Finny and His Brother

We went to the park with the boys this week.  It was a new park that we had never been to before.  There were several fun things for Hal to play on but Daryl had been concerned that he might get bored.  We planned to pick up a Frisbee at Wal-Mart but they didn’t have any.  They did have these paddle sets on clearance: 1 ball and 2 paddles that had rows of suction cups on one side.  We bought two sets since there were four of us.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a little boy with fresh stitches across the bridge of his nose and a friendly, almost intrusive manner.  In fact, when I handed out a paddle to each of my boys, the little boy (who introduced himself as Finny) confidently announced that he wanted one.  His family was a short distance away under a pavilion.

I told Finny that he could play with it for a little while but when my boys’ daddy got here from the car, we’d need it back.

He asked for one of the balls.

I sighed and handed him the ball and then suggested that he and Hal play together.  I started playing catch with Daryl.  Before long, the younger boys had abandoned the paddles and were playing among the play equipment.  Daddy arrived and the three of us headed to the grass to play.  Eventually, Hal joined us.

But neither Hal nor Daddy cared much for the paddles.  They soon returned to the playground where Hal resumed his play and Daddy read a book.

Finny and his older brother (who was just a bit older than Hal, I think) found our second set of paddles and struck out to join Daryl and I.  I heard their adults tell them that the paddles weren’t theirs and they needed to put them down.  Either the boys told them they had permission or the adults decided not to fight the fight.  The paddles were not put down.

Before long, Daryl and I noticed them hovering near us.  We glanced their way.

The older boy said, “Hey!  Throw me the ball!”

Daryl calmly responded, “There’s another ball.  Where is it?”

The boy motioned behind him. “It’s over there somewhere.  We lost it.”

“Well we need to find it,” I said as I began to walk over to where they had been playing.

“Oh!  There it is!” the boy said, running over to a blue spot in the grass.

“Ok,” I said. “Why don’t you guys play with that one and we’ll play with this one.”

That worked for about a minute before they were hovering on the edge of the basketball court we had moved to.  They had again left the other ball behind.

“Where is the other ball?” I asked.

“I want to play with that ball,” the boy said.  “Here!  Throw it to me!”

Daryl was irritated.  So was I.  I glanced up at the pavilion toward the oblivious adults to whom these children belonged.  No one looked our way.  We tried to incorporate the boys but they were taking over.  They were demanding.  They were terrible at catching and throwing the balls.  They were terrible at taking turns.

I asked Daryl, who had shown no signs of wanting to stop before, if he was about ready to go to dinner.  He eagerly said yes.  I told the boys we would be leaving soon.  After a couple more frustrating minutes, I collected the paddles and balls and told Finny and his brother good-bye.

Now I know that many parents would have had no trouble telling those boys to move on or to play with the other set while letting us play with ours.  The thing is, I don’t mind sharing our toys.  And once I’ve shared the toys, I find it awkward to tell them to return them if we aren’t using them.  I try to be friendly.

But I didn’t know I was dealing with children who had no sense of boundaries, or parents who would make no more than a perfunctory attempt to enforce a reasonable set of boundaries.  I never did see any of the adults in that pavilion look our way.  If they had, they surely could have seen that my son and I were no longer having fun.  I wonder if they are the kind of people who assume everyone else finds their kids as cute as they do.  Or the kind that are so eager for their children to be entertained away from them, that they operate on the assumption that we will enforce the boundaries if we have a problem.  Either way, I wasn’t impressed.

My husband and I differ on this point.  He thinks adults should act like adults and speak up if they don’t like the interaction they are having with other people’s kids.  While I agree to a point, I strongly believe that the parents of the offending children have an obligation whenever possible to remove the requirement for the annoyed adults to speak up.  In other words, no parent should ever assume that the adults in question are comfortable being up front with their kids.  They should attempt to remove their children from the situation.  Then, the kids learn appropriate boundaries.  And, if the adults don’t have a problem, they can always speak up and say, “Oh, it’s ok.  I don’t mind – really!”  But if they do have a problem, the parents act the bad guy and the others can go on about their business.

I guess at the end of the day, though, I need to grow a spine.  I’m freakin’ forty years old.  I shouldn’t be afraid of hurting a couple of little boys’ feelings by telling them that I would like to play catch with just my son.  I obviously can’t depend on their parents to step up, so if I’ve got a problem, I need to.

A Macabre Imagination

Hal wanted to play in the backyard at his Denver grandma’s house recently.  The problem is, he’s not allowed back there without someone watching him.  I stepped up to the task and joined him outside.  I was relieved that he wanted to do something besides either play a game on his Nintendo DS or stare in awe as his brother played Minecraft.

We were soon engaged in some very… imaginative… play.

He handed me a small tree branch with many, many thin limbs and announced that it was my sword.  He pointed to the largest one (still smaller in diameter than the average pencil) and said, “If this one breaks off, you have plenty of others to use instead.”  He brushed his hand across the other “blades”.  I swished it back and forth, which he appreciated.  I declared it a tickle sword and tickled his belly with it.  He shrieked and ran away.

