As it should be

Tuesday, August 9th

Tomas and I are in the fancy United Club lounge in the Newark Airport. Tomas is clearly in his element, comfortable and assured that all is as it should be. It’s not his fault, poor kid – not his fault that he is sure he wasn’t meant to live on a goat farm, where the rest of his family borrows his nice Adidas slides sandals to feed the chickens and gets chicken poop stuck to the soles. He spent most of his first five years living like a prince, after all. I used to catch one of our helpers, Ibu Tini, piggybacking him home from school, and our other helper, Ibu Mimin, spoonfed him whenever she could, in the ancient Indonesian tradition of pampering and spoiling children as long as possible. (Indeed, the international school in Bogor had to pass a policy banning nannies from spoonfeeding their charges at lunchtime through the school fence, where the preschoolers would line up with mouths open like baby birds, waiting for fried rice and Indomie – ramen noodles – to be deposited. It was a policy hard to enforce without constant vigilance; those nannies were good at darting in with a well-aimed spoon.) Tomas had friends whose parents owned homes in both Indonesia and a European country or two, large boats, fancy horses. Nevermind that his parents didn’t own anything anywhere and rode the angkots (public minibuses) to get around, it rubbed off on him. So, goat farms and chicken poop are not his thing. Airport club lounges and big cities, now we’re talking.

As part of our quest to restore Tomas his rightful place in this universe, he and I are just completing a trip to the East Coast to check out a few colleges. We started in Princeton, where Tomas participated in a two-day “ID soccer camp” with Princeton University’s coaches. The camp was fabulous – the coaches learned the kids’ names in just a few hours and gave valuable feedback to them, and Tomas scored a beautiful goal that earned him a compliment from the head coach. (I almost managed to film it on my phone, but I got so excited as he approached the goal that the focus of the camera bobbed up into the trees beyond the field. Epic mom fail.) Tomas and I toured the campus and the town (including a drive past my childhood home, high school, and middle school, and lunch from Hoagie Haven, a Princeton institution for at least 50 years), and we bought the requisite baseball cap. Tomas took in the stone mansions set back behind long driveways overhung with ancient oaks and sycamores, the private prep schools that ring the town, and the beautiful arches and masonry of the campus; he loved it all.

We stayed with our good family friends (truly family, really), the VanRaaltes, with whom I shared many Adirondack summers and ice-skating sessions on Carnegie Lake as a child. We had lunch at PJs Pancake House (another Princeton Institution) with my childhood babysitter Donna; it was Donna who took Nikki and me to see Grease at the Garden Theater when it was originally released, a life-changing experience. Donna had an impressive collection of colorful pompom socks that I envied enormously and cute boyfriends who rocked up to our house on Moore Street in jacked-up trucks. Our visit also coincided with one from my high school best friend, Katherine, and we were able to meet up. All of our friends offered Tomas home-cooked meals and whatever he might need, should he show up in Princeton as a student two years from now.

The soccer camp finished up on Sunday evening, and Monday Tomas and I took a morning train to Manhattan. As we emerged on the escalator up from Penn Station, we were blasted by the shear New Yorkness of it all: chatter in five or ten different languages; a jackhammer; horns; sirens; shouting workers; scaffolding; crowds; traffic; and, now, sweltering heat and drenching humidity. Tomas seemed to be taking it all in. “It’s a lot,” I said. He nodded and grinned: “Yes, it’s a lot. It really, really is a lot”. We checked into our hotel just around the block from Penn Station, admired the view from our room on the 25th floor, and headed out for a few hours of tourism. Tomas chose to take us to Times Square, where we enjoyed the company of a gazillion other tourists, found a big soccer store for Tomas to drool over, ate lunch, and took photos with The Naked Cowboy (with whom Tomas, who knows everything that has ever appeared on social media, was already familiar). (He also happened to recognize a famous YouTube cooking celebrity walking on the street.) Tomas seems to have a GPS and a compass implanted in his brain, and he led us around adeptly.

