Tonight was Open House at my school. I never know how it's going to go, meeting all the parents. Some years it is casual and enjoyable, others years it's tense and serious - the equivalent of a ninety minute job interview. Most years, it's somewhere in the middle. This year was different; this year, I spent most of the time answering questions about Violet.
Something to instill in Violet..."The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit." Wade Davis
This is about being grateful, but it begins with political TV ads. They were the topic of a piece on the radio today; the presidential elections are “only” fourteen months away, so the ads - lionizing, attack, and otherwise – are rolling out. What this particular piece revealed, however, is that the people who manage these ads are finding their target audience harder to pin down. Fewer people are watching TV in the traditional way – sitting down to watch a show as it’s broadcast, sitting through the commercials. The growing trend is to record a desired show and watch it when it’s convenient and, the ad managers presume, fast forward through the commercials. The piece went on to discuss what this means for the future of the political TV ad, but I was only half-listening. I was too busy imagining this trend blossoming to the point where ads could be avoided entirely, and what a bliss-filled world that would be. I’m not saying anything original with the second half of this sentence, but most ads are built around the concept of manipulating us into feeling inadequate. We’ve all heard it before, in one form or another, but it’s easy to forget. It’s what makes us go out and spend hundreds of dollars on flat screen TVs when we have perfectly good nonflat(?) ones at home. (Yes, the picture is better, but really, does the difference between a crisp and a really crisp picture increase or decrease my enjoyment of what I’m watching?)But thinking about ads and feeling inadequate led me to remember when I used to work at a book store, and I used to pull out books and open them up to read a line at random. One time, I must have pulled out a self-help book, because I opened it to a page and my eyes found a passage talking about how our modern world often leaves us too focused on what’s wrong or missing in our lives. It said something to the effect of, “For one day, pay attention to everything you say, taking note of how much of it is negative – a complaint, a regret, an unkind remark.” A bit touchy-feely, but the idea stayed with me. I started doing it and still do now and then. It got me listening to other people, too, and it’s startling how much of what we say and hear is negative in nature. I’m not saying we should all go around saying only pleasant, happy things, but it’s easy to go the other way most of the time. It takes effort to remind myself about how much I have to be grateful for, so I’m doing it right now, with this post, putting down the things that are on my wife’s and my mind tonight. We want Violet to see this sometime down the road because we hope it will encourage her to do the same. We’re grateful that instead of going to day care, Violet can stay home while my wife and I go to work because my wife’s mother is so generous with her time. We’re grateful for friends and family who have helped my us through rough spots in the past and who are encouraging us to buy a house - even though I might lose my job - because they will be there to help us if we need them. But tonight, we are most grateful that Violet’s fever has broken, her nose is only slightly stuffy, and she is sleeping serenely in her crib.
Violet is having pooping issues again. It doesn’t appear to be too serious this time; the trains are leaving the station, but the departure schedule is irregular and unpredictable no matter what we try. I told Linda yesterday that after Violet hasn’t gone for a day or two, opening her diaper and finding it unoccupied is like opening a bulging Christmas stocking and finding it empty. Such promise followed by such disappointment.
I took Violet to her cousin’s birthday party today. She’s doing better when it comes to gatherings. She alternates between playing happily on the floor and contentedly watching those around her, and her new favorite party game is finding and grabbing unguarded cameras left on couches, chairs, or end tables. She’s still iffy on letting my relatives hold her because she doesn't see them that often. I thought that by now she would be more willing, but aunts, great aunts, and even her godmother gave it a shot, and she cried for them all. It’s a curious thing, handing my daughter over to someone and watching her smile disappear, the frantic look enter her eyes, and at once feeling frustrated that she’s not ready to go to someone else as well as the urgent need to push that person down and take my daughter back. I don’t have to, though. They hand her back immediately, and I’m left feeling relieved but still a little frustrated. I don’t want to push her too much if she’s not ready, but I want to share her, too. When she does allow herself to be held by a friend or a relative, for those fleeting moments, it’s nice to see the people we love enjoying her as much as we do.
