This year you requested one final birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese before the video game token embedded in your hand begins to flash and signal that you’re too old for the Pizza Rat. How could we say no to something so overstimulating? For adults, Chuck E. Cheese is actually a wight, draining life out of us by his very presence. He gathered you and your friends to him as if he was the pied piper and led you to the front stage, where he made all of you dance. As a reward, his assistants made it rain tickets on you, which you enjoyed but all of the adults found unsettlingly weird.
You had another awesome Renèe cake, this one Portal themed. Last year’s cake theme was World of Goo, so you’re continuing your trend of wanting video games everywhere in your life. One day I’ll look at you and see ghostly life and mana bars floating over your right shoulder. Your current video game obsession is Skylanders, which combines addictive platform adventuring with collectible figurines. One night I said, “go brush your teeth,” to which you replied, “Did you say, ‘go play Skylanders’?”
“No,” I answered, “I said, ‘go brush your teeth’, which doesn’t really sound a lot like ‘go play Skylanders’.”
“Well, that’s what I heard.”
I don’t know how much longer you’ll be addicted to Skylanders, though. At lunch on Sunday you announced that you were planning on getting into Pokémon soon. That sounds remarkably like “I think I’ll develop a crippling meth addiction next month” to me, but we’ll see how it goes.
Your big gift from all of your grandparents was a Kindle, because, hey, we might as well get you addicted to electronics early. It’s been great because you love reading and you really love gadgets. If the Kindle also mass-produced Legos out of a 3D printer on its side then it would be the most wonderful invention ever. You’re as in love with reading as I was at your age, and just like me, you get so lost in what you’re reading that you don’t hear other people talking to you. You discovered Roald Dahl’s books and have been tearing through them. I’ve also been reading The Hobbit to you at night. I’ve discovered that I can’t keep the voices I’m using for all of the dwarves straight. I’m not Peter Jackson, so I can’t use funny beards to help you keep track of who’s who in the book.
When you’re reading, you’re still and quiet. The other 120% of your life is spent talking. You’re incredibly social, wanting to talk to anyone and everyone about your day, their day, what’s been going on, and what Skylander character you’re most in love with right now. Most every thought that comes into your head pops out of your mouth, as if your brain is on speakerphone. When I get home from work you start telling me stories about your day and what random junk you found at school and the Lego figure you just built and also what are we going to do tomorrow, no, not school, after school. Even when you don’t want to talk you can’t help yourself, the words piling up in your brain and threatening to squeeze out of your nose and ears if you don’t open your mouth and let them escape. “Dad,” you’ve said on more than one occasion, “I thought of something but I don’t want to tell you about it.” “Okay, then don’t,” I’ll reply. “Okay.” (beat) “So what I was thinking was…”
Not only are you an extremely social person, you’ve got a flair for the dramatic. When you want to express puzzlement, you cock one eyebrow and purse your lips. If you’re unsure about what we’ve told you but you’re willing to accept it anyway, you say, “Oooooooooooooookay,” threatening to use all of our city’s allotment of the letter O. You don’t walk into a room, you make an entrance.
This year we decided to tackle your all-carb diet and try to make you appreciate other foods. Every day you have to take one bite of food you normally wouldn’t eat. This is tricky: if you really don’t want to eat something, you fret so much about it that you make yourself ill. It’s not helped by how you want to take that bite. Instead of eating, say, one green bean and being done with it, you eat half of a green bean. Then you eat half of the remainder. Then you eat half of that remainder, until the ghost of Zeno rises up and threatens to slap you if you don’t just eat the damn thing. But you’ve gotten better at trying out new foods. You try something and give us a thumbs-up that turns to a thumbs-down and rotates between the two options before settling on a final value that is usually mostly thumbs-down. We got a 45-degree thumbs-up from you one time, which was a miracle. It’s also improved your negotiation skills. “Can I eat hummus for my one food today?” you ask innocently, hoping we’ll forget that you’ve been eating hummus since you were two.
In fact, you want to negotiate everything. You’re nine, which means you want to argue a lot, but since you’re Eli those arguments are more akin to hostage negotiations. “I know you said I couldn’t bring a toy in the car, but I really want to take my Nintendo DS. I can’t? Then maybe I should take a small Lego figure, but since they’re so small, I’ll take two. How about just one? Maybe a single Lego brick?” You’re also a planner. Your mom and I will often hear you playing with your sister Liza and saying, “So first we’ll build up a Lego fortress and then your My Little Ponies can attack.”
I’m always amazed at your creativity and how your thoughts dash from topic to topic. You’re constantly dreaming up new things. You went bowling as a school field trip, because this is Alabama and when it comes to educational field trips it was either bowling or a trip to a deer taxidermist. That evening you excitedly told me, “Dad! I invented three new ways to bowl!”
“Do any of them involve rolling a ball down the lane towards the pins?”
“I invented four new ways to bowl!”
Speaking of school, the pace of learning has dramatically increased. This year you’ve added an accelerated learning section every Monday. When your mom and I first were told about it we thought it was called AGS, which we could only logically assume stood for “Alabama’s Got Smarts!” We imagined it as a reality show where you have to answer trivia questions or Ken Jennings shoots you in the head. Anyway, you’re enjoying the accelerated learning class, but it’s one more thing to deal with every week. Third grade is when they really start bearing down on you to learn what you need for the standardized tests that will pave the metaphorical highway of your grade-school education. Overall you’ve taken it in stride, with the exception of spelling. You learned to read very quickly and have a gestalt approach to reading, so you’re not absorbing spelling words from what you’re reading. Even worse, you’ve got my dislike of memorizing stuff just to memorize it, and that makes your weekly spelling tests a chore.
Along with being super social, you love people. You have a deep reservoir of empathy that you draw on every day. Last December your mom went to Nepal as part of a group of women to help Nepalese women. That left you, me and Liza on our own for two weeks. Early on I was having a hard time, pulled between your needs and work and missing your mom something terrible. I was frazzled and unfairly taking it out on you and Liza, a time-honored parental pastime of directing frustration at our kids. You came up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, dad. What can I do to help?”
Your one empathetic weak spot, the wood to your Golden-age Alan Scott, is Liza. You love her and you want to be with her, but you can’t help doing things to get a rise out of her. When the two of you are playing, you alternate between including her in what you’re doing and ignoring her completely. You want her witnessing every thing you do, and yet you don’t want her having her own opinions. Welcome to life as an older brother! Think of it as training for middle management, the kind of job kids dream of having.
Your birthday celebrations lasted longer this year than they did last year, and yet the entire year has flown past faster than ever before. You’re a living refutation of the Theory of Relativity: even though you’re now moving faster than before, you appears to be aging more quickly than ever. You’ve lived with us for nine years. Chances are, we’ve been through half of your time with us. I try to pay attention to every moment, treasure them so that I’ll always remember, but they’re soap bubbles, popping even as my hand closes around them. That doesn’t matter, though. I have to remind myself that what you need is for me to live with you in the moment. After I was grown, when I talked to your grandparents about what I had learned from them and what I remembered, I was surprised to find that I mostly remembered things that had vanished from mom and dad’s memory. I have no idea what will become part of the mental tapestry you’re weaving out of your childhood. That’s scary and liberating, a reminder that now is what we have, and I am grateful beyond expression for that gift.