Talking Death


I’m having the full-on discussion about death with the girls while we take a short cut through an old grave yard back to the beach house. Six and four and they already want to talk about it. Amazing! Where do I start? Thing 2 has been asking my age for 6 straight days and I can’t figure out why.  My mom died a few years ago and her image flashes up on the screen saver several times a day during breakfast.  Maybe that’s it.  Thing 2 never met her, so Thing 1 tells her what she looked like in person.   Thing 2 asks me if I have grandmothers.  I say no.  I had ‘em but their gone. She says, “I only have one”.  It’s true.  My mom died two months before she was born.  We start to read the names on the weathered tombstones.  All old sounding names like, Wyatt, Fern and Elmore. What were people thinking then? Maybe the east coast in the mid 1800’s was so puritanical that people were given names designed to discourage any sexual contact. Thing 1 asks if people are buried underneath. I tell her yes but the worms got to them a long time ago and only the bones remain. She laughs.  She finds the word “bones” funny for some reason. “Where do the people go?”, she asks.  I tell her what I think, that they go into the collective consciousness like Carl Jung talked about.  Only I don’t describe it like that.  I say they float up and wait for a new body to go into.  She wants to know if my mom got eaten by worms.  I tell her she was cremated.  This opens a new can of worms.  Towards the end of this discussion she wants to be cremated.  She can’t get her head around the worms.  An inevitable topic comes up.  “When are you going to die?”.  I feel sightly offended that she didn’t include my wife but she’s younger than me. I reassure her that I’ll be around for a long time but also not to take too long getting married.  She wants to marry a dolphin right now.  I hope its just a phase.  She’s curious about the ashes and what people do with them.  It reminds me of a running family joke we had growing up.  My dad must have started it but I opted in somewhere along the line because it made my mom laugh every time we told it.  We’d threaten to scatter her ashes over the grounds of this crappy apt complex we lived in when we first moved to Houston.  My mom hated that place.  It was called the Los Brazos apartments, which means “the river” I think.  I remember a mosquito infested ditch.  My mom was also notoriously frugal and was into dented canned food, so we would also tell her she was getting a dented coffin when she kicked the bucket.  She actually respected the sentiment.  In the end she chose cremation which is nice because it gives grievers many interesting ceremonial options. I think we spread her ashes out in her garden in the end. Thing 2 asks where bubbles go after they pop. I tell her they float to the ground like rain.  We start walking back home and the topic turns to pre-school politics.

The Seven Stages of Four-Year-Old Grief

Riding home in the HOV lane on the Long Island Expressway when Things 2 drops a sock on the floorboard (just realized that the acronym for the Long Island Expressway is “LIE”…probably shouldn’t point that out as I’m writing a semi-factual blog).  Anyway, who knows what cocktail of fatigue, sugar or random four-year-old-ness, can combine at any time to create the demon that’s now appearing in my rear view.  Maybe the fresh weekend memories of sweeping vistas, expansive beaches and rolling green fields is too much to bear from her present incarceration and the confines of the five point restraining system.  Maybe she’s again testing the bounds of our authority while we’re all captive and at her mercy.  Whatever it is, she MUST have that sock back!  We decide to draw the line quickly and tell her that screaming at a pitch that would make a glacier shatter is not going to result in a positive outcome for this sock situation. I can’t believe it’s all come to this… and for a sock. She continues to scream. We decide not to acknowledge this behavior and institute a kind of mobile time out.  We instruct Thing 1 to look away and ignore the chaos next door.  My wife turns up the volume of the “Acoustic Cafe” XM channel we’re trying to groove on.  No amount of decibel increase is going to render Sting’s a cappella version of  “Message in a Bottle” audible.  We change to the all Pearl Jam channel.  Now Thing 2’s screaming sounds oddly synched up with Eddie Vetter’s voice and we have a full Cat-Choke-A-Palooza on our hands.  We can’t hear ourselves think, let alone have a conversation about the best course of action. We try to chill things down a bit and switch to the Classic Country channel.  Doesn’t make a dent. She’s blown that gasket that little kids can and the bad genie is out of the bottle.  She turns a bright shade of red that’s so intense looking, I wonder if she’ll ever return to her normal pasty British looking pallor.  Her blond curly hair is disheveled and sits long over what could easily be eyes that have rolled backwards into her head.  She kicks the back of my seat like a deadly rodeo bull fighting desperately to escape the pen, throw off her rider and stomp him to dead.  Our Chevy Cruze is not the easiest car to do the mobile timeout either.  The ads may say “unexpected luxury” but the car’s compact interior says, “stuck in an elevator with ten fat people”.  When we drove it into the Hamptons this weekend, I thought I was going to get pulled over for “driving without pretension.”
After an hour of relentlessness with no end in sight, my nerves are shot and I have a bad case of road rage. I do respect her stamina though. I would have completely lost my voice by now.  As we inch closer to the Empire State Building on the horizon, I notice a familiar pattern Thing 2 might be moving through. It’s her version of the Seven Stages of Grief and it’s playing out something like this:

