Friday, March 31, 2006


In Which Justice Is Blind, Deaf, and DUMB...

6:32 Thursday morning: Arrived at the quiet, empty lot of the elementary school. Parked, went to the door, found it locked. Pounded on door, saw large man in coveralls lumbering towards me with a mop in one hand and can of Drano in the other. Man unlocked door.

"Help you?"

"Yeah, I have an appointment Mr. Assouline in a few minutes."

Without changing his expression, the man stood back and let me pass. Just off the main vestibule of the school was the door to administrative offices. I walked over and turned the handle just as the custodian said, "Still locked. No one here yet."

I turned. "Not even Mr. Assouline?" I asked.

The custodian shook his head. "Not yet. I'd a known, cos I'd a hadda let him in."

I sighed and took a seat--a very tiny seat--outside the office.

Time passed.

At 7, the custodian came back and unlocked the main doors. In came a woman, juggling a ring of keys. She walked by me and unlocked the office door. Then she stopped and turned to look at me. "Are you here to see someone?" she asked.

We've met before, she and I, so I reminded her that I was Thomas' dad and why I was here. She let me in. As I learned from experience joining Thomas for lunch several months back, parents were allowed in the school pretty much at their discretion, so long as they signed in at the office, which I now did. First name on the sign-in sheet.

I sat in a larger chair in the office, but it was no more comfortable than the smaller chair.

Time passed.

At 7:30, an hour after he had agreed to meet me, The Dean of Discipline, Mr. Assouline walked in. He did his very best to focus on his mail, his keys and talking to the secretary. He obviously knew who I was, but was determined not to acknowledge my presence.

It was, however, impossible not to acknowledge Assouline's presence. Based on his nasally voice, I had expected a rail-thin, school-marm-strict Ichabod Crane type.

In fact, Mr. Assouline was HUGE. He stood well over six feet and had to duck to get through doorways. He looked like a football player, complete with very short crewcut hair and a flat, crooked nose.

Finally, just as I was about to stand up, the secretary pointed to me and said, "This gentleman's been waiting for you."

Assouline turned and looked down at me from his great height. "Oh," he said nonchalantly. "That's right." He didn't say or do anything else. Didn't shake my hand. Didn't offer any explanation for making me wait. Instead, he simply looked at his watch. "We've got first bell soon and it looks like I won't have time--"

"Mr. Assouline," I interrupted, causing him to glower. "My time is just as valuable as yours, and I have things that I have postponed in order to attend my meeting with you. Which was supposed to be an hour ago. I have made time for you, and I expect you to do the same. Right now, please."

He glared at me with a look that said he wanted to give me lunchtime detention for life. The secretary jumped up and whispered something about getting some coffee and coming right back.

"All right," he finally said, turning his back on me and stalking to his office.

When we got there, he closed the door behind me. I sat in the chair on one side of his desk while he took his coat off and scanned his desk. In a moment he found a familiar sheet of paper and read my message silently. The message in which, you may recall, I insisted on meeting before Thomas would begin his punishment, citing a common bit of law in many states that permits parents to have more say in how their children are disciplined at school Or at least to be consulted before a judgment is rendered. That law was mostly enacted to curb the use of corporal punishment--a.k.a. "the paddle" which was in use in my grammar school, and probably some of yours too.

"Oh yes, I remember now." He dropped the letter. "You know, the law that allows parents to be consulted prior to a disciplinary event only applies to infractions where a student is going to be suspended, expelled, or has committed a crime. All we're talking about here is lunchtime detention. It's punishment during school hours and you have no more right to be consulted about it than if a teacher had decided to make him stand in a corner for misbehaving."

"I don't want to start this off on the wrong foot," I said. "But--and I think you'll find most parents would back me up on this--I have EVERY right to be consulted on ANY action involving my son, disciplinary or otherwise. And so here I am. What's more, I still have no intention of allowing you to punish my son for this incident until I'm convinced that your punishment is based on full knowledge of the situation." I took a breath. "By the way, if Thomas didn't show up for his detention, what would your next disciplinary measure be?"

"Well," he said, thinking a moment. "Suspension, probably."

"Right. And that would have involved consulting me. So here I am saving you the time. You're welcome."

Assouline just blinked at me for several seconds, saying nothing. Then he re-read the Disciplinary Action sheet, nodding to himself. "You know," he said. "I deal with a lot of parents who think their kids are never at fault but I personally saw your son throw the other boy to the ground."

"Throw?" I asked. "My son weighs 50 pounds soaking wet. This Andrew kid is twice his weight. How is it, do you think, that Thomas threw him?"

"Well, all I know is, I rounded the corner and saw Thomas stick out his foot and push Andrew in the back. Andrew hit the floor, then screamed and started holding his arm, while your son stood over him. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out."

I frowned. Thomas had said nothing to me about pushing. I'd have to check with him on that. I've learned that when your life starts to imitate Rashomon, you remind yourself that the truth is always somewhere in the middle.

(By the way, I know most of you didn't need a link with my Rashomon reference. I just put that in for my brother.)

Ignoring the mention of the push, I pressed on. "Did you ask Thomas what happened?"

"Well, not right away," he said, a defensive edge in his voice. "My first responsibility was to the victim. I had to help him to the nurse's office. He told me Thomas pushed him and knocked him down. When I had Thomas in my office later, I asked if he had been fighting with Andrew and he nodded his head. Said something about him picking on someone. Never said a word about the other boy being the aggressor. Pretty open and shut to me."

I tried to imagine being 4 feet tall and 7 years old and standing in this leviathan's office. I didn't think I'd have the courage to stand up for myself either.

"Well, as I understand, this is what happened," I said, and I explained the story as Thomas told it, about Andrew poking Thomas' classmate Jackie, and telling the girl to get her "fat, round face" to the back of the line. How Thomas stood up for her, just as he had learned from the McGruff education program on handling bullies. Before I was even finished, Assouline was chuckling.

"Something funny?" I asked.

He smirked at me. "Parents always think their kids do no wrong. They always believe them. Were you there, Mr. M? I was. I saw what happened--"

"You didn't see Andrew insult the little girl or lunge at--"

"Please don't interrupt me," he interrupted. "I've been a dean of discipline for 8 years and I know how these things go. Generally the one standing is the aggressor. And anyway, in this situation, it's Thomas' word against Andrew's. Given his injuries, I'd tend to side with Andrew."

"Are you done speaking?" I asked. "Because I don't want to interrupt."

Assouline nodded in the most annoyingly magnanimous way.

"First, that is the weakest justification for a punishment I have ever heard. You did not witness the actual scuffle, you only saw the end. And it seems to me you favored Andrew because he was crying." I paused, thought of something he just said. "By the way, what attention did you give the other victim?"

Assouline looked at me. "Other?"

"Jackie. The girl Andrew was bullying. The girl Thomas tried to help, as he has been taught to do so in the anti-bullying programs in this school."

Assouline waved his hand like my words were annoying flies. "Thomas said something about that, but Andrew said he never bothered her."

"Did you ask Jackie?" I asked.

He frowned. "Unfortunately, she is one of our Asian students who has not yet learned to speak English properly. I don't see how talking to her would have helped."

"What about the other kids. There were 10 others there who saw the whole thing."

He shook his head. "You know, I don’t understand why you're making such an issue of this--"

"So that's a no. You didn't interview them."

"Do NOT interrupt me!" he said, raising his voice. And there I almost lost it. But he regained his composure and added. "This is a simple case of a little scuffle. I understand Andrew is a troublemaker and Thomas got the better of him, but that's no excuse. We have a Zero Tolerance policy for violence of any kind. He is not being suspended. He just has to eat his lunch inside and miss recess for a week."

"Well, it is an issue for Thomas. He's 7 years old. He had no idea what detention meant. He thought you were going to put him in jail--" and here he chuckled his patronizing chuckle and, then, dear reader, I did lose it.

I leaned across the desk and said, in my quietest voice. "If you interrupt me with your patronizing laughter one more time, I will continue this conversation with the real principal (here his cheeks got pink) when he returns and we will do more than discuss my son's situation. We will discuss your situation."

"There's no need to make this a personal conflict," he said quietly.

"Too late," I snapped. "You have unfairly punished my son and that makes it entirely personal. You made a rush judgment based on circumstantial evidence. You did not speak to any witnesses to the incident. You simply punished my son because he was the one standing, not lying on the ground crying."

"Witnesses," he said, smiling (but no longer laughing). "These are 7 year olds. By the time I got back from the nurse's office, they were all at recess. I hardly expect any of them to remember what happened."

"The point is, you didn't ask. If you had, you might have learned that my son was only doing what this school taught him to do: stand up to bullies."

"Yes, stand up, but not fight them."

"The boy lunged at Thomas and tripped. Andrew was the aggressor. He poked a little girl in the chest--that's assault, by the way--and yelled in her face. Thomas told him to stop. He did the right thing."

I paused, caught my breath.

"In my view, you have no choice but to cancel Thomas' detention," I said.

Wow, that really annoyed him.

"I will not!" he sputtered. "I've made my decision. I have issued paperwork on this. We have a Zero Tolerance policy on violence in the school--"

"Then both boys should be punished."

"Andrew was the injured party."

"What was the school nurse's report on that?" I asked. "Because I understand Andrew was miraculously recovered enough to make it out to recess that day."

Assouline blinked at me some more. Finally he said, "I will not reverse my decision. As Dean of Discipline, I have to maintain my authority. If I reverse this, it will damage my position and that of other administrators and teachers in this school. Kids will think they can get away with anything."

Now I chuckled and nodded.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Nothing," I said. But I thought, That's all this is about. His authority being challenged. The big dink. (Actually, probably a little dink).

"Before I permit Thomas to attend detention--"

"Oh, he has to attend!" Assouline barked.

I used my low voice again. I'm usually a shouter, but the low voice was working. "My son is not going to surrender to your judgment until I am satisfied that this incident has been completely investigated. And that means talking to the girl Andrew harassed. That means talking to students who saw what happened."

"I don't think so," Assouline sneered, all pretense of genteel behavior dropped. "And I don't think you understand what I'm telling you, so I'll read to you from our school handbook." And here he produced a familiar document and turn to the section marked "Discipline."

He read:

Monopolis Elementary had adopted a Zero Tolerance policy towards violence. Any physical violence, such as fighting, pushing or kicking with deliberate intent to harm, will be dealt with severely, including detention, suspension or expulsion.

He smugly put the book down and looked at me. Now--" he began.

I held up my hand. "Would you please read the second paragraph?" I asked, remembering what my neighbor, the substitute teacher had told me.

Assouline blinked and read further:
Monopolis Elementary also has a Zero Tolerance policy for hate speech. Any student who verbally abuses another student or teacher with hate speech--ethnic or racial slurs, or insults or derogatory comments about someone's appearance--will likewise be dealt with severely and may also include detention, suspension or expulsion.

