Navigate / search

Field of Dreams

Every child in the elementary school is asked to write out a dream on a little cloud of paper.

“I want to learn how to write cursive.”

“Make new friends.”

“I want to be able to run 2 laps without stopping.”

“Pass the multiplication test.”

“I hope that I have a lot of fun this year!”

“Learn about butterflies.”

The clouds are strung together by classroom, and the strings are hung next to each other, forming a fluttering “Field of Dreams” at the center of the school year’s first assembly, held out on the blacktop play area. The rockstar principal commands the kids’ attention with both her call out…

RP: Almond?
Student Body: Eagles!
RP: Almond?
SB (louder, all other conversation stopping): Eagles!

…and sheer presence. She welcomes everyone to the new year, to the school community. She walks through the importance of having dreams and setting goals, big and small, right from the beginning of something, like a school year, and then working diligently to achieve them, all the while supporting those around in realizing theirs. The talk culminates in the distribution of tiny bottles that the whole student body uses to blow hundreds of bubbles to symbolize letting dreams soar before she busts out the gong.

RP: This gong will help you focus on all the great things you are going to do today and this year at Almond. I want you to listen to its sound, and when its sound ends, I want you to raise your hand. When you can’t hear its sound anymore, raise your hand. Now, you can’t do that if you aren’t super quiet, okay? (Lowering her voice as the crowd quiets.) When I strike the gong, it will make its sound, and I want you to raise your hand when you can no longer hear it. (Lowering her voice even more.) This is an activity that you might want to do with your eyes closed. That might help you really focus on the gong’s sound. (It couldn’t be much quieter.) Ready?

She strikes the gong, holding her microphone next to it. As the sound fades, a hand or two goes up among the seated children, then more, then a wave of them, from the kids and the teachers…and a few parents around the periphery.

RP: That was great, everyone. Let’s do that again. Listen to the sound, and when it ends, I want you to raise your hand. (Pin-drop quiet.) Ready? Here we go.

She strikes the gong again: one or two small hands up prematurely, a few more, many more, big hands up, from all the teachers and now, most of the parents.

Everyone, a hand in the air, smiles around at each other in the silence. A birthday presentation and the Pledge break the spell, somewhat but not entirely. The assembly breaks up, kids, teachers, and parents starting this Friday just a little more mindfully.

That Fleeting Icky Feeling

Papa is off settling Cory into her classroom.

D (circling Fisher’s): Well, let’s find it, Fisher.
F (holding Daddy’s hand): Okay.

The other parents are smiling over kids rummaging around their new desks. A boy Daddy has never seen before looks up from his. His name is long and precarious. It starts with an “m.”

M: Hello.
D: Well, good morning. Are you excited for your first day of first grade?

The boy shakes his head “yes.” Daddy is too distracted to ask him how to pronounce his name or introduce Fisher.

F: Daddy, where’s my desk?
D: I don’t know, Fisher. I don’t see it. It must be here.

The circling continues. A parent or two starts to watch a little bit. Daddy gets the first signs of that icky feeling in the pit of the stomach, flashing back to being a little kid: “they forgot me,” “maybe I’m not supposed to be here,” everyone’s watching. A definite bout of introversion.

F: Maybe I don’t have a desk, Daddy.
D: Noooo. Fisher, we must have missed it. Where could it be? (Circling a bit awkwardly.) Oh! Here, it is!

There is Fisher’s desk, directly across from the new boy, who sits smiling shyly. Relief floods Daddy. Daddy’s a bit embarrassed that relief is flooding him. Fisher plops down.

D: Fisher, can you say hi to your new classmate?
F (waving across the two desks): Hi.
M: Hi.
F: My name is Fisher.
M: My name is [something long and precarious that starts with “m”].

Daddy doesn’t really hear the boy’s name, still a bit distracted. Later, Fisher confesses that he saw his name tag on the desk the whole time but didn’t want to point it out because, he claims, he was hoping to have to go talk to Mrs. Benadom, the school principal and a rock star in all the kids’ eyes, about the situation. Daddy knows it isn’t true, based on his earlier, worried face, but doesn’t call him out.

