Monday, December 13, 2010

Hit me with your best shot

In four days, I'll be driving for 10+ hours by myself, and I need your help.

To keep the needle pegged and my foot on the floor, I need driving tunes.

10+ hours of driving tunes.

So, lay it on me--your top 10, top 20, hell, all of your driving tunes. Any genre. Any artist. Just no lullabies.

To allow me time to get it all loaded up for the trip, you have 48 hours...go!

What are you waiting for? Go!

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Goodbye never gets easier--I just get older

Mama and I practically started our relationship by saying goodbye. The image of her standing on the train station platform in Rabat, tears streaming down her cheeks, as my train pulled out and took me away is indelibly seared in my mind. The way she turned her face up to the sky and stood on the sides of her feet, her hands hanging straight down at her sides like anchor chains.

Since then, with our families on opposite coasts and her work taking her overseas, I long ago lost count of the times we've bid each other farewell, choosing instead to focus on the joyful reunions that follow. And I've tried to guide 3B toward that as well--how happy we'll be to see each other again, what game will we play when we're reunited?, who will he see while I'm gone?

He is, of course, far too smart for that.

I can't say that I'm nearly as smart as he, but in the inevitable constant shuffling of bodies through life, like stones in a riverbed, a place has worn smooth in my psyche where all the goodbyes have passed by: those I said when going to school, then off to college, then back home from college, then off to work, then out of Morocco, then away from my child for the first time, and then away from my dog for the last time, and then away from my next child for the first time.

They are not any easier to walk through, but by now I know where to put my feet, when to shake hands, how long to hug, what to say and when to turn around one last time to look. Sometimes I just have to go through the motions to get through it.

And sometimes someone adds something new that threatens the balance of the whole dance. At the other end of my journey from Morocco through Gibraltar to London and then home was Mom. She was waiting, as ever, at the airport, with her car keys in one hand, the other hand in her pocket and a smile from ear to ear. As I got closer, however, I saw tears well suddenly in her eyes. A look of surprise and perhaps embarrassment crossed her face and then, in a blink, those tears were gone.

Perhaps I think to highly of myself. OK, I almost certainly think to highly of myself, but a feeling flashed across my heart: She's glad to see me alive again. She's glad that I made it home.

In that moment, I held a tiny sliver of the love I would later feel for my children in my heart, although it was fleeting, like one brilliant white slice of light reflecting off the perfect diamond of love I hold now. And I started to cry too, but then, in a blink, that was gone.

But I had realized how glad I was to see Mom, to embrace her, to tell her my stories, to have her cut me off to tell me the latest local news and to be reunited as if I had just come home from a day at school.

Today, I don't know what it was, but I finally started to understand how perhaps Mom felt when she put me on that flight out to London months before I returned.

This isn't the first time that Mama and 3B--and now Mama, 3B and Jewel--have gone ahead of me on a vacation due to my lack of leave or scheduling conflicts. In the past, I'd take them to the airport, come home and work for a week, then pack up Barky and myself and drive to meet them at the farm. We've usually done this for the 4th of July and Christmas weeks, and this year is no different.

Except that it's all different.

I've gotten over losing Barky, but I'll never forget him. At times like this, I keep thinking of him, and then remembering that I don't need to remember to bring his bed, his leash, his collar and his food. I remember again that there won't be anybody in the backseat to talk to--even if he was always sleeping anyway.

And this time, perhaps because of their age, or because I'm more tired than I've been in years, or because of the way the rain was slanting across the runways and the naked skeletons of trees were standing starkly silhouetted against the slate sky at the horizon--this time was different.

Tangibly different.

I was aware of the rougher, slightly tangled texture of 3B's beautiful red hair as I kissed his head while he, for the first time at an airport, hugged me again and again and showered me with kisses. He told me that he'd miss me and that he loved me and blew me kisses.

I was aware of the silky, fine blond hair that veiled Jewel's eyes with a golden glow, and of her cheeks, porcelain doll smooth yet as soft as a pillow and as warm as a kiss. She looked back around the edge of the stroller as they entered the jetway--Mama, Jewel and 3B--and as 3B looked back one last time and blew one final kiss to me.

I was aware of the warmth of Mama's kiss on my lips as they all disappeared around the corner.

This scene plays out many mornings as I leave for work, although not at such a frenzied pace and all the surrounding hubbub of an airport that seemed at once to be overwhelming and nonexistent while I was so intently focused on my family. But something was different. Tangibly different.

And no matter how well rehearsed life has made me for this moment, I was wholly unprepared. I knew the steps, but I couldn't move my feet. I stood rooted to the spot and stared after them long after they were gone, long after it was time for one final look.

I realized that I had not talked with 3B about how happy we would be to see each other, nor had he said it to me as he will sometimes echo back at just the right time our words of comfort to him. Something was different. We couldn't talk about what was to come. We were too consumed, mesmerized and yet untouched by the luminescence of the moment we were in, as if wicks in candles, transfixed by the flames.

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Friday, December 10, 2010


Monday, as I walked up the hill to work, Fanfare for the Common Man came on.

The bitter cold wind was slicing through, chilling me. The sky was still dark. The pale dawn light was just starting to touch the tips of the buildings towering over me as I hunched my shoulders against the wind and jammed my hands into my coat pockets.

Today, this was the view...
...and as I sat down at my desk, this was the tune...
"There was a fanfare blowing / To the sun / That was floating on the breeze."

