Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Making It Good


            Dear Coco, Flynn and Margot,

            I hope this letter finds you well, wherever and whenever you read it.  I’m writing to you from a Starbucks in Ithaca, New York.  Or Boston.  Or New York City.  Or Chicago.  Or Ann Arbor.  Or San Diego.  Or Los Angeles.  Or Fort Lauderdale.  Or Seattle.  I’ve been to all those places this year.  Seattle, too many times to count.  I’ve been away from home a lot lately; nearly every week for the past several months.

            I think about my travel for work a lot or, rather, I think a lot about my travel for work and whether it's having a negative impact on you.  Does it make you sad or upset?  Do you notice it?  Or is it just regular for you, just like having a Papa and a Daddy is regular for you?  Other parents have to be away from home for work a lot.  And it's not always because of travel.  Is our situation really very different?  (Papa says inside my head is a very busy place.)

            Papa has been away from home three days a week for years.  Since, Flynn and Margot, you were born. My travel goes up and down, and this year it’s been up.  Really up.  Typically Papa leaves on Monday morning before you all are awake.  Then I leave on Wednesday morning.  Coco, you insist that I wake you up before I leave at 5:00 a.m., and Margot and Flynn, I send you a video from the airport.  Papa comes home on Wednesday evening before bedtime.  I come home on Thursday or sometimes Friday night, usually after bedtime.  Obviously, Papa and I don’t see each other much during the week.

            But, even though Papa and I are gone a lot, one of us is always home in the morning for breakfast and school drop-off and one of us is always home for dinner and bedtime.  Or nearly always, at least.  And with all this travel weekends have become sacrosanct.  Whether it’s a weekend in the country, or in the city for birthday parties, Hola Kids cultural celebrations, McKinley DogFest, or ballet rehearsal . . . . the weekends are about our time together.  Work rarely interferes with family time on the weekends.  That’s the goal.

            Papa and I want you to have what we had when we were growing up, or as close as we can get to it. 

            When I was growing up we had dinner together every night.  Every night Dad came home from work at the same time: 6:15 p.m.  Like clockwork.  (That’s because your Grandpa runs on a schedule.  Always has.  Margot, I think you’ll be the same.)   I’d be in my room doing homework, watching TV or something.  I could hear Dad’s Jeep coming, blocks before Dad reached the driveway.  It was a 1974 CJ5.  It was loud.  The garage door below my bedroom would go up, the Jeep would pull in, the garage door would go down,  The door from the garage to the basement would open and then slam shut.  Footsteps coming up the stairs.  Dad in my doorway. 

            “How’s your day?”  he’d say.

            “Fine,” I’d say.

            “Yeah?” he’d say.

            “Yeah, fine,” I’d say. 

            I think it probably went something like that.  I’m sure he’d hope to get more out of me than that.  But I was, like, 13.  Thirteen-year-olds don’t talk much. 

            The point is, Dad was home for dinner every night.
            When I was growing up we went camping a lot too.  We’d pack up the trailer -- and I don’t mean the tent-trailer.  The tent-trailer came later.  When we got fancy.   I mean the first trailer.  The trailer Dad built in the garage.  I don’t remember how he built it, and I don’t remember if he built it in Yakima or after we moved to Tacoma.  But I remember he built it.  The sides were made of plywood, and the top was too. I think it was green at first, and then maybe tan to match the color of the Jeep, and then dark brown.  Later, after we got the tent-trailer, the brown trailer was used to haul firewood out of the mountains around Port Angeles.  Dad would split the wood and Scott and I would load the cut wood into the trailer.  I hated hauling firewood.  We probably only did it once or twice a year.  But I still hated it.  Forty years later that trailer still sits in the backyard at Mom and Dad’s house.  It’s still dark brown.  And I still think of hauling firewood whenever I see it.

Hauling Wood (circa 1980)
            Anyway, into the brown plywood trailer we’d pack the tent, the sleeping bags and air mattresses, the ice chests, the boxes of groceries, the cook stove and other stuff. 

            Then we’d climb into the Jeep.  All five of us and the dog.  (There were five of us because aunt Donna Mary - who was a teenager at the time - was living with us.)  Donna Mary and I’d sit in the back seat, my nose in a book.  Sometimes Scott would sit in the back too, but usually he’d sit in the front, on a sleeping bag stuffed between the two front seats, trying to keep his legs out of the way of the stick shift. The dog would be loose, of course, jumping from lap to lap, trying to get his nose and head out a window. 

