Thursday, June 30, 2011

My Poor Baby (Redux)

The saga of Stasha, our broken down old lady of a Toyota Corolla, continues. She's been in the transmission shop since Monday, and I've been going back and forth with a mechanic named John and his faceless, nameless "general manager" about what it was going to take to get my baby back. I didn't like the estimate he came up with, because it was around the same amount as the car would be worth to sell, so I told him to put the transmission back together and I would tow it out. Well, good ole “Buy American” John started explaining how impossible that would be.

“I could put the parts in a box, but you won’t be able to pull the car. You’ll need to put it on a flatbed rig, and even boxing it up you’re looking at a charge of about one thousand….etc, etc.”

I called my friend who was an attorney in a previous incarnation in the hopes he might have dealt with something like this, and also to bring out the hard-ass New Yorker response in him, so that I could, subsequently bring it out in myself. In the end, he didn’t know much about the legality, but he did manage to get me good and fired up.

Which, in Dan terms, amounted to a carefully scripted bottom line. Because John had come back with a lower “wholesale” price, I smelled an opportunity to negotiate. “Here’s what it comes down to for me, John: I want you to rebuild my transmission, so that it is in the exact same condition it was when the car was brought to you. I don’t intend to pay for anything other than the labor, at the rate you’ve already quoted me. Or….”

(I paused for effect, and I could tell by his silence that he was right there with me, ready to bargain.)

“…. I could pay you $X to do the job, because that’s really all I can pay.”

“I’ll speak to the general manager – he’s right here but he’s on the phone. I’ll call you back.”

Long story short, John accepted the price, nearly half of his original quote. I’m proud of standing my ground, and the experience has been informative – I’ll need to learn more about the next car I buy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

When You Read This Blog: A Letter to My Sons

Dear Jackson and Diego:

Someday your mother will sit you down with all these random writings, some of them about you, some of them not, and you'll be asked to read them, think about them, and decide what they mean to you. It's only fair then that I should provide the following disclaimer as a tool that may (or may not) aid you in your attempts to make sense of my intentions:

First, and most importantly, let me tell you both that I love you more than I ever thought I'd be able to love anything or anyone (which is saying a lot, because your grandfather, my dad, did give me -- as I've mentioned repeatedly in these posts -- a tremendous capacity to love). You have always meant, and will always mean, the world to me. I hope you know that by now.

As you will learn for yourselves, however, being a father is no joke. It's really, really hard. As a dad, you constantly question yourself: Am I doing this right? Am I being fair? Am I being the model of the kind of person I'd like my children to be?

My hope is that in spite of all we've surely been through together by the time you're reading this, you're able to think of these times we've shared fondly, much in the way I think of my own father, even as I'm writing this, more than eleven years after his passing. I hope my parenting has helped you along the way up to this point, and I hope I've given you enough of everything you need.

As for the "navel gazing" in general, (the stuff that's not about you) let me tell you a story. One day, back when I was in college, I was hanging out with Mignon and her then-boyfriend. I was on a navel-gazing roll. "Did you ever wonder why...this?" "Have you ever stopped to wonder why...that?"

Finally, Mignon's boyfriend interrupted me, and said, "Jeez, Dan. Do ever wonder who wonders about all that? Let's just eat some pizza."

So my message to you is this: Don't stop wondering about things, even if people tell you to shut up. Wondering is what takes life from being bearable to being an adventure. Don't settle for bearable.

I don't want to keep you too long from whatever it is you're doing that makes you feel strong and passionate about your lives. I'm sure it's amazing stuff, because you're both amazing young men.

I love you, and don't forget I'm with you always.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

My Poor Baby

Yes, I am one of those annoying people who has a name for his car. Our 2002 Corolla – the first major purchase my wife and I ever made together – is called “Stasha.” I’m not sure I remember exactly where that name comes from. I believe we met someone In Provincetown, Massachusetts when we were vacationing there who had a dog named Stasha. We liked the name so much we decided to give it to our brand new car.

I even talk to my car; I say hello to her when I haven’t seen her for a while. When I return from two or three days of business travel, and I find her in the long-term parking lot at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, I imagine she’s wagging her tail, as happy to see me as I am to see her.

“Hey, Stasha,” I say, “how’s my girl?”

