Saturday, June 15, 2013

Gone Fishin'

Taking a bit of a break for the summer. I will continue to put up shorter pieces now and again on Medium. A list of my writing can be found at

Stay cool, everyone.  See you in the fall.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Do stop believing

cracks have started to appear
A little before she turned 8, Q had a loose tooth succumb to a spoon full of lemon yogurt. As she wrote a note for the Tooth Fairy (asking for both the cash and the tooth to be left, please), Q announced that “There are no such things as fairies.” Instead, a “Tooth Person” exchanged cash for baby teeth. “So some person comes into our house. At night. For your teeth?” we asked. “Yes,” Q said, and finished the note with her name.

My lovely wife and I were both puzzled and a little disappointed by this in-between business. Puzzled because Q didn’t seem bothered by the removal of magic from the story, which in our opinion made it much creepier.* Disappointed because myth management is a lot of work, especially when you reside on the other side of the myth and have little personal investment in its truth. Myths are explanations by way of stories, and keeping the explanations satisfying (for yourself or others) means you have to anticipate the entailments and questions. We were prepared for the obvious: Our kids have grown up in apartments, and we knew they would wonder, after all the usual poems and TV specials, how Santa leaves them gifts in the night without a chimney.** Other questions (obvious now) caught us off guard, such as when they asked a few years ago, “What does the Tooth Fairy do with all those teeth?”***

I’m fine with telling Q and The Boy the truth of these things outright, instead offering them a competing explanation about deserved rewards and encouraged wonder and stuff like that. My lovely wife, to her credit and wisdom, has insisted that our kids come to these truths on their own. She believes that the various fairies and magic bunnies and nocturnal elves can give a great gift in the opportunity to discover their nonexistence. 

This discovery is inevitable. Beliefs and the stories that bind them together tug at each other even as they distribute logical load. Beliefs that don’t square with the stories we tell ourselves tend not to last long. Same with stories that don’t square with beliefs we are reluctant to relinquish. Childhood myths survive until the evidence nags and the desire to know overpowers the desire to believe in their truth or what would allow them to be true. Once doubt arises, a little thinking can quickly erode the myth.

I figured the Tooth Fairy would be the first knocked loose by Q and The Boy since that fairy’s existence and purpose leads to more questions than answers pretty much right away.  (What’s the money for anyway?)  But the Easter Bunny became the first casualty. Its retirement proceeded as many belief revisions do, through a combination of salient empirical evidence and the compulsion to adjust the story to make sense of that evidence. The night before Easter Sunday, my wife and I were filling plastic eggs in our bedroom, as we have done every kid year, with jelly beans and comically small Milky Ways when Q came in saying her room was too hot. My wife quickly (and, therefore, suspiciously) sprang up and threw a blanket over the eggs on the bed, which caused them to bounce and rattle. I took Q quickly back to her room to turn on the fan while trying not to look or sound like I had a mouth full of candy.

Once convinced that Q was back asleep, we finished filling and hiding the eggs in our tiny living room,  and we set out the larger sweets in their baskets. Later, my wife decided we had too many beans left in the bag, and she went back to fill the eggs further. One dropped in the dark.

Q spotted it right away in the morning. She put on that look of hers, the one where she narrows her eyes and smiles, the word ‘clever’ written in the cursive of her lips.

“The Easter Bunny forgot one,” she said. Paused. “What were you two doing last night with all those eggs?”

“What do you think we were doing?” her mother asked back. Lots of pausing. “Who do you think is the Easter Bunny?”

She didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure, caught again in that unsteady state between believing and not believing, between wanting to know and wanting to not know, as the story began to rewrite itself.

We spent the rest of the day pretending noticeably to each other that the Easter Bunny exists, mainly via a running joke about the Easter Bunny saving money with his Walgreens discount card.

I haven’t said much about The Boy during all of this, mainly because he himself didn't say much, even when asked. He is far more comfortable with not knowing than his sister.  Q has a particularly strong desire to know, and she can’t help but think rigorously.

I find myself wondering whether I might have gotten it wrong, whether my picture of Q and The Boy, of us, of myself, mistakes how we are.  Our story has the shape of myth, and I’ve grown comfortable with using it to explain just about everything.

