It’s been a year of little activity here on the blog, because it’s just been a busy year, particularly this summer. Now that my summer break is wrapping up, it’s time to reflect. Are there other things I could be doing just now? Perhaps, but this may very well facilitate those things, so here we go.
In a life tied to the rhythms of the American academic calendar, summer has always been a time when I’ve experienced changes, extraordinary events, and a different kind of growth than can happen with a more “regular” schedule. In 1984, when I was eight, my father’s job relocated to Columbus just after school ended in June, and it was a summer of transition, seeing my parents figure out things I had never imagined–just how do you move a family to an unfamiliar city? In 1990, I had my first teenaged summer as I was getting ready to enter high school, spending four weeks away from home, mostly without my parents. Six years later, after my second year of college, I moved into my first apartment and stopped Living at Home, spending a long, hot summer in Cincinnati to work and practice. In 1998, I graduated college and moved to Georgia, and it might have been the climate, but the next fifteen months had the feel of a long, interminable summer as I had my first teaching job, explored a strange town, went through the end of the relationship that had brought me there, and returned to Ohio in a manner that felt like failure–a failure I think I have overcome, slowly, but importantly. 2004 was the beginning of Becky’s and my marriage and the change to a career in higher education, and both events have changed me for the better, and 2007 was the summer of moving to the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Before this year, the last “adventurous” summer was 2012, the year I took my current job as Lakeland Community College and Becky, Noah, and I moved back to Ohio. Cross-country drives, money spent somewhat more freely, and the improvisatory feeling that has to come with relocating one’s entire life. Becky and I travel well together, so the stress wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and we were both excited to be returning to our home state. Our new place was smaller, but we both recognized that it was probably temporary (it was), and that living in Northeast Ohio would offer much more (it does).
So to this summer–2015. We found out in the spring that Becky would need to have a second back surgery to repair a herniated disc. The previous surgery, in April 2012, was in a different locations, and Becky’s spine had continued to degenerate. The doctor called for a twelve-week recovery in which Becky would not be able to do any lifting, including lifting our daughter Melia, who is 20-months old today and still wears diapers and sleeps in a crib. We realized that, while family and friends could help some, I would need to be more-or-less constantly around.
I think of myself as a “hands-on” father, as my dad was. Since I work and Becky stays home, she normally has more contact with Noah and Melia than I do, but I do my part. I cook, I clean (when prodded), and I change diapers. I read and play with the kids, and generally participate in the life of the family. I don’t view my job as father as any less of a full-time commitment than my commitment to my wife–and I don’t stop being a husband or father at any point. This summer required some changes, though.
With Becky unable to lift Melia, I needed to be around more or less constantly. Twice over the course of the summer, I left on other outings, and we had another adult come to the house to help out. We took the lifting restrictions very seriously, and this meant that I couldn’t teach from school, as I have most summers, going back to my time at Oklahoma Panhandle State University. I assigned myself an online section of my popular music class over the summer, which filled nicely and paid better than teaching in-person has over the past couple of summers.
The routine was a little rough–up at 6:15am or so to work on the online course until one of the kids, usually Noah, would wake up. Hopefully at around 8:15, but more frequently at about 7:30. I would race to read emails, grade work, and, hopefully, compose during this time. Once the kids were awake, trying to work was counterproductive.
I talked to a composer once at a conference who described waking up in the small hours of the morning to get come writing done before the kids, and I didn’t quite believe him. The truth is that it works. The morning is an underrated time, and at our house it is relatively quiet and still on our quiet street. I’m actually keeping my early wake-up call going forward–we’ll see if that works out. I was able to put the finishing touches on my new chamber orchestra piece, …into the suggestive waters…, work on a new piece for Massimo LaRosa of the Cleveland Orchestra, and write a little bit (not much) of piano music. I also kept to the grading schedule for my class, got my course packets for fall semester in on time, worked on projects remotely with my composition student Cooper Wood (who is going to be good very soon), and kept pace with emails, which don’t seem to slow down.
In all, though, I didn’t accomplish my work-related goals this summer. I usually don’t, and that’s alright. I generally set loftier goals for myself than are really reasonable, and it’s more important, probably, to have time to decompress, to spend with family.
Once my morning work session was over (generally concluding with an interruption from Noah when he woke up), it was downstairs for breakfast for three (or four, letting Becky rest as much as possible or as she wanted). Noah has been eating brown sugar Pop-Tarts and waffles most of the summer. I’ve started to try to eliminate suspicious food dyes from his diet (and by extension, from the rest of us), and Becky and I think it has made a difference. I worked all summer to get more fresh fruit and vegetables into our diets, compared to what we had been eating before. Melia has been enjoying a banana or some strawberries every morning with her breakfast, but Noah has been resistant–he is a picky eater.
