Monday, July 30, 2007

The Meeting I Made

Truly friends, have things changed. Among the many ills brought about by commuting is the fragmentation of communities that disproportionately depend on long commutes for their economy. Where I live, where the average commute runs someplace in the 90-minute range (which usually means New York City), there's really no way that anyone wants to come home after such a slog and figure out how to attend the library board meeting, the school night, the church concert, etc. As County Planning Commissioner David Church put it:
"People just can't make the commitment," says Church, who notes that many towns — and his department — schedule meetings later and later, hoping for better attendance. All that time commuting is a big reason why volunteer fire departments and ambulance corps from Blooming Grove to Bloomingburg are hurting for members. "Communities lack the connectedness. It's less of a democracy."

That was my lot for the last four years. Last month, I changed jobs, and changed commutes....

And this evening, at a very civilized 7:30, my wife and I sat down in the Hamptonburgh Town Hall to hear the Orange County Water Authority's presentation on the regional impacts of climate change. The keynote speaker was Dr. Patrick Kinney of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, who summarized a recent report on climate change projections for the northeast. The host was Simon Gruber, head of the Water Authority and on every local green's rolodex. And I had the pleasure of saying hello to Mr. Church, who continually advocates for smart development in the county.

It was precisely the meeting I wanted to attend, to feel like part of the space up here, to listen to people who knew something about the air I breathe and the water I drink and who understand how to keep those things working properly. But it was time that allowed it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How It Went Down (A Father's Perspective)

The parents of a very pregnant woman who lived with me last year had come to visit so as to be on hand for the birth of their third grandchild (sorry I keep pausing, although you can't tell, but I'm eating some fried chicken while I'm writing this and it's hard to get the best fried gristle bits out of the ribcage without using both hands and then wiping down so's not to spoil the pretty Mac keyboard, anyhoo). That was a Thursday evening, I guess, and Friday morning my mother-in-law woke up with a numb leg. We took her over to the hospital down the street (the hospital where my wife was born, incidentally, but which no longer has a birthing center) and they looked her over for a day or two, ruling some things out, but leaving plenty of options on the table.

So it was Wednesday the following week, a year ago today as it happens, and the plan today was to get Mom down to Columbia Presbyterian in New York City, or maybe she was already there? I don't remember, but anyway, my wife was planning to go down there and visit her, with the boy and the belly. We had a backup plan for watching the boy when we had to go to the hospital, which was my sister would come up from the city when we called.

In any case, it was Wednesday and I was down at work, and my wife had gone and bought a cell phone for herself, and she and the boy and the belly were about to mosey on down to the city, and if I don't get some dialogue in here this post is going to fall asleep. So she called me at some point.

"I feel weird," she said.

"Having-a-baby weird or uncomfortable-in-these-clothes weird?"

"Eventually having-a-baby weird, but not yet. More like, some contractions, but pretty much like Braxton-Hicks ones, but something's definitely in the works. I mean, I lost my mucous plug. But it's definitely not soon."


"Maybe, but not anytime soon. I guess it can't hurt for me to go down to the hospital to visit, right? I mean, at least I'll be at a hospital," she said.

And down they went, and around 1:00 she called and said something like "Hmm. Maybe it would be easier if instead of taking the train home, you just caught a cab up here and drove us home."

"Are you having a baby? Should we stay at Columbia?"

"Oh, heavens no," she said. "Let's just go home. After all, Our Friend Who Is A Nurse is bringing over that really good pasta and chicken dish."

"True dat," I replied, or words to that effect. I called my sister at her office.

"How'd you like to come to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital?"

"Uhhh, sure, I guess. Any particular reason?"

"I think it's today, and That Pregnant Woman Who Lives With Me is there and I figure I'll drive her and the boy home. But don't worry, a nurse is bringing us dinner at home tonight."

"Uhh. Okay."

Two cabs later we were having a nice chat with my Mother in Law (ideopathic transverse myelitis! go figure) and wrapping up the visit and heading home. It was all very relaxing and nice. We got home. Our Friend Who Is A Nurse came over a little while later. She and my sister busied themselves making the chicken and pasta. We made sure we had a bag packed. We hung around.

"How's it going?"

"Oh, you know, little contraction every once in a while," she said.

"Sure," I said. I'm smooth like that. "Little contraction. Roger."

