Discover the dream?

The dogs were taking me for a walk the other day when I stopped at the mailbox. Our mailbox, which sits across the road from our home, is rather oversized and resembles a dog house perched precariously atop a pole.  I think my wife actually mistook it for one because she once suggested I sleep in it. I forget what I did to warrant that, but I’m sure it wasn’t good.

I generally bypass the mailbox when walking the dogs. My beagles have no sense of direction, so carrying an armload of mail and dragging them along usually results in a paper trail of letters and catalogs strewn up the driveway. It’s also a little dangerous: One dog likes to attack horse trailers, and what exactly she’d do if she ever caught one God only knows. The other needs only the whiff of a shadow of a possum that lumbered through our neighborhood three weeks ago to dart off on its trail. Also, on days when I stop, the mail will include a box so  large that Carol Merrill should be standing in front of it. (OK, why can I remember the model’s name from “Let’s Make a Deal” circa 1972, but not where I put my damn car keys?)

As a gust of wind whooshed me up the driveway, a large snow-white envelope caught my attention. My first surprise was that it’s addressed to Penelope; the second was who it’s from.

I corralled the dogs into the house and dropped the mail on the kitchen island. My wife is currently on  a detox diet, which means that, by default, I am too. Not that she’s forcing me onto her diet, but I’d feel bad slurping up a giant plate of penne vodka while she’s nibbling on brown rice and broccoli. On this day, she’s stirring a big pot of hot and sour tofu cabbage soup.

Once a friend learned “we” were on this diet and asked if I’d lost anything. “Only my will to live,” I told her.

I called Penelope over. She was standing in her play kitchen pulling from her toy oven a wooden pizza that looked more appetizing than Bern’s soup. I held up the envelope, and Penelope scampered over.

“You have mail,” I said. She cocked her head and blinked uncomprehendingly. “Really, it’s yours. Take it.”

I extended the large envelope, and she tentatively reached for it. “Me? Mail?” I reassured her. She slowly ripped small pieces of the envelope as if she were peeling an artichoke.

Finally finished, she gasped as she pulled out the contents. Her eyes widened in delight. After all, it’s not every day a  three-year-old gets a glossy magazine promoting tourism from the Nebraska Office of Economic Development. I’m not sure why the good folks at the Nebraska tourism board think my daughter is the right demographic to pitch, but I confess my marketing experience is pretty much limited to the “3 Ps.” Yet I still can’t picture toddlers booking flights to Omaha to visit the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps or even the Kool-Aid Museum (with the rather eyebrow-raising slogan “Discover the Dream”).

Penelope loves her shiny new magazine. The first night before she went to bed she left it on the family-room coffee table, pointed at it, then me, and said, “No Papa.” I got the message: Keep your stinking paws off my magazine. She scampered off to the kitchen to repeat the admonishment to Bern.

The next evening, Penelope carried her magazine upstairs and wanted it read to her before bedtime. I conjured up a tale about a mythical, magical place called “Nebraska,” where Elmo and Mr. Noodle frolic when they’re vacationing from Sesame Street. Now, the guide has become a staple in our night-time reading selection. It’s not out of the ordinary for Penelope to want me to read “Polar Express,” “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket,” and “The Nebraska Tourism Guide” before shutting out the lights.

Our daughter may not yet be able to say her full name, opting for the shortened Pelli over the mouthful of consonants and vowels we bestowed upon her. But she can say Nebraska and Omaha.

Addendum: Recently Penelope received a second packet in the mail, this from the Texas Tourism Council, and a third from Rhode Island. If this continues, she may have all 50 states memorized by kindergarten.



Toddler vs. Food

Lately, I’ve become addicted to the TV program “Man Vs. Food” on the Travel Channel. In case you’ve never seen MvF, during each episode the paunchy host visits restaurants that specialize in serving single portions of food capable of feeding the island of Madagascar. I watch in stunned amazement as someone tries to devour a stack of 13-inch pancakes or a 7 1/2 pound “Sasquatch Burger” the size of a monster-truck tire.

My fascination, I believe, stems first from my love of discovering local eateries that break the chain of homogeneous restaurants one finds scattered around every truck-stop interstate exit from Trenton to Tucamcari. The show also draws upon memories of college days when several dorm-room buddies and I attempted to drive a Fritsch’s Big-Boy bankrupt by gorging on its all-you-can-eat midnight buffet. That failed effort culminated with me lying on the frozen ground in a farmer’s field watching wisps of my breath swirl amongst the stars as I groaned prayers for a quick death to God, Buddha and the Galloping Gourmet.

