Saturday, July 23, 2016

Empty Sweaters, Part Two

June 15 was a Wednesday. It was two days after Elise's birthday. I got up early to go for a run just like I had the morning before. The day before, I remember not even being able to move my legs. It was like a dream I often have when I can't run, can't move forward, and inevitably resort to crawling. Yes, I have dreams like this. Maybe everyone does. I don't know. Dreams where I can't run. Tuesday morning was just one of those days. I felt like total crap but I'd at least gotten out of bed, put my shoes on, and made it out the door. That--in and of itself--is no small feat. So. I don't waste those mornings when I get them. And forced myself through three pathetic miles.

The next morning, Wednesday, was a different story. I flew up and down the trail and up and over hills, punishing the pavement with the soles of my running shoes. I ran through morning showers, mist on my face and sweat stinging my eyes. I saw rainbows and storm clouds tinged peach by the rising sun. I may have cried. When I got home, I snuck back into the house careful not to wake anyone. I stood in the laundry room and stripped, throwing my sweaty running shorts and socks right into the washing machine. I took off my running shoes and immediately knew something was wrong. My foot throbbed. By the time I got home from work later that evening my whole foot was swollen. 

That night, I stood in the kitchen in bare feet and showed Elise.

"Your toe is crooked," was the first thing she said.

Was it? I didn't know. I didn't make a habit of looking at my feet but the second toe on the left foot was leaning to the right, almost touching the big toe. The toe on the right foot didn't do that. But I didn't know if it had always done that or if that was a disturbing sign of something new. 

I didn't run again for 5 1/2 weeks. My work shoes made it worse and I limped at the office. I went to a physical therapist who thought it was extensor tendinitis and stretched it and put ultrasound on it. I iced it. I rolled my shin with a foam roller with knobs on it the size of the Hulk's knuckles. When it wasn't better after two weeks, I made an appointment to see a doctor. I got an X-ray which didn't show anything. If it was a stress fracture, it wouldn't until the next X-ray when the stress fracture would appear as a thin white line of new bone where it was healing. I know because I've had a stress fracture before. I went to the doctor again on Friday and had a second X-ray, but there was no stress fracture.

"A stress fracture is the only thing I would tell you not to run on," he told me. I took that as the green light I was waiting for. The joint in my second toe was inflamed, pushing the tow to the side. 

I ran this morning and it was all at once the most wonderful and horrible experience. I thought about the pain the entire time. With every step, I asked myself did that hurt? Did that hurt? Did that hurt? For two miles. Of course the answer was no, but I expect I'll be imaging pain for awhile. In running though, I started to feel a little bit like my old self. When I got home, I mowed the line and vacuumed the house. I am immediately more invigorated by an activity that--if anything--should make me more tired. 

A short while later I fell asleep on the couch which I felt bad about because I missed important work emails. But I am mortal and falleable and fu€k I was tired. I can only finish work at 11:00 and get up at 6:00 so many days in a row. When I woke up, I tried to order flowers for Elise online. tried to call me an hour later but I was in the shower. When I tried to call them back, the automated message said my approximate wait time was 60 minutes. Isn't that an hour?! So I hung up. I still don't know if she ever got the flowers. 

It's been a long 5 1/2 weeks but that time is over and a new chapter is beginning. I'm ready for them to come home. The house plants are dying despite my best efforts to keep them alive. I water them religiosly and make them take turns at the window in the sunlight like my kids sharing the iPad . I even tried breathing on them. It's as if they sense the house is empty and my attempts to keep them alive are not genuine, but done out of guilt. It's like they're dying on me on purpose. 

There is no happy medium. When the kids are here, fighting, screaming, crying, complaining that they wanted a green plate instead of the purple plate I put their fried egg on, complaining that I made them a fried egg when they wanted a scrambled egg, or complaining that I scrambled the eggs in the same pan I cooked the bacon in and now there are little black flecks of things in their eggs, or complaining when I make them steak and eggs. Steak and eggs! My dad never made me breakfast but when he did he made us steak and eggs. Steak and eggs! And I loved it. But my kids!? NO! They'd rather have a bowl of Rice Krispies. 

But when they're not here all I think about is how much I wish they were here. Everything is off. Like adrift on the sea or lost in the vastness of space with no linear purpose. In the infinite, I don't know which way is up or down or forward. There are no boundaries, no one to go to bed to and no one to get up for. So I do neither. 

