The Banana Game

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“Rainbow Monkey and Good Old Gorilla don’t know anything. And Owl knows everything. And I’m Rainbow Monkey and You’re Owl and Good Old Gorilla”

These are the instructions I’m given. We did just play this game 15 minutes ago, but it’s important that continuity is maintained.

It’s always interesting to dig into the Little Man’s games. There was one routine we had called “The Unkind Game” where one of his toy cars (often the white van. That damn white van) would refuse to be safe around the toy railroad tracks, and would consequently get bonked by the train.

It goes without saying that he played the train, and I, the truculent hot wheels.

There were a few variations on this game – one toy was behaving badly, and others would be frustrated and have to try to get the offender to shape up.

These games can, in theory, be little developmental diagnostics. Play is so integral to learning and growth – even tag, maybe the simplest of all games helps coordination and body-kinesthetic intelligence. Not to mention burning off the endless fountain of energy possessed by the little bastards. And even beyond development, play can be a method for processing new emotions or information. A five-year-old likely won’t sit down to talk through some unresolved conflict in their day, but they may act it out with stuffed monkeys.

And there have been other imaginative play games I’ve done with the little man that ended up with just him holding forth on some of his favorite topics – insects, spiders, trains, what have you. Some “Little-Mansplaining,” if you will. Obnoxious in an adult, but in a little guy who spends his days being corrected and directed and under the control of people bigger than him, it can be a way to get a little agency, build a little self-confidence.

So I was curious to see what the Banana Game (as it has since been monikered) would play out to be.

Then he started flinging his monkey around shouting “BANANAS! BANANAS! BANANAS!”

That was the game. The entire game.

I’m not exaggerating.

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For The Win

A friend told me a story once of an incident when he was in high school. He was sitting at his desk, sketching something, when the boy in front of him turned around to see what he was doing.

The boy in front of him, it should be said, was a football player.

My friend, it should be said, was (and continues to be) a nerd.

“What are you doing?” asked the boy.

“Drawing.” responded my friend.

“Why?” asked the boy, incredulous, “you can’t win at drawing!”

first-place

All the things you forget as an adult, or at least stop thinking about: how to poop while walking, how to slip effortlessly back into playing after you were weeping and wailing over whatever injustice befell you a minute ago, or why did I come into this room in the first place? It had something to do with cowboys.

It wasn’t until my little dude started running on his own, and thus wanted to race me constantly that I was reminded in no uncertain terms how vital was the toddler’s need to win.

Toddlers and wookies, everything goes smoother when they don’t lose.

I get the drive to win – I grew up in the U.S.A, I played Mariokart. I understand the idea of wanting to be, if not the best, then better than the other schmucks on Luigi’s Raceway.

But with little kids it’s almost pathological – they don’t want to win, they need to win. It doesn’t matter if he’s running against Usain Bolt, or swimming against the Sharktopus, if a 4 year old loses a race the best you can hope for is pouting. The Little Man has never in his life played a game of checkers. We break it out, I show him how to set it up, explain the rules to him, and despite the fact that he didn’t have the first idea how to play it not 2 minutes ago, if he doesn’t win the first three matches he may never play the damn game again.

It even goes as far as jokes. Little kids will try to win jokes. I had one boy lay out his strategy for beating the “interrupting cow/starfish/howler monkey” series of knock-knock jokes.

I think this is natural and harmless as far as things go. Though there is the school of thought that you shouldn’t let a child win. That you need to challenge them, instill a work ethic and a drive, make them earn their achievements.

There is such a school of thought, but this school of thought can suck it.

The world will beat my kid up. The world will challenge him and frustrate him and it will, I’m sure, do a more thorough job than I ever could. No. I’m just fine with losing. I’ve had plenty of practice and if I do say so myself, am quite accomplished at it. Reference the “nerd” in the title of this blog.

No, with Papa, it’s just gonna be fun. Races, wrestling matches, hide and seek – I’m perfectly content to find new and interesting ways to lose for a few more years. At least until we start playing Mariokart, then shit’s gonna get real.

 

 

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The Narwhal

It’s a strange cross section of humanity, is the Kindergarten class.

You see these humans, mostly without the scars and fears, without the protective armor that life sets on you. They haven’t made many big choices yet, haven’t failed (or succeeded) at the tests that give our lives their courses. Mostly. Some have faced tests at 6 that I haven’t yet at 40.

