Saturday, April 28, 2007

Little NYC Adventure (or who says libraries aren't fun?)

Q and The Boy love a new counting book we recently picked up called 123 NYC. Each number is represented by photographs of city things, and the lion sculptures watching over the New York Public Library illustrate the number 2. They always go back to that page, so we decided to see the lions for ourselves and make a morning of it. Here's the day.

6:30 a.m.: The Boy's up (and so, therefore, are we).

6:30 - 7:00 a.m.: Be groggy.

7:00 - 8:00 a.m.: Bring in and be intimidated by 10 lb. Saturday NY Times.

8:00 - 8:45 a.m.: Applesauce pancakes with bacon.

9:00 a.m.: Throw much of the kids' pancakes away, uneaten.

9:00 - 9:45 a.m.: Coffee, shower, coffee, coffee, shower. Convince ourselves to go.

9:45 a.m.: Leave for the subway and for Times Square.

10:15 a.m.: Walk along 42nd Street from Times Square to Bryant Park and the New York Public Library (NYPL).

10:30 a.m.: Eight pennies go into the Big Fountain in Bryant Park.

10:31 a.m.: Hands go into the Big Fountain in Bryant Park and then onto faces.

10:45 a.m.: Run into a very pregnant Julia Roberts with her kids by the carousel and try not to look like we've noticed.

10:50 a.m.: Arrive at the front of the NYPL and nuzzle the lion sculptures.

11:00 a.m.: Nose around inside the library, including the magnificent Rose Reading Room.

11:15 a.m.: Ride the carousel back in the park.

11:45 a.m.: Head to Grand Central Station and the downtown 6 subway train.

12:15 p.m.: Arrive at Vietnamese restaurant and order.

12:17 p.m.: Food arrives.

12:20 p.m.: Pho bowls are empty.

12:35 p.m.: Buy custard buns and mangoes.

12:40 p.m.: Ogle the fresh fish on ice at a market stall in Chinatown. Lively live crabs throw themselves out of their basket. Man uses thick gloves to toss escapees back in. Q is transfixed by this transaction.

1:00 p.m.: Walk home; Q sacks out on the way.

1:30 - 6:00 p.m.: Napping, general relaxation, dinner (custard buns for dessert).

6:00 - 7:00 p.m.: Fly kite in Rockefeller park. The boy truly enjoys holding fast to the string.

Not a bad day, all-in-all.

(Here's something: You can click on this link to see a Google Map of our mini adventure.)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Birth/Earth Day: Q turns 2

My wife has gone nothing short of all out for Q's second celebration. She's spent much time all up and down the web researching cake tips and party favor ideas. She suggests that we go with an art theme, and it's a good idea, so we let the idea become the frame. For the main attraction, my wife shapes a small round cake into a painter's palette, and places it atop a green-tinted sheet cake. It looks great. From scratch and frosted with buttercream, it tastes even better than it looks.

She doesn't stop there. She borrows another idea given up by Google and makes edible paintbrushes out of pretzel rods and Twizzlers ropes (shown in the vase). The Boy helps by cutting the candy, and with all his Montessori training he sets to work and cuts them all exactly the same length. They end up delighting kids and adults alike.

We set up stations down in the playroom (where we had her first birthday): brushes and paints to decorate wooden maracas, a large pad and crayons for drawing, cups of neon Play-Doh fresh out of the plastic wrap (and actually feeling like dough). The guests will take away bags of crayons and a watercolor set.

Q wears her blue tennis dress and looks like spring itself. The kids arrive, their parents following them in the door. It's a small group, but close, and they're Q's guests from her brief but memorable time around here. The waffles and creme brulée French toast (again, my indefatigable wife's doing) move well. The party pretty much takes care of itself, so we catch up with friends we haven't seen for some time. When the lit cake comes before Q, carried by my wife and all of us singing, Q covers her eyes until it's time to blow out her two candles. She asks for my help but really just wants me to do it for her. I oblige, of course, but leave the wishing to her.

After hugs and kisses and many pictures, we have more cake upstairs, just the four of us, and eye the presents. Inside are many precious things—a cute beach bag (monogrammed with a 'Q' no less), a magnet dress-up doll, a brain game, a wooden bank in the shape of a giraffe that swallows coins all zig-zaggy, among other things. Her nanny has already given her special trains, and both sets of grandparents made sure that she woke up today already loved with many wonderful, big-girl gifts. Soon we will retire the crib for good. And then there's college, I suppose (or so it inevitably seems).

In the dark and quiet, after baths and bed, I thank my wife for all her time that went towards crafting Q's wonderful party. She only half hears me, though—she's busy at work on The Boy's day a little over a month away.

Happy Birthday, Q. We love you.

(And you better appreciate your mother.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

?, !, .

It's difficult to say something and difficult not to say something about the shootings at Virginia Tech yesterday. Thirty-three dead, including at least two professors, endless pointless coverage by CNN and other news burners. Blogs and more blogs whining about gun control on both sides.

The most interesting coverage, I think, happened between students over Myspace and Faceboook and via cellphone and IM. I myself was teaching when one of my students received a text message that a shooting had happened at VTech. By the time my other class met yesterday afternoon, the number of dead had swelled from 1 to 22, and when I mentioned that number towards the end of the period, several students jumped on their phones and laptops to listen for the heartbeats of their friends and family in Blacksburg and nearby.

As someone who has been teaching in universities for about ten years now, I know that college can become a cruel crucible for many. Perhaps selfishly, I can't stop thinking about the professors killed by that student, how they chose a life of the mind and were visited ultimately by an indiscriminate blow to the body. Professor Liviu Librescu reportedly even tried to protect his students by blocking the door as the gunman approached. He survived the Holocaust but not his lecture on Monday.