1. Shock and Denial: Shock that we would actually challenge her and denial of our authority
2. Pain and Guilt: Pain of whacking her heel repeatedly on the middle console next to  my seat.  No real guilt but maybe the disappointment of not actually connecting her heel with my arm.
3. Anger and Bargaining: Anger goes without saying. Bargaining comes with the phases she squeezing out between sobs. “Daddy, excuse me.  Why aren’t you talking to me? I’ll quit kicking your seat if you talk to me.”
4. Depression and Loneliness:  This is supposed to be a period of reflection during which she should realizes the full impact of the loss.  In this case the loss could be the sock and the loneliness of being without it.
5. Upward turn:  This is when she should be able to adjust to the loss. I see signs of this when she tells the girl taking our toll at the Midtown Tunnel that she lost her sock.

6. Reconstruction:  Her face has returned to it’s original color.
7. Acceptance:  She removes the other sock and asks me to rub her feet.

We get home put them to bed and watch the 60 Minutes tribute to Mike Wallace, another cantankerous but lovable character.

The Innocence of Pretentiousness

We’re all in the car heading out for our first weekend at the new house.  Our SUV is a comfy cocoon of materialism.  Thing 1 and Thing 2 are playing Angry Birds and Cut the Rope on separate iPads in the back seat and traffic is moving well. My wife is about levitate out of her seat from the excitement of having an escape from the sites and smells of lower Manhattan.  During the summer it’s almost sacrilege to be spotted in city on the weekend. It’s is like hanging out on campus during spring break week. We are joining a time honored migration, where Manhattanites,  like frenzied salmon, return upstream to the spawning ground.  Better termed the “wanting grounds”, this is the place where every latte, spin class, fresh bagel, tee time, beach parking sticker and lawn care professional are hotly contested for and relaxation is a euphemism for in-close social knife fighting. Thing 2 asks, “How long to the Hamptons.”  I cringe that a four-year-old even knows the “H-word”.  I’ve tried to train them to speak with a tone of understatement about the new pad by saying “we’re going to the beach house” or “we’re headed out east this weekend” My wife, being from Australia, sees no logic in not being specific about where we’re actually going. “Quit bloody confusing them!  When we go to visit your dad in Houston we don’t say we’re headed out west do we?”  I hate it when she’s right like that.  It’s that same feeling I get when she orders for me at a restaurant.  When she does that, I usually contradict her right in front of the waiter and rashly order something I don’t want just to retain my dignity.  Then I sit and mope quietly over a nice plate of  lima beans and boiled tripe.

Wait! I feel a list coming on!

Things that help men retain their manhood:
1. Alway pee standing up no matter who it wakes up at 2am
2.Come home after wife has gone to bed at least once a quarter
3. Follow some type of sport other than bowling or ice skating
4. Always sleep if wife is driving
5. Negotiate all monetary terms with nanny
6. Always keep a $100 bill in your wallet
7.  Never let your wife put her arm around your shoulder like a dude at a dinner party
8. Never learn which of your wife’s undergarments can go in the dyer
9.  Never call your wife from work more than three times in one day.

And finally…. Never take period pain medication in a pinch if you can’t find Tylenol

Back to the kids.  We pull up at the house and take them straight to the back yard.  It’s like dropping two domesticated chimps into the middle of the Congo.  Thing 1 puts her hands on the grass as if it’s moon dust.  Thing 2 cries as a quail darts out from some native growth on the perimeter.  These girls have what I call “an irrational fear of nature”.  They can hail a cab on the westside highway and probably know the street value of an ounce of weed in Time Square but expose them to the tiniest bug and they totally wig out.  I’ve got my hands full here.  I sit down on the deck and google “best camping spots in Long Island.”

