Joined through sausage and laundry


Sunday night for dinner we had pasta with red sauce, and two links of sausages cut into medallions and fried.  Caroline cooked it, I served it, and before I put the food on our plates, I counted the pieces of sausage.  There were 25, which meant nine for Caroline, nine for me, four for Jay, and three for Wally.  I found it satisfying to think of our family in this way, dividing up we have in proportion to what we need.

Later that same night, after the boys were asleep in their separate rooms (an arrangement I’d like to change), I lay upstairs in bed while Caroline stood nearby folding laundry.  I watched her pull items from the hamper, one at a time, fold them, and place them in their separate piles: one for Wally, one for Jay, and one for me.  We’ll wear those clothes in the course of our separate lives, Jay and Wally at school in their shorts and stripes, me at home at my computer in jeans and a button shirt.  But it’s nice to remember, too, that we’re tangled at the roots, our private lives wound around one another’s.

I’m used to thinking about the ways that family ties hem me in, but when I counted out the sausage, and watched Caroline sort our clothes, I felt nostalgic more than anything else.  My own childhood feels so long ago.  It seems certain that when all is said and done, these entangled years will prove to be the rarer thing.

Searching for kindness during an airport delay

Last Thursday night I ran into trouble coming home from Philadelphia.  My flight was delayed an hour by weather, which meant I was going to miss my connecting flight to Columbia.  I waited in line to rebook with the gate agent, resigning myself to the probability that wherever I slept that night, it was unlikely to be at home.

I was eighth in line (how can you not count in times like those) and tried to remain calm about the small-scale fiasco.  The woman behind me was not calm at all, though.  She was on the phone with her mom.  “I can’t stand this fucking city a minute longer,” she said in a thick working class accent.  “I’m going crazy, I think I’m gonna have a panic attack.”  Then she called a man named Dan.  More cursing.  More talk of losing her mind.  “Remember that time you started sweating and passed out,” she said.  “That’s going to be me unless I get out of this filthy fucking city.”

My heart did not go out to her.  As I listened to her I thought: What kind of person swears like that in public?  Doesn’t she see that the rest of us are dealing with this unfortunate but unavoidable snag like normal, well-socialized human beings?  Like me, for example, didn’t she see that I’m not throwing a fit even though I really want to get home to my family tonight?

We advanced slowly in line.  I watched the passengers ahead of me talk with the gate agent.  Some got rebooked on other flights, others received only bad news and took up way too much time making the agent run futile queries.  One guy had the agent check for flights into every little airport within two hours of Savannah.  Meanwhile, I thought about the direct flight to Columbia that I knew was scheduled to leave from Terminal F in an hour, and I pictured other delayed passengers at other gates snapping up the last remaining seats.  Behind me, the woman called her mom back and continued her rant.  Her distaste for Philadelphia was so vociferous, I felt like I needed to speak up for the city.

Finally, I was next in line.  The passenger at the desk received good news: There was room on a later flight to Chicago.  While the agent printed this lucky passenger’s new boarding passes, I got antsier, anticipating my turn to learn my fate.  But just before I stepped forward, I was hit with a very unexpected feeling.  Suddenly I felt cheap and small to be maintaining my position in line while the woman behind me clearly needed resolution faster than I did.  I paused a moment and then turned to her.  She was off the phone now.

“Do you want to go ahead of me in line,” I asked.  “It sounds like you’re having a harder day than I am.”

She was startled at first and gave a quick reply about how I didn’t need to do that.  But then she saw things differently, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Bless you, I will go ahead if you don’t mind.”

She stepped forward and received good news, too.  Pittsburgh, apparently, was where she was so desperate to get to that night, and she walked away from the desk a changed woman.  With a boarding pass in her hand and a new lightness in her voice, she paused to thank me again, and  hurried off down the terminal to her new gate.

Later, on my flight home (things worked out for me, too), I thought about what had taken place between the two of us in line.  I was struck by how dramatically she had changed, both within herself and in my own eyes, when I’d offered her my spot in line.  Up until that moment she had seemed completely ugly, but when she thanked me, it was with a direct, human warmth I might have guessed she was incapable of.  I was also surprised at how good it felt to have done something kind, and surprised even more by my surprise: How is it that after 33 years of life, so basic a thing as kindness still startles?

