Saturday, March 26, 2005

Lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's . . .

The in-laws came to visit yesterday. To be precise, Wife’s father and stepmother are staying with us for nine days. You may have misread that, so I’ll repeat: staying with us for nine days. Nine days.

This is not an uncomplicated situation.

On the one hand, they can be overwhelming guests. They are socially dominant people, highly intelligent, highly opinionated, and very likely to be at the helm of any conversation or social situation in which they find themselves. When they’re in the house, it’s kind of hard for anyone else to pay attention to anything but them. In addition, they require a great deal of logistical support. Things like daily trips to the dry cleaner required by Father-in-law, food cooked just so, and an almost comically exaggerated ice consumption. When they’re here, I lie in bed mentally counting the ice cubes in the freezer, hoping I can keep up with demand. Plus, they’re both highly accomplished family therapists. I feel like a bug under a microscope every time I say something to one of my kids. Nothing escapes their notice, and few things escape their comment. Finally, these people drink A LOT, so sometimes getting through the evening intact feels like navigating a large ship through the iceberg-rich waters of the North Atlantic. Tricky, and exhausting.

But there is an other hand. These two people, who we will call Leonard and Joan, are endlessly fascinating. They have the two most agile, active intellects of anyone I know, and they are interested in everything. Old and cantankerous as they may be, their attention never fails to be engaged by whatever is going on around them. Just today, even though I worked pretty much all day, the conversations I heard or was part of included the following subjects: the Dreyfus affair in France at the turn of the century (with a digression into Emile Zola’s life), the character in one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays who claims to be able to summon the dead, the life and works of J. M. Barrie, the Normandy invasion during World War II, our daughter’s social situation at school, the methamphetamine addiction crisis in their corner of the Olympic peninsula in Washington, a talk they attended by Sherman Alexie (writer of the movie “Smoke Signals”), and the lingering effects, in our increasingly urban society, of the centuries of agricultural thinking and mythology that dominate so much of our cultural legacy.

The chief pleasure I derive from these visits, however, is the chance to sit around telling family stories, both the old ones we all know and some new ones. A few old standards have already come up. Here’s one of my favorites.

This episode involves Leonard’s brother Mike. Mike is a labor lawyer, a tireless champion of the disadvantaged. Look all you want, you won’t find a man with a more finely developed sense of social justice. He’s also a patient man, with loads and loads of classic Irish wit to him. When Mike’s daughter Susie was a little girl of about 7, she liked to amuse herself by seeing if she could get him riled up. One day while he was watching the news she needled him and harassed him so persistently that he finally lost his temper, jumped up from the couch, and chased her upstairs. Susie ran into her room and slammed the door. He went in right after her, but she said,

“Hey, you can’t come in here.”

“What do you mean I can’t come in here, I’m your father!”

“Well, I have to knock before I can come into your room, why should you get to just walk in my room? You have to go outside and knock.”

This logic worked on him sufficiently that he backed out, closed the door, and knocked. Hard.

“Who is it?”

“What do you mean, who is it, you know perfectly well who it is.”

“Who is it?”

“It’s your father! May I come in please?” [through gritted teeth, no doubt]

“No, you may not!”

At which point he took a deep breath, recognized that he was beaten, and went downstairs laughing.

Monday, March 21, 2005

This is NOT going to become a cat blog, I swear

I have been swamped with work this past week—no time for any fun-type writing. Now that I have a moment to post, the inkwell seems to be dry. I guess a visual will have to do instead. So, meet my coworker:

I am self-employed and work at home. I am here all day, all alone except for the cat, Rex. He spends his day as you see him, in his office behind my editor's desk thing. He generally doesn't stir until Wife gets home from teaching and gives him a snack. I refer to him as my coworker, but you see it's just a little joke on my part because in fact he does NO work AT ALL.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A cold scolding

Our water heater died the death last night. Just as I was about to head up to bed I heard a loud sucking sound coming from the basement and headed down to check it out. Although the sound was obviously coming from the water heater, it was equally obvious that the heater was just fine if I tilted my head back enough so that I couldn’t see the water streaming from underneath it toward the drain in the floor. It was after 10:00, so there wasn’t much to do but alert the family and plan to make a phone call in the morning.

