Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Under Siege

Completely unrelated to the fact that I haven't written on here in months, I've been having nightmares. Not every single night, but almost. When I was a kid, I had them every time I was sick, especially if I had a fever, and it was always the same.
Above me was an unending desert. Not populated by cacti, fragile dry brush, and lizards - just flat sand, as far as the eye could see. In the middle of it all was a round metal table, coated with the sort of glossy white paint that would make the faintest squeak when you rubbed your hands across it. There were four chairs (metal, white), and coming up from the center of the table a large sun umbrella with thick red and white stripes... and under all of this desert, was me, in a tunnel.
I never saw the desert in my dream, but I knew it was there. I only saw the end of the tunnel ahead of me as I was digging toward the table. The horrifying part was that every shovelful of sand got heavier than the last, until one grain of sand on the shovel was too heavy to bear, and I woke up terrified. Why? I have no idea. I get the feeling if I went to therapy they would simply say, "well, why do you think heavy sand is terrifying?", and I'd break down into some terrible mess on the floor.
Anyway, the kids and I were out to dinner, and the subject of nightmares came up. We were talking about them (I told my gripping story of the sand tunnel, and was thoroughly mocked), and Sam told us his - He was trapped in a video game store, when three creatures tried to break in and kill him. There was a guy with really weird eyes (yawn), a guy with two heads and Medusa-like snakes for hair (ok, creepy), and Lyle Lyle Crocodile wearing a top hat and long coat (what?)... and in the dream they finally break in and have a fight to the death. Pretty decent dream, I thought, and Lyle Lyle Crocodile really adds a nice eerie twist.
Last but not least, Lily calmly takes a bite of her burrito and tells us her dream in graphic detail... She is standing on a weathered dock with her friend Paula, overlooking a tangled swamp. A man behind them tells her that he has thrown a golden coin into the water, and if they can find it, they'll win an amazing prize (I can't for the life of me remember what the prize was), so they both jump in. She wades around for a while, pushing her way though the sopping undergrowth, when all of a sudden she sees a pale figure, with a slightly triangular shaped hairless head, and sharp pointed teeth slowly rise out of the water behind Paula. She screams to warn her, and the two of them stumble out of the swamp just ahead of the ghostly figure, and run to the car. They reach the car, lock the doors, and just as I am starting the car to make our getaway, the vampire-toothed figure silently rises up from the back seat, lean toward me, and licks my arm.
I know. Wtf, right? Keep in mind she told us this with a completely straight face. I was pretty freaked out.
Anyway, I've been having nightmares. Not the sand thing, they're mostly about the kids these days. There's always some sort of danger - last night the kids were going to get hit by a train - that happens over and over all night. The only way I can seem to make it stop is if I can wake myself up enough to talk myself out of it... last night I actually sat up in bed and said to myself "the kids are in bed, they can't get hit by a train" over and over until I believed it... some nights it's easy, and some it's like turning free fall into flight. I don't suddenly feel more protective of them that I used to be, so I have no idea where all of this is coming from, but if I'm still having the same nightmares when they're away at college, I'm gonna be a little pissed.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Treachery of Figs

