At the end of a day

We have a few trees in the courtyard behind our apartment. Two silver maples and a Chinese elm.

Though they are luscious during the summer, they also carry for me the association of seeing them next to the highway on the rare occasions I would leave Manhattan by car many years ago. There—it seemed always to be in the 1970s—they stood humiliated behind wind drifts of plastic grocery bags and pieces of tarpaulin. Old shoes and cardboard boxes.

But on these July days, their verdant canvas and moist sheen and birds beckon our fourth-floor terrace into acting more like an Upper West Side tree-house. We have morning doves. Sparrows. And these orange-beaked birds that071209.1bluecanoe Karen spotted one afternoon and which gave her dreams that night about wild toucans and macaws and about two parrots—white and red—that adopted her as their mother when she said, “Polly wanna cracker? Rawwrr!”

When I was maybe five and spending my summers at Point O’ Woods on Fire Island, Mom told me about the “drink-your-tea” birds, known by adults as Eastern Towhees. (Known by mature adults as Pipilo erythrophthalmus, a dangerous name that if tossed out mindlessly at a cocktail party may invoke questions on whether you’re taking antibiotics.)

Because I first heard Towhees there, their three-part song has always been evocative of that magical place, where it seemed that all we did was drink tea, ride our bikes, and play in the surf. Also, it was Mom who first mimicked the bird’s invitational call as she stood on the front porch of the two-bedroom white cottage we rented. It was early in the morning for a boy, perhaps seven o’clock, in July, and after waiting first for the Towhee she proclaimed while looking down at me: “Drink your TEEEEEA!” Then she squinted and tittered. She would hunch her shoulders at me as she laughed, to let me know that this was a delicious moment shared just between us. A short-lived flower of time.

Two nights ago as Karen and I sat in our tree-house at the close of a workweek, I saw a morning dove. It perched on the brick wall at the edge of the roof about seven feet above our heads. It gazed quietly to the west, toward the Hudson, its head barely moving, its right eye fixed. The slightest of evening breezes left its smooth brown feathers unruffled.

My bride and I sat across from each other, eating olive tapenade on melba crisps and table wafers, white cheddar cheese, salami, fresh sliced green, yellow and red peppers, and a date-walnut cake. Her Pinot Grigio beaded on the outside of her glass. Since the early evening air was below 70 degrees, she wore a cream, long-sleeved, v-neck knit top and a flowery scarf fastened with a playful knot around her neck.

She would chirp about this and that, her knees pulled to her chest to stay warm, and I would smile. Zinnias in flower boxes and arborvitae in planters surrounded us. The sun dipping to the west of Riverside Drive illuminated the top five floors of the pre-war buildings on West End Avenue. We ate and talked, and sometimes were silent.

We stayed this way until it was time to go inside.

photo: 1bluecanoe

Perfect

“That’s what I miss,” my friend at work said a couple weeks ago.  I recalled this while driving west on the Mass Pike toward I-84 South.

 

“What’s that?” I had asked, noticing he was reminiscing in a slightly uncharacteristic way.  He was not one to romanticize the past, as I do in almost every post here.

 

“Singing out loud.  In the car.  You know, when you’re listening to the radio.  I miss that.”

 

040209rabatallerTrue enough, we both now have been silenced going to and from work, unless we want to regurgitate to our fellow subway riders what we’re listening to on our iPods.  My friend has produced and sung on several CDs; he might get some spare change and even bills from straphangers.  I would be lucky enough to be kicked by a 20-something blonde in Pradas.

 

So, now in our trusty Honda Odyssey, since my 10-year-year son had fallen soundly asleep behind me—having claimed he’d been awake all night as he played NBA 2K7 on the Xbox with his best friend, Ben T.—I decided to give Sara Evans some back-up support as she sang “Perfect” on WKLB-FM, Country 102.5.

 

It was a perfect ride in a way.  Carter was sitting sideways in his seat in the middle row—Odysseys come with three rows of seats for the 2.2-kid-Nuclear-Family-challenged (we have 3.0 kids and 2.0 adults).  He was semi-fetal, his head slumped against his pillow that had the Mater cartoon figure from Pixar’s “Cars” movie printed on the pillowcase.

 

Moments before, he had been sleeping facing forward, and I had pushed the rearview mirror to the right with my thumb, so I could glance at him while still being a responsible driver.  (Being a parent while driving requires two conflicting activities:  watching the road ahead for traffic and cops while simultaneously conversing with however many children are behind you—often sight unseen, sometimes in the swiveling rear-view—and acting alternatively as Sage, Diplomat, Supreme Court Judge and Imminent Grim Reaper If There Is No Peace and Quiet.  This is a task made all the more difficult for fathers, as opposed to mothers, who do, in fact—as we all know, both from our experience as kids if not women’s own testimony—have eyes on the backs of their heads.

