Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Grandma Blanche

Three weeks ago my grandmother was in the hospital because of complications from a congested heart. She was fading in and out of consciousness and the doctor asked my mother if my grandmother, (Blanche), had ever let them know her feelings about respirators and heart-lung machines. He was told that she had filled out a “Do Not Resuscitate” order a year earlier, the last time she was in the hospital with the side effects of a bum heart. The family believed her wishes had not changed in the intervening year. The doctor said that it was best to hear such things from the patient herself and he began to gently shake my grandmother’s shoulder and call out, “Blanche. Blanche. It’s Doctor Smith. I have to ask you a question. Can you hear me?”

My grandmother gave an almost imperceptible nod, so the doctor continued. “Blanche, I have to ask you an important question. If we get to the point where we need to use machines to keep you going, do you want us to go ahead and do that? Do you want us to use a respirator to keep you alive?”


My daughter, Isabel Lorraine, is named after my wife’s favorite grandmother, Lorraine Isabel. We used to have a picture of Grandma Larry on the wall of Isabel’s room and Isabel saw this picture from the first day of her life. When she was old enough to become curious, she asked, “Where is Grandma Larry?” We told her that Grandma Larry was dead.

As a result, death has been a topic Isabel has been interested in since she was two years old. Through her name, she had a direct connection to someone who was already dead, and this link seemed to fascinate her.

I can remember walking to New York Pizza in Trumansburg and passing by a semi-flattened squirrel on the side of the road. Isabel, from her vantage point in the stroller, got a close look at the dead creature. She asked me to stop and then got out of her stroller to take a closer look at the now-inanimate animal. She could see that the body had something dreadfully wrong with it and was no longer working.

She had a lot of questions about the squirrel: “What will happen to the body? Where is the part that was alive? How long before it is just a skeleton?” All of the questions really came down to one: “What is death?”

When we passed by cemeteries Isabel wanted to know what was happening to the bodies in the ground. The physical process of decay was hard for her to wrap her mind around—the idea that living people who were active and thinking and loved could be put in a box and covered with dirt by the people who loved them did not make a lot of sense at first. We told Isabel about some peoples’ belief in an afterlife and this also provoked many questions. I don’t believe in a soul that continues on after the body is dead and I told Isabel about my doubts concerning heaven and hell. She merely took in all the information and chewed on it for a while.

When my mom called to keep me updated on Grandma Blanche’s condition a few weeks ago, Isabel overheard my side of the conversation. She could tell something was wrong, both by the tone of my voice and the questions I asked. When I hung up she asked right away, “Is Grandma Blanche going to die?” And because death was not a new topic to Isabel, I was able to sit down with her and tell her the truth and she was able to hear it without freaking out.

My wife and I hadn’t planned on how we would address the subject of death with our daughter, but in retrospect I am very happy with the way we approached it. From early on we presented death as a physical process that happens to everything and everyone. We talked about decomposition and turning back into dirt in a way that made perfect sense to Isabel, since she saw it happen all around her all the time with leaves, plants in the garden, and dead animals.

Now that Isabel is six she is starting to develop her own ideas about the existence of a soul and the reality of heaven and hell. She is convinced that there is a God, that creatures have souls, and that these souls continue to exist even after the body has turned back to dirt. But underlying all of these beliefs is the concrete knowledge that peoples’ bodies stop working and then they die some day. In her own way, Isabel is OK with that idea. She doesn’t like it, especially when it is Grandma Blanche who is the one dying, but she understands it and I believe this comfort with the fact of death will serve her well as she grows up.


Remaining completely in character, despite the pain of illness and the fog of medicines, my Grandma Blanche opened one eye, took a second to focus on the doctor’s eyes, and croaked out an unmistakably clear response: “Hell no!” It was clear she did not want to be kept alive by machines.

Blanche Michaels was ready to die. She was tired of living in a body that betrayed her more than it served her lately.

We went to her funeral and it turned into a celebration of Grandma Blanche’s life, with her four children, fourteen grandchildren, and fourteen great-grandchildren all in attendance. Isabel was sad that Grandma Blanche was gone, but she was able to be there and join in the celebration. At the cemetery I was able to say goodbye as the coffin was readied for burial and the beginning of the return to dirt, and Isabel was able to say goodbye to Grandma’s spirit as she saw it getting ready to leave the body and fly up to heaven. Isabel, Erica, and I walked to our car holding hands, happy we had come.

May I Mambo Dogface in the Banana Patch?

