Hugh Miller

He is vacuuming up information about everything as always, continuing to follow all the threads talked about in earlier crib sheets. He is getting very interested in letters and numbers. He knows many & points them out with excitement. Words become sentences. The first sentence I heard was a few days ago, looking at a picture on the computer screen “That’s a fish.”

He is more strong and agile and if he wants down and out of your arms it’s a little more powerful as an argument than it was. But he seems a little tentative about some physical stuff like walking on rough uneven terrain or getting down off M’s bed by himself. Neither of us knows what to make of it but we are just going to try to help him have more fun with rough-house play without making a thing out of it. He continues to be fascinated by bugs. Yesterday he found a little dead spider on a window sill and cheerily greeted it: “Hi Bug!” and pointed it out to me. I gently blew it away hoping he would think it just decided to leave. But he launched into calling out “Bug? Bug? Bug? Bug?” and after awhile sadly said:”Bye bye Bug.”We were at a coffee shop the next day, me having coffee and him cheerios when he noticed an ant on the floor and got very excited. We had dropped a cheerio (or ten) and the ant was inspecting it. He saw this and picked more cheerios out of the bag and dropped them deliberately around the ant. I’m sorry, coffeeshop employees, but in fairness, ants?

I give him something interesting to hold onto and look at when I’m changing a poopy diaper. I gave him a little shiny red “Hot Wheels” car and he was looking at it and said “Truck” so I said “Car” and he said “truck” so I leaned down at him and said “Car!” and he laughed and said “Truck!” and we went on and on getting more and more amused at our own silliness. When he says “No!” like a mad little toddler I find I can often change the tone just by being amused. Not mocking, just playful. Months ago we were watching an old movie with William Hurt on TV and Isaac looked at him and said “Daddy!” and I thought “Natural Mistake”. A week or two back I didn’t shave for a week and wore my glasses and my black baseball cap a lot. We were in the video store with him in my arms when he pointed at a video and said “Daddy, Daddy” I thought “Which handsome movie star has he mistaken for me this time?” He was pointing at a picture of Michael Moore on the cover of “Bowling for Columbine”. yOw.

He says “Please” but it’s pronounced “Peas” “Pick me up” is “UP-Peas”. He helps to put away toys and books at bedtime. It’s amazing.

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I have to say I am proud of my storytelling self. I can extemporize a kid’s story that takes off, goes somewhere cool and lands on time. Some of my favorites: The Sunflower Seed Six about a bunch of jazz playing mice and their adventures.The Poo Poo Pirate Ship about well…um…just imagine. He came up with the name and idea. “The Bloops”, a race of round yellow aliens whose sun burns out so they go to the intergalactic hardware store to get another. These days because he loves 101 Dalmatians so much, he has me tell him stories about the Sunflower Seed Six saving the puppies from Cruella DeVil in a such a variety of places that I am now hard pressed to think of a single new location. We have saved puppies in the mountains, under the sea, in the desert, in deep underground bunkers, even on the moon! I’m sparing you the 15 or so others.Once in awhile when I’m telling stories I am so tired that I just start to drift off. What’s bizarre is that I continue to talk. The narrative thread gets a little shaky at these times however. Isaac will say “What?!” or I’ll sort of snap to attention and realize I’m doing the storytelling equivalent of driving off the road. It’s really weird.