And that has been my lasting feeling about the  experience.  I think about all the ways I could have responded to my somewhat crass linemate, and I’m taken aback by the fact that for 20 minutes I held her in contempt, and only at the last second, for reasons I can’t explain, did I even have the thought to do something kind for her.  The whole experience put a point on how judgment is a default setting, and kindness can feel like a fluke, and how weird it is that life would be made that way.

Living with the House Republicans

Congress is in chaos. The situation is barely more reasonable at home.

Yesterday before dinner Jay walked into the kitchen and announced, “For my cold special treat I want pumpkin ice cream.”

“Your what?” I said.

“My cold special treat,” Jay said. “Everyday I get one special treat and one cold special treat.”

I admired his attempt to make his request seem reasonable by introducing a previously non-existent category of treat.

“First of all, you don’t get a cold special treat everyday,” I said. “Second of all, you don’t get any kind of special treat everyday. That’s why they’re special.”

The words were barely out of my mouth when Jay switched demands. He spied a container of donuts on the counter that we’d bought together the day before.

“I want a donut,” he said, feverish like a puppy, and grabbed the carton.

It was the fourth time that day Jay had asked me about the donuts and I was annoyed to be having this conversation again. I strong-armed the donuts out of Jay’s hands. He crumpled to the floor, flat on his back, legs kicking. The tears came fast.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “But one little boy who weighs less than forty pounds and has been alive for only four years cannot shutdown this entire family.”

“Please,” he said desperately, beginning to gasp for air. “I want a donut.”

“We are not going to talk about this while you are throwing a tantrum on the floor,” I said, and walked out of the room.

An hour later it was bedtime. All the screaming and crying had worn Jay out and he fell asleep quickly. I watched him for a minute, calm and still on the bed, and my heart went out to him. The poor boy can’t help but get all worked up over nothing.

Wally did not fall asleep as quickly. After his lullabies he came out of his room three times. Finally Caroline applied A&D to his doorknob.

“Do you see that,” she said, pointing to the slippery knob. “Don’t touch it or you’ll get A&D on your fingers.”

Wally hates to get A&D on his fingers, but he touched it anyway. Then he cried out, “Mama, I have A&D on me.”

After a few minutes we went in to clean him up. While Caroline wiped off his hands and cheeks, I got out a bubble lock for his doorknob. Wally has defeated this in the past by pulling it apart, but this time I wrapped it in three layers of masking tape. I turned off the light, laid Wally in his bed, and closed the bedroom door.

A minute later I heard him batting at the door lock. His voice rang out with a statement as absurd as his brother’s invocation of the cold treat. “I don’t need this tape,” he said, pathetically, over and over again. “I don’t need this tape.”

Upstairs in bed, Caroline and I smiled at each other. It took Wally a long time to accept that he wasn’t going to get his way. He kept spinning the lock, crying about the tape.

“Won’t you even negotiate about this,” I think I heard him say. Then, finally, he curled up at the base of door and went to sleep.

Marking time on a Saturday

IMG_4473Saturday morning, after a rough night’s sleep, I checked my email and saw that Jay’s soccer game was at 9am, not 10:30am as we’d assumed. We scrambled to get ready and made it to the field in time. The game was similar to last week’s for Jay—stout defense, a few goals, and intermittent tears. I was able to back off emotionally from what Jay was doing just enough to notice that the experience was hard for another father, too. Next to us on the sideline there was a three-year-old boy, shirtless, who refused to put on his jersey or enter the game. “You’re acting like a baby. Be a big boy,” his dad said to him, in a low, disdainful whisper.

After the game we drifted through the day. Jay was in a mood, not uncommon these days, where he seems to do nothing but whine. Wally, who’s not much of a whiner but who does like to cause trouble, alternated between poking Jay and emptying dirty silverware from the dishwasher. I retreated into trimming the bushes on the side of our house. Caroline brought up going to the tailor. We all had things we’d rather be doing, places we’d rather be.

