3

All The Time In The World

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“Keep up, Gabe,” I said, tugging my middle child gently by the hand as we scurried across the parking lot. He kept trying to slide his hand out of mine, so I grabbed the edge of his sleeve as my eyes scanned for errant cars.

I had just picked him and his brother up from school, dropped Nick off at the park district, then swung by home to pick up snacks. Now we had 30 minutes to find Gabe a new pair of sneakers because we had discovered at 7:45 this morning that his feet had grown a full size in the night.

“Can I ride in the cart?”
“Oh no, sweetie,” I dismissed his request, pushing the cart ahead of me. “C’mon. We have a bunch of stuff to pick up.”

I half-dragged him to the shoe department where I snatched the first pair of decent-looking size 10’s from the shelf.

“I wanted ones that light up.”
I exhaled impatiently.
“I looked. I didn’t see any. These are good enough. Let’s go.”

As we passed through the grocery aisle, Gabe’s eyes grew large as he saw all of the forbidden snacks that lay just beyond his grasp.

“I want Cheetos.”
“Not real food, Gabe. I’ve told you that before.”
“But Nana – “
“No, Gabe. Now keep moving.”

I glanced at my phone. We needed to move faster if we were going to get through our list. Almond butter…where would I be if I were almond butter –

My musings were cut short by a primal, rage-filled scream reverberated through the hallowed halls of Target.

I rolled my eyes. Some poor kid had hit the wall.

Then I froze.

Wait, was that my son who had released that unholy sound?

I turned slowly, half-expecting to find some mutant devil spawn, complete with spinning head and spewing vomit. But no, it was still Gabe, albeit eyes wild, fists clenched, teeth bared.

“Heeeeeeey buddy…what’s up?” I tried to sound sweet, but it came out more like what the f-?

He unleashed the litany of wrongs which had transpired within the last 5 minutes.

“You didn’t get me Cheetos!”
“I wanted to ride on the cart!”
“I don’t want to hold your hand in the parking lot!”

And the final blow – his pièce de résistance – which he delivered with an accusatory finger jabbing the space between us to underscore each precious word.

“You’re not coming to my BIRTHDAY PARTY!”

(He had clearly forgotten that he had already uninvited me from his party yesterday.)

“Well, sweetie,” I began, pushing my cart to the side. “I understand that you’re upset, but here’s the deal: I’m not going to buy you Flaming Hot Cheetos because it will burn your tongue off. You’re going to walk because you are 4, and don’t even fit in the carts anymore. And finally, my dear, dear sweet boy –“ And for this last explanation, I crouched low, encircling him in my arms as I drew him closer. “You need to hold my hand because that’s how I keep you safe. You are just too important for me to let anything bad happen to you.”

The crazy dissipated from his eyes as his body slumped and he leaned into my hug. I rubbed his low afro, and pressed a kiss into his forehead.

“You are my special helper, remember?”

Whether I said it for his benefit or mine, I couldn’t be sure.

A wide smile spread across his face. In my haste to finish shopping in time to grab his younger sister from daycare then swing by to get his older brother from basketball, I had forgotten that Gabe needed time too.

To go at his own pace.
To have his own thoughts.
To breathe into the space of who he was…
And who he was becoming.

I gave him a final squeeze before fishing in my pocket for the shopping list I knew he couldn’t quite read yet.

“So we need to get 3 more things – dog food, detergent and waffles. What do you want to look for first?”

He stared at the list – perhaps able to identify a few letters despite my chicken-scratch writing.

“Skippy needs food.”
“Alrighty then!”

I stood slowly, lamenting the pop from knees. As we entered the pet aisle, Gabe stopped in front of the first bag of dog food.

“Is it this one?”
“No, hon.”
“This one?”
“We need a green bag, sweetheart.”
“This one?”
“No, that’s dark green. We need light green.”
“This one?”
“That’s not even green, Gabe.”

I could feel it starting again – the need to move a little faster, so we could knock off the other items on the list. Then I heard a little giggle, as he pointed to a red bag.

“This one, Nana?”
“Very funny, Gabe.”

We spent another 10 minutes there, playing his little game of I-bet-you-thought-I didn’t-know-my-colors-but-I-totally-do. This kid has a quirky sense of humor, I thought.

