Top Dog

“Let’s play wrestle!” he yells, his tiny body assuming an aggressive stance.

“Let me take my coat off first so that..” before I can finish my sentence, my youngest son has wrapped all four of his appendages around my leg. He holds on with a vise-like grip.

“AHA! I’m Iron Man, and I’ve got you now! You’ll never escape me!”

I walk to the closet, dragging my right leg…said 4 year old child attached to it…behind me as I hang up my coat.

***

“That’s it. I’m done,” he announces as he tosses his sneakers one at a time into the laundry room. He’s just returned home from playing basketball. His face is a mask of anger.

“Uh oh. What happened?” I ask my husband.

“I’m done. I’m so frustrated playing with these guys. Nobody takes the game to the level I need to play at in order to enjoy it. It’s a total waste of time for me.”

“Why is that?”

“Who knows? They play like a bunch of old men! Maybe they’re afraid to get hurt or something. I’d rather never step foot on the court again than compromise the way I play.”

***

“Want to play Scrabble?” my husband asks.

I answer quickly, “With you? No.”

“How about Boggle?” he suggests.

“You against me?” I shake my head,  “Nope.”

He’s annoyed. “Come on. Why not?”

“Because I hate to lose. And you always beat me. At Scrabble. And Boggle. That’s why not.”

***

“This is ridiculous,” he scoffs.

“Stop talking. I’m trying to watch Survivor. Save it for the commercials,” I chide my spouse.

“I wouldn’t be talking if this competition weren’t so absurd.”

I sigh and pause the TV. Thank God for DVR. “Why do you say that?”

He gesticulates wildly towards the TV, “It’s ridiculous that they can’t swallow a grasshopper faster than that! It’s a grasshopper! Just shove it in your mouth and swallow it down! What’s the big deal?”

Calmly, I reply, “I wouldn’t eat the grasshopper. Even if it meant I’d win the reward. And the reward is chocolate. And I love chocolate. I still wouldn’t eat the grasshopper.”

His chest inflates, “I guarantee I would eat that grasshopper. Not only that, I’d eat it faster than anybody on the show could eat it.”

Oh, here we go. “Would you eat it faster than any contestant on any reality show ever consumed any grasshopper?”

He nods assuredly. “It’s true. You know it’s true.”

***

“Nice race,” he heaves, catching his breath.

“You too,” I reply, matching my husband’s effort to steady my ragged breathing.

He nods behind him, “I took a wrong turn and ran farther than I should have.”

“I was wondering why I crossed the finish line before you did.”

Because that never happens. Even when he’s pushing 100 lbs of combined weight belonging to our youngest two kids, whom he pushed the entire race in the double jogging stroller.

He offers his hand, “Come on, let’s go over and see how everyone else did.”

I wave him off, “I think I’m going to stay here, thanks.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t walk.”

“Are your legs beat?” he asks.

“I hurt my foot,” I point to the underside of my right foot, searching for the invisible knife  responsible for the searing pain.

“What happened?”

I shake my head, “I wore my racing flats. No arch support. I should have eased my way into them. Never should have raced in them today.”

He winces, “Did you first feel it when you crossed the finish line?”

I smile. “Nope. I felt it a mile in.”

“Why did you keep on running? You should have dropped out!”

I shrug. “Quitting was not an option. After all, I had all of these strangers to impress.”

He nods, “All of these people you’ll never see again for the rest of your life?”

Perfectly serious, I answer, “Exactly. I didn’t want them to think I’m a quitter. Because I’m not.”

He places his hands on his hips and smiles down at me, “Well, I’m sure they’re all very impressed by your effort. I know I am. Now let’s get you a pair of crutches. Non-quitter.”

***

“I’ll take pop culture for 600, Alex.”

Alex Trebek announces, “Alright, you’ve chosen the Daily Double!”

B&B yells at the Jeopardy contestant on TV, “Make it a true Daily Double! Bet it all!”

I holler at the same TV contestant , “Don’t listen to him! Bet ½! Maybe less than ½!”

He turns to me, incredulous, “What?! She should bet it all!”

I frown, “If she bets it all and gets the question wrong, she’ll have nothing. If she plays it safe, she’s still in the game.”

He raises his eyebrows, “If she bets it all and gets the question right, she takes the lead. Better to bet it all and take the lead.”

“Nope. Better to play it safe and stay in the game.”