He looked up and was instantly annoyed, because I was smiling. "Your point is?"

"Andrew told Jackie to get her 'fat, round face' to the back of the line."

Assouline's eyes widened.

"I'm pretty sure calling a little girl 'fat' counts as an insult about someone's appearance. And I personally have Asian American friends who would consider it a racial slur to be called 'round face.'"

"It is NOT!" Assouline said.

I shrugged. "You and I are a couple of over-privileged white guys. You and I have no idea what it's like to be a minority. Whether or not the term is hate speech is a matter of perspective, which is a function of experience. And the experience of being an Asian American in this country is vastly different from the experience of being an over-privileged white guy."

Assouline was totally silent. At length, he said. "I suppose I could call the girl's parents."

"You know, Jackie speaks perfect English," I said. "She's just shy. I do suggest you speak to her with her parents. And if they confirm what I've told you?'

Assouline nodded. "Then Andrew will have detention too."

I nodded. That would do for now "Good," I said. Then I paused. "You know, I'm sorry we got argumentative in here. Obviously your authority in this school is important to you--"

"It is," he said.

"--but not at the expense of hurting students. I just wanted to see that the right thing was done."

Assouline didn't respond to this, but he did look at his watch.

"I have to go too," I said standing up. I stuck out my hand. "Thank you for hearing me out and for doing the right thing."

Assouline shook it, then said. "Of course, Thomas still has to serve his detention."

I dropped his hand like it was a turd. "What?"

Then he smirked, the big fat shit (hey, I'm not in school. I can insult him). "Even if what you told me is true, both boys resorted to physical violence. Andrew may have attacked, but Thomas did deliberately trip and push him, an action that led directly to his fall and injury."

"There WAS no injury. You call the school nurse--"

Assouline grinned triumphantly. "Mr. M, you can't have it both ways. You've convinced me that Andrew is probably more at fault here than I first thought, but Thomas played a part too. Our anti-bullying programs, the McGruff materials the classes get, they're about supporting other kids or getting help, not doing my job and disciplining a classmate. He could have gone for a teacher. Instead, he tripped and pushed the boy."

Oh, you should have seen my face then. "So self-defense is no defense in this school? Thomas should have let this boy--who is twice his size--clobber him?"

Assouline was resolute. "We have a Zero--"

"--Tolerance policy about violence in the school," I said, unable to resist interrupting him one more time. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure you got that point across." I sighed. "I'll speak to Thomas about this again, and then I'll decide whether or not he'll serve his punishment. Thanks for your time." Assouline opened his mouth to speak again, but we'll never know what he was going to say because I turned on my heel and walked out the door.

Outside the school, I sat on a bench and fumed, actual steam coming out of my ears and everything. Despite the fact that I said my piece, I didn't feel like I'd achieved any kind of victory--or even mild satisfaction. I was pretty sure now that Assouline would dig a little deeper and that Andrew would end up getting some kind of punishment. But I didn't think Thomas should share that punishment.

I passed the next few minutes lost in thought on the situation and now I kind of wish I hadn't, because buses were beginning to arrive, along with family vans and cars, disgorging kids by the dozens. No doubt shy Jackie and her parents had dropped her off while I was sitting there and if I'd been more attentive, I might have caught them.

Instead, I didn't even really notice the buses, until a familiar one stopped almost in front of me and out popped Thomas.

"Dad," he said, looking at me, mildly surprised. "Did you talk to the new principal?"

"He's not the new principal. He's just an assistant principal, helping out til the real one comes back. Listen," I said, looking him in the eye. "He told me that when Andrew fell, he tripped on your foot and you also pushed him. Did you? You can tell me the truth. I won't be mad."

Thomas made a face as he thought back. "Well, I tripped him, and he tried to grab me, so I did push his arm away. That's when he fell."

I sighed. "Well, tripping and pushing IS sort of fighting, you know. Even though you were defending yourself."

Thomas slumped on the bench next to me. "So I'm still in trouble."

"Yes. Mr. Assouline says he's going to talk to some kids and Jackie's parents and it looks like Andrew will get in trouble too. But you'll still have to do the recess detention."

Thomas sat on the bench next to me. "It's SO not fair. I was helping Jackie and then Andrew tried to push me. I got in trouble for helping." He kicked his bookbag. "McGruff is a DUMB dog! I'm NEVER helping anyone again!"

Oh shit, I thought. It was still too early in the morning for me to be thinking clearly, but if ever I needed a wise, Ward Cleaver, TV dad moment, this was it.

"You know," I said, trying to sound philosophical. "There's a saying that doing good is its own reward. Do you understand what that means?"

"No," he said glumly.

"It means that you should be proud of yourself and even when you're stuck inside next week at detention. You should remind yourself that you did the right thing. I know it. You know it. Jackie knows it. I bet a lot of your friends in class do too. All the people who matter know it."

Thomas was still kicking his book bag. "I guess," he said. Oh boy. I was really pulling down the curve on the Ward Cleaver scale now.

I shook my head. "Yeah, that didn't sound so great to me either when I got in trouble and Grandma said the same thing." Thomas looked at me with curiosity then. I shook my head again. "You can ask Grandma when you get home. She'll tell you ALL about it."

I put my arm around Thomas. "Listen, I know this is unfair. Sometimes things don't go our way. But you can't let that stop you from doing what you know is right. Lots of people help others and they never get credit for it. Sometimes they even get in trouble for it. Like..." Shit, I thought, like who?

I snapped my fingers. "Like Batman."

Thomas gave me the "dumb Dad" look. "Batman's in the Justice League and a super-hero."

"Sure. Now he is. But when he first started, he was an outlaw. The police chased him and everything."

More a student of cartoons than of comics, Thomas looked at me in frank disbelief. "No way! Even though he helped people?"

"Oh yeah. Spider-Man too. A lot of good guys got in trouble for doing the right thing."

I let Thomas mull this over for a second. Then I said, "What do you think would happen if they decided, 'Well, I'm not helping anyone ever again!' back when they were just starting out?"

Thomas shrugged. Either he was still mulling it over or my Dad stock was in total freefall.

It didn't matter either way because just then, first bell rang. Thomas jumped up.

"I'll talk to you tonight," I said.

"Okay," Thomas said, still subdued. He started to walk away, then came back and hugged me.

(Now, don't get teary on me: It wasn't one of those TV-moment hugs. He always hugs me before he leaves for school. But I will die a little when he becomes too old to hug his dad in front of people, and THEN you can all get teary.)

I gave him one of those gruff dad hugs and whispered one more time. "I am SO proud of you for doing the right thing. I love you."

But just then, Thomas stood back from me, became rigid. Oh shit, I said something stupid and I don't even know what it was! I thought.

But Thomas wasn't even looking at me. He was staring straight into the throng of kids bustling through the door. Near the door, a boy was standing to one side. He towered above the rest and he stood there, smirking at Thomas, whose face had become like a piece of stone. He mouthed something at my son then turned to go in.

"ANDREW!" I shouted, figuring it couldn't be anyone else. The kid stopped and looked at me as I stood up and walked to him. Thomas trailed behind me, his curiosity getting the better of him. Andrew eyed me suspiciously in my jacket and slacks, and I could see he was trying to work out who I was. A new teacher? Undercover cop? Who?

The boy was exactly Thomas' height but definitely a big boy. I'd have mistaken him for a third grader. He squinted at me, wrinkling his piggo nose at me. "What?" he demanded. "Who are you?"

I squatted down in front of him and spoke in the same low voice I used on Assouline. "I'm Thomas' dad. You remember me from when I came in to class when Thomas was star of the week."

He just stared at me with an expression that had "future wife beater" written all over it. "So?" he said.

"So," I continued in my low voice, but smiling as I spoke. "I just spoke to Mr. Assouline. And I know ALL about YOU picking on Jackie. And I know that YOU started the fight with Thomas. And I know YOU didn't hurt your arm at all. And if you think you got away with it, you've got another think coming."

I had his full attention now. He looked straight at me with those wife-beater eyes, and it occurred to me that I would never have had the balls to stand up to this kid when I was 7.

"One more thing," I said, still speaking low, still smiling. "If you ever try to hit or push or kick or throw rocks or do anything to hurt Thomas or his friends, he has my permission to knock you on the ground again. You hear me?"

Yeah, no Ward Cleaver awards for me. Still, a certain coldness had left Andrew's wife-beater eyes then and I was satisfied to see it. Thomas just stared at me with a kind of surprised smile.

"Go! Both of you!" I said, standing up. "Get to class!"

And like that, they disappeared into the river of children flowing through the doors.

So, that's what happened yesterday. Not much of a victory, huh?

But it's a long time til Monday. And I'm not done yet...

Thursday, March 30, 2006


In Which I Cross the Line...

As usual, the trouble began with the phone calls.

I had come home early the day Thomas showed me the note, so it was only around 4:30. I knew the school staff worked til 5, so I went ahead and called the number on the Disciplinary Action sheet sent home by Mr. Assouline, the Dean of Discipline who had--unfairly I thought--sentenced my first-grader son to a week's worth of detention.

I've talked to other journalists about this and we agree: You can generally sense who is a caller and who isn't. I had a feeling this guy was no caller. He was the kind who used voicemail to shield himself, a barricade against intrusion on whatever the hell it was he did when he wasn't meting out justice based on half-assed evidence. But I've spent half my life trying to get people on the phone.

People who use the phone as a shield are not much different than the leaders of France when they built the Maginot Line (which, as you may recall from your World War II history, was a line of forts and bunkers and defenses to keep the Nazis out of France. Rather than fight against immovable battlements, though, the Nazis simply went around the line). I had my suspicions that this guy might be that kind of person, but thought I at least try to call a few times in the hopes of catching him at his desk. If that failed, I'd find a way around his Maginot Line and go all blitzkreig on his ass.

So I dialed the number. Interestingly, the phone didn't even ring. I was immediately shunted into a voice mailbox where a nasally male voice informed me, "You have reached the Dean of Discipline's voicemail. Please leave your name and message and he will return your call soon." Beep. I left a message, but it seemed to me this wasn't even the guy's number, just a mailbox in the system. Yep, not a caller, but a stonewaller.

Time to go around the Maginot Line. As an experiment, I dialed one number down, changing the last digit from a 2 to a 1, figuring I'd still get an extension at the school.

I got the school library. "Oh, I'm sorry," I said in my most sincere voice. "I was calling for Mr. Assouline. He's not at 1211?"

"Oh, no," said a pleasant female voice. "Wait a sec," she said and I had a mental image of her scanning a phone sheet tacked to a bulletin board by her desk. "He's at 1247." The shit, I thought. Doesn't even give parents a real number to reach him when he sends home those notes. Arrogant ass. But what did you expect from someone who voluntarily refers to himself as the Dean of Discipline?

