Sunday, October 25, 2009

Intact but Exhausted: On Parenting the "Spirited" Child

Spirited. What a lovely euphemism for a tempestuous temperament. A while back, I posted, here on this blog, an essay called “Seatbelt, Please,” which chronicled, to some extent, the joys and frustrations of parenting a “spirited” toddler. In my post, I quoted Dr. Sears, whose “Fussy Baby Book” brought me much validation and comfort during some dark times with my volatile daughter, Alexa. Sears sings the praises of “fussy” children, arguing that they generally grow up to be more vivacious, more interesting, more spirited than the average child.

In our culture, 'good' children are ones who do what they're told, without discussion. They sit quietly in their high chairs and eat what they're fed. They obey the Sunday school teacher and take their seat when asked. They don't talk in class at school and they certainly don't argue with their parents.
"I've met very few children like that, yet we persist in the fiction. . . .
(Sears, 160-61).

In response to this passage, I wrote, “I love a good fiction like anybody else, but I also love a roller coaster.”

And it’s true; I do seem to seek out chaos and drama, at least on occasion. But, man, I’m finding that this particular ride quite often turns my stomach upside down, and I’m finding it difficult to locate the good-natured, retrospective mood that seemed ever-present in that earlier essay. For the present, I’ve abandoned Dr. Sears, and have turned instead to one who provides a different kind of perspective: Dr. Merlot. He’s sweet and smooth and invariably brings a little tingle of warmth. He doesn’t question my parenting strategies. He lets me lie back in his warm, liquid arms.

Woops—pardon my reverie. For actual advice, I do turn, on occasion, to books. I found this statement in Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s “Raising Your Spirited Child” (there’s that lovely term again):

“Spirited kids like to make very sure the limits stand firm. As a result, they test more than other kids. This is not a figment of our imagination”(Kurcinka, 169).

Let me raise my glass to Kurcinka for taking time to point out that I’m not crazy. Because last week, when I picked up Alexa, kicking and screaming, and marched across the playground in front of two of her friends’ moms, I definitely felt, for a moment, like Joan Crawford. I imagined my hair flying all around my face, a savage frizzy mane; pictured my face in white Kabuki makeup, my eyes wild, bursting from their sockets with rage, as in the “wire hanger” incident in “Mommie Dearest.”

But I’m sane, so that’s good.

Here’s what triggered it: my cute little three-year-old has started rolling her eyes—in appropriate moments, no less. And the eye-roll is a punctuation mark, an exclamation point at the end of a whole lot of attitude. It started last Tuesday, at the Hamden YMCA, where Dylan was a guest in his friend Matthew’s swim class. Lexi pouted for a good 45 minutes, saying, grumpily, “I wanna swim.”

And at first I was sympathetic. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, not a good time for three-year-olds under the best of circumstances. “Lexi,” I said patiently, “I know you’re upset, but do you know why Dylan gets to swim today? It’s because. . . .”

And I never got to finish that sentence, because she hit me with the first eye roll, a very dramatic, eyes-back-in-your-head maneuver, followed by an exaggerated sigh. I was dumbfounded.

“Whoa,” my friend said slowly, equally floored.

Then, the next day, at the playground, it happened again. She wanted to take off her shoes. I said I thought it was a bad idea. I said, “It’s not summer. It’s fall. It’s cold. Do you understand?”

“No,” she replied, her eyes innocent. “I don’t.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Lexi,” I said, my voice clearly showing signs of anger, “If you want to stay at the playground, then you need to be a good. . . .”

There it was again: the eye roll. Not quite as dramatic, but enough to make an impact.

“Use a Firm Voice,” instructs Kurcinka’s book. “A firm voice,” she goes on to explain, “is not harsh or loud. It is simply a voice of conviction—a voice that states clearly, ‘The rule is . . . I will help you follow the rule.’ The tone communicates to your spirited child that you are committed and willing to get up and enforce this rule every time” (Kurcinka, 168).

