Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books of '11: recommendations

 After saving you from bad books yesterday, today I recall two of the best books I read this year.  I enjoyed both of these a ton.  They're the kind of books that inspire the reader to make time to read them rather than do other things.

Best of the year: fiction

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, David Mitchell, 2010

I picked up this book because it made a lot of NPR 10-best lists fro 2010.  That proved to be a reliable recommendation.  I especially appreciated the quality, long-form novel because I started reading it at the beginning of a 27-hour flight to Asia.  The story’s setting in turn of the 19th century Nagasaki felt appropriate despite the fact that my destination was Vietnam.  Although the plot  keeps the reader interested, that setting in Nagasaki and its Dutch trading post is pleasingly unfamiliar.  Although I have no way of judging its accuracy, it felt historically plausible and educational.  We meet the title character when he is a newly-arriving clerk at the trading post ad follow him as he navigates the machinations of both the half-marooned population of the trading post and the complicated politics of closed, Shogunal Japan.  This is a page turner that achieved an all-too-rare feat - making me wish I didn’t have to participate in real life so I could have more time to just read the book.

Best of the year: non-fiction

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, Elna Baker, 2009

I heard Elna Baker on an incredible live episode of the incredible Marc Maron podcast.  That appearance came a few years after this book was published, but it made me very curious to read it.  In this memoir - yes, it's a memoir with that crazy long title - Baker details her life as a Mormon in New York City.  Baker is a standup comedienne, and the book is funny, but that's not what made it so gripping for me.  Baker details her struggles and questions with her Mormon faith in the midst of her lively social life in New York City.  Mormonism as much as any other faith enforces social norms of behavior that are understood to manifest in a long line of "no's".  No drinking, no drugs, no sex.  Baker shares incredibly frankly her hopes and fears in relation to remaining committed to her church while being pulled toward life outside of it.  The real action comes (not really spoiling here) when she meets an atheist whom she really, really likes.  Her family members definitely play their roles in her narrative a la David Sedaris; she lives with her older, more beautiful sister in New York.  Her parents sound like generous, awesome people.  I've been highly recommending this book for its honesty and page-turning narrative.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Books of '11: anti-recommendations

While it's important to recommend good books to each other, it may be more important that we save each other from bad books.  Tomorrow, I'll recommend two books that I really enjoyed this year, but today, I'm going to try to save you from wasting time on books that aren't worth reading.

Worst of the year: fiction

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin, 2009

First of all, who gives a rip about stories in a collection being linked?  This book falls into that rash currently afflicting literary fiction, the linked story collection.  As LitCritHulk tweeted: "HULK SMASH TREND OF HIP NOVELISTS WRITE 'LINKED' SHORT STORIES AND CALL IT NOVEL. YOU WANT WRITE SHORT STORIES, FINE. IT NOT A ####ING NOVEL"  The stories in this collection link together very tenuously with the names of some characters repeating.  They jump around in time so that we're to understand we're reading about a couple of generations of the same family, but the fact that one character is another character's son has so little bearing on a particular story that it doesn't matter.  I fail to see the point.  But that's not the big problem.  The big problem is that more than half of the stories in this collection have the same plot.  No joke.  One story in which a woman of modest means decides to "give herself" sexually to a financially successful older man only to have it end badly when he returns to the wife of his youth might have been interesting.  Six in a row can only be considered bizarre.  It's a shame because the stories at the back end of the collection when he sheds the single plot are actually pretty good.

Worst of the year: non-baseball non-fiction

Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich, 2011

I read at least one baseball book a year.  This isn't one of them, but it's one you might fall for - as I did - because of the hype.  Don't do it.  The most audacious heist in history?  Weeeeellllll.  I loved Mezrich's books about the MIT blackjack team, and I wanted to love this book.  The story is artfully told, which is nice, until you want to figure out how the thing actually went down.  That part of the book is the sketchiest.  It's difficult to read a book about someone being so deceitful.  I found it uncomfortable and a little stressful, like watching a cringe humor sitcom.  Also, the way he got caught seems so obvious in retrospect.  The book shows what happens to this person whose fantasies cloud his reality; a promising future gets lopped off really quickly through extremely bad judgment.  Woo hoo?  Not really.

