Tag Archives: Parenting

Strange Seas

???????????????????????????????I hardly have time to write. I’m waiting to board a flight to Philadelphia where, tomorrow, my wife and I will say goodbye to our daughter as she starts her freshman year in college. As our twenty-one year old son is starting his senior year, soon we’ll be empty-nesters.

Lest you think I’m spending these final moments with my daughter writing about it, she’s with my wife taking advantage of tax-free shopping in Delaware. They left this morning.

I’m not very good at these events. From a panoramic view, they look huge. Standing next to them, they fool you by blending into the immediate landscape. You can’t be sure exactly where you are. And no one is pausing here but me. I didn’t fly out earlier because school started yesterday, and I didn’t want to seem unprofessional by taking such early personal days. Teaching two classes today was, of course, unnecessary—my colleagues would cover for me—but I like handling these milestones with nonchalance. I mean to keep calm. God forbid anyone think I’m asking for special treatment.

But my daughter deserves special treatment. The summer before college is strange. Through June, July, and especially August, my daughter sailed a sea that looked calm but hid strong currents. She felt independent and wasn’t yet, quite. My wife and I were not quite off the job either. We didn’t stop worrying during her absences, her long stretches of cellphone silence, her late returns, her conflicted expressions of indifference then affection then indifference again. She grabbed for the last bit of this or that with friends. At times, her behavior was maddening. Understandably, she’s grateful her hurry-up-and-wait will end soon. While I’ll miss my daughter terribly, I’m happy too because this confusing time will end for all of us.

Three years ago, when I bid farewell to my son, he gave me a brusque hug and said, “Bye. Thanks for the last 18 years. You’ve done a good job with me, and I’m grateful. Don’t worry.” He didn’t really look back after that, and, I realized immediately—but not before then—I shouldn’t have expected more. As a parent, you engineer your obsolescence. Given the challenges of raising a child, no parent should be blamed for looking forward to freedom. Yet, being needed is sweet too, and, where a child’s gaze aims ever forward, a parent’s aims ever back. You see the child, even when you look into a young adult’s face.

So, for the next 24 hours, I’ll define mixed emotion, swinging between impatience and neediness, between celebrating my daughter’s accomplishments (and the wonderful young woman she’s become) and somehow wanting just a little more of her. I want all her attention for one last time.

I’ll keep it together. I’ll pretend it’s no big deal. All the complications of moving and settling in may make the whole occasion seem a purely practical matter anyway. My daughter may want to keep her parents pragmatic, may want it over and Mom and Dad gone because what’s next is her focus. I completely understand—I remember even—but, as her future opens up before her, I wonder what I’m standing next to.

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Coming Home

il_fullxfull.436891681_gdroHere’s the second 20-minute story I wrote during a writing workshop in Ohio. Though I have no great gift for fiction, I’d recommend this exercise to anyone interested in stretching their skills. Something about being in the crucible of the moment makes you focus on the essential elements of a narrative.

Mom wore an expression I recognized—the wary one she once showed strangers who dared to approach me in a playground or anyone who asked for “a moment of her time”—and she gripped Dad’s arm just above the elbow.

“May we help you?” Dad asked.

I moved to gather the backpack and duffle bag I’d dropped to ring the bell, and they stood squarely in the doorframe.

“How’re you guys? I had a break in the semester and—“

Sometimes you look into a different face when you deliver news it didn’t know or when you disprove facts it’s repeated confidently for years.

My parents’ faces steeled.

“Excuse me?” Dad said. My mother pulled herself closer to him. “Do we know you?”

“Jesus, Dad!”

They blocked my way as if I were our cat, instinctively and with a mind to try as many times as necessary. I should have visited sooner, but school work rose like walls before me. I’d just found time to see my way through.

“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry. I should have called, but—”

“I don’t know you, but if you try to come in here, we’re calling the cops!”

Sometime, my mother left him, retreating into the house, and her flight alerted me to all that was altered. The table in the entry hall was Pennsylvania Dutch instead of sleek Danish, adorned with a plastic bouquet in a teapot instead of three gray paper flowers in a glass vase.

“Dad.”

I might have stood there longer, implored longer, insisted whatever prank should end, but my mother returned wielding a handgun and shouting for me to leave.

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Real Talk

DSCN7536“Graduates, thank you for the honor of asking me to speak today.”

Nearly every address begins with some variation on that statement, and, often, speakers joke what a dubious honor—slash—anxious burden the invitation is.

