Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Other Son

I've noticed that I've been giving all kinds of bandwidth to Aidan in this blog, and have said next to nothing about Malcolm. I worry that this may be an omen for the future, because I foresee Aidan being the Prodigal Son who causes me all kinds of headaches and worry, and Malcolm being the slightly neglected one, only because he is so darned well-behaved that he never needed much attention or discussion.

So, for the record . . . Malcolm is an exceeding sweet child. When we ask him to do something, heck, even when Aidan asks him to do something, more often than not he does it, and even does it enthusiastically. He gives hugs and kisses. He has an infectious laugh, with a cadance not unlike a dolphin. He is prone to doing bless-his-heart things like marching into my office, picking up the phone, putting it to his ear and saying "Talk-talk-talk." The other night he was in the tub, fumbling with a little water gun that came with a play carwash, and in a flash of insight he lifted it and squirted me right between the eyes. He gave me a grin that was so innocent that I couldn't even yell at him.

Which is not to say that he's a pushover. He is ferociously determined to do the things he wants to do. He seems more persistent in his quests than Aidan was, which is saying something. When he wants to flip a light switch, he lays seige to it. You could carry him away from it six times, and each time he will head back.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Teacher Man

I heard a few excerpts from Frank McCourt speaking in Raleigh recently . . . he's been making the rounds plugging his new book Teacher Man, about his thirty-year career as a high school English teacher in an underprivileged neighborhood in New York. One bit that caught my attention was his description of the peak moments in teaching . . . it wasn't quite what I expected, those moments when an individual comes to you and thanks you for what he's gotten. Instead, it was about what Rose would have called Rapport -- a moment when everybody is thinking the same thoughts, discovering something Real and True for the first time, all together. "It was like God Himself had revealed himself in a brilliant light..."

Equally telling was the fact that teaching was hard, hard, hard . . . for every story of a kid that one might have helped, there seemed to be three stories about kids that one couldn't help, who in spite of all the dedication and love and "magic" still are undone by their circumstances. And every single one of those stories of downfall began with "he had a hard time at home."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Loss of the Hunt

How much sensibilities have changed in the last hundred years . . . Aidan and I have been reading the "Little House" books, and today we just started reading some carefully chosen excerpts from The Jungle Book. One thing that strikes me as we read these stories is how far away death has receeded from the accepted canon of children's literature.

As much as we blame the popular culture for becoming more violent, the Disney set rarely if ever have to bear the mention of killing. (The only notable exception that comes to mind is The Lion King, which is as murderous as Shakespeare ever was.) Villains are, by and large, captured and sent to prison, or at their worst they plummet to some unknown fate in a cravasse. Animals are universally for cuddling, or, in more eco-friendly times, "protecting". It never occurs to us to depict them as someone's next meal . . . or if it is, it's always an attempt that's comically frustrated, a la Wile E. Coyote's eternal quest to bag a particular fowl.

So, it comes as a bit of an abrupt shock when the Little House stories have . . . well, a lot killing in them. Laura is very matter-of-fact in describing how Pa kills the animals in the woods for meat, or how he butchers a hog, or how happy she is to see fresh kills hanging in a tree when she gets up in the morning. The Jungle Book is equally at ease talking about the wolves hunting, and all the different things they kill or don't kill. It's hard to imagine any modern story passing muster with death so . . . present. It's almost more shocking that it's not violently depicted. Death is not dramatic; it just is, and it's a part of life.

I am hard put to determine whether we are better off for that or not.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

An open-ish letter to my 5-year-old's preschool teacher

Dear Kathleen,

Thanks so much for all that you're doing to help Aidan in his development. We really appreciate the conversation that we had with you last week about his current challenges. (I'm sure it's not easy to be the bearer of bad tidings to parents.)

We want you to know that we really appreciate candid feedback. If there is anything that you wanted to say in our discussion, but withheld because you were worried about how it would be received, please don't hesitate to share it with us.

We agree with your assessment of where Aidan is at. In stressful situations -- specifically, social situations with his peers -- Aidan reverts to an animal persona. His behavior is frightening (or at least unwelcome) with many of his peers, and if it continues who stands to become a social outcast. He seems to be overly identified with animals, as evidenced by his constant play with animal characters (mostly modelled in beeswax) and his encyclopedic knowledge of animals.

We've thought carefully about what we can do to redirect Aidan's behaviors into better directions. Anne had suggested redirecting his requests for factual knowledge of animals towards more imaginative play, and that has worked very well. I was surprised at how readily he accepted it. The other day he asked me whether gibbon's arms were longer than gorillas, and I told him, "I don't know . . . do you think we could ask them?" It quickly turned into a game to see who could think of the best way to trick gorillas into holding their arms out to be measured. It feels like a better direction . . . he laughs more, anyway.

Aidan responds to stories, and we're looking for more stories to help him identify more with people, especially people in right relation with animals. The first story that came to mind was the story of Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book -- the story of a boy who must leave the wolves who raised him to rejoin human society, so that he might obtain the fire that will let him defeat the tiger Sherah-Khan. If there are others that you can think of that might help him, let us know. We've also been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, which Aidan loves dearly.

We thought carefully about your suggestion of giving Aidan the experience of caring for a small animal pet. We're more than willing to give it a try, but there are a lot of circumstancial factors against adding a guinea pig to our home -- mostly, we're afraid our dogs will kill it at some point if it ever gets out. It didn't help that PetSmart labelled them as appropriate for "age 8 and up".

