Archive for May, 2013

The Race

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Barnaby has left school virtually every single day saying the same thing, over and over – “This was the best day *ever*.” His enthusiasm for school was actually *greater* than my pessimism at his age. It was simple small things, “we had science AND music!!!” or enormous things, “we did a play and I got to do TWO LINES!!!” but every day was amazing in some way.

When I came to pick him up yesterday and he was crying, it was so beyond my frame of reference that it wasn’t until I had carried him all the way home that I started to piece together how bad the day was. Barnaby’s class had traveled to a “track meet” at another school and all of the first graders had competed in different areas – running, jumping, spazzing out, whatever it is that six year olds can do on a “track” and/or “field”. Barnaby had been really sick the week before, even missing school (something he is loathe to do) but we sent him in because, even with a cough, he didn’t want to miss anything.

I got him home yesterday and on the couch and, after checking his knees and legs, called the doctor who diagnosed him with terrible shin splints and a hyper-extended knee. When he told his teachers he was in pain, they suggested that he might still be a little tired from his cough. He told them that his knee hurt, his right knee, that it hurt in a very specific area and they told him he was probably just feeling bad because of his cough and the race.

Now, Barnaby’s class is a combined class – it has special needs kids and general ed kids. Do I say special needs? What do I call them now, are the developmentally delayed or developmentally disabled? Or are they retarded? I mean… have we found the word that makes us all comfortable? Because my kid is the one with a speech therapist and an occupational therapist. My kid is the one with underdeveloped musculature for his age, he’s the one who has to sit in a special chair so he can concentrate, and it’s not like *I’m* getting all touchy-feely about what you call it.

You have three reading groups and call them A, B and C, and the kids will all figure out who the smart kids are. But guess what – if you label them Sharks, Pirates and Ninjas, it’ll take them six extra minutes to figure it out. And “Ninja” will become synonymous with “retard”. Changing the name doesn’t do shit.

But whatever, Barnaby’s in a class with the kids who have special needs. And every day, these kids excel at reading and writing, or science or math, or music or art, or even just being nice kids with good friends and at no point are they singled out for abuse or celebration. But they decided it would be a good idea to take this class, along with all the general ed classes, to another school so everyone could compete in *athletics*.

Here’s the hilarious part. According to Barnaby, they did their races in groups of four, and then handed out ribbons. You got first, second, third or “participant”. When I found the ribbons in Barnaby’s bag, I gave him a huge smile and said, “Hey! You got two ribbons!” and he, off-handedly, said, “those are for the losers.”

Changing the name doesn’t do shit.

We talked for a bit. We got to the part where a couple of the kids were calling him a “loser”, and when I asked him how that made him feel, he said, “Bad”. I asked him if he talked to the teachers about it, and he said they told him that he was probably just not feeling well from the cough. More not feeling well from More the cough, I guess.

And see, life is shit. And I know that, and you know that, and the sooner Barnaby figures out that life is shit and nobody’s there to protect you and your only choice in life is to determine how to deal with the very immutable fact that life is shit, the better. I thought about calling his teachers – parents certainly do that. And I thought about ratting out the kids who called him a loser, people do that too.

But I didn’t. Maybe it was a mistake, but I didn’t.

We sat and talked for a while, and his sister stood next to where he was sitting on the couch with her hand lightly set on the knee that was bothering him, as if she was some kind of passive reiki master. He was telling me that most of the kids could jump five and some of the kids could jump four, but he could only jump three. And that he had tried. He wanted to know why other kids were able to do things with their bodies that he couldn’t do.

At four, they told us he had the fine motor skills of a 14 month old. His gymnastics teacher says he admires how unbreakable his spirit is, that in the fact of such awkwardness, Barnaby still smiles and tries. When he plays with the other kids in the park, they climb trees and he pretends he’s a dog – because dogs are awesome but can’t climb trees. How do I answer this question.

“Have you heard of something called ‘grace’?” I asked him.

“What’s grace?”

“Well, they use that word for dancers and athletes and people like that. There are some people who are able to walk through a room and they move like slow water, like they know where there arms and legs and bodies are supposed to be.”

“Are you like that? Are you grace?”

“It’s ‘graceful’. I don’t know if I’m like that exactly, but yeah, I pretty much know how to get around. And I used to dance a lot.”

“I love dancing.”

Jesus Christ. It’s crushing. They’ve got a hundred things they do, and he’s pretty good at any number of them, but *jumping a distance* is the thing they’re handing out ribbons for. I felt lost, honestly, about what to do as a parent.

“Are you… Are you a good dancer?”

“Yeah,” he said, “everyone always says I’m a good dancer. Like, every day.

“What do you mean ‘every day’?”

