Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy and Merry

In the greatest snow globe of all, and us a speck on a flake.  Such glorious smallness and vastness.

May you have a wonderful holiday.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tree hunting

Last weekend we brought back our tree. Like last year, we rented a car and headed out to New Jersey, mainly to spend more time with our good friends (and, as a bonus, thereby avoiding the outrageous gouging provided by the tree hawkers on Greenwich Ave). These are the friends who provided Q and The Boy with their first sleepover when we had to go to California last month. They've grown up with their kids and always look up and forward to them.

Accordingly, trips to our friends' house reveal the future. We've known them for a long time, and they have one boy and two girls and a comfortable home. Once inside, Q and The Boy disabuse themselves of us as quickly as their coats, and my wife and I are fine with that since we're left to be adults with adults. Since those that we've known in our building have all but left, we don't have much chance to act our age (by which I mean both younger and older than Parent Mode usually allows).

After the kids hatch and execute several schemes in the basement, we go out for lunch. Again, my wife and I get treated to a strange sensation — Q and The Boy want to ride with their friends, and left with nothing in the car but me and the quiet, my wife almost falls asleep. I do not take it personally. Then burgers and sandwiches and scoops of ice cream.* Then we go in search of a Christmas tree.

When I was young but old enough to remember, we would earn our trees from the field of a friend of my parents. If there was snow — which there often was in those Kansas Decembers — my brother and I would zip on our coveralls and pull on ski masks. Dad would be waiting for us in the red Jeep CJ7 that never quite got warm, and we'd throw snow at each other on the way out to it.

Drifts over the tilled-under dirt always made the field a fallen swatch of moon. Dad always drove right out on it in the Jeep, and if we looked closely, we could see coyote and maybe deer tracks. Otherwise, the white was immaculate.

The cedars we thinned each year stood in a little crowd surrounded by open land. I still don't know why they were kept that way (or if I'm even remembering correctly), but I don't want to know now. Some small mysteries are worth preserving.

I said a few paragraphs back that we earned our trees, and I meant it. My father would pick one and sweep away its skirt of snow, and we'd all then take turns slowly felling it with the old orange bow saw. Dad taught us to start the cut on the pull (push first and the long teeth bounce and gouge). It was always hard going, even for the small trunks. With the saw on its side, it's hard to keep the blade flat, especially when your off arm starts to give out, and the saw easily chokes on its own cut. But between the three of us, our hands creased from cold and work, we could get the tree down.

Our hunt is decidedly different now. We follow our friends (and therefore our kids) to a large garden center selling trees from Oregon. They have an enormous number of trees, and they've arranged them into a good-sized forest to make the picking easier. But unlike any other place I've been, they've suspended the trees from ropes on beams, which means they fill out full, and, more importantly, they spin. All five kids realize right away that they're surrounded by a bunch of 8-foot tops, and they run through the rows, grabbing branches, whirling the trees and themselves. They don't even feel the cold, and they warm me, too.

My wife and I settle on one more or less arbitrarily (there were so many good ones), and a smallish, solid man loosens the tree's knot, helps it down and then up onto our rented roof. It's the tallest we've ever had. Though Q and The Boy are anxious to decorate at home, they are not at all ready to leave their friends. Eventually we manage to get the kids in our car and head back to New York.

The tree is glorious and big in our apartment — so big that our old tree stand (bought 10 years ago on a Greenwich Village street) couldn't hold it. Q and The Boy went to bed that night with only a promise to decorate the tree the next day. After they had gone quiet in their room, I went out to the tree hawkers on Greenwich Ave. On my way home from paying them only a little too much for a new stand, it began to snow. The flakes were small and hard, like memories.

I hoped that some of them would stick.

*I just want to note here how nice it is to go out to eat with well-behaved/-mannered kids. We ate, told jokes, had fun. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best joke ever?

We've been telling lots of jokes around our house these days. Most of mine are repeats of some I heard as a child (and must have found funny). But lately Q has been making up her own, including what might be the Best Joke In The World:
Q: Why did the cat turn off the light?

Me: I don't know. Why?

Q: Because it's dark.

I'll just let that one sink in for a bit.

Well, I guess you can't spell 'Dada' without 'dad'.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday gave us four full days with just each other after two months of coming and going. Like previous years, we each don’t get enough time away from work and school for travel to and from the tables of family, so we set and sat at our own. We prepared less than last year, though still enough food to feed the entire 9th floor. Which is the point of Thanksgiving, I suppose.

We usually make a fairly big deal of being thankful, each of us expressing our personal gratitudes, but we didn’t do much of that this year. It’s not that we don’t have lots to be thankful for — we’re in better shape than many these days, what with all the banks on fire and us both having jobs (for the moment, anyway). But given all that's happened lately, it's hard to feel appreciative for what we have when it's effortless to feel otherwise for what we've lost. It's hard to give thanks without being thankful, hard even to go through the motions of thanking.

But, as always, Q & The Boy apply salve to our sorrows. After we sit down to eat, the Boy tries everything on the table and finds himself really loving the fresh cranberry sauce and stuffing. We share a toast to family, clinking our wine with their fizzy grape juice, and Q savors her special drink almost comically. I say "almost" because she's sincere in tipping her glass all the way back and tapping the last drops onto her purple tongue.

And that's their secret, I guess. My wife and I look at this moment and can't help but see it in the arc of others — the many great meals we've had with family and the future ones just made impossible. But they are right here right now and for just this time.

I am truly thankful for that.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Chips and blocks


Last week the cold came in and sat down. With fall all but over, the trees in the park crook up bare like dendrites and, like what they look like, are probably busy memorizing the year.

The ending of fall means parent-teacher conferences, and this year we sat in two sets of miniature chairs. And we discovered that both Q and The Boy are doing better at school than we imagined, mainly because they're confounding the types we imagine them to inhabit.

If you've been reading this blog for a little while now, you'll know how we think of Q — which is to say tough, quick, and a little stubborn (or, if you prefer, resolute). Being second born, she's also content to play and do by herself, and fiercely so. We therefore thought that she might not enjoy being in a classroom with sixteen other kids while being told what to do. Turns out that her independence has been a gift of sorts: she dedicates herself to all kinds of work until it's finished, and she isn't distracted by the doings of others. She's also grown more social; we hear she completes a puzzle every day with a friend, for example. And she does actually listen to her teachers. In fact, we hear that she listens intently, and I know the look her teachers are talking about — the one where Q fixes right on you, and you start wondering how soon her thinking will lap yours. Oh, and she knows the sounds all the letters make.

We also saw great parts of The Boy revealed in our conference with his teacher. We've been reading with him at home,* and he'll be reading quite well on his own pretty soon, I'd guess. But we didn't know that he can draw a diamond (and, for that matter, that that's rare at his age) and can recognize numbers up to 100 out of order. Okay, before I go on too long as a proud/bragging parent, here's the point: The easily frustrated and distracted perfectionist kid we knew him as while at Montessori somehow remained there. The Boy who shows up to PS 89 tries new things on his own, crosses out mistakes and moves on, teaches other kids how to draw and fold jets, etc. At one point in the conference, after The Boy's teacher said some extremely nice things about him and his place in the class, she offered, "I wonder what he's going to be when he grows up." My lovely wife responded (and I agreed), "As long as he doesn't become a lawyer or professor..."

Times like these it's hard not to look for yourself in them, but here again nothing is straightforward. The Boy looks more like me than Q does, and he obviously inherited my perfectionism and love of words. But he's also much more social than I am and more dynamic. Q is the spitting image of her mother and has an equally analytical mind, along with the same drive and determination, only more so. But Q also has my second-born independence and comfort with solitude. And surprisingly she has my even temperament (that is, when she's not wringing out the new babysitter in the mornings before school). We thought Q would be the artist, but The Boy has lately shown that he can draw out his imagination in some really clever ways.

