This is gonna be awesome

It was a mild, gray, damp day, and I was home alone, doldrumic, with my three-year-old son, Zev. So I invited my dad over to hang out with us. Three generations, no plans or prospects to do anything.

I thought we could go to the zoo, or kick around a soccer ball, or go to the library, but no one (including me) seemed interested.

Instead we got in my dad’s car, and I suggested we head to the river for a hike. En route, Zev vetoed my plan with crying, and his grandpa, appeasing him, promised an adventure to ‘The Greatest Tower in the World!’.

I huffed and groaned but kept quiet. This is quintessentially my dad. Once you’re in the car, going someplace, he spontaneously suggests going somewhere else. On road trips he stops randomly at small-town post offices, or predictably, at every single historical marker. He drives slow.

I was annoyed. I had other things I wanted to be doing (even if I didn’t want to admit it). And now we were crawling along at 10 miles per hour toward the neighborhood water tower.

Bah! Why are dads so exasperating!? 

We got out of the car at the Greatest Tower in the World, and I struggled to contain my irritation. This is not an activity! Going to a water tower. This is not a thing people do, it’s just … nothing!

And then, quickly, everything changed. I looked over and saw Zev standing at the base of the tower with his body pressed against the cold, painted steel, looking up at the huge ball looming above us in the clouds. He was in awe.

This is a something I pass by – and utterly ignore – a thousand times a year. It is, objectively, just a boring water tower.

But in a three-year-old’s eyes (and with his grandfather’s help), it became the greatest tower in the world.

“This … is so … AMAZING!” said Zev. (If you can’t hear him, inside your head, saying this in his signature, particular way, then ask me to do an impression next time you see me.)

We put our ears to the metal and banged our palms against it, listening to the sounds rumbling and reverberating in helixes within the giant structure. We ran around it in circles, chasing and evading each other. Reversing directions and laughing. No one was around.

When you allow a little adventure to begin, it’s amazing how it continues. Soon Zev found a fire escape to climb up and hang from. Then there was a wall of granite landscaping boulders to scamper down. Taconite pellets. A little wood with downed trees to balance on, and a dead squirrel to poke.

Soon we were just walking around, exploring, pointing things out. “Close your eyes, guys,” Zev instructed us. “I have something really AMAZING to show you!” We did. He showed us.

It was a trash compactor with a ventilation fan spinning madly, thirsty for lubricant. He was right. It was amazing.

We stopped by the barns at the university farm campus near our house. Clutches of newborn lambs huddled together, skittish and furry-legged, yanking at their mother’s udders. Zev held out a clump of dry hay for them, saying “Come ‘eeeere little lambies, come here!”.

They didn’t come. The mother approached and pinned her ears forward, hooves stamping.

We found the cow barn; it was full of new calves and expectant mothers. They were friendlier, more docile. To Zev’s delight, the calves sampled his offerings of grass and corn. But they were soon more interested in licking his clothes and slobbering on his hands. He scrunched his face and half-turned away, squealing, but stood fast.

In the end we spent about an hour doing, essentially, nothing. We started with no plan, and allowed the adventure to seep into our afternoon, unencumbered.

When I think about it, I realize this is exactly the kind of thing I most love doing with my kids. I must admit that, I too, on road trips, have a certain penchant for stopping randomly, taking photos by road signs, and even making visits to post offices.

Many an afternoon I have spent wandering around with one (or both) of my kids, directionless and drifting, until some tiny detail catches our attention and changes the course of the whole day.

Am I exasperating? Do I annoy them? Will they someday groan and sigh and glare at my foot, resting, light as a snowflake, on the gas pedal?

Not yet, but someday, maybe. For the moment, I’m going to stick to the plan, and try to get in as many aimless afternoons with them as I can.

And I’m going remember I didn’t invent this idea. It was taught to me, lovingly, sometimes exasperatingly, by my dad, on cloudy Sunday afternoons many years ago, when a water tower, a trash compactor and a cow’s slobber were all it took to make me smile and say, “Amazing.”

Ice Breaker

He looks west to where the clearing should be but the horizon is gone, swallowed by snow. The ship’s iron hull, forty-eight millimeters thick, groans against the fresh ice. He cups his hands together and blows into them, then straightens his sunglasses.

The south-west passage should be open – it’s usually open – even this early in the season. And the Halvljus has opened this very route dozens of times before. Palms sliding down his gray-blonde beard, he recalls the first time he made the trip, as second navigator, seventeen years before. It was the peak of the oil crisis, and the ship’s radio was tuned to the state broadcasting service every morning for scratchy snippets of the latest news.

Now Ryuikssen comes with news of the Finnish breaker, Kontio, sent to pull them out. She’s delayed south of Negerpynten; running too light, it seems.