What may seem like a well-oiled summer just plain isn't. I had plans - good plans, even, but as anyone who has spent a summer with their kids will understand, they didn't always end up the way I expected. Not that I'm complaining, because I'm not, it would just be nice to know ahead of time what was going to happen every day.
My summer plans got derailed about ten years ago when we bought this house. It was our first house,  we didn't know better, and as soon as we parked in front of it Sara saw the front porch on our quiet dead-end street and fell in love. Quaint, I think, was how we looked at it. It had major flaws, but it was a house that we thought we could make into our home. Now, of course, she'll tell you she hates it (which isn't entirely true, I hope) because nothing is quite big enough, or new enough, or works well, or looks nice - you get the idea. And strangest of all, it has developed a sort of black hole quality that we never expected. Why? Because no matter the weather, the cleanliness of the house, the time of day, or the mood we're in, people come. In droves. Most of the time, it's great... I loathe people, but love company.
So our door has been open for most of the summer, with kids from the neighborhood streaming in and out, and the occasional adult. They know the dogs, who don't even bother to get up anymore when they come in, they know where the gumball machine is (we've gone through 12 pounds of gumballs this summer), and they know they can stay until I get pissed off at someone. It's an uneasy balance. So aside from all of the random activities to keep the kids busy, I've spent a good amount of time alternating between getting bandages and ice packs for every kid in the neighborhood who gets hurt outside, and yelling at them for one reason or another. It's a love-hate thing. It's amazing and horrible all wrapped up in one big life-sized ball.
Amazing because there are days when I see them growing up right before my eyes, and I'm not sure exactly how to explain that. They make choices, friends, enemies and cupcakes. They organize and form packs. They have drama and elementary school sized life lessons, and there are days when they are so thankful I'm there that it floors me. Floors. Me. Those are the moments that I want to share with someone else so desperately that it feels like my skin is splitting when I can't, and those are the moments I wouldn't have any idea how to share if I could.
And horrible for the same reasons. It's so achingly hard to be the parent that I want to be all the time, to protect them and let them go at the same time, and to hold on to the time that I have. 'Bittersweet', someone said to me while we were talking about this summer, but that doesn't begin to cut it. It's torturous and back breaking work, because every problem they have becomes mine, and somehow they make it worthwhile... and I get the feeling that now that they're older they feel the same way. Some days I'm Bellerophon to them and some days Chimera, and they never know what they're going to get when they wake up. To be fair, it's not that dramatic... usually I'm just a guy.
I have the same problem with figs. I have two little trees in the back yard, and they're no small amount of work. No large amount of work either, but enough to be a welcome distraction. The problem is that it's and endless wait for them to change from little dusty green balls into luxurious purple teardrops, and when they're finally ready I still don't know what to expect. Sometimes they're full of earth and chalk, and other times the skin bursts from the slightest touch of the jagged edge of my teeth and the insides send tiny shivers down to my toes. They're exciting, though, because you never know what you're gonna get. Anyone can grow apples, but it just doesn't seem like any fun.

Friday, May 10, 2013

I Am The Archer, I Am The Sea

I feel like every time I post something here, I have to start by saying "it's been a while since I posted", or something like that... So from now on lets just assume I said that. It'll save me some trouble.
So I'm here. Got nothing, though.
You know how there are times when you have great stories? Hilarious ones, even? I get that a lot. On good days, every conversation leads to something. Work is insane, which helps. The kids are so relentlessly funny that there are times I need to get away from them for a minute so I can get a hold of myself... but it's like my own secret club these days. I haven't written much because I sort of don't want to jinx it. You'll have to come see for yourself.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Entered Into With Abandon

I woke up early. No particular reason, I certainly wasn't thinking about how old I'm getting - I just heard Sara stirring about, and that was it. It was five in the morning, and still dark, but I could see the frost rounding out the corners of the window since the yard lights were on next door. I haven't camped out in the cold in a while, but it's the first thing I thought of. There's something romantic about it, I think - waking up to your breath hovering in front of you, feeling the first bracing wave of air tighten your skin, and the slippery feel of wood smoke as you try to warm up again. It's easier in the summer, days spent outside don't have a sense of urgency attached to them, but in the cold it's all about survival... not to say that I've been at the brink of death outside, because I haven't, but in the cold there is a greater sense of purpose. But there I was, under the edge of the covers that Sara hadn't pulled onto her side yet, dreaming about the cold, and I needed to cook something.
I didn't need to eat something, mind you, just needed to cook it.
It's been a while. I laid there, toes dangling outside the sheets, and tried to figure out how long. I don't remember how it started, but it seems like years that I've been going through the motions, sharpening knives and starting fires because it's what I do. But right then, I was swirling in it again... and it's funny, I don't really think about food, I think about the process of food. I think about the way a really sharp knife holds on to a cutting board when it sinks in a little, like when it holds on to a bone as meat slips away from it. I think about raspberries melting under hot sugar, about the skin on pork bellies cracking under heat. I think about changing my mother's stollen recipe so that I can braid it into an Estonian Kringel. I think about buying salmon so that I can salt cure it with beets and black pepper... and I can't wait till my kids eat mushrooms so that I can carve little intertwined fish into the caps.
I think about the sound of peaches as they pull away from their pits, and the way firm tuna yawns away from the bone when it's trimmed. I think about tying bunches of asparagus with blanched spring onions and how raw honey feels on my cheeks as it dissolves. Crisp potato crusts, mother of pearl caviar spoons, wonton wrappers, lemongrass and pin bones. I dream of making poached eggs not because I want to eat them, but I like the process of a gently placing them into a simmering vortex just right, so the whites shudder from the heat and envelop the yolk in a swaddling blanket. I think of epic culinary failures, grand successes, and everything in between.
Most of all, in the morning air, I am unmanageably happy despite my cold feet, because for the first time in a long time, the work makes sense again. Before anyone is awake I slowly grind coffee beans and tamp them just so, whisk eggs with Dijon and Murray River pink salt, and warm my hands in the griddle smoke... and at work I think of coming home to softened cepes and starting something new.
And for weeks, despite the world's sincere effort to ruin my mood, I spend at least a few minutes of each day filled with absolute joy because of the simplest things... and at the moment, a few minutes is all I need.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Savage Fur

