Monday, November 2, 2009

Tottering Forward

Henry is Benjamin's best and oldest buddy. They share a nanny, trade binkies, swap bottles, and tag-team the cat. Tight Terror Partnership aside, however, it would be difficult to find two boys of more divergent character. Henry is a long haired, wildly careening storm of a boy who has been characterized by his parents as "a child of thoughtless and reckless action." He walked at 12 months, and has been falling on his face ever since. Benjamin, on the other hand, is a ruminator: a fat, speechless dwarf-Hamlet, parallized by girth and self-doubt. At 14 months, he is still firmly earthbound, and though he has shaken things up with the occasional plunge ( five steps = skewering Polonius), the ghost of the father is still breathing down his neck, asking when, when, when.

Not that said father is any particular hurry to have this guy up and running. He is quite fast enough on all fours, especially right after a bath, when, stark naked save for a hooded towel draped cape-like from his head, he streaks from the bedroom, cackling at his own boldness and jeering at his pursuers. (To see a slightly subdued version of this Caper of the Fantasmita Azul, click here.) He has three major crawls, in fact: one is his Getaway crawl, a jaunty, hands-and-feet crawlwalk in which he can traverse a 20 foot room in about 5 seconds. The second is his Latin crawl, a butt-swaggling, head-bobbing dance of a crawl that he slips into on sunny days and whenever he has no particular destination in mind. The third is his Ninja crawl, where he holds himself vertically, sitting on one leg tucked indian-style under his butt and extending the other like a crab-claw, pulling his body forward in discrete, focused bursts. For the Ninja crawl, he either holds his arms akimbo, which makes it look as if he were doing ballet, or he holds one by his side and one pointed forward, as if he were leading a charge. I hope to have video evidence soon.

For Halloween the boys dressed as the reverse of their natural temperaments: Wild Boy Henry was a cute yellow duck, sweet, tame, approachable, while Benjamin the Contemplator was a drunken sea captain, a Queeg in the throws of excess. Henry's parents had the good sense to go as themselves, while Benny's mom dressed as the sea and his dad as the Dali Lama. Is it any wonder the poor boy is doomed to a life of confused and timorous reflection?

In any event, the boy is up and tottering forward, as is this blog. (I tried to kick the habit, but after two months on the wagon, I fell for the charm of a Developmental Milestone, and here I am again, downloaded and outsourced in the blogosphere.) Stay tuned for more videos.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Boy of Our Own

Zoogle's first birthday may have been a symbolic milestone, but it came and went with amazingly little fanfare. Catalina bought a metallic helium-filled balloon with "Happy Birthday!" stenciled in red letters on both sides, and Benjamin spent most of the day staring at the ceiling, pondering the perversities of a Law of Gravity that worked one way for unwanted peas and another way for shiny oblongs. Whenever the problem became too complicated, he would grab the balloon by its ribbon and attack it with his teeth. Later in the day there were a couple of gifts, packages left by Chinabuela during our rendezvous in the dome. Though I thought about occupying my red-eye shift by letting Zoogle tear into the pretty wrapping paper, it occurred to me that this was a ceremony my wife might not wish to miss, and that I should probably wait until evening. Alas: she apparently assumed me too much the Grinch to care, because by the time I got home from the office, the wrapping was in shreds and Zoogle had long since read, drooled on, bent, and forgotten its contents. (My wife did have the delicacy to capture this moment on film, however. Here is a link, if you're interested.) In the evening we ate birthday pie, some low-sugar local organic peach concoction with an all butter crust, garnished with the green wax of the single candle that no amount of coaching could induce Zoogle to blow out. He went to bed late, and after a postprandial tea we followed suit, dropping like old fruit on spent soil.

And thus the First Year came to a close. Discussing the mind-blowing fact that we'd been playing the Parent Game for a full twelve months, Catalina and I agreed that Time in the presence of a child is like space in the presence of worm-hole: strongly distorted, obliteratingly intense. Interestingly, neither of us can describe this "Zoogle Effect" with any accuracy: on the one hand, we feel that time essentially hasn't moved since the boy came off production, and the other that it flies along at breakneck speed. Perhaps our inability to describe the New Time has to do with the fact that it has bifurcated, and now there are two Times, one local, one global. Locally, i.e. on the level of the Everyday, Time is this wild, whooshing thing; I think of a drunken 19th century London cabbie careening along rough cobblestones on a dark night with a mad mare and willing wench, though doubtless other metaphors would work. Globally, however, it is completely static: on the level of personal memory, Time is a large stone in a windless dessert, immovable, unchanging, empty and fixed. I ask ourselves what I did this year, and though I massage my temples and pull at my graying hairs, racking my tired memory for a clue, I keep coming back to the single fact that we took care of Benjamin. There were a few trips to the park, and I do seem to recall a little travel here and there, but the fact of the Child is so vivid and pressing and inescapable that it obliterates almost everything else.