Worst of the year: baseball non-fiction

The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code, Ross Bernstein, 2008

Although this book was published in 2008, it started popping up various places in my environment in late 2010. The title and premise rock. The book...not so much. Start with the author bragging about the 30 sports books he's written in the last 20 years. That reminds me of a Pennsylvania winery I visited that produced 54 wines, none of them quite drinkable. The good Mr. Bernstein takes the volume approach. He also starts the book with three forewords by current or former baseball players. I love baseball and baseball players, but three forewords on the topic of the game's unwritten code by player types produce an unappealing drumbeat of repetition about respect and not throwing at guys' heads. It's not as if the book itself isn't littered with player quotes. Bernstein interviewed lots of people. While I admire his hard work, i wish he hadn't showed quite so much of it. The narrative, especially early on, is interrupted as much as five times on a page by block quotes in gray boxes. Obviously, players, managers and umpires have to be the source, but take a little more time and weave them into a narrative. Some of the block quotes are more than a page long. For good measure, he gives the last word to a player, block quoting Dave Winfield, saying something that doesn't really put a button on all that went before. I don't know if it's good or bad policy, but Bernstein saves his best stuff for last. The stuff about throwing at guys gets dull and goes on a long time. Summary: throw at guys when they "disrespect" you or a teammate or the game; don't throw at guys' heads. Second summary: throwing at a guy is easy, and it is really difficult. The stuff about bench-clearing brawls is better. Where he really shines, though, is in talking about stealing signs. The best part of that material, though, focuses less on the code and more on how signs work, which I, as a fan, didn't really know. I wanted more out of this book. Perhaps John Feinstein could rewrite it from Bernstein's notebook (which it felt like I was reading anyway) and come up with a worthy book.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Christmas Card Envy

Facebook posts about
my Christmas card make friends who 
don't get one jealous.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Overheard 2011 Runners Up Volume 2

In addition to the final installment of outtakes from Overheard 2011, I've included the outtakes from our Christmas Card photo session.  We're very grateful to Paige's mother, a talented photographer who captures this image for us every year, and to Paige's father, a notable goof who makes funny sounds and faces behind the camera so that Paige knows where to look and smile.  Well, he does that for someone in our family; it might not be Paige.  Actually, Paige had a killer migraine during this year's photo shoot, so she gets the Christmas Card medal of honor for smiling through the pain.

Bringing the Playmobil baby Jesus with a gold cup on his head
T: Look what happened to the baby Jesus.
P: He got a cup on his head?
T: Yeah, a guy dropped a cup and it got on his head, and he got the blood of a new government on his head.
P: The blood of the new government?
T: Yeah.  From God.

Teddy malapropisms:
shoulder = shurdle
sauerkraut = sourcrap

C: I can't get my coat unzipped
T (stricken): It will be on him forever!

T: When I grow up, I'm gonna buy a Camaro or a Mustang.
C: If he can afford it.
T: Yeah, I can afford a Camaro.
C: Camaros are pretty expensive.
T: OK, then I'll get a Mustang.
C: Mustangs are still pretty expensive.  Why don't you just go with a Chrysler 300?

After he presented mommy & daddy with keychains with his self-portrait on them:
T: "Mom, if you miss me today, you can look at your keys.  And then you won't."

T: A dentist is an eye doctor.
C: No, an eye doctor is not a pediatrician.
C: Dad, what’s an eye doctor called?
J: An ophthalmologist.
T: A dentist is a teeth doctor, right, Charlie?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Overheard 2011 Runners up Volume 1

It's that time of year again.  We've sent out our Christmas letter with the best of the best funny or surprising boy quotes in it.  As in past years, there was more there than we could fit.  Here are some that were nearly good enough to make the cut.

Explaining that his belly stopped hurting:
T: It said, “Oh!  I guess the kid doesn’t like this.”  And it turned back easy.

When the subject of marriage came up (extended version, longer than in the Christmas letter)
T: I’m probably going to live with some dudes when I grow up.
J: Which dudes?
C: Probably Rowan.
T: Rowan has a cut-off toe.

On a schedule conflict between a friend’s birthday party and the Harvard-Yale game:
P: I think a friend’s party is more important than a football game.
C: But this isn’t just a football game.  It’s a traditional Ivy League rivalry.  It’s been going on since the beginning of college football, and this is like the 143rd time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

As You Like It As You've Never Seen It

Charlie had a very cool opportunity this fall to perform in the Creative Dramatics program at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.  His school and a suburban school got together, did a home-and-home series of practices ("Their school is so big, and it's just all on one level; there are no stairs at all.") and practiced at the Public's O'Reilly Theater downtown.  Last Saturday, they finally performed.  

