Saturday, December 14, 2013

Rules for a Snow Day When the Thirteen-Year-Old is in Charge

  1. No dancing on the roof. 
  2. Everyone brushes their teeth and gets dressed before ten in the morning.  This includes wearing socks and underwear. 
  3. Stay in the house. 
  4. If you go outside, be sure to wear appropriate winter clothing.  This includes socks and underwear. 
  5. Keep the thermostat set at 68.  If it gets too hot, turn it off.  If it gets too cold, put on a damn sweater.
  6. No cooking on the stove or with the oven. 
  7. No cheese in the toaster. 
  8. Unless he's dressing, the thirteen-year-old's door stays open. 
  9. Two cookies or one small slice of cake before lunch.  Two cookies or one small slice of cake after lunch. 
  10. Anyone who reads to the seven-year-old will get an extra cookie.  The seven-year-old will also get an extra cookie. 
  11. Rule #10 only applies once to each child.  
  12. Unnecessary tooting will lead to the loss of a cookie, either today or in the future.  Use the toilet like a real human being. 
  13. No feeding the mice under the cupboard. 
  14. Everyone gets one hour of screen time.  BEFORE screen time: 
    • The older kids need to practice piano
    • The younger kid needs to draw, read, or build
  15. Call us if anything goes wrong or seems strange
    • Dad's cell:  817-XXXX
    • Mom's cell:  817-XXXX
  16. If there's a real emergency, call Pat and Ellen from around the corner.  Their number is 464-XXXX. 
  17. If there's blood involved, call 911, but understand that if they see these rules, they'll probably take you away from us.  

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sin City, Cambodia

“The difference between a good
haircut and a bad one is a week.” 
--my Aunt Marcy

Day 1:
You arrive Sihanoukville, in the south of Cambodia, at 7:45 PM.  You’ve been on the road since 7:30 that morning, bouncing over barely paved roads and dodging in and out of motorcycles carrying whole families, minivans crammed with thirty people. 
You’re tired.  You’re two-and-a-half-weeks into your trip and you’re not sleeping enough, not exercising, and eating way too much rice.
You hate this.  Not Cambodia, but arriving in town this way, in the dark, tired.  Bad enough trying to establish a mental map, locate a good grocer, figure out the logistics of getting breakfast, work through the kinks of your hotel room’s cooling system.  But to arrive late at night, exhausted and hungry with a second round of Pol Pot’s revenge on the horizon.  The worst.
It probably doesn’t help that Dam, your guide, has warned you and the rest of your group that Sihanoukville can be a dangerous town.  “There are pickpockets there,” he says, his baritone unusually earnest.  “And bag snatchers.  Don’t leave anything alone on the beach.”
And it probably doesn’t help that Sihanoukville has a reputation as a sort of hippy enclave, a place where people who can’t stay sober even long enough to maintain a job at McDonalds go to hang out on the beach and smoke weed until they pass out, waking at dawn with their legs red from sand flea bites.  You did your stint in Colorado twenty years back and have only minimal tolerance for people like this, folks who have no loyalty to anything or anybody other than their own high.  After seventeen days wallowing in the company of Cambodians whose kindness and humor is unparalleled even by the Thai, you’re not in the mood to spend time with dread-locked pot heads who haven’t bathed in weeks. 
At the Holy Cow for dinner, you barely sip your pumpkin soup, your stomach grumbling.  Everyone else is thrilled with their food, but when they start talking dessert, you put your spoon down and excuse yourself, catching a tuk tuk back to the hotel.  You spend the next twenty minutes on the toilet, head in your hands.

Day 2:
Breakfast sucks.  The dining room is hot and crowded, the tables are littered with crumbs and used napkins.  The buffet, featuring everything from boiled eggs to lo mein to batter-fried squash, has been picked over.  Sihanoukville, a masseuse in Siem Reap told you, is a favorite vacation spot for Cambodians.  This sets it aside from many of the beaches in Asia, where the only natives you see are the ones cleaning your room.
But even so, it means you have to stand there quietly, watching the dark-haired lady in front of you take the last six slices of mango.

At lunch that day, you and your colleagues watch as a handsome young man with Irish skin and black hair throws a leg over the seat of a moped.  Moments earlier, you watched as this same young man came down the hall toward you, weaving slightly, eyes half-closed, lips parted as though he’s just thrown up, or is just about to. 
It’s barely noon. 
Now he’s joined by a companion, a lanky boy with sun-bleached hair, expensive dark glasses, and a full bottle of San Miguel in one hand.  The two of them settle themselves on the moped and dark hair starts the engine, twisting the throttle.  As they lurch off, blonde hair sways back, spine arched, nearly tumbling head over heals onto the sandy courtyard. 
He doesn’t though, doesn’t spill a drop of his beer as they zoom off the curb and into the road, veering to miss a gray-haired man on a bicycle. 

It’s afternoon now, and you’re at Wat Kraom, high in the hills on the other side of town.   You might as well be in another country, it’s that different from the open-air bars and restaurants that line the beach area, all sporting red and white Angkor beer signs. 
The wat itself is a typical temple in Cambodia:  boxy and rectangular on the outside, with glaring whitewashed walls and a tiled roof with gold trim that rises in ornate flames toward the sky.  Inside, the high walls and ceiling are covered with primary-colored paintings of the life of the Buddha, beginning with his birth beneath a banyan tree and proceeding to—well, it’s hard to tell exactly where they proceed to, since they don’t appear to be in any particular order.  They swim over and around you, grabbing your eye at every turn, and then grabbing your eye again with the next image, and the next:  the Buddha as a child taking his first steps, the Buddha on a journey across India, confronting some sort of deer-like creature that looks a little . . . angry?  A huge golden Buddha statue rests on a platform at one end of the tiled floor, surrounded by four white pillars.  By the door at the other end of a room, a fortune teller is dolling out handfuls of rice onto a square mat.  A slender woman in a white shirt kneels beside him, watching silently, her face anxious.
You’re here with Liesl, who’s writing an article on death practices in Cambodia.  There’s a school in the compound as well, and she’s come to interview one of the teachers.   Outside the temple, young monks in saffron robes—it’s a cliché, and you know it, but that’s what color they are—sweep the brick courtyard with fronds of grass tied into short brooms.  Their heads and eyebrows shaved, they have a slightly startled look.  Mostly, though, they look bored.  Not surprising, perhaps:  they’re teenage boys and as often or not they became monks because in a country where 48% of the country lives below the ninety-cents-a-day poverty line, joining a monastery is the best way for their families to ensure they are fed and educated.  One of them, a tallish boy with unusually round eyes, has draped a towel over his head, swinging his broom across the dry leaves with a practiced, easy wave that ensures he remains cool and sweat-free.
There’s a cemetery here, filled with ornate stupas, circular burial structures that spiral toward the sky, sometimes eighteen feet high, sometimes higher.  Some are painted red, some are white, some are yellow, but all of them are topped by the same flame-like waves you see on the temple.  The flames are meant to purify, someone told you, to lift evil away.  Some of the older stupas contain bodies, but most hold only ashes.  One of the things Liesl will discover is that in Cambodia, only the very rich can indulge in grief.  The poorest just cremate the body and go back to work. 
In one corner of the compound stands a small temple.  You slip off your shoes, go inside, the tile gritty and reassuring beneath your feet.  The news from home has not been good, so you light three joss sticks, bow the same number of times.  It can’t hurt.  A man comes over, his face broad, his shirt faded and baggy from so many washings.  He gestures toward the front of the temple, beneath a low ceiling where a dark-faced carved figures rests cross legged, staring over your head.  You follow him and he places you in front of the figure, hands you more joss sticks.  You bow your head and he reaches in front of you grabs some sort of long brush, like a butler’s broom.  Chanting, he dips it in a bowl and splashes droplets of water over you, again and again, his voice low and earnest. 
God, you love the Cambodians.