The name stuck, and even Jackson, our six year old, occasionally uses the name to refer to the Corolla. Now that Stasha has taken sick, I feel a little foolish, thinking about a car as though it were a pet. I should know about all these parts they’re saying she will need in order to recuperate, but I don’t. I’ve allowed myself to be ignorant of such things, depending on the experts not to steer me wrong.

Now they’re telling me it may cost as much to repair Stasha as I could get by selling her, if not more. We’ll look around for better prices, but something tells me we may be facing a difficult decision some time soon – to either part with a tremendous sum of money, or to depart from our beloved Stasha.

I’m surprised at how emotional the thought of losing my car is to me. I’ve never been a “car guy.” Maybe it’s more about what she represents than anything else, being the first “joint venture” Jeanette and I ever embarked upon. (We’ve since launched several others: a coop, two children, another car and a house.)

For a while there I harbored fantasies about giving Diego the keys to Stasha when he was old enough. That’s a na├»ve thought for someone who wouldn’t be able to distinguish a carburetor from a transmission. If I’m not willing to study up on cars and their maintenance, I have no reason to believe my cars will last any longer than they normally would.

I’m not ready to say good-bye to Stasha just yet, and who knows, maybe I won’t have to. She’s been a great car, having shuttled my wife to the hospital for the births of both my sons. She rode on the back of a car carrier all the way to Texas from New York City.

When that farewell comes, I’ll be sorry to say goodbye.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Dreaded Two-Hour Power Nap

It always seems like a good idea at the time. Let the six year-old fall asleep in the back of the car on the way home from school. Ahh, sweet silence!

Not silence, exactly; it's not ever really silent when you've got two kids. However there's a different tone to an eight year-old's discourse. They're already starting to form an idea of what it means to be sophisticated or cool, and it doesn't usually involve speaking at high decibel levels. If he's excited enough about something, Diego, the 8 year-old, will speak quickly, without taking a breath; still, it's not the same intense volume at which Jackson speaks when he's excited.

It's not just about loudness, either. There's a manic intensity that Jackson has that Diego is too cool to possess. Again, I'm not sure if this is a function of age, personality or both. Diego has become a bit more emotionally predictable now that he's a little older, so there's hope. I guess.

The saying "Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul" comes to mind. He just looks so sweet, so peaceful, with his eyes closed, breathing gently, his mouth slightly agape. I lift him out of the car, whispering "Come to Daddy," as he grabs a hold around my neck. Placing him gently on the bed, I tiptoe out into the rest of the house, and wonder how long he'll be down. I know there's a good chance I may regret this, yet I do it, for the short-term gains.

Diego and I go out and run a couple of errands, and when we get home, at around 8, I look around. No Jackson. I look at Jeanette and can feel the expression of dread come over my face.

"He isn't..."

"Still asleep? Yep."

Oh God help us. God help us all.

I'm exaggerating, of course. Jackson was actually great company, jumping into the game of Uno Diego and I were playing. Jackson's energy level rose after eating dinner, and rose, and rose, and rose. The music came on and the dancing began. Poor Diego tried to hang, but eventually made his way into his bed and went to sleep before a story, and just as the dance party was beginning. Jackson and Jeanette cut the rug, while Diego snored and I struggled to keep my eyes open.

The party lines are being drawn in this family, and the message is clear to me. I'll need to start napping if I'm ever going to keep up.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

From the Big Rock to Wii: Batman Then and Now

This morning, in the midst of my half-sleep, I heard a child call out a familiar question, one that made me think I must be dreaming.

“Do you want to be Batman or Robin?”

Suddenly I was back in my yard on Hartford Lane, playing on “the Big Rock,” which doesn’t look so big any more, by the way. It was a large sandstone boulder that the builders probably took one look at and said, “Yeah, we’re not moving that sucker.”

Good thing for us, too, because that rock became our Batcave, Batmobile, Batcopter, and USS Enterprise (I’ve already disclosed the fact that I’m an old-school trekkie) all rolled into one. My brother and I often negotiated who would be Batman and who would be his rather lame teenage sidekick, Robin. The “Boy Wonder.” Sheesh. The argument usually ended well for me and poorly for my brother, because age won out.

“Mike, who’s older, Batman or Robin?” I would ask, crafting my argument.

“Batman,” Mike answered grudgingly. He saw where this was going.

“And who’s older, me or you?”

“You, but –“

And that usually did it; like the immutable laws of physics (whatever that is), there’s no arguing the simple logic of boys.