The show was an adapted script of As You Like It. The Public will perform that later in their season.  Each kid had a brief speaking part.  Charlie's was among the first.  The video below is too long for the Internet, but if you're chairbound and can't do anything else, you might enjoy watching the whole thing.  The suburban school only had one boy in their group.  I'm proud of our urban arts magnet that so many boys - including some of Charlie's best pals - participated.  Early on, before I knew much about this program, I asked Charlie if he liked it, and he said "Well, yes, because it's basically all girls."  Oh, we're going there already in fourth grade?  Actually, looking back, that sounds right on time.

With his introduction to the story through this program, we've decided to take Charlie to the big, real production of As You Like It when it happens.  He's excited about that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Unexpected Emotions at the School Holiday Concert

Our fourth-grader played in his first holiday band concert at school tonight. When I tell you that I felt certain emotions at an elementary school band concert, you might think that I mean nostalgia or joy.  You might also ask if boredom is an emotion; the concert was a mercifully-brief 83 minutes.

Unfortunately, I felt grief and preemptive worry for Charlie's black male classmates.  The concert kicked off with the school's locally-famous drumming group playing together.  Each player drumming his or her beat contributes to an impressively complex and polished cadence.  These kids know what they're doing; they drum every morning at morning assembly.  Front and center, a group of fourth and fifth grade boys anchored the drumming group.  All but one of them were African American.  Their faces looked beautiful.  They exuded such competence and confidence, especially the one leader who took cues from the music teacher and artist-in-residence and communicated changes to the rest of the drummers.  They laughed and smiled and focused and exhibited showmanship.  They looked innocent and sweet.

While I watched, them, though, I worried for them.  I know they come from all different backgrounds and that some of them will be better positioned to succeed in life than my sons.  I also know, however, that more than likely, the road to accomplishment in life for any one of them will be much harder than it is for my two little white boys.  They will have to overcome prejudice and assumptions.  They'll be less likely to get second chances and even first chances at certain things.  The likelihood that any one of them might end up in jail is way higher than the likelihood that one of my sons will.

I try to take solace in the fact that they attend an integrated school (about 2/3 African American, most of 1/3 White and a sprinkling of Asians and Latinos) with a dynamic African American principal with a Ph.D.  I try to take solace in the fact that being young and male and black in this country in 2011 should afford more safety and opportunity in life than being young and male and black 60 years ago.  My solace falters, though, through everything I know about where things still stand in our society.  I pray that the potential I saw in Charlie's classmates tonight can overcome the many barriers they will confront.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Self-pics

When your arm is in
the picture, it looks like you
don't have any friends.

Friday, December 9, 2011


We just added a new grace to our rotation before dinners.  We got it from a Dennis the Menace cartoon quoting a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem.  Of course.  Where do you get your graces?

Families say grace all different kinds of ways.  I grew up on the evangelical, theoretically free-form grace.  I say theoretically free-form because liturgy creeps in whether we choose it or not.  Individuals and groups establish rhythms and repeat phrases.  So, although we didn't have prescribed prayers, as each person prayed, they tended to thank for and ask for the same things habitually.

Now that we have kids, we pray a short rotation of regular graces.  The greatest hit, of course, is God is Great.  There are others, including an express grace.  More on that later. 

The new grace is:
For each new morning with its light
For rest and shelter of the night
For health and peace
For love and friends
For everything thy goodness sends
Father in heaven
We thank thee

Ol' Emerson stopped after the list.  The Church of the Brethren added the Father in heaven part, and we think it gives the whole enterprise the appropriate meaning.  And yes, as you know (admit it!), this was the Dennis the Menace cartoon on the Sunday before Thanksgiving this year, showing scenes of family and Thanksgiving goodness.

We also pray the full God is Great:

God is great, God is good
And we thank Him for our food
By His hands, we all are fed
Give us Lord our daily bread.

