What a Wonderful World

One peculiar side effect of having a child living in a place like Oman is the tendency by some people to tell me how much danger she confronts.

First off, I don’t think that’s true. The Wall Street Journal recently classified Oman as “arguably the Arab world’s most-stable country.” Various measures of criminal activity show Oman to be far safer than the United States. And, from what Linden tells us, she lives a tightly controlled life—far more so than if she were living at home and we were letting her bike to town by herself every weekend.

Of course, I read newspapers. I follow blogs. In fact, I spend way too much of my life staying well informed. (I mean, to what end?) Certainly, I know all about the latest atrocity from ISIS. And, of course, when something terrible happens in the Middle East, I always find myself thinking, hey, that’s just up the gulf from Oman.

So it strikes me as strange that some people evidently like to compound my anxieties. Thank you very much for sharing the State Department’s advice to Americans in Oman. But how exactly is Linden supposed to vary her daily travel schedule? She goes to high school! Should she tell the carpool that today they’ll be taking evasive maneuvers? Maybe she should notify the principal that she’ll be skipping first period today for security reasons.

And yes, I am very concerned about the sultan’s health. The most stable country in the Arab world is surely a product of his enlightened personality. But I was already aware of the sultan’s physical challenges. Your reiteration of those issues doesn’t really do anything for me. You can be sure, when the sultan sneezes, I go to bed praying for his rapid recovery.

And let’s not even talk about Linden’s potential health concerns. Yes, I do indeed know about MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome). And yes, it is possible Linden could come in contact with camels (which are known to carry the disease). In Oman, many people have close ties to their ancestral villages—out in the country. Camel country. But, if Linden gets a chance to ride a camel, I wouldn’t blame her for saddling up.

At least no one has brought up the possibility of Ebola. Oman has ancient cultural ties to Zanzibar and east Africa. Yes, that Africa!

It’s crossed my mind that this fear mongering is some kind of karma.

I am well known as someone with a strange zeal for natural disasters. In fact, people have called me “the master of disaster.” When there’s a tornado/hurricane/flood/blizzard/earthquake, you’ll find me glued to CNN or YouTube to watch footage. But I consider that a personality quirk. Generally, I don’t shove the pictures into other people’s faces. (Well, maybe my wife, but she is patient with me.) I certainly don’t offer them up to victims. I’m pretty sure I show suitable concern for anyone who has suffered through a natural disaster, including my Angeleno neighbors—all thirteen million of them—when we all lived through the ’94 quake.

After pondering this phenomenon, I’ve decided to view my friends and their nuggets of alarming information in a charitable light.

One of my favorite songs is “What a Wonderful Word.” Louis Armstrong made it famous.

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There’s a lyric in it that always struck me as being very wise:

I see friends shaking hands.
Sayin’, “How do you do?”
They’re really sayin’,
“I love you.”

(It sounds smarter when you sing it in a deep gravelly voice.)

I think that’s what all the masters of disaster are telling me.

Raising a child is a process of constantly letting out the leash. The playpen yields to the child-proofed room. The back yard gives way to the first day of kindergarten. As the child marches forward into each new realm, you let her explore a new piece of the world with the hope she becomes a better person for having seen new things—and that she returns safely. Meanwhile, the child is training you to accept the reality that they have bumped themselves up to a new orbit and there’s not much you as a parent can do about it.

By moving to Oman, Linden abruptly spun out the leash 10,000 miles. (So much for that metaphor.) It’s a difficult adjustment. Not just for parents but anyone who cares about her.

The doomsayers haven’t been fully trained about Linden’s new orbit. With their words, I believe they are attempting to process those many miles.

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Turn, Turn, Turn

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s knows that for everything there is a season. A time to plant. A time to reap. A time to laugh. A time to weep.

Yet, Ecclesiastes, Pete Seeger, and The Byrds all failed to mention another important life passage: a time to sell the minivan.

We sold ours a few weeks ago.

My youngest child can’t remember a time when we she wasn’t being shuttled around in our sea green Toyota Sienna. For her, it was part of the family landscape, like the trees in the back yard or the wacky relatives in California. Personally, I’m amazed to consider I spent almost a quarter of my life with that vehicle.

In December 2001, I had been unemployed for months. After a long, anxious search, I finally landed a job offer and the next day we were at the car dealership signing papers. The family had been getting by with our old Honda, but serious driving was about to become a regular feature of my life. While I commuted in the Honda, the shiny new van was dedicated to transporting children.

Generally, I’m not the kind of guy who gets worked up about cars. Just give me a reliable set of wheels. Still, I never much cared for the minivan. It struck me as little more than a rolling bucket of family chores. I guess no matter how mundane your existence, you like to imagine it otherwise. I remember the night we drove the Sienna to a school event. The parking lot must have held a hundred minivans. That said it all: Dave, you’ve gone mainstream.

Another thing I didn’t like about the van was its rapid descent into squalor. Eventually, the kids started calling the van Bessie, but I preferred a name we borrowed from French friends: the merde-mobile.

A few weeks after we bought the Sienna, we were driving to a potluck dinner with a big container of pea soup on the floor of the passenger seat. I braked too hard, and gallons of glop sloshed out. Thirteen years later, the carpet was still tinged a pea-green.

