1 March 2010

The major news since I last posted is that I got adopted. Yes, it was perhaps a bit odd to do this at my age, but I needed to and it was good for me as well as for my stepfather, who had originally offered to do it in 1984 or thereabouts.

Crows getting chaotic

I’m still shy about the adoption even though it’s been just over a year now. The reason I hadn’t done it when I was younger was because I was afraid of hurting my biological father’s feelings. I suppose I remain sensitive to that concern. Another reason I’m shy is because on the same January morning we were in Worcester Probate Court taking care of the paperwork, River’s father was experiencing a severe heart attack, and it was all a little much. Now that a year has passed things are settled down a bit more, but I’m cautious about celebrating. Maybe I shouldn’t be. I don’t want to invite trouble.

Other not-so-major news is that I’ve survived about halfway through grad school. I’m now at the point where I can begin considering my thesis project topic in earnest. It will probably have something to do with public participation in urban development matters, but the details are not yet clear for me. This summer I am hoping to do an internship heading in that sort of direction and it may bring some clarity to the final project. I have enjoyed the instruction of some good professors so far and a couple of classes in particular this year have helped me think critically about policy theory and analysis in the areas that interest me most.

It’s been challenging and enjoyable… but I am also eager to have paid work. Doing it all at once is not feasible so I’ve had to remind myself to be patient. It is easy to forget how much of my energy and attention still goes toward tending to my kids.

SunsetThe Baha’i fast has arrived again and not a day too soon as usual. Lately I’ve been feeling like I need something to bring me focus, like I’m all spread out in too many places and thoughts and don’t have enough skill or capacity to do any one thing right and completely for goodness sake. Distraction is a terrible disease. Fasting has a way of helping me peel away the excess mental stuff (sometimes very unwillingly) and come back around to what’s essential, like for survival’s sake, as a practical matter even. It means letting go of expectations and that can be wonderfully freeing. Reduced expectations are such a gift.

RanunculusOf course it also means spring is nearly here which is terribly exciting. Maybe this season I can actually manage to garden successfully after being a real flake about it last year (the awful tomato blight didn’t help matters). Or maybe I can repair the missing latticework underneath our front porch and back deck. Or take more walks. Maybe finally befriend that nice lady and her son who moved in down the block. Or get a dog. Or plant a couple of flowering trees that will survive this time—yes, I do really want to do that. Especially a cherry tree.

A very odd home invasion took place at my house yesterday, of the mild variety, where the intruder did not apparently realize she was engaged in something illegal, and in fact did not even seem to realize she had entered the wrong home.

I had stepped away from the house for ten or 15 minutes to collect my children from school a few blocks away. As is my habit, I had left my back door unlocked. This is perhaps an inadvisable habit (and certainly is now ended). I live in a neighborhood where I feel very comfortable. My neighbor, who grew up in his house, is so comfortable here that he has on occasion left his back door wide open when leaving the house for a while, so his cat and dog could wander freely in and out. I don’t take it that far. I had reasoned that only someone very determined to break in during daylight hours would go all the way to the rear of the home testing doors. And it was only for ten or 15 minutes.

In any case, when I returned home yesterday, there was a lady I don’t know standing in the living room and talking on a cell phone.

The first thing that struck me was this: both my cats were clustered at the back door looking as though they were suffocating for lack of air. I could see them through the glass panels. When I opened the door, they burst out, as though to say, “Get us out of here!”

The second thing that struck me was that I certainly had not expected to see someone standing in my house, let alone someone I don’t know. I stood stock still and put my hand to my chest, and might have uttered something like, “Oh my God!”

The woman, on her phone, and clacking around the hardwood floors in her high heels, said, “I don’t think I’m in the right house, Lindsay,” and then, “I gotta go,” and hung up. Then she said to me something along the same lines.

She was white, in her 40s or so, wearing a lot of black eyeliner, with bleached blonde hair about to her shoulders, and she smelled very, very strongly of stale cigarette smoke. She had placed her clutch purse on my kitchen counter.

The woman seemed quite harmless and was apparently not armed with a weapon, or she would have held it up at me at that point, I suppose, unless the group of children with me made her change her mind. I’ll never know. Her body language was not in any way threatening. She seemed confused. I came to this conclusion fairly immediately, and most of my physical sensation was of shock, not fear. I said, “You gave me quite a scare.” She was of slight build. If she wanted to try to take me, she was wearing the wrong shoes.

She said, “I’m so sorry. I must be in the wrong house.”

“What number are you looking for?”

Her answer was a number about four or five houses down. I informed her of my house number with some impatience in my voice, still wondering if this was some kind of con. I wanted to add something sarcastic about how the house number is on the front of the building on a sign that is very easy to read. The house number is not on the rear of the house. There is also nothing to indicate that my house is a public building. To the contrary. But I did not say these things. I just held my tongue and wondered if the lady was all there. She collected her purse.

“Are you okay?” I asked. It struck me that maybe she wasn’t sober. I had noticed her car parked in the neighbor’s driveway. Did she drive here not sober? Was she high on something? Her eyes seemed clear but her attitude spoke of a kind of lack of awareness of reality. She had just entered someone else’s home illegally. Do people really do that so often? Not in my experience. The normal thing to do is knock on the front door and if no one answers, you leave, or maybe at most slip a note inside.

She laughed me off and said, “Oh, sure.” I mean, I really think she was kind of laughing.

A few minutes later, I checked on her outside, peeking down the street to see where she had gone, and wondering whether I should call the police. Nothing was missing from my house that I could tell. Valuable items such as my laptop, television and assorted electronic gadgets were all sitting there untouched. It wasn’t as though she was a thief. She just seemed really confused and unaware of her surroundings.

She told me she was looking for her friend a few houses down. My neighbor, I wondered? Indeed, that’s where she had gone. She had parked her car in that neighbor’s driveway and was making her way to that front door. So she hadn’t fled.

I decided to go down there and talk to her a little more to satisfy my curiosity, and reassure myself that there was no need to involve the police in this strange encounter.

I knocked on the neighbor’s front door. A woman I didn’t recognize answered. I introduced myself as a neighbor down the street. The woman said, “Oh, I don’t live here; I’m just the decorator.”

The decorator? While passing the house a while earlier, to get the kids from school, I had seen this woman and a man setting up holiday lights on the front porch. A hired decorator? It sounded strange but the people who live at this place had certainly been getting a lot of hired work done in the last year—a new driveway, a new walled yard, some landscaping in back, all kinds of assorted things, so it didn’t seem too strange.

“Ah, okay,” I said. “Well, is there a woman here who accidentally came into my house a little while ago? I just wanted to talk to her for a minute.”

The confused woman was inside the house looking sheepish. She came out onto the porch and spoke with me. I explained to her that I was just seeking to understand what in the hell had happened, what had led her to reason that she should enter my home like that through an unlocked back door. I tried to relay to her that it was disturbing and that under normal circumstances I would contact the police about this kind of thing. Was there some reason why I shouldn’t do that now?

This was me trying to have a spine and not just be like, Are you alright, lady? Is there something I can do for you? Because usually I’m just a sucker. I wanted to tell her that, too.

Her explanation was so odd, although believable, I guess. She said she used to babysit at the house. Not mine, but the neighbor’s. The house is the same color as mine: purple. Admittedly, the neighbor’s house is a Barney kind of purple, and mine is a very faded, needs-a-paint-job-really-bad greyish-purple. All she seemed to remember about the house was that it was purple. So she parked next to my house—in a neighbor’s driveway, but in a location that would be correct for the house she was looking for—and helped herself, thinking she was going to find her decorator-friend inside.

In other words, I clarified, you didn’t get an answer at the front door, so you came around back, because you knew your friend was inside? She nodded.

And so I get this right, I continued, you just decided you could come inside because you knew your friend was expecting you? And would know you were going to come in? She said yes. I tried to let this sink in and believe this was true.

