Saturday, July 23, 2011


Currently: eating a bowl of Fruit N' Fibre, Tesco brand (the English version of generic, cheapest of cheap). Here, we can buy a 750g box of fruity, fiber-y goodness for £1.29, roughly the equivalent of two bucks. That's a heck of a lot of fibre (or fiber) and dried fruit per penny.

Cereal has always been an active part of my nightlife. Forget drinking pints. Forget chocolate cake. Forget dried grape leaves dampened with mist and elongated by bruschetta made from freshly picked and diced tomatoes after having been sprinkled with homegrown pressed garlic and a touch of oregano.

No. I'm talking about the milky goodness of cereal--its perfect balance of refreshing, cold taste-thrilling joy, along with all the stability of a full meal (or dessert) in a bowl.

And consider: a bowl is a wonderful symbol of life--its circular symmetry, its concave (or convex, depending on your perspective) presence, its willingness to hold steady in the face of all danger.

When I was in high school, I began eating a bowl of cereal every night. Now, thirteen years later, the habit continues (for which Jen deserves serious commendations for hearing my chomping, slurping, cereal-loving sounds emanate each night of our lives together).

Tonight, I sing the praises of cereal as one of those always-present, seldom-thanked-properly companions. I'm grateful. I'm content. I'm sitting on a couch that is half red flannel, half beige cloth (not joking: this is our couch where we rent) and I'm typing these words as, beside me, sits a bowl of Fruit N' Fibre. Half-eaten. And I'm struck by the joy of small things.

The joy of cereal.

This past week, a deal came through for a book at which I've been at work, entitled Keep Calm and Query On: Notes on Writing (and Living) with Hope. And I can't get a cover image of the original 1939 British poster as the book's cover out of my mind. And it's exciting, and I'm grateful. Very grateful. It's a neat book (well, at least, I think so!) with interviews from writers I deeply admire and am inspired by--people like John Robinson, Jane Smiley, Robert Pinsky, Daniel Handler, Lindsey Collen, George Saunders, and others.

But the thing is this: there's the cereal. Always the cereal, which leads to an important truth: being thankful for the fiber--content with the fiber, really--is what matters most. Everything else is fun and enjoyable as well, yes, but I want to live in that stable place where I can look down into a bowl of cereal, thank God for its milky wonder, and eat while closing my eyes as I slurp (far too loudly) another bite.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Real Voice Percentages

Three years ago, I seldom spoke in a voice other than my own. Unless I happened to be feeling particularly excitable with my 7th graders (or had consumed far too much coffee), I generally spoke in my own, natural, low, sometimes-sounds-like-I-have-a-cold-even-though-I-don't voice.

Over the last three years I have watched my real voice percentage decline on an almost daily basis.

Case in point: before Tyler was born, I'd say my real voice percentage was at about 97%. Thus, only 3% of the time did I use the voices of cows, astronauts, or trees.

During Tyler's first year of life, that percentage fell to about 70%. I found myself excited to make trucks talk as they drove past us, get the inside scoop from a cookie, or hear from the oft-ignored various furniture items in any given abode.

During Tyler's second year of life, the real voice percentage fell to about 60%, as the need to distract Tyler from things he wanted that would not be safe (i.e. chain saws, various electrical outlets and plugs, sharp objects) grew enormously.

Now, in Tyler's third and most vigorous year of living yet, I find that my real voice percentage has dropped to about 40% most days. Considering Tyler's recent acquisition of a baby doll that we purchased for two pounds at an annual fair, this real voice percentage is likely to drop substantially in the days and weeks ahead.

And an eerie thing has happened in the past few days: I almost forget which voice is mine.

Case in point # 2: Tyler and I are walking home from playgroup, only ten minutes away (walking at a normal pace; however, thirty-five minutes walking at Tyler/Daddy-pace).

Tyler: "Flowers, you want me to stop and talk with you?"

Daddy (Flowers) in high pitch: "Yes! Yes! Talk to us about all the trucks and ice cream!"

Tyler: "Okay. I like uptrucks! I like ice cream! You like uptrucks? You like ice cream?"

Daddy (Flowers) in normal voice: "Yes, we like uptrucks and ice cream!"

Tyler: No, no, no, no, no--I want to talk with the Flowers now, Daddy. I will talk to you later."

And so I find myself mixing up the voices of the Flowers, the newly-acquired baby, the various truck-vehicles, and other inanimate objects like favorite trees, certain bushes, and sleeping cats.

But even while the real voice percentage plummets, the opposite trend has been developing in writing. I find myself writing sillier and sillier picture books, stranger and stranger stories and novel ideas, and ever-more-honest journal entries (even when they're really, really hard to write about the tough emotions and the places I'd rather not visit).

Perhaps in losing a bit of my natural voice, there is another kind of voice that arrives, too.