Over Father’s Day Weekend, the radio program This American Life aired a show completely dedicated to stories about fathers and their unique – often awkward and misguided - ways of trying to connect with their children. One of the segments, an essay by comedian and writer Michael Ian Black, related the story of his father’s death when he was twelve - how he dealt with it then and how it affects him now that he has children of his own. It’s one of the most honest pieces about a parent’s death that I’ve ever heard. He reveals how his twelve year old self used his father’s death as an opportunity to get his mom to rent R-rated movies and to buy him sugary cereal. Following the funeral, he stood at the bus stop with his best friend, and for the first time in their lives, they couldn’t think of what to say to each other. He talks about how the presence of his own children has caused him to look back at what he can remember of his father, and to see those events from his father’s perspective, a man who didn’t know how to express what he should to his son.
I listened to that story, enjoying it immensely for its honesty and its humor, but also feeling a deep sense of envy. Black had twelve years with his father. He can remember interactions, details that he knows were true, the good points and the faults that intersected to make his father a tangible person. My mother passed away when I was three, so she’s more of an idea to me than a person. I don’t know any of her faults. When my family speaks of her, they speak only of what made her wonderful, which is completely understandable, but it make me wonder if I were to die before Violet were to really know me, what would she remember? Would she be able to fill in the blanks and shape me into a memory close to who I am? Would I want her to? I think I would. So, I’m leaving this note for her, to be opened in the event of my death:
Your father was a man who loved you very much.
He was honest, kind to everyone, and was a faithful husband.
His nose was too big and he was on the skinny side.
He died rescuing women and children from a burning hospital.
He had gotten out every last person, before he went back in for the kitten.
That’s when the roof collapsed.
305 days old
Read the pieces from the This American Life episode here.
Listen to the episode here.
We have Open House at my school nest week, the evening when kids bring their parents into school to show off their classrooms, parents get a chance to talk with their kid’s teacher, and we all ignore how weird it feels to be at school at night. I always look forward to the event with an odd blend of cautious excitement and dread. I never know what to expect from the parents. Some give a brief and polite hello, appearing as unsure as I am of what to say next when we run out of things to say about their child, while others talk so casually and warmly that I wonder if I don’t know them from somewhere else. A few eye me warily from across the room, presumably sizing me up based on what their child has told them and what they’re seeing. The most fascinating part is meeting and watching the parents for the first time, now that I’ve gotten to know their child over the first weeks of school. I get to see the people who molded and tended these seven and eight year old personalities. The hard-worker. The chatterbox. The philosopher. The writer. The comedian. The sly boots. Meeting their parents is like peeking behind the wizard’s curtain. Sometimes - maybe a little more than half the time - what’s there makes sense. The rest of the time, I’m surprised. Of course, it’s hard to really get to know any of the parents in the brief conversations that I share with them, but it’s all I have to go on and I can’t help but wonder. Occasionally upon meeting a parent or parents, I find out that I’m as confused as they are as to where the child came from. In my relatively short six-years of classroom teaching, I’ve had three sets of parents give me the “we think there was a mix up at the hospital” line, genuinely at a loss for where a portion or all of their child’s personality came from. And it’s those words that play across the screen of my mind late at night, when I’ve woken up from some hazy, fading dream and listen to my wife and daughter breathing. I know Linda and I both have images in our heads of who our daughter will grow up to be. People tell us all the time that she’ll love animals and the outdoors, be an artist like her mother, be unafraid of bugs and snakes, but who’s to say? I’d love any or all of it to be true, but there’s no guarantee that reality will meet our expectations, no matter how much we work to sculpt it over the years to come. Chances are that she’ll turn into a person similar to the one we expect, a little bit of us within her own individual Violet-self. But maybe not. Seven years from now, it might be me at Open House, half-joking with the teacher about mix-ups at the hospital. I’ll love her no matter who she becomes – even if it’s (shudder) a Republican – but it still keeps me up in the wee hours – the fear that she could grow into someone so far removed from my wife and me that she deems us an unnecessary part of her life. Maybe I’m just being dramatic, but what do you think about in the middle of the night?
