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Archive for May, 2017

(reposted from March 2014)

Every morning as I lie in bed and hear my three-year-old son begin to rustle in his bed, I vow that today, I will get down on my hands and knees and play with him. Soon, he’ll be going to school, making friends and playing soccer and video games, and at that point, he won’t want to play with me. And then I’ll miss him and feel regret. So when he says, “Mommy, will you play with me?” I vow to say, “Yes,” and grab one of his trucks or Thomas the Tank Engine and drive it around his ringed track saying “Chuggah, chuggah, choo choo. I’m a useful engine!”

The spaceship we don't fly

The spaceship we don’t fly

And yet every afternoon, as my son drives his cars on the floor right next to me or runs his trains around the track, I not only fail to make good on my vow, I’m barely in the room. Instead, I keep checking my email, thinking about stories I want to pitch, essays I want to write and sometimes taking notes for my parenting blog on raising a toddler — except I spend more time writing about raising him than actually raising him.

“Mommy, who are you talking to?” my son says, as I whisper into my tape recorder to remind myself how when he had his hands covering his eyes yesterday at the playground, I thought he was crying when it turns out he was only playing hide-and-seek.

“I’m, um, talking to myself. I’m trying to remind myself of the funny thing you just did,” I’ll say.

The trucks we don't drive

The trucks we don’t drive

I realize this is bizarre, given that he doesn’t understand what a tape recorder is, what a memory is, and why his mommy no longer has one.

I know I should savor this time with my son, like a peppermint, but I can’t help myself. If I’ve experienced something noteworthy, I want to write about it. And so I walk that tightrope all writers must walk: to live in the moment in order to experience life or to come out of the moment in order to write about it. So when my son does something funny or interesting or smart, my default reflex is to reach for my pen instead of my son.

Sometimes I can’t write it down fast enough, so I scribble on my hand, the back of coupons, inside book jackets – sometimes even library books – or I’ll grab my iPhone and type a note or record a phrase. But when it’s time to turn these experiences, notes and recordings into prose, I fall asleep, and all those pearls of wisdom just fade away like penning a great poem and then leaving it out in the rain. And then the next day comes, when I hear my son rustling, I vow to play with him, and then spend half the day taking notes on what it’s like to half play with him, and the cycle begins anew.

I’m not just distracted from playing with him because I’m a writer. I’m distracted because I’m struggling with the fact that I’m no longer working full time. I had my son at 47 so I’ve spent the last three decades building a career as a journalist, but since I had him, I’ve cut my workload and my paycheck by a third – not to mention the fact that his needs and moods and demands and incessant chatter has destroyed my ability to focus. Stories take five times longer to write, naptime dictates when I can schedule interviews. Worse, I now have severe mommy-brain and can no longer hold a thought for more than a minute. The instant my son interrupts me, which happens all day long, my focus runs off the track like a Thomas train.

My husband’s job, however, has changed little. Except for coming home early one night a week so I can go to yoga, his work hours and job title remain the same, though his office wall is now covered with photos of our son.

The crafts we don't do.

The crafts we don’t do

There’s a lot of talk about this social dynamic: couple has child, man keeps career, woman watches hers unravel, at least until the child goes to school. First, there were books and articles about how women can have it all: motherhood and a career. Then everyone admitted women really can’t have it all. And there are cries of sexism and how something has to change. I agree it’s sexist, but at the same time, I’m a beneficiary. I’m glad it’s acceptable for me to put half my career on hold while I spend time with my son in his formative years. My husband could have said he wanted to stay home while I continued to work full time, but he didn’t, and it’s not just because he earns twice what I do and his workplace is less flexible. It’s because underneath it all, despite our liberal beliefs and cosmopolitan sensibilities, like old wallpaper you might find underneath plaster, we still believed boys go to work and girls stay home. And I feel lucky for that. I get to be with my son in these delicious but fleeting formative years. If I could only stop working long enough to enjoy it.

This morning, when I went into my son’s room, I said, “I want to play with you.” My son looked surprised but broke out into a big wide smile and hugged me. His response warmed me so deeply, I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s all about. It’s not about awards or accolades or money. It’s about this. Loving and being loved. Wanting and being wanted.” The experience was so moving, I grabbed a notebook to jot it all down.

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We recently took a two-day train ride from Chicago to Seattle, passing through Glacier National Park, which is part of the reason we took the trip. At 53, I’d never seen a national park. My son is six. I wanted to get him started earlier.

On the train, I met Carol, a woman who has been working for Amtrak for 17 years. For the last several, she’s been working behind the counter of the snack bar, which has everything from sandwiches and hot dogs to candy and beer. Every time she went on break, which she would make an announcement over the loudspeaker telling everyone that the snack bar would be closed for an hour while she was on her lunch break, and then her dinner break, and then her post dinner break. The passage of time on our two-day train journey was marked by Carol’s intermittent meal breaks.

Talking to train employees, I notice that most were either from Chicago or Seattle, which makes sense, given the train’s route. Carol was from Chicago. All the people working the back of the train are from Chicago, she says, as if I should have known that. The employees who come from Seattle work in the front of the train, from the dining car upward, she says. I ask her why. She didn’t know. Maybe because the train is from Seattle, and there aren’t enough people from Seattle to work the train, so they use people from Chicago, she said. I nod my head, even though what she’s saying doesn’t make any sense.DSC_0960

Given how long she’s worked for the railroad, I ask her what’s the weirdest thing she’s seen.

“Weird? I’ve had plenty of weird stuff, but I’m not going to talk to you about that,” she says and pauses. “But I’ll tell you something scary.”

There was a mother and daughter sitting in the lounge upstairs, she said. She’d seen them up there. When she was done with her shift, she went up the stairs, and at the top step was the daughter, who grabbed Carol’s hand. ‘Help me! My mother can’t breathe,’ the girl said. Carol looked over at the mother, who was already turning blue.

