Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fresh Air

Yesterday, with the rain, the four of us were about as familiar with these four walls as a family of goldfish in their tank - and we were starting to get a little loopy.

We tried just about anything to break up the monotony. I put my daughter in her rain boots and winter coat and hat and scarf and we went for a 10 minute walk around our block in the rain. I put my son in the car later in the day - nap strike - and drove around and around while my brother and sister in law (bless them) watched my daughter and so my wife (who'd missed most of the prior night's sleep with my son) could take a short break.

But it was like putting a new hat on a bad haircut - there was just no getting rid of that miserable, cagey feeling.

But today dawned bright and sunny and the air was kind enough to crack the windows and let the fresh air into the house. The rain had left very little snow on the sidewalks and streets so we were able to get out and about with less gear and less mess.

"Is it the springtime?" my daughter asked - she has almost no concept of time beyond the next several days.

"No," I said, but without a loss of enthusiasm, "It's just a great day in the winter."

We ran errands. We played. I even got in a short run with my son in the jogging stroller while the light lasted. We let the fresh air circulate through the house like hot water on a weary neck and back.

It was wonderfully refreshing. After a week of snow and cold and wet, it did feel like spring. It felt like, from what I remember from catechism class as a boy, like grace; an undeserved gift amidst the adversities of the world; or as my daughter would understand it - a treat.

Winter will return, I have no doubt. The cold grim set of hands will grab my firmly from behind by the shoulders and steer me into unpleasant days when the sun will be shrouded and ice crystals will seem to hang in the dank air like suspended frozen mist. The vitamin D will drain from my system and I'll be feeling glum again.

But for now, I feel as free as any school kid sent home unexpectedly early from school. I feel like I could just fly away on that breath of warm air that visited us today.

Good night.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Teething Days

I took the kids to the dentist for the first time this week. We were overdue for my daughter, and I've been thinking that with everything else my little guy is going through with his cerebral palsy, that we'd better make sure he got off to a good start with his teeth.

I also thought that as my wife coordinates most of my son's many appointments, that it would be a small gesture of fairness on my part to take care of this first visit and let her take a rare break.

I tried to choose a day when work would be quiet and I could take the morning with them. I thought, that maybe, if I seemed unhurried and relaxed, that some of it might rub off on the kids. It wasn't quite as quiet at work as I'd hoped it would be, but I kept the appointment and tried to not look down at my phone too often.

"Why do we have to see the tooth teacher?" my daughter asked me as I tried that morning to get her into the car and off on time for our appointment.

The pediatric practice suggested that we not say anything in advance that might frighten the kids. My daughter loves her pre-school, and especially her lovely teachers, so I thought I might make the dentist a little less frightening by likening him to folks she was at home with.

"He knows all about teeth," I said, trying to keep it straight, "He'll tell us how to take care of your teeth and your brother's."

My son sat opposite her in his child seat happily oblivious to all the goings on; he's too little to know what's coming for the most part. He'd had a good night's sleep, so he was in good spirits.

I was very fortunate in our choice of an office - they were wonderful. We were the first appointment of the day and they took care of us quickly. My daughter sat in one chair and my son sat in my lap in the other while two hygienists quickly chipped away their tartar and polished and treated their teeth with fluoride.

My daughter was a real champ and declared, after getting her disney toothbrush kit, that she wanted to go to the dentist every week.

My son made no such declaration. His general happy go lucky expression evaporated the moment the hygienist's scraping instrument touched his front teeth and his eyes looked up at me as if to say (in bold italics) - BETRAYED... BY MY OWN FATHER!

He writhed and twisted and cried while I held him gently and they quickly examined his mouth. It was a tense five minutes, but, blessedly, it was over quickly and my son's good mood returned.

"Getting his second set of first year molars," the dentist said after giving the little guy his approval of good health, "You can see them coming in."

"Uh oh," I thought to myself, "I was hoping we were done with that."

"When will he start to kvetch?" I wanted to ask, but kept the thought to myself. I kept my questions focussed on follow ups and to do's for the kids.

I was grateful when the visit was complete. Only one of the kids was uncomfortable and both left happy - compliments of a little toy they each got to choose on the way out. I also, in hindsight, got a rare heads up that some sleepless nights were on the way.

I don't know if it was timed that way by fate, but the boy started pulling at his ear the afternoon we returned home. He's proceeded to run a light temperature and go completely off his schedules for the remainder of the week; food, sleep, you name it. He's been looking like one of those mandrake roots from the second Harry Potter film every time we put him down to rest.

"Maybe we can take him back to the tooth teacher," my daughter said earlier tonight, when my son was crying and fussing after trying to put him in his crib at 7:30 p.m. We'd explained to her that he was uncomfortable because his teeth were hurting.

"I've thought about it, but I don't think the dentist baby sits," I said to myself silently (we haven't slept either and I'm getting a little grumpy).

I smiled as best I could and told her that her brother would be fine.

Their both sleeping now (for how long I don't know).

When I think about this little incident with his molars, I find it amazing how much angst teeth cause; the getting and the losing and the caring for and the fixing. I'm grateful for the good dentistry we have in the U.S.A., but I wish things could be simpler and less painful.

I wonder too sometimes how much like those molars, the first years of being a parent are; how the kids just put pressure on you and make you uncomfortable until you cut your teeth. I imagine that some of that don't-know-when-it-will-end-pain-but-damn-does-this-hurt-now-discomfort that my son is feeling is similar to what we feel when we want them to become a little more independent, but they stubbornly hold onto us like the little clinging vines of flowers.

I just went up to check on him. Sometimes I do that when I'm writing about the kids. Take a little break for thought and to make sure they're okay.

He's sleeping face down into the pillow - poor little guy - probably to put some counter pressure on those gums of his, but he's sleeping. His little breaths and his small bent shape make him look like a teepee gently swaying in the wind on the open plains at night. I hope he sleeps peacefully. I hope those teeth come soon ... for all of us.

Good night.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow Storm

We're shoveled out now. The car has been cleared and driven and gassed up and parked again. The kids were out for a while today for a party (indoors thankfully) and back and bathed and now tucked sleeping in their beds. The house is clean except for a light scattering of toy clutter here on the first floor - I'm too tired to shovel toys.

I love the evening after a snow storm, when all the work is done and the slightly unquiet quiet of the city has returned. I'm here with my glass of port (had to hit forty before I learned about port) and a slumbering house and my thoughts. All is well.

I know tomorrow will be busy again, but it's a short week. The mania will only last until Wednesday. Ever since that glorious year that Charles Dickens published his Christmas tale, no one wants to enforce work on Christmas Eve. Thank you Mr. Dickens - just another reason you're one of my heros.

From my window I can see across the street to the elaborate decorations of our bachelor neighbor's house. Angels, toy bears, soldiers, snowflakes, candles and a tiny winter village complete with motorized train circling the whole affair. It's cheerful and bright and not at all gaudy or showy. Each day, knots of kids circle round his window to look at the tiny villagers and see the train go - it's quite a lovely show.

It is a magic time of year; or a time when magic seems more likely. I wonder if there's some ancient inner sense for these special times: midsummer, equinox, yuletide, spring. I wonder if there's a sense of the magic that each of those times brings; like a changing of the guardian of the season; like a passing of the wand between enchanted folk.

