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…

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Thoughts on the end of a summer in Maine

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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.

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Moving is chaotic, but clarifying, too

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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.”

Social class and memories at a lemonade stand

_MG_4135Yesterday afternoon I was finishing a run when I passed what looked like a mom and her daughter selling lemonade.  They were sitting at a small plastic bench in the shade of a tree, on the front lawn of a house a few doors up from ours.  After I finished running, I went inside, got a dollar, and walked back up the street.

The house where the mom and her daughter were sitting is split into a pair of townhouses, both of which are among the few rental homes in our neighborhood.  My family has lived in South Freeport for more than twenty years and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with anyone who’s lived in one of the townhomes.  My brother and sister report the same.  It’s an indication, I think, of how those particular buildings exist towards the periphery of what is otherwise a well-to-do part of town.

I introduced myself to the mom and her daughter, and remarked that a few weeks earlier I’d seen balloons flying at the end of their driveway.  I asked the girl if it had been her birthday.  She smiled, looked shyly at her shoulder, and, with prompting, reported that she is now five-years-old.  With her mom’s help, she poured me a cup of pink lemonade from a plastic pitcher.  We talked some more while I drank it, and when I asked, the mom told me they’d been living there for seven years.  I had one more cup of lemonade, then we said goodbye, and I walked home.

Later, I thought about my mom and what it had been like when we’d moved in twenty years earlier.  It was right after my parents had divorced, and in every way our new situation in life felt strange and scary.  There was the fact of my mom being single, on her own, and appearing more vulnerable in my ten-year-old eyes than my dad ever did, though I know now that those days were terrifying for him, too.  There was also the fact of our new house, which was the smallest on the street, and flagrantly conspicuous—at least to me—in a neighborhood of Volvos, yacht club decals, and venerable white capes with ocean views.

That class anxiety was a big part of my childhood, and what I didn’t feel directly, I felt through my mom.  She expressed her own awareness of social class most strongly through the energy she put into raising me and my brother and sister, and through the satisfaction she felt before she died, that we’d all grown into adults with a lot of opportunity in life.  It’s always been a mystery to me why my mom, after the divorce, chose to move to a part of town where she’d feel out of step with her neighbors.  It occurs to me now that her choice was deliberate, made so that her kids could see up close the kinds of lives we might lead for ourselves one day.

So, when I saw that mom and her daughter selling lemonade, I thought first of my own family twenty years earlier.  I thought about how, as a kid, I would have been mortified to be selling anything on such public display in front of our house, filled in my own mind with the appearance of grasping at our wealthy neighbors’ quarters.  And, while I have no idea how that mom feels about living in this neighborhood, I hoped that by walking over to say hello, I could make a potentially forbidding place feel a little less so. 

I thought about my mom, too, and the way she might have bounced across the street to buy a cup of lemonade herself, and how she would have talked to that little girl, who is just a year older than Jay.

Looking for peace in a tent

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Saturday evening I looked across my pillow at Jay and thought with complete certainty: I’m going to miss him when he’s asleep.

We were side-by-side in sleeping bags in the backyard, fulfilling a plan that I’d instigated earlier that day by mentioning the existence of a tent, and Jay had hammered into being with repeated pleas that we sleep outside.  Now it was approaching dusk.  Through an open upstairs window I could hear Caroline putting Wally down to sleep.  The air in the tent was thick and familiar and for a moment I was overtaken with contentment.

But Jay didn’t fall asleep and the mood retreated as quickly as it had come.  Ten minutes later he was still awake and I grew impatient.  I was eager to return to my book but I knew Jay wouldn’t have that as long as he was awake.

That book was “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner, who also wrote “Angle of Repose” which I wrote about enthusiastically this spring.  Eventually Jay did fall asleep, and I opened the book to a scene, halfway through, where two characters, Sid, and Larry, discover a waterfall deep in the Vermont woods.  They dive and swim and return to their wives in camp hours later, invigorated.  But just as they are most flush with life, the story turns: Larry’s wife, Sally, has developed a fever and is getting worse.  Larry concludes the chapter, narrating:

Good fortune, contentment, peace, happiness have never been able to deceive me for long.  I expected the worst, and I was right.  So much for the dream of man.