If nothing else, I think I have been consistent in the area of rule enforcement, even if, in certain moments, it’s Joan Crawford-Kabuki-style enforcement.

In my previous post, I wrote:

Discipline. Sears says that attachment parenting is discipline in and of itself: when your infant cries and you hold her, you are teaching her that the world--or at least her world--is a place of comfort and love, and this, according to Sears, will give her the confidence she needs to go forward. I mean, really, can a 2-month old manipulate us, as many popular books suggest? When Alexa cried, I nursed her. I held her. I cursed her silently at times (sometimes not so silently), and Bryan and I bickered like brats in the middle of the night. (Me, March 2008)

And despite her ability to drive me to the edge of reason, I still find that she responds so well to love and nurturing, that even though she tests, and tests, and tests, there is a loving little creature inside that devilish costume. And I confess, too, that I find her adventurousness amusing, even thrilling. After her “time out” in the playground, she was back on the merry-go-round, hanging upside down, being thrown from the reckless ride two or three times, and jumping back on to exercise her athletic prowess. It was frightening and entertaining all at once. I was sure she was going to leave with a broken arm, but in the end, we all left intact, if a bit exhausted.

Hail to the blithe little spirits of the world.

I’m off to my appointment with Dr. Merlot.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

words for warmth

Words for Warmth

A Reading Project to Support Homeless Veterans in New Haven

For many, Autumn in New England is a warm prelude to the winter holiday months. We turn up the heat, light a fire in the woodstove, and wrap a fleece blanket around our shoulders as we settle into the evening hours, curled up with a favorite book.

For scores of veterans returning from the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this cozy scene is not merely idyllic, it is inconceivable. The bite in the air signifies the reality of winter and all of its foreboding uncertainties: for many veterans, the season is a sobering reminder that a warm bed and a stable support system remain, for the present, elusive luxuries.

Reading for Relief

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

How can books help provide relief from the cold? From now until Veteran’s Day (Wednesday, November 11), 0ur team of motivated young students will be raising funds for the Homefront, a refuge for veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by reading books—lots of books! By pledging your support, you can help them reach their goal of $250.00, all of which will go toward helping the Homefront open its doors in January.

And best of all, when you make a donation to the read-a-thon, you not only provide funding for the Homefront; you also promote literacy!

For more information, or to make a donation, contact:

Tricia Dowcett

Lori Ouellette

Joanne Dragunoff

Ann Bickell

Please support our team with a pledge. Winter is fast approaching, and our returning soldiers need our help. Together, we can help those who sacrificed so much for us.

What is the Homefront?

The Homefront is a house, a refuge for veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have nowhere to go and need support and reconnection.

Veterans can live at the house for up to two years as they address the causes of their homelessness. The house is divided into apartments where the men will live together and receive support from both trained staff and each other.

The Homefront's goals include:

  • Providing stable housing
  • Encouraging veterans to pursue higher levels of education and vocational training
  • Fostering self-determination
  • Reintegrating veterans back into their communities
  • Freeing up space in the already overcrowded shelters

For more information on the Homefront, please visit

Sunday, June 14, 2009

damn these things!

Most people would agree I'm a pretty healthy eater. I stay away from processed foods, eat organic whole foods, yadda yadda yadda. I run. I hike. I do yoga. For the most part, I'm kind to my body.

But I am incorrigibly addicted to potato chips. I love the salt, the oil, the crunch. The ridges. I love them, and I hate them, and therefore I don't keep them in the house, because when it comes to chips, I have no self-control. My eyes glaze over, my mouth waters, and I turn into Homer Simpson.

And how far chip manufacturers (is that the right word? maybe I should use it regardless, as it illustrates the unnatural-ness of chips. But what about all-natural chips?) have come. We have pesto chips. Chips cooked in avocado oil. Chipotle chips. Cilantro chips. Sweet potato chips. Beet chips. Okay, that last one doesn't appeal to me at all, but I'm just saying.

