06/11/2013 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's Mine is Mine

We took our 2-year old son, Eddie, to Puerto Rico. On his first day at the hotel pool, he so enjoyed swimming, it was hard to get him out of the water. As he splashed around by the stairs, he met a boy called Noah, who had a sack of little rubber sea animals. Eddie kept admiring them, and Noah let him play with one, a red octopus that Eddie kept calling "Applepus." When we stopped by Walgreen's that night, I spotted the same sack of sea animals and bought them so Eddie could have a bag of his own.

The following day at the pool, Eddie dumped his sack of sea animals into the water, but instead of swimming and splashing around as he'd done the day before, he stood near the top of the stairs with his arms extended like a corral, trying to keep all of the animals from floating away -- and into someone else's hands.

"Why don't you let them go? They're fish, buddy. They want to swim," I said, adding, "If someone takes one, we'll get it back."

"No," he said, reining the animals in even closer.


My son's attitude reminded me of a scene from the documentary Swimming to Cambodia in which performance artist Spalding Gray talks about his involvement in making the film The Killing Fields. Gray tells about how after the filming, the crew went to a beach that was the most beautiful he'd ever seen. He threw his stuff down on the perfect white sand and ran out into the clear blue water, and as he lay back and relaxed in what could only be described as paradise, he suddenly remembered he'd left his wallet on the beach. From then on, as he bobbed up and down, all he could think about was his wallet. He imagined little arrows going from his head out in the water to his wallet back on the sand, from his head out in the water to his wallet back on the sand.

My son's unwavering desire to protect his toys was so strong, it had rendered him inert. He was afraid to move off the first step of the pool. I finally convinced him to set the animals free, and as soon as he did, a young boy came by with a pail and started plucking them up and depositing them in his bucket like he was harvesting blueberries. Eddie grabbed the two left bobbing in the water before the young boy could seize them.

"You're hoarding them," I teased the young boy.

I turned to the woman watching him. "He's hoarding," I said.

"Give them back," she instructed the little boy.

He didn't want to. I found a truck on the side of the pool and handed it the little boy.

"Here," I said, and as I handed it to him, I took his pail and dumped the animals back out in front of my son. I felt like a prisoner bartering cigarettes to get my own belongings back.

When Noah and his mother arrived, she spotted Eddie's plastic toys. "You found them! I see Eddie has his own now," she said.

"Yes, but geez, trying to hold on to them is hard. Everybody wants them," I said.

"I know. I only let Noah take a few down to the pool now, after we lost so many," she said.

Just then, a brutish looking boy of about 6 with a square face like a cartoon thug sidled up next to us on the stairs and seized Eddie's blue hippopotamus. I'd seen him taking something from one of his siblings the day before, leaving them in tears. I snatched the animal out of his hand, quietly, so his parents wouldn't see.

After he left, a young girl leaned toward me and said, "I don't want to let him use my float because he takes it and doesn't give it back."

I looked over at the boy and the children next to him, who were screaming because one of them had taken someone else's purple noodle. In another corner of the pool, a brother and sister were fighting over a plastic truck. I suddenly realized everyone was arguing over stuff. Even the pigeons on the side of the pool were pecking at each other because one got a hold of a French fry and the other two wanted it.

In fact, the wrangling over stuff was going on at both of the hotel's pools. I even saw a tussle out on the beach over pails and shovels and who should get to use the plastic yellow boat. I know this because I moved between the pools and the beach early that morning to reserve us two lounge chairs at each, staking out our turf with towels, sunglasses and bottles of suntan oil. I feared if we grew unsatisfied with one location, by the time we moved to another, all the seats there would be occupied.

That night, we went to Old San Juan, where pieces of the wall that once fortified the city were still standing in some spots. The Spanish inhabited Puerto Rico, which in English means "rich port," after Columbus came upon it in 1492. But for the next two centuries, the Spaniards had to fend off attacks by the French, the English and the Dutch. The Spanish wound up building the wall after the Dutch landed on Puerto Rico and attacked, as they tried to plunder the island of its riches.

The following morning, we brought Eddie back to the pool, and he played with his little plastic animals but was more preoccupied with the inflatable green ring we'd purchased -- though it was a little big for him. As he floated past a family with a young child, they offered to lend us their inflatable ring, the front of which was shaped like a toucan and was smaller and more suitable for a 2-year old. Eddie had been eyeing the bird for hours. He floated back and forth in the pool on their ring, grasping on to his red octopus, a blue dolphin and a blue shark. When the young boy who owned the inflatable ring saw Eddie's blue dolphin, he wanted to play with it.

"Dopheen," the boy said.

Eddie tried to ignore him.

"Dopheen," the boy said as Eddie floated past him again.

"Why don't you give him the dolphin, pal? You've got two other toys," I said.

"No," Eddie said firmly.

"Sharing is good. You get more stuff when you share," I said, a message that may have been a bit cryptic for a child to understand.

"No," he said adamantly.

I said it more clearly this time. "You're using his float. Let him play with your dolphin."

Eddie looked down at the three toys in his hand, considered what to do, and thrust forward the blue shark, thinking the boy wouldn't notice. Eddie then floated off. Behind us, I could hear the little boy crying out, "Dopheen!" and reaching out in my son's general direction.

The following morning, I woke up early and went out on the balcony of our hotel room, and as I looked out at the coastline and the vast blue sea, I thought this must be what the Spanish saw -- just before the Dutch boats surrounded them and tried to take their stuff.