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. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Boy Who Reads

"More," this is one of the words that my son understands and uses correctly. 

Up to this last week, he's used it for food, both before and during the meal. It's been helpful for all of us, him not the least, as it gives us some clue of how to make him comfortable. He's like a man thrown into a foreign culture, my son at this age, making the most of every word he knows, using his body language and signs to complete the job. 

This last week, he's used the word for another hunger - books. 

"More ... more ... more!" It can be a little much sometimes, when all I'm trying to do is to sweep away the remaining breakfast crumbs from up under his high chair and he wants to read. 

He's taken to dragging an Eric Carle illustrated book around with him - one with ferocious pictures of flame orange lions and ice blue polar bears - and pulling on my pant leg until I relent and read it to him for the 107th time that morning. 

To tell you the truth, I kind of like the book myself, the pictures are so unique and expressive and the words simple and compelling. So once I get going, I don't really mind. But it is a lot of time the boy is demanding and there are other things to do, like get ready for work, or get his sister ready for school. 

"You," he says when we get to the page with the great purple walrus with what looks like a great old fashioned mustache. 

"Who? Me?" I'm thinking, "You've got to be kidding?"

"You," he says, repeating, pointing his little forefinger like a fire poker directly at the mustache while alternatingly looking up at me with a conspiring look in his eyes, "You, You, You."

"Come on Dad," I imagine him thinking, "The resemblance is uncanny! Man! You guys could be twins!"

I'm inclined to be a little offended. That walrus has got a lot of blubber, not to mention those big pearly tusks he's got to carry around. I suppose the connection he's finding can't be explained, not even if he had the vocabulary of the bard. That purple walrus is just the thing that makes him think Dad and vice versa. 

And my boy is so in earnest, both in his love of the book and his attachment to that picture, I just smile. 

I suppose that's how things are, the true gifts you get are unknowable. It's a blessing to know the boy loves being read to and read to by me. It's a blessing to know he's calling out the images in the book that resonate with him - simple as they are. And it's a blessing to know that I'm a part of that literary world for him; an inexplicable, mysterious, uncanny part, but a part. 

I know, especially in our house where books outnumber just about any other possession we have, that the little guy will stand a good chance of making friends with a number of books. That someday he'll draw himself up on the couch or in his room and take comfort in them and not want company. 

"Okay," I say again and again as I pick him up, "Okay, Okay, Okay!" 

He laughs and puts out his hand to turn the pages as we sit down. 

"More!" he shouts and points at the book and then looks up at me. 

As much as I can kid, as much as I can. 


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cold Days

The house is quiet. The rain is falling softly near the window. The furnace tics and roars like an unquiet lion scratching and complaining in his den. I'm trying to let my head settle before going back to sleep. 

Today was the first day the weather was cold enough to be uncomfortable and to make me glad of the warmth of the car's heater and the smell of cooked food in the house. I know it won't be long now before we're spending more time inside than out. I'll miss the kind weather. 

This weekend we'll pull out the warm cloths we stowed back in June, and mothball up the summer shorts and short sleeved shirts and light cotton things that are no longer practical. We'll pull the blankets and throws down from the high shelves in the closets and go looking for them in the various corners of the house my daughter leaves them when the nights are cold like tonight. 

The year is changing. I wonder what will happen. 

Going to bed now. Hope the rest of the night is restful. Tomorrow is also supposed to be cold and rainy. I'll be up in a few hours making coffee - there's another something that feels better when the weather is cold; coffee and books. 

Good night. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Advocate

At the risk of sounding insane, I'm going to relay one of my most effective parenting techniques - Mr. Yipiyuk, the negotiator. 

The Yipiyuk is a minor comic monster in a Shel Silverstein poem of the same name from the Where the Sidewalk Ends Collection. It was a favorite of my daughter's in her threes and delighted her no matter how many times we read it. 