“It’s been a while since I was at the house,” she said, adding, “I’m really, really, really sorry. It was just a huge stupid mistake.”

She said she thinks the family has a nanny now, and when she saw me approach the back door with children, she figured I was the nanny. The house appeared to have children living in it and this was also what she expected. Once inside my house, she said, she had even called out to her friend, and waited for a moment, wondering where everyone was. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, I guess, until I showed up.

Maybe she had only been to that house once or twice before. She did have the address, and apparently didn’t look really close at the number in plain sight next to my front door. Some people don’t pay attention to details like that? And figure they can just enter anyway?

In other cultures, perhaps—not that I could name them at the moment—maybe this wouldn’t be such a big deal. In New England, and probably in any American city, and probably a good number of suburbs and countryside residences as well, it’s a huge deal. You just don’t do it. So I figured she must not have been all that sober. She seemed so darned loopy about it. That bothered me almost more than anything else! I wanted her to know that I could call the police and press charges. It’s not something you do lightly, enter someone’s home like that. For all I knew she was there to commit a crime. But what more could she really do than apologize? Her apology seemed sincere. What else was she supposed to do? Besides, I hate calling the police. I really hate it. I only want to do it if it’s necessary and important. Maybe I am desensitized. I really tried to think this one through.

But I laughed it off, thanked her for her apology, and walked away, having learned my lesson about unlocked doors. There are people who go around looking for them, and even if it’s an honest mistake to enter the house, it’s unsettling to return and discover such people standing there. Next time, neither she nor I might be so lucky to have it end peacefully and without incident.

A good family friend of mine does craniosaccral therapy, midwifery and various other health and healing practices. One time, when I was sharing with her some personal difficulties I was experiencing, she said matter-of-factly, “Oh, you’re having trouble with your throat chakra.” I gave her a quizzical look.


She explained that the throat chakra is the traditional seat of creativity and communication, being a midway point between the brain and the tongue.

The feeling as though one does not have “a voice” can also manifest in physical troubles in the neck and arms. I’ve had a nagging nerve problem in my neck and upper back that first showed up when I was about 13 in the middle of a game of tennis, something even a nerve specialist couldn’t resolve with the help of MRI scans. I would have what I came to call “neck attacks” when a nerve slid uncomfortably and perhaps got pinched, particularly when I was moving my body in a torqued position and applying some pressure, like during a tennis swing, or even while freestyle swimming. Years later I connected the problem to creative and vocal repression, which mounted tension in my neck.

Physical problems can also manifest in the teeth and gums. I’ve always had very healthy teeth, partly due to good genes, but once I was nurturing three babies simultaneously under challenging living conditions, my gums began to deteriorate on the same side of my body with the nerve problem. My healing-specialist friend not only attached this to the throat chakra issue, but also noted that the left side of the body is the “female” side, the one that supposedly “receives,” while the right is the “male” or “giving” side. So her analysis of my situation was that I was not getting what I needed (also a throat chakra issue) and was giving more than I had to offer. Fair enough.

I did my best to address the gum infection while breastfeeding my kids. I was told by a periodontist that I could only treat it properly with medication that would force me to stop breastfeeding. I opted for the longer and less certain form of treatment instead. Another professional later told me that what the periodontist told me was bogus. All the same, it led to a need for a root canal later, or so it seemed, since the problem area was all in one spot in my mouth. While all this was going on it didn’t totally occur to me that finding creative expression would somehow help. Health professionals don’t typically address people’s problems in that kind of holistic way. For them it was about antibiotics.

Just a few months ago I had to have the root canal redone because it was never completed by a previous dentist. We moved before I could have it finished and too many months passed before I got back into the dentist’s chair for it to just be capped with a crown. Having it redone was expensive and time-consuming. Infection had set in again. The dentist wanted to be very careful and thorough and not cover up an infected tooth. I was so frustrated with myself. And around the same time, I stopped blogging.

Only now do I fully realize—or so I fancy—that blogging has been such a vital creative outlet for me, including journalistic blogging.

I went on hiatus with Urban Compass at the start of the summer, wanting to give myself space to travel and have a busy time with my kids, not being pulled in several directions. Grad school was to start for me in the fall (I have begun with just one class this semester), and I wasn’t sure how that would consume my schedule (so far it has been a very light obligation). I felt it would be better to clean the slate and see what my schedule might look like with the priorities arranged a little better.

Blogging daily had begun to feel like an unpleasant chore, a tether, even while I enjoyed it terrifically overall. The sense of owing something to a reading audience could be tough when I was doing it for no compensation, especially when I was, for example, ill or busy with something else. I had a hard time justifying any future in the blogging. I wanted to see what my next steps might be, but when my time was consumed with writing or going to press conferences or editing photos, I could not look very far in the distance to have a picture for what next steps entailed.

There was little time to craft a business plan, or step back and surmise whether a master’s degree could be of some help, or whether I ought to drop it all and just apply for a job somewhere. Blogging felt like busy work, but it was meeting a crucial need for me. I knew that but I was also concerned that maybe it was filling that need in a busy-work kind of way, fogging up the brain space rather than clarifying it. I felt susceptible, at times, to what other people wanted me to do with the blog rather than what I wanted to do with it; this began to feel like an interference in that elusive creative process.

While I may function like a journalist at times, I am essentially a creative person, and I resist being told what to do or how to do it (this is one reason why newsroom work probably doesn’t suit me well).

Sometimes as a show of resistance to feelings of constraint, I entertain the idea of dropping everything to see where it all falls, what’s really important, and how much dropping it all ends up putting other things at risk. (Ask my husband sometime how much fun it is to be married to a person such as me in that regard.) At various critical junctures in my life, I’ve pushed that willingness to drop everything to a brink of some kind or another, and sometimes have managed to get needed attention, and some space to focus on what really matters to me as a result. As I’ve matured, I have gotten slightly better at being less abrupt about managing that process, which is at root about knowing one’s needs and being able to voice them—back to that theme.

Often I wish I weren’t this kind of person. That’s probably a dead-end road. It is hard to accept how rebellious I can be sometimes, but I guess underneath the rebellion or the resistance is something much more tender, which is a need to create and express, and that need can serve a useful function in society. Maybe not one that earns much of a living, but at least something that can make meaning.

My challenge now is to figure out whether going back to blogging will be good for me, and how I can do it in a way that balances my civic interests with my creativity and independent streak as well as a possible economic relevance.

In the meantime, I’m studying the US Constitution for my public policy class; I have a hell of a lot to say about it, and no real vessel to say it all at the moment (is this the right place? I have no idea); and I’m sitting on a ton of ideas about society, government, religion, neighborhoods, law, education, parenting and the arts. If I don’t find a voice for these thoughts and whatnot, all my teeth will probably fall out of my head, my gums will all get infected, and my neck and back will freeze up from nerve atrophy, so I had better get on it.

Clearing channels

12 July 2008

I went outside to weed and water in my front yard this morning, intending only to do it for a few minutes. I knew the plants were thirsty and had been for days. There was no particular sense to it, except just some visceral connection I fancy I establish with plants I watch. I start to care for them.

Two hours later, I was still pulling weeds from the cracks between the enormous slabs of slate sidewalk in front of my house, and essentially playing with water to try to make everything clean. This is what I do—I make way for other things. When stuff is in the way I like to unblock it. I can’t help it.

Stump.What was remarkable to me was that I had somehow entered “the zone” while caring for the front yard, which I thought was an impossibility. Gardening involves bending over a lot and my street is busy with traffic. Whenever I’m out there doing stuff, I feel like I’m on stage, with no big old oak tree to hide behind since it was chopped down last winter. The old trees across the street were chopped down some time ago too, judging by the stumps there, so our homes just look like big bald bright spots on a street otherwise very full with lovely trees.

Our stump makes me sad, in part because of that contrast. I feel like the ugly duckling on the block. It’s a bummer, but I’m not really doing anything about it yet.

