The End of an Era

Thanks to the modified calendar, Ella and Dominic both started school this morning. I walked them both down the street to the predictable chaos of first-day logistics. Yesterday we visited the school to drop off supplies and meet their teachers. Dom has Ms. Pendergast, the same teacher Ella had for kindergarten, which we’re happy about.

Ella’s response to it all was no surprise, having been through it several times before. She got a little case of cold feet the morning of, and was relieved that since I was taking a kindergartner in I got to go past the lobby drop-off point and walk all the way to the classroom, and didn’t have to say good-bye to her until the base of the steps leading up the second floor. There were a few tears but I knew she’d be fine as soon as she got to her classroom – between three years under her belt at Mount Vernon and soccer last spring, she was pretty much guaranteed to have a few friends in her class no matter which teacher she ended up with.

I was much more curious to see how Dominic handled it all. I can tell he’s had Starting a New School on his mind a lot, and was dragging his feet this morning (appropriate snarky response here: “How could you tell?”). But while he’ll fall on his back and kick his legs like a toddler when asked to help pick up the living room, when it comes to emotional matters of substance, he remains, as he himself put it, Ferb-like. And that held true this morning. I’m sure he appreciated that I was able to walk him to his classroom, but I’m not sure he really needed it. When it came time to say goodbye there were no tears – he was perfectly ready to get down to business.

Of course, I know for a fact that he’s going to be exhausted when I pick him up later today. And I also know that he’ll be flabbergasted at how crowded and noisy the cafeteria is, and may spend lunchtime with his hands over his ears rather than eating his lunch, and even if that’s not the case there’s no way he will eat more than a quarter of his lunch in the allotted time. But I have a feeling he’ll have a smoother time getting used to it all than Ella did three years ago.

Once everybody else starts their school year in another month or so, they’ll get in gear with soccer practices and swimming lessons and maybe we’ll bite the bullet and shell out the big bucks for piano lessons this year, too. Quite a change from their abbreviated summer, which consisted of a whirlwind two-and-a-half-week vacation bracketed by sweltering weather at home and a ton of board games and reading.

But now, for me … freedom. Last year I had a modicum of it, when Dominic was in preschool for a few hours each morning, but with all the commuting, that amounted to enough time to exercise and do a little reading, or maybe run some errands. But today I dropped the kids off, went to exercise, and am now sipping coffee at St. Elmo’s, typing away, with another three hours ahead of me before I have to pick them up. It’s rather dizzying. Lots of people have been asking me just what I’m going to be doing with this time. The answer, more or less, is “Writing of one stripe or another, at least for now, while remaining receptive to other possibilities as they may arise.” Preparing for that has largely been an exercise in plotting out what I will not be doing with this time, to wit, checking email every ten minutes, reading my RSS feeds, reading novels, checking Facebook, browsing on, playing games. Systematically removing those activities will either drive me to some productive writing, drive me to find something else to do with that time, or drive me insane. Time will tell!

Rambling Thoughts Upon Catching Up With A Song of Ice and Fire

I’m finally caught up with A Song of Ice and Fire. I pity all of you who had to wait years in between the first five books, because there is precious little that divides one from the other, that rewards any sort of pause in the narrative, and there is much that punishes those long breaks, when it comes to keeping track of all the names and places and heraldries and intrigues. Of course, now with a couple more books to go and who-knows-how-long till the next one, I’m in the same boat.

Warning: spoilers aplenty.

Like Tolkien’s, George R. R. Martin’s greatest accomplishment in his works is the secondary world he has created, intimidating and wonderful in its breadth and depth.  But unlike Middle Earth, there is nothing mythic about Westeros and its environs. It is medieval history and economics writ onto a world with only a dollop of the supernatural.