Somewhere along the way, Mr. Yipiyuk left the book and became a part of our family. I think he first appeared one night when when my daughter would not go to sleep and was begging for another story: 

"Once upon a time there was a little girl who would not go to sleep," I began, "... and Yipiyuks came and nibbled her toes."

I punctuated this little story by making alligator snapping motions with my thumb and fingers, pretending to be the Yipiyuk, and also pretended to nibble her toes with the pretend Yipiyuk. She laughed and laughed and eventually slept. 

The Yipiyuk became a staple character in our house. I trotted him out at necessary moments to introduce some comic relief or achieve some otherwise impossible task. Recently he's graduated to a new level of importance. 

"Will you answer me please? Will you answer me please? Will you answer me please?" are the words I repeat unhurriedly these days when my daughter won't respond, "It's your Daddy talking... please answer!"

As you can guess, my daughter has begun to ignore me. I thought I had a few years before this treatment began, but my blessedly smart little girl is ahead of the game. 

This was the case the other night when I wanted to know how her day at school was. No matter how much I asked or pleaded, there was no response. Nothing. She went on playing with her toys. There's just the faintest hint of a smile on the corner of her lips to tell me she's hearing me and playing a game. 

And so there I am, standing there looking at my little girl - my sweet little girl - whose ignoring me. IGNORING ME! Like an adult would ignore me; talk to the hand ignore me. 

And I'm thinking, "So this is where it happens. This is where my kid realizes I'm never going to use my nukes. The game is up. She's going to be a rouge state from now on."

And somewhere between the impulse to get angry and the impulse to just ignore, I admitted to myself that I hadn't the least idea what I needed to do. And then it happened. Some benign power in the universe, an angel, a good spirit, a fluky atom that struck my brain at random put my hand on one of the hidden levers of power. 

Enter Mr. Yipiyuk, my negotiator.

"Ahem, EXCUSE ME!" I said, bringing my voice down two octaves and adding a growly gravely intonation. The effect was that I probably sounded like Cookie Monster with a sore throat. 

I alligator snapped my thumb and joined fingers and invoked the visual elements of Mr. Yipiyuk at the same moment. 


I had my daughter's full attention. 


Not since I put my son to sleep by singing have I felt so much like I had hit the ball out of the park. I don't think I could have had any greater effect than if I had brought one of her favorite Disney characters down into the living room at that very moment. Not WALL-E or Lightning McQueen or Pooh Bear or Nemo could have done the job quite as well. 

Half laughing, half rapt in attention, my daughter listened to every question I had for her and answered politely. 

I don't think I would have felt any better than if Clarence Darrow had spoken on my behalf. I had an advocate. A silly imaginary one, but an advocate - that stupid little hand was getting my point across. Alleluia! A miracle! 

Mr. Yipiyuk was hired. He's been in my employ everyday since. 

I don't know how long the effect will last. My advocate negotiator may lose his effectiveness as my daughter grows used to it. She may stop finding it funny all together and just go back to ignoring me. But for the present, I'm back in business. 



Sunday, October 11, 2009

Free Standing

Just a quick post tonight. 

My son has started to stand - for a moment or two at a time - free of support. He did this for us yesterday morning when I was sitting with him on the floor. He'd propel himself upwards with a great thrust - to me it looked like the sudden thrust of a bird pushing off from the ground - stand with his little body steady and confident like a baby giant straddling a river, let a bright smile flash out across his face for a moment like the flash of a lighthouse as it's beam circles into view, laugh and then fall back on his little bottom. 

"Ha!" he shouted from the floor and repeated this little joyous move at least a dozen times, "Ha! Ha! Ha!"

"Look!" I shouted and my daughter, who was in the room, laughed and jumped herself. 

He was clearly enjoying himself and the attention he was getting.  

"He's doing it again," she said excitedly each time he went up. 

The little guy went on like this for maybe five minutes and then went back to his game of throwing and banging things with his right hand. He looked up at me periodically afterwards with a smile. I couldn't stop smiling myself. 