I include that one here because, as I said, it's the greatest hit of family graces.  Also, though, two people have said to us this fall that they'd never heard the second two lines.  I thought that was the international standard.  What do you know?  My brother and his wife are raising their kids to say "Thank you Lord for daily bread", which sounds a lot more grateful and trusting than our demand.  Oh well.  God is Great has a way of just being there, but it's actually a very solid, theological prayer.  We start by talking about God, not us and acknowledging his nature as both powerful and good.  We show gratitude, understanding that He provides for us.  We don't ask for too much - as in the Lord's Prayer - just bread for today.

Until Emerson, our most elegant grace came to us source unknown but probably Episcopal in nature:
For food and homes and loving care
For all that makes the world so fair
We thank thee, Heavenly Father.

That's a good one, and people who haven't heard it before ask about it and try to remember it.

Perhaps our longest grace, I learned at a Salvation Army boys' home in Malaysia where I did a short-term mission in college.  It was chanted quick-time in 6-17-year-old Malay accented English with a very specific rhythm:
Thank you for the food we eat
Thank you for the world so sweet
Thank you for the birds that sing
Thank you Lord for everything.  Amen.

It doesn't look that long written out.  In Malaysia, the prayer gathered speed as it went, so "Amen" sounded like the fourth and fifth syllables of "everything'.

Finally, our "express grace" when dinner prep has taken too long, or we need to go somewhere right after dinner is this:
For every cup and plateful,
Lord, make us truly grateful.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Trevor, you have to at least taste these Lucky Charms...

Blair's Lucky Charms (Close Up)
Flickr: Laffy4K
"Trevor, you have to at least take a bite of these Lucky Charms," said my sister-in-law to her then pre-school son in one of the most surreal parenting moments I've ever witnessed.  Born in Hong Kong and visiting his great-grandparents' house in Cincinnati for a holiday, my nephew had never tasted the magically delicious cereal that was a Cincinnati family tradition.  Children can be oddly picky, and my nephew put his mother in the very strange position of forcing him to try a sugary cereal in the same manner she might use in the case of brussels sprouts.

I thought about that moment earlier this week when I forced my five-year-old to taste Cool Whip(TM).  He's rounding the corner from being extremely picky to cleaning his plate at dinner occasionally.  Horizons beyond beige food are opening up.  When he told me that he didn't like Cool Whip, i thought "Pish posh!  This child doesn't even know what Cool Whip is!"  It's rarely in our house, actually.  We usually only acquire it when we're planning to make a jello mold (yum!).  I just knew that he would like it.  What does scripture say about people, though we are evil, knowing how to give good gifts to our children?  He tasted it and made a face like it was mayonnaise that had been left in a car on the fourth of July.  I laughed my way through the shock and let him spit it out on a plate.  I have to think that in other circumstances in which he had not already made up his mind that he wasn't going to like it, he would have enjoyed artificial whipped cream.  Call me crazy.

Just a few days before, however, I'd been in the exact same position.  When a family friend came by to take the kids to see the new Muppet movie, Teddy protested that he hated Muppets and didn't want to go.  Our friend, a professional counselor of children, said "if he doesn't want to go, he doesn't have to".  After asking her to give us a minute, I delivered a surreal speech about how I'd lived a lot longer than him and knew for a fact that he would enjoy himself at that movie.  The rousing conclusion can be paraphrased "You are going; put your shoes on."   Long story short there: He went.  He loved it.  He made no move to acknowledge my sagacity.

What do you do when your child resists something you know he/she will find awesome if he/she gives it a chance?

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Onion gets it

This Onion article drips with the Competent Parent ethos.   

Tip of the quill to Wooter for pointing it out.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Picture post: Thanksgiving Family Time

I didn't actually get a picture of the full Thanksgiving feast, but the kids chowed down on appetizers as dinner was being prepared.  Everybody loves Bugles.
Niece Sydney helped Grandma put out the ceramic turkey napkin rings that Grandma made in the 1970s.  It wouldn't be our family's Thanksgiving without them.
On Friday, we walked over to Grandma and Grandpa's new apartment, stopping for a cousins picture on the concrete turtle in the little park halfway between our house and their apartment.

The retirees in their partially-unpacked domain.

