Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Free Time

            One of my biggest goals as a full-time parent has been to create a feeling of order and stability at home. From the start, I sought to establish a regular schedule of tasks and activities for the kids, a schedule I believed would allow them to feel like our home was a largely predictable place, a place where they didn’t have to constantly fret about what will happen next or be ever watchful against unexpected change. My hope was that this predictability would make it easier for the kids to share with and be concerned about others in the world because they could trust that things were under control at home.

            At the same time, one of the benefits of being a full-time parent is having the time to break out of this order every once in a while. My kids – like most – possess an internal world that is energetic, playful, creative, exploratory, silly, and chaotic, and they love it when their parents come and join them for a while. Usually I get to do this on the playground or in the backyard after school, but other opportunities can pop up as well.

            With both Pip and Polly now in school, those opportunities are becoming fewer and farther between, but last Friday brought me one of them. On Friday, the local schools were closed for the day as a way to give kids a breather after the intensity of the first two weeks of school. Pip and Polly both had mild colds which did not make going to the pool or the playground very attractive. We decided instead to take a trip to the library.

Our downtown library is a familiar and comfortable place for the kids. We’ve been going there almost every week for a couple of years now, and Polly and Pip know most of the children’s librarians by name. Whenever we visit they spend a little time on the computers, browse the stacks for different kinds of books, and frequently run into kids they know from elsewhere around town. It always works out to be a pleasant trip.

The kids like the library building itself, too. Built in 1989, the building is a tall, relatively narrow structure, trimmed in dark marble on the outside and organized around an open, five-story atrium on the inside. Through this open space swings the wire of a large Foucault pendulum, its golden ball gliding back and forth six inches above a map of the United States. Circling the eaves above the fourth floor are big Roman numerals from one to twelve that are illuminated in coordination with the time of day. Though the pendulum and the clock are not connected, staring up at these numerals while the pendulum swings back and forth gives the impression of being at the bottom of giant grandfather clock.

On Friday, after doing our library stuff, Pip, Polly and I stopped down on the first floor to have a brief snack in the atrium before pedaling home. Staring up at the mount of the pendulum fifty feet above us, Pip whispered to himself,

“Wonder what’s up there.”

Reflexively I peered up as well. I could see off to the side of the mount, the elevator doors open and a man in a blazer look down briefly before disappearing to the left. I realized that in all the times I’d been to the library, I’d never gone up to the fifth floor. There were probably just offices and maybe a board room up there, but I didn’t really know. I looked back down to check the time. We had a few minutes to spare.

“Want to go up?” I asked.

Both of their heads spun toward me, and the game was on. While they finished off their goldfish crackers, a full schedule was negotiated regarding who would push which elevator buttons at which locations. The kids also decided that they first wanted to go up to the fifth floor and then wanted to go down to the fourth to check out the illuminated clock up close. I just nodded along as they worked it all through.

Then, up we went. On the fifth floor the elevator opened on to a carpeted platform that glowed in the sunlight pouring through the big, circular skylight. The mount for the pendulum was contained in a box hung at ceiling level across the center of atrium space. From our newly elevated vantage point we could see the cable jerk slightly each time the pendulum swung toward us, the result of a consistent bump from the hidden motor that keeps the thing moving. Walking ten feet forward, we came to a railing of safety glass which allowed a clear view down into the floors below. The rail was short enough that Pip could look over it and straight down at the blue and green map way below. It was a touch unnerving, and I had to coax him toward the rail. Polly, by contrast, was exuberant. She hopped forward and pressed her hands against the glass, reveling in the vertigo. Then she bounced around the full circle while I continued to work Pip closer and closer to the drop.

Five minutes later we were back in the elevator and going down to check out the big numbers on the fourth floor ceiling. Coming out of the elevator, Polly and Pip moved off ahead of me, whispering to each other and pointing out different things along the ceiling above them. I let them go, thinking how proud I was of them: for working together, for being good kids, for handling all the nuttiness that has come with school. And I was proud of me, too. Too often I settle for just telling them that there’s some offices and a board room up there and expecting that to be sufficient. It was good to let them explore and learn about something simple like that for themselves.


After we’d made our lap around the fourth floor and back to the elevators it was time to go home for lunch. As we waited for the bell above the elevator door to ding the car’s arrival, Pip asked,

“Can we go down to the basement then up to the third floor and then back down to the first?”

I smiled at him, but shook my head no. He shrugged and happily walked into the elevator while Polly jabbed the button for the first floor.

Now, several days later, I kind of wish I’d said “Yes.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dropping off

            In 1999 I went to Europe for a semester with about twenty-five other undergrads from my university. Our program was based in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, a little village tucked in between the lakes and mountains just north of the Italian border. It was a beautiful place to live and a wonderful spot from which to take off exploring. Almost every Thursday afternoon, after class was done for the week (that’s right, no Friday classes) the bulk of us headed out for the train station and then on to an unbelievable variety of destinations. During my three months there, I went to Milan, Turin, Florence, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, and Prague. Others made it to Nice, Geneva, Pisa, Genoa, and more. I spent spring break in Tunisia and Easter in Rome. We all went to Frankfort, Heidelberg, Cologne, and Amsterdam together and later took a second trip down to Rome, Naples and Pompeii. The semester turned out to be the most amazing thing any of us had ever done.