As I lopped branches, I thought about a dream I’d had the night before. It started with me and Caroline on the top floor of a building in a strong storm. The building broke loose in the gale, we fell towards the ground, and knew we were about to die. I had time to think, “At long last, it’s finally here.” My last thought was about Jay and Wally, and then we hit the ground.

The dream continued on the other side of life. I forget the plot, but the feeling of the dream is what matters most. Caroline and I walked around together in this new world, desperate in the knowledge that Jay and Wally were still alive but we were completely unable to reach them.

I overpruned our bushes and then we decided to take a walk, to get a gallon of milk and maybe something for lunch. Caroline pushed Wally on his tricycle and Jay stayed a block ahead of us on his balance bike. Eventually the grocery store came into view and there was a festival in its parking lot—balloon animals, a bounce house, pottery demonstrations. The boys ran like it was Christmas. Caroline and I watched—not with joy, exactly, but with a thin kind of happiness to have stumbled onto an easy way to pass an hour of the day.

And so the rest of the day went from there—lunch, quiet time, popsicles in the backyard, pirates on the swingset, a TV show, dinner, bath, bed. The boys had not been asleep long when Caroline and I went upstairs to bed ourselves.

As we settled in beside each other, it was hard to account for the day that had passed, hard not to feel that we were back where we’d been all along, poised for sleep, or that we were already waking up and it was tomorrow. But before we fell asleep we had time to talk, about how the biggest struggles are to recognize the smallest things: How many days will we all have together?

The complete, total, and unexpected emotional roller coaster that was Jay’s first soccer game

Jay’s first soccer game was on Saturday morning.  Despite how important his first practice had ended up feeling, I did not anticipate the game would be a big event. I figured that with a bunch of three and four-year-olds running around on a field, it would be barely distinguishable from a morning at the playground.

As soon as we arrived at the field, though, things got more intense.  Jay became tenaciously clingy—way more so than he’d been at his first practice. I should have realized then that while to me the experience started off as just another pleasant sunny morning by a field, to him it felt very different.

The game started with Jay sitting in my lap on the sideline. I felt pretty angry and disappointed in him. I could not believe he would not get out there and play.  But I also realized that with other parents watching there was a limit to how hard I could push him and, plus, it’s not really possible to force a kid to play soccer. So, he and I just sat on the sideline.  Every now and again, in a voice straining to sound indifferent, I told him he could join his team whenever he was ready.

Five or so minutes in, the coach got him into the game by letting him take a free kick.  He kicked the ball, stood for a second with a sad expression on his face, and then he was off.  In less than two minutes he scored two length of the field goals, including the second one with a deft cutback ten feet from the goal when he realized he was offline. He was also good on defense.  He ran back ahead of the ball and chose good lines for heading off the other team. I was completely and utterly flabbergasted—by his success and by how completely exhilarating it was to watch. Like one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life-level exhilarating. Ten minutes into the game, I’d changed from thinking of organized sports as a drag on our family time to wanting to sign Jay up for every travel team in the state.

Then the other team had a breakaway.  Jay raced back to the goal and was there to meet the kid.  The attacker was less than three feet tall, blond, three-years-old, and unshakeable on the ball.  He cut back on Jay and scored.

If you’d frozen the scene just as the ball was hitting the back of the net and asked me to predict what came next, I could have guessed all day and not come close to imagining the expression that did in fact break out on Jay’s face.  I looked up, and he was literally sobbing, his mouth open as wide as it goes, his eyes closed, tears streaming down his face.

By this time I was completely befuddled.  I hadn’t expected Jay to cling like he had, I hadn’t expected him to be as good as he was once he started playing, and I definitely hadn’t anticipated he’d take it so hard when someone scored on him.  And I was just as surprised by my own responses to Jay: anger when he wouldn’t play, complete exultation when he scored, total mystification when he cried.

And this was just from a single morning of four-year-old soccer.  How is Jay going to react when he starts getting grades, making and losing friends, falling in love and getting his heart broken, winning and losing competitions with real stakes?  And how will I feel watching this all?  After Saturday morning, I feel significantly less confident of my ability to predict any of those things.