Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Space Cadet

Art by RiStarr of Deviant Art
I’ve got amazing powers of observation.

These lyrics floated on waves from my stereo to my teenage soul as I laid on my bed, eyes closed, watching the colors and pictures swirl.

“Yeah, me too.”

Then the plane crashes and machine guns fire as Syd Barret's sanity is locked behind an impenetrable wall, rendering him Comfortably Numb as he begins Waiting for the Worms.

As a fourth child, (one natural brother, two step siblings) I was often overlooked and sometimes left out of the older kids' activities, which usually suited me just fine. I had plenty of social time too, but those hours left to my own devices I spent observing my world and the people that inhabited it. I watched them act and react, pondering the impulses that animated them. I watched nature and studied the behavior of domestic animals. While I took it all in, I was unaware of my surroundings, time, hunger—I was anything but lonely and certainly not bored.

I acquired the nickname, “Space Cadet” because it sometimes took more than one attempt to rouse me from such a state.

I hated being called Space Cadet.

My world and my kid's worlds are so different. We were called for meals but otherwise left to our own devices from a very young age. In my kids' world, they are shoved into all kinds of prearranged situations in 'safe' play spaces with pre-arranged companions to do pre-arranged activities. No wonder today's kids are so anxious, it's rare for them to make even the simplest decisions for themselves and when life requires them to, they melt down. At least mine do. I digress.

In these pre-arranged activities such as a gymnastics class or a play-and-music class. There are the active go-getter kids, the social kids, and the observers that hang back and prefer to watch everything from a distance. Parents generally want their kids to be go-getter and/or social kids because they think their own child's unwillingness to participate means that he/she isn't benefitting from the activity or perhaps that something is amiss—nothing like having an audience when your kid is behaving weird.

I see the parents worry and try to urge their child to participate. I would tell them not to worry, I was also one such child, but the instructor has already done that. It doesn't help. The parent tries to coax their now recalcitrant child into the fray and sometimes misinterprets their behavior as a problem. If the observer's brain was hooked up to an electrical impulse reader they would be astonished at the level of activity that is happening in there. They are taking in an incredible amount of novel information. They miss nothing, the way the other kids move through, the way they react to each other, how they solve (or not) property disputes, what the parents are doing, what the instructor is saying, the pattern on the carpet... With all this input, it is difficult, if not impossible, to also talk and/or join in the activity.

However, after a period of time the novelty wears off, freeing up enough cognitive processing power to allow the child to join in. Not only will they have learned much about the specific skill they'll need to perform, they also have absorbed intricacies of the social situation from a less threatening third party perspective, and all kinds of other minute bits of data from their surroundings and situation. These kids can often perform a new task on the first or second try. Astounding to all but the child, who has carefully studied the trial and errors of the other children.

My dad took me down the river in his drift boat many times. The first time he let me sit behind the oars during a mellow stretch of water, I found I could quick-turn perfectly, pull to one bank then the other then right back in the middle, dipping my oars in the correct depth for each maneuver. Dad was coaching me, but I didn't need it. He thought me gifted, but I knew it was from the time I spent observing his movements. I have always want to try a full drift behind the oars, but I never got a chance, by the time I was strong enough he had injured his back. Then I moved away from rivers and the people who drifted them. And that was that.

Boots is a social kid who jumps right into an activity. She learns by doing, almost exclusively. She has a difficult time seeing from other people's perspective and I mistake that for being self-centered, when really it's lack of experience observing other people. How can she not see that?  I find myself thinking frequently.  She has no interest in learning by watching, even when it's something she's passionate about, like riding horses. We go to the horse fair every year and she quickly tires of watching the other girls ride equitation routes, (we're up so close!). I try to narrate what's happening to help her glean the learning opportunities and gain her interest but, alas, if she's not in the saddle, she could care less.

As an introvert, life can be taxing. When the blur of people moving, people talking, and kid meltdowns become too much for me, if I can't cover my ears and close my eyes, I either have a grown-up tantrum or shift into observation mode. I've only discovered this ability as an adult and often forget to employ it. But when I do, I am impenetrable.

My kids hate it.

In observation mode, life becomes a work of art. A toddler-tantrum becomes a charming phase of life that I'll one day miss. A punk kid becomes an artistic embodiment of modern culture— a thing of beauty. A skyscraper becomes the Roman Coliseum—something to be marveled at. The texture in bird feathers, the dynamics of their wings and movements becomes a wonder of evolution and beauty, their song something for which I wish I could capture on paper in measures and notes. My children's faces become animated sculptures of cherubic perfection.

As I pull myself back down, and push my attention outward, I am refreshed.


“Amy, are you O.K.?”

“Amy?? Amy!”

“Huh, wha? Yeah, I’m fine. Go away.”


  1. Oh yeah, I knew you'd have a cool take on that topic :) Enjoyed it immensely, thanks!

  2. Being a big introvert myself, I often am one of those parents that really wants Sam to get involved and become more involved with his peers. I know first hand how hard it can be to navigate through the world shy. But you've reminded me that it's ok that Sam be observant! Thanks!

  3. Arlen, glad you liked it! Thanks for the suggestion. I get stuck in ruts and it's cool to see what topics would interest other people. I'm glad you weren't disappointed...

    Lori, it's not only OK, it's kind of awesome. :) But, it's hard to allow our kids to be who they are. Especially if it touches on some past pain of ours. I struggle with it everyday I let Danielle out to school with a unruly mop of hair and the same holes-in-the-knees black stretch pants. I'm afraid she'll get teased or lose opportunities to make friends because of her lack of interest in her appearance... Ug.