Tuesday, November 21, 2006


In Which I Have A Confession To Make...

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

It's been, oh, 14 years since my last confession, and 11 years since the confession before that, so I guess neglect of a holy sacrament for a quarter-century pretty much knocks the bulb out of the Mortal Sin meter.

Which means we probably don't need to go into detail on the other stuff--premarital congress (granted, there wasn't nearly as much of that as I'd hoped for, but is there ever? Never mind. Rhetorical question.), coveting my brother's goods (yes, I DID steal his Johnny West figure. And I found all the accessories to his S.W.A.T. guys and sold them on eBay) and the 482,517 times (give or take a few thousand) I've taken Your name in vain. By the rigid parochial standards set down for me by your old pal Sister Agnes (who I can only pray is up there at Your right hand today, though I kinda doubt it), let's just say I've been a bad boy and leave it at that.

Being omniscient and all, You know why I'm here today. I'm proud to say it's not for the same reason that brought me to the confessional 14 years ago (which was when I began dating Her Lovely Self and started going back to Mass and thought putting on a show of being a better Catholic than I was would help get me in the sack with her. Which is totally sick, I know, I know. But hey, it worked).

No, my reason today is a completely different one, and I felt it most strongly just this past Sunday as I watched Thomas march nervously up to the priest waiting in a secluded corner of the sanctuary of our church, then sit down and quietly begin to make his first confession. First, I felt pride, an involuntary reaction any Dad feels when his kid has worked and studied and practiced to does something new and different and challenging.

But right on the heels of it, I felt an old, but all too familiar sense of hypocrisy.

Because as You know, Oh Lord of Hosts, I am no soldier of Christ. And we both know that if it weren't for Her Lovely Self--who when the time comes will be riding the express elevator to Heaven while the rest of us are taking the stairs--if I were a single Dad raising my kids, well, I'd be a gibbering lunatic, of course. But in addition to that, I'd never have the wherewithal to see to the spiritual nourishment of my children. Oh, I might manage getting them baptized, but that would be it.

On top of that, I enjoy a lot of laughs at the expense of my religion. I've been telling people I was a recovering Catholic since the before the term came into common parlance. When Lent comes around every year, I tell people that the thing I choose to give up is self-restraint. And, to get very much to the point, let us not forget that time in 1985 in Senior Theology, when I told Sister Agnes that I thought the Act of Reconciliation was a moral cheat. Which caused first a collective gasp, then a group laugh among my classmates.

Her rage barely contained, she demanded to know what I meant, and I replied, "Well, it's nothing more than a holy 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, isn't it? Redeem it, get absolved and you're free to go out and sin again." Whereupon she seized me by the ear (somewhere in their holy training, I'm convinced nuns take a self-defense course that's all about ear-holds and blows to the knuckles) and hauled me off to the principal, Father Kenneth.

As usual, I felt oppressed and downtrodden. I thought I was raising an important point about sin and how easy the path to redemption seemed to be. She thought I was being a smart-ass.

Granted, she had cause. I had been a thorn in her side--heck, more than one thorn, a whole crown of them--that spring, questioning her on every bit of doctrine, volunteering to be on the pro-choice side during Holy Debate week (you were supposed to be chosen for this onerous task), and announcing a foolproof plan for anyone to get into Heaven (which was this: it didn't matter how bad you were in this life. All you had to do was get one good person to love you. When that person went to Heaven, they couldn't very well enjoy their eternal reward knowing someone they loved was suffering in the perpetual cauldron of Hell, now could they? So for the sake of that good person, you were pretty much guaranteed a parole. Right?). So to ridicule one of the sacraments in her presence was the last straw in the manger, as it were.

Father Kenneth, alas, took the same dim view of my opinions as Sister Agnes. He made it very clear that the job of his school was not engage in scholarly debate--if I wanted that I could enter the seminary and God have mercy on me--but here, I was expected to shut up and listen while they "distilled the teachings of Christ" to me. And Lord, You know they did their best to distill the shit out of me.

The capper to this incident was when Father Kenneth insisted that I make a confession to him, there in his office, on the spot. It was early May 1985. I was 16 going on 17, and full of beans. I was incensed at the idea of being compelled to receive a sacrament--a forced confession, if you will. What especially galled me was that I had some legitimate moral qualms about Reconciliation (for all my cheek, it really did seem to me that a lot people viewed confession as a license to sin, knowing they had an easy out in the confessional).

