Month: November 2014

How to Survive Thanksgiving

  1. Don’t make any plans to travel. You’re not up for that. Sure, the idea of spending four consecutive winter days at home with your kids may sound daunting, but you’ll make it.
  1. Don’t try to get invited anywhere either. If you go to someone else’s home, you’ll just spend the afternoon chasing after the toddler, or keeping an eye on whoever is supposed to be chasing the toddler.
  1. Consider inviting people over, but don’t follow through. It looks like Thanksgiving is just going to be your family of four. Let go of any lingering fears that this is a sign you’ve become a social pariah.
  1. There’s a turkey in your freezer, so you’re all set on that front. Delay the unthawing process because there’s no room in your refrigerator. Tell yourself that the cold water submersion process will work just fine.
  1. Don’t even consider beginning any of your cooking projects until you’ve gone for a long holiday run. Get drizzled on and smell the wood smoke. Listen to the frogs; say hello to the llamas.
  1. Tell your wife to take the toddler out visiting so that you can make a pumpkin pie with your older son. Remark on how enjoyable the day has been so far.
  1. Get the turkey in the oven more or less on time, even though the toddler has woken up way too early from a nap, and he insists on being held. It’s hard to prepare a turkey with one hand. Dismiss your concern that the inner cavity still felt partially frozen.


  1. Watch the house descend into chaos right around five—an hour past the time you had hoped to eat. For some reason, though the potatoes and salad are ready, the turkey stays at 140 degrees. Consider hopefully that maybe your thermometer is broken and start carving at the turkey. Realize it’s not your thermometer; the turkey is raw in places. Tell your older son that yes, he can decorate the dining area. Take note that “decorating”, to him, means spreading blankets on the floor and piling every stuffed animal he owns on top of them. Try to remain calm as the toddler promptly dismantles these decorations, and both of your sons wind up hitting each other and in tears.
  1. Try not to take it too personally that your older son won’t eat Thanksgiving dinner because he’s too busy screaming in his room. Try to understand that those decorations were, for whatever reason, very important to him, especially the unsharpened pencils that he laid at every place setting. Consider that someday he might be a world-renowned decorative genius and then this moment will make more sense. Try not to make a big deal out of the fact that you spent half of the day cooking and now no one can really eat. Remind yourself that holidays are weird. They just are.
  1. Find consolation in the fact that your son more or less gets over himself and eats two servings of mashed potatoes. Follow his instructions when, between dinner and dessert, he asks you to sit on the couch with your wife. He has a card to present. It’s a classic of sorts: one of those turkeys made from a handprint, with a Thanksgiving poem inside. He made it in kindergarten. Fawn over it. Remember that you’re all supposed to say what you’re grateful for. No one gets too creative, and that’s okay. You’re all just grateful for each other. Even the toddler gets in on the spirit, rattling off everyone’s name.
  1. Whip some cream. Eat some pie. Decide that this holiday has been no better and no worse than the vast majority of holidays you can remember.



Facing the Dentist

Any time I see a dentist appointment on my calendar, I’m tempted to cancel it. “Oh, that’s not a good time for us,” I think, before logic kicks in and I remind myself: there’s never a good time for the dentist.

Smoke needed two cavities filled earlier this week, and I prepared us both for the appointment by pretending no preparation was necessary. “So, we’re going to the dentist on Monday,” I mentioned a couple of times offhandedly.

“I hope they don’t floss my teeth!” Smoke replied. His most recent memory was of a check-up, where apparently the flossing irritated him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I don’t think they’ll floss you.” I didn’t urge him to reach further back into his memory, to the times when they’ve drilled into his teeth. Sugar-bugs, they call them at the pediatric dentist’s office. As if Smoke doesn’t already know the word cavities. As if calling it something cute will make his visit to the dentist any better.


