Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Winter of Charlie

Remember that Seinfeld episode called "The Summer of George" in which George Costanza gets a three-month severance package from the New York Yankees and winds up being extra lazy? Well, I have named this season The Winter of Charlie. But it is not about laziness. Quite to the contrary, it is about keeping my younger son busy so he won't aggravate his brother Christopher.

This past fall inadvertently became The Autumn of Christopher. He played football on a team of first- and second-graders three times a week for close to three months. He performed in a Christmas musical six times over two weekends, which necessitated more than two and a half months of rehearsals lasting anywhere from one hour to three and a half hours at a time. And he was a Wolf Scout. That entailed an overnight three hours away round trip plus numerous den and pack meetings and other activities.

Charlie, being Little Brother, was forced to tag along to all of these activities because I had to go to them with Christopher. Football turned out to be not a problem at all. In fact, it was quite fun for Charlie as two other younger siblings of players, including his best friend, also attended practices and games. The three adorable little boys entertained themselves at a playground, on a hill, and on tennis courts near the practice field. They passed the time in magnificent form, nary a complaint among them, even after the days turned colder at season's end. It was lucky, too, that the weather happened to be equally magnificent nearly every practice day and definitely every game day.

Cub Scouts and Charlie didn't fare quite as well together. He has trouble at (let's face it) boring meetings -- and in the evening or on weekends, no less. Hey, many five year olds would find them pretty tough to take! He can't sit still with me in a school auditorium, which is where some of the meetings are held, and he gets equally fidgety in a folding chair in the mostly empty room of the Community Center where den meetings are conducted. Without warning, he might run up and down the aisles of the auditorium or leave altogether, requiring me to either catch him and attempt (usually fail) to bring him back to our row or follow him out the door to keep an eye on him in the school lobby, thus missing the meeting myself.

Really, it's like having a toddler! Yet Charlie is a kindergartener.

At the Community Center, his brother's Nintendo DSi XL is my savior because it holds Charlie's interest after I have sent him upstairs to a small play area. An electronic game and scouts don't mix, so I encourage Charlie to try to keep the Nintendo out of sight. Oh, did I mention Charlie has zero interest in the scouts? It's true. He does not want to become a Tiger Scout next year when he is in first grade and eligible. No way, no how! And that is fine by me. Good thing, too, because Charlie is not scout material. He is too rowdy, too uncooperative, and doesn't like being told what to do. I can't see Mr. Cool at all in the dorky blue uniform with patches, and I can't see him reciting the Cub Scout Promise. Maybe for Halloween, but that's about it.

Believe it or not, taking the child who is the opposite of a scout to scouting activities was not even the worst part of The Autumn of Christopher. It was making Charlie go to rehearsals and performances of his brother's show. Christopher landed a role in A Christmas Carol, which was being put on by the North Shore Y Theatre Company. It was not an awesome part like Scrooge or The Ghost of Christmas Present. It was not even a speaking role. It was the part of a random Londoner (in very generic and flowery terms, he was called a member of the "Ensemble"). He appeared in a few scenes along with what seemed like countless other random Londoners -- so many children onstage, in fact, that I was seriously worried someone was going to fall off the small elevated space and break an arm! He danced the polka in one scene and peddled fish in another but mostly just sang songs with others in the company.

In order for Christopher to play this plum role (not!), I had to drive him to a city located one hour away round trip. As rehearsals were held after school, Charlie had to come with me every single time. The trip was just long enough that it made no sense whatsoever to come home while Christopher practiced. Charlie, of course, was much too rambunctious to actually watch rehearsals. So how were we going to kill all those hours in that city?

Lucky for us, a very cool cafe is located kitty corner to the Y where rehearsals took place. Charlie and I became its best customers during The Autumn of Christopher. Charlie picked out a sweet snack and drink every visit, and I discovered the outrageously delicious build-your-own salads with the chef's killer homemade balsamic vinaigrette dressing. As the cafe also has board games and playing cards, Charlie and I entertained ourselves with Sorry!, Monopoly, and Battleship as well as Kings Corners and War. Moreover, a storyteller read to children one afternoon a week.

