Friday, August 27, 2010

Inside the Bubble

“Ted Stevens died in a plane crash last month. Oh yeah, and Daniel Schorr died too.” Ava said this to me casually as we sat by a duck pond on Saturday morning feeding the kids a snack of raisins, crackers, and blueberry muffin bits. “I thought you might want to know.”

This is how I get my news these days, in little tidbits that slip out during moments of idle conversation. It’s how I learned about the BP oil spill, the final passage of healthcare legislation, the earthquake in Haiti, and just about anything else that has happened outside the confines of our new neighborhood. I effectively live in an information bubble. Partially a matter of circumstance and partially of my own making, the bubble is a powerful filter that keeps me largely ignorant of just about everything going on in the world right now: politics, the economy, technological developments, trends in popular culture, you name it. I can tell you astonishingly little about any of these things.

And I love it.

The bubble started forming with Pip’s birth. The TV went into a cabinet. The computer went on a shelf. They only emerged for a few minutes each night after he went to sleep. Following Polly’s birth, the increased demands on my attention gradually weaned me from a regular consumption of NPR and sports talk radio as well. Now, aside from an ongoing subscription to the Atlantic Monthly, almost all my information of the outside world comes from Ava.

In place of the global array of news and stories that I used to get from various sources, I have the intensely local experience that is caring for Pip and Polly. They provide me with such a focused, first-hand array of comedy, drama, excitement, suspense, heartwarming moments, achievements, and thrills that the second and third-hand accounts of the world that come in through the news media, Facebook, movies, and the like all feel hazy and very far away. For example, in the last twenty-four hours, Pip completed a thirty-piece puzzle of the world practically on his own, asked me to talk about car wrecks over and over (this became a physics lesson), gave Polly an actual and unprompted kiss on the cheek for the first time, and melted down into tears on at least four different occasions. For her part, Polly added the words ‘cat,’ ‘yellow,’ and ‘purple’ to her vocabulary, happily gobbled so much macaroni and cheese that I thought she would burst, pooped in the toilet for the first time, and subsequently decided to celebrate by waking up at 11:45 last night and refusing to go back to sleep until 2 AM. There is nothing that I can read or watch that will ever match all of this.

In the last month, I have had an extra chance to ruminate on the bubble. I have made two trips up to Cincinnati to check in on our house, mow the yard, and do some basic maintenance, and each time I spent the entire 90 minute journey north listening to NPR. It was like briefly visiting a place I used to live in. So much was familiar and comfortable: the voices, the music, the regular sequence of the news segments. But, as has been the case anytime I have returned somewhere after a long absence, I noticed two things that I hadn’t felt before.

The first is that with all the reports and updates and commentary and analysis, it’s difficult to tell on a daily basis what is signal and what is noise. I used to think that I could filter through all the incoming material and figure out what mattered and what didn’t. Now, after my return visit, I don’t think that’s possible. So much of what is important in any given news narrative is determined post facto. The stories I heard on my way up to Cincinnati may be critical or may be worthless. For example, did the large drop in the Dow Jones Index signal a bad turn for the economy or did it just make more room for it to pop back up? The odds are with the latter, but it all depends on what happens the next day. There is no way of knowing beforehand. If I want narratives that are efficiently meaningful, I’m better off with history books. The daily (or hourly or minute-by-minute) news is just a giant crapshoot.

And that leads me to the second thing. When I turned off the radio upon arriving in Cincinnati, I felt somewhat informed but mostly just primed with anticipation about what will happen in the coming hours and days. I wanted to listen to more news on the way back to Lexington to see how things had changed during the two hours I was away from the radio. Then I wanted to check back in the next day. It was a compulsion that while not overwhelming was significant enough to make me think, “Was I addicted to the news?”

Usually upon hearing the word ‘addiction’ I think of things like alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc. But the withdrawal process I went through after each trip to Cincinnati had all the patterns of a person coming off an addiction. It makes me wonder. I’ve always thought of addiction as something abhorent and outside the bounds of normality. But if something as simple as listening to the news creates this kind of attachment in me, maybe I need to reconfigure my understanding. What if the propensity to addiction is a fundamental property of being human and the only real differentiating factor is the value placed on the things you are addicted to? If I substitute the word ‘addiction’ for ‘habit,’ how does that change my view of the world? I guess these are questions for another time.

In the meantime, I know that there is a balance to be struck between the world and my kids, a certain meeting point to be found between global and local knowledges that would make me a more socially functional person. But right now I am really happy with my bubble. The kids have less than five years before we release them into the wilds of the public school system. It’s a limited time opportunity. So, I’ll take some global ignorance in exchange for a little extra sensitivity to the local details. There’ll be plenty of time to catch up on all that other news later.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In an effort to interest a few more readers I'm posting this week's story on the Daddy Dialectic blog. The link to the main page is here. The dedicated address for the post is here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

On the Playground

I had trouble getting my head around things this week, so here’s a story from just before we moved out of Cincinnati.