Especially in the later books, SoIaF reminded me of an extended campaign of Amber: The Roleplaying Game. Bear with me here. The Amber setting also had a certain element of court intrigue, but that’s not the main thing. If you ever played Amber and your games were anything like the ones I was involved in, at a certain point all the players have their own individual, sometimes-intersecting but often solo plot threads going, and there are a host of supporting characters, many of whom are more powerful than the characters the players represent, and the whole business starts to take on a life of its own. When I ran an Amber game in full swing, my preparation before game night would consist largely of running down the list of players, considering their plans and likely actions, and then running down the (long!) list of supporting characters and putting myself in their shoes and wondering what they would do in the circumstances they were in. Gameplay was just a matter of following those threads and working out the inevitable implications of the characters and their actions — it had a life of its own, and didnt need (some sometimes resist) attempts by move the overaching plot in a Direction by any sort of narrative fiat.

I imagine Martin finding himself in a similar situation. Daenerys finds herself atop the Pyramid in Meereen — what would she do? She couldn’t simply walk away from all that, it’s not in her nature, so what then? All of book five basically unravels that thread. Same for Cersei finding herself behind the throne.  I can’t imagine Martin planning for Jon to die the way he did — and I’m still a little bitter about it, actually — but I can easily see him sitting down, considering who the people are around him and what the situation is on either side of the Wall, and realizing that because of who he is — his father’s son, to the bone — he’s going to piss people off trying to do the right thing, and it’s not going to end well for him.

Arya. I was fiercely devoted to her from almost the minute she was introduced, which in these books is not a very healthy approach to take with any character. Somewhere in the middle of book three I vowed that I would stop reading if Martin killed her off — and part of the strength of these books is that that, as with anything else, was definitely a possibility. If you started reading thinking that a certain character “had” to survive or that a certain outcome was “inevitable,” you should have been disabused of that by the end of the first book, and Martin is inclined to issue periodic reminders just in case you forget the lesson.  What has actually happened with Arya is interesting but makes me a little nervous — what if, rather than simply killing her off, Martin is concocting an even greater cruelty by simply obliterating her identity, piece by piece, on her road to being Faceless?

Arya and Jon reuniting was the one scene I was most looking forward to at some future point in these books. And as “fitting” or “inevitable” as Jon’s death might be, the fact that it’s no longer possible saddens me. Maybe she’ll reconnect with Bran, though who can tell what he is becoming or has become. Seeing Sansa again doesn’t carry quite the same excitement, or Rickon for that matter, since he was so small during the idyllic pre-book-one time.

Tyrion. I haven’t seen the HBO version yet but lots of people who have say that he’s their favorite character in it. And he’s right up there with Arya for me as well. Everyone who reads these books has, whether they realize it or not, a CHI — chapter heading index — that scales from one to ten based on their excitement/anticipation when they see which point of view of the next chapter is going to be from. And these numbers can of course change over time. On a scale of 1 to 10 Arya and Tyrion always rate 9 or 10, Bran 7 or 8, Daenerys down around 3. Davos a solid 7, perhaps inflated since he’s so infrequent. Jaime, who was “WTF error number not found” when he first came on the scene as a POV, is now for me a solid 8. Jon’s a 7, Samwell 5, Sansa 4, Theon 3.

But yeah, Tyrion.  The smartest guy in the room no matter the room, which Varys appreciated, which is why he tried to send him to young Aegon. But for every time Tyrion’s mouth saves his ass, another time it’ll get him in trouble, and wherever on that roller coaster he actually ends up at the end of all this, it’ll have been quite a ride.

I must confess that, thinking about it a little more, where book five left things was unsatisfactory in a number of ways.  Bran’s and Sansa’s plotlines don’t make any headway in the latter half, not even a nod toward the end to see where they fit in. Stannis’ fate is reported in a letter, so we don’t get an end-note on either Theon or Asha’s experiences either. Part of me thinks that it was left as possibly-unreliable reportage because there might be more going on there, but I thought that about the Knight of Flowers getting grievously wounded and there was no there there either. For Victarian, Brienne and Jaime, Samwell, we have inklings of what’s in store for them but nothing approaching a neat resolution. Book five ends swimming in loose ends, and the thought of having to just leave them hanging there for who knows how long is maddening.