Tonight, I took the kids to see They Might be Giants on the New Haven green. I packed dinner in advance, knowing there would be pizza and french fries and hot dogs (healthy options, too, but those are pricey) in the kiosks along Temple Street. So I threw together some tuna sandwiches on "lettuce wraps" (we're a bit low on bread at the moment). Also on the dinner menu was cucumbers and hummus; home-made granola; and pineapples for dessert. I felt pretty good, though I knew I would still have to find a spot away from the food booths to avoid being seduced by the aroma of fried food and ice cream (I'm also quite vulnerable when it comes to french fries, which are just potato chips in another form).

Kids ate the meal. No complaints. Problem is, we were surrounded by chip eaters. Did the kids notice? Not really. Did I? Yes. Ruffles. Terra Chips. Baked Lays. Tortilla chips. Neither the electric guitar nor the keyboard could drown out the "crunch crunch crunch." My lips craved salt. The homemade granola didn't seem so appealing anymore.

On the way back from New Haven, I did a mental inventory of my cupboards. No chips. And I couldn't stop on the way home. I'd have to go out of my way to find a convenience store, and really, that would just be taking things too far. Okay, I was going to be fine.

So I put the kids to bed. I washed a few dishes. I had a handful of granola. Then I opened the door to the kitchen closet to grab the broom, and a plastic bag fell from one of the shelves. I was about to stuff it in the plastic bag holder; as I was pushing it down, I felt something inside. It crunched. I opened the bag. In it was a small bag of Cape Cod chips. Someone was looking out for me. Or cursing me. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Friday, June 12, 2009

magical thinking

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.

So begins Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she explores grief, marriage, loss, writing and even the complexities of hospital critical care. She wrote the book after losing her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, who suffered a fatal heart attack in their kitchen as they were about to have dinner. To add to Didion's suffering, she and John had just come from visiting their only daughter, Quintana, who was unconscious in the Intensive Care Unit after succumbing to an especially acute and debilitating form of the flu.

While Didion's story is unique, her opening passage immediately struck me as familiar. My father died in a similar fashion: he went down to the basement to get a drink from the refrigerator, and never made it back up. As Didion writes, he “was talking, and then he wasn't.” And though he wasn't pronounced dead until two days later, in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I still see this as the moment when he passed from our world into the next. He never again took a breath on his own, never regained consciousness. He was there, and then he was gone. Life as you know it ends.

In an early chapter, Didion recalls struggling to remember what they had talked about at dinner. What John had been saying just before he died. Suddenly, remembering seemed to be of utmost importance, and yet she could not recall. I remember this same panic, even before Bryan and I reached the hospital. We were driving through southern Vermont, where we had been vacationing. I remembered that the last time I saw Dad was July 1 (it was now July 12). He and Mom had watched the kids on the evening of June 30 while Bryan and I went to the Pearl Jam concert at the Tweeter Center with my sister, Kaytie, and her friend Jessica. They had taken the kids to my brother's softball game. Dad had spent the entire game at the fence with Dylan, explaining the rules, cheering for Joe. I imagined how Dylan's interest in the game must have pleased Dad, who had always been an avid sports fan.

But what had happened the following day, the day after the concert? I recalled Dad asking me about the concert, but was that in the morning, or at lunchtime? Had he come home for lunch, as he sometimes did when we were visiting? I nearly broke into a sweat trying to remember the details. I tried to replay the events of the day, but the projector seemed to be broken. We went to the park, played baseball and basketball. Joey met us there. And then. And then? What were the last words that Dad and I had spoken to each other?

I never did recall. I like to think that he came home for lunch, but I'm not sure.

I like to think that I answered all of his emails, especially the one in which he responded to a blog entry about my brother Michael. He thanked me for thinking of Mike, said he was sometimes afraid we would forget him. I did not want to put this in your blog because my feelings are personal and that is the way I will always be. Please know how much your feelings mean to me and how much I love all of you. Thanks, Dad.”

