Friday, August 28, 2015


            For reasons that will remain obscure for now, Ava measured Polly’s height yesterday. This is not something we’ve done on a regular basis except at doctors visits, and those numbers go flying out of our minds by the time the doctor moves on to looking in their ears. They have always appeared to be growing at appropriate rates. They’re about average among their peers, maybe even a bit taller though only if you look really closely. Their clothing sizes have progressed as we’d expect as well. Pip’s wearing 8-10’s. Polly’s wearing 6-8’s. With all of these other markers giving us positive returns, there’s been no impetus to keep a close eye on their actual heights. If you’d asked me before yesterday how tall each child is, I’d probably have guessed that Polly clocks in at a little over three feet, and Pip somewhere around four.
            That estimate would have been wrong. According to Ava, Polly is now forty-six inches tall. Forty-six inches; as in only two inches below the four foot barrier. That’s incredible. She’s six years old. I didn’t think she’d hit that level until she was at least eight. She’s huge.
            Except that she’s not. My expectations were obviously out-of-whack, and that ignorance left me open to being dumbfounded. Again Polly is about the same height as most of her classmates. Four feet must be about average for a six-year-old girl.
            All the same that number, forty-six, was a shock. I don’t know how old I was when I passed four feet as a kid, but I remember feeling like it was a milestone. I remember looking in the mirror and trying to imagine what I’d be like when I passed five feet. I must have felt pretty old because in my mind crossing that barrier seemed like a big step towards growing up. To have Polly already approaching that line was something for which I was completely unprepared.


            Kids grow up fast. It’s a horrible cliché, and every time I use it (which, with the start of school last week, has been awfully frequent) my stomach churns a bit. But every once in a while something makes me feel that way all the same. I think what’s really at work in this are two discrepancies between the way the kids are actually growing and the way I perceive them to be growing. The first is that when the kids were babies there were obvious developmental milestones: rolling over, crawling, pulling up, saying words, saying sentences, eating solid food, using a spoon, using a toilet, sleeping through the night, running, reading, riding a bicycle. As we ticked through these we always had a sense of what the next one should be, what the next thing we should be looking for. It was a regular check-in for growth. We could anticipate them and look out for them and be excited when they arrived. Growing up was a process of almost daily change, one filled with hurdles to overcome and successes to celebrate.
Now the milestones are more subtle and ambiguous. The kids read a little better than they did several months before. They speak a little clearer. They run a little faster. None of these things are marked by a definitive shift of any sort. None of them contain the same celebratory, “we made it,” kind of sense of achievement. Instead, they’re all sort of impressionistic. We guess that something has changed from one month to the next, but it’s hard to be sure until one of these random markers come along. Last week it was Pip trying out the role of facilitator in a game ofMastermind. This week Polly clocked in at forty-six inches in height. Next week it may be something else. Or nothing at all. We may go several months before something else strikes me.
And this is where the second difference comes into play. It’s largely a corollary to the first, but it’s worth elucidating all the same. For the last two years or so, we’ve been doing mostly the same kinds of things. What I mean by this is that we’ve been getting up at about the same times, eating the same kind of foods, riding bikes places, going to school, doing homework, playing in the yard, etc. The general scope of our activities has followed a regular pattern. The kids like to go to the library and the park. They enjoy swimming and hiking in the summer and going sledding in the winter. They add a few new wrinkles and games to the patterns from time to time and both are both doing things at increasing levels of sophistication but all these things are still fit within a general frame of likes and dislikes that has remained largely unchanged over the past couple of years. This consistency lends itself to a feeling of stasis, even timelessness to a certain extent, as if we can and will keep doing these things this way for eternity (which would be okay by me). Then a reminder comes around – forty-six inches! – that such timelessness is an illusion, and sometimes it takes a few moments to recover my senses.
I’m glad Polly and Pip are growing tall and smart and strong, but, my goodness, what I wouldn’t give to have it all happen just a tiny bit slower.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Challenges of Growing Older