Unbidden, the kids started decorating Grandma & Grandpa's Christmas tree.  Hard to get a good photo with all of the light streaming in the windows.  It was done in about 10 minutes; we had to keep encouraging the taller cousins to hang ornament up high so they wouldn't all be in the lower third of the tree.
As the visit wore on, the kids got really into making paper airplanes.  They named them things like Blue Bay Blade and Double Crasher and Rainbow Spinner.  They had a flyoff in the balmy driveway.  Don't ask me why Charlie is wearing shoulder pads under his shirt in this photo and the one above.  Also, don't ask me what Cousin Sydney is doing with her hand on her head there.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Haiku: Interstitial Season

Another season
falls between Thanksgiving and 
Christmas: It's Advent.
Handprint Advent wreath
Flickr: oddharmonic

Friday, November 25, 2011

Essential Pittsburgh Reading List

A long time ago, I drafted a list of essential books to read to understand Pittsburgh.  The list has sat in a folder on my desk for a long time, waiting.  Today, shazam!  Here it is.  We were talking about this list at Thanksgiving dinner yesterday because my parents have just retired and will summer in Pittsburgh and winter in Maine.

Out of this Furnace, Bell, Thomas, 1941
This is one of those books that every Pittsburgher (and everyone who has reason to care about the 'Burgh) should read. It helps to understand the psyche of the people and neighborhoods of the region, derived as they still are from the immigrant labor experience. Bell's story traces three generations of an immigrant family in the upper Monongah
ela Valley - Homestead, Munhall, Braddock and in the steel mills. Along the way, we view the development of a community in a new, foreign and sometimes-hostile milieu. We see the promise of prosperity maintain its near-but-unattainable distance. Along the way, there is also love and friendship, betrayal and despair. It's a gripping story with a useful dose of sociology/anthropology thrown in as a bonus.

Meet you in Hell; Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America, Standiford, Les, 2006
This book was recommended to me by a work colleague who is a self-proclaimed history geek.  She spoke about it in ecstatic terms, and the book did not disappoint.  A close history of the relationships between Carnegie and Frick as both rose to baron-dom and became two of the richest men in the world through Pittsburgh's steel industry, the book had all the drama of a novel.  The title comes from Frick's retort to Carnegie's death-bed plea that Frick visit him and that they bury the hatched before Carnegie dies.  Frick tells Carnegie's courier something to the effect of "Tell Andrew I'll meet him; tell him I'll see him in hell where we're both going."  The decision to focus in on the two men and their close circle is a smart one.  So many histories that cover a period as long as the 50 years this book covers get too sprawling to be able to follow.  I never found myself trying to remember who the players were while reading this book.  Reading it and learning more about the early history of steel-making has made walking around Pittsburgh a richer experience.

And the Wolf Finally Came, Hoerr, John, 1988
This book makes a fine winter project. This 620-page history of the demise of the steel industry in the Mon Valley is, um, exhaustive.  Make that exhausting.  It's good to know all of this stuff, and it helps me to understand the region I live in a lot better.  Some aspects of Pittsburgh's culture even today feel like they derive from the workers waiting for someone else to make the big decisions that affect their lives.  The book just gets a little slow in the middle 200 pages.  Hoerr is at his best when he steps back from journalistic analysis of the negotiations between management and the union to paint slice-of-life pictures of the region through the hundred year heyday of steel.  His business analysis is generally solid and useful, although it seems quaint at times.  He didn't get many predictions for the future of industry, labor and the region wrong, though.

An American Childhood, Dillard, Annie, 1987
Readers revere Dillard for her writing skills.  This short book appeals because it's well-written but also because Dillard's narrative bristles with interesting facts for people who know at least something about the Pittsburgh region.  Frankly, it's been too long since I've read the book to say anything very specific about it.  I do remember enjoying it and enjoyed reading its origin story about Sewickley, my in-laws' town.

The Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson, August, 1982-2005
While it's better to see these plays performed, reading them would make a decent start.  Wilson, a Pittsburgh native, wrote ten plays with a play covering each decade of the 20th century.  With the exception of Ma Rainey, they're set in Pittsburgh, mostly in the dynamic Hill District neighborhood.  We've had the privilege of seeing Gem of the Ocean, Seven Guitars, Fences, Jitney, King Hedley II and Radio Golf at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon, Michael, 1988
This is a gripping, often enchanting coming of age story of the son of a Jewish gangster in (duh) Pittsburgh.  Mysteries got a second life with the release of a mediocre movie version.  Our hero drifts through the summer after college encountering more mysteries about himself than about the city.  The terrain - Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside - is so familiar for an East End resident as to be sometimes spooky.  It's hard to accept that the events are fictional in places that are so real to me.  Chabon's descriptions of Pittsburgh are at once familiar and loving.  The cast of characters here is small but well-developed.  The narrative is filled with tension that kept me turning the pages; some might not enjoy the fact that some of that tension is generated by the protagonist's sexual exploring and his ambiguous orientation in the summer described.

