Sometimes at night, as I am waiting to fall asleep, my brain engages in a form of time travel. I suppose a more prosaic way of saying it would be to call it “memory,” but this doesn’t capture the experience. Nor does the word “hallucination,” though that gets closer. In the dark, with my eyes closed, no sound in my ears but my own breathing, I am in a different bed. One that doesn’t exist anymore.
Last night after I came to bed, I lay there for a while and looked at my wife, at the way she looked blue in the dim glow from her phone, at the softness of the light and how it matched the softness of her skin, and I smiled a little, though she didn’t see it. When I closed my eyes, the image of her face stayed in my mind for a moment, but then, as it does, my mind wandered. And after no more than a few seconds, I found that my sense of the room around me and the bed beneath me had changed.
Often when I go somewhere else, it’s back to my high-school bedroom, a room I called mine from the ninth grade through college. I haven’t seen the inside of that house in 13 years, since my mom and stepdad moved east to care for his elderly parents. But I still go there at night. The room is nine feet by ten feet and built like a ship’s cabin, with all of the furniture built onto the walls. If I were to open my eyes, I’d see that every horizontal surface apart from the bed on which I lie is covered with books, magazines, papers, and the other detritus of a teenaged introvert. My toes just hang over the edge of the mattress, and if I roll just a bit to the right, the plaster on the wall will be cold against my back. Of course, if I were actually to move or open my eyes, the spell would be broken and I’d be back to the present day.
Last night, though, I went back much further. Instead of the short twin mattress of my 14-year-old self, I found myself lying on a cot against the east wall of a small, one-room cabin. Just a few inches from my feet are several large windows that look out onto an unfinished redwood deck, past the railing of which the Bixby Creek trickled by. There are crayfish in the creek, and trout, hiding in the shadows under the little footbridge. We lived here when I was six, with my mom’s boyfriend—a man I haven’t seen in decades, who died four years ago, and whose memory will probably always haunt me.
My waking intellect, the part of me which is writing these words right now, knows that this experience is just a combination of memory and imagination. But when I am drowsy, I begin to wonder: is this mere fantasy, or does my consciousness perhaps drift back to my younger body in these moments? If I remain still enough, silent enough to hold onto this magic through the night, or if I fall asleep while I’m there, where might I be when I awake?
Most of the time when I am transported through time in this place between sleep and wakefulness, I feel a sense of longing, a melancholy born of the recognition of lost time. Yet I also feel a certain wonder, and perhaps a certain safety—which makes little sense to me now that I consider how often I felt frightened as a child and lost and lonely as an adolescent.
Finding myself back in that cabin, though, was more than I could bear. The weight of my memories, the thickness, the viscosity of my emotions—I felt like I couldn’t draw a breath. I jerked my eyes open and, needing an anchor to something present and real, I reached out and put a hand on my wife’s shoulder. She turned and looked at me, lowering her phone for a moment and asked “What’s up?”
I explained. I’m not sure what I said, or whether it made any sense, but she simply asked “What do you need right now?”
“I’m doing it,” I said, and squeezed her shoulder gently. She smiled and went back to her phone. A few minutes later I was asleep. Here. And now.
I can hear the little bear in the kitchen, the feet of the step-stool scraping on the tile floor as she climbs on top of it. “I WANT A SNACK,” she announces. The space of a heartbeat passes, maybe two. “I WANT A SNACK,” she repeats, stretching the last word into something like a musical phrase, complete with a crescendo and a fermata.
“Could you ask me that more politely, please?” I say, standing up and putting my book down.
“Please can I have a snack?” she asks, her voice quieting and rising in pitch.
“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking nicely.” She rejects my first four offerings—applesauce, a graham cracker, a cup of yogurt, a tangerine—before finally settling on Goldfish crackers as acceptable. “Sank you,” she says as I place the bowl before her, then turns away. I have been dismissed.
“Little Bear, can I have a hug?” I ask.
She laughs. “No!” I am, of course, being ridiculous.
When my youngest was an infant, I called her a berry when she was sweet, and a bear when she was surly. Given her name, these endearments were low-hanging fruit, to be sure. But by the time one is up in the night with his third child, the impressiveness of wit or ingenuity has lost a bit of its urgency; one takes the fruit that is at hand. As tends to happen, one name stuck and the other didn’t, so now at the ripe old age of two years, she is our Little Bear.
