Lucky Sevens

Saint Patrick’s Day is coming up and like many Americans, I’m part Irish, so maybe I should be expecting some luck. I did find the pot of gold at Capital City Cheesecake Tuesday morning when I dropped in for a cup of coffee and a macaroon while running an errand.  It’s a promotion they’re running.  Find the cardboard cutout of a pot of gold (which moves around the store from day to day) and you get 15-25% off your order, depending on how many people have found it that day. It felt pretty lucky, even though it was, objectively speaking, a rather small windfall. The satisfaction came mainly from the fact that the last time I was in there I couldn’t find the darn thing. A lot of things affect our perception of luck.

I was tagged by Tyfanny of Come What May (http://btmommy.blogspot.com/) and Teaberry of 04-05-08 (www.040508.blogspot.com) to do a version of the Seven Random Things meme. Thanks, Tyfanny! Thanks, Teaberry! I’ve done it before, but not for several years so I thought I’d give it another shot. The ironic part is it comes with this Versatile Blogger badge and I’m about to demonstrate my utter lack of versatility by refusing to do it as instructed.  It’s the random part that does not come naturally to me.  I always want my blog posts to hang together, so the last time I did this one, I told what was happening in my life five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty and thirty-five years prior to writing.  This time I decided to play with sevens, or specifically dates with sevens in them, and the idea of luck.  It gives me a couple of the same years as the previous Seven Random Things post, but I will try to say something a little different. (The older post is “Seven Snapshots from My Past,” on 11/16/07 in case you want to read fourteen not-so-random things about me.)

Here goes:

1967: This is an easy one because it’s the year I was born, so that’s clearly the luckiest thing that happened to me that year. I was born in Los Angeles in May of that year to a couple in their mid-twenties, a journalist and a nurse. I was their first child. I don’t remember life in California, as I was two and half when we moved to the East Coast, but we lived near the ocean and I spent a lot of time as a baby and a toddler on the beach.  I think this could be why I feel so profoundly at home there.

1977: I was ten and living in Newtown, Pennsylvania with my parents and six-year-old sister. Some time in the beginning of fifth grade I was lucky enough to become close to the girl who would be my best friend for the next several years, including more than a year after we moved away in eighth grade.  It took me a long time after the move to make new friends, so that friendship was sustaining, a lifeline really.  I used to take the train to visit her for the weekend about once a month. She would come visit me sometimes, too, but not as often.  As an adult and a parent, I’m impressed now with her parents’ generosity in having me as a guest in their house so frequently and for so long.  In retrospect, I don’t think I was grateful enough.

1987: Another easy one.  Late one July evening after a very long and circuitous conversation, I told Beth I’d never had a friendship as intense as ours that didn’t turn romantic. We discussed what might happen if I kissed her.  She said she “wouldn’t mind.” Fortunately, I took this for a coy understatement and an invitation to proceed to the kiss. Later she told me she was being noncommittal, not because she didn’t want the kiss but because she was even more scared than I was. I kissed her. She kissed back. The rest is history.

7/15/91: Exactly four years later, in the bedroom of a B&B in Rehoboth Beach, I asked Beth to by my life partner.  She said yes.  Our commitment ceremony was about six months later.

1997: Finding something lucky about this year is actually kind of a stretch.  Here’s what I wrote about it in a previous blog post:

What I do remember is how miserable I was to be turning thirty.  I was mired in the dissertation-writing process, a year into it and all I’d done was write and rewrite the prospectus four times.  My committee finally and grudgingly allowed me to start on the introduction after the fourth draft, but my confidence was pretty low by that point.  Meanwhile, I’d decided I definitely wanted children a few years earlier but Beth was unsure and between her ambivalence and my academic paralysis, it seemed like it was never going to happen.   I started haunting websites for moms and lurking on pregnancy message boards.  To make matters worse, it was clear by that point that Beth and I were going to fall short of our goal of visiting all fifty states by our tenth anniversary that July.  I felt like my life was going nowhere. (“On Turning Forty,” 5/11/07)

It’s hard for me to even say if getting the prospectus approved that year was lucky or not. I mostly regard my Ph.D as an expensive mistake these days, but I suppose if the committee hadn’t accepted it then I would have spent even longer banging my head against that particular wall, so I guess it will do.

2007: Now here I have to skip right over the birth of my kids because their birthdays have no sevens in them.  That’s the random part, folks.  So, by this time, I had finished the Ph.D, we’d traveled to all fifty states and our family was complete.  Noah was six and June was one.  This was the year I started writing this blog, a project I’d considered for years and one that’s been deeply satisfying to me.  I feel lucky to have an outlet for my urge to write, and lucky that Beth maintains the site for me.

3/7/12: So, what was the luckiest thing that happened to me yesterday?  It was a pretty normal day. I walked June to school because it’s Spirit Week and yesterday’s activity was “Eat Breakfast with Your Teacher” so she needed to be there early.  I did laundry, straightened up the house a little, read Les Miserables for book club, exercised, edited a document about growing hydroponic cucumbers and summarized scientific abstracts about treating goiter with iodine. We went out for pizza because there was a fundraiser for Noah’s school at a Silver Spring pizzeria.  I think the normalcy of the day might actually be the lucky part—having my family, my work and a bit of leisure. That’s luckier than 15% off a cup of coffee any day.

Okay now for the tagging part. There’s no way I can tag fifteen people. I don’t read that many blogs. Seven’s a stretch, as you will see.  I just picked the last seven bloggers who commented on my blog, excluding the blogger who tagged Tyfanny because we don’t want this to get too circular, do we?

  1. My sister Sara, who is not strictly speaking a blogger, because she has no blog…yet. But she sometimes says she might start one.  You can consider yourself tagged in advance, Sara.  And wouldn’t seven random things about yourself be a nice way to introduce yourself to your readers? Or alternately, you could leave me a comment with seven random I may not know about you.
  2. Lesley, from Child Art Retrospective, another inappropriate choice because her blog is professional and not personal.  But I am having fun imagining her list of seven random things she’s learned about art from preschoolers.  Maybe leave it in a comment here?
  3. Allison, at Bibliomania (http://www.bibliomama2.blogspot.com/).  At last, an actual blogger who writes about her personal life (and her life of the mind). She’s funny and engaging and her posts often come back to zombies. I count this as a plus.
  4. My good friend Megan at Perpetual Expat (http://mimi37.blogspot.com/), whom I may have already tagged with this very meme before.  You did resolve to post more often this year, Megan. Here’s your chance.
  5. Jane at Sugar and Puppy Dog Tales (http://www.littleboysaremadeof.blogspot.com/), who just asked for writing prompts.  At your service, Jane.
  6. Swistle, at Swistle. (http://www.swistle.blogspot.com/). A long shot, as I don’t think she does this kind of thing, but you should all go read her blog anyway.  It’s one of my favorites.
  7. Laura, from The Diniwilks (http://diniwilks.blogspot.com/) whose last post is another meme, so either she likes this kind of thing, or she’s meme-ed out. We’ll see.

Go forth and post.  You might even follow the instructions. It’s worth a try.

  1. Add the Versatile Award graphic on your blog post.
  2. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  3. Share seven random things about yourself.
  4. Nominate fifteen fellow bloggers.
  5. Inform bloggers of their nomination.

Take Me Back to the Water’s Edge

Take me back to the water’s edge
Lay me down on that riverbed
Take me down to the water’s edge
Hold me under for the longest human breath

From “The Water’s Edge” by k.d. lang and Joe Pisapia

I. Eight Lanterns

“Aren’t you even a little bit sad?” I asked June as we walked to school on Wednesday, her very last day of preschool.

“Nope,” she said. And, truly, she did not look even the least bit sad. It was water play day and she was excited by the novelty of going to school in her bathing suit and curious to see what everyone else’s bathing suit would look like. She was in the moment, not at all bagged down by grown-up nostalgia.

The parking lot was covered with the kids’ art portfolios and their paper lanterns for the Lantern Launch. The lanterns are beautiful this year, painted with landscapes and saturated with color.

We walked inside, past the Cottontail Rabbit, who was presenting Lesley with a big potted plant with yellow flowers. In the main classroom the Field Mouse’s mom asked me, “Are you co-oping?”

“No, just lingering,” I answered.

“Don’t look at her,” Lesley advised. “She’s crying.”

I was not crying, but I might have if I’d stayed much longer so after telling June goodbye and talking a little to the Ghost Crab and the Field Cricket about their water day plans (which involved spraying the whole school with water, according to the Cricket), I left.

I had June’s lantern and her portfolio of artwork with me. Once I got home I laid them on the dining room table, but I avoided looking at anything too carefully. I wasn’t ready. I exercised and tried to work, but it was hard to concentrate. I’d hoped to complete a set of abstracts to send off to Sara since I did not anticipate having much time to work on Thursday or Friday and the early part of the weekend would be busy, what with the Lantern Launch on Friday evening and June’s first t-ball practice on Saturday morning. But I only got about half of the remaining work on the set done.

I headed out the door a few minutes early. I wanted to get some pictures of the kids sitting on the steps before anyone was dismissed. So I got there, talked to a few people—‘This is so sad” the Cricket’s mom said—snapped some pictures of the kids, picked up yet more art projects, spare clothes, June’s journal, handwriting workbook, a DVD of her class singing “Carnival of the Tracks” and other miscellaneous things to take home. And then we left. A block away from school June announced, “I need to go potty.”

This actually happens fairly frequently and it usually drives me crazy but that day I didn’t mind turning around and walking back into the school. The Painted Turtle’s mom was presenting Lesley with an umbrella the Turtle had decorated with ribbons hanging from the spokes inside. Each ribbon had a name of a classmate or teacher and small picture representing something about that person. (June’s picture was of food, because she always eats so much at snack.) The Turtle’s mom offered us a ride home and I wasn’t about to say no, as the temperature was 96 degrees and rising.

Before Quiet Time, June wanted to hear a story from her journal about a cat jumping over a fence. I read it to her and she wanted to know if she could take the journal into her room to look at the pictures during Quiet Time. I said sure. I don’t think she looked at it long, though, because when I peeked in on her ten minutes later, she was asleep.