Why do dads take a perverse pleasure in giving their kids, especially their sons, bad news? I don’t know, but I have that gene too. “Well, Son, looks like ice-cold water for showers tomorrow morning.” He looks at me in horror and groans. “Yup, that’ll wake you up in a hurry!” As though I shower under a snowmelt waterfall every day and he’s finally going to share in the magic. We dads always think our kids are too soft from all the coddlin’ and pamperin’, and they probably are, but so am I. It’s not like I grew up bathing in a washtub in the kitchen, after drawing the water from a well and heating it on a wood-burning stove. Like him, I have always had hot running water at my disposal. Nonetheless, a small part of me undeniably thinks this discomfiture will be good for him. Daughter was already asleep, but the news wouldn’t have affected her much since she doesn’t take morning showers.

So this morning a plumber from a company I trust arrives, as promptly as I could have hoped. We initiate the ritual conversation in which the present contractor maligns the work of the previous one. What amuses me about this familiar step is that I get deftly maneuvered into defending the previous guy’s work even though (1) I am entirely unqualified to evaluate its quality, and (2) I have no reason to be loyal to him just because I once paid him to do a job. This time, though, it takes a more dire turn.

“Who installed this heater? Not a plumber, that I am sure of.”

“Well, he was a plumber, but I couldn’t say whether he--”

“Look at this gas line. He used flex-pipe. Illegal. This man was not a plumber.”

“Well, I'm not sure if he--”

“And also look at the copper pipe he used. He used type M, you cannot use that in this town, must use type L, he must not have been used to working here.”

“You’re right, he was from Chicago because we knew him from when we lived--”

“If he was in Chicago we are in same union, but no plumber from my union would do this. This is why houses explode.”

“Well I’m glad you’re here then. We’d like to skip the explosion.”

He spends a little more time trying to figure out what he’s dealing with. Then:

“Wait a minute, what is this extra pipe in here with all the sludge? This should not be here, and there shouldn’t be this mess inside of it . . . . Oh my god. Oh my god. This bad plumber switched the hot and cold sides so that he wouldn’t have to cut pipe. He put a copper pipe down into the heater. Must be plastic, and on the right side. No wonder it broke. I have never seen this. How long has this heater been here?”

“It’s been about nine years but I remember wondering--”

“You’re lucky it even worked for one year! Now I have to call and cancel next job and go get the pipe. Normally this is quick job, just switch the new heater in with three connections, but I have to replace the flex-pipe from the gas and lengthen the hot and water pipes, this is big job now. Expensive.”

Last night, once it was obvious that the heater was dead, I had opened the drain at the bottom to drain all the water. Only a trickle came out, so I assumed all the water had leaked out down the floor drain. This was stupid, which I would have realized if I had thought about it for two seconds. The thing was of course still full of water, and the plumber quickly realized the drain was blocked, so he wrenched it off. Good idea except for the 30 or so gallons of lime-ridden water that came shooting out onto the washing machine, dryer, laundry, wall, etc. The plumber was unconcerned but I started thinking spirally about my rapidly approaching Tuesday deadline and how much time I don’t have to spend down there with a mop and bucket. He interrupted my reverie:

“. . . more sediment than I have ever seen in a water heater, that’s because this bad plumber switched the sides and the magnesium tube couldn’t work, you never had sediment coming out of your faucets?”

“No, not that we’ve noticed, but lately--”

“It’s OK, I’ll bleed the pipes slowly so nothing gets in the new one.”

He did so, and after a painful check-writing session our new heater is officiously heating up its first tank of water. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the guy was giving me a line at all. As he showed me everything it was obvious that the old plumber had cut every corner he could. Nonetheless I was thoroughly chastened, and impressed by his expert disdain. Then I thought, Hey, I’m a contractor of sorts too. Why can’t I use the same approach with my next client?

“Who wrote this? You had another medical writer in here to work on this before me, didn’t you? How am I going to clean this up? Look at this: the argument is completely confused, the objectives aren’t even stated, plus the data are presented in the wrong order, so that your primary end point is buried in the middle of the supporting analyses! Oh, this is huge. It’s got to be rewritten from scratch. You’d better call your boss and get a bigger budget approved, because I have to clear my whole schedule for this. No telling how long it will take.”

I’ve got to try that.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The homes, the homes, the homes to which it goes

Yesterday, as we were initiating in earnest the complex process of accepting a foster child placement, everything screeched to a halt. Wife and I were about to attend a staffing meeting during which everyone involved in the case was going to sit around a table and discuss the child and plot the smoothest possible transition. Just beforehand, however, two people who are very closely involved threw a large wrench into the works. Their action was so unexpected and of such an unusual nature (sorry for the necessary vagueness!) that we have no idea whether it means merely a temporary setback or that the whole placement will be canceled. We’ll be learning more over the next few days. For now, we’re holding our breath and remaining calm. This obstacle has nothing to do with us, so all we can do is wait and see how the agencies sort it out.