Under the seats, a rich compost of snack food began to accumulate—a moldering collection of goldfish, Cheerios, M&Ms, and Skittles.

Our golden retriever did her part. Sometimes we needed a garden rake to scrape out the fur. On damp days, the van smelled of wet dog, even without her panting presence. The back windows were always translucent from her slimy nose.

Despite all that, looking back, I’m realizing that while van may have been messy, so is life.

I decided to round up some memories from the Sienna’s long service to our family:

  • Family trips. So many. I remember looking back and barely spotting the children amidst a swarm of pillows, stuffed animals, blankets, and books. On long trips, to pass the time, we liked to read aloud. Once we sat in the parking lot of Plimouth Plantation for an hour reading Harry Potter because it was too exciting to stop. Another time, on a country road in New Hampshire, a moose stared us down.
  • Picnics. The van was an accessory to a lot of fine, improvisational dining. Our family picnics fall into three categories: traditional (typically beautiful European-style repasts spread across a pleasant meadow or rocky outcrop), stationary (when we have to eat but it’s too wet/hot/cold to take the food outside the van); and rolling, when we don’t have time to stop. Generally, on rolling picnics, an attendant feeds the driver.
  • Carpool. That van must have shuttled kids back and forth to school a thousand times. Not to mention all the soccer and ultimate Frisbee games. I know by heart the questions from the Brain Quest flash cards in the seat pockets. I can picture the neighbor kid, who every day insisted on entering the car through the back hatch and climbing over the backpacks to his seat. And of course, there was the traditional drive home on the last day of school singing Hot Fun in the Summertime.
  • Our dog. I can still feel her nose pushing against my elbow. She was always desperate to get up front. I guess she wanted to drive.
  • The annual trip to our friend’s house in Vermont the day after Thanksgiving. Driving through the dreary beauty of November in New England and listening to the strains of George Winston’s Thanksgiving.

In recent years, after Lark got her license, the van became the exclusive domain of the children. I quote from Linden’s blog:

My sister drove a car full of screaming teenage girls on adventure after adventure. We blasted shitty pop music from the buzzing broken speakers. We yelled at strangers on the street in random, fractured French or screamed “Stay in school!” and “Eat your vegetables!” We hollered, “SKITTLES!” every time we saw a yellow car.

Insuring three cars when there’s a teenaged driver on your policy is crazy expensive. And, I was always uncomfortable as a three-car family. I could practically feel our carbon emissions hastening the demise of the planet.

So, a few weeks after the kids left home, we got the van detailed. A cheerful, underpaid fellow scraped out the melted Skittles and tried his best to shampoo the carpets. We took some pictures of Bessie, glistening like a girl on the way to her prom, and posted them on Craigslist. A few days later we sold the minivan to some dude with dreads and an aggressively calm manner. He said he planned to use the van in his construction business.

On a drizzly night, I pulled the plates and left that rolling bucket of memories in a driveway on the other side of town.

So long, Bessie.

Turn, turn, turn.

A Killing Frost

This post has nothing to do with life changes, empty nest syndrome, or recalculations of any sort.

Anyone who knows me well probably understands that I’m kind of a weather nerd. I read meteorology blogs. I listen to weather reports. I keep an eye on the sky.

About this time of year, I frequently hear the phrase “a killing frost.” It’s kind of poetic, as weather reporting goes.

However, whenever I hear that string of words, my mind starts playing a drippy pop song from 1975 called “Wildfire.” This wretched specimen of musical melodrama includes the phrase “a killing frost.”

The lyrics describe how one cold night, a pony “named Wildfire busted down its stall.” Yet the song never adequately explains why the spirited little horse was so concerned by a sudden plunge in temperature. Had she forgotten to move her ornamental plants inside?

Whatever the reason, every time I have a chance encounter with that phrase, an earworm stirs to life and my brain starts playing that dopey tune all day. It’s like the curse of 1975.

Why does my brain torment me so? Now, perhaps by sharing my agony, I will be freed.

In case you’re curious, here’s a YouTube link. Before you click it, remember, we still haven’t had a really cold night and the pony’s stall is still intact: Wildfire

The Middle East, as Seen through a Straw

For the first few weeks after my daughter Linden left for Oman, we only communicated via Facebook messages. Calls are expensive, of course. But more importantly, at home, she had no privacy and did not want to talk there.

Twice a week she goes to the office that administers her study abroad program. They have good Internet service, and we tried to set up a phone call or a video chat session, but technical problems stymied us.

So, all we knew about Linden came through text messages.

We were glad to have that connection, but it made me consider the difference between text and real life.

Now, I know I’m late to this party. Social observers have been commenting about texting for at least a decade. I’m not opposed to texting. I think it can be very useful.

(Full disclosure: Although I’ve used instant messaging at work for many years, I only started texting via phone a couple years ago. My thumbs still move across the tiny keyboard like Bigfoot at the cotillion.)

The difference between texting and other forms of communication become painfully apparent when those little strings of words were the only connection to our youngest child living in a completely foreign environment. Learning about Linden’s life from texts was like looking at the world through a straw.

