Last year, for his birthday, we got Boy a balance bike. It’s probably the best thing we’ve ever gotten him; for pure cost-to-satisfaction ratio, it might be the best thing anyone’s ever gotten for anyone. He loves it. He pretends he’s a mailman, or a pizza man, or a “natto man,” or our friend Richard, who rides a yellow motorcycle. But he’s 4, so “I want to ride my bike” translates to “I want you to drop whatever you’re doing and stand outside and watch me ride my bike for a long time. I plan to risk my life a few times. And I will never, never agree to come inside again.” So I have some complicated feelings about that bike.
Also for his birthday last year, Boy received a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. By my math, with about 400 days having passed between then and now, and three stories a night, I’ve read that book one million times. Here’s how we start every night:
Me: OK, Green Eggs and Ham it is.
Boy: Papa? Ham is meat.
Boy: Meat is yucky.
Me: Yeah, I don’t want to eat meat. Especially green meat.
Boy: Yeah, I don’t want to eat meat either. Papa?
Boy: People are meat.
Me: Can we read this thing?
And we start. Boy thinks it’s hilarious when the guy who keeps saying no (Is he Mr. Knox? This drives us crazy) comes around at the end and decides he likes green eggs and ham. I don’t know why. But I, recognizing a teachable moment, always seize the opportunity to point out that the every-single-thing-on-the-plate-that-wasn’t-bread that we had for dinner that evening might have been really delicious if only he’d tried it. It might have turned out to be his favorite food. “Hummus,” I tell him, “might be your green eggs and ham.”
“But ham is meat.”
I also spin a pretty good story about what foods will and will not turn him into a superhero. Foods that give you powers are “genki foods.” Broccoli is a genki food — if you eat enough, you’ll get bigger when you sleep, and then you’ll be super, SUPER strong. There are lots of variations on this, but at its core, the narrative is pretty consistent: the thing that you think you will dislike may actually be something that you love; more than that, it will be the very thing that empowers you. It can sound a little silly, probably, when we’re telling him about the superhuman feats he’d be capable of if he would just eat some beans. He’s probably on to us by now — he certainly doesn’t find us very persuasive.
But the thing is, it’s all true. And I know this for two reasons. The first is that I married someone who patiently encouraged me from the start to try new things. Fifteen years into this relationship, I think all my favorite foods are things I learned about from Tracy. I wasn’t raised to be adventurous about food, or even to think about it much. I didn’t know that people ate broccoli without butter, or that an avocado could be a food all by itself. If someone had tricked me into eating an avocado straight when I was a kid, it would have blown my mind. Ginger? That’s a food. I just had no idea. So I can use these kinds of stories as part of my argument with Boy. And he likes that — he likes the idea that Papa was once a boy too.
The second reason I know I’m not lying, though, would be too difficult to explain. That balance bike — that’s my green eggs and ham. I fight it. My body slumps a little when he says he wants to ride it; I look around the room for some sort of assist. If I give in, it’s always with a sigh, and before we even get outside, I’m telling him how he’d better come inside nicely when it’s time. I just get tired at the thought of it, and I probably show him that in a hundred little ways, even though I don’t mean to.
And for what? Why? Do I want to stay inside so that I can mull around and obsessively check email for no reason? Would I really rather watch Sesame Street than be outdoors with my son? Do the dishes need to be washed this second? This is how karma works — we fall into a rut, and even when there’s no reason at all not to change our pattern, even when that pattern is harmful, we just stay there.
What I can’t explain to Boy is this: “The thing you think you won’t like is good for you, and the reason I know is that sometimes I think I’m not going to like playing with you. But I love playing with you. It’s my favorite thing.” When I let go and just embrace it — when I make a tunnel with my legs and Boy rides through it, when he delivers a strawberry-and-potato pizza and insists on paying me, when he risks his life riding down that hill with his legs stretched out to the sides just so that he can say ‘boing!’ when he gets to the bottom — these, I love. And just like broccoli, the whole thing makes me stronger. I spend so much energy resisting this kind of play, when actually playing costs me nothing.
In Green Eggs and Ham, the guy has a kind of awakening. He actually says, “I will eat them here and there. Say! I will eat them ANYWHERE!” He’s so sure of this; I’m sure he really means it.
But I suspect he also forgets. Maybe it’s because I’ve read the book so many times, but I see it on a loop, with Sam endlessly having to push and push and guide the guy back to what, in some part of his brain, he already knows: that he loves this.
Boy, by the way, actually loves hummus. Sometimes he just doesn’t remember.