Q and The Boy really are our better selves in many respects — or, to put it better, the better way to mix the good and bad of ourselves. It's been nice to see how others see them and to see what they're becoming, whatever it is.

*This is not my Naps And Milk Kindergarten — they read and write and do real math and the year isn't even half over. Sheesh.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


These days, I've been thinking a lot about a bit of a This American Life episode by John Hodgman.  Quite some time ago (long before he achieved anything like the fame he has now), he wrote a letter for the (now defunct) Open Letters project that then became part of a This American Life show. I encourage you to listen to the entire episode (linked above) and/or read the slightly longer print version here.

But here's the Hodgman piece itself.  Just click on the name to start the story.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Mom's home

Welcome home, mom

Once she purchased her ticket, I told Q and The Boy that mom was coming home, and they immediately set about making a sign. I helped The Boy work out the spelling of 'welcome', and he wrote the rest on his own. He added hearts and flowers, and Q added some flair of her own, including (inexplicably) carrots. She also asked me to draw some flowers and hearts for her to color in, and, though it's a little hard to see above, she added a 'Q' for good measure.

We taped the sign to the front door of our apartment, which triggered the less rosy part of The Boy's imagination: What if it falls down? What if someone takes it away? We had to check before bed that it was in fact still there, and I had to promise that I would check again before I closed my own eyes for the night. My lovely wife was taking the red eye back from San Diego so that she could maximize her time with Q and The Boy before returning for Ba Ngoai's services, so we all had to have faith in the strength of the tape.

She came into the bed just before the sunrise; I would take her over it every time. I hadn't been able to sleep myself, and moved to her to be something quiet and warm. She was tired from the five-hour flight and two weeks of tragedy, and, saying nothing and not needing to, we slept.

They both got up early. I was already in the shower so that I could start on breakfasts and lunch and get the kids off to school on time. The Boy whooshed into the bathroom and swept aside the shower curtain, letting out an inarticulate noise of disappointment when he saw who it merely was. I told him to look in our bed, and he whooshed back out and onto his mother. Q came in not long after with both her blankets and piled on, too. Mom's being home unclenched the fist of things.

We both took the day off. We both dropped off and picked up both kids from school, in part so that I could draw the children away while my wife told each of the kids' teachers about Ba Ngoai's passing in case they needed context for unusual behavior. And though I had told Q and The Boy that Ba Ngoai was very sick — and that not everyone who gets sick gets better — we had yet to talk about her being gone.

That conversation came later that night, and it was a difficult one. At first we couldn't get The Boy to pay attention, so we focused first on Q. We explained that Ba Ngoai didn't get better, that she died, and that we can't see or talk to her any more. Q perhaps gave Ba Ngoai the most joy of anyone — the two of them were very much alike in many ways, and every time they were together, they would play private games and laugh and just generally give off sparks. But Q is just three, and she deeply furrowed her brow at the news in an effort to understand and didn't say much of anything. Telling them brought up gushes of sadness in us that weren't very far down to begin with, and Q hugged mom's arm hard with her whole body and didn't let go, as my wife sobbed. The Boy began to catch on and himself exploded into sobs. It's okay to be sad, we said, but he was all questions: How was she sick? What stopped working? Where did she go?

Q looked pretty puzzled and anxious, so I took her for a bath while my wife tried to answer The Boy's questions as directly as she thought she could (which was pretty directly). In the end, she quieted him by reading a book with him and by laying down beside him in his bed, by caring for him.

They were back to their regular selves the next morning, though I can't quite say the same for us. The kids have definitely been a tonic while my wife was away, and even now — it's hard to remain sad when tickled by tiny fingers or when Q keeps trying to jump on your shadow or when softly kissed on the cheek. The Boy has not forgotten; he declared to his teacher that his grandmother was very sick and died and that now he has only one left. He says he's sad (and I believe him), but what happened has become a fact for him, a step that still eludes me.

My wife left again today for California to help with the preparations for Ba Ngoai's funeral. I follow her out tomorrow to help and to pay my respects to someone I have known so closely for 17 years. Q and The Boy will remain here with friends and then with family. I will be the first one they will find in the bed on Monday morning when they wake. After the difficult weekend to come, we could use some welcome signs on the door and the touch from the small hands that made them.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes we did

Here, I'm proud to say, is the first president my children will remember.

America has remade itself, and it is better for it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Goodbye, Ba Ngoai

She drifted away peacefully last night, surrounded by her family. We have not yet told Q and The Boy and are trying to figure out how to do that. I haven't yet figured out how to tell myself.

That's about all I can bring myself to say right now.

Twittering the Vote

I've recently set up an account on Twitter, and I thought I'd put it to good use. While on line at the polling place here in NYC, I'll provide some updates in real time.

    Photo of NYC voting machines waiting to be deployed by flickr user wka, used under creative commons license

    Monday, November 03, 2008

    All Saints

    Halloween is over. Q, The Boy, and I certainly milked the holiday this year. Last Thursday, we attended a costume party put on by the parents of Q's classmate, Friday was official trick-or-treating, and Saturday was a costume-themed birthday party for a classmate of The Boy's. Needless to say, the kids obtained way too much candy and related trinkets — we did take our open bags along each of our building's 26 floors on Halloween night. The four of us will be indulging ourselves through the winter and long after, I'd guess.

    Just yesterday, as the cold again descended on the yellowing leaves in the park, we busied ourselves inside. We had reprieved the pumpkins until mom came back, but she's had to stay longer in California than anyone expected with her own mother, Ba Ngoai, in order to somehow help bring her back from what has seized her so suddenly and meanly. (I'm leaving Q's hand at the top to help her find her way.) So instead of carving them with mom, we carved them for her — so that we could tell her about it, so that she could see our thinking about her affect the world (perhaps also so that I could confirm that thinking still does affect the world), so that she could have a pleasant place to put her mind for even a moment or two.

    The kids drew the faces they wanted on their respective pumpkins, and I handled the knife. The Boy's (pictured above) turned out suitably scary, as did Q's. We roasted the excised seeds and actually ate some. When night came, we lit their candles and contemplated them, side by side, in the quiet and the dark. Such a simple idea that makes something so compelling. I sent Q and The Boy off to brush their teeth, blew out the jack-0-lanterns, appreciated the snake of smoke sliding out of the noses and eyes.

    We miss you, mom, but we love you and are proud of what you are doing. There will be other Halloweens to haunt, many more pumpkins to submit to the carving knife. We know that you are where you are supposed to be right now.

    Halloween is over. Now is the time of the saints.

    Friday, October 31, 2008


    These days I'm particularly susceptible to portents. My watched stopped at 13 minutes to midnight last night (I'm not making this up), the date dial frozen mid-switch. I'm afraid to fix it for what might begin or end. And I find myself finding messages in the The Boy's morning oatmeal, though I'm not quite sure of their meaning. I'd probably throw bones if I had access to goats.

    Soon we will put on our costumes and go trick-or-treating, which is good: I am in the mood for pretending.

    As you move about in your mask tonight, be kind to the ghosts — they will be leaving soon, and we need to talk with them. What can they tell us about the living and those at the line between?

    It is the unknown that scares the most.

    Wednesday, October 29, 2008

    Monday, October 27, 2008

    Boo, scared you

    Our favorite time of year, usually.

    As I type this, the weather is practicing its winter meanness via a respectably heavy snow, believe it or don't. But last Sunday was an ideal fall day, perfect for celebrating Halloween.

