Monday, September 17, 2007

"Floating"

The following link will take you to Quay Journal, where you can read my latest short story called "Floating".




http://www.quayjournal.org/

Friday, September 14, 2007

My Kid Could Beat Up Your Kid


“You should see the way my little Ginger sits still,” I said to the man next to me.

“It’s so great that she’s learned to do that,” he said. “She’s been working on it for quite a long while now, right?”

“Just two weeks…by the way, did your Melinda ever figure out about not pooping in the kitchen?” I asked. “I know she has had some trouble with that.”

“No, not that much trouble. We got a shock collar and that took care of it in two seconds flat. She’d start to squat on the linoleum and BAM! one short sharp shock was all it took.”

As I sat with the Dog Park regulars and we bragged about how great our dogs are, I was suddenly struck by how similar dog owners are to parents. I could have sworn that I took part in the exact same conversation—snide insinuations and all—five years ago as Isabel frolicked on the Commons Playground with the other toddlers. The only difference between the dog owners and the parents was the shock collar. (Very few dog owners I know actually resort to the shock collar.)

Where does this parental urge to brag about our offspring come from? I feel it rather strongly, but, like many other things I feel, I am unable to get at the motive behind the feeling.

Is it an urge to make myself look better as a parent? Perhaps the process goes something like this: Isabel is my daughter and she is good at gymnastics, therefore I must be a great Dad. Or is it slightly less self-centered and more like advertising—a way to give my daughter a leg up in the world? Whatever the reason, I certainly feel the urge to brag strongly.

And I don’t seem to be the only one who wants the whole world to know about how special my child is. You see the “My child is an honor roll students at…” bumper stickers, the car window decals with uniform numbers advertising the fact that the son or daughter of the driver is on the high school baseball team, and the “Cornell Mom” sweatshirts all over the place.

I don’t remember this level of one-upmanship happening when I was child. My many siblings and I were all athletic and we made the honor roll more often than not, but my parents would never say that stuff out loud in public. We knew they were proud of our accomplishments because they told us, not because they told the world.

The thing is, now that bragging about our kids seems to have become the norm among the hyper-vigilant super moms and dads who make up my generation and who have turned “parenting” into a verb, I find myself forced to endure the ever-escalating parental claims of brilliance in more and more settings. Often these over-proud parents aren’t even listening to each other. It becomes clear after overhearing just a sentence or two that they are simply waiting for each other’s mouths to stop moving so they can launch into their own story illustrating how great their own kid is.

About two years ago I had a very sore throat as Isabel had a gymnastics class. It forced me to keep out of the conversation among the other parents. Instead, I was forced to just listen. It was then I realized that I was normally a willing and vocal participant in the brag-a-thons and I decided to quit cold turkey. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly the right decision for me. I know how I feel about my daughter and I know how distasteful I find boastfulness, whether merited or not. So the right policy for me is Abstinence. The only problem is, many of the parents at Isabel’s gymnastics and music lessons haven’t taken the same vow.

Withering looks and sounds of derision haven’t done a thing to slow the torrent coming from some of the other parents, so now I make sure to have a book, newspaper, laptop, or schoolwork with me at all times. They are my armor and my shield. Once in a while I peek out from behind my protection, under the oft-misguided assumption that there must be a kindred spirit in the room somewhere who is just as fed up as I am with the non-stop verbal competition between the parents.

Sometimes I recognize them by the book or newspaper they have brought, sometimes by the subtle roll of the eyes at a particularly obnoxious comment. Once in a while we will make eye contact and share an exasperated look. Even more rarely, we will sit near each other and talk about how tiresome the other parents can be with all their bragging. When I happen to meet one of these co-conspirators in the War on Bragging, we will quite often talk (quietly, of course) about how great we think we are for not joining in with the boastfest.

I hope you won’t misunderstand me. I believe it is important to be proud of our kids and to let them know we are proud of them. I am certainly NOT calling for any sort of move in the opposite direction. I do not believe, for example, that we should start adhering to our cars bumper stickers that say “My son was arrested for DUI!” or “My daughter got kicked off the softball team at Springfield High School!” Rather, we should maybe just realize that we are all proud of our own kids and life is not a competition about who can be prouder and louder.

I realize I probably sound like I am bragging about not bragging. And maybe I am. If so, I apologize. When the other parents start in with their toppers, I am still tempted to join right in. Only now, when I feel like telling everyone that Isabel’s head circumference was in the 83rd percentile when she was 18 months old or that she could do a cartwheel when she was three, I think about the moms in the parent observation room at gymnastics and I bite my tongue, HARD. Maybe I should think about investing in a shock collar for me, just to be sure.