A word on the supernatural — what there is of it. The Others are obviously a big honkin’ something-or-other. And then we have our polar forces — Day/South, represented by the Lord of Light, whose followers appear to have an undeniable ability to peer into their fires and see things happening from the past/the future/afar, though no particularly ability to interpret what they see. Night/North, represented by the greenseers and the Old Ways and, increasingly, Bran, where the chief power is the ability to project & control animals (“wargs”) and in some cases other people and even trees. Then you’ve got Melisandre’s creepier powers, the Faceless Men to some extent, and of course the dragons. I’ll be curious to see where it all ends up, since there’s clearly a sense that the arrival of the dragons has triggered an upswing of magic in the world. But what I’m most curious about is the relationship between the magic of the North and the Others. The red priests fear the night; the greenseer tells Bran to embrace it. Melisandre clearly perceives the Other that she’s facing off against as a power beyond the wall, but does that refer to the Others or to the greenseer/Bran? And are those two related, and if so how? I was expecting a big reveal on that front toward the end of book five, but instead we got nothing from Bran since mid-book.  Grrr.

Man oh man is the North screwed. With Jon gone, wildlings and crows will fall on each other. Melisandre’s presence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. The Boltons now hold sway. And our little ray of sunshine? And Arya-who-is-not-Arya in the hands of effin’ Theon. I can see it now, though, Martin’s going to pull a another Jaime on us, and by the end of book seven we’ll kind of like Theon in spite of ourselves.

Of course, only after writing all of this does it occur to me what Thoros of Myr did to/for Beric Dondarrion, and that with the red lady up there we best not write Jon Snow off completely. That thought is as intriguing as it is creepy.

Davos is still out there, searching for … Rickon, was it? Another ray of hope.

Though it does say something that my thought process coming off the book consists of desperately rooting around looking for things to be optimistic about!

At any rate, I am happy to finally be at the point where I can geek out with everybody else about these books. They’re not perfect but it was a hell of a ride.


Pre-release, Then and Now

In 1991, this is how I got an early to listen to something from R.E.M.’s new album:  My friend Ed had a friend Joe who lived in Lansing, which, as a college town, was the place that record companies would release stuff early to see how it did.  So they played “Losing My Religion” on the radio in Lansing before they did anywhere else, and Joe recorded the song off the radio onto a cassette tape.  Then he made a copy of that cassette tape, which Ed received when he drove to Lansing to see Joe.  Then Ed came back to Grand Rapids and went to the coffee shop at Calvin College, where he plopped down a Sony Walkman that actually had a tiny speaker on it in the middle of the table.  And so we who were lucky enough to be present for it gathered around to listen to the song, which we repeated, transfixed, at least five times in a row.

I remember that around this time, R.E.M. did an interview where Michael Stipe was asked just how long they thought this band of theirs would stay together.  He answered “not forever,” but Peter Buck interjected that he thought it would be cool if they lasted until the year 2000 so they could do a big new millenium concert.  And then break up maybe.  I remember that seeming an impossibly long way away.

Now, in 2011, I heard about the latest R.E.M. pre-release from my friend Jonathan thanks to his Facebook update.  (He had happened by that 1991 listening party and was delighted at his good fortune, as I recall.)  Though I missed the live stream on NPR yesterday, they are still streaming it all day today, so I’m listening to it right now on the speakers in my living room which are wirelessly connected to my computer in the basement.  When I leave home in a few minutes I’ll be able to listen to it again by hooking up my phone to my car stereo and streaming from the same website while driving down the street.

In 1991, listening to that song over and over on the tinny Walkman, I felt like it was changing my life each time I heard it.  And I still know every twist and turn of every track on that album like the back of my hand.  This new one is good, better than anything they’ve done in a while, but even if Collapse Into Now objectively blows Out of Time out of the water, there’s no way it could ever make the same impression on me now that that one did back then.

The new ways to get it, and to hear it, are super-duper cool and amazing.  1991-me would be thrilled to learn that someday such thing would be possible.  But 2011-me is thinking he’d trade away all that tech for the ability to feel about an album the way he felt in 1991.

Fifteen Year Tattoos

Admittedly, they are a couple years late.  Suanna and I celebrated our fifteenth anniversary in 2008, so we should have been getting our third tattoos then.  As with the ten-years, a good part of the delay was deciding what, exactly, we wanted to get engraved on our bodies in perpetuity.  And then it was a matter of finding a time when Suanna could get off work a little early and when Adam Jeffrey, who did a splendid job on our second tattoos, was working from the Alexandria branch of the Great Southern Tattoo company and available to do our thirds.

