Saturday, September 1, 2018

Camp HamFam

We finally got it just right this year, and we all know it the moment we step inside the old red farmhouse, carrying our bulging suitcases up the staircase, dropping our grocery bags off on the way. The kitchen is large, spacious, a long counter sprawling over shelves stocked with enough pans and serving platters for a party of 22. Our party. Our week long party. For 22. Twelve grown-ups, ten kids. There are four tables in the kitchen and we immediately designate one of them the craft table.

Over the week, the craft table will become buried in uncapped markers, computer paper spread wide, beads that will roll to the floor and burrow into the bottoms of our bare feet. Blank masks are brought to life as the days roll along - a cheetah, a monkey, a phoenix. If you clear the space just a bit, you might see some (washable) purple lines streaking across the plastic tablecloth underneath, a quiet attempt to mark a territory in a sea of ten sets of arms and eyes, all seeking their spot and the very best of the crafting loot. This summer, in our big red vacation farmhouse, rainbow looming becomes all the hype again. Roan, one of the oldest of the kids, has two wrists full of them by the end of the second day.

It is our seventh year of this. Some parts of it we have down to a science, and some things we have to adjust, every year, because the setting is always new, the children keep growing, and the accumulation of stories from our past year have changed each one of us in subtle ways from the year before. This past year, one of us lost a parent. One of us got a new job. Emily, the youngest in the group, became a kid, not a baby. She is over three now. Soon, she will be able to remember these trips. The kids are getting older.

But right now? Ages three to nine, they are the embodiment of childhood. Still, we can dress them all in matching pajamas and place them on a bench or a couch while Uncle John pulls the top of his shirt over his head and jumps around like a monkey to ensure smiles for the photograph. Every year, they laugh at the lunacy of John. We all do. 


other years


Still, we never take our eyes off the lake while they swim or row, carefree, looking for flowers growing on lily pads and fish that are brave enough to venture close to the water's surface. 

Still, they stand tall, shoulders pulled back, chins up, as Auntie Beth presents them with Olympic style awards at the end of the week for their individual performances in such events as swimming, canoeing, kayaking, obstacle coursing, and theatre. 


2016 Olympics

This year, Beth includes the category of Entomology for the kids who have spent the week pointing out interesting, scary, and beautiful insects. Grace gets a gold medal in this category. Oliver scores a goal against the big kids and wins a rugby game for the younger kids team. Gold for Oliver. Little Jon catches a fish. Gold. Beth has a gift for recognizing other people's gifts. Every kid has their specialties and she sees them, acknowledges them. It is these sorts of assurances that help shape who we are, as children and, as I find to this day, as grownups. I cannot help but wholeheartedly believe that.

Years ago, maybe something like 10 years ago, I listened to a two part episode called Notes on Camp on This American Life. Ira Glass interviewed a number of kid campers while they were at summer camp and the message was consistent. Nobody at home has exactly what I have here at camp. It's mine to own. Having never been a camper myself (except for when I went to Space Camp and spent the whole time missing my mom so much I couldn't function... but that is for another post), I was struck by how charmed I was. If I'd been a different sort of kid, a kid who didn't fall apart in unfamiliarity, maybe summer camp would have done me some good. But over the past seven years, I've learned that it's never too late to start going to camp. 

Every summer, my close group of Hamilton friends (and their spouses, and their kids, if they have them) pack up parts of our lives, leave as much work as we can at home, and find ourselves at our version of camp. Family Camp. HamFamCamp. Camp Ham Fam? I think of it as sacred in a way, and I worry, even, that writing about it threatens the ineffable experience of it. And yet I know that as the year goes on, this post, along with the pictures and props we gathered that week, will be folded into the memories of another another summer trip, and next year will be new again.

 Most years, there is a family or two that can't make it; sometimes families move to Tampa (!) and can't get back to New England. Or they live in Indiana which is a damn long drive to do every year. Sometimes, work keeps us back. But every year, Camp Ham Fam will wait up ahead, the end of a year, the beginning of another. It is late August, and school starts in a week or two.

