Thursday, July 24, 2014

Confession of an Immoral Act

I feel unclean, soiled and grimy right down to the base of my soul.  I am sorry my love. My act was completely reprehensible.  I cannot forgive myself, and therefore, cannot beg you to forgive me.   I cheated on you, my partner, my eldest companion.  You won’t understand, and for that, I cannot blame you.  Once upon a time I took an oath that I would never forsake you, that I would never choose another medium, but reality intervened leaving me little choice.  While others viewed you as old, outdated and soon to be a relic in a museum, I relished your natural beauty, the way you felt in my hands, your scent when I closed my eyes and rested my head on your body.  But the universe is moving forward, running rapidly into the future, making it difficult to remain faithful.  

It’s the money – I’m sorry.  It always is about the money.  Isn’t it?  What we can afford verses what we cannot. Money and stress.  If it weren’t for this new commitment, a potential opportunity to break from the routine of my life, I never would have done it.  But face it, you are bulky and expensive.  While I could once afford your pleasures – talking long walks with no one other than you; curling up on a couch, gripping you in a tight embrace unable to let go or even consider sleep; eating with you by my side as you filled me with knowledge and excitement – I now have others to consider.

But just because she was convenient, less expensive and required less waiting time, does not mean I enjoyed her.  I didn’t.  She was miserable, unnatural.  It was difficult, the cold, hard metal felt awkward in my hands.  I desperately missed the softness of your touch.  Sure, there were times you cut me deeply when I turned a page, but it was never intentional, and often due to my own carelessness.  And what made the situation worse was the constant comparison between you and her.  I tried, but stopping was impossible.  My every thought was consumed by how preferable you are in so many ways.  The rain for one.  Sure you don’t like getting wet, but what’s a pound or two among friends.  Water would just expand your waist, enhanced your thickness, but it never killed you.  Rain clouds suddenly became much more ominous, for a downpour would certainly have killed or severely damaged her.  The sun.  With you, a pair of sunglasses and maybe a hat with a brim was all I needed to block the glare, but with her, the glare was brutally hostile.  My head ached and my eyes watered.  The concrete.  How many times have I dropped you? You always bounced – a few scratches maybe, a bit of dirt.  But she would inevitably crack, so much more fragile than you ever were.  And finally, stamina.  Your energy is endless, you can go all night.  Her battery is continuously running low. She constantly needs a break to get recharged. Oh how I missed you, I need you and if you will let me, tonight, when I go to bed, it is you I wish to bring with me. That Kindle app and tablet mean nothing to me – nothing at all.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Long Swim, Little Man

I’ve always loved the beach.  As far back as I can remember, summer and beach are so intertwined that to call one to mind immediately summons the other.  When I was seven, my parents rented a house in Cutchogue, New York.  The beach we had access to that year, Fleet’s Neck, was right on the creek, an inlet, that while not terribly wide, was continuously dredged to ensure it remained deep enough so that boats could pass without fear of getting grounded.  Three steps out into the water and I was well over my head. A constant worry for my mother, whose incessant angst I found completely vexing, at least until I had a child of my own and finally understood that mothers and children are perpetually fated to see things differently.  What is fun to the child, can branch off, in an overly active mother’s imagination, to no less than twelve calamities.  And in my mother’s mind, they played like a video on repeat.  

For a seven year old, I was a good swimmer.  I could tread water for what seemed like ages, and with an energy level that could have powered a small village, I could have spent the day swimming without feeling even slightly tired.  So when my dad dove into the water and decided to swim across the creek, I could not be restrained.  I had to follow.  On some level my dad had to know this.  A challenge was set down in front of me, and not just any challenge, one that looked fun.  When I expressed my desire to swim across, my dad issued just one rule.  I had to stay close to him at all times and I knew, without him having to emphasize it, that if I disobeyed, my creek swimming days would be over – at least until next year.  Every day, my dad and I swan across, and most days we made the trip more than once.  I was only a child, but to me the feat was huge, and it made me feel all grow up.  

