Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Naked Boy And The Mountain That Isn't. (Life With Unicorns)

Mr F has started taking of his pants in public and people have noticed.

Not ALL THE TIME.  He doesn't just stand in line at McDonald's, or at the jeans department of JCPenney, and whip his pants off for the world to see.  Only when he's swimming, but, still, it's a concern anytime your kid takes off his pants, and more of a concern when you don't know why.

When we were on vacation recently, as we were driving for the umpteenth consecutive hour past the umpteenth consecutive billboard advertising special rates for truckers at Oriental Massage houses in Georgia -- Bible Belt, indeed!-- we played a game, deciding which three secret powers we'd have.

Sweetie went first and the first power she said was "I'd want the ability to read minds."  When I asked her why, I assumed she'd say something about being able to stop the killers before they pulled the trigger, but what she said was:

"So I could know what the boys are thinking."

To an extent, you never know what someone is thinking.  If Sweetie and I are driving along some night, taking a ride to relax, as we like to do, and we are quiet for a moment, she might well say "What are you thinking about?" and I say "Nothing," because "Nothing" sounds a lot better than "I was trying to remember what the secret identity for Red Tornado was; I thought he might have been a stuntman but I think that's Blue Devil." 

Although really, Sweetie probably guessed that.

But it's harder than usual, I think, to guess what the boys are thinking, which is a critical part of guessing what they are going to do next or helping them not do something, or to do something.

I think I underestimated how neat it is to be able to predict what people are going to do, something we can almost perfectly do with regular ol' people in almost any situation.  For example, it would be very unusual for you to be speaking to someone, and turn away for a second, and have that person disappear when you have turned back, unless you usually speak to Batman.

But with the boys, that happens all the time, and it happened yesterday, when I took them to Little Park On The Mountain.

Little Park On The Mountain is neither little, nor really on a mountain.  But it is called that because we try to have names for everything the boys do and every place they go, and the names all have to be different.

That doesn't sound so hard, does it, until you consider that not everything has a different name in your life.  Things like school, for example, have just the one name.

If you have kids, you probably say to them "School will be starting soon" or something similar because parents can't stand it that kids live in a world where nothing really matters and they get three months off in the summer, so we have to wreck it.  And you do that because school is school is school but for Mr F and Mr Bunches, school isn't (yet) "that thing I do for a couple hours a day 9 months a year."  Instead, for them, school is a very particularly specific place.

Mr Bunches, this past year, went to "school" at "The Little Red Playhouse," which was where his preschool was.  Mr F went to "school" at the Middleton West School.

Next year, in a month, they will begin kindergarten, at a new location, near our house.  That, to us, is school: they're going to school there.  So we took them to see their school one day and said "That's school."

"No," said Mr Bunches.  "I think that's not school. No way."

And to him, it wasn't.

So we had to start calling school by more specific names, because we'd foolishly used the word "school" to mean "that building where you went to preschool," and so far, we only get to use each word once; words can't have two meanings with the boys, and often they can't have a larger meaning.

Another example:  office.

Every Sunday, mostly, I go into work for a couple of hours to organize files, review emails, and I almost always take one or both boys with me.  "Let's go to the office!" I would say, and they'd bring some toys down and we'd do some work and then go do something fun.

We recently moved our firm to a new location, and I took the boys to see it before our usual Sunday trip, showing it to Sweetie and them at the same time.  "This is the new office," I told them, and they were very excited.

That Sunday, we got in the car and I started it up.  "Let's go to the office!" I said, and Mr Bunches started crying and Mr F got upset.

Because they wanted to go to the new office, which is now what my office is and possibly always will be.

We've figured out that much: we've been able to look into their minds, a little, and realize that things are always one thing and never both.  That's not so unusual for most kids; I can remember talking with our niece about how Grandpa was also her mom's dad, which she found ridiculous. 

She was three.

The boys are nearly six, and still working on that kind of concrete thinking.  Everything that goes on their legs are pants, so I confuse them when I say "go get some shorts," and a McDonald's cheeseburger is a  Krabby Patty because they learned about fast food restaurants from SpongeBob and I fully realize that I hit the double-whammy of bad parenting there, letting my kids not only watch TV but watch TV about fast food, but I don't give into parental terrorism.  I like both TV and fast food and I'll happily let the boys enjoy both which is a good stance to take because it means I get to go on enjoying both, too, and I can do things like take Mr F and Mr Bunches to "Pizza restaurant" (Little Caesar's) in hopes that they will like it and repeatedly ask to go there and we can up the pizza quotient in our house.

So far, it hasn't worked.