Sam McCool's New Pittsburghese : how to speak like a Pittsburgher, McCool, Sam, 1982
At once cheesy and a classic, when most people invoke Pittsburghese, they are (wittingly or unwittingly) reciting this dictionary.  People actually use many of these words, but I've never encountered others at all.  It's a novelty and will at least help newbies understand the references other people are making to this colloquial dialect.

American Rust, Meyer, Philip, 2009

When this book was published, I heard about it on Fresh Air and in the Atlantic and maybe also in One of America's Great Newspapers.  When that many of my favored media outlets focus on one book, I pay attention.  Against all odds, Meyer, a Baltimorean by birth and upbringing has written a book of extremely local Monongahela Valley texture.  I don't understand why he's set this book in the Mon Valley, but he's captured the place extremely well.  It is not giving away too much to say that a person dies early in this book and that the events surrounding that death drive the rest of the action.  Chapters alternate between each of several key characters and their responses to the recent event and the events and relationships that lead up to it (albeit indirectly).  Pretty good read.  Good for the beach.

By writing an "essential" list, I invite the criticism that this list misses other titles.  I'd welcome that, actually.  I haven't read a solidly Pittsburgh book in a while.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Early Reading

A few months into Kindergarten, Teddy is armed with a few sight words. He's really strong on "the". Here he "reads" a book with Paige. What I find the funniest is him pretending to read words that he knows by memory. He's known "Fly...Guy" since he was two, but here he performs those words like he's sounding them out. Family reading night - my long held dream - will arrive soon. That's when all four of us will sit in the living room and each read our own thing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sweet Sixteen

Today, Paige and I celebrate 16 years of marital bliss.  I feel like the occasion calls for something other than a list, but for some reason, the list keeps coming back into my mind.  

In 16 years, we've had four cars:
A 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera (Brougham Package), given to us by George & Martha Smith, God rest their generous souls.
A 1984 Volvo 240 DL wagon (aka the Blue Goose), given to us by Dave & Anne Hennessey, God bless their generous souls.
A 1990 Honda Accord (aka the Golden Dragon), purchased in 2000 from Marshall & Lottie Bracewell (age 80) of Tonowanda, New York
A 1997 Honda Accord (aka the Blue Car), purchased in 2004 at Frenchy's Auto, "The Home of Affordable Transportation"

We've lived in three apartments and two houses:
Our first apartment was a barely-insulated, converted one-bedroom attic in Bellevue, PA.  Our ratio of money to time was such that we occasionally shopped the specials at all three grocery stores in that little borough in the same week.  We liked walking to the dentist and the barber shop.  We loved never paying more than $5 for a large pizza due to the intense competition in Bellevue and its adjacent municipalities.  We roasted in the summer and froze in the winter.  We felt the cold especially in the claw foot tub with a wand shower head in the slanted-ceiling bathroom.  When we hosted dinner, we'd extend our kitchen table with an end table.  Seated at the table, one could reach the stove, microwave and sink.  Rent: $325/mo. utilities included.

Our second one-bedroom apartment was on the first floor of a rather similar house across town.  We consolidated our work, social and church lives in the East End.  A garage on the alley seriously upgraded our car storage over the steep driveway on a blind curve in Bellevue.  Some of the stained glass windows remained there, in the living room (the original dining room) and our bedroom (an original parlor).  One human fit in the bathroom, barely.  We loved giving directions to that apartment by telling people that they'd know the place on our street because of the golden dragons over the door.  That's why we named our first Honda the Golden Dragon, actually.

In our third apartment, we upgraded to two bedrooms in a top & bottom duplex.  We liked having a dining room, a sunroom and lovely arts & crafts details.  It was a lot easier to entertain there.  We missed the garage and the dishwasher, but enjoyed the space and charm we traded for them.  We found that apartment under miraculous circumstances, needing a new place in February in Pittsburgh because the House of the Golden Dragons had sold to new owners that wanted to convert it back into a single family home.  I happened to look online on the first day the ad went online at the dawn of the time when people put ads online.  We signed a lease that day. Then we moved just two blocks to our new place.