In earlier bouts with water and making way for things, I have been known to invest an amount of time moving rocks and dirt around to help water flow or drain.

One day in early spring a year or two ago, River and I visited a stream in Springfield’s Forest Park that leads to a pond. It is in a lovely, quiet setting with a couple of paths nearby and places to sit and ponder the universe. When I saw how clogged the stream was with fallen branches and accumulated leaves from the previous autumn, I dove right into begin clearing it, straddling the water, bracing myself on the surrounding rocks, and reaching all around to collect what I could. The water was frigid but refreshing. I deeply enjoyed seeing how much faster it flowed when I opened a path.

More recently, we were visiting a park near our house for a quick stop at the playground for the kids. A pair of water fountains had the water running, but their basins were full, so that every time you went to take a drink, the water spilled out all over your feet with nowhere to drain. I noticed the basins had been filled with sand from a nearby sandbox. Someone had evidently done this on purpose. The drains were quite clogged but it seemed like something that could be undone, if a person put a little time into it. As I was attempting to remove the sand, my companions (adults and children alike) all stood waiting for me, watching, and I heard River trying to explain my activity. It was then I realized, with some embarrassment, what a pattern it is in my life, maybe just an extension of certain kinds of childhood play.

It helps me if it’s activity I can do with my own two hands. Our tree stump seems out of my reach somehow, although once it’s gone I will feel more like I can assess what the empty space could be. People give me suggestions for what to do about it, and I just sit on the ideas. I’m somehow not quite ready to clear this particular clog in the landscape. I don’t know why. Its time will come.

While I tend to look at the back yard more often these days, which is looking better and better now that we have the poison ivy relatively under control, it’s easy to forget about the front. There is more of a relentless, hot sun at this time of year in the front yard, and it has these neglected, blighted aspects that make me not want to look at it as much. And that makes me not want to dwell in it or soak it in. And in order to clear parts of it up, I need to sort of hang out in the space and get in that zone I mentioned. It’s a right-brained exercise—my favorite kind—where I just move around doing stuff and my mind lets go and two hours later the job is done, and I don’t even remember doing all of it.

I’ve been trying to encourage myself to care for the places that have the potential to look much nicer. Having a nicer house and yard than I used to, I’ve grown a little complacent about those places. I’ve gotten lazier about weeding. Well, then again, I’ve always been a little lazy about weeding, who am I kidding.

The biggest channel-clearing effort of the year, for us so far anyway, was the process of hiring contractors to dig up a bunch of our back yard and install PVC pipes underground along with two yard drains. The ultimate purpose of this work was to stem the flow of storm water and general runoff away from our basement and out to the street instead.

In a heavy rain, our basement door would turn into a sort of Niagara Falls-like scenic viewing spot. The sound of the falls was quite audible from anywhere in the house during such a time. If we weren’t joking about turning the basement into a hydro power factory with turbines capturing all that energy, we would have been crying, but then that would have just added to the unfortunate flow.

Aside from that problem—and the shoddy patch jobs people had done repeatedly on the basement floor to cope with the wet—the issue with all this water was that it also caused plenty of wood rot in several locations. The house is not well-ventilated, and that needs to be addressed at the roof as well as in the basement; not doing so can cause longer-term problems with moisture. Also, storms would cause the back yard to flood. After days of dryness, the yard would still be muddy, including at the top of the rather tall hill our yard becomes at the very back. Clearly something was very wrong; something was backed up, maybe in multiple places; this was conveyed to us after a home inspection and before we purchased. We knew what we were getting into, just not exactly what we would do to fix it.

The way people have typically coped with water flow in this part of the neighborhood, it seems, has been to allow it to come in through the basement, and make a way for it to pass on out again. Sort of like a house on stilts, I guess, except without the stilts or any particular design that enabled the flow. Water would just get stuck, and along with it would come plenty of sediment, which would pile up, and over a period of 20 years, you have a new normal as to where the ground is.

So much sediment piled up in the rear of our house that the foundation wall around the basement was no longer at grade. Instead it was below grade, with the sill just at grade. This is one reason why Niagara Falls would pour into our basement in a heavy storm. The water would pool at the back, and then just pour right over the top of the foundation wall, beneath door frames or windows, or over them, rotting them of course, and causing whatever other chaos water can cause when it has its way and no one has given proper thought to where it ought to go, really.

The front of our house seems to be sloped slightly uphill from the back, even while the back is also a steep hill. Sitting in our own little dale like this, naturally it’s going to be very wet unless we do something about it, so we did, or we have been, and we are still trying.

Early spring around here involved a lot of digging with machinery and tearing-up of some old dead bushes and wanna-be trees (hallelujah!). The drains and pipes went in and then we couldn’t wait to see what would happen in a heavy storm. As it turned out, the foundation wall still leaks like crazy but no more Niagara Falls. The water has somewhere to go. Namely, that is, through the pipes which now connect properly to the storm drain. The old clay pipes, which were probably about as old as the house (well over 100 years), were smashed and broken and useless underground. There had been some vain hope that we could connect to them and use them again but we were wisely advised to use PVC pipe instead and just start over.

Ideally, I would have loved to attach rain barrels to all of our gutter downspouts, but the flooding and wood rot really had to be addressed and that meant, for now, attaching ourselves to the storm drain to try to get things flowing again. The last thing we want is for our house to become a swamp once and for all.

Now we have new grass growing in the back yard, without the mud pit, where previously there had been a weird mechanism installed to try to get the water to flow elsewhere. Along the edge of the back deck, at the start of the back yard, there were some sickly juniper shrubs, which in turn were surrounded by a curving, sorry-looking miniature channel of gravely cement, done very much by hand and rather unfinished. This channel was apparently supposed to redirect water and get it to go to a big hole that had been dug next to a giant, gangly rhododendron by the driveway. If only the cement channel had actually reached the driveway it might have worked a little, but instead it just made any water it managed to collect (this being an area that would pool with water, and it didn’t flow much) directly into the ground underneath the deck, where there was a growing sinkhole.

No more of that. Just new grass, and no more sinkhole. Much better. Doing this without machinery would have been difficult indeed. A neighbor of ours told us as much, having tried to re-grade around their foundation; I was told that the soil here is so clay-like and heavy that it takes much longer to move earth than one might expect at first.

So my attentions on the sidewalk in front feel rather petty in comparison to some of the above. All the same, I end up fiddling around to see where the water flows and I wonder why it doesn’t make it to driveways on either side. Water on our sidewalk simply pools at the center, right about where the giant tree stump is located. Pulling weeds brought up some dirt, and trying to spray this off the sidewalk just made the muddy puddle I was standing in even bigger. So it took me a long time to examine the situation and try to work out the relationship between the water and the topography of the undulating sidewalk, like teeth or tectonic plates that have shifted a lot over the years and now overlap in unpredictable patterns. Water’s movement reveals secrets in all of that, if only I could remember what they are, having been in some zone for a while there.

Much more dramatic is the experience of standing on our front lawn and looking up at the house during a strong rain storm. Water pummels down over the gutters (which need to be cleaned) and into the yard on either side of the porch stairs. Over time, the force of this water pounding the earth has caused two almost symmetrical channels to be carved into the dirt, each reaching out diagonally to their respective sides, where the water can keep traveling, flowing on to driveways on either side of the house and then out to the street. It took us a while to realize these channels were there; that the unevenness in the yard has actually been caused by the way water has been behaving on our roof. At least there is no shortage of work to do—we won’t soon run out of channel-clearing projects for me. If we did, I don’t know what I would do with myself.

One of my kids is getting pretty good on his skateboard. Here he is making his way to the neighbors’ house for a cookout last weekend. This video bit doesn’t really show off his mad skillz, but you can get a sense of his confidence. When we toured a bike path near Worcester the following day, he was daredevil enough to take some fairly long downhill slopes—and he has no helmet, knee pads or elbow pads at this point (our bad).