(To determine your own house's pizza quotient, count the number of times you eat pizza in a week.  Then add more pizza, because it's delicious.)

So a good deal of our time now is spent devising names for things so we always know what's what and can communicate with the boys and learn about them and work with them to help  us work with them. This system is especially important when you learn that once I had Mr Bunches take me and Mr F on what amounted to a four-year-old-guided scavenger hunt.

That was the summer that he would say a word, and we couldn't figure out what the word was, or what it meant, but he always said it when we got into the car and he would get more and more upset each time we didn't pay attention to the word, and one day we got a breakthrough when he said "Go to {word}" as I was getting in the car to take them to a park.

So I tried an experiment:  I had him point where we should go.  At the top of our hill, I pointed right, and said "This way?" and then left, and said "Or this way?"

"Or this way," he said, firmly, and so I went left, and only a moment later realized my mistake when he said "or this way" and pointed left again.  Instead of teaching him left and right, I'd taught him thisway and orthisway.

But it worked and using those directions, he guided me through a drive all the way to... Shopko, where I realized the word he was saying (I don't remember it now) was the part of the name of a Thomas The Tank Engine Toy we'd bought for him -- at Shopko!-- a month earlier.  He'd started calling Shopko the part of the toy name.

We got that sorted out, the way we sorted out that milk is not more and the way we decided that one brand of snack Mr F likes would be "Puffs" and the other would be "cheesy puffs" and the way we came up with a name for blanket swing, swinging Mr F in a blanket, which cannot also be called swing because we have a swing, and then one day I was going to take Mr Bunches and Mr F on a nature walk to "the mountain," which is a large hill in the nature reserve near us.  I called it "the mountain" because that's what Mr Bunches had called it one day when we were playing in the park and he'd noticed it.

"Go to the mountain?" he'd said, pointing, and I wanted to but it was 7:45 already and we had to get home.

A couple weeks later, I said we'd go to the mountain, after we took a little drive because Mr F wanted to go for a ride (he likes rides), and so we got Mr Bunches and Sweetie and Mr F in the car and we went for a drive through the rich-er subdivision near us where they have really nice houses, and as we drove through that subdivision Mr Bunches saw one of the two parks he liked.

"Go to the park?" he said.

"You want to go to the park?" I asked him.  "Not the Mountain?"

"Park," he said, firmly.

There are two parks in that subdivision, and we were driving by the one I knew he liked a lot because it's got tons of playgroundy stuff and a pond nearby, and so I said "Which park, the little park?" and pointed at the park we were passing and he said "Yeah.  Little park."

So we dropped Sweetie off to get some alone time and I took them back to the Little Park, which would have been aptly named because all it's cool stuff is crammed into a small area, but when we stopped, Mr Bunches said:

"No, no way." 

And he wouldn't get out, and started saying "Little Park," which I kept pointing out was the park we were at (that's not it's name, and I don't know what the real name is.)  He kept insisting it was not and he finally said "Little Park On The Mountain," which confused me because, as I said:

"There's no playground on the Mountain" (there isn't), "But do you want to go to the Mountain?"

"Uh huh," he said.

So we got back into the car and I was going to drive us to the reserve where we would hike to the mountain but when I started to turn the car around he got upset and said "No! Orthisway!" and pointed left, and so I went where he was pointing and he guided me to the other park in that subdivision, which is in fact a big park with a baseball field and everything, but it's on top of a hill, which is kind of a mountain I suppose, and so now that is Little Park On the Mountain, where we had a wonderful time.

It was at Little Park On The Mountain where Mr F showed me that he doesn't think like ordinary people, not at all -- as if I didn't know that already.

We were there, yesterday, in fact, and I was watching Mr F.  I was watching him because Mr F likes to run off and if you give him a chance, he'll take off running.

So I was watching him, closely, because he was in a silly mood -- the kind of mood where he'll just stare off into space, laughing, sometimes, or will make you pick him up and then he'll close your eyes and grab your ears and make you nod your head yes -- and for the 45 minutes we'd been there, he'd contented himself with playing on the swing and then the sand, using the shovel toys to lift up and dump sand.

Mr Bunches wanted to try the Monkey Bars, and so I walked over to help him.  We have to hold Mr Bunches up and support 99.9% of his weight while he swings across the bars, so he's not Gold Medal standard yet but soon,  I figure,  and I walked, keeping an eye on Mr F the entire time.  He sat quietly, his back to me, playing in the sand.

I lifted up Mr Bunches and kept my eyes on Mr F, who wasn't even looking at us.  Mr Bunches slipped a little and for the first time I looked at him and took my eyes off of Mr F for one second and when I looked back, Mr F was 50 yards away, sprinting at full speed towards the edge of the park.