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Mackin' like the Maccabees

We're a family of mutts. On Mom's side, we know that we're Holland Dutch. Except we're really German Friesian. And that's just what one of us was when he landed back in the 1600's. Since he left New Amsterdam, however, some non-Friesians have joined the clan. On Dad's side, we came from south of Mason-Dixon, but somehow around the 1860's there's a dearth of records. Almost as if they were all lost or burned or something due to some upheaval in the South at that time.

We do know enough about Dad's side to surmise that there's both French and English in there, which is perhaps why my left hand not only doesn't know what my right hand is doing, it occasionally tries to cut it off. Fortunately, my right hand just surrenders and the fight is over.

On Mama's side, she's half English--to the point that they settled in New England and haven't left since. The other half is eastern European Jewish, but not on the side that counts. However, as Andy noted in Weeds, it does count in Reform Judaism, and those are the Jews you want to hang out with anyway.

This means that around the holidays we have a wide array to choose from. One of those German Friesians ran afoul of the (by then English) law when he celebrated Christmas on the day his tradition called for, which wasn't when the King called for it. So, we could pick the Friesian Christmas, the English Christmas or Hanukkah.

Being good mutts, er...Americans, we compromise and celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. For the latter, we go somewhere that's usually freezin', which is close enough to Friesian for me.

However, perhaps because we are jacks of all holidays, we are truly masters of none, which is how Hanukkah crept up on us yesterday. Mama called me at work to ask me to pick up a gift for 3B on my way home, since she was already on her way from work to pick him up at school. She was going to get candles for his menorah on the way home, and ended up getting a treat for him as well, which we decided would serve as his first night gift, since it duplicated the candy I got him.

Mama wasn't convinced that it was a traditional gift, but I assured her that it most certainly was. After all, wasn't it that most famous of all Maccabees, Marie Antoinette who declared, "Let zem eet zee pink polka dot cake!" Besides, it's what Mama's Grampa Doc would have served...even if it wasn't Hanukkah.

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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Letting go of heartbreak

I used to talk about the act of parenting ad nauseum, as if it were the latest sport admitted into the Olympics and I was going to be on the first U.S. team. But then I realized that I was just the latest yahoo to discover a sport that had been contested for several millenia by millions of people and decided that the numbers were against my being selected for the dream team or having any unique insight.

When 3B was brand new, he threw up for the first time. Mama and I debated--was it just a large burp? No, we were sure this would be defined as throwing up. But why had he done it? Was it something in her milk? Had he swallowed something? (As if he could have found or picked up anything to swallow, having been wrapped in a swaddle tighter than a boxer's hand tape for 99.8% of his life.)

This went on for about 20 minutes before we decided to use a lifeline and phone a friend, my Mom, since this was late at night and we didn't want to wake Grammy. Mom, being on the west coast, had no such shelter from our inquiries.

The conversation went about like this:

Us: 3B threw up.

Mom: Well, yes. Babies throw up a lot.

Eventually it sunk in that just because we were playing the parenting game didn't automatically make us experts on the sport. I also learned some other lessons along the way. They were the best kind of lessons--the kind I have to learn several times, in part because they're not obvious, so they sneak up on me, and in part because I don't want to have to learn them.

The first lesson is watch your knees. Parenting puts more strain on knees than a 200-yard game by an NFL running back. OK, so it doesn't involve planting a foot and getting your torso spun around your knee like a stripper on a brass pole by a 350-pound lineman, but all the up and down, squatting, crawling and eventually running does take its toll.

The other lesson is to let go. Of everything. They may belong to you, but you are no longer in control of them. This is immediately and most obvious when it comes to physical items, such as books, TVs, computers and money. It's less obvious when it comes to abstract items, such as time, sleep and the ability to complete a sentence without...

...sorry, what was I saying?

It's most difficult for me to let go when it comes to parenting, perhaps because of lingering hubris from my early days as a dad, when I thought that I was always going to be the one making the fingertip grab in the back of the end zone as time ran out to put us into the championship game. The reality is that parenting is much more pedestrian than that, and it involves more failures than successes.

In Chabon's book, Manhood for Amateurs, he talks about how parenting involves delivering a series of small disappointments to your children:

  • No, you can't have another cookie.
  • Yes, it's time to turn the TV off and go to bed.
  • I have to go to work now. Yes, I'll be there all day.

I don't mind the little things so much--hell, I need to eat fewer cookies and watch less TV too, buddy--but leaving in the dark, without seeing my children, and returning in the dark in just enough time to see them hop out of the bath and into bed...that breaks my heart. Every day.

But I have to let go of that heartbreak, which is harder than it sounds. I have to consciously, and sometimes out loud, remind myself that just because I'm not present for most of their waking lives doesn't make me a neglectful parent. Being absent doesn't mean being absentee.

And I remind myself that this lesson is a gift from my children, just like that random popping sound my knee makes when 3B uses me as a pommel horse. It's a lesson I've struggled to learn all of my life: when it's OK to let go.

In some ways, I'm still like Jewel--not understanding that just because I let go of something doesn't mean that it won't come back. But when I arrived home as Jewel and her brother were hopping out of the bath, she ran down the hall to me, then away, then back to me, then away, and then back to me again.

And I was just in time to pick her up, give her a warm bottle of milk, sing her my favorite lullaby and set her in her crib before giving her brother one last cookie, reading him a final story, talking to him about his day, giving him kisses and turning out the lights in his room.