I had no strength left at the end of those weekdays to walk with my son anywhere creative like a museum or curious like a haunted house. (This is Witch City, Salem, Massachusetts, I'm talking about.) So after depositing quarters in the parking meter, he and I would head straight to the cafe decorated with comfy couches and contemporary art, albeit some of it racy.

Our "dates" were fun and tasty at first. But as time passed and rehearsals grew longer, Charlie's behavior deteriorated. He refused to return to the meter with me to drop in more coins. He wouldn't go upstairs to the room where the actors changed into costumes and applied makeup, forcing me to do Christopher's face in the busy Y lobby in front of the general public. Can you imagine? He threw a fit if he didn't win or wasn't winning the game we were playing at the cafe. And he became very demanding, wanting more sugary snacks (though eating very little of them), as well as presumptuous, helping himself to drinks in the case without first asking my permission. Ka-ching went the cash register over and over and over again! My wallet was being emptied at a furious pace, and my bank account, depleted.

As if all of that wasn't enough, he would tackle his brother the minute rehearsal ended -- causing a scene in front of cast and crew -- and continue the manhandling (or I should say, boyhandling) down the stairs, across the lobby, through the parking lot, and into the back seat of my SUV. After a long day at school, the commute to Salem, and an exhausting practice, Christopher just wanted to be left alone . . . not jumped on, punched, or yanked. My oldest son is the type who would be perfectly happy as an only child, and he has stated as much many times. Predictably, the rough behavior would bring out his anger, Charlie's evil laughter, and my frustration. Verbal fights would ensue, someone would get minorly hurt, and the tears would flow. "I HATE YOU'S" would then be thrown around as well as other dramatic statements such as "I CAN'T GO ON LIKE THIS ANY MORE!"

I wanted to pound my fists into the steering wheel.

One day after we'd hit rock bottom -- I'll save that story for the next post -- the show ended. Hallelujah! I couldn't believe it. I thought the moment would never come. I drove up our driveway and breathed a massive sigh of relief. That's when Christopher remembered he'd left his backpack full of stage makeup at the Y. Are you (bleeping) kidding me?! It was no joke. So one more hour-long commute it was . . . not just for the heck of it.

Long before this happened, I decided we needed to institute The Winter of Charlie. A huge imbalance of activities had aggravated these already existing problems to nearly the breaking point. Charlie's one forty-five-minute gymnastics class per week could not begin to come close to compensating for Christopher's hours-upon-hours involvement in football, scouting, and the show. Charlie would get many of his own activities to exercise his body and tire it out, leaving him with little need to take out his excess physical energy on his poor, undeserving brother.

First I considered wrestling. It seemed like a perfect fit for my aggressive son who can't keep his hands and body off his brother. So we went to a club meet. There Charlie had a chance to informally wrestle a slightly older team member and, though he did not win, he did very well, according to the coaches. He also wrestled a girl -- the sister of a champion with a mat in his basement, the daughter of a coach and, coincidentally, a first-grader at his own school. Again he lost, but he doesn't know any of the proper moves. The girl, meanwhile, said Charlie was very strong. Christopher can attest to that. Encouraged, I took him to a team practice. He lasted twenty minutes before crying and asking to leave. He claimed a boy pulled his hair during an exercise involving heavy body contact. He was done with wrestling, he said. What happened to Charlie is not uncommon, apparently. Several people including a coach told me that many of the young boys leave or want to leave at first.

Next I spoke to a karate teacher. Perhaps a martial art could give Charlie the physical component he craves as well as the discipline he needs. But Charlie was not interested in trying it out, and I was not interested in the exorbitant price.

Gymnastics, on the other hand, has always been a big hit with my son because he seems to be part monkey. Since friends of Christopher's used to take classes twice a week, the idea didn't strike me as outlandish for a child as young as five. So that is what's happening now. He takes a class at a Y and another at a gymnastics academy. Frankly, the combination is perfect. He is also enrolled in a basketball clinic (as is his brother) and just completed a series of four group downhill ski lessons at a small mountain nearby. I am thrilled to say that both sports have also been a great success with my naturally athletic son.

Due to my keep-him-busy strategy, Charlie's behavior has improved. There is still a long way to go, but he is a much happier boy. And that makes me a much happier mama.

The Winter of Charlie is going very well so far.

How do you balance activities between your children?

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