 

I moved the mirror to compensate for my male evolutionary shortcoming.  His mouth was slightly agape; his lips, pink and smooth, looked like they did when he was four, or two, or younger.  His face was relaxed and betrayed no sign that he had ever been disobedient or mean-spirited to Karen or me or his two younger brothers.  It was a blank slate, and I wrote what judgment I wanted on it according to my feelings over the last decade since he came into the world on the 11th floor of Roosevelt Hospital on New York’s West Side.  This is one of the many joys of parenting:  that an unexpected moment watching one’s child can encapsulate all that has come before as well as the hope of what’s to come.  Time does not matter, for the parent can see all ages and experiences of the child up to that point, in a look.

 

I now recalled Karen’s nine months of watchfulness and nine hours of pain and labor on March 18.  I recall earlier, in August 1998, when Carter was at five months’ gestation, and Karen got dehydrated, started bleeding, and we rushed to Roosevelt to have her hooked up to an I.V. and Carter up to a fetal ECG machine.  I remember sitting there next to Karen, on her back, for five or so hours, celebrating each time his heart rate increased to where it needed to be, praying when it dipped.  I remember later from the amniocentesis that, as first-time parents in our mid- to late-30s—we wanted just to be prepared—learning that one of the ventricles in Carter’s brain was enlarged and how that was a possible sign of birth defects, and thinking that medical technology gives us so much good yet also saddles us with unnecessary and often burdensome awareness of outcomes, however distant or unlikely they might be.  Some of our times in the hospital reminded me that, as King Solomon once wrote, “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”  I remember when we lived in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, walking in the early morning with Karen and our second child, Bennett, just an infant, and Carter when he was just over two, and he—spotting some feathery mist hovering inches above the grass—said, “This is ominous.”

 

This mysterious ability to utter a lovely word in context at age two is a bead on a necklace of memory with the ECG and amnio, with the sucking motion of his lips and wide eyes when he appeared at 9:11 a.m. on March 18, with the use of “buh–” at 14 months to describe any solid object from a house to a boat to his younger brother, with the pride in his eyes at age eight when he passed the 4-hour test for his karate black belt, with the loneliness and despair when his new class at PS 9 in New York found him to be the butt of jokes and not source of them, with more recently finding a friend who promised to teach him two Hebrew words per day, with reuniting with old friends and learning that having one group of buddies doesn’t preclude having another group.

 

The visor of the Odyssey shielded my eyes as we rode away from Carter’s sleepover at Ben T’s and his birthday pizza party and playground romp with Ben, along with Eric, Ben C., Griffin, Ethan, and JoJo.  The smiles and laughs had not been heard all together since December 2007, when Carter moved back to New York City and left at least one of his Third Grade friends in tears.  On the walk from Hamilton House of Pizza over to Pingree Park, this same friend said in typical exaggerated yet sincere youthful passion, “I am SO glad to see Carter.  I thought I would NEVER see him again!”  And at the playground as they formed two teams—uneven at four on one side and three on another, even with the tallest boy on the team with four—to play a game of War with dried pinecones, I spoke with the Lovely K on my cell and she said, “If it was me with my friends, I’d be sad to know that I’d be leaving soon.  I couldn’t enjoy it fully.  That’s the thing with kids.  They are totally in the moment.”

 

To be sure, there was not a pinecone flung or squeal and flashing glance that seemed to be aware that in 45 minutes the parents would descend.  After the playground crew dispersed, and back at his host’s house, Carter stood across from Ben T., both boys not sure whether to high-five, hug, shake hands, fist-bump or—as Carter admitted later in a mature observation—cry:  awkward pre-adolescent emotions of separation, closeness, undying devotion borne of the struggles of growing up and of playground rivalries and bonds, of an all-nighter fueled by Coca-Cola and microwave popcorn while trouncing your opponent with half-court dunks over animated 6’9” heads on the Xbox.  All that matters is that we are friends and we are here, you and I.

photo:  rabataller

wind-swept hair

Two women.

 

One was like a pillar, her lean, erect frame topped with a bun of dyed-by-sun blond hair arranged so that the wind from riding the ferry across the bay wouldn’t blow it free.  It was steadied and secure.  Her lips were tightly set, and her mouth and cheeks showed no creases.  Her skin was fine china.