Comedian Steve Martin had a bit in his live shows back in the Seventies called something like “Wrong English.” He talked about how fun it might be to have a child and then teach the child the wrong words for things. He figured that between birth and the first day of kindergarten parents had a good five years to really mess up their child’s vocabulary. He imagined the child raised by such prankster parents raising his hand in school to ask, “May I mambo dogface in the banana patch?”

What got me thinking about this was something Isabel said to her babysitter last week. While I was picking her up at the sitter’s house, Isabel seemed especially anxious to get out to the driveway and into the car. The sitter, Kim, asked, “Why are you in such a hurry to get out of here—did you have a bad time today?” And Isabel responded, “No, I had fun! I just want to see if Smoojipants left anything on my car seat!”

Kim smiled and nodded, but I could tell she had no idea what Isabel was talking about. Frankly, I would have been shocked if she had known what Isabel was talking about. You see, Smoojipants is a figment of the Dawson family imagination. He is a seagull who follows Isabel around, watching out for her and leaving little treats on her car seat every once in a while.

Bizarre, I know. But is it really any more bizarre than a large man clad all in red who slides down chimneys to deliver presents to deserving boys and girls? Or a fairy who trades money for used teeth? Or an oversized bunny that enters houses in some as-yet-unrevealed manner to leave candy for kids?

I could tell you where Smoojipants comes from, but that wouldn’t make the story any less odd. Suffice it to say that he, (Smooji is definitely male), is the result of an off-the-cuff story I told Isabel one day while we were riding around coastal Connecticut. For some reason she was enchanted by the bird and we created a back-story for him and fleshed out what sort of powers he has and how he uses them to help only certain deserving children. Primary among these certain deserving children is Isabel.

Once every few weeks I will place a small pack of sugarless gum or a lollipop on Isabel’s car seat before picking her up from somewhere. Then I will lock the doors and go inside to get her. When we get back to the car I make a show of unlocking the door and letting us in. Isabel finds the treat and says with glee, “Daddy! Smooji was here and he left me some gum!!” To which I will invariably reply, “How did he get in the car? It was locked!” Isabel’s standard answer is, “Smooji can do anything—he loves me.”

Now that Isabel goes to school every day I am beginning to wonder how long the magic of Smoojipants can hold on. She talks about him to her friends and seems dumfounded that they don’t know who he is. Erica has never really taken to the whole magical-seagull-who-delivers-occasional-treats-through-locked-doors thing, but I think it’s because she wasn’t there at the creation. She heard about it the same way you are hearing about it: secondhand. And when you hear about it this way it just seems odd. Or maybe even schoolbus.

“Schoolbus” is another one of those private vocabulary words belonging only to the Dawson family. Two years ago Isabel characterized something as “stupid.” The word “stupid” sounded terrible coming out of her mouth so we asked her to come up with another word that didn’t sound so bad. She decided to use “schoolbus” to replace “stupid” in everyday conversation. So now sometimes we are out in public and Isabel will see someone do something…well, stupid, and she will say very loudly, “Did you see that schoolbus man walk into that telephone pole?”

While I don’t know any parents who have actually followed Mr. Martin’s plan, lately I have been thinking about the deeper significance of what he was saying. Children and parents really do share a private language for the first few years of a child’s life. Some of it may be a little embarrassing, or hard to explain, but I love the intimacy it hints at. It says, “There are things we share that nobody else on the planet has access to.”

Language is one of the things that separates us from other species. And within the species, language again differentiates one group from another. So having a private family vocabulary feels like the most special bond there can be. Once kids get to school and start spending much of each day in the company of other kids, these private languages tend to be replaced by the things everyone else is saying. I know this process is natural, but I can’t help but feel a little sad about it. I hope it isn’t schoolbus of me to think Smooji might stick around just another few months.

Oh My G*d

While driving down Route 96 to Ithaca recently, I heard my wife, Erica, say something that sounded like the word “Yahweh.” She and Isabel were debating a fine philosophical point by saying back and forth, “No way!” “Yeah way.” “No way!” “Yeah way.” Isabel, having never heard this word before, asked, “Mommy, what is yaaway?”

It is truly amazing to me how quickly the human brain can think—I had three or four fully formed questions pop into my head in the two seconds of silence before Erica answered: “She is not really going to answer that one, is she?” “If so, how?” “Why don’t I ever have a tape recorder when I need one?” “How can I change the subject, quickly?”

