledge of the world. Sometimes he finds it funny. Sometimes he finds it annoying. Oftentimes, it scares him. All he knows for sure is that he can’t ignore it. He has to react in some way. So, when Polly looks directly at Pip in the instance before she lets loose, you can feel Pip tense up in expectation. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen but more often than not it all ends with him huddling up on his chair with his hands covering his ears – a reaction that Polly finds very amusing.

And so, on this night when Pip was tired and whiny and Polly was acting especially mischievous, the conditions were ripe for some theatrics. About halfway through dinner Polly let loose with a full throated screech. Pip dove for cover. After about fifteen seconds of this, I got up and took Polly out of the kitchen in order to move her away from Pip. After a couple of minutes or so when Pip began to calm down, I walked with Polly back into the kitchen to continue with dinner.

Then Polly took things to a new level.

Walking back into the kitchen, she went around the table to the chair where Pip was sitting. She does this frequently during mealtimes. Usually she just wants to say hello or see what Pip is doing up close for a moment. This time, however, she walked over, looked straight into Pip’s eyes, and let out the screech again. This caught all of us off guard and sent Pip into a whole new round of convulsions that were capped off with him wailing, “Why? Why? Why did she do that? Why?” I finally hustled over and carried her once again out of the kitchen.

After Pip had settled down again, Polly and I came back into the kitchen to try and finish off our meal. Polly had different ideas. She walked right back to the same spot from which I had whisked her away a few minutes before. I didn’t move to stop her because I couldn’t imagine that she would do the same thing again. It was such a brazenly deliberate move that I didn’t think she was capable of it. And yet, there I went hauling her a third time out into the living room while Pip shed still more tears. With this, we mercifully brought an end to dinner for the night.

Ava took Pip on to her lap and tried to explain to him what was going on. She told him that Polly was tired and was using her ‘wild animal noise’ to get a reaction out of him. Its tough to know exactly what Pip understood but as we talked it through several more times, he was able to calm down. Also, as we repeated this explanation over and over, the ‘wild animal noise’ morphed into the ‘wild beast noise’ and then finally into the ‘call of the wildebeest.’

This last phrase, ‘the call of the wildebeest,’ seems to have tickled his funny bone, and in doing so may have finally enabled him to fit Polly’s screech into a fixed locus of meaning. Because today at lunch when Polly broke out the screech once again, I asked Pip, “Is that a wildebeest I hear?” and he responded with a smile and a short laugh. No tears, no nervousness. Just a confident nod of bemused acknowledgement. Polly, ever watchful, decided to try banging the table with her sippy cup instead.

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