"Parenting Your Preschooler"

Sending our kids to a cooperative preschool meant we went to monthly parent meetings and sometimes we had a parent educator. I remember that we had one named Fran and another one who was Not Fran. I don’t remember if this story is about Fran or Not Fran. Fran had short hair and a dry, academic way about her. Children seemed like unwanted and unexpected carbonation in her drink as they bubbled about the classroom, her fingers twitching in reaction. As irritated as Fran seemed by the presence of children, she seemed even more undone by parents, especially those with a lot of questions. Not Fran had a mop of curly hair and warm eyes and a sultry overnight radio DJ voice. Not Fran liked to say understanding things about parents and children having clashing personalities. Both were prone to silences and somewhat grave. They attended every other parent meeting and we received parent education from them. I was a coop preschool parent for many years, something like seven or ten, and I remember well only one parent education lecture.
January-ish, 1991
Taken in the subway in New York City
Me, with my oldest child
Even though this story is about my youngest, it would 
take me weeks to find a photo of me with me youngest, 
if I have one at all. Back then, when we were still using 
film, and it was our third kid, the photo-taking didn’t 
happen very often.

This one evening, I had had a long day. My youngest child was only a couple of months old and had had a whole set of shots that day. He was still nursing so he came along to the parent meeting. That evening, he was uncomfortable from the shots, and very fussy. We did our regular meeting business about upcoming field trips, snack schedule, and changes in classroom procedure, and I had to step away from the group to attend to my cranky infant. Finally, I got him quiet in my arms and I tiptoed back to the group.
The parent educator, Fran or Not Fran sat forward on the sofa, her knees tightly together, her materials in a messy stack on the coffee table in front of her. Parents sat all around her, in the living room chairs, on the sofa arm, in dining room chairs they’d pulled in.
Fran or Not Fran was speaking in a quiet monotone on a subject that had everyone’s attention. All eyes were on her. She was methodically explaining that the technique she proposed relieves stress for both kids and parents, makes for more fluid communication, and models emotional resilience. Because I hadn’t heard what the subject was, I was having trouble following her. She droned on for a while.
When the parents started asking questions, I tried piecing together what she was talking about. I took my attention from Fran or Not Fran to the other parents. They were concerned, serious, reflecting on the topic. There was not even a half-smile to indicate the topic of discussion: they were talking about using humor in parenting. 
I did what I always do in awkward situations: tried to be funny. Just to get things rolling, I asked, “I’m sorry. What are we talking about?”
Fran or Not Fran turned to me, saying gently, “Using humor in parenting.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does it come in a refillable pump spray?”

No one laughed. The other parents looked confused. Fran or Not Fran looked mildly annoyed.