I think what's most amazing to me about developments like this are the confidence my son displays as he achieves them. I think I expect that because he has cerebral palsy, that he will do things with great caution. That this handicap will make each step harder and more fraught with difficulties. 

My son did not get that memo. He looks as if he's just striding over each hurdle (no matter how long it takes him) as if it were not anything but expected that he would succeed. 

"Huh," I imagine him thinking, "That was cool. Gotta do that again tomorrow. Now where's that loud metal pot with the comfy handle that I like to throw."

His confidence and joy makes me think that I ought to review my own caution for him and back off a bit. It's like watching a pony run or a bird fly or a duckling paddle - natural and graceful and full of delight. No need for caution. 

I think sometimes, that caution is the real handicap, caution and fear. And that if my son is not starting off with either of these feelings, he'll go far. 

Way to go little guy!

Friday, October 9, 2009


"Go and sit with your daughter," my wife said as we listened to my daughter bounce off the walls in her room after bath time, "she's been waiting to see you all day." 

"All right," I said, and after some delay, I went. 

I did want to see her, but I think my head and my heart were at cross purposes tonight. I felt like a hungry dog that's been called for dinner but sees a really good muddy pond to play in also; either direction will bring some unnecessary regret. 

"Know what Dad" she began at bedtime, "I've got a great idea."

This little verbal introduction she must have learned at school. She loves it. She begins every request or story like this now - it's almost like once upon a time and news at eleven rolled into one. 

"I'll pick my favorite planet and you can read it," she concluded.

For her birthday this year, my gift to my daughter was a book about the night sky. She'd been learning about space in her pre-school and I'd attended her end of year school trip to the Newark Museum's small planetarium. I'd bought the book in the hopes we could share a similar interest in the stars. Most nights we do. Tonight only one of us was game.

"All right," I agreed, and she went to get the book from her collection. 

After some delay - she stopped to repair her little circular train track which had separated - she was back and thumbing through the pages. She eventually picked out Neptune, which is depicted as a great blue orb with dark spot and an illustration of the greek god next to it. 

I read through the two light pages of information for her; mostly facts delivered in a non-serious toned narrative, but she didn't show much interest.

"Neptune is the most inhospitable planet ... sometimes it trades places with Pluto and becomes the most remote planet ... it's made mostly of gas and has rings of ice ...," and more like that. 

I thought maybe the book was a little beyond her age. I felt a little bored too. 

"What's your favorite Dad?" she asked suddenly, "I'll read it to you."

My daughter is not really reading. They're teaching her letters at school, but she's a way off yet from books. She was earnest though, so I consented, but try as I might I couldn't drum up the interest to choose a favorite. 

"They're all the same, right?" I said to myself. I tried to let her choose a favorite for me, but she wouldn't bite. 

"I want to read your favorite Dad," she insisted. 

I gave a half hearted attempt to treat Mars as my favorite. I pointed out some of the letters on the page to try to help her read, but she lost interest almost immediately. She pulled the book away and went to telling a story out of it that had nothing to do with the planets. 

I can't be sure what goes on in her head at this age, but I'm pretty sure she was pissed with me. 

"Bedtime," I said after a while of listening to her amble. I was feeling tired and my head was throbbing. 

She frowned but let me turn down the light. I sat with her for a time, but she stayed restless and wouldn't sleep. I started to get a little impatient and let my wife come in and take over. 

I listened to my wife's kindly voice and my daughter's irrepressible questions and talking slowly dwindle until the girl fell asleep. I felt badly. I knew as I heard how warm my wife was with her that I'd been a bit of a grouch - not the entertaining green kind in the garbage pail either. 

I wish I could always be that warm, receptive parent for her. I know that's who she was looking for tonight. Instead tonight, I feel a lot like that lousy description of Neptune, "inhospitable," "remote," "a ring of ice," ... you get the idea. 

