Monday, February 21, 2011

Call Home, Signed Officer Beam

Meg and I were at the wedding of our nephew, Tyler, a couple of nights ago. Meg was wearing a cute skirt and boots and pearls. I love weddings. They’re romantic. And there’s always champagne. I like to pretend Meg is a bridesmaid and I’m a dashing party crasher. I don’t think I’ve ever confessed that particular fantasy to her, but I’m sure she wouldn’t be surprised. She’s always the cutest bridesmaid, by the way.

We were past the toasts, which were particularly sweet, and into the first dances when I went upstairs to call our son Nick. Meg came with me. We roamed around the old mansion where the wedding reception was being held and left another message for him, the umpteenth in the last five days, and looked in our cell-phone contacts to see if we had a phone number for any of his friends at the University of Michigan, where he is a freshman. We didn’t. Let’s hang around up here for a while, I suggested, where the cell reception is good. Surely he’ll call soon.

Here’s the thing about Nick. He’s one the world’s best sons, but he’s not a worrier. Only a worrier can understand another worrier. And here’s the thing about Meg and me. We’re not worriers either, not too bad for parents, anyway, but once the worm or anxiety works its way into us, the virus spreads fast. It’s high fever and intensive care before you know it. Both for us and the one we’re worrying about.

Nick, in his kind of fantasy, a Medieval
armor shop in Prague
So, naturally, we called the University of Michigan hospital. No Nicholas Clayton, they said. Well, that was good news, anyway, unless of course the ambulance just hadn’t arrived yet.

The University of Michigan is big on treating undergraduates like adults. They won’t even let parents call in to change emergency contact numbers. The kids have to do it. We had dropped our land line a few weeks earlier. We had asked Nick to list our cell numbers for emergencies, but, as I said, he’s not a worrier. When we called campus security, they said that the land line was still the emergency number.

Campus security wouldn’t let us change the emergency number either, but even though I was trying to sound cool and worldly, they must have heard the quaver in my voice when I asked for the third time how anyone would even know how to reach us if our little boy was hurt, or worse. They agreed to send someone over to his room in the dorm. It was midnight there by then.

Officer Beam called back fifteen minutes later and said she had knocked on the door and, receiving no response, had used a passkey to go in. No one was there, but a fan was blowing. Toward which bed, his or his roommate’s? I wanted to ask. She noted that it was mid-term week and a lot of kids were at the library studying, showing charming optimism about likely student choices at midnight on a Saturday night. She said she left a note for Nick to call us, and added that a couple of boys had seen him in the morning the day before. I thanked her without pointing out that yesterday morning was a long time ago, approximately ten texts, emails and voice mails, and a sighting then was perfectly consistent with his being buried under a snow bank, or still in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. After I hung up, I wondered briefly whether AT&T could re-connect our land line that night.

We debated staying there in the secluded library we had found until Nick got the note and called us. I debated with myself driving to the airport and taking the next flight to Michigan. Instead, we called him again and left another message on his voice mail and went back downstairs to the party.

Weddings are all about giddy happiness. We were pretty far past giddy happiness at that point. There was no way back. We thanked our hosts and drove home.

On Facebook (Nick’s such a good boy that he even let us be his friends on Facebook), I saw Nick had friended someone three hours earlier. Hey, I said to Meg, he was oaky three hours ago. Of course, that still left plenty of time for a long ambulance ride. I chatted him from gmail. “Niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick,” was the gist of my message.

Mirabile Dictu, he replied. “sorry, been kind of busy.”

Now that I knew he wasn’t dead, I briefly considered rectifying that problem. I chatted back, affecting a casual tone: “No worries, we sent the campus police.” He didn’t reply.

We talked to him the next day. It was the same old wonderful Nick, full of what he was doing at school, talking about his computer science mid-terms and how the campus bus had gotten stuck in the snow and he’d had to walk the rest of the way to Glee Club rehearsal down the dark icy street (a convenience for the ambulance that would pick him up after he slipped and cracked his noggin). He sounded great.

