Thursday, March 17, 2011

Adventures in Public Space

There is a difference between public space and private space. This difference has nothing to do with physical arrangements or locations or whether one is inside or outside a home. Instead, it has everything to do with how we distribute our activities and regulate our behaviors across different places.

I find myself very conscious of these differential spaces when I am out with my children. When we step outside our home I am aware that people are watching. The expectations I assume they have lead me to subtly alter what I let the children do. While Polly and Pip don’t fully comprehend the reasons for this, they certainly are aware that some difference exists. They know that outside our home they cannot do exactly the same things that they do in our living room.

During our family’s recent trip to Florida, this dynamic became the key element in creating one of those incredible, unscripted moments that make having children so much fun.


Last fall, I checked out a CD of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf from our public library and brought it home for Pip and Polly. In looking for things to do as the days were getting colder and shorter, I thought this might capture their attention. The music, as I remembered it, was lively and interesting without being too complicated, and, as a bonus, it provided a brief introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. I hoped that on a morning when we could not get outside, we might be able to sit down and pass a good half-an-hour listening to it.

As it turned out, Pip loved it. The first time I popped the CD in the stereo he sat still and listened to the entire thing. Then, immediately after it finished, he asked to listen to it again. The next day I showed him pictures of the instruments as we listened and he quickly became able to identify both the instrument being played and the character that instrument represented (a flute for the bird, violins for Peter, french horns for the wolf, a clarinet for the cat, an oboe for the duck, a bassoon for grandfather, etc). Soon Polly began to pick up on these associations as well. Over the next several months Ava and I checked out the CD a few more times and with each iteration Polly and Pip added something new to the way they interacted with the music. First, they pretended to play the various instruments, turning appropriately shaped toys into a flute, a clarinet, a bassoon, a french horn, and a violin. Next, they took to rearranging the furniture in our living room to create the setting of the story. They put Peter’s meadow with its pond and tree in the middle of the room, built a stone wall out of the couch, designated the dining room as the forest, and placed the garden gate by the front door. When all this was set, they then proceeded to act out the characters’ various movements – Peter dancing through the meadow, the duck swimming in the pond, the wolf circling the tree where the bird and the cat had taken refuge, Peter lassoing the wolf’s tail from the tree.

Most recently, Polly and Pip have begun to sing the different character themes even when the music is not playing. They do this mostly when they are bored or want to add some noise to a quiet moment. Pip has a good handle on the basic rhythms and tone changes involved in the themes for Peter, the wolf, and grandfather. He also knows snippets from the action scenes like when Peter and the bird work together to lasso the wolf. Polly knows the wolf fairly well and can follow Pip’s lead on the other bits.

Pip’s favorite segment is what he calls the “Triumphant Peter.” In this segment, Peter’s theme is played loudly and happily by the entire orchestra as Peter and the rest of the characters escort the captured wolf to the village zoo. Pip likes to belt this out at the top of his lungs while marching and waving his arms in the air. After watching him do this a couple of times, Polly now joins in with him whenever Pip gets the Triumphant Peter going.


During the first full day of a week-long Florida vacation, while we were all both exhausted from the long drive and excited by the sunshine and warm temperatures, we went out to lunch with Ava’s parents. They took us to a foodie version of the Old Country Buffet called Sweet Tomatoes which combined a twenty-yard long salad bar, a foccacia pizza station, a variety of freshly made soups, and an ice cream bar with cafeteria-style trays and service. It was housed in a space that was reminiscent of what loft apartments used to look like – concrete floors, walls of painted cinderblocks, an open ceiling where steel girders were snaked with electrical conduit and HVAC ductwork. It was the kind of room that echoes, and the full lunchtime crowd created a constant, though not unpleasant, din.

After filling our plates for the first time, we found a table in one corner of the sitting area. Then Ava and I took turns eating and shuttling small plates of food to the kids while Grandma and Grandpa entertained themselves by watching Pip alternately nibble on raisins and engulf slices of cheesy foccacia bread and Polly hammer a plate of macaroni and cheese. We all found it particularly funny when Polly finally eschewed utensils altogether and started grabbing little fistfuls of noodles and cramming them into her mouth.

