Child’s Play

I took my 2-year-old to play in the ball pit at the mall the other weekend. It was one of the items on his special “weekend with daddy” agenda while my wife was gone at a conference. After we took off our shoes and fought our way up the ramp, through a crowd of amped up ball-pit kids, we jumped in. A kid’s happiness is a parent’s drug; the ball pit was a hit for us both.

After a few minutes of writhing around, Alex wanted me to lie down in the ball pit with him. My first thought – unfortunately, it's my first thought way too often – was: what will other people think? A grown man lying down in a ball pit? Never mind the fact that other dads in the ball pit were doing exactly the same thing. Never mind the fact that I’m new to this part of the world, know practically no one in this whole city and would, but for the ball pit and my 2-year-old, hardly ever come to this mall again. But that’s me. I worry about impressions. I compromised by squatting down to Alex’s level, so he could throw balls at my face from point-blank.

I get all that rosy self-help stuff about being young at heart. I get it that we’d all do well to rediscover the shrieking joy of being a two-year-old in a ball pit. I get it that imagining what other people might think is a lousy, shriveled basis for decision-making. I just don’t feel it deep down, usually.

When our half hour in the ball pit ended, I promised Alex ice cream to cajole him into leaving without complaint and putting his shoes back on. I handed a teenage attendant my debit card and we started that mindless transactional ritual: insert card, enter pin, stare at nothing for a few awkward seconds, exchange empty thank-yous. This time, though, the ball pit attendant broke protocol by asking me something about my card that I didn’t follow. Come again? She repeated herself. Again, I didn't copy. I was forced to admit: Sorry, I don’t understand.

I usually don’t stand out by appearance alone here. I quickly and often do, though, by my apparent dumbness and my accent. The attendant smiled apologetically and waved her comment off. Whatever it was (perhaps a remark on the appearance of my debit card, although it appears unremarkable to me), it was not crucial to my tendering payment for ball-pit services rendered.

All this was, I suppose, poetic justice. No sooner had I refused to flop like a child into the ball pit than was I feeling like a child again in that particular, and now, familiar foreigner sort of way. Things whiz over my head. When I read the newspaper, I usually understand the words but they come at me with little context, written by and for people who know much more about this world. Sometimes, after I finish a track workout, I hang around with other members of my team. When they clown and joke about things I don’t understand, I try to laugh at the right moments. I’ve been noticing Alex doing this more and more lately, too – laughing when he realizes that others around him find something funny.

After the debit went through, Alex and I wandered off, me the father, him the son, both of us children in need of ice cream.