The librarian was part-time and unfamiliar with the phone system and so couldn't transfer me, but that was okay. I redialed, and this time the phone rang. And rang. And rang. I got another voicemail. Same nasally voice, only this time he talked about himself in the first person. "This is Alan Assouline," he said, and I was amused to realize he pronounced it Ah-zo-lyne, which was definitely not how I was pronouncing it (nor, I decided, would I pronounce it any other way in the future). Instead of leaving a message, I hit zero and rang out to the office secretary. I told her who I was and asked for Assouline.

"Let me ring you through," she said. "I'm pretty sure he's in his office." Then there was some clicking, followed by more ringing. Once again, I got his voicemail. If he was in his office, the shit wasn't answering his phone. I left a message and asked him to call me back right away. Of course he didn't.

In my line of work, one of the worst parts of writing a story, I think, is not so much reporting or pulling all your information together in a coherent way. It's the waiting for callbacks. Drives me nuts, because I'm an impatient person who demands immediate gratification. So when I'm reporting a story, I have a nice long call-sheet of potential sources and if I don't get one, I just call the next person on the sheet. It keeps me busy, although it does sometimes mean that I end up with 20 people calling me back and nowhere near enough space to work them all in. But usually, it means I get just enough people to put a story together.

Problem here was, there was only one source I needed to reach. I had no one else to call.

Or did I?

After dinner that night, I started looking through all of the various papers Thomas had brought home from his teacher. Finally, I found what I was looking for: a class list. Sure enough, there was Jackie, the girl Thomas had defended from the bully. And there was Andrew, the bully himself.

I thought briefly about trying to call his parents, but instead I decided to find Jackie's parents. Her last name was Korean, and a common one, alas. Two and a half pages in the phone book were devoted to that last name. I asked Thomas if he knew where Jackie lived, but he doesn't pay attention to stuff like that. I drummed my fingers on the table for a moment. "Which bus does she ride?" I asked. I had paperwork from the bus company somewhere showing which zones were serviced by which buses. That would narrow it down to a couple townships at least.

But again I was thwarted. "She doesn't ride the bus. Her mom and dad pick her up," he said. Well, crap.

I stewed for a moment, until I realized Thomas was looking at me. "Why are you trying to find Jackie?" he asked.

"Well, I just wanted to talk to her parents. You said she was quiet and didn't like to talk, but maybe her parents could get her to tell Mr. Assouline what happened."

Thomas looked thunderstruck, as if this had simply never occurred to him, and I realized once again just how young 7 really is. Too young to be told he's getting detention, I thought. And then I amused myself with an idle daydream about showing up at Assouline's office with Blaze and yelling "Loafer!" which is the signal for my dog to attack and remove someone's shoe (and occasionally give the victim's leg a bonus humping while he's at it).

Thomas said something I hadn't caught.

"What, buddy?" I asked.

"I bet Mrs. Doohickey knows where Jackie lives," he said.

I slapped my forehead. Of course! My neighbor was a substitute teacher and had worked at Thomas' school several times last year, but not so much this year. I dialed her number from memory (we are on the neighborhood watch together, you recall). We chatted for a moment and then I began the story you've already heard. As soon as I said the name "Assouline," I heard a snort that I mistook for laughter.

"Sorry," I said. "I know he pronounces it differently."

"Oh no," she said. "That's how we all pronounce it when he's not around." She didn't really have any vital intelligence to provide me--she had no idea where Jackie lived. "But that Andrew is a trouble-maker. Well, you remember how much he was into throwing rocks and stuff. But he's sneaky too. And when he gets in trouble, his parents never do anything. There's some problems there at home, I think. Not that that gives him the right to pick on other kids. I know he sees the school counselor, but I guess it's not helping. Did he really call sweet little Jackie fat?"

"That's what Thomas told me," I said.

Then my neighbor gave me one piece of information that would ultimately come in very handy. I thanked her and rang off.

Next day, the moment I got to work, and probably around the same time Thomas was handing Assouline his Disciplinary Action sheet, I called Assouline's number again. And again, I left a message, still using my professional, courteous reporter voice (although I could feel it becoming more brittle by the second). I also zeroed out and left a message with the secretary. Just in case.

Once again, the end of the day rolled around, no phone call.

Wednesday morning I called again, leaving messages with anyone who would take one. Soon it would be Friday and Monday was meant to be the start of Thomas' detention. If I wanted to meet Assouline and stop this travesty of justice before it began, I really needed to meet him this week. Also, I was getting pissed.

Which explains why I called again at lunch. When she picked up the phone on my last call, the secretary, who did a creditable job of not sounding exasperated, said, "He IS here and I've given him the other messages. I'm sure he'll call you when he has time."

"That's okay," I said in my sweetest nicest sincerest interview voice, "Will you please let him know that this is my last phone call to the office?"

"Sure, dear," she said, and I could swear she sounded vaguely relieved as she was about to hang up. But I wasn't quite finished.

"Oh, and will you also let him know that if he is unable to return my call by the end of business today, that's fine," I added. "I know how busy he must be. I'll just give Earl a call and take it up with him." Then I hung up.

And--holy shit, would you believe it?--the Dean of Discipline, Assouline himself--called me back 15 minutes later!

Oh, Earl, by the way, is Earl Flynn, Ed.D, or "Dr. Flynn" as he is known in the school system. He's the superintendent. The vice-principal's boss's boss. Never met him, but I got his name off the school Web site, and I'm sure he's a nice guy.

And I have to confess, Assouline did his best impersonation of a nice guy too. "I am SOOO sorry I haven't called back sooner," he said through his nose. "The principal is out of town and I'm just swamped between his duties and my own. But as far as Thomas is concerned--"

"Oh listen," I said. "We don't have to do this by phone. I'm perfectly happy to come to your office. I'm free this afternoon. School's out at, what? 3:45? I could meet you any time from then on."

"Oh, er, well, I have a budget meeting with the committee and, that won't work," he said. "But about Thomas--"

"Mr. Assouline," I said. "We are going to discuss Thomas' situation in person. If we cannot meet tonight, tomorrow or Friday to discuss it, then of course the detention you plan to give him all of next week will have to be postponed. Can we meet tomorrow morning before first bell?"

"I'm an early riser," he said sniffily. "I'm here when the custodian opens the door at 6:30."

"Then I'll meet you in your office at 6:35," I said pleasantly.

"Uh, er, all right," he said. "Tomorrow, then." And he hung up.

So if you're reading this first thing this morning, I'm probably at the guy's office right now. But I'm telling you, I won't be in a good mood. I hate early morning meetings. I'm never fully awake, the coffee never kicks in fast enough, and I am a complete and total absolute prick to be around.

All in all, it sounds like the perfect time to meet him...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


In Which I Share A Moment With My Friends...

Sorry to interrupt the latest cliffhanger, but there are just too many things I've left unsaid that, if left unsaid long enough, won't get said at all so:

Thank you to everyone who shared their love and support after my bad news of a few posts ago. Things are slowly returning to normal at the Magazine Mansion. Well, normal for us. It's my mom's birthday and as a gift we went sent her and my dad plane tickets, so they're here for a week, and that will be a nice distraction for Her Lovely Self. Not to mention my children, who always go stark-raving monkey-shit crazy when they show up.

Anyway, even though I took a few days off from blogging, that didn't stop me from reading/seeing/experiencing a number of things from you that were moving, comforting, cathartic, and in all ways loving and well-intentioned. When I signed off a few posts ago, I was in such a funk I didn't see myself writing another word here for a month. Or more. But between the warmth of your responses and the warmth of setting myself on fire, I realized that if anything, I NEEDED to be here. I needed you all. And you've been here for me. It means more to me than I can adequately express, and that takes some doing, if I say so myself.

So in no particular order, my woefully inadequate thanks to:

Heather for her lovely poem.

Jack for his lovely writing and an unwavering friendship that has made him my brother as much as any blood sibling.

Beth for her hugs, which meant even more because she is not, by her own admission, "a huggy person."

Shane for my first vlog shout-out and for reaching out to me personally in my time of need. He is a pal good and true.

Suldog for his flattering and moving post, which I enjoyed almost as much as I enjoy our ongoing (if somewhat sporadic) email exchanges. One day we will have a drink at The Quiet Man. First round's on me.

Thimbelle for her "Big Sis" emails and for making my life easier both personally and, as it turns out, professionally. And it's not like she doesn't have a full plate either. She is a true heroine. When I grow up, I want to be a parent just like her.

Tam for a virtual shoulder to cry on.

Everyone who took a moment to write me a personal email, including SassyGirl, aquilegia, Jen from Iowa City (who if she has a blog, didn't tell me, and so no link for her) and my man Johnny C.

And everyone--I mean EVERYONE--who took time out of their busy day to make a comment, all of which were unfailingly kind and supportive. You all deserve links of your own (and the worst part of writing posts like this is the dead certainty that you've forgotten to mention someone. If that's you, you know who you are, and I've momentarily spaced on it. For that, I beg for forgiveness--and for a kick in the ankles so I can update this post and put you in it).

Finally and with much emotion...

Today I received this email. I opened it at work and, even though it wasn't strictly for me, it reduced me to tears. My assistant thought I was having a nervous breakdown and it was embarrassing as hell, but I don't care.

It reads:

Dear "Her Lovely Self":

The Children's Defense Fund received a special gift from "Stu, Suldog, Rurality, Chuck, Thimbelle, Shafa, and many others" in your honor.

This gift will help provide America's children with a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start and successful transition to adulthood in our nation.

We are deeply honored to continue this work for children in your name.

Gratefully and sincerely,

Marian Wright Edelman

We thank you one and all for this lovely gesture, especially Stu, who was the mastermind behind this amazing gift. He too has been a frequent email pen pal and he recently observed to me that this place has become a very special community where mutual goodwill seems to be the order of the day. So many times, so many people have talked about how we who come here, whether it's to post an entry or react to one, feel like we're among friends, always with a qualifier that implies we aren't really friends because we have never met face-to-face and probably never will.

I don't let that stop me from thinking of you--all of you--as my friends.

Once, years ago, Garrison Keillor made a remark that he looked at his Prairie Home Companion audience and felt sometimes like they were his friends, maybe even his family. "Which is not true," he said. Then after a moment, he added, "Which is crazy, as a matter of fact."

Well, I'm no Garrison Keillor, but what he said is how I feel about you, so call me crazy. I welcome it. They say a man is measured by his friends. If that's so, then having you here makes me a good and lucky man indeed.

I--and my family--feel very proud and blessed to have you in our lives. Thank you. And know that I will remain, more than ever,

From Somewhere on the Masthead


In Which McGruff Takes A Bite Out of My Ass...

So I came home from work to find only the Brownie and Blaze down in the family room, watching TV.

"Where's Thomas?" I ask.