Better to play along.

Scrambling Eggs

D: Fisher, it’s your turn to scramble the eggs today.
F: Okay, Daddy.

He drags over a chair. He cracks the eggs. He pours the milk. He attempts to scramble the eggs. Daddy steps in and scrambles a bit more for good measure. He applies spray to the nonstick pan. He pours the scrambled eggs onto the frying pan.

F: Can I turn on the stove?
D: Well, you have to turn on the stove to cook the eggs. They aren’t gonna cook if you don’t turn it on, are they?
F: No. Which one do I turn?
D: See this, it says, “Front.” Is that the one?
F: No.
D: This says, “Back.” Is that it?
F: Uh huh.

He turns the stove’s knob until he hears the click and blue flame lights.

Julie Lythcott-Haims has a chapter in her book “How to Raise an Adult” called “Teach Life Skills.” In the chapter, she describes neighbors with four kids, each of whom, from the age of four, was expected to make her own breakfast, freeing up the parents to work out, shower, and get ready for the day. While the oldest kid is visiting, Julie asks him how it works: “The cereal is in the bottom cupboard, so are plates, and cups, and the milk is on a low shelf in the refrigerator. [My parents] showed me how to do it when I was little and my brother and sisters figured it out by watching me.” From age four. The takeaway is to resist doing things for kids that they can do for themselves…and kids can do a surprising number of things for themselves if they are allowed to try. It isn’t as easy to teach a young kid to prepare his own breakfast in the face of a parallel commitment to include, as often as possible, some good clean protein (through eggs) in the first meal of each day (especially after that damn classmate of Cory’s ruined hard-boiled eggs for her), but Daddy smiles finishing Julie’s chapter on the BART train, already having gotten six-year-old Cory and Fisher up on that chair, scrambling away at their own eggs.

Speaking of which, Daddy steps in and adjusts the heat, explaining where the arrow should point.

D: Are you missing anything?
F: Um…a spatula?
D: Yep.

He gets a temperature-resistant spatula. He puts one hand on the padded handle of the frying pan. (“Once you get going, there are only two things you can touch: the spatula and the handle of the pan. The spatula and the handle of the pan. They’re the only two things.”) He uses the spatula to stir with the other hand. He keeps stirring until the eggs are cooked just right. Daddy steps in to carry them over to the plates.

D (eyeing the 65-pound puppy): Fisher, one jump from Cinder, and those hot eggs and that hot pan are going to go flying.
F: Oh, thanks, Daddy!
D: Fisher, did you forget anything?
F: Um…

Daddy flicks eyes to the stove while Cinder’s eyes stay trained on the pan, alert for loose bits falling.

F (turning the knob back to off): Oh, thanks, Daddy!

The eggs look exactly like Daddy’s, but Cory thinks they are “too watery.” Sigh. Always a critic.

Scrambled Eggs

It is because reading glasses never made it to my computer bag that fictional, lethargic children and a professor’s very real ear wax came to animate a Monday.

The current, backup distraction from my commute is a parenting book. I don’t like parenting books. I’ve never finished one, but I personally know the author of this particular parenting book, so there’s a chance I might actually finish it. It’s called “How to Raise an Adult.” Written by a former Stanford dean, the book walks through the damage that over-parenting does to middle class kids, well, primarily to upper middle class kids, subjected to all that pressure and helicoptering, as well as the damage that the over-parenting causes to those who practice it. Message: parents who can’t (or won’t) check themselves end up wrecking themselves…and their kids, and those kids suffer a haunting lethargy about life, unable to pick up boxes, choose college classes, or interview for a job without consulting mom and dad, usually by smartphone. It’s a good backup commute book, as books go, because it sounds a single theme, easily remembered after a week away from it, and because the voice is entertaining, spicing up comfortably delivered anecdotes with dashes of self-deprecation. 