So we sit down to this meal and let me tell you, Our Friend Who Is A Nurse is not just a nurse, she can cook like the dickens (she's also a star athelete and a potter and a baker extraordinaire and you don't want to get into a garden contest with her and she's on the library board a couple of towns over from here and I don't know how she does it but anyway) so we tucked in to that chicken and pasta.

That increasingly pregnant but-about-not-to-be woman came in from the salon with a fluffy bathtowel and sat on it and served herself seconds and said something like "we got water," and then something like "this pasta and chicken is delicious."

At this point, we all stared at her. "Just what the hell is going on here?" I asked.

"Huh?" she said, mouth full of food. "Nothing, I'm just really hungry." She put down her fork. "Think I should call the doctor?"

She called the office and they paged the goofball on duty and he said something like "sure yeah right whatever are you in any pain how far apart are the contractions, you say your water just broke, call me when it hurts" or whatever.

"Hey," I said. "Where IS the hospital anyway?" I pushed my plate away and wiped my hands on a napkin (actually I just did that now because of the chicken, but it's atmospheric, no?). "Do we have a map?" I asked my sister.

She stared at me. No help at all.

My wife was back on the phone with the doctor. "Well, it'll take us a little while to get there," she said. "Oh yeah? Sure, I'll hold."

"Hey, honey," I said. "It ought to take us about forty minutes, I guess. How're you doing?"

She was having cute little contractions, but didn't seem to mind. They still had her on hold.

Then I heard her do a little inadvertant Lamaze breath, and I thought something like holy shit — this feels just like denial! Just then Our Friend Who Is A Nurse walked over and murmured something like "think maybe it's time you guys hit the road?" I nodded.

That's when it sped up. I grabbed the phone out of my wife's hand, she started doing a LOT of Lamaze breathing, we ran outside and bundled her into the car, friend, sister and boy in tow and screeched out of the driveway. The boy yelled from the porch in a sudden panic "WHAT TIME SHOULD I GO TO BED!?"

"8!" We didn't even have time to spell out the word, is how fast we were going!

My car is a, how you say, heap, and I pushed it to 85 the entire way, and sure enough it was a 40-minute drive and we had entertaining conversation as it became apparent that things were Much Further Along than we'd thought. Chat like:

"Don't push!" and

"I'm going to have this fucking baby in the car!"

I got the doctor on the phone -- I was remarkably calm, I thought, driving 85 in a stick on a dark highway with one hand, doing Lamaze coaching out of one side of my mouth, talking to a lackadaisickal doctor on a cell phone out the other. I asked if he thought they ought to alert an ambulance corps on the way, or maybe the police. Calm radiated outward from the phone. He wasn't concerned. Everything was going to be okay, except that I was going to smash the phone hard enough to make his head hurt because dammit, my wife said she's going to HAVE THE BABY NOW and WE'RE NOT AMATEURS, we're DONE THIS BEFORE, she was CONSCIOUS THEN and SHE REMEMBERS WHAT IT'S LIKE.

I'd bought that car on eBay, as previously mentioned, for $2,500. Goooooood car. We pulled into the emergency entrance — practically INTO the emergency entrance — and I hopped out and ran around to get my wife out. Some dude did one of those Hollywood "hey, you can't park he—" deals as I ran inside calling for a wheelchair.

They tried to hand me paperwork while I wheeled my wife along a corridor asking where the maternity ward and Doctor McChill were located and while my wife did the end-stage no-pushing breathing. I tried to explain that I wasn't a panicky first-time dad convinced the baby was coming when it wasn't, but was in fact a panicky second-time dad who had some idea that they were about to have a messy desk area, and that we weren't going to flee without doing paperwork.

We entered the birthing room with nurses in tow. Despite about an hour's warning, they hadn't set anything up yet. Doctor Cool ambled in, chuckling, and had my wife lie down.

"Well now, let's just take a look and see what all the fu---ck!" he said, or something like that. "Okay, don't push!" A stream of commands and the rapid setup of ping-machines followed, my wife pushed for a few minutes and presto.

A girl. Happy birthday, Little.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Agricultural Education

It seems so much longer ago than May that I lamented not being able to get a skilled person in to turn our strangely unadorned staircase into a gentle bumpitty slide made of safety and pillows. And yet. Here we are a mere three monthsish later, and spindles now stand proudly alongside the formerly open staircase. The little one, a cruiser now, will soon find herself blocked by a gate, actually anchored to actual wood and wood by-products, which will open and shut smoothly to the mute request of an adult hand.

