Let’s Start with the Obvious

Dear Will:

So the ol’ 401(k) statement arrives in the mail and I think to myself: “Don’t do it.” I hold it there, knowing that what lies within is the grimmest of grim news, a financial plunge of historic proportions in what has generously been called our “portfolio.”

Knowing better,  I open it anyway . . . and it’s horrifying. Stupefyingly so. But as is so often the case, stupefaction leads to a moment of clarity and self-awareness not seen since I acknowledged in the 10th grade that I would always be a lousy golfer. In this golden moment, it occurs to me that I never  had enough in the 401(k) plan to retire anyway. Not even close. Wouldn’t have survived the first winter without begging lumps of coal from the local soup kitchen. So what if that super secure Lehman Brothers bond hadn’t exactly paid off? In times like these, there is comfort in incompetence.

Which sort of begs a question (for our present purposes, anyway): What other “blessings” do we have to be grateful for? Let’s start with the obvious:

Dana took Bryn to see Twilight—while Seth and Peter stayed home and watched the ballgame. If that’s not a blessing, what is?

Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. He gets to sleep in every day, treat every meal like a buffet, come and go as he pleases, all without the daily scrutiny of his overbearing parents. What could be better?

Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. More time to focus our daily scrutiny and overbearing parental instincts on making Bryn and Seth miserable instead! What could be better?

What could be better? How about family vacations?

Who doesn’t love a scraped-up minivan with a busted air conditioner?  Well, we don’t, for example. But when you have to make twice daily round-trips to the ballet studio, a buck eighty-seven for gas is pretty nice. You know, considering.

Rat traps. (Don’t ask.)

Almost forgot: Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. Now Seth doesn’t have to share a room and instead can devote precious real estate to the 140-or-so stuffed animals with which he shares his bed. Which doesn’t explain why he continues to squeeze his scrawny nine-year-old frame into the narrow patch not covered by his velveteen menagerie, but at least he now has options.

Then there’s the President-elect. Seems like we ought to say something about him since he got Dana to work the phones and Bryn to wear his shirts and even Seth to stick stuff on his bedroom wall. Luke even worked the polls this year (twice, though he hastens to point out that it was a non-partisan endeavor). Now if we could just get that annoying bumper sticker off of the scraped-up minivan, Peter would be happy too.

There’s other stuff as well. Like a job, for instance. In this environment, that’s a pretty great thing. Food on the table, even if it isn’t served buffet-style as in the dorms. Oh, and Jason Mraz (Bryn wants him in here too). Teachers. Coaches. Friends. Microwave ovens (when you get home from ballet every night at nine, that’s pretty important). Yoga. Belts. Laptops. iPods (unless you put them through the washer). Chocolate (dark especially). Books. Rain (yeah, right). Sports. The Maple Conservatory of Dance. And of course family. Dysfunctional though it may be, it’s the most precious thing of all. You know, considering.

PW

Pretty Heady Stuff

Dear Will:

It’s not often that a child gets to live out his or her childhood fantasy while still a child, but that is essentially what is happening to my daughter Bryn. Bryn, who is 12, is a ballerina, with quite a bit of talent (if you are willing to take the word of her various teachers over the years). When she was just 3 years old, Bryn started taking dance classes and appeared as an angel and a mouse in her ballet school’s annual Nutcracker production (which in many ways was more like a recital since the only ones in attendance were family members). I’m sure you can envision the contribution of the 3-year-old mice and angels in such a production—they stole the show every time.

Since that first performance, Bryn started collecting nutcrackers. She now has a couple of dozen (or so) of various shapes and sizes. And over the years, she continued appearing in that same annual production, graduating from angel to bon bon to flower girl along the way. All of the girls longed some day to be given the role of Clara, the nightgowned girl around whom the entire production revolves. No doubt it has ever been thus.

When Bryn’s ballet school was sold last year, we were forced to find her a new place to take her lessons. We settled on the Academy of Ballet Pacifica, Orange County’s resident ballet company, because it was affiliated with some of the most famous dancers in the world (ever heard of Ethan Stiefel or Amanda McKerrow?) and because her teachers continued to insist that she had a natural talent that might best be cultivated at a more serious conservatory.

Of course, it’s one thing to stand out in a smallish, neighborhood ballet school and quite another to try to make your mark in an academy that draws students from all over Orange County and beyond. To our delight (and my bemusement), when we got to the Academy we discovered that Bryn really is as good as we had been told. Even in a room full of hard working ballerinas, Bryn seemed to stand out.

Thus we were not entirely surprised to learn recently that Bryn has been cast as Clara in Ballet Pacifica’s December production of the Nutcracker. This production will include several professional-level dancers and is certainly a notch above anything she has done before. Rather than appearing a couple of times before family and friends at the local community college theatre, this time Bryn will be dancing several nights throughout December at the Irvine Barkley Theatre.

Pretty heady stuff for a 12-year-old, don’t you think? (Pretty heady stuff for her parents as well, I suppose.) Alas, the consequence of this great honor is that now Bryn will be dancing more than ever, with weekend rehearsals to go along with the 10+ hours of weekly dance classes she is already taking. It’s too much, really—more than I would ever stand for were it not for her manifest passion and talent.  At the same time, I am troubled by the implications as more and more of her time and attention is devoted to ballet and less to school and family and church activities. I worry about her becoming one dimensional, about her wearing out her tiny body, about her losing touch with friends and disconnecting with the variety that should enrich the life of any 12-year-old girl.

More than anything, I pray that she recognizes that she has been given a rare gift, and that that recognition inspires in her not the conceit of a diva but rather the humility of a girl who sees in her talent a direct connection with her Heavenly Father.