It’s my backup commute book because I just finished “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro, a work of fiction that a group of Missouri friends and I read together. It’s about children growing up in a remote English boarding school under curious circumstances, told from the perspective of one of the kids, now older, in a voice that shifts around from adult-sounding to childlike to adult trying to recapture the perspective of childhood, often enough reminding me of Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird” that I didn’t want the book to end. The last 25 pages became a stretch where certain things, guessed at throughout the book, are more explicitly explained. A haunting lethargy affects the kids in the book as they grow up. None of them seem to want to flee from, protest, or outright rage against the bleak role that this society has planned for them. They just don’t seem to have enough of, or the right kind of, life in them. A sadness or resignation weighs them down, most palpably felt in the scene that gives the book its title. Kathy, the narrator, steals time alone in her boarding school dormitory to listen to a song about romantic love, reinterpreting the lines as she sways back and forth, cradling a pillow in her arms, singing “never let me go” to a baby she’ll never have. I didn’t much want to read those last 25 pages, in equal parts because I wanted to avoid too explicit an explanation for the things going on in this dystopian world and because I didn’t want to stop hearing the main character’s narrative voice in my head. After slow-boating the last couple of chapters, I eventually finished them on a Friday afternoon trip home.

On the next commute, on Monday morning, still thinking about “Never Let Me Go,” I pull out the parenting book. But, I haven’t packed my reading glasses. Annoyed, more by the inability to read on the train than by the coming lack of productivity at work, I tuck “Adult” back in my bag, turn my phone off, and look around. The middle-aged Asian man in the blue button-down shirt, darker blue pants, black belt, and dressy black shoes is still muttering across the way. He has been muttering since I got on the train, but not necessarily in a crazy way. He looks more like he is practicing some speech that he has to give to someone, maybe his boss or coworkers, later in the day. Yes, I decide, that must be it. He forgot his socks out of nervousness about this speech he is to make, bare shins an odd departure from his overall professional look, although not as odd as his incessant muttering. He used to forget his socks on important days in grade school, too. Some of the other kids would tease him, but once there, at school, bare-shinned, there was nothing to be done. His eyes catch mine now and then, holding contact occasionally, mouthing words the whole time.

My mind drifts to my six-year-old twins. The world is full of oddball things, painful things, dangerous things awaiting all children, my children. 

He drags over a chair. He cracks the eggs. He pours the milk. He attempts to scramble the eggs. I step in and scramble them a bit more for good measure. He applies spray to the nonstick pan. He pours the scrambled eggs onto the frying pan.

F: Can I turn on the stove?
D: Well, you have to turn on the stove to cook the eggs. They aren’t gonna cook if you don’t turn it on, are they?
F: No. Which one do I turn?
D: See this, it says, “Front.” Is that the one?
F: No.
D: This says, “Back.” Is that it?
F: Uh huh.

He turns the stove’s knob until he hears the click and blue flame lights.

A chapter in “How to Raise an Adult” is called “Teach Life Skills.” The author describes neighbors of hers who have four kids, each of them, from the age of four, expected to make her own breakfast, freeing up the parents to work out, shower, and get ready for the day. While the oldest kid is visiting, the author asks him how it works: “The cereal is in the bottom cupboard, so are plates, and cups, and the milk is on a low shelf in the refrigerator. [My parents] showed me how to do it when I was little and my brother and sisters figured it out by watching me.” From age four. That’s young. The takeaway is to resist doing things for kids that they can do for themselves…and kids can do a surprising number of things for themselves if they are allowed to try. It isn’t as easy to teach a young kid to prepare his own breakfast in the face of a parallel commitment to include, as often as possible, some good clean protein (through eggs) in the first meal of each day, especially after that damn classmate of Cory’s called hard-boiled eggs “gross,” abruptly ruining them for her.

After Fisher gets the heat on, I step in and adjust it, explaining where the arrow should point.

D: Are you missing anything?
F: Um…a spatula?
D: Yep.

He gets a temperature-resistant spatula. He puts one hand on the padded handle of the frying pan. (“Once you get going, there are only two things you can touch: the spatula and the handle of the pan. The spatula and the handle of the pan. They’re the only two things.”) He uses the spatula to stir with the other hand.