Here’s what I see when I look out my back window through a straw:

Grass.
Grass.
Grass.
Squirrel?
Grass.
Grass.
Grass.

In real life, when you’re in the same room with someone, a 30 second conversation tells you so much. For example, Linden might say, “I had a good day.” But maybe there’s no eye contact. Hmmm. Shoulders slumped. Not a good sign. She claims she had a good day, but her voice trails down on the word “good.” Clearly she’s hedging. Something is bothering her.

If that conversation really happened, I would either convene the interrogation or start circling around, conversationally speaking, and hope I might dislodge the dam and get some real information flowing.

We asked Linden to send us a daily text. Just a few words to tell us she’s okay. That request created something of a conflict. (We could tell, even via text.) I guess she felt we didn’t trust her. But, of course, it’s not that. We let her go half way around the world. We would just rest easier at night knowing the terrorists, the sadistic classmates, the communicable diseases, and all the other threats an imagination can muster did not materialize that day.

The next day Linden sent a text saying, “Alive.”

Ah, such eloquence.

Wait, was that a squirrel?

Late Summer Thanks

A few weeks ago, I noticed another one of those memes rippling through Facebook. I think it’s called the “thankfulness challenge.”

The first couple thankfulness posts I read were touching. Then they all started to say the same thing.

My first reaction was, no thanks, I’d rather dump a bucket of ice water on my head. But a couple days later Pamela and I were eating dinner on the deck. The sun was getting low. Conversation lagged. (No kids around to interrogate. “What happened in school today.”) My mind wandered to the question of thankfulness. Quickly I touched the obligatory: family, job, health. Yes, I’m certainly thankful for all that.

I was staring up toward the sky, and I thought, I’m thankful for the way the early evening light late hits the tree tops and rims the outer leaves with gold but casts a mysterious shadow in the depths.

I’m thankful for this meal–one of the best I’ve eaten in months, and that’s saying something when you’re married to Pamela Wicinas.

It was a completely simple repast.

Hungry Ghost bread, toasted. Thankful that I live in Northampton, MA, where a little a bakery produces bread that repeatedly gets nominated for a James Beard award, and deservedly so.

Cheddar cheese melted on top. Thankful that my skin is been treating me nicely, so I can relax my dietary ban on dairy. I eat cheese so rarely, when I do, it feels like I’m swimming in endorphins.

Add a slice of homegrown, heirloom tomato. Thankful that my Brandywines are finally ripe. It wasn’t been a great year for tomatoes, and various garden pests disrupted the earlier varieties. But the Brandywines made it, and there’s still a few sitting on the kitchen counter. Biting into one of those tomatoes is like tasting summer itself.

Late summer. It’s so beautiful, but sad too because you know it ends soon. Best to savor every bite.

The Hijab

In America, we are highly attuned to at least one aspect of life in the Arab world—the hijab, the scarf that Muslim women wrap over their hair and neck.

Yesterday, Linden changed her Facebook profile to an image of her wearing the hijab and standing in front of a small alcove tiled in a beautiful mosaic. It’s a striking image. She is smiling broadly, and it looks like a genuine smile—something that’s hard for her to accomplish. (I’m the same way. When taking staged photos, I usually paste on a tight-lipped grin so viewers will understand I am not experiencing too much pain.)

It’s the hijab, however, that’s so striking for Americans.

With the simple act of wrapping a black scarf around her head, Linden transformed herself into a person from another culture—a world that Americans find inexplicable and sometimes even hostile. And, Linden appears to be happy in that world.

Since both of our kids left home last week (Lark for college and Linden for her year in Oman), we’ve had various emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages expressing support for our new status as empty nesters. But that picture of Linden in the hijab unleashed a tidal wave. Suddenly, everyone wanted some reassurance that Linden was okay.

That little scarf drove home the idea that Linden is living in a faraway land, and it’s a place that troubles lots of Americans.

Even so, rest assured, everyone. Linden is okay.

I think.

Recalculating

My family took a big road trip a few years ago. We borrowed my mother-in-law’s minivan, a Honda Odyssey. The van had a chatty GPS system, who we immediately named Penelope (after Odysseus’s wife).

As we crisscrossed the western U.S., Penelope was always “recalculating.” Since that trip, the word has become part of our family lingo.

Now it’s time for me to do some personal recalculating.

A few weeks ago, my daughter Lark left for college. Nothing unusual there. She’s 18. It was time for her to go. We prepared Lark to leave, and she prepared us for her departure.

What we didn’t anticipate was Linden’s abrupt exit for a year of study in the Middle East. Linden is a sophomore in high school. She’s supposed to be worrying about school dances and the PSATs, not the intricacies of Muslim culture.

So, suddenly, my wife Pamela and I are premature empty nesters. Or, as I like to put it, “We’re taking a gap year from parenting.”

For years I’ve considered keeping a blog about things that interest me, but I’ve never found the time. Now, thanks to the children decamping, I have some hours. So here we go.

Initially, my posts will revolve around themes relating to empty nests.

If all goes well, I may expand the focus as I continue to recalculate.

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