Wednesday, November 30, 2005
In Which My Life Is Flashing Before My Eyes...
A few weeks ago:
The weather was really starting to turn cold and blustery. I love falling asleep to the sound of tree branches scraping erratically against the house.
And so it was late one November night--er, morning--that I got up to relieve myself. It was about 3:15--the hour in most horror movies when demons and suchlike attack unsuspecting families. But there were no demons about. Just the utter, peaceful dark and the growing wind outside. I could already hear the delicate brushing of the tree outside my window, making an almost oceanic whooshing sound that soon had me drowsing.
KA-CLOMP! WHACK THUNK!
And then I heard a strange metal grinding sound, like a window being pried open.
When I heard that sound, three things happened at once:
1. I sat bolt upright.
2. Heavy, fast footsteps sounded in the dark hallway.
3. Through my bedroom wall, I heard Thomas scream. "DAD! HE'S IN MY ROOM!"
I was out of bed like a shot, my hand reaching instinctively for the cricket bat I keep under my bed (I've told you before: don't ask why I have a cricket bat under the bed. I just do). Unfortunately, the bat was way under the bed and my hand grasped the first handle-like object it could find which, alas, turned out to be the remote control of the television, something I didn't realize til much later, when every light in the house was ablaze. What, I wonder, could I have done to an intruder in my son's room with such a weapon? Mute him? Place him in rewind?
Well, in the event, it didn't matter what I was wielding. Once again, at it so often is in matters of home security, I was rendered surplus to requirements. In the seconds it took me to grab my Kung Fu Remote and sprint the seven steps to my son's room, Blaze had already raced from his kennel, and came up the stairs (his were the footsteps I heard in the hallway), clearing a distance easily four times what I had to cover in seconds. By the time I arrived in Thomas' room, the dog was up on the bed, straddling my son protectively and barking like a, well, like a mad dog at the window nearest Thomas' headboard. Thomas, who is as afraid of the dark as I was at 7, was hiding under his comforter and two pillows, screaming for help.
I looked out the window, the shades of which Thomas likes to open so he can see the stars at night. And I'll be damned if there wasn't something--in the dim glow of the streetlight it looked like a swinging arm--reaching down from the roof and scraping against the window. What the hell? Is somebody up on the roof, trying to pry the window open? I wondered.
Well, the dog certainly thought so. As the scraping continued, he grew more and more frenzied and began hurling himself at the window. He's a 50-pound dog and more than strong enough to break the glass. I grabbed his collar and pulled him back, only to be rewarded by a look of utter canine disdain. He yapped at me several times in a way that seemed to say, "Arm! Arm! Don't you see that arm, you stupid monkey?!?"
Now that I was closer to the window, in fact, I could see it. But it was no arm. It was a flapping piece of metal, blowing in the breeze, smacking my son's window at regular intervals. I ran to the hall closet and returned with the 875,000 candle-power flashlight my dad saw fit to leave with me on his last visit. If we had a base on the moon, this thing would be bright enough to signal lunar colonists by Morse code, so it was more than sufficient to shine through the window and show both dog and boy that the flap of metal was nothing more than a loose piece of flashing, the metal that was supposed to sit secure under the edge of the roof of the Magazine Mansion, and conduct rainwater to the gutter just below it. Obviously, the wind had been strong enough to blow it loose.
Neither of my companions was convinced. "It looks like a robot arm coming to get me," my son said. "And the noise is freaking me out." The dog sat next to him on the bed, thinking his dog thoughts, and glowering at the flapping metal in the window.
I have to admit, it WAS awfully loud. There was good gust of wind blowing outside and when it caught the loose piece of flashing, it really whanged it up against the house.
While Thomas burrowed back under his blankets and the dog stood by, I cranked open the window, took out the screen and made a grab for the edge of the flashing. But at that second the wind blew it the other way and I leaned much too far out the window. Suddenly I was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie and my view of the ground below me elongated to a dizzying length. Suddenly, I was shivering, and not just from the frigid November air. Twenty feet below, far below, I could clearly see the front walk, the square of concrete that people would one day step over and say, "Yep, right here is where he fell and broke his neck."
Arms windmilling for balance (you'd think a hero dog might try to assist a man in distress, but no), I got back in and closed the window again while the flashing continued whacking--now almost triumphantly--against the house.
Thomas ended up sleeping between me and Her Lovely Self (who had not so much as stirred during the ruckus. Neither had the Brownie). Blaze spent the entire night in Thomas' room, staring suspiciously at the window, waiting for the flashing to try something funny.
Although she was completely oblivious to it the night before, Her Lovely Self spent the next day--all day--listening to that damn piece of flashing. By evening, it was like fingernails on the chalkboard of her mind.
"You have got to get out there and fix that," she said after a few nights of this.
"How?" I asked. "It's 26 feet to the top of the roof and I have a 16-foot extension ladder. You do the math."
"You're just under 6 feet..." she started, apparently doing her own kind of math.
I had visions of me standing at the very top rung of my extension ladder--the rung they tell you in black and yellow labeling NOT to step on, and there I'd be, still four feet shy of the roof. Just how in the hell did she expect me to fix the problem like that? Telekinetically? Give the dog a hammer and a mouthful of nails and hoist him up on my shoulders?
"I don't know," she answered. "But you better fix it soon. Before the baby comes."
And I thought: Baby?
(Yeah, this is about where you'd expect me to do the ... thing, wouldn't you?)
(Well, believe me, I considered it.)
(But honestly, the complaints I get about serializing my entries. Do you all honestly want to read one 5,000 or 6,000-word entry once a week, or several 1,500 word installments over several days?)
(No, it's a rhetorical question, since I'm going to do whatever the hell I want. Like dragging this digression out to the very point of annoyance.)
Where was I?
Right...well before anyone jumps to any conclusions, let me clarify that Her Lovely Self was referring to our youngest nephew, who was coming to spend Thanksgiving with us (oh yeah, along with his parents--my younger brother- and sister-in-law, not to be confused with the ones who just adopted the lovely Grace).
Seeing as the kiddo is 18 months old and hell on wheels, I hardly think of him as a baby anymore, so much as a really small version of the crazier guys I went to college with. He likes to climb on tables and jump off for the hell of it. He will wear a lampshade if he can get his hands on one. He'll also eat anything: dog food, Play-Doh, wet paper napkins. Sometimes all in the same 60-second period. But you forgive his excesses because he's adorable.
He's also a talker; his verbal skills are off the chart. For example, within moments of his arrival the day before Thanksgiving, he could say everyone's name. Well, except mine. Whenever he saw me, he'd crack a big smile and point and yell "Doggie!"
Bear in mind, he can say our actual dog's name just fine.
But he's a fitful sleeper and I knew my wife was right: the banging of that damn piece of flashing was loud enough to be heard in the guest room and was already keeping Thomas awake. What would it do to the baby?
And so, the very day our guests arrived (I think the whole idea of waiting til the last minute to tackle an unpleasant task is vastly underrated and so I try to procrastinate as long as possible) with the resignation of a seasick man who has just been given tickets to a Carnival cruise, I began calling around the neighbors and, despite my best efforts, found someone who knew someone who had a 25-foot extension ladder with a special support brace at the top for extra stability. Like so.
After promising the reciprocal loan of my gas-powered chain saw (the envy of the men in my neighborhood of electric lawnmowers and leaf blowers), I carted the ladder to the house and gazed up...way way up to the roof at the top of the Magazine Mansion, and at that piece of flashing, which seemed now to be waving at me in a jeering, come-and-get-me-if-ya-gots-da-balls manner.
As I positioned and extended the ladder til it sat just under the eaves nearly 30 feet above me, I began talking to myself. People did this all the time. All the time. Hell, my own dad--in his 60s and not exactly possessed of the agility of Spider-Man--had just last year scurried up my 16-foot ladder, carrying a 40-pound air compressor in one hand and the air-powered nail-gun in the other in order to secure a broken shutter on our house. He did the work in about two minutes--Paf! Paf! Paf! Paf! with the nail-gun--then trotted down the ladder like it was a flight of stairs. Heck, I reminded myself, I didn't even have to worry about the compressor. All I had was a toolbelt, my hammer, some roofing nails and a little bit of caulking to help cement the flashing to the roof a bit better. AND I had the benefit of this ladder with the ultra-secure support feet. I could do this. I could.
And with that, I climbed straight up the ladder, passing as I did the windows to Thomas' room, on the other side of which I could see Thomas and the Brownie and the dog, watching the show with rapt attention. I stopped, took one hand off the ladder--the hand that was holding the caulking gun--and waved jauntily at them.
Right then, the base of the ladder suddenly slipped and those ultra-secure support feet slid down the wall of my house like they'd been coated with Vaseline and, 25 feet up in the air, while my children watched, I lost my balance...
Monday, November 28, 2005
In Which I Admit to a Slight Aversion...
Still thinking about a small part of my Thanksgiving saga of 30 or so years ago, a part I hadn't thought about in years and years.
As many writers--both best-sellers and amateur diarists--have discovered for themselves, writing has a remarkable way of opening memory. The more you write, the more you remember, the longer the story, the sharper the details. What started out as a brief anecdote hinging upon a few specific instances--your mom getting hurt and your father coming home and thawing out your Thanksgiving turkey in the dishwasher, for example--has now taken on the properties of a road map, continually unfolding both in size and detail until it no longer fits in some glove compartment in your mind but has expanded to engulf a table.