Guilt Trip
Isaac is almost 5. It’s amazing. He was a baby just a minute ago. You’ve heard everyone else say such things, now it’s my turn. He is sort of tall and thin. His attitude is grumpy and sweet and playful and manipulative. I cannot believe the guilt inducing things he pulls on me at times. The other day he whacked me with a sword (small, plastic) and I read him the riot act about doing such things. He sobbed: “I thought my Daddy LOVED ME!”. I have never in my life voiced anything like this to him and I doubt his Mom has either (though I snarkily think it sounds more like her) . I think he came up with this entirely on his own. More and more I think people just are what they are from the very beginning and our stories about how “This happened and it changed me” are just fancy ways of rationalizing our peculiar and frustrating natures. He is sort of too clever in some ways. He forgets nothing, asks test questions to check my memory – makes up alternate words and answers with them waiting for me to translate. we read chapter books at bedtime and he loves them and lives very deeply in stories. 101 Dalmatians is a very big story for him. He is still challenged by large motor skill stuff (from his preemie days) and I can see him working these limits into how he does things and how he defines himself. I am doing what I can but I don’t know how much I can do. I get him out kicking the soccer ball – climbing hills – wrestling. He was sort of delicate about anything happening to him – one of those kids who says “ow” more often than they really should. I bought us some of those big foam “Noodles” the swimming flotation toys – and we whack each other over the head with them all time, we joust and quarterstaff with them and I am proud to say that my son can now be whacked in the head without becoming whiny and upset.

Well anyway, I just wanted to reach out to those of you I care about and hardly ever talk to, just to catch up a little. I guess I’ll finish with a lovely thing that happened with Isaac a couple of weeks ago. We had had a great day together and I told him that his Mom was coming to get him in a couple of hours. He said “Can I keep this day?” I said “I guess you can keep any day that you remember.”He said, “I keep all my days with you.”

Talk to you soon,Hugh

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He’s 4 and a half and he’s like an optical illusion that changes with the angle of view. He’s still just such a little boy and yet he’s way way way past toddler. He’s thin with little baby fat in his face. He’s still small and so innocent and crazy scared of little things but he’s determined to be tough and the urge to fight is strong in him.
The other night, playing with cars and tinker toys we built (following his instructions all the way) the… car wash of pain! It had features to spray the cars with cold water, beat them, smush them and chase after them to bring them back when they ran off.
He really has an intense and strong personality and he is far from a push over. He’s like a cat you love. You say “You’re such a good cat” but you are under no illusion that the cat is “good” (ie: thoughtful, kind or ethical) merely that he’s his own perfect thing and he’s cuddly. What a good Isaac! He tells me he’s bigger and tougher and stronger than me. We rough-house and I toss him around and flip him and spin him, we wrestle and I let him win by dancing on my belly. The poet Robert Haas once wrote of “the poppa body” the Dad who gets climbed on, tread upon, smushed, piled on, etc. It’s delightful to be and I will miss it when It’s not my role anymore.
For some reason, either my influence or just inborn, he has a powerful drive to be funny. About half the time this works and about half the time it’s anywhere from neutral to awful. The best funny stuff he does is out of a clear blue sky.

I brought him in from the car one day and went back to unload some more things. When I came back in he was holding my telephone up to his ear and talking, saying something like:
“This is Isaac, Is everything ready? OK, thanks, goodbye”. I said “what are you doing?” Isaac: “Making a phone call”Me: “Who are you calling?”Isaac: “The officials.”

He’s also got a lovely way of seeing connections and a gift for metaphor. We were putting up glowing stars in his bedroom. He put two stars side by side and he said “This is you and me.” he put one a little off to the side and said “this is Mommy” and put two up above and said “this is Grandma and Grandpa” he put a few more stars up here and there with names for the people and pets they represented and stood back to look at it and said. “I’m making a star map of my people.”
He also made up a good rhyme about the holidays, it came out so perfectly that I can’t believe it’s really an accidental rhyme.
Isaac Compares the Holidays:

“Halloween is better than Christmas
scary is better than sweet
and it’s also better than Thanksgiving
because on Thanksgiving all you do is eat”

As long as he’s been able to really follow stories I’ve been making them up for him and lately our storytelling is team based which involves a certain amount of sacrifice of quality control on my part but some of his story ideas are great. Sometimes we cooperate on bedtime stories, both of us wandering forward through unknown territory nudging the other in the direction we want to go. The problem is that when you are a parent you tell the story like an airplane trip. That is, it gets itself organized, lifts off, has some excitement and comes in for a landing. When Isaac sees a shared story coming in for a landing he grabs the controls and sends it off on another trajectory. “Suddenly they saw a light under another door!” Until at last the Dad packs his parachute and bails out somewhere over Omaha.