It Hurts to Say Goodbye

4:45am.  I hear the faint guitar strumming of that generic Apple ring tone coming from the kitchen where my iphone is plugged in.  My wife signals disapproval without even waking up. This is a skill that can only developed over time.  I call it unconscious admonishment.  She calls it economy of effort.  I tried to plan ahead and spare the family the same pain I’m feeling at this ungodly hour.  I even pre-striped my electric tooth brush with Crest and put it in the guest bathroom before I when to bed.  Doesn’t matter now. It’s all been wiped out by one digital blunder.  Thing 1, the six year old, is coughing like a crack whore with an addiction to Marlboro unfiltered.  I go in to comfort her.  She’s half awake and I lay down and stroke her forehead the way she likes.  Should I slather some Vicks on her feet or just let it ride?  She seems to be calming down now so I’m just going  leave it. “Daddy”, she whispers, “Why are you in your work clothes.”  Damn I’m busted!  I start to panic because I just found out about this trip to Chicago yesterday and I haven’t done the proper emotional groundwork before my departure time.  “I’m going to Chicago and I’ll be back tomorrow before bedtime.” She starts to cry, then cough, then cry some more. She wakes up Thing 2, the four year old, who is in the next bed and has miraculously developed a cough as well. She starts crying and I haven’t even told her I’m going yet.  I tell them both if they quiet down I’ll cook pancakes for breakfast on Saturday,  take them skateboarding at the Potato Famine Memorial (ironically located next to Goldman Sachs world headquarters) and I’ll also throw in a couple of stickers to put on their good behavior star chart.  By the way, the Potato Famine Memorial is excellent for boarding because there’s a big concrete overhang you can ride under that simulates a big  wave breaking over your head. It starts near the year 1845 on the Famine timeline display, about the time the potato disease shows up and ends around 1848, when  cholera is at an all time high.     The girls subside for a second but T2 also wants me to come over to her bed because I’ve already spent time with her sister.  Equality is a big thing at this age.  I almost needed to the call a moil the other day just to make sure I cut a banana into even portions.  I tell her I have to go and she needs to go back to sleep. She refuses. T2 may be younger than T1 but she’s already a great negotiator.  She has this uncanny knack for detecting when she has leverage.  I add in a session on my surf cross training balance board and we all come to deal.  I finish getting dressed and I hear T1 sobbing again.  I walk in and she sitting on the end of her bed with her face in her hands.  Thank god T2 went back to sleep.  I pick her up and put her on my lap. She holds on to me like her life depends on it.  “Daddy, I don’t like it when you go.”,  she says in her crackly little voice.  I start to wonder what we’re all gaining in return for the time we spend away from our kids.  Especially at this age.  Later they won’t care.  But in the meantime, we get on planes, go to meetings, sleep in beds that don’t feel good and for what? With all the technology and the world being where it is ecologically speaking, do we really need to push all these parents around the globe?  I think the old farming society had it right.  Everybody gets up at 4:45am, stays home and picks potatoes together.

The Drop Off


It’s April 3rd. Winter is back with a vengeance and the wind coming off the mighty Hudson river is bitting my face like a junk yard dog.  I’ve got the four-year-old by the hand, dragging her down Greenwich St.  She’s resisting every step of the way like Shawn Penn in Dead Man Walking.  So far we’ve counted 687 steps since we left the apartment and we’re only at the half-way there.  Yes, I’ll trying to turn an unpleasant situation into a magical math game.  She stopped counting at 5 when her month went numb.  All systems have failed  me this morning.  Nanny…out sick.  Wife… strategically wearing her bathrobe at departure time.  Me…standing at the front door  like a idiot with no special purpose. It wasn’t even worth putting up a fight.  Now, after what seems like a mountain stage of the Tour de France without performance enhancing drugs, we get to her Montessori school.  We head straight for the complimentary tissue box and wipe the mucus icebergs away from our thawing schnozes. Drop off at the school is a strange ritual for sure.  Basically, the child and guardian wait outside the classroom door in heightened anticipation until the teacher cracks the door.  She then summons in the little grommets like Oompa Loompas reporting for the day shift at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The adults don’t get to see too much of the inside and the kids, being four, make for very unreliable correspondents.  By the way, I can’t help but to wonder if that movie was really some kind of communist manifesto about the exploitation of the working class.  Hell, Augustus Gloop almost died in the chocolate river.  If that’s not unsafe working conditions, I don’t know what is.  Anyway,  I’m waiting and waiting for that damn door to open and getting very nervous about making my 9am meeting.  I scan the holding area and immediately notice an obvious hierarchy to drop off personnel.  The pecking order from lowest to highest goes something like this:

