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A few weeks back, I participated in my first silent auction, and if you’re a parent of an over-2-year-old, you’ve already guessed that it was a school fundraiser. I loved it! Felt a lot less stressful than the movie versions of Sotheby’s auctions. (Not that I don’t want to be Cary Grant in North by Northwest, but somehow I doubt I’m pulling that off.) You know, you just walk around the tables, read about the things to bid on, write down your name under the last person to write their name, bid a little more than they did, and repeat, and see what you come up with at the end. In our little family’s case, we won/paid for four things, including a trip for four to the Oakland Zoo.

For some reason, we haven’t spent a lot of recent time at zoos. Well, perhaps that’s partly because, in our experiences taking Dar to the ones in D.C., Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland, he hasn’t really seemed to notice most of the animals. Of course, this leads to a circular logic: in our reaction to discouraging outcomes, we’re reluctant to try again, and thus Dar becomes more averse to zoos. Not really fair to him or his brother, who I believe was still baby-carriage-bound the last time we hit a zoological society.

So we tried the zoo thing, and yes, Dar’s brother R was pretty darn interested. He certainly knew all the names of the animals when I asked “What is that?” (Okay, eland was a new one, for daddy and child.) But we’re not here to talk about Dar’s probably-neuro-typical brother. How was Dar’s day at the zoo?

In recent months, wifey and I had come close to throwing away the double stroller, and I am so glad we didn’t. Is Dar too big for it? Yeah, maybe. But the one place where no stroller can be inappropriate is the zoo. I mean, they’re everywhere, in shapes and sizes I didn’t even know existed. The Oakland Zoo would have rented us a double-stroller if we’d forgotten ours. We take nature walks every weekend sans wheels, and so dumping a grouchy, heavy five-year-old in a stroller feels like such the luxury. Upon said dumping, I think I sensed confusion on the faces of Dar and R as well: oh, wait, if I whine and complain enough, I don’t get to ride on Daddy’s shoulders for a few minutes? That’s weird. Yeah, deal with it.

So what about Dar and the animals? Well…I really don’t know. Picture taking your neuro-typical five-year-old to Paris for a day and then asking him how much French he learned. Maybe there was some absorption by osmosis. Having been burned in the past, I wasn’t even sure how to ascertain that his 3-year-old brother was seeing the animals, until I insisted on asking him “what is that?” or “what is he doing?” (Typical response: “eating” or “sleeping.”) I only felt confident that little R didn’t need glasses when he saw a monkey move from branch to branch and said “He’s swinging like Curious George!” Ah, that’s my boy, first referent TV, second referent the real world. With Dar, God only knows. I’d point out things (energized by R), but Dar was more likely to stare at his hands or the hat he’d taken off my head.

The Oakland Zoo does not exactly boast a surfeit of God’s creatures, but it does have a very cool ski-lift-like sky ride, something that seems all the more exciting to me now that it seems as though Disney parks (and the Santa Cruz Boardwalk) have closed theirs in perpetuity. In 20 minutes, you hover over lions, camels, bison, and other big guys, you kick the tops of trees with your feet, and you see the panorama of San Francisco and its bay. The thing is, Dar freaked out while we were in the queue, and I pictured him flailing on this thing 100 feet above the zoo with 19 minutes to go…no. So I asked wifey if she wanted to be the one to stay with Dar or go with R. She let me have the fun and the partial guilt. As we ascended, I felt that Dar probably could have handled it. The safety bar is not like a ski lodge’s – there was no possible wiggle room to get off (which didn’t stop me from locking my finger in the back loop of the belt-part of R’s jeans anyway). R didn’t flail, but instead smiled ear to ear and kept saying “we’re flying!”, which I think is appropriate for a 3-year-old, 13-year-old, or 23-year-old.

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So if Dar keeps freaking in queues, how will we ever learn if he can handle the ride once he’s on it? As it turned out, we forced the issue at the Oakland Zoo’s “Adventure Playland,” which is exactly as cheesy as you think. We tried some very brief queues, and managed to get him on the zoo train as well as the carousel and the little cars that go in a circle. In one such small queue he rebelled more than the others, and that made sense, because it was a (very junior-league) roller-coaster. So maybe we are learning what he wants to do, a little. It would be nice to think that motion rides would have the same kind of salubrious effect on Dar that Temple Grandin describes as the chief benefit of the squeezing devices she helped develop: a sense of being held, or rocked, in a pleasing, rhythmic fashion. Sometimes Dar seems to react to car rides that way; sometimes he doesn’t.

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On the carousel, Dar was fine before the ride began. Then, as his leopard began to move up and down, his telltale lower lip quaver began, and that deep, abiding sadness that I know so well returned to his face – as though he’s watching someone he loves be burned alive. (This is just the week for that metaphor. We’ll be over Game of Thrones soon enough.) Standing next to his leopard on the merry-go-round I rubbed his back in a repetitive motion and said “It’s okay, that’s all it’s going to do. It’s okay, that’s all it’s going to do” again and again and again. And let me be clear that that doesn’t always work. But this time, it did. This time, it did.

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