And Ye Shall Find
This site has almost 200 essays. That's too many for somebody who had a B-plus average in high school. But I'm not going to delete any until disk space forces me to. Instead, I've thrown a rope to readers in the form of a search engine.
"This is really neat," Jill exclaimed when she first used the free engine on the bottom of my home page. It does give the site flair, though like most add-ons sprinkled across the Internet, it was easy to install. I kicked myself for not putting one on JeffsLife sooner, and I thank all the readers who waded through my pages before this shortcut.
Considering the price (free), the engine is run by a conscientious company. Every week I get an e-mail from them informing me JeffsLife has been "spidered." (The e-mail always makes me itch, but their attention makes me feel connected.) Every three months, the company also sends me a list of words and terms that visitors looked for. The latest list contained 50 inquires for a total of 28 words or terms. I try to not remind myself that some sites net that many searches every minute.
Mostly visitors were hunting for baby- and kid-related stuff. For example, the first word someone looked for, at 11:30 at night eastern time, was "vomit." I wonder what they thought I could have told them about vomit that they hadn't already learned at that time of night.
Two people looked for pictures. A dry search: I'm stubborn about not posting pix of Alex, Jill, me, or even Ned. I feel like it would be surrendering the integrity of the words. Or maybe I'm scared of having Ned's face put on the body on some porno model. (Actually, that might be pretty funny.) Anybody looking for photos should find them the old-fashioned way: Write to me and I'll mail some.
Somebody made four searches for "alex city bus" in 28 seconds a week before Christmas last year. They must have been as mad as I was last December when I wrote that essay ("No Fare"). I like to think that this visitor's boss left the office early on a holiday-season afternoon, and my reader decided to use their precious, unsupervised Internet time not finding babies' heads on porno models' bodies, but re-reading how a mulish New York City bus driver ordered Jill and me to fold our stroller even though Alex was on an oxygen tank. I wonder if that driver knows he's on the Internet, and that somebody tried to find him four times in less than a minute.
Other visitors tried to find "pigeon chest," "preschool," "power outages," "curtains," "NICU," "sanctuary," a whole assortment of terms. I hope they all found what they were looking for. I'm still looking. A few of the searches left me wondering. Somebody wanted to find "April," then "May 2001." Maybe they missed the essays in those months. Somebody else was looking for "Ithaca," somebody else for just plain "Alex." On Saturday, May 5, somebody's fingers flew too fast as they looked for "today s parent today s parent," "today s parent today's+parent," "today's+parent" (twice), "today's+parent," and "today's parent." In mid-March, somebody looked for "smell."
Some of the searches seem unmistakably related. "Smell," for example, was followed within 44 seconds by a hunt for "diapers." Two searches for "potty" on February 1 were followed by an unprecedented seven searches for "diapers." Everybody's looking for diapers. Three searches for "sex" precede two for "birth." I don't believe the word "sex" appears on my site in the adult context, so I trust that person was as disappointed as I've been with that subject lately. "Sex sex sex," read the three searches conducted over 40 seconds on April 21. Forty seconds. Fast.
The searches for sex and birth also came right before the search for "same-sex marriage." I don't know what this person was looking for, but maybe to find it they need more than a search engine. (June 2001)
Into my life has fluttered an e-mail from a monitor of a bulletin board at a big babies Web site. I posted a notice about a new essay on her board, which is for parents of high-needs children:
"Your site seems confusing," she responds. "We're trying to figure out how it relates to High Needs? Is it the NICU? Also, the host of that board tells me that you do not interact with the other posters - instead you just post your links."
I like to think that anybody with the attention span of a squirrel could figure out from my essays just when the term "High Needs" entered my life. Let me add that, if the stories on my site seem confusing, try living through them.
But I must also say that the moderator of any board on which I post notices of new essays has a right to be peeved. I post on a lot of sites, and though I do respond to other posters' notices when they catch my eye, I don't do that as often as I'd like. As far as I'm concerned, any board has the right to boot me at any time.
Some boards, however, have adopted me and my work warmly. Later this summer, I'm speaking at the conference sponsored by the organization (preemie-l) behind one board. Other sites have chosen to highlight my essays. Most can't, or don't, pay. But these people keep me alive. I thank them all. And I like to think that some of the parents who click to their sites come, partially, to learn what's happening with me and my family.