Noah came home around 4:20, crying because he’d gotten a lower than expected grade on his probability game (it was a C). I was taken aback because he usually doesn’t seem to care much about grades and he’s gotten Cs before in this program (though mostly at the beginning of the year, before he had his bearings). I tried to talk him through it but he was unresponsive. Finally I said, “Everything seems worse when it’s hot” and I took him back to my bedroom and turned on the air conditioner. I carried a sleeping June in, too, and started to read from her journal to wake her. Noah listened, too.

It took a while for June to wake up, but by the time I got to the last entry, dictated on Monday, she was wide awake. Here’s how it goes:

“I’m thinking it to be a tornado. The tornado is blowing up all the houses in the whole universe. And the houses—it was even blowing up the aliens in outer space houses. That’s a really strong tornado. And the tornado has earrings. That’s a funny tornado. This is an earring and this is an earring. And a frog didn’t get blown away into the pond and drown. I’m done.”

Both kids laughed and laughed and June said, “Read it again,” So I did and together in the cool air I didn’t cry and Noah didn’t cry and June didn’t cry.

But we’re done. June has two weeks of summer camp at preschool (one next week and one in July) but she’s never going back to the Purple School as a student again. We arrived at the school as a three-person family, needing just a year of preschool for Noah, who we pulled out of the university-affiliated daycare he’d attended for three years when I lost my teaching job. June was on the way, though. I’d been pregnant with her for a month on Noah’s first day of school. When she was born (six weeks early) in March, Lesley made us a baby quilt June slept under for years. Between both kids attending school and after school programs and summer camps there, the school has been a part of our lives for June’s whole life.

So Wednesday night, we had marinated eggplant sandwiches (for the grown-ups) and grape juice (for everyone) to celebrate our time at the Purple School. And Friday afternoon I lined up all the kids’ lanterns– winter solstice lanterns and end-of-year lanterns– on the lawn so I could see what four years at the Purple School looked like. They look beautiful: colorful and diverse and sparkly and a little fragile (June’s first winter solstice lantern got singed when she didn’t hold it upright) and increasingly complex, just like our kids. And by our kids, of course, I mean not just Noah and June but the dozens of classmates they had when they were two and three and four and five.

II. To The Water’s Edge

Between the end of school on Wednesday afternoon and the Lantern Launch on Friday evening, June had a play date with the Ghost Crab and another one with the Ground Beetle and attended the Bobcat’s birthday party so she hadn’t exactly had the chance to get lonesome for her classmates. So for her, at least initially, the Lantern Launch was just another event in the busy social round of this week.

For me, it was more meaningful. I kept thinking of our first Launch, when Noah was five and June was two months old and it poured rain and we huddled under our separate tarps to eat and the preschoolers got restless and emerged to run around in the rain and got soaked. Noah was the Painted Turtle that year. June declined the opportunity to inherit his track, but she did choose one (the Great Blue Heron) from the same team. They were both Water’s Edge kids. In recognition of that I wore the vest I wore to his Lantern Launch (my wedding vest actually) over a long green dress. The vest is blue and green and has various animals on it, one of them a sea turtle. I also wore a pewter necklace with a mother and baby stork. They look a lot like herons. When she saw me dressed June said, “You look beautiful,” and insisted on choosing her own necklace from my necklace basket. She selected an amber bear because she thought it looked like a flower.

For the whole car ride down to Constitution Gardens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_Gardens), June alternated between asking “Are we there yet?” and complaining about the fact that I’d packed crackers for our picnic dinner when I always pack crackers and she’s getting tired of crackers.

Finally we arrived and spread out the blanket. Before I had the food unpacked, June asked, “Can I have some crackers?”

Becky came over and sat with us, and the Mallard Duck’s family was nearby so we had good company while we ate and waited for the festivities to start. June did not eat much because she kept running off to play with her friends. I didn’t try to stop her. There are a lot of summer birthdays in her class so no doubt she will see most of them again in large groups but the opportunities for them to be all together as a class are numbered.

There were speeches and a lot of presents. Families with four years’ attendance or two years’ service on the board received birdhouses (we got one last year because it was Beth’s second year on the board and there was a one bird house per family limit so we didn’t get one this year). The teachers got gifts from each class, and each class got presents from the teachers. Each student in June’s class received a booklet of their greeting and goodbye poems, which changed every month, a DVD of pictures of the children, and a little oak tree. June loves to plant things (and is always begging to plant the seeds she finds outside or in her food which is why we have three cantaloupe vines in the garden right now). So she was thrilled with the tree. “It’s my very own oak tree!” she exclaimed and she carried it around most of the rest of the evening. June’s class also performed their song “Carnival of the Tracks.”

Then it was time to launch the lanterns. We walked over the bridge to the little island. There were herons (black-crowned herons I think) and a duck with five ducklings and a bunch of geese with one gosling in the water. The water itself was a vivid green; the hundred plus degree weather had done wonders for the algae.

The launch is simplicity itself. We lit the candle inside June’s lantern and set it on the water. Along with all her classmates and the kids in the other classes, she pushed it away from the shore and pulled it back with the string and watched the slight current bob it around until she got tired, pulled it out and handed it to me. I held the wet wooden bottom of the lantern, looking at the glowing candle inside and the colorful paper walls outside. I could not bring myself to blow it out, to be done. Finally Beth leaned over and said, “Is that still lit?” and she blew it out.

We stayed a little while longer, so we could talk to people and June could climb trees. She climbed one tree, in fact, while holding her oak sapling in her hand because she wanted to show the little tree what it would look like when it got bigger. We did not linger, however, because it was close to the kids’ bedtime already and we had a half hour drive home. Shortly after we put the kids to bed, June came padding out of her room. “Some day I want to go back to my school and say goodbye to my teachers,” she said. And this time she did look sad. It’s finally real for her, I thought.

“You’re going back Monday, for camp,” I told her and she went back to bed. But right then, I wanted to be back at the water’s edge, holding my breath, making time stand still.

Anniversaries, Part 2

When my father died it was like a whole library
Had burned down. World without end remember me.

From “World Without End” by Laurie Anderson

This is a picture of my father and me at a block party in Brooklyn during the summer of 1971 or 1972. I was four or five. He was twenty-eight or twenty-nine. I think he looks a little like Cat Stevens and that I look a lot like a certain almost-five year old I know. I have a foggy memory of this party. I remember running around in the street with my friend, a neighbor boy whose father took the picture (and sent it to me last summer) and I remember thinking it was very funny that we were all in the middle of the street because under normal circumstances that’s exactly where your parents are always telling you not to be when you are a small child. It felt delightfully transgressive. I also remember drinking a can of grape soda and just being able to handle the full can by myself and feeling very grown up holding it. Undoubtedly if my father was alive and I could ask him what he remembered about this party, he would have an entirely different set of associations. I wish I knew what they were.

Our memories of the dead are how they live on, but those memories are so frustratingly partial and particular to our own point of view. I asked Noah what he remembered about Dad the other day and he said, “Going out to dinner.” It wasn’t a surprising response. Dad loved good food and he loved going out to eat. I asked Noah whether he remembered going out to eat in New York, when we were visiting Dad or in Maryland, when he was visiting us. He said in New York, which made sense because that was the last time Noah saw Dad, in New York when Noah was six and a half. The last time Dad came to see us was in May 2006, when Noah was five and Dad and my stepmother Ann had come to meet the new granddaughter.

The second picture is from that visit. It was taken in Downtown Silver Spring. I don’t remember precisely what we were doing there. It’s possible we went to get a picture of the silver turtle. There were turtle statues all over suburban Maryland that spring and summer as a public art project. (The terrapin is the mascot of the University of Maryland.) Noah loved them and we took his photograph with around twenty of them. So maybe we went to get the picture, but more likely we were going out to eat and we happened upon it.

I like these pictures together not only because Noah and I are close to the same age in them, but because they were taken in my father’s twenties and sixties, the bookends of his adult life. So much happened in between: most of my life and my sister’s, much of his first and second marriages, the births of his two grandchildren, his whole tenure at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time and its associated magazines and the website Campaign Desk. That list of relationships and jobs is one way to fill in the middle. Another is to consider how even though he’s gone, in the year since his death there has been a lot in our everyday life that would be familiar to him:

He loved old houses.

And ice cream.

And vacationing at the beach.

And walking in the woods.

He was funny.

And well read.

For a while I was dreading today, the first anniversary of his death, and as it got closer I found I was impatient for it to come, so I could get past it. But a few days ago I decided I could try to make the day a testament to him. Beth joked we should go to the track because that was one of my father’s passions and I actually did some research and found that Laurel Park (http://www.laurelpark.com/) is open this time of year, but on thinking it over I decided an experience that would be new for the kids and possibly over-stimulating wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a quiet, reflexive day. I thought it should include reading, writing, some alone time for me, coffee,chocolate and a meal out. So that’s what we did.

In the morning I read to both kids (nothing unusual there) and I took a solitary walk by Long Branch creek. We’ve had an unusually cold week and the creek is covered in places with a layer of ice that looks a half-inch thick. The path was snowy and there were brown leaves on the ground. It was suitable locale for elegiac thoughts. It also reminded me of the landscape around the vacation cottage Dad and Ann had on French Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania when I was in my teens and twenties. From there I went to Starbucks and read the Washington Post magazine while I sipped my latte. (The barista wanted to know where my “little one” was. I am so seldom out and about without her.) We had lunch at Plato’s Diner (http://www.platosdiner.com/) and I got a big slice of chocolate cake for dessert. After lunch, I finished writing this.

I am going to give my sister Sara the last word in this post, or close to it. This is an excerpt from eulogy she gave at his memorial service in April. It was in the section about how he showed his love for us:

You could tell he loved us by his use of pet names. He called me princess. He called my sister angel. I don’t think he ever knew how special that made us feel.

You could tell by the ridiculous little jig he used to perform for Steph and me every other weekend after not having seen us for two weeks. As we descended from the train into the lobby of 30th Street Station, he’d do a funny little dance where he’d shuffle his feet and occasionally kick out his leg, maintaining a completely serious look on his face. When we’d cry “Dad!” in mock embarrassment, he’d look puzzled, and say “What? It’s my happy-to-see-you dance.”