That was the next day, as I said, but that night, when we finally got that brief chat message from him, when the worry fell off us like a soggy cloak, it left us feeling relieved, of course, but also somehow vulnerable and exposed. It was too late to go back to bridesmaid fantasies. The skirt and boots had been replaced by flannel pajamas. I’ve got to tell Nick about that. I think it would help him understand the importance of staying in touch. He’s not a worrier, but, like his dad, he loves fantasy games and romantic comedies.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coming Home

You know about baby Emperor Penguins, right? While they are still in the egg, their dads tuck them into a pouch between their feet to protect them from the howling cold while mom goes hunting. Not some quick dip in the ocean, but a terrible trek over sixty miles of ice to get to the sea. By the time she returns, months have passed. Poor old dad has had nothing to eat. The baby has been born, and he’s hungry too. Mom takes over, feeding the chick and tucking him into her pouch, while dad goes out for fish and chips. If he makes it back alive, he and mom work together for months more to protect and feed their baby.

After all that, what does junior do? As soon as he is able, he ditches his parents to hang with his homies. Ungrateful? Maybe. But by then his folks are probably relieved to have a little time to themselves. As Mark Twain (I think) said:  By the time a boy reaches eighteen and goes off to college, his parents are ready for him to go.

Here’s my question: Do you think that penguin son ever comes back home? Does he see his parents again? When he grows up, does he know them? Do they know him?

Are we the only species in which children return home when their parents are old and dying to hold their hands and ask for (and offer) forgiveness? Why do we do that? Is it for the other that we make that emotional journey, or for ourselves?

And what about the time in between? After we get over our fierce need for independence, and the pushing away of parents as young adults that so often goes with that, how does one be a grown-up son? Or a father to a grown-up daughter?

My own father died when I was twenty-eight. One of my great regrets (besides sadness for him) is that I didn’t get to know him as an adult. Our relationship had just started to change, to mature, and then he was gone. I don’t know how I would have seen him as I got older, or how he would have seen me. I don't know what we would have said to one another. Some days I think I might write a novel about an imagined adult relationship with him.

My daughter, Ashley, came up from Los Angeles to visit Meg and me in Santa Barbara recently. Ashley is a grown woman now. She and her older brothers are all older than I think of myself as being. I have Chris and Nick, who are still in college, to offer me the illusion that I am still a young man, no older than my own father was when I went off to college. I know how to relate to kids in college. When they get past twenty-eight, I’m making it up as I go.

The pool shark and me
During her visit, Ash and I played pool. She’s good. She gets on hot streaks and runs six or eight balls in a row. Then, spurred on, I might get lucky and do the same. We compete without competing, in that way I have always played games with my children. A little friendly trash talk, but no blood.

After pool, we scrapped paint off window glass. Meg and I had just had some touch-up painting done, and the painters had gotten paint on the glass of the French doors. Ashley and I share a little obsessive streak; to us messy paint is a festering wound that demands attention. She got out a razor blade and started scraping. For variety, she went around the house and spotted places where the new paint did not blend well into the old and I feathered it in.

It made me think about the things we share with our children as they grow up. We know each other well, of course, our habits and eccentricities; we can still annoy the heck out of one another with little conscious effort. But there is a comfort in being around someone who is so like you, who is literally part of you. Shared experiences and shared genes. For better or worse, there is no one more like you.

The windows came out looking great, naturally. Like her dad, Ashley is a perfectionist, an opportunist of sorts, stopping along life’s path to reach down and pick up exquisitely formed stones from among the gravel. We shared time together over other simple tasks that meant nothing and, at the same time, meant everything. We talked about our lives, what we were doing, what we were happy about and what we wished were better, but it was the time we spent quietly in familiar ritual that felt the most like love.