    Each year our building hosts a Halloween party for its residents, decorating much of the lobby and all of the playroom in inflatable spookiness. This tradition started about four years ago and has gotten a little smaller each year (no edible treats or building staff dressed up as Darth Vader this year, for example), but it's always the first official occasion for Q and The Boy to wear their costumes. As you can tell from the pic above, The Boy is eyebrows-deep into Star Wars and wanted to be a clone trooper this year. Q took a while to come to her costume — first she wanted to be Chilly Willy, then a witch. Once The Boy started playing Lego Star Wars on the Wii, though, she decided she wanted to look like this:

    which is a little hard to pull off, as you might imagine. And though I think Q would have made a fabulous Darth Maul (maybe next year!), we managed to convince her that she would make a wonderful witch. And she is. (A wonderful witch, that is).

    Halloween proper is this Friday, of course, and the kids can barely contain themselves. The Boy has posted an October calendar, largely of his own making, on the fridge and dutifully crosses off the passing days in red pen. Q stands next to him as he does this each day and counts off the uncrossed date boxes to the end. (My lovely wife and I look forward to Friday, too — we like to eat around the edges of all that candy.)

    To be honest, I'm hoping that for us Halloween reverts to the ancient traditions. On October 31, evil spirits became dangerous for the living, and people dressed in costumes and masks to propitiate them. November 1st, though, marked the beginning of the new year, and the spirits retreated to the underworld, leaving the living to the business of living.

    We have seen more than our share of demons this October. May Q The Witch and The Boy The Clone Trooper — and Darth Maul himself, if it comes to that — usher them home and us into a new year.

    Friday, October 24, 2008

    If you haven't seen these, you probably should

    This election season has been a long one, nearly interminable at times. And even those who aren't political junkies (like me, I'm afraid) can't escape seeing and hearing the candidates.

    It's easy to believe, I think, that we glimpse national politicians as they are, particularly in the cuts of video passed around the Internet or included in a nightly newscast. It's probably safer (and more accurate), though, to believe that we see packages more than people.

    Enter the photographer. I'll admit right up front that I prefer both photography to video and Obama to McCain, so adjust your grains of salt accordingly. But if you, too, appreciate even one of the two, you really should have a look at the series of photos by Callie Shell. (A little background on it and her can be found here.)

    Here are two of my favorites (click each for the full-size version):


    Looking at these pictures (as she calls them), I get the feeling that I'm seeing him for the first time. And I keep finding hints of my grandfather in his face, which may not be that unusual since there's a fair amount of Kansas in both of us.

    In any event, please do have a look at them all. (Note: You'll need to click "Show More Images" several times at the bottom to show the entire set.)

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    What I wanted to say v. what I did say

    When I visited The Boy's Kindergarten classroom recently to see him at work and to help him paste together a picture of his family. The teacher asked all us parents to leave, and he went into a slump that slowly rolled into a sob.

    What I wanted to say:
    Don't cry. This is the smallest of moments. Growing up and older has a lot to do with figuring out the true size of things (which I myself am trying to get better at even now), and what may seem monumental at the moment will not be worth remembering, let alone forgetting, just a little later. Once I leave this room to go back to turning the smaller gears of our life, you will come back to yourself. You will have a snack and make things that we will marvel at. When I pick you up, you will tell me how much you enjoyed being here without me.

    What I did say:
    It's okay, it's okay. Your teacher said that I've got to go now, but I'll be back to pick you up soon. Have a good day.

    When Q and the boy were fighting over the K'Nex building tools a few days ago, mainly because The Boy said they were playing spaceships and Q insisted they were playing guns.

    What I wanted to say:
    Look, son, she's just pushing you around because you're an easy mark. She's got you figured all the way out already and can move you around the house almost without effort, like you're on those Moving Men things from TV. Take a look at what she's doing — using your belief in rules and Truth to flip you over — and learn that belief can be bigger than both of you. Do that and she loses her power over you. Besides, Q should be reminded that there are other wills in the world besides hers (though good luck with that).

    What I did say:
    Stop it.

    When Q simply refused to go to sleep last night (like most nights).

    What I wanted to say:
    Come, get into your bed, it's late, time to relinquish the day. But this isn't surrendering, there's no need to fight the night that's here. Dreams are for stringing the shiny bits of the day just past into a Queen's necklace. And pick your battles. I love that you're resolute, but you need to make out the line between resoluteness and stubbornness, and that line has to do with object, what to be resolute about. My father taught me that mules are misunderstood — they, unlike horses, know their limits and won't overwork themselves. I know that this regular struggle is you discovering the shape of limit and that it's our job to be something firm for you to push against. Which is why we keep putting you back in your bed, and will do so pretty much forever. And good luck with the pushing. Have you not met your mother?

    What I did say:
    It's late, Q, time for sleep. I bet if you ask nicely, mom will lie down with you for a while.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008

    If the election doesn't go the way you want...

    Particularly funny to me as a Midwestern Boy cum East Coast Elite. (Get a load of the magazine the guy slams on the coffee table, for example.)

    Sunday, October 12, 2008

    Because I like it

    This picture is a little old (from around our wedding anniversary), but I couldn't find a swell spot to drop it in. I like it, though, so here's Q looking over our wedding album. (Afterward, we asked her if she was going to get married. Her response? "No.")

    Thursday, October 09, 2008

    Now for something completely different — and Good, actually

    Things have been a little serious around here lately (understandably), but I know just the thing to brighten the mood. A friend of ours is a great filmmaker, and her latest work is a documentary called "Frontrunners," that follows the student council elections at Stuyvesant High School (the prestigious public school near our apartment where we go swimming on the weekends).

    As for release dates, it starts trickling out to theaters in larger cities starting this Friday, October 15. In the meantime, though, you can enjoy the trailer:

    You can also view a higher-resolution version of the trailer over on Apple's trailers page.

    That first part still makes me chortle every time I see it.

    Monday, October 06, 2008

    We're sick of all this

    This past week has been healthcare week — or rather sick-care week. Q's breathing worsened last Monday, so much so that a quick call to the pediatrician sent me carrying Q in her pajamas and stocking feet out to a cab to NYU Medical Center, while my lovely wife stayed home with The Boy who was sleeping unknowingly. Q and I spent five first worrisome and then boring hours trying to get people with medicine to pay attention to us. In the end, everything worked out — a steroid shot released her throat and cheered her up enough to play silly games in our ER bed until I bothered them enough to let us go. On the way out at 3 a.m., they gave her a little blue teddy bear as some sort of bizarre parting gift, which she cleverly named Bluebear-y.

    Soon after, we heard that Grandma's root canal (which is something bad enough as it is) went awry, and the stuff they put into the hollowed-out tooth — and I'm cringing even as I type this — leaked into her jaw. So she's basically waiting for her body to reject it and for the necessary surgery to scrape out — again, cringing — the whatever it is.

    Then we heard that Ba Ngoai went to the ER with severe liver problems, the extent of which is still unknown. The entire family sprang into action to find her the best care (my wife's sister is an administrator for Scripps, so that really helped), and she's doing much better. Even so there's been serious talk of a transplant, which is serious talk indeed.

    The health of our healthcare system is questionable, too. Without her daughter's inside help, would Ba Ngoai still be sitting in the first Emergency Room? What if we didn't have the money to cover the insurance or the co-pay for Q's hospital visit or The Boy's cast? What if the recklessness of financial institutions and fecklessness of government has now made responsible overhaul of U.S. healthcare all but impossible, even if Barack Obama wins the presidency?

    On the brighter side, Q and The Boy also went to the dentist last week. The Boy is a real champ at these kinds of things (general checkups, that is), but Q is a wildcard. After her ER experience, we didn't know what to expect. She watched her brother in the chair and, holding her mom's hand, took after his example. I'm happy to say that they both did very well.

    Now if we could just fix healthcare or something, they'd have a lot more to flash those great smiles at.