The Republican comment? It’s a joke (mostly). Some of my best friends are Republicans. Okay, only two. But I like them a lot.
Tonight, we celebrated Violet’s ten-month birthday by giving her a spinach-tofu-cereal medley for dinner. I mixed all three together, and to be fair, I tasted it before giving it to Violet. I was surprised to find it delicious. Then, Linda reminded me that I’d prepared the cereal with breast milk.
Today, I looked around my classroom, at the students working at their seats, at the four children in front of me discussing a story we’d just read, and like an unexpected gift, it struck me that my class was flowing the way I imagine it will every morning before the kids arrive. It didn’t last long, this beautiful collection of seconds. It never does. One of the kids is distracted by a pencil shaving or a leaf wiggling on a tree outside the window, another has an urgent need to visit the nurse, another decides I need to know what their pet tortoise named Thomas did last night. Teaching is like driving a tractor trailer loaded with explosives, but without brakes. You know you’re guiding the whole operation in a general direction, but you’re not sure exactly where you’ll end up, nor in what condition you and your cargo will arrive. It’s exciting, sometimes scary, and things are constantly jumping out into the road. But often enough, there are moments when the road is level for a stretch, giving you a chance to look around and enjoy the fruits of your labor. These are the moments when you feel that maybe, you know what you’re doing and that what you’re doing is working. Parenting feels similar, but the trip is a whole lot longer and more beautiful, with many more interesting and frightening twists and turns, more complicated directions, and the cargo is a lot more explosive. And the trip has no end.
Today was a perfect day for a walk. The morning and afternoon passed by – I, getting things done inside and my wife studying - while our mutual feelings of guilt over not paying more attention to Violet grew stronger. So, right before dinner, I took her for a quick walk up into the meadow. On the way, we picked some wild grapes and she poked at the black flesh after I smashed one for her. I didn’t give her a taste; the grapes need to weather a few frosts before they grow sweet enough for eating. Next to the grapes, a cluster of tightly packed sumac berries caught Violet’s attention, and she spent a good, long while running her hands down the bunch, fascinated by the tiny, fuzzy balls tumbling down into my open palm. Eventually, we made it to the meadow, where we followed a monarch butterfly, making its way among the asters, preparing for its long migration. It grew tired of our pestering and disappeared up the hill. We headed that way, too, and tasted a few apples (too sour yet) from the tree at the top, and sat in the grass, piling blades up on Violet’s legs while she scattered them in every direction. Everything around us said ‘fall’, especially the leaves. Here and there, only a few have changed color. The rest look faded and beat. It always seems to come on so fast, fall arrives while I’m not looking, but this year even more so. My attention lies elsewhere.
It’s hard to accomplish much on weeknights anymore. I usually get home around , which leaves only two and half hours until Violet’s bedtime. Dinner needs to made and Violet’s pre-bedtime ritual completed. After her bedtime comes dishes, writing a post, and a maybe a half hour of reading/relaxing. I am not complaining here, just painting a picture of why today, Saturday, I realized how deeply satisfying it is to be able to spend a day playing with my daughter AND accomplishing a great number of things at home. Last year, a mother told me that I would reach a point where nap time would require strategy. That is, I would strategize ahead of time exactly what I would do while Violet slept, figuring out how I could best use the limited amount of time. My God, was she right.
I would never have guessed that parenting would involve so much serious discussion about, fretting about, and interest in poop. I dreamed about Violet pooping last night, a sign of just how far my concern for her bowel movements has burrowed into my psyche. My phone conversations with my wife used to include at least one, "I love you." Now, "Did she poop yet today?" is the guaranteed phrase.