Three things come to mind:

First, I was looking forward not just to getting going on the placement, but to the meeting itself. Staffing meetings are state-mandated procedural affairs, but I find them oddly comforting. On the one hand, any such meeting is founded on heartbreak--it wouldn’t be taking place at all if a kid hadn’t suffered some scale-tipping degree of abuse, neglect, or loss in his or her short life. On the other hand, that very heartbreak set in motion a mechanism that brought together a roomful of energetic, resourceful people committed to the single goal of solving this little person’s big problems with a minimum of further disruption. It’s kind of like all the unfairness has switched sides and now the odds are stacked in the kid’s favor rather than against. It’s good to be part of that.

Second, I’m glad we haven’t met this child yet, and that he hasn’t heard anything about us. That was supposed to happen yesterday. If we were already into the transition it would be much more difficult, especially for him, to have it stopped unexpectedly, with no obvious resolution in the offing.

Third, I’m surprised at how much less volatile our emotions have been this time compared to the first placement we had. In that case, we also roller-coastered through a couple of weeks of uncertainty. First, we heard about the girl, and got more excited the more we learned about her and the more it looked like she would fit well into our household. Then the agency (for legitimate reasons) made some conditions we couldn’t meet, and it looked almost definite that she wouldn’t be coming to live with us. I won’t use the word “devastated,” but I vividly remember how despondent I was. It probably isn’t surprising. Getting to the point of committing to bring a troubled child into your home requires a fair amount of adrenaline-fueled emotional support, so the letdown was precipitous. Then, it all came together and we learned that she was coming after all. We were elated once again.

That experience was a little too much of a wild ride, so I will admit that I’m appreciating the relative calm we feel now. We feel a little wiser than we were then, a little better equipped to handle the uncertainties. After all, you’d never get into fostering in the first place if you were looking for neatness and predictability. It’s messy by definition, and almost anything can happen, so you have to be braced for the sudden turns. We understand that better now. Also, there’s no doubt that we’re a little more emotionally guarded than before, now that we’ve experienced the full spectrum of feelings associated with a finite foster child placement.

We’re eager to meet this boy, but for now none of the decisions lie with us. We just have to wait patiently, hope for the best, and try to stay calm.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The girl and the golden apple

So begins another day . . . . .

Wife and Son have already left for school. Daughter and I are eating breakfast and reading the paper. I check the weather.

“It’s going to be snowing today, and in the low 30s. Please make sure you have your gloves with you.”
“I don’t like wearing gloves.”
“I know. I just want you to have them with you in your backpack.”

This is my version of compromise. I have no interest in battling with her over clothing. It’s a battle that upsets us both, and nobody wins. Even if I prevail and make her wear something, reliable sources indicate that once she’s out of sight, she sheds the offending item and chalks one up for her side anyway. On cold days I know she isn’t going to get frostbite walking a block to the bus stop, so I feel that as long as she has the gloves with her, we can both be happy. She’s not wearing gloves she doesn’t want to wear, but she has options. If she gets cold, putting the gloves on is her choice, not my decree.

But she has become a virtuoso of passive resistance, so the following conversation ensues not 10 minutes later, as she is heading for the door. It may be fresh to you, but to me it is depressingly, exhaustingly familiar.

“Do you have your gloves?”
“Why not?”
“I don’t like to wear gloves.”
“I know, I just want to make sure you have them with you.”
“Never mind why, I just want you to have them. Where are they?”
“In my backpack.”

Please imagine the sounds in my head right then. One of them is a loud, agonized scream with a slightly syncopated oscillation because I am mentally hopping up and down in frustration. Another is a confused babble made up of several shrill versions of my voice saying things like “OhmyGOD why didn’t you just say that to begin with!!!” and “That’s what I was ASKING!!!!” and “Why does it have to be like this?! It didn’t USED to be like this!!!” and the old standby “What have you done with that beautiful sweet child who was my DAUGHTER??!!”

I’m a pro, though. I’ve been doing this for years, so none of that stuff escapes from inside my head. My face assumes a Buddha-like serenity as I say:

“OK, that’s all I was asking. Have a good day at school.”

I doubt you guessed that Daughter is in sixth grade, but it would have helped if you did because that fact constitutes the segue into today’s next subject, to wit:

My next-door neighbor, who teaches sixth grade science, won a Golden Apple award yesterday. This award is a Very Big Deal in our part of the country. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Golden Apple is a general excellence award given to 10 teachers each year in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Recipients get a paid fall sabbatical at Northwestern University, $2500, and a new Apple computer, along with all the local publicity and ancillary accolades they can handle.