Last night I had pretzels and mayonnaise for dinner. Elise planned a menu for me before she left and even bought me easy-to-prepare meals from Trader Joes. But I ate them all. I was once quite self-sufficient.

But It felt good and has been a wonderful release to rely on someone. 

When I was in high school, every time I got a new album or cassette, I would go to my room, close the door, and listen to the whole thing, back to front, both sides, following along with the lyrics if they were there or trying to transcribe them myself if they weren't. So tonight I'm listening to music again. It's just sometging I know to do when there's nothing else to do. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Empty Sweaters

It's never easy when the family is gone. This time seems harder than others. For a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is Elise and the kids are exploring Yellowstone National Park without me.

They probably picked as good a time as any to go. Temperatures are supposed to be in the 100s this weekend in DC. They do seem to miss the hottest parts of the summer when they go, so that is good. This week has also been particularly crazy at work. And I'm on closing shift. And my metro line is single-tracking, which adds an extra half hour to my commute each way. I didn't get home until 11:30 last night. Just enough time to have a beer, kick my feet up, then go to bed. So--for that reason, too-maybe it is better that they're not here. That's what I keep telling myself anyway.

This morning, Elise texted me, asking me what I'd done. I replied: made the kids' beds, did a short yoga session, walked to the Giant to mail a letter. She's not missing much. Meanwhile, they are seeing buffalo and hot springs, finding drawings by Peter in the back seat of the rental car, scribbled on hotel stationary, of Old Faithful erupting.

Last weekend, I went to visit my mom which was restful and restorative. We didn't do much. Talked, mostly. Read a lot. I had cold nitro coffee on tap for the first time. I'm hooked. I made the mistake of having it black, but the mouthfeel was like beer which was uniquely wonderful. Next time, I would ask them to put a little simple syrup and milk in the bottom of the cup before pouring the beer, so as to keep the head, but make the coffee a little sweater and not as bitter. We went to Leftovers for dinner one night to listen to the Grateful Dead cover band and eat panko-friend oysters and Dune Dog for lunch. I think it is what both of us needed.

It was just enough to hit Monday refreshed. The refreshing feeling has worn off. I walk to the metro stop, wading through waves of heat radiating off the pavement in a suit and tie. When I get up in the morning, the silence is deafening. I would 145 x over rather listen to the kids fighting in the living room. The emptiness is vast, and I turn on music as soon as I get up to try and fill it. When I was folding clothes the other morning, I folded Elise's burnt orange sweatshirt. It had been hanging on the drying rack downstairs and had a crispness to it that clothes get when they air dry as opposed to drying in the machine. I hugged it to my chest. As I did it, I knew it was weird, but I did it anyway. I couldn't help myself. I get up first in the morning and start the coffee and breakfast for the kids. Elise usually follows no more than a few minutes later, and she hugs me in the kitchen when she gets up. Every morning. It wasn't the same, but it did have the feel of her, the smell, even when empty.

Before I went to Florida, I had the fleeting thought of what it would be like to have an older brother. I don't exactly know where the thought came from...I think from the lyrics of a song I had been listening to at the time. I had never--in 44 years--ever even remotely wondered this, which is maybe (or maybe not) surprising in and of itself, that the notion had never crossed my mind. I wondered what he would be like, what our relationship would be like, and in that context, I thought about my relationship with my two younger brothers. One is getting married this summer. The other is having a baby. I resolved before I went to Florida to try to be more like a big brother I myself would want to have. I'm not sure if I succeeded. It's only just a start, really.

Only a few more days to go until my head and my heart are full again and can vanquish these random thoughts that can creep up upon me in the quiet. Not always unwelcome, but unbidden. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Whale That Was Left Behind

Tuesday morning, I roused everyone at 4:20, helped them get dressed and get a quick bowl of O's in their tummies before packing the car and heading to the airport. I put Clementine's Tigie in her new unicorn backpack and Christmas Puppy in Sam's. Then, I stopped and asked Peter which stuffed animal he was bringing to Ma and Granddad's house.


Spout is his stuffed blue whale. "Is Spout in your backpack?" I asked him. He said he was.

I went back to his room and scanned his bed quickly. I didn't see Spout, so Pete must have packed him. 