Later that night, when Q and I were alone as her bath ran, she asked, “Are you really the Easter Bunny?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yes.” I could see that she did.

“Yep, we are.” She nodded. “Are you disappointed?”

“No.” A pause. “Not really.”

“Well, at least you know no giant magic rabbit comes into our house at night.”

Q said no more about it.  She stepped into the bath and unfolded herself under the water, her toes tapping the overflow plate, her head now almost against the opposite end.  She looked big, and bigger.

After their baths, Q and The Boy joined us on our bed, eating jelly beans straight from the Easter Bunny’s bag.

I don’t miss what they have given up.  I prefer to work on this story.

*Some regular person sneaks in at night? How does he/she know when you’ve lost a tooth? Do we all have a mouth stalker? Also see note ***.
**The doorman knows him and lets him in, we said; he lands his sleigh on the roof deck and uses a magic key that opens all locks, electronic and otherwise, etc.
***I can’t remember our answer at the time. We might have just said that we didn’t know and then tried to deflect by asking why they (Q and The Boy) like to keep their teeth. In any event, I’m convinced no good answer to this question can be given.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Snow Rules

Closed for the season

Q and The Boy have been like elite athletes — trained, equipped, ready. They’ve thought and re-thought their strategies, drafted elaborate fort plans, contemplated the proper packing of the snowball. They’ve revisited, over and again, the Calvin & Hobbes snowman strips for macabre inspiration. For Christmas this year, a California aunt gave The Boy two WHAM-O! Snowball Blaster Solos™ and one WHAM-O® Snow Tracball™, each package picturing an ecstatic boy firing a perfectly round snowball at someone unfortunate and unseen. But for the last two years, snow in New York has never gotten past the possible, and Q and The Boy have remained on the bench.
This year “Winter Storm Nemo”* brings them both into the game. Though the projections shift nearly every time we consult them (anywhere between 6”-22” expected, the graphic tells us), we watch the possibility of snow become a promise, and not the thin inch about two weeks prior that came down like fine sand and, in the bitter cold, stayed that way despite all our pressing and packing.
Nemo makes the weekend a vacation. The storm comes in on Friday as rain and wind, and remains indecisive most of the day. Then with the sun down and the kids in bed (though probably not asleep), the clouds get serious about themselves, and the city becomes a celebration of snow.
Q and The Boy are up early that Saturday morning, turned out of bed by their expectations and ideas. We eat breakfast, something heavy (eggs and hash browns), and put extra layers between us and the world. Then, finally, outside.
About a foot has fallen in the night and together with the wind has re-landscaped the park. The benches have become easy chairs; the long slide is a trough full of white. Everything is new, but we are not the first. Though we get out fairly early, the park people have been out a little earlier, clearing the main walks with the red Toro tractor and its brush attachment throwing up a scarf of snow in a much smaller impression of the storm. Still it’s new enough.
All the park lawns have been fenced off for the season, as usual, to let the grass rest and come back in the spring. Normally our neighborhood fastidiously keeps to the rules. But in this new park, someone discovers a way into the smaller but steeper patch of ground through the leafless bushes on the side, and suddenly uncountably many kids are laughing down the grade on sleds, some official but most improvised—storage-container lids, cardboard boxes, boogie boards used to the temporary hills that come and go against the local shores. Q and The Boy find friends immediately (nearly everyone was out), which we eventually identify and track by their winter plumage:  Suzie in purple, Scarlet ironically in all cerulean. Soon the hill gets sleighed smooth and fast, with the downhill fence checking the kids just short of the path where the parents stand holding cameras or coffees or both.
Then someone loosens a post and brings down a six-foot stretch of the big lawn’s fence roll, and in something like a moment it, too, fills with kids sliding on all manner of things, some pulled by adults to help out the smaller grade.
The Boy and his best friend T experiment with his snowball launcher, which turns out to shoot better in the picture, but its cup and lever attachment produce snowballs so round they would have made Plato blush. Q quickly gets good at making them herself and then wows her friends with their frequency and perfection. She ends up with a constant line of kids asking her to make ordinance to deploy mainly against their dads and brothers.
We spend as much of Saturday and Sunday outside making and destroying as we can,** knowing that time is against us. The parks people, to their credit, leave the fence down all weekend — never even appear to trigger guilt let alone end the play, come to think of it. It’s not until Sunday night, about the time when the neighborhood kids enter baths and beds and when lids have gone back onto containers and exhausted boxes have been put out for recycling, I stand at the window and watch workmen out resetting the posts and wiring back up the fence roll.
What is it about snow that overrules? It’s a serious question. I’ve heard a poet say that it’s a way to walk on water, but I find that no more an explanation than saying a kid’s love of sand comes from being able to fill buckets with glass. I do think there’s something to Bill Watterson’s idea, brilliantly realized again and again, that snow turns the world into a blank page that we are called to fill with the writings of our being.
Still, Watterson’s metaphor misses something important. It’s not just that snow erases the world’s full slate; it forgoes the slate altogether. Imagine if you could, just anytime, easily fashion the ground into a chair or a (relatively) harmless ball to test your arm on a sign or a sibling. Or if you could roll up a fort, tall as you like, and trigger a battle that will end (relatively) peacefully in a hot, marshmallowed drink inside. What if you could at any moment push the world into a new shape, and it would stay?
Then again, it never stays — can’t, at least for us. Metaphors tend to drift up. Sleds aside, the going’s harder in the snow, the cold always looking for your fingers and toes and always eventually finding them. But despite the struggle and the cold — and unlike in spring — in the snow you can reintroduce yourself as an explorer and can look back to proof of where you’ve been. And then, inevitably, you can’t tell your footsteps from all the others.

