Monday, October 31, 2011

I'm not running backward; you're facing the wrong way

My life is running in reverse. The weekend started with matzo ball soup and ended with me feeling like I was getting a cold.


Months ago, you made me shave my beard, and I finally gave it the 10 days we were at Grammy's to return. When it did, my sister kindly pointed out that it appeared lighter than before, as in not-red-at-all. As in gray. Yes, my beard has gone from rust to steel.

(As it came in, it went through all the uncomfortable phases from Nick Nolte mug shot to Brett Favre return to the NFL. Not sure if that's forward, reverse or lateral progress.)

On Sunday, when I got up with the kids to let Mama sleep in, Jewel decided her new word of the day was "actually," as in "I don't want that story, actually. I do want 'Planes,' actually. No, I don't want bagel for breakfast, actually." Or, as her brother observed, using his former word of the day, "Her word of the day is 'actually,' apparently." We'll be here all week, people; don't forget to tip your waitress.

We also had fire and ice this weekend. Friday night, a neighbor below us fell asleep with candles burning in her bathroom. They burned "some papers," according to her, but by the time we got to her place, there was "no fire," again, according to her. No idea how accurate her account is, however, since she wasn't even aware that she had a fire burning in her bathroom and seemed stunned when we opened the door. Stunned as in unsteady on her feet, rubbing her eyes, just woke up in a dark apartment--at 7.30 at night.

We knew--I was knocking on her door with the woman who lives below us and the woman who lives next door to her, which is directly above Smokey Jill's place--because our places were so full of smoke that we almost had to leave them. We were trying to discover the source, because as our downstairs neighbor said, "It's too cold to go stand outside while the fire department does the same thing." When we woke Smokey Jill, there was no smell of smoke that we could discern from the hallway, although the darkness of her place was impenetrable, so we couldn't see if there was any.

As we were on our way back to the elevator, however, she came running after us and explained about her bathroom. By the time we all got back to our houses, someone else had called the fire department, which arrived at full force--at least 10 vehicles, including our local hook-and-ladder, engine, ambulance and reinforcements from the neighboring county.

So we all went and stood outside in the cold anyway.

We probably didn't need to, but we used it as a fire drill for 3B, which would have worked a bit better if I were more relaxed as we were heading out. As it was, he burst into tears as soon as we said we were walking out, but that only lasted for five seconds, then he was back in fire drill mode and we had a fun time all the way down the stairs and outside.

Plus, we learned that our local fire station will be giving out candy tonight...so, bonus for us.

On Saturday, we had snow. Unlike in farther north, none of ours stuck, but it was snow. Big, fat, wet, gloppy snow. The day started with rain, progressed to sleet, then to snow for several hours. We, of course, took the kids out in it to catch it on their tongues and because...snow!

On Sunday, the skies were clear enough for a long bike ride with the kids. 3B pedaled the whole way and Jewel pedaled her trike--her other new trick this week--about half of the way. We were out for a couple of hours at least, which wiped the kids out. Jewel slept for at least three hours when we got home and 3B spent half of the afternoon lying on the living room carpet with his lovie. Next time, we'll get them coffee with their donuts at our rest stop along the route.

I wish that I could end this by saying we continue to move in reverse and this week we'll be back to late summer temperatures, but now, as I type this just before getting on my bike to ride to work, the temperature is barely at the freezing mark. It's not supposed to get over 55 all day, so at least the seasons continue to progress in the correct order. Winter is here.


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Friday, October 28, 2011

Communism, capitalism and candy apples


Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.


Tonight we'll carve the pumpkins we picked last weekend with our neighbors. It was a fun trip that started with snacks in the car--you can see the chocolate on Jewel's face from her granola bar in the slideshow. It ended with gravity defying stunts in the bouncie house, and in between was filled with fun.

There was a corn maze, the old road grader, the goats to pet and feed, the chickens to look at and the greens and root vegetables to pick after our picnic at the top of the hill.