HLS gives me a look of disgust. "He's up in his room. Went there right after he got off the bus and won't talk to me." Then she gave me The Look. The ones that says I have to go up and pry it out of him.

Though he is only 7, sometimes Thomas has the reticence of a teenager. Ask him about his day, and his stock answer is, "Nuthin." Unless he's been to art class or done something fun in computer class. Sometimes he has a bad day at school, but when he does he usually sulks in a very public way until we finally ask him what's wrong, and then we find out that Luis got the Good Markers in art class and wouldn't share or that Caitlin played with the girls and not him and anyway they were playing a girl game and he didn't want to play, so hmmph.

But he never goes up to his room.

I climbed the stairs and opened the door to Thomas' room and found him hiding under his Justice League comforter. I tried to pull it off but he kept pulling it back over.

"Okay," I said. "I just came to talk to see if something's wrong and find out if I could help, but if you don't want to..." I turned for the door.

"If I tell, you'll be MAD at me!" he said, suddenly throwing the comforter off.

"Why would I be mad?" I asked, turning back.

Thomas was silent for a long time, then he pulled a slip of paper out of his bookbag (also hidden under the comforter with him) and handed it to me.

It a piece of standard size paper, emblazoned at the top with the words:

Alan Assouline
Dean of Discipline
Vice Principal
Thomas' Elementary School
Somewhere, USA

[Then the rest of the paper was a form filled in with very tightly compacted handwriting. The parenthetical text is what was filled in:]

Name of student: (Thomas)
Primary Teacher: (Mrs. Dodd. Mrs. Tinkle substituting currently)

Disciplinary infraction: (The Dean of Discipline personally witnessed Thomas fighting with another child while waiting in line to go to lunch. The fight resulted in the injury of another student.)

Disciplinary action: (In accordence [sic] with our Zero Tolerance policy for ANY violence among students of any age, Thomas has been given detention during the lunch and recess period every day. Disciplinary action to begin on Monday, next week, and to continue for the full week.)

WARNING: Future infractions of our Zero Tolerance policy may result in the suspension or expulsion of children OF ANY GRADE from this school.

If parents have any questions or wish to request a meeting, they may call 555-1212 to schedule an appointment.

(A. Assouline)

I read the letter through a couple of times. Something about it bugged me instantly, and I'm not talking about the normal parental reaction to leap to your kid's defense. There was something else, something I couldn't put my finger on. I mulled this over as I examined the notice. There was a place on the back for a parent to sign, confirming receipt of the note. Thomas sat there in his bed, watching me carefully, tense as a bowstring.

"Are you mad?" he asked.

"No," I said. "If you really did something wrong, it looks like you're already going to be punished."

Then Thomas started bawling. "I know. What's detention, Dad?" he said between sobs. "Are they going to put me in jail?" Well, he may be 7, but he's still my l'il guy, and I grabbed him and sat him on my lap and hugged him while he wiped tears and boogers on my dress shirt.

But at that moment, I realized what annoyed me about the letter: It wasn't just the formal language--like it was a police report--it was that it exuded an excessive amount of authority. I mean, honestly, does an elementary school really need someone who not only calls himself "Dean of Discipline" but who refers to himself in the third person, using that title in a report he made out himself? And "detention"? For a first grader?

"Detention is just a scary word that means you have to stay inside during lunch and recess," I finally answered, when Thomas had pulled himself together. "You'll probably have to sit in the school office or your classroom. And you can't go to recess for a week."

Thomas managed to look both glum and relieved at this news. "It's still not fair!" he said, tears hot on his cheeks as he smacked the bed with his fist. "Andrew didn't get in trouble at all and he started it."

Ah, Andrew. I knew about this kid, the class bully. He's one of the oldest in the class (actually so is Thomas) so he's much bigger than most of the kids. He's the same height as Thomas, but outweighs him by a good, oh, 20 or 60 or 100 pounds. He's a husky boy. And he knows it. It's his prime tool of intimidation. Thomas had some problems with him almost from his first day of school. He would take other kids' toys, or throw rocks and sticks at them. And he always managed to escape the notice of teachers. Naturally, he ended up in Thomas' class, proof again that if it weren't for bad luck, my family would have no luck at all. But it was also a good thing, because Mrs. Dodd has got Andrew's number and knows what kind of crap he pulls.

Except...Mrs. Dodd was out, I realized. And the hapless substitute, Mrs. Tinkle, probably had no idea what a junior asshole this kid was.

In the first few weeks of school, Thomas had some problems with him until Andrew threw one rock too many and Thomas winged it back at him, narrowly missing his head. Not missing a beat, he said, "Stop throwing rocks or next time I'll hit you in your big piggo face!" Andrew stopped throwing rocks. At Thomas anyway. But he still bullied other kids, kids who weren't as tall as he was.

"Maybe you better tell me what really happened," I said.

"It's like the new principal says. I was fighting with Andrew," Thomas said glumly. And I thought, New principal? But then I remembered Her Lovely Self telling me the principal was out of town too, at some conference. Obviously the vice prin--excuse me, Dean of Discipline--was left hold the reins.

"Tell me how it happened," I said. "Tell it like you tell me stuff when we do your blog."

Thomas sat silently for a minute, his face still red with shame. Finally he spoke.

"Well," he said. "We were in line for lunch. And Mrs. Dodd was gone but she left a list for Mrs. Tinkle about who the line leaders were. And Jackie was line leader." Jackie, by the way, is a shy girl, not much of a talker. She also happens to be Asian American and is just a little on the husky side herself. It's just a point we might come back to later, so bear it in mind.

"So then," Thomas continued, "Jackie got in front, but Mrs. Tinkle didn't use the line leader list Mrs. Dodd left. So when she sent us to lunch, Andrew got up in front and poked Jackie and said, 'Get your fat, round face back at the end of the line!' And stuff like that. He was saying all these really mean things to her."

"So then you fought him," I said.

"No!" Thomas insisted. "I wanted to help her. When we had McGruff at school, he told us about stopping bullies and I tried to do that."

Ahh, McGruff, I remember him well from my own youth. The charmless anthropomorphic dog in the trenchcoat, always entreating kids to "take a bite out of crime." More recently, he's been part of an education program through schools and public-service announcements on TV, to help kids deal with bullies.

"You're supposed to all go up and get around the person being bullied and be her friend and tell her to come with you. Or tell the bully to leave her alone. So I did that." Thomas explained. "But no one else did. It was just me. And I said, 'Leave her alone. She's the line leader.' And he said 'Make me!' and then he jumped at me."

I pursed my lips. Here came the fighting. "What did you do?"

Thomas forgot himself for a moment and got excited. "I didn't fight him, Dad. He just came to me and--ZOOM--I zipped away one way, except for my foot. He went right by me and tripped on my foot and fell on his arm and started crying that I broke it." Then Thomas recovered himself. "That's what the new principal saw when he came around the corner. And Andrew didn't even break his arm. He was out at recess later."

"So let me get this straight," I said. "You stood up to a bully who was being mean to a girl. You did it just like you learned in school. The bully attacked you first, but tripped and fell. And you got in trouble?"

Thomas nodded.

I was flabbergasted. "Didn't the..." I looked at the paper again for the guy's name. "Didn't you tell Mr. Assouline what happened?"

Thomas shook his head. "He just took Andrew to the nurse. And then later I had to go to his office and he said I had detention and I had to take a trouble note home to you and Mom."

"Did he talk to any of the other kids? Didn't Jackie tell him what happened?"

Thomas shook his head. "Jackie doesn't like to talk."

"And that's it. That's everything that happened?"

"Yeah," Thomas said. He looked up at me again. "You're not mad?" he asked with a searching look that broke my heart.

"Mad?" I said. "Oh you bet I'm mad." Thomas cringed at this for a second before I continued. "I'm mad at THIS guy!" I said, shaking the paper. "They teach you this McGruff stuff in school and when you try to do what they teach you, you get in trouble? That's ridiculous! And Andrew didn't get in trouble at all?"

Thomas shook his head. "He pretended like his arm hurt, but he was throwing a football at recess later." He looked at me again seriously. "You're mad at the principal? Are you allowed?"

"I don't care if I'm allowed or not," I said scribbling on the back of the sheet.

Thomas looked. "I have to bring that back to him once you and Mom sign it."

"We're not going to bother Mom with this at all," I said, as I finished scribbling and handed the paper back to Thomas. "You give this to Mr. Assouline tomorrow." Thomas stuck it in his book bag and already seemed visibly relieved that he wasn't in trouble both at home and at school. In fact, he seemed to be in a state of total disbelief. "I thought you would be really mad because I was fighting," he said.

I shook my head. "First, I'm VERY proud of you for helping Jackie. No one else stood up for her. But you did. That's what Good Guys do (Thomas sat up a little at this. He's pro-Good Guy). Second, Andrew started it. He called the girl names and then he tried to jump on you. All you did was move out of the way. Not your fault he tripped."

Here, Thomas hung his head. "Actually, I kinda let my foot stick out, like Batman does when the bad guys come at him. I just didn't think he would fall over and cry."

I shook my head. "It doesn't matter. It was self-defense. I don't think you did anything wrong. And I certainly don't think you deserve detention."

"Really?" Thomas asked. "Do I still have to go?"

"We'll see," I said. "It all depends on what Mr. Assouline does when he sees the note."

Because, of course, I hadn't signed my name on it at all. Instead, I had written:

Thomas' father formally appeals the judgment of the Dean of Discipline, and requests a meeting as soon as possible (and here I listed every phone number and email by which I can be reached). Until a meeting can be scheduled, Thomas' father refuses to permit Thomas to attend detention or be subjected to punishment of any kind in relation to this alleged incident. Failure to comply with this request will constitute a violation of the State School Law, which allows parents to consult and appeal all disciplinary judgments. Thomas' father awaits a call at the Dean of Discipline's earliest convenience.

Or, roughly translated from the formalized speech:

Mr. Dean of Discipline, you just opened a serious can of whup-ass...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


In Which God Starts Dealing Jokers Again...

Questions for Discussion

1. Which seems more unlikely to you: that someone could have dehydration AND pneumonia at the same time, or that someone could set his snowblower--and himself--on fire in the middle of a snow storm?

2. If winter clothing is insulated, does that mean it can keep heat out as well as cold?

3. In the Bible, God often uses fire and flame to make a point or get someone's attention. If MM's life were a Biblical story, what point do you think God would be trying to make by setting MM on fire instead of, say, a nearby bush?

Thomas was still shouting and although I was a little distracted and wasn't paying attention--my becoming the Human Marshmallow may have had something to do with it--I'm betting he was shouting what I was thinking at that very moment. You know what it was. Many of you shouted it from comments yesterday.

All together now: Stop, drop and roll.

I did the world's most ungainly belly-flop into the yard, and rolled across it. The hissing sound was almost instantaneous. I rolled and rolled and rolled, not only until I was sure the fire was out, but also far enough to end up in my neighbor's yard. Two houses down.