But perhaps my interest is rooted in my ceaseless wonder at how much food Penelope can pack away. After all, on a daily basis I have a front-row dining-room seat to Toddler vs. Food.

Most mornings Penelope greets Bernadette and I by standing in her doorway yelling “Hi Mama! Hi Papa!  Hungry! Hungry!” Bern and I now employ a lightning round of “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock” to decide who’s getting out of bed first. (In case you want to settle disputes this way, it’s: Scissors cuts paper; paper covers rock; rock crushes lizard; lizard poisons Spock; Spock smashes scissors;  scissors decapitates lizard; lizard eats paper; paper disproves Spock; Spock vaporizes rock; rock smashes scissors. Credit Sam Kass and Karen Bryla for inventing Rock, Paper, Lizard, Scissors, Spock in 1998.)

Since paper disproves Spock, on this particular Saturday I stumble downstairs as Penelope scampers besides me. She charges toward the refrigerator, throws open  the door and digs into a drawer for a cheese stick. A bowl of Cheerios and some blackberries or apple slices will follow, sometimes before the coffee pot beeps joyously from the kitchen counter. Penelope will clamor for “Nemo Snacks” — gummy fruit snacks shaped like fish from the Disney cartoon — but those are afternoon treats since we don’t allow her to eat candy before noon. (The no-candy-before-noon rule was strictly adhered to in my parents’ house when I was growing up, and one I abide by to this day. Since my Mom didn’t have a no-drinking-before noon rule . . . well, let’s just say it made college that much more entertaining.)

Later we all hop in the car and drive to Buckingham Friends Meeting to attend a memorial service for Dr. Christian Hansen, a truly remarkable man. I encourage you to check out his free e-book autobiography In The Name of the Children and consider donating to the American Friends Service Committee. Chris, a pediatrician by vocation, spent his life helping the world’s neediest children. His book also discusses his experiences meeting Dr. Martin Luther King and participating in the Meredith March in June 1966.

After the service, Penelope chows down on some blackberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, seared tuna, roast beef, orzo salad and a brownie for dessert. By the time she’s nestled back in her car seat for the ride home, she’s clamoring for those Nemo snacks. But since she just finished grazing at the buffet table, we decide to give her jaws a break. You’d think with all this eating that Penelope would resemble a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, but she’s quite thin. In fact, she’s a tall skinny kid; our doctor tells us she’s in the 95th percentile height wise for her age. I have started to wonder if she’s Yao Ming’s love child.

Penelope has also impressed us with the variety of foods she will eat. The other night after dinner, she pronounced the white clam pizza positively “mm-yummy.” We’ve watched her devour mussels, tofu, bok choy, artichokes, calamari and quinoa — not in one sitting, of course. On our last trip to the supermarket she cheered when she spotted the broccoli. Recently we visited friends in Denver — I’ll be writing about that soon — and I was sorely tempted to see if Penelope would eat Rocky Mountain oysters, but Bern nixed that idea. (“You’re not feeding our child bull balls!”)

Bern and I are thrilled that she’ll try just about anything. Now, we’re just waiting for that call from the Travel Channel.

{Note: So, where the hell was I? For those of you with whom I haven’t spoken, I’ve been busy collaborating with several other members of my community’s historical society on a book that will be published later this year. I hope you will consider checking that book out once it’s published. A portion of the profits from those books sold by the historical society will go to our organization. The book will also be available at area Barnes & Noble’s, Borders, etc. and will be available online.}

Holidaze

January 1, 2010

Pity our poor dog Sammi. She’s a beagle, a breed with a proud lineage that stretches back to Great Britain at a time prior to the Roman conquest. Its first mention in English literature was in 1475, and King Edward III bred beagles specifically to hunt rabbits. Nowadays, beagles sniff out drugs or bombs at airports and help detect traces of flame accelerants at suspected arson sites.

Sammi, sadly, isn’t helping make the world safe from terrorists or solving crimes. She’s busy hiding from a two year old who’s trying to force her to wear a diaper.

Santa brought Penelope several toy diapers, hoping she’d stop taking the real, and oftentimes wet, ones off herself and putting them on her teddy bear. The toy diapers seemed like a good idea, but now Penelope has advanced from stuffed animals to living ones. On her first attempt, she almost managed to swing the diaper around Sammi’s back legs. If it’s possible for a beagle’s face to express surprise, then that’s how I’d describe Sammi’s look. She jumped a few feet forward, but a persistent Penelope pounced on her tail, and implored the puzzled pooch to “nay down.” All those centuries of highly attuned hunting instincts kicked in, and Sammi scampered to the safety of another room.