***

“We need to discuss this,” he balances the kids’ dirty plates on his forearms and follows me to the sink.

“Now?” I ask.

“Yes, now!” My husband is nothing if not persistent.

I sigh, placing my hands on the counter. “OK, what do you want to know?”

“What do you want done with your body when you die?”

The Interrogator gasps audibly, “Mom, you’re gonna die?”

I place my arm around his bony shoulders, “No, honey, I’m not gonna die. Not today.”

B&B turns to our 6 year old son, “We’re all going to die. Probably not tonight. Don’t worry about this, buddy, Mommy and Daddy are just talking.”

I whisper to my husband, “Can we talk about it after he goes to bed?”

He shakes his head, “Now.” Persistent.

“I want to be cremated,” I reply.

He nods. “Well, you better tell your family that.”

“OK, I will.”

“Now,” he adds.

“Why now?”

“Because what if you die tomorrow? If I tell them you want to be cremated they may not believe me. They’ll know it’s true if you tell them yourself.”

I nod, “OK.”

He nods, “OK. So tell them.”

“I will.”

“Now!”

Jesus Christmas.

“Alright. Calm down. I’ll tell them.”

Now I’ve gone and poked the bear…

“Don’t tell me to calm down! You know I hate when people tell me to calm down!”

***

“Hey, Mom, you have to come over here and play this game with us!”

I walk over to stand next to my oldest son, who is almost shoulder to shoulder with me. He is watching his father play a game on the iPad.

I peek over Waldorf’s shoulder. B&B is tapping out a pattern on the game’s 4 different pie-shaped colors…blue, red, yellow, green.  Recognition sets in, and I laugh immediately. “Is that Simon? The memory game?”

B&B looks up to meet my eye. His laughter echoes mine. “Yes! Do you remember this?”

I nod, “I loved that game when I was young! Can I have a turn?”

Waldorf nods, “Sure! It’s Dad’s turn now. Then my turn. Then yours.”

We watch B&B race to match Simon’s pattern.

“Slow down, dude. Just get the pattern right,” I say.

Waldorf shakes his head, “No, he’s right to go fast. You get more points for speed.”

Now B&B looks at Waldorf. Two sets of eyes alight with the excitement of this additional pressure.  Deflated, I watch their delight.

“I’m out,” I announce. And I retreat back into the kitchen, where the dirty dishes await.

***

Are you confused yet?

I’ve just finished reading a galley of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  And I found it fascinating.

topdog

I began this book with a slight sense of dread.  Last year, I read Bronson’s and Merryman’s Nurture Shock, which resulted in a near nervous breakdown after realizing B&B and I needed a complete parenting style overhaul. Waldorf and the Kenyan will likely need extensive therapy as a result of our abrupt shift. The Interrogator and the Verb stand a fighting chance of turning out half decent. (Want to know if your parenting style needs revamping? Read this excerpt from Nurture Shock, which appeared in NY Magazine.)

As I read Top Dog, each of the above scenarios popped into my head in reference to different points made in the book. The research the authors compiled helped me understand the reasons why my husband, sons, and I behaved the way we did in each of these examples.

  • The youngest child often has the most fight in him. “Let’s play wrestle” is my youngest son’s most often used expression.
  • When competing, men often focus on what they will win. This often leads to overconfidence. May I present…my husband.
  • Women refuse to waste time with losing. Which is why I no longer play Scrabble and Boggle with my husband, who wipes the floor with my rear end in both games. Even though I’m the alleged wordsmith in the marriage. Self-proclaimed wordsmith.
  • I pushed through a race (like a fool), running the risk of further injury, because there were spectators watching. I was running, which is something I train for, enjoy, and typically do well. Had I been trying something new, like tennis, their presence would have increased my stress level enough for me to quit.
Hey, what's this? Look who took 1st place in her age group at that race!

Hey, what’s this? Look who took 1st place in her age group at that race!

  • B&B fits the book’s classification of a warrior, which means he needs stress to perform his best. One of the worst things I can encourage him to do is to “calm down”. That’s going to take some work on my part. Dammit.
  • Men risk a greater percentage of their money when answering a Daily Double in Jeopardy than women do. *Side note, B&B always yells “Make it a true Daily Double!”
  • Additional stress within a competition makes men less emotional and more calculated. While it can create too much stress for women. This explains why B&B and Waldorf rose to the occasion to compete in a timed game of Simon, and I willingly chose to wash dishes.