3B and Jewel couldn't quite understand why they couldn't drive the new tractor next to the old road grader, since this was a farm, just like the family farm in Vermont...right? So why can't I jump up in the cab and take it for a turn around the fields?

We took a minute a diagrammed for them the differences between communism and capitalism on the back of a corn shuck, after which they broke into discussion groups to discuss the disparities and promise of each model. Then we went and found some rotting pumpkins full of goo to step into.



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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Into the blue again, into the silent water

Mama and I have somehow created a family, it seems, although I'm not quite sure how.


Sitting at the table last night, watching Jewel, Mama and 3B eat dinner, I was amused to realize that five years ago, I wouldn't have known how to pull together a family dinner, get 3B through his homework, entertain Jewel and get everyone through bath and books and into bed by 7.30.

Five years ago, I was lucky to get to bed before midnight, and I still left half-finished projects around the house to stumble over in the morning. Now, I complete 10 times the number of tasks in one quarter of the time--and then go on to finish my work after the kids are in bed.

OK, often my work consists of lying on the couch tweeting snark during Dancing with the Stars, but still...OK, and to be fair, in that earlier paragraph, I'm not sure that I could pull together a family dinner, since Mama works all that magic while I'm still on my way home...

Mom always said that when people have more to do, they get more done--wisdom that I'll never share with my boss, but it's true nonetheless. And so it is with the kids, although it took me awhile to figure out how to do this:

Let go.

3B and Jewel have taught me nothing more important than to let go. Of everything. Forever. It's such an important lesson, and I'm such an old dog, that they teach me this trick every day. Getting through dinner, bath, books and into bed requires letting go. Of everything.

Answering the phone. Tweeting. Facebook. What happened to me at work today. That call I needed to make. The email I just remembered I needed to reply to. Blogging. Posting that one cute photo. Taking pictures of the kids.

When we're eating dinner, I need to just eat dinner. When it's bath time, I need to just give the kids a bath. When it's time to read stories, I need to just read stories.

In short, I need to focus.

I need discipline.

I need clarity.

"If one's life is simple, contentment has to come. Simplicity is extremely important for happiness. Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital: satisfaction with just enough food, clothing, and shelter to protect yourself from the elements. And finally, there is an intense delight in abandoning faulty states of mind and in cultivating helpful ones in meditation." -H.H.D.L.

My children are the masters. I am the student.

Except maybe when it comes to long division.



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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I'm nuts just like Mom

Mama and I motivated for a date night yesterday at Curry Mantra, a restaurant new to us, thanks to a Groupon that was due to expire this week.


OK, that sounds wrong, as if it was some huge effort for us to spend two hours alone together. Well, it was a huge effort, but not for lack of desire, but because of all the mechanics involved in arranging it. We're lucky to have friends who we swap babysitting with, so we had free babysitting, but that also means that we're more mindful of when we go out.

Ideally, we don't go out on school nights, but the expiring Groupon, our recent trip to Grammy's and our trip to the most sincere pumpkin patch in Virginia all conspired against us this time. And yes, I know that I owe you pictures from pumpkin picking, but I've been a bit busy going on dates with my wife.

And so, back to that...well, there's actually not much to tell. We talked. We laughed. I ate a Mt. Everest of vegetarian biryani.

Whenever we order Indian in, I get saag paneer and Mama gets malai kofta, but last night we both got something different and loved it. We started by not getting samosas for appetizers, then ordered different entrees. For dessert, we did split gulab jamun, which is our standard, and a bowl of pistachio ice cream bigger than Jewel's head...ok, nothing's really that big, but still, it was large.

The pistachio ice cream had real pistachios in it. Whole pistachios.

As I ate it, I thought of Mom, who loved pistachio ice cream, but before ordering would always ask if it was made with real pistachios and contained them, since often it's made with artificial flavoring and includes other cheaper nuts...walnuts, I think, but I only ever 1/2 paid attention as she was going through this ritual, because she did it every time. Every. Time.