There is no “reply arrow” on this email. Did I respond? All the evidence seems to point to “no.” I have a vague memory of talking to him about this in person, in my parents' living room, possibly after Joe and Kim's baby shower. But I don't know if I have created this memory to make myself feel better. I have a bad habit of leaving emails in my inbox, with the intention of writing a response when I have some solitude, but I confess that these emails often get buried under more emails. I should have answered right away. I don't think I did. I'll never know.

In the hours following her husband's death, Didion looked at the time and realized that it was three hours earlier in California. In Los Angeles, she thought, this hasn't happened yet. She knew this was irrational. Later, as she is going through his things, she realizes she can not put his clothes into boxes, can not pack up his shoes, because, well, if he comes back, he might need them. Again, she knew this was irrational. She refers to this thought process as “magical thinking.”

Last week or the week before, I was clearing old text messages from my cell phone. I came across one from my sister: “So excited about tomorrow night.” The date was June 29, the day before the Pearl Jam concert. The message seemed suspended in time, a time in which Dad was still breathing, probably eagerly awaiting his grandchildren. I experienced a “magical” thought: If I replied to this message, would it, too, go back in time? Were there messages from June 28, or 27, or from May? Could I answer that email from Dad now? Surely technology has created something that allows us to send messages anachronistically?

In reality, a response to Dad's email would go straight to Mom, who shares the email address. But for a few brief seconds, it seemed that maybe communication was possible.

Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be. . . . Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life. Virtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of “waves.”

I am riding one of these waves right now as Dad's 63rd birthday approaches, and as the first anniversary of his death looms overhead. Didion writes that when she got home from the hospital, “My first thought was that I had to talk to John about this.” I have often experienced this: when I have a question about gardening, I need to call Dad. When the Red Sox beat the Yankees, I need to call Dad. When Dylan or Lexi does something noteworthy, I need to call Dad. When Alexa had a bad stomach virus a few weeks ago, I was about to tell my mother, “Don't mention it to Dad,” because he was such a worrier. I forget, and then I re-remember, and another wave hits.

The words with which Didion opens her memoir are the words she wrote in her notebook shortly after John died. I found it interesting that she included “The question of self-pity,” especially so soon after losing her partner of forty or fifty years.

People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as “dwelling on it.” We understand the aversion most of us have to “dwelling on it.” Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty, “ Phillipe Aries wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes Toward Death. But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.” We remind ourselves repeatedly that our own loss is nothing compared to the loss experienced (or, the even worse thought, not experienced) by he or she who died; this attempt at corrective thinking serves only to plunge us deeper int the self-regarding deep. (Why didn't I see that, why am I so selfish.)

Society, Didion says, rewards the stoics, and so we fail to give grief its due. Most employers allow two or three days of “mourning” for a distant family member or friend, five for an immediate family member. I remember taking a week off from school when my brother died; when I returned to work, I found I had to go through it all over again as my colleagues approached me with condolences and hugs. It's too soon, I thought.

I remember, a mere five days after Dad's funeral, expressing to my friend Kristen my fear that I would never “come out of it.” I knew it was going to be a long process, and I think on some level I worried that my grief was imposing on others' happiness. I was afraid of the inconvenience it would cause. I found myself apologizing for talking about Dad, while at the same time needing desperately to have the conversation.

“Tricia,” Kristen said slowly, deliberately, “it hasn't even been two weeks. Go easy on yourself.”

I find myself feeling apologetic even now, as I write these words. I imagine readers rolling their eyes and thinking, “Ugh—aren't we past this already? Didn't we get all of this out last summer?”

And yet, I keep writing.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. . . .We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. . . .We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.

I don't imagine that my grief is unique, nor do I find my situation to be tragic. It's common. It's ordinary. I know, as someone pointed out during this time, that we can never experience the kind of suffering experienced by, say, a woman in Afghanistan. Neither can my grief be compared to that of the parents of the three-year-old boy who drowned in his swimming pool here in Cheshire a few weeks ago.

Didion herself had much more cause for suffering than I. Shortly after finishing her book, she lost her daughter, who had suffered a series of setbacks after what looked like a promising recovery.

