Sunday, May 08, 2011

Into the especially wild

It would have been a quiet afternoon in the woods, if not for all the screaming.

“Sarah, what do you want? Are you hungry? Or thirsty?” asked her father.

“Or cold? Or hot?” asked her mother.

Sarah sat neatly perched in her daddy’s backpack, snapping live branches off nearby trees with her screams.

We’d entered the woods for a three-mile hike with some friends, including Mike, Heidi and their toddling daughter Sarah. Even as we climbed up a fairly steep slope, things were going downhill fast. What had originally begun as an exercise in getting some peace, quiet and friendly conversation was devolving into a full meltdown. The three-mile hike was becoming Three Mile Island.

“Let us know if there’s anything we can do,” my wife Kara said.

“I think she’s mad at us because we’re switching her to cold milk from warm milk. She’s been grumpy all day,” Mike replied.

How liberating it would be to have the epicurean sensibilities of a toddler.

“I ordered this filet mignon medium rare. It’s not pink enough!” you’d yell, spiking your steak on the floor like you’d just run it in for a 40-yard touchdown. Then you’d watch the dog eat it before screaming, “Wait, I just decided I want that!”

Spiking food on the floor is the toddler way of returning it to the kitchen. The closest we can get to that satisfaction as adults is going to a restaurant that lets you throw peanut shells on the floor, which isn’t as much fun because it doesn’t torment anyone.

As we strolled along, Mike and Heidi tried every combination of variables to set Sarah at ease, to no avail. She didn’t want to be set down or picked up, fed or not fed, and she didn’t want her shoes on or off.

I once heard a childcare professional say, “A crying baby is like a puzzle. You keep trying things until you solve it. I always thought it was fun.”

That must be the least fun puzzle in the universe. I’d rather have to solve a Rubik’s cube that you couldn’t beat by peeling off all the stickers and re-applying them to the correct sides.

When your child is screaming, every non-essential brain function shuts down except the part that’s trying to fix the problem, and also the part that creates headaches. I could see this happening to Mike and Heidi as their shoulders tensed and their brows furrowed. Incidentally, do brows ever do anything besides furrow? Seems like they should learn to do something else.

As the hills came alive with the sounds of wailing, I felt some guilt about how I was still enjoying the hike.

“If it’s any consolation, she’s not bothering us,” I offered, though it didn’t seem to be much consolation at all.

Still, I was reminded of a scene from the old movie “The Right Stuff,” where two potential astronauts were subjected to a series of intense physical and psychological exams that caused one of candidates to lose his mind, while the other one whistled and read a magazine. Apparently, if it’s not your kid doing the screaming, you can just keep flipping through the latest issue of Newsweek, until it goes out of print in a few weeks.

After a few more harried minutes, Sarah suddenly recovered and started chattering and giggling. Nobody does a mood swing like a toddler. Smiles replaced grimaces as everyone enjoyed the rest of the afternoon.

Sarah must have come to recognize the inherent awesomeness of getting a free ride in a backpack, which might be one of the coolest aspects of toddlerhood. I wish I could ride around all day in a giant’s backpack, as long as he wasn’t taking me back to his cave to devour me.

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