“Well, at the end of the day, there’s a group of people and I sing this song ‘Baby Gone’ that I made up. And everyone dances when I do it. And I sorta, like, I show them how to dance, and that’s what they do.”

And he’s not sad, I realize. He was *made sad* by circumstance, he responded to stimuli that was sad-making, but it doesn’t mean he’s sad. He’s not. He has none of the fury that I had my whole life. This was a bad day in the middle of a good life.

“There’s another kind of Grace,” I tell him.

“What kind?”

“Well, grace is used to talk about moving in a space – like through a room or around a field or across a stage or whatever. But there’s also a kind of grace to how you live. And it’s related. Like, if you’re dancing in a room of people and you have grace, then the other people don’t get bumped and they’re all glad you’re there dancing. Well, this other kind of grace is the same, only nobody’s dancing.”

“What is everyone doing?”

“They’re just being people in a room, and someone with grace comes in the room and suddenly *that room* becomes a better room to be in because of that person. Because what he says or does makes the people happy and gives them joy. A person with grace makes time easier, makes time itself more joyful. Most people are a little bit nervous most of the time and aren’t sure what to say or who to talk to, and a person with grace can make them feel like they’re making good choices no matter what they choose.

“Well… I don’t feel nervous most of the time. Most of the time I’m just, like, *normal* or *excited* or *hungry* or whatever, I’m not nervous about talking to people or doing stuff.”

“That is having grace, kiddo. And when other people come into the room where you’re not nervous, they feel happier because someone in the room doesn’t seem to worry about what’s right or not, they’re just being.”

“Well, yeah, I’m mostly just being.”

“But the kid who called you a loser, was he being graceful?”

“No. But he’s one of the outburst kids. He’s one of the kids who can’t stop making noises and yelling and stuff. He probably was calling me a loser because he just says stuff and can’t really control it.”

This isn’t my influence. I know that. I’ve been pissed off as long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for motherfuckers who call me names just so I could prove how behind the eight-ball I *always* am. I’m the only guy I know who was born on third base and is pissed off because he thought he hit a home run.

“Barnaby, sweetheart, that’s the kindest possible thing to say about someone who didn’t treat you kindly. I am unbelievably proud of you.”

“I just don’t understand why everyone else can run better. It’s just running, how can everyone else do it better than me?”

“We’re not all good at everything. Some people are bad at a lot of things and some people are good at a lot of things.”

“There isn’t anything I’m good at. Okay, okay, I know, I’m good at some stuff. But not really. Not in a really BIG way.”

I don’t know. I can’t fix this. The world is the world, and he’s six – it’s all downhill from here. Girls that will break his heart, bad grades on tests he studied for, six months wiped out on weed, the first car he crashes, the first job he loses, the failings too horrible to contemplate or list. You’re a child one minute and the next, you’re the world.

“I don’t know what to tell you, sweetheart. All I can tell you is that when you’re here, with me, I don’t give a crap about any race, I don’t give a crap about your grades and I don’t give a crap about your height or weight or hair color or anything. All I can tell you is that my heart fills when I see how much you love your mom and your sister and how hard you try to be good at stuff. And I think as long as you keep doing those things, you’re gonna be okay.”

I believed it when I said it. And I believe it now. If I believe it enough, then it’ll turn out to be true.

Barnaby’s Math

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
This is a direct transcript, found in the Williams family archives, apparently of a “Home Math Test” that Barnaby Williams took early on in his grade school career. The man asking questions on the recording is assumed to be Barnaby’s father, and Barnaby is providing all of the answers. While no records of Barnaby’s father remain, it’s possible, given the transcript that he was either a mathematician or some kind of baker.


Q: If four people are sharing 12 cupcakes, how many cupcakes does each have?

A: It depends on how they divide them up.

Q: They divide them up equally.

A: They each get three.

Q: Right. And how many cupcakes do these three people have?

A: Three

Q: No.

A: You just said that was right.

Q: Oh. Right, sorry, how many cupcakes do *all three* of them have *together*?

A: Nine

Q: Right. And how many are left.

A: Twelve

Q: No.

A: You didn’t say that anyone got rid of any cupcakes! I mean… did someone eat some of the cupcakes?

Q: No. Sorry, I meant that out of the twelve… I said that three guys had nine cupcakes…

A: *I* said that.

Q: Right, sorry. YOU said that those three guys had nine cupcakes and I’m saying how many are left if you don’t count those nine.

A: None.

Q: What about the last guy?

A: I thought you were talking about the three guys! If you don’t count the three guys and you’re talking about the three guys, then there are NO CUPCAKES! The three guys have nine cupcakes because they have three each, for some reason, and the last guy also has three because you said they had twelve!