    (Photo by Flickr user gaultiero used under Creative Commons license.)

    Monday, September 29, 2008


    It started yesterday morning with a raspy voice and the characteristic barking cough. Q seemed in good spirits for the most part, if a little tired. After a day spent mainly inside, we steamed up the kids' bathroom with the shower and gave her a bath in the mist. We played boats and drew jack-o-lanterns on the fogged mirrors, anything to keep her in there. We suspected she had croup and put her to bed early. She appeared fine.

    Then night begins. First at 9 p.m. — then at 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. — we come to her crying in her room and fighting for air. The virus has closed much of her throat, which scares her awake, and crying makes it worse.

    When I was a young, we had formaldehyde foam insulation put into our house. Formaldehyde itself is old, but its use as an insulator was new then, and it was supposed to be miraculous. Men came and drilled hundreds of holes in the siding and filled the walls with foam from a truck. Later we (and everyone else) discovered that it made us all sick, particularly my mom and me. My breathing eventually became so difficult that I was moved out of our house to a hotel room across town. Sleeping there one night on the high old bed, I remember dreaming that water came rushing under the door, slowly filling the room. I remember reminding myself in the dream to breathe.

    In our small bathroom with the shower running hot (for the fourth time this night), Q struggles to cry and to breathe. The air can't come in full and fast like it should — some flap in her throat seems to snap when she tries to inhale, and her crying quickly spends whatever air she manages to draw each time. I catch myself inhaling deeper and deeper in the dark, to breathe for us both, I suppose. Q rarely gets sick and almost never cries, so the way she sounds truly unsettles my wife and me. I'm glad it's hard for Q to see our faces. The doctor will confirm that we're doing what we can and should to help her. There are no drugs to give, nothing for us to do but soothe and wait for the virus to lose.

    Slowly, she calms in the steam, and her breathing returns to the regular, smoother rattle. I ask if she's ready to return to our bed, and she nods. She's loud and hot on the pillow between us for the rest of the night. I rub her back because it's all I can think of to do and because it keeps me convinced that her lungs are still working away. How do you remember to breathe? How do you do it? How do you breathe for another?

    The light comes up this morning, and Q climbs out of our bed and into her old self. She makes jokes and laughs at them, bothers her brother a little, and pretty much bewilders us with her mood. We begin to hope that the next night will be better.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    DFW R.I.P.

    A lot has been said about David Foster Wallace since his apparent suicide a little over a week ago. And I mean a lot. To list just a few of the more interesting pieces:
    • A nice tribute by Laura Miller in (probably my favorite of the bunch).
    • "Finite Jest," a collection of reactions from writers, editors, and friends (
    • "Infinitely Sad," Tim Noah from Slate doing some pop psychology on Wallace and his literary life.
    • The New York Times has something like wall-to-wall Wallace appreciation, including an obituary, reflections by A.O. Scott, Verlyn Klinkenborg , and Michiko Kakutani.
    • n+1 has its own little list of Wallace memorabilia (a little earnest and snooty as you might expect).
    • John Hodgman has an appropriately titled tribute on his blog (Hodgman is worth reading, too, if you haven't yet had or taken the chance.)
    These are all well and good, but I suggest instead reading some of his own work. Wallace did quite a bit of excellent work — and some of his best nonfiction — for Harper's, and they've nicely put up all of his articles on the web for free. (I particularly recommend "Shipping Out.") And(/or) if you're new to Wallace, you could do worse than read his reporting on the Main Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine called "Consider the Lobster."

    In his NY Times article on Roger Federer, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," a classic I remind myself of each U.S. Open, Wallace talks about "Federer Moments." He describes these as "times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K."

    Wallace had his own class of Moment, and his work is full of them. He made such difficult writing seem effortless (witness the contortions Michiko Kakutani works herself into to try to sound even a little like Wallace). One of my own favorite DFW Moments comes in his short story "Here and There" from Girl with Curious Hair. The story, about an MIT grad student who thinks he can reduce poetry to logic and but loses his girlfriend, initially reads like any old thing from a fancy schmancy po-mo funboy, albeit a gifted one. But then the story is suddenly about the very real and relatable experience of someone using thinking as a defense against loving.

    The piece ends with the grad student struggling to fix his aunt and uncle's ancient stove and failing more and more spectacularly the more he tries. Or as DFW puts it:

    'My aunt comes back behind the stove and stands behind me and peers into the tidied black hollow of the stove and says it looks like I've done quite a bit of work! I point at the filthy distributor circuit with my screwdriver and do not say anything. I prod it with the tool.

    ...I believe, behind the stove, with my aunt kneeling down to lay her hand on my shoulder, that I'm afraid of absolutely everything there is.'

    May he rest.

    Thursday, September 11, 2008

    On collision

    The first beams cycled through the Large Hadron Collider yesterday deep under Switzerland and France. It's the world's largest particle accelerator, designed to hurl bundles of protons into each other at nearly the speed of light so as to break them open and reveal the seams of all things. The collisions themselves don't begin until October, and people have joked (a little uneasily, I think) that the scientists at CERN might produce black holes, though small, still sufficiently strong to swallow the earth.

    Collisions do reveal. There is an energy, mysterious and calamitous, that holds the hardest bodies together, but we have learned that speed and thought can break loose almost anything, can open a hole. Some things are here, then not — the particles, no longer parts, return to being elementary. We can't seem to stop studying them.

    Bodies obey laws. Accelerate the heavy jets and they will knock the rigid structures down into a hole that can't be built over with concrete or flags. Discover the weakness, make pieces, study the streaks in the clouds. What's left will ratify gravity.

    Mass. Motion. Force. Sometimes I think we can know too much.

    (I keep telling myself I will stop writing about September 11 in one way or another. Perhaps next year.)

    Tuesday, September 09, 2008

    Her turn: Q goes to school

    Today marked Q's official entrance into school proper (after a pretty chilly performance at yesterday's Back to School Picnic). I could recast the day as it was reported to me, but I received such a great e-mail from my lovely wife that nicely caught the day, so I'll let her tell you directly.

    -----begin forwarded message-----

    to: RM
    cc: family
    from: Lovely Wife
    date: Tue, Sep 9, 2008 at 1:58 PM
    subject: Q's first day

    She put on a brave face as we entered the classroom. While putting her backpack and her box of supplies into her cubby, I informed one of her teachers, Ms. T, that her name was spelled incorrectly. Of course, Q had to point out to Ms. T how her name should be spelled. We walked into her brother's old classroom — the blond bookcases were familiar but the faces were all new. Q went to the table where her other teacher, Mrs. B., went over to her and tried to get her to warm up. At the table, she was surrounded by girls with ribbons and hairbands. I watched her for about 5 minutes and then told her that I was going to go downstairs. Her bottom lip started to quiver but I told her that I had to make sure our stroller didn't blow away in the rainstorm. She bought the excuse so I kissed her good-bye and off I went. I then lingered behind the cubbies for awhile and peeked every now and then to see if she would cry. It was strange to see our typically self-possessed girl look apprehensive. She continued to stick out her lower lip but I didn't see a single tear. I saw her turn to ask Mrs. B. something and I figured it was time for me to leave.