You could tell by the masterful rainbow he painted on the wall of the bedroom that I shared with Steph. As any child knows, you don’t paint a rainbow on a wall for someone unless you love them very, very much.

We loved him, too. And we remember him, each in our own partial and particular way, but no less for that.

Half-Grown

The First Half: Being Nine, or The Best Part of All

When Noah got off the school bus on the last Friday in April, I asked him, “How was your last day of school as an eight year old?” He looked surprised. Because his party was over a week away, his actual birthday kind of snuck up on him. He hadn’t realized it was only three days away. (This despite June’s complaints that everyone was “always” talking about Noah’s birthday and it was “very ‘nnoying”).

The next few nights he had trouble getting to sleep at night. He’d call me back into his room to ask birthday-related questions, and one night he was up past ten. (His bedtime is eight-thirty.) He’s also been experiencing pain in his ankles at night, growing pains, I assume and that coupled with his excitement made it hard for him to fall asleep.

Over the weekend, he came up with the idea of opening his presents early so it wouldn’t have to be fit into the bustle of a school day. I tried to put the kibosh on this plan. His class party was the day after his birthday and his home party was the following weekend. If he opened his presents before his birthday there would be nothing special about the day, I argued. “But I’ll be nine,” he protested. “Isn’t that the best part of all?”

In the end, he agreed to wait, but when he woke up on Monday morning, there was a new complication. He felt sick, he said. Noah’s sensory issues can make it difficult for him to distinguish between different kinds of bodily sensations. It’s easy for him to mix up feeling sick, needing to go to the bathroom and being hungry. I asked him to go back to bed and try to really listen to what his body was telling him but he was having trouble getting a handle on it. He thought he was too sick to go to school– no, he wasn’t– yes, he was–well, maybe not.

We tabled the issue and by 6:55 we were all assembled in the living room for “the opening ceremony” as he dubbed the present opening. There were many car-related presents. June got him a little yellow metal VW Bug with a friction motor, my mom got him a subscription to Car and Driver, my sister got him a copy of the movie Cars (I asked her to do it so we can return the Netflix copy he’s been watching over and over since March). He also got books and t-shirts and pajamas, a Bananagram word game (http://bananagrams-intl.com/checkcountry.asp?page=index.asp), an Extreme Bubble Making Kit, and a new scooter to replace his old one (the brake fell off and we’ve been unable to get it repaired). It was a pretty good haul. He decided to wear the green t-shirt with a classic car on it to school, if he was going, which was still up in the air. He wanted to know if he could go for a ride on the new scooter and I said, “If you’re well enough to ride the scooter, you’re well enough to go to school.” It was one of those moments when I heard Mom-speak just coming out of my mouth without any warning. I wonder if that ever happened to our moms when we were kids.

As June and I left the house to walk to nursery school around 8:00, I heard Noah and Beth seeming to come to the conclusion that he would go to school, but I wasn’t completely sure whether I’d find him there or not when I got back. I came home to an empty house with a note on the front door. “Noah went to school,” it said.

At 11:05 the phone rang and I got off the exercise bike to answer it. It was someone from Noah’s school. He was throwing up, she said, and I needed to come get him. It was about five minutes before I needed to leave for June’s school, and to complicate matters, I had agreed to walk the Yellow Tulip home that day, to spare her very pregnant babysitter the walk. I told the woman I’d be there at 11:45. This turned out to be an optimistic estimate.

I left for June’s school right away, hoping to get there early enough to arrange for someone else to take the Yellow Tulip home. I was too flustered to realize I should call her parents or the school before I left to facilitate this, and once I got there it took a while to straighten everything out. The Blue Maple’s mom graciously agreed to take the Yellow Tulip and we left June’s school around 11:35. By myself I could have made it to Noah’s school in ten minutes, but I had June with me, and she was tired and distraught. When I explained the situation to her she realized almost immediately that this meant that we’d get home late and she’d miss Dragon Tales. She began to cry and kept it up pretty much non-stop for the next hour. Initially, I felt sorry for her. She’s tired that time of day and her after-school routine is very important to her. It’s why I never accept invitations to go to the playground after school, even for a half hour. Eventually, I stopped trying to comfort her, as nothing I said—appeals to compassion for her sick brother, promises of different television later in the day– seemed to have any effect. I just held her hand as we walked along the trail by the creek. We arrived at Noah’s school at 11:55. I went to the office to sign Noah out and then to the Health Office where the nurse said he didn’t have a fever and we left. June was still sobbing.

The birthday boy, however, didn’t seem too upset. They had an interesting book about horses to read at the Health Office, he reported.

“I guess we shouldn’t have sent you to school,” I said.

“But if I hadn’t gone to school, I wouldn’t know how to find the area of a triangle,” he said. Then he told me how to find the area of a right triangle (they haven’t covered other kinds yet) with great enthusiasm. He’d asked Señor S how to find the area of a circle, but he said they weren’t covering that this year. This happens to Noah more often than I’d like, that teachers don’t satisfy his curiosity and tell him he has to wait. He’s been waiting to study negative numbers since kindergarten. I wished then that he’d gotten into the gifted school, but he’s waitlisted. He could get in over the summer or during his fourth grade year or the summer before fifth grade, or never, so we could be in limbo for a while. But to avoid fretting, we’re assuming he won’t be going and we’re trying to figure out how to advocate for him more effectively at school so his fourth and fifth grade years are more satisfying academically than this year has been.

We got home around 12:25. Noah changed into clean clothes and June insisted she needed a change of clothes, too, because she’d gotten paint on her shirt at school. (I don’t remember her ever caring about this before.) So they both got changed and June had lunch (she stopped crying as soon as I put the food in front of her) and she napped. We’d planned to go out to dinner and get cupcakes at Cake Love afterward, but Noah was still complaining of stomach pain on and off all afternoon, so we didn’t go. By 6:00, though, he was feeling well enough to try out his new scooter and he ate a small bowl of plain udon noodles with tofu and broccoli for dinner. Around 6:40 he glanced at the clock and said, “Hey, I’ve been nine for over a half hour.”

“I’m glad you were born,” I told him. “You’re my best boy.”

And he is.

The next day he woke up feeling well and chipper, so we sent him to school. June and I delivered two trays of mini-cupcakes to his afternoon class. I had to wake her up from her nap to get there at the appointed time, and it was more like a forced march than a walk to his school. For the second day in a row, I walked into the main office, with my weeping daughter trailing me. She cheered up though, once we were in his classroom and cupcakes were imminent. On the way home we stopped to wade in the creek. More presents had arrived in the mail that day, and he opened them. One of them was a book of science experiments he’s eager to try. And that night he had his belated birthday dinner at Asian Bistro (http://www.asianbistrocafe.com/) and his cupcake. The festive ceramic panda cups in which the children’s drinks arrived were a high point of the evening. While we waited for the food to arrive, Noah decoded the secret message in the birthday card my mom sent and Beth looked up the formula for determining the area of a circle on her phone. At Cake Love (http://www.cakelove.com/locations_silverspring.php), Noah selected a banana split cupcake, an appropriately complicated confection. The cake was banana-flavored and the frosting had vanilla and strawberry layers. It wasn’t a bad day, as make-up birthdays go.

Interlude:

At dinner on Wednesday night, Noah said something was bothering him. I asked him what it was. He said he leaves papers he’s supposed to turn in on the desktop and Señor S has threatened to start throwing them out if he does it again. Noah wasn’t sure if he’d have to do the work over or if he’d get no credit, but either option was upsetting and he didn’t think he could always remember to turn in the work. So Beth and I decided to have a meeting with Señor S next week to discuss more positive ways of helping Noah stay organized. It’s no easy task. I supervise his homework most weekday afternoons so I know. But neither of us thought punishment was the way to go. In addition, Noah’s last report card hinted that some of the aggressive-seeming behavior he had in kindergarten might be re-surfacing. I asked Noah what he thought Señor S meant and he said he’s been bumping into people in line a lot, by accident, he insisted. So we want to talk about that, too. Oddly, Noah’s at-school behavior often seems to deteriorate in the spring. I don’t know if he get worn out and the end of the school year or if it’s something else. He even has a set of facial tics that surface each spring and then disappear in the summer. Beth calls it his “seasonal Tourette’s.”

Noah is such a puzzle to many people. He seems simultaneously older and younger than his years. He reads at least two years above grade level, but he still sucks his thumb and he calls me Mommy, while many of his peers have switched over to calling their mothers Mom. He charms many adults with his cheerful demeanor and intelligent conversation, but in the past couple of years he’s had trouble making and keeping friends. He often plays alone at recess (or does yoga). And a lot of adults are just baffled by him. He’s so smart, that his absent-mindedness, his social awkwardness and even his physical clumsiness seem like things he should be able to overcome if he just put his mind to it. But Beth and I suspect there might be more to it than that, possibly even more than his sensory issues can explain. We’ve been considering having him tested for Asperger’s syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome). When I read the descriptions I go back and forth between thinking, that sounds like Noah all right and, wait, he’s not nearly that impaired. So it might be good to find out, so we can have more guidance on how to be better parents to him for the next nine years.

The Second Half: The Party

Friday night, the night before Noah’s party, both kids were wound up and having trouble getting to sleep again. Around 9:30, after June had finally dropped off, Noah came out of their room and told Beth he was worried about something and couldn’t sleep. It turned out he’d told Sasha that his Solve-the-Mystery party would culminate in a chase scene and Sasha started to brag about his karate skills so Noah was worried Sasha thought there would be real fighting at the party and that someone might get hurt. Beth assured him we’d set out clear guidelines before the party started and he went back to bed. Soon he was up again, but Beth talked him until he was calm and we didn’t hear from him again.

After an already busy day of soccer practice for June and swimming practice for Noah, June and I took our positions on the front porch at 2:55 Saturday afternoon. Noah’s guests were due to arrive at 3:00. I was to explain the party rules to them and escort them one by one to the garage where they would receive their instructions and their initial clues from Noah, who was already in character as the detective agency representative who would hire the three agents to find the stolen diamond and apprehend the thief.

