Friday, December 02, 2011

Another break

The days start and end dark now, even after falling back. When the light comes up strong, it still slides in from a fall sun that seems already on its way back down into evening. October and November were mainly a sum of routines (apart from a few wonderful occasions that I'll return to some other time), the new ones from September now old and idling in the lower part of out brains.

Here's a non-routine thing that happened, though. As I mentioned a while back, my son broke his arm for the third time over the summer. Turns out he wasn't the only one with a bone that needed fixing.

I starting playing basketball again last winter after something like a twenty-year hiatus. These were solid pickup games with some other dads around the same age as me. Back in May, I went up for a shot, got undercut in the air, and took a hard fall. I caught myself with my hands and, as it turned out, made the shot but popped a small bone* in my left wrist.

Like nearly everyone (the Internet now tells me), I thought I sprained my hand, and after a few weeks of wrapping and icing, I didn't think much about it. We went to the beach, traveled a bit, had as normal of a summer as we could with a broken-armed son. I even kept playing basketball.

I don't like going to doctors — never have — but after another, smaller fall, three months of persistent pain, and insistence by my usually correct wife, I decided to see a wrist guy. My appointment was on a Wednesday. After looking over my bones, he suggested surgery the Friday just two days away, which I agreed to and underwent.

I could tell you about the early morning check-in for surgery that began with an Applebee's-style beeper, or about how weeks later the doctor pulled the two pins from my wrist with a regulation pair of pliers, the red-rubber-handled kind that could've come from a truck-bed toolbox. I could mention how the ligament he also fixed in surgery has slipped a bit out of alignment, which may mean new cuts and screws and casts later on. I could tell you about how I have seen myself as doctors do, as a body to which consciousness is remotely and tenuously fixed, even though I know better.

But I find myself unsure why I make a show of telling you anything. Perhaps seeing a crease in one's own bone — in my hand, my main hinge with the world — is just the kind of thing people find themselves talking about. Or perhaps I've gotten used to telling strangers quick stories when they ask about my cast and tell me back their memories of injury, ostensibly as a comfort.

Most likely in even this short telling I can convert an explanation of silence into an excuse for not writing, for no longer being young.
*More precisely and in doctor talk, that would be my left scaphoid.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Fine dining

Recently, my lovely wife and I were invited to a friend's birthday party. A real adult thing. Sure, we know the honoree and her husband because of our kids (their eldest son and daughter have roughly the same ages, interests, and locations as The Boy and Q), but this night out was kid free.

The 16-person dinner was held at the restaurant Blue Hill, a city satellite of a full-on farm, 30 miles upstate in Pocantico Hills, that grows its own everything. Blue Hill New York lounges in the garden level of an old row house near Washington Square, a space once occupied by a speakeasy.* The couple had reserved the restaurant’s "Garden Room," a remote, lovely space just back of the compact kitchen and a row of waitstaff queued like planes waiting for the runway at LaGuardia. When we arrived, a slight (thoroughly non-farmer) waiter butlered hors d'oeuvres of raw and remarkably sweet grape tomatoes from a white bowl, and rows of lettuces, vivid miniature squashes, and carrots sprouting greens from a line of nails in a foot of barnwood. They were obviously proud of their ingredients, and rightly so.

The rest of the tasting menu didn't disappoint either. Each dish (beets, poached eggs, lamb — they kept coming) reacquainted us with how good food in New York can be, with the possibilities of gustation when really talented people dedicate themselves to it. The time itself was just as delectable. We all knew each other in different degrees and ways, and in between bites and wine sips, everyone talked around their kids as much as about them, working instead on the unknown and forgotten. One of the party was off to her 20th high-school reunion the next day, which, predictably, triggered ripples of recollection of once big events and looks that now to our older selves appear proper sized and ludicrous.

The meal closed with small scoops of rose hip ice cream on a plate as big as a shield. Dots of fruit complemented the ice cream, and together we determined they were strawberries. It was as if each berry had been delicately peeled or buffed lovingly by an angel or anyway cooked super slowly right up to the point of collapsing into the idea of strawberries. When all the dishes were empty, we hugged and kissed and wished well and caught a ride with friends home to our kids who had been asleep for hours. A truly lovely evening.

My wife and I don’t go out adult-wise all that much, and under our usual metric, the Blue Hill party easily banked us about six months' worth of big-person time. But then more good friends that we don't see often enough invited us out to join them and another couple for a birthday dinner. How could we not go?
This time we went to Le Cirque, a New York fixture from the 70's, the kind of place where the menu items come sourced with creation dates and chef names. My wife had been to Le Cirque years ago when the restaurant was still in the Palace Hotel on 50th and Madison, when she was still at a large law firm, and when firms like hers still used the city’s finest menus as recruiting tools. I remember her bringing home this delightful chocolate stove, complete with two miniature pots filled with some kind of fruit reduction.** We both thought the whole thing too pretty to eat, and we stashed it in our miniature West Village freezer until the cold burned the flavor out of it.

Le Cirque now occupies a grand chunk of the Bloomberg building's bottom floor on East 58th Street. The interior manages to look simultaneously modern and old money (which it is). But when our seats were ready, we passed through the curved dining room to a lone table in the kitchen. My wife and I knew we were there for the chef's tasting menu, but we didn't know we'd be in sight of the chef while tasting it.