Unlike her brother—currently experiencing a growth spurt that makes him devour his meals quickly and then go in search of more—Little Bear likes to linger over her food, picking at it as she plays or sings or watches a video on my tablet. She will nibble until it’s gone, or until something else catches her attention. With two older siblings and a dog, the latter is not an uncommon occurrence. I’ve only managed to get two or three pages further in my book before I hear the slap of her tiny feet as she races down the hallway. “EXCUSE ME!” she shouts. “EXCUSE ME!” She opens her brother’s bedroom door. “EXCUSE ME! DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME!”
“No,” he says.
She turns to her sister, who is lying on the floor beside their brother’s bed, apparently staging some sort of battle between some Lego Star Wars characters and some Pokémon figurines. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH ME?” Little Bear asks.
“No,” says her sister.
I hear the door close, and the quick pip-pip-pip-pip-pip of her feet as she runs back toward the living room, where I am setting my book down again. “THEY SAID NO!” she reports. I brace myself. She glares at me for a few seconds, then abruptly turns and goes back to her crackers and the video which has continued playing during her absence.
When you are the smallest person in a house full of opinionated people, you must find ways to assert yourself, and Little Bear does this with aplomb. From her very first day, two things have been clear: she is aware, and she has opinions. It is a cliché to say that a person is “a force to be reckoned with,” and yet this is what she does. In every interaction, she demands that you consider her. I tell myself—and everyone else, really—that I’m heartened by this, that I hope she never loses this insistence, that it will serve her well when she’s grown. I also often (usually) add a rueful grin and the caveat, “I wish she’d take it a little easier on me and her mom sometimes.” But when I’ve put her to bed at night (singing one song to her and one to the stuffed animal by her side, laying the blankets over her in exactly the order she requires) what I find myself turning over and over in my head are all the ways that the world tells little girls to make themselves small and soft and pliant. I can’t protect her from this fate; all I can do is try to prepare her for it, and a strong self-regard and confident assertiveness seem a good armor. Or so I hope.
Perhaps twenty minutes have passed—long enough for me to become engrossed again in the story I’m reading—when I feel a touch at my knee and then Little Bear is pushing the book out of her way and climbing over my lap and onto the chair beside me.
“Hello, Little Bear” I say.
“Oh!” she says, and giggles. “Hello!” She stretches her legs up, crossing one ankle over the other and setting them on my lap. “I’m not touching you!” she says.
“Oh really? Are those your feet?” I ask.
“And is that my leg?”
“No! That’s my leg!” She laughs uproariously; that the thigh serving as her footrest belongs to her should be obvious, but she has decided not to hold it against me. She throws her arms around me. “Snuggle time!” she declares. “Snuggles are good!”
Yes. They are.
First Day in a New Class
"Daddy, I don't want to be in Ms. Marjan's class today."
I looked down at Jason. "What? You like Ms. Marjan. And all your friends have already moved up to her class. You're going to have so much fun being in the same class with them again."
"No, I'm not," he insisted sullenly.
I adjusted my grip on Eva's carseat/baby carrier--it was her second day at daycare, but my first day bringing her--and looked down at Jason, trying to be sympathetic but firm. "I'm sorry, buddy," I said, "But it's time for you to be in her class now. You've been getting all ready for this, and now it's time."
He didn't respond, just held my hand as we kept walking.
We were running a bit late this morning, so by the time we got to his new classroom--separated from his old "room" by just a short partition running across the space--the rest of the kids were already sitting down in their circle and the teacher was handing out little cards to each of them. We hurried to get his blanket, stuffed animal, and sweater into his cubby and then I led him over to the group.
"OK, buddy, can I have a hug?" I asked, kneeling beside him. He didn't say anything, just wrapped his little arms around my neck and buried his face into my shoulder. He didn't wail or cry out, the way he usually does when he's upset. He just hugged me tightly and sniffled a little.
I pulled away from him gently. "Look at me buddy." He lifted his teary eyes to meet mine, and I could see that he was trying to hold it together. "Jay, you're going to have a really good day. All your friends are here to play with you, and it's going to be lots of fun. You're a big boy, and you can do this."
His face screwed all up and his voice broke as he threw his arms around me again. "Daddy, I don't want you to go."
I looked down to my side where Eva was sleeping in her carrier. Jason has been a wonderful big brother, and I can see that he genuinely loves his sister. But it's hard on him, too, dealing with change over the past few months. Just last night he got out of bed an hour after I tucked him in, saying that he didn't like being all by himself in his room. I know it's because Eva sleeps in a cradle by our bed, and try as we might to explain that she needs to be in our room because she's a baby, and that she'll be moving into her own room soon, he can't grasp yet that different people have different needs. He just knows that everyone--even the dog--sleeps in Mommy and Daddy's room, except him.