This magic of the waning days cheers me the most, because I think, it's the magic closest akin to a child's spirit. It's the magic that twinkling lights on the white of the snow creates to make the night less frightening. It's the magic that my daughter and son see so palpably from the window when they watch the snowflakes fall and drift. It's the magic of old wintery elves with a merry winkle in their eyes that is older than the religion that adopted them.

It's the magic that gives me hope in the longest nights of the year.

Good night.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dude, What Happened to my Car!

There's a certain look that the car's of nearly every parent of young children that I've met takes on. Beyond the simple fact that most of us are driven to buy wagons or small vans or little SUVs that we swore we'd never be nerdy enough to drive; and even more than the scads of accessories that babies and young children require you to carry around with you - anything from diapers and wipes to hair clips and juice boxes; there's that look a car gets when it appears as if it took a direct hit from a cookie crumb and toy cluster bomb.

"Ugh!" I said involuntarily getting into the car this morning, "this is awful."

We had a long trip back and forth to Brooklyn this weekend for the holiday and something, something very smelly and very hidden was lurking inside the car and making it nearly un-drivable without a gas mask.

I feel so hapless sometimes; so tired and overwhelmed that the toys and the crumbs and the lord knows what else just multiply and spread like a growth of mushrooms under an old rotted shell of a tree.

"Enough," I thought as I sat in the driver's seat, "That's it. Tonight, I'm cleaning this thing."

For anyone who has read my posts opposite my wife on She Cooks He Cleans, you'll know that I like things to be neat. When I was a young man this was especially true of my cars. I'd clean them weekly, sometimes twice a week; vacuum, wash, detail. I loved a clean car. Living with the compromises that a grown man must make with the care of his car for the sake of his kids has been a sore trial for me.

Tonight though, the kids went to bed on time, and I had the energy. I went at the car as I would have years ago:
  • Collected the whole pieces of food into a bag
  • Swept behind and under every seat
  • Stripped both child seats of their cloth covers and pre-washed and washed them
  • Removed all the travel shrapnel from the wagon portion of the car and organized what remained into boxes.
  • Collected all the travel toys into their bins
  • Windexed every surface and put out a vanilla scented tree
I'll need to hit the car wash to finish the job (no hose outside my city house), but I already feel as if I've grown another foot taller in the recovery of my dignity.

"Better," I thought, looking at the lavish leg room I've recovered on both the driver and passenger side of the car, "Now I can move my feet."

I know it won't last. The mess and (lord give me strength) the smell will return before long. I'll have an old, half eaten, rotting something or other like I found five of tonight ripening slowly behind one of the car seats; or under it; or in the crevices that even the manufacturer forgot were in the car's design.

But tomorrow, if only for a moment, I'll feel like a prince behind the wheel of his Duesenberg. I'll have a clean car.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Last Man on the Assembly Line

It's Chanukah this week, which is a bit of an adventure for me. I grew up in a Catholic house, so watching our kids go through the eight days of the Jewish holiday is something I have no experience of. I read the children's books that explain the history of the holiday with as much interest as my four year old daughter. I have a lot to learn.

One thing that is familiar to me though is the putting together of the assembly required toys. I can still remember the sound of my father saying his Irish prayers one floor down on Christmas Eve. Irish prayers (by the way) are very short, usually no more than two or three words long, and involve little more than the gusty invocation of the lord's name. My Dad was very devout in his own way.

"For ... - ... sake!" I'd hear him shout with the occasional, "Holy ... - ...!"

These prayers were, I suppose, his way of asking for help in understanding the instructions; or for seeking a way to make a misaligned drill hole mate up with an immovable wooden dowel; or maybe just to see if he could provoke an answer from the ceiling or the sky above it.

Christmas and Chanukah it turns out both require assembly.

"Oh my ... - ...!" was what I was thinking yesterday when I opened a new wooden play kitchen kit for my daughter, "There must be 200 pieces to this thing."

It was no exaggeration. In fact, counting the screws and the bolts and the dowels and the prongs, there may have been 300 pieces or more. The instruction set had 35 steps with multiple assembly steps in each. It was, in my experience, the most elaborate thing I've put together since I installed a snow plow on my truck 20 years ago.

"Daddy, here's a piece for you," my daughter said every time she came in the room to see how far along I was with the wonderful gift that her grandmother had given her (it really is wonderful - now that it's assembled).

"No sweetie ... no sweetie ... please sweetie ... no ... no ... please go and ask Mommy for a cookie okay?" She was just too excited to stay away for long.

The project went together slowly. Each look up at the clock made me more and more thankful that I did not work on an assembly line for a living. The work was tiring and required me to bend and push and twist and force in ways that just made my back and neck ache. In the end I felt like becoming a union organizer for the elves.

"Yeah Daddy," my little one said with delight, "I'll be your friend every day now."

"Thanks sweetie," I said wearily and stalked downstairs for a belated cup of coffee and a cookie. I could hear the sounds of her make believe pots and pans as she put her new kitchen kit through it's paces.

"How'd it go," my wife asked, looking at my sloped shoulders and bleared eyes as I walked into our real kitchen.

I grunted in response and settled into the chair to munch and sip on my snack. I thought about my Dad all those years ago on that different holiday and about my time now. I thought about all the gifts that I woke up to find fully assembled and ready for fun and I didn't feel so much a stranger to this new holiday.

It's not the labor I was thinking of, or the commercial aspects of the holidays; I was thinking of just the experience of being a Dad around young kids when they're excited and your tired. I was thinking of the weary belated joy that comes from the boundless energy that kids seem to have for holidays and the very bounded sense of energy of an adult. I was thinking about doing something aggravating and wearisome because of the joy it gives to my kid.

I thought of those feelings and they made me smile despite how tired I was.

"A miracle happened," I said to my wife, trying out my new grasp of Chanukah humor.

"Ha, Ha," she smiled, "Your a good Dad sweetheart."

Thank you nice wife. Happy Chanukah.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Broken Sleep

Late Autumn nights are like the secure discomfort

Of the subway or the long dark of the tunnel

Or (so I imagine) the mossy grave, holding

Down the body like a trapped spark in the

Hood of a lantern; a light felt but not emitted.

And so when sleep is broken by a sudden

Cry of a child, your child, and the life in that

Cry impacts night’s dark restraining hand

It fractures spiraling out in tiny perforations that

Buckle and twinkle like a guttering star.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

General Tso's Chicken

When trouble starts at the beginning of the day, I stand a fair chance of making it go away over the course of the daylight hours. When trouble starts at 6 p.m., I know I'm in for a long night. Yesterday was one of those days; a steady march right into an ambush.

Work issues came up late in the day (and continued into the evening .. and overnight and next day) and we had unexpected guests (aged two and four) for dinner and after hours movies and something like bedtime (only none of the kids would go to sleep).

About the time that my daughter and the other four year old were up stairs chattering away and avoiding sleep, and my son was shouting (a new trick) down to us what I imagine were little baby curses for having put him in his crib, and our two year old guest was looking up at me with weary but unsleeping eyes, and the nineteenth email from work of the evening was arriving, I knew it was time to call in the big guns; General Tso.

"Oh, that's bad!" my wife said when she heard me put the order in over the phone.

"Be sure to order egg rolls. Oh, and how about some steamed dumplings," she added and aided and abetted my runaway call for comfort.