Dad was in my life for thirty-seven years. He met and knew and loved both of my children, if only for the first few years of their lives. I don't write out of self pity, but for catharsis. So I won't apologize. And I will resist the urge to assure you, anonymous reader, that I'm not “dwelling on it.”

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. ~Kahlil Gibran

Friday, May 15, 2009

i heart mud

Now that my semester has officially ended, the Friday morning trail runs have resumed. We meet at my house, at 6am sharp (yup, that's right--6am), and jog the mile or so to the DeDominicis trail, which the town opened up to the public about six years ago. Our run begins with a brutal wake-up: a steep climb up Old Lane Road to the trailhead. (It's less brutal for me, as I have my own personal rope tow in the form of my hyperactive Lab, Sasha.) A few minutes later, we are deep in the woods, ankle-deep in mud, and, if we've all had enough sleep (which was not the case this morning), deep in conversation. Despite the hour, it really is an invigorating start to the day.

I've always preferred trails to roads. People have often asked me, "Why do you run? Why would you do something so painfully boring?" I don't know. I've been running since I was ten or eleven; it's always been something I felt driven to do. But I see their point. When running begins to feel like work, it loses its purpose. On the trails, especially in the company of my witty and garrulous cohorts, I'm distracted from my task. Instead of muddling, I'm soaring. My brain is working furiously, calculating the best way around this rock or that root. My thighs are burning as I climb the hills, which always seem taller in the woods. Sasha stops to take a swim in a pool of fresh rainwater and we catch our breath, marveling at the dramatic change in the landscape now that spring is here. The ferns have sprouted up everywhere; the leaves are a deep, fertile green; the dead foliage has been reborn as rich brown soil. The woods are alive. Pete, our resident Audubon member, identifies birds by their songs. When we pause to tie a shoe or find the trail, the bugs remind us of their presence.

When we get back to my driveway, we're covered from thighs to soles in mud. Spring, our legs announce, has truly arrived. We don't hose off right away; we must first compare calves. Who has played the hardest? The mud is our elixir, our holy water, our badge of honor.

"Yuck!" my kids say when I enter the house, but I know they get it. There's a small hole in our sideyard that fills up with water when it rains, and they take great pleasure in dirtying themselves there. When they're done, their toes are grimy and black. They hold their hands up proudly, half-wondering if the muck will win them a smile or a reproach. I'll admit I'm not always thrilled (who wants to clean up that mess?), but inside, I am pleased. In a small way, they're in touch with nature, and in that moment, it's way better than toys!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

letter to spring

Dear Spring:

Since you haven't returned any of my calls, I can only assume that you caught wind of my love letters to Winter a few months ago. Yes, I took pleasure in his hardy embrace, and yes, I find him irresistible at a certain time of year--I mean, he's so burly and rugged and exciting. But we're not exclusive, Winter and I, and really, Spring, I do just wish I could look out the window and see your colorful blossoms, moist with dew. I mean, come on, Spring, is this silence, this evasiveness, really necessary? It's April 22nd, and my toes are freezing in my wool socks. The tea in my hand can't even take the edge off the chill. Winter has departed, but you, Spring, stubbornly hide yourself away, leaving us here in a seasonal purgatory.

And come on, Spring, I mean everyone sings your praises. In literary terms, you are Rebirth, Regeneration, Love; poor Winter has to get stuck with Death and Dying. Poets muddle through the cold season, pouring their darkest humors into their winter poems, in order to find their way back to you, Spring. Nobody looks out his window on a fragrant, sunny day in May and mutters, "Oh, God, it's warm and clear again."

So, with all due respect, Spring, I think a little perspective is in order.

If that isn't enough, then I'm willing to get down on my knees and beg your forgiveness. Please come back, Spring. Please?

