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


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.