Thank goodness I had the time to appreciate it.

0

Surviving the First Week of First Grade

My little angel…the devil’s in the details

Generally, I don’t like surprises – except the time Lori proposed on our vacation to Vancouver and I sobbed like a girlie girl while Lori reconsidered the prospect of spending the rest of her life with someone with bloodshot eyes and snot running freely from her nose and she hiccuped “Yes” over and over.

I am not a pretty crier.

So with the first week of first grade under our belt, I was feeling pretty good that we’d had no surprises – no for-the-love-of-god-I-do-not-want-to-get-up-this-early meltdowns, no couldn’t-get-to-the-bathroom-fast-enough incidents, and no omg-you’re-kidding-if-you-think-I’m-going-to-sit-still-for-that-long interruptions.  The most stress I’d experienced was figuring out how to break it to Nick that he was no longer allowed to wear his signature colorful socks – seriously, I had to start buying him girl socks because the colors on the boy socks were too muted for his tastes – thanks to his Catholic school uniform.

So imagine my surprise when I opened his homework folder and found a pink slip listing various cafeteria transgressions.  Nothing major – smashed bananas, knocked over thermoses – the impulse-control actions that come with his age and the transition from “summertime and the living is easy” to “fall and the learning is hard”.

“FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST IT’S THE FIRST WEEK OF FREAKIN’ SCHOOL!!” started the non-stop lecture as we drove home.  Gabe and Olivia stopped head-bopping to their Elmo CD as Lori and I gave Nick the lecture of a lifetime.  Catholic school does not play when it comes to good behavior (or uniforms, for that matter), and we had to nip this thing in the bud.  Eyes locked on him in the rearview mirror, I launched my opening salvo.

“Did you or did you not smash Justin’s banana?” 

 “I…um…I…uh…I don’t know…I…uh…(swallow)…I don’t remember…”

 “You don’t know or you don’t remember?”

 “I…uh…(cue tears)…I…uh…”

 “I have here a document stating that the defendant did in fact smash said banana, as entered into the record as Exhibit A.  I also have 3 witnesses placing him at the lunch table at 11:37am.”

 “You wanna dial it down, Perry Mason,” Lori whispered.

I sighed.  Yes, the 20-minute this-is-unacceptable-behavior cross-examination had reached the point of diminishing returns.  I had to keep remembering that I was talking to my end-of-a-long-day-tired son and not a hostile witness.  And we hadn’t uncovered why he had done these things or how we were going to fix them.

At 6, he wasn’t going to get to why

 I was tired…

I had a lapse of judgment…

I had a sugary snack before lunch…

I was frustrated with something that happened an hour earlier…

But my job as a parent was to help him figure out how to make things better.

Sadly, in this first week of school, Nick was close to becoming “that kid” – the one that parents warn their kids about as they kiss them goodbye, the one that makes teachers take a deep breath before plastering a smile on their face when they seem him.  He now had a story attached to him…

Like the kid who dropped trou on the playground – and showed everyone his wanker.

Or the kid who spewed vomit on his classmates – and the altar – during school mass.

Or the kid who clotheslined his archenemy – and sent him to the hospital.

After dinner, Nick and I sat down at the dining room table, four notecards before us.

“How do you think Justin felt when you smashed his banana?”

“Sad.”

“And what do we do when we make someone feel sad?”

“We say sorry.”

“That’s right.  So we’re going to write your friends sorry notes.”

“OK.”

While not as painful as our marathon Valentine’s Day cards session last year (“Nick, all you have to do is write you name 15 times.  How hard is that?!”),  it did take longer than I expected.  And while we didn’t finish any homework, we still got our writing and spelling practice in.  Nick thought carefully about each sentence before writing it down, and unsurprisingly, and took delight in his task as he made new discoveries.  (“Hey Nana, I didn’t know “squished” had a Q and a U together! How cool is that?!”)

 When at last we had finished, he licked each envelope – “Nana, they taste yucky when you lick too many.” – then carefully placed them in his backpack.

“Nick, I am very proud of you for writing those letters.”  I hugged him close, knowing that this simple age required only a simple solution…that as he got older, his problems would not be so easily solved.  “How do you think your friends will feel when they read your note?”

“Happy!”