I've been writing enough about my life that I pretty much expect to remember more as I write. This isn't to say I take the experience for granted. Indeed, I'm always astonished by what I remember, and the details. I've mean, I've always had a pretty good memory, but sometimes, writing has a way of transcending memory, of taking you back to the event.
(For example, right now, thinking back on my recent entry, I just this second remembered something else. It just came to me in a burst. That Thanksgiving day we got to visit my mom in the hospital, I remember that she shared her hospital room with another woman, a home ec teacher. When she heard my father's tale of defrosting the bird in the dishwasher, she laughed so hard she tore her stitches. Her name was Mrs. Cunningham and she was there recovering from gall bladder surgery.
That wasn't the small part I was thinking of, though. That was just a big fat digression.)
No, what I was thinking about was that moment at the age of 8 when I psyched myself up to walk a mile in the dark to get help from our nearest neighbor. I said that over time I looked back on that moment with something like satisfaction and pride in myself. But in the moment, I felt something I had never felt before. Something stronger than fear (which was pretty strong at that point).
Courage? Uh, no.
To be honest, I've never ever considered myself a terribly brave or courageous fellow. I grew up scared of the dark--even after my trip to the neighbor's to get help--scared of bullies; of my father when he was drunk; of killer bees, large dogs, snakes, and rodents of every stripe (in 5th grade, we had a class hamster named Mr. Purple and when it was revealed that I alone in the class had refrained from reaching into Mr. Purple's cage to pick him up or stroke him, one of the meaner boys grabbed me and forced my hand into Mr. Purple's cage. A second later, Mr. Purple, his little buck teeth flashing wildly, chomped onto my finger, sending me into a dancing, shrieking frenzy across the classroom for long seconds before, with one mighty flick, I sent Mr. Purple flying across the room, where he scuttled off under a radiator, taking parts of my cuticle with him). And of course, I was always afraid of death in a variety of ways. I remember in particular spending a long time worrying about drowning (in particular, falling through a frozen pond and being trapped under the ice), about being buried alive, and about falling to my death.
Over time, most of these fears have dwindled, one by one, but not through acts of courage. Never through acts of courage. Usually through motivational self-loathing. Persuasion would be a better word for it. When I was 8, I ran that mile in the dark because I talked myself into it, and indeed talked to myself the entire way through the trek, like a little crazy person escaped from an asylum. A year or so later, when my brother and his pals built a huge igloo and enticed me to crawl through the tiny hole into the dark space beyond, again, I talked myself through it--right up until the moment I ran out of oxygen because my brother and his pals had jumped on the igloo and collapsed a hundred or so pounds of ice and snow on top of me (two of my greatest fears--being trapped under ice and being buried alive--together!).
And of course, getting older and developing a sense of responsibility and priorities has helped.
Some of my old neighbors--the very ones who watched me tear up my front yard with the power of an all-wheel drive Subaru--still recall being at a block party with me when Thomas was just a little guy, not even able to walk. I was standing with a gaggle of Yummy Mummies, all of us chatting and doing that unconscious rolling back and forth of our assorted strollers to keep our assorted little ones in a drowsing state. Suddenly, this enormous hornet buzzed in the midst of us and everyone instinctively backed away or waved their hands. In the back of my mind, of course, a tiny little voice shrieked Killer bees! Then as the hornet neared one of the YMs, she ducked and yelped and waved her hand, which blew the hornet straight into my stroller, right onto Thomas' forehead.
A beat later--and I mean so fast it's a wonder the friction didn't set my shirt ablaze--I reached in, snatched the hornet off Thomas and crushed it between my thumb and forefinger. The offending insect wasn't on Thomas long enough to sting him, and astoundingly, I had grabbed it just right so it didn't sting me either. I can tell you this because it wasn't the least bit brave or heroic on my part. It was instinct. Not courage, just reflex. And luck.
(Although the Yummy Mummies were supremely impressed, and between you and me I allowed myself a brief period of preening that lasted no longer than an hour. Or two.)
But some fears are still harder to overcome than others. When our garage was invaded by a possum (which looks pretty rodent-like to me, although a reliable source informs me they are marsupials) a few weeks back, sure yeah, okay, I admit I was a bit squeamish about trying to catch it, harboring this ridiculous child-like fear that somehow the thing would jump on me. And, of course, when I tried to catch it with a butterfly net, and that's exactly what happened, well, that didn't help.
And then there's the thing I've been avoiding writing about for the past thousand or so words because it's a stupid fear and I feel stupid talking about it.
But which I'm going to tell you about anyway.
Even though it's stupid.
Maybe this is a good time to continue this til tomorrow...
No, no! All right. Here it is:
I'm somewhat--just the merest little smidgey-smidge--nervous about heights.
There, I said it. I'm height-averse.
To be clear: I'm not one of those people who leaves fingernail impressions on airline arm-rests. I love flying. I enjoy climbing mountains and taking in scenic overlooks and all that stuff.
What I'm NOT so good at is what I like to call poorly supported elevation. Swinging by a rope, standing on a ladder or scaffold, dangling from a tree branch. If I'm on these things at heights greater than, say, the roof of my car, then my aversion kicks in. Shakes, sweats, vertigo, mild dizzyness. It's as though I have elevation-induced malaria.
Which I mention at this juncture not just because my Thanksgiving day post reminded me that, even at 8 I had the ability to talk myself through an unreasoning fear, but because this Thanksgiving, nearly 29 years to the day later, I had to do it all over again...
Thursday, November 24, 2005
In Which We Get Our Just Desserts...
Isn't it funny how many things seem ironic as you get older? For example, in looking back on that night, my emotions about what I did started in stark fear, were eventually followed by relief, and over time morphed into a kind of quiet pride and sense of accomplishment.
Now, almost three decades later, I'm back to fear again. Not the fear I felt as an 8-year-old trying to overcome being scared of the dark, but sympathetic fear for my mom, a fellow parent, helpless to prevent her 8-year-old baby from running out into a genuine Nor'easter in the dark to get help at a neighbor's a mile away. My own son is now just a few months younger than I was when I did this thing. I can't let him walk six houses down the street to see friends without standing on the porch and watching to make sure he gets there. The very idea of him doing what I did chills me to the marrow (and doesn't that please my mom to no end).
Another irony is that now, when I think back to New Hampshire, among the many things I miss about the place I'm from is how dark it gets at night. Very few if any roads where we lived had streetlights and there were no large cities anywhere nearby whose skyline could give the horizon a glow. When you stepped out into the night at my old house, you stepped into an absolute void of space. Stay out in such darkness long enough, though, and eventually you'd see that there IS light--in the form of countless stars above you, or a moon that turns out to be brighter in its way than any flashlight you might have. I miss that moment, when your eyes adjust, when you welcome the dark and realize there's nothing--or at least not much--to be scared of.
In 1976, when I was 8 years old and slogging in the dark through ankle deep snow, I was plenty glad to have a flashlight with me, thanks. It was a massive flashlight, a huge metal cylinder that I needed to hold with both my mittened hands. Star Wars was still six months away from being foremost in every kid's mind, so at the time I waved the flashlight around and pretended it was the Bat-signal, summoning my favorite creature of the dark to help a little kid who was walking down a deserted country road all by himself in the middle of a snowy November night.
I waggled the flashlight all around, mesmerized by the way the light caught the millions of white flakes as they blew through the bright beam. This seemed a whole lot nicer thing to look at than the skeletal trees that stood sentry over the little road I was on.
In a few moments, I reached the end of the old stone fence that marked the border of our property, and here I shuffled off the road and into a pile of snow and leaves that marked the beginning of an old trail that cut through the woods to the bridge near our neighbor's house. It was a shortcut, I kept telling myself, and safer than being on the road, where I might get clipped by a passing car or plow whose driver wouldn't see me in the whiteout.
But as soon as I walked down that trail and into the woods, I wished for the road again.
I can still see that path, revealing itself to me only step by shaky step as I stumbled over stones and roots and slipped on snow and tried to keep the flashlight beam trained ahead. I strained in my mind's eye to see the path as I always knew it in spring and summer, almost obscured by tall grass and ferns.
I stopped immediately and whizzed the light off to my left. Was that ice from the brook? A stick in the dark forest that lay just beyond beam of the flashlight? If it was a stick, what broke it? I stood, shaking--not from the cold--and strained my ears for some sign that whatever made the cracking noise was coming closer. But all I could hear was the gentle sssssssshhhhhhhh sound of uncounted snowflakes hitting the ground. I hustled down the trail.
In another few minutes, I came to the bridge and without peering into the darkness underneath the span, without breaking stride, I leapt off the path and scrabbled up the side of the embankment, half-expecting something to grab me by a pantleg and pull me back. Nothing did, of course, and in a second, I was back on the road. Better still, to my right and up a little, I could see the faintest glow: the porch light of the Balboni house.
I ran across the bridge and up the back of the hill, which was so steep and slippery I was crawling up it by the end.