My Daughter Likes Stories

My wife, Erica, walked into the living room after a long day at work and heard the following exchange:

Me: “So, what disease do you think we should give her?”

Isabel: “How about malaria? That kills people, right?”

Me: “It does, but there aren’t many places in America where someone would get malaria. How about cancer?”

Isabel: “Oh yeah, cancer! That would be great because some people survive cancer, right? So she might live and she might not.”

Me: “Exactly! They won’t know if she is going to make it through the book or not. Especially since we already killed the grandmother off so early.”

Erica clucked her displeasure, rolled her eyes heavenward for help, and walked on into the kitchen for a cold beer. But where she sees a father and daughter casually discussing serious afflictions and dead grandmothers, I see a fresh way to interact with my girl now that she is getting older.

Isabel is seven and she is by now fully her own person. There are pieces of me and pieces of Erica that jut out here and there, but the vessel is purely Isabel at this point. The Nature-vs.-Nurture debate has been put to rest once and for all in my mind and it has been declared a draw.

Children are an unpredictable mix of their parents and their surroundings. When Isabel yanks harder because the door won’t open the first time, I see Erica in miniature. When she heads out the door on a winter morning without a jacket, I see myself. When she fearlessly throws her body around at gymnastics class, it is Isabel alone.

As she grows and changes, I feel like I am always a half-step behind. I want to be in her life and involved in what is important to her, but by the time I catch on and get up to speed with Dora the Explorer or Magic Treehouse or Webkinz, she has already moved on to the next thing and I am accused (by Isabel) of treating her like a baby. Not this time.

This time I got smart and I chose the next thing she was going to move on to. And I did it in a way that was so subtle, so below-the-radar, that even I didn’t know I was doing it.

My daughter loves to hear stories. She always has. Stories from books are good, but stories invented by Erica and me are even better. The thing is, as Isabel has gotten older and become a much more critical consumer of stories, it has gotten harder and harder to make up a story that passes muster. As a result, I have been telling her fewer and fewer original stories.

She noticed the precipitous drop off in my output and put me on the spot a month ago. She asked why I never tell her stories any more. I replied that I was empty and it was hard work being creative, but that I would give it my all and plan one more story that would make up for the long drought. Her majesty was pleased by this. (And when the queen is happy, we are all happy.)

Well, I thought for a week, hoping all the while that Isabel would forget my foolish promise. Isabel, being Isabel and having the mind of an elephant, did not forget. One week to the minute after my promise, she asked for the story. I was like a poor schlep on The Sopranos when the bagman appears and wants his first payment on a “non-traditional” loan…a payment the schlep doesn’t have.

“I think I need a little more time…” I wheedled.

“Nope. You said one week and it’s been one week. Start talking, old man.” She can be heartless sometimes, (more evidence of Erica’s genes, I believe.)

So I just started talking and, much to my surprise, out rolled a fairly engaging and affecting story. It spooled out over three weeks of short and long drives, ending just a few days ago. No one was more shocked than I. Okay, maybe Isabel was, after so many lame-o stories lately.

Neither one of us seemed to want to leave the world we had created together in the car during the telling of the story. When it was done Isabel asked right away if we could write it down. So we got home, opened the laptop and a fresh notebook and began to name and describe our main characters. I could feel the genuine excitement in both of us. The idea took on a life of its own and now we are working on a young adult novel together.

As described above, it will include both the death of a young mother and the terrible disease suffered by a young girl. The ninth graders I used to teach always accused me of liking only books and stories with tragedy at the center. Maybe they were right. And just maybe this is another piece of evidence for the Nature side of the debate, because Isabel is bored by sunshiny, happy stories and much prefers sad tales of early death and of love denied.

We have a day off tomorrow and Isabel has already asked if we can spend some of the day working on our book. She has a great idea for what can happen unexpectedly to the family dog and she wants to work it into the story. I think she wants to kill off the puppy in the third chapter…and I also think I may have created a monster. But if I have, at least she is MY monster and she wants to spend the day writing with ME.