I let her down.

There'll be other nights I know. I also know that's why it's good there are two of us - to help when the other needs it. But I wish I could have done a better job just the same. I feel like a player that's performed badly even though the team won the game. I didn't hold up my end. I'll need to play better tomorrow. 

See you then - hopefully without the dark spot and the ring of ice around me. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Farewell to Bibs

I’m sitting up after having tried to go to bed earlier tonight - just couldn’t stay asleep. So I’m having some tea and writing and trying to do things that will make the list in the morning shorter. i pulled a load of laundry out of the dryer where it had been for a couple of days and I’m looking at it across the table from me in a little disbelief. 


We’re all done with bibs. I pulled the lot of them out of a kitchen drawer while I was looking for space the other day and dropped them in the laundry for one last cleaning - not sure if they’re ever clean really - before they go to storage or charity or the trash. It’s like looking at the mess of papers and books and badly kept notebooks at the end of a semester of college and knowing that even though it’s messy and still feels unfinished - YOU’RE DONE!!!

We’re done with bibs for this child anyhow. He’s still a mess, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a dribbling, burping, spitting up mess anymore. He’s just a throw it on the floor, smear it on my face and laugh mess. 

When I look at that pile and realize I haven’t washed one of those things in weeks, maybe months, I know we’ve made progress. Oh my, when I think of the silent and muttered curses that have erupted while looking for a clean bib: 


People ask me at work sometimes, how I can remain calm and keep my focus when there are so many distractions. I don’t really - my threshold for chaos has just been made a little higher by things like BIBS! 

And we’re done. Whahoo! There are a million other things to do, but this one is done. Things are getting a little easier. My boy is growing from a little messy Munchkin into a messy little boy. 

“Read,” was what my son reputedly said to my wife today. 

It’s not his first verbal request, but it’s one of the most delightful imaginable. We've officially traded in Small Paul for Curious George. Things are changing. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Something Back for Something Lost

Working late is something my father did all the time when I was a kid. He'd travel or be working for a client and I'd not see him until the next day - or sometimes the next evening (if he was up early). This situation was normal for us. It was no different than wind or clouds or a temperature change. I didn't think twice about it. 

But I've yet to get used to the feeling of being home myself long after dinner; after the skies are dark and my children are sleeping.  The first floor lights are sometimes down and dinner is sitting under a layer of foil in the kitchen. Sometimes my daughter is awake (never my son these days), but sometimes she's not. Sometimes the whole house is quiet and I feel like I've missed a key ball game and let all my team mates down. I want another chance. 

"Be glad you're working," a voice says to me. 

I know that voice is right. There are lots of reasons to be glad for those late hours these days. In fact, I don't think I've ever been so glad to work in my life. It's like having a crop to harvest - the work is hard, but it means a winter without hunger. 

"Get some rest," another voice says to me, but this is harder advice to follow. 

Inevitably, when I get home this late, I'm wired. It may take an hour to find the book or the song or the cup of tea that will throttle down my mind to a normal level. I'm not ON, but I am on; on like my kids are sometimes on at the end of a busy day or after a sugary snack. 

"Full of beans," is the expression my mother would use, "Just full of beans."

I'll put the tea on in a minute or so. I'll tune into Evening Music on WNYC. I'll pick up The Thin Man and read for a bit. I'm sure I'll calm down and sleep. My process is not much different I suppose than watching our cat go through her rituals before curling up on the couch and snoozing - except that she doesn't work and sleeps 20 hours a day, darn her. 

But there's still a part of me that wants to roll the clock back 5 hours and redo the night here at home. I want someone to teach me a spell or hand me a time turner like they have in the Harry Potter books to get my evening in with the kids and my wife (and the cat). I want a do over. 

Unrealistic and a little bit whiny, I know. I'll calm down and go to sleep soon. 