It's about pace, I think. Our lawn has been mowed these last few weeks, by a professional. Months ago it seemed as though it simply wouldn't ever happen again — that I might have to go out and buy a lawn mower (again) and do it (again) myself. Shudder. An engineer came a couple of weeks ago and recommended some simple fixes the town could undertake that might help our drainage problems. The dining room seems to have painted itself, against all odds. These things just...happened.

Humans plant seeds, and then we wait. But part of our brains — scientists call it the renuflexum diaptor — doesn't understand the concept of pacing. In this part of the brain, the seed is already corn on the cob and goddammit the renuflexum diaptor wants its corn NOWYOUHEARMENOW. But really, three months? Nothing. It's the interval between the T and the H in nothing.

Sometimes we don't even know we've planted the seed. We just have a vague want, a whiny wish, a momentary whim. And unconsciously, our will bends that way. We enact some tiny change here, make a single phone call there, do a Google search about that thing we wondered about that one time. We write a little list in our special Notebook of Ideas. "Someday/Maybe," David Allen calls this list. We often don't know anything is even growing, until one day our cabinets are painted, or we're in a farmhouse in France, or getting published in the LA Times, or having a kid, or scheduling a book signing, or reporting to a new job.

Check your soil. What are you watering?


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Hours

"We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems."

Apparently Lee Iacocca said that. I vaguely remember Lee Iacocca as some kind of 1980s presence, an avuncular but untrustworthy corporate magnate, often confused in my pre-adolescent mind with John DeLorean. In any case, Lee had long been off my mind until he was brought back via Weight Watchers, when my leader recited the quote above. Each meeting has an "inspirational close," you see, and this one came early in my weight loss. Not very long afterwards, we moved upstate and I began commuting to my job in Manhattan.

Throughout the four years that I commuted via bus and train, two hours at a shot, toting a laptop, I tried to apply Lee's wisdom to that particular problem. Not just Lee's. Anyone's wisdom who would listen. My Twitter bio explains it: "I talk about commuting almost as much as I talk about not commuting." My cell phone was always handy to call a friend and complain. When the bus was too crowded to call, I'd whip open the laptop and write about it. And write letters to friends. And write personal essays. Do a little work. Look through old pictures. Listen to music. Outline novels. Begin humor books. Read. Nod off. Always in search of that elusive "opportunity" presented by an hour and a half trapped in a metal canister moving painfully slowly along New York's motorways or rails. What, oh what, was the hidden treasure inside this soul-sucking disguise?

With my new, shorter commute, I have noticed something: it's hard to write when you have so much more time. Time to sleep, at home, in your bed. Time to play with the kids. Time to help with the chores. Time to go to sleep, at a reasonable time, at home, in your bed.

This time, at least, I'm in no doubt as to my opportunities. They're not very well disguised.

Jump down. Turn around.

So we saw that Al Gore picture and then we switched to a cloth diaper service. (Although some stats claim that disposables use less energy in total, that's not true.)

And let me tell you. They're harder to use, they stink a LOT once they gang up at the end of the service week, and they're not that much fun individually, as you have to sort of process one at every changing (unless daycare saves 'em for you...then you get to handle them all at once, in a sort of rancid salad with ammonia dressing).

Certainly I'm not the first to write about this -- I understand the mommies have quite the blog thing going -- but the simple fact is that it IS ONE HUNDRED PERCENT WORTH IT. Maybe it's because a very conscientious woman who lives with me does the bulk of the heavy lifting on the diaper front (and back). Or perhaps it's the sense of satisfaction we get from not tossing out dozens of little toxic plastic sausages every week, each loaded with a stank center. As the primary garbage-taker-outer, I can attest that it's better this way.

And that bulky baby butt clad in a cumbersome diaper is considerably more cute.

Monday, July 16, 2007

RIP, Sean O'Neill

The city of Utica, New York, was the scene of a massive race a week ago Sunday, with more than 10,000 people running 15 kilometers in the annual festival/race called the Boilermaker. Sadly, one young runner fell victim to a previously-undetected heart arrhythmia and collapsed on the course. He was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.