On Breakfast, Humoring Your Mother, and Remembering Your Friends

I woke up the other day feeling like a big farm breakfast. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, I had slept well and things felt right with the world. I found four pieces of bacon in a bag in the freezer, sliced off some mighty fine bread from our favorite bakeryin TriBeCa for toast, and scrambled two of those farm-fresh local eggs—the ones that are in the carton all brown and greenish blue, and every size from wee to woah. I made two different pots of tea (gen mai cha and rooibos) and a glass of juice and sat down for a rare breakfast feast.
Farm-fresh local
free range organic eggs
My mobile phone rang.
I wasn’t planning to answer it. I had breakfast to eat. I looked at it, though. The number was not one I recognized, not one my phone recognized, and a suburban St. Louis, Missouri number. I expected it was a call from my high school, maybe, asking for money. Something like that. I looked up my St. Louis aunt’s number—it was not a match. I ate my breakfast. When I saw there was a message I hesitated to listen, but curiosity got the better of me.
The first time through I fumbled the pressing of the speakerphone button so I didn’t hear the name. I had to hear it twice. It was my brother’s good friend, saying I should call back, that he had important news that I would want to know about a friend. He was cheerful and pleasant in his message, and seemed a little flustered.
I finished my breakfast. My delicious toast lost its buttery wonder. The finishing of what was supposed to be a special, feel-happy meal becoming mechanical.
I called back, struggling to identify myself. I forgot my own last name.
My brother’s friend got around to telling me that he heard through the grapevine that my childhood best friend, B., who he knew from those ski trips and because their kids went to school together in St. Louis, had died.
I’m not sure when B. and I spoke last. Maybe the summer after my mother died.
When my mother was dying, in her last weeks, one of the last conversations I had with her was about the light fixtures in her house and how she and I should go over to B.’s house, to see how B. had the exact same light fixtures in her house. When a person who is dying of a brain tumor tells you this—that you should go someplace together—flat on her back from her hospital bed that is set up in the dining room so she can die at home, you agree. It sounds like a great idea. Let’s go over to B.’s house to see her light fixtures. You humor your dying mother’s nonsensical suggestions. Your mother isn’t going anywhere, will soon forget what she just told you, might even tell you again, a couple of times.
When you are a kid, your best friend is the most important person in the whole wide world. It matters whether she does Girl Scouts; even if you don’t want to sell cookies, you will do Girl Scouts if your best friend does Girl Scouts. It matters which class she is in, because if you have the scary teacher, at least you have the scary teacher together. It matters that she goes to the same day-camp in the summer, and it matters that you can walk to her house. If she gets new Jack Purcell sneakers, you get them, too.
I think B. and I became friends after my 4th grade best friend T. moved away. In the 5thgrade, B. was already tall. I was still the smallest in the class. B. was a foot and a half taller than me and had the most beautiful strawberry blond hair and bright blue eyes. I had dark brown hair that I never brushed. B. showed up every day with a huge pink lipstick print on her forehead, deposited there by her mother as she left to make the short walk to school. My mother would lock the door after I left for school, so I didn’t try to sneak back in the house.
Her dog was a white German shepherd named “Princess,” a fat panting thing with a violent grudge against certain strangers. Sometimes, B. sleep-walked. B. taught me how to be preppy in junior high school, when preppy was about to be a thing. B. was popular in Junior High School when I wasn’t, but then I changed to private school in 9th grade, and left her behind. Yet, we stayed friends. She invited me to her school’s 9th grade dances; we invited her skiing on our family vacations.
My brother’s friend says B. was very private and no one knew she was ill.
Once, B. and I went to Christine’s house, where her dad was sitting in his upstairs study. Christine’s dad saw B. and got a sly grin and held out his index finger, “Pull my finger, B.,” he said.
Now, I grew up with brothers and uncles and cousins and second cousins and great uncles and grandparents and all the rest and if there was one thing I knew, it was that you did not pull the finger of anyone, avuncular or otherwise. B., being from a protected and tidy little suburban household. B. was not so prissy as to be a push-over, but still was rather reserved.  To me, B.’s mother was a throw-back, with her hair teased up and Aquanetted, her crisp housedress covered in an apron, her lips slathered in fuschia lipstick before she ever left the house. My mother wore her hair long and straight and parted in the middle, and had butterflies embroidered on her bellbottom jeans. B.’s stockbroker dad sang 50s ballads when he puttered in the basement. My dad had huge sideburns and played rec league ice hockey. B. had had none of the random forces of avuncular jocularity to contend with, and had as yet not encountered the offered finger to be pulled. 
Hence the suggested pulling was dutifully performed by B., and Christine’s dad tipped theatrically onto one butt-cheek like a pouring tea-kettle in his comfy smoking-and-paper-reading armchair, letting rip from the sitting part of his esteemed personage with a ripe and thoroughly air-tearing, wet, percussive and voluble fart, rending B. colorless and limp, nearly lifeless and faint, well before I could intercede, grab her by the arm, stop or steer her away.
We were different, B. and I, with complementary areas of expertise.
B. grew up, got married, became an architect, had three kids. She stayed in St. Louis. I grew up, got married, became a math teacher, had three kids. I stayed away. We exchanged holiday cards some years, but I’ve fallen out of the habit of holiday cards, haven’t I? I blog.
Death isn’t in and of itself evil, it’s just what happens at the end of life. It has to happen. Being dead at 51, though, with children still in school?   Sometimes I think some force of evil is erasing my childhood. Ok, maybe not evil, it’s just the way things go. Just life and death, and loss. Everything we ever have that is wonderful or good or special will go or end or shrivel or die or break or run away or collapse or have to be put down, put out of its own misery. Our job is to make the most of what we get, I guess.
Until B.’s obituary ran, a few days later, all I could find out about her online was her nominal LinkedIn presence. I saw her brother there, and her husband and oldest daughter. I have many mixed feelings about LinkedIn, but one thing I am absolutely sure of is that it is not a place to send a condolence email. I was utterly distracted by not knowing what to do, how to reach out, whom to contact, and also by what happened. It makes it hard to focus on even the littlest thing.
I have written and re-written this post, trying to come up with something to say about how the death of my childhood friend fits into my life.  I can’t. It doesn’t. I live in New York; I don’t go to St. Louis anymore. I guess I do regret not being at her funeral in St. Louis to tell that one story, preferably to the whole assembled and somber mass of grieving friends and colleagues. What would the people who posted comments in her online guest book saying they know she’s already an angel in heaven think of me? I’d like to tell them to pull my finger.