We have squirrels. They aren't flying, red, or black - they're just squirrels. When the kids were younger, they would stop whatever they were doing to shout "squirrel!" every time they saw one. Which, as you might imagine, was every minute or so.
About ten years ago, outside of our old apartment, I saw a dead squirrel in the road, and later a live baby squirrel who had escaped it's nest scrawled across the pine needles next to the road. I went inside, couldn't get the image of it out of my head, and went back outside to collect it in a shoe box. Once it was inside the house, I realized that I had no idea how to raise a baby squirrel, didn't have any tiny clothes and I wasn't lactating squirrel milk - so I was stuck. The idea of taking it back outside again seemed far more cruel than never taking it in to begin with, so the baby squirrel and I sat down at the dining room table and mulled it over.
After looking around a bit, I found (in the yellow pages, of all things, which shows you how long ago it was) an animal shelter about 20 miles away that was foolish enough to accept orphaned squirrels. Problem was, they were closing when I finally got them on the phone, and I had to keep the squirrel overnight. "Pedialyte," they said, "and an eyedropper. That should keep it OK until tomorrow." This is before I had kids, keep in mind. Beer, I had. Leftover pizza. An impressive mustard collection. I also had a mannequin that I painted blue. It had a clock in it's stomach. It was awesome.
Right, the squirrel. So I went to CVS and found some pedialyte, which comes either unflavored or flavored... unfortunately none of the flavors were "Nut" or "Part Of A Knish Some Drunk Guy Left In The Park" so I went with unflavored.
Now, I don't know how many of you have ever tried to feed a baby squirrel pedialyte, and maybe there was a health class video that I missed, but it's pretty hard - I assumed because a glass eyedropper didn't feel like a squirrel nipple and I didn't smell squirrelish, but it could have been anything. They're unbearably cute though - which is the problem. Once you pick up a baby squirrel there isn't really any turning back. They have the beginnings of fur, which is unspoiled by weather and toil. Their paws are still pink and turned inwards, and with each breath their sides shudder and inflate like a paper lantern, and they look completely and utterly helpless. It's a losing battle, picking up a baby squirrel, is what I'm saying.
He lived, in case you're wondering. The next morning I drove to the shelter and dropped him off, and they gave me a case number in case I wanted to call and check on his progress, which I didn't, because he was a squirrel. I did anyway, though. I couldn't help it.
And now we have squirrels. Everywhere. We grow pears, peaches, plums, and figs - and they eat them. We carve pumpkins and they crawl inside to gnaw their way out. They eat our birdseed, make nests in our gutters, chatter back and forth in intense squirrel arguments, and chase each other in tight circles until we let the dogs out. They look in my windows. I'm fairly certain that there has been some squirrel conversation at some point or another, and they heard that I'm the sort of guy who would like to have a shitload of squirrels hanging around. Which I am most certainly not, and I think I'm going to need some sort of plan to get them the hell out of here, like somehow getting a neighbor to rescue a baby squirrel or living inside an electrified dome. I wish there was a way I could tell them that they're slowly driving me mad, because I fear one day I'll be old and wrinkly, and die while shaking my fist at them on the front porch... and they'll mourn my passing by surrounding me with piles of horse chestnuts and tiny grey hairs. And then they'll eat all my pears.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

and playing the role of Anne Sullivan...