The food came as quickly as only Hoboken take out can come - still a dangerous miracle for this suburban boy - and the smell of the food filled up the first floor of the house like we'd been instantly transported south of Canal Street in the city.

The sweetly fried coating of batter, sugar and God knows how much fat and salt just carmelizes right into the starched white rice and makes for just heavenly melt-in-your-mouth bites. It's like a little chicken-ly miracle in a bowl.

"Yummy," as my daughter says these days to her favorite foods, "Unbelievably Yummy."

I'm not always this bad. I'm normally pretty good about my food diet.

I've been helped greatly by my wife whose made a conscious effort to reduce our meat intake and move us towards healthier choices. Over the last year I've also made a personal effort not to consume too much take out and to bring my own lunch to work. I've lost some weight as a result.

I make some exceptions to my healthy lifestyle.
  • Red wine with dinner on Friday night
  • Stout beer with dinner on Saturday night
  • One splurge night a week for sweets
  • A slice of Sicilian pizza for lunch on my client days in New York
  • Chinese take out when the whole house of cards starts to sway
In the end, last night I spent more time on the phone with work, or going up the stairs to check on the kids, or watching the computer than overdoing it on the take out. In the end it only really amounted to a single serving of what was delivered. Not too much and not too bad.

But having made the choice to get what I want for a change rather than what is good for me made it feel like an extended feast; like a double handful of chocolate at the end of lent.

Part of this enjoyment might be the latent Catholic in me taking pleasure in the forbidden fruit- there's always extra enjoyment in what's not allowed. But I think it might also just be the pendulum swinging back gently from having gone too far towards the strict. It's not healthy to always say no.

Today, most everything sorted itself out. Work issues have subsided and the children (just ours) went to bed quietly tonight. I celebrated with a bowl of home made beef broth and noodles and a small bit of fresh bread - thank you nice wife. After the splurge of last night it felt refreshing to have lighter fare.

The take out chicken is still there in the refrigerator sitting in the little leftover container looking just as good as ever. I rarely ever go for that kind of dish more than once a week, but it's good to know he's there just the same. I feel sometimes like he's my troops in reserve; the ones to be called for in the last need; the General.

At the risk of finding out that I'm the only one with no willpower, what's your splurge treat and what are the days like when you call it in?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A little Foggy

Tonight is one of those nights where I'm still up and moving when my head has long since drifted off course. Cleaning the oven, changing holiday decorations (Halloween to Chanukah), laundry, dishes and clearing the clutter on the first floor - lots of stuff that needs doing. 

There's a cool draft of air from the open windows on the first floor. That smell of a cleaning oven is so strong and reminds me so strongly of my mother doing the same job years ago. She'd get into one of these modes - just get over it and do it modes - and the house would be filled with the sounds of her industry for hours. 

The one benefit to these fits of cleaning is that when I finally do wear myself out, I'll be exhausted. That and no matter how much or little sleep I get tonight, I'll wake up to a well cleaned and ordered house. It's a comfort. 

I also find that these fits seem to cycle in between creative bouts for me. Almost like a moon cycle, I can count on the light receding from the sky until the moon is just a veiled shadow in the silky black sky. I can feel the curtain draw over my mind and I draw away from writing and creating and begin to order and take stock again. 

Not much longer now. Soon I'll be resting. If I'm tired enough it will be a dreamless rest. That's a comfort too. 

Good night. 

Monday, November 30, 2009

Under the Weather

My little guy is sick today. He’s got a cough and a light fever and a runny nose. 

He’s a little out of it too, but I don’t think he’s figured that part out. He just goes on making noise and throwing toys like there was nothing wrong. It’s just that every few minutes he draws his forearm roughly across his little nose and face reactively and looks up with some confusion afterwards like he’d been struck by a wayward soccer ball. 

“What the ... what’s up with my nose?” he  seems to be thinking, his little weary eyes looking up at me appealingly, “Can you do something about this Dad?”

I’ve picked him up out of the crib once already tonight to give him some children’s Tylenol and a sippy cup with water. He sat on my knee too for 20 minutes or so watching Harry Potter on DVD while the medicine took effect. He’s back in his crib now, sleeping lightly. 

I worry as much as anybody when either one of my kids is sick. They’re both so young. There both so precious to me. My head fills with awful irrational fears that they’ve caught something serious; even though my rational self (and his continued appetite) tells me otherwise. 

“What if it is something serious?” I think and try to put those thoughts aside. 

“You’ll know if it’s serious,” a voice tells me, “You won’t be guessing.”

I think this must be a common feeling among new parents, the worry over every little illness. The little twinge I feel every time I hear one of those loud coughs disrupt the night and pull me out of the light sleep that’s settled on me. 

For him, I imagine, this is probably not a big deal. I’m sure it’s annoying, but he looks more confused than uncomfortable or really sick. 

“This?” I hear him say to my imaged worry in our imagined conversation, “This?! This ain’t nothin’! I’m fine.”

But I think it is easier being the one worried about sometimes than the one who worries. 

When I have these moments of angst, I can remember being a boy and waiting up with my mother for my father to return home from work. Some of the nights were dark and wintery and some of the waits were long (there were no cell phones back then). My mom, I could tell, was nervous and it rubbed off on me. I wanted the wait to be over. I didn't like the new fears that something might be wrong. 

“If only I was with Dad in the car,” I remember thinking at the time, “Then I wouldn’t have to worry. I’d know.” 

The thought seemed to comfort me a little at the time, though I still had no idea when he’d be home. I wish I could capture some of that comfort tonight. I wish I could feel like I was with my little guy in that car too. 

But maybe that’s what happens when you have kids of your own - you can’t go back to that place with them. Maybe it’s only them who can see ahead to where you are. Maybe that’s one of the gifts that  life gives to the very young; that inscrutable comfort that the imagination provides. I know I can’t find it tonight. 

I hope he feels better tomorrow. I know I’ll sleep better when he’s breathing easy again. But I’ll just have to wait by the window and look out at the snow and wonder when he’ll come in out from under the weather. 

Sleep well little man. I'll be up listening for you. 

Good night. 

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thankful Days

As I put my head down to rest last night I listened to the unfamiliar sounds at the home of my wife's mother: The furnace, the creaking of the cross beams on the second floor, the occasional hum of a neighbors car, my wife tapping on the computer downstairs or laughing at something she'd read or seen on television; the sounds of the day letting go into rest. 

And my own thoughts for my family, my friends, my work, my dreams came in and out of my inner sight like guests at a celebration; in and out of the flickering light of a nighttime affair. More even than at the new years day, I think of the past year on Thanksgiving. I think all the way back to being a child and wondering what it meant to be thankful. 