It was worth it, though. Especially when I reached the top and realized I was in the Balbonis' back yard and could see figures through a sliding glass door directly in front of me. There was Mrs. Balboni, seated with her back to me, and her two daughters, Melissa and Holly on either side of the table. Mr. Balboni was nowhere to be seen, but he traveled a lot for work and I suspected he was out of town. They were just finishing dinner and eating dessert, which I interrupted rather dramatically by hurling myself up against the glass of the door.
Boy, did they scream.
Mrs. Balboni recovered first, and hauled herself out her chair to let me in. I say "hauled herself" because, as I may have neglected to mention, she was 8 months pregnant.
"It's a wonder you didn't shock me into labor!" she cried, as she brushed the snow off me and sat me in her chair. I blurted out everything about my mom hurting herself and how we needed to get to the hospital.
Mrs. Balboni moved with a speed I would not see again in a pregnant woman until my own wife was quick with child and pissed off at me for something I did. In moments, we kids were bundled into her husband's four-wheel drive Blazer and she drove us back to my house.
When we got there, my mom was on the floor in the kitchen, talking on the phone with my father, who was calling from his job site in Maine. I breathed much easier then. It seemed like the adults were finally back in charge.
Don't ask me how, but after Mom got off the phone with my father, we all managed to lug my mom out to the car--no easy feat with four kids under the age of 12 and a pregnant lady. Then it was off the hospital in Manchester. We kids stayed in the car while Mrs. Balboni slung one of Mom's arms over her shoulder and together they struggled through the automatic doors of the hospital. Seeing Mrs. Balboni in her condition, the orderlies hopped to help her, and didn't realize their mistake until my poor mother slumped legless to the floor.
I'm fairly certain we spent the night in the waiting room, it being safer than four kids and a pregnant lady trying to make it back home in the storm. I remember a nice lady in hospital greens bringing me and my brother something eat, our own dinner long forgotten. I remember my brother saying in a tear-choked voice, "Better eat it while you can, kid. There's no Thanksgiving for us this year," which I think rather shows where his priorities were. I remember a doctor coming out and telling us my mom had a herniated disk and might require surgery. I didn't know what that was, but it sounded scary. My brother obviously thought so too, because he stopped crabbing about the ruination of Thanksgiving, but it didn't make him any less blubbery.
Aside from the above, though, most of it was a blur, until Mrs. Balboni drove us back to our house the next day. I remember the bright sunshine of that new morning, just four days before Thanksgiving, and I remember how sparkly and smooth our road looked, all plowed and so different from its appearance in the total darkness of the night before (which now, for some reason, seemed not so dark in my memory).
But what I remember best was seeing a familiar blue pick-up truck in our driveway.
"Dad!" my brother yelled, pointing.
As longtime readers know from other entries, my father was not exactly the most consistently great dad when I was a kid, but I had never had another father and so had no point of comparison to other dads. It didn't matter anyway. My father was home, and I had never been so pleased to see him before in my life.
No matter what flaws my father had at that time--and there were many--he possessed two laudable qualities that were beyond reproach. One was that, no matter how much of a workaholic he was, if we needed him, really needed him, he would drop what he was doing and come to us. Being away from your family over Thanksgiving to earn a really big paycheck was one thing. Leaving your family to fend for themselves during a medical crisis was something else.
The other quality my father had was his ability to engender staunch loyalty in the crews who worked for him. He stuck up for his people. When they needed time off, he covered for them. If they were broke til payday, he'd use his supervisory capacity to get them an advance. He did this because he knew that it was a better way of getting good work out of a crew than by being a micro-managing, by-the-book asshole.
It also gave him a more than ample reserve of goodwill among his men, as he discovered that night, when one of his senior people told him to get going, get home. They'd work the shutdown themselves and cover for him for a change. In fact, a couple of guys--including the roommate I'd spoken with--pitched on the job site, off the clock, to make sure the shutdown finished on schedule. I don't know what my father said to these men to express his gratitude, but I can tell you that he never forgot what they did. (To this day, among the crew he's supervising at a construction site in New England at this very moment, two of the men working for him are men who worked that Thanksgiving shutdown almost 30 years ago. The only reason the rest aren't working is because they're either dead or retired.)
And so, my father had driven all through the night, most of it in near white-out conditions. Twelve hours later, here he was, having pulled into our driveway just 10 minutes ahead of us. He was going to join us for Thanksgiving after all.
The only problem was, mom wasn't. She was in the hospital--indeed, may have been in actual traction--for the next week or so, recovering from her back injury. We spent most of the next two days at the hospital with her (my brother and I being forced to sit in the waiting room and read comics, it being an era when kids were still barred from hospital rooms, unless they were patients). She was fine, of course, but when you're a child and your mother is hurt and nothing like that has ever happened to you before, you can't help but be worried about it. We were so focused on her and how she was doing, we didn't even think about the upcoming holiday. Even my brother hadn't mentioned Thanksgiving since that first night. In our minds, we had bigger birds to cook, you know? My father was obviously in the same mind-set. At least until the day before Thanksgiving.
Because when Wednesday morning rolled around, my brother and I were eating breakfast in the dining room when we suddenly heard our father cry from the garage, "Holy-o Jesus H. Jesus God! What the Christ am I gonna do now?!?"
We ran to the garage and found my father standing dumbfounded in front of the giant deep-freeze that occupied most of the back wall. He was holding a round object in one hand and staring down at it, Hamlet-style.
But it wasn't Yorick's skull my father was holding. It was our Thanksgiving turkey, still frozen rock solid. The way it worked was, Mom was supposed to take the turkey out and put it in the refrigerator on Monday or Tuesday. Wednesday morning, she'd run it under hot water to thaw it completely, and then in the evening, she and my father would prep it and stuff it and throw it in the oven to cook all night so that on Thanksgiving morning we'd wake up to the mouth-watering aroma of a perfectly cooked bird.
Now, our bird was cooked all right.
Once again, my brother started crying. "I told you we weren't going to have any Thanksgiving!" he wailed, punching me in the arm for emphasis.
My father lobbed the cannonball of a turkey into the sink and even as he instructed my brother to start boiling water to throw on it, he was already grabbing the phone. He called Champagne's, the local grocery store. They weren't even open the day before Thanksgiving. He called a few Shaw's and Grand Union stores off in Pinardville and Manchester. No one had a turkey left in stock, because they had carted what was left over to a food bank that morning to contribute to Thanksgiving dinners for needy families. One manager at the Shaw's offered to give my father the number for the food bank, but he indignantly declined. "We'll eat goddamn frozen turkey legs like they was popsicles before I'll take food out of a poor man's mouth!" he cried to me and my brother.
It seems so quaint now to paint this as a dilemma, but I'm sure there are enough of you out there who recall (and the rest of you will just have to rely on your best imagining) just how hard it was to quickly thaw a solid-frozen turkey in the days before a microwave oven was a regular feature of every kitchen. To be sure, my father had offered to buy my mom an Amana Radarange, but she had asked instead that we put the money towards a dishwasher, which is exactly what he did, buying it and installing it in the kitchen as a birthday present for her the previous March.
My brother remembered this with some bitterness. He had been absolutely besotted with the idea of a microwave oven, whereas a dishwasher meant a chore for him. Sure, no more washing plates in the sink, but we still had to load and unload the thing. As he stood there at the sink, aiming the faucet of hot water and occasionally interrupting this to let my dad pour boiling pots on the petrified bird, he began wailing about our sad lot.
"Why couldn't we have gotten a Radarange?" he bellowed, kicking his foot against the edge of the dishwasher. "Why'd we have to get this instead?"
After a long while of this, between my brother's squeaky bitching and the bird resolutely failing to thaw in any way, my father had had enough and began roaring at my brother, who was crying again. "If you don't shut your yap, I'm gonna stick YOU in that goddamn dishwasher!"
And then the kitchen went dead silent. My father stopped shouting, my brother stopped crying. All that we needed to complete the moment was a little bright noise--DING!--and perhaps the appearance of a lightbulb over my father's head, as he stared at the dishwasher.
My brother stared at my father, then at the dishwasher. "No way!" he said.
My father opened the door to the machine. "Why not?" he said. He reached in and flipped the catches that allowed him to pull out the top rack, which he handed unceremoniously to me.
I'm sure my expression was worth a photograph. "You're going to run our turkey through the dishwasher?!" I cried.
"Ayuh," my father replied, grinning. "Gimme that goddamn bird," he said to my brother.
"But--but it'll taste SOAPY!" my brother wailed, clutching the frozen carcass to his breast like it was a beloved puppy.
"We won't put the soap in, will we?" my father said, wresting the turkey away from my brother and impaling it on a prong in the middle of the bottom rack. Then he shoved it in, slammed the door shut and ran it through the wash cycle. Twice.
By nightfall, that bird wasn't just thawed, it was almost boiled.
Still, I must confess, once my father whomped up his famous stuffing (a recipe he still keeps secret, but which involves pureed giblets, a pound of sage and 12 cartons of Zesta crackers) and had that stuffed bird in the oven, it was starting to look like a Thanksgiving turkey. And by Thursday morning, the place sure smelled like Thanksgiving.
Indeed, by about noon, and with only the barest assistance from us, my father had resurrected the holiday for us, complete with mashed potatoes (into which I had poured a little too much milk), a sweet potato casserole, and assorted vegetables culled from the ample preserves my mom had just put up that fall. I hadn't been so impressed with him since the time he made French fries from scratch.