As he did last year, Noah put his party theme up to a vote. The choices were Castles, Human Body, Mystery or a secret theme guest would find out at the party. Human Body was a leftover theme from last year and no one voted for it, but after the first round of voting, it was a three-way tie for the other options. As Noah was trying to figure out how to break the tie, he told us that the secret theme was mold. This was a surprise. I wondered what kind of decorations, activities and cake he would want for a mold party, but it wasn’t to be because one of his guests changed his vote and soon we were planning a mystery party. Not that much actual planning was involved. This year Noah didn’t want any decorations or goody bags for the guests and he designed the invitations and devised all the clues for the game himself. I took care of calling his friends’ parents in advance of sending out the invitations to determine a date and time all three of his guests could attend (he had such a small guest list I didn’t want anyone to miss the party) and Beth made the cake—a fancy cake, Noah said; it was a vanilla layer cake with coconut frosting and crossed forks and knives in black piping. (The cake was supposed to be disguised as something you might find on a table.) It was half a relief and half a letdown to have so little to do.

One thing I could have done was to double-check his preparations because there were a number of snafus during the mystery-solving portion of the party. The guests, working as a team, were looking for clues in envelopes hidden throughout the yard and the house. Each clue was written in symbols that had to be decoded using a key Noah provided and which would tell the players where to look for the next clue. In theory it was all very well thought out, but two of the clue envelopes were empty and one had the wrong directions in it, which caused some chaos. (June also contributed some of her own clues she made by cutting up Noah’s rough drafts—but these were marked as “June’s Clues” and they boys knew to disregard them.) It took almost an hour for the detectives to find the construction paper diamond hidden in the laundry basket and they only did after I advised them that the treasure hunt was “good, clean fun,” which sent them running to the laundry room, and advised them that “small people often have great wisdom” shortly after June started rummaging through the laundry basket on her own. Elias was the only one listening to that gem, so he found the diamond.

Once the diamond was located the boys had to chase the thief (Beth) through the back yard until they tackled her– relatively gently–and brought her to justice. Noah declared that her punishment would be to pay a fine of buying pizza for the detectives. She made the call and while they waited for the pizza to come, the boys played outside. The first thing that occurred to them was a sword fight–it might have been Elias’s idea; he voted for castles–so they grabbed the foam building tubes from June’s fort-building kit. Unfortunately, the tubes have metal tips where they snap together and almost immediately Sasha got hit in the mouth and ended up with a swollen lip. I confiscated the swords and they argued for a while over whether to play tag, hide and seek, cops and robbers or vampires and vampire slayers. I’m not sure why it mattered what they called it because all the games they played basically consisted of leaping off the porch walls and chasing each other through the yard and driveway. They were nice enough to include June in the game of tag. Whenever she was it I let her tag me and then I’d take off after one of the boys.

Then it was inside for pizza, cake and a brief game of online Monopoly. Sasha stayed over for a post-party play date and they continued the game and then watched about half of Cars. After Sasha left, around six, Beth asked Noah how he’d like his party. “Thumbs up?” she asked.

“Yeah, you didn’t get killed,” he observed.

“Success!” Beth said. I think it was, mixed up clues and all.

Today is Mother’s Day. We celebrated with cards and gifts and breakfast at IHOP. Then Noah and I watched a PG-rated movie (Shortshttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt1100119/) while Beth and June went grocery shopping. He was very excited about seeing a movie with me and without June and may have lorded it over her a bit too much. “We should do this every week,” he said. After June’s nap, we took an afternoon stroll in the National Arboretum (http://www.usna.usda.gov/) and had dinner at Plato’s Diner (http://www.platosdiner.com/). It was a very nice day.

In the bathroom this morning I was telling Beth how June told me recently she couldn’t decide whether to be a construction worker or a Mommy and I told her she could be both, either at the same time, or she could be a construction worker before and after she was a Mommy. “There’s no after,” Beth corrected. “Once you’re a Mommy, you’re always a Mommy.” I suppose she’s right. Noah made me a mother nine years ago, and although he’s halfway to being a man, I am not nearly half done being his Mom. That’s forever.

The Streets of Baltimore

Well my heart was filled with laughter
When I saw those city lights
She said the prettiest place on earth
Was Baltimore at night

From “The Streets of Baltimore” by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard
http://www.lyricstime.com/gram-parsons-streets-of-baltimore-lyrics.html

I had to hold on tight to June’s hand in the parking garage and Beth had to call to Noah to stop and look for passing cars before crossing over to the elevators. We were on our way to visit the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore (http://www.portdiscovery.org/#home) and they were both giddy with excitement. Noah’s been asking to go to a museum for a long time and when he got a free child’s admission by submitting a code from Tropicana orange juice lids online, we decided instead of going to the Smithsonian as we usually do, we’d venture out to Baltimore.

We’ve been to Port Discovery only once before and that was the day Beth adopted June. The court proceedings were in Baltimore and afterwards we went to the museum and after that we went to the Inner Harbor and celebrated June’s three-month birthday and her adoption with cake. I couldn’t help thinking about that day as we walked through the doors of the museum and later as we passed the infants and toddlers room where June and I had spent most of that museum visit, nursing and playing on the floor mats and watching the giant tubes filled with moving bubbles while Beth took Noah through the exhibits. It was a joyous day.

We might be on the brink of another legal milestone for our family and then again we might not. On Wednesday gay marriage became legal in the District of Columbia. Shortly before this, the Attorney General of Maryland Doug Gansler issued an opinion that Maryland could honor gay marriages performed in other states and then Governor Martin O’Malley signaled his agreement with the opinion. So theoretically, we could hop on a Metro train, get married in the city and have it recognized at home. But of course, gay marriage is never that simple. A member of the state legislature has threatened to have Gansler impeached and the issue will surely end up either in the legislature, in the courts or both. It could be a while before it’s settled and Beth and I have decided we don’t want to do it unless it’s going to stick. We’ve already had a commitment ceremony in front of our friends and family. What we want now is legal recognition and we don’t want to confuse the kids by getting married over and over as the legal sand shifts underneath us. When we do it, we want it to be for good. I keep telling myself it might not happen and if it does, it could be a long time from now and then I go around the house singing, “We’re going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

The museum was fun. We split up because Noah was interested in the exhibits for older kids, such as the Egyptian exhibit and Miss Perception’s Mystery House where you get to solve mysteries. June played with pretend food in the farmer’s market, dressed up in a knight’s tunic (which she said was a princess dress), played an African drum, made her own monster out of cloth pieces that attached to each other with Velcro and played in the Curious George exhibit. She was almost as happy to see the statue of George as if the monkey had been there himself. When we had to leave, she insisted on hugging him and kissing him on the lips. The only exhibit that both kids could enjoy was the three-story metal and rope climbing structure and even then, he went in the big kids’ entrance that allows you to go all the way up and she went in the little kids’ entrance that doesn’t.

When the museum closed at five, we walked to Little Italy for dinner. Noah was crying most of the way because he had not finished the second mystery they started. He claimed there wasn’t time. Beth said he quit because he was too scared to climb through a dark drainpipe to retrieve a clue. June skipped along the sidewalk and offered occasional report: “He’s stopped crying. Now he’s whining.” I lifted her up so she could see a canal as we crossed over it and she spotted a tower in the distance. “A castle,” she exclaimed.

Noah had calmed down by the time we entered the restaurant and he loved the poster in the foyer with illustrations of dozens of kinds of pasta so much he went back to look at it after we were seated. Beth said it was the kind of Italian restaurant they have in Wheeling where they serve you soft white bread and salads made with iceberg lettuce. I knew what she meant. It was like an Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want.

Beth had eggplant parmesan, I had gnocchi, June had rigatoni with tomato sauce and Noah had spaghetti with a butter sauce. He didn’t care for the sauce, but he was happy enough with bread and butter and the side order of broccoli the kids were splitting and every one else dug into their entrees. “Always trust a fat waiter,” the waiter said when Beth and I took his advice and got the chocolate mousse cake for dessert. Our trust was not misplaced.

When we left the restaurant at 6:15, it was still light. I was surprised. It always creeps up on me when the days start to get longer. Since it’s part of our family code not to visit Baltimore without stopping at Vaccaro’s (http://www.vaccarospastry.com/), we ducked into the bakery for Italian cookies and cannoli to take home. We emerged at 6:25 and it was noticeably darker. We live right on the border of D.C. and I’m often in the city, but rarely after dark, and to be walking through a different city in the dark blue twilight felt like an adventure. June must have felt the same way because she looked up at me and said, “I love this night.”

And walking through the streets of Baltimore, thinking of the day almost four years ago when June became Beth’s and Beth became June’s in the eyes of the law, and thinking of the day when Beth and I can say the same, I loved it, too.

In Memoriam

My father died at 4:15 on Friday afternoon. He passed peacefully in his sleep at his vacation home in Key West. His wife and two close friends were in the room with him. My sister and I did not make it down to Florida in time to see him before he died. I wish we had, but I am relieved that he died without pain, in a place he loved, and surrounded by people who loved him.

I am not going to write an obituary. The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked as an editor from 1972 to 1996, published a fine one (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/obituaries/20100116_Steven_Lovelady__ex-Inquirer_editor__dies.html). It’s mostly about his professional achievements, which were many and far-reaching. But of course, when I think of him, I don’t think of him primarily as a brilliant editor—I think of him as my father.

One of the difficult things about his death is that it happened so fast. He was only diagnosed with cancer last summer and after a seven-week regimen of radiation and chemotherapy that ended in early October, it seemed he was in the clear. He died about four weeks after finding out the cancer was back in mid-December.

When I went to see him in New York right after Christmas we talked about the fact that we had not been close. We exchanged apologies and I told him I wanted him to know the kids better. The last time he saw them was over two years ago and he only met June twice—once at two months and once at twenty-one months. (I wrote about that last visit in my 12//27/07 entry.) He said he wanted that too and he invited us to come visit him in Key West, but then his condition deteriorated with such astonishing rapidity that he never did see them. When I was planning my trip to Florida, I kept changing the dates in my mind, pushing them forward from late February to late January to this week and
I considered various groups of us going—all of us, just Noah and me, just Beth and me, and just me. In the end we settled on just me. He wasn’t going to get to know the kids better and they wouldn’t get to know him. It was too late. He was too sick. It just wasn’t going to happen. Even my last-minute plans to have Noah interview Dad about his life or at least to write him a letter never came to fruition. This is the part that really tears me up.

