Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Good question. Good answer.

Not long after I walked in from work yesterday, The Boy started shaking his head back and forth.
The Boy: Daddy.
Me: Yes?
The Boy: I can hear my brain move in my head when I do this.
Me: What?
The Boy: I can hear my brain in my head when I move it back and forth.
Me: [Pause] What does it sound like?
The Boy: A rock.
Okay. And then a little later as I'm running the bath and as my wife is negotiating with Q over something, the boy comes in. Quiet, he eventually stops in the middle of pulling off his second sock.
The Boy: Daddy.
Me: Yes?
The Boy: What is thinking?
Now unlike many questions I expect to encounter as a parent (about, e.g., the origin of babies and whatnot), this one I've actually been trained to answer, have actually studied for years, published articles on, and have given talks to learned audiences about with complicated slides. This was my moment. Supposedly.
Me: That's a good question—a really difficult question. I think thinking is a little like asking yourself questions and then answering them to yourself.
The Boy: [skeptical look]
Me: That's how I think about it, anyway.
The Boy: [skeptical look]
Me: ...
The Boy: [skeptical look]
Me: What do you think thinking is?
The Boy: I think with my imagination.
Me: I like that. That's a good way of thinking about it, too.
He's got the making of a philosopher. Unfortunately.

Remember kids: Stay in school. (Just not for too long.)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Cold angels

It's definitely cold now.

We spent most of Thanksgiving day—the part we spent not eating—outside tossing up handfuls of bright leaves and reacquainting ourselves with the swings, our coats left to themselves inside in a pile. We made lots of room for the overeating we would engage in later.

The warmth faded through the week and held on weakly until the lip of December. Friday night, the last night of November, the wind came up off the river at a new, sharper angle. Saturday was nothing but cold, bitter in fact. We even decided against the two-block walk to go swimming like we've done nearly every week since joining the pool, which is saying something.

The snow on Sunday began as a rumor. That's as far as we let it go, though; Q & The Boy love snow (Q still has an odd fascination with snowmen that we don't quite understand and can't quite explain). We didn't want to get their hopes up.

On Sunday morning, my wife and I made it to the window a little before Q & The Boy, and we saw that the weather had already rebuilt the park. Under snow, the trees, the rocks, seemed to suggest something other than themselves. We sent the kids to look out the window when they padded out of their room just a little while later. The park paths already showed signs of adventure, and several folks were out with their kids and their cameras.

After breakfast we hoisted on layers ourselves and went willingly out into the cold. The Boy promised that he would make snowballs to throw at me. I couldn't help daring him to do so.

The cold made the snow to dry to pack; snowmen were definitely out of the question. But we did scoop up mittenfuls of powder to dust each other while pretending to run away. Then it was off to the playground to make new sense of the old swings and slides.

Q was excited that she could almost touch the ground when sitting in the swing, now that the snow had made it a little closer. The Boy sifted snow over the slides to speed himself down.

The cold may have precluded snowballs, but it encouraged snow angels. And they seemed to be everywhere we looked and went, glorious footprints of childhood. Out in the playground, The Boy headed over to a smooth patch of ground over by the picnic benches used for birthday parties in warmer months. He slid into a snow angel like an expert and encouraged us all to do the same.

He was irresistible, and I didn't find myself resisting that hard anyway. We all indulged ourselves.

When you're on your back, the snow squelching under your coat, you can't help but smile without thinking of how your face might look, can't help but feel lifted higher than you are. You can lose track, if just for a moment, of the line between snow and sky.

Happy December, everyone.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hope that your turkey was juicy.  Ours was—and no doubt will be in sandwiches, stir fry, enchiladas, soup, and ...

Note:  As I type this, my wife demands that I include the following:  "My wife makes the best turkey ________."  The blank will be filled in with a dizzying array of turkey inflected dishes.

And with stuffing.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Super Nova

Remember that coloring book that my wife carefully filled in while the kids slept?  Q has read it so often that she practically has it memorized—inflections and all.  We were amazed enough to record her working through it with my wife.  And then my wife and I geeked out, taking photos of each page and then stringing it into a movie, which is here for you to enjoy.

If you give her five minutes or so, Q will supply your recommended daily allowance of cuteness for today.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


After reading books with and about art with the kids for some time now, my wife suggested that we simply all go to the Museum of Modern Art here in New York.  And so yesterday we did.

Now that Q & The Boy have gotten older, they have the attention to give to museums where you can't touch things, and they very much enjoyed the little adventure.  The Boy says that his favorite painting was Van Gogh's Starry Night; Q says that she likes the Jackson Pollock drip paintings (probably because she's again into the Ian Falconer book Olivia, where a Pollock gets Olivia in trouble).

We tend to forget where we live, getting caught up in the business of living.  As e. e. cummings says (I think) somewhere, "Life is a matter of being born; but Art is a question of being alive."  Here's a little of what can happen when we remember that this is New York.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Because, because, because...

... because of the wonderful things he does.

Though the Wizard of Oz photo was my wife's idea, she confessed to me tonight that she's never actually seen the original movie.  As a Kansan, I was, of course, appalled.  It's on TBS here tonight, so she's got some catching up to do.

In case it's been a while since you've had the pleasure, here's a teaser:

And in case you were a child of the 70's and 80's like I am, you might better remember the New York inspired version, The Wiz.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Boo! (Scared you.)

Happy Halloween from all of us! May you follow the yellow brick road to the land of tricks or treats.

As my wife astutely pointed out to me, our updating of the Wizard of Oz theme in many ways (unintentionally) embodies the message of the original story:
  • the brainless scarecrow (that's me, by the way) has a PhD in philosophy and works at an Ivy League school;
  • the heartless tin man (or robot, in our version) probably has the biggest heart of us all;
  • the cowardly lion is likely the most confident of us all;
  • the homesick rural Dorothy was actually born in a very urban Asian city—very far indeed from Kansas; and
  • the original Toto (at least from the movies) was both dark haired and, well, alive.

Here's to finding that what you seek has been right there inside you all along.
Or, barring that, may you fill the empty void with fun-sized sweets.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On the train

Above the 7:53 NJ Transit express train to Trenton, the rest of the night seems to lift up and off like a silver dome pulled off a meal, but the moon hangs around until it's a jewel in blue.  Once as the train creeps along the rails, I see that a track switch has made a ditch that has become a pond full of lolling ducks.  A few moments later, we're still going slow enough for me to watch a deer (no kidding) maneuver the brush along a parking lot.

It is enough today to be on the train.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sights & Sounds for the Week

Q has a new favorite book these days—namely, There’s a Monster at the End of this Book—a Sesame Street classic starring your lovable, furry pal Grover. I won’t ruin the nice surprise for you (who could the monster be?), but at one salient point in the story Grover confesses that he’s so embarrassed. Q has picked up on that word, and she now points out when others are embarrassed, usually characters in other books. And she gets it right most of the time. Exercise for the reader: Define the word “embarrassed” without looking it up. Extra Credit: Now explain the concept first to a four-year old and then a 2.5-year old. I’d love to hear your attempts.