All of that flashed through my mind as I knelt there holding him, and my heart just about broke. I want so much to show him that I love him just as much as I always have, and just as much as his sister. I take time to play with him, and give him as much affection as he'll let me. But right at that moment it didn't feel like I'd done enough.
A few moments passed, then the teacher called Jason over to help her. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and went over, and she shooed me away, mouthing "Have a nice day!" behind his head.
As it happened, Juliette stayed home sick today, so I was the one to pick the kids up after work. When I arrived, he was out in the yard, running around and playing happily with his little friends. He ran over as soon as he saw me, smiling.
I crouched down to look him in the eyes and smiled. "Jay Jay, can I tell you something?" I asked.
"I love you very much, and I missed you a lot today," I said. "I thought about you all day."
He hugged me. "Me too, Daddy."
It Forgets You
This morning I stood in front of the house I grew up in, for the first time in seven years. It was different, and the same. Like me, I suppose.
I was surprised at how small it looked--how small the whole neighborhood looked, actually. And how graceless the lines were, how rough the walls. I didn't step onto the property, just stood on the gravel outside the driveway and looked in. The air smelled of oak and earth and river plants and cold, just the way I remembered. Familiar, but foreign now.
Everything about the old neighborhood was like that. The doghouse next door had the same names on it, though the people had moved away--and, come to think of it, those dogs are probably long since dead. The little stone mailbox down the street was gone and across from where it had stood someone had put up a mansion--with columns! But just past that was the thicket of cactus where my brother and I had hid and rained down with squirt guns on our friends. The big chalk shelf we used to swim next to was still there, but the river didn't cover it anymore. The same, but different.
Standing there looking at the house my parents sold seven years ago, I knew, finally, that I could never live in that town again. I've carried little bits and pieces of the place with me for all this time, leaves that I could press between the pages of my memory, or maybe old, worn photos that I could keep in my wallet and thumb the edges of every now and again. But I spent too long away; now these old photos are all I have, and coming back, they're all I can see. You can't build a new life around the ghosts of your old one.
I don't know exactly how long I stood there, my breath steaming in the cold of the morning, looking at that old house. Eventually, a man on a motorcycle rode up and parked in the driveway. "Hi there," he said, smiling.
"Morning," I replied. He tucked his helmet under his arm and pulled the keys out of the ignition. I blurted out, "I used to live here." I immediately felt pathetic, but continued on anyway. "Almost fifteen years ago now."
We chatted for a few minutes. I found out he'd been renting the place for four months. He was very polite; friendly, even. I felt awkward for interrupting his morning and quickly bid him good day.
I took a turn by my mom's old shop--empty now--and my old school. I took a moment to visit the tree we planted at my afterschool program to remember a friend who had died. I took a picture of it, then reached out and touched it's cool, rough bark. Some kids were playing at the playground next door while their moms complained about the school's plans to remove the sandboxes and replace them with wood chips. I'm not sure if they noticed me standing there, nor what they would have seen if they did. A strange man caressing a tree, I guess.
We like to think that when something or some place leaves its mark on us, it, too, retains some imprint from us. But it doesn't really work that way. You may not forget it, but eventually it forgets you.
I Wonder If My Brain Can Be Considered a Markov Chain
Apropos of nothing, the line "Jazz to Moonbase 2! A ginormous, weird-looking planet just showed up in the suburbs of Cybertron!" popped into my head this morning as I was shaving. For those of you under the age of 30, that is a line from the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie, which I probably saw twenty times or more when I was in elementary school.
Thinking about that line, it occurred to me to wonder whether it might not be a little racist that Jazz's voice sounds black. And I wasn't sure whether the voice actor was black or not, and I didn't know if it would make it more racist or less if he were white. (It turns out that Jazz was voiced by Scatman Crothers, who was black, and who died shortly after the movie was released.)
But then, really, why did Jazz even have an accent? Why did Perceptor sound English? And, come to think of it, Shockwave and Starscream sounded vaguely English as well? What's up with that? All of them are robots from another planet. Why should any of them have regional accents?
That led me to think about Optimus Prime's voice, which made me wonder if Peter Cullen might not just have the best voice of all time. I could listen to that man read the phone book. I still get taken back to the excitement and amazement of childhood when I hear him say lines like "One shall stand, one shall fall, Megatron," or the "From days of long ago..." monologue from the opening of Voltron.
Thinking about voltron made me remember that live-action Voltron short that the AV Club linked back in October. I can't imagine that a movie like that could ever get made, or made well, but man, if it ever did I would watch the hell out of it.