Just to keep you up to date, I have this eye thing - apparently, at some point I injured my eye, and since I have dry eyes to begin with, I have whats call a recurring corneal erosion. Basically, that means every once in a while, since my cornea never really healed correctly, it catches on the inside of my eyelid and tears open. Which sucks. A lot.
A couple of weeks ago, at around 5:00 on a Tuesday morning,it happened again. The eye doctor who I have been seeing told me that if it happens again, I should just go right to Wills Eye in Philly instead of coming in because there wasn't much more they could do, although I suspect she was just getting tired of seeing me. So I stewed about it for a while, put on my work clothes, and by 8:00 gave in and decided to go. I made the 8:41 train, and rode into Philly all red eyed and weepy.
It was a relief to be there, to be honest, because eye pain blows, and I just wanted someone to fix it. When I finally got in, the doctor peered into my eyeball for a while, put some eye drops in, and poked at it. "so the reason your doctor told you to come down here," she said, with her two fully functional eyes, "is that the way we treat this is with a pretty short procedure."
"Yaa! I love eye procedures!!! Can you do it without painkillers? Can you use a knife covered in smoked salt and lemon juice?", are a bunch of things I didn't say. It turns out, the plan was to cut off the injured third of my cornea, so that I would grow back a new one instead of trying to have the flap of torn cornea just reattaching itself. Which sounded terrible. To make matters worse, she started pulling all sorts of probes and tweezers out of the drawers. "OK, ready?".
Um, no, not really. I assumed, I guess, that she would have strapped my head down to something, and had a crash cart at the ready. But no, she was just going to cut that baby out of there and go on with her day. "OK, lets chop that be-atch out. I'm meeting my college roommate for Ethiopian food at noon."
She didn't really say that. In my head she did. In my head I was saying a lot of things to her too, the majority of which I won't repeat. Regardless, even though my left, working eye was sort of squinted with a look of scepticism and annoyance, she dove right in. Well, it wasn't really a dive, it was more of a slow calculated poke - and to spare you the spine tingling details, she put in some numbing drops and spent the next ten minutes cutting out a piece of my eye while I got to watch, really, really close up. It just sucked, and sucked doesn't even really cover it, but I can't come up with a better word for it. To add to the joy of it all, when I was done I had to sit in a dark room and wait for another doctor to come and look at it while the numbing drops wore off. Finally, in a new an exhilarating sort of pain that started on the tip of my eye and went all the way down to the tiniest little hairs on my toes, they let me leave.
So I walked out, into the day, and immediately knew I was in trouble. In the dim light of the hospital I was coping pretty well, but out in the world, with the drops worn off, I was an orphaned baby squirrel.
The first thing I noticed, as I walked out of the shaded overhang of the building, was that I was almost completely blind. My right eye was completely useless, and my left eye was dilated and tearing out of sympathy for the other eye - and the sun was so painful I had could only open it the tiniest bit. For a minute, I wasn't entirely sure what to do. I didn't really want to go back in, and I figured I could find my way to the train station since it was only three blocks up and three blocks over... So I casually stretched my hand out, found the side of the building, and started walking. Easy.
As soon as I got to the first intersection, I discovered the flaw in my plan. Walking along a wall was one thing, but when I got to the first intersection I ran out of wall, couldn't see the traffic lights, and couldn't see the oncoming traffic. I could see, however, the butt and legs of a guy in front of me waiting at the intersection, so I just waited for the butt and legs to cross, and figured if I got hit by something, we'd get hit together. This worked for the first few intersections, until I got to the fourth corner and found it empty... I toyed with a few ideas, the most plausible of which was trying to blindly construct a zip line out of the items in my backpack, when I noticed a skirt and some dark blue high heels come into view and walk quickly into the road. I followed, thinking the whole way that whoever this person is must have noticed me keeping my left eye glued onto her ass as we walked into the street together.
I made the six blocks unscathed in about half an hour, but by the time I got to the train station, my right eye was tearing so intensely it ceased being tears and was more like a running faucet, which left a growing wet spot on the front of my shirt (and a couple of strategically placed wet spots on my crotch) and gave me a runny nose. In my limited field of vision, I noticed that the normally indifferent crowd in the Market East station had started to move out of my way as I passed, I assume because I looked like a new brand of crazy they hadn't encountered yet.
Two escalators down, I made it to the track level, and remembered how many trains come through there - mostly because it occurred to me I didn't know what time to get on what train... and I couldn't read the lit up train schedule board, the tiny print of the train schedule, or the lit up screen on my phone. Like I said, baby squirrel. Luckily, there is a service desk down there, so I went up to find out my train info, but couldn't seem to get that out either, because what I said was something along the lines of "Can you tell me when the R5 comes and what track I should get on, because I got a schedule, but I can't read. Well, I can read, but I just can't read right now. I mean, I can always read, but I just had this eye thing and now I can't see. I mean I can see, because I can see you, but I can't read because I can't really see. I can usually read."
Apparently, this sort of thing happens all the time, because although I was rambling on about my extensive reading experience with my runny nose, one mostly closed eye that was letting out a constant stream of tears and the other eye still so completely dilated that for the brief moments when I actually could open it, it looked like you could stare directly into my colon - she seemed completely unfazed. "1:41 on track 4," she said, "you just missed it. The next one is on track 4 at 2:12. Please stop crying on my desk."
Miraculously, I made it on to the train without falling on to the third rail, and found a seat that wasn't someones lap. Someone on the train knew me too, which was nice, because at some point a six foot tall blur said to me "Joe! Nice to see you, it's been a long time!". "You too, buddy," I said, "we should totally get together, give me a call..." So far, I haven't gotten that call, so they may or may not have been talking to me.
But I made it home, successfully found the right key and opened the door, and here I am. It's better, I'm a little blurry, but that'll change. I have a new appreciation for pirates, Sandy Duncan, Peter Falk and Sammy Davis, Jr. though. And cyclops.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lone Callery Pear