Yes, or disappointed that it’s not actually a birthday invitation, but whatever.

“And how do you feel?”

He paused before speaking, which made me feel a tad more confident that he was checking in with himself instead of giving me the answer he thought I wanted to hear.

“I feel good.”

“Excellent, sweetie.  Me too.”

One week down, 36 weeks to go.

0

What If? Why Not? And Other Popular Questions

“Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder”
The Dialogues of Plato — Theætetus
By Plato
Est. 400 B.C.

At a birthday party over the weekend, the issue of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and OTHER IMAGINARY CREATURES came up.

“Do you do Santa Claus?” a parent asked me.

“Yes,” I replied.  “But only because Lori threatened to leave me if I did otherwise.”

I went on to explain how I was going to tell the kids that while Santa Claus was completely made up, he represented all of the good feelings that come from spending time with people you love and giving them things that you think they would enjoy.  But no, a man in a red suit did not care if they were good or bad during the year because that’s something that should be self-regulated and not encouraged through bribery and Big Brother BS that encourages performance-for-pay behavior that research has shown does not motivate people for the more creative, conceptual tasks that I think are going to be vital in the long haul.

After a sufficiently awkward silence, the first parent picked up the dropped, and somewhat deflated, conversation ball.

“We kinda make it a big deal in our house.”  And by “big deal” she meant that Santa Claus wrote long letters to their children detailing all of the good things they had done over the year and how proud he was of them.

“Yeah, that kinda feels like lying to me.”

“Don’t think of it like that,” she said sweetly.  “Think of it as creating a sense of wonder.”

Interesting spin, which I considered for all of 5 seconds before returning to my original position.

“Yup.  Still feels like lying.”

And that sense of wonder she referred to?  We do that every day by witnessing the ordinary and stretching our imaginations to the extraordinary with questions like, “how” and “what if”.

What if there were aliens on other planets?  What do you think they would look like?

Nick: 4 eyes and very long arms…and no ears.
Me: How would they hear?
Nick: They have a lot of fingers, so they would put them all on your mouth.
Me:  Would they be nice or mean?
Nick: Nice, because they would invite us for ice cream in their spaceship.
Me: That sounds like fun.

What if we could breathe water?

Nick: That would be so cool.  We could talk to octopuses because we wouldn’t need a helmet.
Me: What language do octopi speak?
Nick: It’s a special sound, like dolphins, but it’s squishier…because they have those sucky things on their arms.
Me: I imagine we’d have to do something pretty special to our genes – you remember the twisty ladder that’s inside our cells?
Nick: Maybe we could mix up the ladders from fish with our ladders.
Me: A little Moreau, but yes, maybe one day.

What if we could build a real lightsaber?

Nick: The laser would go to infinity.
Me: That would be a problem.  How do you think we could fix that?
Nick: We could get something to make it come back….maybe a mirror?
Me: That’s one idea.  So how would we stop it from going to infinity behind us?
Nick: We could get another mirror, a glove mirror.  Or maybe get something to wrap it up in so it stays.
Me: Those are all really great ideas.  Maybe one day you can build your own light saber if you want.
Nick: Only if it’s purple.

The parent ended our birthday party conversation with the opinion that we only had a short period of time to enjoy this sense of wonder.  But I’d like to think that our children never lose it, that with their feet firmly planted in this shared consensus we call reality, and their hands stretched upwards towards the unknowable and the unknown, they will never stop asking questions.

Never stop wondering…

0

Life in the Echo Chamber

It’s rare that Lori and I are booked on the same out-of-town project, but that’s exactly what happened last week.  Fortunately, Gabe’s uber-fabulous godmother Aunt S., and her partner volunteered to take care of our brood. Armed with a 4-page schedule and a dry-run of pickups and drop-offs, our dynamic duo reassured us that all would be well.

Which it was…sort of.

Our first clue that something was amiss was the cryptic text we received Wednesday evening:

Difficult day. Shoe issue.  Handled. 

Hmmm…

“Shoe issue” like they couldn’t find them?  They don’t fit anymore?  They are very stinky?  Well, Olivia doesn’t wear shoes, but maybe they needed them at school?  Perhaps Gabe’s foot grew a size in 2 days?  Maybe Nick’s summer foot odor finally took over the house?