I lay there for a moment, flat on my back, watching steam from the melted snow rising from between my legs (at least, I hoped it was steam from the melted snow). My gloves still had small glowing pockets and I could see little holes eroding slowly into the gloves, deeper ito the gasoline-saturated material. I shook them off and lay there panting, trying to decide if any part of my body felt like it was, you know, combusting.

But before I could decide this, something hit me in the face with a cold, wet FWAP! And suddenly I was snowblind. The FWAPing continued as I was beat mercilessly about the head, chest and legs--FWAP! FWAP! FWAP! FWAP! I waved my arms blindly, feebly and cried through a mouthful of snow. What the hell was going on?

"Put him out! Put him out! Get more snow! Is he out?" I heard Thomas shouting.

"Stop! Stop!" I said, half shouting, half-begging. I wiped snow from my glasses--my tinted goggles gone in the long roll across my neighbors' yards. The goggles may not have kept up with me, but my kids had. There they stood, toy shovels loaded with snow, hovering inches from my body.

"Are you unstinguished, Daddy?" the Brownie asked, her voice in an urgent and worried tone I haven't heard from her in ages.

I nodded. But just to be safe, I grabbed her shovel and smacked the one pantleg that still seemed to be steaming. Once I was satisfied that nothing on me was actually smoldering, I remembered the fiery snowblower and flaming cement driveway was somewhere behind us. I jumped up and looked around.

I needn't have worried. Two doors up, at my house, the driveway no longer had flaming trails on it. And the snowblower was fine. It didn't even have so much as a singe on the paint job.

Which is more than I can say for me.


Well, as you can guess, the fuel line had a leak in it, which spilled my 3/4 tank of gas onto the garage floor, exactly where I ended up sitting when I lost my balance. When I filled the tank again and started it up, the gas slowly trickled down the bottom of the blower, onto the wheels and then onto the driveway while I worked. All we needed was a stray spark and, as you may recall, when I'm running the blower on less than an inch of snow, the edge makes lots of sparks on the driveway.

When Thomas and the Brownie saw me turn around, they swore there was a circle of flame behind me, following the exact track of the wheels, and then hitting my gas-soaked snow pants.

"I never knew anyone who caught on fire before," Thomas said, examining my pants and gloves. "Did it hurt?"

Thankfully, no. Turns out the insulated snow pants did protect me. The jeans I was wearing underneath them didn't even have so much as a singe. And I got my gloves off before the fire burned holes all the way through them. So I guess we all know the answer to question #2.

Afterwards, when the excitement was over and the fuel line was repaired and every possible area where gas could be sitting had been soaked up or hosed down, we all sat down over hot chocolate and regaled Her Lovely Self with our latest adventure (with heavy emphasis on the quick thinking of Thomas and the Brownie in trying to put Daddy out, and a brief glossing over of the details of how Daddy actually managed to set himself alight in the first place).

She's still not feeling so well, and I wasn't sure whether the story would amuse or upset her, but there was no hiding it. I mean, LOOK at my pants.


In the end, she smiled and praised her two wonderful, brilliant children and gave me, her beloved idiot, a squeeze of her hand. I held it in my own and squeezed back, and thought about question #3.

I don't ponder much on the force or forces that shape my life, but when I do, I like to imagine that Fate, Destiny, Good Luck, Bad Luck, Karma, they're all cards in one big deck that gets dealt to me, one card a week til the deck is gone. Then the deck gets shuffled and re-dealt to me, over and over. And God, I guess, is the dealer.

(Yeah, I know, not the most original of analogies. Everyone does the deck-of-cards-equals-life analogy. So maybe Fate, Destiny, etc. are like different props in a box on a stage and my life is one big improv show and--

No, never mind. Let's stick with the cards. I've had a long few weeks.)

Sometimes I get cards I don't want--not ever. But most of the time, I think God deals me Jokers and gives me a life that's fun and odd and wacky to live. And with it, he also gives me an urge to share that life with others. I wanted to stop doing that for a while, but clearly that wasn't in the cards. I think the Almighty just wanted to remind me of that.

And to light a fire under my ass to get me moving in the right direction.

So here I am again.

Deal me in.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, March 27, 2006


In Which Messages Come In Tongues of Flame...

And then the weekend landed, as I had imagined it would, with an awful thump.

No job to distract myself with. Forty-eight whole hours to sit around and fritter my sanity away, obsessing about things I can't stop or help or save or fix.

Such were my thoughts as I went to bed Friday night and woke up, a scant 6 hours later to discover that, in fact, the weekend had not arrived with an awful thump so much as a wet smack.

"Dad!" Thomas yelled in my face (he assumes everyone is deaf when they're in a sound sleep). "It's snowing!"

I don't know what the weekend was supposed to be like in your neck of the woods, but ours most definitely was not supposed to include snow. Mostly sunny. Highs in the 50s. A few clouds. Maybe some wind. Not precipitation. Not frozen, white, winter precipitation.

I opened the window shades. Big, fat, heavy, wet flakes everywhere in the sky. And more than a few on the ground.

Her Lovely Self stared despondently out the window. "I was going to maybe start clearing out the garden," she sighed. Like me, she's been trying to lose herself in work.

I looked down the street to see one of my neighbors struggling with a snow shovel. From the growing pile of snow he was pushing across his driveway, it looked like we might have an inch or so on the ground.

"Where is this coming from?" I asked no one in particular. Then, ever my father's son, I consulted the great meteorological oracle, The Weather Channel. And I sat there, glancing from the small TV screen in our bedroom to the windows and back to the TV again. In a moment, the Local on the 8s came up, and there was that chipper little sun partially hidden behind the tiniest of clouds. No snowflake icons. None. Then a list of nearby cities popped up and every one of them was reporting temperatures already in the 40s--and this at 6:45 in the morning. Whose weather were we getting?

One of those useless radar maps popped up on screen just then, showing me color-coded precipitation sweeping across a portion of the state. There was nothing--except for the smallest two or three pixel-wide blip of color. Then it was gone. Was that our snowstorm?

Growing up in New Hampshire, you came to expect snow flurries, oh, pretty much every day from about Halloween til Easter (or sometimes Memorial Day). Snow was such a common event, it was rarely mentioned as part of the normal forecast. It was the meteorological equivalent of the silent "e." An anticipated foot of snow was worth mentioning--briefly--on the weather report. A blizzard promising whiteout condition usually got a few seconds of airtime. But not always. You learned not to be thrown by the occasional surprise Nor'easter.

Clearly I'd been away from home too long, to be flummoxed by flurries so quickly.

By the time I had my first cup of coffee, I had recovered from my state of stupefaction. And as I watched the flakes fall (slightly less heavily now, it seemed to me) I could also see some of that promised sun, creeping up over my neighbors' rooftops. With any luck, it actually would get into the 50s today and melt all the snow off.

But then I remembered: the snowblower.

I got it last year just before cold season, a cunning little red job with a shiny black corkscrew of snow-throwing power mounted in front. I grant you: It was not as impressive as the giant black monster blower my dad had when I was a kid. That blower was as large as our Volkwagen and had 400 times the horsepower. It sent snow flying in a great white arc over the roof of our house. It could turn saplings to mulch if you strayed too close to the trees.

No indeed, my blower was not so mighty a machine. It was, however, definitely a step up from the mincing little electric snow shovel I had before, and which only moved the fluffiest of snow (and even then turned it into frozen mist that was blown back upon me).

Alas, as soon as I got the blower, that more or less assured us of a fairly mild winter. Now here it was--spring for Pete's sake--and I'd used my blower only three times.

So yeah, this freak snowstorm would probably be reduced to so many puddles in a few hours, but I got it in my head I ought to run the snow blower anyway. Wasn't as though I'd have many more opportunities this year. Plus, I needed something to do. Something that took my mind of things, yet didn't involve, you know, really hard work. Like shoveling an inch of heavy wet snow.

Instead, I set the Brownie and Thomas to do that, and they were only too happy to be out in the surprise snowfall. They ran off with their little kids' plastic shovels and proceeded to shovel the hell out of the porch and front walk. That they also occasionally shoveled away some sodden dirt from the front bed of Her Lovely Self's garden was an unfortunate, but acceptable occupational hazard.

Meanwhile, my heart quickened in anticipation as I strode to my snow blower. As I said, I've run it exactly three times since I got it. The first time was when I brought it home and cranked it up to make sure it worked.

The second time was when we got a meager dusting and I amused my neighbors by raising sparks off the mostly bare driveway while my snowblower sprayed the merest mist of snow like a giant sneeze across the yard (after that one, I was advised by many neighbors that I should probably save the snowblower for accumulations of more than half an inch).

The last time was when the wind was just right and I actually had drifts of up to three whole inches in my driveway. That was a fine day. Or rather, a fine 10 minutes, which, okay, was not fine so much as a bit anticlimactic. After all it took me longer to dress than to run the blower. I don't do things half-way, you know: I was in my full winter togs--layers of long underwear and sweatshirts and insulated pants under snowpants, plus a parka and a hat and one of those masky, hoody things whose name sounds like a Greek pastry. You know the one I mean. And last of all, I wore my final touch--my tinted ski goggles (If you're laughing, it's because you either own a pair of glasses OR a snow blower, but not both. Because if you did own both, you wouldn't laugh at my tinted ski goggles).

But that seemed so long ago now. Since then, the snowblower has been sitting in the garage with 3/4 of a tank of gas, just waiting for another chance to get out there and do its thing.

And here we were, already in spring, getting almost certainly the last snow of the year. And, I realized, as I stepped outside in my snowblower's costume (yes, including the goggles), the accumulation was actually barely an inch. Okay, a little less than that even.

Well, I didn't care if I was going to put on a light show for my neighbors. I'd just gotten over pneumonia and the snow was kind of heavy (mostly because it was already melting to slush), so why not let the snow blower take care of it, even if it meant throwing a few sparks? And if my neighbors made some smart remark, I'd just think of something even more cutting to say.

Balaclava. That's the masky hoody thing I was thinking of.

Anyway, there I was, in my winter togs, the kids already out and making a snowy wreckage of the front entrance. I moved the blower to the garage doorway, opened the choke, pumped the primer, pulled the start...


I hunkered down and checked the spark plug. Unaccustomed to weight of by winter clothes while in the hunkered position, I lost my balance, slipped back and landed on my butt on wet floor of the garage. While I was down there, I was more or less eye level with other essential doodads on the blowers, so I checked them, stood up, brushed myself off, pulled again...


Finally I did the obvious: opened the gas cap. The tank was bone-dry. What the hell? I may not be able to remember what a balaclava is, but I sure remembered I had more than half a tank of gas in here.