My son is now four and I have had to work hard to help him conquer his fear of the water.  Every summer since his birth, I would carry him into the bay and hold him, praying that enough exposure would eventually whittle away his resistance.  After two years of swimming lessons, he started this summer finally feeling comfortable getting his face wet.  And he would happily have run into the water all on his own the moment we arrived at the beach except for his sudden aversion to seaweed.  I’ve no idea what set him off, but he acts towards seaweed the way most people act in regards to red jellyfish.  He sees it and immediately freaks out.  He will not, under any circumstance, even permit one toe to so much as break the surface of the water if a single clump of seaweed might brush up against his skin.  So, we arrive at the beach, he helps his grandfather set up the umbrellas and then he sprints down to the edge of the water where he screams, “Mama, seaweed.” Which translated means, “Mama, do you see all that seaweed clumped together.  Please pick me up and carry me over it.”  Shaking my head and knowing it is useless to try and rationalize with him, I grant his request.  Sometimes I carry him out just a foot or two, where there is less seaweed and gently place him down into the water.  Other times, I pick him up and toss him into the bay, watching him dip down under the surface and then shoot up again.  As long as he doesn’t resurface within ten feet of anything green he’s fine.

This passed Friday, instead of going to the beach in Mattituck where the water is shallow and safe, we went to the beach out in Peconic, a beach that sits on a creek – a beach where it takes but two and a half steps and my son is completely submerged.  Surprisingly, the seaweed did not spook my son.  I hadn’t expected him to so brazenly march into the water, so I wasn’t in the least worried that he might drown, at least not until I looked up from applying sunscreen to realize he was already in his tube and five feet out into the water.  Yanking off my hat and sun glasses, I splashed in after him.  The moment he saw me, he ducked out of the tube, pushed it to me and started swimming in the opposite direction.  I was blown away by this sudden burst of bravado but had I not been completely at home in the water, complete confident in my own abilities, I might have had a moment of panic.  Instead, I stayed next to my son - thrilled by his willingness to swim - until he asked for the tube which I willingly surrendered.

In time, he exchanged his tube for his kick-board, and pointing across the creek to the beach on the other side, he said, “I want to go over there.”  Seeing no reason to object, I quickly acquiesced and set out in an easy side stroke, keeping my eyes poised on him the whole time as I shadowed him to the other side.  He made it - an impressive feat for a child who twelve months earlier viewed the water with an enhanced level of distrust.  

Now, the question presented itself – would he have the desire and endurance to make it back?  To say I had no doubts would be to tell a little lie.  And I wonder, when he said he was ready to go back, did he catch a glimpse of doubt as it flickered across my face.  Perhaps, he did.  And perhaps, that is why after only one kick he quickly discarded the kick-board, intent on making me feel guilty for ever doubting him.  Without any device to cling to for support, and a huge smile on his face, a smile that said, “Look what I can do,” he set out on his journey.  His stroke was a convoluted half doggie paddle, half breast stroke but - hey, there are no bonus points for style - he managed to propel himself forward through the water.  When he got tired, feeling slightly, winded, he rolled onto his back, just like his swimming instructor taught him.  With arms outstretched, parallel to the heavens, and his eyes shut tight against the sun, he floated for a few moments while he caught his breath.  He then rolled back over and continued his swim and he swam right up to the shore line, grinning ear to ear as pride spilled forth from his eyes.  He did it.  He swam the entire width of the creek all by himself and I admit, I was more than a little surprised, extremely impressed and very proud.  I had expected that one day we would swim across the creek together, just like my dad and I used to do, but I never thought it would have happened so soon. He beat me by three years.  

                               Photo taken by Gary Jaeger

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Birdhouse

For Christmas, PopPop made my son a wooden birdhouse.  When he hung it up, my son was ecstatic over the prospect of birds moving in and becoming our new neighbors.  We tried to explain that in all likelihood no one would move in, but little kids get their minds stuck on a particular idea and it is virtually impossible to derail them, regardless of the evidence. The improbability of anyone moving in was reinforced by the bylaws of our condo association which prohibit birdseed.  Without birdseed, we had nothing to entice any visitors.  But my son wouldn’t listen.  Four year old logic is a realm unto itself.  After a detailed explanation as to why the birdhouse would most likely remain vacant, my son, very adamantly shook his head and replied, “You never know,” thus ending the discussion and refusing to surrender his faith.