 

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Boy is busy trying to catch up on the physical side.

Lately he’s been getting a wind in his sails and wanting to move more like a normal kid. I know that sounds terrible, like I don’t think he’s a normal kid but the fact is, he’s got his issues and they all go back to being a preemie. He is what the docs call “Low tone” or hypotonic which means his muscles are a little weak and it affects his coordination and motor skills. His balance isn’t very good, and he’s always been a strangely careful kid – feeling his way up and down stairs – carefully navigating bumps in the sidewalk I can hardly notice. His run has been an awkward fast walk and he doesn’t like challenges to the status quo – he has never been a kid who liked riding on shoulders or getting tossed in the air, at least not much or for long. He has always (of course) been this way but I didn’t think HE had much noticed it, he seemed so confident about who he was and what he wanted to do. He seemed like the poster child for sensitive-little-verbal-kids-who-just-aren’t-that-into-it. But lately I have this feeling like he’s thinking about and even worrying about it a little. We’ll be doing something together and he’ll say “I’m really strong” or “I’m going really fast!” We feed him images about being a big strong fast boy and believe me we are fairly stealthy about it – just trying drop in a lot of positive stuff about having fun using his body. But it’s dawning on him that he isn’t as easy in his body as kids who are even younger. He’s starting to notice and it bothers him.

He’ll say things like “I love riding my tricycle!” or “I like to go fast on my tricycle” but the fact is, I bought him this stupid little cheap tricycle a long time ago and he was really excited about it and hopped on it and went around the block pedaling (but with me pushing – killing myself bent over pushing this thing and remembering all the way that I didn’t buy the one with the big pushing stick attached to the back) and that was about it. He’s been out on it once or twice since then with really minor results and now almost always turns down any chance to get on it. When he does he just paddles along with his feet on the ground. So today with a whole day together, I was tossing about for something to do – and it’s always too easy to let the kid just hang around the house playing which is what he says he wants to do because to tell you the truth, I kind of feel like hanging around the house playing too. But damn it it’s a beautiful day and how many are left in this season? And for now it’s my job to get him out and moving. So I get this idea – “Let’s go back to Patty’s house and grab your tricycle and we’ll go to the park” and he was for it so we took off.

The park I had in mind is Magnussen, a former Naval base by Lake Washington with a couple of miles of flat walkways and tall poplar trees and abandoned sealed up military buildings and weeds up to your stomach. One of my favorites – I love scrubby old places with ruins, especially if they are down by the water. Now we get to the park and get his tricycle out and put his great silly helmet on and he sits on the trike & bursts into tears and says with this oddly confessional tone as if he was owning up to a crime: “I don’t know how to ride my tricycle! I don’t know how to go fast on my tricycle!”

He wasn’t angry, he was sad. He was acting like he’d let everybody down.

“You can learn, sweetie” I said “nobody knows how to ride till they learn.”

“But I can’t learn!” He wailed with huge tears falling “I can’t learn.”

For a moment I sort of blanched because I was shocked that this playful little guy I know so well had such complicated and dark feelings about anything: “I can’t learn?”

“You can learn” I brilliantly suggested.

“I can’t” he sobbed.

So instantly and intuitively I decided that the best thing I could do would be to lie to my son.

So I picked him up and cuddled him and I said, “Can I tell you a secret? When I was your age I felt exactly the way you do – I didn’t think I could learn to ride my tricycle and I felt terrible but my Mommy and Daddy worked with me and taught me and I learned to ride – it was a lot of work and I had to try really hard but I was so happy when I learned!” Maybe it wasn’t a lie, I have no idea.

Grimly and still crying he accompanied me to a very gentle little hill nearby and I put him on the tricycle and put his feet on the pedals and told him to push and he went downhill suddenly laughing happily – “I DO know how to ride my tricycle!”