1. Dads in sweats, sneakers and Jets caps who have lost their Wall Street jobs
2. Moms of husbands who lost their Wall Street jobs and fired their nannies.
3. Moms who’s husbands are game-fully employed but too cheap to spring for a nanny
4. Nannies of families who are deep in debt but still keeping up appearances
5. Tibetan nannies
6. Caribbean nannies
7. Dads in sweats, sneakers and Yankee caps who retired from their Wall Street Jobs on credit default swaps trades, killing time before the doors open at the indoor golf training facility in SoHo .
8. Ed Burns

My kid gets in with the first group, no golden ticket required.  Well, not taking into consideration that one year of pre-school tuition is greater than the outlay for my entire college experience, including books, housing and spring break bail bonds.  Outside I catch a cab with a Haitian national who proceeds to tell me a thing or two about exploitation of the working class. We arrive outside the office and I tip him two dollars for my small part as an American citizen in taking all of Haiti’s oil.

Pavlovian Sunday

I’m looking at the children expecting them to do something blog-worthy.  Lots of pressure for them.  For some reason I’m reminded of the fragility of life and the inequity of time.  I start spinning and doing parental “age math” in my head….when she’s 18 I’ll be… oh my god!  Then I start doing a self parental critique.. Am I doing enough as a father? Did my father do enough as a father?  Why didn’t he teach me to speak Mandarin instead of showing me how to make french toast? Then I get an idea.  I’ll make the kids a “star chart”.  Not with pictures of constellations but like personal goals. Cheaper than a Tony Robins weekend and they won’t have to walk barefoot over burning coals.  Everybody wins! I pull out a bunch of sticker sheets from their massive sticker reserve.  Sh$#t! no stars!  How could they not have stars? No worries, we use the musical note, smiley and butterfly stickers instead. I take some crate paper and start to draw out an intricate grid and I realize I’m completely confused as to how to approach this.  I google “Child reward systems and behavior modification.”  Super Nanny comes up as three of the top five hits. I love Super Nanny because she believes in treating the parents as badly as the kids.  I’m on a big personal accountably kick these days, as long as it doesn’t directly involve me being personally accountable.  Super Nanny advises to pick three behaviors you want to improve and build up to a modest reward.  I think pink bicycles would be good.  Surprise, the girls think this is a good idea as well. This is what we refer to in the adult world as “alignment”.  Back at the grid I create three skyscrapers, each with 30 floors.  The idea is for them to earn a sticker a day per positive action.  There will be no negative reinforcement as instructed by Super Nanny.

Here’s the chart legend for the four-year-old:

Tower 1 = Pee by yourself at night w/o waking people up =  1 Smiley Sticker
Tower 2 = Do what I say when I say = 1 Butterfly Sticker
Tower 3= Get dressed nicely w/o looking like a circus clown = 1 Musical Note Sticker

And for the six-year-old

Tower 1 = No trading school lunch veggie items for bread = 1 Smiley Sticker
Tower 2 = Go to bed w/o creating a new complex ritual = 2 Butterfly Sticker
Tower 3 = Do homework w/o faking a terminal illness = 3 Musical Note Sticker

I’m rolling now.  The kids are excited and so am I.  Now all they have to do is fill up the skyscraper floors over the next 30 days and new bikes all around!  The four-year-old wants to call Tower 1 the “Freedom Tower”, possible because we live two blocks from ground zero but probably because the nanny’s been watching Fox News during the day again.   I quickly change one of her positive actions to, “Don’t grow up to be a Republican = 10 Smiley Stickers”