I perked up my ears, wanting to hear exactly how Erica was going to field this one. To my shock and consternation she very matter-of-factly stated, “Yahweh is what some people call God.”
You can guess what Isabel’s next question was, having never heard the word God used to refer to an actual being. “What is God, mommy?” If I had been drinking coffee I would have snorted it onto the inside of the windshield. As it was, I just looked at Erica and said, “I cannot believe you answered that one. Now what?”

We haven’t really discussed how we would like to talk with Isabel about God and religion.

Thankfully it was all just a false alarm. Possibly sensing the momentary panic her question and Erica’s answer had thrown us into, our child mercifully let the question drop.

And a week later, there the question still sits, lurking in the dark shadows, begging an answer. Now that the holiday season is approaching, I am pretty sure we are going to have to find a way to answer her question—or to at least explain who that baby in that barn is everywhere we go.

Erica and I were both raised in mainstream Christian churches, but neither of us is a member of any church now. Isabel is not quite three years old, so she is not yet aware that there is such a thing as a “church.” I was hoping to avoid the whole topic until some vague future date (ideally, as we were driving her up to her first year of college). But the false alarm in the car has made me realize that we will be doing Isabel a disservice by ignoring the topic indefinitely. She is going to see religious imagery, she is going to go to church with my parents once in a blue moon, she is going to have classmates who talk about God, and she is going to have questions she will want answered.

As a teacher of world history, I am well aware of the human desire to make sense of the world. That desire is often met by the creation of belief systems that involve a creator and a plan and teachings and rules and consequences. Religion seems to be as deeply rooted in humans as the needs for food, water, and shelter. To ignore it is to blot out a large part of what it means to be human.

It strikes me as funny and a little ironic that my mom or dad could have written this same article thirty-four years ago, only the subject would have been sex instead of religion. Both are deeply felt human needs that have been known to cause all sorts of havoc at times. My parents never once spoke with me about sex, and maybe as a result of their silence I am committed to being up front and open to any questions Isabel may ask about sex. Conversely, religion was a big part of our family life, yet I find myself shying away from questions about God.

I still don’t have a set answer in mind for when the question comes out of Isabel’s mouth again, but I do know that I won’t ignore it and hope it goes away. I know the attitude I hope Isabel will adopt toward God and religions, but I also know that she has been an independent thinker and separate from me and Erica since shortly after she was born. Her beliefs will be totally her own.

Having said that, I hope that she approaches religion with an open mind and a willingness to learn. One yardstick I hope she will use to measure religions is kindness. I hope my girl will have a respect for all faiths, but also a willingness to judge each by how well it upholds human dignity. With natural disasters, human cruelty, and the vagaries of life, the world is a hard enough place; a person’s faith should give a sense of comfort and forgiveness and not lead to self-loathing and hatred.

It is hard being the only species alive that is aware of its own impending death. Not only that, but we also know beyond doubt that the same fate awaits everyone we ever love. Because of this knowledge, religion should try to provide a universal and inclusive salve for the pain.

All of this sounds very vague and theoretical, even to me. The real question I should be asking is this: what will I say to Isabel in a couple of weeks when we come across a manger with a baby Jesus in it and she says, “Who is that?” Will I say “That is a baby in a barn,” or will I give her more information?

I think I will give her more information and let her start the long process of making sense of the world and the human need for spirituality. (If not, she’ll probably just pick up a bunch of misinformation on the street when she is a teenager, and then where will I be?)

Sometimes I really do miss the days when I was part of a religion that had a book and a system. It sure would save a lot of anxiety and stress about how to talk with Isabel about God and about other people’s beliefs. I could just show her the book and say, “This is what we believe.” That is harder to do when what I believe isn’t in a particular book. Rather, it is in many books, from the Torah to Of Mice and Men, and from the Koran to Anna Karenina.

I need to trust that when the time comes to talk with Isabel about religion and God, Erica and I will know what to say. In the meantime, I am going to have to avoid words like “cod” and “yeah way!”

Parent-Teacher-Child Conferences

As a teacher for the past eight years, I have been to more than my share of parent-teacher conferences. And now that my daughter Isabel is in school I am experiencing these meeting from both sides of the table several times a year. The parents of my students pay a lot of money for their children to go to school and they expect to have my full attention for at least forty-five minutes. Therefore it takes a lot of work to prepare for these conferences, and sometimes the entire process can leave me feeling frazzled and spent. It affects my mood and my anxiety levels.

I got a window into just how much these conferences affect me when I woke up one morning having had the following dream. The following is the conversation my wife Erica and I had with our daughter Isabel in a dream I had shortly before waking up for another day of conferences.

