Friday, February 29, 2008

I am a Duck

I am a bird.

In fact, a duck.

Most likely a mallard.

If one has to be a bird, I suppose a mallard duck is not a bad thing to be, but if I am honest with myself I would much rather be an owl or tern or maybe even a peregrine falcon. All fine birds. A duck is a fine bird, too, I guess. But it doesn’t really have the panache, the style, the grace of the other birds.

Ducks can fly, just like owls and terns and falcons. But it isn’t really a question of being able to fly; for most birds, flight is a given. To muddy the analogy even further, I am a bird in the same way and to the same extent that Harrison Ford is a singer. Mr. Ford, (a fine actor), is capable of singing. He probably sings in the car and in the shower and maybe even in the kitchen as he makes himself a sandwich. But you’ll notice that he has not had any singing roles in any of his movies.

Mallards can fly. In fact, they fly all time from place to place, sometimes covering hundreds of miles in a day. But when they fly, they always look like they are barely in control of themselves. They appear to be straining themselves all the time as they crash down to a landing on a body of water. They seem to flap their wings twice as hard as other birds. When seagulls come in for a landing on water I get the sense that their feather lice clap in appreciation of a perfectly smooth landing, the way some Kenyans clapped when the pilot of a domestic flight I was on from Nairobi to Kisumu applauded a smooth touch-down.

But when a mallard comes in for a landing you can practically see their little parasitic hitchhikers jumping ship left and right in anticipation of a crash involving feathers and spray everywhere and a cartwheeling carcass finally coming to a stop and slowly sinking to the depths, occasional bits of fluffy down rising to the surface.

So, when it comes to life, I sometimes think I am a duck.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blind Spot

Okay, when you have a kid, you pretty much HAVE to like her. In fact, if you are honest about it you would have to say that it is better for everyone if you like your child, no matter how unlikable s/he may be. This truth is so unavoidable that evolution has built in to parents a sometimes-startling ability to not see the bad in their own children. As a teacher I am reminded of this truth as part of my everyday experience. As a parent I sometimes wonder what there is about my daughter that everyone can else can see needs fixing but my wife and I can’t see at all.

This is all just prelude to a moment I experienced yesterday. It was a moment in which I was reminded of just how much I like my own kid. She is great. When you hear it, you might just shake your head and say, “Yeah, cute.” You might get the exact same feeling you would get when someone shows you fifteen pictures of her cat playing with a wad of wrapping paper.

But it only served to remind me of just how much I like my own child. I am tempted to provide all kinds of context and prefatory explanation, but I won’t. Let me just tell you what happened.

Isabel was walking out to the van so we could drive somewhere. As she stepped into the driveway her foot slipped and she almost fell. When I saw that she was not hurt at all I joked, “First day with the new feet?” She did her best “dumb-guy” laugh and strapped herself in for the ride. About five minutes later she told me a quick story and I didn’t get what she was saying. She had to explain it three times. Once I finally got it, Isabel said without missing a beat, “First day with the new brain?”

Now THAT is funny.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bubble Toes

Yesterday Isabel and I were driving to the grocery store when a song by singer/surfer/songwriter Jack Johnson came on the radio. The song is called “Bubble Toes” and right away Isabel said, “I LLLLOOOOOOVE this song. Turn it up.” I love that song too, but probably for different reasons than Isabel does.


Erica and I never “Ferberized” Isabel and as a result we have spent thousands of hours helping our daughter fall asleep. For one eight-month stretch I danced in the dark with her every night to the Paul Simon album called “You’re The One.” When that disc wore out, (literally), we switched to a mix of songs we created ourselves. The one thing these songs had in common was a strong mid-tempo beat, since that seemed to be the magic rhythm by which to bounce our girl off to dreamland.
One of the songs on that disc was Jack Johnson’s “Bubble Toes,” the song we heard in the car yesterday. I asked Isabel what she liked about it and she said, “It’s just a great song—it’s very catchy.” And she is right—it is a very catchy song. But its effect on me is surprisingly layered and strong for such a simple song. When I hear it I am immediately cast back to Isabel’s room in our house in Trumansburg.