We returned to our hotel in the early afternoon to drink water, dry our sweat, and drop our body temperatures to a range acceptable for proper enzyme function for a couple of hours. Mid afternoon we headed out again to take the subway uptown to Columbia University, where we were scheduled for a 4pm tour.

We began by buying a hat, as is customary for us. If Tomas doesn’t end up going to college, he’ll be able to sell his impressive university hat collection and live off of it for…well, at least a few days. Hat on, we followed our tour guide around the majestic campus from 4 to 5. It was 94 degrees. Tomas claimed to be unaffected by the heat (further testament to his genetic superiority), but I would be lying if I claimed that my focus wasn’t affected. Oh my god it was hot. Tomas liked the campus, but, despite his frequent claims that he belongs in a metropolis, he seemed sort of “meh” about Columbia. Toward the end of the tour he said, “You know, I could really see living in Princeton and hopping on a train now and then with my friends to catch a game in the city.” So, Princeton won, at least this round. He LOVED it! And, while I’m happily committed to my mountaintop on the northwest Pacific coast, I’d be overjoyed to bother Tomas frequently in Princeton, catching some of his games and teaching him to do his laundry on the coin-operated machines in the dorms. Or wait, the machines are probably endowed too, and he probably won’t need any coins. But he will need help, unless something changes soon; so far laundry independence is in the goats-and-chicken-poop category.

Following the tour, Tomas and I met up on campus with my wonderful, funny, handsome friend Luca, who is Chair of the Computer Science Department at Columbia. Luca is Italian, and Tomas wore his Juventus shirt in Luca’s honor. Luca walked us around campus a bit more and told us about this building and that, but he’s a soccer addict and the conversation quickly veered in that direction. He took us to his home on Riverside Drive, where his wife and my good friend Meika was waiting for us. Meika, who is from Brazil, was a graduate student at Berkeley when I was an undergraduate there, and it was with Meika and another Brazilian grad student, Albert, whom I spent a semester in the Mata Atlantica, the rainforest along Brazil’s east coast, in 1993. We made dinner while Tomas indulged Luca in soccer chat, including in a description of his awesome goal at the Princeton camp. (It’s a shame there was no video to support the description.) Luca asked detailed questions about distances and angles and which foot was involved, and Tomas commented later that Luca reminds him of Nagypapa. Anyone who knows my father will understand his commitment to detail and the interrogation techniques necessary to obtain said detail. And it’s funny, Luca, who met my father years ago, commented on how much he enjoyed his long, late-night conversation with him (which surely involved details and interrogation, perhaps symmetrical in nature). It was a wonderful evening, and Meika and Luca, too, offered their support to Tomas should he end up at Columbia. Tomas and I subwayed back downtown to our hotel, showered off the caked salt, and went to bed for a super-airconditioned sleep.

I last wrote in January. The rest of the school year was long and tough. Nursing school was all-consuming. I loved the learning – throughout my undergrad and grad, I was a committed organismal biologist, and now I’m having a love affair with molecular and cellular biology – and I enjoyed the clinical rotations, but I was stretched pretty thin. Gary took on a lot of kid transportation, which is more or less a full time job of its own. Friends who live right behind Tristan’s school let us drop him there every morning 20 minutes before the start of school so that Gary could get the other kids to school on time. It was a very smooth system, so smooth, in fact, that once these friends went on vacation and we didn’t know; Gary continued to drop Tristan there, and Tristan let himself into the backyard like usual, sat on their back porch until he judged it was time to go to school, and walked himself over to Garfield Elementary without incident. Ooops. Nobody has called CPS, at least not yet.

