Monday, July 28, 2008

snail surprise

This afternoon, as Dylan was eating his sandwich, I brought in some lettuce from our garden for a lunch time salad. After a few minutes of chopping and slicing, I had a bowl full of vegetables we had grown ourselves: along with the lettuce, there were fat cucumbers, plump cherry tomatoes, snap peas bursting from their shells, and lush green beans. I garnished the salad with some craisins and walnuts. "Look, Dylan," I said proudly. "Almost everything in my lunch was grown right in our backyard."

Then, as I went to pick up my bowl, there it was: a snail, lounging casually on a piece of lettuce, its slimy body stretched out to its full length so that I might admire its dimensions. Somehow the Escargot Special seemed a little less appetizing than the salad I had envisioned. But it was a welcome bit of comic relief.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Mornings are the hardest. Especially this morning: a dark, humid, gloomy morning when I was dragged from my sleep by the sound of heavy raindrops hitting the windows. In the morning, it’s real all over again, and I have to work through my tears and talk myself into breakfast, laundry, dishes, and even play. A few deep breaths, a few cups of coffee, and we’re off. I can go through the motions, but it’s hard to imagine that I will ever experience joy in the same way I did before last week.

The audacity of the world, that it should continue to turn.

Around midday, I try to become a Zen Buddhist. Death is part of life. In spite of my emotional nature, I have always been able to rationalize tragedy. Things are meant to happen. With Michael’s death, I was devastated, but it was logical, if not comforting, to say he was “better off.” He’d struggled with addiction for so many years, and it was leading him down some very dangerous paths. “He’s in a better place,” Joey said to me, and though I was grieving, I had to agree. Michael had never been at peace with himself, and now he was resting peacefully.

But Dad? I’ve been unable to utter such platitudes. I think there must be a reason, but what it is, I have no idea. At times like these, I wish I were religious, wish I could put unquestioning faith in something, some deity, so that I wouldn’t have to question. I do find comfort in thinking that Dad is with Michael now, that maybe Michael needed some guidance in the great beyond, and the great power, or powers, chose Dad as his angel. I guess that makes some sense, brings some solace.

Two weeks ago, as we were getting ready to go on vacation, I thought about my connection to my parents, and felt, in some ways, like a kid: I often called my Dad for advice, talked to both of my parents a couple of times a week, made the two-hour drive to Waltham on a regular basis. “Is this normal?” I wondered. But then I didn’t care. I enjoy their company, enjoy seeing their delight in their grandchildren. A few days later, I lost Dad. Does this mean I’m a real adult now?

There’s a sense of panic that comes from losing a parent. I feel it most intensely in the early hours of the morning, when everyone else is sleeping and I try to imagine life without Dad. I convince myself I’m in the midst of a very long nightmare, but no matter how hard I pinch myself, I can’t wake up.

But I know this grief, at least as I’m experiencing it now, is temporary. I know I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had such a close relationship with my Dad, to have created so many memories with him—good, bad, humorous, sad, tender, silly. And I’m fortunate to have had a father who was loved by more people than I ever imagined, as evidenced by the never-ending line of people at his wake, friends and acquaintances who uttered phrases like “wonderful man,” “real gentleman,” “proud father,” “hard worker,” “funny bastard.” And the outpouring of support and goodwill has been more than touching. Once again, I am grateful for my oversized extended family, the multitude of aunts and cousins and uncles who have provided comfort, food, babysitting, anecdotes, levity, tissues. I love my chaotic clan.

And I’ve learned not to question how people grieve, or how people respond to grief. It’s touchy and awkward, and sometimes people simply don’t know how to respond. My good friend Steph said, when I called her, “I don’t know what to say.” And I was so grateful for that, for her honesty, for crying instead of trying to find the right cliché.

Another friend, the daughter of my Dad’s old buddy (who is also my godfather), was even more primal in her response. Although we hadn’t spoken in 20 years, she called to offer her condolences: “That #@*%ing sucks!” she exclaimed. And after 20 years, we were easily re-connected by a couple of appropriate expletives.