 I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your mouth worked on as a small child. In part, this is because I didn’t have cavities until I was in my twenties. But also, I just can’t fathom how any child under ten can summon the composure to have his mouth fucked with for nearly an hour, to be prodded with metal instruments, to have rubber spacers stuck between his teeth, to have his gums coated with cloying flavored gels, to have a stinky latex barrier spread over his mouth and clamped into place. How can he stand, without the patience that comes with maturity, that feeling of the tired jaw, the raw and bleeding gums, the massive gloved fingers pushing at your cheek, the sound of the drill and that burning-hair-burning-tooth smell?

My own dentist has invested tens of thousands of dollars on personal entertainment systems for their patients. Every time I go in for fillings, the assistant offers me a set of goggles and earbuds that will play a movie that only I can see. I always say “Yes, please. Distract me,” even though I’ll miss two-thirds of the dialogue because I can’t hear over the drills. When all the work is over, I stumble out of there swollen-lipped, numb-mouthed, and groggy. It’s a strange feeling to have a movie projected a quarter inch from your eyeballs while someone drills into your teeth.

But Smoke didn’t even have this option. He had a little gas to calm him, delivered through strawberry scented nasal hood. And I had to watch. As the assistant stretched the latex dam over his mouth, she warned Smoke that he wouldn’t be able to talk. “So you can just raise your hand up if something hurts or if there’s a problem.”

“Okay,” he said just before she fastened the dam in place. He lay there, plank-like, wearing goggles and a bib, the nasal hood covering his nose.

nasal hood

We waited for the anesthetic to take effect, and for the dentist to be ready. I poked around on my phone for a minute, and then put it away, reminding myself to be present. This wasn’t my dental appointment to check out of.

When the dentist arrived with the drill, the assistant reminded him “breathe through your nose.” My attention wandered to the pictures on the wall; unicorns, gnomes, and wizards. My eyes wandered and kept wandering, failing to take in that Smoke’s left hand was raised. Was he trying to get their attention, I wondered, or was he just doing that with his hand? I couldn’t hear anything above the buzzing, but I heard the assistant tell him, “just a minute.” She gently patted his hand down.

Moments later the hand came up again. Both times he held it at a right angle. She patted it down. Up it came again. His arm rested, but the hand rose in a clear gesture: Stop.

Once the dentist had finished his drilling, they removed the metal clamps and drew back the barrier. “What is it you wanted to tell us?” they asked him.

“I’m having trouble breathing through my nose,” Smoke said.

“You’re doing a good job,” they reassured him, and closed the dam again.

I sat there silently, feeling betrayed on his behalf. I got it, I really did. They did this job all day, every day. They knew when a kid was in pain or truly struggling to breathe. They knew that Smoke was a talker, raising his hand to fill them in on every concern, and they knew that if they unclamped the dam every time he lifted his hand, they wouldn’t be able to finish anything. It was in everyone’s interest to keep going. I agreed. I wanted them to keep going. I wanted them to finish.

And yet: they had given him that option. Your hand, they had said, is your voice. And then they had ignored him. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but this strikes me as dishonest and unfair.

As the assistant applied the fillings and sanded off the edges, Smoke’s hand rose again and again, his feeble reminder that he was uncomfortable and waiting to be heard. “Hold his hand, Mom,” she instructed me during the last few minutes.

I held his hand until he was finished, unsure if this made me a comforter or a collaborator.

In the car on the way home, I told him, “I saw that you were raising your hand and I saw that they were ignoring you.”

Sometimes as a parent, I’m not always sure if and when and how I should rescue my kid. But Plan B is always this: I tell him what I saw and what I didn’t like.

Leaving Colorado Part 5: Homecoming

Leaving Walla Walla  Photo from

Leaving Walla Walla
Photo from

The last leg of our journey should have been easy. After two long days of solo driving, the trip from Walla Walla to Olympia—five hours on a good day—was a route I’d traveled at least a dozen times before. The distance was finite, reasonable—there would be no pushing on another hundred miles while the baby screamed. I wasn’t searching for the next hotel, I was aiming straight for home. It was waiting for us. It would be there.

And so we spent a lazy morning with our Walla Walla friends: eating breakfast, lingering over coffee, playing on the playground. I told myself that the late start would serve us all, that my children would be compliant passengers after their car-free morning. Maybe—I dared to think it—we would make it all the way there without stopping.