Whizzing back down the hill in the tuk tuk, you start to feel a little better. 
But that night, on the way back from dinner, you pass clusters of Anglo kids, college age and a little older, resting on concrete medians, their heads in their hands.  Others drift along the crumbling streets, more like zombies than you thought possible of people who are not partially eaten.  A couple passes you, the woman lithe in shorts and a bikini top.
“I got fired from my job today.”
“Yes?” says the man.  She barely reaches to his shoulder.
“I told off my boss’s wife.”
“What was your job?” he asks.  He sounds German, but may be Swiss. 
“I was a receptionist.”
They are holding hands.

Day 3:
You’ve been avoiding the beaches.  Partly this is due to your guide’s warning about bag snatchers, but partly this is because some of the people you’re with have come back with reports of wild bars, lunar parties, body painting.  You’ve been to Hoi An and you’ve seen pictures of Phuket, and you know what beaches in Asia can be like when they’re not lined with bars featuring fireworks and fire twirling every night.  Ever seen The Beach, starring Leonardo DeCaprio?  Like that, only:  a) real; and b) without a film crew. 
It doesn’t help that when you Googled “Sihanoukville,” before coming, you found a half-dozen blogs complaining about the kids peddling bracelets and hair bands on the beaches.  You like kids, but you know that in Cambodia parents often pull their children out of school, forcing them to sell to tourists, knowing that only the stoniest of hearts can resist a brown-eye, dark-skinned twelve-year-old who looks no older than six.  The problem got so bad that the police in Siem Reap took to rounding up the kids in early morning raids and driving them out into the country where they dumped them, unceremoniously, as far from the hordes of annoyed tourists as possible, forcing them to find their way back on their own—or not.  Indeed, the problem got so bad that now there’s an NGO—Child Safe—that papers hotel lobbies and elevators with flyers begging tourists not to buy from children, insisting that poor returns on this practice might lead to parents keeping their kids in school. 
Child Safe, it appears, hasn’t had much of an impact in Sihanoukville.  Children roam the beaches in packs, peddling their wares.  When tourists decline, it’s not uncommon for these brown-eyes, mocha-skinned twelve-year-olds to unleash a string of the foulest words in the English language—learned, undoubtedly, the packs of tourists who used those same words to shoo away the kids. 
And they really are pickpockets.  Clusters of children will approach an adult, half of them poking them or stroking their skin—“You have pretty skin, lady!”—while their peers dip into your pockets.  This sounds Dickensian, you know, but sure enough, when some of your colleagues come back from the beach, they tell stories of being accosted.
“What did you do?” you ask.
“I freaked out,” says one of them.  “I told them ‘Get away!  I don’t like being touched.’  Then this little girl says, “You no like being touched?  But I bet you like it when boy f**k you, right?’”
So you’ve been avoiding the beaches.  This morning, though, a friend mentions going to a nearby national park (one thumbs up, one down), mentioning in passing, “If I weren’t doing that, though, I’d probably go to Otres Beach.”
Then later that morning you’re stepping out of the grocery store and a tuk tuk driver says, “Need ride?”
“No,” you reply.  “My hotel’s just over there.”
He nods.  It’s still early, and the mild panic that will kick in later when the day is growing short and still he hasn’t received a fare hasn’t yet arrived.  “Maybe later,” he says, “you find me, I take you to Otres beach?”
You take this as a sign.  So later that day, you do indeed find him, and he takes you and some friends to Otres beach. 
It is pretty near perfect.  There are restaurants and bars, yes, but in this slow season—May is when the rains will start to come—and with a twenty minute tuk tuk ride from Sihanoukville, the stoners and drunks can’t be bothered.  The sand is white, the waves are strong enough to be interesting and steady enough to be soothing.  Buy a mojito—for a mere three dollars—and you’re allowed to sit all day on a chaise lounge beneath a thatched umbrella.  There are venders, but only occasionally, and they seem half-hearted.  When a middle-aged mother comes along and offers a massage, you decline, figuring it, too, will be half-hearted, not to mention sandy.  But then she goes down the beach and a Chinese woman flags her down, and you watch as the masseuse spends an hour spreading oil over this woman’s body, working every muscle, front and back. 
Fishing boats putter near the horizon, passing between small islands.  The horizon—no, the sky, the entire sky:  there is no sky anywhere in the world like the sky in Cambodia.  It’s blue, for one.  Rains come once a day, in the late afternoon, and twenty minutes after the first drops, the sky is that perfect shade of—again, with the clichés—azure, like a cartoon movie you watched when you were a kid.  And the clouds.  They climb, bundling up one over another until they seem to reach miles into the sky.  When the sun strikes them you can see every curve, every indentation and pillar and every bend in every bale. You feel like a dork, looking at these clouds, trying to find ways to describe them.  You feel like a poet, a bad poet, struggling against cliches. 
You sip your mojito, feeling more than a little silly, watching these clouds, trying to find words. 