Which brings me to the source of the above note:
"BabyCenter hopes that all boards will be give and take, and not just a place to drum up business for a personal website. Please take a moment to explain how your site fits the purpose of the board and what you might be able to offer the board in the future, instead of the links."
I have a better idea. Let me take a moment to explain how BabyCenter attempted to drum up business from me in the fall of 1998.
Even as Alex struggled to break three pounds and get the vent out of his throat, I received an e-mail -- unsolicited -- from an editor at BabyCenter who had found my site and wanted to pay me to post essays on the BabyCenter site.
As this parenting portal was a coming giant on the Net, I was delighted. Here was a chance to spread word on Alex's situation and get sweet money, although probably not a lot. The word "BabyCenter" promised to keep me afloat for weeks. So I e-mailed this editor who'd dropped into my life and told her that I would be happy to work with her and her company. After two such e-mails, I got a response that she was still working on the idea and would be back in touch.
In what passes, I guess, for give and take at BabyCenter, I spent the next few months of my suddenly painful life sending e-mails to this editor awaiting, what is the term?, interaction. "Just wanted you to know I am still available to write the essays we discussed ..." The editor never wrote back. Eventually I stopped trying.
Before BabyCenter flatters itself with the belief that they're hardened vets of publishing and I'm not, I've been getting rejected by editors since I was 13. Well into high school I even collected the slips in a fattening envelope. I got rid of them eventually, figuring that saving rejection slips was a rookie-writer thing to do. I had little idea that one day they'd be collector's items, that in the quick-click online world, writers would be rejected the way homeless are as they bum quarters: Passersby look away and wish that this problem would just disappear.
"Just wanted you to know I am still available. Alex is doing better these days ..."
I could have swallowed even the rude silence but for BabyCenter's timing in that bad, bad year. No parent with a baby trapped in a NICU has an automatic right to have their ramblings spotlighted on a big site. But when, in the course of business, a representative of a company contacts that parent with the NICU baby with a proposal and, later, the proposal just won't work out, common decency dictates at least some closure.
I think that's the least that should be done for a parent whose life has been claimed by High Needs, and for another set of parents readying themselves for years of having people look away.
Beyond that advice, I have nothing to offer. As for interacting with BabyCenter, I just did. (July 2001)
Today I was supposed to arrive at the Preemie-l conference, near Denver, to deliver my first public speech about what happened to me and my family in the NICU. It was to be a moment I've written about, craved, and fantasized over.
Instead, I will be in an office in New York, writing about accountants.
How did this happen? Well, last spring, when Preemie-l flattered me with the offer to speak, August 24th seemed as far away as Christmas or Neptune, a date with promise but still floating somewhere in the second half of the year. "Floated" is a good word, because that's what the honor did for me for months.
Preemie-l is a special bunch, people's exhibit A on how the Internet has changed my life. They e-mailed us support, love, and advice during Alex's darkest months in the NICU. Through the organization's online presence, we made close friends we'd never met. Preemie-lers first suggested I put up a site of Alex essays. Their speaking opportunity inspired me to pursue the same thing with more local special needs groups. (This is going OK, and maybe by this time next year I'll have put the accountants aside and begun telling live audiences about Alex.)
Preemie-l's conference was slated for a Rocky Mountain area about an hour northwest of Denver, named Estes Park. Everyone said the scenery could steal your breath: Estes Park is 3,000 feet higher even than Denver, which, as any Broncos fan knows, is a mile up.
Then summer crept in and it came time to book the flight for me, Jill, Alex, and Ned. Something about $2,000 round-trip comes to mind. So I whittled the trip to just me, with a $300 fare. Jill was bitter about losing the chance to finally preemie-l people, but she was willing to live with it to give me the chance to make a speech. How long would I be gone? Just overnight Friday, I assured her.
Next day I hit the Net to find fares and flights. As Denver is two hours behind the East Coast, the flight out was no problem: I'd arrive mid-afternoon Colorado time. My speech was scheduled to end at 2:30 Saturday. Estes Park is 90 minutes from the Denver airport - I began to write this down - and therefore any return flight earlier than 4 p.m. was likely to leave me banging helplessly on the boarding gate door as the jet pulled out. Later flights, no matter how much I clicked across Lowestfare.com and Orbitz.com, turned up little earlier than a midnight return in New York.