Although we usually had Thanksgiving dinner sometime between 2 and 3, we were all famished enough that we decided to eat early. By 1:30 the three of us were stuffed and sitting around the wreckage of dinner. Which was just as well, since my father glanced at his watch and, realizing the time, leapt up and started ordering us about. Leftovers were quickly hustled into covered casserole dishes and Tupperware containers. Within 10 minutes everything was put away--at least until around 6 that night, when we would get everything back out to make turkey-and-stuffing sandwiches, to my mind the best meal of the holiday.
My father hustled us into his truck and we tore off down the deserted roads. Visiting hours were almost over at the hospital and my father didn't want to miss seeing my mom on Thanksgiving. My brother was excited too, but for other reasons. "Remember how they gave us food the other night? Maybe they'll have pie and we can get a piece," he hissed in my ear, reminding me that the only part of the traditional dinner that we had missed was some kind of dessert.
When we got to the hospital, it was much quieter and more empty than when Mrs. Balboni had driven us there the previous Sunday. They were obviously running on a skeleton shift. My father checked in at the desk and my brother and I started to take our by-now familiar positions in the deserted waiting room when the nurse at the desk suddenly called to us.
As we walked over, my brother whispered, "Pie! We're gonna get pie!"
The nurse towered over us, imperious as a nun. "Can you young men be quiet and well-behaved?" she asked.
Well, duh, what did she think we would say? Of course, we both nodded solemnly.
The nurse cracked the barest smile. "Then if that's true, I think we can let you upstairs to see your mother for a few minutes."
So, we didn't get pie that Thanksgiving, but I'm pretty sure even my brother didn't mind, once we got off the elevator at the third floor and stood in the doorway of the second room on the right, and saw her in her bed, smiling at us. I realized then that I hadn't seen my mother in four days, the longest I'd been away from her ever.
Forgetting my promise to the imperious nurse, I yelled "HI MOM!" and ran to her side.
Then I started bawling.
Later, my brother had the nerve to call me a big crybaby.
But for some reason, I didn't mind.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
In Which There Are Leaders and There Are Followers...
[UPDATED!! Brief editorial note: My first post suffered from premature cliffhanger. I've added quite a bit more to this entry. Still a cliffhanger, but now it'll take you longer to get there.
And I'm not going anywhere this Thanksgiving, so those of you--the three of you--who check in over the holiday won't have to suffer through too many dots of ellipsis]
Heavens, it's a neutron-bomb kind of day here in the office, 24 scant hours before Thanksgiving. Which is really odd because we're supposed to ship the current issue by the end of business today and most of the people who make that happen are just gone, off to celebrate how thankful they are not to be at work, I guess.
Meanwhile, I appear to be the ranking officer on deck, so I'm signing off on stuff I have never seen before and have no business signing off on, but there you are. It's actually kind of fun right now, pretending I'm in charge of the magazine. But I know the novelty will wear off fast this afternoon, as the deadline bells begin to toll and people start battering down my door like Noah's neighbors when the rain really started falling.
It's weird to feel like you're in charge of something when you're not supposed to be. I've met more than my share of people who don't feel that way, of course. In their minds, they're the boss and it's only fitting that they run things, even if--often, especially if--they happen to be singularly unqualified for the task at hand. These people like to think of themselves as natural leaders, but often, all they really have is an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.
I'm not exactly a follower, but I'm definitely no natural leader. I'm more one of those "oh-all-right-I'll-do-it" people. If no one else is going to step into the breach, if it appears that it's not going to get done unless I do it, then fine, fine! I'll do it. A reluctant leader, that's me, I guess.
Although I couldn't have articulated it in just that way, I've known this about myself for some time, going back, in fact, to Thanksgiving 1976, when my mom injured herself and my brother and I--10 and 8 years old respectively--were suddenly in charge.
Going into that week, we knew it was going to be an odd Thanksgiving anyway. My father had been working up in Maine for several months now and this was the first Thanksgiving ever that he wouldn't be home. The plant he was working on as a welding engineer was going through a shutdown--a common procedure to check the integrity of whatever system you happen to be constructing or refitting. This shutdown was scheduled to happen over the holiday weekend and my dad was the foreman on the job so he had to be there. In truth, he wanted to be there. Shutdowns were extremely lucrative because it meant automatic overtime, and holiday overtime at that. Plus since a plant loses money every minute a vital system is offline, you could often earn a bonus if you got the system back up and running ahead of schedule. In short, my father had a chance to earn in one weekend what he generally made in one month, and we needed the money. We were disappointed he wouldn't be coming home, but we also knew why, and we understood that he would be home at Christmas, just a month away.
And it wasn't like we didn't have plenty of work to keep us busy. Winter comes early to New Hampshire and with my father away there were lots of chores we needed to finish before things really got cold. Chief among these was the cutting and stacking of a mountain of firewood in our backyard.
Ever since the energy crisis a few years earlier, my family had come to rely more and more on the fireplace and our old Franklin stove for heat. Having both of these in the house saved us a bundle on heating bills. We had cut several truckloads of wood throughout the fall and normally it was my dad who would cut the wood to stove length while my brother and I carted and stacked it neatly in the woodshed behind the house.
This year, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mom was running the chainsaw, something she had never done before, although my dad had shown her exactly how to prime and start our old McCulloch saw. If she was nervous about using the things, she never let on, just yanked on the pull start, got it roaring, and waded into the length of logs jumbled into the pile in our yard.
Getting in the wood was typically a daylong job, even with my father around to run the saw, so we didn't waste any time. My mother, who was then in her early 30s, was in good shape, but she wasn't used to the punishing work of holding a buzzing 20-pound piece of metal at arm's length as it sawed through the wood. I have a chainsaw of my own now, a much lighter model than the one we had back then, and I can barely cut more than a few trees' worth of wood at a time without stopping to rest. It's not the arms that hurt, you understand. Holding a heavy weight above your waist like that puts enormous strain on your back.
By noon, my mom was feeling the effects of her labor. When she stopped at lunch, I could see her trying to stretch her aching back out. But this was no time to rest. A big storm was coming in that night and we needed to get the rest of the wood undercover before Mother Nature did the job for us (and let me tell you, few jobs are more miserable than prying apart and trying to cut frozen, snow-encrusted firewood). We ate our lunch--sandwiches and a Thermos of soup--standing up, finishing as quickly as we could. Then my mom hefted the saw again and continued cutting.
By 3 o'clock, the mountain of uncut logs was replaced by an even more impressive mound of stove-lengths that my brother and I were ferrying into the woodshed as fast as we would. As soon as my mom got the chainsaw put away, she came back to help us, squatting down and loading her arms with 30 or 40 pounds of wood, then standing and running her load into the shed. By 4, when the first heavy flakes of snow started to fall, we were almost finished. We carried an armload each to the shed and that was that.
By the time we had draped our sodden jackets and hats and gloves over the drying hooks we had near the Franklin stove, it was full dark. My brother stoked the fires with our newly cut wood and I watched the growing storm out the picture window of the family room until around 5, when we moved into supper time mode. We each had our chores: my brother poured the drinks and sometimes made a salad while I cleared the dining room table and set it.
Except, as we were scurrying between the kitchen and the dining room to perform these tasks, we realized something was missing.
Namely, my mother.
Who was usually at the stove at such moments, making our supper. Instead, the kitchen was quiet and empty.
It was my brother who went into my parents' bedroom and found my mom flat on the bed, still wearing her snowpants and sodden winter hat.
"Help me up," she told my brother. "I can barely move."
Readers who have learned of my own spinal travails will realize instantly that between her chainsaw exertions and her squatting and carrying of heavy firewood, my mom had done something serious to her back. Her mid-back was a pulsing red zone of pain. But that wasn't the biggest problem, as my brother discovered as soon as he got my mom into a seated position on the bed. The biggest problem was that she couldn't feel her legs.
Psychologists say it's always a profound moment when a child realizes that a parent is not perfect, is only human. Take out "profound" and put in "petrifying" and you'd have a pretty accurate assessment of my reaction when I turned and saw my mom crawling into the dining room. My brother was too small to support her and she literally could not walk. She tried to support herself on one of the dining room chair, use it as a walker to get herself into the kitchen. But when that didn't work and she collapsed to the floor again, I was as scared as I'd ever been in my life.
It didn't help that, even at 8, my young mind was all too aware of how isolated we were. My father was hundreds of miles away in Maine. Our nearest relatives were down in Boston, two hours by car in good weather, and it was already snowing enough outside that roads would soon be closed. The two families with whom we were closest in our town were gone for the entire week, off to visit their own extended families for the holiday.
We lived on an isolated country road in the middle of rural New Hampshire. The nearest hospital--and the nearest ambulance--was more than 20 miles away. Our nearest neighbors, the Balboni family, were a mile distant, down past where our lonely country lane turned to dirt, and up a long hill. All of a sudden, I felt awfully alone.
Standing there in the dining room, staring helplessly at my mother as she lay on the floor, I shifted me gaze to my big brother. Clearly it was time for someone to take charge of the situation, and I stared at him imploringly, hoping he would know what to do.
My brother looked back at me.
And then collapsed to the floor next to my mother and started bawling.