Several of his friends ran the last 3 1/2 miles for him a few days afterwards.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Animal Control

I'm in a hotel parking lot in Utica when the phone rings. It's HQ.

"There's a fucking bat in the house."

It's tempting to say that this kind of thing always happens when I'm away, but that wouldn't be true. The creatures pretty much feel free to come and go as they please around here. From the deer having a snooze in the driveway around dusk, to the possums murdering one another just outside the bedroom window, to the snakes lounging in the cellar staircase, the animal kingdom is goverened under the su casa=mi casa rule.

This particular animal is the only one of the household variety that gives me the willies. Oh sure, I hates me the possums, because they look like they'd be happy to slit your throat and drink your blood, and I'm afraid of bears because they kill people occasionally, but bats look like all they want to do is crawl up your pants leg and scrabble around, squeaking. Ghhhah.

In other words, there are times when one's glad to be in Utica, and this was one of them. At ease in my distance from the bat, I offered some lame advice ("get the neighbors") and proceeded about my business. Later I got the update.

"We couldn't find it inside, but we saw one outside." We concluded that this must've been the one that was inside, and now it was outside, case closed, goodbye unwelcome mammal of the night. I returned Sunday evening and checked inside the fireplace, shining a flashlight around and into a quarter-inch-wide crack in the bricks — where I saw a bat wedged in like it had been poked in there with a stick.

The willies came back. So I got the Equipment: safety goggles, long screwdriver, work gloves, duct tape around the pants legs (kidding). I went back and the bat was gone. So I laid a fire and let 'er rip. A good smoky fire ought to flush out order Chiroptera.

A couple of hours later, after a nice meal and pleasant company, I went back over there and listened to the scrabbling and squeaking of at least one healthy bat. I looked back into the fireplace and saw this:

So I grabbed the camera, to show how brave I am gloves, grasped the bat gently but firmly, and tossed it out into the yard.

This morning, on my way to work, I stopped to help a turtle cross the road. It peed all the way across.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Bursting in Air

Last night, alerted between downpours by thunderous warning shots from the pending fireworks display on the town land next door, the boy and I trudged through the woods -- down a freshly weed-whacked path through poison ivy and other nefarious plants -- to the field behind the library from which much water flows.

Flashback to February 2006; an observant woman who lives with me is taking a walk around this house, looking at the roof from the yard. "What's that six-foot scorch mark?" she asks the realtor showing the place. There is an ugly black scar spanning eight or ten rows of shingle.

"Hoooo-eeee, they don't make chimneys like that anymore," says the woman, pointing at another house.

"No, no, THAT scorchmark," says my wife, pointing to the scorch mark on this house.

"And it's a whole third of an acre," explains the realtor. "Plenty of room to expand."

"Hey, is that from the fireworks you guys told us are so close?" I venture.

"Shall we look at the cellar?" she asks. "They've just put in a fabulous Be-Dri™ system down there. Bone. Dry."

So we get out there, in the rain, and the fireworks start. Like small-town fireworks everywhere they're half-baked, going off occasionally, sometimes in sequence, sometimes not high enough. A bunch of us crowd under the overhang on the public library to evade both the rain and the falling ash. A couple of big ones explode about thirty feet up. The pall of smoke sometimes fogs our view, but the smell of the gunpowder is nice.

They do two finales, but we've already started back before we realize there's a final barrage. I'm stepping through dense undergrowth cautiously, my comrade ahead of me with the light. Vivid flashes, accompanied by ear-shattering crashes, slam into us and light our way. The boy, wearing earplugs, seems more or less unfazed, or perhaps numbed. The breeze kicks up at our back, and the shadows of trees stand out stark, like tall strangers in the mist around us, and still this last volley continues, BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG, each percussion picking out every stem of oily weed and jagged thorn as we hasten through the undergrowth back to the house.

In the morning there are busted pieces of rocket, shreds of paper, wisps of fuse and string, all of it smoky, scorched, blackened. On the cars, on the lawn, hanging in the trees. There are only a couple of pieces on the roof, which was fortunately well soaked by the rain.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Who's Your Nerd? Say it!

Only 5,000 subscribers were able to send their pictures in to Wired in order to appear on the cover of their personal copy for the July "personalization" issue. That's a measure of something, isn't it?