Then Jill suggested Alex should go. I agreed. On a stupidity scale of 1 to 10, it was about a nine that Jill wouldn't accompany me, and an absolute 10 that Alex wouldn't. Alex had more right to meet these people than I did.
So, back to the Net. I ruled out flights with plane changes, figuring that they would be too rough with Alex and the stroller and the morons with their carry-on bags. Return flights also dwindled as I winnowed out red-eyes and other forms of airline torture. I could maybe just avoid the red-eyes if I rented a car in Denver and didn't get lost on the drive back to the airport.
Then there was oxygen.
Alex is still on a quarter liter flow when he sleeps. We're not even sure he needs this. But I've watched enough Broncos games to know that the team's big home field advantage lies in how the opposing players spend fourth quarters gasping in Denver's thin air. And Estes Park is 3,000 feet higher.
I called Alex's pulmonologists. Yes, they said, there's a concern. I called an oxygen company in Denver. Yes, they said, there's a concern. I called the nurse at the Estes Park first-aid station. Yes, she said, there's a concern. Were other attendees bringing oxygen-dependent kids to the conference? They weren't.
"If it were just one thing," Jill lamented, "you could deal with it. But it isn't just one thing." No, it isn't.
I surrendered on Monday, August 13, hammering out e-mails at my desk like a convict tapping on a cell wall. I thanked the conference organizers, and let friends know who'd expected to meet us. I refused to do any work about accountants at the office that afternoon. On a Career Blow scale of one to 10, this was a 10, right up there with the sinking of the The New York Post in the early nineties.
A party is going on in Colorado that I want to be a part of and can't, a party that might have unlocked a first door toward professional freedom, toward doing something I want to do and something that feels right. That was a bitter thing to cancel. (August 2001)
("'Squawk Code 2471, sir. Bearing one-zero-zero. Range 224 miles.' There was a searing blast of fire and fury, as the Russian-built SAN-6 Grumble Rif guided missile blasted into the empty skies above the ocean, making a dead vertical course, straight up through the thick grey cloud, to 54,000 feet. The 10.5-mile journey took it a shade less than 30 seconds." - Patrick Robinson, H.M.S. Unseen.)
Stimpson took one final glance around the room he knew only too well. With a swift, practiced swipe, he grabbed his house keys and wallet off the antique, solid wood hutch with the front door that Alex broke three months ago, and for good measure also grabbed his comb and MetroCard, the latter of which he'd found indispensable in operations like the one he'd be undertaking this morning: getting to work.
Elmo was just finishing up his routine on the Panasonic TV set. Stimpson's 3-year-old son Alex was finishing the last of the bacon at the table. His wife of seven years Jill was stirring her coffee in the kitchen, and 8-month-old Edwin, the family's latest addition by virtue of being the youngest, was still asleep in the bedroom.
Stimpson took the front doorknob of their big, spacious, beautiful, Manhattan apartment -- that would be too small when Alex and Edwin became teenagers -- with the practiced hands of a man who knows how to use a doorknob. "See you," he called noncommittally.
"Call me," Jill retorted with equal off-handedness.
Time was of the essence now. Stimpson rode the big, beautiful, refurbished elevator to the front lobby of his building and stepped onto the street which he couldn't be sure but he was fairly certain was made of a combination of cement, fly ash, sand, and water, with a base of No. 1 and No. 2 pea stone. He headed across Fifth Avenue, barely skirting the northern edge of the world-famous Central Park, for the walk to the subway that would consume half a block of Manhattan Island's 22.7 square miles.
At the subway, Stimpson swiped his MetroCard and shot through the turnstile just in time to board the downtown number 3 train, stepping deftly aboard the gleaming, aluminum, 51-foot-long Kawasaki train car. Swiftly he settled into one of the few vacant orange plastic seats, beating out by just inches an old woman with shopping bags and a young woman carrying two babies. He let the car's four traction motors carry him swiftly down the west side of Manhattan for about half of that island's 13.4 miles of length.