And you know what? Mom was a smart woman. One of the smartest people I'll ever know in so many ways, and so she was right to ask. I've had the fake stuff, and it's not worth the time it takes for it to melt in your mouth. Hers wasn't a foolish consistency.

In fact, because almost all pistachio ice cream is fake or of unknown provenance, she almost always had to select another flavor, so she almost never got the same flavor twice. Her consistency created an inconsistency that added new tastes to her flavor palette. Her apparent caution caused thoughtlessness. Not a capricious and careless thoughtlessness, but one without prejudice.

Reflecting on how Mama and I had stepped outside our patterned dance steps--dinner and a night at home with the kids--into a new restaurant and new flavors, I savored the smooth consistency of the ice cream.


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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Layin' in the cut

For various reasons, such as our trip to Grammy's, I took a month off the bike, which ended yesterday. The rides to and from work were enjoyable and this morning I feel fine, but, of course, any aches and pains usually take two days to appear, so time will tell.


The weather is cool, and when I ride in it's dark enough that I could gaze at the dark side of the moon. But not for too long, since my front wheel got out of true while I wasn't riding and is quite the wobbly goblin now. It's fine with my hands on the handlebars, but I can't ride hands-free for more than a few feet before the shakes set in.

We're all settling back into our routines after our return from Grammy's. 3B's back in the swing of school, getting on the bus every morning. Yesterday, Mama took the kids down to the school to play on the playground and she said that when they arrived, kids from 3B's class burst out of the afterschool program in the building to hug him and play with him. She said it was like he was famous...which I'm sure made our little rock star feel good.

Jewel continues to teach herself to use the potty. Sometimes. Or not. She is as headstrong as her brother. Or father. Or mother. But unlike her brother, who only started using the potty after what one might call a concerted effort by Mama--or what Mama might call an epic one-day battle royale--Jewel is determined to learn to use the potty. Also unlike her brother, Jewel will accept some help and the presence of people while she's using the potty. Sometimes. Or not.

Seriously, how did these kids get to be so stubborn? Can't they just do things my way?

Ah, yes, we're all back in the groove.




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Monday, October 24, 2011

Pride and the fall. My dad and Steve Jobs.

It was a quiet fall day in Palo Alto and a father lay dying before his family.


Cancer stole his health, his humor and eventually his life. His body, like a dried corn stalk, a brittle sketch of what it had been alive and whole, full of laughter, wit and passion. His hair had been black. He had worn glasses. He had driven a Mercedes-Benz.

His family gathered around for his final breath, all standing nearly as still as the man who lay before them.

The day was in November 1984. Or October of this year. The man was 57. Or 56. The man was my Dad. Or Steve Jobs. The result was the same: children without a father, a wife bereft of her best friend.

The cause was cancer.

The similarities fade after that. Jobs, of course, wore black turtlenecks and blue jeans everywhere. Dad wore three-piece suits to work, and t-shirts and shorts at home. Jobs drove a Mercedes without a license plate. Dad had long since given his up in favor of a station wagon--more practical for traveling with his six children. And, of course, Jobs changed the world through his relentless innovation, which resulted in products such as the one I'm writing this on now.

Dad, of course, didn't invent the personal computer, the iPod or the iPhone.

Then again, I could argue as others have, that Jobs didn't invent those either--he innovated them. Jobs made better what someone else had created from whole cloth. Some would say that he made them worse by closing the systems they run on, maintaining too much control, not innovating fast enough, and so forth.

Reality is always more subtle than arguments, of course. Every Android user who downloads an app can thank Jobs for the ability to do that, since before the iPhone was released, mobile providers didn't allow phone users to download apps. Of course, Jobs only allowed users to download apps he approved.

Both sides are right.