We hung out with the neighbors for a while during their annual cookout, a kind of official kick-off to the summer season. It was mostly an extended family affair, with few other neighbors invited, if any. Our kids have become good buddies with their kids, and it was also a birthday celebration, so not really like a block party.We didn’t really know anyone, and people were drinking a lot, cans of beer and soda as well as bottles of Hennessy. A hip-hop radio station blared out of the garage while one of the older sons grilled a bunch of meat—barbequed chicken, hot dogs, all-beef burgers. The fifth-grade daughter was really nice to me, asking me what I’d like to drink and offering me some food.

My highly-sensitive (HSP) son, who has recently declared himself to be a vegetarian, instantly eschewed the entire thing, after hearing some foul language and being treated like a nuisance by the 12-year-old boys present. The birthday boy himself had just turned 12, and ordinarily they get along fine, but with his friends there my kid just felt totally not part of the scene. He got back on his bike and steered his way home, and we only found out because our daughter came into the house, where we were socializing and watching a basketball game, and informed us that our kid had just taken off down the street.

He’s been super moody lately, which I find especially difficult because I’ve also been super moody lately.

He developed a problem with seams in his clothing and tags on his shirts some years ago, after being a very happy-go-lucky toddler who did not seem bothered by anything. Emotional sensitivity set in dramatically when he started preschool and the clothing sensitivity issues followed closely after that. Now he gets stuck on certain types of clothing, whether it’s texture or structural composition; he’s enormously particular. Over the winter he decided turtlenecks were the most comfortable shirt to wear and for a while there was only one pair of pants he would put on. I couldn’t find more turtlenecks to save my life, but we finally ordered more online, only to see the weather get much warmer. Now he won’t wear anything else.

The decision to become a vegetarian has also set him apart, and so at a very warm-day neighborly gathering where he felt out of place age-wise, insisted on wearing a turtleneck, apparently detested the foul language being used (it could have been “darn it” or “crap” for all I know), and would not eat any meat (which was being served up in large quantity), this was just a total disaster for him, and we parents are left trying to piece together the situation like Sherlock Holmes trying to understand what propelled him into this dark mood of grumpy behavior and how to get him out of it again.

Meanwhile I was suffering from allergies but didn’t realize it yet, so my head was all foggy and my brain was wrapped in gauze. I felt like I had a social disorder—I was terrible at meeting new people. I couldn’t make small talk. I felt a little like I was on something… I could just sit there, staring into space and I would be alright. Taking allergy medication only makes this more of my kind of reality. I just wanted to watch the little kids run in circles and get into power struggles over small toys—it was totally entertaining. This didn’t exactly make me feel good about my place at the cookout, however, so I started to feel paranoid that I was being anti-social. So I wanted to run away, too.

River took off to see to HSP Boy, who had gone home. They had a difficult discussion for a while and eventually returned, only to have HSP Boy turn around and go home again for some other sensitivity reason. This time, I followed him, and managed to persuade him to eat some leftovers. To my surprise he happily ate leftover moo shu vegetables from our Chinese dinner out the night before. This is mostly a dish of shredded cabbage and carrot. I added rice, which he enjoyed a lot. He is a funny child.

The Chinese dinner out was an effort to celebrate a few milestones in the family. I successfully submitted an application for grad school. River got a raise. Our daughter had performed that night at the end of a week-long children’s theater camp. She had a blast and managed to fake an English accent all week after meeting a fellow camper (a slightly older girl) who had changed her name and was also faking an accent. It was a really annoying week and all of us in the family were thoroughly sick of the fake accent by Friday. So maybe the dinner out was partly to celebrate the end of the camp and hopefully the end of the accent as well. We decided our daughter was definitely a drama queen in training, but we’ve known that since she was two.

The great thing is she is making friends, and the neighbors are an important part of that.

My son and I eventually made it back to the cookout (eating helped, another HSP thing), and the mood there had relaxed a whole lot since an hour or two earlier. People had eaten, and it was nearly time to bust out some birthday cake. The basketball game was almost done, which would release a fair number of men who had hunkered down at the television inside. Some more people who were not family had shown up, including the hostess’s lawyer boss and his wife and two kids. Everyone was kind of mixing it up a little more. Some of the kids started trying to play jump rope on the grass in the back yard, but they couldn’t synchronize the turning of the rope.

After birthday cake and ice cream, two nice ladies offered to turn the rope and quickly realized pavement was needed, so they brought the whole show out to the front sidewalk. This was a big hit and really helped bring the kids of different ages together. It was fun to watch some of the women enjoy watching and even trying out a little double dutch themselves. They began to get organized and let the kids try it out one at a time. Some of them were really good. For some this was a first double dutch experience. I like to think all the neighbors got a good show for a little while if they were peeking out their windows.


You can see my kid in the turtleneck at right. I don’t know when he is going to give this up. All weekend he was riding his bike around in the turtleneck and sweating a ton.

These neighbors were really nice to invite us over for their cookout and I hope we get to come again. Next time we won’t feel so awkward.

A long way from home

28 March 2008

Our family took a trip a couple of months ago far, far away to the west coast of the US so we could visit my brother and his family. He’s a stay-at-home dad raising three children close in age to my own. His wife is a family practitioner at a local clinic and sometimes works long hours, but we still managed to spend some stretches of time with her during our visit, while she also had to leave often to tend to a slew of newborn babies among other patients.

The visit was challenging in no small part because it was all the way across the country for us, but also because it is that time of year when the weather in the Pacific Northwest is perpetually rainy, chilly and overcast. We weren’t headed west for the sunshine and warmth, anyway, but still the cool damp made it occasionally a bit harder to wrangle six restless small people who are better suited to a wide open field rather than the interior of a four-bedroom home.

When we started off, the kids were terribly excited to get on the plane. This was essentially their first airplane trip, and it was going to be a big one. I had already tested their capacity for a long trip last summer, when we drove for 12 straight hours to Ohio.

To make it a little easier we splurged on a direct flight from Boston to Portland on Alaska Airlines. This way, we would be a lot less likely to lose our checked luggage, and we really needed to check our luggage to make it easier to navigate through the airport and on the plane itself. Also, we wouldn’t have to make it through more airports than absolutely necessary, and the entire trip would be shorter, too. It was worth it.

Stunned by late arrivalWe arrived very late at night, having picked up a rental car at a strange hotel rendezvous point a good distance from the airport. It happened to be Christmas night, and the E-Z rental car desk we had to reach was set up next to a back door at a Holiday Inn. To get there, we had to catch a shuttle, and we were very disoriented about the whole process, since it was way past our bedtime.

The rental car desk was an odd place, and looked like it was hastily set up to look authentic, as though it was all part of some strange con. The main area of the hotel smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, and included a swimming pool, some seating areas, and access to a bar (where the smoke must have been coming from). A nice young woman at the desk, which was poorly lit and strangely situated so close to the back door entrance, gave us a key for our Mercury Milan.

The drive seemed interminable, although it was really only about two hours, and we were hallucinating all the way down I-5, what River termed “Hypnosis Highway.” It was long and dark and defiantly as straight as could be (not good for us New Englanders), and of course we drove through pounding sheets of rain that came and went. It was blinding rain, and we were accompanied by what seemed like infinite numbers of big trucks that spewed more wet at our windshield. We were lucky to arrive intact.

Once we finally slept, we relaxed and tried to deal with the fact that we were all awake by 6:30 am or so, bodies still on east coast time. Sunrise was also relatively later in Eugene. By about 8:00 am, it was evident that somewhere, the sun had risen, but there was only a vague blue glow outside to let us know.

Before long, six children were hopping about and fighting with wooden swords or playing with Game Boys. My older nephew demonstrated karate moves and attempted to teach my older son.