The fact that Parenting looms so large in my memory doubtless has something to do with the sheer number of waking (and no so waking) hours it has occupied. Tom Beem was telling me about a book called "This Is Your Brain on Music", in which there was a theory that professionalism is really a function of 'hours logged', and that after 10,000 hours of doing anything, anyone with even a modicum of talent can rightly call themselves a professional. I find the theory suspicious, but I do feel that the obliterating intensity of the Child provides an interesting context in which to subject it to interpretation. Could it be that after so many long night of cooing, so many diapers changed, so many fingers wackled and lips puckered and faces pulled, that after all this my brain has actually custom molded itself to the task of child-rearing? That the mental resources siphoned into fatherhood uprooted vast dendrite fields and pruned my neural trees? The thought gives me the jeebies. Still, I know that Time is a powerful shaper, and it is an indisputable fact that a disproportionate percentage of my consciousness last year was devoted to thinking about my kid. Painful thought it be, perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that when I think about this year, all I see is the monochrome tundra of Baby.

Of course even Baby admits outside influence, and we have tried to keep at least a tenuous hand on the arts. Last night, for example, Catalina and I saw a film. It was the first film we'd seen for almost a year, and as we snuggled beneath into the couch with our tea and our blankets, I was reminded of a similar night shortly after Benjamin was born, a time when we were so exhausted that to actually stay up and enjoy ourselves seemed an outrageous gesture of defiance. But though I was delighted to be visited by this nostalgic vision of the New Parent, I realized that there were critical details about that viewing that I couldn't reconstruct. Were we holding him? Was he sleeping? I remember Zoogle sitting in his papasan, facing away from the T.V., but I find it unfathomable that there was ever a time when this rambunctious and restless child could have slept so deeply that the noise from the television wouldn't have woken him.

And suddenly the sheer magnitude of the experience I have forgotten comes crashing in on me. In a flash I remembered that initial two or three months when we would bring him tucked in a ring-sling to the cafŽ, and we would order our coffee with cool urban Žlan and sit down and get to work. Work? With Benjamin? These days the idea is so foreign as to be laughable. I don't remember how he used to look or how he used to sleep or when he used to smile or what noises he used to make. And I realize that at some point there was a definitive transition, a point when he moved from Baby to Boy, and I'm stunned that I never noticed it, that I never fixed in my mind that critical tipping point when our child made the irreversible passage from some ridiculous Carry-On to this willful and wonderful Person that we have on our hands today.

Children are reputed to have a focusing effect: once you've got a child, it's impossible not to start thinking in terms of the rest of your life. Predictably, Benjamin has had this effect on us. I've just finished reading a book entitled "A Place of My Own", a thoughtful meditation on architecture, space, America, fashion, and society by the same guy who told us about Maize Walking in the "Omnivores Dilemma." Michael Pollan wrote the book when he was expecting his first child, and though it chronicles his attempts to design and build a "writing house" in response to the shifting winds of his professional calling, there is a strong sense that this foray into nestcraft is motivated as much to have something to show his son as to have space in which to work.

Both themes, new fatherhood and drifting interests, are dear to me, and already I've got the bug, already I want to be off building something, laying foundations and raising roofs. In some ways a lot of the negative energy surrounding my relation with Pittsburgh last year had more to do with this constructivist impulse than the city itself: now that I've returned after a long, clarifying hiatus in the mountains, I see that the real problem with this city is merely that it's not a place I wish to build in, and that at this particular juncture in my life, building (au sense plus grand du terme) is exactly what I want to be doing.

The realization is healthy. It has normalized my relation with the city: we're friends again. And though I wish dearly that I had some better sense of the future, of either what I wanted to be doing or where I wanted to be doing it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the continuing tug of this new, rambunctious lifeform that seems to have found its way into our household is going to act as a clarifying agent. To be unmoored in the world when time drifts at the slow pace of the Self is one thing, quite another is to be unmoored when time is a raging bundle of curiosity careening at breakneck speed around the corners of the Collective. For better or for worse, Benjamin is now our Secret Sharer, an embedded perceptive intelligence who someday will produce questions that require brave and unapologetic responses. It is my fervent hope that under his tutelage, we will learn to live in such a way that we'll have those answers when we need them.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

One Year's Eve

Call it the cold front passing through, but I have this weird feeling in my bones that tomorrow everything changes. Perhaps I'm wrong, of course. Perhaps only I will change. But this is only logically distinct, not empirically. And either way I'm nervous.

