Monday, August 01, 2005

Two weeks left of summer, and what to make of it?

I biked fifty miles a day yesterday and the day before, and also played a set of tennis with my dad after that; I think I must have drank four gallons of water last weekend. I sat for fully one hour in the Jacuzzi on both days. I ate like a horse, and my body craved food.

It felt great.

Strange things happen over the years as one bikes thousands and thousands of miles. For example, on Saturday while I was biking through the Santiago Canyons in Orange County a bee flew into my path and for the briefest moment got caught in my helmet strap. I flicked him away in half a second, but not before he stung me right near the carotid artery on my neck. I pulled out the stinger and stared at it and cursed, believe it or not, before I angrily threw it to the side. A few years ago a bee flew into my mouth when I was riding and stung me on the inside of my mouth. As during last weekend, I instinctively spit it out in a millisecond, but it was too late: the bugger had gotten me. Ouch! Such will happen when one bikes long enough. (I suspect Lance Armstrong could tell stories for hours….)

How had this summer gone, now that the end is within sight?

I have worked pretty hard in prepping for AP classes and building new curriculum, yet I have worked less hard than in the past few summers so it is nice in comparison. I have been working my college jobs; I finished my Master’s Degree; I made many connections for future adjunct professor jobs; I explored some new technology boundaries; I spent a week in Stanford biking through the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had one very strange morning of interviews with college deans and a vice provost where not my professional qualifications but my religious faith were scrutinized. (I passed the inquisition. A surreal experience.)

It begins to feel like the calm before the storm. Everyone is deep in the cocoon of their summer. It is August. The doldrums. As during the rest of this summer, it feels like the thing I have done most is sweat and sweat. I love the heat, but when it starts get hot AND humid I am miserable. I begin to fantasize about the crisp coolness of October and autumn and golden leaves and a new school year.

But I am not ready yet.


I luxuriated in two of Patrick O’Brian sea adventures (“Desolation Island” and “The Mauritius Command”) this summer: how nice are subtlety and nuance, when they are combined with action and intelligence. I read “Death Comes for the Archbishop” by Willa Cather and absolutely loved the craftsmanship of the novel – what a total pro she is, how precious is a book like that! What a perfect antidote to our loud and brash world of celebrity worship. I worked my way through “West of the 100th Meridian” by Wallace Stegner, and that was a bit like wheat bread: enriching and fortifying, if boring and at times tedious. I read a history of the eastern front during WWII, something I have wanted to do for many years. What an incredibly depressing area of history – millions and millions dead, untold suffering and unbelievable cruelty, and two vicious regimes locked in a death embrace. The Battle of Stalingrad staggers the imagination. How did the world let murderous regimes like the Nazis and the Soviets rule such large portions of the earth?

We Americans are so spoiled. I fret over another year with stacks and stacks of essays marching toward me in the distance and AP classes with their frantic pace and the stress and pressure. Then I think about a Russian peasant living in a hole in the ground east of Moscow in 1942 working in a primitive factory for 14 hours a day with the threat of a forced labor camp hanging over her head. Her children in the Red Army are captured or dead; her village has been destroyed by the Germans; her husband was killed in one of Stalin’s purges in the thirties. She lives on boiled potatoes and wears rags. A Hobbesian life that is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Much of humanity throughout history has lived thusly.

How blessed I am, in comparison. My troubles do not seem very troubling, in contrast.


This summer I have very much enjoyed seeing all my nephews and the babies of all my friends – they are legion, these infants, as my friends and siblings are in the parenthood stage of life. I find myself slowly but inexororably moving towards fatherhood. A part of me is so totally overwhelmed by the never-ending role which would be to become a father to a baby. At this point of my life, it is perhaps the only thing left that really scares me. But I am feeling “empowered,” to use that trite word; I think I can be a successful father. This is new. Babies only need you almost every moment of the day for the first five years, and five years is nothing – I can basically put my life on hold and dedicate all my time to a baby for five years. That will come and go in a snap of the fingers. Five years is nothing. A blink of an eye. As they get older, they become a bit more independent. As a parent, you can return to the practice of sleeping through the night, and I appreciate sleeping through the night.

I think I would really enjoy a child. In the same way as I always enjoy talking and learning from my dad, I would like to have my life enriched (and complicated) by another human being. But then I think about those ugly moments in my family and my ungraceful moments of growing up, and I am daunted again by fatherhood. There are so many unknowns. What if the child were born unhealthy or with special needs? What if it were sick? Unhappy? Contumacious? What if I got sick and died and my child had to grow up without a father? I like doing this well; I dislike messiness. Messiness seems mightily unavoidable in a family of which I would be the pater familias. Comes with the territory, methinks.