F: Daddy, could you ever get the yellow part back out of the eh, er, uh, eggs?
D: The yolk?
F: Yah.
D: No, Fisher, once you scramble an egg, you better just cook it, because you can’t ever unscramble it.
F: That’s sad.
D (laughing): Why’s it sad?
F: I like the yellow part.

I laugh a bit more. He keeps stirring until the eggs are cooked just right. I step in to carry them over to the plates.

D (eyeing the 65-pound puppy): Fisher, one jump from Cinder, and those hot eggs and that hot pan are going to go flying.
F: Oh, thanks, Daddy!
D: Fisher, did you forget anything?
F: Um…

Daddy flicks eyes to the stove while Cinder’s eyes stay trained on the pan, alert for loose bits falling.

F (turning the knob back to off): Oh, thanks, Daddy!

The eggs look exactly like Daddy’s, but Cory thinks they are “too watery.” I smile, thinking of Cory’s response: always a critic. 

At the next stop, the doors open, no one gets off, and the first person to board, holding up traffic behind him, is an elderly white man. He’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket over a green v-neck sweater covering some sort of shirt that matches the brown of the jacket. His look is frumpy and professorial. He carries something in a plastic grocery bag in one hand and some written material pressed against a clipboard in the other. After he gets himself on the train car, others behind him quickly spread out. It’s going to be a busy commute day. The professor sits across the aisle, facing me. He crosses his legs, placing the clipboard on his lap, hanging the grocery bag by the handles on one of the hooks at the top of the board, immediately flipping open a copy of “Nature” to some page that looks like a list of references for an article. It’s all very efficient. I decide that he’s a regular on this commute. One young woman is now sitting next to me, engrossed in a book that she doesn’t need glasses to read. Another is sitting across from her, ear buds in, eyes glued to the screen of a phone. The doors close. As the train picks up speed, I briefly notice that a woman is also now sitting next to the muttering Asian guy, before I become entirely distracted by the old professor. He’s plugging his ears with his fingers. The train is definitely loud. He doesn’t like it, but the distracting thing is that his fingernails are so dang long, a good quarter inch past each tip, and pointed to boot. Gross, I think, not entirely charitably. Cut those things. Oddly unable to hear the voice in my head, he keeps his pointer fingers planted in his ears. The train stops. On rushes a black guy talking nonstop, but not loudly, on a cellphone. It looks like he’s around 20, wearing a red baseball cap with a white “R” on it, pants drooping below his butt, hand on his crotch to yank up his jeans so that he can walk. There’s something about his face that looks too young for his man-sized body. He makes eye contact with no one as he sits directly opposite me. I move my legs to accommodate him. I notice that the professor no longer has his fingers in his ears. The noise of the train has stopped, replaced somewhat by the quieter conversation this guy is having: “I don’t wanna get on that ferry. Not into that. (Pause.) I don’t know, man, I don’t know. Don’t know if I can handle the ferry. (Pause.) I think I might go to that house, the one that girl Carly’s at. (Pause.) The one with the [muffled] and the crazy sweet house. Yah, I might do that, because, man, I don’t know if I could handle that ferry today.”

Doors close. Speed increases, as does the noise, the professor sticks a claw back in each ear. I can no longer hear what R is saying about Carly or the ferry or what he can handle today. I notice that the Asian man, who is behind the old professor, has his legs man-spread awkwardly in front of him, forcing the woman next to him to squeeze tightly against the other side of their shared seat and only further highlighting his failure to wear socks. His lips are still moving. I think, if this guy adjusts himself in public, I’m going with crazy instead of nervous professional. The train starts to slow. It comes to an unplanned stop between stations. The noise drops off, and I notice, as the old professor, eyes trained on the list of references in Nature, drops his fingers, he brings each one at the same time to his nose, one per nostril, before moving them to his lap.

What the…?!