And then there is Mom, my incredibly strong Mom, who has lost a brother and a sister and a mother and a father and a son and a husband but who still finds the strength to comfort her children, to play with her grandchildren, when even getting out of bed in the morning must feel like an insurmountable task. Amazing, wonderful, Mom.

The philosopher Kierkegaard said that suffering is the origin of human consciousness, but sometimes I’d rather be oblivious. Nevertheless, I know that even if the grief doesn’t pass, it will diminish until it is merely a dull ache, an ache that will eventually be overshadowed by the memory and spirit of “the old man.”

I thought he’d live forever
He seemed so big and strong
But the minutes fly
And the years roll by

I never will forget him
For he made me what I am
Though he may be gone
Memories linger on
And I miss him, the old man

--from “The Old Man” by John McDermott

Friday, July 18, 2008


Frederick J. Dowcett
June 18, 1946-July 13, 2008

Dear Dad:
Ever since you left us five days ago, I have been thinking about how to commemorate you in a way that truly honors your spirit. Given your legacy, I knew this would be no easy task.

The other night, as I threw pitches to my son in the park near your house, I was suddenly back in our yard on Dartmouth Street, where you threw me endless line drives, grounders, and pop flies in an attempt to bring me a little closer to my dream of being half as good as my teammate and brother, Joey.

When I set off to write your eulogy, I started walking, looking for solitude but not quite sure where I was headed. My feet took me to Nipper Maher Park, the site of so many childhood memories. I passed by the hill where you took us sledding. I passed Diamond 3, where you watched me play baseball. I sat at a picnic table near the Senior Field, within view of our first house, the house you rebuilt from the bathroom up.

I could simply list your virtues, but anyone who knows you can attest to your capacity for hard work, for fun, for love. So instead I will just share a few favorite memories that illustrate the kind of person you were: you taking my amateur novel and turning it into a beautifully bound book; you flying out to Colorado for my graduation even though you were terrified of planes; you swinging Dylan around in the surf on Cape Cod, and you snuggling on the sofa with Alexa, holding hands and watching Frosty the Snowman.

And I would definitely be remiss if I did not mention your lawn, that gorgeous lush green carpet of grass that was the envy of all your neighbors.

Your friends and family, in expressing their condolences, keep saying the same thing: “He was so proud of you kids. He talked about nothing else.” This sums you up, Dad: you were a true family man, full of selfless love and compassion, and my gratitude runs as deep as my love for you. We have been so blessed. I can’t imagine my life without you, but I know you will take good care of Michael. Rest in peace.

Friday, July 11, 2008


On this day six years ago, Bryan and I woke up single for the last time. Thought I'd take a little stroll down into July 11, 2002.

We woke up on the lumpy bed of our VW Westfalia, which was parked in the driveway of our friend Matt's place in Anchorage, Alaska. I peeked out of the pop-top to check the weather: overcast. Not a good sign, considering we were planning a ceremony on top of Flat top Mountain that evening. I wasn't too worried, though; good fortune seems to follow Matt everywhere, so I figured we had that on our side.

Inside Matt's, we drank coffee and planned our day. Matt emerged from his room. "You guys write your vows yet?" he asked.

Bryan and I looked at each other guiltily. "No," we admitted, swishing our spoons around in our granola. "But that's the first thing on our list today!" I added optimistically.

We'd chosen Matt to perform the ceremony. In Alaska, anyone who fills out the proper forms can be a certified Marriage Commissioner for one day only. Matt had enthusiastically agreed to perform this duty, but we knew our lack of preparation had him concerned. He wanted a speech he could read in advance, something he could look over at work that day. But we were in vacation mode, perpetually procrastinating.

"Don't worry," I assured him. "There will only be a few of us there. You don't have to say anything profound." He looked dubious.

We promised to get on it right away. And we had the best intentions. Matt suggested the coffee shop inside Title Wave books, which had good ambience and decent space. We followed his advice and headed down to Northern Lights Boulevard.

Which is the home of one of the largest REI stores in the U.S. So of course we got distracted. But we didn't entirely neglect our duties: I bought a white technical shirt to wear up the mountain, as well as some white hiking shorts, and Bryan bought himself a black top. There: we had our tux and gown.

