Saturday, November 25, 2006

The 2-for-1 Special

If there's something that I feel really good about, it's the amount of stuff that Liam, Kalian and I have gotten out and done and seen since we got to Cambridge. Over the summer, that impulse was driven by necessity. The apartment was just too small to hold us all day. On the other had, there is a huge amount of stress in venturing out when it's me and the two of them.

Liam wants to run in every direction at once. And his sensory issues can make it hard for him to hear me, or respond, especially if it's a loud place like a museum. Then there's Kalian, who because she is diaper free, I have to ask if she has to go pee-pee every five minutes, or drag her to a bathroom. And that can be a challenge with Liam, who can take a long time to persuade to do anything. Throw in the fact that we're in a strange place, don't know our way around, and the parking/driving is crazy, and there are a number of reasons never to leave the house.

Still, we got in a good groove, and got out just about everyday. Post Labor Day, there's less pressure to do that. Liam is in preschool five mornings; Kalian is at her day care coop three mornings. So that leaves just the weekends as a total blank slate for me to fill. And so I've been taking them on a fewer outings on our own this fall, in part to cut myself some slack.

But Friday I was feeling restless. It was a beautiful day, unlike Thanksgiving. Temperatures in the low 50s. Sunny. No wind. So I threw Liam and Kalian in the bike trailer and rode over to the MIT Tech Museum. It's a small museum, and there was almost no one there. But there was plenty to interest both kiddies, and it was one of those days that was almost perfect. Almost.

We spent most of the morning in a robot exhibit, which had several robots on display and video clips explaining their history. Who knows how much Liam really understood, but he was totally transfixed. He was asking lots of questions. And laughing hysterically at some of the robot videos. I'll have to post some audio of this, because he's developed quite a belly laugh. And then he sort of took over the room, introducing himself to everyone, and explaining robots to them. It's really great that despite all his struggles to communicate, he is still generally such a happy and social guy.

We moved into the next room which was filled with "kinetic sculptures." I forget the artist's name, but he makes a series of small machines which are fairly complex yet elegant, and perform one task over and over. For example, there was one called oil machine which was simply two cogs and a bike chain that turned a small scoop around. The structure was in a pool of oil. When the scoop got to the bottom, it would fill with oil, and when it got to the top, it would dump the oil over itself, keeping the whole machine lubricated. I think Liam watched this for about 20 minutes.

After lunch, we walked over to another MIT building where they were holding their annual "Friday After Thanksgiving" event. Talk about major nerd fest. Basically, it's a semi-competitive event where a bunch of people build "chain reaction" devices out of everything from Legos to wood to any household items they can grab. Each of these is a kind of variation on the game "Mousetrap." The marble rolls down a trench and knocks over a block, which starts another marble rolling, which trips a wire, etc. Except there might be 30 different events in each chain reaction.

Anyways, it was highly entertaining. Even better, though, they had a bunch of chain reaction type stuff on the side for kids to play with. Liam spent an hour lining up dozens of dominoes and then knocking them over.

It was too much fun, and we stayed way too long. I had to drag Liam kicking and screaming out of the place. As I tried to get him and Kalian into the bike trailer, everything fell apart. Kalian peed in her pants. And Liam jumped on a nearby John Deere ATV and wouldn't respond even after I called his name a dozen times. I began tapping him on his bike helmet to get his attention, Liam lost his balance and smacked his face on the dashboard and got a bloody nose. I felt horrible and Liam, in a very meek voice, just looked at me later and said, "Daddy, don't make me cry" as a tear fell down his cheek. Ow. It seems like no matter how perfect the day is, it's hard to get all the way through without one breakdown. I wonder if any parent ever gets to that point?

In any case, they were asleep when I got home and I let them nap for a bit. It gets dark so early here that rousing them from late naps can take an hour. After Kalian went to bed, the rest of us had movie night, and watched Toy Story. A nice ending to an almost perfect day.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Today was an all too rare family day for us. Jen set aside her work and, of course, had no classes. Although she was feeling under the weather, she had suggested that we drive down to Plymouth to attend the "National Day Of Mourning." For those not familiar, it's a remembrance held every Thanksgiving by Native Americans to recognize what was done to them, and their continued struggles to preserve their culture.

It seemed appropriate and interesting, and so we loaded the kiddies in the car to head down to Plymouth, about a 40 minute drive on a good day. Except it wasn't a good day. It was miserable day. Rain poured down in sheets. I had to keep the car under 40 MPH. And along the way, I suffered one of those inexplicable brain glitches that switches off my common sense processor. Had it been functioning correctly, my brain would have told me: "Stop. This is a mistake. It's freezing rain outside. Turn around. Go home. Watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV."