The setting is lovely. The people are better. Moments feel like vignettes telling a larger, layered story. Kevin walks 9 year old Noah through scenarios on the Chess board that Noah hasn't seen. Noah is not his child, but he sits with him for hours over the course of the week, teaching him strategies, engaging in game after game. Noah ties him once. It is his great victory.

Chris teaches the kids how to fish. John (husband) and Cat swim across the entire lake and then turn around and do it again. I do not know how they do this. It is crazy to me.

Alex directs the Wind in the Willows play that the kids put on for the talent show. He plays ukelele in the background while the kids, decorated in face paint and costumes they've worked on all afternoon, recite their lines with no outside help. Atticus, age 5, performs in the play and then shows us his own ukelele skills as part of the talent show.

There is a perfect desk in the house for ticket selling. Charlotte makes the tickets and passes them out. She assigns Grace to collect them at the door.

Chris and Ryan and Amy and Lynne and Dylan and I hover around a puzzle at the beginning of the week and then again at the end. Two 500 piece monotone colored puzzles in one week. Complete. It is the most satisfied I've felt in ages.

Meghan sits with a swarm of kids and teaches them Dogopoly. Surely, it's not as long as the real Monopoly? I ask. Oh, it's the same thing, she tells me. But with dogs. She, the banker and direction-giver-outer, smiles warmly, patiently, and leads the little ones along through the game that doesn't end. 

At night, there is Capture the Flag and Kick the Can (kids vs grown-ups, obvi) and there is a campfire, where we hold the littlest kids back while they try and get closer and closer to the fire that is turning their marshmallows black. They play night tag on the lawn, where glow stick bracelets light their way.

We splinter off later to our separate spaces, for books and bed prep. Some of the kids wear the matching jammies each night. Grace sleeps in the clothes she will wear the next day. But she always does that. Some kids get picture books, but Bea and Charlotte and Noah and Grace are the older kids now, and instead we read a chapter of a novel each night.

Most of us have known each other for over half our lives now. We met at 18, 19. We are not that old, but we've been through some things. Our lives are good, imperfect. Years and years of school (them, not me), apartment moves that have now lessened in frequency, pregnancies, babies, kids, surgeries, job changes, weddings, funerals. Many of us have already lost a parent. 

Our hair is streaked with a little more white than it once was. We obsess over sunscreen, drenching our children in it now, trying to save their skin from what we now see on our own. Staying up until midnight is hard to bounce back from. And yet. We are fine with that; it is funny. It is how it should be. We see so little of one another, our daily lives consumed by one action feeding off the next. But we have this. We have this thing that we do, this camp we've created, where Kick the Can comes alive again, and we are reminded that these friends are actually family. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Becoming A Dog Person (Happy First Birthday, sweet Duncan)

"If he wasn't a dog, I'd marry him," says my new neighbor friend of her eight year old dog. We often cross paths on our morning walks these days.

I don't look at her cross-eyed or consider she might be a little crazy.

"I get it," I said. "He'd totally make a great husband."

Yeah, man. I'm a dog person now.

It took a few weeks; it took about a summer. I loved him right away, but he kind of ruined our summer last year, in the endearing way that infants ruin our lives while at the same time making us feel like the luckiest people on the damn planet. So, no sleeping in, no sleeping more than four hours in a row.

"I'm exhausted," I wrote to my friend after the first night, "what have I done?"

"It will get better once your milk comes in," she responded.

We spent the summer jumping from one piece of furniture to the other in order to avoid the jaws of our tiny velociraptor. We didn't leave the house for more than two hours at a time. We chased him through the woods when he managed to escape out the front door. We cleaned up urine from our house 15 times a day. I kept asking my friends who I knew would be honest whether or not I smelled like a dog.

Oh, God. What had I done?

"I'm... sorry about... all this," I said one night to John in tears, as I watched his normally steady patience unravel. We were tired. And our skin hurt from sharp puppy bites.

Ah, newborns. Thankfully, they get older at some point. Even more thankfully, dogs mature at the rate of 7 dog years per one human year.  By that logic, at four months, he was well over two years old, and that is just about when we hit we our stride.

And, ohhhhhh, did we. I am smitten.