But in some ways they’re fully formed as well. There’s no mistaking the people they are and will become if you watch them. At their core they are fully realized members of the species who just need a little more practice.

And you also get to see them at both their best and worst. Sometimes in the same 60 seconds. If the school is good and the teacher knows her stuff, the kids will mostly try to follow the rules. They’ll want to. But they’re six years old – impulse control isn’t a major strength for a kindergartner.

If you ever question how genetically similar we are to a chimpanzee, come to kindergarten lunch on pancake day. All you need is the last five minutes – it’s like Lord of the Flies with Yogurt tubes.

But so I’ve gotten to spend some time with Little Man’s class. Lunch, field trips, any chance I get to volunteer I usually do. And now, by June, I have a read on all of them. Not only do I know all their names, not only do they all know me, but I know the smart ones , the dumb ones, I know the ones who don’t get enough attention at home but are basically good kids, and the ones who get too much attention at home and are nothing special, really. I know the kids who are rowdy because they’re bored, rowdy because they’re rowdy, and rowdy because they’re just little shits. I know the ones to watch, and I know the ones I could give a thousand dollars, a chainsaw, and a tank of propane and tell them to meet me in Chicago and they’d show up.

And there’s one guy I know who both fascinates and terrifies me. I’ll call him The Narwhal, for reasons obvious only to me.

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I sometimes wonder if I’m on the Autism spectrum. I’m a big one, historically, for “supposed to.” Rules have always been very concrete for me.  It’s been the work of my 20’s and 30’s to really comprehend in a visceral practical way just how arbitrary this whole thing is. Just how few consequences there actually are and how we mostly impose these on ourselves. It’s been kind of the “Enlightenment for Dummies” version of what happens to the character in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

Which is why I worry about someone who’s figured this out before he hits first grade.

The Narwhal.

He’s not a bad guy. He’s not on the shortlist of kids you keep in sight on the field trip. He’s very likely never been to the principal’s office, or had a major (for Kindergarten) disciplining. Which, in a way, makes it more frightening.

And I don’t want to make him out as a complete sociopath. Yet. He’s got plenty of time to grow into it.

But he’s not a little Hannibal Lector, wondering how you’d taste on animal crackers. It’s just that as an authority figure with no real authority, he sees right through me in a way other kids don’t. He follows the rules not because he wants to, or has to, but because it’s the most convenient path at this point. He’s already at school, got pants on and everything, he might as well throw his milk carton away, I guess. Any time I try to call him on something I get the sense that if this ever really starts to chafe, he’s just going to walk out the front door and hitch hike to Disney world. It’s like riding a horse with reins made of paper.

Or I could be projecting. This also happens.

Either way, if anything happens, I promise to let you know.

 

 

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Flippin Sweet

I can’t do a backflip into a pool, but I know someone who can.

Well, I may be able to backflip into a pool, I haven’t yet found myself faced with such circumstances as would require this of me.

And I suppose I don’t technically know this guy who definitely can backflip into a pool. I didn’t get his name, you see. In fact, I couldn’t tell you much about him beyond that he could do a backflip into a pool. This is due to the fact that the declaration of his aptitude for such a feat constituted our entire conversation.

I marvel at this.

Little Man & myself were at the pool the other day. And there were these three boys jumping and splashing around. Little Man inserted himself seamlessly into the antics of the moment, so I took the opportunity to sit there not doing anything. As is the father’s wont.

And before long, the vicissitudes of water tag brought one of the boys into my general vicinity, and he paused for a moment to inform me that he could do a backflip into the pool. I expressed what I felt was appropriate awe at such a capability, and on we went with our separate lives.

There are times in my life that I was too self conscious to tell someone I knew that I didn’t want them to borrow my bike. And if you’d asked me even now to list some good qualities I possess I’d have to hem and haw and prevaricate before I mumbled about my good dental history.

And yet this boy saw a total stranger with a terrible tan and was impelled to make sure that if I died that day, I would ascend to the firmament secure in the knowledge that he could, if he so chose, do a backflip into the pool.

It boggles the mind, the qualities we value in ourselves. The beliefs, skill sets, geographic proximities we use to carve out the virtuous “us” from that dastardly “them.” Social media non-withstanding, even.

This boy in the pool makes me think of a guy we’ll call Fitz. Because that’s his name, kinda.

But so I met Fitz in person. We had a friend in common, we were in town for the same wedding, we were both martial arts nerds and we both tended Irish in heritage and liquor choice. And we clicked. We parted friends if not good friends if not brothers-in-arms, after the 30 or so hours we spent together.

