Dateless for the Dance

I’m sitting home while everyone else is at the dance. No one asked me to go. I knew this day would come but I thought it would be years from now.

Maggie didn’t want to go to the Girl Scout dance this year. She and I went together and then she and Elena and I went. Last year she announced that she would let me and Elena go alone this year. She’d said that the year before and then decided she wanted to go to.

Not this year. This year she told Kim that she just didn’t feel like going without Elena.

Me neither. There’s a lot of things I don’t feel like doing without Elena. But I still would have loved to have gone with Maggie.

They were as different at the dance as they were in every other aspect of their lives. Maggie dances like I do – very self-consciously as if she is counting every step – as if there is a right and a wrong way of dancing. Elena danced like her mother – with abandon as if the music is flowing through her – as if she was the personification of joy.

When we would go to the Boulevard Bash kids would be dancing to a DJ. I would point to Maggie’s friends up there dancing and ask her, “do you want to go up and dance?”

“No,” she’d say, “that’s ok.”

Once Elena started at Boulevard there was no holding her back. “Dad,” she’s say, “I’ll be right back. I’m going to dance with Sophie.”

“Excuse me?” I’d reply.

“There’s Sophie. We’re going to dance.”

“Do you mean, ‘Dad, can I go dance with Sophie’?”

“Yeah, yeah,” she’d say in words that look insolent on paper but were cute in person, “whatever.”

“Not ‘whatever’, you need to ask,” I said.

“OK. Daddy, may I please go dance with Sophie?” she smiled sweetly.

“Sure, we’ll be here.”

And she’d go over to Sophie who, I assume, would have the same sort of conversation with her parents. Then the two of them would run, hand in hand, to the dance area and find other friends to dance with.

I still see her dancing. Brushing her hair back every once in a while, head tipped back, taking all of the music in and converting it to pure enjoyment.

Published in: on January 27, 2007 at 8:55 am  Comments (1)  


Our block is more of a rounded triangle than it is a rectangle. A triangle with a point at the bottom. Across the top is Woodland. We live on the Warrington side of the triangle – you can picture it running diagonally from the point on the bottom to the top right. There is actually a curve to it. Huntington runs along the left side of the triangle.

There are two twin houses down at the point where Warrington and Huntington come together called the two sisters. They mirror each other and look out onto the big grass strip the separates the two directions of Coventry Road. I don’t know if they are really called the two sisters or Kim just calls them that. She thought the Van Sweringen sisters used to live there but a quick online search suggests that they lived together in a mansion on South Park.

In any case, Jan and George owned the one that is mostly on Warrington. Jan was one of those people who anchored the neighborhood. We are lucky in our neighborhood to have more than one such person – but Jan was special.

Maggie and Elena loved walking by their yard on the way too and from school. They loved looking at the house. They looked forward to seeing Jan in the front yard. Kim remembers that her house was on the garden tour and she loved to plant flowers. She would come over and talk to the girls like they were real people worth talking to. Kids just know when an adult is really listening and not just humoring them. Elena and Maggie loved talking to Jan.

When Jan lost much of her hair to chemotherapy. She didn’t hide it under a wig. She wore a baseball cap and continued to work in the yard. Some days she would be out there without her cap.

It tells you what kind of a person she was. My girls never asked why. Jan was someone you saw, but she was more someone you felt. You felt her warmth. You felt her calm. You felt her presence.

At the summer block party in 2005 we sat and talked to her for a long time. We talked to George too, but Jan was the one we seemed to know much better. In mid October George and Jan hosted the neighborhood clam bake. We hung out in their backyard – adults only – and ate hors d’oeuvres and chatted while the bakes cooked. Everyone took their food down to the basement to eat. It was one of those nights where everyone is relaxed and comfortable.

Jan tired early. The neighbors helped George clean up the basement and put the chairs and tables back where they belonged. We said our goodnights.

I’m ashamed to say that it was the last night I would see Jan alive.

Two months later we went from house to house for the neighborhood’s progressive dinner. Jan wasn’t doing well. George joined us briefly for one of the courses but you could see the worry on his face. Fran asked neighbors to volunteer to cook meals for Jan and George. Kim signed up but Jan didn’t live long enough for us to actually cook for them.