Stimpson got off the subway and headed for his office building, which he knew all too well. Within minutes, he was at his desk. With the sure hands of a man who has been in this kind of situation before, Stimpson reached across the piles of drivel-filled press releases and clicked on his Model CT006CF 120-volt "Classic Breeze" 6-inch clip-on desk fan. Satisfied after a moment with the trusty machine's whir, he then reached under his desk. No one took any notice of him as he pressed a silent button and activated his powerful Dell Optiplex GX1 computer, with the 64MB hard drive and the CTX 15-inch color monitor. Stimpson also knew without looking that the computer was wired securely into the office's Hewlett-Packard Laserjet 8100 N printer, which was currently out of 20-lb. 8 1/2-x-11-inch white copy paper.
I'll re-fill the paper myself soon, he thought coolly. Just in case.
He moved swiftly and surely to join two of the press releases with his Stanley Bostitch Model B440 stapler. But first, there was business to attend to in another, darker part of the office. No one noticed Stimpson as he rose and sauntered to the vending area. There, still unseen, he slid the dollar bill into the Royal Vendrics Model RVCDE machine and punched up "Snapple Iced Tea." In a second, the brown plastic bottle of the Best Stuff on Earth tumbled into the receiving tray by his knees, reassuringly.
Returning to his desk, Stimpson activated his powerful Microsoft Outlook 98 with the Import/Export Converter, and discovered that an editor of a parenting newspaper in upstate New York, a shade under 4.75 hours from the megalopolis by car, had sent him a check for $100. Since this was fully $15.00 more than Stimpson was expecting, he swiftly activated his Sharp YO-190 256KB personal organizer. Within seconds, quicker than it takes to read "quicker than it takes," he'd secured the editor's e-mail address. He shut the machine off quietly, still unnoticed.
He thanked the editor in an e-mail as he drained his iced tea. Then he sat pondering what it takes to sell words to a big market. He reached his answer in a shade under 30 seconds. (September 2001)
I rarely run low on ideas for essays. Today the tank is near E, however, so I'll write about that.
"I don't like it when you write about how you write," Jill says.
Tough. Andre Dubus once told me that ideas float past us all, and some light on one person, take root, and flower, and the same idea on another person would just flake off. When they take root with me, good ideas get me nervous and I can't stop thinking about them, usually at my office.
So-so ideas kind of flake off. Take "The Real Question." This was going to be an essay of mid-September, the idea contributed by Jill's step-dad who, whenever he's asked a question such as "What time is it?" replies, "What's the real question?" (He's fun.) Jill and I tried this verbal gimcrackery on each other a couple of times, and once it seemed like valid grist. But then came Sept. 11th, and the topic faded.
As often happens when I need something to write about, I look at my fingernails. And lo! The middle finger on my right hand appears to be losing part of its nail! A whitish-gray patch is creeping day by day toward the tip of the finger, and it appears unnaturally loose. This is the sort of detail that grabs readers. What was I doing when I injured this finger? How did it happen? How long before I noticed, and what will eventually happen? Piece on forgetfulness, life moving on, etc.
Etc. Who cares?
Alex and Ned are fountains of ideas, as they're fountains of energy and new to this world. "You look old," Jill announced to me in a cab two days ago. She's right, I do. And there's a soccer field across the street from my office: How am I going to look out there with Alex and Ned one day, an "old" man more familiar with hailing cabs than running a treadmill, who couldn't kick a soccer ball straight when he was 16, let alone when he's pushing 40? Will Alex ever play soccer? Will Ned play better before Alex? How will we deal with that? Didn't I write one about this before?
Too much to think about.
As also often happens when I have to write something, I pull my socks up and tie my shoelaces. Jill got me into Chuck Taylors: I've worn no other sneaker since I've been with her. Jill and I have also had exchanges about socks. When we first got married, she called some of my socks "foot bags." The other day, I finished off a gift certificate to a swanky men's store by picking up three pair of $8.50 socks. Surely she likes these? Piece on how couples communicate, what clothing really means, etc.
Let's crack the "ideas" file: Ned squawking; Ned and Alex and the beds; an online day; The real question; Jill's "Holland" response.
Outdated; did it; too much work; faded; did it. I should update this file more often.
Jill has started doing laundry. That has possibilities. War news? Worn out, right now. Besides, writing about such big events makes me feel like a bug in a flashlight beam. It also goes against why I started these essays: to record my feelings about what was happening with Alex.