Similarly, one could say that Dad didn't invent me from whole cloth either, since his genes came from his parents and it was Mom who bore me while I developed. Not that she controlled the process either. In a sense, I invented myself by interpreting my parents' histories anew. But he did make me better. And worse.

I distinctly recall few conversations with Dad, but one that I do so recall occurred in our kitchen. He was talking to me about how to work. Since I was still in elementary school it was less about putting a suit on, getting on the train and sitting behind a desk than about general guidelines for completing tasks. As he talked, he was cleaning the kitchen, and while much of what he said is lost to me now, I recall him scrubbing in and around the sink.

He picked up the soapy sponge, wrung it out and brought it up to the spigot. As he drew it along the underside of the spigot, he said, "I wash under here, even though nobody will see it, because I know that it's clean. Nobody will ever look there, but I'll know it. I do it because I'm proud of my work." He then wiped back and forth a few more times to ensure that the underside of the spigot was spotless and moved on.

But that lesson stuck with me.

Of course, this is the same man who taught me that pride goeth before a fall, an irony that alternately vexed and amused me as I got older. Of course, both sides are right.

Similarly, Jobs was famous for railing against ugly chips buried inside computers that most end users would never see--especially if Jobs got his way. It may have been this same pride and desire to keep his own casing sealed that caused Jobs to eschew surgical intervention for his ailments, finally relenting when no other course was viable. So, perhaps pride preceded his fall. Or perhaps nothing would have stopped Jobs' death at such a young age.

Despite being a lifelong Christian Scientist and the most quietly pious man I've known, Dad didn't equivocate when it came to medical intervention. "I love your mother and this is what she wanted me to do, so I'll do it," he told me in a long conversation we had, both slumped on the smooth wooden stairs of our house.

Of course, both sides are right: pride presses us all forward, and sometimes pushes us off the precipice.

With the many similarities between Dad's and Jobs' death, the one the touches me most deeply is one that's rarely mentioned--I'm hoping out of respect rather than oversight--the children Jobs left behind. While I can't know how they feel, I know that I felt half-orphaned, as if I'd been rent asunder, with one half of myself feeling as if it had been cast into hell, the other into an eternal void.

Both were right.

And both stitched themselves back together as I reinvented myself. I won't lie to you; it sucked. But it got better. Imperceptibly at first, like the sun moving slightly north on the horizon at dawn on the day after the winter solstice, but then gathering momentum until one day I looked around and saw that it was spring. But these things take time.

And right now, in a quiet neighborhood in Palo Alto, on a leafy street, there are children living in a house with a hole in it. It doesn't let the rain in. They can't even see it. But they can feel it. Which is why, across the gossamer strands that connect us, I send them one thought every day: it will get better.

They will never see that thought, but I'll know that I sent it.



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Monday, October 17, 2011

This two shall pass...it had goddamn well better pass

We're back home after our vacation at Grammy's. Even though it was only two weeks (for Mama and the kids) and one week (for me) away, much has changed.


Jewel is in the full throes of her twoness, yelling a whiny "No!" at anything that's said within earshot of her. I'm getting better at ignoring her. 3B still has a long row to hoe in this regard, but if he grows up to be a patient man, he can thank his sister.

Speaking of patience, I'm trying to find more of it in myself without crossing that line into being a doormat. It's not an easy balance for me to strike, since I've always seen myself as impatient and therefore given myself license to be so. I'm thinking now that might not have been the best strategy for raising patient kids. Or for dealing with kids.

Although, to be fair to myself, I've had to deal with Jewel much less of late since her other new favorite phrase is, "I got it." She uses this in response to questions like
  • Do you want help going up those stairs?
  • Do you want help going up that ladder and swingin on the monkey bars, which are eight feet off the ground?
  • I see that you're about to pick up two torches and a machete to juggle, would you like me to light the torches for you?
Her other new favorite phrase of late? "I don't think so."