Duncan. With the big brown eyes that tell you everything you need to know. Sweet Duncan Swing Biscuit. With the tiny Harry Potter lightening bolt right above his nose. With the silky brown ears that flop to the side when happy and shoot back when alarmed. Duncan with the torso that just doesn't end and the legs that end a little too soon. With the tail that curls up high in the air, except when he's in the car, where he hides it between his legs as he rests his head on my shoulder, leaning in as much as he can without falling over. Sometimes, he leaps into the back seat and sits on Noah's lap, refusing to budge.

Duncan. Duncaccino. Duncadoo. Dunky. Little brother. I've also occasionally referred to him as the great love of my life. His favorite person is not me - it's John (is it because he's a little more hard-to-get?? WHY???). But still, STILL, I am in love. Partially requited love.


I confessed to our dog daycare trainers a couple weeks ago that I think I'm actually in love with my dog. They looked at me as if waiting for the rest of the story. Because of course. Of course. It's not just love. It's in love. That's what it's like.

And what about him? What makes Dunc's heart sing (besides John)?

He loves: belly rubs, snow, morning sun, chasing squirrels, dog daycare, dogs, playing chase, peanut butter, chicken, nighttime on the couch, cool floors on hot days, daddy coming home from work, "his" recliner in the sun room, treat cabinet, stuffed animals with squeaks, stuffed animals without squeaks, vegetables.

He tolerates: runs with mama, car rides, hugs, small children hovering around him, wearing princess capes, dog food, parents sleeping in.

He despises and/or fears: wearing hats or coats, fruit, being left behind, eye contact, baths, vacuum cleaners, anything out of order in his usual spots.

Back before I was a dog person, I remember watching people throwing sticks with their dogs. I would think, "That's lovely, really. But it does look kind of boring. You go to the park... to throw a stick back and forth to your non-talking companion?"

You know what I'm saying, non dog-person people. This post, all about dogs, is the written equivalent of that feeling. Dogs are fine, you think, but how interesting can they be? Why waste my time thinking or reading about them? I mean, are you even still reading? Truly, I would understand if not!

Back in my 20s, one of my dear friends and roommates used to come home and report about various dog sightings she'd had or fill us in on what was going on at the animal rescue league where she volunteered. I loved how much she loved dogs and I treasured the stories she told about them, but I could not picture myself thinking about a dog when it wasn't right in front of me.

Things change. This equation is perhaps one of the most simple and predictable truths of our crazy universe.

Non dog person + Dog = Dog person forever

By Grace

Think of a dog as a person minus almost all the annoyances.

They do not pretend to be anyone they are not. They are clear about their wants and needs. They do not judge. They do not gossip. They eat what you put in front of them. They clean themselves, for the most part. They find joy in the simplest things - a game of chase, a ball, dirt, grass. They are pumped every time you come home (it is the greatest greeting imaginable). They'll watch whatever you want to watch. They don't give two shits what you look like; they just love you. They love you like a person who really loves you loves you, with no strings attached whatsoever. That's their entire agenda. That's huge. Oh, the breakups a dog could have gotten me through once upon a time.

People want to wait to get their dog. Wait until the kids are older. Wait for summer. Wait for the perfect set of dog parents to breed. There are so many reasons to wait. But there are several reasons not to wait as well.

My fellow dog-loving, dog-owning friend and I recently had a discussion about why we waited and how we would never wait again.

"I mean, it would have been really nice to have my dog by my side during all those lonely maternity leave days," she said.

I agreed. "What would I have done the day Grace went to Kindergarten and the house was entirely empty this past Fall?"

They aren't always the most convenient or clean or quiet little creatures, but they are joy and comfort and laughter. They are fulfilling. I wanted a third kid. It was not to be. I got this little boy in place of my third kid, and now all I can think is how I never want him to die. We're a family of five now. Grace plays with him the yard for hours at a time. Noah gets up with him on Saturdays and feeds him, let's him out. They take good care of their brother. He cries when they leave. He calls out after them.

I have only had this one dog, so I don't know if these are things all dogs do, but here are things that delight me.

