I set the table for breakfast each day according to a familiar pattern. First I fill the three vitamin cups – breakfast, lunch, dinner – four regimens from seven bottles. The latest addition is a child-dose aspirin, once a day at lunch for me, or rather, for my circulatory system.
Why this is necessary is something of a mystery. I do not drink or smoke. I do not eat meat or much sweets. Perhaps I don’t get nearly enough exercise. At 41 years old with a sedentary job I might be softening, but I am not more than five pounds over my college weight. Yet my family has gifted me with genes. My younger brother just had triple bypass surgery at 39 years old, three years after my father had the very same operation. My mother’s mother and all her siblings died early of coronaries. All my siblings and parents are on Lipitor for high cholesterol levels. Combine this with my first slightly not-OK cholesterol reading last year, and my doctor, who adores my children and wants them to always have a father, is prescribing aggressive prevention treatment.
So, one aspirin in the middle vitamin cup, which today happens to be the translucent red cup. It fits in between all the multi-vitamins, calciums, and Vitamin Cs. The only one that doesn’t go in a cup is children’s chewable, broken in half, for Samuel who still doesn’t have all his teeth. I crush on the counter with the flat of a butter knife and mix it in some applesauce. Screw the cups together and place them in the middle of the dining table where, more often than not, we won’t forget them.
Then the drinks: tap water, filtered water from the fridge, and hot tea for Dawn, only I never remember to start it in time, so I fill the kettle and leave it on the stove burner for her to deal with later. No juice – too much sugar. Our favorite published pediatrician says children can have juice when they’re old enough to go out and buy it for themselves.
Next the cereal, which includes a wide assortment of choices from the co-op. Community food co-ops in the 80’s still carried unprocessed, unrefined, organic cereals that resembled brown silage. Not surprisingly they did not sell well, so the sugar content has slowly increased over the years, until they nearly reach the threshold of the superhero and cartoon cereals that glow in neon colors and stain children’s teeth. Of course, the cereal from the co-op does not contain “sugar” or “corn sweeteners.” Instead it contains “organic dehyrated cane syrup.” But I am not fooled. Sugar is sugar is sugar.
Next the utensils – bowls, spoons, bibs, tray, cups. The first big decision of the day for Rose is the color of the bowl, after she has spent anywhere from ten seconds to fifteen minutes about how awful we are to make her get it herself. However, she will select her color and announce her decision to everyone. Then the milk – skim for me and almond milk for Dawn who cannot drink cow milk. She is still nursing Samuel who is allergic to cow milk and left blood in his diapers to prove it. No milk for Rose or Samuel who prefer their cereal dry.
A banana for Samuel. Or sometimes a ripe pear. He eats them faster than we can cut them up for him, so either Dawn or I won’t get to eat right away. The tea kettle sings. Something else is forgotten – a baby spoon or a honey drizzler. Requests for more cereal, more fruit, more water. We are up and down from the table to the refrigerator or stove or cabinets and back again, and over again. I play the vitamin game with Rose (“Don’t eat that vitamin! Don’t do it! Stop! What are you doing! Argh!”)
Unless, of course, the children aren’t hungry. Then Rose tries to poke holes in the placemat with her fork while Samuel, moving with the speed and determination of a construction crane, carefully moves bites of cereal and bits of banana from his high chair tray to the floor, one at a time. Rose is either surly or perky, depending on the sleep last night and the weather outdoors. There is no inbetween. This morning however, she is thoughtful. She has a question to ask. Her multigrain Mighty Bites lay ignored in her orange bowl. I will later put them in an plastic Avent bottle for her to eat on the way home from preschool. She is staring out the window without really seeing anything. In her mind, words are stringing together like beaded chains into phrases and sentences. They start to come out half-formed.
“Papa? On my birthday… next year … when I’m five …”
Another pause for reflection. At this point she will either tell me what’s on her mind, or get distracted, shout out something absurd like “Goo Goo Bird!” and laugh uproariously. This never fails to catch Samuel’s attention who also laughs, spreads his food across his tray wiping his hands across like a windshield wiper, and ends all thought of eating anything else that morning. I hold my breath.