As we drove along the George Washington Parkway to Reagan National, the sun gradually stained the sky peach and pink and rose over the Capitol building and behind the Washington Monument across the Potomac. Traffic was lighter than I expected and we made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I hugged everyone goodbye as I dropped them at the curb. I always worry that it's too much for Elise to handle on her own, but she would most likely counter that it was easier to check in and board a flight without me than with me; I always seem to fumble for my belt and my shoes in the security line and take the electronics out of my carry-on that don't need to be separately scanned and keep the ones that do in my bag, holding up the line. Inexcusable, really, for someone who flies as much as we do.

I drove home. The quiet was deafening. Disconcerting, to be honest.

I returned to our empty home a little after six. I tidied up in the basement, rolling up the sleeping bags that we had hung to dry from our camping trip just a few days before and started a load of laundry. Upstairs, I washed the dishes and loaded the dishwasher. Then, I went to the kids' room to strip the sheets off their bed. They'd be gone for two weeks, a perfect opportunity. 

I whipped the sheets off Peter's bed and what should come tumbling out onto the floor? 


Oh no, I thought. Peter traveling across country without his stuffed animal. I immediately knew what I had to do, and Googled mail and delivery stores. I saw that the Staples right behind our house had a new mail and shipping center that opened at eight, so I got ready to go to work and pulled up just as the saleswoman was unlocking the door. 

The store was just opening. The lights were flickering on and cash registers were being unlocked. I waited several moments for someone to notice me at the new UPS counter. The store music came on, it was a song from the new Disney movie Zootopia. It reminded me of my kids. I felt hollowed out inside, empty, like a pumpkin that had been carved into a jack o' lantern. 

The woman behind the counter asked me how she could help. 

I held up Spout. "I need to overnight this whale to Washington State, but I don't have a box."

The woman then proceed to dismantle a giant cardboard carton in which reams of printer paper had been shipped and reassemble it with half a roll of packaging tape, fashioning a, perhaps, too-large box for Spout. She then measured the box with a ruler and asked me to input the shipping information into the computer. 

When it was all said and done, she swiveled the computer screen back towards her and said, "That'll be $90."

"WHAT!?" I couldn't imagine that she was serious. It is a whale, but the stuffed animal can't be more than five inches in length and have a weight that is measured in ounces or grams. 

"I can get there in a week for $30."

A WEEK!! Peter could be crying his eyes out for a whole week! He could not be able to fall asleep at night for a whole week!

"You could try the post office," she offered. 

After dropping the car off at the dealer to get the brakes checked (the service center would later call and say the car needed repairs the sum of which was roughly half of what I paid for the car in the first place. I could buy another car for all the money they wanted me to spend on this one), I took the Metro into the city I had watched the dawn dissipate over only a few hours earlier. I stopped at the post office. 

There, Ebony with aquamarine nails that were like tiger claws told me that "to this town"--she stabbed the word "Cheney" on the packing slip--they could only guarantee two-day delivery. No overnight.  "I'll take it," I told her and happily coughed up $20 that I never would have parted with before someone else had quoted me $90. "UPS wanted $90," I told her. She didn't care, but the woman next to me sporting a star-spangled sequened cap informed me, "It's cuz it's private. This is the guv'ment." And she said it in a way that was not disparaging, but with a tone that said because it was government it could be relied upon. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but it made me feel proud for also being a part of the government machine, a mechanism that could be relied upon to work and give value for hard-earned tax-payer dollars. 

I ripped the makeshift cardboard box open, wasting yards of packaging tape, and put Spout into a bubble-wrap envelope. I handed him to Ebony. She had me acknowledge that their were no hazardous materials in the envelope even though she had just watched me put a stuffed whale into it. She also told me that the envelope was insured up to $100 and asked me if I wanted to buy more insurance. Was she serious? The contents of the envelope had no value and yet was also invaluable, I thought, but decided to keep that to myself. I declined additional insurance. I handed the envelope to Ebony, wondering for a split second if either Peter or I would ever see Spout again.

This afternoon, Pete called to thank me for sending Spout. The left behind whale had been reunited with his pod. 

Off Grid, Part Two

As you can see from the previous post we went to camping last weekend in Shenandoah National Park. Elise got a new sleeping bag for her birthday, so we had to take it on a test run before the summer was over. 