This year, I know, will stand tall among the years in my life. There are many things to remember. There is much to be thankful for. Here are the things that I am most thankful for: 

  • That my son's condition is known and that he is better and we are better at helping him. 
  • That my daughter is healthy and full of delight and a good big sister. 
  • For my wonderful wife; my heart, my love, my reason. 
  • To be still employed in such financial turmoil and to be doing work that I am proud of. 
  • For President Obama and to be a citizen of this country who elected him. 
  • For Dawn Zimmer, our new mayor of Hoboken - you also give me hope. 
  • For my great neighborhood and the caring people who make it our home. 
  • For everyone whose encouraged me to write, and to Lisa Belkin who let me guest blog on Motherlode and Louise Kinross who let me guest write on Bloom.  
  • For every act of kindness I received and gave. 
  • For good therapists and doctors and nurses and counselors and advocates. 
  • To be healthy. 
  • To have the use of my wits and faculties, and the will to use them well. 
  • For all the teachers I encountered. 
  • For my grandmothers who look over me and my uncle Harry and Aunt Agnes who were like grandparents to me. 
  • For the family that raised me and the one that I joined. 
  • For Richard and Shelia and everyone whose needed help in the hospital this year. 
  • For all the writers who inspired me and taught me and educated me. 
  • For all the moms and dads who visit my blog and encourage me. 
  • For my brother's PhD. and my sister's efforts to found a school. 
  • For another year to be kind and hardworking and helpful and full of hope. 
There's too much to list really. It makes me wonder why I complain so much or ever think my days are bitter. 

Please share what you're thankful for if you have a moment. 

Happy Thanksgiving. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


My wife took my daughter out for a diner dinner and a movie on Monday. I'm on vacation this week, so we're treating everyone a little. My daughter calls these nights "Strawberry Dates," because she loves strawberries so much she can't imagine a date being a date without a strawberry. 

So the two of them packed up in their warm coats and after a couple of false starts that involved looking for my daughter's favorite toys that she needed to carry in her coat pocket, they were off. This left me with the boy... the boys were left alone ... hmmm, what to do? 

"More," my son interrupted my over thinking and answered the question. 

He was holding up two nicely hefted wooden disks that go with some toy or other of the fitting together type. One was blue and the other yellow, the former slightly larger than the latter. 

"More!" he said with more emphasis and offered me the larger disk, his eyes looking at the two disks as if they were baseballs and this the first day of spring. 

Now ever since my older cousin Dan has shown my son that round objects can spin, my little guy has pursued the art with much the same mania as some golfers I've known. He just loves to spin things. And he enjoys this sport even more when he has a partner. 

I obliged him and sat down and let the blue one rip. 

"Wheee!" he shouted appreciably and set the yellow one to spin next to it. 

Now my son doesn't have many words yet. He's up to maybe three dozen independent words that come out as short commands or requests. But together with his wonderfully expressive eyes and clear body language it wasn't too hard to figure out what he was thinking. 

"Woah, dude, check that one out ... Dad! Did you see that one wobble and then re-spin - awesome ... Oh Baby! Crash! That was sooo cool!" 

We went on like this for maybe a half hour, which is at least 15 minutes longer than the boy would have spun the disks on his own. Sometimes they spun into a foot or each other, but often the two just spun around and around each other like tiny twin tornados or pirouetting dancers. 

"Yeah!" he said and looked at me with delighted eyes. 

We wrapped up the fun close to 5:30 p.m. - his dinner time - and moved into the more routine part of the evening. 
By 7:30 p.m. I was on the phone ordering my own dinner from Robongi's (a philadelphia and a spicy tuna roll that I had with a Sierra Nevada Stout from the fridge). 

I went up to check on him after a while and he was sleeping peacefully. I was tired and didn't make it much past 9 p.m. that night myself. I put my head down a very happy man. 

I love the fact that even now the boy and I can have a little fun on our own. It makes me think of all the things we'll be able to do in the future together between now and the age when he'll want more to be with his friends and then ultimately on his own. It makes me think of all the nights that the boy and I will have the place to ourselves and find something fun to do. 

Sometimes being a Dad is a lot of fun. 

What do you do when you have one or the other kids for a night? 


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Writing at Night

There was a piece on Motherlode recently by guest blogger Josh Tyson about the connection between a nocturnal nature and creativity. He explores the idea that somewhere between the conscious and unconscious is a kind of shoreline to the imagination. A few years ago, I might have laughed at a piece like that - not now. 

I wonder if the kids are responsible for my habit of writing at night. I have always wanted to be a productive writer, but had found it nearly impossible until recently to find any consistent time to work at. Now I have it, but I never expected that time to be in the middle of the night. 

My son, in particular, until recently was not a good sleeper. I was up with him a lot on my shift - which began at 2 a.m. I can always get to sleep early if I need to, and I can always get back to sleep, so this part of the night was feasible for me. 

At first, I could do little but hold the little man and hope that he'd stop crying. 

"Just let me sit with you," I'd say again, time after time after time, hoping that someone was listening to me upstairs. 

I think they were, but changes like that take time. Asking for help like this is a lot like mailing away for something used to be - you just don't know if your order was received or if it will ever come back to you. These changes also don't happen by themselves. We had a lot of work to do to get my son to a place where he could sleep well. That work is well under way now. 

And now the boy sleeps, and I get up anyhow. I get up groggily like I do for work most every day and get myself out of bed and I write. 

I thought at first this schedule would not be maintainable; I thought I'd be exhausted every morning; as tired as when I had to take care of my son. I find myself more peaceful after a night of writing. I feel like I used to when I got out of the swimming pool after laps - exhausted and spent and unworried. 

I've been up for a couple hours tonight. It's wonderful when the house is quiet. I posted my first chapter of a novel that's been in my head for some time. It's on a new blog of mine - there's a link to the right. 

I'll be heading back to sleep soon. My head is now moving from clear and peaceful to groggy and foggy again. A few more hours of dreams and rest until the morning comes with all it's activity. 

Good night. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Quiet House

The house is asleep. Both children went to bed shortly after their baths tonight. My wife too was tired and is sleeping quietly. Even our cat, Maggie, is purring softly on the stairs - she loves the stairs. The house feels as peaceful as a night of silent snow. 

Sometimes, when our home is like this, and all I hear are the creaks and odd shiftings of the house, I forget how busy we are. I feel for a moment like I did as a boy, resting in bed in the cold gray winter light of a January morning. I used to look at the frost shapes on the old windows that looked out over our neighbor's back yard and listen to the sound of my brothers as they slept and the early movements of my parents through the house. 

I wonder what my children hear when they come out of their sleep, what they think and wonder about their father as he taps away on the keyboard or lets out sighs as he thinks. I wonder what their memories will be of this place and time in their lives in the many many years to come. 

I start some vacation time tomorrow. Just a few days to not have to get dressed for work. I'll still be on the phone with them for Monday and Tuesday (there are no real vacations these days), but not having to travel into the office and spending each day with the kids is enough. 

I want to savor this little space here on the verge of that time. I know the actual days will be filled with things to do and cares of their own. I like this little space of quiet before the time begins. It's like the little space of time before and after sleep that lingers between the moving and the resting. It's like the sound of the waves on the verge of a very deep water. 

Good night. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sneakin' a Snickers

“What are you eating Daddy?” my daughter asked. 

It was well after dinner and I was snacking on a piece of Halloween candy. We had about two bags of mini chocolates left over from the holiday and I’ve been slowly sneaking bars off the top of the refrigerator - one or two a day. I’d been trying to keep it out of view of the kids - they have their own store of candy from their trick or treating - so they don’t get candied out. 

“Daddy,” my daughter asked again, “What are you eating?”

She'd been chattering about her day and sharing her school artwork with me when she noticed that I was chewing and not responding too her. 

“Mmmm,” I mumbled evasively, “Mnnothin weetie.” 