Since “difficult” could be code for “your kids are a holy terror and I rue the day I agreed to this gig”  I excused myself our tech check to make a quick phone call.

After 4 rings on the house phone, Aunt S. picked up.

“So what happened today?”

And she recounted a conversation that went something like this:

Aunt S: “Nick, can you put your shoes in the mudroom before you watch Wild Kratts.”
Nick: “We don’t do that.”
Aunt S. “Um, yeah, you do.  So I am asking you to please put your shoes where they go.”
Nick: “And I am telling you that we don’t do that in this family.”

On the one hand, I am appalled that he spoke back to his aunt like that.  Really, I am.  But…on the other hand, I applaud his ability to twist my words to his benefit.  “We don’t do that” and “I am telling you” are my go-to phrases.  And his cheekiness not only shows that he does listen to us, but that he actually understands what we say.

I am so proud of my future lawyer/politician.  Now to lay down some discipline.

“Can I talk to Nick for a moment?”

In the background, I heard Gabe randomly yelling  “Happy Birthday” and Olivia squealing with what I hoped was joy.  If they missed us, I couldn’t tell.  But Nick was clearly acting out.

But out of what?

When I say things like “we don’t do that” and “I am telling you” what I really mean is “your behavior is upsetting to my world order.”  Like when Nick grabs a toy from his brother and I respond with: “Nick, I am telling you to ask politely.”  Or when Gabe decides to hide under the table to poop in his pull-up rather than using the Kiddie Kommode in plain view – ah, the joys of potty training – and I react with: “Gabe, we don’t do that in this family.”

Is that what Nick was saying?  Our behavior – specifically, our absence – was upsetting to his world order?  We had prepped the kids – and by prep I mean the day before reminding them that we would be out of town for 3 days and did they not recall that we had mentioned something the week prior, no?  Ah, right then.  Well, we’re still going and we’ll see you on Friday. Mmmkay?  Kisses!

It’s not an excuse for talking back to an adult because, of course, we don’t do that in this family.  But I could understand where it was coming from.  So when Nick did get on the phone, I didn’t launch into a list of things that he had done wrong.  Instead, I tried to validate what he was feeling…then I’d lay down the verbal discipline.

“Hi, Nana.”  Nick sounded so very young on the phone.  His voice 6-year-old voice still carried a slight lisp from his absent front teeth.

“Hey sweetie.   How ya doing?”

“OK.”

“Are you sad that Mommy and Nana aren’t home right now?”

“I miss you.  When are you coming home?”

“We’ll see you Friday.  It will be late, but we will come and check on you when you are sleeping.”

Silence.

“I bet you’re doing a good job helping Aunt S. with your little brother and sister.”  I knew he was – showing Auntie where we kept Olivia’s extra pacifier and Gabe’s extra snuggies which you think would have made it onto a 4-freakin-page list of instructions.  These kids’ parents must be anal retentive or something…

“Mommy and Nana are very proud of you being such a big boy.  And part of being a big boy is being a good listener.  Aunt S. is taking care of you right now because she loves you.  So it’s really important to listen to her.  Do you think you can do that?”

“OK, Nana.”  His voice had lost its earlier hesitancy and now carried a more confident tone.  “No worries.”

I had to smile.  He had pulled out another one of our stock family phrases.

“No worries, kiddo.  See you Friday.”

Man, I love this kid.

2

Mad With Power…

It was fun while it lasted, then we got a nasty shock.

Finding equilibrium in a family of 6 – we’re including the dog – is – wait for it – a balancing act.

Sometimes it means listening to who’s crying the loudest –

“Yes, Olivia, I understand that you want to eat my pizza, but at 9 months your gag reflex is still kicking in which means that I will soon be wearing everything you’ve eaten for the last 3 days.  Now eat your carrot-lentil-rice puree.”   

Or who’s being the quietest –

“Gabe?  Gaaaabe?   Where are you…..GABE!!!!  What are you doing behind the couch?  We do not eat Playdoh! Yucky yucky!”

At its core, family dynamics is about power – who wields it and who wants it.  For the first few years of Nick’s life, Lori and I ran an oligarchy…and now we are reaping all the “benefits” of that model.  Although we would like to think of ourselves as benevolent, more often than not we were directive, with little in the way of explanation except, “because I said so.”