    I ran home in the downpour to get her rainboots and raincoat and to put on my own rainboots and raincoat before running back to pick her up at noon. As usual, the teachers came out escorting each kid but she came out walking by herself with her bright pink Q backpack swallowing her up. She ran up to me and immediately noticed my rain gear. "Mom, did you go home? I thought you said you were going to wait downstairs." I told her I ran home super fast to get her rainboots and raincoat but that I had been downstairs most of the time. Happy to have the rain gear (although she grumbled that her brother's old yellow slicker was too big for her), she decided she wanted to walk ALL of the way home in the rain. Her backpack sat nice and dry in the seat of the stroller under the plastic force field as she splashed and laughed the entire 0.9 miles (yes, 0.9 miles according to Google maps). Since it took us about 40 minutes to walk home, I learned along the way that during her brief hour of phase-in class today, she had made a sculpture out of play-doh, participated in circle time, sang a song, and made a new friend named Lola whom she claims looks just like one of her cousins. On our way into our building, we ran into her best friend, K, who was wearing her older brother's hand-me-down yellow slicker. Q smugly told K that she had gone to school today and that she would share details later this afternoon during a playdate with The Boy and K's brother. She was excited for the playdate later today to play with K but also to see The Boy. Since The Boy is gone all day for Kindergarten now, she misses him immensely and always asks when he will play with her.

    As we headed up the elevator, she skipped down the hall to our apartment. She told me that after lunch she wanted to call Dad and tell him all about her first day of school. As I made lunch, she left you a message. (You should check your voicemail, and check out these photos of Q on her big day.) She then laid down and told her comfort blankets all about her big day.

    Oh, and The Boy wants fresh pineapple for lunch tomorrow, so could you pick one up at Whole Foods on the way home tonight?

    Q backpack

    Bridge Home

    Thursday, September 04, 2008

    Bee-lieve it!

    Let me introduce you to the "Behavior Bee" from The Boy's kindergarten class:

    Behavior Bee

    He earned the privilege of bringing it home on his second day. He was so proud when my lovely wife picked him up today:

    The Behavior Bee comes home

    He's asleep with it at this very moment.*

    I know, I know — I'm proud of the fact that he's conforming quickly and nicely.

    My wife has a slightly different take:
    Me: You're proud, aren't you.
    Lovely wife: [smiling] You bet.
    Me: They're just getting him to conform, you know.
    LW: [still smiling] It's his first award. He's a winner.
    Q wants one now, too. That behavior management stuff really works.
    *We're also glad that he's getting it early because it will travel through a lot of homes and beds over the course of the year. It actually still smells good at the moment.

    Tuesday, September 02, 2008

    The Boy's first day of kindergarten

    So it was interesting. He slept fairly well the night before, but got up early and fidgety. From his being extremely close after climbing into our bed this morning, we knew he was anxious. On the way there, the closer we got, the more he resisted so that I was more or less dragging him through the doors. We found his class list in the six taped to the trophy case in the lobby; there were a lot of kids bouncing and streaming everywhere. It turns out that his class is the smallest kindergarten section with 20 kids; the others have between 23-25. We don't recognize a single name.

    We're allowed into his classroom today (and for the rest of the week), and my lovely wife, Q, and I introduce ourselves to his teacher and try to make him feel at home by encouraging him to draw or to build blocks or to read a familiar book. Nothing works, really, and by the time they start ushering the parents out, The Boy is flat out sobbing. Never a good moment when the school psychologist comes up and introduces herself.

    We left him there rather upset, and made our way to the cafeteria with other parents and younger kids for complimentary coffee and pastries. After about a half hour (and after Q had plucked all the raisins out of the right triangle of scone we weren't quite eating), we went back to steal a peek into his classroom. The Boy was sitting quietly in a circle with the other kids. My wife went to work, and Q and I went to eat the rest of our breakfast amongst the ducks and the fish out front of our building.

    At 11 a.m., Q and I went to pick him up. He and his classmates came out in a neat, tentative line. When he was dismissed, I took his hand and walked him back home for lunch. He talked at length about all the rules and what his teacher had told him about his class and his school. I asked whether he liked it. He put his cheek on my hand that held his and said, "I loved it." For the rest of the day, he'd insert comments about kindergarten, such as the "behavior bee" — a stuffed toy that a well-behaved student gets to take home for the night. At one point he said, "I can't wait to go to school tomorrow" and then later "I can't wait to eat lunch at school." We'll still see about that last one.

    Given his glide into preschool, we were surprised by how firmly anxiety seized him this time. (It seems clear that, like his father, he lives more and more in his head. Sorry about that, son; at least you got mom's hair.) But given how much he loves other kids — and rules — we weren't at all surprised with the view of school that he came home with today. May P.S. 89 provide him with enough to keep him looking to the next day until June.

    Q's first day of preschool, which arrives next week, should also be, well, interesting. Particularly for her teachers. We shall certainly see what happens when the immovable object meets the irresistible force.

    Tuesday, August 26, 2008

    Anyone for tennis?

    The end of August means the beginning of the U.S. Open and Arthur Ashe Kids' Day. This being our fourth year, we knew to take the comfortable and speedy LIRR train option instead of riding the lumbering 7 Train to its end. We also knew to go early and to head straight for the Hess obstacle course and still the free racquets were gone by the time The Boy made it onto the court. Still, both he and Q earned a fan, sunglasses, and a light up Hess ladder truck toy.

    Then it was on to the Little Tennis activities. And this year he was ready to return the balls hit to him by the volunteers. He himself said, "I did much better this year, mom."


    (Note: For what it's worth, the above pic got picked up by a contributor to for an article on the Open, and they have The Boy rubbing elbows, picture-wise anyway, with the likes of Federer, Nadal, and Ivanovic. Or go here for a direct link to the photo itself.)

    The lines started to get long as it neared noon, but we heard that Nike was giving free shirts so we headed to that court for a little SPARQ training.

    His better
    The Boy always steps out into all the flying kids and balls, running to where he's told with his face full of intensity. Q was not in the mood so didn't do much besides look sweaty and eat all the granola bars.

    This year we also knew to eat lunch in the shade in the Grandstand court while we watched some pros we didn't recognize hit amazingly hard to each other. (Tip: Don't try to snag one of the tables out by the food stalls around 12 p.m. — too busy, too hot, too messy. Bring your lunch, buy some fries that "look like tennis racquets," according to The Boy, and enjoy the pros showing off. )

    We left not long after that and just a little before the Big Show started in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and after the hours and the crowds The Boy still wanted to stay. The whole thing does make you just want to go out and play. Glad he felt it, too.

    We've been taking in a lot of sports lately, in fact, which is somewhat weird for us. Watching the Olympics became a nightly ritual before Q and The Boy dismounted into their beds. (We even let them stay up extra late for the opening and closing ceremonies, which The Boy rightly pronounced "flashy.") Now it's the U.S. Open before dreams, and then maybe I'll get both Q and The Boy to watch basketball with me when the time comes.

    Arthur Ashe Kids' Day also signals the end of summer. In a week, The Boy starts Kindergarten, and Q begins her own classes shortly thereafter. Outside will give way to inside, and t-shirts to jackets, then to coats. And we lose them, it seems, just a little more to the people they will become.

    Wednesday, August 20, 2008


    Cutting a wood floor

    Today my lovely wife and I celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary. That's us up there polishing the floor on 14th Street in Manhattan to Nina Simone singing "My Baby Just Cares for Me." Over champagne tonight we remembered what's past and wondered about what's to come. We both agreed that it doesn't seem as if we've run through that much time (perhaps because we've actually been together for nearly 17 years now), which bodes well for the long term I'd say.

    Put on a dark suit; fashion a proper knot in your tie. Drink deeply from your champagne, then rest the flute by the plate. Take a hand and step out into the music together. Twirl so that your dress floats just off the floor — the earth can't keep you. Think of nothing but this.

    Happy anniversary to us. They're playing our song:

    Dance with us, wish with us, love with us.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    Where I'm from

    You get the idea: it's real flat.

    (And this is from the major thoroughfare I-70, not from the lonely US-56 where I actually grew up.)