What was that? “Shit, though, I don’t know, man.” R’s conversation becomes audible again, but is much less interesting. I’m wondering about Carly. Is Carly independently wealthy? Does she live in SF? Are her parents out of town, unaware of what she’s got going on while they’re away? Did they give her too much freedom, instead of too little? Get back to Carly. A sickly looking homeless man stops nearby. He looks like he could be the professor’s brother, only after living on the street with little food or medical care for a couple decades. He mumbles something that includes “sir,” “coins,” and “help.” R is the only one to acknowledge him, with a look that says “move along if you don’t want a high-top in your ass.” He moves along. I try to picture the little boy in him, the one clouded by all that wear and tear. It’s too hard. Through a few standing passengers, it’s also difficult to see whether the Asian man ever adjusts himself. The train starts up. Noise resumes. Professor goes fingers up, into ears. I try surreptitiously to figure out what article these references are for, but it’s very hard to make it out. Who stares so long at a list of references? Under the magazine, clipped to the board, is a well-worn, ratty even, pad of yellow paper. I wonder what’s written on that paper. Maybe he’s studying the list over and over because a former student of his has finally written an article, and he is flabbergasted, distraught, offended that his own prior works have not been referenced. As the train nears the next stop, I’m ready. Yes, there it is! As the fingers come out of the ears, they stop briefly, simultaneously at the nose, before dropping further down to rest. Next stop, same thing. What the…? Does ear wax smell? Generally? His? What the…? I notice R, flip phone still glued to his ear, and the Asian man, still talking to himself, get up and get off at the same stop. I will never know what Carly’s deal is, whether R might steel himself for the ferry, or how the presentation, so well practiced, goes. The professor closes Nature, unhooks the grocery bag, and gets off at the next stop, as do the two young women sitting by me. I imagine him rushing into the bathroom of some outdated building to work free any ear wax that might have lodged itself under his coke-sniffing nails, drying his hands, giving the two nails one last sniff, for good measure, before heading toward his emeritus office, which, today, will accommodate him for just seven, not the usual eight, hours. It’s the monthly departmental lunch. Clean hands are important.

My stop’s next. I zip my bag closed over my backup commute book, resolved whole-heartedly not to forget my glasses the next day and half-heartedly to finish “How to Raise an Adult.” As I trudge up first the 69 internal steps then the 31 external steps to street level, I resolve to revisit the paragraph where the author sets out a definition for what an adult is, because, after the last 35 minutes, I’ve lost touch with what that means. Ninety-nine, one hundred…I step onto the San Francisco sidewalk at the top of subway stairs, the sun inordinately warm and bright. Nice coincidence that it’s exactly 100 steps. Professionals rush by, none of them muttering or man-spreading, few baseball caps or drooping drawers in sight, everyone ignoring the three women competing for donations today, one’s sign confessing that she’s pregnant, has lost everything, and just needs bus fare to some unspecified destination, another keeping her sign simple (“Please help”), while the third sits criss-cross applesauce on a piece of cardboard, rocking a baby while a toddler sits next to her staring forward, expressionless, dead-eyed. I try to make some sort of contact with the child, but her lethargy is too thick. Where are the families of these women? Are their parents dead, indifferent, unaware? What kind of childhoods did each of them have before meeting the desperation that would drive them onto the streets of San Francisco? And, what thoughts of these days, sitting numbly next to her mother, will haunt the mind of that dead-eyed child? Will she have the kind of life needed to flee from, protest, or rage against the bleak role that this society seems to have planned for her? Could anyone ever unscramble the mess of a childhood that I imagine her having? I pick up the pace a bit, resolved not to spare too much worry for the problems of rich kids under helicopters in affluent neighborhoods or fictional kids genetically altered in an alternate present, as I stroll sadly into my building. I flash my badge, and as I ride the elevator up to my nice office in my fancy building, I distract myself further with the professor. “How did that guy get so obsessed with ear wax? Did one of his parents berate him when he was young about dirty ears? Did he ever find a reference to his own work in that list he kept staring at? How’d his departmental lunch go? Did his younger colleagues engage him or patronize him?” I breathe, center myself, and fish around for my lines. What’s my line?

Line, please? Someone, give me my line! 

“Morning,” someone says.

“Morning.” 

Whew.