He is afraid of earth worms. As in, he'll be digging and come upon a worm and freak the hell out. I decorated the sunroom this weekend for his birthday and he literally crawled into the room, tummy to floor, in fear that the decorations were going to attack him. He buries himself under a comforter on our bedroom floor every night and when you ask for him to get up, you can just see the slightest movements in the comforter as he makes his way out of his little tunnel. He emerges and it's the sweetest little face and it's all so darn innocent. If you so much as lean forward on the couch and he is sitting next to you, goodbye to your seat; he's squeezing in there.

He hardly ever barks. Really, he only barks when he sees kids playing in yards around us while he is inside. Or if he is excited. I mean, truly, if he's standing outside in the pouring, freezing rain and you have forgotten you let him out 20 minutes before, he'll just stand there, politely waiting for you to remember him.

Sometimes, he talks to us. I cannot possibly capture it, but it is somewhere between a howl, a yawn, a whine and a toddler voice, and it is used to convey his extreme desire for the thing he wants to happen to actually happen. He might talk to me while sitting next to the treat cabinet and then actually nod his little head to the cabinet. Treat, mama, please, a treat, please! Or walks. He'll talk for a walk.

This is a simple post about an uncomplicated notion. Freaking dogs, man. If you are single, I say marry one. They won't let you down. If you are grieving, get one. They will fill something inside you. If something feels like it's missing, consider rescuing a dog. It may be your answer. It was ours.

Happy First Birthday, little Duncan. You've made my life complete.

(But please, my friends - seriously. If I start to smell like a dog, tell me.)

Friday, March 23, 2018

Grappling with grief and grieving with purpose

Many people have heard about an almost unspeakable incident that took place in our little town about a month ago. Without going into much detail, a completely innocent 22 year old woman was killed while studying at the town library in broad daylight by a man who had for years suffered from severe mental illness. Though I don't think a diagnosis has been released publicly, it is clear that the 24 year old perpetrator had some form of schizophrenia, most likely paranoid schizophrenia.

Like many others, this case has consumed me for the last several weeks, and grief has taken the path of guilt and anger and sadness and frustration. The fellow lived three houses down from us, directly across the street from our friends, within a neighborhood swimming with children and elderly folks and all sorts of people in between. It was a devastating shock to learn what had happened to that dear girl at the library, but horrifically, it was not really a surprise.

Six months before this incident, one neighbor even told the DA that Jeffrey was going to kill someone.

People in our neighborhood learned at different times in various ways the challenges this man was facing, I've now learned, and we tried to speak up, begging for him to get help. Some of us went to the police, some went to the hospital after one attempted break-in to voice the concerns of the neighborhood. Members of our neighborhood talked to the nearby elementary school, the DA, and his parents. He was hospitalized at that time, to our collective relief, but released about a month later and told he was on probation and needed to be medication compliant. Clearly, he was not.

So yeah, there is anger. At that time and now, I feel the same -- that we were left to just wait for the next event, to live next door to someone with violent tendencies combined with an illness that pushed him to carry through with internal commands that were out of his control. I feel his parents were let down by professionals who should have seen their desperation and taken their hands and surrounded them with support. And I'm left wondering why nobody did.

Does our state offer help for people who are not an *imminent* threat but who will likely decompensate at any time and become dangerous again? Are there enough beds for people who desperately need more long-term care and stabilization? Do the limitations of insurance interfere with patients' ability to get the help they actually need?

Did anybody honestly think his parents could manage him, an adult who was living under their roof but who hadn't spoken to them in years? They were failed, he was failed, and most devastatingly, Deanne and her family were failed. I cannot point fingers; there is no one person to blame. But there is a system that needs fixing.

When I was 22 years old, a Psychology major with a BA in hand, I took the first job I interviewed for in my field. I was a staff member at a day treatment center for mentally ill adults in MA. I was a member (client) advocate and also helped train folks with mental illness to get back into the working world. My starting salary was $21,500, which is the equivalent of about $10/hr or $300/week. My pay increases were maybe 10 cents an hour. By the time I left three years later, I was up to almost $23,000/year. I remember noting to myself that I could make more if I bagged groceries at Stop and Shop. I thought that was odd, but put my head down and did my job. This is the kind of payment many of our mental health professionals are receiving.

