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.”

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