            In the summer time there would be no windows for the front seats because Dad built half-doors for the Jeep.  They were made of plywood too, like the trailer.  Painted black.  Scott and I liked it when the half-doors were on the Jeep.  The Jeep felt open, even if the top was on.  The only thing better was when the top was off. 

Huckleberry Picking (circa 1976)
            So, off we’d go.  Barreling down the freeway.  The five of us and the dog in a Jeep with doors made of plywood, maybe wearing seatbelts, maybe not, towing a trailer made of plywood (at least until we upgraded to the tent-trailer).  I remember one summer we went camping every single weekend.  Most of the time we’d head east to a campground in the Cascades; sometimes we’d head west to the beaches.  September was huckleberry season so we’d head south to Mt. Adams.  We’d follow logging roads into the hills, looking for a good place to camp, not too far from the swaths of huckleberry bushes growing across the hillsides. 

            Usually we’d meet another family along the way or at the destination campground.  The Pitts.  The Staleys.  The Keelers.  The Snyders.  It was particularly fun when the Keelers came along.  Jean Keeler was the only grownup I knew who would sing campfire songs for us kids.  The Bear in Tennis Shoes was the favorite.  Most exciting, though, was the old school bus Larry Keeler had converted into a camper.  Imagine for a kid the novelty of riding in a school-bus-turned-camper!  One time the school-bus-turned-camper broke down (as school-bus-turned-campers are wont to do).  To get home, we all had to pile into the Jeep.  We crammed five Gothams, five Keelers, a dog, and a couple bags of groceries too, I think, into that Jeep.  And off we went, barreling down the highway, headed for home. 

The Keeler Family & The School-Bus-Turned-Camper
(circa 1976)
            Now, I don’t know if Dad really was home for dinner every night.  He probably wasn’t.  And I don’t know if we really went camping every weekend that one summer.  We probably didn’t.  And maybe Mom or Dad missed a few soccer games here and there, or an orchestra performance once.  If they did, I don’t remember it.  But none of that matters, really.  What matters is how I remember it.  And I remember it all as Good.

            So, Coco, Flynn and Margot, how do we make it Good for you?  How do we make it Good when we travel every week?  When we’re not home at the same time for four and sometimes five days a week?  Like everyone else, we try.  We try really hard. 

            When you read this someday, I hope you remember Daddy and Papa – or at least one of us -- home for dinner every night.  I hope you remember walking to school with at least one of us every morning.  I hope you remember weekends in the country catching tadpoles in the pond in the backyard, watching deer, turkeys and wild pigs wander through the front yard, going to the county fair every September and picking apples in the orchard, and cutting down a Christmas tree every Thanksgiving.

            With all that, I hope you remember growing up as Good.

Fishing with Dad (1977)

Camping (1975)
The Gotham Tent-Trailer & The Pitt Tent

Camping and Jeeping, Shi Shi Beach (circa 1980)
Dad's Jeep and Uncle Marty's Jeep

Huckleberry Picking (1983)
The Gothams, Keelers, Pitts and Snyders

Mike and Scott
Hiking the Olympics (1990)
Summit of Mt Olympus (1993)

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dear Future-Margot

Thanksgiving 2017

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Dear Future-Margot,

I hope this letter finds you well, wherever and whenever you read it.  I’m writing to you from the dining room table in the country.  It’s ten o’clock on a Saturday night.  You’re upstairs asleep in Daddy and Papa’s bed with Papa, Coco and Flynn.  Do you remember these days when we all piled into the same bed in the country?  I suppose it’s not so different from our sleeping arrangement in the city.  The only difference is that in the city everyone starts in their own bed and then, one by one, you all make your way to Daddy and Papa’s bed.  In the country we just start in the same place.  Fortunately, we have a really big bed.

Everyone’s asleep except for me, which isn’t unusual.  I’ve spent many Saturday nights here in the country, working, puttering or writing while the four of you are asleep in the room above me.  Oh, and there’s usually a vodka tonic involved.  I’ll go up in a bit . . . 

The Annual Christmas Tree Hunt - 2017
Anyway, Christmas is over.  We finally got everything put away last week, but it was a lot of work.  You know we have bins and bins and bins of Christmas stuff.  And this year we had the biggest tree we’ve ever had.  Do you remember it?  We cut it down here in the country.  Just off the driveway above the pond across from the blackberry bramble.  The tree didn’t look that big when we picked it.  I actually suggested it and you know I’m not the one who wants the biggest tree he can find (that would be Papa).  But then, once we got it up on top of the car somehow it got bigger.  Driving back up the driveway I had to stick my head out the window to give Papa directions because we couldn’t see out the windshield.  And then we got it back home to San Francisco and it got even bigger.  And then a week later we put it in the house and it had gotten bigger yet.  When we put water in the tree stand Flynn was worried that the tree would keep growing and “break the house.”   