Luckily, he was heading away from the road.  Unluckily, I had to let Mr Bunches finish the Monkey Bars before giving chase, but it didn't matter because Mr F pulled up at the edge of the weeds and when I got over to him, he was standing and feeling a tall blade of grass with his palm.

It's hard to tell what he was thinking.  Was he just waiting for me to turn my back, the entire time, for forty-five minutes so he could make a break for it?  Why does he want to make a break for it, anyway?  Where does he want to go, that's more interesting than here?   

And it's always at top speed.  Mr F does not dilly, nor does he dally.  When he decides he wants to be there,  he doesn't get up and amble over.  He sprints off like he's The Flash, arms flailing, legs running in that weird, little kid way their legs go that make it seem they're bending the wrong direction, hips not in synch with the ankles, the whole effect being like his body exploded and it trying to pull itself back together while he's tumbling down a waterslide.

But he's fast, for all that, and he can get 50 yards away while you scratch sand out of your eye. 

I don't know if he noticed I'd looked away and made a break for it, or if that was just the moment he decided to run and it was coincidence, and it matters  a lot because if you don't know why something's happening it's not clear how you stop it.

Like stripping in a swimming pool, for example -- something Mr F only does around me.

Here's exactly how I learned Mr F was taking his swim trunks off in the pool, and it's not as bad as you think.

We were at the Small Pool -- that's the outdoor pool at the health club we belong to, and it's aptly named -- and the pool occupants were me and the boys,  and two people who were just sitting in chairs and sunning.  Mr Bunches wanted to go to the deep end and jump, and I have to go with him to do that because his ability to swim is more aspirational right now than functional, and while he thinks he's swimming mostly he's not moving in the water at all despite all the motion, so I help him out and give him a shove towards the ladder and pull him up when his face has been in the water too long.

I was down there doing that and keeping an eye on Mr F, who was just playing in the shallower end, going underwater, splashing, laughing, that kind of thing.

At one point, Mr Bunches wanted me to jump, too, so I got out of the pool and squinted down at Mr F, and here's exactly what I thought, in order:

1.  He sure is happy.
2.  Boy, in the water the way it refracts light it's almost like he's not wearing swimming trunks.
3. Oh, man.

So I left Mr Bunches standing there with strict orders to not jump into the water, orders he disobeyed almost immediately, and so I had to go back and grab him out of the water, which I did, and held his hand as we ran down to where Mr F,  aware that he'd attracted attention, maybe, was climbing out of the pool.

"Come here!" I said loudly before realizing that I perhaps was better off not drawing attention to the naked boy who'd just climbed out of the pool, and I got to him and grabbed his hand and then reached point four in my thought process, which was

4.  Whatintheheckwhere are his pants?

His swim trunks were missing, and I was standing there with two little boys on either side of me, one of them butt naked in public.

I did what you'd expect: I grabbed my Buffalo Bills' t-shirt and made a toga out of it for Mr F, a skill I hadn't even known I'd had until that moment, but parenting brings out the best in all of us, and then, with an upset little boy on one side (because he couldn't jump in the pool) and another one on the other side (because he was wearing an upside-down t-shirt toga) we began to walk around the pool looking for the green swim trunks Mr F had lost.

I found them, in the deeper side of the pool, five feet underwater, and Mr F will not go in the deep end, so I had to have Mr Bunches sit on a chair

-- SIT RIGHT THERE! I told him, and he did, for three seconds--

while I got Mr F, shirt-toga and all, to sit on the side of the pool where I could hold him by the toes while I got lower and lower in the water until I was able to let go, dive down, get the trunks, and surface, to find that Mr F had already run off and was sprinting away, toga flapping in the wind.

I got him and we got his trunks on and nobody was any the wiser except those two people who were there and no doubt all the health club employees who have watched that security video a billion times since then.

In the month or so since that happened, Mr F will occasionally take his swim trunks off again, never (she claims) when Sweetie is with him.  Her theory is that I get too far away from Mr F, whereas she sticks closer to him.  That's one way to look at it, but it doesn't explain why it happened.  I thought for a while it might be the trunks were too loose -- they didn't tie very tightly, so we bought a new pair that does -- and I thought it might be that they were chafing, and I thought it might be because he got upset that Mr Bunches and I were in the deep end, which he doesn't like, and I thought it might be that someone had upset him, or that it was too hot or too cold or too wet or something, but in the end, I don't have answers.

