March 28, 2009

“Watch this,” my wife says as dinner winds up.

Our younger son is repeating “Deh, deh” and making the signs for down and please.  His brother, just two years older, steps over, scooches back the high chair, and works at the belt clips.  Some fidgeting ensues, to which he comically reassures, “Not yet, just a minute.”  Amazingly it works: the little one stills, watching his brother’s progress with a patient, bemused smile.  These roles – rehearsed, I presume, over that day’s breakfast and lunch – are played eagerly.

When the belt does fall loose the younger boy tilts, torso careening forward.  His arms wrap around his brother’s neck; big brother grabs him tight around the chest.  Their faces mash into each other’s shirts, making me wonder how the older boy can see as his spine arches back to drag his brother’s girth from the seat.  Eighteen months of boy is a serious load for a three-and-a-half-year-old.  Other children lift my younger son, but they’re five, six.  Three and a half is still little – little and determined.

* * *

Flash.  I am on Isla de Cabras, Puerto Rico.  Grass, waves, gangly coconut trees.  I’m fifteen.  Read the rest of this entry »

have i seen Jesus?

March 7, 2009

“Daddy, have I seen Jesus?”

The question emerges from the back seat darkness.  It’s late, way past bedtime.  One son, sixteen months, already is conked on the trip home from Grannie’s.  The radio’s off, and after several minutes of highway hum I realize my other son, three and a half years, has not, after all, been chasing his brother to Neverland.  He’s been ruminating.

For years he’s heard about Jesus; suddenly it occurs to him that he’s never actually met the Fellow.  Recently he’s been asking all his acquaintances if they know each other.  Has Grannie met Kylie?  Has Kylie met Sam?  Has Sam met Aunt Kate?  How fascinating to realize kaleidoscope of faces and names in his life isn’t a radial wheel, himself at center – it’s a webwork of possible cross-connection.  Some people he hasn’t met, like his mother’s mother’s mother, or his aunt’s boss’s wife.  Still, they’re not mentioned often.  Somehow there’s a person everyone else seems to know, someone he himself has never met. Read the rest of this entry »

the vine

November 25, 2008

Sixty feet high, the concrete cylinder had been built into the side of a small mountain ridge.  Along the front rose a convenient set of metal rungs.

We climbed them, of course.  There wasn’t even a fence – not that that could have kept a group of bored middle school Army brats from the only adrenaline-pumping obstacle on base.  That water tower was our Mount Everest.

Engineers had snuggled it into the ridge’s embrace so that a rocky slope wrapped up and around toward the back.  Between tower and ridge gaped a trench ten feet wide.  This afforded an unusual experience: climb the rungs, cross the top, and ogle low-growing ferns and tree trunks just there, mere feet away … with a vertical abyss in between.

Read the rest of this entry »

we are the ones

November 2, 2008

They’re pleasant folks, the ones you meet on hiking trails. My wife and I know this from years of small talk with strangers in national parks. The outdoors tends to air people out, freshen them up. Either that, or hikers simply are the salt of the earth.

Imagine our astonishment, then, when we entered a gift shop at Big Bend National Park and heard venom. “He’s so bleeping stupid,” someone was cursing. “What a dumb-bleep. I can’t believe our country is run by such a bleeping dumb-bleep.”

Scowling, a couple in their mid-thirties glared at the cable TV mounted near the postcards. On the screen, President Bush was addressing the nation. They were too loud to listen. I snuck a peek at their faces. Creased. Hostile. The combined image – lone face speaking calmly to others who hissed vulgarities – reminded me of the Two Minutes Hate scene from Orwell’s 1984.

Only a leader as incompetent and destructive as Bush could interrupt the tranquil environs of a national park to elicit such incivility. Right?

Read the rest of this entry »

reactions may vary

April 26, 2008

This isn’t how I’d want to hear it.

A pass out of class, summoned mysteriously to the media center.

Corralled toward tables with dozens of classmates, whispering, searching each others’ eyes for a clue.

In their upright clothes, adults — administrators, counselors, absolute strangers — stand around the perimeter, somber yet chummy: the public school system crisis team in full force, assembled and ready.

Waiting for “everyone” (whoever that is) to arrive, wondering at the common thread between us all.

Then the cleared throat, the single sheet of plain white photocopy stock, the authoritative recital:

Read the rest of this entry »


March 18, 2008

Noon, the kitchen lights off.  He sits in the dim blue air chewing orange slices, talking about his new bicycle helmet, thumping his palms on the table and bounce-kicking in the garish plastic booster he’s too old for but still enjoys. He’s backlit, the box window tracing his shape in a gentle blue that nestles in his curls. Rattling off lines from bedtime books, his round eyes look to mine for approval. At two and a half he’s shed the last signs of the toddler – he is all boy. He asks for more chocolate milk, shoulders in their rugby shirt squared to face me, neck lifted, anticipating. Yesterday’s hike shows in the sun splashed across his cheeks. He’s no copy of me: chestnut hair is lighter than mine, not as tangled; forehead wider, bolder; eyes Egyptian-pinched. And as he holds his cup with head tilted, awaiting my answer, it occurs to me, watching this little person as I finish the dishes in the sink: if I had the power to custom-craft a child, I would make him exactly like this. Curious, rambunctious, sincere. A bit ruddy, a bit tender. And absolutely perfect.

it’s not easy

January 28, 2008

In the middle of naptime he screams. One knee is twisted between two crib rails, driving him to panic. Must’ve been playing instead of sleeping.

As my wife disentangles him, she gets a whiff of another stealth activity. He is surrounded by corroborating evidence: a smear across his chest, clawmarks on his sheet, makeup applied to the face of his stuffed cow. What arrived in his diaper is now everywhere.