Marlin: I promised I'd never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That's a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.
- From the movie Finding Nemo

I took Pip and Polly to a playground a couple of weeks ago. The one we went to is in a great spot, set up on a bluff overlooking the Ohio River on one side and the local general aviation airport (i.e. private and corporate planes) on the other. The playground itself is set back off the bluff about fifty yards in a pocket underneath some large oak trees. It’s a nice playground because it’s not that big and all those trees create plenty of shade on a hot day. As an added bonus, the park is a bit tricky to get to, so it tends to be less busy than some of the others nearby.

We met some friends up there for a playdate. The kids are the same age as Pip and Polly and, they all enjoy following each other up, down, and around the playground equipment. Slides are a particular favorite for Pip. He can do the slide route over and over and over until he finally wears a hole right through his shorts.

This day it had rained the night before, and we were trying to determine the best way to dry the slide so that Pip et al could get rolling. I went back to my backpack to see if I had left any hand towels in there from a previous playground trip when I noticed the appearance in quick succession of about eight to ten SUVs and minivans. Within five minutes we were engulfed in a wave of children spewing forth from what seemed like every direction. Some preschool had decided to do a summertime ‘meet-and-greet’ at the park that morning and every parent there had brought multiple children with them. Suddenly there were kids all over the place, flooding the playground equipment and running around with the frenetic energy of ants after someone kicks over an anthill.

Pip was not pleased with this development at all. He likes focused play that is generally free of interruptions or distractions. He does not like a chaotic environment unless he is the one creating it. Whenever there is a lot going on around him, his inclination is to back out of the way, to seek out a spot of relative calm from which he can take a measure of things. In the past this spot has often been right between my knees. If things felt crazy, he would just swing in between my legs and hang out there until he found a zone of comfort or a satisfactory way to venture out beyond my shadow.

This day, that option was not available. The week before Polly had taken the training wheels off and started walking on her own. Up to that point I had always carried her around a playground in our backpack while Pip played. But now that she was walking on her own, it was time for her to get into the playground action as well. Unlike Pip, Polly does not mind crowds. She just dives in and goes about her business as if there was no one there at all. This day her business was attempting to climb up anything she could get two hands on. This forced me to follow her around very closely so that I could help her navigate the various steps and ladders while also keeping her from turning the wrong direction and falling on her head from a couple of feet up.

My unavailability left Pip confused. One second he wanted me to stay with him and the next second he was asking me where Polly was going. With all the chaos and the constant challenge of keeping track of Polly, Pip’s whole understanding of what a playground morning was supposed to be was upended. This new world as it was left him jumpy, uncertain, and slightly manic.

And then came a moment I had long dreaded while never fully appreciating how complicated it was going to be.

One of the pieces of playground equipment on this playground is a little single person spinner. It consists of a small circular platform set about a foot above the ground with a vertical pole coming up through the middle. The whole apparatus is mounted on a rotating joint that allows it to spin freely. During a moment of calm, Pip sat down on this platform to take a drink of water. I bent down to get Polly something out of my backpack about ten feet away. While rummaging around in there, I heard the voice of an annoyed little girl say “Get up.” I looked up to see this four-year-old girl standing over Pip with her hands on her hips. “Get up” she demanded once again. Pip looked over to me in confusion. This is not how we interact at home nor is it how we have taught Pip to interact with other kids. So, he was looking for me to intervene, for me to politely tell this little brat to wait her turn. He had no idea how else to respond to the aggressive entitlement of this little girl. But I couldn’t. This wasn’t my child, and the only words in my mind at that moment were not suitable to be used with children. As such, I was frozen in place as Pip stumbled up from the platform mumbling pitifully “I wasn’t done with my turn…” As soon as he slunk away, the little girl promptly sat down on the spinner looking slightly disappointed that Pip didn’t put up more of a fight.

The whole experience left me feeling pretty shaken. On the drive home I replayed everything a couple of times in my mind, and I realized two things:

First, I can’t always protect the kids from that kind of indignity. The world has its ugly moments. They are unavoidable, and my kids will have to figure out how to deal with them. I had known this logically but until that moment I had not known it experientially. There is no teacher like experience.

Second, I have not done a good job preparing the kids to handle such moments. It’s something of a double bind because the experience that they need to learn to handle is the very experience from which I am trying to shield them. There’s no reason to knowingly subject kids to barbarity, however small, just to ‘toughen them up’. But I do need to give them some tools to try out when such a situation arises again. Pip had no possible strategies to draw upon except walking away from things and, while that is an effective strategy in many instances, in this case it felt like a huge failure. He should have had an opportunity to defend himself and his place on that spinner.