The Politics of Television

As I watch their immobilized faces, an acute guilt starts to wash over me. Similar to the moment before death, thousands upon thousands of wasted moments of my life start to flash before me.  Me at twelve on the couch in watching re-runs of Gilligan’s Island, naive to the reality that if the castaways somehow make it off the island, the series will be canceled.  Me at nineteen sitting at my frat house at UT with twelve other guys, staring at a large screen and discussing the faith of various General Hospital characters. Man, I’d do anything to avoid class back then.  Me at 23 trying to learn the chords of a Talking Heads song by using the new single frame advance feature of my DVR.  And here I am, past being a grown man, watching Nick Jr with a six and four year old.  Now I’m depressed. What the hell I’m in doing to them? I might as well put them to work in a sweat shop in Malaysia sewing buttons on Kathy Lee Gifford’s new line of children’s rain jackets with their nimble little fingers.  At least they’d be learning a skill. As it stands now, we’re just developing a strange dialogue around an odd assortment of Fresh Beat Band characters.  Elie asks me if Kiki is married to Twist or Shout?  I tell her neither and that she’s probably a lesbian.  She asks me what a lesbian is and paying homage to some old Richard Pryor routine, I tell her it’s someone who lives in Beirut. I point Beirut out on google earth.  Now I’ve work the Fresh Beat Band into a helpful geography lesson and I feel better.  Then The Wonder Pets comes on.  Very improbable series about a turtle, a duck and a hamster, who have delusions of grander and go around saving other small animals in a boat that flies.  Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s all played out in the form of a greek chorus and the duck has a really bad lisp.  So does the 4 year old.  Is there a connection?  I’m guilty all over again.  Now the girls have stopped blinking.  Should I hold a mirror up to their mouths or enjoy a few more moments of peace? I hope they don’t pee on the eight thousand dollar couch in favor of missing even a brief moment of a baby rhino being rescued from a mud puddle.  I hear the duck say, “this is Sewious” and I couldn’t agree more.  I decide to take control of damn remote.  Mayhem ensues.  The six year old, like a pint-sized MacGyver, figures out how to turn the TV back on w/o the box.  Did she do it with her mind?  No, she grabbed the spare from the office before the show and hid it in her little pink Ugg boot.  She must have anticipated I would insist on analogue play at some point in the day.  Although misguided,  I’m impressed by the planning that went into it.  I grab the spare. She’s quickly turning into the girl from the Exorcist now. My wife calls and asks me how everything is going and inquires about the crying.  She says it sounds like they’re being water boarded but she knows its not bath time. I tell her everything is under control, so she decides to stop and get a “flat white” at the cafe around the corner on the way home. She’s Australian and those people have a different word for everything. This should give me time to restore order.  I start looking for personal items that will inflict a sense of loss. I emerge from their room with a crimson tutu and and an Angry Birds squishy toy.  You’d think I was holding the Pink Panther Diamond and one of their vital organs. They snap into line real fast. I quickly outline princess characters with a crayon on two large sheets of paper and tell them to start coloring.  My wife walks in and asks who spilled water on the couch.

The Anatomy of a Sleeping Wife


It’s that valuable golden time right now.  The twenty minutes before my two girls wake up and we continue the battle, like ancient times when armies never engaged in conflict between sundown and sun up.  But they will be up. They’ll be up wanting to dress themselves like circus clowns and go against every ascetic I hold dear. They will want to “help” with breakfast but clean up the carnage.  The four-year-old will grunt like a primordial ape, a sound far more unpleasant than a thousand Jersey housewife’s simultaneously ordering a mocha Frappaccino. Isn’t it funny that 99% of people reading this will know actually what a Frappuccino is? Oh no, it’s stared to rain again.  My entertainment options just shrank to all the things I don’t know how to do, refuse to do or my wife will let me do. I’m staring to panic and I haven’t had coffee yet. I actually google, “things to do with kids on a rainy Saturday in New York City”.  All the search results come back with things that cost over $100 or the Natural History Museum.  I try to visualize what the museum would be like but I can only picture myself being stoned without the kids.  That clearly won’t work.  I want to go down the street to Tent and Trails,  buy a bunch of camping gear and set it up in the apartment.  Maybe I can turn the whole place into a Everest base camp, turn the AC way down and cook their breakfast over an open fire. No, that goes under, “things my wife won’t let me do”.  I google, “Eye exercises for strengthening focusing muscles”as a diversion.  Lately I’ve been feeling and can do something about my failing vision and I hate relying on my glasses at night when trying to figure out what kind of margarita to order.  I’m now doing figure eights with my eyes and focusing near and far on a pen held in my out-stretched arm.  Oh no! I just heard one of them coughing. This is a new complication to an already problematic situation.  Any wheat bearing menu items are now persona non grata according to my wife’s holistic guidelines. The pancake promise I made last night is clearly off the table.  I feel the mounting pressure and I’m a little dizzy from the eye exercises.  I put my glasses back on, tighten my faded robe like a layer of armor.  It’s sunrise and they stand at the ready. I’m going in.