I am summoned. Together we adults impress upon our child the seriousness of this infraction. Do not play with poopy. Do not even touch it. We strip him of his clothes and make a pile of blankets, sheets and Mr. Cow. Read the rest of this entry »

snow rebellion

January 20, 2008

Fluffy, quiet, all afternoon the flakes fell gently. He’d wanted to walk among them, to breathe in the world’s white transfiguration. By the time I organized myself, however, he’d already moved on.

“I want to play trains,” he intoned.

“Come on, it’s snow!” I coaxed. “Let’s get your boots on. We’ll have a great time.”

Cornered, his eyes sunk, lower lip retracted. “I want to play trains.” Read the rest of this entry »

through his eyes

January 5, 2008

I wish I could see life through my son’s eyes.

In his infancy we placed him on a colorful playmat with overhead toys. I shoved my face inside to feel what it was like.

I’ve positioned my head at his level in the carseat to figure out how much he sees as we drive (more than I expected). I’ve checked the view of a ceiling fan from the floor below (a steady circular motion, not the swoop-swoop-swooping oval from adult height). I’ve crouched to look straight up into the lighted mobile above his swing (brighter, more colorful than apparent from anywhere but the seat).

I’ve even used the excuse of “retrieving my son” to crawl through the multi-storied plastic gym at Chick-Fil-A (hey, they didn’t have those things when I grew up). Read the rest of this entry »


December 21, 2007

“Read to me?” he asked, patting the couch.

“Sure!”  I plunked down and took the book from his lap.

“No!”  He ripped the book from my hands. “I read it!”

By this he meant he wanted to hold the book and turn the pages himself while I read aloud. Good for him, taking steps toward independent reading.

Still, that didn’t justify the ferocity of his retrieval, so I shot him a look: brow raised, chin lowered, glaring over the rim of my glasses – a look that said, “Well!”

… and there he was, shooting a look right back: brow raised, chin lowered, glaring out of the tops of his eye sockets – a look that said, “That’ll show you!”

My wife, witness to this expressional face-off, burst out laughing. So did I. And so did he.

That particular expression is a regular in my repertoire, but I never knew what it looked like from the outside until my son aimed it right back at me.

jumping Jesus

December 15, 2007

Things got a little weird when we unpacked our nativity scene.

Two and a half years old, our oldest showed little response as we unwrapped Mary and Joseph. But when baby Jesus emerged, his entire face brightened: “Baby Jesus. Baby Jesus!”  He snatched the figurine and cradled it in both palms, scrutinizing. So this was the Jesus person he’d heard so much about. I wondered what he was thinking, how this image of an infant Christ was reshaping earlier impressions.

Within minutes he stood by the couch, raising and lowering the figurine in quick jerks. “Baby Jesus jumping. Baby Jesus jumping on the couch!”  Our nativity had transformed into an action figure playset. Read the rest of this entry »

the second greatest story ever told

November 6, 2007

My older son came along to pick up a Papa John’s pizza. On the drive home it occurred to me that a two-year-old might not understand the nature of this little transaction, so I spelled it out for him in simple terms.

“Again?” he asked.

“You want to hear it again?” I asked.  “Alright.”  As I repeated the pizza-ordering process he echoed every line, enthusiasm mounting until we reached the climax.

“Again?” he asked.

By the time we were home he could voice the entire thing with me fluently:

This is how it works: when you get hungry you say, “Hmm, I think I want a pizza.”  So you call the store and say, “Please make me a pizza.”  And the store makes you a pizza with bread, tomatoes and cheese – that’s a pizza! Then you drive to the store and say, “Where’s my pizza?”  They say, “Here it is!”  So you give them money, and they give you the pizza. Then you drive home and you eat it!

What about this story delighted him so much? I suspect it was the first lengthy how-to narrative he’d ever heard. It spelled out a single process from start to finish, a process he had experienced it with me.

How astounding it must be, hearing words paint the first full story in your mind.

unspoken rules

October 20, 2007

He was so curious about our 3D tic-tac-toe set, I figured why not. How complicated is tic-tac-toe?


Forget strategy; forget even the concept of winning. As we played, my son gave me a step-by-step education on the numerous possibilities for invalidating a game.

It turns out board games require a host of principles we take for granted: Read the rest of this entry »

hi back

September 3, 2007

I don’t get people who don’t say hi back.

I’m no moron – I don’t walk through life saying hi to everyone I pass. But in some situations acknowledging a person’s presence, even if I don’t intend to start a conversation, just makes sense. Like passing on a wilderness trail. Or seeing a visitor waiting in the lobby while I’m waiting there too. Or noticing someone setting up nearby at the beach.

“Hi.” It’s a simple enough word, a modest recognition of a fellow life traveler. Somehow it’s also too much to ask. Not that I say hi in order to hear it back – it’s just that choosing not to respond is utterly foreign to me. I guess women have an excuse: they don’t know I’m not a stalker. But men?

How do they manage it? – looking right at me as they walk past, leaving my greeting hanging there in midair between us like an unreturned handshake. I say hi to everyone who first says it to me. It’s a reflex. Resisting it would take conscious effort. Read the rest of this entry »

getting a student’s attention

August 20, 2007

Ralph’s first essay of the year left something to be desired.

Your sentences are full of comma splices (CS), I wrote. The revision is due next week. Please stop by after school before then so we can work on fixing them.

The class was Honors English. Ralph was a junior, and by that point he really shouldn’t have been mashing sentences together with commas as if the period had never been invented. My remark and the many “CS” circles on his paper should have prompted him to accept my help.

Every day that week I waited for Ralph after school. He never showed. Read the rest of this entry »