Thursday, July 17, 2008

Unique up on me

Josh is into jokes these days. One evening at dinner as we were talking about our day, he told us about a funny thing he saw during Elmo’s World in that run-on way that preschoolers talk when they tell the whole story all at once and talk faster and faster as they get to the end.

"I was watching Elmo today, and there was a beach ball and a football and the beach ball said, 'How do you like being a football?' and the football said, 'I get my kicks.'" Then he laughed that deep, guttural laugh that we often hear when he cracks himself up.

Eric and I looked at each other, impressed on several levels. First, we were surprised that he got the joke, and not only did he get it, but he thought to tell us about it. And not only did he tell us about it, but he recounted it well. He remembered all the parts, put them in the right order, and actually made the whole joke work. Wow.

Since that first success, he has been trying to come up with more jokes. Subsequent attempts have been less successful. They are almost always preceded with, "Listen to this funny joke. This will be the funniest joke you ever heard." Then there is often a long pause, finally followed by something like, "What if I went fishing all day and all night and all day and all night? Isn't that funny?"

The other day we were riding in the car, and he said he wanted to tell me a joke. "OK," I said, readying my indulgent (and by indulgent, I mean fake) laugh.

"But I don't know any," he replied.

So I immediately tried to think of one. "How do you catch a unique rabbit?" I asked, digging a simple joke out of my childhood.

"I don't know."

"Unique up on him!" I delivered with gusto.

He did not get it, but he did know when to laugh. This time I got his indulgent laugh, complete with exaggerated panting.

"How do you catch a tame rabbit?" I followed up.

"I don't know."

"Tame way! Unique up on him!" Ba-dum-bum.

More laughing and panting erupted from the back seat. The fact that those are difficult jokes for a three-year-old to grasp was completely overshadowed by the fact that they were simply jokes, and whether he understood them or not, they were easy to repeat. Request fulfilled. He now had two new jokes.

As we drove, I started to think about the word unique. First I merely thought about how it sounded just enough like "you sneak" to make the joke work. But as I continued to turn the word around in my mind, I realized that this penchant for joke telling was yet one more unique piece in the Josh mosaic.

When Josh was a newborn, I knew almost nothing about him. I remember staring at him as he slept through most of those first few days and wondering who he was. What were his quirks and charms, strengths and weaknesses, turn-ons and triggers? What things would he love most in this world, and what things would he avoid at all costs? And how many of those preferences would come from Eric or me, and how many would be completely individual?

In those first few months, I often found it difficult to distinguish between normal baby developmental milestones and his individual personality. Did he have a quirky love of his own feet, or was that a typical baby discovery that he would soon lose interest in? Was his urgency to move as much and as fast as he could a sign of physical prowess or a standard baby instinct?

Like the scientist I have become as a mother, I am constantly collecting small bits of data, piecing together hints and clues, testing out various hypotheses. Occasionally I even make breakthrough discoveries about my son — everything from how to get this particular child to fall (and more importantly stay) asleep, stop crying, or eat to what interests him (sports), how he learns (through simple explanation, play, and experimentation), and what motivates him (rewards, especially sweet ones).

And the more I learn about this curious little creature, the more surprised I am about his uniqueness. From his individual peculiarities to his passions and predilections, each one is so completely his own.

I was reminded of his originality again last weekend as we were walking to the park. Josh suddenly stopped his tricycle and pointed to the house across the street. "I see something interesting," he said as he gazed at the porch. I noted the familiar metal sculptures of a cactus and a sleeping gaucho that we pass every day when we drive out of our neighborhood.

"Are you looking at those statues?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied. "I've never seen those before."

I suppressed a knowing smile. "Actually you have. When you were little and I would take you for stroller walks, you would always point to those sculptures and bounce up and down as we went by. You have always loved those."

He gave me a quizzical look. He loves hearing stories about himself when he was "a little baby," but I could tell he was wondering whether to believe me when his three-year-old mind was telling him those standing pieces of art were completely new to him. 

Yet even in spite of himself, he is remarkably consistent in his unique preferences. He is his own self — his own joke-telling, sports-loving, loud-noise-fearing, Mexican-sculpture-admiring, strong-willed-yet-sweet-natured self. No matter how often I forget that, no matter how many times I consider him simply an extension of me — no more separate than he was in the womb — his uniqueness keeps sneaking up on me. And I am once again awestruck by the amazing individual being he already is and can't help becoming. 

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