Saturday, July 29, 2006

I want to remember moments...

…like this morning’s family drive from Bromley Mountain, Vermont to downtown Manchester, when the topic of conversation that completely captivated the hearts and minds of our diminutive back-seat occupants was what colors of JELL-O they were going to buy at the supermarket after breakfast and how many boxes they would be allowed to choose.

We started with idea that they would each pick two boxes, Madison was set on green and yellow, Ava wanted pink and red. By the time we got to the store things had spun completely out of control and we’d agreed on five boxes each, which turned into six after we were confronted by the vast array of choices in the aisle and the reasonable prices.

I want to remember the innocent but intent horse trading that went on over specific colors, the fact that both girls made an effort to pick my favorite color, green, (Ava picked it twice), and that both asked to have their selections wrapped in their own bags so they could carry them back to the car.

The final results:

Madison – Blue (Berry Blue), Orange, Yellow (Lemon), Green (Lime), Pale Orange (Peach), Purple (Grape)

Ava – Red (Raspberry), Orange, Blue (Berry Blue), Green (Lime), Green (Green Apple), Yellow (Lemon)

We got back to the condo and decided to make one box each before heading over to Bromley to take on the alpine slide that remains the centerpiece of the mountain's kid-friendly "Thrill Zone." Not to fade into a commercial here but we've been going to Bromley for years, in all seasons, and have made our way up there at some point over each of the last four summers and it gets better and more evolved every year. Well worth a trip.

Madison chose Berry Blue for her maiden voyage and Ava selected Green Apple. I boiled the water and did the pouring, the girls did the stirring and by the time we left we had six little Glad Ware plastic cups waiting in the fridge, three green and three blue. While sampling the powder and the JELL-O in liquid form, their eyes lit up like they were experiencing the best tasting stuff in the world.

When the girls weren’t looking I worked up a little layered blue-green hybrid I expected to be the hit of the afternoon, but it was barely noticed when we returned a few hours later – they remained laser focused on their own colors and creations.

It was without question the best tasting JELL-O I’ve ever had in my life, and I can report that both Madison and Ava were very happy with their respective efforts. We packed up the remaining ten boxes and told the girls we'd make them at home, at which point Ava protested, "But we don't have a kitchen!"

We reminded her that the remodeling job was almost done, plus there's always Grandma's house.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

What did she say?

Yesterday afternoon, while Gwen was out trying to find lighting fixtures for our soon-to-be-completed kitchen and dining room, I was hanging out in the basement with Madison and Ava. We were playing with a toy called Kid K’Nex, a really great collection of plastic pieces, eyes and wings that can be connected to make any number of imaginary animals, birds, bugs, aliens – everything is fair game with Kid K’Nex.

We have a few different sets and each one comes with a visual map of the various creature possibilities. Ava took a look at the map for the set she was playing with, featuring probably two dozen distinct figures, and as she waved her hand across the field of possibilities said, “Dad, I want you to help me make all these things.”

Before I could even answer, Madison – who is always watching, always sizing up the situation and keeping a close eye on all the angles – said, “Daddy, are you really going to help Ava make everything on that page?”

Without even really considering the question I mumbled some kind of hedge, something like, “Oh, I don’t know if we’ll get through all of them,” at which point Ava practically yelled, "Dad! I’m counting on you!"

It’s one of the interesting things happening in our family at the moment, the verbalization of Ava’s amazing personality. Virtually every day she comes out with something, often unprompted and always completely unscripted, that just blows us away.

Ava runs full throttle all the time, no matter where she is, no matter what she’s doing, which has resulted in more than her fair share of skinned knees. A few weeks ago she was going full gallop down the street and she lost her balance and face planted, badly ripping up both knees in the process. I wasn’t there, Gwen told me about it, and when I asked Ava about it that night she said, without hesitation, “the ground was tricking me.”

She is prone to telling people who are frustrating her or not acceding to her wishes that they are being “rude.” When I took my shirt off at my parents’ pool a few weeks ago so I could carry her into the water - the only way she’ll go in at this point - she proceeded to announce to the entire group, in the cutest most good-natured voice possible, “Hey everybody, look at my Daddy’s boobies!”

This morning Gwen was off to another lighting store, so the girls and I went food shopping. I love taking them food shopping on the weekends, we get one of those enormous carts with the big plastic anti-bacterial (yeah, right) seats on the back and munch on bagels while we wander the aisles and collide with other shoppers.

[The latest advance in inmate transport at Pelican Bay? No, someone's idea of a safe and comfortable way to get through a supermarket with small children.]