I always wondered how teachers who were also parents did it. How could they deal with kids all day, then go home and deal with more? When people used to ask me if my wife and I were going to have children, I would respond with, “I already have 18 children (or however many students I had that year).” During the pregnancy, I secretly wondered if it would be difficult, coming home and having to step into the role of a parent instead of just decompressing, especially on those days when my patience had been worn down to a nub. Selfish thinking, I know, but I thought it all the same. What I hoped and suspected at the time, and what I’ve since found to be true, is that coming home to Violet is an antidote for even the toughest day.
Last night, I wondered if we weren’t doing Violet a disservice by controlling the spoon during feedings, and I asked you what you thought (Thank you all for the many thoughtful comments and personal experiences). The consensus was that, by this point, we could consider giving Violet small finger foods, and most reported baby food to be a frightening option for self-feeding at nine to ten months. A few encouraged us to cover the floor under the high chair and let her have it, which we actually have done for some fun now and then – let her have at it, that is, not covered the floor with papers. My wife did it today, but I can’t imagine doing it four or five times a day, at each feeding. Some comments sagely suggested that when she starts reaching for the spoon, that will be Violet’s signal that she’s ready to take control.
My favorite response was from my friend Amy, who reassured me by pointing out that she’s seen very few adults incapable of using utensils. Still, not wanting to deprive Violet of age appropriate experiences, I did give her some peas on her high chair tray tonight. Still terrified of her choking, I took the precaution of cutting them in half and removing the skins. She opened her mouth readily as soon as I picked one up and held it in front of her, and she had no problem chewing it up. She did not, however, grasp the concept that her own fingers could deliver the peas to her mouth. She instead spent the next ten minutes smashing the peas and smushing them back and forth across the tray. We’ll keep working on it.
So, now the baby book has us questioning our feeding technique. Currently, my wife or I will hold the bowl of baby food in one hand and feed Violet with the other. She handles neither the bowl nor the spoon. This keeps the mess confined to her face. Upon skimming through the baby book a few nights ago, the heading "Don't resort to hostile takeover" under the Eating Habits section startled me. I saw it and thought to myself, "They can't mean..." But they did. The book advised against taking the spoon away from the baby, lest it result in a baby who is "delayed in learning how to feed himself and...is also slow to develop polite table manners and good eating habits." I read it twice to be sure I understood what it was saying. Violet should have control of the spoon? It didn't seem right, but elsewhere in the section, it addressed the potential mess involved with this course of action by advising me to simply spread newspapers around the base of the high chair to catch all the food that Violet finds superfluous. I read that and thought, "But we don't get the newspaper." So how about it, did (or do) any of you hand the keys to mealtime over to your nine month old?
Once she reaches a certain age, one thing I’ll tell my daughter is that when choosing a partner, she needs to remember that every person she’ll ever meet (you, me, and everyone we know) has at least three or four major personality flaws. “Find someone who has flaws you can live with,” I’ll say, “and can do the same with you.”
I’ve been good. I haven’t looked at our copy of What to Expect… for months, but recently, Violet pulled it off the shelf during one of her climbing expeditions. I couldn’t resist picking it up and flipping to the chapter on “The Tenth Month,” the section describing everything that might currently be wrong with Violet. I’m being glib when I say that, but only slightly. There is some good info there, but there’s a fine line between covering everything that a parent might want to know and scaremongering. After beginning with a list of all the things Violet “should” be able to do: stand holding on to something, play peekaboo, pull up to standing from sitting, the chapter goes on to list all the things she “will probably” be able to do and “possibly” be able to do. I have to admit to feeling a guilty sort of pride on reading each milestone that Violet has achieved and a corresponding sense of shame for every one she’s yet to reach. Following that, there is a lengthy Q&A section on “What You May Be Concerned About.” It should be prefaced with these instructions for parents: take a muscle relaxer before reading this next part. Included are segments on teeth grinding and messy eating, two behaviors that Violet engages in, as well as a number of ones that I didn’t know existed. For instance, I had no idea that some nine-month-olds hold their breaths until they pass out. They actually turn blue, stiffen, and/or twitch. My favorite bits of advice from the book? "Respond calmly to breath-holding spells," and, "No treatment is necessary for a child who has passed out from breath holding." I can't imagine getting to the point where I look at my prone, blue, twitching child and say, "Hmmm...oh, well. What can you do? She'll come to soon enough." I pray that Violet never chooses to become a breath-holder/passer-outer. I just couldn’t take it.
