Saturday, September 29, 2012

Plethora of Playgrounds

I’m a 42 year old father of a 2 year old. We got late start having a family, focusing on our careers first before entertaining the notion of offspring. I’d spent the sixteen years of my life preceding parenthood working in the video game industry, helping to create escapist entertainment ideally intent on appealing to the child in all of us.

Surely as the video game industry collapsed in Vancouver and I found myself thrust into the role of full time caregiver, my vocation designing interactive experiences would have me prepped and ready for my son’s core interests and pursuits, right? Not even bloody close.

Sure, I knew how to get a bottle ready and how to cut one half with water to help avoid a constipated baby. I could and should write a post on that science alone. I knew how to change a diaper, having changed the very first diaper our son Otis ever deigned to soil. I unwrapped the present that is the meconium charcoal briquette. Black gold, intestinal tar.

I knew the ins and outs of walking and rocking a baby to sleep. I understood, albeit through trial and error, which half remembered eighties ballads would lull a slowly rocked and chest cradled child to slumber over others. I knew just the right wrist snap technique to unfold the BOB stroller just like the Super Mom on the BOB website’s sales video. I knew how to adjust the straps on the Bjorn with or without the baby on board. I knew how to tell whole milk from skim and why to save the creamy congealed goodness from the neck of the class bottle rather than throwing it away as a younger, less experienced version of me might’ve done.

Turns out I really didn’t know all that much at all.

Upon realizing that to make our staggering Vancouver mortgage, I as a freshly unemployed type would need to do more than bedtime baths and the occasional bottle prep. I would be accountable for full time parenting, down to dusk, three days a week. Me, myself, and I suddenly became a one stop shop for all of our son’s needs, and turns out, I really didn’t know the half of what he needed, wanted, or might benefit from. Turned out he and I would be learning as we went, together on the journey of Papa and Son.

As my chief financial officer (CFO) wife described my new calling in life, handing it down like a Dead Man Walking sentencing, I nearly fainted. I reassured myself with ample dumb sentiments gleaned from a lifetime of sitcoms and John Hughes movies. When in doubt, ask yourself, what would Alice do?

I’ve been through Navy boot camp. Learning to pack the stylishly camo patterned baby bag for a day out is on par with any Attention To Detail drill my Chiefs put us through back in San Diego.
Milk? Check. Thermos of refill milk? Check. Snack cup loaded? Check. Anything in the snack cup he’s not into this week? Nope, check. Fruit cup? Check. Box of raisons? Check. Banana? Check. Diapers? Check. Wipes? Check. Sun hat or toque? Check. Dry shorts / pants? Check. Extra tee shirt? Check. Plush toy? Check. Plastic toy? Check. Red robot toy he will be delighted to see we’ve found once all else fails and nuclear meltdown is imminent? Check. “Soo-soo” soother? Check. Backup soother in front center pocket? Check. Back up to back up soother stuffed into the narrow back flap pocket? Check. And yet, for all that, I’d still manage to remember all the things I’d forgotten half a block away and have an internal debate as to whether to turn back or forge ahead. Cup of apple sauce? Can pick up more in town. The Ziplocs of crackers conjoined with organic low sodium peanut butter I’d made the day before? They’ll keep, can replace with a muffin at the corner coffee shop. Those dry socks I’d left sitting on the steps just inside our front door? There’s a Hudson’s Bay where we’re headed today, isn’t there? And why don’t those cool dinosaur and robot socks get made in adult sizes again?

Packing a bag for my son that’s adequate for a jut chin facing of the day is a bigger task than I ever would have thought and an openly evolving task as well. A toddler is as openly evolving as can be, with contradictory opinions and fickle loyalties to match. Yesterday he thought the plain bun from New Town Bakery in Chinatown warranted parades and the sort of overly curly confetti public works unions would charge triple overtime to sweep up. Today, handing him a plain bun from the same fine bakery at the very same time appeared to equate to handing an air crash survivor part of a loved one for sustenance.

My son’s name is Otis though we’ve nicknamed him “OT” for short since he, like the industry my wife and I are both veterans of, likes to make us work overtime. His working title while still going alpha in the womb was Bacon, because we didn’t want to know the gender and besides, everyone loves bacon.

The first day OT and I hit the streets, I followed habit and steered his BOB stroller towards the nearest park, the same one I’d walked our dog in for the past few years, thinking as any dog owner might, if I can get my boy to run around enough to poop, he’ll then nap and I’ll be able to look for work. At this point OT had just reached 18 months or so.

This plan sort of worked, except I’d grossly underestimated the kid’s stamina. A child that’s fresh on his legs and has recent memories of only being able to crawl is a far cry from a five year old hundred pound mutt that has the science of fetching a ball a couple times before squatting sorted. OT worked the playground apparatus over like it owed him money, then began to trundle off across the field looking for fresh adventure. He’d played and talked and run away aplenty, yet he still refused to poop and showed no signs of slowing. So much for my canine owner insight.

I bribed him back into the stroller with his snack cup and a bottle of milk, then leaned on the push bar of the stroller and wondered what to do.  

I remembered that there were playgrounds and parks close to Commercial Drive, thinking of Britannia’s selection of recreational options specifically. If one playground couldn’t wear the tiny titan out, surely two could? Plan decided, I popped the brake with a toe and off we head across the softball diamond and grassy field littered with markers from the proceeding night’s Ultimate Frisbee matches.

