Tuesday, December 30, 2003

A (Birth)Day in the Life

Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head...

Not quite. I was up at midnight with Alison, who is colicky. We've been up with her a lot lately (on Christmas night--not Eve, thank goodness--we didn't get her to fall asleep until we locked her snug in her car seat and I took her for a drive all around Jonesboro at 4am). Last night was mostly my job, as Melissa has the flu, and went to bed around 9pm with a terrible case of the chills; I dug out the heating pad and piled on the blankets to help her stop shivering. Fortunately, she was able to nurse Alison around 10pm, after which I was slowly able to rock her to sleep, and actually managed to get her down by about 11pm. Megan, our oldest girl, woke up with a headache, and so I gave her some Motrin and put a cold washcloth on her head (she really likes that) and rubbed her back until she fell asleep again. That allowed me about 45 minutes of shut-eye. But then it was midnight and Alison was screaming again, and so we were both up. We can't let her scream in her crib, since Caitlyn, our second oldest, shares a bedroom with her, and Caitlyn doesn't sleep well as it is. Alison seems to have a problem similar to one Caitlyn had when she was an infant: she can't poop, at least not very well. The pressure builds up insider her little body, and it prevents her from relaxing. So, when all else fails, we will sometimes put Vaseline on the tip of a baby thermometer (which is inserted rectally, if you didn't know), and insert it in Alison's little behind in the hopes of "coaxing" something out. She hates it, and sometimes causes some inflammation, but it really helps on occasion. We tried it last night around 1am, and boy did we get a lot of crap out of her. Well, after that there was another half hour or so of slowly calming her down, while Melissa nursed her again and we both kind of half-watched The Two Towers extended edition dvd (I haven't seen Return of the King yet, and want to review both of the LOTR dvds before I do). We hit the sack, and Alison stayed down, by 1:30am. But around 5am she needed to be fed again, and plus she wouldn't go to sleep afterward (which is unusual: she's generally slept well in the early morning hours). Melissa had sweated all night and was still very tired, so I got up and rocked her in my arms until she fell asleep around 7am. By that time Caitlyn had woken up, but I'd managed to get her some juice and send her back to bed. That meant the house was quiet as it grew light outside. I've always enjoyed the early morning hours: I grew up on a farm, milked cows, and was regularly up at 5am most days for most of my adolescence. But I must admit, I never really imagined when I was a boy facing the dawn in the state I did this morning, or have so many so many mornings, since Melissa and I began having kids.

It's December 30th, and I'm 35 years old today.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, still is their strength labor and sorrow; for they are soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalms 90:10)

I play little numerology games with myself. I pick out dates and find ways to imbue them with significance, to tell myself they are milestones, after which (or by which) much will be accomplished, or dangling issues will be resolved, or conflicts will be settled, or everything will change. It's a bad habit, since it allows me to rationalize away my days, filling them with excuses and promises ("Well, I needn't worry about that now; it's on my list of things to do once this/that/the other thing happens"). But it's a habit that I'm, mostly, able to keep under control; rarely these days do I allow my obsession with completed lists, clean breaks, fresh starts, do-overs and all the other strategies by which we impose a temporal order on our lives to actually get in the way of getting things done. In any case, I do it, though I'm not proud of it.

My latest milestone was my 35th birthday, since, as the scripture says, it puts me halfway toward the end of my life (or at most five years away from the halfway point, if I'm lucky). Do I believe that's true? I believe it's meaningful, which in subjective self-evaluations like these is much the same thing. I'm 35; I'm a thirtysomething. By no means a bad age; it's a good one, really (youth is overrated, your 20s especially so). It bothers me how far I'm from where I feel I ought to be though. I told myself that this was really the do-or-die-year: I'd have a tenure-track offer in hand by the time I was 35, I promised myself, or else. Well, no such offer has been made. Still a visiting professor; still renting a house; still living on the edge (no savings, no life insurance). Ten years of marriage, three children, a (paid off, thank goodness) 98 Ford Escort in the driveway. Living in Northeast Arkansas, and deeply confused and divided in how I feel about the place. I haven't been able to provide a home of our own for my wife and children, something they want more than probably just about anything else (in ten years of marriage, we've rented and lived in a total of nine separate homes and apartments, not one of which she's been free to paint or significantly redecorate or even plant a garden around, all of which she longs to be able to do). My first book should have been done a year ago, and I've only just managed to get a single article out of my dissertation; how can I ever expect to make tenure, to create any lasting scholarship, become a truly fine teacher, much less provide well for my family, when I already find myself so far behind where I ought to be?