I loaded the kids in their seats and the dogs in their spots for our final departure at one, just as the sun was reaching its highest point in the sky. It was September, and the morning had been cool enough, and so I hadn’t thought about my broken air conditioning, or how it feels to drive through shade-less Walla Walla. And before we’d even past the city limits, just as the baby had fallen asleep, I noted orange cones down the middle of the road, and an endless backup of cars. Our black Honda, crawling along on the asphalt, became an oven. Thirty minutes later, when the traffic finally cleared, we had traveled less than five miles.

The four-year-old whined that he was “sweaty”.

The baby, who should have slept a full three hours, woke up and added his voice to the chorus of cranky.

The dogs panted, and shifted, and acted generally good-natured because that is what dogs are good for.

I drove for an hour and then stopped for Slurpees. Sugar cheered both of my children. I assumed that the worst was behind us.


We were about halfway there when I started winding up the mountain road, and passed a sign that said Caution: Loose Gravel. I’d seen these signs before on bigger highways and wondered why they even bothered with the warning. The roads were always fine, it seemed to me, just an extra chip of gravel here and there. My bigger problem was the sun, which was no longer hot, but was blindingly bright when it cut through the shade of the mountain. I wore sunglasses and pulled down the visor, but the brightness still shocked me at every turn.

And then I hit the gravel. The brightness filled with thin white dust and now I really could not see. I slowed the car to twenty miles an hour. I could see about five feet in front of me, but not beyond. It was like driving in a blizzard. A sunny September blizzard. My four-year-old complained that he was bored, and that he wanted a snack. “I can’t see right now!” I told him, my voice tight with fear. “No, I said I want a snack!” he protested. I kept telling myself to just keep driving, to stay slow, to keep looking those five feet ahead. I kept telling myself we were safe even though it seemed we were in danger. The baby cried weakly and then quit, like he didn’t want to commit.

The dust blizzard continued for longer than I ever would have imagined. Occasionally, I’d drive through some shade and see just a little bit better and think: this isn’t so bad, and then the sun would blast out my vision once more. I kept thinking: how much of this road did they pave, as I rounded another mountain turn. Two miles? Five miles? Twenty? In the end, it felt like twenty though it can’t have been much more than five.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

It was nearly ten at night when we finally arrived in Olympia. Both of my kids were awake. After the dust blizzard and a stop for dinner, the baby had cried for nearly an hour, slept for twenty minutes, and then woke up to resume his screaming. Now, as the car pulled to a stop, he took a staggered breath and quieted.

As I parked the car, my phone rang. It was an old friend. “You home yet?” she asked. “You need anything?”

“I could use a beer,” I told her.

Within ten minutes she delivered. She brought another friend and together they passed around the baby and chatted up the four-year-old as I wandered from room to room with my open beer. In a daze, I laid out suitcases, fed dogs, put sheets on the bed, engaged in the chores of home. Because that’s where I was.

There was something empty about it. The place seemed to echo. We’d abandoned it all summer after all. But still, it was comforting.

Home is the place with the scratches in the floors, the smell you recognize, where even an unmade bed, an empty refrigerator bring ease. Home is the place where your friends come to deliver you a beer just because you need one.

Conversation of the Week: Remembering Jeremy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how Smoke’s best friend in his kindergarten class moved away suddenly. The week after he left, I talked to Smoke about it indirectly, by asking him each evening who he played with at recess. He seemed to be coping by reconnecting with old friends, and making a few new ones, though none of his recess friends were in his classroom.

By the end of week two, I figured we were over the hump. I figured that, but I didn’t want to push too hard. And then Saturday evening, as Smoke was getting out of the bath and drying off, he was giggling over some remembered joke that Jeremy had made. Like most kindergarten jokes relayed secondhand, I couldn’t follow it.  Smoke seemed surprised by his own memory of Jeremy, and a pained look crossed his face.

“Every time I think of Jeremy I almost cry,” he told me. He was almost crying.