She wasn’t fooled. 

“Can I have some chocolate too,” she asked, “I’d like some chocolate Daddy please.”

Caught. Nabbed. I was looking into the eyes of a preschool Columbo. 

“Um,” I said, quickly finishing the little square of chocolate, and trying to ignore her observations, “Can I see your school project again?”

“Okay Daddy,” she said smiling, “Can I have some chocolate?”

One of the hardest things I’m finding as a parent is to instill good eating habits in my kids while keeping my poor habits under control. I'm such a wimp when it comes to candy. I have a major sweet tooth and once I get on a chocolate kick, it’s very hard to stop. 

“It’s past desert time,” I said, feeling both guilty and unfair, “Maybe tomorrow.” 

She just looked at me for a few seconds as if she were a trying to puzzle out a nonsense rhyme and then went back to her toys. Gratefully she didn’t complain or demand a rationale for my incongruous behavior. She's a really good kid - too good actually. 

Part of me thinks, I should just be up front with her. My parents never had any bones about a double standard. 

“I’m the Daddy ... that’s why,” was one of my father’s favorites. As an adult too I see how hard the man had to work and realize there was a reason he'd earned that bowl of ice cream. But somehow I can’t say this. 

I’m just torn. I guess I just don’t want the kid to realize how easily I give into this simple temptation. I’d like to feel like I’m still able to have a little candy stash with no consequences (other than the ones on my waistline). I want to sneak a candy bar in peace. 

This wish, I know, is a denial. The kids will see what I do; there's no avoiding it. The days of Reeces and Snickers are gone - never to return. 

Soon, I'm going to have to be a better Daddy. I'm going to have to live by my own rules (even the small ones). I’m gonna have to come clean, or give up the candy, or just share. Alas. 

It’s a sad day. 

Good night. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Jedi Training

People say that having kids changes your life. Personally, I think it changed my brain. 

I think I first began to notice this change somewhere between my daughters 6 month and 1 year doctor’s appointments. For the first six months, we were as green as parents can be. We worried about everything and would just use what I now call the scientific method to understand why my daughter was crying. 

“That child is hungry,” a very kind older neighbor had said to me one night as I was walking her up and down the block to try and calm her. 

“Oh,” I said knowingly, ”The doctor said not to feed her any more than once every three hours.“

She looked at me with kindly pity, but she didn’t mince her words. She put both hands on her hips and chided me like a grade school teacher would instruct a wayward boy. 

”Give that child a bottle,“ she said, ”The doctor doesn’t come home with you.“

I stopped arguing. I got the bottle. She was right. My little girl must have been starving. 

Since then, I’ve trusted my instincts more, and they’ve grown sharper with use. I can usually tell now when to:

  • Go to the park. 
  • Suggest a book. 
  • Go on an adventure. 
  • Sing out nonsense words. 
  • Get ice cream. 
  • Order a time out. 
  • Pretend to cry and faint.

Along with many other home remedies I never imagined would be necessary or would work. I feel like Luke Skywalker sometimes after having trained with Yoda.  

But I did not feel like a true Jedi until this last year helping to manage my son’s cerebral palsy. 

My son has a weak left side, which is the result of a pre-birth stroke to the right side of his brain. It’s impeded his ability to move normally and it made him especially dependent on us for far longer than my daughter was. His speech has also been delayed (we’re not sure if this is the result of the stroke or not) and he’s only recently begun to use words and signs to communicate with us. 

And for the first year, he wouldn’t sleep more than two hours at a shot. 

I think his sleeplessness was party due to his inability to adjust his little body in bed. I speculate too that his brain was still in the process of re-wiring itself; learning (not re-learning) how to function without the control centers that were affected by the stroke. I say I think because, even the neurologist couldn’t say what was going on with my son. 

”Whaaaa!“ ; ”Eh, Eh, Eh!“ ; ”Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! Ahhhhhhhhhh!“ 

We had to learn what these (and a thousand various sounds) meant was going on inside his mind and body. It felt like we had to develop special mind powers. 

My wife and I must have lost a year of sleep between us. After a while we began to look at each other in the morning like two depleted soldiers in one of the army’s advanced training schools. 

The two of us became, after a while, like war hardened commandos: 

  • Sleeping with one eye open. 
  • Able to come to focus from a deep sleep instantly. 
  • Able to go for weeks on an hour or less of sleep. 
  • Laser like focus on a single problem - think changing a diaper in the dark with a child flailing arms and legs. 

These changes did not come without their cost. 

We were cranky and difficult to be around; we were exhausted and foggy; we had less focus for other tasks. 

I became a real bear to be around at work too. Each time a new problem arrived at my office; or someone cut me off in traffic; or a thoughtless person would offer unhelpful suggestions about child rearing; I had to fight off the instinct to just lay into them or simply level them. 

”Hi - ya!“ was the sound Miss Piggy used to make when she’d get angry enough to fight. I began to hear that sound in my brain at these moments. 

I think I was trying to focus my negative energy away from the kids while I was undergoing this radical transformation. I know I left a trail of stunned coworkers behind me at work on the days when I couldn’t control my temper. I’m normally very political. During this time I took any opportunity my adversaries offered to respond with a verbal counterpunch. 

”Hi - ya! Take that you well rested fools!“ 

”They’re lucky,“  I used to tell myself, ”I’m not carrying a real light saber.“ 

Things are easier now. The physical therapy has helped tremendously. The boy can move. The boy can speak a little. We’re starting to get a more logical picture of what’s going on with our son. It makes it easier to help him. 

He normally sleeps for longer stretches now too - often now we get a night of unbroken rest. 

But the change has occurred and those powers we acquired over the last year seem to have become permanent. GingerB who commented on my blog the other night, calls these extra sensory feelings a spideysense. I think she’s got the right description. Just like Peter Parker, we suddenly undergo a kind of marvel-like transformation that leaves us this way. There’s no going back either. 

I find that my wife and I get more done these days with less talk and discussion. There’s more unstated coordination that occurs with the children and with the house.  I also find that I’m more adept with my interactions with people in general. Something has changed in me. It makes me feel strong. 

”Use your powers for good,“ my wife has an aunt who says this playfully to us younger folk, ”Use your powers for good.“  

I mean to; and I will. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Quick and the Sleepy

When the kids wake up at night, I find that if I can attend to them quickly they will sometimes go right back to sleep. 

With my daughter, it’s just a glass of water and sitting with her for a few minutes while she drops off back to sleep. She’s older and responds to my voice, so I have usually a little more time - maybe two minutes - to fill a glass and stop in. 

With my son, I have about a quarter of the time. 

“Eh ... eh ... eh,” his little sputtering sounds of discomfort are like a stubborn engine that won’t turn over in the cold. When I hear these sounds - I can usually come out of a deep rem sleep for these - I know I’ve got to move fast. Any delay and I’ll have lost my opportunity. 

I’ve got to get downstairs, find a clean bottle or sippy cup, fill it with milk (sorry Dr. Stern - our dentist) and get back up two flights of stairs. In this exercise the design of the house is against me. The stairs are narrow and steep and my feet are large and not too nimble. I’m like a Grizzly trying to scale a tree. 

I expect I sound a lot like a big bear when I shamble up and down the stairs like this; something big and clumsy and prone to fits of growls. The neighbors must think I’m a little crazed.