Sammi wasn’t the only victim of one of Penelope’s Christmas toys this year. Earlier this week after fixing the CD player, Penelope and I were bouncing around to Rilo Kiley. Penelope grabbed a pair of toy maracas. I cradled her in one arm while I shook a tambourine with the other like I was auditioning for Josie and the Pussycats. Unfortunately, I was looking away from the Peanut when she accidentally clocked me upside the head with her maraca. Hello, head-circling stars and tweety birds!

Bernadette arrived home a few minutes later, saw the lump by my eye and asked if she needed to take me to the emergency room. After a few moments of muddled pondering, I decided I’d rather risk the cranial bleed and pull a Bill Holden than suffer the embarrassment of explaining what happened to the ER nurse.

Despite the wounds to my head and Sammi’s dignity, our first Christmas together turned out quite wonderfully. We traveled back to Buffalo to visit Bern’s family. While there I learned a few things, namely: no matter how cold you think Buffalo is in December, it’s even colder; if you give already energetic kids enough Christmas presents and sugar cookies, they can actually be in three rooms at the same time; and a coffee maker works better when you remember to place the coffee pot under it.

Perhaps Penelope’s favorite Christmas presents are the kitchen set, and the assorted “Melissa and Doug” wooden food items (a pizza, stir fry, cookies and vegetables) and utensils. Her manner of playing has progressed in the past few weeks, and I’m fascinated watching her development. She has shifted gears from playing predominantly for physical development of motor skills and dexterity, to emotional development with pretend play.

Up until recently, Penelope’s idea of playing was to fill a container with blocks or puzzle pieces and dump them on the floor. Now, she’s standing in front of her stove, wearing an apron and slicing wooden vegetables and cooking eggs or pizza for me.

I pause and wonder if I’ve got a future Iron Chef living under our roof. Then the daydream ends: I hear a toy mixer running in the bathroom, and I know the mixing bowl is filled with water. Time to scurry off before I’m mopping the bathroom walls.

All She Wants for Christmas . . .


December 2009

On a blustery Saturday afternoon in December, one of Santa’s elves is teaching me a lesson on crowd control. I’m standing at a break in the line at the Macy’s in New York City waiting with my nephew David for the family to catch up to us. And, being a little bored and naturally curious, I start chatting with the 20-something elf as she keeps the line moving and prevents chiselers from slipping in undetected.

She laughs and shows me the proper way to pump your arm and to gently nudge stragglers along. I swing my arms around and jump up and down with the enthusiasm of a hungry beagle catching a whiff of cheese at supper time. The elf says I’m a quick learner and should go talk to Human Resources about a job.

Unfortunately, her boss isn’t impressed, and as he lifts his weary eyes from the clipboard balanced atop his protruding stomach to voice his displeasure, I consider asking him if he’s angling for Santa’s job once he pulls the enormous candy cane out of his behind. But I refrain in deference to my new elfin friend, and the fact that the good folks at Macy’s are kind and have allowed me to wait for my family at this juncture in the line. A few moments later, the family arrives.

This is the first year I’ve ever had a reason to visit Santa at Macy’s. I remember my parents taking me to see the inebriated Santa at Tepper’s Department Store in Plainfield when I was a tyke. Then we’d race out of town before someone threw a brick through the windshield of our Dodge Dart.

Since Penelope is only two years old, Bernadette and I would probably have waited another year before visiting. But our niece and nephew have five children, several of whom are the right age for visiting Santa, so we happily tagged along.

It takes an hour before we meet Santa, but along the way, a conductor ushers us into a train, and we stroll along a winding path decorated with Christmas trees, singing bears and skaters. The presentation is stunning.

We marvel at the decorations until the moment arrives when we meet the big guy. Penelope climbs onto Santa’s lap. He asks her what she wants for Christmas, and in that moment comes the highlight of my holiday: “APPLE JUICE!!!” she cheers. Someday, my daughter is going to ask for a cell phone, or a television for her bedroom, or a car, and I will wistfully recall the day when all she wanted was apple juice.

This incident led to a lengthy conversation between Bern and I about gifts for Penelope. My point in our discussion was simply that Penelope is a typical two year old when it comes to playing. If you give her a toy in a box, she’ll take the toy out of the box and play with the box. If you give her a puzzle, she’ll dump the pieces on the floor and walk into the kitchen to ask for an orange. I understand: She’s two; that’s her job.