And then we became facebook friends and I realized that we weren’t supposed to get along. He’s a republican, I’m a pinko liberal bleeding heart. We don’t pray the same way – well, more accurately, he prays, I don’t. If it was up to the algorithms of likes and favorites and targeted advertising, we’d be holding signs yelling at each other, given that we’d even met at all. Which is unlikely.

And yet, I have met him. I’ve drunk with him. I’ve experienced the warm kind, person of integrity that he is first hand. And if he hasn’t seen something similar in me then he’s a better actor than most professionals.

I don’t watch TV. I barely listen to NPR any more – ever since the Orlando shooting I’ve been avoiding the news in general. But even without all that I still feel like there are a thousand voices telling me how right I am and how wrong and stupid and brainwashed “they” are. Whoever “they” may be.

I really don’t want to be preachy. Calls there are aplenty to arms and action, and I won’t shout to be heard in that racket. But these are divisive days, and memes are to respectful dialogue what Jerry Springer was to family counseling. For myself, I’m trying to start where we all are, with our shared qualities (such as an ability to backflip into a pool, and the admiration of such prowess), and go from there.

guy-doing-a-backflip

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How To Win Friends And Influence People

There are 4 ways, it seems to me, to reliably acquire influence.

First – and most obviously, money. If you’ve got a Drumpfworth of bling then everybody will laugh at your jokes.

Second is celebrity – even if you don’t have enough cash in your wallet for the fancy bacon at the co-op, if the groupie behind the deli counter remembers your guest spot on Columbo, you might just get it for free.

The third is power, which could almost be considered “Money: Subheading- Power.” Except the garbage man doesn’t have any money, but an angry garbage man can make your driveway just as messy as a happy garbage man can keep it tidy. Thus, power.

The fourth is the most elusive, yet the most democratic of all: charm. If you don’t believe me, talk to the Shamwow Guy.

shamwow guy

Now, it’s obvious to anyone who looks at my page visits that I am not possessed of celebrity. And it is likewise obvious to anyone who looks at my pants that I am not possessed of money.

Power I may possess in certain spheres (if you want your tray of fake pies to be ready for your entrance in Act 2, then hail to the king, baby)

But I have asked strangers for money. If you’ve ever tried to produce theater, you either develop the ability to talk people into things or you get threats of legal action from US Bank.

Or both, in my case.

It’s a skill, is what I’m saying, Charm. Any schmuck who cares to can learn to be charming. And I am indeed a schmuck of passing adequacy. In theater lobbies, at opening and closing night parties, at small-time schmoozefests of all shapes and sizes I learned to quip, to listen actively, to empathize, commiserate, reference Kardashians when appropriate, and generally give the impression that I am interesting.

And so, with this particular skill in my social toolbox did I wake up one day last year in the looming shadow of Public Education. My son was going into public school, my precious, sweet, kind, little weirdo was fated to enter the conformity factory that gave us “The Wall” and “The Basketball Diaries” and the endless angst buffet that made The Cure all their money.

And I know that letting the world beat him up is part of this whole “parenting” thing I’m supposed to be doing. But dear reader, homie don’t play.

So absent money, power, or celebrity, the only way open for my handsome self to try to take a few slings and arrows for the Little Man was to charm these Nurse Ratchit bastards. And so when the (digital) call went out for volunteers I signed up for a shift. Hell, I signed up for 2. Can I do more than two? How many you guys need?

I was going inside. I was going deep cover. By month two I was determined to have the inside scoop on this place. I was going to know them, and they were going to know me. But not only that, those bastards were going to love me. If there was something going on with the Little Dude, I was going to know about it before the teacher did.

Parenthood teaches you that it’s a rare thing for a plan to proceed as you envisioned it. Hell, life teaches you that. Try to make a killer marinara sauce and you’re bound to find yourself schooled. But me? I did it. I found that unicorn, folks, and I rode it to the burrito store. I am a fixture at our district elementary school. The principal is always happy to see me, the front office secretary is always happy to see me, the floating educational aides and I have inside jokes. Boom. Call me Donnie Brasco.

There were two things that didn’t go as planned, though. The first was the school itself. I was going in thinking something along the lines of “Lean On Me” set in Soviet Russia (okay, not really, but kinda really – I’ve been out of school for a long time), but the school is amazing. It totally blew us away – it’s open and creative and supportive and everything you want a school to be. It’s like if Mr. Rogers and Elrond got together and started a school, this would be it.

