Un-Tunnel Vision

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I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years and was more than a little nervous about the prospect of spending 3 hours riding on mountain trails – however flat they were.  The last time I was on a bike a motorist had literally run me off the road into a ditch, and, after limping my bike home, I stuck to walking.  But this has been a summer of redemption for me, and it would continue to be from the first 10 minutes of our journey.

Fortunately, you really don’t forget how to ride a bike, and my summer fitness plan – intended to make sitting in a standard-size train seat more comfortable – paid off once again.  The mechanics were in place, and we would be riding in a converted railroad bed, ensuring there would be no maniacal motorists.  Faking the absence of fear was getting easier as we got closer to the starting gate, and then the trail guide began giving us the rundown of the road we were about to travel.  

We were to start with a 1 1/2 mile ride through a tunnel with no light save for our headlights.  There would be several tunnels throughout the ride, and several of them had trenches running alongside them.  I listened and smiled, taking courage from the relaxed faces of my family, but my stomach was already beginning to churn.  

The safety warnings noted, we mounted our bikes and headed for the first tunnel.  Thirteen-year-old Jack and his eighteen-year-old cousin, already thick as thieves despite having only met a few days earlier, charged ahead.  Fearless but not reckless, Jack sped towards the tunnel.  I was still getting my bike lets and was happy to pedal more slowly.  The Big Guy was trailing our youngest son, and went between us.

The darkness closed in around us quickly.  Behind me I heard one of my nieces struggling with her own fears, and the mom in me slowed to try and comfort her.  Her father, however, was just behind us and, falling back on his twenty years of military-instilled discipline, barked at her to get moving.  It worked for both of us.  I began peddling and calling back encouragement to my niece. 

Jack and his cousin got to the end of the tunnel first and were waiting for the adults.  One by one, we emerged, blinking at the summer sun.  I was shaking a bit, but when I looked at my oldest son, there was only excitement and happiness with the day and the mountains around him.  There was no fear, and I could see there hadn’t been any.  Part of me pondered how he got so brave with a mother who constantly lets fear govern her life – and his sometimes.  The other part of me was absorbing his excitement.  

We snapped a few shots of cousins and then pedaled further.  Every mile featured breathtaking views and, often, equally breathtaking drops that seemed incredibly close to the road.  The further we traveled, however, the less I even felt the fears that would normally have me thinking about the size of the drops and what it would be like to fall from them.

The sun in the cloudless sky that framed the majestic peaks that surrounded us drenched the day’s palette in intense blues and greens.  It also brought everything into sharp focus.

Jack and his cousin remained in the lead the rest of the ride.  And, while he was busy growing the part of me that had absorbed his excitement and joy realized that I was busy being reborn. 

Of Beanstalks and Boys

I had planned on re-dubbing Thing1, my twelve-going-on-twenty-year-old 'Goliath'. At the time, I was just getting used to reprimanding and rewarding my first born while looking up at him, and the name seemed to fit him. But despite his occasional flashes of teenaged angst and backtalk, my giant is a gentle one.

 

I've used pseudonyms for my boys, not so much out of fear of stalkers, but because I want them to have as much control over their identities online as I would want over mine. The stories I tell about them and the Big Guy are my vision of them, and someday they will want the chance to define themselves. But now, as Thing1 is evolving and daily declaring his independence, the nickname that fit him just a year ago, doesn't seem to do him justice.

 

I love the name we gave him. It's different. I wanted the nickname I gave him online to evoke the same feeling I have when I hear his given name. So I began running through a list of names, finding things that rhymed until I hit 'Jack'. Initially, I discarded it, continuously rattling off names as I shut the door to my office to let him Skype with his friends. I went across the hall to throw another load in the machine and while I continued the end-of-school project of sorting through hand-me-downs. As I was grumbling to myself about how much more expensive it was about to be to buy men's pants for my firstborn, I came back to the name Jack.