Later that afternoon, Pip and I talked about the incident with the spinner and what he might do in future situations like that one. I told him that it was okay to say no to that little girl and then politely tell her to wait her turn. I’m not sure that he really understood what I was trying to tell him. The real lesson of the day – that Daddy can’t always intervene to create fairness in the world - was still too present in his mind. But I didn’t know what else to do. I guess the best I can hope for is that he’ll remember that the next time something like this happens to him.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Adventures with Children and Boats

Ava and I are both first children. We got the first crack at most things and didn’t have to bid our time until we were big enough to do something our siblings were doing. The significance of this experience wasn’t fully appreciated by either of us until the arrival of Polly, our second child. Now, each day we get a reminder of how influential that birth order is…

My parents live in a house on a lake. As such, they have the requisite dock and a pair of vehicles for moving around on the water – in their case a jetski and a 21 foot cruiser. The boat used to spend its weekends pulling around skiers and crazy teenagers on inner tubes. Now, it mostly leaves its cradle for a nice sunset cruise or to ferry people from one place to another.

How the kids would handle the boat had been an item of discussion between Ava and I prior to our trip to my parents’ house. The last time we had visited them Polly had not yet been conceived and Pip had been too young to go out on the boat. So this would be their first opportunity to take a ride and we could only guess how they would react to it. With the noise of the engine and the force of a twenty mile an hour wind hitting you in the face, a ride on the boat hits a lot of senses pretty hard. I felt like Pip would be okay, but was not sure that Polly would understand enough to be able to enjoy it.

The first full day of our visit with my parents brought us the opportunity to find out. We decided to visit some of my parents’ friends on the lake and make use of a small, shaded beach these friends had created on their property. The quickest, easiest, and cleanest way to get there and back was by boat. Pip had gotten the chance to go out on the boat for a short while the evening before and, after a warming up period, had found that he liked it. As Polly did not get this kind of test run, we debated some over whether to drive Polly over by car. Ultimately, we decided to let her give the boat a try. It turned out to be a somewhat rough experience.

To start with she did not like her lifejacket. It was a black and yellow infant model designed to keep a young child’s head upright should they accidentally fall into the water. This made it extra bulky, particularly around the neck. When Ava first attempted to put it on Polly, Polly made her displeasure well known. After a few minutes however, Polly settled down enough for us to continue on with the experiment. She waddled down to the dock looking uncomfortable, top-heavy, and quite suspicious about what was to come next. We hoisted her into the cabin area of the boat and set her up on my lap so that the windshield could block much of the wind. As we slowly pulled out from the dock her little chocolate eyes flipped back and forth between Ava and I letting both of us know that this was not her idea of a good time. When my dad ran the boat up on to plane, Polly went to a special place. She let her legs and arms go limp. Her face held no expression. Her only movement was to periodically squint when I inadvertently let too much sun hit her face. It was as if I was holding an inanimate doll on my lap.

Once we got to our destination and got off the boat, Polly came back to life. At the beach she happily got out of her life jacket and set off to play in the sand. She spent a good hour digging holes with a stick and splashing in the first few inches of water at the edge of the lake. But when it was time to go, she went through the same process again. She fussed while we put on her life jacket and then went to her special place while the boat was in motion. I guess that’s what she needed to do to make it through the ride.

A couple of days later my parents wanted to take Pip by boat to see one of the lake’s long-standing institutions. One of the marinas has over time built up a herd of a large catfish like fish called carp. On the back side of the dock where this marina has its gas pumps is a eight by ten foot area where people have for at least thirty years fed popcorn to these fish as a way to pass the time. The herd now is a couple hundred in number and when you throw a handful of popcorn to them the fish start jumping and splashing all over the place in their efforts to suck up every last floating kernel. Its quite a sight, and my parents rightfully thought Pip would get a kick out of it.

We talked about whether to bring Polly as well but given her discomfort with her first boat ride, I decided to keep her back at the house. While Pip and my parents went out, I would give her a bath and spend some one-on-one play time with her.

So, when the kids woke up from their nap that afternoon, my parents told Pip what we had planned. He was very excited and ran over to where the life jackets were kept. Polly was sitting on my lap at the time. When she saw Pip coming back to us with his life jacket in his hand, she quickly got up and, without making a sound, toddled over to the life jackets, picked hers up, and brought it back over. She stood directly in front of me and dropped the jacket into my lap. My parents barely held off a peal of laughter, but Polly was determinedly matter of fact about things. The look on her face said, “He’s not going anywhere without me.”

For a moment I considered trying to dissuade her but quickly realized how foolish that effort would be. So, we got both kids suited up. Polly grimly allowed us to once again buckle up the jacket around her neck and once again she went to her special place until the ride was over.

Both kids enjoyed the carp immensely. Pip threw popcorn, and Polly watched intently as the bodies and tails of the fish flopped around the surface of the water. My mom got some great pictures. But there was one picture she did not get that I wish she had. It was of Polly walking back up from the dock after we had returned home. Bobbling along the sidewalk with her life jacket still in place, there was a look of accomplishment on her face and almost a swagger to her movements. I could easily imagine her saying “I am the second child, and I will not be left behind.”