            This summer Polly and Pip have started looking older to me. It’s been about two years since this last happened. When they were four and six respectively, they started losing the softness around their stomachs and growing longer limbs. Now, those limbs are becoming more and more muscular. Polly’s arms slope outward at the shoulder, and Pips legs have gotten tautly bunched above and below the knees. Their faces have changed, too. They’re more engaged and articulate, more complex. They’re no longer cute. I look into their eyes, and I expect a level of sophistication from them that I never had expected before.
            It is not a coincidence that as Pip and Polly have come to look increasingly older, Ava and I have come to expect a greater level of responsibility from them. We’ve started asking them to take on more aspects of household maintenance – helping with dishes, making beds, laying out clothes for school the next day, cleaning bathrooms. We haven’t made any big speeches about these things or tried to tie them to particular ideas like “being older” or “being in first/third grade.” Instead, we’ve just started asking them more often to do things to help us out around the house. Right now it’s actually kind of fun because things like filling the water jugs or cracking eggs or tearing up lettuce for salad are new activities for the kids. They get to figure out how to do them and what these previously unknown experiences feel like. Plus, Polly and Pip both like feeling useful and we make a big deal out of how helpful they are being. I imagine all of this will get harder once the novelty has worn off.


            This gradually emerging sense of being older is bringing with it some bittersweet moments for the kids as well. A couple of mornings ago just before school started up again, I was making lunch in the kitchen while Pip and Polly were hanging out together in the living room. They were playing a kids’ version of the classic game Mastermind in which each player has a secret stack of different animals and the opponent has to deduce the order of the stack by asking questions such as “Is the lion above the giraffe?” or “is the penguin below the monkey?”
            Now, we’ve been playing games like Memory, Go Fish, Bingo, and Chutes and Ladders for several years, and usually Polly’s interest in these games trends towards being silly with them rather than trying to win them. She likes messing around with patterns, making goofy faces, laughing at odd coincidences that come along. It isn’t that she doesn’t like to win, but she’s never gotten particularly invested in winning as a measure of whether something was fun or not.
            But that morning was different. Whether it was because the game came from Grandma or because it involved animals – her self-proclaimed area of expertise – or because it was just her time, that morning Polly decided winning was important. She was going to be the Mastermind champion or the world was going to end.
            This development wasn’t terribly surprising. When Pip was six years old, we started playing Checkers together, and it was one of the more tortured experiences of his life. Because he had never played a game through to the end, he couldn’t see past the immediate visceral emotion of each and every move. He would gloat over every successful jump and get teary every time he lost a checker. I was constantly having to coax him along by making silly mistakes that gave him a jump or by offering obvious hints about where he might best move to get closer to getting kinged. This coaxing I found to be especially hard because I wanted to try out some of my own strategies to see how they would work. I wanted to be able to win. But I also wanted to keep playing. I was enjoying thinking through things and talking with Pip over the game board, and if I always pounced on Pips mistakes he’d get so frustrated he never come back to the game again. I struggled constantly with finding the balance and often finished an evening feeling like I’d done more harm than good.
            Listening in from the kitchen while I flipped grilled cheeses in the skillet, I heard the sound of Polly celebrating as she won the first two games. She was jumping up and down happily while Pip clicked the animal tiles back into the pile. A few minutes later as I went to pull some bananas from the fruit bowl, I was surprised to hear Pip bellow like an elephant and subsequently give a gentle lion’s roar. Following another celebratory dance by Polly things seemed to get quieter and more serious. I put some corn on the stove to cook and tried to listen in to the background of their game but all I could hear was the volley of questions – “Is your hippo above your peacock?”, “No. Is your snake below your alligator?” Then while the corn was finishing up, there came this huge wail from Polly. A moment later, Pip came around the corner with tears in his eyes, saying “I just wanted to win once Daddy and now she won’t play anymore.”
He had held back for three full games, coaxing Polly along, giving her hints, watching her celebrate when she won. He had played my role and had done it well. They were having fun together, talking and playing, but there was this little bug in the back of his mind. He wanted his chance to win, too. He wanted to be able to turn it all lose and just play the game and not worry about the larger picture for a few minutes. And so he did. And he won. And now he was feeling hollow and horrible because Polly’s aura of invincibility had been shattered and she didn’t want to play anymore while all he really wanted was to go back to the genial back and forth they’d had going while she was winning. He was miserable because this is exactly what he knew would happen and yet he couldn’t quite rein himself in and let her keep winning.