The Boy has been back at school for a little over a month now, and my wife and I were worried that he would be bored, mainly because the school is the same and now he’s the oldest in his class. No need to worry, it turns out: Because he only has nine kids in his class, he receives age-specific attention from the two (yes, two) teachers. The Boy recently informed us, for example, that he is “an author” because he has “a book full of letters.” Each day at school he has been practicing writing, dedicating an entire page to each letter of the alphabet. He’s now on ‘h’. After a recent class visit, my wife remarked that he writes in a book that looks alarmingly like the Blue Books she filled during her law school exams. (Next they’ll probably have him learning Denelian.)

The Boy so liked a robot book (itself a recent purchase) that my wife bought another in the series, along with several other books, via the Internet. And what happened was what sometimes happens with on-line orders: We discovered that this latest one was in fact a coloring book, and a rather long one at that—23 pages, in fact. The Boy really wanted to read it, but quickly flagged with boredom because, well, uncolored the story doesn’t really hold your attention. So my wife decides to color the whole thing, and when she decides to do something, she rather does it. Each night for several days, after the kids finally gave in to sleep, she would sit hunched at the table or in the bed neatly enlivening the story. During the day, The Boy would offer criticism—“Couldn’t you use a cooler color than yellow for that?” or “Next time the robot rabbit should be blue.” One particular, recent night, my wife had to join a conference call during the usual bath and book time, so she retreated into our bedroom to avoid distractions and distracting. After finally working Q and The Boy into bed (and after my wife briefly left the phone alone face up in our bedroom to deliver kisses), I came into her still on her call with lawyers and bankers, coloring carefully away on the final few pages of The Boy’s book.

Now, who, exactly, are the adults and who are the children?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

So this is why we live here

We spent both Saturday and Sunday at wonderful festivals. On Saturday, we hit nearly every tent at CultureFest in Battery Park. On Sunday we left our part of the island for the Upper West Side and Columbia University who were hosting The New York Times Great Children's Read. We took around a kajillion photos (as usual), but I've collected just 12 here to experiment with the embedded slide show feature.

A free festival on the campus of Columbia University in which Julie Andrews talks about which children's books she loved the most and where They Might Be Giants jazz up the strollered crowd—these kinds of things remind us why we put up with New York.

Friday, October 12, 2007

It's way past time that I admit this

The ladies

So I've crossed the 100 post mark (a little while ago), and my wife deserves a lot of credit for that. She encouraged me to start this little record in the first place and then keep it going when I start to flag. She's given me ideas for posts.

And she's been a great editor. I'm a tinkerer and supposedly an expert on writing, but she quite often has a sharper eye and a keener ear. In even the last little post on pumpkin summer, for example, I originally wrote "pumkin" all over the place. Embarrassing.

As with most things, she makes me better.

(Cute picture, too.)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

86° + October = Pumpkins & Sundresses

The weather these days can only be described as freakish. It makes for odd pairings like the one in this photo taken amid the Union Square farmer's market this weekend.

If this keeps up, I'll have to go as a lifeguard or a UPS driver for Halloween.

Monday, October 01, 2007

This is all actually pretty ridiculous if you think about it

You didn't have to look too closely at the photograph in my last, brief post to see that The Boy is sporting a cast on his left elbow and arm. It's actually purple (his choice).

He suffered a broken bone near his elbow late last week, after an inadvertent push by a kid in the park sent him down from the top of a plushy building-block toy.

As my wife put it: "I knew it was bad when he said that he didn't want to go swimming that night and maybe not even this weekend."

We knew it was bad alright, but not how bad. And finding out became the first of many ridiculous parts of this little story. He fell late afternoon Thursday. I had to work past 10:30 p.m. Thursday, so I didn't get to see him before he went to bed. My wife was concerned but, like me, wasn't quite sure how worried to be. The next day I left for work without getting to see him, but when he did pad out of bed, his elbow was swollen and tender and he could move his arm. A sprain? My wife, being more on the ball than I, called our pediatrician's office just to be sure. Our doctor doesn't usually work on Fridays, and last Friday was usual, which meant that she talked with the unkind and unknowledgeable people answering the phones. She was told to take him directly to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and eventually she was given a list of such surgeons to contact, all of whom were outside of our health insurance network. And she was told that our doctor's office does not give referrals.

I then used our insurers friendly website to locate all the pediatric orthopedic specialists in network and within a ten-mile radius of our apartment. My wife called all of them. Not one could see him before mid-October; a few said they didn't even treat children. Ridiculous.

Back to our general practitioner. Luckily, we know our pediatrician fairly well, and my wife used to work with her husband, whom she proceeded to call. Through him my wife eventually did manage to talk directly with The Boy's doctor, who firmly encouraged us to have him looked at that day. My indefatigable wife then made another series of calls to the recommended out-of-network doctors until she found one who would see The Boy immediately. After a ginger examination and X-rays (that The Boy found super cool), the break was revealed and contained by a purple cast. My wife paid the entire bill for the visit before leaving and received a receipt that read "THANK YOU COME AGAIN." We will have to come again, at least twice, at our own expense.

It goes without saying that we would pay and do anything we needed to to set The Boy and Q right, to keep them from pain. Luckily, we can afford to go out of network if we have to, even for reasonably expensive treatment like this. But we shouldn't have to, especially given how much per month we pay for family health coverage. And dealing with bureaucracies like the desk sitters at our pediatrician's office or those who summarily deny benefits on the first few rounds (another long story) is a menace. The doctor who saw our son didn't take insurance; that's presumably why he could see him so quickly.

American health care is a mess. In myriad ways. Perhaps now that the next president will likely be a Democrat and that all the serious Democrats have serious health care policies, we will see profound changes come about in how our country deals with health. The ridiculous may yet be replaced by the sensible (or at least the more sensible). I hope so: Q and The Boy have a lot of bones and a lot of years ahead of them.

Though you can't see my talented wife here, you can know she's there

[Please do click for the larger view of this photo; bigger is, um, beautifuler.]

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A special first day of school

cha gio, yummySpeaking of back-to-school stuff, this year was special for The Boy. He's back at the Montessori school he went half-days to last year, so starting school itself wasn't that big of a deal. Showing off at school—now that's something completely different.

Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai (my lovely wife's parents) came out for a last-second visit. My wife found herself with four tickets to the women's final at the U.S. Open, and they seemed like a logical choice to fill the other seats. My wife's father (who we call "Ong Ngoai" or "grandfather" in Vietnamese) taught his four kids to play and to love tennis. They hadn't been out to visit us in a while, and they'd never been to a professional sporting event—and Arthur Ashe stadium is arguably the best place to watch a match. (For the record: I certainly wouldn't turn down tickets to Wimbledon or the French Open, should anyone want to give me some.)

The women's final was okay, as far as the tennis goes (Henin cruising to the trophy), but the night was beautiful. Before we took our seats, we caught a little of the wheelchair doubles final match underway on one of the grounds courts, and it was startlingly good and fast. We snapped photographs with giant rackets and with the fountains cycling. We rode the escalators up to our seats—which were good, right on the net—and looked quietly over the spectacle of it all. And it was hat night, which meant that we each received powdery blue baseball hats promoting tennis and JP Morgan Chase. We saw Carol King perform a few numbers and then retire to a box where she sat next to James Taylor (and in front of Kristin Davis). We watched the Marine honor guard unfurl an American flag that exactly matched the dimensions of the court itself. There were fireworks. And Donald Trump. The Empire State Building was even lit tennis-ball yellow for the night.

