But Yes the Hippopotamus

Maddie is obsessed with all books Sandra Boynton, as both boys were at her age, and perhaps that is because I have stuffed Boynton’s books down all of their throats, but that is only because I find them the most beautifully drawn, funnily written, and sneakily thought-provoking books out there, and I am including adult books in that equation. Perhaps my favorite Boynton is But Not the Hippopotamus, the story of a hippo who is not in step with her companions:

A cat and two rats
Are trying on hats.
But not the hippopotamus.

A moose and a goose
Together have juice.
But not the hippopotamus.

The hippopotamus watches all these gay activities, and clearly wants to be included, but is not sure how to make her move. Her front paws hover near her face in a way I find nearly heartbreaking. And then, the conclusion–

But then the pack
Comes scurrying back
Saying, hey! Come join the lot of us!
And she just doesn’t know:
Should she stay? Should she go?

The hippo is clearly torn, but then takes after them, suddenly weightless, absolutely free, calling,

But yes the hippopotamus!
(But not the armadillo.)

Despite this eleventh-hour introduction of the newly tragic armadillo, I always find it thrilling when the hippopotamus casts off her indecision and runs off to play. I want that happy ending for the hippo, because I identify with her so well. I hang back, I am shy; I, too, will hide behind a tree if I fear I cannot do something perfectly.

Growing up, I hated sports, and I don’t remember if my parents ever asked me if I wanted to play “Missy League,” though I know I most certainly did not. I told my mother I had a stomachache every Friday in an attempt to miss gym class, taught by the dreaded Mrs. Loftus. I hated the ignominy of sides-choosing, in which I was inevitably second-last, ahead only of the boy who still wet his pants. I hated the queasy feeling I got when Mrs. Loftus got out the red kickball and announced we were, once again, playing dodge ball, hated standing at the free point line to miss another basket with everyone watching, hated the pressure of performing something that I would clearly never be good at.

Now that I’m an adult, it is perhaps my biggest regret that I am not athletic, that no one ever coaxed me to join in, that I have no idea how to even exist in that world. There is a conversant way that men (and athletic women) have when they pick up a ball, they have this common knowledge and understanding, and I always feel a little bad, watching them, that I am still not sure on which hand one wears a baseball glove. Every Saturday morning, David and I take the kids to the local ball field for a parent and child pickup game. He and the boys dash to the far one side of the fence, and Maggie and I sit on the near side, in the grass, and I hope she will not notice too soon that baseball is evidently a game where daddies and boys play, and mommies and girls sit and watch. (As soon as Maggie is old enough, and probably well before, I know David will demand that she get in there, give it a try, and I am certainly all for that.)

This is no hyper-organized Little League, but a very gentle and modern sort of baseball game, where the kids are on one eternal batting team, and a couple of dads do the pitching and fielding, and they time their plays carefully so that no one is ever tagged out, and everyone at bat gets to swing until they hit. I imagine, watching them, that things might have turned out differently for me if there was a game like this for me when I was my sons’ age. Even so, after a few half-assed swings his third or so time around, Fergus walked around the fence to sit on my lap in the grass, rolling his eyes back until the whites showed, so that he would not cry. “I not very good at baseball,” he whispered.

“But you are, honey! You hit so many times!” I cooed, smoothing his hair. As someone whom sports always made cry, I let him stay there in my lap, even though his father was disappointed. While he lay there, though, I prayed, God, let my son not be like me. Let him go back out there, and have fun, and not give a rat’s ass whether he’s any good or not. Let him say: But Yes the Fergus.