If I were speaking (I’m not) I’d sidestep the cliché and say,

“Thanks… I mean it.”

However, given my late-May exhaustion, it’d likely be the last sidestepping I’d do. I might remind graduates to double-space their papers and put the punctuation inside the quotation marks. I might threaten them with another year of high school if they can’t recite, “’I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” and seven exceptions.

Though teachers stand in front of classes every day, opportunities for uninterrupted public commentary are rare. It makes news when graduation speakers succumb to the temptation to critique the current generation, but I understand. One sign of love, after all, is sincerity. Students should want honesty. They’re a captive audience—what better time to say, “Yes, you’re wonderful, but…”?

When I was a young parent, I attended a number of junior versions of graduation with kindergarteners or lower schoolers or camp attendees or participants in a rainbow of other activities. These graduation parodies are cute—like making a dog wear a snood and sunglasses. Yet, sometimes, so are our solemn and serious commencements. The elevation of the occasion insists on congratulatory platitudes and sugared inspiration, and graduation slips into bombast or, worse, announces its artifice by stepping gingerly around realities.

How courageous then are people who can mine their own post-grad experience to speak plainly about students’ future. “Life will be dull and only an active mind will relieve it” they say, or “If you really want to succeed, don’t believe your own press,” or “Everyone says you are the hope for the future and barely mean it, but, sorry, it’s true. Don’t screw up.”

Three times I’ve stood at that podium and said something less than I might have. I could have offered subtler, more insightful advice, confessed more doubt, and grappled more vigorously with the troublesome inevitability of disappointment.

So I’ve written the speech I never will (and never would) deliver:

Graduates, it’s an honor to speak today. Thank you… I mean it. I’m humbled standing here, overwhelmed by your faith I have a valuable message to impart. I’m not so sure, however, and this address will be shorter than you imagined. It requires attention perhaps impossible on such an exciting day. Nonetheless, here I go.

You should be proud of the accomplishment we’re celebrating today… but don’t be too proud. Ambition and personal progress aren’t everything. Watching you these four years has inspired hope… but also frustration. Sometimes I worry you don’t see this beautiful world as clearly as you should, and that, if you don’t lift your eyes from screens and start looking soon, you may spend a lifetime wandering among the clutter of possessions, degrees, school names, and job titles you laud as life’s treasure. I worry you may look up from amusements and discover the world spoiled… or gone.

I’ve heard you use the expression “Being real.” In our time, nothing is harder. I’ve lost my way enough to believe landmarks proffered by society are unreliable. Marketers advertise days like this as milestones when, really, your ordinary hours count more. With every petty triumph and mishap you fashion the internal compass to guide you. You are your habits.

My colleagues and I have such deep hopes for you. You may have cursed us at times, but our affection explains why we’ve asked so much of you. We wanted to teach you to think, and some of you have learned well. Others act the part, swinging between doing what looks good and what’s sincere and earnest. That’s okay. I act too. We have to sometimes, and, in dark moments, everyone wonders what’s real and true.

Everything real and meaningful to me started with asking, “What matters?” I’ve occasionally wanted to hand you the list I’ve compiled, but you will create your own.

I request  just one more thing before you leave. Make your list deliberately and thoughtfully and with the highest purpose. The world doesn’t need more lazy opinion, more pretense, more snarky irony, more secret contempt, more misanthropy, more hollow love or name-only friendship. It doesn’t need more aloofness, more consumption for consumption’s sake, more self-absorption or self-congratulation.

It needs us awake and alive, grateful and caring, modest and sensitive. It needs real attention, affection, and aspiration. Graduates, what’s ahead isn’t easy, but, if you lift your head and open your eyes, I promise life will be more glorious than you can imagine even on this, a most glorious day.

I know one of our graduates really well—my daughter. I’m sure she’s happy I won’t be troubling her class with my worries. And I’m happy to leave the day to her… generally. I feel only the slightest twinge of regret, the usual fed-up end-of-the-year urge to issue one last challenge.

But instead I’ll just say, “Godspeed, all.”

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In My Room

article-1184369-04FEF065000005DC-530_468x310When I was young, tantrums—fits, really—sometimes possessed me. Some minor slight would set me off, and I’d rail in ire or angst or something between. I lost it so often my family nicknamed me “The angry bee” because I buzzed incomprehensibly and spun like someone signaling a path to poison flowers. I couldn’t have been easy to watch, so my parents sent me to my room. Their instructions were simple and direct: “Stay there until you can come out and be a civil human being.”

