Improvising Monday

Last week Noah attended Improv day camp. It’s run by Round House Theatre, where he’s been going to summer day camps and spring break camps since he was in kindergarten. This year he moved up to the middle age group (nine to twelve year olds) and had his choice of more specific topics in theater. Since he loves role-playing games, we knew Improv would be a natural fit for him and it was. He loved the camp. (Who knows, it could be a family tradition—my sister has acted in several improv troupes over the years.)

On Friday afternoon there was a performance, or as they called it a sharing. The kids demonstrated several of their favorites from the games they’d been playing all week. Noah was in a taxicab sketch. As each new passenger entered the cab the others had to adopt a character trait of the newcomer. Noah said later this was his second favorite game. The one he’d hoped to be in was called “You’re Late,” in which an employee has to explain his or her lateness to a boss with help from other kids who are pantomiming possible explanations. Apparently earlier in the week Noah had successfully communicated the concept “alien abduction” to one of his peers by sticking his pointer fingers by the sides of his head, antennae-style.

Written up on a big sheet of paper behind the actors were the five Rules of Improv. Apparently, these rules were a big deal at Improv camp because Noah had also written them in his journal and commented on them to me earlier in the week. He was interested that they were different from the Five Pillars of Improv he learned on the Improv episode of Fetch, With Ruff Ruffman (http://pbskids.org/fetch/games/luge/index.html). (In case you’re interested these were: Support, Trust, Risks, Confidence and Fun.)

The rules, according to Round House, are:

1) Work with the Team
2) Listen and Respond
3) Make and Accept Offers
4) Say Yes
5) Stay in the Present

In her introduction, the camp director noted that these were not only rules for Improv, but also for life. I had opportunity to think about this on Monday morning. Beth’s union is having its annual convention and political conference this week, which has meant long hours for her, both this past weekend and the first four days of this week. On Monday, she left the house at 7:10 a.m. and did not return until 9:35 p.m. It was also the first day of a week when Noah would be home all day, after three consecutive weeks of day camp, so I needed to adjust the weekday rhythm June and I had developed to include him. The kids started arguing almost immediately after Beth left and by 7:45 I had snapped at Noah. This wasn’t getting off to a good start. I took a deep breath and tried to re-center myself. Work with the team, I reminded myself. Listen and respond. Make and accept offers. Say yes. Stay in the present. Here’s how it went:

Listen and Respond:

The next time I heard crying, I came into the living room and calmly asked for both sides of the story. It turned out there was no dispute about the facts on the ground. June wanted to make a coloring page for Noah and have him color it and Noah thought it was a good idea except he wanted to make the coloring page and have her color it. I paused to make sure no one wanted to add any nuance. This one seemed too simple. “What if you both make coloring pages for each other?” I ventured.

“Mommy, that’s a great idea!” June exclaimed.

“I should have said that when I thought of it,” Noah said softly. I left the room, my work done. (Of course they got sidetracked and didn’t make the coloring pages until today, but whatever, the screaming stopped.)

Say Yes:

At naptime, June was unable to fall asleep. She’d had trouble the day before as well, taking forty minutes to drop off. This day, I made her lie down for an hour and twenty minutes, sometimes cuddling with her and sometimes leaving her alone. In the abstract, I welcome any sign that June’s naps may end spontaneously because in six weeks she will be attending school from noon to three in the afternoon and if she doesn’t stop napping on her own in the next few weeks, I am going to have to make her stop and that might not be pretty. But as for her skipping her nap on any actual, specific day, it’s harder to for me to accept. There’s always something I want to do or I am exhausted and want to sleep myself. But even giving up after an hour and twenty minutes represents some kind of progress for me. The summer Noah was four and was in at the napping some days and not others stage I used to drive us both crazy trying to insist he sleep when he just couldn’t do it. The struggle could drag on for hours. So far there’s been a lot less conflict about the issue this time around. It helps that June likes to nap, so she’s willing to give it a pretty long try herself.

Still, she was out of bed a few times, finding me in the garden, or on the couch reading Prince Caspian to Noah, to tell me she couldn’t sleep.

Finally, I asked her, “Would you like to have Quiet Time instead?”

“Yes!” she said, so I got a forty-minute long CD playing in her room, provided her with crayons and a stack of drawing paper, and left Noah to read on his own while I lay down on our bed next to the fan, resting until the music stopped. She said yes, but I did too, yes to change, and to what comes next.