            Well, I hate to admit that a four year old’s stubborn assurance proved to be more practical than my mature reasoning but, alas, I have no choice.  Winter put up a bitter fight, but eventually it succumbed to Spring’s enduring warmth.  The ice thawed, the snow melted and soon adult birds set about searching for the perfect place to build a nest.  One day, while sitting outside, my spouse noticed twigs sticking out of the front hole in the bird house.  “Can it be?” we wondered.  “Has someone indeed selected our birdhouse as the ideal residence to start a new family?”  Sure enough, within the week, we started to notice a little bird hanging around our patio.  He would rest on the fence and watch us skeptically, cautiously and if we lingered too long he’d start chirping as if demanding that we leave him alone.

            In the morning, weather permitting, my son and I sit outside and he reads to me.  It is a special time we get to share as he sounds out new words and begins to master others.  Since reading is still a new skill, it takes awhile to wade through just a few pages.  In between sentences, my son will stop reading and expand upon the story, adding details the author either forgot or deemed unnecessary.  Or he will ask questions, impatient to have answers that would be revealed soon enough if only he kept his attention focused.  While he reads, the little bird flits nervously about as if protecting his nest.  Hoping from the fence to the birdhouse and back to the fence he makes himself known by chirping incessantly.  My son, who loves any sort of distraction while reading, often lifts his eyes from the words in front of him to search for the bird.  One morning, in the middle of a sentence, he abruptly stopped reading, picked up his head and smiled, his eyes aglow with the spark of an exciting idea.  “The birds like it when I read,” he declared, and it seemed just about the best motivation in the world to keep doing it.  “I think they want me to keep reading.”

            “I think you are right,” I answered, wanting to encourage him, allow this fantasy to take root because I want him to read and sometimes my wanting him to do something just isn’t enough to encourage him to do it.  Like all kids, he is always more willing to do something if the incentive comes from someone or something other than a parent. 

            “Why?  Why does he like listening to me read?”

            “Because, you are a good reader.” The compliment tinted his cheeks and nudged his lips into a broader smile.  Feeling good about yourself and what you can do is also a good incentive to keep doing it. 

            But the little bird doesn’t only make his appearance when my son reads.  Several days ago, I was sitting out on the patio working on story when the bird came to visit yet again.  My spouse had wanted pictures of him, so I was ready with my camera resting beside my computer.  While the little bugger proved to be more reluctant to have his picture taken than my son, I did manage to get a few decent shots of our lively new neighbor. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Camping Adventure: Wormy

            What is it with boys and rocks?  Give my son an inexhaustible amount of rocks and a body of water – which does not have to be large, just big enough to make a splash and send water droplets flying helter-skelter in every possible direction – and he is ecstatic. 

Last week, we spent several days camping in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland.  Before piling into the car and heading south, we made sure we had written out a rough itinerary of what we would do to entertain ourselves while we were away.  Hiking, one of my favorite activities, appeared multiple times on the itinerary – every day for at least an hour to be exact.  It was only one hour and it didn’t need to be anything strenuous or long, leisurely was acceptable provided we moved at a steady pace.  Yes, four year olds and moving at a steady pace are not compatible.  I know this. I  know this extremely well but there are moments when I forget, moments when I so desperately need to be doing something active that I think the past – multiple experiences, not just one or two - is nothing but a fluke. Repeatedly, I start out optimistically believing that we can hike two miles easily and twenty minutes later, when we’ve barely gone a hundred meters, it becomes painfully obvious that even a mile would have been way too ambitious. 