He soon approached me with his laser death ray.  As he pointed it at me, I desperately swished my tickle sword in the air between us.  He declared me dead.  I objected, saying that my tickle sword had disrupted the air between us and his death ray had not made it to me.  He grudgingly admitted that I was indeed not dead.

We then went through several rounds of “Pretend that…”  That’s the game where only one person (the youngest) is permitted to use his or her imagination.  He’s the stage director, the script writer, the producer, and the main actor.  He helpfully supplies my lines each step of the way: “Pretend that you didn’t see me and you heard a sound.  And then say ‘Oh, no!  What is that sound?!'”

My husband joined us at some point.  He and I sat on the porch swing while Hal ran around and acted out his imagination.  At one point, he told us to close our eyes and pretend that he had been “over here sleeping” and we had failed to notice that he had sneaked out.  When Daddy didn’t close his eyes, Hal amended the instructions to just pretend we hadn’t seen him.  He then acted out a fantastical and dangerous scenario with dragons and then pretended to wake up and tell us that he had had this terrible dream!

To his delight, I hammed it up and joined in enthusiastically.  My husband glanced at me periodically with raised eyebrows.  I laughed even harder.

Eventually, Hal tired of being the sleeping boy and decided he was a “Zombie Pigman”.  He walked around the deck with outstretched arms and stiff legs, snorting loudly through his nose.  He approached me and attacked before I could fully raise my tickle sword in defense.  I tried in vain to fend him off but in the end, lost first my sword and then the battle.  The Zombie Pigman strutted triumphantly away.

He headed to the sleeping area of the little boy next.  “Aha!” he announced. “I am going to steal this little boy while he sleeps!”

I leaped from the swing.  “Oh no you don’t!” I announced. “You leave my little boy alone!”

I rushed toward him and he snatched the imaginary boy and took off.  I grabbed at him and he quickly pantomimed eating his victim.  I pulled away and declared triumph, cradling my precious cargo to my chest as I returned to the swing.  He claimed it was too late, he had already eaten my son.  I pretended to rock my child and explained that he had managed to eat only the right pinky finger before I had pulled him to safety.

The Zombie Pigman lunged toward the swing and reached for the child.  I pulled back.  He claimed he got it.  I disagreed.  “But I’m stronger than you!” he explained.

I laughed.  “Stronger than a fierce momma protecting her dear baby?!  I don’t think so!”

“Fine.” he said, walking away.  “I’ll just go find a baby that no one cares about.”

Imperfect Humans

Several weeks ago, Jane flooded the laundry room while doing a load of laundry. How did she manage that, you ask? Well, a few months before that, we discovered problems with our septic tanks.

Just as my husband left on a trip this past Spring, it rained, the tanks filled, and we lost all ability to use the facilities, shower, or wash clothes (the washing machine inexplicably drains to a tank). I very competently (if I do say so myself) dealt with the crisis, but we were not left fully operational.

Most noticeably, our washing machine would not reliably drain without backing up. So… well… we started snaking the drain for the washing machine out the window and attaching the end to a garden hose to drain.

This was not to be a long term solution.  But we were busy and it became normal.

Only Jane failed to put the hose out one day.

Her daddy came around the corner of the house to see water pouring out the seams of the window. He got pretty upset at her. We both thought it was a strongly incompetent act on her part. How could she forget? I thought for sure that after that, none of us would ever forget the hose again.

And then… I asked my husband to wash a load of laundry while I was at work last week. He did. And walked up to the front door later to see water pouring out from under it. This time, the water ran the full length of the laundry room, into our entry way, and out the door.

I thought about this for a little while and it reminded me (on a much different scale, of course) of a time period over a decade ago when there appeared to be a rash of parents leaving their infants in the car when they went into work and the babies died.

People I talked to were all horrified at the incompetence of those parents. “How could anyone possibly forget they had their child with them?!”

How, indeed. I knew the answer. They were distracted. They were probably out of their routine. The baby was asleep. I once drove to work with infant Jane in the car because the route to the babysitter’s house was the same as my route to work and my husband usually took her. I headed down the familiar road and went on autopilot. I remembered her as I parked my car, but a few more thoughts about work, and I might not have.

Empathy. Being able to see yourself in another person’s shoes. To recognize yourself in another person’s humanity rather than seeing them as an incomprehensible, inhuman anomaly. I suppose sometimes it can’t be done… but I suspect it can be done much more than we realize.

Jane exercised some questionable judgment at summer camp this year. Some of her friends misinterpreted it and one of them is still mad at her. He’s not completely without merit but he is certainly showing a lack of empathy. While watching the slide show, I saw pictures of each child holding the bowl they had decorated for a mission project. Kids from the previous week had constructed the bowls. Jane’s had a defect so she wrote “Imperfect Human” on it. A reference to the bowl. And its maker. And herself. And the boy mad at her. And her dad. And you. And me.

All of us are imperfect. Sometimes that has little consequences… like flooding the laundry room. Sometimes big… like losing your child. We can’t simply say we would never do it just because we never have. Or because we don’t want to admit that we could.

Editor’s note: Jane read this and told me that her bowl actually had a dot between “Imperfect” and “Human,” meaning she considered the words to be synonyms.  I don’t think that alters the meaning or significance of anything I wrote here but it is, in my opinion, an even deeper observation on her part.