Though Q and The Boy didn't get to take in the tennis with us (we didn't get home until nearly midnight), they did get the benefits of having the grandparents visit. They brought a suitcase full of toys and thick, glossy car books from all sorts of dealerships (a great free present idea for the younger car lover, by the way). Each time they came back from somewhere they brought more things that light up and make noise and do the same to the kids.

And we ate. A lot. Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai love to go to Chinatown, which means bowls and bowls of Vietnamese soups with noodles. The Boy also discovered cha gio or Vietnamese spring rolls, and ate so many that we lost count. Q, for her part, tried nuoc mam—the fermented fish sauce—and kept trying it until we could see the fish painted on the bottom of the little bowl. Ba Ngoai noted how funny it was that she liked nuoc mam so much; it tends to be an acquired taste (but then again Q does like to suck on slices of lemon and lime). Then there was the food that Ba Ngoai made at home for us all. We bought fish at the local farmer's market that Saturday, and she turned it into canh chua, a sour and spicy fish soup with pineapple that The Boy likes. Then mi, or egg noodles, with snow peas and other vegetables that Q devoured with the skill and speed of a competitive eater.

After the tennis and Chinatown and toys and dinners and Chinatown, Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai left on the Monday right before 9/11. Their flight back to the other coast didn't leave until that evening, so they accompanied The Boy to his first day of school. Since he was a veteran there, his teacher let Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai past the locked fire door into his classroom. I wasn't there, but I heard how he beamed as he showed them the red couch for reading, the various trays of sorting work, the humble tubs where the students wash their plates and cups themselves after snack.

That's probably the best way to begin school—proud of the fact that it's yours.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I love back-to-school conversations

The Boy is back to his preschool now, and like those parents on TV, we ask him how each day was. Sometimes we get great stuff like this:

Me: How was school today?
The Boy: Okay.
Me: Did you meet any new kids?
The Boy: No.
Me: Really?
The Boy: There's that girl that cries all the time and wants her mom.
Me: Who's that?
The Boy: She wears the same shirt everyday.

Maria Montessori must be proud, looking down from that self-directed classroom in the sky.

(I'm certainly laughing down here.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I want to tell them

NEW YORK—The World Trade Center, 1988.
© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

I come into the World Trade Center PATH station, as I do every day now on my way home, and from the train these days the rows of rebar and steel beams make the place look like a grave site, a ditch of bones. Then up the long escalator and the stairs to Church Street and a mob of police, protesters, tourists, and people like me walking fast to get home. Signs about war. National Guard in green fatigues with serious guns. People with camcorders and mics recording in languages I don't speak. The day puts me in my head. I want to tell them what happened here on this day before they were born, tell them why it happened and that it's okay to feel covered by thick sadness, to care for those we don't know. I want them to be small, to fit in my hand, so that I can shield them from falling things. I want them never to smell acres of burning plastic, to run from dust. I want them never to wonder where someone is while really knowing. I want to tell them that wisdom wins in the end and want to believe it. I want to tell them that war ends (and want to believe it). The fountains are on in front of 7 World Trade Center; traffic knots. So glossy and glass, 7 World Trade becomes the sky when you look up into it. (Intentional?) I want to tell them that bodies are soft, held together by something ancient and loose. Up the elevator in the skyscraper where I live; down the long hall. I want to tell them.

Inside they are painting, and it's quiet; they are into their work.

I want to tell them but don't want them to know.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

While we're talking about sports...

All this talk and TV about tennis got me to thinking about my own experience with sports and why my wife and I would like both The Boy and Q to find a home in at least one. It's not because I'm a fanatic of one sort or another (my wife reads the sports pages more religiously than I do, actually); I'm not anxious to drill The Boy out on the grass or the court in the rain to get his form just so. And it's not just because basketball or tennis or baseball or soccer can lead to fast friends and to easier ways to believe in your own body.

I want them both to like sports, well, because of this:

Okay, sure, it's a commercial, but a brilliant one (what are they selling, after all?). We see a mix of professionals and amateurs and what's common between them. The man doing leg presses and the kid working the soccer ball down the alley and the woman running in the low light all move by themselves and for themselves. Sports can flip a switch somewhere that makes a boy want to shoot baskets all by himself in a neighbor's driveway until it's too dark to make out the rim.

It reminds me of a line from Marianne Moore's poem, "A Carriage from Sweden":
... Sweden,
you have a runner called the Deer, who

when he's won a race, likes to run more; ...
Sometimes it's the running and not the race that compels, even if it's the race that gets us up to run. I want them to want that themselves, even if only just a little.

Nike and Marianne More. I didn't see that coming. Just do it, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Bonus: Let's keep going with the tennis theme

If you like either tennis or good writing even a little, you could do worse than read David Foster Wallace's paean to Roger Federer, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." Wallace's article appeared in the August 20, 2006 edition of The New York Times Magazine, but if you've been watching Federer play this year — particularly his awe-inducing comeback against Feliciano Lopez – you'll find yourself nodding as you read it this deep into September 2007.

(I've had a few David Foster Wallace moments myself, but that's a topic for another time.)

Doing (or Tried)

Awhile back I engaged in little hand-wringing over The Boy's reluctance to try. I wrote it shortly after he refused to casually hit some over-sized tennis balls at a local street festival, seeing in that episode a larger trend of failing to believe in himself and of failing to take risks even when he's likely to succeed. Turns out that my worry was the thing truly over-sized.

And all it took for me to see this was a weekend outing to the largest tennis grounds around on one of its busiest days.

Basically each year since The Boy was born we've taken him to Arthur Ashe Kids' Day at the U.S. Open. Until now he's been too young to do much more than marvel at the guys on stilts and overeat the criminally delicious and over-priced waffle fries.

This year, though, he prefers Federer over Nadal, which is to say that he knows who they are. (He also lights up whenever he sees Sharapova playing or otherwise on TV, but my guess is that reflects the dawning of a deeper kind of knowledge, if you know what I mean. And I think you do.) He's also big enough to hit some balls himself on the outer courts.

We head first to the obstacle course right when we arrive because it's sponsored by Hess, and they always give out the best prizes. By the time our spot in the snaking line reaches the court, they've run out of free rackets, but after running and jumping and hitting a ball at a target, The Boy and Q still each walk away with a deep plastic bag carrying a light-up police car, binoculars, and a small hand-sized fan that makes fancy patterns with just a few LEDs. A total hit, in other words.

It's what we do after that, though, that reminds me just to let myself believe in him. The grounds run thick with kids, many of them tweens or teens. It's hot, too, probably around 100 degrees. My lovely wife accompanied The Boy and Q through the obstacle course, but for The Boy to participate in the USPTA Little Tennis hit around on Court 16, he'll have to go by himself.

