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.