Jay debuts on the soccer field

IMG_4482 A couple weeks ago our neighbor asked if we wanted to sign Jay up for soccer this fall.  The question struck me dumb—it had never even occurred to me that Jay might be old enough for organized sports.

We did sign him up (our neighbor’s husband is the coach) and his first practice was last Wednesday evening.  Caroline, Wally, Jay and I got there early.  We brought a pizza, a picnic blanket, and sat down in the shade beside one of the half-dozen soccer fields by the downtown YMCA.  There were dozens of kids running around in various degrees of soccer dress, parents-turned-coaches toting whistles, minivans shuttling here and there around the periphery of the fields.  At 5:30pm I walked Jay over to join his team.  He clung to me on the sideline and made a grim face when I suggested he might go find a ball to kick around.

For me, the evening was one of the starkest experiences I’ve had as a parent—as in, many times I found myself looking around, watching Jay, and thinking, “I can’t believe I’m finally here.”

There are lots of times in parenting (and life in general) when it takes awhile for your self-image to catch up to the actual circumstances of your life.  This begins with the birth.  A newborn child becomes a fact in the world faster than your brain can conceive of the idea that you’re now a parent.  And that’s just the first dissonant moment.  Every time I see Wally’s long, skinny legs laid out in bed, I can’t quite fathom that this racing child is mine.

So, these moments are common, but I wasn’t expecting the experience of taking Jay to his first soccer practice to be as jarring as it was.  The issue, I think, was not soccer itself, but how public organized sports are.  For the last four years our family life has existed almost entirely in private.  Everything Jay has done, every milestone he’s passed, has been mostly just for us.  As he learned to sleep, walk and talk, I knew there were other families with older kids whose private lives were intermixed with the public demands of school schedules and sports practices.  I loved that that wasn’t us—that Jay and Wally’s entire worlds could fit inside our family life. But then last Wednesday Jay stepped out onto the soccer field. It felt like after years of floating on our own, we’d finally entered the main stream.

As I stood on the sideline with the other parents, the first thing I realized is how dependent we now are on the kindness of other people.  Jay was weepy at the start of practice and resisted joining the other kids in drills or the team cheer.  After a few minutes, the assistant coach got down next to Jay and rolled a ball in front of him and encouraged him to kick it.  Jay did, then the coach rolled the ball again.  They went like that up and down the field.  I felt so grateful that the coach made a point of helping Jay.  It also felt strange to watch someone do something for Jay that I couldn’t do for him myself.

There was also, among the parents, a nervous air.  You could tell it from the way they stood close to the sidelines, poised with their children’s sweating  bottles for the next water break, and in the slightly strained way they called out directions to their kids, “No hands, Sammy.”  The nervousness came, I think, from not knowing how their kids would respond in this new situation.  It’s funny that of all the things I know about Jay, I have no idea if he’s going to be good at soccer, and that made me apprehensive as I watched him begin to take his place among his peers.

In this, I think the soccer practice put a point on something that is obviously true about raising kids, but which doesn’t register while you’ve got them all to yourself at home: There’s a lot of uncertainty about how Jay and Wally’s lives will play out, and often enough I won’t be able to do much more than watch.

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From toilet seats to new friends, lots of choices to be made

_MG_4428We had a good and busy weekend, in which we had a family from Jay’s school over for brunch, commenced finding a church, test-drove minivans, and bought and installed a toilet seat.  The pace and diversity of activity was consistent with the general whirl we’ve experienced since moving to Columbia.  It also highlights what I’ve found to be the overriding quality of the last month: the incessant need to evaluate options and make choices.

Nearly everything is up in the air: what time to get up on weekday mornings (it’s looking like 6:40am), where to buy produce (Earth Fare), which route to take when picking Caroline up from school (through the neighborhood, despite the stop signs),  what temperature to set the air conditioning at (75 at night), and whether to place the boys’ beds (arriving tomorrow) perpendicular or parallel to the wall (Grammy?).

We also visited a church on Sunday morning and hadn’t been there three minutes before I was weighing the architecture, the way people were dressed, the pastor’s body language, and the tenor of the choir.

Later that Sunday I stared at a wall of seventeen different toilet seats and thought:  Maybe we’ll just dig a hole in the backyard instead.

Our social life is probably the best example of how, in a new place, you end up having to make decisions about all kinds of things that you take for granted when you’re in a more settled state.  We have a number of communities through which to meet people, and a handful of “friends of friends” connections here, but as of now, no friends, strictly speaking.  It’s exciting to be casting a wide net, but also tiring (and probably counterproductive) that every social interaction comes freighted with the question, “Are we a good match as friends?”