Presently I feel a bit akin as to how I felt about entering into marriage, another instititution I did not enter into without long consideration or at an early age. One can fret and equivocate, like Eliot’s Prufrock, but past a point one just has to take a deep breath and jump into the deep end of the pool. One needs to commit totally and have faith in the future. Courage. Fortitude. A belief that one can work out what needs to be worked out. Prudence is as wise as brashness can be reckless, but fear can paralyze and timidity can lead to a life not really lived fully. I fear avoiding marriage and avoiding parenthood would equal a life missing some major opportunities for growth and happiness (as well as sadness and frustration?).

Unlike some women I have known, I (like most men) have never had a “biological clock.” I have never had a free-floating desire to be a father; such a desire has only approached the horizon when a wife, job, and stable future appeared. In their immaturity, I fear most young men look at marriage and fatherhood more as something that would imprison and restrict than lead fulfill and make whole. At 25-years of age the prospect of fatherhood would have horrified me, as would marriage. A lover approaching me and telling me of an accidental pregnancy would have been almost a worst nightmare come true during those years, and God be praised such a thing never happened. I respected both marriage and fatherhood enough not to do either until I was ready to do it right. Any mouth-breather past the age of fourteen can get a woman with baby, but to be a good father and raise a child well to adulthood is perhaps the most difficult task we will perform in life. (Harder even than staying married and making that work!)

Yet I am getting a bit “baby-crazy.” I spent all morning with my nephews and they were so incredibly cute! I have spent so much time now around diapers and babies that I can see that the world does not end and that soon the babies begin to become persons who can talk and be a lot of fun. Babies scare me less than in the past. It is similar to marriage, where in the beginning I was horrified and could hardly believe my friends were doing it. They survived and most even thrived. But I still remember my first good friend getting married and him and I standing outside the church in our tuxedoes. “My car is just out in the parking lot…. we can still make a break for it and head for Vegas!” I reminded him. He was less intimidated than I, and he went through with wedding – much to my horror. Five years later I was less intimidated my matrimony. Ten years later I myself got married.

I life my sister’s house yesterday morning and called my wife, “Sweetie, I want one!” She is not ready yet, but give it a year or two… this is the way these decisions come about, the delicate negotiations.

I have absolutely no idea how I am going to teach four Advanced Placement classes and grade all those essay and the cram sessions and mock exams AND wake up all night long when the baby cries and feed the baby and change the diapers, in addition to teaching education classes as an adjunct professor in the evenings and weekends. Will I ever be able to have a spare moment to myself? Can I be all things to all people? How will I work that out? Will the wife stay home with the baby? Child care? How exactly will we pull this off financially? Do we have any help here in Ventura?

I do not have the slightest idea as to the answers. But I do know that there is never a “perfect” time when everything is just right. Adjustments can be made and things will work out. It almost always does.

Anticipation is distraction, and for now I will just let life unfold. Lincoln, a man not untested by “events” and “fate,” was supposed to have been a big believer in Hamlet’s assertion that “there is a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will.'" Ditto.

I am married, and my wife and I own a house. My career is settled and I have a graduate degree. I am 38-years old and will be no younger next year. I have seen my friends and family undergo the stress of pregnancy, birth, and raising babies, and the earth has not stopped. People have been having babies and raising them successfully for a long time. I am “empowered. I am ready.


But for now, and for these next two weeks, I will try to stay as much in the present as possible. I want to exercise so hard that I sleep like a baby and eat like a horse, and am always walking a bit slowly and gingerly the next day from lactic acid and muscle soreness. I want to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin late into the evening when it has long been dark. I want to be outside so much this summer that I do not mind being inside so much for the rest of the year. I want to disappear into one more strong novel, where the echoes of the interior life and the cares of the soul resound without the distractions of the world and the exigencies of a career. A few more great visits with friends, a few more romantic evenings with the wife.

Summer is not yet done, and in two weeks there are oceans of time. Knowing that time is short, and having work hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles, every second seems precious. As someone once said, “There is nothing like an execution the next morning to focus the mind.” Amen!

And then will come that moment when I sit down finally to read the “I Believe” essays of the 2005-2006 American Experience class. They have sat untouched on my desk all summer. There will be Shane and Fernanda and John and Glenn and Stephanie and Chelsea and Caitlin – and a whole host of other intelligent and ambitious new students to get to meet and know over many hours during an intense year. How I love the first day of school! AP classes at Foothill – not exactly a collection of difficult, unprepared, or rude young adults, in my experience. They almost always are about the nicest and most intelligent and focused young adults you could meet - people who would do just about anything their teacher asked, in my experience. How lucky I am! As a teacher, I have been around more than long enough to know how lucky I have it.

But the school year is still a bit away. Summer is in its deepest doldrums. Let us drink deeply of it.