I'm whining, of course. And I hate the fact that I whine. Ridiculous: many people--most people--are worse off. I see them at church, I see them in my classes: people with deaths in the family, jobs that disappear, bodies broken in accidents and ruined by disease, minds cast into depression by divorce and abuse. I'll probably never make it to a top research university: I don't work (and perhaps don't want to work) that hard, not with all the costs involved, and besides, I started too late, too far from the action, and I faced (and embraced) too many distractions along the way. But that's a pathetic thing to concern oneself with on one's birthday. My children are healthy (mostly). My wife is happy (I hope). My students (some of them, anyway) have learned some things in my classes. We live in a good community, and the folks from our neighborhood and church (most of them, anyway) are good people who have shared their time and hospitality with us. I have an office, and shelves full of books, and a blog and friends that I talk with by e-mail every day. Alison will be blessed in church next Sunday, and all six of my brothers, plus my mother and father, plus my younger sister and her new fiance, plus Melissa's mother and father and younger sister, will be making the journey for the big day (plus all us Fox brothers will all go see Return of the King together on Saturday night). There's a great deal more that a 35-year-old could ask for than all this, of course, and when I look around the blogosphere, and invariably compare myself to all the immensely accomplished, intelligent, ambitious, decent and influential people out there, all of whom seem far further along their chosen lifepath than I am along mine, at a far younger age, the ressentiment boils up. Thankfully however, it rarely stays at a boil. I'm 35, and my many lists are incomplete, and there is probably no more likelihood that things will dramatically and effortlessly change for the better tomorrow than there was yesterday. Most things, I suppose, will remain undone, and most of my days will be ordinary days, this day included. I know that, and am happy with that more often than not: and when I remember at the scriptures, which remind us to "take no thought for the morrow" (Matthew 6:34), and when I look around me, and see so many consumed by an envious, selfish and prideful pursuit of ever-better tomorrows, I realize that the fact that I can be happy with my day is perhaps my greatest blessing of all. The philosophical libertine, who thinks life is simply there for the taking and believes limits are for chumps, will no doubt find my birthday reflections maudlin. And of course, they are. But there are worse things to be.

Melissa was finally able to get herself out of bed around 9am this morning, by which time both Megan and Caitlyn were up and watching tv, which is usually frowned upon around here (in the morning, that is; we try to ration out tv time in the afternoons), but since its vacation and no one really had a good night sleep, I figured what the hell. Hopefully Melissa's flu is passing, though she still has a bad cough. Alison slept until 9:30am, and we all had cold cereal for breakfast. I need to do some shopping, in preparation for all the family which is coming to visit, but thought I'd come up to the office for a few hours this morning, and try to bang out this book review for The Review of Politics which I was supposed to have finished two weeks ago. Then Megan shouted "The toilet's overflowing!" Out came the plunger and the mop. We need to clean the place before the guests arrived, so it was as good a time as any to wash the bathroom floor. After that was done, and Melissa started the laundry, I came up to my office, and wrote this (what did I say about my embracing distractions?). Later today, we'll open some presents, and we'll have some cake and ice cream. The girls will put the big "3" and "5" candles on my cake, and I'll blow them out. What will I wish for? More days like today, I think, though perhaps with slightly more sleep.

Happy New Year, everyone. And many happy returns.