But the cost of delay can be so high. If I linger in bed - hoping uselessly that the boy will just go back to sleep - I’m lost. If he’s upset, it could be an hour before the boy will sleep again. One night he got himself so thoroughly roused, he refused to do anything but play with his toys for nearly four hours. I was nodding and my chin was slipping off my hand by the time he began to yawn and rub his eyes that night. 

“Whaaaaaa!” is the sound that, when heard, is like the stock market falling below a round number - I can feel the floor just slipping away and full panic setting in. If he’s reached this stage, there’s no knowing when he’ll calm down. It won’t just be a long stretch of midnight play; it will be a trip back down newborn lane - a walk that Lou Reed would sing about. 

There are fewer of these nights these days, gladly. I think the work that his physical therapists have done with him have helped him to adjust his little body while he sleeps enough that he can make himself comfortable most of the time. But i still suspect that there are moments when the little guy’s weak left side is bothering him in some way - I can only guess. 

I was lucky tonight. I was still awake when it happened. Though sleepy, i was able to hit the stairs with most of my wits present. One of these nights, I know, I’m just going to sail down those stairs like the 41 year old Peter the middle aged Pan Man I am and land on my rump - oh boy. I’ll wake up in a fog and lose my feet or miss the handrail or get tripped up by the cat. It will be picturesque I’m sure. 

But tonight the little guy got his bottle in record time and went right back down. I feel a little like the famous Dutch boy at the dike - the whole house sleeps because of my quick thinking. I’m getting a little loopy I guess. 

I wonder sometimes if speed will always play a role in handling my kids. I wonder what it will be like when I slow down a bit more, and lose what remaining balance and poise I possess; I’ll be on the ropes. 

“Kids keep you young,” my Dad would often say when I was growing up. 

“They do,” I think sometimes when I hustle like that, “They keep me quick.” 

Hope I can keep my feet for the next twenty years. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sweet Days

My son had trouble going to sleep tonight. His teeth (we guess) are hurting again and he just wakes up suddenly in great discomfort. It’s normal, I know, but it’s not easy to see him like that. 

But tonight, he took some comfort from my picking him up out of his crib and holding him for a while. He stopped crying and pointed up at the ceiling fan - he loves the ceiling fan - and then looked back at me. 

“Fan,” he said with a knowing look, “Fan.”

I put the lights down and sang some Carly Simon and James Taylor songs that I know well in my out of tune voice. He obliged me and put his little head on my shoulder and didn’t complain about his Dad’s singing. 

Anticipation, Never Been Gone, Sweet Baby James; the songs that everyone knows. They make great lullaby tunes. I didn’t attempt Mockingbird. 

We went on like this for a while. It’s hard to know just from the sound of his breathing if he’s really asleep. But after a time, I took my chances and swung him down into a cradle. He cracked open an eye and looked up at me, but didn’t resume crying thankfully. I went on singing some Dan Fogelberg that I also know and he didn’t complain. 

Eventually, he let me put him back in the crib. He turned over from his back to his tummy (I’ve given up on insisting on back sleeping) and let out a sigh and curled up and went to sleep. 

I stood and watched the gentle rise and fall of his breathing for a while. He makes me think, when he’s like this, of a bear cub at rest; playful and sweet and always on the lookout for honey. 

On a night like tonight, chances are he’ll be up again in a while, and one of us will be trying to comfort him again. Sometimes he can be calmed. Sometimes not.

But when he’s able to let me help him like this, there’s no sweeter feeling in the world. 

Good night. 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Busy Days

Starting somewhere from the time that folks get back from their summers in early September and the time that their kids vacation in December are some of the most demanding work days of the year. The people that I work with seem to have acquired the urgency of a species of bird that migrates down to the south lands every year - and nothing stops that ride.

“Are we on track ... your project will go red ... we’ll have to utilize the weekends ... call them at home, this is urgent ...,” I can’t say how many times on a daily basis these words fly through the air at work like so many dodge balls aimed at random players just trying to avoid humiliation and elimination. 

And the games don’t stop at sundown. The pager and the cell phone can go off at most any hour on most any day. In fifteen minutes or so, I’m supposed to be on a call with our counterparts who work on a side of the globe where the sun is shining just now. I feel sometimes like technology and the stock market cycles have stolen the quiet that used to come with the shortened days of fall and replaced it with the work equivalent of 24 hour news. 

All of which makes it that much more difficult to dedicate time to spend with the kids on a daily basis. I try to leave home only after I’ve spent time with my kids in the morning and leave the office early enough to be home for bath and story time. 

“Is today a swimming day,” my daughter has begun to ask each morning. Saturdays we go to swim lessons at the YMCA for her and she knows these are days when I don’t work. 

“No Sweetheart,” I’ll say with a sigh, “Today’s a school day and a work day.”

“Will the day after today be a swimming day,” she asks again hopefully. I try to let her down gently on the days when this is not true. 

“Okay Daddy, maybe we’ll go for my birthday,” my daughter responds. She has some concept of time, but anything further away than tomorrow becomes far enough away to be her next birthday. 

“Okay Daddy, we’ll go when I’m five.” 

Sometimes it feels like it might take that long. 

Thanksgiving, though is only a few weeks off, and that usually offers a brief respite before the final rush into December. By the middle of that last month of the year, the all consuming fear seems to have finally drained out of the workplace like poison from a snakebite. And it doesn’t matter at that point what the result of all our efforts has been - good or bad. It’s as if we’ve all returned to college and will take nearly any grade short of a rock bottom F as a sign of completion. 

“What are you doing for the holidays,” is what I’m longing to hear more than anything. That and to see the normal humanity that I think most people want to display start to appear without apprehension in their faces. 

“Your kids off from school soon ... will you be traveling .... going home at all,” the hallway conversations and phone calls become so much more pleasant. I start to feel like a person again, and not just a drone in a work camp. 

The weather will be colder. There will also be that mania that seems to drive everyone to distraction with the shopping. But the demands that drive the pace at work will have subsided and retreated like an army wintering away from the battles. 

I’ll look forward to those changes and the extra time that comes when things slow down at work. I’ll take the last two vacation days that I always save for emergencies or for the end of the year. 

“Swimming day today,” is what I'm wishing I can say to my kid on a weekday, “It’s a swimming day today little Sweetheart.” 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meet the Billys

I've had a couple of requests for pictures of the Brothers Billy Bear - here they are. They are wearing the pumpkin costumes that my wife lovingly created for them so that my daughter could bring them trick or treating with her. The Billys cleaned up on Halloween by the way - they got more chocolate than me. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cold Comforts

Maybe it was my time growing up in Massachusetts winters, or maybe it's the fear that the climate is changing from what I had known as a boy to something warmer, but I relish every chilly day that the fall serves up. The clear blue sky and the yellow sun and a crisp cold makes me want to put on my favorite fall jacket and hat and go for a walk. I don't even mind if it's wet out; to me that makes it just more appealing. I'm just silly with loving these cool days. 

And yet I really never liked the cold much as a kid; I liked it even less as a young man working outside. 

"Someday," I used to promise myself, "I won't care what kind of weather I get. I'll work indoors."