It was so big we got a text from a neighbor:  “Are you kidding me?” she said.  “Now I’m embarrassed by my fake tree in my window.  I’m closing my curtains.”  The tree fell over once while we were putting it up.  Coincidentally, Flynn was the only person in the room at the time.  Hmmmm . . .   A few days later Olive from down the street came over to play and asked, “Is that the tree that almost killed Flynn?”  So, it was the biggest tree we’ve had (so far), it caused a bit of a stir on the block, and it almost killed Flynn.  Just another Christmas for us, right?

Anyway, I’m digressing.  I’m writing to you because I thought you (Future-Margot) might like to know a little bit about your four-and-a-half-year-old self (Margot-Now).  I suspect that as you (Future-Margot) read about Margot-Now you’ll see a lot of yourself in, well, yourself. 

Just another day at school.
"I wonder what the plan is today."
The first thing you should know about yourself (or, you likely already know about yourself), is that you like a plan.  You like a schedule.  On weekend mornings or sometimes in the evening after dinner, we’ll ask you all if you want hear the plan.  You’re always the most excited about a plan.  “What’s the plan?!  What’s the plan?!” You’re like a “plan cheerleader.”   You (Future-Margot) are probably a list-maker, but it’s a bit too early for lists for Margot-Now.  You’ll probably make lists by the time you’re in kindergarten.

Your body functions on a very predictable schedule, too.   

On the mornings when Papa isn’t home I get up around 4:00 a.m. and start working.  This way I can get at least a couple hours of work done before it’s time to get you all up for breakfast and get ready for the day.  You’re always up first.  Sometime between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. I’ll hear the stairs creak as someone comes down from upstairs.  (yes, those stairs have always creaked which means you’ll never be able to sneak out of the house or back in for that matter, although I don’t think you’re likely to be the one sneaking anywhere)  I look at my watch.  “It’s 5:23 a.m.  It must be Margot.” 

Sitting at the dining room table, I stop typing and wait until you appear in the doorway, bleary-eyed and disheveled.  “Daddy, I want to watch your phone.”  That’s always the first thing you say.  There’s no “Good morning, Daddy” or “Hi, Daddy” or even a mention of breakfast.  It’s always about watching videos on Daddy’s phone.  You and I have come to an understanding about this, however.  You can watch my phone but it has to be something educational, like Word Girl, or Odd Squad or Cat in the Hat.  As long as it’s something on PBS Kids, it’s fine.

So I tuck you in under a warm blanket (the big brown knit one, if you remember it) on the couch in the living room, while it’s still dark outside the living room windows, tap on the PBS Kids app, turn on the guided access (so you don’t switch over to My Little Pony or Shopkins or Elsia & Annia) and give you a bowl of dry Cheerios.  You settle in and I go back to my laptop at the dining room table, just a few steps away.  You and I usually get a little more quiet time before Flynn makes his way downstairs usually around 6:00 am.

Then there’s the other end of the day.  At some point between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., you’ll start getting hungry.  Not just, “I’m bored and I want a snack” hungry.  But the “if you don’t get me some food right now I’m going to go into an irreversible meltdown from which I might not recover and you will thus be made to pay a steep price for not giving me food now” hungry.  At that point it’s time to get dinner on the table, STAT! 

You also know when you’re tired.  At dinner sometimes you’ll announce “I’m tired and I need to go to bed.”  You don’t deny you’re tired.  You don’t fight being tired.  You simply acknowledge that you’re tired and make a plan.  It’s time to go to bed. 

Bedtime is 8:00 p.m.  Or, at least it’s time for the three of you to brush your teeth, get into bed, then get out of bed to turn on and off lights and find your flashlights and the right stuffies and to generally delay bedtime, and then finally have your bedtime songs.  So, usually actual bedtime is closer to 8:30.  You’re always the first one asleep.  Always.  Many nights you’re asleep before Daddy and Papa are even out the door.  Sometimes you don’t even last through bedtime songs.  This recently has become immensely irritating to your sister.  Five minutes after you all have gone to bed, Coco will come out and complain that you’re already asleep.  “It’s not fair!  I can’t sleep.  Margot always goes right to sleep.  It’s not fair!” 

“Boring!”  Your favorite phrase right now is “Boring!” 

There is nothing boring about this girl!
“Margot, I have to go to work.” 

“Margot, you have to go to school.” 