She knew the intercom in that car was broken, so she took off toward the front of the train, running through the cars until she reached the intercom that worked. She called for medical help, and within minutes, they were using a defibrillator on the woman, and they saved her life, Carol says.

“We had to keep people out of the car because all these passengers, and there was an EMT there, they were all surrounding the woman. They wanted to see what was going on,” she says.

“But you ran through the cars, to get help,” I say. “You’re a hero.”

She pauses. “Oh, all right, I’ll tell you something weird.”

She says there was a passenger a few years ago who kept coming back for more drinks and was becoming more and more inebriated. Soon, he got into an argument with one of her co-workers, Larry, and the two got into a scuffle down by the doorway of the train as it pulled out of a station, she said. Suddenly, the man opened a window and jumped out, rolling down the hill that runs alongside the tracks.

“He’s lucky the train wasn’t going faster. He would have been a goner,” Carol says. “The suction would have pulled him under the train.”

“Really? Did you ever see that?” I ask.

“No, but I’ll bet it happens.”

That night at dinner, I met a train employee who had been with the railroad almost as long as Carol, and he remembered the man who jumped out the window. He said the man didn’t jump because he was drunk – which he was – but because he was crazy.

“We had to put him in his room because he was out of his mind,” the train employee said.

While in his room, he opened the window and jumped out.

But no, people do not get sucked under the tracks and crushed, he said. Perhaps that was just wishful thinking on Carol’s part.

Every time we hit a town, I’d take a lot of photographs because I was finding that the dramatic landscape I hoped to see was there — but at 60 miles an hour. While the sightseeing was good, my photographs were not. So every time the train would stop, I would rush down to the door to peek my head out and snap a few photos, of the town’s gas station, the local church, the local tavern.DSC_0673

But when I ran downstairs at Glasgow, North Dakota, the door was closed. It was odd because we’d only just arrived at the station. It was too soon for the door to have already opened and shut. A woman with long red hair, glasses, and a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt was waiting by the door with a young man.

“Did they open the door?” she asked me.

“I don’t know. I just got here. Is this your stop?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m meeting someone,” she said.

I peered outside the window of the train door and saw people standing on the platform in front of the depot.

“Maybe it will open in a minute,” I said, thinking perhaps the train hadn’t fully stopped in the station yet.

That’s happened to me many times, where I’m standing at the train door waiting for it to open, and it doesn’t, and I begin to panic, thinking all of the other doors have opened but mine and that the train will soon pull out of the station without my door ever having opened. I started to feel anxiety, and it wasn’t even my stop. The funny thing was, this woman was so calm. If it were me, I’d be bouncing off the walls like a fly trying to find an opening in a window.

Suddenly, the train moved forward a few feet, and then it stopped.

“There you go,” I said, feeling vindicated. “We weren’t in the station yet.”

She was texting someone, presumably the person waiting on the other side of the door.

We waited for the door to open, but instead, the train started to roll forward again, this time leaving the station.

“There he is,” she said, as we passed a man on the platform. “He just gave the conductor an earful.”DSC_0750

He must have told her that in a text. I thought for sure the train was going to stop, given that the conductor now knew there was someone on the train wanting to get off, but but it didn’t. It kept going, until we were well out of Glasgow and back into the flat farmlands of Montana.

“You should tell the conductor,” I said. I looked around. There was no one in sight. It was just the three of us on the lower level by the door. I wasn’t sure if I should press an emergency button. I didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself. She was getting off the train. Me, I was going to be on it for another day, beholden to the engineer and all the train’s employees.

I went back upstairs to the lounge car, where my husband and son were playing cards. When I saw one of the conductors walk by, I blurted out, “A woman was trying to get off the train, and the door didn’t open. Do only certain doors open? How do people know which doors are going to open?”

I was concerned for the woman, but equally, I knew it could easily be me in that position when it came to my stop.DSC_0696

“We only open the doors in the cars where people are getting out?”

“How do you know who those people are? Because of their tickets?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“So what if someone moves cars and then tries to get out? They can’t get out?”

“No, they can’t. We can’t open all the doors. We don’t have enough people to stand at every door,” he said.

I didn’t like this system. It anticipated that they knew how people would act. It also seemed like a game where not everyone was told the rules.

We went to lunch, and on the way back to the lounge car, I saw the woman who couldn’t get off the train. She was lounging in her seat, listening to something on her earphones. She looked content. I wished I could be that content when things go awry. And in Montana, missing your stop is no small matter. The next one isn’t for another several hours.DSC_0735

“Is that man going to meet you at the next station?” I asked.

“Yes. That was my husband,” she said.

“How far is it? An hour?”

“A couple of hours, but he works there,” she said.

She told me her husband works for BNSF railways, and he’s been stationed in Havre, Montana for the last several months – about a six-hour drive from where she’s from, in Minot. They were going to meet in Glasgow, which is about four hours from Minot but certainly closer than going all the way to Havre, where he’s been living. She wound up having to go to Havre anyway.

“He only gets four days off a month. We were going to meet in Glasgow, because it’s his birthday,” she said. “I haven’t seen him since January.”IMG_4720

She was drinking a soda her husband had bought her at McDonald’s. He was going to give it to her when she got off the train but when he didn’t see her, he gave it to a train employee with the hopes that it would find its way to her. It did.

Out the window, the farms of Montana rolled by. There would be one farm, and then a long period of rolling hills before you’d see another farm or house. That kind of vastness makes all matters involving people seem small in comparison. It puts it in perspective. The woman went back to whatever she was listening to on her earphones, knowing that if she hadn’t seen her husband in four months, another four or five hours wasn’t going to make that much of a difference.DSC_0711

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