PW

Lumberjacks, Cartwheels and Soccer Trophies

Dear Will:

In spite of our best efforts—or perhaps because of them—we are compelled to admit that we live in a fairly strange place. For instance, earlier today Seth was playing a matching game called Husker Du. He said he was winning, which seemed a little strange inasmuch as it appeared that he was playing alone. He soon clarified: “I have 4,” he said, “and my soccer trophy has 2.” (Immediately you think to yourself: “Ah, so the kid learned all of his social skills from his old man.” Perhaps so, but you’re missing the point.) Seth’s imagination is only limited by the number of hours in a day. It’s all fun, with or without a living, breathing friend to play with.

For instance, every day when he gets home from school Seth goes directly to the back yard to play whichever sport is in season. It’s more important than lunch, even if—and this should give you some idea of his fervor—lunch is at McDonald’s. He plays all positions on both teams (so far the trophy has not been invited to join in) and also serves as the announcer. Thus, rain or shine, you’ll hear backyard play-by-play delivered (who knows why?) in an impassioned falsetto: “Three-pointer by Seth! UCLA leads the Pistons 57-23! . . . Pistons have the ball. SETH STEALS IT! Slaaaaam dunk!”

Although he is only five, Seth has already revealed himself to be the most ardent sports nut in the household—which, though cute, is also irritating if you’re hoping to read the sports page before you go to work. Each morning he examines the box scores as if he were checking the status of his Wall Street investments, reading them out loud, one-by-one, under the apparent assumption that everyone cares deeply whether the Hornets beat the Warriors and by how much. “Dad, the Pirates lost to the Expos!” he’ll shriek, and then he’ll run into the other room to share with Mom the shocking news. His favorite teams include some obvious ones (Angels, Lakers, Bruins) and a few not-so-obvious ones (um, the Toronto Blue Jays?–don’t ask). Also, if there’s a game on—no matter what the sport—you can pretty much count on him rooting for whichever team is ahead and becoming distraught should they fall behind, even if he never heard of them before he turned on the TV.

Speaking of falling behind, we tried to send Bryn to bed an hour ago and she still hasn’t so much as brushed her teeth. We’re guessing (hoping) that’s fairly normal, but what we suspect is not normal is that it took her 7 ½ minutes to go 10 feet down the hallway to get her toothpaste. How is that even possible? you ask. (Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but we ask it all the time.) The simple yet maddening explanation is that there is nothing linear about Bryn. For instance, she cartwheels everywhere she goes. Down the hall, into the kitchen, across the crosswalk, even heading to the bathroom at a highway rest stop, Bryn twirls and spins and does one-handed round-offs as if it were the most practical mode of transport available. It may make it harder to finish your homework, but isn’t life about more than just homework?

Apparently so. Thus Bryn’s hyper-imaginative, ten-year-old mind has her alternately composing music, producing stage plays, writing poetry, devising recommended reading lists—all while (supposedly) doing her chores. She organizes, plots, devises. Plays the piano and (squeak, honk-honk, screech) the clarinet. Sings Broadway showtunes. And more than anything, she dances. Beautifully.

In fact, Bryn is at the ballet studio so much (about five days a week) that Luke insists that she is never around. (“It’s a good thing too,” he says in typical big brother fashion, “because she is so annoying.”) All that time at the barre is paying off (not literally—it’s costing us a fortune) as Bryn has begun dancing en pointe and was recently cast for the first time in her life as a soloist in her company’s winter concert.  No doubt Seth is hoping she’ll get a trophy out of the deal, and Luke is hoping he doesn’t have to attend. As for us, we’ll be satisfied if the discipline she is learning as a dancer at some point will help her brush and floss in less than 20 minutes.

Luke’s passions are no less obvious than Bryn’s, but they produce a wider range of emotions in his parents:
1—writing (thrilled, proud); 2—computer games (aggravated, intolerant); and 3—girls, or should we say, girl (panicked, hyperventilating, freaked out big time). Since he’s fourteen we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, of course; but at the same time, did we mention that he’s only fourteen!? (pant, pant, palpitate).

To better cope with his reactionary parents, Luke has enrolled in the Orange County High School of the Arts, a secondary school dedicated to the production of actors, dancers, and other future restaurant workers. To be fair, the kids there are fun and quirky and extremely talented, making OCHSA a very cool place indeed. Luke is enrolled in the Creative Writing Conservatory, through which he receives 12 hours a week of after-school writing instruction. This semester his coursework includes: Literature into Film, the Art of the Short Story, Screenwriting, and Hiding the Fact that You’re More Articulate than Your Parents. (OK, so we made that up, but we’re hoping they’ll offer it next semester.) It makes for very long days, but when you consider that’s three additional hours of parent-free existence, you might go for it as well.

Besides, attending school with a bunch of highly creative people has its perks. For instance, every Tuesday Luke attends the weekly meeting of the Lumberjack Club—which we’re guessing you haven’t signed up for yet. The purpose of the club is a little fuzzy, but it seems to involve a secret handshake, flannel shirts, eating flapjacks (“not pancakes,” we are reminded), and watching “lumberjack movies.” (Question: Lumberjack movies?) Like we said, these kids are quirky—and probably having a lot more fun than the rest of us. Kind of annoying, isn’t it?

Sort of like this letter. Rather than put you through any further misery, then, let me conclude by making it clear that the eccentricities of this threesome have almost nothing to do with genetics (although Dana can be a bit bizarre from time to time). Dana and I continue to try to set an even-keeled example for them, but it is for naught: they quit paying much attention to us several years ago.

Finally, on behalf of all of us—the parents, the kids, the dog, and the soccer trophy—may I wish for you more of what you need, less of what you don’t, and a generous smattering of what you want.

PW