Q: Okay! Right, no, clearly you actually understand all of this… You know what? Let’s switch this up. Let’s go to this other section. I give you two numbers and you tell me what the biggest number is you can make with them.

A: I love these, these are easy.

Q: Okay, four and three.

A: Seven.

Q: Okay, sorry, that was my fault. I give you two *digits* and you make the biggest number with them you can, right?

A: Okay.

Q: So if I give you four and three, you could either make forty three or thirty four, right?

A: Okay.

Q: Okay. Six and Two.

A: Just… like… Six six six six six six on and on forever, right?

Q: What?
A: Like infinity of sixes. I don’t even know why they have the two.

Q: …

A: What? Is that wrong?

Q: No. No, that’s totally… Okay… look at the example. You have to make the largest *two digit number* out of the two numbers I give you. So, if it’s six and two, there are only two numbers you can make out of it. Sixty two and twenty six.

A: Oh! Okay, you can only do… Okay, okay, okay. I can totally do this.

Q: Are you messing with me?

A: No!

Q: Didn’t you do this in school?

A: Yeah, but I didn’t, y’know… I didn’t *think* about it at school.

Q: Yeah, that makes sense. Okay, let’s try this again. Four and three.

A: Forty four.

Q: NO.

A: WHY? You said I had to make the biggest number possible using only these numbers and it had to be a two digit number!!!!

Q: You have to use BOTH NUMBERS!

A: WELL *NOW* you tell me! (laughs) You aren’t very good at instructions.

Q: Okay, look, let’s move on to the example, just do the chart on your homework. We’ll skip this – look, we’ll go to the last section, this is the three digit numbers.

A: Okay, I love this, it’s totally easy.

Q: Okay, you have to use all three numbers. It has to be a three digit number, and I want to know the largest number you can make and the smallest.


Q: So, you have to use the three numbers we pick from the number pile…


Q: And you have to make two different three digit numbers using all those numbers and never using one of them twice.

A: You’re trying to make this complicated but I KNOW YOU! You can’t trick me. I know how to do this ALREADY.

Q: Okay. Okay, good. Okay, I’m going to pick three numbers.

A: Let me pick them.

Q: (sigh) Okay, you pick them. (sound of numbers being picked) Okay, great. Two. Zero. Seven. Perfect.

A: I didn’t get my favorite number.

Q: What’s your favorite number?

A: Eleven.

Q: (…)

A: What?

Q: These are all – I mean, how are you gonna pick eleven?

A: If I pick One twice!

Q: Oh I see, now you have NO PROBLEM figuring out two digit numbers.
A: Oh! Did I get that one right!?

Q: Okay, let’s just do this. What’s the biggest number you can make with these three digits.

A: Seven… hundred and twenty?

Q: YES. YES. Exactly right, great job. And what’s the smallest?

A: Zero hundred and twenty seven?

Q: (…)

A: Isn’t that right?

Q: You know what? It’s exactly right. Should we go and watch a video?

A: Oh yes, definitely.

Being Fat

Wednesday, May 15th, 2013

You live in a terrible and expensive home. It’s hard to move around in it, nothing works right, you’re always uncomfortable in this house. The bushes are full of trash, the doors don’t really open or close, it’s hot inside all year long. And it’s expensive, and the landlord is raising your rent every year.

Your neighborhood is nice. Everyone has nice houses, everywhere you look there are nice houses. And when people walk by your house, you’re embarrassed, you say something. You say, “Jesus, your house is lovely, my house looks like shit…” and the people smile and say, “your house is fine!” or “look, that’s *your* house, don’t let anyone tell you it’s awful, just live there! Love it! It’s your house and it’s beautiful!”

But everywhere you go, it’s lovely houses in great shape. Every magazine cover features a nice house, one that seems to have been meticulously cared for. A house that has been loved – been maintained. Everywhere you look, it’s houses with perfect, straight picket fences and high clean lines, the windows half open to let in the breeze. And you know that the people who own those homes aren’t lazy, aren’t bad people, they care for their homes, they maintain their homes, they WORK on their homes.

And you tell yourself that the pictures of the homes aren’t real pictures – everyone knows they’ve been doctored. And those famous people can *hire* folks to clean their homes, can hire doctors and mechanics to keep everything inside the house in perfect shape. And more than that, you know that most people’s homes are in good shape purely because of what the parents passed down to the kids. It’s *genetic*, that people who live in shapely beautiful homes give the gift of shapely beautiful homes to their children.

But none of that matters because you still have to live in this house. Walls littered with barnacles, impossible to move from room to room, steep stairways that leave you out of breath… And all those people who say, “your house is fine!” – those people say that *first*, and then, a few sentences later, will start telling you their secrets for why their houses are SO MUCH NICER than yours.