Some order was maintained when my brother taught the kids how to play Labyrinth. We’re big on games. He pulled out a lot of them during our stay. One big bookshelf in the living room is dedicated pretty much entirely to games, which the kids can get out and mess around with themselves. My niece was more interested in dressing up in various costumes and running in circles talking excitedly or following the main action of all the other kids.

Eventually it became clear that getting outside would help, so we took a walk from the house up to the top of a nearby hill. Winding around behind the houses in the neighborhood is this great paved pathway that climbs uphill and through some woods.

A swath of the woods is gone now to make way for new development, but the path is still charming and mostly easy to navigate. There are parts where it’s excessively steep, but since Eugene doesn’t get much ice or snow, it’s navigable pretty much year-round. There had been a touch of snow at the top of the hill on the morning of our walk, but at the bottom of the hill it was light rain and slush.

I was amazed by the lichen-covered trees in town. Moss and lichen grow on everything in this part of Oregon, which seems to remain just warm enough for it all through the winter. Actually it seems there is little competition otherwise, so the lichen and moss can really take off.

My brother told me moss-scraping is a major industry in high demand. People need help keeping it off their roofs and out of cracks and so on. He said, remember that first sketch in the movie Creepshow, the one with Stephen King in it?

I had forgotten all about that sketch actually, but as we joked about it I had a vivid memory of his character enveloped in the green stuff that oozes and grows out of a meteor that lands in his back yard. “That’s what Eugene is like,” my brother said. Eew.

Then again, it’s got a treasure trove of fantastic varieties of moss and lichen to study, and that seems to please my brother, a currently unemployed middle school science teacher.

He bragged that his three-year-old daughter knows the names of many moss varieties, which I have to admit did impress me.

Over the next couple of days we spent a fair amount of time in downtown Eugene, visiting a public park on a freezing wet day for a pleasant stroll and hassling the local geese. We also stopped twice at the new, handsome public library.

The park was nearly flooded during our visit. It is designed to handle a lot of water, with a lake-like pool area that can handle excess water. An island in the middle of it has some benches for sitting and can be accessed by raised pads of concrete. When the park floods heavily, however, it is possible to become stranded on the island.

The local river adjacent to the park had an immensely strong current, and no major barrier to prevent insane children from deciding to go for a swim. (Fortunately they didn’t go for it that day.) There is also a lovely suspension foot bridge over the river, leading to more of the park up the river.

The kids really enjoyed a model of the solar system at the park, which demonstrates the scale of the planets around the sun in both size and distance. Mercury, Venus and Earth were all clustered somewhat nearby, scattered around the lake area, but to reach Jupiter we had to trek through the cold over the foot bridge and up the path for about half a mile. To reach other planets, like Pluto, we would have had to bike up the path about five miles, which we weren’t up for on that cold, rainy day.

Everywhere we looked, things were so green, it just didn’t feel like December to me, but it was chilly enough that I could believe it.

When we visited the library on day three of our visit, we toured around downtown a little bit beforehand, and I was able to take a few photos of things that caught my eye.

I am a sucker for unusual storefronts and was quite captivated by Bruce Lee’s Martial Arts Supply and Shoe Close-Out Center. I also liked the public plants I observed in huge pots along the sidewalk.

Downtown was interesting—it was clear that significant money has been invested in some of the cosmetic aspects of the streetscape recently, including some public art installations meant to blend in with light poles and the sidewalk. But then there’s also plenty of blight mixed right in, and one gets the sense that the place is in transition.

A lot of the people I saw walking around in the middle of the day were somewhat punked-out white teenagers vacationing from school and looking for places to smoke cigarettes in groups, standing outside in the cold, intermittent rain. There was also the occasional business person type, but not many, at least not in this section of downtown.

I was surprised to learn that Eugene has a population just over 153,000, which makes it almost exactly the same size as Springfield or Hartford, cities I examine closely these days. It felt somehow smaller than that to me, judging only by appearances, and doesn’t have the same kind of central downtown I’m used to that really shouts out “central business district.” River, on the other hand, was surprised the population isn’t bigger, since the city is so spread out and seems like it could handle more people.

We did eventually get to see the entire width of the city since my brother lives on one side and my uncle and aunt live on the other.

When we stopped by the library at one point, our purpose was to catch a free magic show, Invincible Vince. He was very entertaining for a while and successfully distracted us from the cold and the wet.

We also used my brother’s library card to take out books and videos. My brother has a TV at home but no cable access—he prefers to watch everything pretty much either on the computer or by renting and borrowing DVDs and tapes.

On our last day visiting we trekked west to Florence, where we had seafood at Mo’s (a regional chain), which sits on a pier overlooking a tidal river, and then continued on our way to the beach so we could have a look at the Pacific Ocean.

The weather was awful, but not quite as bad as forecast, and certainly not as bad as it was the previous day with high winds and pelting rain. In spite of the cold, my brother wore his shorts, as he can be counted upon to do even if the temperatures are extremely chilly; he seems to have come from a line of sea lions, which makes me wonder about my own lineage.

As soon as we arrived at the beach, which was a beautiful rocky inlet downhill from a lighthouse, some of our kids went dashing for the water. They didn’t realize what they were in for, contending with the tide.

A tidal river lets out into the ocean at this point along the shore, and competes a bit, flow-wise, with the ocean’s tide coming in. The meeting bodies of water appeared to have some kind of rhythm going where the river would push out the tide for a while, extending the wet beach further out, and then the ocean would figure it was its turn and would pummel its way onshore very suddenly, after doing a few gentle ebbs and flows further out to accommodate the river.

The curious pattern, which you notice only after watching it for a while, was totally undetectable to the children arriving at the beach like eager, frolicking puppies, so as soon as they went out to greet the waves with such joy and elation, they found themselves turning around and hightailing it back up to the rocky portion of the beach, only to be overcome by the waves in what looked like a freak accident, and a couple of them got thoroughly soaked, pants and shoes and all.

This was indeed unfortunate since we had planned this part of the outing to be the “dry” and “clean” portion, after which we would go for a wet hike along what was fondly referred to as “the hobbit trail,” and then have the kids change into the dry clothes we brought for all of them, assuming they would need it after the wet and mud of that particular hike.

For them to become soaked right off the bat was a wrench in the works, and it was rather chilly although not quite chilly enough to snow; this made it harder to figure out what to do and how long to stay and whether we had made the right decision in the first place to take this beach trip.

In any case, we were there, and the kids were wet. We decided to let our older son change into his dry clothes (he is an HSP after all), while my brother and his wife decided to have their very wet older son cope with his wet clothes, and save the dry ones for later.

As it turned out, we cut the trip short after making the muddy trip to the top of the hill to see the lighthouse, deciding we were all thoroughly wet and cold and exercised sufficiently, and we had taken plenty of time to do what we’d done so far and really we just wanted to go home now. Outdoor treks can be like that, especially in December, even if the scenery is quite lovely.

Walking uphill to the lighthouse was stellar, with a lush gorge below us where the water entered and churned and created a lot of foam. The pressure of the waves repeatedly entering the small space generated air directed upwards, which would force giant puffs of foam straight up in regular gusts.

These foam puffs floated around and a lot of them landed in a general area in front of the historic residential building near the lighthouse. The green lawn was magically dotted with all these little bits of white.

Out on the ocean, competing warm and cold fronts of air generated an ominous looking dark cloud directly in front of us. We speculated that we were on the prow of a ship and some evil pirates were ahead, bearing straight for our ship.

The sun attempted to come out and then would get swallowed up again by dark and angry-looking low, grey clouds, only to emerge again even brighter.

By the time we reached the beach again, preparing to head home, the sun had come out in full, and there was a thin layer of mist surrounding us, lit up by the gentle late afternoon rays. The beach looked transformed.

Probably puberty

7 March 2008

At some point, while I was immersed in crash courses on parenting in the initial midst of having three babies born back-to-back, I remember sage advice from a class I once took at a parenting resource center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The class was always about parenting in general but the particular focus that day was on developmental stages.