And I’ll share a trick about the skill of charming – it doesn’t work if you don’t mean it. I’ve had to focus my psychic schmooze-beams at people who gave me nothing back, and let me tell you, that can’t be kept up for long. What I found with the folks at school was that I genuinely connected with a lot of them. Not only are they educated, kind and interesting people, but they also totally get my Little Man.

My little guy’s weird and unique and they get him. His teacher appreciates him like we do, with all his mannerisms and eccentricities and he has thrived. And nothing will endear you to me faster, dear reader, than if you’re on my dude’s frequency.

The other surprise – I’m totally hooked on this volunteer thing. I lurv it. One of my roles is to help out at Kindergarten lunch, and I come with a level of schtick only a theater professional can provide. I talk into bananas like they’re phones, I try to open fruit cups with karate chops, spoons are forks, forks are napkins, I tell ya. All the Dad Jokes get turned up to 11 when I’m on duty. And it is the highlight of my week.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pretend this yogurt tube is a trombone.

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I Will Play For You The Song Of My People

It’s a big world out there. Especially when you’re 3-foot-nothing and 40 lbs. The living room alone, which can seem airless and coffin-like to me in the depths of a polar vortex, must seem an endless savannah of ikea rugs and outsider chic to persons of the toddler variety.

And that’s just speaking geographically. To say nothing at all of the landscape of the mind. The verdant, chimeric plains of adjectives, the deep fertile valleys of irony. It’s enough to make a rapidly-growing head spin.

I’d hope that the parental filter keeps it all somewhat manageable, though. No parent, of course, can have total control over what a little Man is exposed to -no parent who rides the 21 bus, at least. But generally when some new phrase interest or dance maneuver enters the scene we can source it with reasonable accuracy.

Or at least, we once could.

The other day, as I was about to leave for work I asked Little Man if he would, as is our usual routine, give me a goodbye tickle.

Not interested.

How bout a hug and a kiss? A papa can hope, after all.

Nope.

I should have expected the brush off anyway, as The Dude was into a project at the time. He had his triangle out of the musical instrument basket and was clanging away with the science and art only tiny hands can manage.

What I couldn’t have expected, however, was when he told me that he was, in fact, playing a goodbye rhythm for me.

His words. Goodbye rhythm.

I have no freaking idea where that came from.

I’ll take it though.

midget-triangle

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Don’t Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Just Go Go.

EvilAlarmclock

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said that man is an animal that can become accustomed to anything.

But who listens to that guy? His books don’t even have any dragons in them. Anything adapted into an HBO series there, Fido? Didn’t think so.

Take me, for example. Most of my life I’ve been a man for whom mornings were a concept. Much like the gut bacteria breaking down food in my intestine – certainly necessary for the day to day, but a process of which I needed no direct knowledge.

I chose my major in college in no small part because there were no classes before 10am. I certainly didn’t pursue a career in theater thinking I’d have to be anywhere before noon. And it worked out great for me. Those were, as they say, the salad days.

Maybe there’s a toddler out there who could get behind that kind of schedule, but he don’t live in my house.

Once naps ended and sleep settled into a pretty regular rhythm, little man was out for the count around 8pm (give or take) and rocking and rolling come 6 in the morning. And whether it’s a body slam, belly slap or tiny knees in my back, papa is roused at the same time as everybody else.

Now, in fairness, I usually can grab a quick nap after mama and little man get set up with videos and/or breakfast and get a second wake up maneuver around 8ish. But this is not the point.

The point is that I love my lady, and I love my son, and I treasure the time I get with them as he grows so quickly and childhood will end long before I’m ready.

However.

I’ve been waking up at 6am for over 4 years now. And in that time I’ve grown accustomed to all sorts of unpleasant things: regularly handling another person’s urine and feces, perpetual joint pain, listening to wheels on the bus for hours at a time. I’m cool with all of this.

But I’ve been waking up at 6am. Almost every day. And I f#!*ing hate it.

But it’s just the waking up, is the thing. I’ve even grown to like mornings. But the transition, the throwing off the blankets and accepting that this is reality, not that place where I’m half-Japanese, half-Klingon. Doesn’t matter how many times I do it, I just can’t get used to it.

I have not grown accustomed to this, Mr. Dostoyevsky.

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