It was different this morning, however. As it turned out I wasn’t dreaming of my past, or my brother Mike, or the Big Rock. My children were in the living room, awake before I was, as is often the case on the weekends, and they were firing up the Wii, getting ready to play Lego Batman. Like me, Diego has used the age argument to ensure that he gets to “be” Batman. Usually. Unlike my brother, however, Jackson has figured out how to manipulate the situation to his advantage. Jackson knows that if he acts like he doesn’t want to play long enough, Diego will crack, and ask the question I heard this morning.

“Do you want to be Batman or Robin?”

Eventually, one of them relents and agrees to be Batman’s youthful ward, and they get to the business of fighting the various members of the Gallery of Rogues – Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Mr. Freeze, and Poison Ivy. They squeal and laugh and scream and bark orders at each other, generally just waking me up in a whole variety of vocal ways. I like that the game has them problem-solving together, as a team. Okay, so they’re not outside, using their imaginations the way Mike and I were. And maybe they should be. But they’re together and happy and I can’t help but smile as I listen to their filial back and forth.

Besides, I’m not sure what they’d think of the Big Rock. I believe in my heart they’d love it just as much as I did. I do harbor a fear, however, that they might look at it and say, “Um, duh, Dad. This is so not the Batmobile. Hand me Mommy’s iPhone and I’ll pull it up for you on Google Images, so you can see what it really looks like.”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Children of the World: A Step on Stage, A Step Away from Mommy and Daddy

Yesterday morning J and I attended Diego and Jackson's weekly theatre showcase at their summer camp. Jackson was in a couple of “group stories” – The Enormous Turnip and Stone Soup. He was more than a little aware of his audience, and having his best friend Travis there with him put him over the edge as far as his excitement level was concerned. But that was fine. He did extremely well and was happy the whole time, his eyes wide and constantly darting back to us, to make sure we were paying attention to what he was doing.

And we were. As proud parents, how could we not? It’s an astounding thing to see your child up there “on the stage,” so to speak, because it’s another indication, another reminder that your children do not, ultimately, belong to you. Like all of us, they are children of the world. It’s a jarring moment to see your child up there, in front of an audience, so vulnerable and so potentially impactful.

Diego – often referred to as “the shy one” – was up there too. His group did something called “Yoga Simon Says,” in which they struck yoga poses they had learned. Diego’s face, covered with a beaming smile, betrayed the fun he was having. He also performed, in a dance number, to Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair, a song that is big with the “tween” set and that is, doggone it, I’m just gonna say it, downright catchy.

I shot video of the entire thing on my Blackberry, and was just beside myself with pride in my boy. People make assumptions about Diego because of how shy he appears to be. I know from my own experience, however, that being shy doesn’t necessarily preclude having an interest in performance. There’s something that happens when you get on stage, or on a set, that allows you to step out of yourself and into a whole different mindset.

The thing about Diego’s brand of shyness that is important for me to keep in mind is that it’s backed by high intelligence. He is always watching and always thinking. It will become more and more essential as he gets older to ask him to share what’s on his mind. He won’t always agree to it, but it will be crucial to keep on asking. J often remarks on how similar Diego is to how she was as a child. When she tells me the stories of how she felt, I often wish I could go back and ask her what she was thinking and feeling. That’s often all a quiet, sensitive child needs.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Before They Grossed Me Out: Little Creatures, Then and Now

The sun has come up on Shadowglen and the grackles have begun the grim daily task of ingesting those Junebugs too slow to have taken cover. Last night, when J and I were enjoying a nightcap on our back patio, the Junebugs pestered us relentlessly, so they’re getting what my mother, in her down-home way, would have called their “come-uppance.”

The last time I wrote about insects was in an earlier post, when I complained, in true Suburban Squire Style, about my ant problem. Come to think of it, I’ve also written about my New York roach issues. I once wrote a poem that describes a man whose one-bedroom apartment has somehow become infested with flies. One of my best pieces of narrative was the opening of a short story that describes a woman who has just had an exquisite shower. She steps into her living room, feeling refreshed, when a cockroach skitters across the floor, taps her foot, and skitters away again. She sighs before removing her towel and bathrobe and getting right back into the shower.

Does this periodic return to the subject of bugs add up to an obsession? Could be. It might not come as a surprise to some who knew me as a child. Obsession is too weak a word to describe how I felt about the insect world as a kid. It wasn’t the exasperated state I seem to communicate in my writing. Instead, it was a real fascination – a scientific curiosity with what the little buggers were up to, moment to moment, day to day. It wasn’t unusual to find me or my buddy Richie Mahoney squatting down over an anthill, or with our faces peering, just inches from a spider web.