The center, known as Families First, was just about to relocate from a shabby former school to a brand new, enormous, custom-designed facility in the woods off Route 1. I was experimenting with attending their weekly class held at 9:30 Wednesday mornings.

The shabbiness was a bit odd—seating furniture was very assorted and run-down, and the place had the feel of a movie set for a film about a high school where a mass murderer attacks and slowly hunts down the students one by one, messy chalkboard, flickering fluorescent lights and dingy windows included.

In such a setting, it was a little bit difficult to let my daughter go to the classroom next door, where social workers provided free child care and snacks. My kids have occasionally been reluctant to part with me, but more likely I’m the one disinclined to let them go. One of the early defining traits of my eldest child is her willingness to go wandering off. Taking family walks through the woods, as a toddler, she would march ahead of us until we couldn’t see her anymore, and she seemed to find this entertaining. This trait has only matured and is reaching a kind of full bloom.

Since the norm at Families First was for the children to separate from the parents so the parents could have any hope of thinking straight, I complied and my daughter, at two, coped well enough. I kept my little nursing babe with me, already pregnant with my third as well. Such a condition would often lend itself to a great deal of sweaty discomfort, as my body was a kind of nerve center not just for itself but also for two (or even three) others most of the time. My brain wasn’t sure how to focus on something like a class, where a reasonable instructor who spoke full sentences made attempts to appeal to my higher intelligence. But her words are still with me, somehow.

The class was about how kids develop differently, with varying needs to meet, from birth to two, two to five, five to eight or so, and onward. The instructor, a social worker as well, scribbled on the chalkboard to show us these varying age ranges and help make her point clearer.

At birth, she said, infants need to establish trust. The parents listening were told this was a baby’s main “developmental task.” If trust is not established, she said, the child will continue to grow up and will be seeking out this basic need, not always for the better or in obvious ways. This is why you take care of a crying child’s needs and try to figure out what will make the baby feel peaceful. The baby needs to know you’re there and can trust someone.

After that, in toddlerhood, the social worker told us, children are looking to establish independence. This is why power struggles between parents and little two-year-olds are so common. Children are looking to assert themselves and find the boundaries of the authority their parents hold. They need room to do this, and also clear and loving limits. Their “developmental task” is to feel that sense of self and capacity and separateness.

By school-age, about five years old, we were told, children are ready to start understanding the difference between right and wrong.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be told, “Don’t hit your friend in the eye with the stick,” when they’re three. Setting the limit is important and they should be taught why respecting other people matters at that age. But their capacity to absorb it is limited. Mostly they are looking to find their edges and boundaries in toddlerhood. They don’t necessarily understand why they shouldn’t hit their friends or grab toys or stick forks in outlets or yank the cat’s tail or dump all the milk out onto the floor. As toddlers, they hear a parent’s corrections and understand that he or she is upset or is setting, or failing to set, a limit. By the time they’re five or so, they are considered developmentally ready to begin to comprehend what those corrections mean and how to make moral choices.

A toddler who doesn’t make mistakes and test limits can’t necessarily accomplish the developmental task of learning independence. If a toddler mimics an adult and pretends to do the right thing all the time there are probably going to be issues later. Something similar can probably be said for a toddler who never has limits set but is always treated as though everything he does is just fine and he is just being his free and wild and creative self.

The notion that moral education can begin at around the age of five really grabbed hold of me. With such young children I felt like I was facing an eternity of three years before my oldest child would be anywhere near ready to learn that stuff. I would be dealing with trust- and independence-seekers forever. The task of setting constant limits faced me like a giant rock wall to scale and I had to carry groceries and children in slings the whole while, with no rest or reprieve.

One more thing, the social worker told us: when children seem unhappy it is often because they are looking to achieve mastery, and this can happen at any given age. Power struggles will result from one of two things: either there is a real need to meet or the child wants clarified authority. When there is a need to meet sometimes it can indicate readiness for some new mastery or skill. Kids are sponges, they need mastery and constant exposure to new knowledge. Make sure they are always getting a chance to master something.

Now that my children have somehow all arrived at the age where learning right or wrong has become the very feature and centerpiece of our lives, I wonder what drug I was on that I was so eagerly anticipating it and so quick to wish away the physical exhaustion of diaper-changing and nursing constantly. I knew mothers who said parenting teens was much harder and more challenging than parenting babies and toddlers, but I didn’t really believe them (this is a mother’s developmental task: learning to listen and believe and learn and appreciate). Rather, I always figured it would get easier as they aged. And certainly, as far as the physical demand of parenting, that has proven to be true, but because the physical demands are so intense that they tend to cloud out notions of what the other demands sometimes are in the early years, one can easily overlook the idea that other challenges will come into play, just as forcefully.

Somehow the groundwork I laid in approaching meeting the needs and accommodating the developmental tasks early on are being mirrored now, while I juggle what’s right or wrong in parenting my children, and how that ends up reflecting on them and teaching them moral choices.

My daughter still wants to be able to go off on her own. I test the waters with her. I tell her the first time I took the city bus by myself, I was nine years old, and a bit scared and reluctant. “You’re nine,” I told her at the time. “Would you take the bus by yourself?” She looked at me sideways and shook her head. I breathed a silent sigh of relief that she wouldn’t challenge me on that one anytime soon.

Another example: this school year, I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring some kids home from school immediately when it lets out, while also returning to the school an hour later for kids who stay behind for a given supplemental activity. Whether to drag everyone with me or not was a prime question I had to address, when they had already gotten home and settled into homework or a computer game with their shoes and coats off. “Can I stay home by myself?” my daughter asked. I wouldn’t have suggested it out of the blue, but kids ask and show that their interest in independence didn’t end at five.

It happened again today, when we were getting ready to go to school. My daughter, grumpy as ever over a dispute with her brother regarding a borrowed book they both want to read simultaneously, but not actually together, requested the chance to walk to school alone slightly ahead of us. I told her that was fine. Mostly for my own reasons. I didn’t want to walk with such a grumpy person. But in addition to that, she was simply ready, and had done it a few times before. Usually she wants to walk together, when she’s in a better mood. Walking alone would probably help her clear her mind before arriving at school.

So she left and I didn’t see any trace of her when we followed a little while afterwards. It was probably too late to catch up to her.

As we hiked up the sidewalk on the steepest part of our walk, my seven-year-old son remarked on how sore and tired his legs always feel when we head out to school. I looked down on him disbelievingly, wondering how such a new person could feel so regularly tired.

He demonstrated a bit of a funny, hunkered-down, lunge-walk for a moment, reminiscent of Monty Python’s silly walks. “When I walk like this,” he said, “it really makes my legs hurt.”

Really,” I said. “Hmm… I wonder what’s making your legs hurt.”

“Probably puberty,” he said.

I love to host people at my house so it’s been a really long, difficult transition of not doing that, and for no particularly good reason except some belief that houses have to be in perfect condition before it’s alright to invite folks over. Since we’ve been renovating our kitchen ever since we moved into our new house, I figured we had to hold off on hosting any gatherings.

That changed just recently when I said to heck with it, we’re holding a potluck dinner, and I don’t care if the kitchen looks really cruddy and the old, rotting counter we’re throwing out is warped and the lath is showing because we tore off all the plaster on the walls in a few places. New drywall is up and mudded and sanded and painted with primer and it all looks pretty raw even in the parts that are nearly done. Temporary counters (very unattractive medium-density fiberboard we have repurposed over the years for many uses) are screwed down onto our new IKEA base cabinets. The kitchen really looks like hell but some who came tonight said, “Oh, what a beautiful house!” conveniently ignoring the crazy walls here and there and the wacky color of rose that adorns the entry room and stair well as one walks in. Folks were so polite about that stuff and it did help me.