He's pulled his trunks off when it's crowded, when the pool is empty, when I'm right by him, and when I'm not.  At least one family has noticed, a woman saying to another woman "Sometimes that little boy pulls his trunks off" within earshot of Sweetie, but nobody has yet freaked out or anything.

That's one of our worries, that he'll pull his pants off and someone will have a conniption about how they don't come to the pool expecting that their little kids will see other little kids exposing themselves, because we don't want to upset people and don't want to get kicked out of pools and have the boys not be able to enjoy them.

But that's not the biggest worry; the biggest worry is that we'll never know why he does it, and so we won't be able to help him.

We can't ask him.  He still doesn't talk much and we can't say "What's wrong with the swim trunks? Why do you pull them off? Why do you do it only sometimes?"  Questions like that get met with a giggle or a faraway stare or both.  So we can't figure out what to do to stop him from doing that, and that sucks.

It sucks for us, because we have to stay right next to him at the pool, which means we can't relax or play with Mr Bunches.  It sucks for Mr Bunches, who gets shortchanged if only one parent takes him to the pool (although don't worry about him. Mr Bunches is an attention-black-hole: he sucks it all in and keeps it).  It sucks for Mr F, who probably doesn't want an adult constantly hovering over him.

And it sucks because we have to do these half-measures.  We don't know why he runs away, so we have to keep all our windows and doors locked at all times, and sealed shut -- literally,  with duct tape and hooks and latches, we are locked in like a maximum security prison and if we open a window one of us sits in front of it the entire time it's open.  We make sure there is an adult on the same level of our house as Mr F, at all times.  We hold his hand in public all the time.  We have a GPS monitoring bracelet on him and pay a company to track him.

All of that works; it keeps him from running away, from taking off his swim trunks, from doing things we don't want him to do, but it only works until it doesn't, until you turn your back on him for a second and he's off, or his trunks are.

But it's the equivalent of Yossarian treating the wrong wound on Snowden, maybe: we aren't fixing the problem, we're only corraling it.  And so a lot of times, when I get quiet while we're driving, I'm not just remembering that it was John Smith who became the Red Tornado, but I'm wondering what it is about swim trunks that makes Mr F want them off, what it is about the edge of the park that he can't resist, what it was that made him go running off in the mall, why he just started crying for no reason yesterday or what made him wake up and start laughing at 3 a.m. in the middle of the night this Tuesday.

I can't ask him what it was, but it's my job as his dad to figure it out anyway.  It's my job to figure out what he wants, and doesn't want, to name things and identify them and help him, and while I can come up with a different word for every kind of cheese puff human society might create, I can't figure out why his pants keep coming off, and that eats me up inside.

I'll stand by him for my entire life, if I have to, but I'd like even better if instead of standing guard, I could just fix it.


Rusty Webb said...

Well, my kid used to make up names for stuff too, and since verbal skills is something he excels at, he could spend most of an afternoon explaining why he thinks we all a should start referring to Taco Bell as Taco Smell... it's the farting it causes, see? That's why you replace bell with smell.

Like I said, he would try to get all logical about it, try to prepare charts and things, but then he would lose interest and draw a picture of superman instead.

Later he would ask me to take him to buttertown. When I would ask what that was, he would say, "you know, where they serve tacos."

"You mean taco smell?"

"Well," he would say, "I don't call it that anymore. Now it's buttertown."

Anyway, I feel for you.

Andrew Leon said...

This probably won't help, but I'm going to say it anyway.

I get the urge to "fix" things. That's kind of what we do as guys; it's instinctive, I think. It's not always the thing to do, though, because fixing other people's stuff allows them to not have to deal with it. As hard as it is and as heartbreaking as it is, sometimes, the best thing we can do is to -not- fix it. And I -hate- that, especially when it's one of my kids I'm having to turn down.

Maybe, next time, instead of going after him to get him back, you could just follow him. See where it is he's trying to go or what it is he's trying to do. I know it would require both of you to be there, but you might get some kind of insight. Maybe he just likes to explore and he's going to a place he's never been?

I wish I had answers for you...

Briane P said...

Rusty: Buttertown sounds like my kind of restaurant.

Andrew: we did that once. He kept going for a mile before I stopped him.

As for "fix" him, what I suppose I'd really like to do is give him the chance to see the world like I do, and then decide which one he wants. Because mostly he's happy, and if he's having a great life, who am I to mess that up?

But everyone has to fit into society somewhere, and so I need to try to make him fit in as much as he can.

Liz said...

The one thing I thought as I read this was that maybe you should take him to the track and let him run. Blame it on the Olympics. I've seen too many track & field events.