“Hello, Isabel. Welcome to this semester’s parent-child conference.”

“Hi, dad. Hello, mom.”

“We are so glad you were able to make it in during the day. We know how hard it can be to get time away from school for these conferences in the middle of the morning.”

“No problem. I just told my teacher I needed the time for a parent-child conference and she was very understanding. She has kids of her own.”

“Well, that’s great. Just great. So, have you had a chance to look through your report card yet? If not, why don’t you take a minute to read through it. We find the report card makes an excellent jumping off place for a discussion of what sort of progress you are making as our child.”

“Yes, indeed, I have read the report card and I must say I find it a little puzzling.”

“Puzzling? In what way?”

“Well, for instance, right here, where it says that I have a ‘C’ in bathroom…that seems a little low to me. I take a bath most nights and I seem to do just fine in there. I wash…I use soap…I come out smelling 99 and 44/100 percent pure. And all I get is a ‘C’?!?”

“There is the matter of follow through, honey. You never remember to drain the tub and rinse away the ring of soap scum. That is part of bathroom, too, you know. And don’t forget flushing. I can’t tell you the number of times I have raised the lid and gotten quite a surprise in there. Your father and I just know you can remember to pull the plug and to flush. We just know you can. And to help motivate you to do these things we have left some room in your grade for improvement.”

“Gee, thanks a lot.”

“Anything else you find confusing?”

“Now that you ask, yes, there is something else. How on earth could I have a ‘D’ in car?”

“That is one your mother and I disagree on, Isabel. She thought you should have a ‘C’ and I believe you deserve an ‘F’. So we split the difference and gave you a ‘D’. Quite generous if you ask me.”

“I see the ‘D’, but I don’t understand why.”

“Do the words ‘are we there yet’, mean anything to you?”

“That’s because you always go places that are so far away. You think it’s fun for me, staring at the back of your headrest, listening to those not-funny guys talk about cars and that other really not-funny guy tell boring stories about Lake Wobegong or whatever? If you were me you’d be asking the same thing. Oh, and one more thing. What about that time we stopped at the rest area in New Jersey and you started to drive away without me. It was a lucky thing I came out of the bathroom and saw you pulling out. (Probably wouldn’t even have seen you if I had stopped to flush.) What about the No Child Left Behind law? You almost broke that one! And yet I am the one getting a ‘D’ in car?!?”

“We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one, Bel. One we can agree on is your ‘A’ in waking up. You are up by 6:15 every morning without fail. Your mother and I have been meaning to talk to you about this one. We think you may be pushing yourself too hard in this one area. It’s okay to let yourself slide once in a while, say, on a Saturday or Sunday morning, for instance. Give it a try. No need to put so much pressure on yourself to wake up early every morning.”

“Are you crazy? The one subject I have an ‘A’ in and you want me to slack off? No way.”

“So, Isabel, it looks like in spite of your sub-par performance this semester your mother and I will be keeping you in the family and continuing in our role as your parents. We know you have it in you to get straight A’s and we want to help get you there. When you apply yourself you really are capable of wonderful things. Do you have any further questions for us?”

“I do have just one question. Have you had a chance to read through your report card? If so, let’s get this child-parent conference started…”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ode to Saint Nick

Twas three months before Christmas
and all through the town
folks were out walking
and running around.

The weather was great
Fall had JUST started
but the warmth of summer
had not yet departed.

Isabel and I took a ride
to the store
To buy bread and milk
and several things more.

We entered the store
and felt right away
something was wrong
on that warmish fall day.

Nothing jumped out at us,
not right off the bat
but both of us felt it,
simple as that.

Isabel said to me,
“Daddy, let’s go.”
I should have listened,
knowing what I now know.

But rather than turning
and leaving the store,
we went further in
so I could see more.

We walked past the produce
and then by the bread,
not finding one thing
to account for our dread.

Down aisle three,
then past all the beer
when what to our wondering
eyes should appear

But the source of our worry,
the cause of our fright,
the bane of my life
both by day and by night:

High over the coolers
and right next to the grills
was an inflatable Santa
that gave me the chills.

He was inside a dome
made of clear plastic
and his presence there
made me think thoughts quite drastic.

His suit it was red
and his smile it was glowing,
for inside his ball
I swear it was snowing.

“That’s not the worst”
I thought to myself.
“He’s sharing his orb
with a spinning young elf.”

We took a deep breath
and dared to step closer;
from six feet away
it looked even grosser.