Once alone, I’d…

  • rail against the injustice of my oppressors
  • formulate elaborate plans to run away
  • fantasize how much I’d be missed
  • cry until crying grew tiresome
  • relive and revise the moments that landed me there
  • embrace whatever criticism I’d received
  • crack the door to listen to my family without me
  • catalog my other shortcomings and fatal flaws
  • excoriate myself for the sins of my nature
  • cogitate over what made me so unsuited to society
  • resolve to become Spock and never feel emotion again
  • compose the newest chapter of my prisoner’s autobiography
  • prepare my apology and a sincere promise—this time—to change
  • rehearse a jocular re-entry sparing my saying anything
  • wait, hoping someone noticed and retrieved me

These episodes ended much less dramatically than they began. I slinked back into the TV room. One of my brothers or sisters scooted over to make room on the couch or in a chair. I slotted into the space, and no one said anything. The biggest kindness, they must have believed, was silence, forgetting, moving on.

I’d say the process didn’t help me much but really it made me. In many ways, I’m in that room still, a ruminating creature subject to the same looping reexaminations and recriminations, looking for a place when I’m never entirely sure I belong anywhere. Without my history of time alone, I might not pursue sense so desperately now. I might not read the way I read or write as I do.

Nonetheless, the infinite time out isn’t anything I’d recommend, and it wasn’t a course I could take with my own children. My wife’s request I let my son or daughter stew, to give them time to process, to calm down, to think twice about the things they’d said—such patience felt impossible to me. In their place, I’d await some angel’s arrival. I wanted to be the angel. My children weren’t always glad to see me, and sometimes they welcomed continuing our dispute just where we left off, but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t leave them alone, couldn’t leave me alone, couldn’t leave questions alone.

My self-restraint never lasts long. Though I’ve learned to affect a preternatural calm, I’ve never actually had much. My mood changes more than weather, is more subject to subtle shifts in air pressure, cloud cover, temperature, and wind direction.

You can accept never settling some issues because variables are too multitudinous and circumstances too chaotic, but thinking every issue insolvable is a bad habit. And one hard to break. Disbelieving assures you’re right. Though self-recrimination is a tremendous ally to deliberation, a motivation to think over, under, and through complicated questions, a spur to exploring subtle distinctions, implications, and applications, though I wouldn’t be myself without this relentless sense I haven’t thought anything through yet, that room is lonely.

The greatest kindness may be someone who can stop spinning flywheels of thought and affirm what you might otherwise never believe. Some rooms you can’t escape without help.

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Meeting Up

columbia-alma-mater-statueWhen I found my first masters’ thesis from 1982, I couldn’t resist reading.

The first sentence was simple enough, the second less so, and, after that, I encountered syntax and language so muddy I couldn’t trudge through it. I gave up, convinced someone else must have written it, maybe an ancient astronaut or some medieval pedant I was channeling at the time.

Am I that much stupider, or was I once so much more pretentious?

One of my favorite Borges stories is “The Other,” about someone meeting his younger self on a park bench. The narrator of the story—the old man—can’t convince the young man that he’s talking to his future self. The youth believes he’s dreaming. All the biographical proof the older man offers is dim memory, and the older man can’t clearly recall once meeting his aged self either.

The moment leads to an impasse. All the fantasies a reader might harbor about going back in time—or forward—lead to nothing. They were unprepared; they talk about books. Even exchanging currency from their respective years proves inconclusive, the money too strange to accept.

Having revised my resume recently, I think I understand Borges’ story better. We think of ourselves as one person when, like an organism whose every cell is replaced one at a time on strict schedule, we are entirely different. We don’t recognize the subtle transmutation or, even recognizing it, don’t accept it really.

My resume lists degrees I’ve earned and tasks I’ve performed at work, but they’re a better description of the turns I’ve taken than who I am. Who I am, in some sense, is where I’ve arrived. It’s a trap to be overly impressed by framed diplomas I once earned.

The runner in me hears a voice inside saying, “What have you done lately?”

I wonder, with Borges, what it might be like to disillusion my younger self, to tell him events that seem so vitally important will prove to be another staging area for another and yet another…and some of what you think will be major accomplishments turn out to be empty vanity. I’d be sorely tempted to urge him to stop dragging degrees and grades like strong boxes and accept that memory lasts longer than achievement. “Each year is a new vantage from which to view life,” I’d spout, “another plateau or valley. And that’s better.”