Cat’s on the Roof and He Won’t Come Down

My father told two jokes that I remember, though he was devoted to the practical joke as an art form, with particular fondness for April Fools’ Day. One of the jokes he liked to tell, or told once, or I’m pretty sure he told once, maybe, was about a guy who went out of town on vacation for the first time in a long time, and left his brother as a house and pet sitter.
After just a couple of days, the guy on vacation calls his brother to check in, “Hey, how’s everything?” or something like that.
The brother’s like, “Oh, shit, man, your cat died.”
“WHAT!?!” says the guy. “Died! What are you doing, going and ruining my vacation and telling me the cat died?! Now I’m gonna be upset the whole trip, I’m gonna have to tell the wife and the kids why I’m upset, and they’ll get even more upset, and it’s all because of you! First vacation I’ve taken in years and you’ve ruined it! Man, you gotta learn to manage the information, you know?”
The brother, he doesn’t know.
“Manage the information! It goes like this,“ says the guy. “It makes no difference if I know exactly when the cat died. I’m on vacation! You can feed out the bad news a little at a time, see? Like breaking it to me slowly, like that. I call today, you say, ‘Oh, the cat’s on the roof and he won’t come down.’ I worry, but not a lot. I call back in a couple days and you say, ‘Cat fell off the roof, he’s at the vet, we don’t know if he’ll make it.’ Like that, see? You tell me the news, it gets worse bit by bit, and then right before I get back you tell me he died. But you don’t ruin my whole vacation over it. Jeez.”
After a pause the guy asks his brother, “So, how’s Mom?”
And after an even longer pause the brother says, “Uh, Mom’s on the roof, and she won’t come down.”
So last night when I tweeted, “The cat’s on the roof and he won’t come down,” my brother recognized the old joke as something he knows I like to tell, and he had to text me to ask, “…are you joking around or did something bad just happen?”
By the end of last week, the weather was cold enough at night that we were waking up at the farmhouse and finding it was 55F in the kitchen. Time had come to take the AC units out of the windows, store them in the basement and turn on the heat. This was accomplished by the Bacon Provider, doing his gender-normative best to uncomplainingly lift heavy objects and carry them downstairs.
The next day, after a long drive back from our youngest son’s school’s Parents Weekend (that included both a bank of overwhelmingly positive teacher conferences and a very sunny autumn soccer game where the youngest son was observed running, participating in defense, and kicking the ball), the Bacon Provider found that the sun into which we had been squinting in Connecticut had heated our Dutchess County farmhouse bedroom to an uninviting stuffiness, and opened the windows (including the one that had previously housed the AC unit, and had no cat-restraining screen). When Schwartz walked into our bedroom, he did not hesitate to jump up onto the windowsill, and did not further hesitate to disappear out the window into the dark night.
When you are sitting five feet away from a particular window and it is completely dark outside and it is a house you know but don’t know especially well, you are not immediately sure if–when your cat leaps out of that particular window–he lands on the roof of the porch below or if he falls to the grass, two stories down. I suggested, as one such person, sitting five feet away from the particular window, on my tired butt (worn out completely by a barrage of teacher conferences, by witnessing an athletic spectacle completely ordinary to parents the world around but actually quite out of the ordinary for me, and by driving back the two plus hours from the Connecticut school), and pretty determined not to move, saying aloud, “Hey. The cat just jumped out the window,” in the least alarmed voice I have, given that I haven’t actually been practicing sounding unalarmed. The Bacon Provider got out his tactical flashlight (which he carries at all times just in case, because you never know, and I might have a history here of rolling my eyes about it), peered into the darkness and assessed that the cat was already far from the point of his initial roof access from that particular window.
The cat, having left through the particular window in the dark, was, I felt, responsible for getting himself back in.

