Lost and Found

>> Tuesday, May 29, 2007

We lost our heads and thought it would be a good idea to visit the Wild Animal Park on Memorial Day weekend.

We were freshly motivated by a great documentary about the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. I thought it would be fun to feed the Lorikeets and pretend to be a kindly Jerry Garcia-type person with an ability to talk to birds. On the other hand, the girls were excited to see the Elephant Show; elephants are always motivating. With sippy cups and sunblock in tow, we ignored all logic and headed to the country.

If I was a superstitious person, I would have known better. It had been my husband’s plan to have a simple picnic that day. He has an unusually adept intuition about how to spend a Sunday afternoon. I rarely plan these outings, and when I do it rarely flows naturally. My intuitions are better attuned to family illnesses and what to fix for dinner, whereas he’s the family planner. We all have our strengths.

Then we couldn’t find Elizabeth’s zoo pass; another bad omen. We searched and searched with no luck. Meanwhile, an inner alarm started to ring within us. It was near 11:30am, and it’s always best to arrive at the Wild Animal park before noon -- even on a good day. Tensions escalated and we finally called the zoo to confirm they would let us enter without her pass. They said they would.

To get to the Wild Animal Park, you drive along thin little roads that wind through the San Diego hillside. It’s usually a lovely trip that takes you past wineries, nurseries, and Emu farms. Within 30 minutes, you've left the burbs behind and entered a pleasant rural zone. As you round each turn, you come across vegetable stands, egg stands, and Blue Blocker stands (yes, they still make those).

How heartbreaking it was to drive along and suddenly come face to face with another car’s bumper...who was behind another car who was behind another. Our pleasant rural zone was clogged with traffic. We landed near the nursery just before the Emu farms. I imagine Emus standing along the fence stretching out their long necks and sticking their tongues out at passersby like the Roadrunner. Disheartened, we turned around in someone’s dirt driveway.

That’s when the wailing began.

Parenting Note: Don’t excite the girls about upcoming trips. Just strap them in the car and tell them where they are when they get there.

“Oh no! I’m not going to see the elephant show!” Tears streaming. “I never saw it. I really, really wanted to... I wanted to see the elephants.” Poor Elizabeth.

Parents often try to fool themselves into believing their children don’t really feel as intensely as they behave to these relatively minor disappointments. When someone takes their toy, or puts them to bed before they’re ready, or doesn’t take them to the elephant show, we try to brush it off. “They’re just trying to make us feel bad. No one could possibly be that disappointed because someone stole their napkin.”

But trust me -- it’s real. If you listen carefully, it’s relatively easy to distinguish manipulation from actual crying. I’ve heard enough to know the various cries -- I know it can be confusing. There’s the Cry for Attention that usually involves a lot of eye contact on their part. There’s the I Don’t Like That Cry that turns their faces red and involves some sort of hitting gesture. There’s the Cry of Pain that’s accompanied by pouting and demands for a bandaid.

The Cry of Manipulation, on the other hand, is bland. It has no soul. It’s fueled by perseverance, rather than conviction. Most importantly, it only works if you allow it to work.

The Disappointed Cry is another animal, so to speak. My girls prefer to throw their heads skyward or down into their hands when they’re disappointed. Their eyes search left and right seeking the cause of unfairness. There are lots of tears and lots of questions. Why? WHY? But there’s no doubt in my mind that they are really feeling disappointment...to the core.

Which makes sense when you think about it. They don’t know about mortgages, deficits, or food shortages. They haven’t yet accepted that life isn’t fair and that someday they will be FAR more disappointed when their boyfriends don’t call them and they discover they can’t afford to go to college. Today their reactions are based on their limited life experience, and based on that, not seeing the elephant show really, really sucks!

So based on who we are, where we live and our current set of expectations, we were pretty damned disappointed. Like all good parents, we tried to convince Elizabeth that there are better things to do than go to the Wild Animal Park -- like eat at the Food Court in the North County Mall. Hooray! You may not believe this, but it worked; mostly because we promised that she could eat whatever she wanted. To that end, none of us faired too badly. For once we all agreed on beef/chicken and noodles at the Mongolian Wok; followed, of course, by handfuls of chocolate-covered raisins from the candy machine.

Afterwards, we drove home full but still irritated by our disappointing day. Our minds wondered how we’d salvage it. Samantha was still awake when we arrived home, so Michael took her to the park. Elizabeth fell asleep in the car so I carried her off to bed. I decided that since my day had turned to crap, I’d write about it. If I was lucky, at least I’d get a story out of it.

I was at the computer when Elizabeth awoke a little later. Sweaty from sleep, she came up to me smiling.

“I had a really great day today,” she said and gave me a hug.

“You did?” I asked, dizzy from her unexpected, unprompted statement.

“Yes! I did.”

That’s another thing. When you really listen to your child, you can tell when she's being sincere, too. I didn’t ask her to explain or tell her she was crazy. I just kissed her sticky forehead and said, “I’m glad, sweetie.”

Huh. I guess we didn’t lose our heads, after all. Which just proves that I have no idea what's going on.

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