*It seems the Weather Channel figured out that they could name storms, too. Why not? Right?
**A friend of mine and I made an outstanding snow monster that was destroyed by someone less than an hour later.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

While Your Wife Is at a Memorial Service

She’ll be gone a good hour, perhaps two. You’re happy, of course, to watch the kids while she pays respects. Don’t think, obviously; nothing good can come of that. Try to make yourself useful instead. Maybe look for the long blue spatula, the one good for flipping hash browns for The Boy. It was a friend of hers, younger than you both. We’re getting to that age, I suppose, where such things shock but no longer surprise. Keeps them crispy to flip them all at once. The hash browns. Funny phrase “paying respects,” as if respect was a kind of currency, with death calling for an exchange. Also “paying attention,” though the expense of that seems to make more sense somehow. What language has us do. Also, the pencil sharpeners probably need emptying of their dust. Q will always be up for a game of Crazy 8s or Go Fish, played, if she has her way, with the novelty deck from the Boot Hill gift shop, the one with the neat hole in the middle pretending to be from a bullet. She can beat you now without your help, and the game will provide a good fence for your thoughts. The spatula should be in the drawer by the stove, like always. She had two children, both boys, one very young, not yet able to remember. You won’t be able to decide at which age it’s better to begin not having a mother. You will be sore tomorrow from those pushups for sure. Now is not a time to make promises to yourself. Better to see if anyone needs a snack. The Boy — these days you can almost see his cells busy doubling themselves — will undoubtedly want something. Not you, though; you have to protect yourself from your body. Drink more coffee instead. Now they say that it’s good for the brain and the liver, that you can never have too much, and you can have too much of so many things. Don’t imagine her never coming home, the house full of her things suddenly become the only bits of her you’re allowed to hold. Don’t think about how you would tell the kids about her but, without her to help you remember, how you would come to doubt whether she actually liked the opera or balsamic vinaigrette. Did the babysitter melt the handle on a hot pan lip and throw it out? The shorthand you share, the rich narrative that collects your lives into a tractable story, would soon require a translator, then likely lapse into an idiolect so unfamiliar that you would struggle to recognize it as a language at all. She’ll call soon, and you can all meet her out to eat. Maybe a new place; you should pick where. Not so much the worry of having to carry on alone with the kids, of losing her help with the vast effort of life, whether short-sleeves or long or pancakes again for breakfast, all that oppressive banality of choice, though that’s worrisome, too. It’s your dependence upon the division of linguistic labor. She keeps much of the meaning in the house, helps keep the house meaningful. So many sentences would be left unfinished, their ends ragged. Thoughts with unfillable gaps, half yours but no one else’s.