By 9:00, breakfast was wrapping up, and getting “ready for the day” by 10am was my goal for the kids and I–Becky being a grown-up could follow her own schedule. Noah is largely able to get himself ready, even if he won’t admit it. Melia, of course, needs “full service.” By late morning, Melia would be ready for her morning nap, and Noah and I would begin “activities.” I hope to continue this–one of the problems with the American educational system is that kids can take steps backward academically during the summer months. I worked this summer to make sure that Noah will be ready for kindergarten, which begins at the end of this week. On most days we spent an hour working on letters, phonics sounds, a little bit of math, artistic or problem-solving activities, and, excitingly, piano. He was somewhat difficult–not the easiest student, but then he hasn’t had to learn to be a student yet, which was another reason that I wanted to work with him this summer. I think he made good progress. Some days this routine was interrupted by a doctor’s appointment, or Sunday church, or some other project, but I would guess that we worked on this about half the days of the summer. Noah knows his letters and the sounds that go with them, and he is starting to be able to write them and be interested in writing them. He learned four songs by rote on the piano, and is starting to know the letter names. I’ve been working with him on five-finger exercises for the various keys. I don’t know that piano will be his “primary” instrument, but if it provides a firm basis for whatever he does later on, then I will be pleased.
Lunch–always tricky. It is easy to “run and get,” which I don’t think happened more than about once this summer if we were not out and about. Lots of peanut butter sandwiches, dinner leftovers, and other improvisations, but many apples and grapes and carrots consumed as well.
Afternoons could be any number of things. I made a list at the beginning of the summer of things to do with the kids–some free, some not. We got to most of the free ones and many of the cheap ones. We went to the movies several times: always on Mondays when our local theater is cheap. As Becky got better, she began to join us more and more. We visited Cleveland’s West Side Market, and the Metroparks Zoo. We played miniature golf and went bowling. There were many visits to the playground at the park, and a couple of trips to the local spray pad. The weather has been beautiful this summer, after a rainy spell in June, and we’ve been outside a great deal, which I think has been good for everyone. We didn’t do everything on my list–we didn’t get to the museums in University Circle, but honestly Melia is still about a year or two away from making that a really beneficial thing.
One of my favorite parts of the summer was planning and cooking our dinners. I grilled about twice a week, which Noah looked forward to because it meant more outside time, which Melia began to join in on toward the end of the summer. I had a stable of regular meals, but made some fun discoveries as well, and had a great time finding fresh produce to go along with main courses. I think we have basically eaten well, and I’ve introduced more salad to our dinners. As the kids can be relied upon to eat more, having a salad pads the meal for Becky and me without increasing the price and fat content of the meal by expanding the main dish. Successes–figuring out how to grill pork chops in a way that Becky likes; finding the best rice to go with enchiladas; getting Noah and Melia to eat corn on the cob. Failure–no one but me likes quinoa.
Then cleaning–at our house, the dishwasher needs to be run every day, and after dinner was that time. I wasn’t the best at keeping up with cleaning, but the house hasn’t been a sty, either, and the kitchen has been my priority. Next came bath and bedtime for Melia–about 8pm. Noah and I then had an hour, which we usually spent on a bike ride. He is an excellent cyclist for a five-year-old, and we could make it to one of two parks and back, although he had a nasty spill in June that resulted in a scraped hand and knee, a lot of tears and a long walk home as I carried his bike and awkwardly walked mine.
This was the first summer in a long time that I really slipped into a different rhythm–away from work, away from school. It is also the last summer that isn’t a summer break for both of our kids–Noah started kindergarten last week, and I’m glad to have that summer as a memory for all four of us–a memory of how our son was when he was only ours, and not shared with society. School will change him–it already has–as it changes us all. Becky worries that her convalescence ruined our summer, but she couldn’t be more wrong. In an important sense, it made this summer possible by making it necessary. I’m back at school now, too, a week, and it is good to be back, but I am missing my family, and there won’t be another one like it. I am keeping the early-morning work session–only now it is dedicated to composition–but it is now followed by a much less leisurely routine that ends when I put Noah on the school bus. He barely looks back–I don’t know that he understands that one thing has ended and another begun, but Becky and I certainly do. Ahh… summer.