Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Fading of Santa Claus

            At the dinner table last Thursday night, Ava was looking for a fun topic to finish off our meal.
            “What do you think Santa is doing right now?”
            Both kids smiled. Then Pip launched into an extended soliloquy describing the complex logistics work that Santa and his elves might possibly be undertaking at that very moment, including the movement of present stockpiles into strategic locations around the world via secret submarines and blimps disguised as clouds. All of these ideas came from a fun Christmas book I gave Ava several years ago called How Santa Really Works, and Pip cycled through them with a bit of tongue tucked into his cheek.
            Polly’s eyes were glowing with excitement at her own ideas, and as Pip wound down she inserted something about getting the reindeer ready, a reference to a Christmas book she enjoys, Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer. As Ava and I turned toward her to see what else she might want to add to this, Pip threw out curveball.
            “Or,” he said lightly, “he may be doing nothing since Santa’s just parents staying up late.”
            Ava and I both froze for a split second - our eyes flashed at each other - then kept going toward Polly pretending that we hadn’t heard what Pip had said. Polly continued to talk about what the reindeer were up to and soon we were clearing the dishes off the dinner table.


Pip tested the parents-as-Santa hypothesis twice during Christmas last year, mentioning quietly to Ava and I how it might be possible that she and I stayed up and brought out the presents after he and Polly went to bed. Each time he did this, we just shrugged and mumbled something about Santa being a mysterious person whose methods were not clear to us, and he seemed willing enough to leave it at that.
But this year he’s gotten more aggressive. Twice now he’s attempted to ambush us in front of Polly the way he did on Thursday night, throwing something out to see how Ava and I will react. While both times he’s used the late-add-on-to-another-line-of-thought technique that gives both him and us room to squirm away without giving a definitive answer, it’s pretty clear that he’s decided Santa’s not real. As such, he’s no longer interested in confirming that answer. The ambushes are more to see what gymnastics we’ll do in order to avoid admitting it.
This would be fine – I’m happy to play a game of wink-wink, nudge-nudge with him - except that Polly is still fully ensconced in the enchanted ignorance of childhood. Recently we went to the Home Depot for a kid’s clinic and the folks there had a couple of girls dressed up as Ana and Elsa from the movie Frozen. Polly was thrilled and had a great time taking pictures with them and giving them hugs. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that she even paused to consider whether they were real or not. The characters were there in person, and there was no reason to think too much more about it.
She is currently in the same place with Santa. While Pip is talking about logistics, Polly wants to hear all about Rudolph and to make sure we leave cookies for him. She is reveling in the wonder of Santa’s magic and the spectacular possibilities that fill the world. I don’t want Pip to ruin that for her.


            We started doing the Santa Claus game when Pip was almost three years old. It was a conscious decision made because both Ava and I enjoyed having Santa as part of Christmas during our childhood. Santa added a touch of magic and excitement to the season that made the air crackle with life. He wasn’t the omniscient judge of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ (He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, gonna find out whose naughty and nice). He was more the kindly grandparent who brings a couple of new toys with him whenever he visits
As adults, playing the Santa game gives us an avenue by which to be silly and playful with the kids. It is a prod for their imaginations and a topic to talk about at dinner. In worlds that are increasingly separated from each other – the kids now have their lives at school that we only glimpse from time to time – it’s nice to have a common mystery to wonder over.
What I find interesting now is that Ava and I spent as much time talking about whether or not to do Santa at all because it turns out that Santa’s existence as a real being has a very short shelf life. Santa didn’t really come alive in Pip’s imagination until his fourth Christmas. And now, four years later, he’s done; and probably has been so for a year. That’s a three to four year lifespan for the Santa that Ava and I discussed so seriously several years ago. It’s a pittance. It’s nothing. We got all lathered up over something that was done in the blink of an eye. This realization doesn’t make me upset. It’s just shocking how quickly it came and went.
There is a touch of sadness in this shock as well and not just for the loss of the niceties I mentioned above. The eminent passing of Santa as a real being means that as a family we’ve moved past the sweet spot on this version of Christmas. We’ll transition into other versions with their own sweet spots – the freedom from school version, the hanging out with high school friends version, the home from college version, the Ava and I go to the beach version, etc – but this one will no longer return.