He does, of course, without pausing even a bit. He takes the racket they give him and hits a series of balls dangling from ropes. When he misses one completely, he stops it and himself and connects, sending a few up and around the larger rope they all hang from. Then he goes where they point him to rows of balls sitting up on curved sticks. He thumps each of them with appreciable form and has a noticeably swell time doing so. He sweats. A lot. Someone snaps his picture (and it's not just his mother this time, if you can believe it). He has a little trouble returning the balls they toss to him over the net — he is, after all, just four years old — so they usher him on to the tall woman holding a ball at the end of what looks like a fishing pole. He hits it off on the first try. Then it's off to get some help returning the over-sized Wilson tennis ball with a novelty-sized racket. He's pretty tired when it's all over, but I can see that it's a good tired, the kind he expresses these days after the soccer and basketball programs he's been enjoying over the summer. He'll walk onto just about any court or into any room these days without any push from us at all. He has moved past trying into simply, well, doing.

Right before we leave (after a lunch of hot dogs priced liked gold bars and a cup of waffle fries), we take a look into Louis Armstrong stadium, hoping to recognize the players hitting around for the kids. Armstrong isn't small, but it's no Arthur Ashe stadium, and you can get close. We find seats just a few rows off the court. In the full heat of the August afternoon, The Boy points to the player on our end in the black shirt effortlessly sending back all the balls that arc and spin over the net to him. "That's Roger Federer," he says. And it is.

Admittedly, seeing Federer glide and flow about thirty feet in front of us was pretty cool. But I was more impressed with and humbled by The Boy in the red shirt sitting next to me.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

New job + U.S. Open =

not much blogging action. Instead of writing at night, I've been taking in the tennis, which has been quite good (as usual).

Sorry for the little hiatus. More is coming.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What it should be called

Q received this tutu/fairy wings/wand getup for her last birthday. She's been disappearing into her room and emerging with it on more and more these days, especially when we're all listening to music (which, thanks to my lovely wife, happens much more often these days).

Recently when she was dancing and spinning with the rest of us, my wife asked her if she was a ballerina. "No," Q replied. "I'm a spinnerina. This is my spinnerina outfit."

I couldn't think of a better name for it and for her.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Now eponymous

In case you haven't noticed (and you might not have had to), the blog now resides on its own domain--namely http://www.thedorsalstream.com. The old address, http://dorsalstream.blogspot.com, will send you here as well. Feel free to update your bookmarks and/or your blog-surfing habits anyway.

Who knows? I might even get around to changing the look of the place, too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Happy Anniversary to Us

Eight years today. We celebrated after work with a criminally rich chocolate cake from a local patisserie, and champagne. (I'm sipping some now in between sentences, as a matter of fact.) And with our kids who are wonderfully ubiquitous.

The photograph of my beautiful wife above was taken before digital cameras were mainstream; I had to take a picture of the picture to put it up. For this reason and for a few others, it seems a long time ago, and then it doesn't.

Okay, enough writing for today. I want to get back to simply loving my wife.

Here's to eight years, and to many, many more.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Wave function

The Boy is the definition of body in motion. He sprints to the incoming water, then at its edge spins back like the gulls overhead calling for snacks. He races and beats the wave up to the dry sand; the retreating ocean takes his footprints with it as a consolation. He celebrates briefly with a yelp and is off again. Repeat pretty much ad infinitium.

Q stands and waits for the ocean to come to her until it disappears the beach up to her ankles, and then, gripping my fingers at first, she sits and lets go to clap a splash up over her smile. The pull back is strong — dragging earth and shells and thoughts out to somewhere down and black — but Q won't go. She enjoys leaving the memory of her resistance in the saturated sand. I stand a little ways behind her all set to snatch her up if a wave comes in high and fast, which, since I'm in Active Parent Mode, seems always about to happen. Since Q is, well, Q — viz., small and tenacious and mighty — I only have to come between her and the ocean a few times.

The day itself is faultless. After weeks of city heat, the air feels cool and light, the ocean and the sky competing for bluest abyss, with the sky barely winning because it has no bottom. There are no clouds to suggest anything. The sand heats up our feet but not too much, and the water proves warm and easy to be in.

We’ve come to this beach, a gorgeous hem of sand on the Jersey shore, in a rented car. We don’t have one of our own, haven’t had one for thirteen years now, and the trip itself (even in a Ford Focus) therefore almost suffices as the event for Q and The Boy. Almost. They love the beach, and our destination is what really keeps them from rioting in the back seats as we crawl in traffic down the Garden State Parkway and through a small town that from the inside looks nowhere near a coast.

This trip has them even more excited because we're meeting close friends there, friends my wife and I knew before weddings and kids came about. Their oldest (will call him 'D') is nearly six now, and our son can't get enough of him. It's understandable — The Boy, like D, is into soccer and bikes and instantiates the irrepressible physics of boy bodies. Watching D out in the waves makes The Boy brave, and as the day grows he leaps into taller and taller water, and when knocked down he pops back up and rubs his face laughing.

Our friends' two daughters always catch Q's attention, too. When she can't see them, she asks after them, and J (the older daughter) watches over her like a big sister, holding hands, just being close. She loves it. G, the other sister, talks now and then to all manner of characters on a pink toy phone — "Hello? Cinderella? I'll get back to you" — and let's Q place some important calls as well, likewise princess related.

When we leave, no one denies it's time to go. Our friends have parked in the opposite direction, so after all the kids have been ushered through the concrete bathrooms, we kiss and hug and shake on the busy boardwalk. The Boy doesn't get too sad so I know he's really tired, and he confirms my suspicion in the car not long after we drive off to New York. Q falls asleep even before that. My wife and I wonder to each other in the quiet why we don't do this more often.

The beach stows away home with us, in our hair and our clothes and our heads. (And all over and in the rented Ford, but they can worry about that.) Later that night and many times since, The Boy asserts that he wants a kid surfboard.

I want them — and us — to sleep this well each night.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Now hear this: WNYC's Radiolab

Our local public radio station, WNYC, generates quite a few excellent shows, including Radio Lab. Although Radio Lab "is heard around the country on over 150 stations" as they put it, their episodes can be accessed anytime via the web or as a podcast, if you're like me and into that sort of thing.

On my way to work today I listened to a show of theirs from 2005 entitled "Emergence" in which the two hosts try to unpack, in a remarkably sophisticated and subtle way, how larger-scale order arises out of smaller-scale randomness and chaos, how a whole bunch of dumb things (like individual neurons or ants) can somehow coalesce or cooperate into a smart thing (a conscious thought or an effecient ant colony).*

This is a great episode of a great show. It goes a long way to communicating the wonder and difficulty of problems in consciousness and brain research, how even the simplest examples of the mind at work quickly leave us unsure exactly how to ask the right questions.

*Disclaimer: Though I don't know Christof Koch personally, I've been rather involved in an organization he's helped to create and to maintain, namely the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. Not trying to shill or to promote, though. And the section of the show where he's interviewed is really quite touching.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


So I tried to put this photo of Q waiting to cross the street on her trike—taken by my lovely wife, of course—up for the blog header, but it didn't sit well up top. Still, I like it so much that I'm posting it on its own. To appreciate it properly, give it a click to see it full scale. Then have a look at (among other things) what my wife chose to bring in to focus and what she left soft.

We're lucky to have someone so good to make a record of our lives. She can even make me look good, which is doing something.