We only spent one night, Saturday night, but I think we definitely made the most of our time there. After setting up camp Saturday afternoon, we went on a hike to  Overall Run Falls. The hike was four miles round trip, and the boys held up amazingly. They set the pace and didn't complain once about the distance. We even saw what we're pretty sure was a rattlesnake on the trail, but thanks to Elise's keen eyes, we were able to pull up just short of the snake slithering across our path and wait until it made its way back into the grass. 

In the height of summer, the "falls", the highest in the park, was really not much more than a trickle, but enough to cool down. When we got back to camp, Elise and the boys started the campfire over which we roasted hot dogs for dinner and s'mores for dessert. 

The next morning, we decided to drive a little deeper into the park after breaking camp to the Skyland lodge. It was 20 miles from our campsite down Skyline Drive and on the way, we spotted a black bear on the side of the road. The car in front of us stopped to look at it, so we stopped, too. There was really no way to go around even if we wanted to. Skyline Sr winds its way along the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is mostly double-yellow line the entire length of the twisty mountain road. 

As we were looking at the bear--because, really, that's what one does in a national park...look at the wildlife--a pair of motorcyclists came up behind us and started revving their pipes, obviously upset that we had stopped in the middle of the road. Well, like I said, I couldn't have gone anywhere even if I wanted to, because the guy in front of me was stopped, too, but the sound of the pipes scared the bear away, much to the kids' disappointment. One of the motorcycles then when tearing around us. Just as he did, his partner who was stopped behind us tipped over and became trapped under her bike. I saw it in the rear view mirror. The guy pulled his bike over and went running back to pull the bike off her, but not before making sure to stop and fling a few choice words my if somehow I was complicit in making his girlfriend tip her bike. "That's karma for you," Elise said. She then had to explain to Sam what karma was. 

We proceeded to Skyline lodge but hurried the kids out of the car before someone motorcycle posse recognized us and beat me up. I even carried Clementine under the false hope that a crazed biker wouldn't lay out a dad carrying his sweet four year-old daughter. 

Despite the near run-in with the bikers, a we had a very relaxing, a lot of work but much needed weekend "off the grid", so to speak. We really were unplugged for almost 48 hours which is nearly unheard of in this day and age. After a light lunch of turkey sandwiches and some coffee at the lodge, we went on another short hike to the top of Stony Man Mountain. Wee hooked and are already planning a return trip to the park, if only for a day hike. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Off Grid

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Flight of the Fireflies, Part Two

The end of a three day weekend has come to an end. But not just any three day weekend, a three day weekend capped off with a thunderous fireworks display despite the drizzle and misty skies. I came into work this morning, my brain mush. Colleagues asked me questions about things that had happened at work on Friday, and I couldn’t reply coherently, partly because Friday was so busy and partly because do much had happened between Friday and Tuesday.

We were up and about every morning this weekend. Highs on Saturday were in the upper 70s/low 80’s, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We took advantage of the idyllic weather by meeting friends from Chennai and their boys who are roughly the same age as our kids to pick blueberries. We drove out to Butler’s Orchard in Maryland, about 45 minutes from our house. Not exactly the countryside, but close enough. We rode a tractor to and from the field and spent over an hour among the blueberry bushes, filling our buckets. At one point Clementine exclaimed, “This is the best day ever!” We took turns finding “the motherlode” of blueberries.

After the kids tired of picking blueberries (we filled 1 ½ buckets!), we rode the tractor back to the parking lot where we paid for our blueberries and a bag of kettle corn. The boys grabbed burlap sacks and went down the super-slides while Clementine and I hung out at the playground. There were also decommissioned tractors to sit on and water pumps to play with. Around 1:00 we headed out, stopping in downtown Gaithersburg for lunch and beers at the Growler Brewery. After lunch, we stopped at the small train museum before heading home.

That night, the kids ate leftover pizza. No one had much of an appetite after our late lunch, but Elise did use our farm-fresh, hand-picked blueberries to make the most amazing cobbler ever. I skipped dinner and had three helpings. Cobbler and beer for dinner. Yum!