Unlike Blue Hill, Le Cirque's kitchen was massive and populated. Directly behind our table ran a long stainless steel counter, and for hours we watched the chef and sous-chefs assemble and wipe drips off the rims of dishes that waiters took out, shot-put style, on heavy silver trays. The guy off to our right spent the night piling parsley-flecked fries into bowls that went, along with beautiful sliders, to people who were sadly not us. Still, our meal — all six courses — was its own revelation of hard choices: lobster salad or raw tuna with clementines, foie gras ravioli or lobster risotto, scallops layered with slices of black truffle the width and breadth of half dollars, Wagyu beef or baby chicken.***

Our dining companions were old friends from our first days in New York 18 years ago, and it didn't take long for us to eat away the time that had passed since we were last together. We remembered ourselves before and after kids and asked each other whether we preferred making to eating good food. (Myself, I'm almost always taken with process over product, and I particularly appreciate the mysterious alchemy of kitchens.) And we drank lots and lots of wine chosen for us by a woman with a French job title.

We completed our recent menu of fine dining experiences with our anniversary dinner. We celebrate our anniversary each year with a family night out at nice place, and this year we went to Kittichai, an upscale Thai restaurant in the Thompson Hotel in SoHo. Our kids love a good restaurant almost as much as we do (and The Boy, given his ever sharpening eye for design, probably even more so), and my wife and I genuinely enjoy their company. The space was super cool, all provocatively bottom-lit golden silk and teak, and in the center of the main dining room, a pond with candles on lily pads circling magically and endlessly. Orchids were everywhere, including the one that garnished Q's puckery lime drink and, later, her ear. We ate ourselves silly again, this time short ribs in whiskey barbeque sauce, chicken in green curry, chili-smoked hanger steak, and Valrhona chocolate cake served in a banana leaf. By the end, only the creased leaf was left.

After Q and The Boy took their time marveling over the rows of orchids in jars at the restaurant's entrance, we staggered out into the day’s last light. At first, we wanted to walk home along the river and the sunset, but on our way west we saw that with just a little wait we could catch a bus home. Q cradled three orchid blossoms and The Boy talked lemongrass and longbeans as the bus made its way back to our own kitchen, the one with the red stool that helps them participate in the doughs and the dishes.

And if I had room for another dessert, I might have a little of the two "Le Cirque" Stove Cakes still sitting on the top shelf in our fridge.

*Funny that so many restaurants claim to occupy former speakeasies. Exclusivity and myth power New York as much as anywhere else.
**Originally conceived of and crafted by the deliriously skilled chocolatier Jacques Torres.
***Okay, everyone opted for the beef over the chicken without hesitation or regret.

Monday, September 05, 2011


The coverage came in long before the storm.  Several days out we watched a variety of Weather Channel pundits point, over and over again, at the red stripe that Irene was likely to follow, and New York was squarely in the red.  As Irene grew broad and began lumbering up the coast, those pundits spoke about New York in lower tones.  Then a Weather Channel correspondent — one of those guys who reports on location from driving rains — starting filing segments from our neighborhood.  Cue the nervous laughter. 

Our concern really began to swell, though, when the mayor started saying things, too.  We live in northern Battery Park City, an area full of new buildings, and I didn’t worry that much about whether our building would withstand the wind.  The neighborhood, however, sits right on the Hudson and squarely in what the city calls Hurricane Evacuation Zone A, or the area at greatest risk for flooding during a hurricane.*

As the week progressed, the red stripe didn’t bend out to sea like usual, and on Wednesday the mayor began encouraging residents of Zone A to find other places to sit out the storm.  The kids and I went in search of purpose and new flashlights, and my lovely wife and I started thinking about where we could go.  The Weather Channel correspondent still filed from our neighborhood, but now he held his hand up as high as he could when talking projected storm-surge levels.  A picture of Irene from space made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, looking like a big ball of cotton hanging out of the continent’s ear.  We canceled our weekend beach and U.S. Open plans.

Then things got real serious.  The mayor said that if projections held for a category 1 Irene to roll up 5th Avenue, the city was going to shut down all subway and bus service — a precaution never taken in the transit system’s century+ existence.  The mandatory evacuation order for Zone A came down from City Hall on Friday morning, and it was official.  We had to be out of our apartment by 5 p.m. Saturday.

We don’t have any family nearby, so we thought of those most familiar.  Many good friends in the city  quickly and happily opened their homes to us.**  We also received an invitation from our good friends who live in northern New Jersey.  Given that Q and The Boy love their kids, have more or less grown up with them, and had already stayed overnight at their house, we thought that was the best choice.  And if a huge tree fell across their roof, I could help hang tarp or something similarly man-related.

All day Friday the city was pushing people to leave their homes well in advance of the mandatory deadline and the transit shutdown.  My wife had taken the day off, and I left work early so that we could have emptier trains out to New Jersey.  We filled a single bag with just a few clothes, a camera, our stash of passports and certificates, and the hard drive that contains a copy of our entire digital life, including over 260 GB of photos.***  Q stuffed her backpack with her important blankets and some books; The Boy packed several flashlights and books, including 100 Most Dangerous Things on the Planet and 100 Most Awesome Things on the Planet, each with the hurricane page sticky-noted.  We walked out of our apartment and our neighborhood, at least half expecting never to see either in the same state again. I said that we were leaving on our "evacuvacation" in an attempt to joke everyone into feeling a little safer.

Friday and and most of Saturday in New Jersey were weirdly beautiful.  We watched the news on TV and our phones constantly, watched people (stupidly, I think) talking about how bad the storm was as they struggled to stand against it on beaches in North Carolina and then Virginia.  We ordered in pizza. Our friends have a pool and a trampoline, and the kids jumped one way and another.

The rain came in Saturday afternoon, soft at first, and then strong and steady, and then stronger still.  Irene spun like a pinwheel firework throughout the night and Sunday morning, flinging bands of yellow and red weather all up and down the Mid-Atlantic, but the winds never picked up enough to take down the trees. To our kids' disappointment, we never had to rely on the flashlights.