But I’m still a freak about wanting things just so, being as some of us like to put it politely, an HSP, which stands for highly sensitive person. It is not that I am a “type A” but rather that I am constantly worried about whether others are comfortable or whether spaces are arranged in a manner that makes things efficient and easy for everyone. Is the music too loud, too soft, too drumming, too untextured? Is this elderly guest tired and in need of a seat? Is this toddler thirsty—and will this cup work for her? Are the children yelling too much and making parents concerned that they’re insane and dangerous? Are the adults mingling and friendly? Is there enough food? For the vegetarians?

While trying to chat with a mom of three who I was meeting for the first time (just about everyone who came over I was meeting for the first time, it seemed), her children were squabbling over where to sit or stand, and this was really very distracting for me, so I had a hard time with the conversation because I kept darting around trying to find little kid chairs to make these children more comfortable and reduce the distraction. I probably looked silly, but that is the way I am, and it does tend to make me very easily distracted in general.

I spent a while wondering whether our house has enough room to accommodate whoever would show up to this potluck we felt ready to risk (not having a “finished” house yet and all). I rearranged a few chairs, then put them back, then convinced myself that no one would really want to sit down anyway. As it worked out, the people who needed to sit, sat, and those that didn’t, stood or managed some other way. There were a lot of kids of all ages and they managed okay too. I liked it.

Maybe we’ll have more potlucks more often. It’s nice now, too, to live in a neighborhood where I am not concerned about other people being concerned about their safety in order to be able to park and walk to the house. In my last neighborhood this was an issue.

One person who came told me she’s “in the ghetto” when I asked where she lives. She didn’t even really want to tell me where. I said, “You mean you live in Hartford?” (A lot of people who came to our house tonight are from other towns nearby.) She eventually told me roughly what street she lives on and shared that it’s tough because her husband serves in the military and she’s at home by herself with children. I could relate to the frustration of not feeling safe in your own neighborhood, and having that desire to escape. She sounded unhappy, like she can’t wait to get out of Dodge, get herself an education and move on up.

Part of me felt bad at that point for having moved to a nicer neighborhood. I’m always feeling guilty about that when I dwell on it, as though I should always strive to live somewhere that feels unsafe. I don’t know why I have that complex. My life is a lot less stressful now that I’m able to walk around by myself without constantly looking over my shoulder—even though when I did look over my shoulder all the time in my old ‘hood, there was never any trouble for me, directly, personally. Just lots of vibes that something, anything, probably bad, could happen at any time, and the strong suspicion that drug deals were happening on a perpetual basis right around me, on the sidewalk in front of my house, and so on, and how long would it take before it impacted me? Wasn’t it already impacting me? And even so, I didn’t want to leave, and felt an affinity for the neighborhood and the people living next door who were trying to be lawful, good neighbors, because there had to be more of them than there were drug dealers. They had to be in the silent majority.

Now I can invite my friends from other towns to come over and not feel like I’m intimidating them or scaring them away, so that’s nice, although that isn’t everything life is about either. I miss the silent majority of good people in the old neighborhood. In my new place, people almost seem to take a bit of comfort and safety for granted in comparison, which can lead to complacency and an obsession with traffic calming over the value of community bonding. Then again, in almost any diverse neighborhood there is a struggle over how to bond as a community, because people tend to want to hide, and we all feel awkward, with our cultural equivalent of two left feet.

One guest who lives close by shared with me her stories of having to call the police fairly often when she witnesses cars idling outside awaiting drug deals. When I heard her talk about that I knew I was somehow “home.” This was familiar territory. I don’t see it outside my front door anymore, but having friends and neighbors who deal with that is oddly comforting. It’s funny how it’s an easy thing to bond over, and an easy first way to get to know a neighbor.

Several things have been going on around here that have, for one reason or another, prevented me from feeling as though I can write (which I sorely feel I need to be able to do) or even take a few steps back on occasion and simply ponder. Among those things is the fact that we’ve been busy. Weekdays are consumed with daily routines and attempts to relax after tasks are done, and weekends are occupied with either home renovation work, creating an increasing sense of order even if it’s not renovation work, and “going out” to have what we like to call “fun.”

As the weather has taken a turn for the more winterly, “fun” becomes a more concentrated idea limited to the area around the house, which both simplifies and exacerbates our challenges. Sometimes it’s in the house—getting screen time, as we call it, like at Thanksgiving visiting my in-laws, when people congregated around the wood stove with laptops (see River, Council and Uncle Noah, below, as seen through my mother-in-law’s camera)—and sometimes it’s going out.


Now, rather than going out to catch poison ivy in the grass, the kids can step out to do a little sledding on the hill we have for a back yard. That is, if we had sleds. We have instead an ample supply of snowboards, some attached to bindings, and some not. We also have a long toboggan, and a curious piece of equipment known as a “snow skate” that we have in the past allowed the kids to use—but not this year, River decided (perhaps hoping to preserve it longer, since it is his after all).

Snow skateSending the kids off to “sled” on a hill without actual sleds is asking for trouble, but they have managed, and a kind neighbor brought over an actual, bona fide, real plastic sled the other day for us to borrow. For some reason we have managed to avoid purchasing sleds ourselves. The toboggan works well for longer rides but on our short hill, I can see that it’s a little tiring to lug up and down. Riding the snowboards, the kids are learning to stand up, but without bindings it’s a bit of a joke, and more often than not they seem to be learning how to nearly skim off one another’s heads and limbs as they barrel down. It’s a good thing the hill isn’t any longer than it is.

In the meantime, we parents get to stay inside and do what we like to call “organizing.”

For River, this means looking me in the eye and telling me, “I’m really motivated to demolish the kitchen cabinets now.” I try to tell him that I have just gotten to the point where I think I can sort of manage mentally and emotionally after our move, that I have just about gotten a handle on where some things are located in the house, and I may be ready to sort of live here for a while. His idea of feeling comfortable is to make major change. As he mentioned to me in the past, if the house feels “finished,” he feels uncomfortable.

So, demolishing the kitchen cabinets works fine for me as long as I don’t have to go anywhere near the kitchen until it’s all said and done. Or perhaps we could arrange some form of permanent care for the children during the time period, so I can help. I am happy to help. I love renovation work. I just don’t think it combines all that great with a lot of other stress and responsibility.

For me, the stress is less than it used to be. During the summer I whittled down what I was willing to handle so much that I felt almost as if I was handling nothing at all. That wasn’t good either, I found, but I have been able to build up slowly what I feel I can handle, sort of starting from “scratch” (I can pretend). With winter arriving I feel ready to face challenges a bit more. It’s my husband I’ve been more concerned about: for him, the stress seems only to have accumulated once a few deadlines were met toward the end of summer. And he’s talked about feeling like he has an itch that he can’t scratch with one particular project, which makes him grumpy and worried. As the responsibilities at work pile on, they’re certainly not going away at home.

But we both face each other at the end of the day more or less trying to pretend as though everything is alright. This is after several instances of me suggesting that maybe we’d be better off going our separate ways.

I will probably always default to thinking that marital problems must necessarily lead to divorce, and in order to be honest to myself, I have often felt that I need at least to be able to talk about that. The fact that I can, and we still stay together, is hopefully a testament to both our flexibility and our commitment. I don’t want to fake it in this relationship, but I also want to be able to admit that I’m happy even when I am also going insane with frustration. It’s all somehow part of the same mixed bag of family life; I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Fortunately, my current lifestyle allows me time to sit and ponder, to reflect on the meaning of life, at least when I will indulge myself in this activity. Sometimes I have too much time for that; at others, not enough, but I’m grateful for any. I have tried to use such time to find myself again and to remember to focus on a few basic needs I have to meet for myself. It takes conscious thought on this subject to get around to that, years after such involved, intense parenting in contexts that weren’t always good for me, when I lost track of myself. The self may be overrated, but it still needs some attention once in a while.