In every chapter of Top Dog, I was able to identify instances in my everyday life to which the psychology behind winning and losing applies.

And don’t think I didn’t bust out a ruler to measure the lengths of each of our index fingers and compare them to the lengths of each of our ring fingers. But you’ll have to read the book to understand why…

Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing is available on February 19th. Po Bronson will be speaking at SCH Academy in Chestnut Hill, PA, at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, February 20th. The event is free and open to the public.

I look forward to meeting him. I’ve almost forgiven him for my near nervous breakdown after reading his last book.

Almost.

***

Our This Is Childhood series continues today with the fabulous Allison Tate’s take on Age Five. Allison is the rock star responsible for writing The Mom Stays in the Picture. Her writing elicits such emotion in me. And the pictures that accompany This is Five are priceless.

Next week, I’m tackling Age Six.

Gulp.

In Lieu of a Bundle of Cash and a Vat of Alcohol…

inlieuof

I couldn’t get through What Six Looks Like. I had to stop. Not stop, wipe my eyes, regroup, and revisit. Just plain stop. I’m intimately aware of what six looks like. Particularly this week as I’ve smeared Vicks vapo-rub on his feverish chest and whispered, “I’ll come in the night if you call me, sweet boy”. I know how his breathing sounds when it stops because his nose is so stuffed that he can’t suck his thumb so he’s forced to breathe through his mouth. Which he hates. I know what six sounds like when he asks me in the most hopeful tone he can muster with a throat so raw as his, “Mom, will I feel better by tonight?”

I had to stop reading that beautifully heart-wrenching piece for self preservation. For fear I’d visualize the six year old who has a vise-like grip on my heart in that classroom with the other 20 babies.

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. That’s what the song says, right? It feels less than wonderful this week. Our nation feels the burden of the loss of 26 unique human beings who bounded into school on Friday with roughly an hour to spare before each of their lives was cut short…painfully, tragically, senselessly ended.

I feel it. Everywhere. Tears soaked my sweatshirt as I listened to the President say each of their names during his speech. And then again when I watched the candlelit tribute on The Voice.  Little Sister texts me from across the country with her heartbreak. I can’t login to Facebook without seeing pictures of the teachers, surviving and dead, heroes who took bullets to protect their students and survivors who locked their students in closets for protection. I see the weight of Friday’s tragedy in the lines of our school teachers’ faces. The way a fireman loses a brother to a fire…so these teachers have lost fellow educators to this shooting.

Winter break sneaks up on me every year. This year is no exception. The teachers in my boys’ lives deserve a bundle of cash and a vat of alcohol.  I have neither. But I have a half decent memory. And I was raised by two people who taught me, by example, the value of positive reinforcement.  And that sometimes it’s the expression of gratitude itself that, when it comes from a genuine place, is simply and gloriously enough.

While it’s specific to my kids’ school, I hope that the sentiment is broad enough that it resonates beyond that.

So, this is what I wrote to the educators who, every day, make a difference in my kids’ lives…

****

B&B says one of the greatest gifts I give him is the ability not to worry when he leaves the house. He knows our boys are in competent hands. He’s confident they’ll be loved, reasoned with, read to, disciplined, taught…made my first priority.

When it came time for us to choose a school for our boys, we hoped we’d find an extension of our home.  A place we could leave our boys, in competent hands, with the ability not to worry once we left campus.

Here is what we’ve found…

It’s the technology coordinator celebrating how much Waldorf loves computers and giving him the latitude to experiment during her Fabulous Fridays.

It’s the Admissions Coordinator always reaching out to say hi, even when she is in the midst of meeting a new family for the very first time.

It’s the Chair of Engineering and Robotics giving his time and patience to expand that program to our youngest boys. It’s his allowing the Kenyan to bring his cousin from Arizona into robotics class when he visited last Thanksgiving.

It’s the new kindergarten teacher’s infectious grin and inherent happiness that make me wish I could bottle her energy and do a shot of it every morning.

It’s the Interrogator’s and the Verb’s music teacher teaching the youngest boys to sing “Here in my House”, which, no matter how many times I hear it, makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.

It’s the Kenyan’s music teacher getting an active group of 2nd and 3rd graders to stand fidget-free and sing with unabashed innocence every December and May.  And choosing a score of music that does not put his audience to sleep.