I love this award. I think it’s great for the teacher who gets it, great for the school in which he or she teaches, and great for the profession as a whole. It creates news stories in which kids and adults reflect on how they have been inspired by their best teachers, and what a powerful relationship it was. It also gives the lie to the lovely folks who always have a snide comment handy about those whiny teachers with their limited hours, summers off, and excessive pay.

When I see my neighbor go off to school, I think of spending seven periods every day facing 25 kids who have learned how to create conversations like the one I had with my daughter. Nice kids, kids he has a good relationship with, but who have all become miniature preadolescent jailhouse lawyers. It can happen at any age, but I think it peaks in the sixth and seventh grades. At that age, they’re still closely engaged with their parents and teachers, still focused on what we say and do, but they are savvy and skeptical enough to want to question it, dispute it, or subvert it. Not all the time—it only seems that way. Later, as they get into eighth and ninth grades, they’re already starting to look past us for the first indistinct glimpses of their independent futures. Their attitude toward our once-Olympian pronouncements tends to become more like “yeah, OK . . . whatever.”

For now, we’ve got sixth grade going on, and it’s rough on parents and teachers alike. At least we parents get to stick with our kids as they grow up, and if we’re at all lucky, see what kind of people they become. My next-door neighbor, though, doesn’t get to complete the circle. His students spend nine months with him while he does what he can, then they’re off living the next year of their lives somewhere else, and then the year after that, and he just has to guess what becomes of them.

But not always. Sometimes they come back, and my neighbor has just experienced a stunning example of what that can be like: it was one of his former students, a kid he taught 11 years ago who is now a teacher herself, who nominated him for the award and got the snowball rolling.

After learning he was a finalist a few weeks ago, my neighbor tried to forget about the whole thing so it wouldn’t drive him crazy waiting for the winners to be named. The Golden Apple folks originally told him that it would all happen the first week of March. As the week drew to a close, he began adjusting to the certainty that he was an also-ran. We spoke with him Saturday night around 10:00 (when, for the benefit of the teacher-doubters out there, he was grading papers. Grading papers! On Saturday night!), and he told us that his 4-year-old daughter had comforted him by saying “Maybe they got the day wrong.”

Here’s how completely he had convinced himself that he had lost the award: yesterday morning, as his principal, some Golden Apple people, several newspaper reporters, two newspaper photographers, his wife, and his two daughters filed unexpectedly into his classroom, he said to himself: “I guess this is how they soften the blow when they tell you you didn’t make it.” Even as the person was HANDING HIM THE ACTUAL AWARD, he still thought some kind of consolation event was under way. This is a humble man having a moment he’ll never forget. I love that so much, and couldn’t possibly be happier for this friend and neighbor getting the kind of validation that so few people in any field ever get. (If you want to see part of the moment, there's a photo of him and his family in his classroom on the front page of the Metro section of today’s Chicago Tribune. The picture isn’t online, though.)

I briefly thought of getting him some champagne, came to my senses, remembered one of our shared pleasures, and bought him a 12-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. We gave it to him with a big white ribbon on it to help him toast this sweet, sweet moment.

So today’s post is dedicated to the sixth graders, both students and teachers. To you, Daughter, I say, You just keep doing what you’re doing. It can be trying, no doubt, but I can deal with it if you can, and we’ll come out the other side eventually, and together. And to you, neighbor, I say, Congratulations on a richly deserved reward. As the British used to say, I wish you joy of it!

Saturday, March 05, 2005


Seized by an impulse to post something, but no coherent thoughts present themselves . . .

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
We pulled into the driveway after eating lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, Frontera Grill in Chicago. My wife A. went to wheel the recycling bin out of the alley, thinking it was empty. Hearing glass rattle, she opened it and looked in.
“Someone’s been putting beer bottles in our recycling bin.”
I looked in.
“Goldilocks drinks MGD?”
We both started giggling. The kids gave each other a look, slunk into the house, and closed the door.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Early in the “The Sting,” Robert Redford’s character is flush with money after a successful con. He entices this showgirl he knows to leave work and come out on the town with him by saying “I’ll spend fifty on you.” This line always cracked me up, so whenever I’m proposing to A. that we go have a night out, I never fail to sweeten the deal by promising, “I’ll spend fifty on you.”
I think it’s a pretty good line, because she hardly ever stands me up.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Overheard this conversation while out having a drink with a friend:

“Yeah, but we’ve been friends for like 3 years, right”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“I was just thinking that you’ve like, never told me how you got that scar on your neck.”
“ [long pause] Does it matter?”
“No, it doesn’t matter, but friends know things about each other.”