By Sunday afternoon, the rain moved north and a stronger wind finally came around. My wife and I took all the kids for a walk around the neighborhood to have a look at any damage.  There wasn’t much to see, a few smaller branches brought down here and there, maybe a streak of dirt where the heavy rain took some lawn down a storm drain.  The lack of damage was almost shocking, especially compared to what we had seen happen to the north and south of us.

When we returned to Zone A and our apartment on Monday afternoon, not a leaf looked out of place.  We slid the important papers back into their place, reconnected the hard drive to our main computer.  As we downloaded the photos from the weekend, we saw instead of moments of loss, kids caught smiling mid-bounce, a group of them mixing up biscotti dough together in the warm kitchen, pairs walking hand in hand in the sun, even the finished Scrabble boards from the two nights the adults played.  (My wife and I were crushed by our hosts both times.)  We really had been treated to something like a vacation, the very opposite of worry.

I set the computer to back itself up; we wanted to take this weekend with us should there be a next time.

*We’re definitely going to have to move before all the glaciers melt. The place is eventually doomed.
**For a stay of who knows how long in smallish to definitely small apartments. Really incredible people.
***See?  Serious.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Father's Day Break

Father's Day weekend in New York this year was just beautiful, all early summer sun and soft breeze, some of the city's best days. The grandparents (my mother and father) were in town to see Q and The Boy going about their usual business; being half the U.S. away has meant that my parents haven’t just been around our kids that much in a non-holiday context.  It was a good time for them to come:  We had much on our usual schedule, including the culmination of The Boy's big second-grade project on birds,* Q's final gymnastics class for the summer, and The Boy's last baseball game of the season.  And since this was the wrap-up weekend for gymnastics and baseball and (more or less) school, there would be medals and trophies and a much higher tolerance for holding still and smiling for photos.

We managed almost all of that — until The Boy broke his arm for the third time.

Okay.  I was across the neighborhood with Q on the Saturday before Father's Day when I got the call, but here's what apparently happened: The Boy was riding his new bike in the park, the one with a larger frame that better fits his larger frame.  He’s fast on this one, but he knows the area well, so we let him speed up ahead and circle back. The park paths were full of pedestrians, and when he came up behind a large group of them, he rang his bell, but they didn’t make room.  The Boy swerved onto the shoulder to go around them, but the wide-set bricks caught his wheels and channeled him right into a lamppost at pretty much full speed.  He tried to catch himself on the way down, as anyone would, and snapped the big bone just above his right wrist.  Things could have been worse, of course.  He could have fallen into the street and a passing cab, could have had an end of bone jutting up through his skin.

When Q and I arrived running from the playground, I could see the fall in his wrist.  He could see it, too, having had some experience in this area,** and sobs of pain and knowledge were roaring out of him.  This was obviously emergency-room worthy, and my wife and Grandma took Q and The Boy’s bike back home while I flagged down a cab to New York Presbyterian Hospital, the one with the Best Pediatric ER according to a few Important Industry-Related Magazines.  The Saturday evening traffic was light, thankfully, but the pain and our thoughts of the coming cast made the ride seem interminable.  Having become a part of the story, even the driver tried to console The Boy as he ached out of the cab at the ER entrance.

By the time The Boy had made it through the paperwork and diagnostic X-ray phases of the ER, my wife had arrived.***  The grandparents were looking after Q (or perhaps it’s better to say that she was looking after them) so that we both could be with The Boy.  In a sense, I suppose, they got what they came for—to help mitigate the unplanned jags of life.

The fall had kinked his arm, and the pediatric orthopedist needed to set it straight.  The nurse first aimed two light doses of morphine at his pain while we waited for the on-call doctor.  Then for the procedure itself, a doctor informed us in calm tones (and asked us to acknowledge via signature of being so informed) that they were going to “moderately sedate” The Boy, which, worse case, might cause him to “lose his will to breathe.”****  We were also informed (this time in a signature-independent way) that though he wouldn’t remember anything, he would still be somewhat awake and might very well cry out when the bone was maneuvered back into proper position.  Given the option to stay for the screaming or step out, my wife and I decided that we’d look over the bulletin boards in the hallway and start thinking about ways to shift much of our summer around his cast.

It didn't take long.  By the time we successfully distracted ourselves, they had The Boy's reset arm hanging by his thumb and were wrapping it in quick-setting blue fiberglass.  He was still sedated, head and eyes rolling.  He didn't seem to recognize us or even know we were there, though later he would report seeing his mother and two of everything else.  There wasn’t much to do but watch everything work on him, and since it was getting late, I offered to go home to put Q at ease and to bed while my wife saw the visit through.

My first Father's Day in 2003 wasn't supposed to be my first Father's Day. The Boy entered this world a perilous two months early at New York Presbyterian and then kicked himself into a hold on life at its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. That first month my wife and I walked 68th Street so many times, as often as we could, new parents to a strange being with a confounded future. I was surprised to find how much that same trip back downtown, eight years later, felt like walking on a bruise.*****

The Boy returned home from the ER with drugs still lingering in his blood.  Q, worried and sleepless, went with me to meet him and my wife in our building's lobby.  He hadn't eaten for more than nine hours, and he had thrown up in the cab the little bit of ginger ale given to him by the nurse.  He wasn't walking well, and I carried him, wet and unexpectedly stiff, from elevator to home.  I hadn't held him in that way for some time.  We wrestled off his shirt for a quick bath; he still had a monitor relay stuck to his chest.  He hadn't come back into himself yet, his body unable to remember the step into his own bathtub.

As I helped him dress for bed that night, his new right arm heavy and foreign, he said, “Sorry, dad, you have to do everything for me.” I can't think of a more unnecessary apology; I would make myself a house around him.

It's been five weeks since the break, and his arm will return to him in two days.  We have a trip to the beach already set for the coming weekend and still over a month of summer left to use any way we choose.  I tell this story not to demonstrate that Every Day is Father’s Day or that fathers are made by their sons, though both may be true.  I tell it only to cast these days right, to fix them in the proper shape.