Jan died in January. Someone, Fran or Carolyn, called us and told us about the funeral and the visiting hours. When the girls got home from school we told them that Jan had died. We told them that we were going to go down the street to visit the family. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. I’m so awkward around death. Wouldn’t we just be in the way?

The four of us walked down the street the same way we walked to school each day. We went up the front walk. Half of our neighbors were in the house already and the rest would follow. His family was there to support him and her family was there to say goodbye. We talked a bit to George and a cousin of Jan’s and shared our memories of her.

We looked around for Elena. She wasn’t in the dining room with us. I thought I heard her voice coming from the kitchen. I headed that way to see her talking to a woman I think is George’s sister.

“I just love this house,” Elena was telling them. “I’ve always wanted to see the inside.”

It was a six year old full of Jan’s spirit.

When it was time to leave, Elena still wasn’t ready. There were more people to talk to and more rooms to explore.

I held out her coat for her to take. Instead she put it on while I held it as if I was placing an expensive fur coat around her. She started to make the rounds one more time as we left the house but I cut it short.

It was tough to leave this house where Jan lived. To say goodbye.

Published in: on January 16, 2007 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cursing the Darkness

It’s way too early in the morning and I’m leaving for my first trip of the year. I’m heading to MacWorld in San Francisco on a 9 am flight and so I’ve gotten up at six to finish packing my carry-on items.

Last night, Kim finished taking down all of the ornaments from the tree and packing them away. I carried the boxes upstairs where they will sit waiting for us next year. The tree stopped smelling of pine a few days ago. After doing my laundry and packing my clothes for the trip, my last job of the night was to take the tree out to the curb.

I propped open the front door and lifted the tree out of the outer base and carried it out to the curb. There’s a large pole across our entire tree lawn. I drop the christmas tree on the other side of the pole and unscrew the inner base from the trunk to take it back in the house.

The pole is there for a replacement street light. There’s nothing really wrong with the one that’s there. It’s 11:30 on a Saturday night and it’s brightly lit. It never fails to go on. The problem is that it doesn’t go off either.

It took me a long time to notice that the street light stayed lit during the day. Our neighbor Tom noticed that it happened when Elena died. Kind of a vigil.

And now they’re replacing it with a light that only goes on when it’s dark.

Published in: on January 7, 2007 at 8:26 am  Comments (1)  

Choosing a Stone

Kim and I dropped Maggie off at Lizzie’s house for a playdate and headed over to Mayfair Monuments. We’d been meaning to order Elena’s headstone for months and just hadn’t done it. The place was just a couple of blocks from where Kim grew up. We’ve driven past this little building for years on our way from our house to Kim’s parents house and back. This was our first time inside.

We rang the bell for admission and were let in by a woman who ushered us in to another woman’s office. There are decisions you have to make.

What kind of stone? What color? What size? What shape? What do you want the stone to say? What font do you want to use? Are there images you’d like?

Elena would have loved to have been consulted on these decisions but we thought such a discussion would have been many decades premature. Maggie, however, had helped us pick out the color, shape, and contents of the stone.

It turned out that she hadn’t been specific enough. Rose color could mean any of a half a dozen colors. We liked the more orangey-red stone.

We also knew that we wanted a rounded stone and that we wanted Elena’s full name to be on it. “Elena Maxine ChunXue Steinberg”. That’s a lot of writing. Underneath it we wanted her birth and death dates: March 3, 1999 and February 22, 2006. A lot of writing.

We wanted a picture of a rabbit. Elena was born in the year of the rabbit. We also had the Chinese characters for her Chinese name. A lot of writing.

Finally, we wanted a quote from Elena’s favorite song. It came to Kim and me and about the same time. The same line from the same song: “more to do than can ever be done”. That, of course, was too much writing for one stone.

Elena had also loved stones so I wanted some of the roughness of the stone to show. Lakeview doesn’t allow rough stone on the sides but they do allow some on the top. Monica sketched rough around the edges of the top with a shiny polished area under the lettering. The sides would be smooth and, we decided, unpolished. On the front would be the quote from the Lion King.