“Nick, put your shoes on.”
“Nick, go get your backpack.”

We had never treated each other like that, nor our friends or family, nor anyone we respected for that matter.  But somehow, with the arrival of a completely dependent infant, we let power go to our heads.

Is it any wonder that we hear this same tone when he addresses Gabe?  And should we really be shocked that he’s now flexing some of his own power muscles as he tries to assert his Alpha Male status in a family run by two Alpha Females.

Jonah Lehrer wrote this 2010 article where he talks about the effect power has.  It doesn’t so much corrupt as it does corrode.  Contrary to Machiavelli’s recommendations, nice guys and gals do finish first, but then something funny happens once they get to the top.

Turns out that the corner office with a view becomes a loony bin.  You actually go a little crazy, like damage to the orbito-frontal lobe crazy where you’re less empathetic and more judgmental.  You rely on stereotypes, you make less eye contact, and you are less likely to agree with ideas that conflict with pre-existing beliefs.

Egads! Sounds like me on my worst parenting days – the ones I look back on and cringe, convinced that whatever false assumption or sarcastic aside I made is the one that’s going to send the kids into years of therapy.

So how do we move from our matriarchy to a democracy?  How do we equally distribute power without devolving into a Battle Royale?

Three simple steps:

1. We shut the hell up.

Really.  As chicks we talk non-freaking-stop to our kids – warnings, explanations, teaching moments – we never met a quiet space we couldn’t cram with talk, talk and still more talk until their eyes glaze over, their jaws hang slack…and then we’ll talk some more.  We want to make sure that they fully understand the ramifications of every choice, danger or opportunity that is presented to them to ensure that they…

Yeah, you get the idea.

But now we’re at a point where we observe and listen.  There are times when I literally bite my tongue as I wait for Gabe’s 2-year-old brain to work through the question I’ve just posed to him:

“Would you like to share your Cheerios with Olivia?” 

Sometime between my 9th and 10th diaphragmatic breath, he will unfurl his sweaty hand and offer a crushed “O” to his sister.

Totally worth it. And breathe…

2. We see the world through their eyes. 

Whether it’s sitting on the ground to make eye contact, or listening to their entire explanation as to why the bathroom floor is slippery and the soap dispenser is in the sink (“I wanted to make the soap last longer, so I poured some of it out to make room for water, but it spilled.”), we try to follow their internal logic.  It’s always there.  We just need to give them the time and space to share it with us.

3.  We channel our inner poker player. 

We gotta know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away…

Lori’s sister has 4 “spirited” kids who make our kids look comatose.  The best piece of advice she has given us is to just let the kids be.  Period.   Want to stand on the chair repeatedly after we’ve briefly explained the likely outcome? Fine.  In our house, we call that “assumption of risk.”  We won’t keep nagging you about the fact that you might fall.  If you do, we’ll kiss your booboos.  And if you don’t, we’ll say “good job” and strike another milestone from the list.

Even with these guidelines? ( laws? statutes?)  we’re still trying to find that “perfect” form of family governance, where every voice is heard and every special interest represented, amidst the order and chaos that defines everyday life.

0

Teaching Values – One Awkward Parenting Moment At A Time

Last Christmas Nick got the most hideous Santa slippers known to man.  He opened the package, dropped the slippers, and recoiled in horror screaming “NO NO NO!!!!!”  Granted, he has a thing about Santa –

About the whole Santa thing – I was going to raise the kids without the whole strange-man-down-the-chimney ruse because it feels like lying – oh wait, it is – but Lori said she’d leave me if I even hinted that Santa wasn’t real.  So it is through gritted teeth that I have had conversations like this:

Nick: “Does Santa live at the North Pole?”
Me: “That’s what people say.”
Nick: “Did Santa leave this gift?”
Me: “That’s what it looks like.”

But I digress.

After I calmed Nick down, I told him he had to say “thank you” for the gift.

“But I don’t like them.”  Yes, that much was clear.

“It’s not about liking the gift, kiddo.  It’s to say ‘thank you’ for thinking of me.  Your aunt wanted to get something special for you…”  donotletsarcasmcreepintoyourvoicedonotlet  “…and that’s what she came up with.”

He did, eventually, thank his aunt.  But we clearly had some work to do in the values department.