Day 4: 
Your friend has booked a three-island tour.  You’ve seen men on the beach selling these, flashing cracked plastic binders full of photographs at anyone who will listen to their patter.  You assumed, like with the massage, that it was a scam of some sort, which is funny in a twisted sort of way.  This is Cambodia after all, not China, not Vietnam.  The people here are genuinely very forthright, only sly when they’re teasing you or making a joke.  This just goes to show, you think to yourself, how much Sihanoukville seems to carry an air that doesn’t feel like “real” Cambodia:  real Cambodia is genuine and brown-skinned and always polite.  Sihanoukville—or so you were led to believe, or have led yourself to believe, is fake and pale-faced and obnoxiously drunk.
But anyhow, so your friend has booked a three-island tour, an all-day excursion beginning at 8:30 and including lunch and stops for swimming and snorkeling and lazing about on the beach.  You’re not really that interested, but you haven’t seen your friend for a while and you’re not sure what else you’re going to do, so you pay your $15 and tag along. 
A van arrives to pick you up and you climb aboard.  They make one more stop, along the same strip of sand-blasted road you wandered the other night looking for a restaurant.   At a small guesthouse behind a bar, the van stops to pick up three British students lugging their backpacks.  They seemed dazed.  When the bus stops next at the pier, one of the students climbs out and stands there, swaying as though blown by a breeze.  When the group makes its way down to the dock, she drags her backpack behind her, letting it bounce along the pavement.  She’s wearing the shortest of short shorts, and you’re pretty sure you’ve never seen quite so much butt cheek on a person who’s technically clothed. 
Once on the boat, the trio of Brits collapses on a platform on the rear deck, their forearms over their eyes, their hands on their stomachs to counter the rise and fall of the deck.  You go fore, and the boat quickly fills with tourists from all over:  Cambodians and French, Germans and Russians.  The boat casts off, and one of the Brits—the boy, wearing Harry Potter glasses—leans over the rail and vomits. 
The first stop is a coral reef, or what remains of it.  Most of Cambodia’s coral was killed off by dynamite fishing years ago.  Nonetheless, the snorkeling is pleasant, black and blue striped fish swimming beneath you.  Lunch is served and it’s good, pan-fried fish with fried rice.  Afterwards, the boat reaches the second island, Bamboo island, and everyone gets off, lugging their gear.  The hungover Brits march across the sand to a pair of sun-bleached huts on wooden stilts and you watch, wondering if they’ve loaded their packs with tequila or if they’ve come here to dry out for a while.  You find, finally, that you don’t really care. 
The beach is nice, the sand warm and clean.  Fishing boats bob maybe fifty-yards out, and the whole thing has a made-for-face-book feel to it, and you mean that in a good way. 
Nevertheless, eventually you get bored and make your way through the saw-grass to a trail that leads to the other side of the island.  You follow a path of moist earth beneath foliage rattling with tree frogs. 
You don’t quite get it at first.  When you reach the other side of the island, it just looks like another beach.  Sure, there’s the ocean, unobstructed by more islands, no fishing boats or tankers on the horizon.  Sure, the sand stretches for a half-mile on either side of you, not the white sand that you’ve been told is so precious, but ordinary tannish-brownish sand, regular sand like what you grew up with in your sandbox as a child.  Only here it’s flawless:  no tidal debris, no seaweed, not so much as a gum wrapper.  Brightly colored huts stand back on the edge of the forest, and here or there a cluster of tourists—mostly white, but some brown—stretch out in the sand, talking quietly. 
You wander both ways up and down the beach, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.  This makes you hot, though, so you leave your backpack and t-shirt in a pile on the sand—fears of bag-snatchers seem to have faded—and wade into the low, steady waves.  The water is warm, but when you dive under and squint into the clear green water, you can feel a layer of sweat being wiped from your skin.  You come up, take a breath, then dive back under, not so much swimming as coasting along the sandy bottom, feeling your way with your hands.  Coming up, a wave slides by, knocking you back on your heels.  You press the salt from your eyelashes, squint toward the shore.  Your bag is still there, so you dive under again, and then again.  When you come up, your toes dig into the sand and you realize you’ve never felt sand like this before, that it’s rubbery and fine, almost elastic beneath your feet. 
Later you’ll wade back to shore and flop in the shade of a tree along the edge of the sand.  You’ll lay back, eyes shut, the sun playing through the piney branches above you, warming your skin.

Day 5:
What does it, though, what makes sure you will remember this place for the rest of your life, happens the next day as you’re preparing to leave. 
Your bags are packed and you’re standing in the lobby, waiting for the rest of your group.  It’s hot outside, and you’re glad to be in the shade watching the world through a plate glass window.  Then, across the parking lot, you see a monk strolling beneath an umbrella, carrying an alms bowl.  He’s in his saffron robe, of course, and holds a fold of it above his knee so that he doesn’t trip as his sandals scrape over the melting asphalt.
You’ve seen monks collecting alms before.  In Phnom Penh, you could sit in your hotel over breakfast and watch as a stream of monks curved up the road, each one stopping, slightly stooped beneath his umbrella, at the same house.  Every time this happened, a motherly looking woman in a flowered blouse would emerge, a few riel in hand, bowing deeply before the monk as she hands him the money. 
You watch now as this particular monk pads across the steaming concrete in Sihanoukville.  He must be taking a shortcut, you think to yourself—surely monks don’t stop at hotels?  Surely a place of business doesn’t offer alms, too driven by profit, you think, too . . . soulless, maybe, is that the right word?  It’s corporate, after all, made up of a series of individual employees with their own lives, their own homes, their own alms to offer to the monks who come to their own doors.  Why would a business give money or food or gifts of any sort to soliciting monks, particularly when these monks trod the same path every day, making the same stops every day? 
So you expect to see this monk cut across the parking lot, bypassing the wide, covered entrance of the hotel. 
But no.  He stops just beyond the line where the front porch of the hotel would offer shade.  Standing there beneath his umbrella, his hands crossed along the rim of the coffer in which he makes his collections, he looks neither left nor right.  He just waits. 
And so do you. 
Nothing happens at first.  Two women stand behind the huge carved desk at the far side of the lobby, laughing at some joke the hotel manager just made.  A porter in a red and gold suit swishes by, rolling someone’s bag. 
Still the monk stands there. 
You consider, wondering who’s missing, who he might be pausing for.  A janitor, maybe, or the boy who hands out towels by the pool?
Then, finally, the door that leads to the dining room swings open and the concierge emerges.  He’s a big man, the concierge, especially for a Cambodian, his shoulders filling his dark uniform.  He has a face that seems to play at seriousness, as though he wants you to think he’s the epitome of professionalism when really you suspect he has a sly side, isn’t beyond making jokes in Khmer about the clientele, perhaps even when they’re standing right there, uncomprehending. 
In his hands he carries two sandwiches wrapped in plastic.  His heels click as he strolls across the lobby and then out onto the tiles beneath the veranda.  Approaching the monk, he stops, bending at the waist until his head is low, the food offered in front of him. 
The monk puts one hand out, hovering over the thick hair of the concierge.  He begins a blessing, his voice low, melancholy, melodious in a subdued kind of way.  The concierge stays remains bent, his head at the waist of the monk.  The monk murmurs, words pouring over each other like stones in an ocean, solid and smooth and tossed by waves.  You listen.  You watch.
Then the prayer ends, the silence suddenly full again.  The monk accepts the food.  Placing the sandwiches in his bowl, he nods once and moves off into the heat, his umbrella bobbing above him, bleached by the sun.  The concierge remains bowed for half a moment or more, then rises, touching his coiffed hair lightly before straightening the lapels of his uniform.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Walking to School