I don't know why, but I was an odd kid when it came to crying. When I was about 5 and our cat Stanley was run over in the street right in front of me (by a man in a green Volkswagen Beetle, New Hampshire license plate number IN-60. He never even stopped or slowed his car down. Just kept going. But if he thinks I wouldn't recognize him today, he's wrong, the son of a bitch), I was shocked and sad, but I never cried for our kitty.
I cried when I got hurt and I sometimes cried during certain TV shows (I'll never forget this movie on PBS about a little boy who spent the show searching for his lost dog, only to find him at the end--and realize that he was sitting on a bench next to a blind man who had obviously taken him in. The boy hugged his dog good-bye and walked away. And when I realized he was going to let his beloved dog stay with the blind guy, I bawled like a baby. I'm sniffly right now).
But one thing I never ever did was cry when my brother was crying. It's hard to explain, and I'm sure it's tied up in some kind of sibling rivalry thing, but if we both got in trouble and got spanked or had some privilege taken away from us, and if that caused my brother to start blubbering, that very act seemed to cause me to go the other way. I think I saw it as salvaging some kind of dignity out of the situation. Sure, it sucked to be punished, but if I wasn't crying when my big, tough brother was, well, that was a victory, wasn't it?
Anyway, seeing my brother break down over the fact that my mom was really hurt--lying on the floor with a sprung back, unable to walk--had the same effect. Let me be clear on this point: I was scared shitless. But I wasn't going to blubber.
Also, I had watched Emergency on TV. We didn't have paramedics where we lived, but maybe it was time to call Rampart General.
I knelt by my mom. "I'll call the ambulance," I said, not really knowing how to do that in those pre-911 days, but figuring I could look up the number for the hospital in Manchester in the phone book.
"No!" my mom cried. "I don't need an ambulance." I didn't know this then, but apparently we had lousy health insurance and my mom thought we'd have to pay out of our own pockets for the 40-mile round-trip of the ambulance. Grown-ups can be so stupid, huh?
She turned to my weepy brother and told him to find the bottle of Anacin in the bathroom.
"Let's call Mrs. Balboni!" I said as my brother stumbled out of the dining room. The Balbonis were our nearest neighbors, who lived about a mile down our little country road. "She can give us a ride to the hospital."
My mom tried to get back up, but she had absolutely no motive power below the waist and her legs crumpled from under her. "All right," she nodded.
I ran to the kitchen and climbed up on the counter, where I could reach the wall-mounted phone. Mom called the number out to me and I dialed.
The line was busy.
I felt my heart sink. I remembered Mrs. Balboni telling my mom how she always took the phone off the hook at dinner time and when she went to bed, so she wouldn't be disturbed by anything, including, evidently, an emergency telephone call.
I hung up and thought for a moment. Then I looked at the thatch of papers taped to the wall near the phone. On one of them was the number for the apartment my father shared with some guys up in Maine. I had never made a long-distance call before, but it seemed easy enough to do: Just dial a few extra numbers, right?
After what seemed like an eternity of rotary clicking and the sounds of distant connections being made, the phone finally rang and some gruff fellow--not my father--answered. I'm sure I had an urgent tone in my voice when I asked to speak to him.
"Son, he ain't here," the man answered, his voice softening somewhat. "They're going on shutdown end of the week and he's at the plant. Are you in trouble?"
I explained the situation and the man--somebody my father had worked with for years, it turned out--went from gruff to solicitous in about four seconds.
"Hell's bells!" he cried. "Well, don't you worry. I'll get word to him at the plant and tell him to call right home. Might take a little bit, but you hang in there, son." I didn't know what my father could do, so far away, but I was relieved that someone was getting word to him.
I hung up and came back to the dining room as my mom was swallowing down some aspirin with a glass of water my brother had brought her. I told her what I'd done and expected to be yelled at for it. It was a cardinal rule in the house that we NEVER called my father at work. He was a busy man and didn't have time to come in off a work site and take a personal phone call. The fact that his roommate was going to reach him on our behalf didn't seem to matter in my mind.
But when I told my mom, she only nodded acceptingly and that frightened me more than the prospect of being yelled at.
In the mean time, we couldn't just sit here. The snow storm that had begun gently enough a few hours earlier had blown into a regular gale. If we didn't get on the road and get my mom to a doctor fast, we'd have to wait til the next day, when the plows came through.
I told Mom that the Balbonis' line was busy. "Someone could walk up there and get them," I hazarded, looking at my brother.
It was only a mile away. But being 8 and 10 years, my brother and I both had a natural fear of the dark--and it was certainly dark outside now. To get to the Balbonis' one of us would have to walk a mile down our lonely country lane, a bumpy, partially paved surface cut through a tangle of forest that looked mysterious and evil this time of year, with gnarled old trees looming like hunched giants over the road, their bare branches swinging above like skeletal hands, waiting to snatch up an unsuspecting kid.
And at the end of the forest, the road ran over an old bridge that spanned a brook. In the summer, we loved fishing under that bridge, because there was wide concrete strip under there that made it easy to walk on. It also seemed like the perfect place for someone--a bad guy, a kidnapper, a troll--to hang out in the dark and wait for said unsuspecting kid to come along. Once you got over the bridge (assuming you actually made it, of course), the paved road turned to a potholed dirt lane and a few hundred yard beyond that was the dirt driveway that wound up a bleak bare hill to the Balboni house.
It was only a mile away. The other three seasons of the year, in daylight, it only took a few minutes for my brother and me to ride our bikes that distance, and we often did, hanging out with the Balboni girls, who were about our age, and who had a pool besides, a real draw for us, seeing as my brother and I had accidentally set fire to our own pool and destroyed it (a long story, that).
It was only a mile away, but on that dark November night, as far as my brother was concerned, the Balbonis might as well have lived on the moon.
"I'm not going out there!" my brother cried. "NO WAY!" I sure he meant this to sound resolute, but he just sounded shaky. We both feared the dark, I won't lie to you. But my brother was absolutely terrified of it. Terrified. Still is.
"It's okay," my mom said, lying back on the dining room floor. "Wait til they've had their dinner and try calling again."
I called the Balbonis about seven times over the next 15 minutes. The line was still busy. I looked outside. Our driveway was already covered with snow and no plow had come down our road yet (they rarely did til the day after a storm anyway).
And as I stared out the window, I started talking to myself, psyching myself up. I knew the way to the Balboni house like the back of my hand. In fact, I knew a shortcut, too: through the woods along the brook and up to the bridge, then across the bridge and up the back of the hill to their house. I could do it. I could do it.
I grabbed my not-yet-dry winter clothes from their hooks near the stove and put them on. Then I went to the garage and found my father's giant flashlight.
"I'm going!" I yelled from our breezeway, and before I could hear my mom yell at me to stop, I bounded out the door and into the snow…
Monday, November 21, 2005
In Which We Wonder About Whiskers...
We had a couple of really cold days recently, which led to the usual flurry of activity around the Magazine Mansion, starting with the removal of the giant box of winter clothing from the attic. Then follows the subsequent trip to the store to buy all new winter clothing because your children have outgrown the old winter clothing.
But before this can happen, there's always an emotional moment or two. Last year, I tried to reason--in futility--with the Brownie, who refused to wear her brother's old winter clothes, even though they fit her perfectly. This year, I had to reason with Her Lovely Self, who was ready to hurl herself off a bridge because Thomas accidentally put on her winter snow pants--and they fit perfectly. "The only thing worse would be if YOU put on a pair of my pants and they fit you," she cried. I don't confess to fully getting her point, but the upshot was that no one was wearing hand-me-downs, so off to the store we went.
There were other steps in our cold weather ritual, of course. We dismantled parts of the jungle gym so it could take its winter nap. I brought in the first load of firewood for easy access to the hearth. Thomas and the Brownie started huffing on the windows and writing their names in the condensation.
And I turned once again to the question that has faced me--literally--since I graduated high school:
Should I grow a beard this year?
As a young guy, I hated the forcible removal of what few whiskers I had, but since I went to a Catholic high school, shaving was mandatory. Not that we were graded on it, but you got demerits for being out of uniform if you were not clean-shaven, and five demerits warranted a detention and who wanted detention just because they didn't shave? So every morning I ran that damn Norelco razor over my stubble, an act which tended to give my face a wind-burned redness that only pronounced my freakish mutant acne.
And the razor didn't even do that good a job against my facial hair. In my family, most of the men--and quite a few of the women--are well known for their ability to grow impressive facial hair in a fairly short span of time. When my first stubble sprouted at age 12, I knew I was no exception. In my junior year of high school, I ran afoul of Father Connolly, who taught religion in the afternoons. He once accused me of not shaving and was going to give me demerits. I insisted I had shaved that morning; my beard just grew very quickly. He didn't believe me, but he was willing to give me "a chance to prove it", which was code for "a chance to humiliate myself."
Thus it was that the next morning, I had to march into his homeroom and shave in front of him and a roomful of howling sophomores, so that he could see for himself that, yes, I actually DID get five o'clock shadow by around quarter to 3.
Today, I'd take the demerits and tell him to fuck off.
After four years of this parochial nonsense, I arrived at college ready to shave--er, shake off the chains of educational and social repression and just go nuts. If I had done a list of things I wanted to do that first year in college, growing a beard would have been at the top.