There are a few things I’ve noticed about all this choice-making.

First, it really highlights the things that I’ve learned in life and the things I haven’t.  For example, as has been documented, nothing in my prior experience prepared me to evaluate correctly between a rotary mower and a gas mower.  I do, though, have a keener sense of what I like in a person, which helps when thinking about pursuing friendships.

Second—and this applies especially to decisions made in hardware superstores—it’s really hard not to buy the more expensive version of a product when the overall dollar differences are small.  On that same trip to Lowes where we bought the toilet seat, Jay and I also picked out a nozzle for the hose.  One was plain metal and cost $4.98, while another was rubber coated, with brass finishes, and an adjustable spray head, and cost $9.98.  The deluxe version for just $5 more! I nearly had to slap myself before I remembered that I don’t actually care at all about the quality of our hose nozzle, and bought the cheaper one.

The third and final point comes from Caroline, shared with me over dinner last night: In a way, all this decision-making feels like a race against ourselves.  A month in, we’re still gung-ho for the job of arranging the discretionary areas of our lives just the way we want them.  But, there’s going to come a time when any boxes we haven’t unpacked are never going to get unpacked, when our verve for interior decorating will fade and the fraying on our couches will cease to call out for action, when we’ll stop seeing every new person as a potential friend and just accept our social calendar the way it is.

There are good and bad things to both states, to being open to new experiences and to being content where you are. But for now, circumstances demand that we make choices, and—to follow a metaphor that’s been on my mind—we’re trying to get in as many  as we can before the cement hardens around us.

Down in the jungle room

I’ve been putting together some initial thoughts on The South, which I’ll post soon, but I thought I’d start with the most immediately striking difference: the vegetation. It is out of control lush and, combined with the sopping humidity, gives me frequent, visceral, and not unwelcome flashbacks to a summer I spent in Bolivia. This morning, Wally and I took a long walk (He was home sick from daycare.  If this was the unofficial start of cold season, OMG, we’re hosed) and while he slept, I took pictures.

This first shot is of a house a few blocks away from ours.  That white sign in the front yard says, “Yard of the Month,” which is a rotating honor given out by the Shandon Neighborhood Council and, implicitly, a threat that keeps all lawn-owners on their games.  Needless to say, my photo doesn’t do it justice.


The ubiquitous and  sensational Palmetto Tree in front of one of several pink houses in our neighborhood:


I’m a little intimidated by the idea of living in a climate that can support this:


And the view looking up our street, back towards our house:


Two boys lawn mowin’

Wally (home sick from school) and I went to Lowe’s this afternoon. It was my first trip as a homeowner and it was a vertiginous experience. I left thinking what every first-time visitor must leave thinking: I’m going to learn how to fix everything in my house.

The purpose of the trip was to buy a lawn mower. On account of having less that could break, not needing to tote around a gas tank, and a rash of lawn mower thefts reported recently on the Shandon Facebook page, I came home with this thing. Caroline saw it in the trunk, laughed, and wanted to bet me I’ll be pushing gas within a year. We’ll see.

Jay and Wally just took it for a spin around the backyard (in fact, they’re still out there right now). Here they are, heaving to. The best part is that Jay can’t make the mower move on his own, but together…




Thoughts on the end of a summer in Maine

One night, a month ago, Caroline and I took a walk down the hill from my house. We went to the harbor, walked on the docks, and talked about the best summers we’d had as children. We talked about YMCA summer camp and weeks at the pool, and as we talked, we stood beside a stack of small sailboats that, hours earlier, kids at camp had steered in from the bay. We wondered whether these boats, and Maine, would figure into how Jay and Wally remembered their childhood summers when they were older.

Our time in Maine was wonderful. We arrived in early June, before school had let out, and left in the second week of August, when a few cool nights were just enough to suggest the possibility that the season had begun to turn. For me and Caroline, the summer was a chance to live at an easier pace, after what, in retrospect, had been a stressful second year in Michigan. For Jay and Wally, the summer was most about my stepfather, Papa Bill, who taught them how to pick blueberries, drive a tractor, operate a crab trap, and inflate a dinghy, and who introduced them to the pleasures of whole fat strawberry milk, and fluffernutter sandwiches.

I watched all this and found myself with an unusual feeling, a clearer than usual sense of how I’d like Jay and Wally to feel in their own lives. I think about Jay and Wally a lot, of course. I think about the things they need, the qualities I’d like them to possess, the opportunities I’d like them to have in life. But I don’t often think about how I’d like them to feel, I don’t get down deep to the level of how your body tingles after a truly delightful day, and think: I need to find a way to give that feeling to my boys.