Disappointingly, the majority of our hikes – any over a half a mile - last week ended in failure.  My son dug his heels in, practically to the point of setting down roots, and no matter how hard we coaxed and poked and prodded he would not budge.  Not even chocolate would crack his resolve, and so we were left with no choice other than to abandon yet another hiking trail.  The one hike, however, that my son completed was the short loop that connected to our campsite.  After a day at the zoo we returned to our campsite and since it was too early to start dinner I suggested a light and easy walk.  Perhaps it was the term that muddled his stubbornness – walk instead of hike does sound like it requires less energy and effort – but whatever the reason, my son did not object.  In fact, he set off with an abundance of enthusiasm declaring, as always, that he had to be the leader.  Less than ten minutes into the walk we came to a crossroads.  We could have stayed straight and remained on the path or we could have turned left and followed a steep slope down to a small stream.  I chose the slope and my son eagerly followed.  Once at the stream, you’d have thought he arrived at an amusement park he was so excited.  Without wasting a moment, he reached down, picked up a rock and launched it into the water.  Plop!  He smiled.  Another rock and his smile grew.  For nearly a half hour he entertained himself while my spouse laughed and enjoyed his playfulness. 

Having momentarily tired out his throwing arm, he agreed to continue the walk only after I promised to return to that very spot once we completed the circuit.  The terrain was flat and even though my son had to stop and scrutinize every plant, insect and leaf he encountered along the way it still took less than an hour to end up back at the water’s edge. While throwing rocks was still high on his priority list of activities, he in no way limited himself.  In fact, I was rather intrigued watching him play.  At one point he gathered several leaves.  Slowly, he dropped them into the water one by one, clapping once they were set adrift.  He then carefully sat back on his haunches to watch where the current carried the leaves.  When one or a bunch got stuck behind a rock, he poked them with a stick until they started to move again. Why don’t they all go the same way? He pondered.  Why do some get stuck and others don’t? He questioned.  Is there a difference between green leaves and brown ones? He mused dropping them into the water together.  What struck me most was how patiently he sat in one spot and just watched the water running over the rocks. If I would have let him, if dinner didn’t need to be cooked and then eaten, I think he’d have happily occupied himself down by the steam all night. 

“Can we come back again?” He asked, as I reached for his hand to help him up the steep muddy slope.

“Yes, but not tonight.”

“Promise!” he stopped suddenly, finger raised, pointing at me as if ready to cast a mischievous spell on me if I didn’t.

“Yes, I promise.”

Since the following day consisted of a late afternoon at the lake, I was unable to fulfill my promise until the morning of our departure.  I woke my son early and together we made our way back to the stream.  He immediately picked up two rocks and handed one to me. “We throw together,” he instructed. “One, two, three!” I dropped my rock as he threw his which splashed into the water first.  “Again,” he cried already bending down for a second pair.  I lost count of how many rocks we threw but it was enough – I am sure – to have slightly altered the course of the water as drifted downstream.

Reluctantly, since it was getting late, he agreed to return to the campsite where we had to break camp.  Along the trail, he spotted a tiny earthworm curled up on the dirt.  Afraid that someone – I’m not sure who since there were so few people in the campgrounds and no one else on the trail – might step on him and squash him, he insisted on moving him to safer territory.  First he tried moving him with a stick, but the worm – who my son affectionately referred to as wormy – refused to cooperate.  Every time my son attempted to slip the stick under his belly he rolled off.  So instead of getting frustrated, he ditched the stick and picked him up with his fingers.  As the worm slithered across his hand he chuckled.  For several minutes, he played with the little critter, bringing his hand close to his face and observing the way he moved.  Finally, with a quick kiss – yes, it kind of grossed me out too, but that is what wet-wipes are for – he gently placed the worm on a safe patch of dirt and hand in hand he and I returned to camp.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Camping Adventure: Don't Bite Me, Mr. Goose

Did you ever wonder how myths and legends develop, grow bigger and more exciting as times passes, despite their meager births, sprouting sometimes from the smallest grain of fact, a kernel of truth?  I’m sure it has something to do with children, their capacity to absorb and exaggerate.  Unabashedly, they apply their imaginations to the stories they hear, weaving in details that enhance their understanding and in turn stitching together a fabric both vibrant and rich, one far more striking than the original they set out to replicate.  Family legends are no different.  We collect what we know, pass the tales down to our children and smile – sometimes even chuckle - as their minds process the details through the tiny portholes of their own experiences. The stories, of course, are always most endearing, when the past collides with and influences the present. 