            Pip and Polly haven’t played Mastermind again since that morning. I don’t know whether that’s because of how things ended that day or because they got distracted by other games (we’ve been playing a lot of Uno recently). Whichever the case, they’re both a bit older now. Polly got an exposure to handling sudden reversals of fortune which will hopefully make the next one easier to deal with. Pip began to figure out a new complication when it comes to playing games. In both cases I think they are getting another step closer to the kind of people we ultimately want them to be. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Nana Cannonball

            This past weekend Ava, Polly, Pip, and I made a surprise trip to visit my parents in order to celebrate my dad’s seventieth birthday. I’m not a big fan of surprises – they tend to require a lot of extra effort for a relatively small amount of extra return – but my mom wanted to do things this way, and she got the reaction she was hoping for. Dad was happily befuddled when he came home from playing nine holes of golf to find us all gleefully splashing around in the lake along which they live. He was even more surprised when my sister arrived a couple of hours later, having flown in from out west for the weekend.
            Between the birthday celebrations and all the time available to swim and play in water, it turned out to be a very fun weekend. Mom and Dad stayed up late on Thursday night drinking wine and hanging out with friends. Pip got to paddle all about the cove on Mom and Dad’s newly acquired paddleboard. Polly experimented with jumping from the dock and letting her head go under water. Ava and I bounced around in the middle of the water on a large purple inner tube.       
But the image I’ll remember the most from those couple of days is the Nana cannonball.
            Nana, as Pip and Polly call my mom, likes to play with the kids. She splashes in the water with them. She creates daily scavenger hunts for them that end with silly dollar-store prizes. She chases them around the yard with water squirters. She fills up water balloons for them to throw at her and each other. Part of this represents the engagement of a former kindergarten teacher with her grandchildren, but much of it is also her personality: playing with the kids allows her to be silly in a way that playing with adults never does.
            So it wasn’t that surprising on Friday afternoon when she decided to join Pip in doing a series of jumps off the dock. Now Pip had been periodically hurling himself off the dock all day, doing cannonballs, karate kicks, long jumps, spins, and several other falls that defy quick description. I’d gone with him from time to time because there’s something infinitely fun about flinging yourself out into the air and flying for a moment before crashing down in a massive splatter of water. I think Nana had been watching and wanted in on the fun, too.
            She started off with a placid hop, just kind of jumping off the edge and dropping down into the water feet first while covering her face with her hands. This prim little jump was treated as a pretty big deal by several of the neighbors and friends who were hanging out and floating around the dock at the time. It’s unusual for any of that group to jump into the water at all, much less get their hair wet. Nana made this point herself several times as she climbed back out of the water and pondered whether to do it again.
Fortunately, the exhilaration of that first leap had gotten into her, and she soon walked back around to do another jump. The second time she followed Pip and I into the water, Nana stretched herself a little and did a toothpick, hopping out and straightening her body while again covering her face then plunging sharply down through the surface with barely a splash. Pip was quite enamored with this and scurried out to try it for himself.
            Then, after doing a second toothpick, Nana announced that she was ready to go whole hog; she was going to do a cannonball. This earned a cheer from the assembled neighbors as she set herself up a couple of steps back from the edge of the dock. Then, she took two or three jogging steps forward and hopped up into the air. It was something to see, this sixty-five year old woman, wiry and tan, hair dyed a blondish brown to hide the gray, who just the night before was the gracious hostess for a party of upper middle class country clubbers, curling her legs in against her chest, pulling her arms around them, and rolling her shoulders into a ball to plunk through the surface and send big fat drops of water showering into the air. When her head popped back above the surface, a goofy smile growing on her face, she received another full round of cheers from us all.
            After the cannonball Nana turned it all loose. She did crazy spider jumps. She did long jumps. She did another cannonball. She came back the next afternoon and did some more. Pip was thrilled to see her go, and I think Nana had way more fun than even she would have imagined at the start.

When I was a teenager I had a poster hanging over my bed with the image of a mansion and a garage filled with exotic sports cars. The caption across the top read Motivation for Higher Education. It was silly and ridiculous, but it served an important function all the same. By giving me an image of who I might become, by giving me a target if you will, that poster became a touchstone for making choices about my life. It served in many ways as a measuring stick to help me decide which opportunities were worth going for and which ones to let slide on by. Over time my ideas about what’s important have changed and that poster no longer hangs on my wall. All the same, the importance of having an image to look forward to, having an image around which to crystallize a certain concept of my future self remains strong. When I saw my mom pull off that cannonball, I knew immediately that’s the kind of person I wanted to be: the kind of person who is interested in doing silly things with the kids, the kind of person who is playful without being obnoxious, the kind of person who is willing to get their hair wet because the fun of the moment is absolutely worth the clean-up later on. These were not new revelations. These were things I’ve known about myself for a very long time. But still, I hadn’t had a good image to bring them all together, to remind myself in moments of indecision who I really want to be.
Now, I do.