“He got out of the god-damned ice cream line again. That’s what he did,” I told Beth on Friday evening after the kids were finally in bed. My father loved ice cream and I have many fond memories of him taking my sister and me out for ice cream. On one occasion, however—I don’t have any idea how old we were—he got impatient in a long, slow-moving line for soft-serve and we got out of the line and went home. I made a solemn vow to myself at the time that if I ever had kids I would never, ever get out of an ice cream line. I just wouldn’t do it. And I never do. I even use the phrase as shorthand when I’ve made a promise to the kids and something arises to make that promise inconvenient and I fulfill it anyway. To do otherwise would be to get out of the ice cream line. But this time, he didn’t decide to walk away. He was pushed out of that line.

I do find myself angry at times. Why did he smoke for forty-seven years, I wonder? Why didn’t he quit when my sister was seven and left collages of photographs of healthy and diseased lung tissue lying around the house and made him a offer that she’d stop sucking her thumb if he would quit smoking? (I feel compelled to note that she held up her end of the bargain.) And then I find myself irrationally angry at anyone over the age of sixty-six, anyone who has had cancer and beaten it, anyone who smoked and never got cancer. While I was feeling this way on Friday night, I made Noah promise me he would never take up smoking. I didn’t do it in a dramatic way. I just said to him as I was tucking him into bed, “Don’t ever smoke. Just don’t ever do it.” He gave me a solemn, wide-eyed nod.

But these angry feelings are short-lived flashes. Mostly I feel sad. And I have the most unoriginal thoughts sometimes. I eat something, or read a newspaper story and I think he’s never going to eat anything again. He’s never going to read the newspaper again. But why should I have original thoughts about death? Isn’t death the great universal?

So I find myself wondering what it’s okay to do. I was planning to bake a cake on Saturday morning—the spice cake from the recipe we used for our wedding cake. I make it on or around our anniversary every year. But should I? And Beth and I had a date scheduled for Saturday afternoon, our first date in almost a year. Was it wrong to go out and see a movie the day after my father died?

I thought about it and I made the cake. It could even be a sort of tribute to him because of all of our parents, he was the one who was most on board with Beth’s and my relationship in the beginning. His support around the time of the commitment ceremony marked a high point in our relationship. And we went to the movie, too. A few hours away from the kids and alone with Beth seemed like just what I needed. We saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and then grabbed a quick dinner at an eco-friendly combination salad bar/frozen yogurt place in Bethesda (http://www.sweetgreen.com/). It might seem like seeing a movie about a father-daughter relationship on the day after one’s father has died might be a spectacularly bad idea, but it wasn’t. Parnassus and Valentina did not remind me much of my father or myself. My father never, for instance, made a deal with the devil regarding my soul.

And he left me with some good memories. One of the best ones I already shared on this blog last summer. It was in one of those long beach entries you may just skim through because who but me could possibly want to read so much about the beach? Here it is: “I remember being small, older than June but not by much, riding on my father’s shoulders in the ocean, so deep in that the water sometimes went over his head. He was holding on tight, though, and it never occurred to me to be afraid.”

So now he’s gone, and the condolences are pouring in, and whatever remained undone between us will remain that way forever. I am very glad I got to see him in New York, though, and that we got to make our peace. He told my sister you really find out who loves you when you have cancer and on questioning him further, she found he meant me, among others. It’s something. It has to be enough.

Two! Four! Six! Eight!

On Friday morning I flipped the calendar page to May. “Hey, it’s my birthday cake!” Noah said, looking at the picture. For Christmas Noah and Beth made me a calendar out of family photos using iPhoto. The picture for May is of Noah’s birthday cake from his fifth birthday. He was really into the Magic School Bus (http://www.scholastic.com/magicschoolbus/) books and videos back then and he was on the verge of starting kindergarten so it had a school bus on it. It was also the first year Noah expressed an opinion about the design of his cake, ushering Beth into the job of custom cake decorator. For Noah’s sixth birthday, she made a cloud cake (he was at the height of his meteorology phase then). On his seventh birthday it was a Club Penguin cake.

This year Noah put the theme of his birthday party up to a vote. He gave his guests two options: the human body or pirates. So in advance of invitations, I sent a save-the-date and please-vote-on-the-party-theme email to the parents of Noah’s guests. Pirates won by a large margin, though Noah had been hoping for human body. (He said he would vote only to break the tie if there was one.) I myself had a pirate chest birthday cake when I was ten so I suggested that to Noah. I was thinking it would be pretty easy—a rectangular cake with chocolate frosting and licorice bands across it and maybe a sprinkling of chocolate coins in gold foil. He was having none of it. He wanted his cake to look like a diamond, not only diamond-shaped, but also sparkly. Beth was a bit intimidated by the idea so she was glad when he changed his mind and settled on cupcakes with gold-colored frosting. They were to evoke gold coins. At one point he wanted her to carve faces into the frosting (he’d settled on some obscure nineteenth-century President—I can’t remember which one) but that idea fell by the wayside, much to Beth’s relief.

Like Noah, I’d been hoping for a human body victory. Who knows what kind of cake ideas he would have had for that one, but I’m not the birthday cake baker. I was thinking more of party activities. When Noah was in nursery school half his class was obsessed with pirates and it was all-pirates-all-the-time on the playground that year. I was often troubled by the violent nature of the play. I brainstormed with Noah about non-violent pirate games they could play at his party. (Is that an oxymoron? I think maybe it is.) He seemed most interested in a treasure hunt anyway so I was relieved about that.

Friday Beth stayed home from work to prepare for the party. She went out and bought black goody bags and a silver pen Noah could use to write his guests’ names on them. She got cardboard pirate hats and hooks for the guests to wear and pirate plates and napkins and a couple of skull-and-crossbones garlands for the fence and pirate chest-shaped containers of bubble soap with little pirate bubble wands. She even found a pirate-chest piñata. To fill the piñata she bought chocolate coins and gold Mardi-Gras beads. She also brought home blue cotton candy ice cream from Cold Stone (http://www.coldstonecreamery.com/), which Noah requested. The color was meant to suggest the ocean, Noah said.

After Noah got home from school, they baked the cupcakes. They were coconut, one of Noah’s favorite flavors. I don’t know if he had a tropical angle in mind or not. Beth was a little afraid his guests wouldn’t like them since a lot of kids don’t like coconut, but she went ahead and made them.

Meanwhile, I worked on an article for Sara, poured buckets of water onto the porch floor and swabbed the yellow-green film of pollen off of it, watched June and took her shopping at Now and Then so she could select a gift for Noah. She picked out a blue plastic fish, a small foam globe, and a candy necklace. “I would like one, too,” she said politely, so I bought two.

Friday night I let Noah open one present, a number eight t-shirt like June’s beloved number three shirt, in case he wanted to wear it at his party the next day. I also reminded him he does have a t-shirt with a dog dressed as a pirate on it that would also be appropriate for the occasion. In the end he decided on one of his Hawaiian shirts instead. He often wears these to spring and summer parties. (In fact when he was five he impressed my mom by telling her he liked Hawaiian shirts because they were “festive.”)

Saturday morning and early afternoon Beth and I cleaned house. I washed the dirt of the picnic table and chairs and Beth frosted the cupcakes and sprayed yellow coloring mist on them. (June was particularly interested in this part of the operation.) Beth hung the garlands and the piñata. Rain was forecast and it was overcast, but so far it had not rained. We crossed our fingers that it would hold off until five, the party’s ending time.

Noah stayed in pajamas for much of the day but when it was time to get dressed he decided the weather was too cool for his Hawaiian shirt. Much deliberation about which of his long-sleeved shirts was most pirate-like ensued. I suggested that his largest button-down shirt might create a rakish billowy effect. He paired it with jeans ripped out at one knee.

Sasha arrived at 2:55. Beth gave Noah and Sasha hats and hooks to play with. The hats kept falling off and were soon abandoned, but the hooks were a big hit. Within minutes of Sasha’s arrival, the two boys were dueling on the lawn. I considered my no-violent-play-at-the-pirate-party policy and almost immediately abandoned it as impossible to enforce. Even though it was intended as a duel, the way they had their hooks linked together made it look more like a dance. Or maybe that was just what I told myself.

The rest of the pirate lads and the one pirate lass arrived soon after Sasha did. Do any of you who are parents get Cookie magazine? It has this kids’ party feature with all menus and activities and everything planned out in fifteen-minute increments and all extremely organized. Have a look: (http://www.cookiemag.com/food/birthday_party. Our parties have never been remotely like these. After we took Noah’s guests on the D.C. Duck last year I thought that was it, our simple backyard parties were over, at least for Noah, but that’s exactly what Noah wanted this year: to invite five friends over (we told him he could have up to eight but he only wanted his close friends), to have a treasure hunt and a piñata and cupcakes and ice cream in the yard. Even with the complicated clues Noah wrote for the treasure hunt, the planned activities wouldn’t take even close to two hours so we let the pirates spend the first fifty minutes of the party tearing around the yard, leaping off the porch walls and staging intrigue. They divided into two teams of three and much to my relief, espionage turned out to be a bigger draw than battle. The pirates chased each other around the yard; they hid and spied on each other. Players occasionally switched teams and their new teammates had to decide if the new pirate was actually a double agent. I should have predicted this turn of events. Most of these kids are involved in a running spy game at recess. (Whenever I call it a game, Noah gets exasperated with me. “It’s not a game, Mommy” he will insist. “We’re really spies.”) We did put a stop to some swordplay with sticks. (You’re not really a parent until you’ve warned children about putting an eye out, right?) But overall, all Beth and I needed to do was watch and reassure June, who was a bit overwhelmed by the screaming horde of pirates tearing through her yard.