Of course I can't know until tomorrow. But my intuition tells me that there is a basic difference between the father of a newborn and the father of a one-year old, a difference that begins on the level of the wardrobe and extends to the level of ontology. The man in the thick of his child's first year is the canonical New-Parent, gog-eyed, frazzled, sheet-rumpled, while the man with a one-year-old is merely the Parent, rheumy, droopy, groomed. I feel that to cross the threshold of a child's first year within the confines of a stable domestic arrangement is akin to a solemn forswearing of poetic improvidence, that after one year the Simple Idiocies (running off to the French foreign legion, developing an opium habit, turning to cards) lose their appeal and slip out of reach. There remains only the Slog, the long, dippy road to college funds and pension plans.

Make no mistake. The Slog has its charms. But isn't it odd that I find myself downplaying my son's birthday even more than I downplay my own?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Zoogle is learning to juggle. Several months ago I noticed that whenever I'd grab a couple of balls and start weaving a pattern in the air, he would look on attentively, often breaking into smiles or clapping his hands in the uniquely spasmodic way of the pre-toddler. This response was gratifying to me as a father (what luck that one of my obscure talents was actually useful) and totally charming, but otherwise struck me as a perfectly generic expression of enthusiasm, one employed with equal ardor for such varied phenomena as dead leaves, sleeping cats, fruit flies and sofa lint. At no time did these signs give me the sense that the boy was about to embark on a career as an etymologist, say, or as a char-boy.

But by gum he has decided to become a juggler. The other day I decided to interrupt my circus show with a little interactive game of I'll-Give-You-The-Ball-If-You-Give-It-Right-Back, a game Zoogle naturally mistook for You-Pass-the-Ball-and-I'll-Eat-It. Just as I was about to intercept what I thought was a direct pass to the mouth, however, I realized my mistake: Zoogle was merely waving it up and down, hefting it, so to speak, getting a sense for its weight and texture. He did this a couple of times, and on the third or forth heft, he let fly, a beautiful upward arc that landed on the ball of his left foot and rolled to a standstill by my knee. I then gave him two balls, and he did exactly the same, hefting first one, then the other, then throwing them both in quick succession. Plop plop. The balls lay where they had fallen, and after a second or two of close scrutiny, as if to ask himself "did I really do what I think I just did?", he looked up and blossomed into a smile.

So we have another juggler in the family. He can't walk yet, and shows no symptoms of knowing anything about language, and is generally behind in every developmental category except for weight, but I have every reason to believe that I'll be getting ring-side seats to Cirque de Soleil in about 16 years time. The only question at this point is where I can find a few child-safe chainsaws....

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Back in the Burgh

I find it unfathomable that we are actually back in the Burgh. Yes, of course, I bought return tickets several months ago, and yes, of course, I told my chair to expect me. But there was a time there in mid-July, when we were in full Dome stride, scraggly and dirty and juggling 52 visitors and work and child care and an aggressive schedule of local exploration, there for one brief instant all thoughts of the Burgh had vanished, and life was exceptionally good. Pittsburgh had begun to seem like a formal backstory, a sinister hintergrund that existed only to explain the glorious vordergrund that was Life in the Mountains. We accepted it as we once accepted that Nostromo had dabbled in the African diamond trade, and that Marlowe had had dealings with the natives: a sketchy narrative hook, quickly skimmed and dimly remembered in the eager pursuit of the Next Thing.

But for better or for worse, the hintergrund has become the vordergrund, and we are back in the land of smokestacks. Which is actually damn beautiful this time of year, with an almost jungle-like lushness in the local parks and all manner of flowers bursting from the rather too-cultivated window boxes of the local kleinburgers. In our two-month absence a 10 foot tree seems to have sprung up in the driveway, and tomato plants have sprawled so aggressively that we can't find the basement stairs. The oaks are festooned with songbirds, and the white hum of crickets lasts long into the night.

So, barring the flight back, things are off to a good start. (The flight back could not have been worse: whether it was because or in spite of our disconsolate child and 100 pounds of hand luggage, we got stuck in Chicago and didn't pull in until 5 in the morning. Zoogle, needless to say, was delighted, principally because the delay provided an excellent excuse to wreck his already shattered sleep schedule. Last night he ran laps from 11 to 4, and he's wasted no time in breaking out into a full body flaming red stress rash. When do these creatures acquire normally responsive bodies?)

Aside from extinguishing Zoogle-flames, we're settling into what we hope will be a steady and productive routine. Miles to go in the next four months: Catalina needs to finish a chapter and half of her thesis and apply for jobs, while I need to finish at least one paper, apply for a grant, apply for jobs, and teach two or three courses (for which I have made not the slightest preparation.) Add to this the usual ratty social calendar, a teeming self-improvement agenda (yoga, bird-watching, reading: it's all there), and a growing need for downtime, and you have what is clearly an impossible set of ambitions. Our real ambition is to fail gracefully.