“Papa, on my fifth birthday….”
“Yes, Rose. I’m listening.” Relieved.
“Will you buy me an F-eighteen super hornet fighter jet?”
Anthony, the teacher’s aide at Montessori has been talking and showing pictures from the air show he went to. “You want an F-18 Super Hornet?”
“Yeah. I want to fly it around the house. Zoooom!”
“Well, if I can find an F-18 for under fifty dollars, and you still want it by next April, I’ll buy it for you.”
“If you’re sure you want it.”
“Yes, Papa. I do!”
My father was a master of literalist humor. He made you watch your words, not out of any grammatical Puritanism (that was my mother’s job), but he enjoyed the humor of it and passed that love on to his sons. We laughed at the absurdities he highlighted in our language even as we affected embarrassment over it. But Rose is still too young to appreciate this humor. It scares her very literal mind. You cannot play “Got Your Nose” with her because she gets mad or scared. “NO! That’s my nose and you can’t have it. I need it to breathe.” Still, I can play within the limits.
The work day passes in sullen phone conversations. We have a project. My boss and I talk across one continent and three time zones. He is nervous. He is anxious. He wants reassurance and control. He has given me what he believes passes for a User Requirements document. It probably works very well for the client who doesn’t need to worry about details and consequences, but I need to create a Technical Design from it. There are many holes in the document. Much miscommunication on the phone. Much tired sighing from having to repeat what he thinks is obvious. Finally, he asks me to just design a particular user interface and call him back to discuss it.
First I need a break. I go to the bathroom. I get some water. I switch a load of laundry. There are grandparents visiting and I stop briefly to be social, or at least not to be rude. They are not from the East Coast. They grew up in a time when passing a neighbor without an hello was a serious breach of protocol. Ten minutes later I return to the office/bedroom and create the design. I am proud of it, because it meets all the requirements I know of and a few others I know will be needed. But now I need to call my boss back. It is Vermont in early summer, a warm sunny day and the windows are open. I pray no one decides to mow their lawn. I call and describe the user design.
He doesn’t like it. It is obvious, though he doesn’t say that. Instead he asks me to describe it again in detail. He interrupts frequently and asks me to justify certain design decisions. The conversation begins to spin out of control on several tangents. It’s like this: I say something – he misunderstands and asks a question in return which is unrelated to what I was trying to say. Do I walk down this tangent with him or do I try to force the conversation back to my point? This happens in reverse as well. He isn’t mad (nor am I). He isn’t abusive (nor am I). We are polite, but frustrated. His voice is quiet, calm, with yet more sighs and pauses. Then tones of impatience. He doesn’t see that he is contradicting things he has said in the past. But no one likes to have their own words flung in their face, so I try to avoid pointing this out because it just interrupts the flow and creates more tangents.
I stumble and justify and forge on as politely as I can. I feel stupid and hot in the face. The children start screaming somewhere outside the door. I move with the cordless phone over to the closet where I sit huddled near piles of damp-smelling laundry, one finger pressed in my ear, the spine of my back pressing against the wooden closet trim.
My boss is now walking me through an alternative design. He wants to know why we can’t do it this new way. We can. No reason we can’t. I ask why and instantly regret it. He lists more user requirements that I’ve never read or heard of before. I didn’t choose to do it that way because I didn’t know all these user requirements he is now describing to me. Fine, let’s do it that way.
I simply do not understand why he didn’t design the user interface himself. It sounds like he knows exactly what he wants. Why drag me through this humiliating exercise?
This happens once a year when the deadlines are pressing and the work is expanding. This is not like my boss. Normally our working relationship is friendly, respectful, efficient, humorous. Last week we had an annual review with glowing praise on both sides. I told him how much I value the flexibility he allows me telecommuting and the independence he (usually) allows me. He said I’m the only one in the company whose job he can’t do. He knows it wouldn’t be easy to replace me. But today, I am wondering if he wishes he could.