I've written and erased this post so many times, I feel like there are dozens of old posts shining through this one like weary faces of pentimenti. I don't know why I can't get it out, or if I'll hit the post button before I go to bed, or this will be just another layer, but here goes.
What I'm afraid of writing is what I see every year - hollow, trite expressions of grief, or silence, or nothing. What I want to do is write something down so that Sam and Lily know who I was, and what I felt... but I'm afraid, every time I start this, that it'll never be quite right. More than afraid. I know. It will never be right.
What they're already learning in school is what happened, from 8:46 on... and some day I'll tell them where I was and what I was doing, what I saw and felt, and everything they won't write down in a textbook.
What I want them to know, if they do read this years from now, is that I was sitting in a dark grey hand-me-down desk chair with a faded tweed seat when I disconnected from our dial-up internet service and the phone started ringing. I wheeled the chair from our spare bedroom in the southeast corner of our second floor apartment into the living room without getting up, and turned the TV on when there was only one tower left standing, and watched, all the while thinking "I could have sworn there were two", until the other one fell and I understood. I took calls, mostly from Sara trying to find a way home; and made them, trying to find everyone else. Sara walked toward home, and found a bus that covered most of the 18 miles between here and there, and after a while, everyone I was looking for made it home too. The TV was on and I didn't turn it off for days and days, I don't know why. I watched all day, and kept it on while I slept, left it on when I went out of the house and saw every unedited bit.
We left the house on the 12th, went to Valley Forge park under eerily quiet skies, and climbed to the top of Mount Joy without seeing another soul. I wrote in the trail book at the top with a blue ball point pen that had lost it's top, in small enough print to leave years of empty space for others to fill, and we went home.
What they should know, is that even though I found everyone, I was broken. I had a freedom and safety in my heart that I have never felt since, and the intensity with which I watch over them was made, in part, by that day. Eleven years have gone by since then, we've had two kids and watched them grow before our eyes. I've lost friends and dogs, spent money, gotten drunk, made coffee, taken long meaningless walks, and made life changing decisions. But still, I dread this anniversary with all my heart because I can't shake the feeling of helplessness that creeps back into me, and I'm not sure it will ever leave. So I wanted to write this to get it out of my system, and so they know. Hopefully they'll be a time when I can find a way to write something a little better than this, but for now, this will have to do.
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