It has occurred to me that Zoogles' first birthday is less than two weeks away. The thought impresses itself for two reasons: one, that this means we engendered this creature almost a full two years ago, which is odd, since I have no memory of time moving since then, and two, that this blog, which has been a lovely but time-limited discipline, will need to wind to a close. Which is unfortunate, for where else will I vent my urban spleen?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Big Moon

Big belly moon tonight, waddling through the night like a washed up tenor. And there are bear tracks on the driveway, rustling in the bushes: still, no signs of the red-naped sapsucker. Patience, I tell myself: is it not pleasure enough that he is reputed to exist?

Benzoogle is learning to scream, shattered crystal followed by high, hysterical glass giggles that tinkle lightly on the soul. Wily, wily and fast, that boy: get him naked and he'll wiggle-step right past you before you can say Sneako McFleako.

To bed, to bed: red-eye tomorrow.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Home Stretch

A few weeks ago we were picking up pizza at the Janesville Pizza Factory when a young couple with a baby approached us and said, in effect, "hello, you are a young couple with a baby, let's have dinner together." And so, after some delay to allow the family waters to rise and recede, we did: a mellow meal of split-pea barley soup, tofu-balls and freshbaked pecan sourdough shared on the deck amid the howls of 5-month Zella and the porcine grunts of 11-month Snockelpea, all sharpened and clarified by the clean grassy smell left by an afternoon thunderstorm.

Kindred souls are rare and wonderful things. Strangely, kindred souls in remote locations seem to be no rarer that their counterparts in the heavily populated regions (though they are just as wonderful.) Whether this phenomenon is a reflection on us or on humanity is a question I'm probably not qualified to answer: true, I tend to like the sorts of loners, individualists, do-it-yourselfers, and back-to-the-landers that you find in the dark heart of rural America, but I would hardly say that my friend-circle is limited to this class of people (consider my wife....) Perhaps then there really is some Law of Thermodynamics that governs the distribution of kindred tastes, an aggregate statistics dictating the equidistribution of Like and Dislike.

Whatever it is, these people rocked: they were the kind of people we'd like to be if we had more time to work at it.

It is unfortunate, of course, that we met them the week before we were to leave. Not just because it would have been great to spend more time with them, but also because they could have given us a better sense of what it might be like to try to build a life in these parts. This is a relevant issue, especially now, in the last few days of our sojourn, as we find ourselves spending a little more time each night on the back deck watching the sun go down, trying to soak a little more of the spirit of this place into our bones, our senses, so that when we return to the Burgh, it will still burn within us, and we can think clearly about the Next Step.

A precipitous move to Janesville? On the heels of a summer like this one, the idea does not seem so farfeteched. Still, something holds us back, something that is not about careers or money or networks, but some basic question about how to invest a life, how and when to tie yourself to a chunk of land and a group of people, how to throw down roots and build up homes and etch out identities. None of these questions have easy answers, but seeing other people, about our age and in about our circumstances, seeing them in action struggling to find these these things out: this is a rich and rare discovery, and one I would very much like to have pushed further.

Five more days in the mountains. Then a few days on the coast and we're off, back to the Burgh, 'America's Most Livable City', as Dean Labriola liked to cackle on about before keeling over of that spring-term pneumonia that found such fertile ground on the soot-sodden lungs of a Pittsburgh Lifer. Not a bad place in its way, especially as viewed from far away: it is the city in which Benjamin was conceived, and born, and will turn one in less than a month. It is the city in which, for the first time in my life, I've Professed. It is also the city in which I've discovered my mixed appetite for teaching, and in which my heart hardened to the ugly truths of formal academic productions, and, further afield, in which I finally understood who loses, and how, when the planet gets ripped apart for material and industrial ends, and how economic inequalities degrade a place, and segregation gets so entrenched there's no way to root it out, even when its underlying causes are long dead and the new regime is the sort of mild academic liberalism which one expects to be the total opposite of such a state.

It is important to remember that the world has problems, and those problems need solutions. A part of life is taking care of yourself: thinking about your food sources, your kid's college fund, your retirement. But in the midst of the bosco oscuro, I find it useful to remember that if I can't solve my own problems, perhaps I can solve someone else's. And that to do that, it might be useful to take our new friends' ansatz as paradigm, something along the lines of "hello, you are a humanoid, I am a humanoid, let's have dinner." After all, in less than a month we'll be the prime custodial units of a one year old: if now isn't the time to start thinking about what kind of home, what kind of world we want for that boy, when is?