Enter Mary O’Donohue.

A friend recommended her book, When You Say “Thank You,” Mean It.  I devoured it in less than a week.  It’s a nice, brisk, conversational read about values – how to define them, how to model them, and how to instill them in your kids.  Unlike the authors of other parenting books, Mary actually has kids so her recommendations are practical for other busy parents: 12 months, 12 values, 1 value each month – pretty straight forward. Plus she sprinkles the text with laugh-out-loud stories which makes you feel as though she’s sitting across the table from you.

I had a chance to meet Mary for the first time last week.  I was more than a little nervous, not because I was meeting the author of a book that changed how I approached teaching values to our children, but because I didn’t want to be disappointed.  I remember seeing Julian Barnes whose History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters – a meditation on the power of love – is one of my fav books and just feeling deep regret that I had ever seen him speak.  He was kinda mean…and cranky.  But Mary was incredibly warm, chatty and present.  I think we could have talked for hours.  There were no awkward pauses as we traded stories about the ups and downs of raising kids. More of a “me too” conversation, not a “me me me…and more about me” encounter.

Afterwards, Lori and I spend some time defining our values – we kept a piece of paper taped to the wall and just jotted down values as they came to us.  Turns out, we had a lot of the same values, which I think – touch wood – is why we have made it 20 years.

Our Values:

1. Honesty
2. Respect
3. Self-Reliance
4. Family First
5. Food
6. Education
7. Curiosity
8. Courage
9. Compassion
10. Helpfulness
11. Acceptance
12. Gratitude

What values are important to you?

0

Sock It To Me

How I spend two afternoons each week

Watching Little Tiger Tae Kwon Do sparring is like seeing the drunken version of the Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em robots as reenacted by 6 year olds.  The full-throated “KYAAAAAA” that erupts from their heavily padded bodies stands in sharp contrast to their poorly-placed kicks and delayed-response blocks.  And while I know that these green and orange belt novices will eventually achieve the effortless precision of the black belts in weekend class, watching this mini martial arts display makes we wonder just how long it will take to get there.

Last fall, we enrolled Nick in Tae Kwon Do to give him a place to explore “discipline” and learn what’s important in a given situation. For example, if the teacher is writing simple addition on the board, it’s probably not the best time to regale your classmate with the feeding habits of great white sharks.

Fascinating, yes.
Appropriate, no.

Nick is the type of kid teachers, friends and family as “energetic”, “exuberant” and “spirited” which can be code for “hyper” which can become code for “get that kid on meds so he calms the ‘ef down.”  We have been fortunate thus far with teachers who have channeled that delightful energy into constructive activity.  But woe is the day when he gets a teacher who has neither the time, patience nor desire to deal with his particular brand of enthusiasm.

He is less Little Tiger and more Larger-Than-Life Tigger.  He’s got a LOT of bounce and while he needs space to get his jump on, he also need to develop the ability to “read the room” – to develop that inner voice that asks, “is this appropriate right now?”

Last week, while the Little Tigers were lined up practicing their kicks, a late-comer, upset that he has missed the start of class walked to edge of the mat and starting crying softly to himself.

“He was fooling around in the car,” the boy’s father explained.  “So…” he shrugged by way of explanation.  “This is the consequence.”  I totally got that – letting kids experience the results of a choice, rather than listen to a potential outcome from a parent.  Pfft!  I’m 6.  I know everything!

Up to that point, Nick had been doing well in class, completely focused on his Tae Kwon Do Master and the kick that he was learning.  Pivot.  Lift.  Kick.  Return.  Pivot. Lift.  Kick.  Return.  Pivot –

But there was the boy, still at the corner of the mat, still crying softly, still unsure if he could join a class already in session. While the boys continued their kicks, Nick looked at Justin, then back to Master Kwok, then back to Justin – then broke away from the line.

“Are you ok?”  I heard him whisper as he rubbed Justin’s back.  For the next minute, the two boys sat and watched their classmates, Nick’s hand moving to and fro until Justin’s cries resolved with a deep exhale.

“Ready?”  Nick asked.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

Pivot.  Lift.  Kick.  Return.  Pivot.  Lift….

All this time, we thought Nick needed to learn “what was important”.

Turns out, he already knows.