So, I suggested rather than empty the shelves at Target, we buy Penelope the things a two year old enjoys playing with: an empty box, a dish rag, a roll of toilet paper, maybe a broken cell phone.

Needless to say, Bern didn’t exactly love the idea. “Twenty years from now our kid is going to be in therapy because you gave her an empty box for Christmas.”

“She will not,” was my less-than-snappy reply. “I wasn’t suggesting a crappy box from the liquor store. I was thinking more about re-wrapping that box that her Little Einstein bath toys came in and giving that to her.”

“She does play with that box every time I take her down to the basement, but no you cannot give our child an empty box for Christmas,” Bern said. “Twenty years from now when she’s in therapy, it’ll be your fault.”

Some discussions you know you’re going to lose even before they begin, and I had no doubt I was losing this one. Besides, I wasn’t serious about the idea. Just wondering. So, it’s off to Toys ‘R’ Us and after being in a toy store just before Christmas, perhaps a quick detour to Super Saver Liquors on the way home.

Oh, and of course, a final stop at ShopRite for that apple juice.

Tryptophan Triptych (Part 3)

November 26, 2009

Few holiday moments compare with the brief anticipatory Thanksgiving Day pause when your dinner plate is arranged exactly the way you want. You’ve sprinkled the salt and pepper over the turkey; buttered the corn and dinner roll; arranged your foods so the cranberry sauce isn’t touching the stuffing; and poured the gravy into the mashed-potato swimming pool. That was how I arranged my meal, my fork hovered six inches above my plate. . . .

Then three little words from Penelope brought my culinary swoon to a screeching halt. “YIN YAN YAO!” I don’t know if any of you remember a TV program from the 1970s called “Emergency!” but it popped into my mind at that moment because every time paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto sat down to eat dinner, the loudspeaker would blast: “Rampart 51! Rampart 51” and off they’d run to rescue some dopey teenager trapped in a sewer pipe with his pet alligator.

I’ll skip over the actual visit to the bathroom, but let me just note that by the time I stumbled my way back to the table with the toxic toddler, I wondered if my appetite would recover. Of course, it did. My sister Sue is a terrific cook, and my Mom makes the best pumpkin pie this side of the Great Pumpkin’s pumpkin patch.

I learned something new this Thanksgiving that I’m going to pass along to you. If you like wine, do yourself a favor and get an aerator. An aerator will expose more of the volume of the wine to the air, allowing the wine to breathe properly. You can pick one up for about $25, and trust me, you will be amazed at the improvement of the bouquet, taste and finish of your wine. We were using the aerator on everything from a decent Merlot to a bottle of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio and comparing it to non-aerated wine. The difference was astounding. Oh, did I mention my sister and brother-in-law watch an awful lot of QVC?

Anyway, I discovered this Thanksgiving that my family isn’t very skilled when it comes to passing food around the table. Now, I know what you might be thinking: With all that aerated wine, everybody was too shellacked to pass food around. But that’s not true because only a few of us were drinking, and my daughter sobered me up plenty during her bathroom break. This poor familial food distribution skill means you better like what’s sitting in front of you. Naturally, I wound up seated beside the big heaping bowl of rutabaga, and all the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing were partying together at the opposite end of the table. But, I considered my wanderings around the table as an opportunity to work off a tiny bit of the meal. Now if only the table were a mile long, that might have actually worked.

But the best thing about Thanksgiving was finally getting my side of the family together under one roof for the first time in 13 years, and for Penelope to spend time with all her cousins. And while I thought for a moment that I heard my little Pop Tart pick up her toy cell phone and ask the Chinese embassy to take her back to the mother country and away from the insanity, I realized the tryptophan had indeed kicked in. Actually, this year we skipped the annual Thanksgiving tradition that puts everyone to sleep: watching the Detroit Lions.

Two days later, I squeezed myself behind the car steering wheel for the long slog back to New Jersey. We handled the 13-hour journey in one day, and Penelope was an angel through most of the car ride. (She did get a little cranky in West Virginia.) If she wasn’t sleeping or snacking, she kept picking up her toy cell phone to call Shu Shu (Uncle) Joe to babble her unique mix of Chinese and English. New bonds with family members formed or strengthened. Is there a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Family Matters

Sunday August 30:

I’m fascinated at how Penelope can talk a mile a minute, yelling gleefully about something in her half-English, half-Chinese babble until you stick a cell phone to her ear. Suddenly, she becomes quieter than Marcel Marceau at a funeral Mass. The other day we attempted to gently chide Penelope to say something — babababab, IIEEEYYY, dit down (anything but a rousing FUCK!) — when her Nana called, but all she did was look at the phone, look at us, look at the phone.