As we pulled up to the store we were all chatting and Ava made some comment that prompted me to ask her how she got so smart. She gave me a satisfied look and said, “the rules inside my mouth help me talk like that.”

Madison’s been on a little kick asking me about my work and office lately. This began a couple of days ago out of nowhere, she wanted to know whether or not the office I go to now would be the one I would go to for the rest of my life, whether or not I’d switch to a different office or – this was the option that really appealed to her – stop going to the office at some point and just stay home with them. She also thinks it would be good if I was a salesman in a paint store, but I’m dismissing this because she got the idea while we were parked outside a Sherwin-Williams store waiting for Gwen.

Ava was around for these little conversations and this morning on the drive to the supermarket, unprompted, said (this is a direct quote, I wrote it down) “When I was a Dad I worked in California and you couldn’t touch the walls and you had to wear gloves and shoes because there were staplers and it was dangerous. Dangerous, dangerous.”

We’re heading to the beach tomorrow for a few days, my parents rented a house and we’re all converging on the free accommodations and looking forward to the family time together and the next sentence out of Ava’s mouth.

We have to be back by Friday because our granite countertops are being installed. We are dangerously close to posting an “after” photo of the kitchen, to follow the demo shot that was added to this site in June. Wish us luck, we’re starting to get excited about being able to cook in our home again. We’ve eaten so much pizza over the last six weeks that I’m getting sick of it, which I did not think was possible. Ava’s favorite food in the world is scrambled eggs, which cannot be made in a toaster oven or microwave, so I sometimes think she’s been marking this time more closely than any of us. In honor of Ava, the menu for our first meal in the new space has already been decided.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Swing Set Ate Our Backyard

Several weeks ago we took the girls to a store near us called Wood Kingdom, an enormous place that sells wood swing sets and assorted other backyard toys and childhood accessories. Our mission was to find a new and better swing set to replace the one we left at our previous house, and we had some specific features in mind. We wanted at least two swings, a slide, a glider, and a rock climbing wall. While the girls were inside the store running around they started fighting with each other and kids they had never met over a kind of hanging pogo stick contraption, something called an Air-Pogo, so we decided to get one of those as well.

Add swing sets to the long and continually expanding list of things that have gotten better and more advanced – almost unrecognizably so – since we were kids. When I was growing up we had a swing set in our backyard, three brittle swings and a small slide supported by a frame of metal tubes and poles my father put together with a ratchet set. Considered state-of-the-art for its day, my childhood plaything never would have gotten through the door at Wood Kingdom.

This Saturday morning fact-finding mission was in anticipation of the arrival of our Insta-Lawn (see previous post on this), which at that point was due in a couple of weeks. But after this perfect grass came into our lives, Gwen and I found ourselves staring out the window, taking in the beautiful and unspoiled green-ness, and wondering the same thing: “How are we going to disrupt this pristine vision, crowd our limited backyard AND kill some of the sod that just took a bite out of our bank account by jamming a massive swing set out there?”

So, shamefully, we dragged our feet on actually ordering the wood monstrosity, denied our children the plaything we had promised, and continued to enjoy the view off the back of the house. Silence was golden, for a while, until Ava started making occasional but heartfelt references to the swings that had not yet come into her life.

The watershed moment for me came a few nights ago, when we were reading one of her favorite books, “Angelina Ballerina’s Shapes,” before she went to bed. We got about two-thirds of the way through the book and then we hit the second triangle page, which featured an image of Angelina and one of her friends flying through the air on swings and the words, “The legs of the swing set are tall triangles.” Ava took a look at the page and said, wistfully, more to herself than to me, “I wish we had one of those.”

I asked her what she meant, just to hear the elaboration, and she pointed at the image in the book, “a swing set, right there, I wish we had swings at our house.”

That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I took the opportunity the next day to ask Madison about this, to make sure she shared Ava’s enthusiasm, and she gave me a response that reflected the two years she has on her sister and was also trademark Madison.

“Maddie, do you still want us to get a swing set for the backyard?”


“A swing set, do you still want us to buy one for the backyard?”

“We did already, didn’t we? We went to the store and picked one out. I thought we were just waiting for them to bring it.”

“Well, we looked at them but we didn’t actually buy one yet, we need to go back and do that.”

“Oh. I was wondering what was taking them so long.”

We were back in Wood Kingdom the following weekend placing our order, and the set arrived today along with three "better you than me" assemblers.