I wondered, though, how a movie like that would go. Would King Zarkon really be the main antagonist? Because, really, Zarkon was a pretty ineffective villain. He pretty much had one go-to move--sending a Ro-Beast out to go destroy Voltron--and it always failed. Looking back, it's kind of baffling that he wasn't overthrown and someone more competent put in his place.
But, of course, none of the bad guy leaders in 80's cartoons really made much sense. Cobra Commander was supposed to be the leader of an international terrorist organization and he was a whiny loser. Even Destro, who wasn't as much of an out-and-out wiener, still made no sense as the head of a huge multinational corporation.
At this point I came back to myself enough to realize that I had spent nearly fifteen minutes pondering the minutia of some rather silly, extremely childish, and completely out-of-date pop culture items, and I had to marvel at just where my brain will go when I leave it unattended. But by then I was just about done with my shower and I had to start paying attention to real life again.
Just so you know, I am aware of the irony that this, of all things, would be the next thing I post after a rant about not being taken seriously as a mature adult. Maybe it's for the best that Juliette is the one to get the respect as a grown-up, after all.
Our Christmas Table
This Christmas, for the first time, Juliette and I hosted her family at our house for the holiday. Her parents came, as well as her younger brother and sister and new brother-in-law. Things were a bit hectic leading up to it, as we were planning our first ever Christmas dinner, but in the end it all came off without a hitch and a good time (and good meal) was had by all.
Looking around the table as we sat for Christmas dinner, I was struck by just how many kinds of people were represented in that small group. There were eight of us together that night, and in that eight were included a toddler and a 78-year-old, a college student, and a pair of newlyweds. There were Caucasians, Japanese, and a black man. There were Canadians, a Brazilian, and Americans from both coasts. There were at least two different Christian denominations represented, plus a Jewish man, an atheist, and at least one agnostic. Conservatives, moderates, liberals, and the politically indifferent were all there.
And the most amazing thing to me is that despite all of our differences, we all get along. We have our disagreements, true--we even had a little political discussion during the meal. But even when we argue, we listen to what each other have to say, actually weigh the merits of the other's points, and treat one another with respect.
In my more optimistic moments, I believe that we as a species are capable of being more and better than the shrill, angry voices that seem to be dominating political and social discourse right now. It's not always easy to keep a level tone and a reasonable perspective, but seeing a group like the one we had for the holiday makes me know it can be done. If I could have just one wish for the new year, it would be that more people could see it--and live it--as well.
My Latest at Life As A Human: Every Picture Tells a Story
Over the past six months or so I’ve been reconnecting with my love of photography. It’s been an exhilarating time, learning different techniques, practicing composition, and shooting, shooting, shooting. In order to develop my own style, one of the things I’ve been doing is to study the work of past and current masters, and what I’ve come to realize is that the images that resonate the most strongly with me are those that tell a story. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you the story of one of my recent photos.
My Latest at Life As A Human: The Short, Short, Short Skirt
One of the neighborhood councils here in San Diego has been putting on free outdoor concerts this summer, and my wife and I have found them to be a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. We were at one of those concerts this weekend, having a picnic supper with some friends and their kids while we listened to the music, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a girl walking by in a ridiculously short skirt.
Where Did the Magic Go?
No, no, I'm not talking about me and Juliette. We're doing just great. No, the question in the title has to do with my career.
The HR manager at my office brought her son in with her on Friday. That's not a particularly unusual situation--lots of my coworkers bring in their kids for a few hours at a time when other childcare is scarce. What made this time different was that the day before, this mom had stopped by my friend T's desk and asked if he wouldn't mind showing her son around the lab or something. Her son, she explained, is fascinated with science and technology, and wants to be an engineer when he grows up. T, being the nice guy that he is, said it would be no problem.
Friday morning rolled around as it always does, and when T showed up to the office he brought with him an assortment of odds and ends that he'd brought from home. It turned out that rather than just show the kid what we do, T stayed up late rigging up some simple but cool electricity demonstrations. When the boy got there, T showed him how to make an electromagnet out of a battery and a coil of wire, then proceeded to make a simple DC motor out of a battery, a small screw, a short length of wire, and a small permanent magnet. And if that weren't enough, T's pièce de résistance was a working speaker, made out of a Dixie cup, a length of thread, a magnet, and a coil of wire--he demonstrated how it worked by plugging it into the headphone jack of his computer.
Watching the two of them, I couldn't tell who was enjoying it more, T or the kid. As you might expect, the kid watched raptly and was quite impressed, but what I really noticed was the sheer joy in T's voice as he explained it all.