One thing I do promise myself about working late is that I wont rush in the morning if I can help it. I'll spend a few extra minutes playing with my son on the floor or making breakfast for my daughter - french toast please - or letting my wife sleep. 

A little something back for something lost; like losing a dollar but having an extra candy bar fall out of the vending machine. It's a trade I can live with. 

Good night. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bath Time Follies

It's a great irony to me that the very things that my children have forced me to give up - baths and rest - are the very things that are most readily available to them and these things are also what they fight off as if they were rabid dogs coming at them with rending teeth. 

"Nooooo!!! Nooooo Daddy!!!" you'd think I was proposing that my daughter bathe in the arctic circle the way she responds. 

The preamble to bath time in our house lasts so long it's like trying to get a new health care bill through congress -- good luck Mr. President. I think it would be easier to get my daughter to eat a vegetable or to share a toy with her brother. 

"But sweetie," I'll cajole, "There's enough dirt on you to grow flowers."

This line of reasoning has rarely been successful. Sometimes, when I pretend I've found a flower growing out of her ear, it will solicit a laugh, but it has almost never brought her to the bathtub. I often have to try many lines of attack before I have a clean child again: 
  1. Logic - if you don't fight, there will be more time for play. 
  2. Clowning - there's a squirrel living in your hair - please shampoo. 
  3. Bribery - I'll wash your favorite shirt for pre-school if you go now. 
  4. Dramatic fainting fits - I'm so sad, my little girl won't take a bath. I'm going to faint. 
  5. Lies - Chipmonks will come to live in your room if you don't bathe. 
  6. Threats - I'll let the chipmonks stay. 
Sometimes I'll luck out and she'll get into the tub before option #6 is on the table. Sometimes I exhaust all other options and have to go nuclear. And as if she was her own sovereign power, she let's loose with her own nukes. 

"I don't like you anymore," she'll counter when all other courses of action have been removed, "I want to go to the Daddy store for a new Daddy."

Ah, the joys of being a father. Tonight the bombast coming from my daughter was so vitriolic, that the cat stopped into the bathroom to make sure everything was on the up and up. 

"Obviously the child does not like water, David," the little feline monarch seemed to say with aloof appraisal of the situation, "Seems perfectly reasonable to me." 

She put her tail up and departed. I was on my own. 

My only consolation is that when things escalate to DEFCON 6, my daughter is almost certainly exhausted. If I can endure the verbal attacks she lays on me long enough to get her clean and into bed, she typically goes to sleep immediately. This was how things went tonight. 

"I want some privacy Daddy," she said when I helped her chose her pajamas and got her into bed with her favorite blanket and stuffed bear. Not five minutes passed before I heard her breathing steadily and sound asleep. 

"You've got more will power than me," my wife said encouragingly when I came downstairs a short time later, "Great job."

I remember not liking bath time as a kid too. If memory serves there was one summer camp where I did not bathe (outside of swimming) for nearly two weeks - at the time, pure bliss. I wonder how I survived to adulthood. I suppose some of this is normal. 

And not every night is a battle. Sometimes she goes in for a cleaning before she remembers she doesn't like soap and things go smoothly. 

I suppose I shouldn't complain. I just long for the day when I won't feel like the warden in the Chateau D'if in the Count of Monte Cristo. I really don't like being this unpopular. 

My son, gratefully is still blissfully un-protesting. I can get him in and out of the tub in minutes - don't know how long this will last. He reserves his fire for bedtime. But that's another chapter all together. 

For tonight, I'm just grateful to have them both clean and in bed. If I wasn't so tired, I'd take a shower. 

Good night. 

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Way Home

One of the frustrating aspects of city life is traffic delays. There’s no predicting when or where heavy congestion or construction or an accident will occur. It can (as it did tonight) stop me dead in my tracks when I’m just a few miles from my home. 

“Why don’t you try to the right,” my wife suggested. 

“I’m not sure of my way,” I said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to find a way to Hoboken from there.”