I wonder whether grown-up penguin sons stand next to their dads while they shelter their own young, whether adult penguin daughters trudge across the frozen tundra with their moms to plunge together into the icy water to fish. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether they know each other. They share habits and instincts passed along from one generation to the next, and there is comfort in that for any parent and child.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Nick was six weeks old when we moved to Baltimore. Barely out of intensive care. Even though he was full-term, his lungs wouldn’t work at first. The delivery room nurse put a little knit cap on his head and laid him in Meg’s arms. Meg smiled a kind of elated and exhausted smile and pulled her son’s face close to hers; after a moment her mouth tightened the way it had with the first pains of labor and she looked up at me and said, “Something is wrong.” Nick was panting the way I imagine a humming bird might, tiny desperate gasps not big enough to be called gulps. For ten days we watched him through the plastic sides of an incubator, not even able to hold him.

When he came home, the doctors said he was fine, but Meg and I weren’t so fine. We spent long nights sitting by his bassinet, listening to him breathe. We thought we might delay our planned move across country, but as the days went by, we settled down and decided our baby was all right after all, that it was safe to leave the doctors who had saved him.

We both wanted to leave Los Angeles. We didn’t like the earthquakes and riots, that was part of it, but the real reason was that we didn’t like the way we were living, which had nothing to do with L.A., nothing to do with anything but our own choices. We were both working all the time. Nick’s brother Chris was two and a half, and our nanny was the one living the life we wanted for ourselves: living in our house, raising our child, driving him to the supermarket in the new car we bought just for that purpose, so he would be safe. We were keeping him safe, but he was growing up without us.

Dreaming Log
We bought a farm in the Baltimore hunt country, a hundred and sixty acres of woods and streams and fields, with horse corrals and a stable and a stone house that was a little too modern for the bucolic setting, like a 7-Eleven blown away from its strip mall. We planned to build our dream house up on a hilltop, near where a big log lay across a riding trail. We sat up there on that log, with Chris climbing on it like it was the back of a big dragon, and we looked out over the valley, our valley, and made promises to each other and to our sons about the things we would do, and the things we would not. Dreaming Log, we called it.

Near the stable there was a workshop with an old wood stove. On cold mornings, Meg would split firewood for the stove and light it before she drove Chris to pre-school. The workshop would be warm when she got back, and with Nick sleeping nearby she would sit down to write. She wrote her first novel there, not only on that farm, but set there, with our new surroundings and foxhunting friends as characters. It’s a wonderful story.

The first winter’s snow took us by surprise. After a big storm, it was easy to imagine that we were alone in the world, reclaimed by nature. The county would eventually plow the little lane that led down into our hollow, but it was another quarter mile up a rutted gravel driveway to our house, and we didn’t have a plow, didn’t even have a tractor at that point. We just hadn’t thought about all that.

The first snow
We sat by the fire and read stories to the children and took them out into drifts that were as tall as Christopher. After a while we would hear a clattery diesel engine and look out the front window and see our neighbor, who must have been near seventy, driving his old blue Ford tractor up and down our driveway, plowing us out. His name was Humpy, or that’s what everybody called him. It was a nickname he’d picked up at Princeton, the same place he’d probably gotten the ratty old sweaters he wore. I don’t know what I was expecting out there in the hinterlands, but Humpy’s combination of country generosity and courtly charm and wit was a delightful surprise.

Like Meg, I had just left the law, in my case to try my hand as a private equity investor. Baltimore was the headquarters of a company my partner and I bought, a chain of over a hundred bowling alleys. I had come to Baltimore to look after our investment, which wasn’t doing as well as we had planned. In those days it was easy to borrow a lot of money to buy a business, and we had.

Our strategy to pay off the debt was to return bowling to its glory days, to make regular customers again of all those folks who said, “Oh, yeah, we used to love to bowl.” I know what you’re thinking: this story, at least the part about bowling becoming the hot new thing, is going to end badly; if you are, then you’re smarter than I was.

My office was in a little Victorian building next to an artists’ co-op, about halfway between our farm and the company’s headquarters. That was much closer than the CEO I had brought in wanted me. He wished I had stayed in L.A., even told me so. He was a lot like me in that way, in his need for independence, which is part of the reason I hired him in the first place, I guess.