Tomas ran track during the Winter season and continued to practice occasionally (when we can get him there) and play games with his competitive soccer team in Santa Rosa. He busted his hump in school and did great; I’m proud of his ability to balance school and sports. I don’t think I would have had the maturity to do that if I had been playing sports as intensively as he is. Phoebe finished out her sixth grade year and underwent huge transformations while she did. She shot up in height, started caring about clothes and hair, and had a few crushes. Thankfully she still loves goats and reading and being a farm girl. She encountered, full-on, all the things that make Middle School the depths of human existence, and we talked regularly about what it means when someone claims to be your friend one day and rejects you the next. I encouraged her to take on the mantra “F*#k it” – well, not really those words, but the spirit of them and the idea that one can’t take these things too seriously. She gets it, more than I ever did at that age, and I’m proud of her. Phoebe also mastered raising one eyebrow, and she likes to use this form of expression (skeptical, questioning) in religion class. Tristan loved third grade and being back in school. His teachers sent me emails now and then about ​how ​they adore him and how helpful he is in class, and their adoration turned out to be useful when we forgot him at school a couple of times on early dismissal days that we failed to note were early dismissal days. Again, nobody has called CPS. Yet. This summer Tristan decided he likes folk tales, and he read three tomes by himself – Russian, Norse, and Grimms. After he did that, he read aloud to me and I realized he might be a speed reader. Great for him, but it’s hard to listen to someone speed read aloud. I couldn’t keep up.

Phoebe’s goats always deserve a paragraph to themselves. In October she bred her three adult does to our handsome bearded bucks. Throughout the winter the girls ate and ate with gusto and we watched their sides expand. Jolene in particular (Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeeeeeene) grew in width to absurd proportions. In February we waited on tenterhooks, often dashing outside in pouring rain in the middle of the night to see if anyone was delivering; as the due dates approached, Phoebe and I set up a schedule of alternating checks at midnight and 3am. Phoebe even stayed home a day or two in case things got moving during the school day. In the end, Sugar dropped beautiful twins, dark brown Black Coffee and black-and-white Half & Half, at a very civilized time of the evening. Cowslip had black-and-white twins, Dixie and Moonflower, on a sunny early afternoon while I was home and Phoebe in school; I got to deliver the second one. Jolene, always above and beyond, had five (FIVE!!!) babies during TV time. She was a week late and so wide we were worried that she might explode. It was a special night, with Gary, Phoebe, Tristan, and I all there to “help”. (Jolene didn’t need help.) Tomas, for whom the goats are a bewildering attraction that he does not share with his weird family, was upstairs doing his homework. Jolene popped those babies out like a popcorn maker drops a shower of popcorn, with only a few minutes between each. Phoebe, Tristan, and I dried the tiny babies off with old towels. Gary dashed back and forth to the house for more towels and molasses water to fuel Jolene’s heroic efforts. Every time he’d come back, we’d say, “Dad, she just had another!” Seriously, the whole thing was pretty unbelievable and Jolene is, in my eyes, a caprine goddess. Phoebe sold kids and goat milk, and I made some chevre and froze lots of milk to make more later. Phoebe reinvested her earnings in another registered doe, and Gary is thrilled that SOMEONE’s efforts on the farm are doing something other than simply absorbing every penny he earns. (I still think we should name our farm Bleed Me Dry Farm, though now Middle Sister Dairy Goats is in the running.)