    Wednesday, August 13, 2008

    Heartland meat blogging

    We're still away on our Kansas trip, but my parents happen to have wifi, so I might as well put up a quick post.  Besides, I think I was asked perhaps the greatest question ever.  My father managed to set up an evening for my brother and his wife, the grandparents, and my lovely wife and me.  (An evening without the 8 grandkids, in other words.)  We went out to dinner at a Brazilian churrascaria here in Kansas City where, as is the custom, passadors (or meat waiters) keep accosting you with cooked animals on sticks until you tell them to stop.  And after way too much delicious sausage, flank steak, filet, lamb, and various other meats wrapped in meats, the attentive waiter asked:
    Would you like a fresh plate for your meats?
    I had to say "No."  Sadly, I had simply had enough meats.

    Friday, August 08, 2008

    What have I become (and is it really that bad)?

    080707 032, originally uploaded by street_scenes.

    So this new, huge, Whole Foods market opened less than a month ago just across the West Side Highway from us. For years we've had to walk a fairly long ways either to get gouged by Food Emporium (whose name itself is a cruel joke) or to browse the low-quality groceries at a Gristede's while tolerating some strange smell. We therefore usually fill our fridge via an on-line store called Fresh Direct, but it's impossible not to forget to order something when you're not actually in the store while shopping. Now, we've got a five-minute walk to the Organic Glory that is Whole Foods.

    The Whole Foods is clustered in a new high-rise condo building (luxury, of course) along with a Bed, Bath & Beyond, a Barnes & Noble, and a Bank of America, all brand new.  And Whole Foods also has this hippie, hipster cache that puts me off a bit.  Not long ago I stopped in on my way home from work to pick up bananas, and found myself on-line to check out with fancy red bananas, listening to This American Life.  On my iPhone.  Sheesh.

    I thought I was too old and too urban to be a suburban and/or hipster cliché.  Guess not.

    (Note:  the banans were rather tasty and the TAL episode was a good listen.  So there.  I guess.)

    Wednesday, August 06, 2008

    School Daze: Private Edition

    School Bus NYC, originally uploaded by Mr.Cab.

    The New York Times includes a fairly prominent article today on widespread kindergarten overcrowding in the city's private schools.  Reporter Winnie Hu writes,
    Despite mounting layoffs on Wall Street and the broader economic downturn, private schools in New York City continue to thrive, with administrators and consultants saying this year has been the most competitive yet for admission to kindergarten. Some estimate that several hundred children were rejected from every place they applied.
    What's behind the growth in private school applications?  Again, from the Times,
    Emily Glickman, a private school consultant for Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, which helps parents gain admission to private schools, said competition had intensified not only for brand-name schools like Dalton, Collegiate and Trinity but also for lesser-known and newer schools, as more couples opt to have two or more children; more families remain in the city rather than moving to the suburbs; and the wealthy in New York get wealthier.
    And, let's not forget, overcrowding at elite public schools around the city — many of whom sit in neighborhoods of the very wealthy — has undoubtedly pushed some parents toward seeking private enrollments.

    Of course, this being New York — and the Times — this problem isn't framed in terms of parents worried about finding their children somewhere to receive a quality education.  Instead, as the article's title declares (a little nonsensically), it's about "where the race begins at kindergarten." Hu points out in her second paragraph that because of all the kids and the money "the competition for kindergarten places can rival that of Ivy League admission."  The thing about Ivy League admissions is that you're always already behind and never doing enough — just the stance I want to take towards my son's education at age 5.

    There is a bright side for the wealthy and a lesson for all of us here, though.  When faced with mounting admissions and growing student bodies, upper tier private schools like Mandell and (the relatively new) Claremont school actually expand:
    Ms. [Gabrielle] Rowe [Mandell's head of school] has hired 20 new teachers, including specialists in fine arts, music, drama and physical education, and a psychologist, and promises a five to one student-teacher ratio for the elementary grades. She is also negotiating for an additional 47,000-square-foot space nearby for the upper grades.
    What an interesting idea.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008

    Project: Chalk Robots Seen From Space (or suitably high up)

    Giant Park Robots Best Seen From Above

    What you'll need:
    1. Box of sidewalk chalk (with plenty of both blue and pink for, um, making boy and girl robots).
    2. Lots of sidewalk/cement, the curvier the better.
    3. Bored and/or gullible children.
    4. Roofdeck.*
    *Roofdeck is optional, but it's way cool to look down from way up.

    Begin by getting the kids outside in the park; tell them you're going to do something really cool.  Bring fancy drinks like pink lemonade if need be.  Don't forget the camera.  You want to draw something large (and easy), so we suggest robots.  You don't have to be that old (or young) to draw big squares, triangles, circles, and whatnot.

    daddy robot

    What goes with Giant Robots?  A rocket, of course (which are, conveniently, also pretty easy to draw).


    Think big.  That's the idea, after all.

    When you're done (or at least until the pink lemonade has been exhausted), head up to the roofdeck for the payoff.

    from space

    I love how it looks like the blue (boy) robot is tossing the pinkish (girl) robot in the air, and we didn't intend that.

    Next up?  Robots playing tennis.  And swimming.  Probably.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008

    There is something about California, admittedly

    Okay, so Q is on to something with the liking California.  Consider the following:


    On the left we see what NYC more or less looks like in July (with about 80-90% humidity, of course).  On the right:  nothing but a week of pure pleasantness in San Diego.  And the thing is, every week there looks just like this.

    There's more.  My lovely wife's sister and her husband live about 10 driving minutes away from a beautiful beach that includes a playground high up on what amounts to a scenic overlook.  From the swings, Q and The Boy could watch surfers climb and then disappear into the waves.

    Even more:  My lovely wife's sister and her husband live in a townhouse complex that also includes extremely nice tennis courts and a salt-water pool.  The Boy spent a lot of time hitting balls over the net and practicing on his follow through, and Q was in the water more than she was out.  And to top it all off, they lived just up the hill from where hot air balloons were launched, which meant that we could walk out the door in San Diego to find perhaps ten balloons hanging silently in the air like a flock of exotic creatures.  It made the whole world seem enchanted.

    I can understand what makes southern California so attractive to so many people (and why everyone tends to move more slowly than out here).

    Friday, July 25, 2008

    California conversations

    Are you glad to be home, guys?

    The Boy:
    Yes.  I mean, eventually it gets boring in California.  And I missed my friends.  And we had to take a car everywhere.
    This from the child who while we were there declared:
    There aren't any kids in California.
    Q had, of course, a different take:
    I like California better.
    Us: Why?
    Q: Because Ba Ngoai* likes me so much.
    Us: How do you know?
    Q: Because she makes me pho and gives me lots of kisses.
    Us: What about all the swimming?
    Q: That, too.
    *Maternal grandma in Vietnamese.

    Thursday, July 24, 2008

    (almost) back


    After nearly a week and a half in Sunny Southern California, we made it back to New York, more or less. This week we lugged ourselves back into our apartment around the time that we were supposed to eat dinner on the East Coast, but our bodies were still trained by the other ocean. We split the difference and ordered pizza.

    Just through the door, Q turned to my wife and asked, "Do you have to go to work now, mom?"  And later that night, as I worked a washcloth along The Boy's back in the bath, I mentioned that I had to go back to work.  "I know," he sighed.

    My lovely wife and I did indeed go back to work—the day after our return, in fact, so it's taken me a little longer to readjust, with my head being the last to arrive.

    Wednesday, July 09, 2008

    Birthday wishes for mom

    Today is my lovely wife's birthday.  I won't mention her age, but I will say that for nine days she and I are the same age.  And I'm old.  (Unlike me, though, she doesn't look like it.)

    This morning, even before I left for work, Q poked out of her room and came into ours.  She said that she got up early because she didn't want to miss mom's birthday.  The Boy made my wife a huge picture he had made weeks ago and (later) a fan that he decorated with drawings of cakes, candles, and presents.  Q had made several 'Q's on her fan, along with two faces close together — one for her and one for mom.