There are certain beautiful simplicities to small town life, certain Norman Rockwell moments that make the deprivations of living in small town Virginia—e.g., the lack of a good Thai restaurant—seem unimportant.
Walking your kids to school is one of these. 
Which is kind of stupid, of course, because people who live in big cities also walk their kids to school, albeit in a less loving way that us small town, “Real America,” folks.  But that’s okay.  We know they love their children too, in their own gritty, heroin-addicted way. 
But it’s also kind of stupid to argue that these walks to school are idyllic because, to be frank, there are moments when our morning strolls to Waddell Elementary would make Norman Rockwell spit peas through his nose. 
Case in point:  the first thing we do every morning as we stroll to school is cross the street.  This wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except that our street is really really busy, at least by Lexington standards.  Seriously, there are days where I’ll sit out on our front porch and count the cars buzzing past.  Not infrequently, in the course of a mere ten minutes, I’ll see eight, maybe nine vehicles stream by.  I mean:  who knew there were so many cars?
Even worse than the heavy traffic, though, is the speed at which these cars go by.  To understand what I mean by this, it helps to know that at the very heart of Lexington is a single intersection consisting of two very narrow roads.  Head downtown at the wrong time, when too many cars are trying to make left turns or there’s a delivery truck outside one of the half-dozen boutiques downtown, and you’re liable to sit through two or three rotations of the stoplight at the corner of Main and Nelson.
Consequently, anyone looking to get to the southwestern corner of town and the country roads beyond will veer left before they hit this stop-and-go quagmire and cruise swiftly through some of the neighborhood streets on the edge of downtown. 
Streets that, in case it isn’t already obvious, go past my house. 
Which isn’t a big deal.  I get the whole shortcut thing.  Life is short, after all, no point spending any more time than necessary in our cars. 
But even so, these streets are narrow and sometimes the visibility is poor:  an oddly-parked SUV or a tall hedge and the next thing you know you’re plowing into the side of some old lady’s Gremlin.  I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve driven past the corner of Houston and Taylor and spotted freshly-cut glass strewn across the pavement. 
And oh, by the way, have I mentioned that people live on these narrow streets, behind those tall hedges and oddly-placed pickup trucks?  People with kids? 
Stated simply:  you have your right to your shortcut.  And I have the right to throw a rake at your car when you go past my house topping forty. 
Just kidding, of course.  I would never do that.  That would be incredibly immature. 
No, actually, what I do is scream, “SLOW DOWN YOU %#$@ JERK!” at every harried school mom, every pick-up driving handy man, every—I’m not ashamed to admit it—city cop who dares to hit the accelerator in hopes of the catching that green at the end of our block.   I want to make sure you can see this clearly:  you’re running late and you still need to drop your kids off at school before heading to work.  So you take a right onto Houston, heading south/southwest.  And about half-way down the block you suddenly see a very large man—roughly, say, the size of a moderately-small Bigfoot—waving his fist at you, face twisted into an obscenity-filled snarl as he points to the traffic sign posted on the telephone pole at the end of his driveway reading SPEED LIMIT:  25.  I don’t have any actual data on this, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I’ve actually caused some people to transfer their kids to different schools rather than to have to drive by my house at eight in the morning. 
In my own defense, I do this not out of some abstract sense of principle; rather, I do it out of fear for the lives of my children and all of the other children walking down that street.  I’m not kidding.  Just this morning we were standing at the bottom of the drive, waiting to cross, when a black SUV with Texas plates (this means college kid, I know) came barreling by, doing well over thirty-five.  And get this:  as she passed, the driver didn’t even have her hands on the wheel.  No, she was putting her hair into a pony tale.  While—and I’m not making this up—talking on a cell phone scrunched between chin and shoulder.  I’m not an idiot:  in a situation like that, I’m well aware there’s very little chance she’d notice the forty-three inch high and the fifty-two inch high obstacles in the road before they bumped beneath her tires.  And even if she did, with her hands off the wheel like that and going at that speed down such a narrow street, there’s very little she could do to stop.
I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who acts like this.  My friend Pat, who lives just around the corner on Taylor where the situation is even worse, has been known to wave at cars as if to offer a friendly greeting, and then, when they slow down and unroll their windows, smile pleasantly and growl “Slow down!”  And there’s a couple in town, a very progressive, peaceful-minded pair with several kids, a firm belief in holistic medicine and vegetarian dining and a close connection with the Quaker faith, who take great pleasure in rolling a child’s red rubber ball in front of speeding cars on their street just to see the drivers hit the brakes and freak out. 
Not to say that there aren’t some dangers in this sort of behavior.  Last spring the kids and I were strolling toward the corner when I heard a car accelerating down the street, clearly trying to make the green light.  Turning, I could see that this Honda was buzzing—buzzing—at top speed, desperate to save a whole seventeen seconds by not having to wait.  Generally when I’m with the kids, I try to keep myself under control, but this particular time (I’ll blame the caffeine), before I knew it I’d opened my mouth and hollered “SLOW DOWN!”
Which was unfortunate.  Because she didn’t make the light.  Which meant that, when the kids and I reached the corner, she was still sitting there, window down, waiting for me. 
“I was going twenty-five,” she said. 
“No you weren’t.”  I go twenty-five.  Twenty-five is a crawl.  I know what twenty-five looks like.
“Yes, I was.”
“Who,” she said, “do you think you are.  I know my rights.  I was coasting.”
“You were accelerating.”  I could feel my face turning red.  “I could hear your engine picking up speed.”  The kids were standing beside me, watching.  The crossing guard was on the other side of the street, also listening.  Nothing like acting like a jerk in front of a total stranger you get to see every day for nine months of the year.
“$#@& you,” she said, blowing smoke out her window.  
“Not a problem,” I said, sounding much cooler than I felt.  I’m a bad enough parent as it is, without picking a fight in front of my kids, in public, no less.  “I’ll just give your license number to”—and then I named a local cop that everyone knew—“and let him sort it out.”
She swore again—even though, I assume, her kids were in the car.  Then the light turned green, and she accelerated through.  I crossed, my forehead burning—not an insubstantial act, I might point out, as my forehead is so big it basically requires the Peshtigo fire to burn that sucker.
The guard—a young, friendly looking woman with dark hair and glasses—tried to meet my eye as we crossed, but I kept my head down, pink with shame.  Who was I to try to control the world?  Did I think I was so special that I could make everyone bend to my will?
Then, when I got to the other side, the guard said to me, “She comes by here every morning, going so fast she can barely make the turn.  Most mornings she almost knocks me off the curb.”