I sighed and grabbed the gas can from the shelf where I keep it. As I poured more gas in, it occurred to me that Her Lovely Self might have cranked it up and taken it for a spin, just to see what it was like. She's grown rather fond of gas-powered machinery, ever since she got her own little roto-tiller last summer. I'd ask her later.

The tank filled once more, I pumped the primer again, pulled the cord and she started up like a dream.

God, I love snowblowing. I don't know why I didn't get one of these sooner. So easy on your back (especially if you have a bad one, like me), and it's such a contemplative act, much like mowing the lawn. You're in your cocoon of sound and you almost enter a meditative state, watching the machine throw heaps of snow (okay, not heaps, but clumps at least), clearing the driveway. I found myself slipping into the zone, where everything on my mind slowly melted away. It was nice to set my burdens aside for the moment.

As I made my first short pass in front of the garage, I whirled the blower around and now was pointed towards the front door. The kids were alternately throwing snow at each other and eating it. The Brownie looked up at me, snow in her mouth and waved. I waved back.

Then the Brownie was frozen in mid-wave, her mouth open so wide, the snow fell out. She tugged at her brother's sleeve. He turned, glanced at me, turned back to his job, then did a double take and started shouting.

"Hi!" I hollered. But the snowblower engine was very loud and we couldn't hear each other.

At that moment, I realized the snowblower engine wasn't just loud. It was smelly, like something was going bad inside. Was there enough oil in there? What the heck?

And then I looked down and saw something odd. The snowblower looked kind of...wavy.

That's when I took off my tinted ski goggles and realized the snowblower wasn't wavy.

It was on fire. That was the wavy part.

I shut the thing down instantly, beating the flames with my gloves. My first thought was that I'd spilled a little excess gas on the exterior and something must have ignited it. Something like sparks on a partially bare driveway.

The weird thing was, the fire wasn't going out. In fact, now my gloves were on fire.

And then I heard what Thomas was shouting, just to clarify things: "DAD! YOU'RE ON FIRE!"

He wasn't talking about my gloves either. I looked all around me, stopping half-turned to look at my own backside. I looked exactly like that little girl from the old Coppertone ads. Except instead of being a little girl in a bathing suit, I was a sweaty 37-year-old man in 3 layers of winter clothing. Instead of having a sunburn, I was being actually burned. And instead of having some rakish dog yanking on the bottom of my bathing suit, I had flames--genuine flames, on the cement behind me, running straight up the back of my snowpants and licking my ass.

But besides that, yeah, exactly like that Coppertone kid...

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Oh no...

You have no idea how much I don't want to write the next few sentences.

Yesterday, Her Lovely Self went for a second blood test, just a few days after the first one. It showed her hormone levels were going down. Down is bad, but we'd seen this before. It happened with Thomas.

Last night, she started spotting. This morning, spotting turned to serious bleeding. Bleeding is bad, but we'd seen this before. It happened with Thomas.

Today, she had an emergency ultrasound. We had to have an emergency ultrasound with Thomas at roughly the same point in his first trimester and got a perfect view of this tiny little Cheeto of a baby with a pulsing dot in the center--Thomas' Tic-Tac of a heart, just starting to beat. And we knew everything was going to be okay.

Today, the ultrasound showed...nothing. A total absence of anything babylike. That nothingness was one of the worst things I've ever seen.

And just like that, we're not having a baby anymore.

The doctors, being doctors, are already shifting their attention to Her Lovely Self. Now come the uncomfortable tests and examinations and determinations to decide if everything has passed on its own or if HLS requires a D&C. But we're still back a step or 12, staring at that awful vision of nothingness.

I probably shouldn't be writing this in my moment of shock, any more than I should have written--prematurely as it turned out--about the pregnancy in my moment of excitement. I feel like a combination of a Jinx and the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

There are so many different ways to feel awful right now, I can't even pick a direction.

This was not an anticipated pregnancy, by the way, and when faced with the unanticipated, Her Lovely Self tends to freak out. I feel awful for spending so much time talking this up, reminding her how great it is to have a baby, gradually helping her to see the bright side, essentially setting her up for the greatest of letdowns.

I feel awful for having convinced myself that everything was hunky-dory despite some obvious danger signs.

I feel awful for having got all of you as worked up and happy as I was (I'm so tempted to delete that post. I can hardly bear to look at it. And yet, how can I delete all your accompanying outpourings of love and good will? And so it will remain).

For a time, I even felt awful for feeling awful. On the drive home, Her Lovely Self, almost dazedly, was already talking about every pregnancy horror story we'd heard of among our friends and family: the sister who miscarried twice before finally delivering her only son prematurely and nearly dying herself in the process; the friend who endured a stunning 12 miscarriages before finally deciding to adopt; the coworker whose full-term baby was delivered stillborn, the umbilical cord having strangled him. It was almost unbearable to talk about, but it was my wife's way of trying to cope, to remind herself how much worse things could have been.

At first, I felt as she did, thinking I had no right to feel so bad when we have, for the most part, been so lucky. But I can't do that. I can't minimize this. Each pregnancy is distinctive and unique. And each pregnancy's untimely ending--whether at 8 weeks or 8 months--is distinctively, uniquely painful. I would never presume to compare my sorrow and pain to someone else's. Theirs is theirs and mine is mine.

And mine is pretty bad right now.

They say depression is not always triggered by one big event, but by an accumulation of smaller ones. Burying a beloved relative. Missing out on a long-anticipated vacation. An unexpected hospital stay. A lost child, even though that child was lost somewhere between 5 and 7 weeks, its Tic-Tac heart probably never even beginning to pulse. That pretty much sums up my past two months. I'm usually a pretty upbeat guy. I can usually find a bright spot in the darkness. I can usually summon a joke, a smart-ass remark, a funny story, to help dig out of whatever hole I find myself in. But the stone on my heart is too heavy and I don't have the strength to shift it right now.

So I'm sure you'll understand if I don't post here for the next little while. Life just doesn't seem that fun to write about. Not now. Not yet.

Physically, Her Lovely Self is out danger, but emotionally she's going to have her good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours. But she's already told that this is it. We're done having children. Which is also her way of coping. She may change her mind later. She often does, and I hope she will.

When I was little and a neighbor lost her baby, I remember asking my mom what the big deal was. I had it in my head that every baby ever to be born was just lined up in heaven like commuters at a bus stop, or amusement-park goers waiting their turn for the next bumper car. To me, that mysterious lump in the tummy was just a bus, a bumper car, a ride waiting for the rider. If the baby missed his or her ride, he or she just waited for the next one to come along, and when it did the baby jumped for it. I assumed our neighbor would still get the same baby she was meant to have; it just missed this ride and would have to catch another one later. It was a child's way of trying to answer an unknowable mystery, ridiculously innocent and naive.

Part of me wants desperately to be that little kid again.

And the rest of me just wants our little Cheeto of a baby back.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


In Which I Get Hawesome Fever...

I know that many of you found your way here from Shane's place, Nickerblog. Those of you who haven't--the two of you--you need to go now (but come back). Quite aside from being one of the best blog writers I know, Shane is an inextinguishable font of creativity that extends in so many different directions, it frankly leaves me gaping. I'm pretty much a one-trick pony: I can write stuff, and that's about it. But Shane writes, entertains (in the form of his famous vlogs and more recently, a podcast) and is forever coming up with interesting ways to bring his vast readership together (the Worf Album contest would be a prime example).

If I had to sum up my feelings about Shane in one word, that word would be "inspirational." He's one of the reasons I blog. For that alone, I owe him a debt of gratitude.

And now he's inspired me again. Well, not just me, but another Nickernut too. Those of you who follow Shane regularly know that he has more or less championed the usage of a new word (or championed the alternate pronunciation of an old word; I'm not quite sure on that point). That would be the word "hawesome" or (as it is usually spoken) "HAWESOME!" Well, not too long ago he inspired a reader, Rich Menga to create a site entirely devoted to the word. is still a young site, but already impressive (I defy you not to refresh the main page over and over just to hear the telegram part).

And now a moment of brutal honesty: At first, I never really gave the word "hawesome" much thought, and I'm just enough of an anal editor to be ever-so-slightly dismissive when these "new" words crop up. Sure, I was plenty amused when Shane would go off on a "Hawesome!" riff because, well, he's Shane, and he can sell it.

But something strange happened when I actually did visit As Rich was inspired by Shane, so I was inspired by Rich. On one page of the site I found an old photo of, ostensibly, a member of the Hawesome family (who looks astonishingly like Teddy Roosevelt, but never mind). That image got my gears turning. I got to wondering where the Hawesome family came from, and how their lives affected the way their name would come to be a part of Shane's vocabulary and, perhaps eventually, everyone else's too.

So I wrote a few (thousand) words about the history of the Hawesomes, then emailed Rich to see if he might have a use for it on the site. With great grace and good humor, he not only accepted my rambling, but has today begun featuring the history on the main page of the site. This was a fun collaborative effort. Rich made some key edits (I do tend to run on, you know) and added hilarious images that provide the ultimate counterbalance to the text. And he had the whole thing up and posted in about 20 minutes (or so it seemed to me). My hat's off to him.

If you're a fan of Shane's or are amused by the whole hawesome phenomenon, or just want to see what happens when I try to write like a history professor, I urge you to visit Now, I understand not everyone is into it. Instead of being inspired by the word to do something pointlessly creative, they're inspired to be pointlessly annoyed by a little bit of lexiconical fun. If you're one of those people, then you should of course avoid the site like death itself. No one wants you there anyway.

I'm not sure ultimately what Shane will make of it all (except perhaps to wonder how I can find time to write things like this but have yet to deliver him the guest blog I promised). But I can only hope that he will consider it not merely an homage to him and his creative fire, but also proof positive that, in a world full of hawesome people, he is, like, whoa, the most wicked HAWESOME dude of all.


From Somewhere on the Masthead


In Which We Are Made Redundant...

Boy have I been a busy little bee.

In more ways than one. Know what I mean?

(What? If I didn't say it someone else would.)

Her Lovely Self had a blood test yesterday. Another one. She's due for another one tomorrow. Pretty routine, but as always I'm curious for the results.

Meanwhile, I've been opening my own veins at work, or I'm ready to. February was my Super Editor month (or is that Stupid Editor?). The first week of the month, the week my grandfather died, I did a week's worth of work in about a day-and-a-half. By which I mean I finished some things that would absolutely have to be finished while I was gone and everything else got the editorial equivalent of spit and bailing wire til I got back.

Then I got back and had just shy of two weeks to catch up from the week before AND to get ahead so that I could actually enjoy my vacation. Rock? Meet Hard Place. Hard Place? Rock. This time, in addition to triage editing and spit and bailing wire, I had to resort to groveling and got another editor to agree to handle something important for me while I was in Florida.

And of course we know how Florida turned out.