Monday, April 20, 2009


Over Easter weekend, the family and I trekked up to one of my favorite towns, Burlington, Vermont, to stay with some friends. On Saturday, my buddy Paul and I donned our shorts and running shoes, exposing our legs to the chilly northern air, and ran the Unplugged Half Marathon. Much of the course was familiar, as it ran mainly along my old stomping grounds, the Burlington Bike Path, with lovely views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains just beyond. The wind was frigid and even aggressive at times, especially as we made our way in and out of Oak Ledge Park, where Dylan, Alexa, and Paul’s son Nico were waiting with outstretched hands, but in the photos taken by the race photographer, Paul and I are laughing, unfazed. Maybe it was the endorphins, or maybe it was the laughter that comes from shared pain. Or maybe it was the bliss that comes from uninterrupted conversation, a luxury when one has small children. Paul and I shared an office for two years when we were Teaching Fellows at the University of Vermont eight years ago, so we had lots of time for impromptu chats in those days, but since becoming parents, our communication has consisted mainly of email conversations, occasional postcards, messages on Facebook, and two or three brief annual visits.

I tend to think, though, that, more than anything, my smile in the photograph is a direct result of the tension that invariably drains from my neck and shoulders when I cross the border from Massachusetts into Vermont on I-91. Something happens when I see the “Welcome to Vermont” sign. “Keep it Simple” is Vermont’s state motto, and while a number of friends have expressed their frustration over Vermont’s lack of billboards (“How can I find the nearest McDonald’s?”), over the miles and miles between exits, and over the state’s general defiance of convenience, this is what I find most endearing. “Simple, dammit!” the sleepy hamlets and villages seem to snap back at the tourists who bemoan the elusiveness of the Taco Bell. “You want lunch?” Vermont asks. “Come and find it.”

Of course, with small children in tow, one needs to allow for extra travel time in planning a drive through this under-populated state. Once, when Alexa was a colicky infant, we realized, too late, that we had left her pacifier at home. She began to grow desperate and irrational. We pulled off at the nearest exit (which was probably 10 minutes up the road), and then drove for a good 15 or 20 minutes, Alexa practically blue and our nerves completely fried, until we found a general store which, mercifully, had binkies. Whew.

Despite the potential for maddening incidents like this one, I still prefer Vermont’s dogged simplicity to the bustle of the lower New England states. And Paul and Meredith’s house is an extension of this simplicity. Many of Nico’s toys were made by Paul himself: wooden blocks and a playhouse and a makeshift see-saw. The sandbox. The TV is nowhere to be seen, and even if it were, they don’t have cable. The “playscape” in the backyard is a twisted tree trunk laid on its side. Perfect for climbing, and no assembly required. Downtown is a fifteen-minute walk, and though Church Street, with its charming cobblestones and fountains and climbing structures, has succumbed to such chain outfits as Old Navy, Starbucks, and Borders, downtown Burlington is still home to some thriving independent stores and restaurants, including my old favorites: Stone Soup, a cafeteria-style vegetarian cafĂ©; Outdoor Gear Exchange, where you can find new and consigned gear and clothing for adults AND kids; and Muddy Waters, where a grad student can spend hours sipping coffee and cramming for comps exams, and then finish the night with a microwbrew. And, of course, there is Nectar’s, former home to the band Phish. What I wouldn’t give to be back in Burlington, unplugged.

Like many idyllic cities, Burlington has its drawbacks, of course. For one, it is blindingly white (and not just because of the snow). For a small city, it’s culturally diverse in terms of restaurants, theatre events, and social justice; in terms of ethnic diversity, however, B-town leaves much to be desired.

Still, the sense of community is palpable. I often wonder what my town, Cheshire, would be like if the town would just put in sidewalks. Cheshire has potential: there’s a town green, there are a few shops downtown. But we don’t walk anywhere (or, when we do, we have to say a prayer before and after, because cars are so unused to pedestrians that they can barely swerve out of the way in time to avoid having you plastered on the front of their SUVs), and we’re so busy, running our kids off to one activity after another, promoting structure but inadvertently adding chaos. There’s a sense of immediacy here, especially when it comes to kids: get them involved now, or they might fall behind. And what falls through the cracks in the process? The ability to slow down, to engage in unstructured play, to appreciate the natural playscapes that really do abound here—even from New Haven, there is easy access to trails.