However, I'd be lying if I didn't report that it was beautiful to meet another dad yesterday at the playground and have a normal, one-on-one conversation with another human being who didn't expect me to make the slide sing or the rocks tell a story. I see the need to remember that it's okay to sometimes say, "I'm wiped, man. How are you?"

And in admitting the need to let all of the adventure rest for a bit, it returns later, with more energy, vigor, and--yes--even lower real voice percentages.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Purple Man

We first met him seven months ago, after we had been in York for only a couple of months. Fraught with the culture shock, not-having-a-car-shock, and a general litany of other shocks (as small as no discussion of American politics to an inability to find a number of American books we wanted to read), our early time in York certainly left us with the lingering question, What in the heck have we done!?

And in response to this question, there was Purple Man. (See his website here.)

He rides an eternally immovable bike. (Purple.) He wears an endlessly blowing necktie. (Also purple.) His face evidences a thin layer of stubble and a massive smile. (Yes: purple.)

We see him most frequently on Stonegate, embodying the very essence of joy as he sits atop his bike, first fixed, then moving to say hello to some tourist visiting York, only to bring them closer, whisper conspiratorially, and then raise his bucket of paint and paintbrush.

"Would you like me to paint your hair?" he asks, in such a kind voice and with such a clever smile that no tourist--or local, for that matter--can resist.

The cameras flash. The Flip videos record. An audience of onlookers raise their hands to their mouths.

It wasn't until after Purple Man had painted Tyler's, Jennifer's, and my hair that we realized the paint on his brush is dry. He smiles with glee at the excitement of it all--the uncertainty as to whether or not you've actually been painted.

After the first time, Tyler began calling for Purple Man every time we went into the city.

"T-Man, what do you want to do in the city today?"

"I want to go see Purple Man."

"And then what?"

"Then I want to see Purple Man."

"And after we say hi to Purple Man, would you like to go to the library?"

"No, I just want to see Purple Man after I go to see Purple Man. We can do that one?"


And thus our little York experiment took on a new life. A new energy. Purple Man came to represent, for us, a kind of living that included telling any setbacks, Hey, Dude! Watch Out! We;re not giving up. We're not giving in. So what if we have to hang our clothes outside to dry in the rain? So what if we have to walk 45 minutes to church? So what if feeling a gas pedal beneath my right foot and getting somewhere--anywhere--fast feels like an impossible dream? We're sticking this one out. We're going purple.

Why else, after all, would someone decide to paint themselves purple, smile at people he doesn't know, and make them laugh? Why else but to share one small piece of something we all know to be true about this thing called life: joy.

Joy. We can most of us complain for hours on end about how hard certain events are, certain discomforts, certain having-to-do-withouts. But in the final analysis (whenever that is, and whether it takes place in a Graduate-level college classroom, or along some distant shore on a beach while the tide comes in) we've got a heck of a lot to be thankful for--a heck of lot of joy to embrace. For one thing: the color purple. (And yes, The Color Purple, too.)

Purple Man never gives advice on how to make it through the tough times. He doesn't wax poetic about the glimmers of hope or the cracks of despair. Nor does he recommend books, movies, or therapists.

He sits on his bikes, paints your hair purple, and smiles. Which, in my mind, is just about as good, if not better, most days.

Thanks, Purple Man.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


When I was an undergrad studying in England ten years ago, I had a tutorial in the Romantic poets. Like a lot of young, single, helplessly hopeless college-age students, I fell in love with them and with what they told me about love.

And beauty.

Keats's line, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" stays with me from that tutorial not just because I thought it was a remarkable line but also, I confess, because it appeared in the film White Men Can't Jump. So we begin today's blog with Keats's analysis of beauty: that it lasts forever. Onto that premise, we add Tyler: age two and a half, in two scenes from our day today.

Scene One: The sky wavers regarding its decision to rain. Dark clouds hover like middle-aged men at a poker table, unsure whether to bluff this hand through or fold. Patches of blue open up like doors held ajar for visitors. Tyler swings with abandon. Beside him is Analin, a four year old girl whose mom has brought her to the park after picking her up from nursery school.

Analin's mother and I make small-talk. The usual. Yes, we're from Boston. Yes, I like being a home-dad. Oh? Your daughter has a scrape on her knee? (Tyler announces that he has a boo-boo on his foot, joining the discussion.) Analin's mother blushes. Yes, we call them boo-boos in America. Silly, I know.


The kids swing. Higher and higher. I smile.

Tyler stares at Alanin for a long time as her swinging comes to match his (or vice-versa). Then, he turns to me and says, "Her dress is pretty, Daddy."

Yes. It is . It is beautiful. I smile and Analin's mother reports, "He's already a charmer, isn't he?" When I glance back at my son, the smile he wears charms me and I respond in the affirmative.

Scene Two:

Bath time. Pasta sauce covers Tyler's face, having taken up residence there about twenty minutes ago when Tyler decided that a fork proved too cumbersome a device with which to do all the heavy lifting of his pasta. Instead, his clenched fingers made a much better tool.