Then, as if that wasn't the cherry on the cake of my month, I ended up in the hospital. But while I was there, my assistant and two editors (I'm supposed to have three, but I'm down one right now) braced themselves to go into my office and try to make sense of what I'd left. My assistant was astonished by what she found. Individual stacks of stories or assignment instructions or fact-checking changes or layouts for approval, all in order, ready for anyone--a chimp, even--to move along so the issue could get out without me slowing things down.

"You had everything all lined up for us. I had no idea you were so organized,"
my assistant said when I started going back to work on half-days. "You know, you picked the best time to be in the hospital," she added. Which made me smile (laughing still causes coughing fits). Because of course there was a reason I ended up in the hospital, and part of it was working myself to such a tiny nub, you couldn't tell the difference between me and the eraser end of a #2 pencil after the SATs.

And so now, back to work full-time, the turbine whine begins once more and the engines beneath my life pick up speed and I start the endless treadmill run again.

Which I don't mind. Because I've got that Feeling.

I first had the Feeling in 1998 when we discovered Thomas was on his way, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Which made it hard to articulate, but I gave it a game stab in a letter to a friend:

When it all clicked together, it was sudden and sickening and exciting too, like getting in line for the tea cup ride and discovering, too late, that you're on the Vomit Comet Coaster.

Her Lovely Self came home from work, dog-tired. She's been dragging all week and complaining that she's coming down with something. Then she said something else: "And the weirdest thing is, I have to pee every 30 seconds."

It was like that moment in the movies when the hero recalls the off-hand remark mentioned by some passing character 90 minutes earlier. As soon as the words left her mouth, I remembered the focus group I was at just a few weeks earlier, and how all the women got to talking about their kids. And everyone was trying to trump everyone else with their pregnancy horror stories. "Oh, I had such bad cravings, I ate a bar of soap and my dog's squeaky toy." "Oh, honey, that's nothing. I had morning sickness so bad I threw up the bowling ball my Dad had lost in 1963." You know, like that.

And in the middle of it, this one quieter woman simply said, "Gosh, I didn't have anything like you guys. All I did was pee constantly. And that was before the baby got so big that he was pushing on my bladder."

And all the women nodded. Someone said it was something about hormones in the first trimester. And all the women nodded.

I sat up so fast Her Lovely Self screeched. "What's the matter?" she asked.

"You're pregnant," I said evenly.

"Oh, don’t be stupid," she said. "I probably just have a bladder infection."

"No," I said. "You're pregnant. The peeing. The fatigue."

"But I haven't been nauseous at all. Except today, when I was late going to lunch."

"Pregnant!" I cried.

And while she protested, I put on my coat and shoes. "Where are you going?" she asked.

"I'm buying the pee-on-a-stick test."

They were actually having a 2-for-1 deal on them at the CVS (I don't even want to know why). So I bought two and brought them straight home. Total elapsed time from doorstep to pharmacy and back: 90 seconds.

But I had been gone long enough that Her Lovely Self had started to think and she looked pale.

"Do you really think--?" she began.

I ripped open a box and shoved a cellophane wrapped test at her. "Go pee on this."

We went upstairs to the bathroom. I waited in the hall, but I couldn't help myself. I poked my head in.

"What are you doing?!?" she asked.

"I just want to make sure you're doing it right."

"Yeah, like you've had any experience," she said.

The instructions were simple: pee on the stick. Cap the stick, set the stick down and check it in about two minutes.

Her Lovely Self did her thing, then gingerly set the test on top of the toilet tank. Then we both ran from the bathroom as though she had just lit a fuse to one big honking stick of dynamite (and I suppose she had).

We waited in the guest room, the nearest room from the bathroom. She stood there, eyes wide, looking at me. I stood there, counting "One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand." But I lost count so I grabbed my watch.

A minute went by. Still we stood, silent in the guest room. Presently, the cat came along, gave us both A Look, then jumped up on the guest bed and sat there, watching us watching each other. Her expression seemed to say, So, what are we doing?

"I'm gonna go check," she said. Her Lovely Self. Not the cat.

"But it's only been a minute and 10 seconds. The instructions said--" I called after her, but she was already heading to the bathroom and I had to run to reach the doorway the same time as she did.

From the door, we could see the results there on top of the toilet tank. One big fat plus.

"Pregnant," I whispered.

"oh My GOD!" Her Lovely Self cried, screaming so loud she made the cat flee back downstairs. "What have we DONE? What have we DONE?!?" she shouted over and over.

Suffice it to say, she needed some time to adjust.

That was yesterday. I really haven't slept since then. Because now I keep thinking, What have we done? albeit in quite a different tone of voice than HLS used.

As you know, in my line of work, I've interviewed a lot of guys and experts about a lot of health issues, especially sexual health. And I remember a doctor talking about how you never know how some guy will react the first time he finds out his wife is pregnant. A lot of guys just strut and act weirdly self-centered. Their first reaction isn't "We're pregnant!" Their first reaction is "I'm potent! My army has invaded Egg Harbor and conquered all!" Some men freak and skip town--they can't bear the responsibility. Others get sympathy symptoms: morning sickness, abdominal swelling, the works. The doctor said the oddest ones were the guys who refused to believe the kids was theirs. It wasn't that they thought their wives were stepping out on them, the doctor hastened to add. It was just that they couldn't believe they were actually capable of doing something as monumental as contributing to the making of another human being.

I've had none of those reactions, and that's the oddest thing of all. Because knowing me, I'd have bet on the freaking out. Not freaking out enough to leave town, but certainly having some angst, you know?

Instead, when I got out of bed this morning, I had an emotion I can't say I've ever experienced before. Hell, I'm not even sure it was an emotion. I was sort of happy, sort of proud, but not in a yay-my-boys-can-swim kind of way. I wasn't smiling or skipping around on the sidewalk on my way to work or anything. To me, it just seemed that overnight the world had changed--or I had. Something had shifted, something tectonic and massive. But I wasn't feeling the shake-up of an earthquake. It was more like a giant puzzle piece falling from some great height and landing with perfect precision in the middle of an almost-completed puzzle.

The writer in me finally got closest to it: I had closure. A closure I never realized I needed or wanted. A most profound sense of closure. Perhaps the most profound sense of closure.

I think that's what it is. On a biological level. On a survival-of-the-species level. I think every strand of DNA in my body became strings of bubble lights. And somewhere inside me there's a voice that I can just barely hear, a voice as old as our ancestors, those monkeys in the trees.

And that voice is saying, "Mission Accomplished."

I have completed the big hail-Mary pass of genetics.

I am officially biologically redundant.

And I couldn't be happier.

Why yes, I have had several cups of coffee this morning. Why do you ask?

Funny thing is, that feeling went away after a while and I forgot about it. Til Her Lovely Self was pregnant with the Brownie. And then I forgot about it again. Til now. It's back. With a vengeance.

Mission accomplished.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Saturday, March 18, 2006



So. If you read the previous post, you know about my concerns as regards the health of Her Lovely Self and the flare-up of her Crohn's disease.

Well, after white-knuckled visits to two specialists Friday, we found out why she's been feeling sick.

I was wrong: It's not Crohn's.

But I was right to blame myself. I'm what the doctors would call a contributing factor.

I'm having trouble articulating this, so you know it's serious, but maybe this will explain it better (apologies for the poor quality).

Talk about a plot twist, huh?

By now you know that both Her Lovely Self and I tend to regard our health conditions with a certain amount of denial. Which means that we can't yet bring ourselves to really talk about it. Not to each other. Not to our families.

(Incidentally, Big Brother is out of town on some management thingamabob, and he's the only member of the family who reads this thing with any regularity, which means he won't even see this for another week or two.)

So mark this well: Those few of you who read this and actually know Her Lovely Self well enough to call or send her some kind of correspondence, I BEG YOU to refrain from doing so for now. I'll tell you when the time is right. We're surprisingly superstitious, and I'm afraid making a deal of this too soon will somehow bring bad luck upon us. So I thank you in advance for your kind restraint.

(Comments, of course, are always welcome, and would of course be relayed to HLS at a later date. No, she really doesn't read the blog these days. Or even use the computer. Scrolling makes her nauseous. Go figure).

Having said all that, when something like this happened before, we made one tiny little pact: We both agreed that, to prevent our heads from exploding, we would each only tell ONE PERSON who we could trust to be discreet.

She chose her best friend from childhood, whose happens to be a nurse.

I decided to tell, um, the blog.

Which I guess is cheating. But I can't help it. You were the first ones I thought of.

In return for your discretion, I promise regular updates for the next 7 months. There's blood tests next week, and HLS still has some abdominal pain which, while a source of some concern, is not entirely unusual for her.

Thanks for all your kind support and good wishes--by comments and email--after my last post. We still need them.

Though obviously for very different reasons now.

Who was it said "these things come in threes"?


From Somewhere on Cloud 9

Friday, March 17, 2006


In Which The Bill Comes Due...

Wow, time sure can fly when you're sick.

Hard to believe it was two weeks ago yesterday that I was admitted to the hospital, raving about bus accidents and my family being eaten by alligators.

Since that time, you'll be pleased to know I've done very little aside from answer some kind emails (thank you. You know who you are), post a little bit about my misadventures in Florida, and sit around the house, drinking enormous quantities of water and coughing up every brachial tube in my lungs.

I was told to stay home from work the first week and I almost managed it. Except Wednesday we had a story pitch meeting and my designer--a truly inspirational fellow who is undergoing a second round chemotherapy for a very aggressive kind of sinus cancer--emailed me to see if I'd be there. He was home, sick from the chemo and a secondary infection that had made his face swell painfully, but he was planning to come into the office long enough to be there for my pitch meeting.

Well, damn, if he was well enough to go, I sure as hell was.

And what a pair we made at our pitch meeting. I've never had an editor-in-chief applaud for me before, but when the designer and I walked in, we got a standing ovation. We made our three or four crucial presentations, got them approved and then the Chief begged us to go home and rest. We didn't argue.

Boy, have I been tired. It really has been like a preview of my senior years. I've been wandering around the house grumbling and crabbing and making disgusting noises as I try to clear every upper-body cavity of phlegm. Then I sit and fall asleep in front of the Weather Channel, snoring most of the afternoon away before waking up in time for dinner and then shuffling off to bed.

This week, was mostly a get-back-my-strength week (what will I do without my 2 o'clock nap once I go back to work full time?), so I've been on half-days and I've actually been pretty good about sticking to that work schedule.

Thus I feel pretty good this week. Well, physically good (we'll get to my emotional state in a bit). For the first time I can take a deep breath without coughing violently or feeling pain in my lower rib cage. I actually walked up a flight of stairs without seeing spots floating in my field of vision. And the residue from the super adhesive they used to affix the IV to me has finally peeled off. My arm hairs should be fully regrown in another six to eight weeks.