 

It's not particularly different, but suddenly it fit him. He has been growing like a proverbial string bean, but lately he's a bit more like Jack than the beanstalk. He's headed to overnight computer camp this summer. It's his first time away from family, but it's also the first time he's made his own choices about his education. He wanted to go to learn. He chose which course seemed most interesting. He's the one making decisions about how he'll finance and build a new computer.

 

This boy who has begun to thrive on challenge is so much more than a mischievous imp (although he's still that quite often). He's ready to make his own adventures. He's Jack.

 

The Path Twice Taken

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It’s been almost seven years since the Big Guy wheeled me to the door of the hospital and went to get the car.  With a carefully swaddled bundle in my arms, I waited, but we weren’t alone.  The hospital staff was watching over us, but I had another more trustworthy companion waiting on me and the newest member of the family.  

Only three days earlier, when I’d looked at Jack, my then tow-headed boy, I has still seen the baby I had nursed and cuddled.  As he stood beside me, however, hovering over his new brother and checking to make sure I wasn’t getting too much draft, I realized he was firmly into the next phase.  Only then, as I sat near the hospital entrance, glancing at my new baby and then at my very protective and increasingly capable first born did it hit me that we were about to start the journey of taking a completely dependent life form from diapers to door-holding all over again.

It was a journey full of phases.  Some were longer and more arduous than others, but we loved every one of them.  I loved the nursing (once we got the hang of it) and the toothless smile.  I loved the tiny arms that wrapped around my neck, and I was already loving watching him discover the world outside our yard.

This would be the last time I traveled this path.  I was still fairly busy negotiating the next steps with Jack.  At the back of my brain, however, I made a promise to myself to not let the confidence gained over the last six years of parenting translate into indifference to the joy that the upcoming phases with Thing2 would bring.  

Trying to keep that promise has been challenging when we’re busy or swamped with bills.  For the most part both, though, the Big Guy and I have been lucky enough to see and mark the special moments.  We’ve seen the first smile and step, and we’ve been treated to the antics and theatrics.  And we’ve both repeatedly commented that it’s all going too fast.

A few weeks ago I went to a family reunion.  Cousins and cousins-once-removed all brought children to the event.  The ages ran the gamut from nine months to 19 years old.  Some of the cousins met for the first time that weekend, but any shyness was trampled under the feet of toddlers chasing teenagers around the yard.  

The nine-month-old belonged to the daughter of one of my cousins and was the perfect age for the grown ups to play with.  The child’s aunts and grandparents and cousins were only too happy to hold and cuddle her so that the young mother could take a break.   

On the last night of the reunion, the youngest cousin was hungry and fussy after a day of sight-seeing, and, when her mother went to fetch a bottle, I offered to help.

“Will she come to me?” I asked hopefully.  The ten-year-old holding her was looking less enchanted as her whimpers threatened to escalate, and he nodded at me.  I scooped the baby out of his arms, settling her into mine and began to rock on my feet, mentally traveling that time when I was able to solve all my boys’ problems with milk and a snuggle.  

She settled somewhat.  Her mom handed me the bottle.  She sucked the nipple into her mouth and began to drink.  Her eyes became slits, occasionally widening to make sure I was still holding the bottle, until, sated, she gave into sleep.  For a brief minute, I thought, I would love to do this all over again.

As if on cue, Thing2 emerged from the basement where the older children were watching movies.  He watched me with the baby for a minute before wrapping his arms around my waist.  At first I thought he might be jealous or having memories of that era when he rarely left my arms.  Then he looked up at me.

“Mom, can I help with the baby?” he asked.  I looked down at him.  In that moment, I took another time trip, but this time it was to that moment in the hospital lobby.  Thing2, a superhero who always rescues me from my darker thoughts, now helped me mark a new special moment where I noticed he has slipped out of the baby/little kid phase and become part of a wider world, and I smiled at him.

“No, thanks, Buddy,” I answered and asked him if he could announce to the downstairs that it was time for the big kids to eat.  He smiled, instantly forgetting the sleeping baby two feet away as he ran to the basement door and shouted to the other kids to wash hands.  I handed the somehow still-sleeping baby back to her mother and went to get a plate together for my fussier eater and continue our journey.