We were drawn by the combat of insects, often pitting ants and beetles against one another. Red ant versus black was one of our favorite match-ups, because despite being considerably smaller than the black carpenter ants, red ants were a whole lot tougher, a dynamic we could relate to as children. We were accustomed to being underestimated.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl was one of my favorite books. I loved the idea that a boy could fully enter the lives and stories of bugs. I even had dreams about shrinking down and hanging out with insects myself.

Of my own two children, Jackson is the one who is more like me when it comes to bugs and animals. He’s likely to seek out interesting creatures under rocks and tree stumps. If he sees a gecko, for example, he won’t just remark on it, he’ll go ahead and get it, so that he can turn it around in his hands and inspect it.

Jeanette and Diego fall into the other camp; they’re grossed out and would generally prefer that the world’s wildlife stick to themselves and leave us humans alone.

Not that Diego lacks the scientist’s curious mind, however. Two of his favorite books contain graphic close-up photos, of snakes and reptiles and of insects, respectively.

I often wonder what old Richie Mahoney is up to these days. My hope is that he’s a dad like me, observing the behavior of his children, continuously comparing their experiences to what was a pretty idyllic childhood, looking back on it. Maybe, as I write this, he’s crouching beside a son or daughter, their faces just inches away from a spider web, their eyes wide, as they wait for the action to unfold.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Magic Carpet Ride is Now Handheld

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself with a little bit of time between the end of my work day and when my ride would come pick me up (we’re in one car now – another story for another post), so I decided to get on my cyber-surfboard and go. I checked Facebook, Linked In, and Twitter. I clicked the comments button on my blog’s dashboard.

Eventually I surfed on over to Amazon to put a couple of recently recommended book titles on my wish list. As I searched, I noticed a sidebar that offered a free Kindle app for handheld devices. Sure enough, they had one for my model of Blackberry, so I went ahead and got it. I opened the Stieg Larsson book I’ve been reading off and on, and I have to say it was much easier to read than I thought it would be – visually, I mean. The print size was fine, and the clicking was okay, too.

I looked back up at my computer screen and it was then that I made the Big Discovery. There, on the left-hand side of the Kindle page was a link to a Listmania post of the 35 best free Kindle books. These days, the word “free” is looking even better than usual, so I clicked.

I can recall looking into the free book downloads when I first received the device, a generous birthday gift from my spouse in the early days of “handheld readers,” or whatever they’re called, and being vaguely dismayed by the quality of what I found. There were a lot of authors I’d never heard of, along with a few obscure classics.

Now, as I find I’m the last to learn, many classic works of literature are considered “public domain,” and are therefore available FOR FREE on Kindle.

The feeling I had, once it sunk in that there really was NO CATCH, was that a storage unit had been bequeathed to me. I started clicking, and when I was done, here’s what I ended up with:

White Fang and Call of the Wild by Jack London

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version

The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci

The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Needless to say, I won’t read all of them in my lifetime – not even close. But how wonderful to have all these great writings literally at my fingertips!

The list I’ve downloaded reads like a syllabus from one of my lit courses at Syracuse. I always picked up that handout on the first day with such a mix of excitement and trepidation. What is this professor going to expect of me this semester? More importantly, what kinds of journeys will I take as I read these new books?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Old-School Navel Gazer, Meet Middle-Aged Journal Scribbler

The taste of the hot, black coffee at the Super Donut is particularly hard for me to take this morning, for some reason. A nurse breezes in and buys what she needs, rushing right back out again, her blue scrubs flashing in my peripheral vision, as she pulls a cloud of citrus-sweet perfume out the door behind her. She climbs into her Ford F150 and disappears to start her day somewhere.

The slender young man wearing a road work vest steps in like a gunfighter through the swinging saloon doors, surveying his donut and kolache options. For those of you unfamiliar with what a kolache is, here you go. (And you’re welcome.) His hair is cropped short like mine, and our eyes meet for a moment. I can almost hear the three-note whistle from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, along with spurs jangling with each careful footstep.

I believe my line would be “Can I help you with somethin’ young feller?” or “Keep starin’ at me like that and I’m gonna start thinkin’ yer SWEET on me.”