I wrote a post some time ago about how I’m prone to breaking things. Dishes. Expensive electronics. Clothing (Somehow, I find a way). In ninth grade, I spilled water on my friend Kyle D’Addario’s brand new computer – knocked a full glass right onto the keyboard. He loved that computer, and I can still see the stunned horror etched on his face, an acrid smell rising up from between the keys. That, and an embarrassing number of memories like it, is the root of my fear that each passing day is just one step closer to the day that I seriously injure Violet. I won’t mean to. I never set out to damage, break, or destroy things, but it happens nonetheless. Everytime it does, I say to myself, “From now on, I’ll be more careful. I’ll remember how stupid I feel right now, and it will keep me from doing something like this again.” But it never does. Take today, for example. I borrowed my wife’s camera to take some pictures of my students (I broke my camera last school year). She was justifiably reluctant, but she loves me, so she consented. I made it through the school day and returned home with the camera intact, proud of myself. My wife was at work, and with time to kill before dinner, I decided to take Violet down the road to Beaver Meadow for a quick hike. I carried her out to the car, camera around my wrist. I strapped her into the car seat, and reached over the back of the front passenger seat to drop the camera up front, where it landed hard on a jar I’d forgotten was on the seat. And with that, I’d done it again.
I held the camera in my hands and told myself, “From now on, I’ll be more careful. I’ll remember how stupid I feel right now, and it will keep me from doing something like this again,” even though I knew it wouldn’t. At least this time, the situation had a silver lining; by some incredible stroke of luck, I had just ordered my wife a new camera. She’d been complaining about hers for some time, and our upcoming anniversary seemed like a good time to surprise her. It’s completely against my nature to give or reveal a present’s identity before the appointed date, but this was a special circumstance. I needed a cushion, and it did soften the blow when she came home tonight and I fessed up. She was nice about it but not surprised, concerned more about missing opportunities to take pictures of Violet before the new camera arrives than with the busted camera. Her reaction made me feel a little better, but I was still frustrated with myself. Later, when she called me into the bedroom to put Violet to bed, I held my daughter in my arms and told her, “I want to say I’m sorry in advance for whatever I might do to you in the future. Just remember, scars can make you seem mysterious.”
We’re discovering which books are Violet’s favorites, the books that she will sit for, listening and looking. Reading is something we do with her in the morning or in the afternoon, not usually at bedtime since reading always seems to wind her up, but with school starting for me, limiting my time with her, I decided to give it a try – to start reading to her before bedtime, figuring that she wouldn’t sit still. But she did, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend our last minutes of the day together. It makes me wish I could find the first person who thought of it and thank them, the person who, millennia ago when they saw it was their kid’s bedtime, was inspired to grab a clay tablet and say, “Hey, why don’t I read some of this to you before you go to sleep in your corner of the hut?”
We walked around the empty house, trying to imagine filling it with our lives - our plants and dressers, our separate piles of mail, baby toys of all sizes. The bare floors and rooms left the place with a hollow feel and sound; the things we all fill our homes with take up more than just space. We tried to imagine this place as a home. Eventually, we made our way out to the front yard, standing in the overgrown grass and looking at the house, trying to picture it painted in a more attractive color. Our realtor asked what we thought, and we went over pros and cons, the ways we would have to adjust our dream to fit the reality in front of us. I asked Violet what she thought. I said, “If you think we should take it, say, ‘Blah.’” Strapped to my front in the chest carrier, she was still for a moment, then gave a quiet, “Ba.” I don’t know what to do with that.
