Friday, June 2, 2017

The wonderful mind of a child, or, "A drink that is orange"

The mind of a four-year-old is one of the most fascinating things there is.

A newborn baby, as much as he or she is beloved by the parents and other relatives, is not someone with whom you can have a conversation. A newborn responds to stimuli in a similar way to how lesser animals respond to stimuli, and likely has little ability to engage in abstract thought. Somehow, over the next few years, an incredible developmental process occurs, integrating both intrinsic biological cues and extrinsic cues from the people and things in the environment and from all the human culture that has developed over the millennia, and that newborn's relatively simple mind turns into something that is capable of a vast array of very complex thought processes.

One of the most incredible parts? None of us really knows what that developmental process is like, because none of us can remember it.

I will soon be 34 years old. As the years go by, the memories of my past become increasingly distorted and imperfect, but I can still remember quite well what it was like to be, say, an 18-year-old. I remember less well, but still fairly well, what it was like to be a ten-year-old. A six-year-old? That's very hazy, but I still have some idea. But what it's like to be inside the mind of a four-year-old is something I have absolutely no idea about, and the same is true for almost everyone. That doesn't prevent us from recognizing as we interact with four-year-old children, especially with particularly smart four-year-old children, that there are truly amazing things going on inside those little minds. Which is why I've come to view the inner workings of the minds of small children as one of life's great mysteries.

Over Memorial Day weekend I visited EB in Nashville for the second time, and for the first time EB's daughter [redacted] spent almost the whole weekend with us, as opposed to very limited chunks during my previous visit. [redacted] is an incredibly bright four-year-old and I was constantly filled with a sense of joy and wonder by my interactions with her.

Here's a picture of the two of us waiting in line at Hattie B's, a restaurant known for Nashville's famous hot chicken.


The best of friends, right? It's oh so hard to believe that just four weeks prior, on my first visit to Nashville, we had been at the exact same spot and poor little [redacted], having just met me in person, had been cowering behind her mother's legs and talking about how "Jeffy" was "mean" because I had tried to bite her eyes(!!). When prodded by EB to acknowledge something nice I had done, [redacted] admitted that it had been nice of me to return EB's keychain to her. (I have no idea where she got these ideas about biting eyes and returning keychains!)

[redacted] quickly warmed up to me (Skype helped - hooray for technology!) and on this visit was eager to spend time with me. The three of us had a fabulous weekend. Here are some more anecdotes about [redacted]'s precious and fascinating behavior.

On Saturday morning we went to [redacted]'s T-ball game. In this version of T-ball, the players have a few chances to hit a real pitch thrown by their coach before the tee is brought out. [redacted] had never previously gotten a hit from a real pitch. On this morning, she did - not just once, but on both of her at-bats! This was a source of tremendous excitement for us all. Later, while walking to brunch from T-ball, [redacted] told us how we should tell her aunts and cousins about her amazing feat. "They would like be [she says "like be" rather than "be like" - adorable], '[redacted] couldn't do that!'" she said. "And we'll like be, 'she sure did!'"

Also that morning, [redacted] was being quite stubborn at points on our walks to the neighborhood grocery store and the T-ball game, risking losing her privilege to have an orange soda at brunch. (Spending the whole weekend with her, I got to be exposed to much of the full range of four-year-old behavior. It was a good learning experience.) When told by EB that EB didn't want to hear anything more about orange soda, [redacted] quickly shifted to asking if she'd be able to have "a drink that is orange." Ah, logic!

There was a very touching moment when [redacted] asked me why I was wearing a ring. I explained that it was my wedding ring. She asked if it had always been there. I told her no, it used to be on my left hand (one year and one day after Cara's death, I moved it my right hand ring finger). She asked why I moved it, and I said that when you have a ring on your left hand, it's a sign that you're married and therefore not looking for a girlfriend, and some time after Cara died I decided that I did want to look for a new girlfriend. "And then I met your mommy," I concluded.

[redacted] followed this up by asking how EB and I did meet, a question that EB tackled, jumping into an explanation about how there are Facebook groups for people with various interests.

How does a four-year-old grapple with the fact that her daddy died when she was just one, and she'll never know him except through stories and pictures and videos? But we humans are very good at adapting to different circumstances. For her, that's just the normal way that life is.

The very best part of the weekend was the hiking the three of us did. We went on beautiful hikes on both Sunday and Monday. Monday's was especially wonderful. Early in the hike, little [redacted] took off running along the trail. She quickly built up a significant lead on her mother and me. I decided, why not, I should start running with her. So I caught up to her and the two of us sped through the woods together, [redacted] in the lead.

It was about the most amazing feeling in the world.

Periodically, [redacted] would stop and look back along the trail, peering through the trees until she spotted EB walking behind us. "Let's start running again!" she would cry. The hike was four miles long, and I was astonished at the fact that [redacted], just four years old, was actually running for the majority of the first two miles. After this, she took several little spills and wanted to be carried by EB for a while in her carrier. But falling down did not do much to dampen her enthusiasm for the outing. She's a remarkably resilient little girl, and after most of the falls was eager to get right back up and keep going. "I'm okay, I'm okay!" she exclaimed to EB. "It was the root's fault!"

Our trail running time was also opportunity for more interesting conversations. At one point, [redacted] was telling me about something EB had told her, and I said, "Well, that's probably true, because your mommy is pretty smart."

I was taken aback by [redacted]'s response. "But I'm smarter, right?" And she went on to explain how she always gets things right in school, etc.

I had to ponder for a moment how to reply to that one! "Well, I think actually you're both really smart, and it would be hard to say who's smarter," I eventually said, which seemed to satisfy her, but who knows what she was really thinking when I told her that?

EB has been marveling for some time at the amazing things [redacted] says and does, and now I get to as well. I asked my mom if, when I was that age, she and my dad found themselves marveling at how smart I was. She said yes, definitely, but that she didn't have specific stories to tell. I guess that's part of the reason for EB and me to do this sort of writing - so that we will have specific stories! I'm sure you'll all be hearing more about the adventures of EB, [redacted], and Jeff in the months and years to come.

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