Getting tattoos for every five years of our marriage seemed like a great idea in our twenties, and while there have been plenty of people skeptical of the notion — “But you’ll be covered in them when you’re 80!”, as if that was a bad thing — we remain cheerfully committed.  Suanna’s seem to get bigger and more complicated each time.  I think I’ll keep mine low key until year 50 or so, when I’ll put down the big bucks for my dream tattoo:  an Amazon with a laser rifle riding a saber-toothed tiger, across my whole back.

Great Southern hadn’t changed all that much since the last time, though it was the differences that stuck out.  Uncle Charlie had a few fewer teeth.  Adam’s beard was longer.  All the tattoo artists had iPhones.  The last time, Ella was eighteen months old and charming the socks off everyone there.  This time she ignored everybody and spent her time playing a game on the iPod or reading Magic Tree House #1, with me not quite getting my mind around the fact that she didn’t need any help whatsoever to read it.  Dominic, who looked at comic books the whole time, didn’t even exist the last time we were there.

To get back on track we’ll come back in three years for our twentieth anniversary.  Not sure what I’ll get yet, but I’ll make a point of deciding well beforehand.  Ella will be nine, Dom will be six, Suanna and I will have known each other for more of our lives than we haven’t, and Uncle Charlie will still be there to greet us when we walk in the door.  Here’s hopin’.

Oh, and the tattoos, of course:

Suanna’s is a willow branch, designed by Sara Fynewevermuyskens.  Mine is a triskelion, a motif from a variety of cultures though I first came across it researching medieval Brittany.  I just think it looks cool.

RIP Bob Reed

Though we had mutual friends I never met Bob Reed; like so many others he had a blog that I followed without ever knowing him personally.  The Reeds in Liberia was an invaluable perspective of life on the ground in Liberia, and I always read it with great interest.  In the past year he and his family relocated to Ghana.  He had just returned home from doing conflict resolution between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria when he passed away suddenly.

For every million of us who believe that poverty must be fought everywhere, that we are all God’s children regardless of nation or neighborhood, there are two or three who have the tenacity and courage to take up that work, on the ground, far away.  Bob Reed was one of those.  Keep his family in your prayers.

The Surprise Prize

Yes, it was probably premature.

Yes, it makes no sense at all for the commander in chief of the world’s largest military to receive the Peace Prize.  But as far as that goes the prize jumped the shark a long time ago, and has been defining “peace” overly broadly for decades.

No, you can’t reduce Obama’s accomplishments thus far to just a matter of speechcraft and buzz management.

Back when he was running, I recall one argument for supporting him, best elocuted in an Andrew Sullivan piece in The Atlantic, was that international opinion of the United States would get a boost from his being elected regardless of what he did, simply because of who he was.  If we, as a nation, could elect a black man as President it would fly in the face of a lot of assumptions about us, both inside and outside our borders.  It would make it harder for those inclined to hate us to hold on to their stereotypes of us.

I think that the Nobel committee jumping the gun somewhat in awarding Obama is a reflection of that dynamic.  Americans should take it as a compliment — an affirmation of the hope that our choice of President has given the world.  For Obama himself it will be a noble burden:  he must now work to fully earn the honor that has been bestowed on him.  I wish him well.

Bullet Dodged

Come on, people — we’re talking about the International Olympic Committee and the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics. When it comes to track records of corruption, they’re peas in a pod. Does anyone really think that if Chicago had won, some sort of shady dealings wouldn’t have come to light? And you know that somebody involved would have some connection to Obama’s political past, and cause him a serious headache. He’s got enough of those as it is.

South America gets a turn and we avoid future scandal. Win-win.

This American Surrender

Dear Ira Glass:

You win.

I hated you in the late 90’s, when your show first went national and it was kind of new and hip.  Your smugly self-satisfied voice.  The stupid little musical snippets you’d thread into interviews and storytelling.  It was all so thunderously irritating that it was easy to not pay too much attention and let all my preconceptions about your show remain intact.