It was always dark in that room and she was always in my arms. The Winnie the Pooh characters Erica painted on the wall were always watching us as we “danced” around the room. The top of Isabel’s head was always tucked under my chin and the smell of her hair always filled my nostrils. No matter how much work I had to do or how preoccupied I was before closing the door and hitting “Play,” I just about always managed to sink into a special space where Isabel and I developed one breath, one heartbeat, one sleepy state of mind.

Now when I hear the first few notes of “Bubble Toes” my mood, no matter where it is, automatically improves. If I am happy, I get happier. If I am down, I feel myself rise up a little. But underneath the immediate boost in mood, there is another layer of response. I am reminded of those many nights dancing in the dark and I know that they will never return with Isabel. She is already too old (and too heavy) to go back to those days. More than just about anything else in the world, this catchy ditty reminds me of how fast time passes. And this awareness of the passing of time makes me sad. It colors my mood boost with a certain melancholy that adds depth the same way shading adds dimension to drawings.

At first blush these two responses to the same song seem contradictory to me. But when I really think about it I realize that they are connected. It is not a new thought that the ability to feel joy as an adult may depend on how deeply sorrow has affected you—that remaining open to joy leaves you open to sadness, too. But it surprises me when something as simple as a song about a girl with tough, dirty feet drives this truth home in a way that brings tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Field Trip


Last week I took my class to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. We were there to look at artifacts from some of the ancient civilizations we have been studying in class. Our docent, Marcy, talked to us about some of the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Greek objects in the collection and then the students had an opportunity to explore other collections. From their excited chatter on the train back to Connecticut, it seems my students had a great trip.

In the days since, I have found myself thinking about those ancient objects a lot. During our trip it struck me like never before how each of the things we saw was at one time a raw block of stone, an unformed clump of clay, a blank stretch of wall. And then, early one morning, a craftsman approached, took a deep breath, and started in on it.

I can’t help but think of the artisans who held those materials in their hands thousands of years ago. Who were they? What had they eaten for breakfast? Were they preoccupied as they set chisel to stone? Did they have any inkling that four thousand years later people would be coming from around the world to look at what they made? Of course, first and foremost they probably had the emperor/king/tyrant/dictator in mind, since he was the one who commanded the object be created in the first place. But did they think about posterity? And if so, how could they then have had the audacity to go ahead and start chipping away at that block of sandstone or marble, excising everything that wasn’t the god being portrayed? How could they even hold the chisel steady knowing it would be judged by the most powerful man in their world?

Thinking about those ancient artists gave me some insight into my own students. I don’t place blocks of stone before my students and demand sculpture worthy of a king. But I do often demand that my students write. After seeing the works of art at the Met last week, I can better understand why my students sometimes have trouble getting started on their creative writing pieces for class. As the blank page sits there in front of them, I imagine it is easy to think about the judgmental eye of others examining any words set down. So that before the words even begin to flow, they are found wanting, and therefore never make it to the page.

Our trip reminded me of just how brave an act it can be to set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write something like, “There once was a girl with uneven braids and a freckle on her nose…”. The visit to the Met reminded me to have some patience, some understanding, and some empathy for my students when they look at me with just-slightly-disguised terror in their eyes and say, “Chris, I don’t know what to write about…”

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Super Bowl

This Super Bowl inspired me. It was what sports can be at their best.

If one definition of art is that it takes what is imperfect and makes it perfect, then this game was pure art. It distilled age-old dramatic themes and played them out on a stage before a billion viewers.

The pre-game hype was the same as always. The pundits had settled on their themes and proceeded to pound them flat for two weeks. There was the 18-0 team looking to make it 19 wins--looking for perfection. There was the unflappable Tom Brady who had been there before. But what’s this? Was he limping? Was there a crack in the armor of this juggernaut? There was the young, completely flappable Eli Manning, surely the lesser of the two Mannings leading teams in the NFL. And there was the audacious prediction by Plaxico Burress that the Giants would win while holding the vaunted Patriot offense to 17 points.

Yet the game itself managed to exceed the hype, if that is possible. It was close and powerful and thrilling. Two things stand out for me in the aftermath of this most amazing of the more than thirty Super Bowls I have seen. The first is the play of the Giants defensive line. They played as if they were possessed. They were like a pack of dogs set onto an escaped convict. It would not surprise me in the least if they had been allowed to sniff a little swatch of cloth from Tom Brady’s sweaty undershirt from the last time they played and they wanted that guy more than they wanted anything ever in their lives. They were desire, personified. They won the game for the Giants, not Eli Manning.