Work With the Team:

Monday was the only day this week I had no outing planned so I was hoping to accomplish a lot at home and I did—mowing the lawn, doing a couple loads of laundry, tending to the compost, weeding in the garden and staking some plants that fell over in the storm we had Sunday afternoon. I also had work for Noah. In addition to taking out the recycling, which he’s supposed to do whenever it gets full (and it was overflowing) and setting the dinner table, which is a new daily chore for him, I wanted him to clean the kids’ room. I reminded him of this, after Quiet Time was over. He protested a little, because this is normally a first weekend of the month chore for him. I explained we’d be out of town next weekend and this was the only day this week we’d be home all day. Next he wanted to know why he had to pick up June’s toys. (She helps with this chore as well but on a more voluntary basis. Often she wanders off before the job is done.) I told him Beth and I pick up things that are not ours all the time and it’s just part of pitching in and being a member of the family. I was prepared to mention that as he was cleaning the room, I was in the next room folding clothes, most of which were not my own, but I paused and saw I didn’t need to do it. He’d gotten back to work.

Make and Accept Offers:

Of course, being Noah he soon got distracted and was in my room sitting on the bed and fiddling with the air-conditioner. He pulled out the filter and found it was full of dust. Could he clean it, he inquired. Feeling a bit like Tom Sawyer, I said, yes, he could, if he finished cleaning his room. And he actually went and did it, and then came back and cleaned the filter.

Stay in the Present:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a completely napless June come evening, because this was the first day in her life she didn’t nap at all. Every other day I have resorted to Quiet Time (and it’s probably been less than five times) it was either because she took a very short nap (less than a half hour) and then couldn’t get back to sleep or she fell asleep during Quiet Time. That didn’t happen on Monday, but for the rest of the afternoon she was perfectly happy. She had no big meltdowns and didn’t even seem more tired than usual. After dinner, around seven, I asked her how she was feeling. Fine, she answered. Perhaps a little tired, I suggested. Yes, she thought she was. So I got her ready for bed and put her to bed around 7:25 instead of her usual 9:00. By 7:30, she was sound asleep.

Beth wasn’t home yet and wouldn’t be for hours still, so I had a free hour with Noah, which is a novelty. We decided to finish watching The Wizard of Oz, which we had started the night before. Our timing could not have been better, because while the first half of this movie was just about as much as June could take (she ran out of the room whenever the witch appeared and she appears much more often than I had remembered), the second half is pretty much non-stop menacing wizard, cackling witch and flying monkeys. We could not have watched it with her. It was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it without worrying about June’s emotional state. Noah liked it, too. When we got to the famous “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” line, he cracked up. While it’s a cliché to me, it was fresh for him and very funny and he made me see the humor in it all over again. I think it’s easier for kids to stay in the present, having so much less in their pasts, but sometimes being with kids helps us get back into that state of mind and that’s one of their best gifts to us.

By eight-thirty, Noah was in bed, too. I spent a little time online and then finished my improvised day in the bath, surrounded by sprigs of floating lemon balm and reading a collection of Victorian vampire stories Beth got me for our anniversary a couple weeks ago (http://www.walkerbooks.com/books/catalog.php?key=864).

Two more days have passed, long days, not without conflict, but not without fun either. We’ve been to June’s first-ever movie in a theater, which was a big hit, and attended an outdoor concert of kids’ music, which was not. June resumed napping. Now that we’re past the midpoint, my attention is turning to the end of the week, the kids’ long-overdue pediatrician appointments on Friday and packing for our upcoming trip to the beach. We’ll get through the rest of the week the same way everyone gets through every week, making it up as we go along.

2 thoughts on “Improvising Monday

  1. I loved this post– it was neat to see the way that you were able to use the improv rules in your daily life. I think parenting is all about improv, isn’t it?

  2. How cool that you are dipping your toes into my improv world. The biggest rule of improv is say YES, and what a good one it is. How often do we just respond “no” out of conditioning or close-mindedness.

    I also learned “make your partner look good.” Which is to say, if your partner screws up and calls you Gina when someone else already named you Tracy, instead of saying “my name’s not Gina, it’s Tracy,” you say “I’m going by my middle name Gina these days. Tracy’s got so many bad memories for me.”

    And one of my favorites is “enter the danger.” If someone makes an offer that they just heard a noise in the basement, you don’t sit around talking about what it could be. You go down to the basement! Otherwise the action never happens. Life is similar. When you’re scared, it’s usually a good sign that you’re moving in the right direction. Unless, as Dad once pointed out to me during a similar conversation, there’s a panther in front of you. Then you need to get the hell out of dodge.

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