“And what about Andres?” he asks.

“Fine,” Ryuikssen says. “In quarters, recovering.”

“And the girl.”

Ryuikssen looks down. His blonde hair is thinning at the top and his lips are chapped to white.

“I don’t know,” he says. “She’s talking but no one understands.”

The captain of the Halvljus turns his head, cracks his neck to the right, then the left, heaves his chest and sighs. Three weeks ago he left Maarit and the baby in Luleå. It had been early morning when they went out, and from the pier he could see the cathedral spire covered in frost; the city beginning to light up behind it. The baby was wrapped up so tightly only her face showed, and Maarit, her hair pulled back, looked upset.

He didn’t know what was wrong. He thought to ask her in the car on the way over, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Instead he stared out the window, watched the refinery lights go by. When they reached security he gave her his badge to show the guard. In the side mirror he saw the baby’s pinched face and then reached behind awkwardly to hold her mitted hand.

“I’m pregnant,” Maarit said now, looking away, and then directly into his eyes. “I’m pregnant again.”


Leap-Day Morning

The neighbors asleep with the leaves in their trees standing quietly insensate to cold. The wind’s hips sway and she brushes the bushes and last fall’s remaining grasses.

Creak, down the stairs, walking backwards, toe to heel. Singing that chorus for half an hour, lying in bed without success. A tornado of images and words and sounds screeching and scraping against each other. They crack and shatter and reassemble and fly by unrecognizable.

A day is starting. A night is ending. Neither really started or stopped. Last night I went to bed and felt I had completed one more thirty-thousandth of my life, and that somehow I should be taking better stock of these fractions. The present is distant, and yesterday wanders my memory seeking an open chair.

The middle-school buses growl from one stop sign to the next, and I cover my face with a pillow. The sun goes up across the street. A yellow house bathes in the light, the rest is gray and brown and pale blue.

I would have skipped this day, last year. I’ll not miss it the next. I yearn to see the sky through languid curtains deep green and songbird-filled.

I should value every day. I should be present and grateful. But this Februaric extension I will not applaud.

I never liked the month in the first place.

How to Parent. 10 Things About That.

  1. Kids love magnets.
  2. Don’t over-tickle.
  3. Be wrong as often as you’re right.
  4. Apologize.
  5. Kids aren’t little grown-ups.
  6. It’s OK. Let them try it.
  7. You have no new e-mail.
  8. Walk slow; they are short and curious.
  9. Tantrum checklist:
    ☐ Hungry?
    ☐ Tired?
    ☐ Poop?
    ☐ No reason?
  10. Leave work promptly.

Expose yourself

Write what nobody hears. Fill the page and turn it black. Fill a void, yourself, ambition, vanity, self-consciousness.

Pick up a pen do it. Have a notebook write it. Watch people. Note gender, size, age, hair color. Write it down.

Eavesdrop. Quote it. Don’t trust yourself to remember, you will not.

Expose yourself. Expose others. Observe and report.

Don’t swing at the ball. Swing where it will be. As if it’s not there. Discover that, indeed, it was. That is a home run, baby. A hole-in-one, nothin’-but-net, buzzer-beating crosscourt winner.

The truth is you don’t trust yourself. You want to transcend but hate to scrape and toil for it.

You fell in love with a cold chill, spine-descending, sleep drubbing, soul numbing. Paralyzed amputated imagination.

Throw up the windows now, the night is cool. The city hums. The whole ecstatic vibrating mess of it running out of steam. Moonless birdless cloudless only the flaccid post-rush-hour highway traffic tumbling from a distance. And the faucet drips and the refrigerator snaps to life, oh coils coils coils freon.

Being in the Rain

I come home and her mom and brother are both sleeping. I find her in the bedroom, alone on a rainy Friday with curtains half-drawn and her bedside lamp casting quiet yellow light. Wearing a pink play apron; completely absorbed in a make-believe world. She doesn’t notice me.

She takes the news about the museum better than I expected, happily accepting the substitute of a walk in the rain to her grandmother’s house for hot chocolate and sunny-side-up eggs. To be honest I’m winging it at this point, just wanting to get out of the house so other two can sleep.

The rain is steady, but she’s unfazed and I have this gigantic blue-and-white umbrella I stole-borrowed from my first and last corporate job years ago. I think of changing shoes but … then I don’t.

Outside she tries to find a way to hold my hand and her umbrella at the same time.

I try to find a way to hold her hand and her umbrella at the same time. It’s not really possible.

We love each other and want to hold hands, but umbrellas are keeping us apart.

Those are vines, I tell her, through raindrops. They are little now but will grow big over summer, when you’ll be four and a half. But what are they called? she asks. The plants?

Vines I say. Just vines growing on the side of a retaining wall.