Instead, we pressed on, carrying a week's worth of clothes that still proved totally inappropriate. If nothing else, I got a stiff lesson that I need to do more to prepare for the coming winter. I can't complain about the weather, because it's been mild. But this weekend, I'm going to target or REI or someplace and buying every piece of water-proof, winterized piece of clothing they have.

When we arrived in Plymouth, the rain was coming down horizontal. Kalian gave us a look of horror. Liam, clinging to his plastic firefighter helmet for dear life, kept whimpering, "I want to go home." Naturally, we arrived 90 minutes before the ceremony started. We found the only coffee shop open in town and huddled there for some warm drinks, and a sanity check. The placed closed at noon, so we grabbed the kiddies, bundled up, and dashed three blocks over for the ceremony overlooking Plymouth Rock. We stayed about 2 minutes, ran back to the car, and drove three blocks to the First Calvary Church where the procession would march for some speeches.

I must admit, though I'm not the political one in the family, the speeches were powerful. And there was no small irony to the location. Several speakers noted that the Church was the one built by the Pilgrims. And indeed, the giant stained glass window behind the Native American speakers was a portrait of several Pilgrims. We sat, drenched, for about 90 minutes, listening to several rousing speeches. Then we packed the kids back in the car and drove 45 miles and a universe away, to a friend's house in Newton.

Actually, it was the house where he grew up. And for those who haven't been to Newton, its one of the more upscale neighborhoods in the Boston area. His parents' house was a spectacular maze of rooms that required a map. They served us a wonderful meal and we had time to catch up with friends, and meet make some new acquaintances. In all, a lovely end to difficult day.

Now comes the long weekend. Three days, and no Jen. She'll be working. No playdates scheduled. Crummy weather. In my role as childhood cruise director, I now must scramble to fill my children's day, less they kill each other.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Girl's (and boy) Night Out

Since assuming the mantle of stay at home dad back in July, I've had ample time to contemplate the intertwined issues of gender and parenthood. Being the rare stay at home dad has meant countless situations where I'm the sole male in the room. Back in the summer, when I was desperately trying to find playmates for Liam and Kalian, I'd be sizing up all the nannies and moms on the playground for potential compatibility, but not in the usual way. The only attributes I cared about was age of kid, schedule, nap time, etc. Not the usual measurements.

Jen and I used to half-kid about me cruising the playgrounds "picking up" nannies and moms, with the goal of scoring a playdate. There is a movie out at the moment called "Little Children," that apparently revolves around the politics of moms on the playgrounds and stars Kate Winslet. Though it's supposed to be excellent, I also suspect that it hits a little too close to home (takes place in a nearby suburb, in fact), and so it may take awhile for me to get around to seeing it.

Here's a sample of the Boston Globe review:

Much of Todd Field's choice new comic drama ``Little Children " concerns an affair between two young married people languishing in a mostly white Massachusetts suburb. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a harried stay-at-home mom. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is her extremely handsome paternal counterpart. (She's a failed academic. He can't pass the bar exam.) They meet on a playground, after a trio of Brad-brained mothers dares Sarah to get his phone number.

The timing is good since he's feeling increasingly worthless at home. His knockout wife (Jennifer Connelly) makes successful documentaries and favors their son over Brad.

What ``Little Children" understands so well, and so poignantly, is a kind of parental existentialism that hits 30- somethings with kids: How does having children make you such a less interesting adult?

Yikes. Wife makes documentaries? Less interesting adult? Uh, that's not likely to be on the list for date night anytime soon.

Of course, the whole past six months have found me often being the lone male in a sea of moms. Jen's grad program had a summer program of events for spouses, since their partners were likely to be grinding away16 hours a day, seven days a week. They would rent a Greyhound-type bus twice a week and takes us on various outings to places like the aquarium, the kids' museums, Boston Common, etc. Inevitably, it was a busload of moms --- and me, trying to wrangle a rowdy 3.5 year old and a 14-month-old, diaper-free terrorista. And there I was, complaining about all the cooking and cleaning I was doing, how my spouse didn't shoulder enough of the load with the kids. I felt so June Cleaver.

Even when I go to Music Together classes with Kalian and they sing the insidious "Hello, Everybody" song, they sing, "Hello to the mommies, so glad to see you..." and then "Hello, to the daddy..." (always singular), and the whole room turns, and looks right at me, and waves that goofy wave. And I grimace, weakly.