Until he got to the bottom where gravity forced him to a stop again and the tears started all over. And this is the kind of moment where you just want to say “The hell with it” and let the kid off the hook – You see two roads – One where you are dragging a miserable kid through some big lesson because it’s “good for him” and another where you shrug off the implications of giving up and just tell him he doesn’t have to do it. And they both sort of suck.

But you DO have to do something.

So I talked him into going back 4 more times – each time at the bottom he was mad and frustrated – each time he was rolling downhill he was pedaling and happy – The last time he hopped off the tricycle happily called out “I’m all done!” and started to run off down the walkway. I shouldered the diaper bag, camera and discarded helmet and and tricycle and set off after him. Watching his little figure prancing along under the blue sky thinking about how he was meeting up with a new kind of problem – a conflict with himself.

The rest of the afternoon was very nice. I caught up with him and we reached a scrubby little apple orchard at the moment that an apple thunked to the ground. He was delighted and we practiced throwing fallen apples and chasing them – then to my surprise he got back on the tricycle again and practiced some more – he was so beat when we were done that he conked out in the car and stayed asleep even as I carried him inside and laid him on the bed.

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Hugh Miller

 

If everyone drove like me, every car would flow seamlessly through welcoming gaps of opportunity like the teeth of perfectly machined gears.

If everyone drove like me we would put away the cell phones and makeup, hamburgers, and Nintendos because when I was a child I drove like a child but when I became a man I drove away from childish things.

If everyone drove like me, the Tao would be present in every yield and in every pass. The Me listening to Bach would merge in harmony with the Me listening to death metal in a mashup but never a smash-up.

If everyone drove like me, a magic carpet race would replace the crunch at lunch or the drive at five. We would float together in harmony like leaves on the river, like blood cells in an artery.

If everyone drove like me, politeness and speed would blend in a pas de deux of platonic perfection where all are fast and none are rude: Behind every wheel, a philosopher king.

Beautiful justice would be metered out the perfect number of car lengths fore and aft, with order achieved innately as the orbits of the planets.

If everyone drove like me.

 

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So I have a kid running round my ankles looking up to me asking me to tell him this is a nice world – “Tell me the spiders aren’t scary …that they are nice sometimes. Why do cats chase mice – why do dogs chase cats? There was a ghost in that video, what is a ghost? Why don’t the big kids want to play with me?”

My Dad is slowly dying. It’s a degenerative disease and there isn’t anything to be done except take good care of him and try to make him comfortable and lessen his fear and discomfort. They figure he has 6 months to a year. I know these estimates can be wrong but I also know he is eighty years old and not feeling well.

When I was small he was the big angry one. And yet I remember adoring him. My love for Dad was always a little scared. He was huge and powerful and seemed angry a lot but I think there was a period where I was his little guy and he loved me too. I remember him lying on the bed and me (as a tiny little guy) pounding on his back. Just wailing away like a crazy thing and him laughing like it was charming. I always got a feeling like he loved whatever was fierce in me. We played soccer, my Dad, my brother and I in Central Park in New York and I would fling myself after the ball like a madman because he laughed with such pleasure at my intensity.

Then I lost him to fear. He drifted off into the fear of financial failure – and the rest of my childhood he was the worried drinking man who never had any fun with us. I think I learned that the adult world was a very bad idea from my Dad. As a kid I remember looking up at the building he was working in in New York and shuddering thinking about what he was living out. I remember trying to stay out of his way. I remember concocting ten thousand ways to make him laugh because he so badly needed to. I remember his wit flashing like a sword and trying to stay close but just a little out of reach. My Mom seemed like such a reasonable presence my but Dad seemed like a force of nature that you could only warily try to predict. I told him later how he seemed when I was a kid and he said: “You’ve got to be kidding, I was a pussycat!”