The third apartment positioned us to buy the first house.  Our across-the-street neighbor asked if a car parked in front of her house was ours.  She was trying to make space for the moving truck.  Moving truck?  We were just towing into house-buying territory.  We got an agent on the double, went to the open house on Sunday, the first time anyone had seen the house.  We walked back across the street, wrote up an offer and delivered it at the end of the open house at 4.  We had a verbal agreement that night at 10.  We crammed so much stuff and experience into 10 years in those three bedrooms.  We stripped wallpaper from every wall and some ceilings.  We could put guests in an actual bed, given to us (possibly by generous accident) by Paige's aunt & uncle.

Then, of course, 10 years later, we moved back across the street to our current house.  It didn't take long to feel like home, and we keep piling up the experiences, even as we try to shed stuff.  A guest room rocks.  A coat closet rocks harder.  Two bathrooms changed our entire existence.  Commodious attic & basement playspaces revolutionized having children.

Speaking of which, we've made two children in these 16 years of marriage:
We had a nice long start by ourselves.  The fact that it was slightly longer than we wanted feels like a distant memory now, but we had some time there when it was all we thought and felt about.  Both of our boys are as extroverted and sports-minded as their daddy and as precise as their mommy.  Charlie is sweet and encyclopedic and dreams big dreams.  Teddy hurls energy wherever he goes and has a great imagination and makes definite plans.  They both brought into our lives, individually and as a couple, a kind of love we'd never known before.  At the same time, we've pursued a shared goal to maintain our relationship as husband and wife as the one from which those lives sprung.  We don't really believe in being so kid-focuses that we don't look across the table at each other anymore.

That was really the climax of the post.   We've also in this marriage earned two professional degrees with very little debt (a massive blessing), baked over 800 loaves of bread, thrown some really fun parties, visited Canada, Hong Kong, Thailand, England, France, Vietnam and Cambodia.  Not to mention California, which feels like a foreign country for Pennsylvanians.  We've endured the deaths of four grandparents and an uncle.  We've also gotten to aunt and uncle five cool nieces and nephews.

Gosh, this post got long, but we're just blessed like crazy.  It's good every once in a while to use an occasion like an anniversary to pause and recognize that.  We usually write in people's wedding cards "Marriage is fun!"  We believe that.  Marriage gets a bad rap today, but the real thing - not the sitcom thing, played for laughs - is mostly awesome.  Paige doesn't have a blog, so you're getting my side here.  We've had our hard times, certainly, and we've had to work on this relationship, but that work has paid off.  Today is A happy anniversary indeed. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Prayer for my Sons' Wives

For some reason, one of the things I think about often when I stop into the boys' room after they're asleep is who they'll marry when they get older.  Sometimes I pray something like this for each of them:

Dear Lord,
One day, this boy is (hopefully) going to marry someone.
Please make her smart.
Please help him love her because she makes him a better person.
It will really help if she knows and follows you, Lord.
For everyone's sake, please make sure she has a sense of humor.
Please give her a generous spirit and patience.
Please make her practical and ready to work hard.
I know he'll think she's cute, so I don't need to ask for that.
Please give her a long life and good health.
Please let them agree on how they spend, save and donate money.
This may be selfish, Lord, but please make him choose for life someone with cool, well-adjusted parents.
Please make her the kind who will call him on his [bleep]. Gently.
Please forgive my language.
Finally, Lord, it's a lot to ask in this crazy, mixed up world, but:
Please make her like baseball.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

How do you know she's the one?

Younger people in love have (very occasionally) asked me how one knows when one's current partner is " the one".  This complicated question with a complicated answer too often gets distilled to the unsatisfying answer "you just know".  As unsatisfying as that answer is, it may be the only legitimate summation. 

One indicator that I've identified, however, is this: does working on some project with this person make you like him/her more? We spend the highest volume of time together in marriage trying to get things accomplished.  It's awesome if he/she is fun at parties, but if moving furniture or making a meal or traveling together (a specific but important subset of the working together genre) with your significant other drives you bats and makes you think about breaking up, you're in trouble for the long haul. 

The One, stripping wallpaper in our first house
June 2000

I've been thinking about this post for a long time (said the blogger who went missing for the month of October), and when we raked the first of many bags of leaves we'll rake this fall, Paige and I worked quickly and efficiently. And had a great time doing it.  And even flirted a little.  We've also been on several family trips this month, and that affirmed that we're a good team for packing the bags and the car, managing the boys on the road and navigating to a destination. 