This means if any out-of-state family members actually want to hear our daughter talk, they must see her in person.

I’m generally uncomfortable having visitors stay for several days. I remember the first night after Bernadette and I got back from our honeymoon, I kept waiting for her to go home. And, while I’m grateful she didn’t, I have never quite cured myself of this guest-a-phobia. I have a friend who always admonishes that guests are like fish: After three days, both start to stink. Now I have nothing against family or anyone else staying for a few days. But guests always put me a little on edge because I always have to be thinking. I can’t just roll out of bed at 3 a.m. and wander sleepily downstairs in my boxers for a glass of milk, or to watch an old black-and-white movie or an infomercial on the colon-cleanser.

My mother-in-law, her husband Benny and my sister-in-law Chris arrived a week ago Sunday from Buffalo, which I fondly refer to as “The Miami of the North.” Apparently, they raided every Children’s Place on their seven-hour journey because I think Penelope now has more clothes than Mariah Carey. Their generosity astounds me. My mother-in-law also whipped up enough pierogies and nalesnikis to feed Krakow. I’m grateful that she shies away from cooking the pig’s feet in vinegar jelly that I’ve seen at family gatherings. (I’ll eat some crazy stuff but vinegar jelly? Sounds almost as bad as pork roll!)

Here’s the basic outline of their week-long visit: Breakfast, clothes shopping for Penelope, visiting family, wine, dinner, bed. Now the order of events may differ from day to day — except wine never comes before breakfast — but you get the general idea. I’m working most of this week so I get home at the end of the day for the fashion show. Penelope adorns a new outfit and twirls around like Yasmeen Ghauri on a diet of Red Bull and Pixie Stixs.

Penelope has struggled to sleep through the night while the family visits which leads to the theory that she’s worried she’ll be leaving with the in-laws. Now granted, living in Buffalo would worry me too! But it’s a warm feeling to know Penelope wants to stay with us and isn’t upstairs packing a suitcase full of diapers and shoes.

One night over a dinner of potato pancakes, I find myself contemplating the joys and ravages of time. I’m seated at the head of the table and look to my left where Penelope is gobbling down her third pancake. I’m excited about our future together. Although I’m not rushing things, I look forward to when she’s a little older and her personality sprouts. I suspect she will become a bright, funny and beautiful girl and I can’t wait to experience all that. I look to my right and watch Benny, who turned 86 in May. His withered hand shakes as he brings his fork to his mouth. He doesn’t talk much anymore. It feels like only last week that Benny would dig in the garden all day and then come inside and chat incessantly about his favorite subjects. And, although those subjects were the grasses of North America and 14th century Polish churches, the animation in his eyes and voice was enough to hold my interest.

Earlier today, my wife’s niece, husband and five children — yes, I wrote FIVE children — arrived to spend the afternoon as the denouement to their Cape May vacation. Five other family members — including our niece Kim from Massachusetts and my brother Russ from Doylestown — were visiting, so our home was buzzing with voices and bulging with bodies. Penelope plays football with her older cousins in the front yard, shares her toys with her younger cousins, visits each of the adults with a book or toy. She’s already a better mingler than I. But then again, if I started showing up at parties with a toy or book, I’d just get funny looks. (Yes, funnier than the ones I usually get!)

I marvel at how everyone has embraced Penelope so warmly. I think back on when we first decided to adopt a girl from China — before we had told a soul — and wondered a little whether she would be treated differently because she looks different and has someone else’s blood running through her veins. None of that ever mattered. When a family opens its hearts, anything and everything is possible.

A Fair To Remember

Friday, August 21:

This misty evening Bernadette and I are wandering the 4-H fairgrounds with Penelope strapped in a carrier on my back. Two people love this backpack: Penelope and my chiropractor. As we walk, Penelope slurps on an ice cream cone, struggling to eat it. I’m in my forties and still face the same dilemma. She nibbles off the bottom of the cone. Ice cream drips down the back of my neck; yellow and orange sprinkles form the constellation Tucana in my (mostly) black hair.

I’m not the neatest of eaters, but ice cream down my back is a new sensation. One of the advantages of now having a toddler is when I push away from the dinner table I’m not the only one with food in my hair. So, as you can imagine, teaching a child how to eat properly isn’t my strongest suit. I tend to believe that wearing jeans is like wearing a giant napkin. I don’t own a shirt without a tiny brown smudge from a morning incident involving coffee and my automobile. In one particularly egregious example, I was eating cottage cheese at work when I started coughing. For some unfathomable reason, as cottage cheese sputtered from my mouth, I spun my head around and did an impersonation of a lawn sprinkler.