Instead I smile and say “Morning.”

“Good morning, sir,” he answers, causing me to realize that what I’d perceived as a scowl was actually the cock-eyed stare of someone who, like me, got up earlier than he would have liked to this morning.

Next one in is the sheriff, who I’ve seen before, rolling up in his unmarked car, a sedan with tiny silver hubcaps that screams “undercover police vehicle.” He reminds me of the actor Charles S. Dutton, bald and Buddha-like. I smile and say “good morning” as he enters. He gives me the serious lawman nod, before handing his empty thermos to the girl behind the counter.

A pretty young woman of about twenty-five comes in next, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail that dazzles in its precision. She’s wearing suburban clothing – a navy tennis shirt, short safari shorts, and the impossibly white sneakers that make American tourists stand out in the crowded squares of European capitals. She asks if they have smoked sausage kolaches; apparently they don’t.

Later, a young man in a shiny red Toyota 4x4 pulls up. His cream-colored guayabera shirt is perfectly ironed and compliments his chestnut skin tone so well I can’t help but think he’d planned it. He’s got an ID badge hanging from a lanyard, making me think he probably works at Applied Materials, a few miles west of here. His cologne is a bit cloying for my taste. There’s something about his look and style that makes me want to bring back the pretty young woman with the ponytail and introduce the two of them. They’d make a lovely pair.

When I was a younger man and I would see guys of a certain age (let’s just call it “middle aged,” for the sake of argument) sitting in a public place, scribbling in journal books or tablets, my first thought tended to be “Crazy.” Then I’d watch them, their eyes darting like butterflies in a flowerbed, and I’d wonder what they were writing. Sometimes I’d even crane my neck – in a subway car, say – to get a better look.

Now I know, because I have become the middle-aged journal scribbler. They were writing descriptions of me, along with the other people they saw, all the while playing matchmaker for those of us who were young and pretty, just as they had been, way back when.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where I Work: Taking Great Pride in "Cubicle World"

I returned to Cubicle World yesterday, after yet another three-day absence. This time it was due to two off-site training days and a day off, instead of the monthly flight to Dallas. In fact, during the summer months my travel diminishes, as one might expect, and I spend more time in Cubicle World -- one of the sadder realities of working in the service of schools (as opposed to in the schools themselves).

Don't get me wrong: I love where I work. The Education Service Center at Region 13 is, I believe, considered the flagship of the twenty regional service centers across the state. Because it sits so close to the seat of government, and houses a number of statewide initiatives, ESC 13 needs to be a cut above the rest, which we are.

The first thing one notices about our building is its physical surroundings. Nestled in the rolling hills of northeast Austin, the Service Center commands an imperial post, like a modern bastion, quite literally, of stalwart dedication to improving the educational lives of the young people of our state.

There’s a great deal of institutional pride in our organization and it hits all levels. The maintenance staff keeps the place spotless. The cafeteria and catering services are top-notch. Our Executive Director, Dr. Terry Smith, takes every opportunity to impress upon us the importance of customer service, often sharing positive words that have been passed on to him by a satisfied client.

In the local education world of Central Texas, there’s a certain amount of “cache” one holds in being able to say they work at Region 13. There’s a sense of having arrived at a good place, both figuratively and literally. I’m personally proud of being associated with the organization. It tells me I’ve been paying attention over the course of my career, and that what I’ve learned is being put to good, helpful use.

The cubicle thing, in and of itself, is not ideal, obviously. It’s nice to have a place to hang my proverbial hat in between my monthly flights to Big D. I don’t do well with the Open Concept, however, and as much as I enjoy and understand the emphasis on having access to my colleagues, I’m an easily distracted individual. I wouldn’t say I eavesdrop exactly (although being a writer does have my ears in a constant state of surveillance for an original line), but I do overhear every phone conversation and cross-cubicle chat in my immediate vicinity.

For this reason I do best sitting at my computer, my “iBuds” in my ears, plugged into my iTunes or iPod, minding my own iBusiness, and working my way down my To-Do list as best I can.