While I know that we're not supposed to compare our kids, Mama and I just can't recall 3B ever busting out the "No!" so blatantly and tirelessly. Maybe that's our sleep-deprivation-caused memory loss talking, but I don't think so. The good news is that Mama's instinct--ignore it--is an effective tool against it...but still...oi.

Because I was travelling by myself to catch up to Mama and the kids at Grammy's I took the opportunity to do some reading as I waited the two hours...then three hours...then four days it seemed before my plane arrived. I've been trying to do more conspicuous reading, not just for my own edification, but also so that the kids will see me reading and know that it's a lifelong joy.

It's not as if they don't both like reading, but anything I can do to keep that going...OK, and I love to read, so it is a bit selfish.

I finished Flags of Our Fathers during the week at Grammy's, and found it an enlightening read. It was not nearly as gory as it could have been, considering the topic. I found it quite restrained in that regard, actually. That makes sense, since the focus is on the men and their trajectories through life, including their friendships. Recounting all of those friendships and then describing how many of them were torn asunder in that heavy black sand and across that hard, harsh landscape made for more difficult reading and brought home the horror of war than a book full of spilled guts would have.

Of course, for me, the hardest part was reading about the author's father's death. Sometimes I can just pass right through those descriptions as if through a torn veil. At other times, they entrap me like a straitjacket, seeming to tighten with every struggle I make against them, suffocating me. This one, although bearing more brevity than details, was closer to the latter.

I keep thinking that this grief over my Dad's death, too, shall pass. And perhaps it will after I have learned from it everything it has to offer. Which might be the same as saying neither will this pass, nor should it.


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Friday, October 07, 2011

What's going down up north

While Mama and the kids are at Grammy's, Jewel has once again achieved a first out of my sight. And, in this case, out of my smell.


A year or so ago, when they were at Grammy's, Jewel took her first steps on her own. By the time I arrived, she was off to the races, practically running everywhere she could, and hasn't stopped since. This time around, she pooped in the potty for the first time. Twice in one day.

Where was she when we needed a role model for 3B?

Prior to this trip, she had been increasingly interested in using the potty, mostly to be like her brother and sort of to be like mommy and daddy. We were nudging her along, commenting every time that she pooped that she could soon do this in the potty. We also noted every time we changed her diaper, a process that she usually wasn't too fond of, that when she started pooping in the potty, we wouldn't have to do that anymore. And, of course, she could see her brother doing it, and what brother has, she wants.

I think this is why she no longer sits in her booster seat, although she still needs to sit on a low stool in a regular dining room table chair to be able to reach her food. She doesn't care that it's precarious and perilous, so long as it's like what brother is doing.

And it can't be that perilous since she stands and jumps on the stool. Except it still is.

And so, like sitting on a chair like brother's, she started sitting on the potty like brother. She had been following people into the bathroom and sitting on her little potty while they used the big one, and then one day she announced that she had to poop and was going to sit on the potty. Mama and I were a bit surprised, since, based on our experience with 3B, we didn't know that kids could potty train without a fight and before they applied for college.

Off she ran, down the hall, closed the door behind her, and sat on the potty. Yes, wearing her diaper, but one thing at a time. Speaking of which, I went down to check on her and asked if she'd like the lights on. "Yes. Thank you."

And she's already more polite than people five times her age...what more do you want?

This went on all week before Mama and the kids went to Grammy's, and appears to have continued at Grammy's. Thanks to her brother, Jewel also already prefers to poop behind closed doors and not be bothered until she's completely done. When I arrive at Grammy's, I'll have to see how well that's working now that she's pooping with out the Pampers safety net. 3B was old enough when he started doing it that he was fully capable of wiping and washing his hands before emerging.

Jewel...eh, not so much. Yet. But who knows what she'll have learned by the time I arrive? Perhaps she will have mastered Capa Ferro by then.