I spent three years working directly with chronically mentally ill adults. At least half of them had schizophrenia. Other diagnoses were bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other debilitating anxiety disorders. My job was to engage them in business type work, the idea being we could get back out into the working world through business unit training - data entry, cash register, filing, book keeping, photocopying, whatever I could get them interested in. In some cases, it was very successful. There are very few things better than seeing somebody who is struggling begin to thrive again. Other members were less invested in the learning process, and got bored quickly, essentially sending me the message that this was dumb and they just weren't interested in working. So we socialized.

People with severe mental illness are just like people without severe mental illness. Some of them are very likeable and a complete joy to be around, and others have a way of calling upon your self-control. With some people you have great chemistry, and with others you struggle to make it work. Some folks soothe you with their presence and some make you anxious. Some are polite and do their work and keep busy, and some throw their hands in the air and say they have too much other stuff going on and can't participate.

One of my favorite members was Maggie*. She drew pictures all day long, always of little children doing joyful, childlike activities, like playing with puppies and picking flowers. She was probably in her 60s but her face had literally never aged. Her hair was grey and long, but her face was like a six year old child. Not a wrinkle anywhere and her cheeks were rounded, her eyes wide and innocent. She looked exactly like the pictures she drew. She made cards for my parents on their birthdays and anniversaries. She illustrated and signed the cover and I wrote my message inside. Maggie had schizophrenia but when she told me about her hallucinations, she described happiness. Dolphins and mermaids in an open sea. Beautiful voices singing in her head.

One gentleman, Bob, who also suffered from schizophrenia, could have been anywhere between 50 and 80 (he looked so aged, but I think he actually wasn't so old at all). He wrote papers every day, signed them, and handed them over to me. A lot of times they were messages from the CIA or the FBI. Sometimes they were poems. A lot of times they were extremely complicated math equations that may or may not have made any sense, though they bore a striking similarity to the sort of messages I used to see on my (physicist) father's white board in his office when I was growing up. Sometimes the writings by Bob were short stories about his childhood or his family or just how he was feeling that day. One day the messages were complete word salad, nonsensical but always intriguing; the next day, the writings made all the sense in the world. He wrote jokes sometimes, and when I didn't understand, I was never sure if it was because I just wasn't quick-witted enough or if they just plain didn't make sense to a person who wasn't in his head. I saved his writings. Bob had my heart.

4-15-2004 Clubhouse I took a couple naps. I took off my hat unzipped my
coat with only two sweaters. And I looked like I belonged inside.
Often I would connect with somebody and we'd develop a mutual trust, only to see the illness destroy it in one way or another. Lena and I were about the same age, had a similar sense of humor and really enjoyed one another's company, which we built over the course of a year or so. But then, suddenly, she decided I was out to get her and to destroy her relationship with her boyfriend (whom I had never met), that I was plotting against her, trying to steal all that she had. She stopped speaking to me, and then one day, she stopped speaking altogether - to anyone - becoming catatonic. She sat in the freezing cold staring straight ahead for entire days. Finally, she was admitted to a hospital, but I think I left the job before she ever came back. I went to visit her once. The lounge at the hospital was awful. Cold, devoid of color or warmth of any kind.

Another man I adored went off his meds about two years after I met him. He was a gentle giant who talked to me about his family troubles and the band he used to play in and his anger with the side effects of his medication, especially slowness in thinking and tardive dyskenesia. He went off his meds over the course of a couple weeks, quickly decompensating, telling more and more wild stories with greater frequency and intensity, usually related to his superiority to all humans. He told us he was the chosen one. Nobody laughed. It was a terrible sign. Shortly thereafter, as lunch was winding down one afternoon, he stood on top of the tables and declared he was Jesus, son of God, and the almighty ruler. The police came to bring him to the hospital, and he ran and it took at least four giant firefighters and policemen to tackle him to the ground. And there he was, my tender-hearted friend, lying on the ground in handcuffs, completely out of control.