I used to get excited like that about things like electricity. When I was in the 8th grade, my friend Lee and I built a working telegraph out of some spare parts from our science class, for no other reason than that we thought it would be cool. And it was. Later on, in high school, Lee and I taught ourselves how to solder, and tinkered with basic circuits just for fun. The summer before our senior year we taught ourselves how to program, and stayed up late into the night just talking about code.
Where did all that passion go? I mean, I still have a lot of passion, but none of it seems to be left for my chosen field: engineering. I'm grateful to have a steady job and I like the people I work with. I try to do well in my work, and I'd even say I succeed. But somehow it's just not exciting or even particularly interesting anymore.
When I stop and think about it, though, perhaps it's just that the shine has worn off the job and not the field as a whole. Maybe I've just channeled those same impulses in a different direction. After all, tinkering with photos isn't really so different from tinkering with circuits, when you get right down to it.
I'll say this, too: watching T show off his little homemade creations to that boy really makes me look forward to when I can share that kind of thing with Jason. I just hope that by the time he's old enough to understand it, he's still interested enough in me to listen.
The Good Times Are Over!
I've known this day would come for a while now. My mom has been pestering me about our family tendency toward high cholesterol for years now, but it's never quite made it onto the list of my real concerns. After all, it's not like I was gorging myself on deep-fried or packaged foods, the ones you're always hearing derided on the news. True, I eat fast food a couple of times a month, but it hardly seemed like a regular occurrence, especially compared to the junk-laden diet the "average" American purportedly has. I eat my vegetables, and, heck, I've even been going to the gym semi-regularly.
I probably ought to explain a bit. About six months ago I found out that my primary care doctor was moving to Chicago, which necessitated me finding a new one. I already knew who it would be, since one of the covering doctors I'd seen at the same clinic had struck me as pretty good. I dragged my feet about setting up the new patient appointment, though, which meant I didn't actually get around to meeting the new guy until last week.
We ran through all the normal questions--family medical history (diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol), current problems or medications (none), diet and exercise (OK), weight (could stand to lose some more), and so on. Nothing surprising, and, as always, the vitals and physical were fine. He asked me to stop for a blood draw on the way for metabolic and lipid screening, as well as a vitamin D screening since I mentioned I spend most of my time indoors.
"If anything comes up in your labs I'll call you tomorrow, otherwise you'll get the results in the mail in a week or so," he said.
Tomorrow came and went without a phone call, so I assumed the labs had come back fine, just like always. That turned out to be a little premature, though, as the phone rang on my way out the door Friday morning.
"Turns out you do have a vitamin D deficiency," the doctor said after the initial pleasantries. "I sent a prescription for a loading dose of vitamin D to your pharmacy, so you can start that today or tomorrow." I let my breath out, a little surprised at the tension I'd felt when I heard the doctor's voice greeting me. Vitamin deficiency; I can deal with that.
"Everything else looks fine," he continued. "Liver looks good, HDL cholesterol and lipids are good, LDL is a little borderline but not too high. Sugars are good. Go fill the vitamin D prescription and when the report comes I'll include instructions for the supplements you'll take after you're done with that."
And that was that, I figured. Take a big vitamin dose for a few weeks, some supplements after that, and try to get outside more. Not so bad.
The report showed up in yesterday's mail, and just like the doctor said, there was a vitamin D deficiency and my LDL cholesterol was a little into the "borderline" range. And then there was the recommendation below the table:
"We'd like your LDL to get below 130, preferably below 100. Avoid red meats, eggs, and deep-fried or fast foods. We'd also like to maintain your lipid level in the current range. Avoid desserts and creamy foods."
And just like that, the good times were over.
I told Juliette. "Avoid red meat, desserts, and creamy foods?" she said. "Yikes. Avoid things that taste good, I guess."
I always knew I'd get the "change your diet" note from a doctor eventually, but I figured I had at least until I was 40. Images of thick rib-eye steaks and greasy french fries immediately started dancing in my head, taunting me.
"Well," I said, "I guess this is a good thing, really. Now that it's coming from a doctor, maybe we'll actually have the motivation to stick to a good diet." Juliette agreed. And as we talked about it, the number of changes we'd have to make would be pretty minimal. A little less beef, a little more lean poultry. We already eat a lot of vegetables and don't use a lot of dairy when we cook--in fact, it's pretty common for us to have one or two completely vegetarian meals a week. Nor do any of our normal recipes call for more than a tablespoon of oil. We'll just start skipping desserts again and try to be a little smarter about when and where we eat out. No big deal.
Still, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't weighing on me at all. As much as I love food, it's going to be hard to make even the little changes we talked about. I'll just have to keep reminding myself why I'm doing it.