I hope you all had a happy Father's Day.


*I always found birds boring until The Boy brought home all his fine work. Now, I must admit, I'm slightly more interested.

**Did I mention this is his THIRD break?

***Funny story.  The hardest part of an ER visit, I think, is always waiting for the hospital to cycle through its procedures, and I was doing my best to be supportive and comforting and to speed things along.  Luckily, The Boy was moved through the early steps and rooms fairly quickly, including radiology — the cold, cavernous room with the amazingly articulated ray gun.  So we’re there, and the tech gets The Boy positioned as best he can given the pain and current range of mobility, and then the tech and I stepped behind the leaded glass for the zap of radiation.  Just as he moved to take the picture, I leaned back against the wall, accidentally hitting a red muffin-sized button reading “EMERGENCY SHUT OFF,” which killed the giant machine and the controlling computer.  The tech said he’d never had this happen before, and he had to go get help to reboot the room, unsure of how long it would take.  There was talk of moving The Boy elsewhere for x-rays, given what could be a long wait.  I wanted to page a specialist in stupidity to give me a huge shot of something painful right in my eye.  After just a couple of minutes, though, they were able to get everything up and running, and I managed not to get in the way for the rest of the evening. Well, it's a funny story now.

****Possibly annoying note: For us (and not for, say, dolphins), regular breathing arguably doesn’t depend upon the will.  Sure, I can hold my breathe (will myself not to breathe) and can breathe more deeply or faster if I choose.  Just plain breathing, however, requires no willing on my part. Losing the will to breathe, then, sounds exceedingly ominous to me, something super important but poorly understood.  Yes, I’m deflecting here — even now — in my own way.

*****I also was to leave for a week-long conference at Harvard the Monday after Father's Day, which meant taking the Amtrak to South Station in Boston, and then the Red Line in to Central Square, a groove I wore smooth over ten years ago when I was commuting weekly, alone and lonely, to a Harvard teaching job.  The whole thing was like going down a memory lane of misery.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Birthday wishes for mom

Today is my lovely and talented wife's birthday. (I won't say how old she is, for the usual reasons. Besides, were you to see and meet her, I bet you couldn't guess within ten years of the actual number.)  The thing about getting to know a person as well as I've come to know my wife, a person as good as her, is that I can see the distance between what she deserves and what I can give her.  We all owe her much, under any sort of accounting, but we didn't try to make a dent in the debt so much let her know we know she's owed. Q crafted a card picturing the two of them together, and The Boy, his best drawing arm still fixed from palm to armpit, focused instead on the intangibles like hugs and kisses.  I brought back extra-good coffee to start the day.  The three of us threatened to make her a Fancy Birthday Cake of her own,* but we all decided it was better to go out for, among other things, a nice lunch instead.

The myth of this particular birthday** is that if it's not exactly the time when a person is supposed to start looking back, it's at least when she should begin turning her head in that general direction. But given our life's propulsion — the steady forward force of Q and The Boy most of all — attending to what's been makes little sense at the moment.  We've got a lot to look forward to with her, and for a long time.

Happy birthday, mom, from all of us.  We love you.

*Something along the lines of this or this.
**Still not saying which one, so just stop with the speculation already.

Monday, June 06, 2011


The Boy turned eight today.  All the schedules involved made it hard to celebrate the day dead on, so we flipped things around from Q's order of business.  We'll have his version of our new birthday tradition next weekend — dinner at The Ninja restaurant in Tribeca — and we started the festivities with his party this past weekend.  The Boy remains taken with LEGOs, and he’s gotten into making movies, so we together decided to have a LEGO movie-making party.  The idea was to have 7-9 kids (including Q) bring a favorite LEGO minifigure to star in a movie of their own.  We would come up with a few general story ideas and leave room for the kids to riff a little on their own.  Stop motion takes too much time and special attention to pull off in the window we had, so we talked ourselves into being happy with seeing hands (and whatever) in the frame as the action unfolded.  We’d do most of the filming in the good light and weather of our building’s roof deck, which, with its bushes and trees and rocks, could provide jungles and mountains as backdrops for their imaginations.  I would then stitch whatever bits end up working into a skit-show feature.  I even worked up my post-production skills in case we wanted to add in some laser-blaster effects and/or explosions.  And since The Boy has been poking decently around with GarageBand (a fantastic music-making application for Apple devices), I suggested that he make some music for the opening or closing credits.  We’d post the final result to Facebook and Vimeo and YouTube and then (who knows?) go viral-ish.

A solid plan (except, admittedly, for the going viral part).  The Boy did his part by coming up with a great action-movie track, along with a couple of clever skit premises:  Clone troopers take a coffee break and a bunch of minifigures were ordered to bring Darth Vader a trident but mistakenly brought back a pack of Trident gum. Punishment ensues.  I suggested that at the end, all the minifigures could spring a surprise birthday party on The Boy’s chosen minifigure, and he added that the little guy could be so surprised that he (literally) falls to pieces.  Pretty good, right?

It should be obvious what’s coming.  The seven boys (plus Q) all liked the general movie-making idea, but it turned out to be impossible for them not to be eight-year-old boys.  They’re all good, smart kids, but the dynamic of them together ran quickly toward chaos.  When I mentioned one of my ideas to a kid just a few minutes in, he responded — like some stock character right out of a tween TV show — “BORing.”  Okay, I said, let’s hear their ideas, which included:
  • Everyone is fighting a war and then one guy has to pee, so they stop the whole war until he comes back
  • China starts to take over the world with its coffee because its coffee is so good
  • A cobbled-together LEGO creation one kid was calling “Wine Guy” runs around spraying everything with wine
  • LEGO dancing with the stars where the stars come down from the sky and the minifigures dance with them*
Whenever I tried to steer them toward making any sort of short, even with one of their non-boring ides, they wanted to toss in everything at once.