I got to know around 150 people, on some level, with severe mental illness in the three years that I spent at that job. On any given day, I would be asked repeatedly, "Are you an Argoyle?" by the same person. She would tell me she loved me just as many times. You could actually see her fighting with her voices, trying to swipe them away, so that she could just have a normal conversation. Several people walked around with headphones all day. It helped a great deal in actually drowning out the voices. So many people were cheerful and happy in the face of their challenges.

And not dissimilar to the real world (especially back then), I got harassed on some level just about every day as well, with folks constantly stepping over the line and me giving them the benefit of the doubt. I'd be told I was pretty and that I was ugly, and that I  had gained weight, and that I was too skinny. Every flaw in my skin would be pointed out, every aberrant behavior would be noticed ("Why aren't you smiling? Why aren't you eating?"). I was 22. I was making $10 an hour. I started losing my mind.

But there was only one person I ever felt could actually physically hurt me. Every time I walked by him, he yelled at me, "Fucking bitch! Whore!" and you get the idea. He was fighting voices in his head constantly. He conversed with them as if they were standing right in front of him. He laughed with them and told them to fuck off sometimes and he swatted at them and gave them the finger and gave me the finger and gave everyone else the finger, but he stayed on. He liked my boss and she didn't feel afraid for her safety or ours. That was not the right place for him, but I don't know what his options were. Which brings me back to today.

I'm sitting here processing a talk I went to last night called "Mental health in our community: Let's talk about it." On many levels, it was fantastic. Families (and there are SO many families) who are struggling to find resources and help actually have lots of options (with the right insurance!) offered by the Department of Mental Health (DMH). For children and young adults, there is in-home therapy, peer advocacy programs, mentorship programs, transitional support, and so on. For adults, there are clubhouses (where I worked), advocates groups, respite houses, group homes, section 8 housing, day treatment program, etc. If you are interested in learning more, this website is helpful, to an extent:

What was missing from last night's talk, however, was an honest discussion about the group of people who are falling between the cracks or not getting the services they need. Maybe they are trying but there are no beds available, maybe their insurance doesn't cover what they need so they are stuck. Maybe they simply don't know how to access resources or seek the help they need (which is why last night's talk was so useful). I am thrilled to know about more places to turn if anyone in my family is in need now... if insurance covers it (?).

But we also need to talk about that relatively small group of people who have violent tendencies and show imminent threat, get hospitalized, and then released when considered no longer dangerous. One day, three days, even twelve days in the hospital cannot stabilize a person with psychosis. I am not suggesting we turn all the way back to institutionalizations. But I am saying there is a gap here, which leaves patients, their families, and their communities wondering, "What now? So we just wait for the next thing and hope it's not *the* thing we are all so afraid of?" Could our state not provide us with an Assisted Outpatient Treatment program, where patients are mandated to have a mental health professional come to their home and make sure they are following a treatment plan? Forty-six of our 50 states provide this service. Massachusetts is not one of them. Mental health advocates in MA fight very hard for individual rights, and right now that appears to be valued more than community safety.

Outpatient commitment—also called Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) or a Community Treatment Order (CTO)—refers to a civil court procedure wherein a judge orders an individual diagnosed with severe a mental disorder who is experiencing a psychiatric crisis that requires intervention to adhere to an outpatient treatment plan designed to prevent further deterioration that is harmful to themselves or others.

Last night, the Director of the Department of Mental Health in MA was asked, how can we make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again? The answer was community involvement. "Speak up! Let authorities know," he said. I don't accept that. We did speak up. Time and time and time again. He told me the answer was to just keep pushing. What??? We pushed until he was hospitalized and then we trusted the mental health system to take over from there.

I do not blame the police, not in the least. But somewhere along the way, when institutions were closed and people with severe mental illness were released, some folks were left to fend for themselves, and too much shit has gone down since, and it's time to pay attention.

Maybe we start by advocating for an Assisted Outpatient Treatment system, covered by the state. It is hard to know where to begin, but if the statistics are true (139 people were killed by a person with mental illness in the years between 2005-2015 in MA), then I'm thinking this is not something we ignore. I brought these numbers up with one of the DMH reps last night after he told me this sort of incident is rare. He looked at me funny, but a couple other DMH folks seemed to know just what I was talking about (see article below). An average of one killing a month by untreated mentally ill people is not rare.