I stayed away as much as I could. I tried, really. I went up to New York to cajole our creditors. I crunched numbers alone in my little office. When I needed to meet with the management team, I asked them to come to me so I wouldn’t be invading my CEO’s corporate space. I was a being a good coach, I thought.

I was obviously delusional about how hard I was pushing. I can’t stand to fail, and for most of my life I have been able to avoid failing by just pushing harder. My CEO told me after I took him and his wife to dinner one night, and talked about the business nonstop, that it was the most miserable evening his wife had ever had. And I thought I’d been charming.

One day not many weeks later he came to my little pastoral office and metaphorically tossed the keys to the company on my desk. I scooped them up and moved over to the company headquarters and took the reins in my own hands.

We were tingling with hope in those days. The business hadn’t responded, but it would. We knew it would. The alternative was just unthinkable. We brought in a new marketing team. We redecorated the bowling centers. We bought fancy new automatic scoring machines and cleaned up the snack bars and put in good pizza. All the employees wore crisp uniforms. We were going to be the Disneyland of bowling.

I traveled around the country giving cheerleading speeches, passing out awards for great customer service, calling our customers “guests,” renaming our employees “guest hosts.” We hired a lot of new employees that year. They were our acolytes, our true believers.

Farmhand Chris
Running the business took me away from home a lot, as much as when I was practicing law, but it was different this time, I told myself. When we got things going, I’d be able to slow down and keep those promises I’d made on Dreaming Log.

Our hunt-country neighbors all turned out to be like Humpy: urbane gentry without an ounce of affectation. Our farm was part of a series of connected farms that the hunt crowd rode over, so we hadn’t been there more than a couple of days, the moving truck still in the driveway, when a wonderful woman of seventy or so rode up on her horse and gave us a jar of homemade jam. She was the master of the hounds (the first woman), and she was calling on us to ask if the hunt could continue to ride over our property. She patted her horse, which was stamping anxiously, and said that we shouldn't worry about the foxes, that they never actually caught a fox.

Those men in tattered sweaters and corduroy coats with elbow patches, those women whose families had lived there for generations, became our friends. Instantly, it seemed, in a way that is hard to explain. They knew what my business was, and they knew it was struggling, but they hardly ever asked about it. They were much more interested in Meg’s writing. Potluck dinners with them at their stonewalled hunt club with its creaking, slanted floors and the hounds baying in the kennels out back kept me sane as I did my best impression of Robert E. Lee at the end of the Civil War, urging the troops onward even as I began to see that the war was lost.

There was no Internet in those days, so I had the weekly sales figures from the bowling alleys phoned into headquarters and compiled and brought out to my mailbox about ten on Friday nights. Meg and I would be driving home from dinner with our new friends, warmed by their camaraderie, chatting happily, and we would turn onto the dark, canopied road that wound its way to our farm and fall into silence, each with our own private hope or terror.

At the top of the driveway our mailbox leaned back on its bent post, so that you could just reach it through the window without getting out of the car. I would roll down the window and the cold air would seep into the car as I routed around in the oversized mailbox and right there, in the light from inside the car, read the numbers. Meg never said a word. She just waited in silence. Only later did she tell me how horrible that anticipation was. The numbers were not better. They were never better.

After two years I took the train to New York in the late fall and turned the company over to our creditors. It was theirs by right. We couldn’t repay their loans. It would only have hurt the business to fight about it. I felt like Judas, but not for the reason you might think, not for failing my equity partners. The ones I felt I had truly betrayed were all those employees, new and old, who believed that together we could do something special. It was like telling my children I had to leave them, that from now on they would have to fend for themselves.

At home I had videotapes I had made for our employees, our guest hosts, talking about of our plans, telling them they would be the key to our greatness. That night, as a new snowfall returned the valley to beautiful and brutal silence, I watched those tapes one after another. Even then, with the shock of events still so fresh, they had the quality of old newsreels from another time, the last records of a lost people.