As I read that with Jay sleeping beside me, I thought about how I’d rather not concur with Larry, but I do.  Through effort it’s possible to achieve and experience great things in life but the last note is always dissolution.  Still, neither that thought nor the hard ground were enough to spoil my happiness as I lay down to sleep myself.

The next morning Jay woke up early, with the birds.  He was grumpy from the get-go. Just after 5am he told me he wanted to go back inside the house.  I told him everyone else was still asleep and we needed to wait but Jay only ratcheted up his whining in reply.  Soon I was completely awake and fully annoyed, feeling aggrieved in a way that I think of as particular though not exclusive to fathers: I just spent the whole night sleeping on the ground for you and this is how you act in response?

The rest of the morning was spotty.  I was tired and grumpy and there were other tired and grumpy people in the house on account of an infant, and twice before he’d even finished his breakfast, Jay broke down crying.  The day was going to be long and I promised multiple times to myself and once out loud (regrettably) that I was never going to sleep in a tent again.

In between the roughness, though, Jay and I had a moment together on the back porch.  It was after breakfast, the sun was out, and he had a fishing pole in his hand.  We took turns pretending to cast out into the yard where the tent stood open and I watched the delight on his face as the pole whipped through the air.

In that moment I thought about the passage from “Crossing to Safety” I’d read the night before.  It still seemed true to me that in most aspects of life, the inevitable direction is down and out: health falters, possessions tarnish, even the greatest professional achievements end up seeming small.

But relationships are different.  My relationship with Jay, like my relationships with Caroline and Wally, can fluctuate  many times in a single day, and it’s hard to hold it in one place for long.  But the overall trend is positive, or at least it can be. I take that to be one of the very most optimistic things about life, that it’s possible to love another person with strength the world can’t undo.

If you left a toddler for a weekend, would he ever fall asleep?

A few years ago, around when Jay started to walk, I wondered: If we left him alone in our apartment, would he ever fall asleep? His manic attentiveness made it seem unlikely, and I pictured him like a rat in one of those cruel experiments, which stimulates itself until it simply just drops from exhaustion.

We never ran that experiment with Jay but Wally has been participating in a modified form of it for the last week. I mentioned in their birthday post that Wally started climbing out of his crib and has since been moved to a bed. But he’s not actually ready to handle the responsibility that comes with sleeping outside of a cage. So, we’ve taken the sharp objects out of his room in Maine (my childhood bedroom), put blankets and pillows around his bed, and after his last lullaby, we close the door. It’s not actually that simple (there’s some crying, and multiple trips in and out of the room) but the point is, eventually he bows to his confinement and starts playing or rolling around or doing whatever it is he does when left alone in a room. And eventually, sometimes hours later, he falls asleep. Like he did tonight. And it wasn’t in the bed.

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Dressing Jay, asleep

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Jay went to bed last night with no pants and just before Caroline and I turned out the lights, I went into his room to put them on. This type of thing always makes me nervous. It seems impossible to dress a person without waking him up, even though I know from experience that nothing short of a bulldozer on his bed will rouse Jay once he goes down.

He was lying on his side so I had to turn him to his back. I put my hands on his shoulders and his eyes flicked open. He looked at me and I froze for a moment. Then his eyes closed again and I went on. I shimmied his pants up one leg, then the other, and as I worked I couldn’t tell if he was awake or not. The way he straightened his feet made me think that Jay was trying to help me get him dressed, but it was a subtle move so I couldn’t say for sure (and plus, helping me get him dressed isn’t Jay’s thing). But then I moved to pull the waist of his pants up and over the bulk of his nighttime diaper, and Jay made it clear he was complying. He arched his back, lifted his bum off the mattress. Once the pants were on I kissed him on the forehead. He rolled back onto his side, and was still.

The way kids sleep is maybe the best indication that they’re different from us. I wake up when a truck rumbles by while Jay sleeps at depth (though Wally, less so). Usually I attribute this to biology, that there’s just something different about adult brains and bodies which doesn’t let us sleep as well. And I’m sure that’s a large part of it.

But dressing Jay last night made me think that there’s something else at work, too. It was how he looked at me when his eyes flicked open, and the unquestioning way he moved his body to help me get his pajama pants on. If someone were to come to you in the middle of the night- even the person you trust most in the world- you’d enliven a little to wonder why they were there. With Jay, though, I want to think that there was not even a murmur of a thought to question my presence when I appeared to him between his dreams.