This time of year, when the sunlight is scant, is not among my favorites. My whole being hungers for light. But when I take a seat near a window or stand out in the frigid air trying to get a little nourishment during daylight hours, the low angle of the sun stabbing into my eyes can be unpleasant. Sitting outside doesn’t work well, either, since it’s cold. I set up a little office nest for myself that works out alright for the purpose of sitting and pondering. It’s not a source of great satisfaction, this time I spend to think and ponder, but rather one of necessity and function, something I need to do for survival.

If it were up to me and I could pick any place to do this on a daily basis, it would be near a large body of water, or on a mountain top, or deep in a rain forest, and not in my dinky little home study where the light is dim and the walls are still this pink color I can’t stand… but I’ll take what I can get, and hope to move on to better thinking-spots as I can find them in this new house I am slowly growing to like.

Family relations

18 October 2007

When I was about the age my kids are now, my family had been undergoing upheaval for a few years. We uprooted in early 1975 from our Phoenix home, where I’d been since birth, and transplanted to Pittsburgh, in relation to my father’s work for the aluminum-fabrication company Alcoa. We were just getting semi-adjusted to our new life there in Highland Park when, in summer 1976, my father left my mother (and therefore also his two children) for a secretary he knew at work.

I remember 1976 primarily as the year my parents’ marriage dissolved, the year of our nation’s bicentennial, and the year I began to behave badly at school, brimming with anger and rage I didn’t understand. Ordinarily a cheerful and bright child, I’m told, I became something of an occasional beast with a nasty, stubborn temper.

The time-outs I received in kindergarten are still etched in my memory, the most salient one resulting from a spat with a fellow student over a particular magenta crayon. I recall crayon colors figuring so prominently at that age, for some reason; the magenta crayon was a coveted one, and it was almost as though we children could taste their hues as delicious, varying flavors. Vibrant colors stood in for other cheerful things lacking in my life, such as at home, where my mother’s natural buoyancy flagged deeply for a long time, and everything seemed shrouded in shades of brown, rusty orange and avocado green, including the wall paint, the couch upholstery, the dining room furniture and the wall of cork.

Somewhere in this time period, my mother made the admittedly poor decision to leave me home alone for a short time while she went out to do an errand. She had left chicken simmering in a pot of water on the stove, but neglected to tell me to leave it alone and that she had done it intentionally. Being five, my eye level was at about the stovetop, or just below. I have a visceral memory of standing there staring at the blue gas flames gently licking the bottom of the pot while steam, frothy bubbles and chicken-smell wafted aggressively from the slightly askew pot lid. I wondered if there was anything I should do about it, and felt paralyzed for an eternity; in the end I did nothing, and my mother came home, and I didn’t express my feelings about the incident until years later as an adult.

I'm OK, You're OKSuch a numbness descended upon me during these intense months, which stretched to years, that I lost much ability to express how I felt, even when I was concerned for my safety; this is possibly why, at the age of five, I was taken to see a therapist, which I took to mean that I was somehow the source of the problem in the home or at school.

No amount of books about divorce and audio tapes of I’m OK, You’re OK and its cousin, TA for Tots, could convince me that the adults in my life didn’t completely blame me somehow for things crumbling apart.

TA for TotsMy certain knowledge simmered silently inside just like the chicken boiling on the stove, and I refused any cooperation with the therapist. She played games with me to try to crack my code, like the inane Trouble, with its annoying loud pop whenever you press the clear plastic dome to roll the dice. Being a game of luck, the experience only sealed my rage further inside, as the therapist would win and watch me squirm like a pinned butterfly with the anxiety of losing in such a frivolous, pointless exercise where no strategy helped me—at the age of five.

Was I supposed to be good at losing? Was it really any mystery why I was so pissed off at the world? Are there other five-year-olds who lose well, and brush it all off, and say something chipper afterwards?

Trouble, for sure

Instead, losing only reminded me further of loss, and things out of my hands, beyond my influence, like my parents’ relationship.

It was as though the therapist’s job was to be there for me, observing smugly as I struggled and failed to maintain composure. If I handled losing well, it was because I was smothering my true feelings, which would have prompted me to attack the therapist physically and perhaps attempt strangulation; and in any case my self-control was merely a demonstration, in the condescending adult view, of my own stubbornness and unwillingness to “let go” of my feelings. If handled losing badly, it was more opportunity for the therapist to point out how bad I was at losing, and to regard me individually with the infuriating, calm condescension that extracted me, the child, out of context of them, the dysfunctional family with an absent, withdrawn, emotionally-abusive alcoholic father.

Did I need help? Yes. But what could possibly help me? There was seemingly little to “fix.”

The therapist’s approach only cemented my childhood view, which extended well into my adult years and through more than one therapist, that therapy was pointless, lazy and over-simplistic, because it attempted to isolate a person from what is potentially and often a problem having to do with relationships. Relationships, too, essentially did not work; people were unreliable and mostly just selfish beings trying to do their best and often not bothering to ask if what they were doing was of any good or not. And so we proceed through life, stumblingly, or so I thought, in whatever ways a young child captures such thinking, and I felt mostly like a victim, trapped.

I did not have a mental or emotional defect. I had a spiritual crisis, because the family was falling apart. And yet no one seemed interested in salvaging the family per se, with or without both parents involved, or in analyzing it to see what could be changed to help meet the needs of each and all. The realization of the therapist that indeed, I was upset, feeling as though there was nothing within reach that I could master or enjoy—essential to a child’s healthy development—was somehow cyclical, returning to itself to find no particular immediate solution. As my mother later remarked of my sessions with the well-meaning therapist, “You were beyond her.”

One exercise I enjoyed with the therapist was the doodle game. She would take a pad of blank paper, and with a pen she would make some random, brief doodle with her eyes closed. Then she would hand the pad over to me, along with the pen, and she would have me create some coherent drawing out of the doodle. Perhaps she saw through to the inner workings of my psyche with these doodles—learning, perhaps, that I was merely a bright, cheerful child underneath layers of suppressed frustration with my parents’ separation and divorce after a recent move to a city that disoriented the family—but I saw these exercises as a chance to do one of my favorite things, simply drawing. It was a much preferred activity to the pop-crack and luck-of-the-draw stupidity of Trouble.

My parents attempted couples therapy themselves for a while, but the tale I have heard was that it did not succeed, maybe because one person was striving and the other had given up.

Before he left the family, my father had seemingly spent a perhaps dull, depressed winter crafting glass tumblers out of recycled green glass beer bottles that marked the bicentennial. We kids were supposed to think this was pretty cool, but in my memory he did not spend much time smoothing the lip of the glasses, and I was always afraid of cutting myself trying to drink out of them. The emblems on the glasses were patriotic as well as manly, some celebrating the nation’s independence and others featuring the names of football teams. When he left, my father did not take these glasses with him, but he perhaps regarded them as a kind of gift we could remember him by.

Not long after he was out of the house, he invited my older brother and me to come to his new second-floor apartment in Shadyside, a short drive from our house in Highland Park. He did not tell us that the secretary would be there, but instead sort of surprised us with her. She sat on a rocking chair in the living room of the small apartment, a room that bizarrely would, years later, become part of my future step-sister’s bedroom suite in a separate iteration of my father’s marriages, with other people occupying the small apartment building in the intervening years. On this day, she sat there and quietly and unsmilingly greeted us, and to make things easier, my father offered sour hard candies from a tin in the cabinet in the dreary kitchen.

We endured the visit in the tiny place, and my mother came to pick us up a few hours later—maybe it was even the next day. My father sent us downstairs perhaps unescorted. Somehow back to my cheerful self, I’m told I asked my mother, “Have you met Dad’s new girlfriend?” The day evidently began with a lingering hope on my mother’s part that things would still work out, since she didn’t know about the secretary either, but I somehow helped to seal the deal with my remark; years later I learned about it, not remembering this at all. A small voice inside my adult head, recalling the terrible significance of magenta crayons, the outrage of Trouble, and the helplessness of simmering chicken, occasionally likes to say to itself, “See? Your fault.”

To be continued.