[Delivery and professional installation: dollar-for-dollar the best money you will ever spend in your life.]

Insta-Lawn, we’re sorry.

Girls, you’re welcome.

Monday, July 10, 2006


I went back and forth on whether or not to post this entry, which is a little dark for the space. But this is intended to be a parenting journal, reasonably complete, and not just a collection of slow-motion strolls through fields of daisies and “I love you Daddy” hugs.

One of my first cousins died last weekend in a freak accident. She was a beautiful 23-year-old woman with a real life spark, the kind of perpetually sunny person you were always glad to see walk into a room, or to find on the other side of a doorway when you entered one. She struck a really rare balance between being “good” and being “cool,” and had an easy and natural ability to make people feel happy and comfortable in her presence. Goes without saying that she’ll be missed by everyone lucky and blessed enough to have known her, most of all her devastated immediate family.

I’m relatively new at this, but even with my limited experience I don’t think there is anything that approaches the depth of being a parent and worrying about the safety and well-being of your children. The world is a dangerous place, even when you’re being careful, and random and tragic things happen all the time. And sometimes not so random. There are bad people walking out there among us who, if given the opportunity, will do terrible things, even to children. If you disagree or need some additional context read a newspaper, almost any day will do.

Every night before we go to sleep I turn on the hallway light outside our bedroom and check in on the girls. There’s nothing quite like the sight of safe and sleeping children, your children, at the end of the day. And there’s no way to explain the from-the-core-of-your-being joy, reassurance and just plain wellness that moment provides to anyone who hasn’t made that trip and experienced it for themselves.

Being a parent comes with a license to worry, and for the more neurotic among us this condition kicks in before the home pregnancy test pee-stick is dry. By the time the first pre-natal test rolls around, most aspiring parents have qualified for a volume discount on apprehension, to go along with the happy and transformational anticipation.

When Gwen was pregnant with Madison we got a bad result on a test they used to call the “triple screen,” I believe by now they’ve added a fourth “screen.” I don’t remember the exact finding, but the gist was that the probability of a major birth defect was much higher than it should have been, 1 in 200 or so as opposed to the purely age-based estimate of 1 in 2,000 or 2,500.

I was working for a public relations agency at the time and was off-site at a client meeting, Gwen called me on my cell phone in tears. The sky was falling. I tried to calm her down but as soon as I heard the news my mind was racing as well. What’s going on in there? What if something really is wrong? What if our baby isn’t healthy? I called a family friend who is an OB-GYN from right there in the conference room and he talked me back in off the ledge. He told me not to worry and drove home the point by saying something like, “look, with the odds you are talking about there is virtually no chance of a problem. You’d take that bet in Atlantic City or Vegas any day of the week and clean up.”

Tremendous odds aside we went ahead and had an invasive amniocentesis test, and everything turned out fine. Of course once we got that good result I spent the rest of the pregnancy convinced that we’d poked Madison’s eye out in utero with the amnio needle as a result of our uncertainty and need to be “sure.” We got the same odd finding on the same test with Ava, took the same amnio and got the same perfect verdict. But I’ll never forget the grueling uncertainty of those days, which drove home the point for me that when you go down this road – pregnancies, newborns, toddlers, and every other stage of a life you created and are responsible for – you open yourself up to the good and the bad in a singular and powerful way.

The Ava pregnancy actually turned into bit of a worry wonderland, as a result of an unusual and unrelated series of challenges. About five months in, Gwen stumbled while walking out our front door and broke her ankle. We went to the emergency room expecting to emerge with an ace bandage and a “try to stay off it” diagnosis, but before we knew it we were talking about the possible need for surgery, metal pins to hold the bone in place and other fun stuff that becomes considerably more involved when the patient is five months pregnant.

We were luckily able to avoid surgery, Gwen wound up in a cast and was told to not put any weight on the foot and leg in question. She was quickly hopping around the house trying to straighten up using crutches and a walker. We rented a wheelchair for trips into town and bi-weekly ultrasound exams that became necessary early in the pregnancy for reasons I’ll explain now.

When Gwen was just a couple of month pregnant with Ava, Madison came down with a short-term rash and high fever our pediatrician diagnosed as the Coxsackie virus, a common childhood illness. Madison was fine within a couple of days but a little Web research (the information available on the Internet can be both a blessing and the worst kind of curse) and a call to Gwen’s doctor confirmed our fears – Coxsackie can cause major complications for a developing fetus, especially early stage. Gwen’s blood was tested for Coxsackie “titers” and, sure enough, there they were.