(Well, okay, experimentation involving sex and drugs would have been at the top, but it gives you some sense of how strongly I felt about this that I would put growing a beard in the #3 slot.)
I was so psyched about growing that first beard, it actually became the topic of a column I wrote for the school paper. Here's an excerpt:
They are an exercise in patience, these facial rugs; wonderful, magical things that, once grown, give a man a feeling of power. He has produced something; he has become the captain of his destiny. He has stopped the unnatural act of shaving and let nature run its course. Such were my thoughts when I started growing my beard.
It has taken weeks and many sleepless nights of tossing and turning, trying not to scratch my face as newborn whiskers pushed their way through to the light. Ultimately, though, it grew, showing for all the world to see that here was a formidable fellow, a person of character and strength; for clearly, a man who could grow a beard was a man to be reckoned with.
Yeah, I didn't get out much.
Still, I'll always have a certain fondness for that first beard. It took three full months to grow in, and when it did, it was a blistering red, redder even than the hair on my head. The problem was, no hair was growing on my upper lip. This was a puzzle to me, but there it was: my mustache hair would reach a certain point of growth--a point, sadly, where it could not be discerned from a smudge of rust without close inspection. And so, one morning, as I was trimming up my newly grown beard, I impulsively shaved my upper lip.
Judge the result for yourself from this picture, taken over Christmas break that year. At least you won't have a problem picking me out of a crowd.
Let's take a closer look.
Now, is it just me, or is there something about that face that says Amish serial killer to you?
Suffice it to say, it was not my finest crinitory moment, and I have no doubt that its presence interfered with my ability to make any progress with #1 on my list.
By March I shaved it off, but that was something of a shock too. For one thing, I had never shaved a beard off before, and so wasn't sure how to go about it. I naively thought I could just run my old electric razor over it like a lawn mower and that would be that.
That was that all right. After briefly making a crackling noise the moment they contacted my whiskers, the three rotating razor heads ground themselves painfully and hopelessly into a thatch of beard on the side of my face. This was followed by much screaming from me as the razor was pulling painfully on my whiskers and therefore on my skin. Then a mild "zack!" sound came from the razor as its tiny engine blew out.
There I was, with an electric razor hanging from the side of my face.
I had to run down the hall of my dorm to a friend's room, where--once he stopped laughing--he loaned me a pair of scissors. When I got back to my room, I delicately snipped my poor face free from my ruined Norelco. As long as I had the scissors, I decided to trim the beard down a little bit and that worked pretty well...until I snipped the leading edge of my chin off.
In the space of 5 minutes I had completely redefined my understanding of pain not once, but twice. I hopped and swore, spattering drops of blood everywhere. Blood was flowing freely, lavishly down my neck. I dropped the scissors and grabbed a towel to stanch the flow, but man, it was really bleeding.
After a few more minutes of fruitless blotting, I took myself down to the health center. That was its own ordeal, sitting in the waiting room holding a blood-sopped towel to my partially shaved face, trying to ignore the stark gazes and pointing fingers of my fellow ailing classmates. Somehow I didn't think I was going to write about this for the school paper. The only thing that saved me from complete embarrassment was wondering what my roommate would think when he returned to our room and saw the clumps of hair, the bloody scissors on the floor, and the red trail leading from my spattered mirror all the way out the door. Hopefully, he'd be so surprised by this scene he wouldn't even realize that I had taken his towel.
As it turned out, I didn't need stitches, and eventually, I learned to snip my beard down to a level short enough to allow for a safety razor, but not so short that I was removing actual flesh from my body. But I went through several beards before I mastered the art.
There was this beard, for example.
And this one.
Oh, and we can't forget this one.
(Don't ask. No, please. No.)
Whenever it was time to shave these beards off, I'd spend a little time experimenting with other facial hair styles, always an educational experience. I learned, for example, that although I can probably never wear them in public, I look pretty good in mutton chops. I also learned that no one looks good with a Hitler mustache. Through this process I also learned that a goatee is probably best for my facial structure, and that tends to be the style I have stuck with.
As in this case.
Yes, sports fans, that is yours truly, in the middle of a book tour, on MSNBC, talking to uber-cute broadcast personality Soledad O'Brien.
These days, my hirsute self tends to look like so.
Sigh. Here we are, almost to the end of the entry and I still haven't made up my mind what to do about a beard this winter.
On the one hand, growing a beard is the follicular equivalent of rearranging the furniture in your living room. Nothing's really different, but the slight alteration of scenery is refreshing and exciting.
On the other hand, the Brownie won't let me near her when I'm in full beard. "You're TOO scratchy, Daddy!" my daughter will scream when I come in for a goodnight kiss. Then she throws stuffed animals at me until I leave.
On the third hand, Her Lovely Self is totally ambivalent about it, which is no help. There was a time where I went years without the slightest stubble because my girlfriend--later my bride--begged me to stay shorn so she could "kiss that smooth, cute face." A decade and change later, I don't get the "smooth, cute face" speech anymore. I get the "whatever but just make sure you rinse all that gross stubble out of the sink when you're done trimming it!" speech.
So, beard or no beard? What do YOU want me to do? Give it some thought--you know, don't work yourself into a lather over it or anything--and get back to me.
Let the will of the people decide.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
PS: How many of you found the link to the secret mini-vlog hidden in this entry BEFORE you actually got to this PS telling you there was a secret mini-vlog? Just curious. What can I say? My curiousity, it's REALLY huge.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
In Which We Find Our Hidden Thankful...
In grade school, I had a teacher who was really good at pointing out things we kids should have been grateful for but never were because these things were so much a part of our daily lives that we took them for granted.
Not the usual stuff, like a roof over our heads or shoes on our feet. She had a knack for identifying other factors of life so beneath our radar that when she brought them to our attention, the effect was profound, like tripping over the same stone on your front walk every day and then one day realizing that stone was a giant diamond.
She classified these things as "Hidden Thankfuls." And one year--long about Thanksgiving--our homework was to think of our own Hidden Thankful and talk about it in class the next day.
This wasn't exactly a gifted program I was in at the time, and a lot of kids had trouble with the assignment (either that, or they just didn't care that much about it). We were only in 5th grade or so and our teacher's notion to push our perception beyond the obvious was probably a little early. Because the next day, most kids came back with Hidden Thankfuls like, duh, a roof over their heads and, ba-doi, food on the table.
I was one of the few who gave this assignment a lot of thought. I spent the night wondering about it. Should I say I was thankful that I had a father? Not that he was such a great dad at the time, but he was around. And after all, my best friend Shawn didn't have a father living with him (as I found out much later, he had never even met the man). Should I go bigger, and be grateful for plants and trees, since they gave us the air we breathed (we had just studied photosynthesis in science class, so it was fresh on my mind)? It was a puzzler.
When we met in class next time to share our Hidden Thankfuls, Michelle, the cutest girl in our grade, turned out to have given the assignment some thought too. She announced that her Hidden Thankful was that she had flawless 20/20 vision. Then she looked at me with her perfect eyes, and said, "I wouldn't have even thought of that, but the other day I saw MM take his glasses off to clean them and I saw how thick the lenses were. He must be blind as a bat!" The class laughed at that, but I was secretly pleased that I had inspired her. I don't remember what I finally settled on back then (I probably went with plants, a Hidden Thankful you may shortly find ironic).
But if you were to ask me today, I'd have to say my Hidden Thankful is that I know--and I've known for ages, beyond any shadow of a doubt--that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
Over the years, I've known so many people who live their lives in a kind of aimless uncertainty. Even if they have good jobs or are doing well in their careers, they secretly wonder if this is what they're meant to be doing. Or they play the what-if game and wonder about other choices they might have made. I have plenty of anxieties and worries bouncing around in my mind at any given moment, but thankfully this isn't one of them.
For a long time now, I've known that I should be doing the one thing I'm good at. I'm good with words. So I work with words. When I'm done working with words, I come home and I play with words. That's what I do. I'm grateful that I get paid to do it, of course. But I'm even more grateful that I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing.
To be sure, this knowledge has occasionally been its own source of frustration and annoyance, but never so much that I've wavered from my position on the subject, not since adulthood anyway. I've never wondered if I would have been better off as a salesman or made more money as a lawyer (to name two occupations people have thought I'd be good at). And although I started college as a film major, once I switched to journalism I never played the what-if game. After all, I had only started in film because I wanted to write TV and movie scripts. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to work with words. Journalism ended up being a more expedient means to that end and so I've never looked back.
But like Michelle, who wouldn't have realized what her Hidden Thankful was if she hadn't seen an example of what life would be like without it, I probably would not have realized how lucky I am to have this knowledge, this certainty about what I'm supposed to be doing, if I hadn't spent so much time with someone who didn't have it.
I'm talking, of course, about Her Lovely Self.
For most of the time that I've known her (and I have it from reliable sources that it goes back even further) my wife wrestled with enormous uncertainty about her choices in life. In college she majored in business, but couldn't make up her mind about what type of business she wanted to focus on, and that led to her writing about different kinds of businesses and then wondering if business journalism might not be a good career choice. So she switched majors and got a job at a trade magazine and that's when I came along. And a favorite subject for her then was "Am I in the right field?" Eventually, she decided she wasn't and she made a switch to corporate communications, then became the manager of a communications office. Each time, though, she was more beset with uncertainty. If that's possible.