Sixty years ago, my father, a small child of five, was bit by a goose.  He distinctly remembers the nibble – which didn’t even hurt - but the encompassing details are vague, almost entirely lost.  Once, in passing, I mentioned the incident to my four year old son, “Once upon a time, long ago when Grandpa was not much older than you, he was bit by a goose.” This occurrence, of which there is virtually no back story, made a startling impression on him.  In his mind, the nibble has been transformed into a vicious attack, one that caused his grandfather great pain, and one that he must avoid at all costs.  If his grandfather had lost a limb to a to lion or shark, his reaction would make sense, but four year olds play by different rules, and the logic they apply to situations is often lost on adults. 

Several days ago, as part of our camping trip to Maryland, we visited the Catoctin Zoo.  My son was extremely excited since he, like most children, adores animals.  His enthusiasm was infectious as he bounced from animal to animal.  And then, in the distance, he caught sight of a gaggle of geese.  He froze, as if encountering a deadly beast, as if instead of some distant cousin many generations removed from the original culprit, he had come face to face with the goose of his grandfather’s distant past.  He face contorted in a mixture of fear, bravado and anger as he raised his hand to his mouth and shouted a warning to the clueless creatures.  “Stay away from me,” he shouted, blood rising to his cheeks, adding color to his face.  “You bit Ba’bap but not me.  Leave me alone. Do you hear me?  Don’t come near me.”  The geese, completely oblivious to the fact that they were being simultaneously reprimanded and warned, went about their business swimming in the pond and searching for food.

Feeling better, my son, finally approached the birds, but as he walked by them, his hands instinctively flew to his tushy and he clenched his butt, a defensive move just incase a goose succumbed to temptation and attempted to bite him as one once bit his grandfather.  For the rest of the day, whenever a goose came near him, or whenever he spotted one in the distance, his hands raced to backside.  “No, goose it going to bite me,” he declared each time, “Nope, nope, nope.”  And none did.  But I had to wonder, if geese had the capacity to think, what thoughts would go through their minds at the vision of a little boy, twice their size, clenching his butt and telling them off.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Camping Adventure: The Tadpole

I was young, maybe seven or eight, when I learned how to kick minnows out of the bay.  The previous summer my parents had rented a house out in Mattituck, New York.  At the beach we went to nearly every day - weather permitting - there was a small natural pool that formed in the rocks when the tide receded.  In that pool, I would crack muscles open, place the raw meat in my palm and patiently wait for the minnows to nibble.  When they did, slowly - very slowly, so they would not get spooked - I closed my hand into a fist, trapping the minnows which I then slipped into a pail filled with water.  Countless hours I spend catching minnows, one of the few sedentary activities I really enjoyed.  Of course, at the end of the day, when the sun slinked towards the horizon and it was time to go home and think about a bath and dinner, I returned all the minnows, still alive, to their home in the bay. 

The following summer, my parents rented a different house, this time out in Cutchogue, New York which meant a different beach.  Without the tide pool which trapped the minnows in a compact space, catching the small fish was far more challenging.  Then one afternoon, as I sat eating my lunch on the sand, I noticed an older boy – maybe three or four years older than me – kicking the minnows out of the water.  Quietly, moving so slowly he hardly appeared to be walking at all, he stalked the fish.  When he spotted a school of them hanging out near the edge of the water he transformed his body into a burst of speed.  Lightening quick and in one fluid motion he took one step, brought his right foot back and before the fish could even register his presence he kicked the water.  Seconds later, as the water droplets seeped into the sand, he scanned the shore for the tell tale sign, the flapping motion of a desperate fish, that indicated his success.  I was enthralled, completely captivated by this new method of catching fish and I could not wait to attempt it myself.  The motion and the timing took practice.  The first time I tried it, I kicked up nothing but water, rocks, seaweed and sand.  But I persisted, determined to learn this new skill.  By the end of the summer, I had mastered it.  My mother and younger brother would occupy their time building an aquarium with sand and buckets and I would fill it with minnows, crabs and snails.  Kicking minnows out of the water proved to be a fun way to pass the time on the beach.  Perhaps it was a skill that had no worldly value but, as a small child, the fun factor was far more important than anything else.