We started this evening at the fair by heading immediately to the pens holding cattle, sheep and goats, which naturally makes our little carnivore hungry. Our next stop, therefore, is the food lane, where we load up on corn dogs, cheese fries, a gyro, a sausage and peppers sandwich the size of a wiffle ball bat, and lemonade. (Official disclaimer as demanded by the Mrs.: We don’t usually eat this way for dinner every night, but we were at the 4-H fair and thought it’d be appropriate.) We’re hoping this is enough food for us all, but Penelope is a bottomless pit. I was pleased to hear China declare a few days ago that its food shortage had ended.

So, we find a picnic bench near the bandstand where “Beatlemania Again” — the name just cracks me up every time I think about it — breaks into a rousing septuagenarian version of “She Loves You.” Here’s how the meal proceeds: Penelope takes a bite of a corn dog, gets 60 percent in her mouth, 10 percent on the picnic table and 30 percent hits the ground. I bite into the sandwich. Peppers and sauce squirt onto my jeans. Penelope tries to eat a piece of hot dog that’s fallen onto the table, and I knock over the lemonade trying to stop her. Penelope bites into a French fry and cheese winds up in her hair. It’s my turn; now there’s cheese on my chin.

Bern looks baffled. “Really? This is the example you’re setting for our daughter?”

I adopt a dopey sheepish look on my face — the same one I’ve been using regularly for the past 18 years. I do what any mature adult would, blame the kid: “She keeps bouncing around on my lap. It’s like eating during an earthquake.”

Bern spots a slathering of thick processed cheese sludge on my elbow and frowns. “You don’t need a bib. You need a tarp.” We finish “eating” and I carry Penelope over to an outdoor Porta-John sink so we can bathe. We splash around in the water to “Twist and Shout” before I slide Penelope into the carrier and hoist her onto my back. Ten minutes later, she’s hungry again, so we’re standing on line for ice cream.

As we wait, I watch a gaggle of teenage girls pass by in shorts and canvas Chucks. I know someday, when Penelope’s a teen, she’ll come here with her friends, and I’ll be sitting at home with Bern, who will no doubt have a mildly amused look on her face because there will be pizza sauce in my ear.

Penelope yanks her pink baseball cap off her head and drops it on mine, giggling all the while. My back is barking from carrying her around all evening. I don’t mind a bit.

After darkness slides across the skyline the fireworks show begins. Bern, Penelope and I head to the car, open the hatch and climb into the back to watch. The fireworks boom beyond the treeline. Penelope nestles between us, and I notice she’s touching us both.

Black dog days

Tuesday, August 18:

(Note: This entry is a bit of a downer, so feel free to skip it. I promised to share the good, the bad and the ugly in this blog and life isn’t always sunshine and lollipops. The next few blogs are goofy — promise!)

The last few days have been difficult and have culminated with perhaps one of the worst days in my life since my uncle was murdered seven years ago. I guess in some ways I’m fortunate that bad news and bad tidings have often bypassed me like a stranger. Recently, fears of the responsibilities I have signed up for continually crash down upon me.

One lesson I quickly learned these past few days: Although you’re focused on raising your child, problems and tragedies from other directions in your life won’t cease. An elderly parent in bad health, the personal problems of your loved ones, a sick pet and so forth, still happen. Sometimes bad times come in heaps, and there’s nothing you can do about them except deal with it. And, unfortunately, I’m not dealing with it very well.

But every problem faded into the background this afternoon. Bernadette called an ambulance today after doubling over from severe stomach pains. Our neighbor was kind enough to rush to our home to watch our daughter. I dropped everything at work, stopped home to check on Penelope and hurried to the hospital.

As an aside, I always wonder about this: Is it OK to have the CD player blasting when you are rushing to the hospital? And, if so, is some music more appropriate than others? Just wondering…

Waiting in the emergency room, all the feelings of anxiety and worry that I’ve been experiencing for the past few days are welling up inside. As I contemplate everything, I feel like I’m losing my balance. It’s much like the disoriented feeling you get when, after enjoying a matinee in a dark theater, you swing open the door and are blinded by a bright summer sun. I’ve been feeling like that all the time lately. I feel unprepared to handle the problems that confront me; my judgment is off and yet I fumble onwards.

About an hour later, Bern is led into a back room where a nurse starts examining her. The cause of her illness is a mystery, but she is in intense pain and is given a morphine drip in her IV.