Okay, so that doesn’t make the walk to school sound like so much fun.  But it is.  I swear it is.  In a goal-oriented, rush-and-ready world, there’s something about taking twenty minutes a day just to be with your kids, under the blue sky and out in the fresh air, that appeals to the Mr. Rogers in all of us. 
Except, of course, about that bit about fresh air.  Because right after we cross Main St., we go past a retirement home, this huge colonial affair right on the corner.  Now, I've no doubt that this place is a fine, fine retirement home:  From everything I’ve heard, the staff there are great and they really care about and take care of their residents.  On any given morning, as we stroll by, the scent of pancakes fresh off the griddle will waft through the morning air, half-tempting us to turn around and go back home in order to mix up a batch or two of our own, complete with hot maple syrup.
Of course, on other given days, particularly early in the week—garbage pickup is on Mondays—we’ll be greeted with the tasty smell of week-old trash. 
“Ew,” Lucy will say.  “What’s that?”
“Urmph,” Jamie will say through the hands pinching his nose and covering his mouth. 
“I don’t know,” I’ll say.  “Spanish rice, maybe?  Polenta?”
“It looks like barf!”
“Urmph,” Jamie will say again, sounding vaguely more gagier, if that’s even a word in any language other than French. 
“It’s just garbage,” I’ll say, as we step around or across the mass of half-rotten foodstuff stretching across the sidewalk, over the curb, and into the street.  “The bag must have broken.”
“Well they should clean it up!” says Lucy, sounding self-righteous as all get out (I wonder where she got that from, hmmm?). 
But she’s right, of course:  they should.  And sometimes they do—indeed, most of the time they do.  But a lot of the time they don’t.  So for the next two or three days, morning and afternoon, we’ll get to see the decaying process in action, as the aforementioned foodstuff goes from yellow to brown to gray to whatever color rotting gelatin is . . .
The pity, of course, is there are plenty of days where we go past this retirement home without any sign of garbage whatsoever.  And of course, on those days, we never stop and think about how nice it is of the staff or the garbagemen or whoever’s responsible for getting the bins and bags from the shelter under the stairs safely into the back of the garbage truck did such a good job of not leaving half of it strewn across the sidewalk.  And I will admit that part of me feels incredibly guilty for naming the name of this particular establishment in this context as—as I’ve already said—I’m sure the people who work there work very hard and try their very best. 
But seriously?  Clean up your garbage.

Okay, so that doesn’t sound very nice either.  I’m not kidding, though:  I love walking the kids to school, really I do, so much so that we go on foot even in the dead of winter when—by Virginia standards, at least— it’s really cold outside. 
The next block is the really pleasant part, past nice houses with well-groomed lawns.  Dr. Bill’s house is on the left and every so often I see him and wave, and next to his house is Charlie and Fiona’s, who painted their house blue just like we did (did you know that only Yankees paint their houses blue?).  On the right there’s the house that we almost bought with the nice spaniel and after that the brick house with the weird mustard trim.  This section of the walk also has the walls—low cement borders that trim the slope of the lawns from the sidewalk.  Just as Lucy did and Will before her, Jamie delights in climbing up and walking along these walls.  As recently as last year, when he was still in pre-school, he would submit to my holding his hand while he did it, just so that I could pretend I was keeping him safe.  Now, though, he refuses.  We go past my favorite house in the entire town, a two-story asymmetrical affair with a high front porch graced by a curving set of brick stairs on either side.  After that is the Beebe place, then the place owned by the Pumpkin Seeds lady (a funky shop downtown), that has, strangely, political signs for both mayoral candidates out front. 
And now we’re at the second crossing.  Here, the guard is an elderly gentleman who, for some reason, we suspect used to be a policeman.  We’ll still be twenty yards from the intersection and already he’ll be out there stopping traffic, which can be a bit of a problem since Jamie is arguably the slowest person on earth.  I’m not sure why this is:  his legs aren’t particularly short, and he’s got plenty of energy, particularly, say, when we’re at church or attending someone’s funeral.  Nonetheless, on these walks to school, when the guard steps out into the street and raises his sign in front of eight minivans full of anxious parents even though we’re still a quarter mile away, Jamie slows down to a craw.  And I do mean crawl, all but getting down on his hands and knees and imitating an inchworm. 
“Come on,” I’ll say to him before glancing at the crossing guard, the line of vehicles. 
“Jamie,” I’ll say, loudly.  A face or two will lean forward, peering out of their windscreens. 
Oh geeze, he’s bending down to look at something! 
The crossing guard will be looking at him now, peering over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses.  Lucy will already be on the other side of the intersection, skipping down the hill.  Some dude in a Jeep Cherokee will be poking his front fender around the edge of the line, estimating his chances of making a left turn and jumping the line without getting arrested so that he can get to work on time. 
“Oh my god!” I’ll want to scream, feeling like we’re on display, like our family’s own little dysfunctional mechanics—can you say passive aggressive?—are on display for the whole world to see. 
Because they are. 
And I’m not kidding. 
Maybe a year-and-a-half ago, Jamie woke up and decided he wanted to wear Will’s old dragon Halloween costume for the day.  So he pulled it on, came down the stairs, ate his breakfast, and padded out the door with the rest of us to walk to school, all the while cloaked in a full-body green and purple dragon outfit complete with wings.
Later that morning I was strolling through the door of the YMCA when one of the women in front of me said, “Oh my god, I saw the funniest thing this morning:  I was driving downtown when I got stopped by the crossing guard and there in the street was a little boy all dressed up in a dinosaur costume.”
I considered pointing out that most dinosaur’s don’t have wings—none of them, in fact—but at the last second I bit my tongue.   Probably best not to advertise to the whole world the fact that it was my kid who backed up her commute every morning. 

All of which should make abundantly clear the fact that, in a small town, even simple things like walking the kids to school requires a peculiar set of negotiations.  But just in case I haven’t made myself entirely clear, consider:
Once we get to the bottom of the hill and I give the kids a hug (Lucy always reciprocates, but Jamie plays hard to get, especially when I shout “I’m a pony!” and try to lick his face), I’ll turn around and head home. 
Complicating things, though, is the fact that, whereas on the way to school we’d had our back to the constant stream of cars heading toward drop-off, now I’m heading into traffic.  Which means, for all practical purposes, that I’m now required to acknowledge the existence of the rest of humanity.  That’s right:  now I have to wave. 
Or nod.  Or do that little chin thing.  Or whatever.  But the fact is, even more than before, I’m now on display, and how I act has consequences.  Miss a small smile or a friendly lift of the fingers from steering wheel on a Tuesday and by Friday I’ll have people stopping me in the cereal aisle at Kroger, saying things like, “Are you okay?  Brad from the hardware store said he saw you walking down the street in a really bad mood.  What’s going on?”  Or:  “Are you mad at Tina?  Because I was getting a haircut just yesterday and she said she nodded to you on the way to school and you just frowned.  She’s been crying all week.”  Or:  “Colonel Valasquez has been looking for you; he says he’s going to challenge you to a duel of pistols at sunrise.”
It doesn’t help that, walking home, the sun is in my eyes, meaning it’s hard to tell who’s in what car.  Is that green Honda Pat’s, or does it belong to someone else?  Is that Stacey in the big black SUV or someone I’ve never met before who now thinks I’m a weirdo?  Because it’s a wicked cycle, you see:  if they wave at me, I’m obliged to wave back, even if I’ve no idea who the heck they are, and if I wave at them, they’re now obliged to wave at me, even if they don’t me from Adam’s second cousin.  After all, they don’t want to find themselves in the aisles of Kroger suddenly being informed by their friends that they’ve ticked off that fat Big Foot guy who throws rakes at cars.
I could, of course, simply wave at every car that goes by.  This seems like the perfect solution—it’s a small town after all, and chances are we’ll meet each other sooner or later.  So why not start the process sooner rather than later?  Well because, to be frank, despite all of my obvious flaws and my general comfort with those flaws being out there for the whole world to see (I’m a memoirist, after all), despite my reputation for being slightly south of the norm, despite my general willingness to engage in self-deprecating humor, I really really really don’t want to be known as “The crazy guy who waves at all the cars.” 