I bring this up now because I just started a new book club started by spouses of people in Jen's programs. And of course, when I say spouses, I mean wives. As one of the prospective remembers remarked to me, "It'll be interesting that one of spouses in the book club will be a man." Hmm. Are we really such a rare and curious species? (Yes, according to Census data. But more on that another time).

In any case, we read "Disgrace" by J.M. Coetzee, a slim novel that tries to be a metaphor for the anxieties facing whites in post-Apartheid South Africa. Though I've no doubt that white South Africans have had a difficult time adjusting, it's still hard to drum up much sympathy for their existential crisis. Even more troubling, in my mind, is that the second-half turns on a white lesbian living in the countryside who gets gang-raped by a roving gang of black marauders. Even if such things happen in that land, I couldn't help but see it as a vaguely racist fixation, especially considering the author is a recent Nobel Prize winner.

But such things are great fodder for a lively Book Club. So I trotted over for a rare night out. I should mention, actually, that it's a combo Book/Movie Club. The movie this time was "The Departed." Jen let me off the leash early and I went and saw it at a matinee, and then went straight to Book/Movie Club. Of the movie, I'll just say that it's gruesome, suspenseful, and astonishing. I highly recommend it.

So I arrived at the home of our host, Hilary, a British transplant, who was in the middle of whipping up a duck in the oven, chard, and potatoes for dinner. I immediately felt guilty for having been so slack in preparing a string of lame dinners lately, and vowed to get back to making such elaborate home cooked meals each night (which I did, for quite awhile.) There were Three other women in attendance, two who were journalists, and one a mystery novelist. And all at least several years older than me.

We had wonderful evening, and as I predicted, a lively discussion. We all disliked the book for different reasons. But since this was the first book I had read since coming to Cambridge, I would have talked about it for hours. All the folks were wonderful, even if I couldn't shake my continued self-consciousness about being guy.

It was a fun night, but since I got home late, no blog entry last night. Instead, I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. doing my weekly freelance piece for the Mercury News. When I get my act together, I'll post a links, but for now, here's the latest one:

Seagate insiders reap millions

Monday, November 20, 2006

Wanted: Exorcist

Kalian is really starting to piss me off.

Okay, I know that sounds harsh. And I'm tempted to hit the delete key. But hear me out. Her looks can be deceiving. Parents who don't know her very well, especially random strangers, are constantly coming up to me and saying how cute, how mellow, how delightful she is. She is surely all sweetness and light. They only see this:

But they don't know what I know. And that is, at some point in the past several weeks, Kalian has become possessed by Satan. What these parents don't see are the kind of things that one can only see when you spend about 12 hours a day with another human being, especially one who is 18 months old. For instance, Kalian's favorite game? She likes to climb onto the kitchen table, open the pepper shaker, and shake pepper all over the fruit bowl. The other day, she crawled onto the computer table and I found her stabbing the flat screen computer monitor with a pen, leaving ink marks that now make it difficult to read as I type this. And then there was the afternoon when, rather than falling asleep in her crib, she managed to reach over to a bookshelf, grab a box of art supplies, locate the jar of glitter, and dump it all over herself and the crib.

And these parents don't see the pure spite gene that has grown dominant. Like when I spend 15 minutes attempting to get her to sit on the potty because I know she has to poop or pee. She resists, screaming, until I let her go, and them marches straight into the hall where she pivots, looks straight at me, and pees on the floor.

Out, Satan!

The demonic forces took control early this morning. After mercifully sleeping until almost 6 a.m., Kalian wandered out, Jen commanded that I follow, and I made my feeble attempts to get her on the potty. No luck. Then the screaming started. That was followed by my desperate attempts to figure out what she wanted, and what could mollify her. The screaming woke up Liam, who first began whining for some water, and then launched an all out assault on Kalian, who began to scream even louder, which made Liam scream, which made me scream at them...And then, as I was attempting to insert my head into the blender and was reaching for the puree button, the screaming stopped. And the two little cherubs were playing happily, for the moment. And I pulled back from the abyss.

What followed was our usual hectic Monday morning. We drove across town to take Liam to his occupational therapy appointment (I'll blog more about his later). And when that's done, we dash up the street to drop Kalian off at her day care coop (also, more later). And then it's back across town to take Liam to pre-school, Cambridge-Ellis (which certainly deserves its own blog entry). Suffice to say, it's an elite institution that costs more than the tuition I paid for my freshman year at Duke University. Liam has struggled to fit in socially, in part because he's with a slightly older group of kids who have been together, in some cases, for three years.