Above all, they were each interested in making the others laugh.  (I assume this is what most mid-list sitcom writers' rooms sound like.)  I should have recognized earlier than I did that they were just enjoying each other’s company, trying to better each other in laughs and volume.  Once I did finally let go of my idea of what they should be doing, I was able to appreciate the inspired mess.

Some things did go as planned.  My lovely and talented wife captured the general theme of the day with an excellent LEGO and Star Wars inspired cake, with an impressive TIE fighter on top and minifigures from both sides of the force at attention.  The fighter and figures stood on a cake base frosted in azure buttercream, which looked super futuristic and cool.**

The force was definitely with my wife on this one

Even these many years later, after he was thrown into us early, I’m still a little surprised that he has made it this far and in this wonderful way. I don’t think like this often, don’t count blessings or puzzle over them. I don’t read new studies of premature and low-weight birth, and I’ve forgotten the old ones. I don’t have to pretend that rocking my child while respecting cables and tubes is the most natural thing in the world.  I had to look up the word ‘gavage’ to write this sentence. I don’t let his single-digit, gym-teacher-calculated BMI percentile nag.  I don’t take mistakes or struggles as portents of things broken when he was most fragile.  I just don’t.  Don’t have to.

Instead, I get to marvel at how The Boy reflects the better parts of a person back, as charismatic people often do.  He’s gotten tall — his head now just starting over his mother’s shoulder — has a solid baseball swing that he more often then not takes with a the right amount of seriousness.  Has a temper and can be too hard on himself and quickly embarrassed.  Has given us the luxury of merely worrying about the usual things, and not even that much about those.

Happy birthday, son.  We love you and are proud of you.
*Okay, I actually thought that was a pretty good one.
**The Boy loved the color so much that he requested cupcakes for his class frosted in the same blue.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Daughter's/Mother's Day

Her finest cake yet?

My pockets harbor fleets of Q's gum-wrapper boats.*  While I'm busy chewing and not thinking about chewing, she's walking and folding (and chewing).  And after what seems like an instant, she holds up the small ocean of her hand with a tiny boat at sea in it.

Which is one reason why we decided (with Q's enthusiastic approval) on an origami and candy sushi making birthday party for her this year.  Both Q and The Boy like paper crafts, but Q especially enjoys the rigor of origami, with its step-wise instructions and nested complications.  (The Boy still prefers LEGOs and the improvisations they afford.)  And candy sushi has been a favorite treat at their parties for a few years now.  My wife thought the kids might enjoy making it and taking it away in a personalized Chinese take-out container — something I'm pretty much certain that all New York kids are first-hand familiar with.

My lovely wife has become something of a master at party planning over the years, and throwing a good kids birthday party is appreciably difficult. It takes a certain amount of guessing, since the right amount of time needs to be filled with party fun/activities that should respect the guests' skills and spans of attention.  (Otherwise, you'll find kids scarfing all around your neck at the same, loud time letting you know that their whatever doesn't work.**)  As she demonstrated again this year, my wife has the right mix of creativity, steeliness, and perfectionism that leads to genuine good times in our miniscule apartment. We kept the guest list small as before, around 10 kids, which is just about our apartment's capacity — at least if you want to do anything beyond yelling.  We chose three origami projects of increasing difficulty, figuring we'd get to two, which turned out to be on the money.  Given the general party theme, we started with a beginner-level origami carp that everyone was able to follow along into completion with little trouble.  Then Q showed her peers how to fold a paper boat.  She was a great teacher — good pace and patience, happy to help strugglers. She seemed to be enjoying the teaching as much as the doing (note: teaching is definitely a form of doing, cliche notwithstanding), and I was really proud of her.

Then came the candy-sushi making.  My lovely wife had assembled all the ingredients beforehand, and each kid only had to spread out a fruit roll up (the seaweed), put a rectangle of warmish Rice Krispie treat on top, put a few Twizzler whips inside and a Swedish fish or two, and roll the thing into a log. My wife then cut each kid's log into rolls and put them in her or his takeout box. The takeout containers full of tiny-hand-rolled sushi, together with the paper creations and a cute, Japanese origami kit, made for the goody bag that the kids themselves largely made.  The cake, as usual, was gorgeous:  lemon, four layers, with blue buttercream frosting. My wife found this fake water lily flower in Chinatown, and used the lily-pad part as the stage for some seriously good-looking candy sushi and sashimi of her making. Several moms stayed the duration, enjoying each other and the leisure of watching their children engaged in something they didn't have to produce or direct.

Q's party took much of the weekend's oxygen, but it wasn't, of course, the only attention-worthy event.  Perhaps it's fitting that we had a birthday party the Saturday before Mother's Day, though we don't need any additional evidence that the kids' mother deserves a heaven of her own. We appreciated her as we usually appreciate members of our family, which is to say with favorite foods and good coffee and some lovely drawings by the kids taped into frames they also made themselves. Life shuffled on, too; there were still Q's yoga class and The Boy's baseball game, among other things. I wanted to take everyone out to a fancy place for dinner, but after the usual negotiations, we settled for eating sushi (real this time) on our floor picnic-style and watching a Star Wars. We didn't really settle, in other words, or at least I hope my wife doesn't think so.

I like traditions and holidays, mainly because they're ways we share memory through action, remaking them, too, in the remembering.  I suppose that some things can't be adequately celebrated regardless of the gift — I'd put a year in someone's life and mothers squarely in this category.  But I think that's as it should be.

Plate a piece of cake, crease a square of paper, hand them to another. Make the good stories a little longer.