That said, here’s the thing I haven’t mentioned:  seven years ago, when we started these walks, I would push Lucy in the stroller as we took Will to school.  And then, on the way home, she and I would chat as we took our time going up the hill, as we nodded to the chatty crossing guard, as we passed the Pumpkin Seeds lady’s house, as we went past my favorite house and Fiona and Charlie’s house and Dr. Bill’s house, up past the molding food on the sidewalk outside the Mayfair, across the street and down Houston to our own house.  We’d talk about flowers and the clouds and what Lucy wanted for Christmas and what Hong Kong would be like when we went there. 
And then, when Lucy became old enough and started to go to school, I would push Jamie in the stroller, and then on the way home he and I would talk about Thomas the Tank Engine and Miss Margoth his pre-school teacher, and he would want to stop and see the spiders and we’d both laugh and hold our noses as we passed the nursing home.  And he would collect sticks and rocks, and when we got home he’d stoop and go under the porch by the back door and put them in a pile with the rest of the sticks and rocks that he’d collected on the previous days walking home from dropping Lucy and Will off. 
And now?  Will doesn’t go to Waddell anymore and he doesn’t walk to school.  Instead he bikes or takes a ride to the middle school on the other side of Nelson Street. 
And now?  When I turn back to go up the hill?  Jamie stays behind in Miss Kendall’s kindergarten class, and I walk home alone, my hands in my pockets and my head down and no one to talk to.  And I think about how my days are numbered for these walks to school, how in less than three years Lucy will be in the middle school as well, and it’ll just be Jamie and me strolling to Waddell.  And then, three years after that, Jamie will be in the middle school.  And then there won’t be any more walks to school, and I’ll just get in my car after breakfast and drive the fifty minutes to work, trying not to get annoyed at the corner where the crossing guard holds up her stop sign and keeps us all waiting through a green light as a parade of small children in orange and blue Cavalier jackets and green and gold mittens that their grandmothers knit for them, waddle across the street. 
And thinking about this?  Call me a joker, call me a fool, call me a sentimental old Big Foot who’s mourning a loss that’s still years away.  But then?  I have to have to fight hard to keep myself from raising my hand and waving at every car that goes by. 

Oh, sure, they look cute, but man can they be pokey when you're in a hurry!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Brief Introduction to Lexington, Virginia--some of which is actually true . . .

Back in 2000 when Ellen and I found out she was pregnant, we had a conversation about what we were going to do.  At the time, we were living approximately 105 miles apart, with Ellen in Charlottesville and me in Roanoke.  It was a very short discussion:
“Do you want to give up your job?”
“No.  Do you?”
The only option, then, was to choose a spot halfway between the two locations and begin a double commute.  The only question was, where?
Again the conversation was short:
“Do you want to live in the country?”
“No.  Do you?”
That option gone, the only reasonable location was Lexington, Virginia, an historic town more-or-less equidistance from Charlottesville and Roanoke.  Once or twice when we were living apart, we’d make a date on a week night and meet in Lexington for dinner, trying out different restaurants, getting a feel for the town.  We weren’t impressed.  The place was small.  Very small.  Like, drive through end to end in six minutes small.  Like, notice a car from out of town because it stands out small.  And the restaurants weren’t that good:  there was the fancy place in town, where the waiters stood in their white shirts, hands behind their backs over white linen table clothes.  Only the food was just . . . okay.  Then there was the diner on the edge of town.  Even the salad was bad.  And I don’t mean kind of bad; I mean, we can’t eat this, we need to leave and go to Hardee’s bad. 
But it was either Lexington or someplace where your rental home came with a John Deere tractor and a gun rack in the dining room, at least one of which I refuse to live with (hint:  JD tractors are made in Iowa, home of my undergraduate alma mater and one of my favorite states ever).  So Lexington it was. 
It didn’t help that Ellen is a big city person.  Prior to living in Charlottesville, which was a necessity given her job, she’d spent several years in New York City, on the busy west side, taking the subway to work, doing carry out Chinese every third night, clubbing with Boy George and the former members of Oasis, waking up at noon in the dingy alley way behind a meat cutter, head full of cotton and a tattoo reading “Jesus was my meth dealer” bleeding on her forearm. 
Okay, not really, but you get the point:  whereas I’d grown up in a small town in Wisconsin visiting my grandparents in an even smaller town (think, drive from end to end in sixty seconds) that I absolutely loved, Ellen moved from one large metropolitan area to another, including Portland Oregon, L.A., Oxford, England, Minneapolis, and New York City.  Lexington for me was a step up.  Lexington for Ellen was a . . . well, nightmare is a strong word, so let’s just say that it wasn’t her idea of paradise. 
But such was life.  She was pregnant, neither of us was quitting our jobs, and both of us were afraid of cows.  So Lexington it was.
We weren’t willing to commit completely, of course, so we kept our house in Roanoke, renting it to a good friend with a cleanliness fetish, at the same time that we shopped for a nice apartment in Lexington.  We eventually found one on the edge of town and moved in the August before Will was born.  As is usually the case in situations where none of the persons moving actually wants to move and one of the persons moving is five months pregnant, the move was stressful and tiring.  Finally, though, we got the house more or less in order, took the dog out to go to the bathroom, locked all the doors, and crawled into bed. 
In order to make sense of this next bit, it helps to know that we have a king size bed.  And when I say “a bed” what I actually mean is “a yacht that two people sleep on”—it’s just that big.  These days, all five of us can crawl into that thing and drift into la-la land without touching each other.  Back then, when it was just Ellen and I, we could go for days in that bed without even knowing there was someone else on the other side. 
This is important for you to know, because not long after we turned out the lights that night, exhausted and a little depressed from the day’s move, I felt the bed begin to shake.  Not mightily mind you—no earthquake or anything like that—but a shaking nonetheless, just the light flutter of a body trembling on the other side of our runway-sized mattress. 
“Hey,” I said into the darkness.  I considered sending up a flare, but decided against it—no point in losing our deposit on the first night. 
The quavering continued. 
“Hey,” I said again.  I reached a hand into the darkness, groping until I found Ellen’s shoulder.  It was shaking.  Fiercely.  Poor thing I thought, and scooted across the sheets.  Must be the hormones, I thought, the move, all this change, everything. 
“Hey,” I said, again, holding Ellen close in my arms.  Her shoulders rattled against me.  “Shh . . .” I said.  “It’ll be okay.  Seriously.”
The shaking deepened and then she burst out laughing.  “I swear—“ she gasped, “I swear—.”  She had to take a deep breath.  I pulled back a little, trying to figure out what was going on. 
“I swear,” she said, laughing so hard she could hardly breathe.  “I swear I just heard a cow moo.”