As time passed as an adult I came to see his inner pussycat – he really has a very tender and shy heart but it was masked by fear all those years – things hit him really hard and he gets shaken to his core by worry and worry makes him growl. In his cups when I was young he would tell me that when my brother and I were all grown up he would do himself in – as in “his work would be done and he could go”. I realized with a start one day in my twenties that that message equaled “If you grow up I’ll die.” Alcoholics say incredibly stupid things.

I don’t much blame him now. He was caught in a bad dream and he didn’t know how to climb out – and much to his credit, a couple of years later he did. He turned his life entirely around. I love my Dad very much though always with the wistfulness that I wish I’d had more of him.

I struggle to make grown up decisions. I tried to play an eccentric game nobody else was playing so that the rules and the outcome were up to me. I tried to dive between the cracks in the world and not get sucked into terminal adulthood and it turns out there is a terrible price to pay for it. It was an attempt to slip past mortality and limitation and the entire point of life in this strange world seems to be informed by mortality and limitation. If there is a spiritual equivalent for waste in this world I think it is the thing not used up: The spiritual virgin who will not be touched by life. We are fires and we are here to burn up with loving each other and exploring the mysterious world till there’s nothing left of us.

I never really understood love till Isaac came into my life.

I always knew too well what an ordinary, flawed person I was inside and how prone to disappoint. Anyone who was losing sleep over me looked like someone who needed cool compresses and maybe an aspirin. I think I knew when they were in love with me that it was a sort of dream and dreams seem far too unstable to invest in. I don’t know what I thought the alternative was: A cool headed love affair? A rational decision to love another person? I could never have done that but I think I was partly scared of the prison of the particular. What if this particular relationship isn’t really it? How do you know? How can you ever really know?

It’s not that loving a child is like romantic love but it is a state of being in love helplessly and truly and until I felt it I didn’t understand that loving isn’t at all about things making sense.

It isn’t even about truth exactly, – It’s about giving it up and surrendering to being a human animal and living out the mortal and imperfect life we have received with all the intensity we can give to it. If I could have learned it earlier I would have been a happier person. As it is, I’m grateful simply to know it and have an opportunity to experience loving someone this much. From the first time Isaac’s tiny finger wrapped around mine in the neonatal ward I have been wrapped around his finger. This tiny person knocked down the walls I couldn’t touch simply because he was mine unquestionably and I was his and it exploded any reason I might have sought to argue it or rationalize it.

As a teenager he will probably wake up from it and realize what an ordinary person I am, he will realize with horror what a flawed ninny I can be and recoil from the knowledge that he’s made of the same stuff. But it won’t matter much because he’ll likely discover another view of me later – I’ll just have to live with the exile when it comes.He’s a cub right now and he must grow up and he will and someday he will look back and know as a grown up person that he was loved as much as a child can be loved: That he brought so much delight – that we exulted in being together exploring the world…that being a tightly bonded baby and parent is as automatic as gravity if you let it happen. And I feel so sorry for the many Dads didn’t let it happen. Until he has kids of his own he won’t have a clear idea of how much it meant to me.

When my Mom was alive her love for me was like the sun shining on my life & I was so acclimated to it that I didn’t realize till she was gone the little extra bit of warmth that had always been there – it clicked off like a light when she died and a cold wind I had never felt before began to blow. What Isaac gave me was the chance as a sort of grown up to feel that sunshine again by giving it to another.

To live in this world
You must be able
do three things:

To love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your life depends on it;

And, when the time comes to
let it go,
to let go.

-Mary Oliver
from American Primitive
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The big negativity shows up at times now, mostly when he’s tired or hungry and manifests as a kind of furious contrariness. A desperate need for mutual exclusives.
“Up Up Up “ till he’s up…then ”Down! Down! Down!”

He’s still his sweet self a lot of the time. But at times he seems like the biggest victim of his own mood (I guess that’s true for all of us really). Toddler moods look like a nightmare where you lack the skills to comfort yourself and cool down from any little thing. He looks like he is infused with more power then he knows how to handle and just rattles with the stress of it. He’s in a growth spurt and gobbling up knowledge like mad and it demands a lot of him. At times he is provoking but we do our best to keep cool and steady. There are advantages to being somewhat geezerly.