    We didn't do anything fancy today to celebrate her big day, mainly because we leave for California tomorrow for an extended stay.  One of these days, we're going to have to start making her a fancy birthday cake.  I'm open to suggestions for a theme.

    Fireworks, fireflies

    Maybe it was the free Friday or the heavy, low clouds, but for some reason or other our neighborhood was largely empty last Fourth of July weekend.  And since the crowds around here have generally been rising with the gas prices, it was nice to have the parks and paths largely to ourselves.

    Fourth of July means fireworks, of course (which we watched in the rain again this year), but it also means Wimbledon, which means that we watch and play a lot of tennis, including nearly all of the endless but remarkable Federer v. Nadal match.  We encourage The Boy and Q to participate in the rather excellent basketball and soccer programs offered by the Parks Department, but The Boy especially finds these sports underwhelming.  Instead, for some reason he favors the Country Club Sports — namely golf and tennis.  Ask him to go out and kick a ball on the grass, and he's suddenly tired; propose tossing him a tennis ball for him to return, and he immediately fetches his sneakers and talks incessantly about how he's good at following through and hitting the ball on his racquet's "sweet spot."  My lovely wife and I love tennis ourselves, so we happily spent much of the weekend lobbing balls to his forehand and dodging what he sent back.  He's not bad actually and getting better all the time.  Q can actually hit a ball or two herself, but, only 3, she quickly wants to swing or soak herself in the park fountains.  That's good stuff, too.

    Saturday we spent with our good friends.  We rented a Prius for the day (a surprisingly good car, by the way), and headed out to northern New Jersey for barbequed meats and swimming and great conversation.  These friends that we've known since my wife's law-school days have three kids, and their son, the oldest, is The Boy's idol.  The two of them got to talk and do "boy stuff," which seemed important because Q likes to hang out with our friends' two daughters, both a little older than Q.  So there was talk of princesses and tea sets and gymnastics, and the boys therefore had things against which to be boys.  And my lovely wife and I had an uninterrupted chance to be adults.

    Sunday night, just after we put the long weekend and Q and The Boy to bed, I went out for milk at the local Duane Reade.  On my way there through Teardrop park, I caught a pop of light right off a bush beside a bench, and then another higher up along a tree.  And then another, and another.  It was a lush night, warm with gauzy air, and fireflies had come out to enjoy it.  I caught one, and brought it back in cupped hands to the kids' bedroom.  Q was already in deep sleep unfortunately, but The Boy was very awake so he and I went back out to the park.

    Outside in the thick night, we wandered the park while the fireflies entertained us.  The Boy, excited by these odd little bugs, took to theory:  "I think they make light because they like light, and at night there aren't many lights, so they have to make their own."  I can remember thinking nearly the same thing too many years ago as I stood in the grass of my grandmother's house in Gypsum, Kansas, likewise astonished by the blinking beetles that hung in the air by what seemed like the thousands, pretending to be stars.

    I hope that your 4th was as memorable.

    Wednesday, July 02, 2008

    School Daze: Rumor Edition

    The saga continues.  Sort of.  As I mentioned recently, The Boy's prospective Kindergarten (PS 89) faces severe overcrowding next year and the years to follow, and this space squeeze has triggered a fair amount of interest and activism in our neighborhood.  The Manhattan Borough President, Scott M. Stringer, has come down to hear grievances, and possible solutions have been tossed around.

    In my last School Daze post, I recounted the proposal that trailers be brought in to house all those extra five-year-olds.  At the time I wondered where they would put the things, given the hyper-development that's occurred around here over the past few years.  Still, better to have trailers than to have lessons in the stairwells.

    Well, rumor has it that trailers won't be arriving anytime soon.  According to a friend of ours from the building (and someone who's pretty active in this school fight), PS 89 can't bring in trailers because they're too expensive given the short-term needs.  So in other words, the City doesn't really consider trailers a short-term solution, but neither are they long-term, obviously.

    I'm just thinking out loud here, but perhaps the City needs to flex a little more institutional muscle.  An ugly high rise just across the West Side Highway from us was allowed to exist on the condition that it dedicate space to an annex for PS 234, the other highly regarded elementary school down by us (and also bursting at its proverbial seams, even with this addition).  Why not demand that the building going up across the street from PS 89 house similar space?  No doubt contracts have already been signed and whatnot, but the City could offer further incentives (carrot) or deny permits (stick) to make that happen.  Or perhaps they could commandeer the new public library branch going into a luxury condo building directly across from ours.  For recess they could fall out the door and across the street to the large playground.

    In any event, we're back where we were:  We now hear that the industrious folks at PS 89 have managed to find enough corners for the incoming 6 classes of Kindergartners, but they have no idea what to do with the following year's kids and those who'll continue on.

    Anyone got any good ideas?  The City sure doesn't seem to have any.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008

    Rocket Boy

    The Boy's fifth birthday was a while ago (6/6, to be exact), but we officially celebrated on the 14th. Again my lovely wife did a lot of work for the party — rockets were the theme this year — and everything came off well. We made cutouts from old file folders to serve as paint patterns (which didn't quite work like we hoped) to busy the kids until everyone arrived. Once all were accounted for, we went out back to the large, sloped lawn in Teardrop Park to launch rockets. My wife discovered these small foam rocket launchers at Target (that worked surprisingly well), and we also brought out the larger stomp rocket set we picked up for the occasion. I had originally wanted to make water-propelled rockets out of plastic bottles (great idea, Make Magazine), but it turns out that they go dangerously high in a city like ours. And as much as I'd like to see up close one of those policemen on horseback that always patrol our neighborhood, I'd rather not provide my children with a story that includes the phrase "so then dad got arrested..."

    When the pizza arrived (and pizza always arrives at these parties), we retrieved all the loose rockets and went in to eat, right as the sky opened up and turned the streets into creeks. After pizza was cake: this year my wife made a lovely blue buttercream solar system, complete with fruit rollup planets (the earth even had discernible and proper continents) and a toy space shuttle blasting off from one corner. It was darn good.

    The kids trickled out home with their rockets and goody bags filled will space bracelets, tiny rocket capsules with crayons inside, and space stickers.* Everyone really seemed to have a good time, including The Boy (unlike last year). The presents he received were great, too — lots of games and construction toys, which fit his mind and level just right.

    He arrived in the night five years ago (why do they always come at night?) into hands from the rescue part of the hospital. He was just barely a spark, or, looking back, perhaps an atom newly split before it lets loose a blooming cloud. So small and nothing but potential swaddled in doubt. Now the doubt is gone, and five is definitely worth celebrating.

    Happy Birthday, son. (And thanks for thanking your mother.)

    *Did you ever notice that everything sounds better with 'space' in front of it? Pants = boring. Space pants = cool.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Bring back the tough dad? Did he ever leave?

    Originally uploaded by dmealiffe
    My lovely wife recently passed along a Wall Street Journal piece by Kevin Helliker called "A Father's Tough Love." In it, Helliker writes about how his father's stark, tough treatment of himself and his four brothers looks from a distance. Helliker's father as he describes him was pretty manly — a butcher who also firmly ran a newspaper delivery business before and after long hours of cleaving meat — and he embodied the distant Midwestern father of the times. Helliker writes, "It was a style that placed Dad at a certain distance, that required him to scoff at scraped knees and hurt feelings, that often cast him in the role of bad guy."