Tyler stands naked before the tub, hot water coursing in like our very own Niagara Falls on Lesley Avenue. Then Tyler: "I have to do some poops on the pot!" It is a triumphant realization--a joyful occasion, and not just because he learned that by doing poops on the pot he would be rewarded with a blueberry muffin after he had done a plentiful amount. Somewhere along the line, he came to feel a certain pride about taking part in such an utterly human endeavor, and in doing it so well.

"Okay!" I reply. "Let's do it, dude!"

Tyler hops onto his potty seat, and the plops are immediate. One after the other. And again. And again.

As he conducts his bathroom business, Tyler likes to talk. He enjoys discussing memories from the day, our favorite colors (his: yellow; mine: blue), and generally making observations regarding changes in the general bathroom dynamic ("Where did those stickers go that were right here this morning?").

After pushing and chatting for a while, he lunges off the toilet and then does the inevitable turn to take in the full image of what he's accomplished. Tonight, he is particularly proud.

"Look at all those fixed poops! None of those ones are broken!" (Lingo: fixed = long ones; broken = small bits)

"I know! Wow! That is awesome, Tyler! Well done, son!"

Tyler stares down at the bowl. I offer, "Ready to watch them get flushed down?"

Tyler thinks for a moment, then replies, "No, I want to look at them for a little bit."

Scene Two, Part B: A little bit later.

"Ready to flush those fixed poops down now?"

"NO; I want to leave those poops there so I can look at them some more after my bath again. That's okay?"

I look back at my son. In the same day, he's found beauty in the summer  dress that a four-year old girl wears, and in the poops his little body has crafted. I think for a moment myself.

Then I say what any father who has studied Keats would say.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Places We Pee

Her face is embedded in my memory: the lines drawn each to the sides, cast downward, the painful look, the awful exposure, the ragged clothes, the loss of what she was--might have been. It was Northern Ireland, 2001.

I was walking near the tragic Falls Road, on a side street, and there she was: a woman perhaps forty, dressed in clothes that wore dirt more than she wore them. Crouching on the sidewalk, as dozens of people walked past--peeing. Her teeth gritted. Her face grimaced.

It's a picture of pain. For her. For me. Though it felt undeniably rude to watch, my eye's refused to move. I could have cried. Her eyes met mine, and it seemed as though the light had left them. The only question I could ask was: When? When? When?

Fast forward ten years. The place: Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England. Jen and I, Tyler in tow, and my brother and sister-in-law, Paul and Diana, are on our way to the beach, having taken the 50-minute train ride from York here. The air is warm, with a cold wind that every once in a while lets us know it hasn't departed the day. The storefronts of the main street are busy with people--coffee shops, fish and chips haunts, knick-knack stores, beach balls and buckets everywhere. And casinos. Small ones, flashing lights, beckoning the weary to make a quick buck--or pound, rather.

And as we pass one such storefront casino, I spot the older woman--perhaps sixty--dragging a young boy--maybe five--by the arm from the casino. She stops him near a large crack in the sidewalk, facing the brick wall.

"Go," she says.

He obeys.

The stream of urine shoots from him fast and fluid.

As soon as he starts, she is back through the blinking doors of the casino, heading towards the slots. The boy finishes, then spends his time chasing the urine as it rivulets and gathers and makes it own river down the sidewalk, heading towards the ocean.

Fast forward one week: ten minutes from Lesley Avenue--home. Tyler can't hold it. We look around, anxious to find a place for him to pee. Anxious to prevent an accident, a setback in his potty training regimen.

Nothing. Nowhere.

A small bike path appears on our left, flanked on both sides by the large military base in York. Tall brick walls make for a shaded, secluded space in which to go for it. Barbed wire rolls in currents across the top of both tall walls.

We find an especially secluded spot, and help Tyler pee on some nettles. (They have given us far too many minor injuries already, I figure.)

Tyler feels better. We feel better. No accident. And the walk home is peaceful, calm.

Today, the questions that linger in my mind and refuse to flee are these: where do we go when our urges cannot be suppressed? How do we deal with the necessities of life that remove every wall we'd like to construct and instead force us to reveal our own humanity? What prevents us from acting in love in the face of exposed humanity before us, within us?

A lot of us learn to hide well. We can build the most elaborate structures around every minute aspect of our lives, often tricking others into thinking that, somehow, we are above the need to pee. Just because you can't find us on the sidewalks of life, painfully doing what our bodies demand while our minds try to make a way forward, however tragically, we are there nonetheless. All of us.

Finding some crack where we think no one can see us. Hoping that afterwards, just maybe, things will be better. Chasing the rivers of our urine to the ocean, hoping that there--maybe there--we'll find a space and a place where we can be free. Protected.

What spaces and places do we hold back from one another, for fear of real trust? What good might we offer, but don't, for fear of real love?