“I can see that,” I told him. I wanted to fix it. “Do you want me to see if I can find his phone number? Or would you rather I focus on making play dates with new friends?” I asked. Getting Jeremy’s phone number felt like a long shot. For all I know they’ve moved to Tennessee. Besides that, I had called Jeremy’s mom once before to invite him to Smoke’s birthday party. She wasn’t especially friendly, and just as we were hanging up I heard a male voice in the background shout “Who was that?”  I was hoping Smoke would opt for the latter.

“How about you focus on both?” Smoke asked. For a moment I thought he was brightening. I hung up his towel as he pulled on his skivvies. But as we walked towards his bedroom, the tears returned. “I feel like all that I have left of Jeremy is a memory.”

Seriously? I have no idea where he learned to talk like that. I scoured my brain trying to come up with Lifetime movies I might have inadvertently exposed him to.

That was last week, and every so often I think that I’ll try to get a hold of Jeremy’s parents.  But I’m pretty sure that I’m only avoiding what Smoke already knows is true.

Tall Smoke


Embracing Darkness

It’s November now, and I’m afraid of the oncoming winter and the speed at which it descends.

I’m afraid of the way darkness begins to swallow my day at both ends. Every week we lose about eighteen minutes of daylight, nine in the morning, nine in the evening, until those minutes add up to hours, and evening isn’t evening anymore–it’s night.

I’m afraid of the way rain descends like a blanket over the remaining daylight hours. When it arrives, it seems it will never leave. I wake to the sound of rain in darkness. Hours later, after tea and breakfast, I peer through the window, trying to assess the shape and force of the rain.

I am afraid of the feeling I get, a tension that sits between stomach and ribs, when I run from my house to my car, my head bent to keep from getting wet, and then bent all day in my windowless office, down, down, always looking down. I leave work in darkness, arrive to darkness, and all that awaits me is a cold house, a tired wife, and a set of tasks to be done before bedtime. That tension beneath my ribs grows and takes over my body until I am nothing but sinew and fatigue.

I am afraid of the television, afraid that it will take over my house like a monster.

I am afraid of the piles of clutter in my house, because now there is no sunny, open yard to escape to.

I am afraid of my nearly 2-year-old son, afraid that his climbing, inquisitive, joyous spirit cannot be contained indoors.

I’m afraid of the noise, the epic screeching noise of cooped-up kids in my very small home.

I’m afraid of the Christmas season, of all the projects I take on and never complete, of obligations I’ll perceive but never fulfill.

Photo by C.S. Berney

I remind myself that winter is a season. Seasons pass. More importantly, each one has its purpose, a goal it wants to involve you in, a prescription for your personal growth.

Spring: Renew.

Summer: Play.

Fall: Gather.

Winter: Look inward.

Earlier this week, I drove alongside the bay at high tide and thought about how the Pacific Northwest, now more than ever, feels like home. It was a balmy morning. I had awoken to the hammer of rain, but by the time I left the house, there were cloud breaks. The world was wet and the sky was dynamic—storm clouds and patches of blue. The kids and I walked the four blocks to Smoke’s school and it was a world of giant puddles and dead worms and, even better: a giant red toadstool that seems to double in size every day.


I thought about how darkness can be kind, like a womb, how it can push me deeper into myself, reengage me in the creative work of knowing my own soul.

Winter, I am sorry, but you are harder to love than summer with its endless twilight and warm lakes. You are harder to love than green spring and crisp fall. You are just plain hard to love, but I will try.

Mistaken Identities: Some Things my Son Identifies as “Mama”


Apparently I’m the one in the upper left. “Mama!”


Lady Lamp

This one is a little more flattering. “Mama.”



Totally makes sense. “Mama.”


Okay, since Stump pointed it out, I do see some similarities between Mary and Vader.

Okay, since Stump pointed it out, I do see some similarities between Mary and Vader. “Mama!”


From Stump's favorite book, Everyone Poops. "Mama."

From Stump’s favorite book, Everyone Poops. “Mama.”