Happy birthday, and Happy Mother's Day.

*Just one of the many things in my pockets from Q.  See, e.g., "Aboutness" from a little while back.
**Which is another way of saying that you have to respect your own limitations, too, or otherwise there might be a problem with the robot.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Q = 6

This past Earth Day, our daughter Q turned 6.  The date merely made official the changes we've been witnessing lately:  Q has stretched up out of her old clothes and into a whole new set of adjectives:  willowy, lissome, striking — words at ease around women. I probably see those words coming for her long before others do even as I resist them (and will likely do so long after I need to).  But Q is, I suppose, all of those and more besides, which is to say herself as we've come to know her, still sharply funny and clever and resolute.

Because her birthday proper fell on Good Friday and Easter weekend, we've set her (again, small) party for this weekend.* Still, we celebrated her on her actual birthday, too, just the four of us.  My lovely wife had a wonderful suggestion for a new tradition to launch this year:  The birthday boy or girl chooses a restaurant for his or her birthday dinner, and both Q and The Boy got quickly behind this idea.  It's genius, really, given that it's a great and not unsubtle way to privilege experiences over things while giving us a chance to do a thing we all love, which is eat. Q has been extremely fond of sushi lately,** and we were a little surprised when she picked Indian food.  But we all like that, too, and together we settled on a local, slightly nicer place than our go-to Indian restaurant that we've walked by countless times over years but have never been to.

Q made an event of it, as we knew she would.  She wore one of her favorite dresses, the aquamarine silk one that ties in the back, and patent-leather Mary Janes. Hair was braided.  My wife and I also fancied up when we came home early from work, she with a dress of her own and me with a tie of Q's choosing.  The Boy even easily agreed to a collared shirt.

The restaurant was likewise properly dressed, with heavy cotton napkins and pounded-copper chargers at each place setting, and a latticed candle centerpiece that threw small stars on our faces. The ceiling was crisscrossed with runners that reminded me of a howdah.  Apart from a couple up front and a family a few tables over, we had the place to ourselves.  (Most Indian and Chinese restaurants in our neighborhood make their business through delivery.)  They had the waitstaff for a full house, though, and we felt well attended to, especially once the head waitress learned that we had come because of Q's birthday.  At the end of the meal, they brought out a special candle-lit dessert — a disc of something tasting like carrot cake orbited by bits of fried, honey-soaked dough — and all sang "Happy Birthday."  Q found it hard to stop smiling long enough to blow out the flame.

As we crossed the streets back home, she fit her hand, a thing as quick and alive as she, into mine.   Six will too soon become seven, then we'll stop counting years on fingers, then she'll cross streets on her own, then she'll likely hold hands with someone new for different kinds of crossings.  Knowing her as I do, I can picture roles for her adult self — first ever Supreme Court Chief Justice/Gold Medal Gymnast, e.g. — but however she realizes herself, these are days I will return to.

Happy birthday, Q.  We love you and are proud of you.

*Theme:  origami and candy sushi party. More about same later.
**See note above and our growing stack of receipts from Junior Sushi 2.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Losing stories

I heard very recently that my aunt, Alice Good, died a few Sundays back. There was a certain amount of surprise involved:  Not so long ago, she was being treated for what everyone thought was persistent and nasty arthritis when a full-body scan revealed her body shot through with cancer. She was right up to her 80's and wasn't interested in fighting it with the usual poisonous methods. She decided to let the disease run out, which it quickly did.

I'm sad, of course, to know that she's gone.  As I said just recently, Ree Ree (as we all called her) was one of my father's aunts that he grew up with as a sister, the one with the powerfully big laugh that fixed her forever in my childhood mind.  But some time ago she moved down to the New Orleans area and I set up a life in New York, which means I didn't see her with even the infrequency of some of my other relatives who stayed around Bourbon County, Kansas.

Though I'm not exactly sure why, Ree Ree was someone I wanted to get to know as my older self.  Looking back from the height and distance of my current age, I can see that she spoke to me, reasonably, as an aunt speaks to a child — always with big joy, forever blessing my heart. But over the years, I have picked up bits and scraps of a harder life, or at least a life with more angles than I can now plot, some of which my father subtended.  Now she'll remain for me as she was for me so many years ago. I love her like that, always will, but I wonder what stories she would tell the mid-life me, the one familiar with loss and grief and the pleasures of parenthood. Perhaps stories about my father coming into himself, the sun just over his shoulder, the parent I know now a shadow out in front of him. Many of those stories are lost and will stay lost.

When family members go, even distant ones, I also find myself wondering about how they could have participated in my kids' lives, and vice versa.  I'm proud of Q and The Boy, not so much of their accomplishments,* but of how they conduct themselves between the tests and the trophies. I think that's why we talk about being "close" to those we know well, as if emotional and physical distance maps 1:1.

Knowing the disease and her peace with it, my father, Uncle Larry, and Aunt Peg went down to New Orleans to be with her not long after they heard.  She slept much of the time, my father said, but she talked with them and knew they were there, which was the point.  My father told me about the drive down, about how the closer they got to the gulf, the hotter they all became.  When they finally reached Ree Ree's small town, they met up with her son, who greeted them with cold beer. Dad said he had forgotten how good a cold beer tastes on a hot day.

It's funny what turns out to be the best part of the story.

*which, of course, are many and notable

Thursday, March 10, 2011



I’m a hoarder of sorts, always have been, which means my coats end up being seasonal time capsules.  When the weather shifts, I finally go through the pockets.  I’m sure to find at least two grocery lists that will get me to thinking about the meals those ingredients became, and the lists themselves will likely be on the backs or folded sides of kid drawings depicting stick me doing wondrous things with my stick son and stick daughter.  Usually I'll turn up a wrapper from a piece of Chinatown candy, something delicious with an unknown fruit printed on the foil, and maybe a back up train ticket for a commute I no longer make.  Twice I came across kazoos.