I guess I wasn’t prepared for that to happen so quickly.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music..."

            Several years ago, probably before Pip, and certainly before Polly, was born, the public elementary school they now attend rebranded itself around an arts heavy curriculum. The concept behind this restructuring was that every child would get at least one hour every day in an arts-oriented class and every Friday students would have opportunities to do more intensive work in an area of interest. In practice this is less dramatic than it sounds – physical education, library, and computer each get their own days along with art, music, and dance/drama – but the guiding principle is appealing and as the kids get older the intensive work times do seem to be giving them real exposure to both the creative and disciplinary effort involved in producing artistic works.
            For parents, the most visible demonstration of this educational program at work is the two large musical productions put on each year, one before the winter holiday and the other before summer vacation. These productions include every child in the school and contain a mix of drama, dance routines, and full-scale musical numbers. They are a lot of fun to watch. The kids sing loud. They dance with surprising sophistication. They show great composure performing before an auditorium overflowing with family and friends
            Two weeks ago, Pip came walking down the steps from his bedroom and announced that he was interested in competing for one of the solo parts in the show. As he’d never mentioned any such wish before, I imagine this impulse was driven in part by a desire to claim some of the attention Polly had gained after she was selected for one of the dance roles. What other motivations he might have remained unspoken.
That day he started trying out his voice in a concerted way and really working to put notes and words together. He’d always enjoyed singing the songs for the shows, but now he started paying attention to how his notes actually sounded. This effort coincided with the appearance of the Frozen soundtrack in our lives and soon he was belting out ‘Let It Go’ like a fourteen year old getting over her first breakup. In the process he learned to support his sound by using his stomach muscles and experimented with adding some vibrato to longer notes.  
            Then while walking home the rain last Friday, Pip peeks out from under his umbrella and says,
            “Daddy, I’m not going to try out for a solo.”
            “Why not?” I asked, surprised by this unexpected turn. Just the day before he had made a big deal about asking the teachers when the auditions were going to be held.
            “Um,” he said uncertainly, “I don’t like the songs.”
            Now Pip has been known to sing just about anything, so something about this answer didn’t feel right. I said as much to him.
            His reply was to ask that we not talk about it anymore.
            Obviously something had changed. I don’t know if he just got nervous thinking about what it meant to sing in front of other people or if some of his peers had trashed the idea or if some other thing had occurred that I couldn’t imagine, but he was not going to tell me.
            I wasn’t sure how to handle this. While I wanted to respect his choices, I also wanted him to try out, not because I thought he would necessarily get the part or that he was destined to succeed but because you don’t get anywhere without trying things. A solo part in the show was something he had expressed interested in and worked towards. He should follow through on that interest if for no other reason than to see if it really is what he thought it would be.
In addition, these kind of opportunities – the opportunity to sing, act, play music, play sports in a organized way before a real audience - get fewer and fewer as one becomes older. Kids begin to specialize in this, that, or the other thing and there is less room to give something a whirl. As an adult these kind of experiences have to be balanced against the demands of work and family, making them always something of a guilty pleasure. This wasn’t necessarily the last chance Pip would have to try out something like this, but every year further on it definitely gets more and more competitive.
Lastly, I have found that the willingness to try things or not is often a matter of habit and I want both Pip and Polly to be more the former than the latter. Polly has had good success on this front. Pip’s willingness to put himself out there has varied. As such, this sudden backing away from something he’d been so interested in the day before felt like something to be pushed back against.
            So, I did. I told him I thought he should reconsider his decision, that he should think some more about why he suddenly didn’t want to try out. I wanted to keep pushing further, to give him some examples of times when I wished I’d gone ahead and tried out for something but didn’t. I even began to concoct a story of a time I didn’t go out for a part in the school play and later watched from the audience wondering the entire time whether I could have made it.
            Fortunately, better sense prevailed. Polly interjected with a story about what she did at recess that day, and I put my fake stories away for another time. Despite my impulse to badger away at him until he gave in, I was able to keep my trap shut and let my first statement be enough. Through the entire weekend I only came back to the topic one more time and then only to tell him that I wanted him to make a decision before he went to school on Tuesday, the day of the audition. He agreed.


