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.