 

 

  

Hormones and Other Things That Go Bump in a Life

 

boys at baseball

At home it’s still the story we know – twelve-year-old Thing1 and six-year-old Thing2 play together a lot because we live in the country and my work-at-home job precludes a most of non-school related chauffeuring.  Thing1 has spent hours coaching Thing2 on the finer points of throwing and catching – hollering at him (with love of course) when he sees his younger brother’s elbow in the wrong position and cheering when Thing2 makes a hit off of one of his pitches.  He fields with comic incompetence, always letting his younger brother get around the makeshift bases to win the run and the game.

Last year, Thing1’s enthusiasm bubbled over at the ballpark, and he even spontaneously volunteered to help the coaches at most of Thing2’s T-ball practices.  He caught fly balls at first, helped the five and six year olds remember where second was, and played catcher for the more ambitious players.  When the new season started, I waited for Thing1 to jump into action.  And then I waited some more.

“Don’t you want to go help them?” The Big Guy and I asked at different times and then together at the ballpark.

“I just don’t see the point,” Thing1 responded in a voice that has taken on a deeper timbre.  Each query was met with one of his.  “Why does it matter?  Why are we here?  Why can’t I just go home?  What’s the meaning of everything?”  No amount of cajoling or browbeating was going to get him on that sunny field, but Saturday mornings are family time for us, and Thing2 has spent years watching his big brother’s games, and we decided Thing1 should return the favor.  “I’ll stay,” he replied when we informed him of the judges’ decision, “but I won’t enjoy it, and I’m just going to watch.”

We chalked his attitude up to hormones and decided to enjoy watching Thing2.  We’re both willing to tolerate the moodiness – we even sympathize with it – but we were pretty sure that only time would be able to handle it.  Even without his cape, however, Thing2’s has superpowers that we are still discovering.

Our six-year-old was oblivious to the drama on the sidelines as he walloped a ball off the T and skipped happily around the bases.  Then it was time for the tiny teams to switch from practice game to plain old practice, and he skipped to the outfield.  Jumping and dancing and tossing his glove in the air, he chattered with his new teammates, occasionally pausing to listen to the coach’s directions.

The teams formed parallel lines to practice throwing and catching.  Somehow having generated more energy from having run across the field, Thing2 spun and leapt to his assigned spot.  His assigned partner had the ball, and as the three of us migrated around the perimeter to get a better look, we saw him field a grounder with ease.

“Huh,” mumbled Thing1.  “He remembered what I showed him last week.”  It was Thing2’s turn to toss now, and he jumped and then lobbed the ball across the row to his partner.  The other kid missed, and Thing1 called out to his brother, “Keep your elbow in!”

Thing2 heard his brother and smiled and waved just in time to ignore the ball that was coming back to him.  He ran and chased and then ran and threw.  The ball barely made it to the other kid, and Thing1 gave a loud sigh.  “This is just painful,” he mumbled, “he’s forgetting everything I showed him.”

“They’re having fun,” I said.  “What’s he doing wrong?”

Thing1 started to explain throwing theory to me just as Thing2 had another throwing turn.  Then he saw his little brother pull back his arm for another toss.  “Wait,” he said, “I’ve got to go help him.  This is just too painful to watch.”  Swinging himself over the fence and stuffing his hand into his glove, he marched over to the group of kids.

From the fence on the sideline, I heard him correct Thing2’s.  There was no yelling now.  He was still serious, however, as he began showing some of the other five- and six-year-olds on Thing1’s row how to catch and throw.  The coach waved a welcome at the self-conscious newcomer and turned his focus to another part of the practice line.

Thing2 caught the ball again, earning a pat on the back from his older brother.  He looked up, and we both saw the beginning of a smile on Thing1’s face.  Then he turned to face his practice partner.  Mindful of his elbow, Thing2 pulled his arm back and threw.  And the smile turned into a cheer.