We were on our way back from a wedding and eager to get home and see our kids. There had already been delays on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut and again on River Road in Weehawken. I’d turned us up onto the road that runs up and then along the top of the Palisades Cliffs above the Hudson River as a detour but had been once again thwarted again by unexplainable delays. 

I’d already taken two detours on the trip and was out of known options. Experience warned me not to try a new shortcut when I was getting upset.

“A round of golf is not the place to try a new swing,” my old instructor had told me. I tried to remain calm and stick to the roads I knew. But because of the multiple blocks and the uncanny way that the traffic lights seemed to be timed against me, I began to think that there was an invisible (and powerful) presence determined to slow me down. 

“How can this be?” I said aloud and brought my hands down on the steering wheel with a thump up. My wife didn’t try to answer. I took the hint and tried to keep my frustration quiet. 

Somewhere I swear I could hear a little snicker from a dark corner of the universe - my mind was slipping.  

I think part of the anxiety I was feeling was withdrawal symptoms from our children. My wife and I had been away for an overnight trip (there were no children at the wedding) and my mother in law had graciously sat for us. I expected to feel some relief from the time away, and I did ... sort of; I felt like I do when the power goes out - always turning to turn on the lights and finding out again that there’s no joy. 

I wanted to get home and give them a hug. 

“I just want to go home,” I said more softly and put my head against the wheel when a light had turned red against me just as the traffic ahead began to move. 

“Okay,” my wife said lightly and opened up her People magazine. She’d determined correctly that I was better left alone. 

We stuttered along across JFK Boulevard East in Weehawken like this for maybe an hour. 

The day was brilliant and the New York City skyline shone out like bright gold and silver in the level beams of the setting sun. It calmed me a little. We reached a point on the cliff that I felt more sure of and I made a turn that allowed me to avoid the last mile or so of congestion. 

“Done,” I said as we cruised down to the lower level of the land that Hoboken rests on, “Home soon I hope.”

“No Jinxes,” my wife said suspiciously. 

“Come on,” I thought rolling my eyes, “Three times is a charm. What could go wrong.”

We made the last mile quickly and was in sight of our little road when I saw the orange traffic cones and blinking lights of the PSE&G vans and knew that my wife had been right. 

There was a back hoe and a gas crew on our block - one of our neighbors had a gas leak - and all the street’s parking spots were taken. 

“Drop me off please,” my wife said, “I’ll go help my Mom while you park.” 

As drove about looking for a spot. I rolled up the windows and shouted and cursed like I was throwing snowballs at the side of a house; harmless and exhausting and satisfying. I took a deep breath. I found a spot and headed in to see the kids. 

“Daddy!” my daughter shouted as I came in the door, “There’s a tractor!” 

“I know sweetheart,” I said, “I saw it.” 

She smiled and jumped up and down and made me take her outside to see it. I put my son on my hip too and we all went out to see the little setup of digging equipment that had been my final obstacle to coming home. The men were busy finishing their work and did not look up or take notice of us. After a while we went back inside and I let her continue to watch the work from her bedroom window. 

When the light had failed, and the men finally began to pack up and drive off, I thought how much longer their day had been than mine. I felt a little silly for getting so upset. 

My daughter turned to me from the window as I heard the machine’s noise receding.  

“They’re going home,” she said, “The tractor’s going to sleep.” 

“Home,” I thought to myself and then said aloud for her, “Everybody goes home eventually. Even tractors.” 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Something Small

We are a project house. There's rarely a day either my wife or I is not working on some kind of home repair (that would be me) or a new dish or baked good (that would be my wife). While the kids require us to be at home so much, these activities act partly as an adult distraction and partly as a measure of privacy. 

"Coming to bed," my wife asked a little earlier as she was heading upstairs. 

"No" I said, "I'm going to do a little work on the bathroom first - pop in a few more tiles tonight." 