It’s seeing Waldorf’s kindergarten assistant…five years later…in the back pew of the chapel during that chorus performance. It’s the warm hug she offers and the ease with which we settle into conversation.

It’s the chair of the music department working countless hours with boy choir to take my breath away when I sit in the church pew on a Sunday afternoon in December and marvel as our oldest, most private son sings holiday songs in English, French, and Hebrew. It’s his grace and professionalism in the face of a nasty stomach bug that had his students leaving the stage in the midst of their beautiful performance.

It was Waldorf’s First Grade Teacher inviting me into the First Grade classroom every month the year the Verb was born so her students could make predictions about how much Waldorf’s newest baby brother had grown since the last time they’d seen him.

It’s the connection those boys, now fifth graders, still feel to the Verb because he was their “First Grade Baby”.

It’s Mrs.G. pulling the Interrogator’s first tooth when he wouldn’t let me do it.

It’s the head of school responding to every one of our many e-mails over the years. And always with warmth and wit.

It’s the principal prefacing his phone calls to me with, “Everyone is fine,” knowing I fully expect one of those calls to be news of a broken bone. It’s his ability to take into consideration how young the Verb is when he’s called to inform me that the Verb has bit someone. On the rump.

It’s the assistant to the head of school’s open door. It’s the way she lights up and beckons us in every time we walk past. Truly a friend who wants to catch up.

It’s the athletic director putting sticks in the hands of first graders hoping to grow our lacrosse program from the bottom up.

It’s the first grade assistant, pulling me aside to tell me how much fun Waldorf makes Math Enrichment.

It’s the male art teacher and the magical way he has with our boys to make Art a subject to which they look more forward than PE.

It’s the female art teacher keeping Art just as fun and expressive as her male counterpart does.

It’s the lead security officer, who we miss seeing directing traffic every morning and afternoon, wearing his Phillies hat.

It’s Coach calling the boys “knuckle heads” and “dopey dopes” in PE, and our allowing it because…well, because it’s Coach.

It was the science teacher telling me how much the Kenyan had matured in the years she’d taught him. It was standing on the sidewalk outside the science building and her reaching out to touch the Verb’s cheek and tell him how sorry she was that she’d never have him in her science classroom because she was retiring.

It’s the morning and afternoon receptionists knowing our boys. It’s their smiles every time we walk through the front doors.

It’s the very tall PE teacher’s wondrous way of turning a booming voice into a gentle one for our kindergarten boys.

It’s the lower school librarian’s ability to steer the Kenyan toward books out of which we’re unable to get his freckled nose.

It’s the director of library services expecting that this house is one that would indeed devour library books…swallow them whole, never to be seen or heard from again. It is her laughter when I celebrate that, in 7 years’ time, we’ve been able to locate every single library book.  Every. Single. One.

It’s the pre-k assistant telling me that the Interrogator and the Verb slump against each other, relaxing and sucking their thumbs, while she reads and sings to them for the last 15 minutes of their day. It’s the smile I feel, starting in my heart, when I visualize my sons at the end of their long day finding comfort in each other.

It’s the director of the outdoor program and the amazing trips he facilitates. It’s the opportunity we have in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades to spend coveted one-on-one time with our sons during these trips. It’s the confidence our boys feel, beginning in 5th grade, when they arrive home after having been away for several days without their parents.

It’s the school nurse telling me she needs me to fill out papers, then realizing I’m not that Mom of three boys…I’m that Mom of four boys. It’s her telling me she gets a kick out of each of my four boys.

It’s the energy that the admissions team brings to their department. It’s my ambushing one in her office and stalking another on the way to his car in order to dish about a potential 7th grade boy who would be such a great fit.

It’s Waldorf’s 3rd grade homeroom teacher understanding that all we wanted in 3rd grade was for him to learn to exercise his inner monologue. It’s my telling her we were hoping for one more magical Christmas with four believers, and her agreeing to keep her ears open to see what the word was with those 3rd grade boys.

It’s the practice that 3rd grade teacher’s male counterpart had of asking the boys a math question before allowing entry into his classroom.

It was the Interrogator’s kindergarten teacher telling me, “The Interrogator is my guy. He is my sweet, sweet guy.” And my Mama’s heart feeling the tug, tug, tug of knowing my earnest little boy was understood and loved by this dear teacher.