I always knew this day would come, when my family would start moving into times that are almost normal, and the ideas, if not drying up, would become less succulent. It takes a special toughness to write in hard situations. It takes another kind of toughness to keep writing when times get calmer. I keep doing it, I guess, because that's easier than not doing it.
Am I done here yet?
"I don't like it when you write about how you write," Jill says again. That's okay. I'm done for now, anyway. (October 2001)
Readers responded generously - three readers, anyway - to the recent essay about ideas for essays.
"I wish you would write an essay about what life is for a New Yorker," said Dear Reader Alaina. "It is hard for me to imagine your lifestyle, because it is so dramatically different from mine. You live in a city where you don't need a car. I drive 45 minutes through farmland to the nearest mall. It is just hard for me to imagine, and I would really like to know more about your kind of city, and in turn I will let you know what it is like to live in South Texas, if that interests you."
I'd like to know what it's like to live in south Texas - particularly in late July, when my big accomplishment for the day in south Texas would be taking enough showers. I thought Texas was the South?
I once told Jill that I had talked to someone in Missouri. She asked if that person was near St. Louis. I said no, that St. Louis was a different part of Missouri. "There are parts of Missouri?" she said. Jill's such a New Yorker. I'm not the New Yorker I was in 1984, when I moved here. When street life still stirred my blood, when the subway's rattle was music to my Down East ears, when bump and bustle was a dance that convinced me I was doing well with my life.
I left New York with Jill in 1993 to pursue -- "scramble behind" would be more accurate -- a journalism career. We returned in 1998 to raise a family. That year is old and bitter to anyone familiar with this site, but we survived and eventually got an apartment in Manhattan. It is one of the quietest apartments I've lived in (this city has also provided me with some of the noisiest, such as the room on 95th Street in which I baked for a summer while the Newark Airport of Upper West Side drug traffic bumped and bustled down the hall).
Across the street from our new home is the northeast corner of Central Park. This is the seedy edge of Central Park. One block east, on Madison Avenue, sit dozens of housing projects. I don't walk there after dark (as I said, I'm not the New Yorker I was). My apartment building is also a 5-minute walk from the Lincoln Correctional Facility, which looks like an apartment house with thick iron mesh on all the windows and a huge box made of chain-link fence on the roof. Jill thinks this building should be closed as a jail and rented out at market rates to people like us (though not us). She thinks the chain-link fence area on the roof would make a swell ballroom. I tell her that maybe the current residents already call it "The Ballroom."
Also steps from our building, in Central Park, is a little lake. Many mornings on my way to the subway, I walk past geese and ducks that live on the lake. They look just like wild birds in the woods, except they're city birds: Instead of flying, they swim out of your way with a sour look. People fish in the lake, too. My boss says there are about three fish in there who keep getting caught and let go, caught and let go, caught and let go. Being one of those fish sounds like a union job.
The subway is the most prominent aspect of living in New York. I get on the subway every morning and, unlike most Americans, I get to read on my commute. I often get a seat on the train, the No. 3 on the Seventh Avenue line, because I get on at a stop near where the train originates and because I'm quick. This fall, however, riding the subway changed as New York became one of our national bull's-eyes. The other day the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Avenue lines were all put out of service for an hour because of a mysterious white powder found at one of the stations. Probably one million people were late for work. The powder was sugar from a doughnut.
Fear has always been on my shoulder here, but nowadays it's special. On my way to the dentist the other day, I walked past the doorways of two buildings that have been visited by anthrax. My dentist told me later that he lost two patients in the World Trade Center, and that another patient lost his wife. Yesterday was the New York City Marathon. It ran right past our door; we went out to look. Alex clapped and clapped. Then Jill said she'd read that they'd removed every metal trashcan along the route. There were half a dozen cops at every intersection. New York City is using cops from all over: Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, Massachusetts. Some have different boots and different pistols, but they stand just like our cops.
After work I ride the subway home. I don't walk through the park by the lake at night, but instead keep the sidewalk on the northern edge of Central Park. Even that is creepy. It's almost pitch dark, and I have to walk behind construction equipment that the city has parked there to conceal muggers. Not to mention the Ballroom across the street. Leaves scud and rustle across the sidewalk. I get home to the wife, kids, and the bright lights of my living room with a tingle of having escaped from something hideous. That's probably how life is for most of us at the end of the day. (November 2001)
In the last of the reader responses to a recent essay on ideas for JeffsLife, Dear Reader Cassiopeia wants more of Alex.