 

She wore a black top over khaki capri’s.  Her arms folded, she looked ahead and didn’t engage anyone around her.  She was a shrine to the vitality of youth, a temple whose visitors paid a token to enter, admire, take photos, and leave unchanged, walking on to the next site on their color-coded maps.

 

The other woman was a holy site, a meeting room where those seeking rebirth and those whose lives had been changed came and congregated, broke bread, sang, prayed and worshiped.  Her clothes were off-the-rack and loose.  Her hair was tangled by the wind blowing from behind her head as she spoke in animated terms.  Her hair blew around to the front of her face and into her mouth, where she would sweep it out with a hand, amused, and continue her story, her eyes pinched with wrinkles from years spent with friends and those she loved.

 

She glanced at her lover, her husband, and held her 2-year-old son as he nibbled on a cracker, the crumbs falling on her lap.

“Such a river”

It sounded almost like a wedding march and, in a sense, it was.  The organ in church this past Sunday at Point O’ Woods piped the first notes of “Glorious things of thee are spoken,” and in your mind you could see a bride walking down the aisle, smiling, her life-mate before her, beaming back.  Two of them in a Chagall painting eye-lock.  It was a wedding march, of sorts, yet it was years late, and misplaced, for me.

 

And as the congregation started to sing the opening line – Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God! my throat constricted, my eyes watered, my voice weakened and ultimately failed.  I could not sing.  I was being beckoned to wed a place, this place, this community, in which I had effectively grown up, though it was just during summers, yet summers where life is lived and hopes are created and young romances are kindled and then replaced by other young romances like freshly pressed doilies on a dresser.  Life, where friendships are forged and never forgotten, where parents are seen in their relaxed state, away from the din of New York and the press of subway-sweaty flesh, now clad in seersucker and sporting bronze skin from white sand beach laughter.  I was being asked to spiritually locate my soul in this place, this place where I have more memories than I do of the City – the City where I spent 11 of 12 months each year, and to which God continually calls me back from wherever I have moved, as He has done recently.

 

Yet, I couldn’t do it.

 

He, whose Word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for His own abode.

 

As we sang the second line I – wanting to sing in parts, which I so love and which the organist Mary had trained me to do from my youth up through the adult choir – I had to sing the melody.  I couldn’t let my voice go free with the tune or the lyric.  It was Sunday morning, 36 hours after I had arrived on Friday night, my first visit to Fire Island and to POW since 2002, six years ago, our last summer in the house, the summer after Mom died, the summer when Karen spruced up the downstairs and made it airy and delightful and fun, which ultimately helped it sell in the fall.  My in-laws came for a visit that summer and later, after the house sold, my father-in-law spoke for us all when he said that he never would have left if he knew he wasn’t going to return.

 

I didn’t return.  Not that I didn’t want to.

 

That fall, 2002, I went back to pick up personal items from the house and take the Bunger longboard over to Dave K’s.  My plan had been to stay over a Friday night and then drive back to New England Saturday morning.  My stay was in fact less than three hours.  I walked into the house and felt that the life had been sucked out like from a halved grapefruit whose juice is all gone and what is left is the rind and the sad, drying pulp.  I couldn’t see myself sleeping in my – the new owners’ – bed and then rising on the weekend morning, when Mom and Dad would be dancing around each other in the kitchen, he letting his tea steep with the leaves perched in an aluminum strainer over a chipped plain white cup in a non-matching saucer, she busy like a bee with too many flowers and not enough time, smiling at you when you came around the corner of the staircase that descended between the kitchen and the living room, crying out, “Morning, lovey!”  Her voice, always greeting, yet now silent, not even echoing through these rooms which belonged to another.  The living room floor, deep with the stain that Mom applied after hours of removing linoleum tiles in the off-season and throughout a summer, now was a silent mourner, waiting for new feet and new voices.

 

I couldn’t stay.

 

So I left on the late evening boat and probably cried behind dark glasses or something like that.  I drove the five hours home, probably cried some more.  I don’t remember.  All I know is that after that visit to the owners’ new home that fall, I didn’t go back to Point O’ Woods until this past weekend, at the invitation of my childhood friend Jon and his wife.

 

I arrived, and there were Jon and Nancy, and Dave B., and Kinsey, and others, looking as young and vivacious as ever.  They, and the place, had not changed.  This is a cliché that runs throughout our narrative:  the unchanging nature of Point O’ Woods.