Don't know really what else to say.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

316-659-2906 R.I.P.

I've called my parents every week, more or less, since I left their house more or less twenty years ago. When their house was also my house, I called home innumerable times — for permissions and rides and excuses, among other things. I've dialed the number so many times (sometimes actually using my babysitter's heavy, Bakelite rotary telephone) that it was usually difficult to tell someone what the number actually was. I still know it so well that I simply let my body remember the shape of the number in the keys; my brain has long since decided that it doesn't need to be involved in that transaction.

The number no longer works.

My parents have just completed their move from the sparse Kansas town that they've lived in for about forty years. It was where I was born, and where my brother first started remembering things. They arrived with little, and the town, though fairly small, had much to give them. They put down thick roots, worked and moved up, became a good part of the community. My father, a lawyer, came out to the southwest part of the state to join a small firm, eventually going into business for himself in a log-cabin office he shared with the town optometrist. (It's perhaps sometimes overlooked that in small towns key services are often identified with the few people who offer them, as in the town optometrist, or dentist, or doctor. When that person goes, people have to set out on the highway to fill a tooth.) My mother taught school and took care of us. My brother and I went to school, and (more or less) let my parents take care of us.

The whole town took care of us, in fact. My brother and I had a movie-worthy childhood: We didn't lock any of our doors, whether inside or out, to our house or cars; we knew (and had been in the kitchens of) nearly everyone within several blocks of us; during the summer when we were older we would fall out the front door in the morning and magically materialize for meals throughout the day. We shot baskets incessantly in a neighbor's driveway until the day's light gave out. A doctor and his wife lived across our street a little before it ran from asphalt to dirt, and when I slammed my finger in a car door, my mother and I found him working in his shop; he quickly yanked off the hanging fingernail and pushed my head between my legs until I could stand without wobbling. We had a tree house in our backyard, built by my grandfather and hoisted into the joint of a giant cottonwood. (It even had a hand-made rope ladder for a while.)

It's a precondition for nostalgia that what one is wistful for no longer exists, and every adult’s childhood can by definition be nothing but a toybox of recollections, however lovely. But the town I grew up in no longer exists, too. It's a farm community, founded by a railroad baron, without a natural center or industry to keep it vibrant. Nearby Dodge City has the packing plants and a critical mass of population; other smallish dots on the map in the surrounding counties have seed companies or family legacies to keep decent jobs and money constant. My home town, having none of this, is drying up and dying off. Most young people have little reason to stay and fewer reasons to arrive in the first place, and my parents' friends who did so much for the community— the dry cleaner and fire chief (not to mention town Santa Claus), the principal, the optometrist, the pharmacist — have died or retired or moved closer to their kids. Some have been replaced; some haven't. My family has now completely joined the list of those who have left.

As I come up from my train home and the World Trade Center PATH station, I think about the phone in my pocket. Spring hasn't taken hold yet, even this late into April, and all the concrete framing out this work in progress holds the cold all the way up to Church Street. Many (including both my mother and father) have numbers that can ring on us nearly wherever we are. On these steps I could be asked to bring home more eggs, or I could help my wife begin to unravel the knot of her day. I am always at home in this way, as are those I care about, and I like that.

My parents’ move hasn’t sent me off my axis as I thought it might; too much has changed about that town and about me. And about phones and their numbers, too, I suppose. Mom and dad tell me that their new number — whatever it is — will ring over the Internet.

What they say is true: you can't go home again. Who knew that you can't call home again either?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

From one American Scholar to another, I suppose

For what it's worth, I've contributed a guest post to Printculture, a blog by academics and related folk on academics and related matters. They asked me to respond to an article by Thomas Mallon in The American Scholar about the future of the humanities in America, and I, among other writers for that page, did.

Monday, April 02, 2007

I sure hope that the Easter Bunny has insurance

Not to mention the children.

So the weekend before Easter we take the kids to a local park for an egg hunt sponsored by some church or other (one that promises Sunday services full of "fun" and free coffee and God and everything). It's still cold despite being the last day of March, but the prospect of little plastic eggs filled with sweets helps warm us a little.

It's a madhouse. The folks running the show have set aside a large pie of ground consisting of several slices dedicated to different age groups. We decide that for our kids to have a chance they should concentrate on the slice of their actual age, which is to say the "Under 2" for Q (now at 23 months) and the "2-3 year olds" for The Boy (now pushing 4 but still, strictly speaking, 3). Good thing, because many many parents have decided that this event is some kind of measure of personal worth; failure to dominate, therefore, is not an option. My wife overhears a mom counsel her 2-3 year-old son to push other kids if necessary. And it will be necessary.

Someone dressed in a saggy bunny suit holds up a "Go!" sign in the pie's center, and the surge starts. The place is thick with fake eggs, but at least in the section that Q and I are trying to work in, the parents rush out onto the field and park themselves at the near edge instead of going in to the center. As a result, many little kids get squeezed out while adults gorge their kids' bags. I did not see one child actually pick up an egg directly from the ground — there simply was no time. Q and I only manage to snag two, and if I hadn't reached over a knot of crowd to pick those up myself she would have gone home with a big goose egg. Only after I loudly remark to my daughter that she got ripped off by absurd parents does a woman set a half-dozen of her wobbly, mute son's eggs at Q's sneakers. He had plenty to spare and can't count anyway.

These are the people we will fight for spots in good schools and who will soon start prepping their toddlers for the SAT. We just wanted some free chocolate and something to talk about over lunch.

Now we must beat them all.