“Margot, it’s time for dinner.”

“Margot, we’re going to the country tomorrow.”

I think you picked it from Rainbow Dash on “My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic,” which is your favorite show right now.  And Flynn’s favorite show.  And Coco’s too.  All three of you would watch My Little Pony all day if you could get away with it.  Christmas this year was a My Little Pony bonanza.  My Little Pony videos, My Little Pony clothes and more than a dozen My Little Pony figures of varying sizes.  There’s even a My Little Pony mermaid (mer-pony?) around the house somewhere.
You’ve been tidy and organized since you were old enough to pick things up and put them away. “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”  Last spring, during your birthday party (and I mean - literally - during your birthday party), you took time to organize the gifts that our guests had left in the entry way.  Apparently they were not orderly enough.  You put them all in a nice straight line – although the line was in the middle of the hallway.  This Christmas you wanted the gifts under the tree to be grouped by who they were for.  Then, after all the gifts were opened on Christmas morning, you asked for a box so that you could put all your gifts together in one place – and keep them safely away from your brother and sister I suspect. 

Thanksgiving 2017

Now, there may also be some hoarding going on here, too.  After your birthday last spring, you put all your gifts into a large shopping bag.  Not a brown paper bag from Safeway, but a super big, double-strength, department store bag.  You packed all your gifts in the bag and then you parked the bag next to your bed as close to you as possible.  And there the bag stayed.  For at least two weeks.   

Two weeks after you parked that bag next to your bed, it ripped.  Of course you needed a new bag (there were tears, after all, when the bag ripped) so I brought a new bag up to your room and emptied everything out of the ripped bag onto your bed.  All the birthday gifts were still there of course.  But there was more.  Dozens of little things, trinkets, small treasures, I guess:  small plastic jewels, miscellaneous stickers, random coins, Hot Wheels, building blocks and various figurines.  For two weeks you had been dropping small treasures into that bag, apparently claiming them as your own.  Fortunately, Santa was watching and for Christmas he brought you two small treasure boxes so that you would have someplace to put all your small treasures and keep them safe.
So, Future-Margot, that’s a bit about yourself at four-and-a-half.  I hope it sounds about right to you.  It’s getting late.  I should probably sign off now and go upstairs to claim my place in the bed.  That’s getting harder and harder to do as you and your brother and sister get bigger.  But we’ll enjoy it while it lasts. 

Bedtime stories in the country
December 2017

Christmas 2017

The Biggest Tree Yet
Christmas 2017

Margot, Eden, Wyatt, Flynn, Jason, Josh and Coco
Christmas 2017

Margot before her first ballet class
September 2017


Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Brawl

Siblings fight, right?  My brother and I fought like cats and dogs for years.  We fought hard.  I mean, we like beat on each other.  At some point it stopped.  I think it stopped about the time we figured out we had better things to do with our time and we had the freedom to leave the house to go do those things.  So, siblings fight and then they find something else to do.  
Among Coco, Flynn and Margot, Coco and Flynn play together the most.  Both of them are imaginative, energetic and physical.  And they’re both bossy and stubborn.  So when they play together there’s a lot of declarations, orders and yelling.  There’s usually running around and jumping on and off things (except when Papa’s home; when Papa’s home there’s no jumping on and off things).  Lately, their play has been all about capes, superheroes and magical powers.  Super magical powers.  Like ice power.  Like Elsa’s ice power.  I’m not allowed to have super magical powers when I play with them; I'm just the target for their super magical powers which I think is totally “no fair!” 

Of course, playing leads to arguing and bickering.  Recently the bickering has become more physical.  Sometimes there’s a bit of pushing.  Occasionally Someone hits Someone Else and then Someone Else hits Someone back, and then both Someone and Someone Else end up sitting on the steps.   

Margot consistently stays above the fray.  Quite often she prefers to play by herself.  While Coco and Flynn are running around and jumping on and off things, Margot is setting up a tea party, feeding one of her dolls, or playing with Flynn’s Barbie house.  Once in a while she even asks me to tell Coco and Flynn NOT to play with her since she knows they’ll swoop in and wreak havoc on her otherwise organized and orderly play.  (Margot’s need for organization, order and a plan is a topic for another post.)

One morning last week Coco and Flynn started their day with playing that turned into arguing.  Not an unusual occurrence.  I was getting dressed for work and I could hear them in the other room arguing about something.  Flynn came into the room where I was getting dressed.