On a less jocular note, I almost dropped dead from shock when I got the statement from the hospital today. I knew it wasn't going to be cheap, and yes, of course, I know my insurance should cover most of it (or else there better be a damn good reason why such a painful chunk of my paycheck goes to medical every two weeks). Still, that knowledge doesn't do much to buffer the initial shock of realizing your three days in hospital cost well over six grand. And to think I was lamenting all the money spent on my vacation! My God, being sick at Disney was bargain in comparison, and they had more comfortable beds plus a much wider assortment of rides (at the hospital, you only had your choice of two: ER Gurney! and Wheelchair: Adventures into the Radiology Dept.).

Of course, I have no one to blame but myself, now do I? I probably could have avoided the illness and the expense if I'd been just a little more watchful. But then I would have robbed someone of a rare moment of glee. For while I was still swooning from the bill, the phone rang and who should it be but my Dad, who usually enjoys commiserating with anyone about How Expensive Things Have Got. But I underestimated his pleasure at my complaints.

"Oh holy-O jeezuz, don't this make my day!" he cried, and even over the sound of the cackling I could hear him slapping his knee. "Some pricey at the hospital, ennit?"

"I don't see what's so funny," I said.

"Well, that's cos you don't have my broader experience when it comes to putting you up in a hospital."

"What are you talking about? This is the first time I've ever been admitted to a hospital--"

"I guess the hell it ain't. I oughtta know." He paused to catch his breath and, I'm sure to wipe tears of joy from his eyes. "You know, 40 years ago, when your brutha was born at the Elliott Hospital, I picked him and your mutha up and they give me the bill. Guess how much it cost have a baby in 1965?"

"Er, a thousand dollars?" I hazarded.

"One. Hundred. Fifty. Dollars," he said, pausing for emphasis. "One-five-oh. And that was for a week in the hospital cos your mutha had toxi-whatchamahoozee and she and your brutha was both under observation."

"Really. What a great story."

"I ain't finished. Two years and eight months later, I had to make the same trip to Elliott to pick you up. Not even three years later, and guess what the bill was?"

"Er. Three hundred?"

"Don't I wish. Seven hundred and fifty goddamn dollars. I just about shit my pants, now I'll tell ya. And you and your mutha was only in there three days. I swear to Christ, when I saw that bill, I almost turned around and wheeled you both back up to maternity. You know what seven hundred and fifty dollars bought back then? The pick-up I was driving only cost me a hundred. I coulda had a friggin' fleet of trucks for what you run me. That was some piece of change and I didn't have it. I was making $60 a week back then, and most of it was going to bills and feeding the $150 kid I already had."

"Well, you must have managed it. I didn't grow up in an orphanage."

"It was a pretty goddamn near thing, I'll tell ya. Luckily that year I finally got into the union and they had a health plan that covered almost--but not quite--half of the bill. But I had the pay the rest out in installments, just like you was a refrigerator from Sears." Here he paused wistfully. "Actually, I'm pretty sure a Sears refrigerator would've only run me a couple hundred bucks back then. Including delivery. And I'd a had my choice of pea green or harvest gold for colors."

"So now I know why you never had three kids."

"Damn right. Way too much money. But it's almost worth it now hearing you bitch about your hospital bill. By gorry, you made my day."

Well, at least one of us was happy.

As good as I've been feeling this week, I've been less and less content--and not just from the hospital bill. It appears that her super-human efforts to wrangle the kids and me home safely have finally taken their toll on Her Lovely Self. I'd love to tell you that she picked up a cold or even a flu. That would almost give me the same joy as news of my exorbitant hospital bill gave my dad. I say that not out of cruelty, but because I know exactly why my wife is ailing, and I'd rather she had a simple cold or virus than what's troubling her now.

Some years back--in fact about a year before we bumped into each other in Chicago, Her Lovely Self began to fall ill. It was just a month or so after she had graduated college and moved to Chicago and started her first job in the magazine business. And then she was hit with a tidal wave of symptoms: nausea, fever, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, anemia, dehydration, and all manner of digestive complaints that I needn't go into here.

She was diagnosed with a simple flu, but the symptoms persisted for more than a month. During that month, she saw a variety of doctors, each of whom had a different diagnosis. One thought she was pregnant (which would have been a very neat trick at the time, seeing as she wasn't seeing anybody); another assumed she had an eating disorder; someone else thought she had leukemia. One memorably dismissive doctor told her the symptoms were all in her head.

Meanwhile, she ate and drank less and less, the abdominal pain grew worse. Eventually, she collapsed at work and ended up in the hospital, hooked to IV fluids and nutrients. When they admitted her to the hospital, she weighed 86 pounds. She's petite, but that was extreme even for her. She was in the hospital for almost a month. On the bright side, a doctor finally gave her a correct diagnosis.

Her Lovely Self has Crohn's Disease. I don't know why, but I suspect there's more than a few of you out there who already know all about this particularly nasty form of inflammatory bowel disease. There are plenty of unpleasant details about this disorder, but the basics are this (and forgive me if I'm off on some details. I'm a little too tired to fact-check myself just now): for reasons that aren't clear, parts of your digestive system can become inflamed. During this flare-up period, the inflamed area can close off almost completely, at best making it hard for your body to absorb nutrients from food, or simply causing lots of pain as food passes through the inflamed, narrowed areas. At worst, the inflammation can cause so much narrowing of the tract that it can cause dangerous and even fatal bowel obstructions. In some cases, the inflamed tissue can have a corrosive effect on other nearby tissue, causing perforations in neighboring loops of intestine, which leads to problems such as internal bleeding (hence the anemia) or even peritonitis. In this way, the disease is similar to another inflammatory bowel disease--ulcerative colitis--and they used to treat both problems the same way--with surgery. However, in the case of Crohn's, they found out that half the time they removed a diseased loop of intestine, the inflammation returned in a previously healthy area of the digestive tract. So much for surgery.

By the time Her Lovely Self was hospitalized and diagnosed, it was determined that the disease was mostly confined to the ileum, a part of the small intestine, which was so badly off they estimated that the ileum was constricted to an opening of roughly a quarter-inch wide. By the time they got the inflammation under control (thanks to a series of really unpleasant steroids), Her Lovely Self had developed permanent scarring in that part of her digestive system.

That's more detail than I meant to give (and certainly more than she would want me to give. No one likes to publicize their health problems, especially when they pertain to your digestive system, and HLS is a particularly discreet person anyway). But it's important to have the back-story. And it's important to understand that she is somewhat in denial about this chronic health problem of hers. In her own way, she's as much in denial about it as I was about being really sick in Florida.

It's not entirely her fault. Her Crohn's is considered a relatively mild case, and as such, she's not subject to constant, pain and problems. She suffers flare-ups. After her first and worst flare-up, she didn't suffer any problems again until about a month after we were married. We had just moved to a new city and she had just started a new job when she started waking up mornings feeling nauseous and complaining of a clenching pain in her stomach. I was young and stupid then and thought she had an ulcer or was--Good God!--pregnant. And she allowed me to flounder like this for more than a week before her symptoms got so bad she finally told me the whole story, a story I had not really heard before we got married (not that hearing it would have changed my decision to marry her). Despite her angry protests, I took it upon myself to find her a gastroenterologist and practically had to drag her to her first appointment. In the end, she had to admit it was the right thing to do. Aside from the doctor in the hospital, she had never been under any consistent care for the disease, and thanks to the aid of a specialist, she was able to get the flare-up under control in a much shorter period of time and with far less troublesome meds than the steroids she'd been on before.

And so it went. Every 2 or 3 years, HLS would stop eating or have that telltale clenching pain and she'd go on some meds and try to eat a very low-residue diet to avoid any irritation of the inflamed area or put herself at risk for an obstruction (she's only had one close call, thank God, and it was one of the scariest nights of my life. They wanted to operate--obstructions are damn painful and can kill you fairly quickly--but surgery increased the odds of spreading the disease to other parts of the digestive system. In the end, her gastroenterologist prevailed and they gave her a massive dose of prednisone. The inflammation was gone in an hour and the obstruction resolved itself without the aid of surgery, but that was one bad night. My brow is sweating even now at the thought of it).

We've been lucky the past several years. Her last flare-up was just before she was pregnant with Thomas. She remained free of Crohn's symptoms for years afterward, well after the Brownie was born. She had a minor flare-up when I took the job I have now and we moved to our new house, but once again, with the right meds, she got over it quickly.

Careful readers may notice a correlation between HLS's flare-ups and major life events, such as finishing school, moving, starting or changing jobs. Most doctors say there's no scientific evidence to support this, but every Crohn's sufferer I've ever spoken with feels pretty damn sure that stress can trigger a flare-up. I've seen the evidence myself. That dangerous obstruction HLS had? It came within hours of learning her beloved grandfather had died unexpectedly a couple of days before Christmas and we found ourselves rushing to cancel holiday plans and finds two seats on a plane going anywhere near the funeral. She was as upset as I've ever seen her then, so it's little wonder that a few hours later I was carrying her into the ER because she couldn't walk from the stomach pain. From that day forward, I've never doubted the link stress can play in triggering flare-ups. Which is why whenever we seem to be going through a rough patch--too many sick kids or dying relatives, too many demands on work and life, too many personal or professional problems cropping up--I find myself watching my wife. Because she won't tell me if she's feeling bad, see (remember what I said about her being as stupid as I am?). But she can't fool me. I know what her face looks like when she feels that telltale clenching in her stomach.

And I just realized this week that she's been wearing that face a lot. I was just too sick myself to notice before.

I shouldn't be surprised. Having a sick spouse in a place far from home is stressful enough. But add in taking two kids--by yourself--to the largest amusement complex in the solar system and throw in having to get everyone home safe afterwards. And then immediately follow that up with getting your spouse to a hospital and being told that he could have gone into cardiac arrest and died.

Well, I guess that'd make my stomach clench too.

Now that I finally have a clue, I've confronted Her Lovely Self, but she insists she doesn't need to see her doctor. Still, I can't bear to see her wake up every morning holding her stomach, gritting her teeth against the pain. Inevitably, it gets bad enough that she starts feeling nauseous. And then she starts eating less and less. And the she gets weak. And then...

I'm not sure where she is on the disease's continuum right now. I've been out of the loop for two weeks. But I'm watching her now. Carefully. As I type this in bed, she's asleep beside me, her face creased with pain. And I'm cursing myself, blaming my own stupidity for this, just as I did today when I got my statement from the hospital.

But this is no piddling 4-figure bill. This is a bill come due that I can't bear to pay. I've caused pain to something in my life that is irreplaceable and I have no one to blame but myself, getting so sick that I allowed her to become sick. Watching her suffer, even in her sleep, I'm having a hard time letting myself off the hook for this one.

Time sure can fly when you're sick.

But man, it crawls when someone you love feels sick, and you know you're the one who helped make her feel that way.

Tomorrow, I'm calling her doctor.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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