Thursday, December 21, 2017
“How do you explain love at first sight, Josh?”
That was me talking. We were sitting at the tables outside the indoor playground at The Arrowhead Mall – almost completely separated from the Christmas hordes, but with full view of all the kids. And that ambush style of questioning is something I learned from my mammy: Not “Do you have a girlfriend?” but “What’s your girlfriend’s name?” The first question invites a lie, the second a blurt – where a blurt is a truth that accidentally escaped from jail.
But Josh didn’t blurt, he just stammered. He’s fun to torment, but I try not to be cruel about it. The hardest job any man can do – so hard he’ll never want to talk about it – is figuring out how to take things to the next level with a woman he doesn’t dare lose.
“It’s survivorship bias. Easy to see as soon as you listen to what people actually say: They met. They were initially attracted to each other, and that never stopped. Neither ever lost interest in the other, and they never broke up. Only people with that history can tell that story, so they’re the only ones who do.”
“Got it,” he said. “And that’s so rare, everyone else says it’s impossible.”
I smirked. “People can be ready to fail long before they get the opportunity. Any excuse will do.”
The mall was packed with people – and steadily more unpacked with stuff. This is my third Christmas driving the choo choo train, and I’ve never had more traffic to navigate.
Tegan and Josh had come to pick me up, to take me to a family thing at his house. That’s a big levelling-up deal, and I expect everyone sees that but him. The fact that Tegan is taking me in loco paternis might mean something to him, too, if any guy his age understood what this stuff means.
She was off on a pretext to shop for his Christmas gift – but I would imagine that little ruse was lost on him, too. He’s not indifferent, just clueless – charmingly inexperienced. I think that’s just fine, so you know: Unbroken things can survive unbroken forever.
There was a little girl I was watching while we were talking, someone I’d never seen before – and me and the Arrowhead toddlers, we know each other. She was gamely climbing up the wrong way on the fake epoxied fiberglass car that doubles as a fake sliding board.
That’s the toddler’s third challenge on any sliding board. First you have to have the guts to climb all the way to the top of the ladder. Then you have to work up the nerve to slide down. When you’ve mastered all that by repetition and variation – sliding laying down or backwards or in multi-kid tandems – then you graduate to the big kid’s side of the board: Stalking up the sliding board itself by grim muscle-power, stooped over like a fake-camel robot from ‘Star Wars.’
I pointed with my head to make sure Josh was watching. “It’s not easy, what she’s doing.” She proved it by failing, over and over again – but failing a little higher up the board each time. “We laugh at the silly things kids do, but they’re not silly to them. Those things weren’t silly to me when I was doing everything for the first time.”
I was smiling at the girl, and she knew I was rooting for her. Every time she got near the top, I would raise my fists shoulder high, expressing triumph but also that last little bit of muscle strain needed to get the job done. When she slid down, she would look at me and I would make the same gesture, but with my fists chest-high, instead, silently cheering her on: “You can do it!”
To Josh I said, “Do you want to know what I love about toddlers? They’re still trying. Everything is still new to them, and the people around them are still celebrating each new task they master. But that’s because the kids themselves are still trying, still coming up with new triumphs to be celebrated.”
He shrugged. “Puppies are fun. Dogs are lazy.”
“Dogs aren’t lazy, they’re just bored. Give ’em more to do and they get a lot more done. Same for kids – and for adults, for that matter – but there’s more going on. Right now, that little girl has a mom and a grandma cheering for her, and maybe a dad and a grandpa or two. When she wakes up as a fully-human child – when she starts to carry on abstract conversations – the grown-ups and older kids around her will start to compete with her, instead.”
Josh said nothing to this, he just watched the little girl trying and failing and trying again – with me silently cheering her on.
“Imagine if you jumped the wall to show that kid everything she doesn’t know about climbing sliding boards. You could take her to task in no time, put her right in her place. If you’re showy enough, she might even be impressed by your performance. But she’ll conclude, one way or another, that sliding boards are not for her.”
He smiled. “You’re talking about school.”
“I’m talking about everything. I met a woman the other day, just a stranger, I may never see her again. But she was so bright, and I promise you no one has ever told her how smart she is. Funny – and funny is the proxy signal for creativity – but who knows how many times she’s been put down, shut down, shouted down, just because she couldn’t climb up the sliding board the wrong way on her first try.”
No response, but that’s okay. If you can hear me now, you’ll listen to me later.
The little girl kept trying, and that’s all you have to do. If it can be done, you’ll do it – if you put your mind, your heart, your back and your willpower into it. If success comes easy, move up to a harder challenge. But it’s when success comes hard that you feel like a champion.
With one hard pull, she made it all the way up – and then she stood up and turned to face me and Josh. She took an elaborate bow, then turned around to slide down, giggling all the way.
She ran over to us and jumped up on the high-backed sectional sofa that forms the walls of the playground. Looking at me with huge eyes, she said, “You drive the choo choo.”
You would not believe how many people greet me that way – and not just toddlers.
“Merry Christmas, sweetie. You did great. What’s your name?”
“Kayla, I want you to remember what just happened, okay? Whenever you think you can’t do something, whenever you think everyone or even the whole world is out to get you, I want you to remember that I’m rooting for you. I’m always rooting for you. I know you can do it.”
She smiled and said, “Merry Christmas!” – and that matters to kids more than it does to anyone else – because it’s part of growing up and because it’s new.
She ran back to the slide to perfect her newly-won skills and I waited to see what Josh would say.
“That’s going to make all the difference?”
“Who knows what happens tomorrow? But Kayla’s going to remember this forever – not me, but what I said. Someday when she’s looking for an excuse to fail, maybe she’ll hear me then. I love your education, Josh, and I love where it’s going to launch you in life. But most of what got you here is not you but your folks – them saying to you over and over again what I got one chance to say to her.”
“Okay… But you may never even see her again.”
“We plant oak trees so there will be tire swings for toddlers we will never meet. We are good for the sake of goodness, but goodness breeds more good. The job of humanity is to plant – and to cultivate – the seeds of humanity. Why? So someday – every day – there will be strong branches for toddlers to swing from.”
I was wet at the eyes, tight at the throat. I love kids and dogs. Other creatures, not so much.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “If no one ever breaks her, she’s unbroken. If no one ever scratches her, scars her, scourges her – she’ll be as good as new for life. What happens when someone does? How well will she bounce back? Believing that you’ll make it even when it’s hard – that’s the only way you will make it. The world is made by people who see things that way.”
I smiled at myself. I’m as subtle as my mammy was – as subtle as a garbage truck at three in the morning.
“It’s the same with love at first sight: If you don’t break it, it’s never broken. And if it’s your first love, you’ll never have a broken heart – another impossibility. And the same can go for her, too: The rarest marriage of all, love at first sight that lasts forever for two never-broken hearts. I know a couple like that, from the train. Their daughter is going to rebuild the entire planet someday.”
Kayla was still climbing the slide, but she was getting too good for that old thing. She needed to move up to a harder toy.
“If you’ve never been lied to, you’re not listening for lies. If you’ve never been betrayed, you don’t dread betrayal. If you never do anything to chase each other away, you’ll be together forever.”
And I love this kid, and I hope he and Tegan are together forever – and not just because I want to infect their kids with Willietude – but if they ever break up, I hope he sticks around. I like the man he’s growing into. But, so far, Josh is better with books than with people.
He said, “Are you trying to plant ideas in my head?”
I grinned. “I’m just cultivating oak trees, youngun’. They do the rest on their own.”