The cat’s on the roof and he won’t come down
The cat’s failure to promptly return was blamed on me. The cat’s ability to have left in the first place was blamed on the Bacon Provider.
I obtained a different flashlight, on principle, a large flashlight belonging to the owner of the house, for which I had recently purchased replacement batteries when I discovered that its had run down, changed the batteries, and went outside to assess the cat’s situation from the ground. I could hear the snuffling of horses in their overnight turnout paddocks, and then, the frantic call of a very frightened black cat, alone, in the dark, on top of the house. With the flashlight I revealed that the cat had ascended to the highest point of the roof.
The cat was on the roof, and he wouldn’t come down.
I may have tweeted this. Probably right away. Maybe.
Strategically chosen windows were opened, and lights were arranged to illuminate the cat’s easiest re-entry into the house, but no amount of our coaxing from these windows would persuade Schwartz to take even a single step down.
Bacon Provider made a persistent effort, sitting on the windowsill for a while, trying to reason with the cat, and finishing by telling him he was “a fucking idiot.” We went to sleep knowing that the cat was on the roof, and he wouldn’t come down.
Just after dawn, Schwartz had shifted away from the chimney and was demonstrating awareness of the illuminated window (you could see him from it). I pointed out to him (the cat) that I would be able to reach him if he would just take a few steps towards me. The cat tried to take a few steps, but the crumbly feeling of asphalt shingles and the steep-ish pitch of the roof was too much for him. Schwartz retreated to the peak of the roof.
Next, the Bacon Provider got up and gave the situation some serious analysis (this is not unusual behavior for him). Obtaining a towel to change the objectionable footing, and opening the top of the window so he was reaching across the gap to the top of the dormer, my husband thought he could grab the cat if he could get him do the unthinkable: to come to the edge.
The cat had come out to the dormer of the roof, but he still wouldn’t come down.
Well, dear reader, they don’t call him the Bacon Provider for nothing. He went to the kitchen and brought to the theater of cat rescue operations a bit of cat kibble in a cat dish, with that cat-familiar rattle and cat-enticing smell. This was all Schwartz needed to take the steps down the scary slope, just enough to be grabbed by the scruff of his fat, black neck, re-grabbed (and possibly almost dropped from a great height), and pulled, confidently, inside. Along the way, the entire enticement of cat kibble was scattered all over the roof. When Bacon Provider put the cat down on the carpet, the cat sat down and licked his shoulder as if nothing had happened—nothing at all.
I hope that crows find the cat food on the roof and enjoy themselves.

Not long after giving himself a temporary pass on self-coat-inspection, Schwartz joined me in my room, going directly– without pausing to say “Hello!” or “Look! I made it!” or even, “Meow!”  –to that particular windowsill where he made his initial escape, checking to see if maybe that particular window was still open so he could do it all over again.

Jokes told by 11-year-olds, and other miracles

Earlier this summer my 11-year-old told a version of this joke at dinner. Here is how he told it to me today:
So this guy goes to a job audition for the person who is going to ring the bell on the top of a great big tower to wake everybody up. It was a pretty easy job, so the man thought it woud be pretty easy and he would get the job. So he goes in the building and the job auditioner says “Well, you can just about have the job, all you have to do is ring a bell.”
Then he says, “Wait a minute, dude, you don’t have any arms.”
And the guy is like, “Naw, don’t worry, I can make it work.”
So he climbs up the tower and the job auditioner says “Alright, show me how you’re gonna do this.”
So then, he starts slamming his face against the bell. Job auditioner says, “Ok, you can have the job, but that looks like it hurts.”
Unfortunately, a few days later, the man accidentally fell off the tower. All the townspeople crowded around him. One said,”Does anyone know who this guy is?”
The job auditioner came up and said, “I dunno, but his face rings a bell.”

This is the view of Sansepolcro from the bell tower of the cathedral there. The confraternity of bellringers performed a demonstration for us. I had forgtten the joke told in June and remembered it suddenly at this visit.