Friday, August 10, 2007


Here we are Simpsonized, courtesy of my lovely wife.  (Notice how hot she's made herself, by the way; she assures me that it's "accurate.")  It's great fun, especially if you're a fan, which I am.

(Note:  Picture not necessarily to scale.  While I'd like to think that I have a juicy, chess-club brain, I don't think my head normally affects the tides.)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Job lag

It's August in New York, which means that every time you step outside, the air is such that you feel like a large, well-paid man has put a pillow over your face. And it smells. Someone somewhere described the smell of the City in August as reminiscent of a thawing refrigerator. Though our neighborhood is a little better in this regard than, say, our old Greenwich Village street, the analogy is nevertheless a good one. So there's that.

My apologies for the largeish gap between posts. I've started my new job, which is straight up M-F 9-5 with commute, and I'm still recovering from job lag. I knew, of course, that the change from a "pure academic" to an administrator would be radical, primarily because I would go from seeing my kids several hours each day (and at least one entire day per week) to seeing them for roughly two hours before their beds get them for the night. Instead of making dinner for them every weekday evening, I ask what and whether they ate.

Q and The Boy have adjusted fairly well to the change, it seems. They've noticed--The Boy did ask why I was coming home so late from work now--but if my being gone more has shattered their earth, they've disguised it quite well. As a good friend of mine advised me, you will be affected much more than the kids (and affected by them not being that affected, alas). And, of course, she's right.

Things are rather different. Traditional academics (those who teach and research for publication in professional journals) are essentially idea entrepreneurs. They manage businesses of one, developing and promoting concepts and arguments on their own wherever and whenever they can. Like other entrepeneurs in business and whatnot, they make their own hours (more or less), and work when and as hard as they want. And like other entrepreneurs, the work never really goes away. Non-academics often sigh heavily with deep longing or jealousy when they think of professorial Summer Vacation once classes have ended in May. (As the old saw goes, the best three reasons to teach are June, July, and August.) But Summer Vacation is just a myth really. June through August was (and is) a harrowing time for me and many young academics especially. Many professors at all levels take up summer teaching to supplement anemic salaries. More importantly, it's a time shot through with dread over finishing and sending out papers so that they can begin to crawl through the criminally slow mill of peer review. Invariably I never get enough done.

This pressure still haunts me now despite my commiting, in body and mind, to clock out at 5:00 p.m. each day, leaving my work on my desk in a dark office. I guess the lag will be a little longer than I thought.

More on idea entrepreneurship later.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Here's a question—

We had some friends over this weekend — friends we hadn't seen in nearly three years — and we ran into a question that I had thought a little about but hadn't settled. The Boy is four years old now, as is our friends' older girl, and they're old enough to engage adults in a proper way. The four of us (the adults, that is), got to wondering to each exactly what the proper way is these days.

All this was clear when I was The Boy's age. Even close friends of my parents that we saw often were to be called Mr. or Mrs. So-And-So, with a Dr. thrown in when appropriate. Perhaps this stems from many of my parents' friends also providing many of the major services in town, which meant that I always tended to think of them in terms of the principal, the optometrist, the fire chief. No doubt my brother and would have addressed them formally anyway; it was just how things were done.

Now, though, when we talk with Q and The Boy about their friends and their friends' families, we tend to use the first of the adults, and Q and The Boy know them by those names. Our friends this weekend, though, more or less asked us how their kids should address us. And frankly I'm not quite sure. It's not that I'm that uncomfortable with formality — my students tend to call me "professor" or "doctor." I also believe that respect isn't a function of title but instead must be earned (ideally through competence and expertise). Still, having my kids speak formally to adults does sound attractive to me. Etiquette has a lot to do with respecting people as people, which is why my wife and I have worked hard to have our kids be relatively controlled at the meal table, whether in our house or in the house of others.

So I'm torn, then, about how they should ask. Any suggestions? Thoughts?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Did someone say "Hoboken"?

Have a listen to all four of us saying it. While eating chips. Just click on the (admittedly boring) little movie below.

(The Boy says it first, but Q's version is unmistakable. Frank Sinatra himself is probably smiling down from on high at this very moment.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Across the water

Grandma is in town, so we're looking around for new things to try. While Q naps with Grandma inside, I go out to the park in front to watch The Boy work his new rocket toy (a felt rocket on the end of a pump that he eventually sends up to tree height), and to plot little adventures.

As I passively parent him on the grass, I see commuters breathed in and out by the commuter ferries that stop right in front of our building. The "Squeaky Dock," as we call it for obvious reasons, has been a fixture since we moved down here, despite being basically a floating canvas tent. We spend quite a bit of time there since it has ramps to run up and down and sits out on the water, closer to the big ships and the speed boats. We've never taken a boat from there, though, and the thought strikes me that today should be the day.

It turns out to be easy to do. When Q wakes from her nap, she, The Boy, Grandma (wearing her "Big Honking Shoes"), and I head to the Squeaky Dock for tickets and for the 4:08 ferry to Hoboken. The Boy fidgets with glorious expectation. Our boat docks, and they motor down the ramp for us to board. It's still too early for rush hour, and only a few others join us for the trip. We head up the stairs for a better view of our building and our city.

The river looks even larger when you're out on it, more like a large lake or a small sea. Looking back out towards the harbor, over the left (book) shoulder of the Statue of Liberty, we can see the Verrazano Bridge, beyond which is nothing but Atlantic Ocean. Our park and our building, so familiar that we think of them as ours, look so new from the water — more green, more everything — that the kids need to be re-introduced to them. Q says, "Hello, park."

The ride is short, about ten minutes, but captivating nonetheless. We exit into the New Jersey Transit train station, and it's busy. The trains wait with all doors out, and all sorts of commuters have started to make their way home. We head against the flow through the station outside to the walk along the Hudson on the Jersey side. Right before a large rectangle of grass begins running out towards the river, we're surprised to find kids soaking themselves in a powerful fountain. The Boy asks straight away if he can take off his shirt, which is a good idea since we came without towels or extra clothes (or anything at all actually). I pull Q's shirt off, too, and they work themselves into the erupting water. (Now and then The Boy "helps" Q by giving her a little push, as you can see in the blog header.) By the time we leave, there's not a dry spot on either of them.

Dinner time looms, so Grandma and I eventually manage to coax them over to the dry benches. I have to wring out their clothes. On the way back through the train station, Grandma does what Grandmas do and buys them candy. As we bounce on the small waves over to our Squeaky Dock, Q and The Boy can barely eat their Twizzlers because they can't stop smiling. Today has always been there across the water; I'm glad we finally went to claim it.

And now we get to hear Q say "Hoboken" whenever we want.

(Note: I still plan on doing the job series soon, but I wanted to get a little post in about Grandma's nice visit. Tune in again soon.)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Okay, so a little bit more about getting older — or on "Being Adult"

As I was putting black bars over the faces of my erstwhile classmates from the 1970's, I began some thinking about "Being An Adult."

Adulthood has many markers, one big one being a Recognizable Job. One of the first questions asked when people meet, after all, is "What do you do?."

I've been an academic of one sort or another for over ten years now — first as a graduate student, then as a graduate student and undergraduate teacher, then (after earning my PhD) exclusively as a publishing/aspiring academic and undergraduate lecturer, in search of a tenure-track teaching job. Soon I will start my position as a university administrator, which is something altogether different.