Occasionally, when the Fanny Fatigue sets in, I walk over to the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and look out over the impressive vista. I can, literally, almost see my home from there (nod to Sarah Palin), and watch for a moment as the hawks and buzzards circle below me, and above the impressive stand of trees that stretch for acres. I’m not quite certain how I landed here, or how long it will last, but I smile and take a breath of appreciation, before getting back to the task at hand.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Case for Fathers Day: My Annual, 24-Hour Rise to the Throne

Father’s Day was a good one, with the kind of pampering and relaxation I have come to look forward to at this stage of the game. Amazing to think that I’ve now played the role for over eight years. As my sister says, I got to “practice” on Levi for a few years before that, when they moved to Brooklyn, and she’s right, to a point. I did get to try out my material, see what got laughs and what didn’t. I got to do the swagger thing. Most importantly, I had to try and understand what the world looks like to a young boy, and what a child needs from the adults around him.

It’s no easy task doing this day in and day out, year after year, which is why I believe it is entirely appropriate that there be a day dedicated each year to celebrating the fathers. Let time stop for us dads once a year, I say. Why not?

Yesterday started the way it was meant to. Diego pushed open the door at around 8 or so with a plate of food – some waffles, eggs and fruit, arranged nicely. As a treat, Jeanette prepared cafe con leche, heavy on the milk and sugar, the way I love -- and, for dietary reasons, no longer take -- my morning coffee. Jackson followed with a lovely card the three of them had made with the heading, “My Favorite Thing About Daddy…” with their answers scattered about in vivid crayon. I can't decide if my favorite answer is "He feeds us" or "He likes Kings of Leon." Jeanette even sketched a lovely portrait of me, looking dapper in a yellow shirt and green tie, and I thanked her, not only for making me skinny, but giving me hair to boot. She has me asking, "Honey, have you seen my wallet." (I have no idea what that's all about. You'll have to ask her...)

We hustled into the car later, so that I could make my 11:30 massage appointment. The therapist did a good job, but having my face – full of sinus infection – shoved down onto the face cushion was a distraction and made it impossible for me to reach my usual level of relaxation I attain during a massage. (Snoring and drooling.)

Afterwards, we had brunch at a place we’d never been – a solid Tex-Mex joint called Santa Rita’s. It was a moment of appreciation for me: unlike New York, here one can just walk into a brunch on a holiday (a “second-tier” holiday, granted, but still) in a good restaurant and be seated immediately. And with parking! We discover new places all the time, and continue to be pleased by the vast majority of them.

Later we went over to look after our friends’ four kids, so that they could go out for dinner. I was mostly a spectator, due to my Seasonal Immunity, so I watched Rory McIlroy storm to victory in the U.S. Open, occasionally stepping in to lend a hand. But the kids were generally easy, and a good time was, as they say, had by all.

We finished off the day on our couch, watching the Coen Brothers’ re-make of True Grit, which was brilliant. I always love the feel of their films and this didn’t disappoint. Jeff Bridges gives a raw, muscular performance in his re-imagination of what had been a John Wayne icon. My hat’s off to him. Such a perfect ending to a day fit for a king.

Today, I descended back down to my rightful place in the real world. It was sweet while it lasted, and I look forward to the next one. In all seriousness, I'm humbled by the love I receive from the beautiful individuals I'm blessed to call my family, and I thank them, not only for a spectacular day, but for the other 364 of them each year, as well.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Farther Horizons: When Will They Yearn Past Our Fences?

Sitting in my back yard, watching my two boys play catch, the summer heat begins to make itself known, even at 7:45 in the morning. The heat has been monumental lately, hitting 100 degrees and beyond, day after day, and we’re only in mid June.

There’s a nice breeze, though, and it’s a bit on the cloudy side, so that it feels good to be out here with my two little progenies, playing, talking, laughing – the sounds of wind chimes, air conditioners, birds and dogs punctuating our interactions.

This is one of the reasons we moved from Brooklyn – to give our kids more access to the outdoors, and I’m glad of that. This is not to say, however, that Brooklyn had any lack of green space. In fact, we were blessed to have found a coop just half a block away from Prospect Park, one of the world’s loveliest. But with big city parks comes an element of unpredictability and danger, so that having children cannot help but bring that fear up for a parent.

Parks here are so much more sparsely peopled; even Zilker, at its most crowded, feels less packed than Prospect, or Central, do.

I don’t mean to sound like one of those crazies who are afraid of people, nor would I want to expose my children to that kind of thinking. But the reality is that New York is densely populated, and its mental health facilities are too few. As a result, one has to be aware, at all times, of who’s around. This is probably true at Zilker, too, but not like the New York parks – not to the same extent.