Some parents seek to create paper trails to testify to their children’s experience. They want something neater and more portable than the messy and contradictory people children can be. I don’t blame them because who could object to their desire to situate their children for success and happiness?

At times, however, it’s tough to tell which comes first—documentation or experience.

For some of their children, the future oppresses the present. They learn “having done” is more important than “doing,” and doing loses its pleasure. They become academic bulimics more interested in having eaten than in growing from the food.

Living in the present is difficult for me too. I dream about meeting my son or daughter’s future self and being impressed by what each has become. But I can’t ignore my own experience. My own parents loved and supported me, but they didn’t—couldn’t—control what I’ve become. Now that my children are older, my only job is to help them deal with now—the latest mistake, disappointment, or triumph—and offer what comfort I can.

Any grand plan for my children’s future is a bench where stranger meets stranger. I try not to look forward or back too far. Now is a moment moving on.

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Seeing The Sun Rise

My daughter’s eighth grade science teacher gave his class an assignment to watch four sunrises or sunsets. As we live only half of mile from Lake Michigan, my daughter chose sunrises, and, several very early weekend mornings, my wife or I roused her to walk east in the dark. Sometimes clouds prevented seeing much and once or twice I half-jogged with her to the lakefront only to find the sun just clear of the water and climbing.

But when we caught the sunrise, it was astounding—one moment, a gray horizon and then a plate of white fire and then, within a minute or so, the show was over. It was day, and we turned for hot chocolate at Starbucks and home.

The same magic minute occurs every dawn. The earth rolls, and a line of light advances. When the earth rolls enough, we can see the sun. The earth rolls more, and it’s fully day.  And I don’t note the moments. I’m stepping from the shower or pouring cereal or slipping my computer in my bag or gathering my keys from the dish by the door or walking, head down, toward a sun I can’t—and don’t bother—to see.

Yet it happens. My daughter is a senior in high school now, and I recently asked her why her teacher gave the assignment. She said he wanted the class to observe the sun, and sunrise and sunset were moments when enough atmosphere intervened to get a peek at it.

I thought it was because he wanted them to witness a miracle.

Getting my daughter up before sunrise on a weekend is a sort of miracle, but the sun was better. I almost thought of it as living, appearing as it did so suddenly and so boldly. Its passage is usually so slow, and it slides through the sky unacknowledged as we busy ourselves with life. At sunrise, the sun seemed as surprised by us as we were by it, and, excited by witnesses, it leapt into the air.

We were never alone at the lakefront. People were running or cycling as they probably did every morning, but there were also other spectators still out from the night before or people standing with cameras ready to arrest the second—the less than a second—the guest arrived. It seemed much too special to happen every day.

So seldom do I think about time that I hardly feel it pass. You just have a moment to identify a moment, and it doesn’t seem a particularly valuable use of time to note each of the infinite series of presents we experience. You had one just then. You are having another now.

Nothing could stop that sun either. It wouldn’t sit on the horizon no matter how many cameras pointed at it, but somehow the sun did speak. It said now is now, and now is passing. It said you don’t feel time move but it can do nothing except move in its one direction, and only the instants that announce its progress—like sunrise—make us discern it at all.

I sometimes watch my daughter as she does her homework. I try not to let her notice, but I see her in all her stages—when she wasn’t walking, when she was, when she wasn’t in school and was, when the years started to became stacks of photographs and the days began to flash like sun between pickets of an blurring fence.

Winter hasn’t even really started, and I’m already thinking about spring, when she graduates, and next fall, when she leaves. Maybe it’s time for another assignment. Maybe watching sunrise again can make time real.

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Miniature Gallery

1.

I like to visit art museums in every city. Topeka or Florence, Poughkeepsie or New York, I search for small and large possibilities for seeing new art.

My interest isn’t doing something local. Though every collection differs, each holds some of the same artists or displays similar sorts of paintings and sculptures. I want to see what part of the world’s store appears there.

And I want peace. A friend once described the vertigo he feels drifting from room to room staring into windows that don’t open to the outside. He said if he stood still enough and close enough, he might fall through them.

I feel just the opposite, strangely grounded.

2.

Mrs. Holt’s grandmotherly demeanor matched her house—neat and still, past the excitement of children and fit for visiting instead of staying.

My father, a doctor during the day but a devoted visual artist, didn’t trust the school to teach me art and sent me to Mrs. Holt’s once a week for instruction. She assigned color wheels and scales of shade, landscapes stolen from photographs, and still lifes already arranged when I arrived.