So, I would say this summer gave me a new perspective on Jay and Wally, and on what I want to do for them as their father. Maybe it was because we were all more relaxed, and because my stepfather’s time with the boys allowed me to step back and look at them from more distance. Maybe it was because we lived in the house where I grew up, so that this summer was interwoven with previous summers, which made it easier to project from my own experiences to theirs. When Jay and Wally lay down to sleep at night to the drone of a window fan, I could think: I know what it’s like to be a boy asleep in that same bed, with the same crickets chirping out the window, the same fan breathing cool night air into a warm upstairs room.

We left Maine on a Friday and spent a week driving down the East Coast to South Carolina. We spent the last three days of the trip with Caroline’s parents, in Virginia, where they have a house on a lake. On our last afternoon there, Jay and I went swimming together, and afterwards, lay down beside each other on the dock to dry.

We were on our stomachs, with our heads turned towards each other, our noses only a few inches apart. Drops of water rolled down his cheek. For a few seconds we just looked at each other, and I was filled with the familiar feeling of how much I love him. But I also felt something else. For a moment I glimpsed what it must feel like, for Jay, to have me look at him like that, how good it must make him feel to know that he is that important to someone else.

Summer is over and, as I said in my last post, now we’re swamped with things to do. Empathy is often the first thing to go when you get busy, but I hope that Jay and Wally continue to feel as fully real to me as they have the last two months.









Moving is chaotic, but clarifying, too

This evening, after Jay and Wally were in bed, I found myself walking upstairs in our new house in South Carolina, holding a single, dirty, kid’s sock. Moments earlier I’d been standing in front of the washing machine, warm water already pumping into the drum, holding that same sock and realizing my dilemma: If I threw it in now it likely would be lost forever among our linens, but in the chaos of our unpacking, I had no idea where to find the little mesh zipper bag we usually use for the boys’ socks. So, I let the wash run and walked back upstairs holding the sock. It’s sitting beside me now, and I still have no idea where to put it.

That’s been a common feeling these past three days. We arrived in Columbia on Friday night, after a week-long drive down from Maine (I’ll write something shortly about our summer there). We spent the first night in our house on air mattresses. The moving truck arrived the next morning. The boys mostly amused themselves while Caroline and I tore into the boxes: the boys’ room first, then the playroom, then the kitchen, then, finally, our bedroom on Sunday night. That effort, plus multiple trips each to Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s, has us basically up and running. The boys started school this morning and Caroline got the key to her new office. This evening, as we ran through our bedtime routine, it almost felt like we’d been here awhile.

But back to the sock. The mental experience of the last three days has felt like standing in the middle of a blizzard, where each snow flake is something we need to do: It’s hard to know what to do first, if we take our eyes off one task it disappears into oblivion, and there are so many competing priorities it often feels hard to get anything done at all. This is true about life in general, but moving accentuates the overload in two ways: First, there are just a gazillion more things to do when you’re setting up a new house, and second, settling in a new place creates all sorts of forward-looking, optimistic feelings about the great life you’re going to build with your fresh start. To put this is in specific terms, here is a partial list of the things I thought to do just in the last hour: buy a lawn mower, clean Jay’s lunch box, save for college, schedule pediatrician and dentist appointments, do more pushups, buy ramekins, send our neighbors a thank-you note for their welcome cookies, cultivate Jay’s interest in building things, attach a marker to the white board with a piece of string.

It’s no surprise, then, that there have been times these past three days when I’ve quite nearly had trouble breathing. But there’s a good and satisfying side to having such a long to-do list, too. While it’s been overwhelming at times, more often the scope of the tasks before us has made it easier to stop, accept that I’m not going to get everything done today, and ask the question: What’s the most important thing I need to do right now? And often the answer to that question has been satisfying. I need to make sure Jay and Wally get enough to eat and get to bed early enough so they’re fresh for school tomorrow. I need to spend time with Caroline, even if it’s just sitting with her while she hangs clothes in the closet. I need to lie on my back and listen to the sounds out the window of a place I never would have expected I’d end up living.

When life feels a little more in control, it’s easy to suffer the illusion that you can get everything done,and when you think you can get everything done, you don’t feel the need to prioritize. Moving is an exceptional time in life, but I also think it stresses a constant if easily forgotten truth: We all, always, have more ideas for our lives than we can act on, and the real trick is figuring out what the most important thing is to do, now.

Related post from Growing Sideways: “After the flood and the move, it’s good to see you again.”