She stands in a puddle in pink boots and eroded dirt swirls across the sidewalk. I’m concerned about my suede shoes getting soaked around the toes despite attempts to better position the umbrellas. Two teenaged girls are walking home from school across the street, umbrellaless and barefoot, and it makes me feel very not-young and un-spontaneous.

So I make a conscious effort to not care about my suede shoes getting wet and ruined. Instead I do a poorly executed puddle jump, but even jumping now makes me feel old and heavy.

I’m distracted by a million different things, most involving dollar signs or e-mail attachments. But I’m able to recognize the beautiful serendipity of a random afternoon walk in the rain with my daughter. This was meant to be a special ‘date’ complete with a museum trip and thirteen other stops I can’t remember, but I was replacing a light switch. And it took forty-five minutes longer than I expected.

We take cover in a bus shelter. I slump against one wall and she runs back and forth. The rain falls harder and a bus approaches but I waive it off, embarrassed. She’ll happily stay here for hours, I realize, playing house or running a pretend ice-cream parlor. This is the miracle of childhood, and if there’s any shred of my youth left I should grab hold of it in my white-knuckled fists.

Why should I not want to stay here for hours living in our shared imagination? For the bills that need paying? For my spam-clogged, habit-forming inbox? Because there’s laundry to fold?

Holy shit that is depressing! Someone go find the 15-year-old me and tell him in just one lifetime’s doubling his world will dim to a boring, perfunctory shade of gray. And that when stray shafts of light manage to cut through the fog, his first impulse will be to push them away and return to his hamster wheel.

She wants to leave the bus shelter now. “This is boring,” she says.

She’s right. It was kind of boring. We flap open our umbrellas again, spraying droplets of water against the glass walls of the shelter.

We hold hands and walk off, crossing the street in search of adventure.


All My Quarrels

1. Age seven, opposite two playground boys playing keep-away with my balled-up socks. Of whom, one, I punched.

2. Fifth grade, a Tony-named boy slammed my head in a desk. His revenge for my pushing him into an emergency exit door. I cried in the principal’s office. He did not.

3. Walking to basketball practice; 10 years old. A teen-aged person I had never seen before walked up and, introduction-less, did a flying, spinning karate kick to my head. He had mistaken me for someone else.

4. At my friend Jamie’s house, eighth grade, with my friend Sid, who punched me on the top of the head after an absurdly long game of Risk. Wait, actually I’m not sure this one is real.

5. Freshman year, soccer practice. An older kid kept pushing me and finally I swung at his face without warning. I earned myself a tough reputation and gave him a bloody lip. Both quickly reverted to their prior conditions.

6. Also freshman year. I pulled down the pants and underpants of a math classmate in front of several girls to whom, I’m sure, he would have preferred, under improved circumstances, to reveal his pubescent penis. He claimed the right under an obscure legal statute to punch me on the left shoulder for two weeks, and availed himself fully of it.

7. Senior year; not a fight, but I mouthed off to a man-child whose poofy hair scraped the hallway ceilings while we bumped shoulders. For this he rewarded me with a thorough choking. During which I noticed he had a tear tattooed on his cheek. I believe he was later expelled.

8. College; practice field for the ultimate frisbee team. After some retrospectively amicable bullying, I threatened my (much, much larger) opponent with unspecified harm. This inspired not fear, but curiosity, which I finally indulged by landing a single punch into his shoulder. In my underweight, eighteen-year-old mind, this should have been enough to knock him right over, Goliath-like. Instead it nearly knocked him (and several onlookers) over with laughter.

Falling Asleep

A late April snowstorm has melted in the sun and what’s left is freezing with the moonrise. The gravel alley is pocked and mudslick despite the steady dripping of a drainpipe grate. It makes that sound whether you’re standing over it, motionless, or not.

I look down past my feet and think, well that would be a bad place to die.

Two ducks touch wings and swoop, silent, overhead. You follow them into a blur of red and white car lights at the intersection – the one you crossed when, at age seven, you were first sent on your own to buy milk at the gas station.

Someone appears in front of a house wearing a neon cycling vest backed by a flashing red light. He’s on the phone promising his dad he’ll return for dinner next week. He does this while directing the bike with one hand toward a steep hill, in dim light. I stand aside.

I walk home. Beside the front walk there are two dozen neat miniature bootprints in the snow. You can image a line of little girls in rain boots standing there, saluting you, perhaps. In fact they are all my daughter, who knows nothing of salutes.

Inside I’m told she has requested a goodnight kiss, so I shake off my coat and scarf and pad softly into her room. If I snuggle her, she says, she knows she will be able to sleep right away, so can I just snuggle her for a minute?

Who could refuse this sort of question?