Cassiopeia lives in England, a country I'd love to visit again someday. Hotels are expensive there, however, so if I want a place to stay I'd better pay attention to her.
"More on how Alex is doing at school," she said, "what you get from his teachers, your own observations. You get the idea."
I do. This morning Jill and I and grandma and grandpa went to Alex's school for an open house. I walked in and found him seated at a little table, shoveling Cheerios into his mouth with his hands while Jill encouraged him and chewed her own bagel. Over on the carpeted play area, Ned squatted and tried to figure out a musical toy. "A-wa-wa!" Alex said when he spotted me, holding up his plastic cup with the brontosaurus on the side.
Alex sat with Jill for circle time, during which the kids and teachers sing songs that the kids pick out themselves using little cards with pictures. "The Wheels On the Bus," for example, is selected by tapping the card with yellow school bus. Alex is rabid for yellow school buses right now; they're all he seemed to play with in the classroom. During circle time, he jabbed the bus card even when it wasn't his turn to pick a song.
Later, he got bounced in the "parachute," a big circular piece of nylon held along the edge by the kids and the teachers. Everybody pulls and lifts, and the kid sitting in the center of the parachute gets a gentle toss. Alex loves it. He probably wishes we'd get one at home, but it would hurt my back.
The speech therapist told us that she has to get Alex to interact with her more. She suggested we increase his focus by taking some favorite toys out of his arsenal. (She allows no toy vehicles of any kind in her room, for instance.) She added that Alex is a "joy" to work with, and has come further faster than they could have guessed in early September.
"What does he do when he gets home from school?" Cassiopeia also wants to know. "Anything the witch doctors are saying. How's he doing physically? What's the scene with his oxygen requirements? What's the prediction on his lungs for the future?"
Good questions, C.!, as they say in all those deadening business conferences I have to attend to secure the insurance that pays for all of Alex's remaining oxygen requirements. Before Standard Time, Alex used to hit the playground across the street for an hour or so after school. Now, that's trimmed to about 45 minutes, during which time Ned sits in the swings and Alex scampers about like most normal, though wobbly, 3-year-olds. We still have him on oxygen at night. Recently, we also cranked the flow up when he developed a nagging cough. "Reactive airway" the doctors called it -- a shiny, 50-cent term for the beginnings of asthma.
C. continued: "Ned. Special moments: first time he stood up, crawled, sat down, got past the toilet lock." Added DRs Rachael and Jacob (the latter of whom seems to be a terrific typist at age 14 months): "If you run out of ideas, tell us more about Ned!!!!!!"
Who could ignore those exclamation points? We put Ned in the parachute at Alex's school, and he grinned. Alex destroyed our old toilet lock ages ago, though Ned's pediatrician says his patient will take great interest in the bathroom soon. Ned has also sampled the cuisines of more lands than I knew existed before I left Maine at age 18. Yesterday he had Chinese chicken and lo mien for lunch. Last night it was fish and pears. He shovels it in, and isn't sated until his fists are slick. Jill's in heaven.
"Does Alex whack Ned when Ned grabs one of his toys?" C. added. "Does Ned crawl up to Alex and tries to join in his activities?"
Delayed or no, Alex has perfected holding the toy just out of Ned's reach. I'm guessing this advantage is temporary. Alex has also never, never hit Ned. If he touches Ned at all -- which doesn't happen as often as we'd like -- it's only to stroke his thin, soft hair. If Ned gives Alex any problem, Alex turns to us, such as last night in the bath when Ned kept scrubbing Alex's back with the toothbrush. Ned takes greater and greater notice of Alex, and always grins as if in the parachute. They are emerging as brothers.
"And I've just had a thought," added C. Oh good. "You started the Web site to record your feelings about what was happening with Alex. And here I am giving you a shopping list, as if this site is there for the readers. And here you are writing an essay for exactly the same reason. Alex is interesting whether he's a NICU baby or a school kid. Let's get back to that. And if you don't feel like writing a new essay, don't, but please let us all know what's new with the boys."
Point taken, C. So when I show up, where should I drop my bags? (November 2001)
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