 

“There’s surf,” Jon said.  “I think we’re going to get an evening session in.”  It was 7:45 p.m., and by the time we got in, we’d have another 45 minutes or so of surfable skylight.  Which we did.  And there were waves all weekend; I surfed four times for a total of almost seven hours.  (Karen and boys were in Texas.)

 

Saturday night was the Lobster Party, with Dave K’s dad leading the Dixieland Band that has played there since I was a kid and perhaps before that.

 

On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.

 

I still couldn’t sing, my mind reviewing the events of the weekend behind me:  seeing Al and Sandy and Jenny, learning of Jen’s daughter’s diagnosis of Type-1 diabetes – I had missed this in their lives.  Missed it because I wasn’t around.  Lexie wasn’t out this weekend, but I had also missed being near her when her father passed away from a sudden heart attack.  There were other life events that I had heard about through email or a call one night from Dave K – “Dave C has committed suicide” he said through heaving sobs.  Where was I?  Where was Dave C’s brother Al?  How was Al – I wasn’t there for him.

See! the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love;
Well supply thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove:
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst t’assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.

Slowly, I got my voice.  I stood there, next to Jon and his 6-year-old son Evan.  Jon: who might have been thinking about the words to the hymn or might have been thinking about his tennis doubles final in about 90 minutes, a match that he had played and replayed with his brother as partner for the last five years, which all of my friends were aware of and perhaps had seen.  Except for me.

 

I sang parts for the second verse.  It came, and I sang about the streams of living waters, the supply they gave the Lord’s sons and daughters, the thirst that was assuaged.  This thirst of mine – the thirst for connection, this thirst for memory, for reunion, for fellowship of a human and divine nature – this thirst for something more than a shell of a house which will turn to dust one day, the thirst for something imperishable and immutable, this thirst was being assuaged as I sang.

 

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
Washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.

 

I realized that I was no longer an owner at Point O’ Woods.  I was not an owner in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, nor even a citizen of New York.  My citizenship, my inhabitation, was elsewhere.  These people around me that Sunday morning were my friends.  They would always be my friends.

Savior, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy Name.
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.

photo:  clikchick

Herkies for the basketball players

My high school, Trinity, on West 91st Street, didn’t have a football team, but we did offer fencing.

Litigious parents made sure that our mascot, The Trinity Tiger, never appeared next to a gridiron after about 1972, but come 1976 or so these same parents – effete and urbane – made sure their kids participated in a sport designed to help them excel socially in 17th century France.

122907doortenj.jpgI remember seeing my classmates – usually the intellectuals – wearing their croissards and plastrons heading off to fencing class while some of us went off to wrestling.  We thought wrestling was cool.  The girls thought it was disgusting.  They were off watching the cool basketball players – Miles (now a successful lawyer), Phil (a Hollywood comedy writer), and Alec (co-wrote a hit animated movie), their real names because, after all, these guys were the cool clique.  A clique of which I was not a part, because I stuck my wannabee-cool nose in other guys’ sweaty armpits for my after-school sport.

I remember one time we wrestled against Yeshiva High School.  On paper, it was a win before we even got on the mat.  Their team, apparently, had been established that year, and they had had next to no live practice.  It was a favor our coach was doing for theirs.  But, after all, they were God’s chosen people.  That counted for something.

I pinned my opponent late in the first period, but I felt remorse afterwards.  I don’t know why.

Wrestling was the closest thing I had to being a tough guy.  Being 5’8″ and 120 pounds in high school, I had been in but few fights, usually on the business end of a loss.  One time, though, I fought Michael, a black kid I had previously been friends with, and then to whom apparently I had made a rude comment about something – could have been race, could have been something else, can’t remember - which led to a Fight Appointment one afternoon at 4 p.m. by the book lockers behind the chapel.  (This was an historically Episcopal School and, yet, as a late 20th century Episcopal institution its chapel was used less as a place of worship as it was a vacant spot whose outer hallway contained our lockers and had multiple unsupervised locations for drug deals, gossip, and settling disputes the old fashioned way.)

Michael and I squared off, and I quipped with a smile, “So, how do we start this thing?”

He took a swing and caught me on the chin.  “How’s this?!”

We fought for 15 minutes, with a crowd of our peers gathering and cheering on one or the other, or both, so that the fight would continue and keep us all from getting on to more mundane matters like American History or Geometry.  I finally took a desperate swipe at his face with a hooking left and caught him squarely on the jaw.

He backed away and looked straight at me.  He smiled.  “Wow.  What a hit!”

He laughed, and so did I.

photo:  doortenJ