            It was so amazing that when I came back to campus in the fall, I found it difficult to describe to my old friends the enormity of the experience. I put together the requisite photo album and told stories about all the exciting things that happened to me over there, but these tended to end up being disheartening exercises; there were too many people to keep track of, too many references that required complex explanations, too many details that had to be left out. I always finished a story feeling frustrated that my listeners didn’t really get it.

            To compensate for this, I’d get together from time to time with a group of people from the Europe trip. We’d sometimes reminisce about the trip itself, but just as often we merely hung out and talked about whatever was going on around us. Sprinkled in to those conversations were the codes and rituals and inside jokes, the special language, we had compiled during our time together in the spring. That language was a critical bonding agent for my memories of the trip, and I relished the opportunity to break it out a few more times before it faded away.

            And it did fade away. As the semester went on, people got busy with classes and projects and the affairs of the semester. The gatherings ended and were replaced by random, unplanned five-minute reunions when a couple of us landed together at a football game or some frat party. In those moments we would hug or shake hands and ask how things were going but the immediacy of our sympathies, the ability to dip into that special language, had slipped away.

            In the abstract, that seems like a sad thing, but at the time it felt okay. New stuff was piling on the old - new experiences, new challenges, new loves, new jokes, new things filled with their own importance and potential. There were too many other things happening to get choked up about the passing of a moment that was never meant to last forever anyway.


           For the last two years, Polly and I have had our own special club. We would get Ava out the door, bike Pip down to school, and then come back home to our own little bubble. Inside the bubble we followed a regular routine: reading, writing and math in the morning, some play or special activity, book reading at lunch, and then a nap. At the end of the nap, I would carry her down the steps to give her time to wake up before riding down to pick up Pip from school. Mixed into this routine were several idiosyncratic rituals – a special toothbrushing exercise, snack runs, and the ‘ding-dong’ game to name a few. We worked so well together that after a crazy weekend with everyone home, we looked forward to those first quiet hours on Monday morning when it was just the two of us again.

          Last week that all ended as Polly officially entered kindergarten. In June when school was letting out and Polly and I had our last couple of days together, I felt surprisingly emotional about it all. I welled up a few times doing the dishes and had to work to hold it together the final time we rode down together to pick up Pip from school. As such I wasn’t sure how I’d react to Polly’s first kindergarten drop off.

            But as it turns out it wasn’t that hard. Pip and Polly rolled into school together with heads held high and smiles on their faces. Ava and I headed back to the house and then on to our respective tasks. Too many new things lay ahead for us all to worry much about what coming to an end. My biggest disappointment in the whole experience is that there’s really not much more to tell.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Return

     Several years ago, while I spoon fed Pip some kind of gooey, mashed food, I heard the film director, Wes Anderson doing a standard, long-form publicity interview on NPR for his new movie “The Darjeeling Limited.” In explaining why he chose to make that movie, Anderson used the sentence “I wanted to tell this story” multiple times. I imagine it was a piece of stereotypical director-speak, and he probably cast it off without really thinking. But, for whatever reason, it struck me on that morning as a startlingly weird justification for making a movie. He wasn’t saying that he wanted to make people laugh or cry or quiver with fear. He wasn’t trying to make some political point or probe some critical question about the world. Instead, he was selling this frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic thing: a story that had been banging around in his mind for a while about a couple of white guys riding a train in India. It just seemed like a very puerile, childish, “I want to because I want to” kind of thing to do and at the time I didn’t understand how that was a compelling enough to get the film made.


     In February of 2012 I stopped writing posts for this blog. I had another project I wanted to work on, and there wasn’t time for me to do both. In the two years since then, I’ve encountered periodic moments when some simple experience with our family came together in such a cool way that I wanted to write about them. These weren’t moments that necessarily demanded preservation or reflected some great truth that needed to be shared. They were just fun happenings that I wanted to play with, to take them apart and reassemble them in an interesting way, maybe plant them somewhere and see what might grow. In short, I wanted to be Wes Anderson. I wanted to tell these stories.


     Since the day Pip was born, a single question has hovered over every conversation about my life as a full-time parent: “What are you going to do when your kids go to school?” For a number of years I gnawed on this, wondering if I should try to get back into academia or pursue an MBA or start doing some temp work that might lead to a full-time job. The answer turned out to be easy. About a year ago, Ava and I realized that my entering the full-time workforce was not the thing either one of us wanted. We like the flexibility and freedom that my presence at home gives us and did not see a tremendous benefit in trading those in for an extra paycheck. Thus, as Polly enters kindergarten today, I will not be embarking on a new job as well. Instead, I will be remaining at home to continue handling the logistics of drop-offs, pick-ups, lunch making, sick days, and all the rest.
     With that said, I will be gaining a couple of hours to myself each day, hours that I plan to spend writing. There is a novel in the works – I’m hoping to have it out by Christmas – and a couple more ideas to explore beyond that.
     And, I’m returning to this blog. It turns out that having stories you need to tell – with all the self-indulgent narcissism that entails - may be the best motivation for actually getting around to telling them.
     So, for all of you who, like me, never unsubscribe from anything, hello again. I’m excited to be writing for you once more.