Thing2 chattered and danced as we headed back to the car and to breakfast at Bob’s Diner.  Thing1 was quieter but no longer sullen.  We didn’t try (at least not much) to coax any admission that the game had been fun, and in the end we didn’t need to.

Every Saturday since, he’s surreptitiously and spontaneously found his way onto the field, shedding his somberness for an hour and a half.  Thing2 still watches his elbow, but his inner superhero seems to understand that while he’s chasing balls and bases, he’s doing another even more important job.

Boys Will be Boys

Car show

My idea of a hot car is one that goes from zero to sixty – degrees – in under fifteen minutes.  Even when I plunk down my two dollars for a twenty million dollar fantasy, a dream car is usually last on the list.  My automotive apathy, however, met its match when I married a classic car junkie.  

Not content to merely thumb through car magazines, the Big Guy lives for car shows.  He’s successfully passed his love of all things automotive on to our two boys which means any car show or antique car museum in a 60 mile radius shows up on our weekend to do list.  That’s why it’s hardly surprising that we’ve found ourselves speeding down route 22 in New York in the driving rain on what would normally be a lazy Sunday afternoon.  

The rain should stop.  This antique car show is at the studio and mansion of the man who sculpted the Lincoln memorial.  Despite the rain and the fact that my fantasy to do list still doesn’t include finding another car show, I’m looking forward to the afternoon.  It’s not the gourmet lunch or the elegant display of painstakingly restored cars that will make the day for me, however.

As with past shows – elegant or rustic – I know I’ll be focused, not on the cars but on the boys.  My day will be spent snapping one photo after another as the Big Guy hoists six-year-old Thing2 up to examine the brass lights on a shiny Model T.  I’ll try to surreptitiously capture twelve-year-old Thing1’s lanky form bending over to study a curvy dashboard through the window of an antique Mercedes.  And, at some point in the day, when they’ve dropped their guards and their games and the three of them are smiling, comparing notes and fantasies, I’ll make another, permanently mental image of my three boys being boys on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Heroes Begin at Home

A long fuse

When our twelve-year-old, Thing1, was about four, he began begging us for a baby brother.  He didn’t want more playdates with other boys, and he definitely didn’t want a baby sister.  Fortunately, we were able to deliver on his request two year later, and, even though we couldn’t take credit for Thing2’s gender, Thing1 was perfectly happy to go along with our contention that Thing2 was the big present that Christmas.

Thing1 took his big-brother responsibilities very seriously.  He read to Thing1and held his hand on the jungle gyms.  He made sure that I didn’t pick any outfits or Halloween costumes that violated the boy code of ‘not-too-cute’.  It didn’t take Thing2 long to decide that his older brother was a hero.  Six years later, Thing1 is learning that no good deed goes unpunished.

The two of them share the same wants these days, and the perfect harmony that characterized their early years together goes off key with increasing frequency.  They still share a bunk room, and, for a time, I thought the close proximity was the primary cause of their constantly overlapping material desires.  But the other night, as the Big Guy and I orchestrated the circus that is homework hour at our house, it became apparent that it does’t always take the opposing forces that lead to conflict don’t have to be equal in size or determination.

The increased expectations and volume of homework this year drove Thing1 to study at the desk we put in his room two years ago.  Thing2, however, still needs more supervision if we want his 20 minutes of homework done before eight o’clock at night, and we’ve designated the kitchen table as his study space.  Anything can draw our happily distractible six-year-old away from his studies, and, if we don’t keep a close eye on him, we know we’ll find him in the bunk room pestering his older brother.

Last week I had a chance to watch this ballet once more.  This time, however, a different angle made it seem like a completely new production.  Thing2 had just been restored to his chair after bouncing around the house, showing us his afternoon artwork.  Thing1 had the door to their room closed.  Hoping a little music would help Thing2 concentrate, I hit play on If I Fell, one of his favorite Beatles’ songs.