"I'm not good at anything!" is a statement she has uttered so often, it's eclipsed only by the number of times she has said, "Is this where I'm supposed to be?" which I have joked I would have carved on her tombstone, a joke she never found amusing.
She also never seemed to appreciate my efforts to show her all the other things in life she had to be grateful for. So what if she didn't know what her purpose in life was? "Look on the bright side," I'd say. "At least you have perfect 20/20 vision." And then I'd have to take off my glasses. Not to show her how thick the lenses were, but to keep her from breaking them.
I think she finally got an answer to her question--or at least less uncertainty about the question--when we bought our first house and she suddenly found herself with a yard containing plants. Gardening was not something she'd ever done before, certainly not ornamental gardening, and the previous owners of our first house had five different, gorgeous, flowering gardens sprouting up in our small plot of a yard. She didn't want to find herself with five different patches of brown by mid-summer (especially after our new neighbors talked about how much they LOVED our yard) so Her Lovely Self bought loads of gardening books and went to classes and sought out expert advice at plant stores and along the way she discovered something.
She loves gardening.
More than that, she's good at it. Not long ago, she studied and worked and became a certified Master Gardener, which she says is no big deal--not like they license you or anything--but I was pretty impressed. And so are the many hundreds of people she has helped through her local Master Gardener group, which engages in all manner of volunteer efforts, from helping folks start their own gardens to lecturing in schools about the wonders of the plant kingdom.
If there's any downside, to hear her tell it, it's the fact that I am completely and totally uninterested in gardening. It's not that I hate gardening (although as a kid, I despised weeding our acre of vegetable garden, the only kind of gardening my family did); I'm just completely ambivalent about the actual act of gardening.
If you ask me, I think that makes me the perfect gardening companion. I mean, I'm never likely to make a scene at the garden center, arguing with her over whether or not we should put in wisteria or clematis (a flowering vine which, to this day, I have to stop myself from calling "chlamydia"). She's the Queen of the Garden. I'm just the humble serf who offloads bags of topsoil and starts her cute little rototiller whenever she's in the mood to vent her frustrations on an unsuspecting patch of dirt.
But my disinterest IS such that when Her Lovely Self and the kids go away to her parents for a week in the summer, she asks a neighbor to water her garden (which I am perfectly willing to do, let me hasten to add. But one summer I gave some plants too much water and others didn't get enough and Her Lovely Self came home to what she called "an agricultural tragedy," which I think was overstating the case a little bit).
I also evidently cannot be trusted to be left alone with something as innocuous as a wheelbarrow and a pile of compost. For weeks this summer we had an Everest of compost out in our driveway, more than it seemed we could ever use in a lifetime, let alone in a season. Every so often, I'd get ambitious of an evening or a weekend and decide to be the Good Husband. I'd roll out the barrow and fill it up with compost and cart it to one of the many decorative patches of earth and green things we had in the back, only to be intercepted by the warden.
"Where are you going with that?"
"I just wanted to move some of the compost. You know, so I don't have to keep parking in the street."
"You didn't answer my question."
"I'm putting it over there (waves in the general direction of the entire back yard)."
"Well, don't put it on the tulips. And not over there: we don't need anymore in the vegetable garden. And...oh never mind. Just put it back."
"Put it back?!? I know you don't think I'm actually going to put the compost back on the pile!!"
And so what ends up happening is she has to direct me: a shovelful here, a half-load there. But even that is something I apparently cannot do unmonitored. "Don't just dump it!" she'll cry. "Spread it around a bit." At the next location, when I spread it, she'll shriek. "No! Tamp it down. Tamp! Tamp! Tamp!"
Don't get me wrong. In this season of thankfulness, I'm tremendously grateful Her Lovely Self has finally found the thing she's meant to do.
I just wish it didn't require ME to wander about aimlessly, saying things like "I'm not good at anything!" and "Is this where I'm supposed to be?"
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
In Which We Bring It All Home...
Okay, here it is, the last part. You know what to do:
Oddly, Putfile ain't working, but I was able to upload to the Internet Archive again and there you should be able to download it or play it.
Let me know if you can't. Text is here.
Finally, a few more images to go with the story.
The station near Thomas' house.
And once more, because he just makes me laugh, here's Tuffy. He REALLY DOES love trains.
When they're not busy hijacking trains, this is what our heroes do all day.
Thanks again for your wonderful response to this silly little (okay, not so little) story. Hope you enjoyed this as much as Thomas and I did.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Monday, November 14, 2005
In Which We Have a Download Update...
For those of you who have not been able to hear The Hairball Express via Putfile, here's a link to the Internet Archve where, unless I am very much mistaken, you can download the files for your listening pleasure.
Part I is here.
Part II is here.
NOW: Part III is here.
If this doesn't work, let me know.
I don't know what I'll be able to do about it--except email you 16 MB worth of me talking (and who wants THAT in their inbox?)--but let me know anyway.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
In Which We Get to the Good Part...
Well, you asked for it. Here's Part 2 of the story (click on the train).
I'll see about uploading these to another server although most folks seem to be able to access Putfile without too much hassle.
As before, the text is here.
And some images to help you envision the scene.
Here's Tuffy and Moxie raiding the kitchen.
Tuffy scouts ahead in the woods.
But Inky and Stinky are following. This is Inky (or maybe it's Stinky).
They found the old station...
And the snoring old man...
And this, by the by, was a train Thomas saw as a toddler. It's the original inspiration for the Hairball Express.
Enjoy. The conclusion is coming. As soon as my server lets me upload it.
From Somewhere on The Hairball Express
Saturday, November 12, 2005
In Which I Tell A Story...
All right, kids, gather 'round. Ol' Uncle MM has a story to tell you.
But first, some visuals to help with the story:
This is Moxie.
This is Tuffy.
And this, of course, is Thomas and his trains.
I think that's enough to get you started.
Click on the train when you're ready to listen to the story.
Oh, and one more thing. I seem to remember some folks having technical difficulties with the audio last time, so just in case, here's the text of the story so far.
From Somewhere on the Hairball Express
Friday, November 11, 2005
In Which I Roll A Seven...
As you know, I don't often do these (and in fact completely blew off ones that Pixelscribbles and Babs tagged me with. And don't worry ladies, I still feel guilty about it), but this one from Lillie interested me strangely and I figured you better have something to read while you're waiting for me to figure out my technical problems re: telling the Hairball Express story.
(Which, by the way, I've decided to audioblog, except that something is weird either with my mic or my sound card because every time I've attempted to record it, on playback it sounds like I'm shouting the story through a culvert. A culvert sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon.)
I expect to resolve it this weekend, so until then:
7 Things I Can Do:
--Klat dna etirw sdrawkcab ylriaf ylkciuq.
--A baffling magic trick (to anyone under the age of 12) where I make one arm shorter than the other.
--The Monkey Face.
--Parallel park on both the left- and right-hand sides of a street.
--Basic electrical and plumbing repair.
--Write. And write. And write some more.
7 Things I Can't/Won't Do
--Join the Army.
--Any form of math more complicated than long division (with the strange exception of being able to calculate percentage increase or decrease, through the use of a formula I had literally written on my hand during my time as a freelancer for business magazines. I think the formula was N2 minus N1 divided by...aw hell, I forget...).
--Provide any assistance whatsoever to a certain editor of a certain men's magazine--not even if he were dangling off a cliff by his nostril hairs and my rescuing him would make me an instant hero and the idols of millions. He knows who he is. And he knows why.
--Tolerate anyone--including blood relatives--to speak to or lay hands on my wife or children in anything remotely resembling an unkind manner.
--Float on my back (the dead's man float? Got that one down pat).
--Remember a joke (my head's too full of smart-ass remarks).
--Eat pot roast.
7 Things in My Life I'm Grateful For
--My family (duh)
--Every classmate in second grade who reacted so enthusiastically when I read my first story, "The Secret Origin of the Easter Bunny" and made me realize how rewarding writing could be.
--Summers with my uncle, who instilled in me not only my work ethic but also the idea that everything and everyone has a good story in them.
--My mother, who could refuse with an iron will to buy me every toy, item of candy, or box of sugary cereal I ever begged and whined for, but who never ever refused to buy me any book or magazine I ever wanted.
--My Dad's sobriety.
--The editor at my last job, who took a chance hiring me and in so doing brought me into the world of big magazines, gave me three of the best years I've had in my career (so far) and enabled me to get the job I have now.
--All of you. Every minute you spend of your life is a minute you will never get back, so the fact that you would spend even a few of those precious minutes a day here, reading my stuff, means more to me than you can possibly imagine.
7 Things I Hope to Do Before I Die
--Meet my grandchildren.
--Meet my relatives in Ireland.
--Publish a bestseller again, but this time have it be one I own all the rights to.
--Ride in a hot-air balloon.
--Write a comic book.
--Inspire someone else to write, whether by teaching a throng or simply recognizing one person's talent where no one has before and encouraging that talent--and that person--to realize their potential.
7 bloggers I'd like to infect with this meme
I can't. But feel free to help yourselves.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go buy a new sound card for my computer.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
In Which We Bring Up A Hairball...