Our conversation peters out. We have wrestled the design back to his corner and we are both exhausted, headaches coming on. A separate part of my mind has observed the conversation from a distance, knowing it was absurd, helpless to change its disasterous course, reassured that this will be forgotten in a month. He is doing the same. We have a weak laugh over this. More of a quiet snort. But the full design isn’t complete, and we know will likely do the same thing tomorrow. I turn off the phone, leave the closet, and come out to see my family and guests who have been waiting an hour so they could have dinner with me.
That evening after dinner the grandparents take the children outside to run around, and I decided that despite their gracious help in the kitchen all week, I am going to clean the dishes. Normally it is my job anyway, and I need a mindless task in a quiet sunlit room without any human interaction. Dawn agrees, and she also wants to give our guests a break. But I am barely started when she interrupts to say we have to get the children to bed. It is late.
Everyone tromps in, and I say to Granny as she heads for the sink, “Granny, tonight I am going to do the dishes. Please go relax and don’t touch them.”
She is a midwesterner, the oldest of many siblings, who spent her life cooking, cleaning, sewing, and caring for children. Her dialect is as rich and authentic as the “Collarada” mountains she comes from. She has a particular heart-ache she is carrying around these days and has as much need as I, if not more, to keep busy with mindless tasks. But tonight I am feeling selfish.
She turns to look me in the face. “Are you sure?” she asks in disbelief. I suddenly realize I could be insulting her. She has done the dishes every night she has been visiting. Does she think that I am telling her she hasn’t done a good job? I press on anyway.
“Yes, please.” I answer.
She smiles. Genuine. After decades of housework, she won’t turn down the opportunity. “OK, they’re all yours.” I think she means it. I think. I go help Rose put away a few toys, and walk by the kitchen just in time to catch Granny putting two glasses in the dishwasher.
“Granny, I said I would do the dishes!”
She smiles shyly, caught in the act. She doesn’t look me in the eye. “Oh, I was just puttin’ away a few glasses, is all.”
I do not snarl, but my hackles get up. Without thinking, without caring if its sounds rude or mean, I say “Granny, get out of my kitchen!” It just feels good to not hold back the frustration for the first time today.
“Yes, sir,” she laughs. I think she salutes. Granddaddy is also in the kitchen the whole time, putting away his camera. He doesn’t understand why his son-in-law, who is working a full-time job, raising two young children, and doing night duty with the baby (so he will remain night-weaned) – why would I possibly want to do the dishes on top of all that? And the only answer that comes to me is the one I give Rose when no better answer is at hand.
“Because I asked her nicely.”
He frowns, puzzled, but then laughs. “Well, it didn’t sound so nice to me.”
Granny rescues me, “Oh, you weren’t around when he asked me the first time.” She truly is relieved that I meant it. She really doesn’t have to do the dishes. Hallelujah!
I wait until they leave the kitchen, assured it will still look that way when I get to it later. I return to the bathroom to give Rose her bath. She is waiting. Thoughtful again. She sits on her stool and obediently opens her mouth so I can brush her teeth. Thirty times on each tooth, though I do them in pairs, because they stain easily and get cruddy and sensitive. I check the bath water and turn it down to cold before she undresses.
The familiar pause.
“On my next birthday… on my fifth birthday, would you get me a trunk of clothes for my new teddy bear?”
Suddenly my head clears. This is so absurd and unexpected, I want to laugh, but I don’t. I am too experienced a father to hurt her feelings that way.
“Now wait a minute, Rose. Do you want a trunk of clothes for your birthday, or do you want an F-18 Super Hornet fighter jet?”
She stops undressing, because she has to think about this for a full fifteen seconds.
“A trunk of clothes for my bear.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Papa. I’m sure.”
I grab the ends of her sleeves so she can pull her arms out. “Now, Rose. If I can’t find a trunk of clothes for your bear, are you going to be OK with an F-18 Super Hornet? You won’t be disappointed?”
“As long as it is big enough so bear can be my copilot.”
“OK, that works for me.”
And she steps gingerly into the warm water.