My plan backfired immediately.  Thing2 began singing, revealing that he wanted to sing Beatles at the school talent show.  The love song ended, but instead of bending his head to his work, Thing2 hopped off the chair and ran to the bunkroom, calling to his brother through the door to let him know about the talent show plans.

“Leave me alone,” Thing1 yelled through the door.  “I’m trying to work!”  I ordered Thing2 back to his seat and opened the door to let Thing1 know yelling at his brother should be reserved for actual crimes.  He came out to defend his reaction and, after we discussed the right tone to use with his parents, Thing1 trudged back to his desk.  Thing2, watched the exchange and hopped up again as soon as his brother began his retreat.  It was like watching a match chasing a long fuse.

I got up to pull my first-grader back to his homework before a fight broke out, but when I got to the door of the bunk room, Thing2 was hanging on the back of his brother’s chair, arms wrapped tightly around Thing1’s neck, consoling him while revealing his talent show plans.  Thing1, still miffed, was trying to write while ignoring the stranglehold, but then I saw him pat his baby brother’s hand.  At that moment I knew he also realized that this wasn’t pestering.  It was worship.  Sometimes it hurts, but even when he’s trying to find breathing space, Thing1 seems to understand that being someone’s hero is not just a responsibility; it’s a gift.

Sympathy for the Giant

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The steps creak a little more each day as Thing1 descends from his bastion on the upper bunk.  He’s been taller than his mother for a year now, and, even though he enjoys sizing up the difference every time we pass in the hall, I am getting used to looking up at someone I used to carry around in a Snugli.  It’s strange feeling, and a few weeks ago, I realized that Thing1, evoking a decidedly impish quality, didn’t really suit him anymore.

I’ve been using nicknames for my kids and husband since this blog’s inception.  My six foot six husband is the Big Guy.  My twelve and six-year-old boys are known as Thing1 and Thing2 (or SuperDude if he’s wearing his cape and wig), respectively.

My decision to use nicknames was not so much to safeguard their internet safety – very little is private anymore now  – but more the result of the feeling that, especially with the kids, I had the right to tell our stories but not the right to opt in the use of their real names until they were old enough to make that decision themselves.  The result has been a mostly illustrated blog (the few photos of the kids are usually old enough to prevent easy recognition by anyone but the people who already know them), and I’ve been happy with it.  Now, however, as I’ve been searching for a new, more appropriate nickname for the gentle giant that roams our house, I realize that part of the motivation for the original nickname was my denial that he is growing up.

There is still a bit of the imp in him, but middle school and the discovery that a world lies outside Minister Hill have made him serious.  When the imp is revealed, Thing2 is often the inspiration and the provocation.  Like any good younger brother, Thing2 carries around a bit of loving hero worship for his big brother.  Most afternoons he expresses his love by snuggling up to his older brother, but there are times when love hurts.

Sometimes inspired by boredom, sometimes by that most flattering of desires – to imitate his older brother in every possible way – Thing2 will sidle up to Thing1 at his desk or on the couch.  He’ll work to inhabit the space with his brother.  Then he’ll ask to play whatever Thing1 is playing, listen to whatever song Thing1 has blasting, or watch whatever show Thing1 thought was great last night but couldn’t care less about this afternoon.  He is dogged in his admiration, and, when Thing1, in the time-honored tradition of surly preteens everywhere, ignores the initial overtures, Thing2 finds a plan B.

Snuggling becomes poking.  Then poking becomes climbing, and sometimes the climbing hurts.  Thing2’s faith that Thing1 would never hurt him is stronger David’s in a God that would guide his slingshot was.  For the most part his faith is well-placed. Unlike the ancient Goliath, when our giant needs a lot of needling before he responds in kind.  Sometimes the giant will lose his temper, but he rarely loses his cool.

Lately he’s been taking on more grown-up chores around the house.  He’s attentive and responsive when we need a quick favor.  Naturally, I see him through my maternal bias, but as I watch the imp becoming a man, I’ve decided it’s time for someone to get a new nickname and rehabilitate the name Goliath.

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