There was also the amazing catch by David Tyree during the fourth quarter drive that won the game. The Giants offense was stalling and they needed to pick up a first down to keep their slim hopes alive. The receiver reached up and caught the ball against his helmet as he was being tackled and he managed to pin the ball there even as the defender tried to rip it away. The receiver’s strength and concentration were astounding. From there, the Giants scored to take the lead, the Patriots failed to score, and the victory Plaxico Burress guaranteed really did come to pass.

This game reminded me of why I love sports. It was Aristotelian in its perfection. It was the distillation of the age-old human theme of David and Goliath, underdog and favorite. It seems quintessentially American to me to root for the underdog. It usually leaves you cheering for the losing team—underdogs are underdogs for good reason—but once in a while a player or a team pulls it off. And the payoff as a spectator is out of proportion to all reality. Really, how important is the Giants victory in the broader scheme of things? Yet somehow it inspires, it reminds us of the possibilities if we just stick with it--it fills our hearts. It’s not often you can say that about a football game, but this time it is an understatement.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Winter



Winter has always been my favorite season. The summer is too humid, fall too melancholy, and spring too obvious. Winter suits me. I love the cold—when I was a kid I liked to build tunnels through huge piles of snow and then see how long I could stay in the tunnels in just a tee shirt and jeans before I had to go inside to warm up. The silence in those snow tunnels had a muffled quality that was the sound of peace to me. I liked to imagine that nobody in the world knew where I was as I lay in those tunnels, surrounded by the steam of my own exhalations.
It was in a tunnel of snow in the immediate aftermath of one of the two huge blizzards of 1978 that I first thought that there might not be a God. I was alone with my thoughts, and it struck me that I really might be ALONE with my thoughts. Having been raised Catholic and serving as an alter boy at the time, this thought was pretty radical for me. I chewed on it for a while and decided to withhold final judgment on the existence or non-existence of a Supreme Being. I reasoned that God created me, so the least I could do was give Him the benefit of the doubt before I decided He didn’t exist.
Well, the winter of 1978 became the spring of 1978 and so on until I was much older. When I was 21 I came to an answer on the question of whether I really had been all alone in that snow tunnel. I decided that it had been nice knowing God, but that I just couldn’t continue a relationship with someone so distant and uncommunicative. (He probably feels the same way about me now.)
And now that I am pushing 41 and winter has come around again, I find myself wanting my six year-old daughter, Isabel, to love the cold and the snow and the clear winter skies as much as I do. I have felt this way since she was born. I have taken her out for walks on the coldest days and brought her out into the snow at daybreak as often as I could. It is important to me that she feels about winter the way I do.
When I press myself for a reason for wanting her to love winter, the best I can do is remember a frigid night in 1991 when I was working at an environmental education center in Massachusetts.
There was an eerie cracking sound and then an ice-amplified echo as the surface of Lake Massapaug shifted to adjust to the deepening cold. I was in the middle of the lake, lying flat on my back on a smooth sheet of ice blown clear by the wind that had been gusting for three days straight out of the north. Having grown up in Delaware, I had no experience with lakes freezing over solid enough to drive cars across. And I certainly had no experience with the rifle-shot sound of the ice cracking and settling. A frozen lake is not a silent thing.
I lay on my back, neoprene underwear earning its keep, staring up at the clearest, blackest sky I had ever seen. The stars were a symphony of blazing lights that would blur out of focus as the Canadian wind made my eyes tear up and then snap back into sharp points as I blinked the tears away. Staring up at those stars that night fifteen years ago is the closest thing to a religious experience I have had since I walked away from religion as a 21 year-old.
I felt as if my body and I were separate entities. My body stayed prone on the ice and the rest of me rose up out of my body at incredible speed, up toward the stars. I was hurtling through space and at the same time I was without a body, so I expanded outward to fill all the space around me in all directions. As I expanded, I came to the stars and just kept right on expanding, including the matter of the stars into me. None of this happened at the level of words—it was all much more elemental and primitive. I became the universe as I lay flat on the ice, looking out at space. And in this becoming, I didn’t feel a God out there anywhere. I felt all of time and all of matter, but no Creator, no Judge, no Loving Father. Just time and space.
But that was enough. When I came back into my own head and body there on the lake, I was stinkin’cold. I got up and went to bed in my cabin and thought about what I had felt. I have never taken drugs and have never been prone to unusual mental states, so I was a little unnerved by the whole experience. When I replayed it, I was filled by reassurance that I am connected to everything there is through my physical being. All of the matter that makes up me and everything else in the universe comes from the stars. We are all part of the same huge creation. There was a cold aloneness on the lake, but at the same time a connection to all of creation.
I found that feeling of connection much more authentic than the feelings I used to have about God back when He and I were talking. And that feeling of authentic connection to the universe is what I really want to share with Isabel—not just a love of winter and snow. But she has got her own inner life, her own relationship to make (or not) with God. So rather than take her out into the cold and talk to her about stars and the inter-connectedness of everything, I will have to be satisfied with the joy of snowball fights and sledding and building some snow tunnels of our own.