My Lovely Wife has been a full-fledge lawyer now for nearly ten years. The professional lives and responsibilities of lawyers and academics differ in radical and significant ways, but they do have one thing in common: Many people, I would guess, have conceptions of what people who have these jobs do in them. And, I would guess, most people (who don't themselves do these things), are wrong. I, myself, have a rather vague notion of what my wife does during her desk hours, and I'm privy to inside knowledge. (And snazzy TV shows like Law & Order don't help — she's a corporate attorney and not a litigator prone to courtroom histrionics.)

But I'd bet that most people don't really know what an academic's life is like, particularly a young one trying to make his way in American higher education. So as I'm preparing to leave academia in one form for another, I thought I'd dedicate a series of posts to talking about what I did with my days until this year. It'll be therapeutic for me, and might actually be interesting for you. Let me apologize in advance if it proves otherwise.

More to come, then.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Happy Birthday to, um, me.

(obligatory childhood photo: me circa 1979)

I'm 37 today. That's a number somewhere between Getting Up There and Not Really That Old. I don't feel that senescent, really, but I do have two little people who call me "Daddy" and expect me to answer, which is enough to age anyone, I suppose. And any birthday over, say, 31 lends itself to easy math, such as when The Boy leaves for college (which I'm sure he will, despite idiotic speculation to the contrary), I'll be 51. I can't decide whether that's old--which means that it probably is.

Speaking of old, my son has so nicely noticed and pointed out to our nanny:
"Sometimes dad goes somewhere and he doesn't remember why he went there."
He's right, you know; I do that sometimes. But I've done that for a while now. (I can't remember for how long, of course.)

But as my father pointed out to me today, 37 or even 51 isn't that old. When I'm 51, he'll be 81. And my mother claims that I'll still be young when my kids leave home. I hope so. (That they leave home, that is.)

Still, when the thunder nudged Q out of bed this morning and into ours, I truly did enjoy the "Happy Birthday, Dad" she gave me--even if some coaching may have been involved.

And the carrot cake my Lovely Wife brought home wasn't too bad, too.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Today is my lovely wife's birthday. For nine wonderful days we are the same age. Which is to say, old.

Though she is a bit taller these days, she's just as cute as she was all those many years ago.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Whose America?

WE'VE re-fitted the entire day around the fireworks. The kids usually go to bed around 8 p.m. or so (though Q has still been coming out routinely until 9:30 sometimes), and the various local displays supposedly launch at 9:15. The Boy has already promised to nap in exchange for staying up. Q says that she doesn't want to watch them--too scary--but we want to keep her up to give her the option just the same, and we let her sleep extra long in the afternoon just in case.

The Fourth means lots of different things to different people, and with kids the focus tends to drift toward the sensorial. Still, my Lovely Wife and I note that for breakfast we eat blueberry scones with what we call "cappuccinos" (kid-friendly frothed milk in tiny cups). For lunch the kids have lo mein with tofu (my wife and I eat leftover Indian food), and my wife makes enchiladas for dinner. Our babysitter is from Poland; most of those who work in our apartment building are either Irish or Eastern European. The playgrounds and parks host enough languages to make the U.N. blush. This city, in many ways like this country, is truly international in its nationality.

The Boy and Q do nap well, after a longer day outside under thunderheads menacing over the river. The rain finally starts when what passed for sunlight today starts to fade, but NY1, the local news channel, assures us that only a fierce electrical storm will squelch the festivities. About 9 p.m. or so, we head up to our building's roof deck. The really big show, the one conspicuously sponsored by Macy's and shown on NBC in high definition, gets thrown on the East Side, which means that we can't really see that much from where we sit this far west. Still, from 19 floors up looking over the Hudson, you can usually spot close to a dozen smaller displays up and down New Jersey, culminating in a reasonably big show over Liberty State Park a little upriver (towards us) from the Statue of Liberty.

In the soft rain, the first rockets go up to bloom like a half-dozen great ideas striking at once. Q, having practiced all day at being scared of the fireworks, buries her head in my neck. I pivot to give her a chance to see how harmless they are, probably a mile or so away across the wide river and nearly noiseless at this distance. She flips her head to my other shoulder like a squirrel keeping the tree between itself and what bothers it, so I don't press things. Eventually, she asks for mom and for inside. (Once inside, she won't even watch them on TV.)

I go over by The Boy so that he doesn't have to hold an umbrella while he watches. The river is a constellation of lights from small boats. He meets every explosion with one of his own: "It's a red one!" "That one looks like a flower!" "How do they make them in a heart shape?!?" He doesn't want me to answer; just listen. I'm happy to. He can stand and see over the roof deck railing this year. He manages to keep up his excitement for about forty minutes until the finale, made up of more explosions than I can keep track of. When the sky finally does go black, all the boats sound their horns in applause. I don't need any light to see The Boy's smile.

The Macy's spectacular is still discharging. We can see the ruby glow to the northeast and the southeast, so I suggest to The Boy that we go to the other side of the roof deck to take in what we can. The other spectators from our building return to their apartments and their drinks, and we're left more or less alone high up in the air. Through the gap in the skyline where the Twin Towers used to loom, we can glimpse the crowns of fireworks over on the East River by the Brooklyn Bridge, but the gap and the sounds and the colors remind me too much of new wars rather than the old one being represented above us. When The Boy says he'd rather go in and check on Q, I quickly agree.

It's late. Q is already in her pajamas when we arrive. The Boy talks a stream as we urge him into his sleep clothes--pajama bottoms and one of my wife's many black t-shirts. Before bed, we always sing a song. Often, we sing "Happy Birthday" to Snowman (it's a Q thing; don't ask). Tonight, we decide it's fitting to sing "Happy Birthday" to America. After we finish, as I turn out the light and turn to leave the kids to sleep, The Boy asks, "Who's America?" Good question.

Happy Fourth, everyone.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

No doubt, Q

Overheard conversation between my lovely wife and Q while my wife was putting on her makeup this morning. Q was pretending to put on makeup, too, running an empty brush along her cheeks in imitation of her mother.
Lovely wife: When you grow up, you're going to break some hearts.
Q: I'm going to break some hearts and squares.
No doubt, Q.

(Picture taken by The Boy, by the way.)

Friday, June 29, 2007

The (Big) Boy

I was away at Las Vegas for an academic conference for a few days, during which my lovely wife shouldered the child burden full on. (By the way, Vegas is surreal enough, but imagine a gaggle of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists meandering through casinos wearing nametags on lanyards, and you get surreal surreal.) My profession and schedule allow me lots of time with my kids, but rarely do I have them for 24 complete hours without relief, let alone 48. Respect, as my students might say.

In any event, we took The Boy to his four-year checkup this week. His annual last year was an eye-opener for me, primarily because the nurses and doctor spoke to him directly and not to or through me. Things this time followed a similar pattern, and when the nurse did ask me something (whether he can draw a square, for example), I asked him (turns out he can). He filled a specimen cup like I have to when I get my checkups (though he did so, unlike me, without a trace of self-consciousness). And this time he did manage to respond properly to the hearing test--except when Q said something right in his open ear in the middle of the beeps. After I took Q for a little walk, he finished fine with only his quiet mother watching.