After the school year, I was desperate for Summer, and it’s been a good one. Phoebe, Tristan, and I rode the horses a lot. We’ve made some trips to the river for swimming. Tristan has been to summer camp for a week, and Phoebe is meant to go next week. We had our annual summer visit, better than ever this year, from my friend Tanya and her niece Saysha; we horseback rode in thick fog every day. Also, Tomas’ friend Alex visited from Madrid. We dedicated ourselves to feeding him hamburgers and enabled him to compare and contrast Spanish bullfighting in Madrid, which he has seen, with American bullfighting, which we could provide for his entertainment at the Fortuna Rodeo. The icing on the cake of his American vacation was the Quadiators competition at the rodeo, in which teams of young boys on quads race around trying to smash and pop balloons taped to their opponents’ heads with plastic bats. In June I had a short vacation when I flew to Colorado to ride an endurance event in the Spanish Peaks with my friend Tanya. I rode her 18 year-old Arabian mare, a rescue horse with an unknown history that Tanya has only had for a few years, in a 25-mile race. Luna loves these races, likes to go fast, and knows what she’s doing. I sat on her back and she took care of things, which is good because I don’t really know what I’m doing, and we placed in the top ten. Then, at the end of July, I rode in my first ride-and-tie, which took place at Cuneo Creek, a gorgeous part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. In a ride-and-tie, two humans and a horse are a team. The humans take turns riding the horse, and the rider, who is usually faster, ties the horse and leaves it for the runner while jogging off ahead. The runner reaches the tied horse, hops on, and the cycle starts again. The humans can take turns running and riding as often as they want or as often as the terrain warrants. I did the 22-mile event with my friend Lauren on her cowpony Goose. It was brutally hilly but an absolute blast, and we came in second in the small field of four teams. I won my first-ever belt buckle! It’s big enough to serve appetizers on. Twenty teams completed in the 36-mile event, and we shared the course with them for the first 12 miles or so, so for the first chunk of the race it was a good crowd of excited, dancing horses and tough cross country runners. Goose was very level-headed; he didn’t mind being left tied to a tree here and there, and he trotted most of the 22 miles at a steady pace. His job on Planet Earth is usually to round up cows, so I do think he might hav​​e been wondering at which part of the course he’d find the cows, but he didn’t complain.

Now, summer is coming to a close. I’m truly sad to have it end – sad that I’ll have less free time with the kids, sad that there will be less riding, sad that Tomas will soon disappear behind his desk. I’m excited about my second a​nd​ final year of nursing school, but also dreading being consumed by it again. Sigh.

Tomas and I are halfway across the country by now. I’m in the middle seat, engaged in a careful fencing act to avoid shoulder contact with the aisle seat guy, who swabbed down his whole seat and tray table with Chlorox wipes just after boarding. I can tell he REALLY doesn’t want to touch shoulders. Tomas insisted on the window seat, where he would be buffered from contact with strangers by me in the middle seat. The middle seat is miserable, and if Tomas had the life he deserves, we’d be in first class, I would not have to shoulder fence with a stranger, and Tomas would be able to stretch out his muscley soccer player legs while sipping an iced mocktail and watching a movie on a decent sized screen. Poor Tomas. It’s all so unfair. I’m sure some day things will be as they should be for him – a life of airport clubs, first class, and his own slide sandals that nobody else borrows and walks through chicken poop in. I hope he doesn’t read this until he’s old enough to know that I’m mercilessly taking the piss.

2 thoughts on “As it should be

  1. Oh, I’m in awe, however, nothing I read really surprises me. I have loved your family for many years. I had many phone conversations with your Mother that always cheered me. I believe the comment from your Dad that I most vividly remember and love is “if one of my children should call, find me, wherever I am”. Judith occasionally went into NY to meet with her publisher. One day I received a call from you saying “Nikki is really sick”. Some years later I was stricken by the same illness and remember your Mother visiting me in Princeton Hospital. I am now 90 and doing well. I lost my son to brain cancer two years ago and my husband four months later. I live alone and feel comfort in that I still feel their presence. My daughter lives in Austin, TX. She’s a nurse, BSRN from Duke University, (10 month employee) at the University of Texas, after many avenues in Nursing from hospital to research. She and her family visit me often. I love your Bare Bones Mommy and love seeing photos of your beautiful family. Love, Dorothy Patterson

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  2. Toni,
    What a fabulous entry! Reading your accounts and getting to see the kids grow up is a great treat. I’m not in touch with your mom as often as I’d like to be but getting to read your blog is one of the nicest perks of knowing her. My niece and her husband are Princeton grads and they loved it there. If that’s Tomas’ first choice, they’ll be lucky to have him enrolled.

    Great to see you all looking so well.
    Pat

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