I honestly didn't think you all would be interested in The Hairball Express, a story custom-written for a 3-year-old. However, Art Lad is willing to explore some options (it will take ages for him to draw all the pictures he wants). But we can probably still come up with something interesting, visually. Alternately, we could audioblog it, since Thomas feels that is the best way, and as it was conceived, it was told, not written.
If you guys have a preference, let me know.
Meanwhile, Art Lad has the ONE picture he's completed for the book up at his place. And as he explains, it's not quite done either.
Enjoy. And I'll see what we can do about telling the story.
From Somewhere on the Masthead
In Which Someone is the Star of the Week...
Since before Thomas could walk, I've always taken him to parks and playgrounds and enjoyed pushing him on swings and climbing jungle gyms and going down slides with him and having pretend races on those strange fiberglass animals with the springs up their asses.
The back yard of Thomas' school didn't have much in the way of modern playground equipment (it is an old school and due for a playground retrofit). But it had something else. Something better. I just wish I could put my finger on it. Even though I towered above the kids, there was something wonderful and all-engulfing about being in the midst of the noise and motion of hundreds of children running everywhere, jumping, climbing, screaming. And I was just one among the throng.
I realized that I wasn't just playing with my son that day. I was at recess, body and soul. My impending story pitch meeting was gone from my mind. Deciding what story I would tell at sharing time wasn't even on my registry of concern. For the first time in years, I felt completely untethered from my daily life and responsibilities.
And it was wonderful.
The closest thing I had to a coherent, grown-up thought then was the idea that recess shouldn't just be restricted to elementary school. They should have it in high school, college, corporate America--everywhere.
As Thomas and his lunch-table friends walked out the door into the crisp fall air, something ignited them and they were off like human bottle rockets. "Come on!" shouted Olivia, grabbing my hand and pulling me.
One interesting piece of equipment the school did have was a vertical climbing wall, about 15 feet high by 30 feet long at the far edge of the school yard. There, Thomas and his friends caught up with another gaggle of kids. I learned quickly they were from another first-grade classroom.
"Hi Thomas!" a familiar voice cried from the new crowd.
It was Alyssa, a girl who lives in our neighborhood, and the one so many of you touchingly remembered from earlier entries here and at Thomas' blog. Alyssa had been Thomas' objet de crush since they were in kindergarten together. She's a spunky, willful girl and has always seemed to delight in bossing her twin brother and Thomas around (being taller than both of them helped). She would never ask Thomas to play. She'd usually just show up or grab him by his shirt and say "Come here and do this with me." Even when she didn't lay hands on him, Alyssa had quite a hold on Thomas.
But today he barely acknowledged her. He wasn't rude or mean. He just said "Hi" and proceeded to focus his attention on finding a couple handholds and climbing up the wall. So much for absence making the heart grow fonder.
The boys had races to see who could climb to the top of the wall first (I won! Woo-hoo!). Then I suggested a race where we traverse the wall laterally, something that had never occurred to them before. So we took turns seeing if anyone could make it all 30 feet along the wall without falling off. Not even I managed that feat.
The whole time, Alyssa kept bumping into Thomas or tugging on his jacket or vying for his attention in some way. As I said, she's always been a very physical child--sometimes almost a little rough. And when Thomas jumped on the wall to take his turn, she jumped on, too, a little too close and a little too hard. She was climbing higher up the wall than Thomas was, and in a moment she put her foot down hard on a hold Thomas had just reached for. When she tromped on his hand, Thomas let out a yelp of pain, and dropped to the ground.
He wasn't crying, but it was obvious his hand hurt and I started to go to him. However, before I could take a single step, I was fairly shoved aside by all the girls who had joined us at the lunch table earlier. Like a squad of little Amazons, Caitlin, Olivia, Ashley, Ingrid, and some other girl whose name I never got rushed to Thomas in a flutter of are-you-okays, let-me-sees, and do-you-need-a-band-aids.
Alyssa also jumped off the wall and came over to check on Thomas.
Of course it had just been an accident, but try telling that to the girls who now formed a protective cordon around my son.
Caitlin whirled around and blocked Alyssa from getting any closer. "That was mean!" she cried, looking fearlessly up at the bigger girl.
"It was an accident!" Alyssa protested.
Now Olivia stood by Caitlin, looking imperious and official in her Girl Scout vest. "He could have been really hurt when he fell, Alyssa. That WAS mean," she insisted, putting her hands on her hips and stomping one foot on the ground in that way children do to emphasize their point.
Thomas, meanwhile, was just trying to get clear of the girls. "I'M FINE!" he yelled to no one in particular (and he was. He just had a scrape on his knuckles).
"I'm sorry, Thomas!" Alyssa called over the other girls' heads.
"It's okay," Thomas said. Then Nathan and Derrick came up and asked Thomas to come join the big freeze-tag game now brewing over by the jungle gym. He tore off after them, leaving me to revel in a few more moments of the girls sniping at each other. My, it was delightful (even though I couldn't begin to imagine how I would tell Her Lovely Self about this). Then I went to join the freeze-tag game too.
Of course, recess was over far too quickly, and when I heard the shrill whistle--this time from a stubby little man I thought of as the Jungle Gym Gestapo--all the kids bolted to form lines. I lingered a moment, not wanting it to end, then I dashed after my son and found my correct, alphabetized place in line. We marched back to class.
Sharing time was great fun. I got to sit in a big chair while Thomas stood next to me in a corner of the classroom. His classmates left their usual desks and gathered on the rug in front of us, waiting. Suddenly, I was nervous again. Thomas cleared his throat dramatically.
"This is my Dad. I brought him in because he is my best buddy although he is 37 and that is lots older than me. He likes to write and I like to draw. We both tell stories but my Dad tells the best ones ever. He makes them up out of nowhere and they are funny. He helps me put my pictures on the computer so my Grandma and Papa can see them because they live a long way away. But lots of other people come to see them too. Dad is a good reader and helps me read. On my birthday he made a safari hunt where he hid snakes and lizards for me to find--"
"--and he ran himself over with a tire!" Nathan offered helpfully, drawing a laugh from the audience.
Thomas laughed too. "Dad does lots of funny things. He broke his hand on a board and I knocked him into some boxes with my lightsaber. He is always in trouble with Mom, but it is funny trouble to me. He lays with me when I'm sick and he always knows how to have fun when I'm sad. And that's my Dad."
And as I was thinking that I could die happy if only all of that could be carved on my tombstone, Mrs. Dodd clapped her hands and asked if anyone had questions. Olivia asked me what I sounded like when I spoke to my dog (evidently a lot of my stories filter down to the first grade), but then Caitlin brought it all to a halt by asking, "What's in that box you brought?" She was pointing to the large Tupperware container I had dropped off in the classroom before lunch. And she, like all the rest, knew very well what it contained.
So I handed out the cupcakes and while they ate them I read them The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which is actually quite fun to read aloud, although I didn't do near as good a job as the author does in his audiobook. By the time I finished, it was past 1 o'clock, and I had more than used up my allotted time.
I hastily gathered up my things, when Mrs. Dodd said, "Oh wait. I understand you and Thomas made up a story of your own. Can you tell the class what that's about?"
"Oh, it's just a little story about a cat who steals a train so he can go visit a little boy. But you wouldn't want to hear that," I said dismissively.
My son's first-grade class unanimously announced that, oh yes, in fact, they just might be willing to sit a while longer and hear such a tale. Mrs. Dodd glanced at her watch, then looked at me and smiled. "We have time," she said.
"Well," I said. "In that case...
"You have to understand that Moxie was a very special cat. She had fur that was black as a locomotive and eyes that burned bright, like two pieces of coal that had just been shoveled into the firebox.
But that wasn't what made Moxie special.
What made Moxie special was that she knew more about trains than any other cat on earth!"
And so I told the story (which I'm sure none of you really want me to tell here) while Thomas provided the sound effects.
At the end, when Thomas did the final whistle of the Hairball Express leaving the station, everyone clapped and a couple of boys in the front just stared at me.
"How did you know that without it being in a book?" one asked.
"He made it up inside his head," Thomas answered matter-of-factly. "When you make it up in your head, it stays there."
"You should write it down," said Mrs. Dodd, as she came over and shook my hand. Then she told the class it was time for me to go and they all groaned in that uniform moan of disappointment that only a group of small children can make. As they made their back to their desks, Olivia and a couple of the other girls mimicked Mrs. Dodd, grabbing my hands and thanking me for coming.
Then, as the star of the week, Thomas, opened the classroom door to let me out. Just before I stepped out, he hugged me hard around the waist.
"Thanks, Dad," he whispered loudly. "This was the best."
"This was my best day ever in first grade," I said. "Thanks for inviting me." Then with a wave I was out the door.
Outside, on my way across the parking lot, a mom I recognized from our neighborhood was on her way in for her volunteer shift at the school library. She giggled and pointed. "You can take that off now, you know," she said.
I looked down and saw that I was still wearing the visitor's sticker my son had stuck to my chest when I first arrived that morning.
But I kept it on for the rest of the day.
And was wearing it still when I walked through the front door that night and Her Lovely Self greeted me eagerly. Thomas was sitting nearby, working on picture.
"Well?" Her Lovely Self asked. "How was your day together? What did you do?"
And my son and I replied, with simultaneous shrugs:
From Somewhere on the Masthead