On Sunday, Sam was out the door on his bike, accompanying Elise on a run. Earlier in the morning, I got out of bed and headed downstairs with Peter and Clementine where we started a game of Candyland while Elise and Sam slept. Pete and Clementine play amazingly well together and, when Sam woke up, they were happy to include him in our game. Sadly, two rounds of play later, Sam was accusing Clementine of skipping her turn (which—if you know anything about Candyland—just doesn’t make sense. Why—in a game based upon the act of moving your token forward—would someone intentionally cheat by abstaining from an opportunity to advance their play?) and throwing Pete’s piece across the room. He seemingly doesn’t do well when cooped up in the house. 

Conversely, Peter screams like we are hauling him off to the gallows every time we suggest we get ready to leave the house to go do something and is perfectly content just puttering in his room by himself, tinkering with Legos or drawing (usually active volcanos spewing hot lava).

After much cajoling, I did get Peter out of the house and he and Clementine in the trailer (a two-seat buggie I attach and pull behind my mountain bike) and we met Elise and Sam on the running trail. Sam peeled off, and we continued to the comic book store while Elise ran home to shower. We got a few new comics and Pokemon cards before riding home. After a light lunch of leftover cous-cous, everyone took naps. Even me. Elise headed out later that afternoon for a photo shoot while I used some of the previous day’s haul to whip up a pitcher of blueberry margaritas.

I grilled flank steak and shrimp, and we listened to country music while the kids played around us. At one point, I was on the back porch manning the grill. Elise appeared at the back door and beckoned me inside. I stepped into the kitchen and looked at her inquisitively. “Listen,” she told me. On the radio was the song we danced to at our wedding, Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road”. I immediately burst into tears, telling Elise, “I’d been on the verge all day.” It was true. I was feeling remarkably….happy. “Well, you’re the one playing the sappy music,” she fired back as she wrapped me up in her arms. All three kids appeared at the back screen door, looking at us strangely, thinking something wrong. They seemed very relieved when Elise explained to them that was the song we danced to at our wedding.

Monday morning, July 4th, was wet and dreary. Mist hung low in the sky. We hadn’t made plans so we decided to go out to a fancy breakfast. We picked Founding Farmers in Tyson’s, a place I had heard a lot about as a leader in the farm-to-table movement, but that neither Elise or I had had a chance to check out yet. We beat the crowds and arrived for the holiday brunch a few minutes after their doors opened at 8:00 (the restaurant usually has a waiting list for dinner reservations several weeks long), and savored pancakes, beet and goat cheese hash, shrimp and grits, brown-sugar coated bacon, devilled eggs, fried shrimp and fried chicken, even doughnuts, cheesecake, cookies, and popcorn for dessert!

After a breakfast like that, I was basically useless for the next several hours. We stopped at the mall, and I took the kids to the Lego store while Elise shopped, but because of the soggy weather, both Elise and I were in kind of a funk. The kids were loud, argumentative, and disagreeable. As we sat around the house in the afternoon, weathering the rain, we wondered aloud if we had somehow failed our kids by not planning some amazingly magical Fourth. Instead, they were curled up on the couch watching cartoons on the iPad, but given the circumstances it seemed like all we could do just to keep our heads above water. Elise seemed particularly upset that we didn’t attend a parade, to which I could only reply, “We didn’t do parades when I was a kid. Too hot.” Which I know wasn’t incredibly helpful.

We walked to the store during a break in the rain, and the fresh air did everyone a world of good. Home, we grilled hot dogs with cole slaw and watermelon. After dinner, we rinsed the kids off in the bath, intimating that the Falls Church fireworks show scheduled for 9:20 at the nearby football field was going to be cancelled. It had been pouring all day. Elise and I were exhausted. We put the kids in bed where they read quietly. I opened a beer and crashed on the couch.

“How is your plan going to go off when they start hearing fireworks?” Elise asked.

I got up and opened the front door and looked out into the wet night. The rain had slowed to a light drizzle. Fireflies played in the bushes, like blinking lights on a runway right up to the house. I went to the kids room and waved them out of bed. It was close to nine. They looked up at me forlornly. “Come look at the fireflies.”

I drew them outside with sparklers we purchased at a roadside stand earlier in the day, drawing them out with my own light. A few minutes later, we heard crashing booms and the sky lit up over the trees. The fireworks show started. Everyone threw their flip-flops on and ran down the sidewalk in their pajamas for a closer look. I ran after them in barefeet. We ran to the parking lot of the neighboring apartment community next to the high school where we could see the fireworks over the trees and watched them despite the drizzle. Perhaps not failing completely in building memories of the Fourth.