I used to say this with a steel rake in one hand and a sopping wet hooded sweatshirt dangling loosely over my canvas pants. I'd look up at the gray sky or look down at my raw red hands and wish for a hot fire and a cup of tea. I'd long for the hot jets of air from the truck's heater at the end of a day of cold work. That and a shower and clean cloths. 

"Please make it stop raining," I can remember saying to the sky when I'd been really uncomfortable or tired, "Please. Please. Please." 

But now I dream about those days spent out in the weather. I walk out of my office at work and over to the window and look out at the fine rain on the trees that border our building and the men cleaning and landscaping and wish it was me again. I'm like the retired shoemaker, or carpenter, who volunteers to do the tasks that he once did for a living for free - just for the fun of it. 

I know I'm deceiving myself though; when the days get short or when I'm stuck indoors or when I have to park the car between piles of snow, I'll remember why the cold is no fun. I'll remember why people move to warmer climates; why retired New Englanders with the option become snow birds and head south for the coldest days of the year. Those days aren't far off. 

Soon enough, I'll be cursing the ten minutes it takes to bundle the kids (and me) up to take a walk to the corner. I'll watch helplessly while the piles of laundry triple. I'll look hopelessly for the hat and scarf my daughter has wrapped around her stuffed bear. I'll want summer back. 

But for now, I'll take the pleasure of the change and walk beneath the trees while the leaves are still full of the color of wine and of gold. I'll be deceived and reside in bliss. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Mouse

On our corner a house is broken and exposed
And tarps hang like a cloths on line and blow 
In a wind that's drifted down from the north.
Homeless mice wander back and forth
Beneath and between these shared foundations 
Brick and earth and cracks in the floors
And well fed cats that just look and ignore. 

Little mouse I hear you and want to be kind, 
And let you house here beneath my floor. 
I admire your will to hide and eat and thrive
Amid the dangers that a mammal can't ignore. 
I want to let you be and live and bide;
I think of my job, my house, and goods that subside
You make me believe that I could survive. 

Friday, October 30, 2009

Billy. Billy. Billy. Oh Billy!

My daughter has had for some unspecified period of time two twin stuffed bears called Billy and Billy. I don’t recall from whom we received these bears or how they became known as the Billy Bears, but one or the other of them has been dragged with my daughter on every adventure she’s had in recent memory. More specifically, they’ve been dragged through her adventures, picking up all kinds of muck and dirt on the way. 

Now, I’m not particularly offended by dirty stuffed animals. Prior to the Billys tenure with us, I would simply throw the offending animal or doll into the wash after the child had gone to bed and put it back before she woke. 

With the arrival of the Billys, however, there have been several obstacles to this approach. 

  • “Noooooo Daddy! Not my Billy!” - My daughter will not allow the Biillys to be bathed in her sight. Assuming, that like her, they dread the water, she protects them with the fierceness of a mother bear. 

  • “Noooooo! Don’t take Billy!” - My daughter has developed the uncanny ability to wake instantly if one of the Billys is removed from her bed.

  • Don’t take Billy's Spiderman Band Aid!” - During her infatuation with Disney band aid stage, she festooned the Billys with Band aids. FESTOONED - They are simply covered head to foot and look as if they ought be rescued by New Jersey Bear Services. 

Tonight though, she let down her guard and left one of the Billy’s on the first floor of the house. 

I was not at first aware of Billy's presence. I went about my evening business: cleaning the kitchen, sorting the mail, plucking the toys out of the dishwasher (its fixed - Hooray!). And then I caught sight of him - more accurately, I caught sight of something.

“What the... Aaahhh!,” he was bunched up in the corner of the kitchen. With his little bear face against the wall, his matted fur and brown color made him look like something fierce and feral and rodent like that didn't belong in my kitchen. We’ve had mice, but this guy was big. 

“Are you all right?” my wife shouted down urgently from the bedroom, “Are you hurt?” 

“Fine,” I tried to say calmly, wondering if I was fine and what I was going to do if the thing moved or bared it's teeth. 

"Oh, for the love of,"  When I realized my mistake, I picked up the little creature and set him on the countertop. 

He was looking like a pretty sorry little soul, bandaged and dirty as he was. 

“Billy,” I said in my most polite tone, “In perfect truth, you are the filthiest little vagrant I’ve ever seen. It’s a sign of how much I love my little girl that I allow you at all.” 

I’ve spent the last hour trying to put him through Billy Bear rehab. 

• I’ve hand washed him several times. 

• I’ve steamed the band aids off his little fur. 

• I’ve bathed him in boiling water from the tea pot. 

• I’ve scrubbed him with a brush that I use to scrub the deck. 

I’m nearly satisfied with him. Billy looks better. 

He won’t look much like a twin though when I put him next to his brother in the morning. They’re going to look more like Good Billy and his Evil and very Dirty Twin Brother. And I’m not sure after she sees the damage I’ve done to the loving adornments that Good Billy no longer has, that my daughter will ever let the other out of her sight. 

But it’s good to know that I’ve done my good deed today. I helped a bear get clean. 

“Billy, Billy, Billy ... oh Billy!” 

Monday, October 26, 2009

Scary Cat

I've heard it said that parents can detect the tiny differences in their child's particular cry, so that, even among many other sounds they can pick out a call for distress. I know myself, that even in our noisy house, I can usually hear my kids from one extreme corner of the house to the other and determine if there's trouble. 

My wife has an even sharper sense for these sounds. 

"Which one was that?" I said to her earlier when I heard a heavy sigh from outside our room.

"The girl," she said without even blinking. 

She was correct. I was impressed. 

But as good as both of us are at hearing and identifying our children's sounds, our cat Maggie is even better at imitating those very sounds and fooling us. 

"Ooowwweee," was the sound that got me off the couch earlier tonight and up two flights of stairs at a full clip. When I reached my son's room on the third floor I blinked and searched in the dark for his crib and expected to see a wakeful and upset little boy. 

"Sound asleep," I said to myself, looking down at his peaceful face, "What the?"

"I know I heard something," I said again and looked into every corner for the source of the sound. 

"Ooowwweee," went the sound again a few minutes later, and I ran down a flight to check on my daughter. 

"Sound asleep," I said quietly again. She was sleeping too. 

"This is not a ghost," I said aloud and then again to convince myself, "This is not a ghost." 

I was thinking it might be a ghost. 

It was just as I was thinking that I was loosing my mind that I turned and saw a little pair of shining eyes peeping out from under the coats in the hall closet on the second floor. 

It was our little black and white cat and she'd been making a sound so close to a human voice that I'd been completely fooled. 

I reached under and gave her head a few rubs. I was impressed. 

Happy Halloween Maggie.  

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cat, Boy and a Broken Machine

The dishwasher broke today - oh I was so mad. My son sat and watched me like a little cross legged Buddha while I did dance around the kitchen, calling out the vengeful ghosts of warriors in Greek and Latin epics to aid me in my revenge on General Electric (or whoever owns their appliance unit these days). 

"Where is my spear!" I kept thinking, "The useful spirit in the device of mystical dishwashing powers has left my hearth. Gather the tribes! Hoist the sails! We'll topple the walls! Tell your families you could be a while - this may take ten years!"

My boy thought my grimaces and gestures were hysterical (if I can judge by his giggles and rolls on the floor). I'm glad he's still on his first two dozen words or so. If he'd been any more quick on the uptake, he would have quickly picked up a few additional words this morning. 