I liked that last line a lot. It’s the only good answer to that question.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
If you commit three typos in the course of typing a single word that has four letters, it’s time to stop writing for a while.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Take a deep breath

Today has a "plunging over the brink" feel to it. Within a couple of hours, I will make a phone call to someone who's waiting to hear from me. During our conversation I will say something like "We've decided to go ahead with it." And the first step toward bringing a foster child into our home will have been taken.

We were licensed as a foster family in Illinois about 2 years ago. From that time, our understanding with the excellent agency through which we are licensed has consisted of two points: (1) we prefer temporary placements rather than those likely to result in adoption, as we do not wish to adopt a child, and (2) we do not wish to take any children the same age or older than our daughter, S. (who is now 11 & 1/2). It just seems like a bad idea to take in a child whose first act, albeit unintentional, would be to displace S. from her position in the family, or to compete with her for that position. Most of the children who come through the agency are under 10 anyway, so this isn't much of a restriction.

I could write many pages about our first foster child, but that story will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that A. and I got the wish that we silently but fervently shared: "Shallow end for us, please." Even before our license came through the agency started matching us up with a girl who they thought would be a good fit for our family. We'll call her Catherine. She was a sweet, quiet, smart girl, just turning 5, who'd had a rough time in her short life, but had not been directly abused. She had been removed from her home because of abuse suffered by a sibling, not by her. As a result, her spirit had been bruised but not scarred.

Catherine was with us for about nine months, and did well here. You could tell that at first she thought that she had landed on Mars. She was a black girl from the west side of Chicago and had never been in a white family's home before. She didn't know any white people except those at the agency, and it was clear that along the way she had heard some pretty unflattering talk about us in general. Well, let me tell you, here at the Fifth Decade house we're pretty white, and Catherine didn't know what to make of it. At dinner on one of her first visits here, she looked down at her baked fish, then at everyone else's, and said "This is yall's food?" She had a way of saying things like that with just the hint of a smile, so we all laughed, including her, and went ahead with our dinner. She had lots of humor in her, and some steel as well, and her experience had taught her to adapt. She did just that over the next months, as did we, and the five of us grew comfortable together.

Catherine left almost exactly a year ago, and by all accounts she's doing well in the family that's adopting her. I am not going to talk about what it was like watching her go, except to say that it was cruelly hard on all of us. A. and I still sometimes lie awake nights wondering if we did the right thing. We don't doubt that taking her in was the right thing to do, but we're not so sure about letting her go.

Sometimes A. even questions the morality of bringing a child into our home, treating her like a family member in every way, letting her learn to love and trust us, and then allowing her to be taken away to live somewhere else and go through it all again. It's a tough question. I struggle with it too, but I usually revert to pragmatism, and the reason we got into fostering in the first place. We didn't cause any of these kids to be taken from their homes. What we have done is say: "Here, here is a safe place to stay for a while. We will feed you, clothe you, nurture you, and encourage you. We will help you to deal with the losses you have suffered. We will subject you to our ridiculous tempers no more often than our birth kids (hey, we're working on it). Finally, when the time comes to move on, we will do everything we can to ease the transition, and to help it feel like a move forward."

There's a fair amount of pain inherent in fostering, for the foster child as well as the foster family, but because of all the need out there, this is an arrangement I can live with.

After Catherine left we asked not to be called for any long-term placements for a while. Aside from one short-term emergency placement, it's just been the four of us for a while. The timing has been good, as we have been able to focus on helping our son W. adjust to high school (a little rocky, that), our daughter S. to middle school (not so rocky--she's a confident one), and A. to teaching more or less full time.

A few weeks ago the agency called us again, and here we are. There's a six-year-old boy needing a home while he and his mother work toward the court-mandated goal of reuniting within a year (a happily realistic goal in this case, so we hear). We've talked it around and around, but the trend of our conversations has been toward saying Yes. Our daughter S. has been less enthusiastic than the rest of us this time. This is a girl who threw herself without the slightest reserve into being Catherine's big sister, and when Catherine left, S. wrote a dedication to her that was so moving the agency read it from the podium at their annual fundraising event. So we have taken her reservations seriously (in large part the problem is that the child in question this time is a boy, not a girl), and given her time, and talked things over with her. The final message is that she's ready to do it again. I'm glad, because it feels right.

The afternoon is starting to get away from me, and I have lots to do. I see how incomplete this post is, and wish I could write more, but I have a phone call to make.

After I take a deep breath.