As we rolled along I chat with him about things we saw, got him to repeat the occasional names of things, and tried to determine a decent theme song for our first day’s adventure, since any good effort should have a theme song. After a few different sing song attempts, Otis latched onto John Williams’ “Imperial March” for his first ever cadence call, a definite geek win for fathers everywhere. On subsequent trips he latched onto “Whoop! Whoop! That’s the sound of the police!” and “Whoop! There it is!”

Onwards and forwards like the Franklin Expedition went we, him lolling about plundering his snack cup’s bounty, me talking away as though still doing 10 am scrums and worried about synergy or transparency of some other part of big business bingo. I’d point out things and ask Otis the color, he’d uniformly identify them as red, and we’d have a good chuckle despite not really, well, not really remotely getting one another yet. It’s only day one after all, dum dum dum dah dee dum dah de dum.

Otis and I arrived at Britannia on Commercial Drive just as the dayschoolers have absconded into whatever shielded sanctuary they might withdraw into. Meaning, the park is ours for the plundering, and plunder Otis does with earnest, waddling, climbing, stepping off things expecting to be caught, running away, sauntering back, and laughing hysterically whenever something unexpected happens, rewarding more laughing hoots and howls for repetition of those things until he feels ready to move on. I learned patently as Pavlov to live for the sound of his laughter, crave it, seek it out, and get creative finding new ways to surprise and engage him.

After about twenty intense minutes the smell of canned tuna gone off inside an Easter Egg basket left out on the surface of the sun since last March wafts across the park and Otis looks concerned. Eventually he’ll learn to answer the timeless question “Poop or Toots?” but that day he simply looked concerned, brow furrowed, making a deposit of ample return. I fetch the wipes and a fresh diaper and lead him to a clear patch for a pit stop.

After a fresh diaper change he’s ready for the stroller, spent like a returning hero and just as ready to sup on the bottle still largely full from before. I yield milk and steer us for Commercial Drive. There is a kid’s place with beaded soother tethers I want to check out that my wife’d told me about.

Otis is asleep by the time we’re waiting for the first crosswalk. Noticing this, I describe a new plan for daddy daycare, a game of sorts, a system. Perhaps I’m not going to be a game designer anymore by trade, doesn’t mean I can’t try to devise systems of play to better understand and enjoy time with my son.

Most days after that we set out in a different direction to explore and find, and play on, every  jungle gym and playground device we could find and he could safely access. Many devices were for bigger kids, and those would get earmarked for later visits. Day by day we mapped out a slew of playgrounds, further, figured out the best times and routes to take so that Otis could get nearly exclusive access with minimums of strolled time in between stops.

Not all playgrounds are the same, though there are a variety of recurrent themes. Watching OT learn how to overcome an aspect, like the spring loaded teeter totter or the gridded rope ladder, and see his excitement because he knows he’s accomplished something he couldn’t or hadn’t previously done, is amazing. And over the weeks I watched as his coordination improved, his determination and confidence mounted, and his stamina increased seemingly exponentially. While getting him tired enough to nap took longer, his naps also became longer, deeper, and sounder such that transferring him from stroller to bed became a possibility, rather than having to park somewhere with the strolled until he finally woke up. Fortunately Vancouver is a good place to be if you want to lounge somewhere with your sleeping boy in his BOB, grab a coffee and browse job openings on your smart phone leveraging complimentary wifi somewhere.

Not all playgrounds are actually playgrounds. There are malls around Vancouver and surrounding suburbs that can be easily accessed by the Skytrain. For example, the Chinese mall by Metrotown is essentially a giant donut shape, and most shops don’t open until later in the day. Taking Otis there in the morning to run laps and press prints of his nose onto many shop windows brings smiles to many of the elderly Chinese folks also there to exercise, and the food court has cheap bowls of white rice, a favorite of OT’s. Ditto the Chinese malls in Richmond. In Vancouver there is Oakridge Mall, replete with a Lego store and ample spots for a little lad to stretch his legs and ample sized washrooms for the inevitable diaper exchanges. Not all malls work, some get too busy, others don’t have easy accessibility for a big BOB stroller. Metrotown for instanced proved a bit of a nightmare to get out of after discovering access to the elevated Skytrain station platform would require a massive amount of backtracking.

Some stores work well in a pinch for toddler exploration. The Zeller’s stores generally have two floors, and the upper floor is typically empty. OT will wander around the aisles as though conducting an inspection for well more than an hour, occasionally picking things up and putting them down, especially in the toy section, yet largely he stays in the center of the aisle, hands stuffed into his jacket pockets, looking around thoughtfully. Eventually he gets tired and wants to be carried, or to return to the BOB, nap time never far behind.

Now that’s OT is two, he’d prefer to walk rather than ride in the stroller, at least, until he’s ready to nap; that part hasn’t changed. I only get him all to myself one day a week now, once I went back to work I ensured my new schedule still allowed me a day with my son during the week, at least while we can afford that luxury versus our mighty mortgage. Pack the baby bag, load the stroller, pick a direction, and play hard until it’s nap time. 

I wish everything in life were so simple.

Editor's Note: I originally crafted this post as my entry for this gig with Erika Ehm's groovy Yummymummyclub site: Might not have won the job, however at least got a good post from the opportunity.