I just takes work. That’s all, you just have to work on it. You have to deny yourself the impulse to do things that mess up your house in the first place. Twenty minutes three times a week, is all. You just have to do a half hour of maintenance every morning. You need to do a little bit of work in the evening, after the kids go to bed. You have to stop letting stuff come *in* to the house that makes it a mess, even if that’s the only stuff you can get.

And you listen, thinking, “I spend hours and hours every week. I didn’t stop letting in crap, I stopped letting in almost anything. I work on the house for hours, and I’m humiliated during the time that I don’t. If a day goes by and I haven’t tried, desperately, to change everything about the house, then I feel bad ALL DAY.

While I’m doing *anything*, the SECONDARY thought running through my head is about how to accomplish that thing, but the PRIMARY thought running through my head is about how terrible my house is, how humiliating my house is, how everyone who sees this house is repulsed, how everyone who sees this house knows that within its walls lives a horrible crouching church gargoyle, catching its own leaking feces with its hands and desperately hiding it behind a couch cushion.”

And you get older and the doctors say, “this house is literally killing you. If you live in this house, you will die. Maybe not right away, but this house will give you pain in your joints, early onset diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, reduced kidney and liver function, insomnia and an early death. This house will make your wife a widow and your children cry at your grave.”

And so you move. You have to move. One day, you simply say, “Even if it’s an hour of sprinting every day, I can’t live in this house any more.” And you pack. You spend hours and hours, deep into the night, packing and the night drifts away and it’s been a day and more and more and there are more hours and you’re still packing. The boxes piling higher than the things in the boxes had been piled, the boxes filling the rooms so that you no longer can move from room to room, and you turn around and all of your things are still there. The boxes are full, there is less room, but none of the things have been packed. There is no more room for another box, but you still have the exact same amount of stuff to pack as you did when you started.

How? How could I have tried this hard for this long, and I’m not in the same place, I’m actually worse?

You have to move the boxes to the truck, it’s the only way, the truck parked out front, the truck that your family and friends and neighbors have been wondering why you didn’t hire *years ago*. You bring out a box, then two. You pick up a box and go down three flights of stairs and back up a flight of stairs through the basement door, because the other doors and windows quit working in this horrible house years ago. You load it into the truck and go back down, then up and up and up and get another box.

And the day gets long and turns to night and the night breaks and it’s now day, or maybe the next day, or the one after that. And your neighbors and family see you packing and they’re proud of you. Yes, right now you live in this horrible house, green with moss and tangled with cobwebs and rat shit, but you *are* trying to move. At least *now* you’re no longer the kind of man who just *lives* in a place like that.

And the day turns back to night. Your arms ache, your thighs are shaking with each step, but you go back to the room and you see there are three boxes left. And you have two choices –

You lift all three boxes, barely able to hold them, and you cross down one, then two, then three flights of stairs, and across the mud and offal filled basement floor, with decayed and discarded children’s toys and ancient indistinguishable black vegetables from a Salad Never Eaten and then up a flight and out the basement door, legs shivering and twitching, back breaking and sweat pouring from your body, OR

You lift one, make the trip, make the trip back and then lift one more, make the trip and the trip back, and then the last, muscles now twitching, back now breaking, sweat so bad rolling down you that you can barely hold the box, t-shirt black from where the loads have rubbed into your disgusting moistround gut, and swimming ankle deep through the sludge and up the basement stairs for the last time…

But either way what happens then is this. You slide the box into the truck and you turn back to look at the house. And it’s more horrible than you remember but the worst part is this – you see that it’s structurally sound. The house will not fall. You can see that your name is on the front, engraved, never to come off.

And then you turn to look into the truck and it’s empty. There are no boxes there, and when you turn back to look at the house, you aren’t outside looking at the house anymore. Suddenly you discover, you’re back in the room, nothing is packed, there are no boxes, it’s simply days and days and weeks and months later and all the work and the sweat and the pain was only that- it existed only to be work and sweat and pain because your goal will not be reached. It will lead to nothing. As hard as you want to work, maybe you’ll get one piece of garbage out of one bush. But your goal will never be reached.

And you slip out of the house, just in front. And your neighbors and your family and your friends, somehow not totally repelled by the smell coming off you, somehow not understanding that their time would be better served doing literally *anything* other than talking to you, come by and put a hand – not on, but *near* your shoulder and say, “it’s a good house. I think your house is just fine. This is where you live, you should love it.”

And you know you’re going to die before they die. And you know it’s the house that will kill you. And you know it will never work, but you know you have no choice. You pick up the box and go back inside to start packing again.