Most of my pocket loot comes from my daughter Q.  She finds beauty and meaning everywhere and then asks me to hold it for her.  Walking in the park, she’ll spot a stick shaped just like a ‘Y’ and want to make a gift of it for her mother.  Or there will be a chunk of asphalt, pleasingly shaped and flecked with some mysterious crystal (in all likelihood broken glass), that I will end up carrying around for a couple of days, me handling it like a totem in my pocketed fist until we both have forgotten enough about it.  I hold on to this stuff longer than I need to, I suppose, because it’s a way of holding on to Q’s way of thinking about the world, her way of appreciating things.  Simply putting my hand in a pocket takes me back to times spent with her at moments of discovery and the making of thoughts.

No one really knows how thinking about something actually succeeds — how a thought gets a hold of what that thought is about.  It seems rather important to know how this works, since it’s the getting hold of things that makes for true and false beliefs and makes knowledge at all possible.  It’s also what makes my thoughts about Q different from my thoughts about stones or justice or ‘Y’-shaped sticks.

For the curious and the philosophically inclined, the first part above has to do with the puzzle of representation and the other is about content.  People have been thinking about these puzzles for a while now, though not as long as one might think.  There are all sorts of theories, of course — some rather compelling ones — but they all have their flaws and disappointments.  Some believe words get to be about things as a function of use (use a word enough for a job and its job becomes the use). Others contend that some words, names in particular, get tied to their bearers through a chain of users and uses that extends back to the birth of the name, a baptismal aboutness relation born and raised like (and usually with) a child.  One view holds that the two are born together — that language is a knife that sculpts the world out of the coarse block of experience. A few believe that this is just a thing that minds do, that brains are made such that they just can have states about other things, and all other bits of aboutness — words, maps, paintings, the gestures made in complicated traffic — are merely inherited from brains.  I used to cheer for the view that aboutness was a matter of resemblance, that language does its job by picturing what it’s about, but I grew to believe that this approach just replaces one mystery with another.  In virtue of what, after all, does one thing resemble another? 

Much of the mystery comes from the fact that to think about something, we must have a particular way of thinking about that thing, one way among many, but the world by itself does not suggest who is thinking about it and how.  The Greeks’ Hesperus (the morning star) and Phosphorus (the evening star) turned out to be a single planet, Venus, but ask and they’d deny that Hesperus is the same as Phosphorus.  The stars are what they are, but our thinking about them makes for its own universe.  We can usually get from ways of thinking to the things themselves, but not from things to the way we think about them.

Rummaging around recently, I came across (among the tissues and wheat pennies) a collection of small shells, about five of them.  Each a perfect, polished scoop of rainbow, I can see why Q had them end up where they are.  They come from the beach in California where my wife and her sisters released their mother’s ashes into the ocean.

We went there in part because of a joke. Once when talk of what to do with your body was only hypothetical, Ba Ngoai said she would like to be cremated and her ashes mixed into the Pacific Ocean so that she could swim back to Vietnam. "You can't swim," Ong Ngoai reminded her at the time. Everyone laughed.

The Pacific coast lacks the angle and anger of the Atlantic. West Coast beaches tend to be gentle and long, the waves cresting far out and then unfurling lazily on the land. I remember that there was a stripe of sand made into a mirror by the wet, and Q and The Boy immediately rolled up their pants and walked out onto their reflections.

It was my wife's idea to cut a hole in one of Ba Ngoai's handbags for the release, and my wife's younger sister carried it down the steps from the parked cars.

"Hold this," my sister-in-law said. I obliged. It was heavier than I expected. She removed her boots and tights.

"I can carry this, if you like," I said.

"That's okay, I'll do it."

"It's up to you; it's your mom."

"That's not mom," she said with a warm smile. And she was right.

The hole in the bag worked for a while, but there was a surprising amount of ash, and the three sisters took turns scooping out what they could until their hands were black. The substance was finer than the sand. But even their handfuls weren't enough, which I found fitting given the size of Ba Ngoai’s life. My sister-in-law went into the cold waves nearly to her waist, and, after a quick glance up and down the nearly vacant beach, she upended the bag and let loose the rest. She then hopped her way out of the surf, the late-afternoon sky over the water bluer than anyone's idea of it, and Q was there to greet her. They looked to each other and then took hands. Q, thankfully unfamiliar with grief, skipped every now and then on their way back to the car, pausing to give me a few small shells to keep. My wife and The Boy together drifted further down the beach and looked out past everything for a long time.

As you read this now, you somehow reach out and grasp them, and only them, even those who now lie beyond our hands. No one really knows how this works.  But it does.

This is what I have found, what I ask you to hold for me.

I put the shells back into my pocket.

Friday, March 04, 2011

In between

Note:  This post is part of a larger writing project, "Dad Stuff," about, as you might imagine, dad stuff.  To read more posts related to this project, see posts with the "dad stuff" tag.

We spend this Thanksgiving as we traditionally have — that is to say with each other at our own table and with way too much food. Since it’s just the four of us, we really don’t need to cook the full-on meal, but we’ve ingested enough tradition over the years that we find ourselves making lists and standing with over-full baskets in long lines. Besides, Thanksgiving has grown into an all-family thing in our house. We now trust The Boy with a real knife, and as a result, he has become the emperor of stuffing. He’ll cube as many loaves as you put in front of him until all the bread in the house mounds in the silver bowl next to his cutting board. Q loves to do just about anything in the kitchen, loves the mysterious alchemy of cooking, particularly now that she nearly doesn’t need the step stool to reach the stand mixer. She and I make the machine make the pumpkin pie; she and my lovely wife whip the cream for the top. All of us eat it after we've eaten too much already.