Bern looks at the morphine drip, then looks at me, worried. What if this is something serious? she asks. What if this is stomach cancer? I don’t know what to say. All the fears I’ve had of being a parent rush forward, all the times lately that I’ve taken Bern for granted, and all the mistakes that I’ve been making lately roar back. I realize what I lose if I lose her. Stupid and horrible and rotten of me to only realize it sitting in an emergency room of a hospital. And, if her fears are true, will I be able to raise this little girl on my own? Can I handle it? I’d never considered the possibility of that happening.

I step outside surrounded by smokers — smoking outside an emergency room is something I’ll never understand — plop down on the curb for a few moments to collect myself then head back inside. Bern’s feeling a little better — God bless morphine! — and we start to chat, aimlessly at first but suddenly we start discussing our lives together and what we want to do with them. With potential tragedy lurking in the corridors of our lives, we start making plans. We’re tired of New Jersey; we’ve lived here most our lives. We love our neighbors and friends but most of our family is gone from the area. We want Penelope to have as full a life as possible, and we want to move on.

“We talked about moving to Chicago someday. Maybe we should reconsider that.” Bern and I both love Chicago — the winters (yes, the winters), the culture, the music, the parks, the Blackhawks. (OK, maybe the last one is more for me.) We talk about the type of townhouse we want, the neighborhoods we’re interested in and so forth. We allow ourselves to dream of a different life. Perhaps a better life for us.

The doctor enters. He says Bern has either a really bad case of gastro-esophageal reflux disease, or gall stones. Twin sighs of relief. Silently — and clumsily thanks to her morphine buzz — Bern dresses, and I collect her belongings.

Sometimes it’s downright scary how we can lose sight of our true selves. We struggle to accept change and to understand what’s right and wrong in our lives. We make mistakes. We pray for forgiveness and try to make amends. We hope our loved ones and friends will find the compassion in their hearts to recognize our shortcomings and see the goodness that sometimes gets buried within when we temporarily lose our way. We also learn about who really cares and who really counts: When the chips are down, they stick with you no matter what.

The next day I’m driving from work, but rather than head immediately home, I detour down a side street and park in front of a church. I enter, kneel and pray. I don’t typically go to church so I’m expecting a minister to chase me out at any moment. The following day, I pull up in front of a bar, Hillbilly Hall, and step inside for a beer. Again, I find myself praying. I guess I’m covering all my bases. But, somehow, somewhere, I know everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.

The Wiggle Worm and The Hungry Caterpillar

Friday, August 14, 2009:  

 

There’s something about a diaper that turns Penelope into Reed Richards of Fantastic Four fame. Reed Richards — for those of you who didn’t grow up in a house full of comic books — is a guy who, due to an accident in outer space, can stretch his limbs and bend his body in all directions at once. As soon as I slap a diaper beneath Penelope, she spins, swirls, turns, jukes and dips like an NFL running back in the open field. I stab furiously with the tape on the back of the diaper only to watch it stick to her armpit or kneecap. Eventually, using two hands, one leg and my forehead, I’m able to hold the wiggle worm steady for a few seconds, long enough to pin the diaper on. It doesn’t quite look right, but as long as I can get her pants on so her mother won’t know, it’s all good.

Each day, I learn something new about my daughter and about being a father. I worry constantly about screwing up the job. As Penelope raises her arms so I can slip her shirt on I say, “Oh fuck, get your shirt on. Our guest is here.” Naturally I’m mortified, and I now believe the next word out of Penelope’s mouth will be a resounding, cheerful “FUCK!” (She’ll probably say it as soon as she plops down on my mother’s lap.) And naturally, I follow that sentence with “Oh shit! I can’t believe I just said that!” Sometimes, I am truly hopeless.

One thing I’m trying to figure out about our daughter is how she gets along with the two dogs and cat in our home. The four-page question-and-answer form from the adoption agency ambiguously claims: “She likes dogs and cats.” However, whenever the dogs enter the room, Penelope starts yelling “Ah! Ah!” as though she’s either very afraid or her diaper’s on backwards. Umm, forget I wrote that. Anyway, her behavior with the dogs has led to the conclusion that either: A) She doesn’t really like dogs and cats and the folks at the adoption agency were being polite because they knew we had dogs and a cat; B) She likes dogs and cats from a distance, say, from across a street where she can point and yell excitedly without the possibility of sloppy wet tongues kissing her face or snarfing her food; C) She likes dogs and cats fresh out of the oven, steaming over a plate of stir-fried carrots and onions. Option C is the reason why, a while back when we were compiling a photo album of pictures of Bern and I and our home to send to Penelope in China, we were careful not to take a picture of the pets in the kitchen. We didn’t want Penelope to get the wrong idea.