The physical caution I talked about before is still there but he’s having more fun scampering around. We go out in the back yard and I blow bubbles and goes after them and pops them. He runs and dances and talks about it. “Running!” “Dancing!”

He sings “shake your booty’. Only that line thankfully. No, I can’t imagine where he learned that.

He is SO verbal! He surprises us with something he says almost everyday.
We were in the backyard yesterday and he pointed to a patch of moss and said:
“Grows…moss”
At daycare he started calling people by each others names then laughed and said: “Joke!”
Another day he turned a book upside down and pretended to read it, then he put it down and said “Isaac funny!”

I’ve had what I guess must be a sinus infection for the last two months – this is like being on day six of a cold for eight weeks. One of his phrases is “Daddy coughing”. Great. My Doctor said “The only people who get it worse than day care parents are teachers”.
Perfect.

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Sorry it’s been so long.

Well, two years ago most of us were running around a hospital in Seattle and trying to get some traction under the idea that M was seriously sick and a baby was immanent. Of course we didn’t know anything about how well most of the next steps would go so it was like awaiting a crash and not knowing how bad a blow to expect. Would the baby be alright? Would M be OK? Would her Dad hunt me remorselessly over the surface of the earth while wearing a long black trench coat? It certainly wasn’t obvious at that moment.

Two years later we have all dodged the bullet – all three of us alive and well. Although for some reason everytime I see Isaac’s maternal Grandpa he finds a moment alone to say in a Clint Eastwood whisper: “You feel lucky punk?”

Little Isaac stories from recent days:

  • The other night we looked at a book about babies with a baby on the cover. He pointed at the picture. He said: “Dat guy’s a baby!”
  • We were shopping in the grocery store and an older lady working behind a counter smiled at him very sweetly. He smiled back and called out “Hey pal!”
  • We saw the larval form of a ladybug and I explained to him it was a baby lady bug. He smiled broadly and said “Baby bug!”
  • Doodle bugs (also known as potato bugs and roly poly bugs and pill bugs) instantly became “Noodle bugs”.

I made a huge stupid mistake today. I gave him a snack of grapes and cheese and crackers and when he left a bunch of grapes on the table I started tossing them high into the air and catching them in my mouth. He became hysterical with laughter which only encouraged me. I kept going and in a minute he was throwing grapes up in the air and then at my mouth. I calmed him down and he said “Daddy is silly!”.
Too Right.

He seems more present and involved with every day. He hears lines in songs on the stereo and repeats them. He sings a little. He saw a candle on a table and sang (tunefully) “Happy birthday to youoo”.

There are a thousand lessons of the last two or three years and I can’t claim to have processed or understood even half of them, there are many ways in which I am aware of my ongoing failure to come through with all that I ought to be and all that I ought to do. That aside though I am aware that I spent most of my life before Isaac only flirting with change afraid of what any real change would mean. Real change only happens when something is sufficiently important or undeniable that it pulls you on and on down a different road than caution or convenience would advise. It’s a burden which is gift to carry. Not to be a sugar coated Pollyanna – it’s not always fun and parts of my life feel like they are wilting on the vine but I can’t imagine my life without him.

I talked to my Dad today and he was a bit confused and spoke calmly about death and release – he is almost 80 and he and my step mom have had an awful lot of health problems. It freaks me out but I guess it’s a little relief to hear his lack of fear. Oddly, one thing that is completely clear to me since Isaac’s birth is my own mortality. Sometimes I feel it sitting on my shoulder, not in any big hurry but utterly real. There is a classic story of a man asking a monk what is happiness? The monk relied:

Grandfather dies
Father dies
Son dies

And what is clear is that any variation from this is the kind of story that haunts a family. We are lucky to have dodged so many falling anvils and slippery stairs and in the time we are allotted we should love loudly and bravely and drink deep of all good things.

Blessings on you all – thanks for listening,
Hugh

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