Monica called her sister Michelle in. Michelle does the artwork and layout. Michelle came back with a couple of rabbits and told us to bring in the Chinese characters for her. Kim asked her about forget-me-nots. Michelle brought in a couple of photocopies of a group of flowers and of a single one. Kim asked if she could sketch something with each of them.

Of all places, Kim and I disagreed on the font. She liked the ones with serifs and I liked the ones without. Unfortunately, the one I liked didn’t support upper and lower case lettering. Michelle offered to do a markup with both styles for when we came back.

Kim admired a picture of a stone they had done. It’s something that amazes me about my wife. Even there – even given what we were doing there – she notices extraordinary beauty and comments on it. The sisters were pleased and told us that it had begun with a statue that the deceased had owned of two kids playing. Their father had incorporated it into a beautiful monument that looked like two kids sculpted in metal scaling a stone wall. One of them was using the headstone of the deceased as a leg up.

It was beautiful and I would have missed it if it weren’t for Kim.

We paid a deposit for the headstone of our daughter gone nearly a year. We asked if it could be ready for the twenty-second. Monica wasn’t sure. Kim mainly wanted to make certain that if we missed that date that the headstone would not be delivered near Elena’s birthday. Monica made a note of it.

Published in: on January 5, 2007 at 6:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Circles and Lighthouses

I’m having a hard time with resolutions this year. Of course there are things I need to do to improve myself – but would my being a better person have saved Elena? I’m working to separate these things that have nothing to do with each other.

Every time I put my iPod headphones in my pocket they get all tangled up. The first thing I have to do when I pull them out to use them is to untangle the knot that wraps left around right.

I’m sure it’s a metaphor. If I took the time to put some system into place or to wind them in some other way I wouldn’t be spending so much of my life untying knots.

There are so many things I could resolve to do differently or better this year. I could resolve to lose weight – again. I could resolve to be more patient or understanding. I could plan to learn to play an instrument, to learn to draw, to write a novel, or to learn a new language. I could resolve to listen more intently. The potential list is endless.

Resolutions don’t need to come on New Year’s Day. They tend to be ignored by Groundhog Day a bit more than a month later. That may be the limit for such resolutions. It’s roughly the same time period as Lent.

I’ve been thinking about Stephen Covey’s circles. Years ago when I was in graduate school I was spending a lot of time working but not really accomplishing much. Someone gave me “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

There were many little things that made the book worth reading. One was this notion of your circle of influence and your circle of concern. Think of all of the things that you have the power to influence and think of all of the things you spend your time concerned about. Covey represented each as a circle. He placed the circle of influence inside of the circle of concern. I thought that wasn’t quite right. There are things that you can influence that you don’t even think about – but that does complicate the point he is trying to make.

As you look at these two circles, often the larger circle of concern dwarfs the inner circle of influence. You spend your time worrying about things that you can’t possibly change in any way.

You are less happy and less productive the greater the area of this region of things you worry about that are outside of your circle of influence. You can actually work to improve this situation from two directions. You can increase those things you can influence and you can decrease those things you are concerned about.

I think that will be my resolution.

Notice, there is no circle of control. I can do things that influence outcomes but I can’t control them any more than I can grip a handful of water in my fist to hold on to it. The tighter I grip the more quickly it leaves my grasp.

I can freeze the water into ice. Now – now I can grip it and hold it tight. But in my hand it becomes water again and slips away. Much as I try to change it – it is water.

I can influence the safety of my children. I can do all that I can to keep them safe. But in the end I can’t control things enough to truly protect them without destroying who they are.

Covey also told a story of a captain aboard a large ship who detects another smaller vessel in his path. The captain radios the other vessel and tells it to alter its course or they will crash. The answer comes back that the captain should change the course of his large ship. The captain explains how much larger his vessel is and why it is important that the other vessel be the one to move. The answer comes back that the other vessel isn’t a vessel at all but a lighthouse which can’t move. Only the captain can avoid a crash.

I think there’s a resolution in there too.

I probably need to spend less time getting lighthouses to move. So many of my obstacles can be avoided. Of course it’s easier to scowl at them and explain why they should change – but they are lighthouses. As hard as it is for me to turn, it’s what needs to be done.

This years resolutions: circles and lighthouses.

Published in: on January 1, 2007 at 8:25 am  Comments (1)