Learning about Penelope’s likes and dislikes, and how she communicates are challenging. We discover that when she rubs her chest and says “Bao!” it means she’s had enough food; that she’s “full”. “Nin Yan Yaoh!” means walk her to the bathroom; a frantic “Nin Yan Yaoh!!” means you better pick her up and run. In turn, we teach Penelope how to give a thumbs up, how to play Patty Cake and how to toast. (Don’t worry, we’re not filling her sippy cup with wine.) She’s picking up English words like “Open please!” when she wants the nipple taken off her bottle. She listens and understands far more English words than she speaks.

Several guests arrive at our home this first week. Earlier today, Dawn arrived armed with puzzles and a little stuffed beagle toy. Dawn had heard how our beagles frightened Penelope and thought a stuffed dog would help. As Penelope opens her gifts, I think how a few years down the road we’ll all take her to hockey games and teach her the sport.  And I think how someday our little girl will grow up and live a long healthy life (I hope), and how she’ll take her kids to hockey games or, say, nursery rhymes. We may teach Penelope seemingly innocuous rhymes and games, but she will carry them through the next 80 years, long after we’re all dust.

Later, before bedtime, Penelope and I snuggle into the big pink chair in her bedroom to read about the hungry caterpillar as it wiggles its way through food until it becomes a beautiful butterfly. As Penelope nestles besides me, I think how someday my daughter, too, will grow into a beautiful butterfly. And I think about how she is already wiggling her way into my heart.

Penelope slides off my lap and onto the bed just as Bern pops her head into the doorway. Bern raises her eyebrows, “Why does her butt look so lumpy?”

We’re Outta Here!

Thursday, August 6:

I haven’t slept in 32 hours and I’m on a 14-hour flight from Beijing to Newark and I’m six-foot-two-inches tall trying to sleep in a space where I couldn’t hang a sock without it wrinkling and I’ve got some jackass in front of me who first thing he did when he got on the plane was recline his seat as far back as possible and of course I’ve got some kid behind me who’s kicking my seat but I’m thinking to myself that this is the first flight where I might actually get even with these passengers because I’ve got a two-year-old girl next to me with a healthy set of lungs and I’m betting at some point she screams on this flight and I hope it annoys the freaking beejezus out of these people and makes up for all the years I’ve had to sit by obnoxious adults on an airplane so I watch a Japanese movie called “Departures” then “Annie Hall” because I forgot Christopher Walken was in it, then the “French Connection” and finally some crappy movie that just came out called “17 Again” because I’m thinking I’ll sleep if I watch something I’m not interested in but watching a bad movie reminds me of an episode of a TV show “Ghost Whisperer” that Bernadette watches and in this one episode there’s a plane crash and the people on the plane wind up wandering the earth together and I’m thinking if this plane crashes and I have to spend eternity with these pinheads I will definitely kill myself but wait, I’m already dead so now I’m totally screwed…

Did I mention I’ve been up for the past 32 hours?

LATER, MUCH LATER: I think the feeling of exhaustion is circular rather than linear because you just reach a point when you are so tired that you’re awake. I hit that point at Newark Airport as we waited for the customs official to stamp Penelope’s passport making her a U.S. citizen. We gather our luggage. Our friends Nick and Amy and their two children meet us at the airport. Nick suggests we stop for Chinese food on the way home. Bern and I look at each other nervously. I consider opening the sliding door of the minivan and splattering myself across the interstate. Bern, more rational than I, simply begs off.

We arrive home and the place is festooned with balloons, banners, flowers, crepe paper streamers and food for the next few days, courtesy of Amy and another neighbor, Karen. We’re home five minutes when Karen, her husband James and their son show up on our doorstep. I wonder if Amy has a bat signal rigged to the top of their car but I learn later that Amy employs the much more conventional cellphone when I’m not looking. I open a nice bottle of red wine I’ve been saving for a special occasion, and we toast.

We all walk to Karen’s barn so Penelope can pet the horses and get scared out of her wits by their German Shepherd. I imagine Penelope snatching my cellphone, contacting the Chinese embassy and demanding she be immediately returned to the Mother country.

Darkness clings to the tree branches and the older children are dancing around the backyard with sparklers. I’m holding my daughter as the night begins in our first day in America.

The day is ending, yet a new day has begun.