What we have done, which needs doing anyway, is to start rehabilitating Aidan's relationship to our dogs. Aidan likes to give the dogs treats, and we've shown him how to make them do certain tricks (sit, down, etc.) Aidan has now resumed feeding the dogs their suppers, after successfully negotiating with his little brother on how they will share the privilege. If Aidan can learn to be gentle with our dogs, I have no doubt he could do the same with his peers.

One thing that wasn't mentioned, but which in retrospect seems obvious, is that we just need to give Aidan more practice with initiating social contact with his peers. Aidan only gets the opportunity two days a week, usually, when he goes to school. We've started working harder to get more play-dates with the few local families that we know, so he just has more chances to find new strategies for engaging people. He played with the Marchman's boys today, and there were no instances of growling or clawing. ;-}

Again, we're brainstorming everything we can do to help Aidan; if you can think of any other tactical advice on how we can better engage Aidan's social development, do let us know.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Timeless Awareness, circa 1870

Aidan and I finished the first "Little House" book last night, and I was amazed to find the book closing with this passage:

Pa's strong, sweet voice was softly singing. . . "Shall auld
acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne?"
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, "What are days
of auld lang syne, Pa?"
"The are the days of a long time ago, Laura," Pa said. "Go to sleep
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa's fiddle softly playing
and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting
on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaning on his brown hair and beard
and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and
She thought to herself, "This is now."
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the
music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.
It can never be a long time ago.

I think children are routinely having a conscious awakening to timeless awareness . . . but Lauran Ingalls Wilder has captured it, with its complete innocence and obviousness.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Take the Baby and Run

I heard the most amazing story from one of my clients today:
"My husband was born in Raleigh, but his parents are from Lebanon. About five years ago we decided to adopt a Lebanese girl. The Muslim faith forbids adoption, and the government is very much against children leaving the country. We made arrangements for the adoption through the Cyprus embassy in Lebanon, because the American embassy is a fortress and only has barely enough people there to do absolutely what is necessary and no more. Their policy is to only have as many people as can be squeezed into two helicopters within five minutes.

"So, the Cypreans do all the administrative stuff on the Americans' behalf. So, we made arrangments for the adoption long before we ever set foot in the country. But I stand out in Lebanon, not the least reason because I look terrified and like I don't know what I'm doing with this little baby girl in my arms.

"We still had to get her out of the country. To avoid questions, the nurse brought Grace to me five minutes before we walked through the doors of the airport terminal. (The nurse was a nun; no doubt the mother was an unwed teen who was spirited away to a convent in the city to avoid disgracing her family.) We had our American passports and visas, but our daughter had a Lebanese passport, and there were bound to be questions. We had to go through six -- count them, six -- checkpoints between the terminal door and our gate. At each one were military police with AK-47s, and at each one we have to answer questions. At any moment one soldier could decide that we look suspicious, and all our plans could be unravelled. And then we would be stuck in Lebanon, because once I took the baby I couldn't leave her.

"Somehow, finally, we got to our gate, and got out of the country. Unfortunately, in order to use the round trip tickets, our itenerery required us to go back through Lebanon. I begged my husband: "I can not go through those checkpoints again." So he trolled through Cyprus looking for a travel agent with enough English and connections to get us directly out. A small fortune later we had tickets directly to London, where we caught the last leg of our flight back to the US.

"My husband is planning to go back to Lebanan with his brothers soon. He asked me, 'Do you want to come, too?' I said I would only go back if I could take another baby back with me. He said he would write often.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dude, where's my bike?

Aidan and I finally went on an adventure I had been anticipating since the day he was born -- we went out to play in a creek. There's a sizable series of creeks and wetland about a mile from our house, so Aidan rode out on his bike with our boots in his basket. We parked his bike beside the side of the road, put on our boots, and waded out into bottomland. I was having all kinds of flashbacks to my own childhood . . . climbing over logs, vaulting over streams with sticks, watching clouds of mud drift through the water . . .

As we went further back into the woods, I noticed that some of the streams were significantly wider and deeper. Looking at one section, it almost looked like a natural dam, where sticks had trapped leaves and mud and backed up the water a bit. "Huh," I think, the thought just beginning to dawn on me as I turn around and look upstream, and there it is, unquestionably, a beaver dam. A freakin' beaver dam -- and Aidan and I had just been to the Museum of Natural Science and seen recreations of dams. I started looking around, and sure enough, I saw the gnawed-off points of trees the beavers had downed. Aidan was excited, but truthfully I think I was more excited.

And there we were, sitting on a log, staring at a huge deep pond that another species had engineered, when suddenly I realized that a truck had stopped on the road, back where we had left Aidan's bike. I had seen other cars and trucks pass, and slow down as they passed the bike, but this one had stopped. And wasn't moving. And now another thought is dawning on. "Aidan, stay right here. I'll be right back," and I go tearing through the woods, jumping over streams and ripping through briars. I'm maybe twenty yards away when I see someone getting back in his pickup truck and drive on. As I walk out onto the road, I see him pulling away. And thank God, the bike is still there.

I pull the bike back from the road and behind some high grass, and I see Aidan toiling his way toward me. I go back to him and explain why I went running off, and he gets really anxious. "We need to go home right now," he says, and he doesn't even begin to settle down until he is reunited with his bike. "I wish now we hadn't come here at all," he says. So the rest of the walk home, I'm explaining that it's ok, we can hide his bike in the future, and besides, the guy might have just been curious and not thinking about stealing the bike. He accepts it, and his anxiety fades, but I can tell he has had his first brush with Loss, and he will remember this. I just pray our miraculous beaver dam discovery is not completely erased by it.