    This style has (more or less) become less acceptable, and Helliker collects reasons why that might not be a good thing:
    "The whole culture needs the father back," says Lila Kalinich, a Columbia University psychiatrist who served as senior editor for the book [The Dead Father: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry]. "Fathers substantiate law and order. Fathers can create a sense of womanliness in daughters and bring the male children into manhood."
    Hmm. I'm not sure what Kalinich means by "womanliness" or "manhood," and I do wonder how Helliker's father would have treated a daughter. (As I understand it, tough dads of this sort had deeply distinct double standards for parenting girls and boys, and girls were treated so differently because they were believed to be so much weaker and more vulnerable than boys on just about every score.)

    Compare Helliker's sentiment with that expressed in a Father's Day speech by the current Democratic nominee for president. Here's Obama speaking of fathers' duties:
    The first is setting an example of excellence for our children – because if we want to set high expectations for them, we’ve got to set high expectations for ourselves. It’s great if you have a job; it’s even better if you have a college degree. It’s a wonderful thing if you are married and living in a home with your children, but don’t just sit in the house and watch “SportsCenter” all weekend long. That’s why so many children are growing up in front of the television. As fathers and parents, we’ve got to spend more time with them, and help them with their homework, and replace the video game or the remote control with a book once in awhile. That’s how we build that foundation...

    It’s up to us – as fathers and parents – to instill this ethic of excellence in our children. It’s up to us to say to our daughters, don’t ever let images on TV tell you what you are worth, because I expect you to dream without limit and reach for those goals. It’s up to us to tell our sons, those songs on the radio may glorify violence, but in my house we glorify achievement, self respect, and hard work. It’s up to us to set these high expectations. And that means meeting those expectations ourselves. That means setting examples of excellence in our own lives.

    The second thing we need to do as fathers is pass along the value of empathy to our children. Not sympathy, but empathy – the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes; to look at the world through their eyes. Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in “us,” that we forget about our obligations to one another. There’s a culture in our society that says remembering these obligations is somehow soft – that we can’t show weakness, and so therefore we can’t show kindness.

    But our young boys and girls see that. They see when you are ignoring or mistreating your wife. They see when you are inconsiderate at home; or when you are distant; or when you are thinking only of yourself. And so it’s no surprise when we see that behavior in our schools or on our streets. That’s why we pass on the values of empathy and kindness to our children by living them. We need to show our kids that you’re not strong by putting other people down – you’re strong by lifting them up. That’s our responsibility as fathers.
    (You can read the whole thing here or watch him deliver the entire speech here.)

    My own father was from the older school (punishment wise and all), but I didn't live in fear of him. Which is to say that toughness isn't synonymous with gruffness, and kindness isn't tantamount to weakness. And toughness has never gone out of fashion, just its expression. I'd like to think that my wife and I teach Q and The Boy strength not through physical intimidation (of either our children or others) but rather in our expectations of ourselves and of others.

    We'll see how well we did, I suppose, when they look back.

    Sunday, June 15, 2008

    A father's day

    It's been a full day, as most are. June weekends have been stuffed, and this one was taken over for the most part by The Boy's fifth birthday party (more about that later no doubt). Today was a little different, a time for recovering and for Q and The Boy to bring out the drawings and gifts for me that they had squirreled away in the closet. I think they enjoyed keeping the secret as much as what they kept secret, and I relished the theater of it all. My lovely wife also went to the kids when they both fell out of bed earlier than usual this morning. Now that's a Father's Day present.

    Here's a story that fits this day nicely: Last weekend we went to a birthday party at some good friends of ours who used to live in our building. Their daughter was turning three, and, along with cake and too much great food, we knew there was going to be swimming (they have a pool) and a large inflatable castle water play thing that Q and The Boy would love. These friends left our building for an expansive house just north of the City, so we packed up our swimsuits and towels and car seats and set out for the rented car.

    First, the car was late. We were supposed to get our car at 1:00 p.m., but the good folks at Zipcar called to say that the renter before us was running behind and would I like to cancel my reservation (at no charge) or take it late? Not going was, of course, not an option. At 1:30, then, I went down into the parking garage to retrieve the little Mazda as my lovely wife and the kids waited up on the sidewalk. I drove up and parked in the garage's opening to strap in the kids and load up generally. Now, we're more or less car-ride rookies, and odds are better than even that Q will throw up at some point during the trip. (She knows this, too, and usually claps her hand over her mouth just as I set her into her car seat.) Wouldn't you know it, Q did throw up right as I was fastening the belts, before we'd rolled an inch. Okay. So we took her out along with the bag with the beach towels, and we sacrificed one to clean her up. As we were swapping her dresses (my smart wife always packs extra everything), an SUV pulled up behind us wanting to exit the garage and honked. We scrambled back into the car and drove off, glad to be on our way.

    As we were almost out of the city, Q asked for her Big Blanket and Little Blanket, which is to say she wanted her comfort blankets that she's had since, well, the dawn of her time. My wife looked to the back seat for the bag of blankets (and swimsuits and towels and flipflops and sunscreen and ...), and realized that instead of it sitting on the floor beneath Q's swinging feet it was sitting on the sidewalk just outside the parking garage in downtown Manhattan.

    So we faced a choice: (1) go back for the bag and miss most if not all of the party, or (2) go on and start repairing the psychic damage suffered by a little girl whose parents left a big, irreplaceable chunk of her life on a New York street. We opted for (2), given that the bag might very well have been taken by the time we got back to the garage anyway.

    To Q's credit, she (unlike my wife and I) didn't freak out. As I went into reassuring mode, my wife called the garage to ask if the attendant could walk up and check for a bag. She did get a hold of him, but he said he couldn't leave the booth for another fifteen minutes or so and that she should call back. About thirteen-and-a-half minutes later, my wife called again, and it turned out that the bag was still there (and still full of stuff) and that the attendant had it next to him in the booth. Deep, collective sighs ensued.

    Could he keep it there until we brought the car back that night around 7 p.m.? Well, he told us, he couldn't say for sure — his shift ended at 4 p.m. and all bets were off after that. Sheesh. Okay, we made it to our friends' house, and as we rolled to a stop in their driveway, Q threw up again, this time all bright red juice all over her new white dress. My wife took them both into our friends' house, borrowed swimsuits for them both and left them to get wet with the other kids as she borrowed their washing machine for Q's seat cover and dresses. This was at about 2:45.

    At 2:47 I got back into the car and drove the 30 city miles back to the parking garage for the bag. There was no choice, really — we couldn't risk re-losing Q's blankets. And but so I did make it back to the booth in time and back to the party (another 30 city miles) by around 4:30. I arrived in time to sing "Happy Birthday" and down two pieces of cake on a princess plate. At 5:30 we retrieved the fresh laundry and the exhausted, exhilarated children and went home with all our possessions plus two new goody bags full of wonderful stuff.

    Things all worked out, then. And now I have a story to tell and a reputation with Q and The Boy: The Boy now has (another) reason to think of me as forgetful, and Q has concrete evidence of what her dad will do for her. Not a bad trade off, all in all.

    Okay, so this post is getting a little long, but I want to exit with a poem by Timothy Steele that I recently ran into. It reminds me of how I've spent and spend much time these five years as a father, and the lines themselves arc and move just like Q.

    The Swing
    by Timothy Steele

    She shrieks as she sweeps past the earth
    And, rising, pumps for all she's worth;
    The chains she grips almost go slack;
    Then, seated skyward, she drops back.

    When swept high to the rear, she sees
    Below the park the harbor's quays,
    Cranes, rail tracks, transit sheds, and ranks
    Of broad, round, silver storage tanks.

    Her father lacks such speed and sight,
    Though, with a push, he launched her flight.
    Now, hands in pockets, he stands by
    And, for her safety, casts his eye

    Over the ground, examining
    The hollow underneath the swing
    Where, done with aerial assault,
    She'll scuff, in passing, to a halt.

    Happy Father's Day, everyone.

    (Note: Here's the blog header at the time of grandpa and The Boy from a few years ago

    It's for you, Grandpa