The other problem with Burlington is, of course, that jobs—and houses—are nearly impossible to come by. Whenever I whine and envy Paul and Meredith’s “good fortune,” I remember what they sacrificed to have their House in Burlington. It was in an almost incomprehensible state of disrepair when they purchased it: a former crack house, with barely a roof to speak of. They homesteaded: they took jobs as Resident Managers at Champlain College, living in a dorm while they spent a year building their house (Paul even built the cabinets himself, and recently, he refurbished the second floor, even adding a little window in Nico’s bedroom that allows him to look out over the treetops at Lake Champlain).

It’s no secret that I’ve wanted to move someplace “more simple” for quite some time (not that Connecticut doesn’t have its charms—it does). Recently, though, I decided that for the moment, I need to embrace my surroundings, because living with one foot out the door isn’t productive or enriching. Still, when I return from Vermont, there’s always a bit of a post-Green Mountain-funk that follows. Hence this rant. Thanks for listening.

Friday, February 27, 2009

for dylan, turning five

"Jesus, he's beautiful."

Your grandfather breathed these words when he first beheld you, lying in your plexiglass hospital crib sporting a onesie and diaper. Grampy's voice exuded love, surprise, disbelief (and not only because he had begun to believe his daughter would never have a baby), and joy. He watched you closely, took in your wide wide eyes, your delicate olive skin, your slender fingers and toes. "He looks like he's looking around at stuff," he said, as if you possessed gifts other babies did not.

And of course, for us, you did. Many, many times have I silently echoed Grampy's words: "Jesus, he's beautiful." There's beauty in your appearance, yes, but also in your interactions with your friends, your family, and with the world. A beautiful soul: gentle, loving, quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) forthright. You are a perfect balance of natural empathy, stubborn determination, restless curiosity, and boundless energy.

Your fifth birthday has arrived, and as I reflect on the years that have brought us here, I see a slideshow in fast-forward, and I am struck by the need to slow it down, to pause, to record everything so that no part of your wonder years are forgotten or overlooked. I recall your dark eyes probing my face as we rocked in the glider. You're in a yellow sleep sack, sucking on a pacifier, and I'm reading "Goodnight Moon." Your gaze is so deep it's startling. "He's a very intense little baby," your dad said around this time, and this intensity is something you carry with you in everything you do: I see it in the complicated narrative of your play; in your face when you are troubled; in your dogged focus at the skating rink; in your concern for others' feelings.

I remember the first time you went to daycare. We did a one-hour trial run: I stayed for the first thirty minutes and watched you play; then I left, slowly, hesitantly, amazed at the depth of my emotion as I drove away. I cried. I had stayed home with you, not working, for fifteen months, and the guilt I felt in this moment was overbearing. And I don't think it helped that you waved good-bye, or that you were smiling. When I returned, you were playing happily. The sight of you, all baby fat and fine curls, wearing your red overall shorts and Carter's sandals, made me cry all over again. "Mama!" you shouted. As I embraced you, I thought, "I've never known love until this moment."

Your intensity is most remarkable in your relationship with your sister. What great friends you are! This, of course, after an initial transition that was rocky at times. Our first night home with Alexa, you stood crying in your crib, clutching the blue Patriots football my parents had brought for you. In the morning, you climbed into bed with us, your expression at finding the baby still here a mixture of confusion and excitement. "Hi, bee-bee," you said, crouching down to see her as she slept. "Good moanin!"

Last year, on Valentine's Day, your teachers asked you to answer the question, "What is love?" You responded, "Loving my sister." This year, your response was the same. And it's no empty phrase. Dianne, our neighbor, once commented that you carry your sister "by the scruff of her neck." You jump when she drops a book, you're sad when she's away from you. You derive great joy from teaching her new things, and she prefers your company to anyone else's. At night, when I kiss you both while you sleep, I see that Lexi is covered with stuffed animals and extra blankets, and I know that her brother-angel is looking out for her.