Writers' Conference in New York City

I am at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2008 Convention at the Hilton in New York City. It has been so good for me to be here. I have always had the word "writer" in my self-description, but I haven't really done much to deserve the title. In college I wrote opinion articles for the school newspaper--The Bucknellian--and I took a fiction writing class that led to four or five short stories. One was published in the Bucknell student anthology in 1987.

Since then I have written articles for a parenting quarterly called Ithaca Child, I have had one short story published in a literary journal called "Quay", and I have joined a writers' group in New Haven, CT. Yet, still I have a hard time taking myself seriously when I call myself a writer. Writers write.

I don't write very much.

In thinking about why this conference has felt so good--so affirming--I have yet to figure out the exact reasons. In the moment it feels like it has something to do with being surrounded by 7000 other people who value reading and writing as much as I do. There is also the rush that comes from being in the same room with writers like William Kennedy, Russell Banks, Billy Collins, Amy Hempel, John Irving, Peter Cameron, and Frank McCourt. It might be that I am proving Daryl Bem's theory of self-definition: I am at a writers' conference, therefore I must be a writer.

I have listened to discussions about incorporating writers and poets into my classroom, about the value of fiction rooted firmly in one place that you know and feel intimately, about how to carve out time to write when you have a job and a child, about the nuts-and-bolts of finding an agent, and about writing literature for the young adult market.

All of this is really secondary to the fact that I am in New York, at a conference entirely dedicated to writing.

It has inspired me to look at how I am spending my time and what I can do to structure my days differently to allow more time for writing. I have some solutions I am eager to try out as soon as I get home. Actually, before I get home. I will have 90 minutes on the train and that is as valuable as found money. I have decided to prioritize my writing rather than being as random about it as I have been thus far. I have realized that deadlines are the best motivator there is for me. My Ithaca Child articles always get done on time and they are good. The one short story I had published happened because I set myself a date by which I needed to have it complete and submitted to some journals. Without a deadline, I flail and perseverate.

The things I will focus on in the next months as a writer are the Young Adult novel Isabel and I started together, my short story "Spaces," and a book proposal for my parenting articles. Maybe writing this down in a public place will help me hold my own feet to the fire.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

I have been looking through some old files in preparation for putting together a book proposal. I stumbled across an old essay from 2004 and thought I would post it.


While visiting family in Montana this July, we took Isabel down to the Yellowstone River near Billings to get some relief from the summer sun. Even though Montana is in the midst of a six-year drought, the river was running high and fast due to snowmelt from the Beartooth Mountains and runoff from recent, rare rains.

Isabel, Erica, and I kept our play confined to the shoreline and a small area near a boat launch ramp where there was a gentle eddy swirling lazily out of the main flow of the river. It was one of those parenting moments when not much is expected of you other than vigilance. Isabel had a nice game of pretend fishing going on and all I had to do was keep her from straying too close to deep water.