We had a helpful headstart on this important relationship attribute in that we helped each other move in and out of dorm rooms, oh, seven times in college.  We also traveled together in a singing group on tour and found that we kept each other sane no matter what was going on.

As much as I enjoy the time we get to relax and have fun together, it's the time when we're achieving something together that reminds me why she was and still is the one.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Circus Ignorance

This is probably more of a status update than a blog post, but someone who's posted as infrequently as I have in the last month shouldn't impose arbitrary, self-defined filters on content. 

When Charlie saw a picture of Barnum & Bailey elephants in the newspaper and asked what it was, I said "That's the circus. We're going there on Saturday night." "So," he asked "Teddy and I are going to have a babysitter?" I was shocked that my nine-year-old didn't know that the circus is a family event. Then while I was drafting this post, Paige told Teddy that we'd be going, and he burst into tears and said he hates the circus. When I asked what he knew about the circus, he said he'd seen something on TV about it. 

What has happened in our culture when school-age kids don't know about the circus and aren't dying to go?

[Update: apparently the boys got pretty excited watching this video of the elephants walking through downtown Pittsburgh.]

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Brothers: real-time skill comparison

Teddy, Age 5
Having two boys four years apart means that we constantly witness competition.  A whole series of little competitions.  We hear a regular refrain, plaintively wailed by four-years-younger Teddy: "It's not a race!"  Everything, of course, is a race.

Charlie, Age 9
Because the boys have taken to coloring pages in a coloring book full of vehicles this week, I stumbled upon these two artifacts of their current artistic ability.  What a boon that the book had two pages with the same chopper on it!  Teddy's coloring has come a long way of late, but it's clear that he's still physically incapable of coloring completely within the lines.  Charlie, on the other hand shows not only the practiced skill of a boy who has achieved nearly everything in the coloring book game and will soon leave it behind but his own artistic additions like the flair in the flames on the gas tank and that other part down below. 

I think this competition especially fascinates me as an identical twin because my brother and I were always at the exact same age and developmental stage.  We have older sisters, but that's a totally different thing.  I never had an older brother to test my mettle against, nor a younger brother over whom to lord my greater abilities.  I had a brother my same age over whom to lord my greater abilities (zing!).

Charlie plays the older brother role with physically benevolence.  He does not use his size advantage to rough up Teddy when they play football or wrestle.  He does, however, use his experience and wiles to bend the rules of the game to his advantage, though.  We constantly re-explain that Charlie's conception of even turns on the Wii isn't nearly even.  If you count attempts at the same challenge in any game, Charlie's attempts will always last longer because he's better at every game.  They must count minutes played instead.  Of course, playing head to head would mete out the changes in a far superior way, but they never do because Charlie always wins.

Teddy, for his part alternates between competing far more fiercely than his big brother (truly inspiring tackling technique from a littler combatant) and giving up the fight   altogether (often with tears or whining).  When he hits his mid-teens and his brother is slowed by the freshman 15, Teddy will - due to his rigorous training against, bigger, faster, more experienced competition - start to trounce Charlie in every battle.  The summer of '21 should be very interesting indeed.  I plan to have a front row seat.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Must-read parenting article - interesting to non-parents, too.

As I read Lori Gottleib's aricle How to Land your Kid in Therapy from the June Atlantic (yes, I'm months behind reading the Atlantic), I was blown away by the analysis.  I've seen the patterns she describes in parents, young kids and young adults and heard a lot about them from others.  Gottleib, though, nails the explanation behind how we found ourselves in this position.  She culls discussions with parenting experts, sociologists, teachers, her own life experience and her therapy practice to explain why kids with perfectly happy childhoods don't always end up as perfectly happy adults.

It features the  Most Delicious Pull-quote Ever by Jeff Blume, an LA family therapist:  "If a therapist is telling you to pay less attention to your kids' feelings, you know something has gotten way out of whack."

Topics covered include:
-trophies for every kid in the league
-noncompetitive sports (oxymoron!)
-parents who won't leave campus when dropping off freshmen
-how a lack of community in general casts the parent-child relationship very differently than a few generations ago.
-how too much choice can be bad for kids.  Parenting with Love & Logic has to be used in moderation, too.

Must read, people.