That was in 2000.  Now, twelve years later, we still live in Lexington.  A couple times while we were in Hong Kong this or that administrator would probe gently, trying to see if we were interested in making our stay there more of a long-term thing (this isn’t that surprising:  the universities there are growing rapidly and desperate for faculty), but we never took the bait.  And since we’ve been back, we’ve talked a lot:  what sort of job offer or location or opportunity would lead us to pack up and move away forever?   What would cause us to leave Lexington? 
The answer:  very little.  Excepting an offer from the Sorbonne (not bleedin’ likely), or someplace renowned for its food—say, Tuscany or Toledo—chances are we’ll die in Lexington and get buried in our backyard, which sounds kind of creepy until you know that our land abuts a cemetery—and likely sounds creepy even then.
So what is this magical place that snares would be transients?  What is this Shangri-la that turns us all into lotus eaters—and worse, that causes us literary types to mix their metaphors? 
Sit back, and I’ll tell you:
Lexington, Virginia, population 7,000, more or less, is the county seat of Rockbridge County, population 36,000, more or less.  The county goes back approximately 200 years, and though wikipedia will tell you it was founded to shorten travel distances to the nearest courthouse, the truth is the county was created after a group of pissed off white settlers killed an Indian chief they believed was stealing their cattle and then selling it back to them.  Afraid that the people in distant Richmond would look upon this sort of wholesale slaughter of the natives as a criminal act of murder—probably because it was—the Rockbridge area residents very quickly established their own county, built their own courthouse, held their own trial and—surprise!—found themselves innocent of all charges. 
Which is a metaphor for something, I’m sure, likely involving genital herpes.  
Lexington itself was first settled in 1778 and named after Lexington, Mass. following the revolutionary war battle.  The town finally became incorporated in 1841 and grew steadily, feeding off of the timber industry, the advent of the railroad, and its proximity to the Great Wagon Road, which ran the length of the Shenandoah Valley, in which Lexington is located. 
Several things make Lexington distinctive:  first and foremost, it’s home to two nationally recognized colleges, Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute.  For better or for worse, these two schools shape the city:  go downtown on any weekend night and you’re bound to run into VMI cadets in their dress whites; forget to make a reservation for your favorite restaurant in early November and you’re liable to discover that every seating has been taken up by students being wined and dined on parents weekend.  Student rentals dot most neighborhoods, and real estate prices are inflated by the influx of faculty and artificially low mortgage rates sponsored by colleges desperate to keep Harvard-educated professors in a town the size of a moderately cramped parking garage. 
Not that I’m bitter or anything. 
The other thing that’s distinctive about LexVegas is that it’s purrty.  I’m not saying it this to make fun of southern accents—some of my best friends are southerners, and so are my kids—but because it’s just the appropriate way to say it:  Lexington isn’t pretty, it’s purrty, warm and soft and shockingly green, just like, um . . . your, uh . . . green cat. 
But damn, it is:  pretty that is, or purrty, or whatever.  Unlike Salem, fifty miles down the road and named after another Massachusetts town albeit one known less for a courageous battle than for burning human beings alive, Lexington has managed to keep much of its olde towne charme.  Most of the downtown sidewalks are glazed brick and a lot of the buildings have been standing since the late nineteenth century.  Away from downtown you’ll find tree-lined streets full of antiquated wood-framed houses, hardly a brick ranch or McMansion in sight.  It’s the kind of town where kids walk to school with their friends, where on the 4th of July they have a bicycle parade down Main St. full of boys and girls on streamer-covered bikes, the sort of place where Sons of the Confederacy march proudly any damn day they want, waving that symbol of lost history, the stars and bars of the confederate battle flag . . .
Uh . . .
Forget I mentioned that . . .
Actually, that’s not true:  as of last October, the SoC—just one letter away from . . . again, forget I mentioned it—the SoC is no longer allowed to fly their flags from the town’s poles to commemorate the South’s efforts in “War of Northern Aggression,” a phrase that is not used ironically (by some—indeed, by many) down here.
Which relates, I suppose, to two rather more complicated components of life in the Lex:  first, it is very much a place that is steeped in confederate history.  It is, after all, Washington and Lee University, and no matter how you slice it, that last bit isn’t named after someone by the first name of Peggy.  Indeed, good old Bobby Lee is actually buried in Lexington, on the W&L campus, in the Lee Chapel.  Which is a chapel.  You know.  A sort of religious building?  Where you worship God?  Or gods, as it turns out.  And if you think I’m kidding, then feel free to glance in and see what they have where the alter should be. 
Hint:  it looks an awful lot like a confederate general carved in marble . . .
In addition, Thomas Jonathan Jackson—he of Stonewall fame—is also buried in Lexington, or at least most of him is as I’m not sure what they did with the arm that his—ahem—own men shot off.  Old Stonewall is actually buried in my backyard—or in the cemetery next to my property at least.  Indeed, I can almost see his statue—which portrays him with both arms standing tall and facing to the (surprise!) south—from my desk as I write these very words.  Stroll by his monument on any given day and you’ll notice a half-dozen lemons strewed about the grass:  among TJ’s many quirks was his belief that sucking lemons made a man stronger.  Pity it didn’t make him glow in the dark, because maybe then he wouldn’t have gotten shot.  By his own men, have I mentioned that? 
Indeed, the southern history here runs deep enough that when they were considering shutting down the confederate museum in Richmond, Lexington was mentioned as a possible alternative site.  That the museum wasn’t actually moved here perhaps points to the second complicating factor that needs to be mentioned when we discuss Lexington:  namely, that the town itself isn’t really representative of the deep south—or even the moderately shallow south. 
Allow me to explain by telling yet another one of my short but stupid stories:  a little over a year ago I was invited to a party where I didn’t know a lot of people.  Generally in situations like this I drink too much and make a pass at my hostess, leaving only when the police show up and chase me through the woods.  This particular evening, though, I was well behaved (my hostess was a former karate instructor) and more or less sober.   At one point I was introduced to a guy in his late forties with long, graying hair, workman’s hands, a loud laugh that was infectious.  When he asked me what I did, I told him I was a professor but that I was currently on sabbatical writing a book.  He gave that laugh of his and said, “Rockbridge County:  where half the people have written a book and the other half have never read one.”
It was a harsh comment—funny as hell, but harsh.  And like most funny as hell but harsh jokes, it had more than a bit of truth in it.  In this case, I think, it made an exaggerated claim that pointed to a real fact:  half the county—mainly, the people who live in Lexington, are over-educated geeks like yours truly; the other half (who actually read plenty of books) are . . . well:  not. 
On some levels this is a political thing:  every other year, our congressional district regularly elects a carpet-bagging mind/soul vacuum, largely because the Republican county wipes out the Democratic city. 
And as is the case generally in the US these days, the political is social:  not only do the town and county vote in very different ways, they live very different lives—or at least generally.  The county embraces rural life, is not afraid of guns, and tends to engage in the life of the mind without getting obsessed about it.  The city folk generally pride themselves on being cosmopolitan (e.g., being able to distinguish good Thai food from bad, good single malt scotch from cheap), tend to keep even water guns away from their kids, and argue strongly that there’s nothing wrong with being intellectual, that, indeed, the country would be a much better place if people would start to pay attention to what they’re thinking and why they’re thinking it and whether or not what they’re thinking is actually true. 
But again, I need to say this:  generally.  Because the fact of the matter is that:  a) the minute I make generalizations like this, I start to think of exceptions; and b) I generally like to be honest about the complexities of these things, particularly when: a) it’s a small town and I’m easy to find; and b) the people I might offend likely have guns. 
But more, I think, I really don’t have any interest in arguing that a town full of wealthy folks, academics, and wealthy academics is necessarily better than folks who know how to fix a tractor—or the other way around.  Rather, the point I’m trying to make, finally—FINALLY!—is that Lexington, Virginia doesn’t fit the stereotypes—accurate and inaccurate—of south central Virginia.  It’s its own place, its own weird place, full of anomalies. 
And that’s why we like it. 
And that’s why I’m going to write about it from now on.
And that, at least, is the truth. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Own Private Kitchen

A little travel/food piece I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, all about the best private kitchen in Hong Kong.