            Yesterday, Pip came out from school happy and bouncing as usual. He’d been sick over the weekend and had stayed home from school on Monday so I was pleased to see him feeling good. The first thing he said to me was,
            “Daddy, I did it. I tried out.”
            “You did? Wonderful,” I said. “How did it go?”
            “I don’t know if I’ll get the part but I’m proud that I tried.”

            I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Friday, December 5, 2014


            On cold, rainy evenings after dinner is done, Pip likes to play checkers. His interest in checkers began a couple of years ago as a way to commandeer the focused attention of a parent, but now he’s grown to enjoy the game itself. He likes the idea of planning out a strategy and trying to make it work. He likes having control over the outcome, unlike Bingo or Go Fish which are largely games of chance. And, of course, he likes to win.
            Pip’s desire to win is not obnoxious. He doesn’t talk smack beforehand or try to change the rules during the game to create advantages for himself. However, whenever his strategy goes awry or an unfavorable twist happens, he does get unglued. His face tightens up. His mouth puckers. His blue marble eyes get watery. His nose starts to run. He doesn’t quit or walk away, but he starts slumping and huffing and acting kind of miserable.
It used to be that he’d get this way whenever one of his checkers got jumped. He’d struggle really hard to keep from losing any checkers that once a jump inevitably happened, he would just fall apart. After several episodes like this we had to stop playing because neither of us was having fun.
            For a while after that he played games against the computer at school and got more accustomed to the ebb and flow of the game. I don’t know exactly how those went – whether he got as frustrated with the computer or was able to see it as a different kind of opponent than his parents – but in the course of those games he gained some peace with the idea that you will lose most of your checkers even when you win. Since then he’s been able to get much farther into a game before getting anxious about things falling apart.
            It would be easy to look at Pip’s behavior when things go wrong and toss it off as the act of a crybaby, something he does strategically to change the circumstances. But, I don’t think that’s really what’s going on. For one thing, his reaction is absolutely biological. It is a physical manifestation of the frustration he is feeling inside. It comes rolling out before he even realizes what’s happening. And, secondly, when it does come out, he fights it. He doesn’t give in to the tears or let out a full scale wail. He doesn’t throw a fit. He tries to keep it together, to keep his face from puckering, to keep the tears held in. This fight often just makes him more frustrated because he lost it in the first place. It’s difficult to watch because he’s trying so hard to do the right thing – both on the checkerboard and with his body – and he can’t quite get there. It’s still just beyond his reach.
            But he keeps coming back and trying again. And, he’s getting better. On the board, he’s seeing my mistakes and capitalizing on them. He is looking several moves ahead and plotting how best to proceed. He doesn’t have a strategy for winning yet – he’s still not quite ready to sacrifice enough checkers for that – but he’s gotten agile enough to winnow down the board. He’s also handling the disappointments better. After an unexpected jump, he looks away from the board for a moment now. He shakes his head quietly. He’s working on figuring out how to smile through gritted teeth.
            I’ve gotten better at managing this, too. I’ve learned how to give some on the game, to make some obvious mistakes to keep him invested, to back off when things start to fall apart, to give him a chance to redo something before the game gets too far gone. However, I still have to guess a lot about how much he can stand. Sometimes I go too easy, and he overconfidently sweeps the board. Sometimes I get in too far and have to scramble to keep him going through the end of the game. It can make for quite a dance.


            Of course, this delicate balancing act between helping Pip along and throwing challenges in his way extends way beyond the checkerboard. It is one of those many negotiations that parents must constantly make, one of those needles we must constantly thread. In some ways I am asking for him to do two incongruous things. I want him to learn how to fight tenaciously to achieve something, to learn that coming back to it over and over is the only way to get better at it. At the same time I want him to learn how to suffer setbacks gracefully. I want him to display a level of self-possession that enables others to enjoy being with him even when things are not going his way. Those two ideas are at odds with each other in as much as tenacity requires a hardheadedness that is the opposite of grace. And to lose gracefully requires a kind of abandonment of care that is the opposite of tenacity.
Yet, people need both traits to be successful in the world. It is one of the many paradoxes of being human. Without tenacity the world will push you to the side. Without grace, you are unable to enlist the kind of help from others that is vital to actually doing anything.

And so, I will continue to play the game within the game, whether its checkers or math or soccer or dance. There’s always another layer to consider when you’re working with a child.