“Coco being mean,” he reported.  Not a surprise.  If there is a refrain in our house right now it is definitely “Coco being mean.”  I mean I hear it multiple times every day from Flynn and Margot, or I hear variations on the theme:  “Coco being mean,” “Coco not letting me play,” “Coco’s a meany.”  Coco defends herself by telling me that Flynn and Margot are not listening to her and they’re not doing what she tells them to do.  Now, pause, and consider this.  I am listening to my six-year-old daughter complain about someone who is not listening and not doing what they’re told.

But, back to Flynn and Coco.
“Coco being mean,” Flynn reported.
“No, I’m not!” Coco yelled from the other room.
“Coco being a meany.”
“No!  He’s lying!  He’s just trying to get me into trouble.”

So, what did I do? I did what any parent would do: I extracted myself from the situation, made some half-hearted remark to Coco about being nice to Flynn, and went downstairs to pack my bag for work.  About five minutes later Margot came looking for me.  “Coco and Flynn are fighting,” she said.  I stopped and listened.  I could hear them upstairs yelling at each other.  The yelling sounded more intense than usual.

So, I trudged upstairs to see what was happening.  I could hear the screaming as I climbed the stairs.  Yep, the yelling had definitely turned into screaming.  The needle on the “fight-o-meter” dial had moved into the red.  As I reached the top of the stairs I could see Coco and Flynn on the couch in the TV room.  It was not good.  Flynn was on top of Coco, straddled across her stomach, holding a fist full of her hair and screaming at her.  Coco was under Flynn screaming back at him and trying to kick him as hard as she could.  Both their faces were scarlet red.  Coco was crying.  They were clearly trying to inflict pain on each other.  It was a full-on brawl. 

I was shocked.

And then I lost my mind.  

Now, before I had kids I was always appalled when I heard parents yelling at their kids.  Not just barking orders at their kids like, “Hey, stop doing that!” No, I mean all-out yelling at their kids.  I would think to myself smugly, “I would never, ever, yell at my kids like that.”  Well, you know where this is going.  Every parent has a point, a threshold, where they’re exhausted and their kids have worked their last nerve and stretched their patience to the breaking point.  Fortunately, for me – and for Coco, Flynn and Margot – it’s not often that I reach that point.  But I admit on some rare occasions I lose my mind and yell at my kids.

I stormed into the TV room, yelling, “What is going on?!!  What are you doing?!!” I pulled Flynn off of Coco.  He was like an angry cat, hissing, with claws fully extended.  Coco was sobbing, “Flynn hurt me!  Flynn, hurt me!”

But I was not done yelling.  “You will never, ever, ever fight like that in this house.  Ever!  DO YOU HEAR ME?!!!”

Well, they heard me.  And so did the neighbors probably.  People walking their dogs in the park at the end of the street probably heard me.  And maybe some smug, no-kids fool walking past the house heard me too and thought to himself, “I would never, ever, yell at my kids like that.”  Whatever.

Fortunately, all those things my kids have learned on PBSKids, well, I’ve learned them too.  As Daniel Tiger says, “If you’re frustrated, take a deep breath and count to four.”

I need to take a minute and calm down,” I thought to myself.  “Coco and Flynn,” I said, “I’m going to walk out of this room right now and decide what I’m going to do about this.  Do not talk to each other.”

When I came back into the room, much, much calmer, I put them in separate rooms, sitting on beds, looking at the walls and left them.  Ten minutes later I came back to talk to them, to hear their sides of the story, and to pass judgment.  They pled their cases in very different ways.

I talked to Flynn first.  He was quite calm.  He sat on the bed, waiting for me to come back, like he was waiting for a bus, or for a cup of coffee, or for the start of a business meeting of some kind.  When I asked him what happened, he was very clear about the extent of his guilt.

“Did you hit your sister?” I asked.
“Did you scratch your sister?”
"Yes, he did!” screamed Coco from the other room.  “Yes!  He!  Did!”  She was crying again.
“Did you pull her hair?”  There was a pause.  “Flynn?”
“Yes.  But that is it,” he said emphatically, gesturing with his hands like he was an umpire calling the runner safe at first base.  “That is it.”  And with that, it was clear he had nothing further to say.  He rested his case.

Coco was the opposite of calm.  She was crying, complaining about her injuries, and immediately showed me the scratches on her arms and legs.  I think she probably had been searching her body, hoping to find a place where Flynn had actually drawn blood, but no such luck.  There was no blood, but she was pretty scratched up.

Of course I don’t know what started the fight.  As a parent, nine times out of ten, you don’t know what happened.  You don’t know who started it. You don’t know whose fault it was.  You do know, however, that it’s only a matter of time before the next fight, the next brawl.