And we did finally make it to Title Wave. Armed with coffee, notebooks, and pens, we sat down to write our vows. We knew what we wanted to say, but we didn't want it to sound corny or contrived. Here we were discussing the goals for the rest of our lives a few hours before our wedding. I had performance anxiety. "You're the writer," people always say in these situations. "What would you say?" The pressure was on. I had so many opinions about marriage and relationships, yet at the moment, I was at a loss for the right words. We looked at each other. Why was this so hard?

It was hard because it seemed redundant. When Bryan and I decided to get married, we had known each other for almost ten years, as friends and as a couple, and we were so in tune with each other's values and desires that writing vows seemed like an afterthought.

But we wanted to do this right. So we took big sips of coffee and wrote down our promises to one another.

The clouds drifted away as the morning dwindled into afternoon, and then evening. We met up with Matt and two other friends in the Flat top parking lot at 6:00. We had left a message for our good buddy Jon, a.k.a. "Burly," earlier that day, but figured he was off on a climbing trip, since he never returned our call. The sun, a near-constant presence in Anchorage in July, was still high in the sky. The alpine wildflowers were vibrant: purple, white, yellow. Sasha, our dog, took the lead, watching out for bear scat and moose tracks and other signs of wildlife. Having spent so many hours on the couch in the VW, she was exuberant, and she danced over the rocks like a deer.

We weren't the only ones who had chosen Flat top as a celebratory destination: when we arrived at the peak, around 7:30 pm, there was a child's birthday party in progress. Fortunately, the summit is large enough for several events.

Just as we were about to begin, a tall, lean figure in a button-down shirt came into view, running toward the summit, and then stopping to look around. It was Burly!

"Just got your message two hours ago," he said, out of breath. And then he walked me down the "aisle."

Matt's friend Dean filmed the ceremony. Matt gave a short, unprepared speech about how he had come to know me, and then Bryan, and then we moved on to our own words, recounting the evolution of our friendship, how we had come together, drifted apart, and come together again.
And then, of course, the vows. The sky was open, and the views were stunning: the Chugach range, Cook Inlet, downtown Anchorage draped in the orange rays of the sun. It was a perfect evening, a perfect spot.

After we exchanged rings and kisses, Matt pulled from his backpack a bottle of champagne and a pint of Ben&Jerry's ice cream. The wedding of my dreams.

And afterwards: beer and pizza at the Moose's Tooth, which has a fantastic selection of both. Matt's roommate, Brandy, and her boyfriend (now husband), Ben, had gotten there early to decorate a booth with streamers and bells.

Six years and two kids later, I still feel blessed, and though I probably (okay, definitely) would not have chosen Connecticut as my home, I really can't imagine spending my life with anyone else. Happy Anniversary.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

hush, little baby

Recently, my friend Stacey quit her job in order to stay home with her kids, who are 3 and 1. Almost every semester, I have considered following the same path, especially when my briefcase is full of unread essays and my children are visibly frustrated by my preoccupation with work. "If I stayed home," I often think, "I'd have more of myself to give to the kids, and more time to write." Sure, it would require some financial finagling, but it would be a worthy sacrifice.

Last week, I was putting books in the bookshelf, clearing away the pile of Little Critter and Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle books that Alexa had strewn about the floor. During the school year, when it's nap time, I'm running around like a crazy woman, trying to organize and read papers and write lesson plans, always looking anxiously at the clock and hoping this isn't the day Lexi decides to give up her naps. But last week as I cleaned up kids toys, I realized, quite suddenly, that I wasn't stressed out. Wow! I thought. I could really get used to this. I'm more patient. I'm writing. I'm sleeping better at night. Now why, I thought, did I decide to sign on for that Writing Fellowship?

I talked to Stacey. "You know," I said, "I'm really envious of your decision. I think I could find staying at home fulfilling."

Stacey looked at me sideways. "Is Dylan out of school yet?"

"No," I replied. "One more week."

"Talk to me in two weeks."

So Dylan has been out of school since last Friday. And I love that kid dearly, I really do, love his energy and his sweet temperament and his quirky humor.

But damn, that kid is garrulous. Extremely garrulous.