I bought a one way ticket for Ireland after I graduated from college. Hopped up on Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemmingway, I had it in my mind that I was going to find some crummy job in a dirty pub in some tiny village, and I was going to be a writer. I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I imagined that wherever I ended up, the location would provide the material. Living alone in a foreign country seemed like a good recipe for literature-worthy experiences. I knew almost nothing about what it took to be a writer, but I did know that moving to a far away place was part of the equation for the writers I looked up to. It was - the moving far away - the most interesting part to me. Once that was accomplished, I was certain that whatever else might be required would follow. That was my plan, but two months before I left, my future wife asked me out, and soon after, my one way ticket became a return one.
My wife doesn’t like it when I tell that story. Her fatalistic streak sees it as the story of my unfulfilled dream. But it’s not. I don’t regret coming back. I had the time of my life there, but not once on the trip did I wish I could stay longer. Instead, I spent most of the time missing what I’d left behind, looking forward to getting back to her. Now, almost fifteen years later, I can’t recall a single instance where I regretted my decision, even on our worst day together. That’s not to say I don’t wonder how my life would be different if I had stayed. I try to picture what might have played out, where I would be now, and I marvel at the power a single decision has over the course of a life, my life and the lives of those mixed up with me.
Violet reminded me of this the other morning, as she turned her head back and forth, me following with a full spoon, and she, flatly refusing to take in any more breakfast. I happened to glance at the calendar nearby, noticing that the beginning of school was now less than a week away. Once it was here, someone else would be feeding Violet breakfast on most days, or at least trying to, and I would be elsewhere, missing it. It made me think of all the other first days of school I’ve been through as a teacher, and the fact that there was no Violet to miss before this one. It led to the frightening thought of, “What if there was no Violet? What if she hadn’t happened? What if Linda had had a “headache” 18 months ago?” It made me realize that I’ve grown used to Violet being here. No. It’s more than “used to.” She is essential. She is something I didn’t know I couldn’t live without until it arrived. Like an iPod. Only way better. Much, much better. Okay, an iPod’s not even in the same league. I just can’t think of anything else that even comes close.
All this went through my head this afternoon as I drove back from the grocery store, Violet asleep in the back seat. I was listening to a song – specifically, the chorus – that I’ve heard dozens of times. It never inspired anything special in my mind until today, when it caused me to, once again, sit in awe of the power of a single decision, and how fortunate I am that my collection of decisions deposited me here.
1. No matter how little sleep I’ve gotten the night before, Violet’s face and fingers, peeking over the crib railing with a look that says, “I’m up. Let’s play,” wipes away my dark, sleep-hungry mood and makes it possible to rise, smiling, and fulfill her unspoken request.
2. Bringing a third person into a relationship that I’ve shared so long with just one, brings me closer to my partner.
3. The word “family” feels like a new word when I say it in refernece to Violet, Linda, and me, like I’ve just discovered a new meaning for it. This also holds true for the words “daughter”, “father”, “child”, and “nipple”. And “blowout”.
In a post a few months back, I wrote how a baby’s burp is one of the most satisfying sounds a parent can ever hear. Since then, I’ve discovered an even more satisfying sound – the silence coming from the baby monitor after 45 minutes of crying. Maybe satisfying isn’t the right word. It’s more like the sound of relief, of exhaling after 45 minutes of holding your breath. I probably won’t ever run a marathon, but I’m betting the relief that silence brings is similar to what a runner feels on crossing the finish line. (Maybe a half marathon? I don’t want to take anything away from marathon runners.) Unfortunately, one of the most upsetting sounds a parent can hear often follows the silence: the sound of crying starting up again. It is the sound of disappointment. It makes me and my wife so very sad. For Violet and for us.
What is the evolutionary benefit of making nine month old babies so huggable while at the same time, they're incapable of giving or receiving a really good one? I complained to Linda about this and she agreed, joking that we could load Violet up with Benadryl to get all the hugs out of our system.