That spatula was here and now it’s not. How can a thing just disappear?

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Q recently got her ears pierced. Several of her friends have had earrings for a while now (some pretty much since birth, as one and another cultural tradition dictates), but she has usually opted otherwise. When two friends went through the procedure recently, though, she thought it was time.
Finding a place to have holes punched in her head turned out to be a little more difficult than we expected. New York has a famously vibrant and inventive piercing industry, of course; a walk through the East and Greenwich Villages or a Google search for “ear piercing near me” will make that clear. But however good of a story that might make, we thought we should leave Q to put herself in the (probably filthy) hands of those places on her own in her twenties. We heard from friends that pediatricians, or at least the one we currently use, stopped doing this kind of thing before we discovered that they once did this kind of thing. We also learned that plastic surgeons will pierce ears — even prescribing numbing cream in advance, too — but we thought we might first try to find an alternative with a narrower expertise and smaller price point. Unfortunately, the few jewelry shops in our neighborhood don’t look particularly trustworthy with needles. What we really needed was a mall.
NYC is fairly light on malls, so we settled for Claire’s Accessories in Chelsea.* My lovely wife took her while The Boy and I stayed home and (among other things) thought male thoughts.** I was willing to go and to make The Boy come along, but a bigger audience usually makes the show bigger, and I didn’t want to give Q more people to pretend not to be nervous for.
When Q’s turn arrived, she didn’t shy, didn’t need talking in or out of it, didn’t cry. My wife said she did shake noticeably just before, something Q explained away on the sidewalk after the store as her shivering because of the cold. She can be a little too tough sometimes.
The Boy and I met them back downtown to choose a Christmas tree. Q had her hair braided out of the way, and as we approached she turned her head slightly to ease our noticing, in the last of the day’s light, the new tiny gold balls. We made sure that Q noticed our noticing. Together, we settled on a tree, an eight-foot Douglas fir with needles like rabbit hair, and took it home to the corner that The Boy and I had cleared for it, the same corner as last year.
A thought lit always lights up a string of others. Q’s first earrings are for other girls and for herself — not yet ornaments of attraction — but this will change, of course. Each year as we take out the dry tree, I see how sap has sealed the trunk, how the pine has healed itself to death. A lesson there. The Boy will turn 10 in about six months, an age that, after his sudden arrival, we didn’t permit ourselves to imagine. Now our imaginations give out before he does.
We had most of the lights and decorations up on the tree in no time, The Boy and Q in Santa hats moving things around until just so, my wife taking great photos that showed us how to properly see it. All as usual. The Boy has gotten tall, but not as tall as he wanted to be to hang the disco ball ornament we’ve had longer than the kids. I picked him up to let him reach the top himself, something, given his age and mine, I won’t be doing much more of, either out of necessity or possibility. Q asked for a boost, too. Her mom had picked up a pair of matching blue snowflakes for the tree. Their resemblance to earrings was not lost on Q, and she wanted to loop their gold threads on either side of the disco ball. Unlike her brother, she’s still no real struggle for me to lift, but as she sat on my folded arms I noticed that her toes somehow brushed my knees.

I like this time of year because our Christmas and New Year’s traditions reveal themselves as a kind of logic, a structure designed to preserve truth and to provide generously for its expression. To get at the point another way, I like that we keep traditions and that they’re never exactly the same:  in the new lies the old, and the old leaves room for the the new. This-year’s tree will come down; the new ornaments will be boxed with the old and slid onto the hall-closet shelf next to the suitcases until next year. And next year, whether in the same corner or somewhere altogether different, we will together make a Christmas tree. Q and The Boy will be taller, a little more themselves, but ornaments will still need to be hung in the usual places. The gifts will change, but the giving will not. I will get older and maybe a little wiser, but not much of either.  That sort of thing.
The calendar has again come around to 1. Let’s see what we can make of this year, and what we can keep.

Happy & Merry, everyone.

*Which, if you think about it, is like a whole mall distilled to a single store.
**Okay, quickly: Male thoughts presumably consist of how we can use our bodies to hurt things, including other bodies. I presume that female thoughts involve how a body will hurt on behalf of others. (I’m probably kidding.)