Santa was fake,
as fake as can be!
The snow it was Styrofoam
any fool could see.

Both Belly and I
were shocked and amazed
“WHO put this up?
Surely he’s crazed!

“The weather is hot,
It’s only September.
Junk like this
shouldn’t appear til December!”

We came up with a plan
right there and right then
to get rid of this Santa
and his little elf friend.

We hid in the bathroom
and waited for quiet
and hoped while we waited
that no one would buy it.

At two we snuck out
and crept through the aisles
nursing our grudges
and wearing our smiles.

The store it was empty
there was not a soul
to stand between us
and our crass plastic goal.

We got to the ball
and quickly unplugged it
and then to our car
we ploddingly lugged it.

Its size was a problem,
inside it would not go.
Instead of the van
we’d taken the Volvo.

Quick as we could
we tied it on top,
fleeing the parking lot
determined not to stop.

As we drove I was nervous
and full of unease
Then looked in my mirror
and saw the police.

I said to my daughter,
“Slow down or go faster?”
She said, “floor it, Dad!”
And that led to disaster.

We turned and we swerved
and we drove like Al Unser
but try as we might,
no good, we were done, sir!

We could not get away
we could not go faster.
Because aerodynamically,
Santa’s a disaster.

We were arrested and booked
and sent home on bail
and the news made the papers
it never does fail.

We stood before the judge
to give her our plea,
we had no choice but to say
“Holiday Insanity.”

The judge she was kind
and she understood,
but still what we did
to her was no good.

So she cut us some slack
saying, “I think you deserve this—
you two must do
community service.”

“Community service,
that’s not so bad,”
I thought to myself
and felt sort of glad.

But then she gave details
and I couldn’t conceive it!
Neither Belly nor I
could quite believe it.

We had to dress up
as an elf and old Santa.
(She had a sense of humor-
that I will grant you.)

We had to sing carols
and raise lots of money
dressed in our costumes--
which was not at all funny.

But wait til I tell you
the worst part of all—
we had to do all of this
in a big plastic ball.

So fake snow is blowing
and we’re trapped in plastic
all ‘cause we flipped
and did something drastic.

So if you see Santa
‘fore you think you oughta
take my advice-
both you and your daughta

Get out of that store,
just turn and run
go out for a walk
in the early fall sun.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

German Memory

From my spot on the meticulously well-maintained old wooden bench, I could see the entire square. It was medieval, with grey cobblestones on the ground and grey stone facades on all of the buildings. Grey pigeons were everywhere. In the middle of the square was a circular two-foot deep pool that held coins from all over the world. The tossers were trying to buy a blessing, (or maybe just a little luck), from the angel who watched over the pool.
Rather than paying a small admission price and entering the boxy, inelegant cathedral looming over one end of the square, I preferred to sit outside of the tourist attraction and watch the action at the interface of tourists and locals.
It was a warmer than normal late October day and the cafes and bars all had their full complement of tables along the fringes of the square. Because it was early in the afternoon, the café tables were emptying and the bar tables were not yet filling. In fact, there were more pigeons than people at many of the tables.
Amid the general hubbub, my attention was drawn to some combination of motion and sound off at the northwest corner of the square. There was what appeared to be an elderly Eastern European gentleman yelling Slavic insults at a giggling German boy of eleven or twelve. The word “apoplectic” should hardly ever be used, but in this case it is the exact right word. The old man was apoplectic.
The more he yelled and lurched toward the young boy, the harder the boy laughed and backed away, staying just out of reach of the old man’s grasp and flying spittle. Eventually the old man gave up and joined the line in front of the cathedral.
The boy went back to the corner and took up a position in a doorway just out of sight of those entering the square from a narrow, picturesque cobbled street lined with pensiones and inns. From his position, he could glance out at a plate glass window across the way and see tourists as they approached the square, but they could not see him.
This was clearly something he had done before, as his timing was impeccable. When he identified a person with just the right gait, he would rip a wad of bread from the cheap loaf clutched in his left hand. Using prodigious powers of triangulation, he would choose an exact spot on the cobblestones where the side street entered the square and then, when the time was exactly right, he would toss the wad of bread in a gentle arc.
If he had figured everything correctly, (which he did more often than not), the bread, the pigeon, and the tourist’s foot would all occupy the very same space for just a moment. After that moment, the tourist would be screaming, the bread would be flat, and the pigeon would be hurtling through the air, having been kicked by a European in mid-stride. The boy would be doubled up in fits of laughter on the sidewalk. And for an hour or so that particular day, so would I.