Once he got some food in him, Pip’s attention drifted towards his grandparents, and he began telling them about all the things he had done that morning. I don’t know the exact sequence of the conversation, but at some point he started singing some bits from Peter and the Wolf for them. This singing was relatively quiet at first as Pip gave them quick renditions of the themes for Peter and grandfather. Polly then followed with her version of the wolf theme. The bemused smiles on their grandparents’ faces encouraged them to continue, and Pip launched into a three-quarter volume version of Triumphant Peter.

As he got going, his eyes turned to watch my reaction. When I didn’t move to stop him, he started ramping up the volume and raising his arms above his head. Polly followed right along with him and by the time they made their second pass through the Triumphant Peter theme, they were singing so loud that Ava could easily hear them from her spot in the buffet line and the people to our left were openly gawking at us with a mixture of amusement and incredulity.

I’m not sure why I didn’t stop them. Normally this kind of spectacle is something I work to avoid because it makes me look like I don’t know how to control my kids. That potential for being judged harshly by others is a perpetual quality of public space, and as a full-time father, I feel it acutely even in moments when that role is not obvious to others. This awareness has me constantly trying to rein in my kids’ public displays of silliness with the hope that they will be perceived as the most polite, most intelligent children ever to walk the earth.

This time, though, Pip and Polly caught me off guard. Maybe it was the idea of being on vacation or perhaps I had subconsciously handed them off to their grandparents for a few minutes. Whatever it was, by the time I fully realized where they were headed it was too late to reel them in. They were going full-bore and their singing was so vibrant, so free, so purely happy that the only thing to do was to let that corner of Sweet Tomatoes become our living room for a little while.


When they were done, there was no clapping or cheering. Everyone around us just chuckled a little and turned back to their food. The background noise of the restaurant, which Pip and Polly had muted with their singing, quickly returned in a clamor of overlapping conversations, utensils clinking against plates, and serving trays sliding along the buffet lines. Nevertheless, Polly and Pip were thrilled by their moment of ecstatic transgression. They knew they had done something out of the ordinary, and they were excited by the attention it had brought them. The satisfaction of commanding that corner of the restaurant for a few minutes shone in their eyes.

There were plenty of memorable moments during our Florida vacation. We saw fireworks. We played in the sand. We rode in boats. We watched birds. But all of these activities were things that we planned to do, and because of that I imagine most of them will fade into photo-memories relatively quickly.

However, that moment in Sweet Tomatoes with its unscripted, exuberant, and slightly discomfiting quality will remain with me far longer. For a short while, the kids turned my world upside down. They took control while the adults stood by and watched. They brought some of our home’s idiosyncrasies into a public place. They basked in the attention that came their way. And, in the process, they conjured up one of those rare moments of pure freedom when the divisions of space, time, and social expectations vanish into thin air.

It makes me think I should let them loose a bit more often.

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Elizabeth said...

Great story. Serious question -- do you think you would have been as comfortable doing it if the kids were loudly singing, say, the scooby doo theme song? Or something else from pop culture that didn't signal that you are "good parents" even as your kids behaved in this somewhat transgressive way?

We went to Disney this winter, and stayed at one of their resorts. One day, both boys were somewhat under the weather, so we just hung around the resort instead of going to the theme parks. At the cafeteria at lunch, they suddenly put on the macarena and the staff started dancing -- and my son went up and joined them. He had a blast, but I was cringing a bit the whole time.

Jeff said...

That's a valid question, and one that I can't answer. I have no idea whether I would have felt qualitatively more nervous had they been singing Scooby Doo or some Justin Bieber song. In some ways those songs might have revealed a bit less of our family's idiosyncrasy and made our kids singing into a more normal, or at least less odd, production.

The Quilt Fairy said...

A lovely story indeed. I always enjoy kids' unchoreographed performance more than the one resulting from parents' commands and pleas. Kids expressing themselves in an unstructured and uncensored by the parents way is a great tool for benchmarking our parenting efforts and skills. As parents we all have good intentions but the results are not always what we have expected. Kids' inappropriate performance can be very uncomfortable for parents and audience alike but it's also the perfect validation of our parenting efforts. It gives us an opportunity to correct and adjust now rather than 20 years down the road.