The piñata required a little more supervision. I asked Noah to let June have a turn and he agreed she could go first. Then he got the idea of going youngest to oldest and all the kids chimed in with their birthdays so they could figure out the order. They thought it was funny that the youngest of Noah’s friends was the second tallest and the oldest was the shortest. It took quite a few rounds to demolish the piñata, even though Sean and Maura both play baseball and have good swings. A container of bubble soap broke inside it and got the chocolate coins soapy. If you unwrapped the foil carefully it was possible to extract the candy soap-free, but not everyone was careful and some soap was consumed along with the chocolate. While Elias talked Beth into letting him taking home the smashed piñata for his collection of broken piñatas, the rest of the pirates sat on the porch and ate the booty until we called them to the treasure hunt. Noah had written a set of clues in the forms of riddles whose answers were colors. Colors corresponded to different areas in the house and yard, all given nautical names. The kitchen was the galley, the bathroom was the head, his room was the crew’s quarters, etc. As the group solved the riddles co-operatively they’d head off to room in question to find the next clue. The last clue led them to the study, where the gold coin/cupcakes were hidden.

Beth needn’t have worried about the cupcakes. Only one child didn’t care for coconut and the blue ice cream was a hit, too. Conversation around the picnic table centered on the how toxic the bubble soap might be and whether or not the pirates who ate the chocolate coins from the piñata might have been poisoned. Then Elias told a story, true, he insisted, about a butcher who killed homeless people and then sold them as meat. After he finished, there was a long considering silence and Maura said she didn’t think it was true. People would notice the disappearances, she said. People don’t care about the homeless, someone said. No, she said, she cared and if she did, others must, too. I knew I liked Maura. Noah followed up with a story from one of his ghost story books, about a set of old-fashioned cabin motor courts that had burned to the ground but re-appeared when travelers in need arrived.

As they finished eating, the pirates drifted away from the table until only Noah and June were still eating. (Peter was polite enough to stay until the end of Noah’s story.) The pirate spy game resumed pretty seamlessly. Soon all the big kids were tearing around the yard again. When their parents came, they hid. Elias’s mom seemed less than thrilled that he was bringing home a new piñata. Sasha’s dad wanted to know if they had raided any oil rigs. At last only Maura was left. Noah invited her to swing on the sky chair until her folks arrived.

When the guests had left we went out for Thai, a birthday eve tradition since the last meal I ate before giving birth to Noah was at a Thai restaurant. Then Noah came home and opened his gifts from his friends, many of them pirate-themed (a book about shipwrecks, a pirate Lego set, etc.). One of his friends got him a remote-control flying toy (imagine a helicopter without the part you ride in) which he enjoyed flying around the house and another friend got him Battleship (http://www.amazon.com/Hasbro-4730-Battleship/dp/B00000DMBB). He and Beth played a game before bed, which I made them set aside to finish the next day because it was getting late. Beth was almost as reluctant to quit as Noah was. Then while I got Noah ready for bed Beth set up another present, the home planetarium that projects the constellations onto his ceiling, and he went to bed, but not to sleep for a long while. It had been an exciting day.

Noah’s actual birthday was Sunday. When he came into our room at 7:15, he announced, “I’m eight. I’m four plus four. I’m two times four.” I waited to see if he would say he was two the third power, but he didn’t. I guess they haven’t gotten up to exponents in his accelerated math class. (Although at the rate they are going it should be any day now. They’re already doing long division.) Later he decided he wouldn’t really be eight until 6:05 p.m. since that’s when he was born.

We had a much more relaxed day, waiting for 6:05 p.m.. We had leftover cupcakes for breakfast. He opened gifts from us and from family, read, played and did homework. We let him choose dinner and he decided to go out for Indian at Udupi Palace (http://www.udupipalace.com/). He doesn’t actually like most Indian food but he loves mango lassis and paratha so we let him have bread, rice and a beverage for dinner. (It’s not as bad as it sounds. The bread is whole-wheat and the drink has fruit and yogurt in it.) We didn’t actually notice when 6:05 came. It might have been while we were waiting for our food and Noah and Beth were making up a story about a knight and a frost dragon–it breathes ice instead of fire– making their way through a maze toward a cache of golden pearls. It might have been while we were eating or it might have when we were asking the waiter for a match to light Noah’s number eight candle. He had wanted to save it for his real birthday and since there was no cake at this meal he wanted to put it on the bread. The waiter surprised us with a complimentary dish of Indian sweets. The mango burfee was the best, Noah and I agreed. It’s like a bright yellow, fruity fudge. Beth opined that all three desserts were “okay but not chocolate.”

This morning Beth, June and I delivered Swedish fish to Noah’s classroom this for his class party, so now another birthday is behind us. Our boy is eight. It seems like yesterday he was two years old, playing in his new sandbox, or four and flashing me that angelic smile of his, or six and starting to navigate the shifting alliances of elementary school friendships. But I don’t mourn the passage of time or wish it would stand still. I appreciate so many things about my vibrant, creative son as he is now and I’m eager to see what kind of ten year old he will be.

A Is For Alphabet

On Wednesday morning I was toweling June off after a bath and she noticed my shirt in the bathroom mirror. “You have letters on your shirt,” she observed.

The shirt said, “Feel the Power: VOTE.” I got it back in the early 90s when I worked for Project Vote (http://projectvote.org/?gclid=COWA_PW90JkCFR4hnAodPEgwvQ). “VOTE” is the largest word on it.

“Do you see a V?” I asked June. She pointed to the V. “How about an E?” She pointed to the E. We went through all the letters in “VOTE” and she got them all right. In the past several weeks June has become intensely interested in letters. She doesn’t know all of them yet (maybe 75%), but she’s learning more all the time and she can recognize her own name. She is always asking us what letters begin various words and what sounds they make. The wooden alphabet puzzle she inherited from Noah has become a favorite toy. She’s taking the first wobbly steps of literacy and it’s exciting to watch.

So I read a lot of alphabet books to her these days. Luckily we have quite a few, though ABC: A Family Alphabet Book (http://www.proudparenting.com/node/309) is a favorite. Reading these books over and over (and reaching the twenty-six month anniversary of this blog) has inspired me to make an alphabet of our lives over the past twenty-six months. Most of the pictures have appeared in the blog already, but a few are new. A lot has changed since I started writing here, both for our family and for our country. June has turned one, two and three. She’s learned to walk and talk and started school. Noah has turned six and seven and he seems bound and determined to turn eight next month, despite my protests that he can’t possibly be that old. He overcame a difficult kindergarten year, learned to read and stopped believing in Santa Claus. He’s now thriving in second grade. Since I started writing a woman came tantalizingly close to winning the Democratic nomination for President and an African-American won the Presidency (and the world economy imploded, but let’s not dwell on that).

Here are some snapshots of our lives during these times:

A is for Alphabet

Here’s June playing with her alphabet puzzle on Saturday morning.

B is for Baby

She and I were at a coffee house and she was cruising around and around a low table, eating bits of Fig Newton I handed her every time she passed by. She paused every now and then to remove the sugar packets from their container and scatter them across the table and floor and then she replaced them. As she reached the corner of the table closest to me, she let go and stood, swiveled on her feet to face me and smiled, as if she was going to do something dramatic. I waited, holding my breath, thinking this was the moment. Then she chickened out, dropped to her knees and crawled to me. I don’t know when she will walk any more than when Noah will start having an easier time in school. It could be months from now or right around the corner. (April 25, 2007).

June took her first steps about a week later. Noah’s school troubles cleared up when he started first grade with more sympathetic teachers.

C is for Cherry Blossoms

We went to see the cherry blossoms on Friday and it was…challenging. June had been very cranky for almost a week. She’d been sick the weekend before and at first we thought that was the reason but by Friday she’d been better for several days so I’m not sure what was up with her. Anyway, she wailed in the car, she whimpered in the stroller and when she was walking she kept tugging on my arm, wanting me to go in another direction. At one point she darted under a chain and headed straight for the Tidal Basin before Beth dashed off to capture her. Anyway, the blossoms were gorgeous and afterwards we went out for really excellent pizza in the city that made me wish we still lived there. June threw fits in the restaurant, too.

D is for Duck

Once we were back on land, the guide let Noah pass out the souvenir quackers (duck-bill shaped noisemakers) and instructed everyone to quack “Happy Birthday” to him. It wasn’t quite recognizable as “Happy Birthday” but it was impressively noisy. (May 4, 2008)


E is for Election

The transition from Obama-land to McCain-land was not subtle. Either that or I missed it while I dozed briefly as June napped in her car seat and Noah watched downloaded episodes of his favorite shows on Beth’s phone. Before I closed my eyes there were Obama-Biden signs everywhere. When I opened them it was nothing but McCain-Palin as far as the eye could see, including those annoying ones that say “Country First.”

When I commented on the shift, Noah looked out the window long enough to spot one. “That’s the first McCain sign I’ve seen in my whole life,” he noted.(November 5, 2008)

F is for Friends

Jim is one of a handful of people in my life who bridge past and present. We lived down the hall from each other our first year of college and we were roommates the next year. We were living in a student-run co-operative dorm where co-ed rooms were possible with a little administrative subterfuge. The summer after sophomore year, when I fell in love with Beth, Jim and I were living together again and he was the one who urged me to kiss her while I was agonizing over the decision. Even if we had no more history than that together, I’d be forever in his debt. (February 26, 2009)

G is for Gabriel

Gabriel is usually known as the Caterpillar on this blog. He’s a sweet, affectionate, well-loved boy, who will be three in July. His moms are hoping to adopt a younger sibling for him. They are looking for an African-American or biracial baby. Here is their webiste: www.emmyandbethadopt.com. Please visit if you think you can help.

H is for Hug

As we were getting ready to leave the house to go vote later that morning, I found Noah and June in a spontaneous embrace. “Hug!” June announced.

“Take a picture, Mommy!” Noah suggested.

I went for the camera, thinking it likely June would have wriggled out of his arms before I got back. But when I returned, they were still at it.(February 14, 2008)

I is for Ice Cream

It wasn’t a perfect day, but fairy tales aren’t perfect either. They just have happy endings. Here’s ours: And then the queen and the prince and the princess had ice cream. The End. (July 18, 2008)

 

J is for Jump

At 5:30, I could hear Noah singing out in the yard as I poured orange jack-o-lantern lollipops into a bowl….I brought the bowl outside and set it down on the round table on the porch. Noah and June were playing in a pile of leaves under the dogwood while Beth watched. (October 31, 2007)

 

K is for King

This was the first headshot of Noah that appeared on the blog. It was taken in December 2006 at the Children’s Museum in Wheeling, West Virginia.