Then I managed to forget about you for much of the Aughts.  I didn’t come across your show in my daily life, so it was easy.  You went up a notch in my estimation when I saw you in Gigantic, but that wasn’t enough to make me seek you out or anything.

Then you got on TV.  Whoop-dee-doo.  Still haven’t seen that yet.

But then I started getting up with the kids on Saturday mornings and then crashing back in bed after my wife got up, so when I woke up a second time (usually after some really weird dream) they were off at the farmer’s market or somewhere and I was toodling around the house by myself with the radio on.  And dammit, you were on right after Wait Wait.  So I started listening again in spite of myself.  And it didn’t suck.

Then came the new iPod and me slurping down podcasts to listen to in the car or at the gym.  And then, this past week:  driving all the way to the Upper Peninsula and back, hours upon hours of open road.  And my clever road trip mix just didn’t do it for me, and all the other stuff I had heard before, so I caught up on every single episode of your show that was sitting on my iPod, hour after hour.  And I loved it.  It kept me going.

What I can’t figure out is, shouldn’t this new pro-TAL phase of my life be accompanied by an attraction to artfully hip music?  The Decembrists, maybe some Sufjan?  But I can’t get into it no matter how hard I try.  Instead, when I wasn’t listening to you I was rocking out to the new Green Day or J. Roddy.  Primal, gutsy stuff.  But I guess that’s the point:  get past the twee little musical snippets — and they do still annoy me — and you are primal.  And gutsy.  Just gotta listen for it.

So, yeah, you win.

The Scariest Two Minutes Of My Life

Dominic woke up in the middle of last night and was unusually reluctant to settle down again.  This morning after Suanna left for work I trudged downstairs to find he and Ella bickering over LEGOs, so I set about distracting them with breakfast.  Uncharacteristically, Dom wasn’t interested in his — he just picked at a few raisins in his raisin bran and drank a little bit of milk.

He was in good spirits dropping Ella off at preschool but looked awfully tired in the car afterward, so I decided to forego the usual trip to the YMCA and went home to give him a nap.  He didn’t fall asleep in the car, though, so we ended up reading a couple of books in his bedroom.  His forehead felt pretty warm, one of those borderline “Do I give Tylenol or don’t I?” cases, but since his eyelids were drooping fast I decided to just put him down rather than trying to wrestle some medicine into him.

I was down in the basement an hour later, with the baby monitor on.  I heard a couple cries, normal stuff for when he’s waking up, usually to be followed by sounds of movement in the crib and then his voice calling “Daddy!” or “Ella!” or “Mommy!” depending on his mood.

This time I heard strange, guttural gurgles.

For about ten seconds I thought that he was talking to himself in his crib, maybe in a funny voice.  But then the unnatural-ness of the sound set in and I realized something was not right.  I sprinted up the stairs and into his room and found him in his usual napping pose — on his tummy, legs tucked under, butt up in the air.  But his skin was pale and his mouth was full of saliva.  He wasn’t choking on it, exactly, but neither was he swallowing it or spitting it out.  I yanked him out of his crib and realized that he wasn’t doing anything.  His body was completely limp.  His head flopped around like a rag doll.

I would not wish on anyone the experience of the next couple of minutes.  Mind racing:  where did I put the phone?  Do I carry him with me as I search for it or do I put him down?  Do I wait for the ambulance or throw him into the car and rush to the hospital?  As I moved through the house he flopped along in my right arm, conscious but eyes unfocused.  I wanted to stop and hold my ear close to his mouth, to reassure myself that he was breathing, however shallowly, but forced myself instead to hurry, find the phone, and race out with it and Dominic to the front steps where the reception would be clear.

It was a ridiculously beautiful spring morning, sixty-five degrees, clear sky, flowering trees, singing birds.  Even as I dialed 911 and yelled “Help!” at the top of my lungs to no one in particular, part of my mind lingered on how bizarre it was to be going through what we were going through on such a pretty day.  And the other part, the part I tried to keep firmly tamped down, wondered if he was going to die in my arms and reorient the world, the universe, around this one terrible moment, everything else Before or After the now.

