Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vintage CC: A Helicopter on Noah's Ark

The reflection on fatherhood that I included in Monday's Small Sips caused me to remember this post that I wrote back in January 2011. This is probably one of my all-time favorites, and I hope you enjoy reading it again or for the first time.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with a good friend who lives in another state. It was a typical phone call for two guys who've known each other since college, who pledged the same fraternity, who'd become somewhat notorious around campus for their clownish behavior. When we talk, it's like stepping into the clothing of familiar roles no longer worn regularly, but the voice of the other brings it all rushing back. We're married and have careers and houses, but whatever domestication we've taken on over the years is at least temporarily shed when we talk.

We talked about the usual sorts of things, catching up on whatever we'd missed out on since the last time. The big topic for him at the moment is his impending fatherhood: he and his wife are expecting their first child in April. In fact, their due date is Coffeeson's birthday, so it's really easy for me to remember. He's described feeling "disconnected" from the pregnancy, which I think is a typical thing for husbands. We're not the pregnant ones. We attend the classes, help paint the nursery, go to the appointments, and so on, but we're not the ones living with the developing life the way she is. Even though we can see the expanding belly and feel and hear our child-to-be through its mother's skin, there's still a certain physical and emotional distance with which we have to cope at least until the birthing moment.

It was New Year's Day, so I ended up saying something about the night before. Specifically, I mentioned that we were in bed by 10:30. We had every intention of sitting up to watch the ball drop, having no illusions that witnessing such a thing would really have any impact on our lives whatsoever, and yet the ongoing responsibilities of careers and a toddler had caught up with us and we opted to sleep instead.

It was the toddler part that I emphasized. I ended up passing along what an older woman, her own kids grown and married, had said to me earlier in the day: "You won't get to enjoy New Year's like you used to for at least the next 20 years." This story and quote collectively was met with a terse and sarcastic "Thanks."

As I've looked back on that conversation since, I feel bad about how it went. It seems as if I'd only shared those things about parenthood that drain energy, or alter one's schedule, or change the type of freedom one had before. Without realizing it, I'd become one of those parents who just tell horror stories to other people planning on having kids; who start every other sentence with "Oh, enjoy it now, because..." I know what: let's inject as much pessimism and fear into the hearts of parents-to-be as we can. These are the type of people to whom one wouldn't want to go for advice down the road if all you're going to get are anecdotes about how awful having a kid is. Thankfully, I don't think that I've done this to too many people, or at least this was the first instance of which I was conscious about what I did afterwards.

What I should have done instead is tell my friend about the helicopter on Noah's ark.

We were invited to an early evening get-together at a friend's house for New Year's Eve. They have two small children, the oldest perhaps six months older than Coffeeson. We'd been trying to get together for months, but hadn't found a good time until this holiday. Knowing that the rubrics involved in a more typical observation of that day would be incredibly difficult with toddlers and infants in tow, we opted for dinner and some playtime instead. This is what set up that older woman's quote so well.

Coffeeson had a blast. Any time that he comes upon an opportunity to play with new and unfamiliar toys, he greets it with excitement and curiosity. This, of course, was no exception. His contemporary is especially into Thomas the Tank Engine, so he had quite a good time playing with trains. Of course, that wasn't the only featured toy by a long shot: there was a Sesame Street play kitchen, markers and crayons to draw and color with, a race track, and a Noah's ark playset. Coffeeson has a thing about toy animals, so he really enjoyed the ark: he'd pull out all the animals, naming them, making their designated sound as he knew it, shoving them back into the boat, closing the door, opening the door, and repeating the entire exercise again.

At some point in between this exercise with the ark, he found a small toy helicopter. Coffeeson seems to have a special fascination with air-based vehicles: he loves toy planes and helicopters, he rushes to a window whenever he hears the real thing flying overhead. He also loves looking at the moon and stars, so very early indications are that he may be a pilot or astronaut. I am sure that this sort of projection will change 78,000 times before he graduates high school, and perhaps still after that.

At any rate, the helicopter eventually landed on the deck of the ark, and I couldn't help but chuckle at the juxtaposition. Obviously these two things did not belong together, unless I missed something in Genesis about the means by which the dove brought back the olive branch. There was no sense in correcting him: he's almost 3 years old, and besides him probably not understanding the explanation, who really cares? He had an idea that a helicopter should come be a part of Noah's ark, maybe to give joyrides to Ham and Shem or to transport the animals over to suitable habitats after the flood waters subsided. Or maybe it just seemed fun. It didn't matter because he was in his own playworld, and he was enjoying himself, and I was enjoying watching him.

There will eventually come a time where Coffeeson will understand that, at least in a contextual sense, there couldn't possibly have been a helicopter on Noah's ark. He'll eventually be told about the limits of time and space, of logic and possibility. He may even run into teachers or other people in his life who outright scoff at such ideas and who love to point out flaws in any creative portrayal to the contrary. These people may tell him in kindergarten that there's only one correct way to draw a flower, or tell him in junior high that if he wants to play an instrument he can only play the notes on the page, or they'll tell him in high school that he needs to go out for football or basketball rather than the school play if he wants to count for something.

When I was on the phone with my friend a few weeks ago, I should have told him about that helicopter landing on that big 300-cubit boat and how it scared the hell out of all those pairs of animals, and how I was loving every minute of it because Coffeeson didn't care, and because he could imagine it happening, and because I hope he can always imagine stuff like that happening. I should have told my friend about how the real thing he should be scared about is not the fact that he may feel the urge to fall asleep at 10:30 on New Year's Eve, but of the day when his kid first discovers that his imagination won't always be appreciated or desired. I should have told him that the joy that I feel when I watch Coffeeson interact with the world around him, whether it's wanting to help with some chore around the house or becoming engrossed in an afternoon of play, it validates all the early bedtimes and the limitations on socializing and the changes in schedules and finances.

I'd much rather tell him about that, because he's probably getting plenty of that negative stuff already. It's the other stories that really end up mattering.