I can hear my mom laughing and saying, "It's payback time, baby!" From what I'm told, I started talking at 18 months and never stopped. And Bryan and Kaytie can testify to my late night bouts of chatter, episodes that required them to pull the plug or threaten me with duct tape. So I shouldn't be surprised. And I should be more patient. But it's the end of Week One, and I'm going batty. I don't think I can count the number of times in a day that I hear "Mom, guess what?" And often the response is something like, "I washed my hands," or "I put my cup in the sink." I've tried to express to Dylan that there is poetic value in silence, that it can be a beautiful thing, but I probably haven't been a very good role model. Tennessee Williams once wrote that "Silence about a thing magnifies it," but Dylan is a firm believer in the power of the Word, or words--lots and lots of words.

So I guess I'd better get zen, because if Dylan is anything like his mom, this isn't going to be a phase. But on the positive side, he has a lyrical soul, and often uses creative--and appropriate--adjectives to enrich his stories, and that, of course, warms my literary heart. And he's teaching me patience, I hope, because I know that it's my job not just to listen, but to hear, and to draw him out rather than shut him down.

And yeah, sometimes it's hard to say something other than, "Oh, really?" even though he knows when I'm appeasing him. Even his sister has been known to throw a superficial, "Wow--cool!" in his direction without looking up from her book or her Little People. But I know we need to nurture his little spirit, as noisy as it may be. And even if Dylan can barely spare me a moment to blow my nose without showing me something or asking me a question, I'll take the constant chatter over reticence any day.

He's quiet now. Whew.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

21 for a night

Before this past Monday night, it had been several years since I had seen a show in a venue as large as the Comcast Center (formerly Tweeter Center, formerly Great Woods) in Mansfield, MA. And the last time I had seen Pearl Jam there was in, I think, '91, during the Lollapalooza tour, when they played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and several grunge-era bands (Soundgarden? Alice in Chains? Who can remember?). So I experienced quite a bit of culture shock as I entered the grounds of the outdoor stadium on a sweltering June evening, surrounded by an eclectic mix of fans: middle-aged couples of respectable income; bandana-sporting transients from Seattle and Vancouver; testosterone-laden twentysomethings from the 128 belt, and the four of us: Bryan, my sister Kaytie, her friend Jess, and me.

I confess that I was almost giddy with anticipation. Pearl Jam tends to sell out shows in about 10 minutes, so in all honesty, I'm so out of the loop these days that I don't usually even hear about a show until it's too late. And I generally try to avoid large concert crowds, which means that when we see shows, we tend to go to quaint little music spaces such as the Calvin Theatre in Northampton and the Somerville Theatre outside of Boston.

I'll spare you the details of the parking lot (not much has changed, except that there is now a "premium parking" lot where you can pay $40 and be in and out, as opposed to waiting in a long line of cars. Extortion!).

As we filed slowly up to our seats, sweat and beer and cigarette breath surrounding us on all sides, I wondered, "Was it always like this? And what exactly am I doing here?" But once I was able to breathe again, and once the band took the stage, there was no question. I didn't stop to think "am I too old for this" as I whooped and danced and sang along to old classics like "Elderly Woman behind a Counter in Small Town" and new protest songs like "No More War". And as Eddie Vedder belted out, in his hypnotic baritone, the opening lyrics to "animal," and I leaned over to Kaytie and yelled, "How does he do that?" she responded, "I don't know, but it's funny how easily I can be reduced to a lovestruck adolescent."

And as corny as it is, I had to agree. "I know!" I squawked. "I want to marry Eddie Vedder right now!" And we both swooned over his long, sweat-soaked locks and scruffy beard. The man is sexy, there's no question.

And now it's too days later and I can recollect my emotions with tranquility, as Wordsworth would say, and reflect with amusement on my silly girlish declaration. But it's fun to be 21 every now and then, and what better outlet for that energy than a Pearl Jam show? A little bouncing and howling every now and then keeps it fresh, no?

And in keeping with the decadent spirit, Kaytie and I, staunch advocates of the "whole foods diet," punctuated the show with a mustard-covered hot dog. Guess that's what passes for radical in our world these days :]/