The Gift of Skee(ve)
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photo by Mr. Right-Click
Last Sunday, we took Mini to the Santa Monica Pier to walk around, play arcade games, and stick his feet in the sand. He has been to the beach before, but not recently, so hey! new toy! When we first put him down on the warm sand in his bare feet, though, he freaked out because WTF IS THIS STUFF, Ma?! He calmed down as we took him closer to the shore, where the sand was cooler and more packed down. He stuck his feet in the water and shortly thereafter ran back to tell me all about it.
It was all very cute, as you might imagine.
There are times when I’m proud that Mini takes after me, and there are times when it’s quite funny. Watching Mini deal with sand, dirt, or uncleanliness of any kind are some of the funny times, because even though he’s a toddler, the kid has some serious objections to being dirty. I can only hope that, as he ages, he continues to enjoy putting things away and pretending to sweep the kitchen floor alongside me.
Then there are times when Mini’s adoption of my behaviors can be a little painful. This always occurs in situations where I see him do something that reflects tendencies of mine that have caused me pain in the past. Naturally, there is a lot of projection going on here. Still, if I could keep him from making the same mistakes I’ve made, I would do anything. One of the things I think I see in Mini is my own unfortunate natural tendency to people-please. I don’t always people-please, mind you–I’m totally comfortable with displeasing people I love. Because those people already know me, accept me, love me. It’s the ones I don’t know that I hate to disappoint, for reasons I have yet to figure out. And so, in the end, I go around people-pleasing strangers, insignificant acquaintances, possibly dangerous.
When we walked up on the pier, Mini saw some of those kiddie rides they have outside places like Toys ‘R’ Us and grocery stores. We went over to an arcade so he could get into this giant germ petri dish in the shape of a race car (“car-car! car-car!”), and as we walked towards the ride, a guy wearing a yellow shirt and jeans, with hair that looked kind of like a helmet, said, “Oh, I’ve got to get my cell phone.” Mr. Right-Click and I assumed that he was an employee of the arcade or something, and only slightly registered him. Mini climbed into the race car and I waited outside with him while Mr. Right-Click stepped inside to get change for the machine.
With Mr. Right-Click otherwise occupied, the guy approached us, Mini and I, again muttering something about his cell phone. He made his way around the back of the race car machine, where an old skool Motorola Razor was plugged into the wall. I was still kind of confused, and had that vaguely uncomfortable feeling that I get when there is a stranger around who might expect me to interact with them. Mini continued to play with the steering wheel of the race car machine.
“You have to have a driver’s license for that!”
“What?” I said, involuntarily.
“He has to have a driver’s license for that! Can I see your driver’s license?” The guy asked Mini.
The guy was apparently trying to engage in witty repartee with Mini–Mini, who just turned 2 and has about 50 words in his speaking vocabulary at present. And while he was ostensibly just there to unplug his cell phone from the wall, this guy stuck his hand out towards Mini, as if to take an imaginary toddler driver’s license for kiddie rides out of his hand. And Mini, because he is my son, looked confused, but started to stick out his hand toward the man anyway, having picked up on the hint that he was expected to reciprocate this action. Without thinking, I put my hand in between Mini’s hand and the man’s, my arm propelled into action by the suggestion that Mini might unwittingly be made a party to touching this skeevy guy. Because being a mother makes you OK with being rude when the situation calls for it.
Nobody said anything. The guy took his cell phone and cell phone charger and walked back a few paces. The cell phone that he was charging outside of an arcade on the Santa Monica Pier. Because that is totally normal behavior.
Just then, Mr. Right-Click came out of the arcade with quarters, and he and Mini busied themselves with putting quarters in the machine. The Skeevy guy, still lurking, then said, “He doesn’t look like he’s your kid,” to Mr. Right-Click. I got that uncomfortable and annoyed feeling again. Mr. Right-Click said, “Well, he is,” kind of dismissively, but not really sure what the guy is talking about. I didn’t take my eyes off Mini, afraid? or embarrassed? to acknowledge the guy’s presence. The ride ended, and we moved to another machine. When I looked around to see if the guy was still there, he was nowhere to be found.
It might be that the guy was just weird, or wasn’t good at picking up on established social mores: viz., that a man in his forties, alone, on the pier in Santa Monica, whilst stealing electricity from an kids’ arcade to charge a cell phone, should avoid paying too much attention to toddlers unless he wants people to view him with suspicion. He did have some kind of accent that I could not place . . . perhaps he was foreign and from some land where it’s not suspicious for a middle-aged man to take an interest in young children. Or charge their cell phone outside of arcades, using electricity that they don’t pay for. I mean, what do I know?
When I read Gavin DeBecker’s The Gift of Fear, I learned that it’s OK to make snap judgments about people if my safety is at stake. These judgments are based on little or nothing tangible, just a feeling you get that something is wrong, but that we’ve been socialized to ignore, or rationalize away, for the sake of not being rude or believing the worst of people. I’ve struggled to implement it for my personal safety, but what happens when Mini is around is totally different. With Mini, I am all about being rude, getting in the way, embracing my tendency to always believe the worst in people. It can be exhausting, actually, to always be on alert like this. I suspect this is why I’m always needing a nap after our weekend excursions to crowded public places with Mini.
When Mini was three days old, I had to take him to get a blood test, which meant braving a waiting room full of sick people with a baby’s brand new immune system. And in case you don’t know, people are always wanting to touch newborn babies. So of course, when we were there, a kid reached out–innocently enough–to touch Mini, and I blocked him that day in much the same way as I did the pier cell phone guy this past weekend. It was an instinctive action, and even as I did it I felt compelled to apologize for it, like I was disappointing everyone by not allowing my child to be touched. I felt like I was being a bad sport.
But not so much of a a bad sport that I would let the kid touch him.
When I told Mr. Right-Click what had happened when he was inside the arcade, we both decided that something wasn’t right with the guy on the pier. I developed a theory that perhaps he was trying to make us fight or something, by insinuating that Mini wasn’t Mr. Right-Click’s child. Maybe he was trying to create a distraction so he could grab Mini. Maybe if I hadn’t been so vigilant, Mini would have been snatched. I was able to really work myself into a paranoid frenzy over this, in fact. I almost ruined the entire day for myself out of fear and paranoia about what might have happened.
Then Mini played Skee Ball for the first time, and though we showed him how to roll the ball up the ramp, he determined that there was a better way. That way was to walk up the ramp himself and put the ball in the hoop directly. And we were at one of those times again, where I’m proud of the ways that Mini takes after me. It was simple: Mini saw inefficiency in the method we tried to get him to use to play Skee Ball, and decided to invent his own method. Not yet a slave to the rules and regulations the rest of us have had to learn to live with, Mini played the game the way he thought it was best played. And that is something he gets from me, too: a stubborn refusal to give up his own way of doing things, when they are clearly superior to the methods taken by other people. Sure, it’s gotten me into trouble before, but it’s also shaped who I am and what I do today.
Someday I will have to give Mini the gift of skeeve and explain why you don’t ever talk to somebody who approaches you on the Santa Monica Pier with a story about a cell phone. Someday, he will have to learn to embrace his own fear in order to stay safe. But for now, he’s still mostly fearless, and as such he enjoys a skeeve free lifestyle, which is a beautiful thing. And I’m content to watch his back for a while longer.