L is for Liberty

We caught the last ferry of the day, the 3:40, and sat on the top level, for the view and so I wouldn’t get seasick. After a scenic (and very windy) ride we arrived at the statue. She’s impressively large in person and really quite beautiful. We admired her and walked around the island. We paid a quarter for Noah to look through the telescope at the harbor, and then we got back in line for the 4:45 ferry. On the way back we opted for the heated lower level. We shared a warm soft pretzel, and Noah got a pair of Statue of Liberty sunglasses, much coveted by a little boy sitting near us. (December 27. 2007)

M is for Moms

Clearly he was paying attention at Kids’ Camp because he knew exactly what to put on such a sign. He instructed me to write, “I Heart My Moms!” and to fill in the heart with rainbow stripes. As a finishing touch, he decided the point of the exclamation point should be heart-shaped. (June 9, 2007)

N is for Nest
It turns out four adults to two children is about the right ratio for me to spend an almost perfect day at the beach. Noah and I arrived around nine, and had built just enough sand castles and played just long enough in the water to be looking at each other and wondering “what next?” when my mom arrived and he had a fresh playmate. He found a hole someone else had dug and spent a lot of time jumping into it. Later it was a nest and Mom was a bird laying eggs they made out of balls of wet sand. (August 25, 2007)

O is for Ocean

He’d been quite taken with the idea that he was “the only one in the whole world” who knew both my “versary” gift to her and hers to me. He kept the secrets faithfully, only letting slip that he thought Beth’s gift to me was better. “But they’re both good,” he added diplomatically. This piqued my curiosity since Beth had hinted she would make up for her absence on the actual day of our anniversary through the gift. Inside a store bought card with a picture of a falling star on it was a card she and Noah made on the computer. It had a photo of the house where I lived during the summer of 1987 on the front and the Rehoboth boardwalk on the inside. “We’re leaving Friday afternoon for Rehoboth Beach,” it said. (July 22, 2007)

P is for Princess
June wore a dress with a black velvet top and a puffy, gold satin skirt that a friend of Ya Ya’s bought for her. Ya Ya said she looked just like a doll. Beth’s brother Johnny and I both said, independently of each other, that she looked like the Infanta Margarita in this painting (http://www.artchive.com/meninas.htm). In either case, doll or princess, it was a new look for her. (November 23, 2007)

Q is for Queer

We went to our favorite Mexican restaurant that night to celebrate twenty years with spinach enchiladas and virgin mango daiquiris. (July 22, 2007)

R is for Redhead
The snow was dry and powdery, useless for snowballs or snowmen, and just barely serviceable for sledding. He went down the hill a few more times, then bored of it. We took turns dragging June around the yard. She was tranquil, but not as enamored with it as the last time. (February 7, 2007)

This is from my very first blog entry. June’s hair turned blonde the following summer.

S is for Santa

Noah seemed happy and satisfied with his visit to Santa. But as soon as we left the little house, he asked if it was possible that the person he’d seen was just someone in costume pretending to be Santa. We allowed that this might be the case. Beth pointed out that Santa couldn’t be everywhere at once so maybe he needed some helpers to visit with children and find out what they wanted. Probably, they would send an email to Santa with the requests. “But he just asked my name. Why didn’t he ask my address?” Noah was suddenly alarmed at the possibility that his information would be incompletely conveyed to Santa. (December 10, 2007)

T is for Train
Just around the time I reached the tricky part of the operation, spooning the batter onto the griddle and making sure none of the pancakes burned while I was distracted by something else, they both wanted my attention at once.

Noah had tired of his magazine and said, “What should I do?”

June wanted to know if I could “play train tracks?”

“Maybe Noah can play train tracks with you,” I suggested. I only gave this idea about a 25% chance of succeeding, but you have to try. Much to my surprise, Noah took June’s hand and they walked into the living room. He repaired a track I had built earlier in the day and they took turns running the trains over it, looking startlingly like two full-fledged kids playing together.(March 23, 2008)

U is for Underpants

This was the headshot of Noah when he was in first grade. If you remember the photo and thought he was wearing a bandana on his head, those are underpants. Beth took it on their mother-son camping trip in September 2007.

V is for Valentine
Noah dug around in his bag and pulled out a card. “Here,” he said, handing me the funniest valentine I’ve ever received. There’s a snowman lying on its side on the front with the words “Love you to death!” written in crayon. Inside it says, “OOPS! I guess I loved you to much!” Like mother, like son is all I have to say about that. Also this– it was the perfect Friday the 13th valentine. (February 13, 2009)

W is for Wizard

The last day of spirit week was “Put on Your Thinking Cap” day so after some careful consideration, he put on his wizard hat. (March 9, 2007)

X is for Xylophone

You were expecting something else? I took this picture on Thursday.

Y is for Yard

After Noah ate breakfast, brushed his teeth and got dressed, it was time to bounce. Along with the hopping ball, we bought Noah his own personal bouncy castle for vestibular stimulation, deep pressure on his joints, oh, and fun, too. He loves it. We’ll see if it helps organize and focus him the way the occupational therapist says it will, but in the meantime he’s using it several times a day. When possible, we try for a bouncing session before Beth takes him to camp. (July 10, 2007)

Z is for Zeitgeist

Next we moved inside to carve our jack o’ lanterns, or in Beth’s and my case, our Barack o’ lanterns (http://yeswecarve.com). (October 26, 2008)

I can’t claim this blog consistently captures the national zeitgeist, but if you have or once had elementary-school or preschool-age kids, or if you live in Takoma Park or its environs, or if you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual, I hope you sometimes find a little of yourself reflected in it. Thanks for reading.

What’s Past is Prologue

What’s past is prologue.
The Tempest, William Shakespeare

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley

So, which quote is right? Is the past something that sets the stage for the feature attraction—that is, the present? Or is it a haunting force you can never escape, more powerful that the present can ever be? Or is it almost completely inaccessible to us since we are not now who we were then?

I’ve been thinking about this since I started using Facebook in earnest last week. I created the account last fall because I wanted to see the comments to something Beth posted on her Facebook account (Noah’s Presidential stump speech, I think) and I needed an account to do that. I had no intention of actually using it for its intended purpose–social networking– but then the friend requests starting trickling in and I was kind of intrigued and within the space of a week I found myself with a rudimentary page and almost thirty friends. (I know this is a pittance in the world of Facebook, but it was still surprising to me.)

Except that a lot of them are friends in only the loosest sense. They’re friendly acquaintances or friends of friends, or siblings of friends. (A couple of them are people from high school whom I don’t, strictly speaking, remember, but who sent me friend requests.) I think I had the idea that if I started poking around I might rediscover a long-lost friend, someone who touched my life in a profound way. This isn’t meant to discount any of the connections I now have the chance to renew. I’m grateful for the opportunity and it’s interesting, mesmerizing even, to find out who’s living where, the work they do, who’s married or single, who has children, etc. It can cause a little cognitive dissonance, though, to know someone’s weekend plans when you really don’t know much else that has happened in her life since ninth grade. You have the feeling you are corresponding with an entirely different person than the one you knew because of the gap of decades between you. Was Hartley right? Did we know each other in another country?

My Facebook interactions with people I actually know in my current life (mostly Purple School parents) seem more natural and less fraught, because they are just extensions of things we might share in the school parking lot at pickup time or during a playdate.

It’s not exactly true that the people I’ve found from my high school and college years on Facebook have all been minor players in my life. When you log on to Facebook, it gives you three suggestions of “People You May Know,” using your school attendance information and the friend lists of your official Facebook friends. The very first time I logged on one of the three faces it showed me was possibly the one person from my past whom I least want to contact. It left me so shaken I didn’t go back to Facebook for several weeks, even though I think the chance that this person would send me a friend request is extremely slim. For a little while it seemed like Faulkner was right.

Meanwhile, in the real world, I have been trying to combat my tendency to sink into isolation with a concerted campaign to socialize more often. June had her very first playdate (at the Dragonfly’s house) several weeks ago and since then we’ve had three of her classmates over to our house with one more scheduled tomorrow morning. Last Friday I was even bold enough to host a double playdate. Both Noah and June had a friend over at the same time. Our house has been filled with preschoolers and second-graders and the mothers of the little ones. It’s been fun.

Then last Saturday we went to dinner at the house of our friends Jim and Kevin. Jim is one of a handful of people in my life who bridge past and present. We lived down the hall from each other our first year of college and we were roommates the next year. We were living in a student-run co-operative dorm (http://osca.csr.oberlin.edu/about/coops/keep) where co-ed rooms were possible with a little administrative subterfuge. The summer after sophomore year, when I fell in love with Beth, Jim and I were living together again and he was the one who urged me to kiss her while I was agonizing over the decision. Even if we had no more history than that together, I’d be forever in his debt.

Jim and Kevin are avid gardeners so the visit began with a tour of their garden. Beth and Noah played hide-and-seek in the yard while Jim showed us around. Mostly, he was showing us what will be coming up where in warmer weather, but he had started some plants under plastic bottles stuck into the ground like tiny greenhouses. They also have a little greenhouse consisting of a plastic cover that zips over shelves. There are plans in the offing to build a real greenhouse onto the back of the house and grow a lemon tree there. I told him about our considerably more modest gardening plans and when I mentioned how much June loved the cucumbers we grew last summer he offered me some cucumber seeds he won at a garden club raffle. (We forgot to get them from him before we left, but he was nice enough to drop them off, along with some broccoli seeds, Sunday morning while he and Kevin were en route to the Takoma Park farmers’ market.)

Inside the house are Kevin’s orchids. There are a few picked for display in the dining room and in an alcove near the staircase, but there are others all over the house. Noah loved the lighting system they’ve rigged up in the basement where they keep the plants that are not yet in bloom. Two lights run back and forth on tracks along the ceiling, ensuring that all the orchids receive an equal amount of light. “Your own suns!” Noah exclaimed.