But alas, I grew up (although some people might argue this point) and kicking minnows out of the water was a sport relegated to my childhood.  For two decades, though I visited beaches often, I left the minnows alone. Then my son was born and one summer, because I thought the tiny fish might interest him, I stepped into the bay wondering if twenty years has left my skill completely rusted and wasted.  But the cool thing about muscle memory is that it is literally ingrained in your body.  It took but two or three tries until I had landed a fish on the sand.  My son, only a year old, didn’t care about the fish at all, and so, slightly disappointed I returned my catch to the sea.  Now that my son is four, he loves the fish.  Every time we visit my parents – who no longer rent but own a house out in Mattituck – he requests that I catch fish for him.  One, two, three are never enough.  It is always one more until he had buckets teaming with minnows, so many that he only has to dip his hand into the bucket to catch one and pet it.

This week we were camping in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland.  While we were there, we spent one day swimming at the lake in Cunningham Falls State Park.  A section of the lake has been roped off for swimming and playing.  In the roped off section, the water is clear, clean and it smells like fresh mountain water.  The bottom is covered in soft white sand so that you can walk without mud squeezing through your toes.  However, just beyond the ropes, it is a different lake.  Standing by the ropes and sticking out your hand or leg you can feel the tangle of plants which form an underwater jungle.  And if you dare to put your foot down where it does not belong, you will feel the mucky, icky bottom so common in lakes.

In the water, we all had a blast.  My son, after two years of swimming lessons, is finally confident in the water and he spent hours swimming back and forth between me and my spouse.  As the day drew to a close, we reluctantly got out of the water to dry off a little before returning to camp.  While drying, I was inevitably drawn to tiny minnows swimming at the edge of the lake.  There weren’t many, not the overpopulated schools that I am accustomed to in the bay, but enough to tempt me.  Standing back, assessing the movement of the fish, I could not resist the child inside of me.  Taking a quick deliberate step, I kicked the water.  Scanning the sand I saw what I wanted, a small gray fish.  Smiling, I picked it up to bring to my son.  What I didn’t realize at first was that I had an audience – two young boys maybe ten or eleven years old.  Seeing that I caught a fish, they offered me their bucket full of water.  They were dismayed when I turned it down, delivering my catch to my son instead.  I returned to the water but catching fish in the lake was more of a challenge.  The mucky bottom was slippery and I had difficulty firmly planting my foot.  The boys watched and soon I caught a second fish.  When I refused to relinquish even that one to them they began imitating my movements in hopes of catching their own.  My son, too, for the first time, tried to kick the minnows out of the water.  He was adorable to watch – making too much noise, taking clunky steps and not kicking deeply enough.  In time, I am sure he will surpass me in skill and be able to kick out hoards of fish.  But for now, he was happy to play with what little I provided.

Two fish was all I could score, but one kick, my foot digging into the mud, I kicked up a prize even better than a minnow.  Not seeing the small gray fish I was accustomed to catching, I moved on to make another attempt when my spouse noticed a black blob on the sand.  Looking closer we realized it was not a fish, but a tadpole.  Quickly putting it in water, my son was captivated.  This was something different, something bigger and something far more interesting than he was used to me giving him.  He placed it in the bucket and watched it swim around.  When he was time to let the fish and tadpole go, he dumped the bucket in the lake, but the tadpole was slow.  My son, unwilling to let it go just yet, held out his hand and patiently tried to recapture him.  After only a few attempts, he succeeded. It was then, holding his little friend in his palm that he asked me to take his picture, which I did.  If he could have taken it home, he would have but instead, he kissed the tadpole on the top of its head, dipped his hand into the water and sadly said, “Goodbye.”