And the next moment, things got ever so slightly better:  He moaned.  Not a cry, per se, but a low vocal complaint.  “Hey Dad, I don’t know what’s going on here, but man, this really sucks.  I can’t move ANYTHING.”  At that point I still didn’t know what the hell was going on, and it still seemed entirely possible that something had gone terribly wrong with him that would never get better.  But by the same token it was clear that whatever it was he wasn’t going to die, and that fact alone was no small measure of hope.

This was happening as I was on the phone with the operator, who could hear his moans on her end of the line and assured me that they were a good sign.  An ambulance was on its way but a fire truck happened to be driving by when the alert went out, so I heard the holy sound of sirens before I had even hung up with 911.  One of the firemen who approached had been exercising on the elliptical machine next to mine at the Y two days earlier.

The paramedics arrived not long after.  The one who examined him and heard my (somewhat frantic) account of what had happened assured me that she had seen this sort of thing many, many times before:  seizure after a spike in fever temperature.  (If you’re still freaking out at this point in the story, go google “febrile seizure” and you’ll learn that it all seems way, way scarier than it actually turns out to be.)

So, the two minutes of hell gave way to half an hour of holding my son on my lap in the ambulance and then on a hospital bed, whispering into his ear, trying to believe the people who said that he was going to be OK, and waiting, waiting for him to lift an arm, move his head, cry, or do anything more than adjust his eyes slightly to focus on something else.  And finally, it happened.  It wasn’t even particularly gradual.  One moment he was lethargic and the next he realized there was an oxygen mask on his face and a bracelet on his wrist and a blood pressure cuff on his arm and a band-aid on the bottom of his foot:  “What the hell, Dad?  Get me OUT of here!”  I had been falling down a bottomless pit, and his cry was the bed of pillows at the bottom.

As you might imagine, what followed was several dreary hours of hanging around in a hospital waiting for this or that test or tidbit of information.  All the stuff the paramedics had indicated was probably the case turned out to be the case:  he had a fever, and it had spiked while he slept, causing what’s called a febrile seizure.  Happens to 1 in 25 kids between 6 months and 3 years of age.  The surprise came when the results of the chest x-ray came back:  the fever had come along because he had pneumonia.

In fact, it’s likely that that congestion that we noticed he had as long ago as last Saturday was probably pneumonia.  It didn’t even begin to occur to us because 1) it’s springtime in Washington, pollen capital of the world — who doesn’t have congestion? and 2) until this morning he had not been acting sick in the slightest.   If you’re a parent you understand:  it’s a wild, crazy world of ambiguous symptoms, variable forehead temperatures and nose runniness and skin tone and whatnot, so what you fall back on is the reliable question:  Is he acting like himself?  Or is something Off?  Dominic, blessed Dominic, so good-natured, so tough, gave us no clue until this morning that anything might be the matter.

When the doctor said they wanted him to stick around long enough to see him eat, drink, sleep, and wake, I took the opportunity to get out of the hospital, get the charger for the phone, call a few folks, and grab some food for Suanna and me.  By the time I got back he was up from his nap and was acting … like every other time he’s just up from his nap.  We had to linger longer to let the hospital bureaucracy run its course but by the time we got home the bracelet on his wrist would have seemed odd to anyone watching:  “Why was that kid at the hospital?  He’s the picture of health!”  While I was typing this in the living room I watched Dominic pounce onto Suanna’s back, grab a handful of her hair in each hand, and merrily bellow “C’mon, horse!”

So now the strangest thing about the scariest two minutes of my life is how incredibly distant they feel.  Other than a course of antibiotics, there is every indication that life will go on as if literally nothing out of the ordinary happened today.  And yet:  I have already had plenty of opportunities to run through the What-Ifs.  What if I hadn’t turned the baby monitor on?  What if I had decided to take a nap too instead of making a cup of coffee?  What if he’s one of the 3% or so for whom febrile seizures are a precursor of more seizures to come?  Life goes on, but those two minutes, and the What-Ifs that go along with them, will be waking me up at night for a good while to come.