An Open Book: Ex Libris, Part I

Los Alamos

Books are my touchstones. Opening a book I have already read takes me back in time; unread books sitting on my shelf beckon me to enter their world sometime soon. But this book world is not the story inside. A Kindle or a tablet may contain the same story as a tattered hardcover, but is it the physicality of the book that summons; touching the book again is what brings me back.

I have many stories about books that I would like to share with you. It might surprise you that a textbook or even a book I have never read might be important to me, but it is what it is. Let me begin, then, with a book with instructions on building a kite…

The way I remember it, the wind wouldn’t cooperate for a long time, but suddenly it picked up, and Terry, my very pregnant yet understanding wife, was witness to my moment of triumph as my homemade kite finally and vigorously rose to the sky. It held steady for a while, and then just as whether from exhaustion or from boredom, it lost its vitality and dove toward the ground.

I madly started reeling back the string, but my kite still landed in a soccer field where little kids were practicing. As I ran to retrieve my contraption, an apoplectic coach started shouting at me, and an embarrassed and apologetic adult in his late 20s meekly picked up the kite and ran off the field.

To understand the significance of the above story, we need to begin many years earlier. We lived in the outskirts of town growing up, near an open field perfect for flying a kite, and my Dad and I made one when I was nine or 10. We also lived near a bamboo field just inside the boundaries of a military post, and I was mortified when my Dad jumped the fence and safely retrieved a long bamboo stick for the kite frame, safely eluding the snipers that I imagined had their sights trained on him. Some later afternoon, we cut little designs out of thin wrapping paper and I learned how to lash strong knots and make glue from just flour and water, culminating in a hexagonal kite emblazoned with the proud symbol of our favorite soccer team, as a creeping mess slowly overtook our kitchen floor. Funny that I vaguely remember flying the kite, but it was the time cutting and tying and stretching on that messy floor that I remember the most.

When I was finishing (hopefully) my graduate career, we found out we were expecting our first child, and I spent the spring of 1986 furiously writing my thesis, June graduation date and July due date competing for the top spot in the urgency list. Around then, I came across a book on building kites at a bookstore, and memory of that summer afternoon spent with my Dad came back to me, so I bought the book and decided to build a kite as preparation for our baby, as nonsensical as that seems now. I was stressed-out about finishing my degree, but under it all, I was also stressed, maybe even more, about my impending fatherhood. Flying a kite became my nesting instinct, and I spent an afternoon closely following directions for a hexagonal kite, the kite that, as you have read above, first elated but ultimately humiliated me.

I have kept that kite book, and I check on it every once in a while. It makes me smile about a spring long ago when Terry and I were young, excited and scared about what was about to happen, and how building that kite somehow allayed my fears. Three sons later, adults now and not too far from parenting age themselves, it puts me back to that time when our journey into parenthood was uncharted and daunting.

I don’t remember building a kite with my boys, although Terry says that I did. Instead, remember clearly other scenes in this parenting trek: cleaning up cough syrup-colored throw-up in the middle of the night, cutting sandwiches into appropriate shapes so they’d be eaten without complaint, flipping a giggling toddler on to my shoulders, being there to applaud triumphs, some large and some small. When I see my kite book, I also smile at the irony that this beloved book that retaught me how to build a kite, and was my first parenting book purchase, in fact taught nothing about being a good Dad. While actually becomgin one, I learned that being a Dad is not about how to make a kite, or how to throw a perfect spiral, or how to tie a fish hook to a line. One can be a great craftsman or a great athlete, but neither is necessary or really important to the task. There is something both harder and easier about being a parent.

The most important thing to me has been being there with my children and for my children, sharing in their life and blending inextricably my life with theirs. This is something that doesn’t require skill; it requires generosity and commitment of time, effort, and patience. No kite book taught me that parenting is not about whether the final product soars or sinks, but that it is all about enjoying an afternoon with your kids, cutting colored paper into cute designs and getting glue over everything.