Her bed is pink and narrow and short, because it’s for kids, and although I hang off of it in several directions, I find it the most comfortable place in the house. She tells me she tried to keep her eyes closed but she just can’t, and I tell her that’s ok, you can just leave them open.

I tell her that the minutes before you fall asleep – before your eyelids get too heavy – those are the best part of the day. When you can think about how everything works and just look at the ceiling. You have nothing to do, and nothing you can do, really, except wait for sleep to come. And watch the dark fill up.

I tell her I’ll always protect her and help her, no matter what happens or where she goes. I tell her I think she’s amazing. I stroke her forehead and say I can’t wait to find out what will happen in her life; what she’ll learn, who she’ll meet, where she’ll end up, how she’ll get there.

This is my daughter, lying here beneath my right arm, breathing evenly, listening to me clumsily explain how much I love her.

This is my daughter falling asleep.

Night Duty

Ayla’s feet tucked under her upside-down-heart-shaped butt while she kneels in the bathtub in front of the faucet, lapping up water from the cold trickle I’ve left running for her.

I ignore her for part of the bath, playing games on my phone, variously feeling guilty and justified with my behavior. I’ve been with her all day, so a break for tongue-lolling-out time is deserved. On the other hand, it’s not the first time I’ve ignored her today, for video games or other reasons.

I eventually break from the phone’s magnetic hold, like a junked car breaking away from the giant magnet that spells its doom/new-life. And I watch her talking to her rubber baby bath toy, telling it to sit and saying other things that make little sense to me.

When common sense and the clock tell me it’s time to empty the bath and get the most important human being in the world to bed, I flick down the drain switch and sing the clean up song. She doesn’t notice (or doesn’t care), and keeps on playing long after the water’s gone. Adults never hang out in empty bathtubs. Only children.

Then I hoist her up on my lap in a towel and comb her ridiculously beautiful hair for a long time, being pointlessly thorough. I enjoy looking at her, even at the back of her head, and she’s not squirming.

We read several books several times, and then I catch her stubbornly rubbing her eyes. She knows she’s tired but tries to hide it. So I scoop her up and place her in bed with three pacifiers surrounding her. She samples each one, rotating (I think) to get the freshest. I pat her back, her legs extended long behind her as she lies on her stomach, toes pointed slightly inward, her right heel swaying rhythmically.

“Song?” She says, pushing up on her forearms. It’s late August; the sun is going down earlier and earlier, leaving something like dream-light coming through the sheer white curtains. I sing until she falls asleep.

Rubellus, Castaneus & Terrestris – A Short Odyssey

Three brown worms, soaked and bloated, writhed half-dead on the sleet-covered sidewalk. What would become of those worms? What chance, frankly, did they have?

Are there daring stories of worm survival? Homeric tales of chaotic spring floods and tortuous hours squirming on concrete deserts, searching for the way home to roots and dark earth and subterranean safety?

On this frigid spring day, as I hunched and grimaced toward my weekly tennis match, I thought, probably not. “These three worms are dead meat,” I thought.

The deaths of worms seem gruesome at first; smeared by sneakers, bisected by beaks, or simply drowned in pathetic puddles mere fractions of a centimeter deep. And then, when the weather passes and everyone is out enjoying the first warm hours of spring, baked by the sun into brittle mummification.

But our deaths are gruesome, too. And prolonged, usually, by modern medicine. And indoors, most likely, away from the light and the fresh air, however brisk this late in April.

Are there daring stories of human survival? Homeric or otherwise? Surely.

Every human story is one of daring survival, from first breath to last. Though our puddles are deeper and we are less prone to smearing.

Perhaps I underestimated them. Those worms. Maybe one would bravely bear hours of freezing drizzle while I slapped and scampered at tennis balls (for naught: I lost) and live to see the clouds break. Maybe a dozen sidewalk-goers’ random walks would miraculously eschew her. And then, spongy and addled (though brainless), she would blindly vermiculate in the lucky direction of the grass, not the street.

There she would rest a moment, marveling, tasting once more her native soil, before taking renewed strength in thoughts of loved ones, and burrowing down into the dirt.

Except I didn’t. Underestimate them. Because I came out of my match two hours later, sweaty and defeated, and saw the three of them right where I left them. Super dead. Seriously.

I took the loss better than usual, as you might imagine, since I was in a mental state of picturing deaths worse than my own. Any defeat is quite bearable, actually, compared to those sad, drowned, frozen worms.

Somehow just the possibility of their heroism – though not realized that day, still entirely plausible – buoyed me. Maybe it was the sunshine, but I got back in my car thinking not of my seven double-faults, but of resilience and determination and stoic bravery. And of loved ones

All those things and more standing between me and my own native soil, which I, too, will someday taste.

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