We walked in this morning, about 45 minutes late. I observed a stark gender divide, something that's not uncommon, and I can't decide whether it's something to do with this classroom, or if this is just what happens when they turn four. Anyway, all the girls had gravitated to the craft table. All the boys had circled around another table where they were playing with fire trucks, one of Liam's absolute favorite past times. (He was a firefighter for Halloween.) So Liam grabbed a fire truck and joined them at the table. Most of the boys picked up their trucks and walked away...And my heart broke just a little for Liam.

Don't get me wrong, many of these boys are wonderful kids, and we've had some great playdates with them (the culture of playdates is worth a whole epic blog on its own). But still, it was all very Lord of the Flies. I guided Liam over to rejoin them, and the teacher followed to explain about letting everyone participate. She said all the right things, but still, I wanted to somehow make it all right and wasn't sure how.

Then came my 2.5 hours of free time. Unfortunately, a big chunk of my free time has been spent dealing with another Liam issue. In recent weeks, he has developed a profound stutter. As many of you know, he's been getting speech therapy for two years and has made great strides, and has been incredibly positive about it. The stutter is fairly new. Out of nowhere, he could no longer produce sounds at time. His lips would purse, his face would grimace, his face would flush, and he would contort his body, attempting with every ounce of energy to produce a sound, sometimes with no luck.

This all began to happen just as the speech therapist assigned by Cambridge schools had to go on a personal leave. So the timing couldn't have been worse. With no replacement in sight, I've been trying to research our options, calling private therapists, scheduling doctor's appointments, vision screening, bloodwork, hearing tests. Today, I finally connected with a woman who is a renowned stuttering expert (or dysfluency, as it's formally called) and set up an evaluation for him next month. In the meantime, we're trying to reduce his stress, and just be calm and patient. While many therapists have noted that it's not unusual for kids to develop so-called developmental stutters, this appears to be quite a bit more serious, and therefore, potentially ominous for him. So we are hoping that's not the case.

Lest I leave you on a dreary note, I picked up Kalian at noon and we brought home one of her friends from Coop, Jacqueline, to watch as a favor to her parents. This was Kalian's first playdate, as such, and after the two stopped fighting over the baby dolls, and the babydoll stroller, they settled in and had quite a bit of fun. Jacqueline (about 26 months old) made herself right at home by peeling off her clothes and asking for a bath. Since this is Kalian's other favorite activity (she sometimes like three baths a day), I obliged. And as we sat in the bathroom and I watched them splash around joyfully, I thought, that I too could see that cute, sweet little urchin that is my daughter. Or so I'm told.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Long time, no blog

Well, I'm fairly ashamed to acknowledge that it's been over two months since I sat down, and put fingers to keyboard, to give everyone an update on our life in Cambridge 02139. For those of you who have been sitting at your keyboard, hitting the refresh key on your browser for months on end, I apologize. I know my silence potentially leaves you to assume any one of many things.

1. Geez, Chris must be ungodly busy.
2. Hmmm, maybe they've forgotten about the rest of us.
3. Chris must be one lazy bastard.

In fact, the correct answer is mostly number 1, sprinkled with a dash of number 3. But it's definitely not 2.

Following Labor Day, our lives did an 180 degree turn. During the summer, Liam, Kalian and I had seven days a week to fill on our own. We did it, survived, and managed to have fun without killing each other.

In September, we suddenly found our days overscheduled, as it were. Liam started preschool 5 days a week. Kalian and I started at a Day Care coop three days. Jen was in class or studying seven days a week. And I was doing a bit of freelancing for my paper back home. Throw in cooking, cleaning, shopping and, well, it was quite hectic. Somehow, the blog kept taking a back seat.

So now I find myself with a novel's worth of stories to tell and not sure where to begin. I guess I'll start with the most recent events and try to fill you in on the background through some upcoming (and more regular posts).

I just spent this weekend attending a three-day conference on narrative non-fiction writing. That's reporter lingo for writing true stories in the style of a novel, or short story. This marked for my first, and perhaps only, venture into doing something related to my professional life during my year in the 02139. So if nothing else, it was a kind of vacation because I've barely seen the kids for three days. And I feel not an ounce of guilt in saying of my time apart from thing 1 and thing 2...It Rocked!

Beyond that, the conference was incredibly inspiring. It reminded my why I got into the business, why I love it so, and what is truly possible in terms of high-impact, emotional storytelling. As such, I'm bubbling with ideas, some of which I'll share with you in the coming weeks to get your reactions and feedback. Of course, it may be months before I really have the opportunity to do meaningful reporting and writing. But in the meantime, I've vowed to try to get back to writing a bit every day, and that means tending a bit more to this blog and using it tell what for me is the most important of all stories: our family's.