I found the water hypnotizing. It was a coffee-and-cream brown and it was exuding power and strength the way a panther pacing in the zoo can. My eyes were drawn to the water and I found myself staring as it rushed by on its way to the far-away Atlantic. I must have watched for fifteen minutes, eyes focusing on a wave here and a branch there, but generally unfocused, just watching the majestic flow of the river go by.

When I finally turned away from the water to start back to the car, I found that I was dizzy and the world appeared to be melting. I had experienced the same optical trick at Taughannock Falls by staring at the cascading water for many minutes and then looking away at the trees and rocks along the trail. After focusing for so long on one area of the moving water, your eyes continue to jerk spasmodically, even after you turn away, and it can be unsettling and make you feel a little queasy.

This disorienting trick of the eyes strikes me as the perfect metaphor for what is going on in my life now. By the time school starts in September I will have been home with Isabel for fourteen months as her stay-at-home dad. In the meantime my wife Erica has finished her doctoral thesis and completed a year as a professor. My focus has been entirely on Isabel, sometimes much to the detriment of my relationship with Erica and my own sense of self. And now that I am lifting my eyes and focusing on other things I am feeling strangely disoriented.

I am a teacher by profession and I didn’t realize how much of my self-opinion came from my daily interactions with students and co-workers until I lost all of that contact and my daily world shrunk to two—me and Isabel. In retrospect, I tried to replace all of the satisfaction I got from the daily give-and-take with my ninth-graders with my daily give-and give with Isabel. This is a lot of pressure to place on one relationship.

We have had a great year together, both of us growing by leaps and bounds (and in fits and starts). Now that our exclusive time together is coming to an end, I have a dizzy feeling and everywhere I look things seem out of focus and hard to pin down in one place. It is almost like a hangover.

I can’t say for certain what Isabel got out of our time together. I know some of what I got. I learned that I like being needed. It really fed my ego to know that someone relied on me to be the expert, the fixer of broken things, the answerer of questions, and the healer of small pains. Isabel needed me in a much more naked way than my students, or even my wife, and I liked that need.

I also got to feel the smug superiority of the stay-at-home dad. Even with all the changes of the past forty years, our culture still doesn’t truly expect dads to be equal partners in the care and feeding of their children. A little paternal effort gets rewarded by all sorts of smiles and admiration from other mothers and head-shaking, “I couldn’t do it,” from other fathers.

But now September is almost here and Isabel will be starting all-day school in a multi-age Montessori classroom, and I will be starting work in a small independent school near our home. The transition is already hard on both of us. I got used to our insulated world, and so did Isabel. I interviewed for the job back in May, and when I got it I was thrilled. I shared the good news with Isabel and Erica and we split a carton of Ben and Jerry’s to celebrate.

Almost the next day Isabel began having trouble being alone, even for just a second. If she was sitting in her car seat in the driveway and Erica had to run to get something out of the other car, Isabel would flip out, yelling and screaming about being left alone. She wailed and sobbed when we took her to preschool for a morning of fun with her friends—a preschool she loved and had never had a problem with before.

I think Isabel had gotten just as used to our exclusive little arrangement as I had. She was reacting against the impending end of our time together without even knowing it. Erica and I quickly realized that any talk of the fall and our new situations made Isabel a clingy, weepy mess. So we regrouped and stopped talking about her school and my job and focused instead on the summer and all the fun things we would be doing.

Isabel was having the same stare-at-the-water-long-enough-and–the-whole-world-gets-all-melty-on-you problem that I had on the banks of the Yellowstone. Only with her, the problem was much bigger. Her life has been a lot shorter, and transitions are still huge. Our time together this year was one thirty-eighth of my life, but one-quarter of her short life. I know what to expect. I know things will be tumultuous and then turn out to be great. She doesn’t know this yet.

So, like I said, we regrouped and changed our focus. And now that school is almost here we will start by rereading some of the wonderful Junie B. Jones books in which the main character starts Kindergarten and ends up loving it. I will also take Isabel to my new school a few times in August as I prepare my classroom, so she can see where I will be while she is at her school. We will plan some fun family adventures for those first couple of weekends, make sure to get lunches made the night before so mornings aren’t so stressful, and then just do our thing while making sure Isabel doesn’t stray too close to the deep water.

The world is still a little dizzying to us after such an extended time together, but things are starting to come into focus a little more each day.