Death Takes a Vacation...in Montana

I pulled over along with the four or five cars in front of our van. It was clear something was very wrong up ahead. There were newspaper pages blowing all over the westbound lanes of the highway. There was part of a horse trailer askew on the highway median. There was a pickup truck up against a fence fifty feet off to the right of the roadway, smoke or steam still billowing out of the front end.
From the back Isabel said, “Why are we stopping, Daddy?” I told her there was an accident up ahead and I was going to see if I could help. I put the van into “park” and got out, nervous about what I might find when I got to the pickup. There were three people already there, but they were strangely inactive. They were standing by different parts of the truck but the first thing I noticed was they were all turned away from the vehicle.
I asked a middle-aged man with a large silver belt buckle if there was anyone hurt in the truck. He said, “Yep—there’s a guy in there, but I don’t think we can help him.” I asked if there were any passengers, but he didn’t know. Their passivity was maddening, so I walked to the driver’s door and saw that the entire front of the truck on the driver’s side was collapsed into the front seat. It looked like a large part of the horse trailer, which had been carrying sales circulars for the Sunday newspaper, had come off and slammed into the pickup and its driver.
Through the driver’s side window I saw no evidence that there even was a driver in the truck. I walked around to the passenger side and looked in and saw that the driver was indeed still in the truck but he had not survived the impact. It was hard to tell since much of the engine block was now in the cab, but it didn’t look like anyone else was in the truck with the poor man. I walked back to our van and before too long traffic started to make its way around the accident scene.
Isabel asked if there was an ambulance coming and I told her there was, leaving out the fact that it didn’t need to hurry.

I was shaken badly by what I saw in that truck, but something that had happened one week earlier helped take some of the horror out of the sight. We had been enjoying a few days up in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, at Erica’s Grandfather’s cabin on the Stillwater River. We found some deflated inner tubes in the shed and took them to the gas station in Nye (Population: 9) to inflate.
On our way back we saw a young deer somehow caught up in a barbed wire fence. It front legs were on the ground, but it had gotten one of its rear legs hung up on the fence.
I pulled over, got out, and walked back to see what I could do for the fawn. It freaked out as I got closer and tried to run away, only it couldn’t. Its front hooves were galloping at full speed, but its left rear leg was stuck in a metal loop at the top of the fence. I spoke quietly and (I hoped) soothingly as I looked closely to see how the leg was caught. The fawn eventually held still as I tried to pull open the tight loop of fence wire that had closed around the leg.
The chances of a fawn’s hoof getting stuck in the one open loop of fence wire along the entire fifty yards of fence visible to me must have been immensely small. Yet, it had happened. The deer had been in its painful predicament for no more than thirty minutes, since it hadn’t been there as we passed by on our way to the gas station, yet it had broken the bone clear through and its hoof and the final two inches of leg bone were connected only by a tough strand of sinew.
I did what I had to do to free the deer and it hobbled off into the high grass. Each time we passed that spot over the next few days I scanned the field, looking for evidence that coyotes or wolves had found the fawn before it could get to a safe place. Since I never saw signs of a struggle, I am free to imagine the best. I know that the odds of survival are small for that baby deer, but so were the odds of it lassoing its own foot on the top of a fence to begin with.

It wasn’t freeing the deer or imagining its survival that helped me deal with the horrific images of the man in his pickup truck. Rather, it was something Isabel did after I released the deer.
On one of our hikes earlier in the week we came across a prayer flag on top of a mountain. Isabel was curious, so I told her about the function of prayer flags in the wind in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The idea must have struck her, because in the evening I went outside after dinner and saw a scrap of red cloth tied onto a bush next to the cabin. I didn’t connect the flag, the deer, and the scrap right away. But then I looked more closely and saw that Isabel had written some words on the red cloth.
It said, “We saw a baby deer that had its leg cot in a fens. Help it.” The words grew instantly blurry as tears welled up into my eyes. Isabel’s trust in the universe was so simple and so profound.
So, when I saw what I saw on the highway outside of Billings, the solace I was able to take was an odd kind of second-hand solace. My faith dried up years ago, but Isabel’s hope and faith were enough to make me think that maybe, just maybe, that three-legged fawn was back with its maternal herd and getting used to life minus one hoof. And maybe the man who died in such a freak accident hadn’t suffered at all. And maybe, even more improbably still, he was in a better place.

Chalk Dust in the Sun

I was in a 200 year old tower house in a small town outside of Sana'a in the Yemen Arab Republic back when it was North Yemen. A German Moonie named Fritz Pipenburg was teaching me and 11 other Americans some of the finer points of Classical Arabic grammar. I had been in the country for only three weeks and I still had not managed to fully wrap my mind around the fact that I was in this strange place and probably would be for two years.

I was having fun learning Arabic during the day and then occassionally skipping a lesson and catching a taxi into Sana'a with Patricia to go practice by getting lost in the Old City and having to find our way back to arRowdha.

My mind was drifting away from Fritz and toward the low-angled light streaming in through the stained glass gamaria windows common in Yemeni houses. Fritz had just erased the verb "a'aref", (to know), and the dust from the once-words was swirling through the sunlight in a dance far more graceful to the eyes than the sound of the word ever could be to the ears.

Even then, in the moment--in real time, I knew that that image would be a powerful metaphor someday. Well, here it is 20 years later and the image still knocks me for a loop whenever I picture it.

Funny thing, though. I still can't make it stand for anything more than what it already is.