At that point we were referred to a “high-risk” pregnancy specialist who wanted to submit Madison – then about 18 months old – to a battery of blood tests to try to confirm that the virus in Gwen’s system came from Madison’s outbreak.

We were about to reluctantly begin this testing when I got some well-timed and merciful advice from a fraternity brother who had gone on to become a physician. Mike’s simplistically brilliant counsel essentially amounted to: “Why? Who cares if it’s the same strain? Why would you stick Madison full of needles to prove a single source of the virus? If Gwen has the titers then Gwen has the titers, and you have to deal with that, but what’s the point of turning your 18-month-old into a pin cushion to definitively trace the source.” I remain grateful for this advice to this day.

So we overruled the specialist’s prescribed blood test regimen (he reluctantly had to admit he saw the reasoning in Mike’s position), but he had his revenge. The next thing I knew we were sitting in a cramped consultation room and he was explaining that given Gwen’s exposure we would have to visit his office every couple of weeks for a very detailed ultrasound test… basically the equivalent of a 20-week ultrasound, over and over again.

“OK, and what exactly are we looking for?” we asked. “Oh, any number of abnormalities… primarily calcification of the heart, or the brain, or other major organs.”

“Come again?”

Ava must have been one of the most ultrasounded babies in history, I have vivid memories of pushing Gwen in and out of that doctor’s office in her wheelchair, week after week, through the snow on the sidewalk, Madison in her arms, so we could gel up her belly and search for the elusive “calcification” through the nausea and cold sweats. But when she was delivered early one January morning Ava was absolutely perfect, breezed through Apgar and we haven’t looked back.

Of course the delivery is just the beginning. After a couple of days in the hospital and everything it takes to get to that point they hand you this little being, and along with the Similac samples and the extra hospital diapers and blankets you are able to steal you take along with you a lifetime of worry opportunities.

Before your child can communicate you worry that they’re not getting enough food, enough sleep, enough burps. You visit their crib every minute on the minute to make sure they’re still breathing, avoid baths early on because you don’t want to break them, and count every ounce of weight gain like you hit the lottery.

Then you get to the point where they can actually tell you what they want and you move to worry stage two, followed immediately by stages three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten. Then repeat.

At 3 and 5, I worry about the girls riding around in cars – even the ones we’re driving – worry about them running across a field, falling down the stairs or off a swing, getting curious about an electrical outlet or drinking some kind of vividly-colored cleaning fluid that happened to be left in reach. We haven’t even gotten into the big stuff yet, the “where is this party and who is driving?” worry, the “taking a semester abroad” worry, the “who is this boy?” worry, the “is that a new piercing?” worry, the “is she still online? Who is she talking to?” worry, or the “why is she suddenly so sullen?” worry. I’m just scratching the surface here. So much worry, so little time.

It’s not all bad, of course, or foreboding, and there’s more than enough goodness and light in each day to make up for the dark clouds of uncertainty that are hovering off in the distance, usually out of sight and hopefully out of range, until they emerge at a moment’s notice and explode, like they did over Mary and her family.

If asked, they’d say that they were glad to have had her in their lives, as a daughter and a sister and a beautiful shining light for her 23 years. Of course that’s true, and that’s what you have to think, how you have to get through the unbearable pain of the loss, through the reluctant and grudging realization that the worst has happened.

There’s good and there’s bad, unbelievable joy and pride, and the prospect of profound despair, and when you become a parent you sign on for all of it. And no matter how things turn out, you know in your heart that if given the opportunity to go back in time and make the decision again you’d do exactly the same thing, because it’s all worth it. One moment is enough, one smile, and hopefully you’re one of the lucky ones who wind up with a lifetime of them.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

July 4, 2006


Cotton candy...


And fireworks.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

OK, so it's not all bad...

...we actually had a nice home improvement moment this weekend when we went to the granite place Saturday morning to pick our our slab. Kind of interesting and fun. Took me about 40 years to even know there was such a thing as a granite yard, let alone visit one. Madison and Ava knocked off this little milestone at 5 and 3.

We'd been to the place once before to look at samples and as soon as we walked through the door and Ava realized where she was she said, "I'm tired about this store!" Our next scheduled stop was an afternoon in Grandma and Grandpa's pool, so the girls were not about wasting time on trivial matters like the composition of the countertops that may well greet them every morning from now through high school.

But they were patient enough to let us find a nice piece that we are looking forward to seeing in our kitchen, even though both our second-floor bathrooms are still leaking and we have no idea at this moment what to do about it.