Later on, Jim showed us the upstairs orchids and Noah found a computer with two keyboards hooked up to it at once. Jim attached a third one, to show him it could be done, I suppose, and Noah was in awe. (He talked about it a lot on the way home.) As I watched them standing next to each other I was struck by their physical resemblance. They both have curly light brown hair, and they were standing in a similar position, looking at the computer. They were even both wearing blue button-down shirts, though Jim had a sweater on over his. It’s not so surprising Noah looks a bit like Jim because Jim and I have similar hair. It looked more alike when we were in college and we both wore it shoulder-length. (Jim and I were once asked if we were brother and sister or lovers. Neither, we answered cheerfully.) Anyway, he wears his hair short now, shorter than Noah’s but close enough. Jim’s green eyes are also a little like Noah’s hazel ones. And then there’s the math genius thing. In college Jim took the most advanced math classes with the other handful of students capable of that level of work and he used to do his homework problems on the board while the rest of the class was copying theirs out of their notebooks onto the board. If I may be permitted a small and relevant brag, recently Señora C sent home a testing report that indicated Noah has “complete understanding” of the fourth-grade math he’s working on at school.

In case you’re wondering if I’m going reveal now that Jim is Noah’s biological father, he’s not. We used an unknown donor and I know enough about the donor to know it wasn’t Jim. (I also don’t think Jim has ever donated sperm, but I’ve never asked.)

Jim and I have a lot of history together. There was the time I went to the grocery store and bought his cat the kind of food she liked (calling it a Christmas present) because Jim was too stubborn to buy cat food when the cat already had perfectly good food and the cat was too stubborn to eat what was in her bowl. (He thanked me for engineering him out of this face off with the cat later.) And there was the tragedy of the sweet potato pies we baked for our eighty-person dining co-op that took so long to bake no-one besides us was around to eat them when they came out of the oven. We listened with sympathy to each other’s romantic woes and when he spent a semester in London we wrote each other every week. (Remember when people wrote letters? On paper?) When Beth and I moved to Iowa for two years for grad school, he was the only person who came to visit me. There was a stretch of years when we lost touch with each other, but we re-connected when Noah was about a year old. I think we have a future, too. It’s different, of course, now that we’re adults with partners and busy lives and now that we live a half hour apart instead of down the hall. I only see him once or twice a year. But it’s always fun and I think it’s good for Noah to interact with a man who shares his interest in computers and math. When he gets older and he’s doing math over Beth’s and my heads, it could be even better.

So I have to go with Shakespeare. What’s past is prologue. It’s what has happened already and what influences what comes next but it doesn’t have to overwhelm us with its power over us and it’s not always what’s irreparably lost that matters most. Sometimes the past serves you pesto pizza made with basil from last year’s garden and sometimes the past shows you little seedlings in plastic-jug homes that will be strong, healthy plants come summer.

Tag, You’re It, Part 2: Christmas is Coming

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

Traditional Christmas Carol
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Is_Coming)

We’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials these days—Frosty, the Snowman; Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; The Year Without a Santa Claus and A Charlie Brown Christmas so far. As you can see, we mainly stick to the classics from our childhood. Beth, Noah and June did watch Frosty Returns, but I opted out to fold laundry during that one. Why should Frosty return? The original is perfect as is.

This is hardly an original observation, but watching these specials so close together always brings back to me how, aside from Frosty, they all have the same plot. Something endangers Christmas—a big snowstorm, a green monster whose heart is two sizes too small, the indifference of the world’s children and Santa’s bad cold, materialism and the ennui of small children who talk like adults. Something saves Christmas—Rudolph’s shiny nose, the green monster’s redemption on hearing Christmas music, the children’s discovery of the power of faith and generosity, Bible verses and a scrawny Christmas tree that magically grows healthy branches once decorated. But all this begs the question, why does Christmas need so much saving in the first place? Why is it so perennially endangered?

The easy answer is that it creates a problem to solve, and that creates a story to tell. But why is it always the same story? Why is it so often Christmas itself that teeters on the brink? I can’t really say, but to me it feels like there’s some emotional truth in it. Expectations are so high for Christmas, that if you don’t feel joyous for whatever reason, it can be easy to end up feeling let down. And even though I love Christmas, it’s often hard for me to get into the spirit.

This year it would be easy to blame the economy, but I don’t think that’s it, even though like most people, we probably should be cutting back. We’ve lost a good bit of the money we’d invested to build an addition to the house so that June can have her own room someday. But other than that, we’re not really feeling the pinch. Others have it much worse. So, as I said, it’s not really money. Partly it’s being so worn down from being sick. Shopping, decorating, and baking all seem like extra work and it’s hard to get interested in extra work right now. I’m even thinking of skipping or scaling back the annual Christmas letter I write. I’ve done a little shopping. I have Beth’s present taken care of and a few days ago I ordered The Complete Adventures of Curious George for June since she has fallen so completely in love with the little monkey over the past few months. I was spurred to do this by my mom calling for gift ideas for June last week. “Christmas is coming,” she reminded me on the answering machine.

It is, I know. We’ve been listening to Christmas music and watching our Christmas specials, as I mentioned. We have a nice wreath on the door that Noah picked out at the farmers’ market yesterday. I’m just not feeling enthusiastic about Christmas. It’s not really a surprise either. It’s been this way a long time.

One possibility is that even though I’m in my fourth year out of academia I still miss the rhythm of the academic calendar that I used to measure time for most of my adult life. It just doesn’t seem like Christmas without the adrenaline rush of papers and exams to write or grade beforehand. I miss being surrounded by eighteen and nineteen year olds proud of their semester’s accomplishments and excited by the upcoming break. (What I don’t miss is the inevitable outbreak of end-of-semester plagiarism cases.) I’ve even wondered if I should re-read The Hobbit this time of year since it was the last book on my fall semester Genre Fiction syllabus for the last few years I was teaching. I don’t think it would help, though, unless I could coax a local teenager to come to the house and discuss it with me several times for fifty minutes and then write me a five to seven page paper on the quest motif in it. This doesn’t seem very likely.

But even while I was teaching, a lot of Christmases got spoiled by the fact that the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (http://www.mla.org/), a huge gathering of academics in English and foreign languages, is held right after Christmas. The convention is where many colleges and universities hold their first-round interviews for jobs. More years than I care to admit during my long, fruitless job search I spent Christmas mourning the fact that I hadn’t gotten any interviews or nervous about interviews I did have.

So, the Christmas spirit is often elusive for me. Yet it almost always comes. It might be while making gingerbread with my sister or the kids, or helping decorate the tree, or watching someone’s face light up as he or she opens the perfect gift.

Last year it was on Christmas Eve. We were at my mother and stepfather’s house. Home renovations had filled their living room with yet-to-be installed kitchen cabinets and there wasn’t much room for Mom’s traditional decorations. We thought we could squeeze a tree into one corner, but in the end we decided against it. Mom was upset about the lack of Christmas feeling in the house. And then we went to Longwood Gardens (http://www.longwoodgardens.org/) on Christmas Eve to see the lights and fountain display and the elaborately decorated greenhouses. It was a lovely, magical evening. We think we might make it a tradition.

I know that feeling will come sooner or later. On Friday I’ll be tutoring at Noah’s school, watching his class’s holiday program and dropping off June’s outgrown buntings at his school’s winter coat drive. When he gets out of school we’re leaving on our annual weekend Christmas shopping trip to Rehoboth. Service, seven and eight year olds singing songs and reciting speeches in Spanish, some family time away from the distractions of home and a chance to take a long walk on the beach sounds like a good way to get in the spirit to me.

Meanwhile, Tyfanny of Come What May (http://www.btmommy.blogspot.com/) tagged me with this Christmas quiz so I have filled it out. Here goes.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags? Usually paper, sometimes bags.
2. Real tree or Artificial? We never have our own tree because we always travel to the grandparents’ houses, but I prefer real trees.
3. When do you put up the tree? See above.
4. When do you take the tree down? See above.
5. Do you like eggnog? Yes, and I love eggnog lattes.
6. Favorite gift received as a child? A bike, when I was nine. I loved it because I could ride all over town by myself, so it represented freedom to me.
7. Hardest person to buy for? My stepfather.
8. Easiest person to buy for? Beth and the kids.
9. Do you have a nativity scene? No.
10. Worst Christmas gift you ever received? Leg warmers from my grandmother when I was a kid. They were in style then, but I was never into them. My sister and I each got a pair and we ended up using them to block the drafts in our bedroom window at my dad’s house, so I guess they did come in handy.
11. Favorite Christmas Movie? I like the Christmas specials I watched as a kid, especially Frosty and The Grinch, but as for real films—It’s Wonderful Life. In my twenties and early thirties I watched it every year on television, but I’ve gotten out of the habit.
12. When do you start shopping for Christmas? Too late usually. I’ve barely started now.
13. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present? I don’t think so.
14. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas? Just one? Hard to narrow it down between gingerbread, fudge, buckeyes and ribbon candy.
15. Lights on the tree? Yes.
16. Favorite Christmas song? “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” which is kind of an odd choice because it’s religious and I’m not and there‘s plenty of secular Christmas music. I just think it’s pretty, though.
17. Travel at Christmas or stay home? Travel to my mother and stepfather’s or Beth’s parents’ houses on alternate years. This is Beth’s folks’ year.
18. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeers? Let’s try: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen. (And Rudolph.) I probably couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been reading “The Night Before Christmas” to June today.
19. Angel on the tree top or a star? Angels at both grandparents’ houses.
20. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning? We usually open presents from the grandparents we aren’t visiting early so we don’t have to pack them. We either do it on the night before we leave or on the Solstice. The rest we open on Christmas morning.
21. Most annoying thing about this time of the year? Decorations up too early in stores. This drives me crazy.
22. Favorite ornament theme or color? I like a mix of things.
23. Favorite for Christmas dinner? Sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pie.
24. What do you want for Christmas this year? For my kids to have a magical day. For Beth to have a white Christmas. To have a good book and time to read it. To enjoy the company of loved ones. For none of us to be sick.

I think that would be enough for any year.