I moved a desk into the workshop, not the cozy loft where Meg was writing, but a cavernous open space where the previous owner, an architect who for his senior thesis had designed our 7-Eleven house in the style of Marcel Breuer, had made wooden handles to help take off riding boots. I hung my old law office pictures over the desk and set up a copier and fax machine and sat there and stared at them.

There was a lot of snow that winter. We had a few cows that we had bought from our neighbor early on. We’d been letting other landowners make hay on our pastures, for which they left us a dozen or so of the huge round bales, and we’d gotten the cows to feed the hay to in winter and to graze on the pastures in summer. We’d bought a tractor too. Meg liked to mow fields with it. She said sitting up there, going back and forth over the land, was a great way to work out scenes for her book.

That Christmas she bought me a hay spike attachment for the tractor. I speared the big bales and drove them out to the cows where they milled about in a swale near a covered shed that protected them from rain and snow.

The twins
Courtesy of our neighbor’s bull, our little herd included six calves. Two were twins. You never saw anything so adorable. I had been idiotically naive about how they would be born, but nature had looked after them. I remember seeing the first calf on the hillside in the spring of that year and worrying that he would be trampled by the herd. I went out and picked him up (he was a heavy little sucker) and started off with him to a fenced corral.

Apart from buying a chain of bowling alleys and thinking I could turn it into Disneyland, picking up that calf and walking off with it was probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. His mother was none too happy. There I was, tottering down the hillside, struggling with fifty pounds of squirming calf, with his mother, all one thousand pounds of her, right behind me. I could feel her hot breath on my neck, but I was used to the hot breath of creditors by then, so a miffed mama cow didn’t seem like that big a threat.

Whooo, cows
Our boys were three and five that winter. After each new snowfall, Nick would go out to the fence line with me and we would open a bag of grain, catnip for cows, and he would call the cows. “Whoooo, cows.” I should have known then that he was bound for the stage. What joy and exuberance.

I spent a lot of time taking hay out to the cows that winter. I would go out to my office-in-exile and turn on a space heater and make a list of things I might like to do next, and after not too long I would get up and go feed the cows. I couldn’t seem to concentrate. I think I may have a little attention deficit disorder, but when I was working it just kept me hopping from one project to another; without all those things to be busy about, I couldn’t sit still. I almost couldn’t think.

The snow didn’t melt. It drifted up against the workshop windows, so that it looked like if I nodded off while daydreaming I might wake to find myself entombed. I thought about my father; my workshop space had the cold austerity of his hospital room, where I had spent two weeks as he lay dying all those years ago. I wondered what he would have thought of all this. I was just starting out practicing law when he died. I struggled at first, but I got a nice bonus at the end of my third year, the year my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He would go to the old-fashioned soda counter at the local drugstore and eat chocolate sundaes to try to keep weight on. The druggist told me at my father’s funeral that my bonus had hit my father hard, because he knew then that I would never come back home.

All my working life I had put work ahead of family. Not deliberately, but in that thoughtless, rationalizing way so many of us have: let me just get through this busy time and we’ll do something fun together. The busy times had all run together, but now they had stopped. I was dizzy with the lack of motion, lurching around on sea legs. I was both terrified and grateful to be back on dry land.

I read to the boys at night, and when it was time to turn out the light, with Chris protesting “I’m not tired”---always his last words at night---I sat on their beds and sang to them and told them stories. There was a little board named Piney who wanted to be part of a house but was too small, who got his wish when a little boy made him into a birdhouse. An outcast duck named Mally became a hero by saving a little mud hen from the jaws of a snapping turtle.

I know, I know, but my little boys loved them. Meg said that sometimes she would stand in the hallway out of sight, with the snow plied around the house and our valley dark and quiet, as if there were no other world, and she would listen to me telling stories to our children. She said it was like visiting our lives from the outside.