In any event, here are the results:
Height: 3 ft. 5 1/4" (75th percentile)
Weight: 33.5 lbs. (25th percentile)
Everything else: Healthy.
He's so good at the doctor; he never cries however much they poke him with sharp things or shine lights in his eyes and ears. And they do poke him. A lot. Both he and Q score lollipops and stickers for their troubles.

It's obvious and cliché and everything but true just the same: He's changing fast and getting big. It's wonderful, actually.

Saturday, June 09, 2007


We wake up to low clouds the color of the street outside. Which is not a good color, given that we've planned to have The Boy's fourth birthday party in the park behind our apartment building.

He's already had one birthday party at school. Q, my wife, and I brought cupcakes for snack time on his birthday proper. (His friend James pumped his fist with a "Yeah!" when The Boy set a blue-frosted one on his plate.) Everything's a teachable moment, and his teachers had him hold a globe and circle a sun on the floor four times while the class sang. Q got to wash her dishes (and a few others besides), and we still talk about that.

In many ways, it seems like The Boy has been turning four for weeks. Even before his party at school, his grandparents got him a bike that he's ridden like mad all over the park paths, and his Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai (grandpa and grandma in Vietnamese, which is what we call my wife's parents) sent him a box of games and toys and clothes. Today, though, is the official birthday party. No playroom this time; it has been too nice to stay inside. We've invited his classmates to the park, too, along with several of his friends from the building. It turns out that unfortunately quite a few people can't make it due to illness or absence, but the number still ends up being substantial.

The weather improves; the party goes as it should. Though it seems effortless and casual in design and execution, my wife, as usual, has spent a lot of time thinking and doing for this. She had originally organized the party around a space theme, but The Boy re-insisted on Formula 1 race cars, so we have a box of little plastic rockets interred like cheap time capsules in our closet. Race cars, then. This morning, after literally putting the icing on the cake, my wife quickly draws ten or so outlines of race cars, and we tape them down outside for crayons and chalk. She's already ordered two-dozen balloon racers—super light plastic cars pushed along by balloons thin enough for the kids to blow up themselves. Those definitely are a hit. She even had the sparkling idea to make stop-light Rice Krispy treats—yellow rectangles with appropriate colored M&M's all in a row. (Q quietly disabused the treats of their candy while the rest of us were otherwise occupied. You should have seen her chocolatey face.) Everyone takes home a race-car kite as well. And instead of a galaxy of planets, my wife fashions a cake in the shape of a figure-eight racetrack, complete with lane piping (in delicious buttercream) and die-cast race cars speeding towards hand-drawn checkered flags. When she brings it out towards the end of the party (after the de rigeur pizza), all the boys gasp audibly almost in unison. It's absolutely delicious, too.

(We also lucked into some entertainment for many of the adults as well. The monstrous new condo building across the street is almost complete, and workers were dismantling the equally monstrous crane that had been a fixture over the playground for months. To pull it down, a crew brought in the largest crane truck in New York City, and many of the men were pulled to the fence to watch it work. They—um, we—haven't come all that far from appreciating cars on a cake, it seems.)

After everyone leaves and we take in Q for her afternoon nap (soaked, as usual, from the water in the park), my wife and I confirm our separate senses that The Boy had mixed feelings about the morning. When he gets hungry he gets upset easily, and that happens as we more or less expected right before the pizza arrives, but he's also draped in a lingering kind of melancholy that pulls his mouth down and pushes his head onto his shoulder.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the great analytic philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote that when a child learns language and moves from simply crying to speaking, language doesn't get in between the feeling (pain or hunger, say) and its expression (crying), but instead replaces it. Speaking, in other words, is just another type of crying. I happen to think that this picture is strictly false for a host of pretty involved reasons, but it's arguable that one part of growing up is managing one's expressions, whether crying or via language or otherwise. Language helps, no doubt, but it also probably introduces all sorts of complexities and complications that tangle us up in ways unavailable to wordless creatures. (It's also intriguing to think, if Wittgenstein is correct, that we're walking around still essentially crying to each other, e.g., when picking up a coffee from a cart on the street.)

I mention this because not only do my wife and I agree that The Boy didn't fully enjoy himself at his party, we also think that he's been expressing that fact in rather non-kid ways. When we asked whether he had fun, for example, he first said "Yes," and then, after looking down and pausing, "Just a little." My wife thinks he answers in this way because he doesn't want us to feel bad—doesn't really want anything at all, in fact, but can't help expressing himself. One of the cars from his cake did go missing, and several of his friends weren't able to make his party. But he did get many presents that he likes very much and he sees most of his friends routinely at school or on the swings or for play dates. He did fiercely love his cake, too. In other words, it's not simple, raw want that's the culprit here; it's more complicated. Honestly, we're not sure what it is exactly. (And still aren't.) That's a solid sign, I suppose, that he's growing up inside as well as out.

We become who we are by trying to figure ourselves out, by telling our own story to others and to ourselves. Work in developmental psychology tells us that we start to have lasting memories about the time that we really come into language and into telling stories, around age four or five. As I've mentioned before, this is also roughly the time at which the domain of thinking gets much more complicated for kids. He's been talking well and remembering for a while, but lately the differences have been remarkable. (I should also note here that at his party, upon hearing that Q had just turned two, one parent remarked that she "talked like a high schooler." "In both content and attitude," I replied.)

Complication can be good, too. I will never forget (in part because I write this now) how he hugged me the day of his party at school. When Q, my wife, and I first arrived in his classroom, he knew why we were there. When the room's attention all fell on him at once, he became proud, embarrassed, happy, and nervous all at once. He smiled—glowed, rather—in the light of it all, and wrapped himself firmly around me, holding there for several beats.

He didn't need to say anything to tell me everything.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Birthday Boy

Happy Birthday, son.

I am proud of you, and I love you.

Welcome to four.


(Note: Cupcakes for entire school class, care of Mom. She's going to make his party this Saturday in the park out back a formula one race car wonder. Details, no doubt, to follow.)

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Perfect Time

We head out to the playground after dinner, as usual, and it's always the perfect time. It's been hot, the day loitering still and heavy for the most part, but around 7 p.m. the river sends in cooler air over the grass. Most of the visiting kids have left the day for dinners and baths, leaving colorful riots of popped balloons and shovels and misplaced spills of sand that were probably minutes ago continents or bases or pirate ships.

Almost empty now, everything is for us. Q and The Boy set to work on opposite ends, she slowly soaking herself in the dog-shaped fountains, he lugging an adopted bucket full of sand up to the high wide slide to speed himself down. I loll roughly in the middle, unneeded and unnecessary.

I become useful when it's time to swing, and there's no waiting now. We make a sport of it: we do slingshots and catapults and underdogs, and Q's laughs bubble up and out of her and all over us. "The swing makes my head look up," she says. We stop when we want to, off to explore every last ladder and bridge.

Soon the sun gets real low, and my watch confirms it; it's time to head inside. On our way out, Q pretends to fiddle with the gate latch to steal just a few more minutes before this day becomes something she can only remember. Though I sympathize, I'm on to her, so I go back to scoop her up while The Boy shows himself how he can run atop the park's low wall in his new flip flops. To do things simply because you can. I tell him to be careful, because that's my job, and he tells me "I'm gripping my toes like this when I run. I won't fall off." He doesn't.