If her Uncle Zappa (no, of course that's not Mama's brother's real name, just his nom de blog) plays swords with her, she certainly will have mastered it, and possibly Agrippa as well, since she apparently lives and dies by his word. Mama says it's very amusing how taken Jewel is with Uncle Zappa: "Look at me, Uncle Zappa. Look at my eye, Uncle Zappa. Look at my knees, Uncle Zappa. Look at my mouth, Uncle Zappa."

Mama says that Jewel spends the day showing off for her Uncle Zappa, which makes my heart ache with happiness for both of them.

But before they practice their swordplay, they might have to build a snow fort to defend themselves. Yes, snow fort. OK, no, there's not enough snow for that, but Mama said that they did get a skiff of snow yesterday, just a few momentary whirls of white, but still...snow.

Of course, Grammy's house is north of the Arctic Circle (OK, not really...but yes...but not really...but yes...), so your mileage may vary, but winter is coming down...and up at Grammy's in a tangible, if fleeting, way.

Jewel has stopped needing outdoor diaper changes just in time.



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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Home alone in the Thunderdome

I've been home alone for four days now, going on five, and despite my circumstances, it's been a lot less Macaulay Culkin and a lot more Mrs. Doubtfire...except without the dressing up as a woman and speaking in falsetto.


OK, maybe it's been a little more Clean House than anything else.

In the first two days, I took a trunkful of donations to Goodwill, dropped half a dozen nearly overflowing trash sacks down the chute and carried out an equal number of loads of recycling. I still have two bags of clothes to deliver to friends for their kids, and I haven't even gone through our hall closets yet.

The happy surprise under all of this is that our house was actually pretty well organized under the veneer of clutter. Of course, since that veneer was more a coat of armor than a delicate facade, it didn't matter that we were organized, since we could never get to that level. It was nice to get down to that point and be able to stop.

Of course, it helps that my standards have changed in the last, oh, I don't know, five years. Before having kids, I liked by CDs--remember those?--lined up alphabetically by artist, my books grouped by genre and alphabetically sorted by author and my clothes in neat stacks. Now I'm happy just to know that there are no books on the floor. Mostly. And that they're all on a shelf. Mostly. As for CDs--what are those?--I'm just glad that my kids let me play with my iPhone. Sometimes. And that they let me play my music on it. Sometimes.

As for my clothes, they're in fairly neat stacks...in the front hall closet. About a year ago, I gave up on keeping them in what I used to refer to as Mama and Papa's room, which is now the Room Formerly Known as Mama and Papa's Room--or, as I like to call it, Prince. Or Princess, really, since it's been taken over by Jewel.

I can't fault her, though, since she truly has no room of her own in our two-bedroom place. 3B has squatter's rights on his room and until recently their schedules were so different that it wasn't possible to contemplate moving Jewel into his room. Now that we could, everyone's so established in their routine, Mama and I don't want to go to through the Herculean effort required to move everyone.

However, Jewel's schedule doesn't coincide with mine--she sleeps far more than I do, which meant that I had to ninja in and out of our room every time I wanted a sock. Seriously, she's such a light sleeper that when a butterfly flaps its wings in China it wakes her up. This, of course, would wake up Mama. The resulting hullabaloo would often wake 3B and suddenly our house would go from the sterile silence of 2001: A Space Odyssey to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

So I conceded defeat at the hands of a then drooling, giggling opponent and moved out of our room. Mama has recently done the same, and the upside has been that in shuffling items about, we've also been cleaning out unnecessary items. And for Jewel the upside is that she now has three dressers all to herself.

And if you don't think she has the clothes to fill them, then you've never had a baby girl.

People send 3B one camo shirt and think he's set for the year, but believe that Jewel needs more outfits than the Malibu Barbie set that comes with Heidi Klum and Imelda Marcos dolls. People, let me explain: 3B is Tim Gunn, Jewel is Ty Pennington. She will build the closet to hold all of his clothes.

Maybe when she's done with that, she can figure out how we can add a bedroom...seven stories off the ground.


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