I would like it to be a given in our world that most - the absolute vast majority - of mentally ill people are entirely harmless, but we're not there yet. Much of public commentary on mental illness is ignorant and frankly, embarrassing, and I don't believe for a second that those very same people don't know at least one person who suffers from mental illness. Just... Eyes Up, people. If we can even get there, that would be a huge step. I feel, then, like it is a risk for me to stretch this further, to take this next step, to acknowledge that mental illness can, in some cases, be a danger, if left untreated. Severe mental illness combined with a tendency towards violence can create situations like our town has experienced. We can prevent this.

We are all just people, and truly, we are mostly all very good people. We all need help at one time or another. It's just that some of us just don't know how to get it.

If you have time, please read this Spotlight article, which is about the best I've found on this subject. It is SO worth educating ourselves on this:

Our State Rep, Michael Day, seems very open to talking about this. Contact him! Let's think this through.

*names have been changed

Monday, January 22, 2018

General Noah Damaske! (Can I be real a second? For just a millisecond? Let down my guard and let the people know how I feel a second?): Happy (belated) Birthday to Noah

Noah. My boy. You are old enough to read this now, and all the ones that came before it, but you won't - not now anyway, but hopefully someday. Maybe this will be the last one because maybe a ten year old just doesn't want his stuff out there like this. Maybe a nine year old doesn't either, so this is a little bit of a risk and perhaps it's my pride for you more than a nod to my annual tradition of writing a birthday blog that has me writing this post. So I'm sorry not sorry.

It's late. The lights are all out in the house now and you are deep into your sweet night of sleep. When you sleep, you still look just like the baby I stared at constantly day in and out nine years ago (I knew every tiny mark on your body, every piece of hair on your head). In the peacefulness of the night and the relief of another moderately successful day behind us, it is hard for me (and any parent, really) to think of anything but the wonderful wonders of you. The 27 fights you had with your sister between 7 and 8 tonight are so far behind me now as I traipse into a late night blog about you. So, to those that are reading (yourself included, young man), please understand that it is with the silence of an hour alone to myself, one sleeping husband, and two cozy kids (plus one dog-child) fast asleep that I write about all that I love about you.

You are not perfect, but I fear I might make it sound so. I am as biased and guilty as every parent who ever sent a long-winded type-written Christmas card to their family, friends, and acquaintances in the 1990s accounting every accomplishment and award of their offspring that year. And yet, there is always more interesting stuff *actually* going on, so I'm hopeful I can buffer my doting on you with some anecdotes you will laugh about later.

The truth is, big boy, that this may just have been my best year yet with you. Your humor has become more defined, noticeably so, which might be my favorite development of all. It's dry and bursting at the same time. Don't we just love narrating the thoughts of our sweet puppy Duncan? You think he has a higher-pitched toddleresque voice and I envision his human voice as a deeper, rather sophisticated grown-up sounding voice, with a touch of absent-minded professor. But we agree on the fact that he absolutely believes he is a person who deserves every bit as much meat from the fridge and space on the couch as every other human in this house. (Duncan: "I... don't recalllll... ah... being told the burgers were on the table? I guess I'll just... serve myself? Wanna do me a solid and grab a plate for me?"). You LOVE the phrase, "do me a solid." You just love it. And now I do too... again.

Your creative energy and curiosity and ability to just dive right into this project or that fascinates me. A tiny little spark, simmering anywhere near you, an idea that catches your attention, and the fire grows. You are all in. The other day, you came home and showed off the new miming skills you'd been practicing. Miming!

You can make literally every animal with your hands and fingers, with some twists of your wrists and some convoluted manipulating of your fingers. You and your friends have taken "Here's the church, here's the steeple" to a whole new level. You created an ongoing game over a year ago with your buddy Henry that involves walking around outside and narrating an entire world made up of your combined imaginations. When you leave each other and reconnect, you pick up right where you left off: "Where were we... ? Oh yeah... those zombies were about to attack us." The name of game is Haunted Run. I understand it about as well as I do Pokemon (which I will never ever ever understand), but I love it so much more.

Most days, you draw, often action shots of Star Wars battles or a pile of dragon pictures, which include descriptions you've written about their characteristics and special skills. Sometimes, you write stories to go along with them.