Feel free to read about it here!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What Remains

In less than a week, it’ll be almost two years since we returned to the States.  A lot has happened in that time:  lost teeth, piano lessons, graduations from preschool and fifth grade, karate, piano recitals, some pretty major home renovations.  At times it’s easy to forget that there ever was a Hong Kong year, we’re so buried in the heres-and-nows of Virginia.   Which means at times it’s easy to think that none of it mattered, that we shouldn’t even have bothered. 
But still . . .
Here’s a short list of what, two years on, remains from that year:

1) There are, of course, the objects:  the Hong Kong flags hanging in the kids’ rooms, the tin wind-up toys Jamie got for his birthday when we were in Vietnam.  There’s the red salad bowl made of finely-grained wood, the fancy brushed steel flashdrive I received as a party favor at one of the conferences I attended.  I still have my nice suit from the tailor down in Central, and Ellen has two or three skirts and a few shirts from Hoi An.  Over our mantel is a fancy porcelain carving of gold fish swimming around a lotus plant, and opposite it hang a pair of paintings from Hanoi and Xi’an, respectively.  We also have a neatly embroidered baby carrier over one bookshelf, not too far from a trio of fantastical paintings from Bali showing brightly colored dancing beasts and magical women. 

I’m pleased to note that my beautiful, six-million dollar hand sewn rug from Beijing is still beautiful, and worth every damn penny, thank you very much.  This bears mention, because just after I bought it I was one of the guys on the trip—a Canadian whose family had just joined for the day—was teasing me about spending so much money.

“What you should do,” he said, “is buy a stop watch.  Then when you get home you can time yourself whenever you stop and look at the rug.  That way you’ll know how much all of this cost you per minute.”


For what it’s worth, not a day goes by—okay, not a week goes by . . . okay, not a month goes by where I don’t pause, look at that rug, and say, “Dang.  That’s purty.”

As all of this probably makes clear, we bought a lot of souvenirs when we were in Asia.  Enough to decorate the entire house, actually, so that, stepping into our living room before actually meeting us, you’d assume “Hanstedt” was some sort of weird name from an obscure ethnic group in China. 

Seriously, we’ve pretty much decided we can never live abroad again simply because we don’t have any rooms left to decorate.  That, or we’ll just have to buy a second house next time we return to the States. 

That said, the objects we actually notice—the ones that make us pause for just a millisecond, our hearts suddenly warmer than they were before—aren’t necessarily the expensive ones, or even the big ones:  there’s the silk embroidery of a lotus flower on the wall by the front door, for instance, almost an afterthought when we were in a small shop in Vietnam, but now something that I’ll pause and . . . just look at for maybe half a minute every other day or so.  Or the small wooden plates next to the cookbooks, thrown in with the aforementioned salad bowl and a half-dozen other things we got in a shop near our hotel.   They’re beautiful—one green, one red, one natural wood color, the grain showing in all of them—and they catch my eye almost every day when I walk into the kitchen. 

Or when Lucy comes down in the morning for breakfast, and she’s wearing her blue and white sport uniform from the international school.  Mornings where that happens, both Ellen and I will pause, watching her make her way to the table.  Sometimes we’ll look at each other and grin, sometimes we won’t, just watching her, both of us smiling, the little red Norwegian flag flashing on her shorts—and we’ll know it was all real. 

2)  Then there are the memories. 

Some of them are prompted:  the first Christmas we were home, for instance, we made photo albums for each of the kids.  For Will and Lucy, this meant culling their nearly 5,000 pictures (each) down to 400 or so that we put in separate albums, customizing each one to reflect the experiences of the child, what they valued, what they’d want to remember.  For Jamie this meant picking at random from Ellen’s thousands of pics, trying to choose images that would somehow capture key moments for a little guy who was barely half-way through his third year when we returned.

We gave the albums to them on Christmas eve, halfway through the present opening.  For twenty minutes everything stopped.  All three heads were bowed, all three pairs of hands were flipping the pages, flipping, flipping, scanning from side to side, taking it all in. 

“Look!  Will!  Remember?” and then Lucy would point to picture of the bird market and tell a story.

“Hey, look!  Remember?” and then Will would hold the book up so we could all see a picture of the kitten we found in a park in Shanghai. 

“Look!  Remember?” Jamie would then holler, and hold up a picture of a—what was that?  A cat turd?  A dead bird?  Hard to tell.  Not really even sure that he knows . . .

But a lot of the memories are unprompted.  We’ll be sitting at the table eating dinner, and out of the blue Lucy will say, “Remember the time Jamie shook his fist at a monk?”  And we’ll burst out laughing.  Then Will will say, “Remember when he ate his dinner so fast that he threw up?”  And we’ll laugh again.  Then Ellen or I will say, “Remember how Eldon use to love playing with Jamie, how he would come over and shake his fists at him and Jamie would shake his back and the two of them would keep doing it until they burst out laughing?”  And we’ll laugh again, even louder.  And it will go on like that for ten minutes maybe twenty, sometimes half an hour:  “Remember?’  “Remember?”  “Remember?” 

3)   And then there’s something else, something that’s harder to explain: 

I see it when Will and Lucy come home from school, and I find them in Will’s bedroom, their heads together, lost in some game they’ve made up, involving marbles, beads, or three kinds of glue and miniature Leggos.   

And I see it sometimes on Saturday mornings, when Jamie is fussing about some thing or another and later I’ll notice that he’s turned quiet, and discover him in his room, being read to by his older brother.

And I see it on nights when Ellen is gone or out with her friends, and instead of cuddling with all of the kids separately, I’ll stretch out on the big bed in our room and the four of us will lay there, telling stories about the day, about school, about burping and farting, and our friend Lilianna who talks in funny voices.   

And I’ll see it sometimes when we go on a trip, a short trip to Charlottesville, maybe, and I’ll give them a heads-up when it’s five minutes until departure, then we’ll all climb in the car, no fussing, no complaining, just a sense of, “This is who we are.  This is what we do.”

I’m not sure how to describe it, really.  But it’s very real.  It’s like a river that’s cleared, all the dirt and debris settling to the bottom, firming down into sediment that will be solid for years to come, leaving everything above clean and pure.  It’s as though we’re utterly content with ourselves, with who we are as a family.  And with our place in the world. 

That’s what it’s like.  That’s what remains.