For much of my childhood, tradition required that we spend Thanksgiving in Southeast Kansas* with my father’s side of the family. The five-hour-plus drive from our house in southwest Kansas** always seemed covered-wagon long, mainly because my brother and I disputed property lines in the Buick back seat the entire way. All of us we were happy, then, to see the end of the trip and everyone who inhabited it. And there were lots of inhabitants to see. My father and his brother were essentially raised by their grandparents, brought up working the farm alongside their own children (my father’s aunts and uncles, my great aunts and uncles), nine of them counting my father’s mother, as brothers and sisters. It’s as confusing as it sounds, made more so by my father’s referring to his grandfather, Luther, and grandmother, Lucy, as “dad” and “mom,” and to his own mother as “mother.” (My father almost never called his father anything — at least in front of me. Pretty much everything I think and know of my paternal grandfather I’ve pulled from and put into two unbendable black-and-white photographs: a handsome man in a hat relaxed against a boxy car; an older but still handsome man in a high-backed chair with kids just off the arms.)

The aunts and uncles who were brothers and sisters to my father made for a colorful collection of people. I knew them at these Thanksgivings more or less like I know them now, which is to say by their nicknames and natures. The youngest, Larry, was just a eight months older than my father and was called “Lute” by everyone. He flew huge C-5 cargo planes for the military, the biggest they have, so I suppose it was fitting that he piloted those big meals. Thanksgiving was usually held at his family’s grand, historically registered house, the one with the built-in intercom system that it actually needed. (My same-age cousin Joe and I would be up in his room on the fourth floor, building or breaking something, until we were conscripted into chores through the intercom; that thing always seemed to be for receiving orders, and we were forever being called to the front.) Peg, whose real name, Margaret, I didn’t learn until well into high school, ran a company in Hutchinson for years that ran power lines up and down the state. Tom was usually there, moving smoothly about like someone in the FBI, which he pretty much was. He favored mirror aviator sunglasses, which I suppose he should given his line of work. I later discovered that he was a Cold War style expert in Russian. Tom’s nickname was “Black” because of his complexion, but I don’t remember anyone actually calling him that. I do remember everyone calling Alice “Ree Ree,” including me, because of trouble my brother and I had pronouncing her name years before when we were new to talking.*** Growing up, her brothers and sisters called her “Injun,” again due to appearances. She had and has a huge laugh, a powerful lever able to lift anyone who hears it. Donald — Doc, Docky — had a similar-sized laugh and spirit as Ree Ree, but everything about him was shot through with craziness. He dusted crops in his plane and drank fairly heavily, and more than once at the same time. He would brag to us about all varieties of strange meats he was busy curing in his home-built smokehouse, and though now I’m as likely to concoct stories for kids’ delectation as much as anyone, I still believe that Doc may have been telling something like the truth. There was Jerry, whom my father called “Cruit,” as in “recruit,” the word clipped as short as Jerry’s hair. Jerry still lived and worked the farm where they all grew up — he and his wife Beverly, herself an official Master Gardener, who could grow anything. I remember Grandma Jane, my father’s mother, was there for many years with her cigarettes and lovely mysteriousness, then she was someone we missed. And there were all sorts of affiliated husbands and wives and cousins filling out the various geometries of the house. My father had been the anchor of the group in many ways and for many years, and it was a marvel to see why it was needed, to glimpse how they could drift when left to themselves.

Tradition had it that after everyone was too full, the women gathered in one part of the house, cleaning up and talking to each other in ways they would recount bitterly for years. The men, left to themselves, played cards. Eventually being invited into these yearly games meant a great deal to me. The money exchanged in these events stayed exchanged, which meant they were for real, adult. The pots often became sizable, certainly more money than I’d ever seen, and this was when money was a thing you could see often enough. Dad was a good poker player, and he could and would usually disabuse players of whatever they brought to the table, including my brother and me. And dad never returned our kid-sized stake with some parental lesson about fools and their money. Nope — the lesson was in the losing and the staying lost.

We played dealer’s choice, and along with the studs and the draw pokers we would play “in between.” It was a simple game, but one high in drama and stakes. After everyone anted up, the dealer would take turns giving each player a run at the pot by dealing him two cards. The player then decided how much to bet that the next card dealt would fall in between his first two. If the card was between, the player took the amount bet from the pot; otherwise the pot grew. The round ended when someone bet the pot and won. Every now and then, a player would be dealt a pair, which meant doubled chances for luck and loss. Often enough (particularly several Schlitz into the evening) someone would feel like gambling and bet the pot on a tight spread — an 8 and a Queen, say — and the whole table would tighten and lean in, anxious for luck in one valence or another, then snap back into laughs when the dealer turned over a deuce. I loved that I could participate in that kind of adult attention, even direct it somewhat when the deck came around to me.

The food we make for ourselves is good. As we eat, the four of us take turns saying what we’re thankful for. It turns out that we’re thankful for family, for each other, for books, and for LEGOs.

After we package leftovers, we go for a walk to give ourselves a reason for pie. November evening in New York still counts as fall, even this late into it, and it’s cold but not unpleasantly so. Though older now, the kids still marvel at the park at night when the familiar edges to everything get redrawn by the dark. My wife and I wish that we could make Thanksgiving back into a day with family, and it’s time that Q and The Boy learned how to properly shuffle a deck. But work and school and distance make quick trips tough, at least for now. In the meantime, we play what we’re dealt, in between traditions.

*Yes, Southeast Kansas, capital letters and all. It's its own place, one where tradition requires that you curse as you cross the Bourbon County line. And, yes, Bourbon County.
**A place undeserving of special caps.
***Don't ask me how "Alice" could be ever be pronounced "Ree Ree."