Homegrown Hamilton program cover
Other times, you make origami animals or paper airplanes of all different designs. And then there's your jokes and riddles. Some you make up. Some are better than others. Daily, you rattle off random animal facts (your superstar animal is the peregrine falcon). You hear stuff, or you read it, and it gets filed in that lively, enviable brain of yours. The facts go in, and they stay. And when I talk about envy, I mean my own. Yes, I'm a little jealous of you. But a loving jealous.

When you decide you love a song, you need to learn all the lyrics to it immediately. And you need to know what they all mean, just what it's all about. Why are so many songs about love? Why do people think about kissing and love so much? What about songs about battles and cooler stuff? You're so right, I've realized. There are way too many songs about love, specifically romantic love. Come on, musicians! Think outside the (music) box!

You believe Lin Manuel Miranda got it right in every way. Battle songs, history songs, drinking in a pub songs! We all know your love for Hamilton (Homegrown Hamilton post). You loved Hamilton well before I did. And you've taught me more about the American Revolution than I'd like to admit. It is a pleasure and an honor to raise you, General George Washington.

And now! You are in the chorus (and also the wolf pack) for Beauty and the Beast. And when I see you at rehearsal, sitting on the edge of that stage, legs crossed, singing your heart out, it feels right. You on that stage seems right to me. It may not always be that way, but my gosh, it does right now. There is something very special about the theatre kids. But you don't have to be one. When you read this twenty years from now (or more likely 30, 40...), I wonder what you'll think of this paragraph, of this idea that you are suited for the stage.

You have glasses now and love being able to see again. You read until 9:30 every night. You love Tui's series, Wings of Fire. You lie sometimes, but usually confess. You are kind - mostly (GRACE!). You are developing empathy. You still fight over seats at the table. I find that weird, but you remain passionate about sitting in the seat you want to sit in. This has been going on since you had a sister.

You beat me at chess every time. It drives me completely insane. You are my favorite and most willing dance partner. You are number 80 on your soccer team. One day on the way to your soccer game, you announced you were going to score that day. It was the only time you ever said that and the only game you ever scored.

Do you remember the entire day you dedicated to solving a rubiks cube using a pdf of simple instructions that turned out to be not at all simple? You got solid colors on two sides, but who can honestly move beyond that?

You used to have more fear. I've hopefully written about that at some point. Back when you were two, three, and four, before you understood the amount of control people can have over things and choices, you believed touching a fire alarm would cause a fire. Or accidentally pushing the Help button in an elevator would cause the police to come or the elevator to break. It terrified you. Now you are afraid of roller coasters. And getting lost in a store. And being late to school.

You still call me Mommy and Mama and never Mom, not yet, and I love that. You hold my hand after school. You hardly even look at the clothes you are putting on your body and haven't checked out your hair in at least a year. Oh, it's all so fleeting, I know.

You watch football with daddy (who you still call daddy) and understand the rules and even some of the plays. SACK! You say. "OH NO... INTERCEPTION!" (You *are* a Bills fan, after all). You've started to learn science in school and you love it with all of your heart. We talk dominant and recessive genes and some of it I even know more about than you and that, frankly, makes me feel good.

The other day Grace told us she doesn't want to get married. You said: "I think I want to get married. Have kids. I'll probably get married. Haven't decided what gender yet."

Yes, Noah. Yes.

The truth is that I feel a little sheepish about posting this blog. I can't help it and I tried to warn you - I have a lot to say on the topic of Noah. I know you won't always be so open with me (though I can still hope) and I know you won't always hold my hand when crossing the street and perhaps that's one reason I'm trying to capture it in this little blog bottle. But in the same dynamic way you live your life - entirely present and engaged, with eyes wide open - I am trying to make this moment, this year with you stick, in writing, in my mind, in my musings and reflections of you. There is no reason you can't be this way always, so jazzed about damn near everything, so passionate about big things and tiny things. There is a whole giant big beautiful crazy world to discover, my boy, and at nine years old, you've already figured that out.

Happy Birthday, my passionate Noah. Now can I have this dance?