All week long, I've been repairing a (formerly) tiled section of our bathroom wall where the drywall had rotted out. 

We don't have the funds right now to replace the bathroom, so I've been taking it day by day, cleaning it out, fitting, cutting, and screwing in new drywall and re-grouting the tiles. I've tried to put in a half hour to an hour each night. I try not to think about the time it's taking (or the sleep or free time I'm giving up). Instead, I try to think about doing the next little bit; that and about having our second bathroom back. 

I also feel, that when I fix tiles - fitting little squares into a pattern with glue - like my daughter must feel in her art class at preschool. It's a kind of simple creation. I find that little four year old part of me that wants to show off the Halloween pumpkin or Thanksgiving turkey that I made. It's an expression of pride and love. 

"Looks like a lot of work," my wife said to me earlier this week, a little curiously, observing my progress calmly, "Thanks for fixing it." 

"No more work than preparing a menu for a family holiday," I said to myself thinking of the recent holidays she's hosted for our family and friends, "Thanks for baking those cookies." 

She's a baker and a cook, my wife is. She makes bread, cakes, brownies. She reads Julia Child and prepares elaborate dinners for the holidays. She constantly challenges herself (and my diet) with new creations. She's not shy about complex projects with lots of steps. It's one of the traits we share in common. 

I always used to think it was a little cute; how we could be so different in our subjects of interest, but so similar in our capacity. She's a cooker, I'm a cleaner; She creates, I improvise and repair. I feel sometimes like the Owl to her Pussycat in the Edward Lear poem, 

Now I'm all the more grateful for all these differences. Our different approaches seem to help more when things get tougher. 

"Karen and Anthony think the little guy needs a leg brace," she said to me over dinner earlier this week, discussing the next treatment my son will need for his cerebral palsy, "he's inclined not to use his left leg and they both think it's a good idea."

"Okay," I said, trying to hold in my discomfort with the idea of it, "We gotta help the the little guy."

I have to put my mind in a much longer term mode - way beyond bathroom tiles here. I try to imagine my son walking to work some day, or going for a morning jog, or walking up to get his diploma. At the same time I also try to think only about the first steps. I try to give myself time of just getting used to the idea, like thinking about a morning run while I'm still laying in bed. I try not to think of the extra work it will take to get him dressed; to take him through his drills in the morning before my run; to distract him when he's conscious (and frustrated) with the constraint. I know these things will come - and I will do them - but it helps me to just think of the next step. 

I also know I can rely on my wife to start this new therapy for us. Though it's not the same, it's always amazing to me how she prepares herself for a new task in the kitchen. She pulls down the right cookbook; takes out all the utensils and bowls and cups; and lays out all the ingredients around her in our kitchen so that the place looks and smells like a test kitchen in full career. 

"I'll take him in for his fitting," she said later, "I'll work with the prosthetics people to find a small cast and coordinate with his therapists."

"Thanks," I said, my head hung a little for being overwhelmed, "Thanks for doing that."

I'm grateful for her strengths and her approach to these new challenges. In my better moments, they remind me of my own strengths; they remind me of some of the excitement we had when we were first a couple and discovering those secret talents. 

"Gonna need a tile saw," I said to myself tonight when I had nearly finished. Somewhere along the way in this job, I left one or two tiles with a little too much grout between them. I'm left with a couple of tiles that won't fit in the remaining space, "Gonna take another day or so to finish.

I cleaned up and put the remaining tiles and grout on a high shelf. I stopped and made tea and sat down to write (another step by step process) .

"Give it a half hour," I say again, "Start something small."

There are so many fables and stories that teach us to act like this; the tortoise, the inchworm, the little engine. But each time I need that patience, it's like finding it for the first time; like being an impatient kid again. 

"Little steps make big changes," I can still hear my Dad's own take on the practice, "try to do something small."

Once I start, it's not so bad. I know I'll se it through. And I know there'll be a cookie or a pie waiting for me when I do.