This is the perfect time.

Friday, May 25, 2007


WE'VE been to the West Coast and back right in the middle of May. We’ve dipped a foot into each ocean. We came back from an overcast and coolish San Diego to summer in NYC—the parks department flipped on the water fountains in the parks around our apartment, and Q and The Boy make any space you share with them smell like sunscreen and kidsweat. Sand has again become ubiquitous in our house.

Like any parent, I dreaded the six hours on the plane coming and going, and my wife and I fortified ourselves as best we could against all the problems we could imagine. We packed the laptop computer and The Boy’s favorite movies, drawing pads, pens, and pencils, books currently in the heavy rotation. My wife compiled an enviable snack bag, full of hummus sandwiches, bagels, raisins, cheese sticks, gummies in both bear and worm shapes, and several cups of dried noodle soups that only require hot water to bloom into a reasonable meal. We also brought Q’s two blankets—one big and one little (“for her eyes”). We tried, in other words, to bring as much of our house with us as we could to soften the flight as well as the landing.

Funny thing was, though, that The Boy didn’t want to bring his blankets. Until recently, he depended upon two blankets—one yellow, one sky blue with white clouds—to sleep and to assuage in general. We even used them to teach him colors in Vietnamese. Now he says they make him itch.

Whatever difficulty trying has presented him, he's always been this way. At three months (or one month, in preemie terms), he left our room for his own and slept soundly with little trouble. Around his first birthday, he decided to trade the bottle for the straw cup. He worked his way into his Big-Boy Bed before age two, after only a few nights. He never really did take to a pacifier. He eats all his meals off adult plates and tableware, and has for some time. Tectonic transitions, then, have been pretty easy for him—and for us.

And they've been a little easier for Q, too. She's watched him be big, so she knows how. Her first real night in a twin bed, on a visit to grandma and grandpa in Kansas, she slept reasonably well and came out by herself in the morning. After bringing her new Big-Girl mattress home in a borrowed car this past week, she took to it right away. (She did get up three or four times for the first few nights, to which the boy added, "I told you it wasn't a good idea.")

The Boy will be four soon, and the next year will be a big one for his brain. When he comes out of four into five, psychology tells us that he'll have a better idea of how minds work, including his own. I'm sure it won't be that big of a deal for him.

But like all his transitions, it will be a big deal for me.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


AN old saying (well, at least as far back as Yoda in the myth-mining The Empire Strikes Back) goes something like this: "There is no try, only do or not do."

However fortune-cookie-ish and deliciously Delphic this advice may sound, it's false. There are all sorts of things (an infinite number, actually) that I'm not doing right now that I'm not trying to do, and I think it's at least arguable that I am doing all sorts of things at the moment without trying. (I'm typing this out into a little window on the Web, but it seems odd to say, barring any peculiar circumstances, that I'm trying to make my fingers hit the right keys as I do so or that I'm trying to breathe all the while.) We need another category of action that can pick out a certain class of doings and not doings. Enter trying.

Trying has to do with drawing close to the precipice of risk — of attempting something that might not go well or go at all. And to my ear, one can only try things (more or less) that one might reasonably think one could do. If a friend of mine tells me that he tried to lift the Empire State Building, I'm not sure what he means. He may have grabbed a grubby bit of wall near the base and made a strained face, but I'm inclined to say that he only pretended to try. (Note: Lots of questions here. Isn't trying a doing itself, and doesn't that mean that you have to try to try, and so on and so on? Fair enough. Though philosophy can be fun, let's not get too bogged down here.) We also say that something is trying when it becomes difficult or annoying. Fear, risk, difficulty, annoyance: not the best connotations associated with the word, is what I'm saying.

I mention all of this because my wife and I recently confronted a parenting puzzle that we're not sure how to unlock. Yesterday the four of us went to the family street fair put on yearly by the good folks of the Tribeca Film Festival. Much of Tribeca that we routinely haunt gets closed down and filled with all sorts of sponsor booths, from local businesses and schools (The Boy's Montessori had its own cluster of craft tables) to ESPN, the NBA, etc. Lots of free and fun stuff. Anyway, each year the USTA has a fun setup where kids of all sizes can play. This year they even had extra-large tennis balls, bigger than grapefruits but smaller than cantaloupes, to go with the child-friendly rackets for those who want to step inside the net to take a few whacks. Q went right in with my wife, and they hit a couple together to the delight of them both.

The Boy loves tennis and has for some time. He can actually hit a real tennis ball pretty well, and he's usually the one to suggest digging the rackets out of the closet on warm days. When the U.S. Open arrives at the end of August, he always asks to go play on the miniature court usually installed in front of the Winter Garden. We like tennis, but we've tried to be careful not to bully him into the sport.

Yesterday morning, though, he flatly refused to play, saying that he can't do it and so just wanted to watch. He wouldn't even get near the court, crumpling on the ground like a nonviolent protester when I tried to go in with him. It was early, too, which meant that not that many people were watching. (It wasn't just tennis: he also didn't want to try tossing basketballs with the other kids at the little NBA hoops across the street.) We cheered and cajoled and finally threatened him with going home if he didn't at least try what he knew he could already do. In the end, he didn't cave and neither did we: He and I walked home, holding hands and not saying a word, while Q and my wife stayed to work their way around the rest of the festival.

The Boy can be daring — he'll try just about any food you give him, for example, from sushi to stinky cheese. But he has always been rather timid physically despite lately becoming long and lithe. And he's getting fast; I can't dog it down the hall anymore when I race him to our door. (That fact could have something to do with my own state of shape, admittedly, but anyway.) He doesn't recognize his own transformation all that clearly. If only he could see the big kid we see.

To be fair, it's not as if any of this stuff gets easier once you get older; self-awareness is always a tricky business. My wife and I both tend to be relatively risk averse, which is one big reason why, I suppose, we haven't bought an apartment here in NYC or fled the city altogether for the suburbs or for far-off, calmer, states. I've stuck with academia as long as I have — despite being overworked and underpaid like most professors — largely because my imagination blanks when I try conceiving of an alternative. To a certain extent I know that I could do many things, some of them even quite well, but to do any of them, I would have to try. Which means risking failure.

So I understand The Boy's predicament. To try is to open oneself up to the possibility of not doing, and the fear of that possibility can be paralyzing. And perhaps it's even worse if you try something that you have done in the past; if you don't succeed this time, you're not as good as you once were. (Gazing at 40 just off in the distance, I have some acquaintance with that, too.) Our remedy has been to remind The Boy of the successes he's had, how far he's come, what he can do now that he couldn't do just a little while before, and to give him new opportunities for little victories. We just work on kicking a ball or catching one; we nudge him to hit a tennis ball again and again, not necessarily over a net or within a service line. The point is only to connect, and when he does, we note it and try to get him to try again. This strategy has had limited success, it seems. We're certainly open to suggestions.

But it's ultimately up to him to see what he can do. And it's up to us, too. Perhaps we — perhaps I — just need to show him what trying really means.

It seems worth a try, at any rate.