Today you said to me, "I think Lexi and me might wanna get married when we get older, because we don't want to live far away from each other." Already, you are thinking of your future, and planning ways to keep your sister close by. I hope you will always share this bond.

Dylan, you are beautiful. Jesus, you're beautiful. And yet, beautiful can't even begin to capture all of the things that you are. My greatest pleasure has been to watch you grow, to share your brightest moments, and to comfort you when you have needed it. I enjoy watching you line up your cars as much as I enjoy watching you skate ferocious laps around the rink. Always, I am proud of you. I could easily lament the swiftness with which these years have passed, or beat myself up about how I haven't lived in the moment, or played with you enough, or appreciated you as I should. Instead, I would rather smile on the moments we have now, on the rich and wonderful years that await us: days and weeks and months and years filled with camping trips, hikes, skinned knees, amusement parks, trips to the city, broken bones, t-ball games, shouting matches, conversations, movies, et cetera, et cetera.

You've been here only five years, but I can hardly remember the years that came before.

Happy birthday, beautiful.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

not with a bang, but a whimper

Signs of the impending apocalypse (heard during my elliptical workout at the Y yesterday morning):

-- It rained dead birds in Esperance, Australia and then Austin, Texas, within the span of three weeks.

-- The latest teen fad is a game called "punch out," whose rules are self-evident.

-- Joe Torre, baseball's Gentleman Manager, just published a tell-all memoir. Guess that's what living in L.A. does to your sense of ethics.

Friday, January 23, 2009

ushers of the new dawn

for the love of cold

Time for the weather report. It's cold out folks. Bonecrushing cold. The kind of cold which will wrench the spirit out of a young man, or forge it into steel.

(Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider, Northern Exposure: Lost and Found, 1992

There’s something exhilarating about cold, real cold, the kind of cold that freezes your nostrils and forms tiny icicles on your eyelids, that nips at your flesh, penetrating the layers of fleece and polyester and Smartwool. It is at once energizing and humbling: it reminds us that nature is both a blessing and a force.

Last weekend, my friend Pete and I set out for the DeDominicis trail in Cheshire at 8:00 am, when the thermometer said the temperature was minus-five. Before we had even reached the trailhead, which is about a mile and a quarter from my house, the wisps of hair that had made their way outside the balaclava I was sporting had become white and hard, and my teeth were so cold that conversation was nearly impossible. My feet, still warm thanks to the miracles of Gore-tex and merino wool, seemed to stick to the ground with each step, and my breath came in short, sharp gasps.

I admit that none of this sounds especially enjoyable or pleasurable. Yet, as we trudged up and down (mostly up, or so it felt!) the snow-covered hills, less packed down than we had hoped, our quads burning from the effort, I felt alive, really and truly alive. Having lived, albeit briefly, in the cold climes of Anchorage, Alaska and Burlington, Vermont, I had come to think of Connecticut as mild, disappointingly so. My heavy thermals rarely have occasion to leave the bin of cold weather clothing under my bed. My down jacket comes out two or three times a year. As a result, I felt my own spirit had become domesticated. I would shiver when the temperature dipped below forty. I would lament my “tame” geographic location (much to the irritation of friends and family, who have had more than enough of my complaining, and of my nostalgia). Now here was Mother Nature in her essence, showing us that she could flex her biceps even here in southern New England. And while I embraced the challenge of working my muscles in the arctic air, I also bowed to the power of Nature.

Such a deranged view of cold is probably a result of my obsession with Alaska, a place to which I still feel drawn. Alaska, for me, was a personal challenge, a test of physical and emotional will. While my time there was too short, I emerged a more complete person, more confident, more awake, more aware. This is the gift of adversity, be it in the form of weather, exercise, tragedy, distress, illness, or emotional duress.

Blow, blow thou winter wind;
Thou art not so unkind. . . .
(William Shakespeare)