I’m not sure how old I was and recall little of my work. What I remember is routine. At the same time each week, I handed over a wet page, rehung my shirt worn backwards, carried my materials to a sink in the laundry room, and rubbed my brush on a bar of soap until it gave up its pigment. Then I rinsed and repeated until brush and soap knew no color. I waited in a sitting room to go home, penned by shadows of growing dusk.

3.

Picasso said painting is “Just another way of keeping a diary.” I suppose it would be if drawing were a regular part of life and notebooks filled with every reproduced leaf, building, and face you met. But few approach representation so casually. Fidelity requires dedication and skill difficult to attain. Most of us leave it for artists, hands so practiced they’ve eluded thought altogether. We witness the divinity that visits them.

4.

When I paint, the last stage is removing tape protecting a strip surrounding the image. Exaggerated swoops and careless lines stray onto the masked area, and it’s challenging to see the finished picture until the tape disappears.

My work is abstract and depicts nothing readily recognizable, but sometimes when I pull the tape away colors and shapes seem to drop another inch, the depth of their soupy combination apparent at last. Then what seemed nonsense becomes something.

Once, when I lamented I couldn’t mat or frame more paintings, an art teacher at our school circled the white space with his index finger and said, “What do you call this?”

“You’re so neat,” he said, “but even without the clean edges, the paper has to end somewhere. You always have a frame. That’s what keeps your picture here.”

Self-Portrait, age 16

5.

Another art teacher scolded me for taking the beginning drawing class I start today.

“You aren’t a beginner,” she said, “you’ll be bored. You’ll waste the teacher’s time.”

Maybe. After so many hours of holding brushes and pens, they feel like the distal point of a tentacle, the greatest length my mind can reach. Yet, as a doodler, it’s my imagination that stretches. My eyes don’t see the way I’d like because I’ve kept them half-closed too long. I’ve cultivated inwardness that’s accepted the room I occupy and kept me finite. I want to see the wider world.

6.

During a free afternoon while I was traveling, an old friend met me at a museum. His twins came along, and my friend and I tried to catch up on our lives as they orbited us, wheeling away from him to take in paintings and move on.

Finally frustrated by their impatience and the relentless pursuit it necessitated, he gave them an assignment—in every room they were to say which painting they’d like to buy, which they’d like to see on the living room or bedroom wall at home.

They saved their imaginary money in some galleries, but in others they fought over which  painting to own. One liked the colors, but the other hated the figure whose feet were too blocky and all wrong. One saw a galloping horse among the intersecting arcs and lines, and the other called it “Scribble-scrabble.”

His junior art critics knew their taste, and my friend and I stopped talking to play their game. When they couldn’t agree, they asked our opinion. They listened, nodded, and marched on, hands linked behind their backs in serious deliberation.

7.

I inherited my love of museums from my father. He gave tips on where to go, which collections included paintings and artists I couldn’t miss. But we didn’t go to many museums together. The one time I remember, I wandered behind him as he stared into landscapes bathed in dark, shellacked dusk or modern pieces proud of their bright affronts.

He looked at art the way he ate, with personal deliberation hard for any observer to bear. In both, his business was absorption, and that meant making it his before he took it in.

8.

Sometimes, when my wife and I go for walks after dinner, I see into the windows of neighborhood houses and spy the art that hangs on their walls. When a large dramatic painting presides over the whole room, aesthetic voyeurism sweeps through me. I think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live with that?”

9.

My son is a skilled and practiced artist, and sometimes I feel like a weak link between the generations before and after me. Still, I’m grateful I understand his art talk and am happy when he looks with respect and approval at something I’ve created.

I wish I’d done the same for my father. Though I admired his watercolors and felt second-hand pride at the prices they demanded, I gave up the art lessons he wanted for me. We weren’t both artists while he was alive.

After he died I discovered painting again as a way to commune with him. Even now, twenty years after his death, I’m sometimes sure he’s telling me what to do, pitching advice to lead me from corners I’ve painted my way into.

Trips to museums with my son are some of my favorite times. We don’t talk much, but a lot goes unsaid.

10.

Jackson Pollock saw himself as a sort of medium, believing it his job to find the life hiding in every painting. “I try to let it come through,” he said, as though that life came far ahead of the artist.

I understand that reverence. Even back in Mrs. Holt’s sitting room, I recognized the gravity of the artist’s rites. I sometimes sense the leading edge of revelation. Even when the wave doesn’t quite reach me, I love seeing the signs of its withdrawal, the evidence of beauty in full tide.

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