It’s the Kenyan’s kindergarten teacher, four years ago, telling me, “The Kenyan would be a superstar if you give him that extra year”. It’s that same teacher, who now has the Interrogator in his 2nd year of kindergarten, shaking hands with him, catching his eye and saying, “You’re such a good guy.” It’s her telling us that, when he looks at her, it’s like he sees right into her soul, which is one of the things we love most about him. It’s her turning a blind eye to the fact that I often pack him a grape jelly sandwich on white bread…because hers is a peanut-free classroom, and she knows I am simply out of ideas.

It’s Waldorf’s 4th grade teacher’s broad grin and contagious laughter whenever we sat down for a parent teacher conference. It’s the hug she has for me whenever I see her…even though I have no one under her tutelage this year.

It’s her 4th grade counterpart’s quiet way of getting more from our boys. It was her understanding that Waldorf needed to exercise his language arts muscle because writing doesn’t come as easy as numbers do to him.

It’s the one teacher to have the Kenyan in her class three times starting every conference with a smile on her face and the statements, “I love your boy. He needs to move.” It was her willingness to work with us because she understood my hesitance to start him on medication.

It’s the Kenyan’ first grade teacher’s ability to embrace those quirky things about our boys that irritate us the most. Like the Kenyan’s need to move.

It’s the Kenyan’s current teacher, his 3rd grade teacher, in the midst of his monkey sound effects, having the presence and good humor to comment, “you know those sound effects are really good”! It’s her appreciating his wit and partnering with us to build his confidence.

It’s the pre-k teacher. The only teacher to have taught all four of our boys. The teacher who texted me a video while I was Christmas shopping in Target of the Verb telling me he’d lost his first tooth. It’s her refraining from judgment because 4 years old is too young to lose a tooth…clearly this is the the youngest child who’s received repeated poundings on the living room floor and elbows on the trampoline. It’s her taking my Verb by the hand and walking him through school so he could visit the classrooms of his three older brothers to announce, “Look, guys, I lost my first tooth!”

It’s the texts I received after that pre-k teacher took the Verb to those classrooms from parents whose boys have no younger brothers, but experienced the warmth of that brotherly celebration when he visited their classrooms with his big news.

It’s the assistant to the principal giving the Verb a dollar when he lost that tooth. Which really helped because I only had four dollars in my wallet that night, so I was able to pass it off as the fifth and final dollar from the tooth fairy.

It’s the memories of the two PE teachers who’ve died. And the way they inspired school spirit and teamwork in our boys during their youngest years. It’s in the way their memory still lives on with the boys…in the way the Kenyan yells at the Verb if he climbs on the Mr. P.’s memorial stone and in the way Waldorf understands that the principal greets the boys on the circle every morning because he’s carrying on Mr. C’s legacy.

It’s the school psychologist, who is always available to me. How do we tell Waldorf the truth about Santa Claus? What shall we tell him about sex? What does he need to know about Jerry Sandusky? Should we tell him about the Aurora shooting? It’s her willingness to discuss it with me, the insight she offers, and the confidence I feel after hanging up that I have the value of her sage advice ringing in my ears as we navigate these firsts of parenting with our oldest son.

It’s Waldorf’s current teacher, his 5th grade teacher, understanding that we’re content with his desire to be the class clown, so long as he considers his friends’ feelings. It’s her reassuring us that he doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

It’s her 5th grade counterpart stopping me in the hallway and placing her hand over her heart while she thanks me for the gift of my oldest son in her classroom. It’s my inability to speak because I remember when this beautiful, statuesque woman was a four year old with pigtails and knee socks…and I think how nice it would be if I could thank her Mom and Dad for the gift of their daughter to our sons.

It’s the kindness and sense of community from the parents. The fact that I’ve been home sick with at least one of my boys for five long days. And, in that time, I’ve had matzoh ball soup placed on my doorstep from a school friend of 7 years and chicken soup delivered from a school friend of 4 months. It’s in the way we take care of one another.

In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, as my gaze falls repeatedly on my six year old son, whose bright blue eyes are full of wonder, trust, and laughter…a boy too big for me to carry, yet still small enough to snuggle on my lap…I think about what each of you has meant to our sons. School is truly their home away from home. Thanks to each and every one of you for knowing and loving our boys. For weaving yourselves into the fabrics of each of their stories.

We hoped for a school that would be an extension of our home.

It feels like we’ve chosen brilliantly.

Sending Our Love for the Happiest of Holidays,
XOXOXO