Maggie, our cat, came in to assess my madness and sat next to the boy. 

"Meow!" he said and laughed. 

Maggie let him pet her. The two of them regarded me with interest. 

It was at this point in my madness that I realized I should calm down. Not that I was able to do so at that particular moment - it actually took two hours or more - but the presence of the cat and the boy (spectators for all intents and purposes) made me consider myself a little more closely. 

I folded up my handy home made tools that typically satisfy the minor gods that run the dishwasher and picked up the phone. I was so defeated that I hardly raised an eyebrow when the GE representative told me they would arrive somewhere between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the chosen day. 

"Will they bring back the spirit that drains the water?" was my only concern, though I did not put it that way to the nice woman who took my call. She booked my appointment and wished me a good day - just imagine the nerve of her. 

"Okay," I said looking at the boy and the cat, "I'm being reasonable." 

Robert Pirsig wrote that when machines get too complicated we like to keep the covers on them (my paraphrase), that devices more complicated than the engine of a simple motorcycle are too much for most folks. He also wrote a little about the madness that awaits those courageous (or foolhardy) enough to toy with anything more complex. I felt his words resting on the back of my neck for most of the morning. Truth is not comforting. 

"Meow," my son said again. The cat was belly up at this point, enjoying a good tummy rub.  

"Okay, okay," I said aloud and was grateful that only public madness can get you committed for the most part, "We'll do something else."

I emptied and washed the dishes that were in the machine and settled into the rest of the day after a while. I remembered that it's no so bad washing dishes by hand and tried not to think about the bill I'm likely to see at the end of the GE visit this week.  I went into the living room and rolled the ball back and forth with my son for a while. 

I should probably re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When I read it in grad school years ago, it disturbed and awed me so much that I found it hard to think about much else for weeks. I don't think I'd felt that way about any other book before or since - except perhaps Moby Dick. 

But this is probably too much to think about tonight as well. Machines are the things of business and don't help you rest. Better thoughts for the light of day. 

I'll try to remember instead the image of my little boy laughing while petting the cat. The two of them happy and untroubled by broken machines. 

"Meow!" I can still hear him say with a laugh. 

"All right, All right - I'm going to bed." 

By the way, God bless you Robert Pirsig. God bless you. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Finishing a book

When I come close to the end of a book that I've liked, I tend to put off finishing it. I'm a slow reader and I don't have much time these days to read, so sometimes it can take a month or more for me to get all the way to the end. 

When I've stuck with a book that long (many I put down and forget to resume) it's because either the author or the narrator or a character has made a friend of me. Like someone I've worked with for a season or on a project or a neighbor I've known for a year or two, they become a part of my life for a bit. Picking up a book is like catching up with them on the corner and hearing the news. 

"Are you still reading that?" my wife used to say to me when she first observed how slow a reader I was, "You are the slowest reader ever." 

I protested at first - I never realized that I was slow - but gave over to it after a while. There was no way for me to keep up with my wife in reading speed anyhow - she simply devours books.  

"I'm still reading this," I got in the habit of announcing as I walked into the living room where she'd be sitting, just trying to head her off at the pass. 

She'd just smile and shake her head as if to say, "That's the spirit, never give up." 

But lately, I've begun to think that I'm not really slow; I know I can get through a book quickly if I have to. I think I just like to linger in a book for a while. Like the last person to leave the beach, or to go indoors at the end of a winter day, or to stay at the table. 

Tonight I have to say goodbye to The Thin Man and I'm a little sad about it. I never thought when I picked up the book, that Dashiell Hammett would lure me into liking, even admiring, Nick Charles, his weary protagonist. But he kept me coming back, like a good businessman, often enough that I became a steady customer and eventually a loyal patron. 

And now I've got to finish the book and put it in the complete pile; and eventually pack it in a box and take it to storage; and (in my dream future unpack) it some day at the beach house I'll be able to afford and remember how much I liked it back in the fall of 2009. 

"I'm finished," I'd like to say tonight, but "My friend left for home today," would be more in line with how I feel. 

And it sometimes takes me a while to find a new book. Sometimes it takes more than a week or a month. I usually try to go to a new genre and author of a very different style when I can do it. And sometimes I'll go through several false starts before I find another that I like enough to finish. 

I'm a little unenthusiastic about the prospect just now. A trip to an independent bookstore may be required to perk me up. Just a little nudge into a room with so many undiscovered stories and characters on a cold or a rainy day is usually enough - you never know who you will meet. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sorting and Sharing

Every so often I get the feeling that there are unpaid bills lurking somewhere in the mail pile along with un-cashed checks and other miscellaneous items that grow worse when they are neglected. When I get this feeling, it's like turning over stones, or pulling up the trapdoor and looking in the crawl space or searching in the cabinet under the sink where I think a mouse might be forwarding his mail.  I kind of know I'm going to find something that I won't be happy to see. 

I was grumbling over a big lot of unsorted mail tonight when my daughter, who'd been playing nearby took an interest. 

"Wow Daddy, you've got a lot of mail," my daughter said looking at the great mounded pile of mail appraisingly. 

As she said this, I was oddly reminded of rolling grape leaves with my grandmother when I was a boy. I think it was something about the monotony and the endlessness of the task and the quiet of the night. I could almost hear my grandmother's voice from over her bowl of salted water and jar of leaves and pot of lamb and rice. I'm not sure I ever helped my grandmother that much, but I liked being around her, and somehow she got me to do this with her and kept me out of trouble. 

I was less patient with my daughter. 

"I guess so," I said a little grumpily. I wasn't in much of a mood to discuss the project. 

I went back to sorting and grumbling. 

But my daughter was not content just to look and kept taking small unnoticed envelopes of different shapes and sizes to put into her backpack, and in her lunch box and in her brother's carriage and in her room -  I found a small rats nests of them all over after she'd gone to bed. 

Her task was made easier by the near constant attention that her brother demanded throughout the evening. 

"Eeehhh!" he kvetched all night. Both my kids had the flu shots yesterday and my son developed a small cold as a result. He's been very cranky. 

When I got back from settling him again in his crib, I found my daughter cherry picking the brightly colored envelopes from the mail (no red or pink ones gratefully). 

"No cuttie," I said reprovingly, "Daddy needs that!"

I took the electric bill she'd been stuffing under the couch and put it back on the table. 

She looked a little hurt, but kept her cool. She put down her knapsack and looked up at me steadily. 

"Daddy," she said very calmly, "You need to share."

I was a little taken aback but, honestly, what could I say. 

I shrugged my shoulders sheepishly. I pulled down an empty shoe box from the closet and gave her such junk mail as looked interesting and would not be missed. 

She sat on the floor with her box and made little talk to it as she opened and placed and replaced the envelopes. She was happy. 

"Goodnight Daddy," she said unexpectedly after a time, "I'm taking my mail to show to my bear."

She went up the stairs and settled down and slept. I was surprised and delighted. I certainly hadn't earned that good behavior. 

I wonder sometimes when things like this happen if the good spirit of my grandmother is nearby, watching out for me, helping me, nudging me in the right direction. I don't mean in some kind of spooky halloween way, or in a good spirit of the well way, but just the occasional visit to lend a hand way. 

There's no way to know, of course, but it helps somehow to think of her there. 

Good night.