Certainly the back yard is a nice, if tiny, alternative, allowing the kids to be outside in the summer sun, playing with their toys and having a good time.

I wonder when the time will come that Jackson and Diego decide they can no longer be contained by our fences. It’s inevitable; I still recall how much I loved our back yard on Hartford Lane and how exciting it felt to burrow under our back fence and into the Hartford Woods.

Our fences have nothing on the other side of them but other yards here in Manor. I can imagine a day when my kids decide to get on their bikes and venture into the Shadowglenn golf course, at which point we get a call from Diego, who is being detained by the groundskeeper.

Or driving along Route 290 and noticing my children walking or riding along the side. Our yard can only contain them for so long. Soon they will be looking for farther horizons.

Friday, June 17, 2011

When I Grow Up

So I've finally figured it out: I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a working novelist who teaches English at a university. I want an office with my photos on the wall and my books on the shelves. I want to meet with students one-on-one and discuss their work with them, recommending books and stories as I go.

I want to teach a creative writing workshop where we carefully critique each student's story or novel excerpt, collaboratively getting to the best way to express exactly what they're trying to say, in a way only they can say it.

I want a semester on-semester off schedule, so that I can write full time when I'm not teaching. I want my novels to be translated into many languages, so that people all around the world, from a wide variety of cultures, can agree about my unique insights into the human psyche.

In short, when I grow up, I want to be a writer. When I think about it, this is all I've ever wanted to be.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Fascination with the Count

No, not Dracula, or the guy from Sesame Street – my fascination is, and has been – off and on – for about the past 30 years or so, with Count Leo Tolstoy. I was introduced to his work my freshman year at Syracuse, in a World Literature class taught by Tobias Wolff. Toby’s enthusiasm for Tolstoy was overt and infectious. Like all good teachers, he made me want to understand what it was that got him so worked up about this writer.

I don’t remember which was first, but I know we read two of Tolstoy’s works in that class – the novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Master and Man. Both were concerned with the theme of death, in very different ways. My inclination is to re-tell both stories, but I’d need to read them again, in order to do the Count any justice.

Suffice it to say, something in his work, and in the little I’ve been able to learn about the man himself, spoke to me on a profound level. His writing connected me with characters from another century, on the other side of the world. They couldn’t have been more different from me, and yet, we were somehow the same. In their relationships with each other, they were exploring the same things I was trying to puzzle through, like how we do or don’t connect, and what it means to love, and be loved.

As a student of arts and sciences, I was able to hone in on empathy and compassion, and the meaning of being a member of the human race. I got steeped in this at Syracuse, not only in my literature classes, but in my side study of theatre, as well. My stepmother, the late Judy Karnes-Fuchs, was fond of saying the world was split up into poets and politicians, and that my father and I were both poets. I think she said this because she thought of herself as one of the politicians, though I think she was more of a poet than she realized.

At any rate, my mother, the late Carol Runyan Fuchs, too, was a poet (quite literally), and I followed in the footsteps of my parents. My liberalism mirrors theirs pretty closely, in that it is unapologetic and based squarely in a sort of democratic, secular humanism. Put in its simplest terms, I return to the imperfect haiku I wrote as a boy of seven: “A dog is made of/love. And so are/you. And so is a bird.”

Tolstoy’s stories are all about love. I finally took on one of his great novels, Anna Karenina, the summer after coming out of the longest relationship of my life up to that point – about eight years. I did some traveling with some friends to Portugal, the U.K. and Rome. I had the book along and devoured it. The novel changed me as I read it; walking with the characters through their lives, I felt as if I was living with them. When I closed the book, I couldn’t talk for a while. I just had to sit quiet for a time.

I’m sorry to say I can’t explain my reaction any better than this. There’s something that happens when you read something that takes you out of your own reality. My mother compared it to listening to a piece of classical music. Toby Wolff described the first time he’d read Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral as a feeling of levitating above the couch where he'd just finished reading it. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but reading Anna Karenina did give me a sense of connectedness to the family of man, to the human race, that must be close to what people refer to as “spiritual.”

Someday, after my novels have been translated into many languages, read and loved by the multitudes, I’ll take my trip to Yasnaya Polyana, just outside Moscow, and I’ll walk the trails of the Count’s youth, ending at his gravesite. I’ll place a pebble on the tombstone and thank him, before returning home, to my own Clear Meadow, where I hope to find my wife, two boys and their beautiful families waiting for me with open arms and happy hearts.