But Father had already closed the door to his office and was hooking his stole around his neck and as he prepared to receive my confession, I did some rudimentary calculations to figure the exact coordinates of the spot I was in. And it boiled down to this: I was graduating in a month and Father Kenneth held the keys to my diploma. I could raise a stink, or I could submit and be on my way. After all, if I wasn't sure I believed in Reconciliation, what did it matter whether I confessed or not? So I bowed my head, rattled off my Act of Contrition (the old form, as taught to me by my grandmother), and confessed to being disrespectful of the church and my elders and anything else I thought would placate Father Kenneth. He ladled on the penance (this wasn't a sin that a few Our Fathers would cover, alas. He sentenced me to a week of helping Sister Agnes in her class after school--detention, in other words). And as he held his hand over my head and absolved me of my sins, all I could think about was Galileo, who I had read about in World History my freshman year, and how he had been persecuted by the Church for his ideas and beliefs (most of which were far more based on fact than mine ever were). I was no Galileo, to be sure, but I understood a fraction of what he must have felt when he was called before the Pope to recant his "heretical" statements about the nature of the universe.

Which was probably the wrong thing to think about just then, because when Father Kenneth wrapped up the confession by saying, "Give thank to the Lord, for He is good," instead of answering "His mercy endures forever," which was the prescribed response, I muttered, "It does move."

I got a month of detention with Sister Agnes. Father Kenneth had studied Galileo too.

Well, between that and another nasty moment (when I discovered my parents were being hassled over $500 in tuition that Father Kenneth claimed they owed the school, at a time when my dad was in detox and the family had no money and could have used a little Christian charity, but never mind about that now), I pretty much walked away from the Catholic church and was glad to be rid of it.

So it was coincidence, or fate, or some other instrument of Your will, Lord, that I should end up with Her Lovely Self who, despite being a devout, Mass-attending, confession-going Catholic, still could get worked up about the male domination of the papacy and the sheer lunacy of (supposedly) celibate, unmarried men and women holding judgment on couples and how and when they raised their families (her surprisingly relaxed views on the sin of premarital relations were a welcome revelation too, say thankya God). She helped me to see that my problems with Catholicism were never with the beliefs on which the church was founded, so much as with the administration of Your church here on earth which, let's face it, has been managed by quite a few men and women who were far worse sinners than I could ever aspire to be.

That doesn't change the fact that every Sunday, when I recite the creed with the rest of the multitude, I wince a little at the part where I have to say that I believe in the church (sometimes, I don't say it at all). I wince because I've been brought up to believe that Catholicism is an all-or-nothing deal, not part of the vast ecumenical salad bar of Christianity. I wince because I go to church less to receive the blessings of the Holy Spirit, and more to be with my family, to please my wife, and to have an hour of relatively contemplative quiet-time (albeit quiet-time interrupted by an off-key choir, a priest who thinks he's Garrison Keillor with a collar, and two children who must be prevented from occasionally picking their noses and eating the boogers).

Usually, I just wince and the feeling goes away. But this Sunday, watching Thomas tackle Sacrament #2 in the Holy Countdown (with #3--First Holy Communion--on deck for this spring), I winced for a lot longer. After all, it's a quandary. I'm a Catholic dad who still has a lot of questions about the church in general, and confession in particular. Yet here I am, helping my son down the same path, without saying a word to him about my own misgivings. Forget my overwhelming sense of hypocrisy for the moment. Does this make me a bad person? More to the point, does it make me a bad dad?

These are not questions I usually entertain, since one of Your gifts to me, Oh Lord, is my ability to justify any action. But I confess it's something that has troubled me in these few days following Thomas's first confession.

So I find it interesting--and I must say, not especially subtle of you, Lord--that this morning, when I stopped by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription before heading to work, of all the people I could bump into, I just happened to bump into our parish priest. In four years of going to his church, I have never bumped into him in public, and have never exchanged more than a paragraph's worth of words with him. But there he was, and he recognized me on sight, by name.

We chatted about the recent confession mob scene (there were about 40 kids doing first confession that day, plus their families all came out to watch. Since these are Catholic families we're talking about, that meant there were more than 1,000 people present). Despite the crowd, the priest remembered Thomas and said a few kind words about how manly and purposeful my son was, among a group of kids that included two children who burst into tears and almost couldn't go through with it, and one unfortunate girl who wet her pants.

And before I could stop myself, I said that this sort of anxiety was why I had such reservations about certain aspects of the church. Actually, I said a bit more than that--I was on the verge of a genuine vent--but the priest took it with a smile, just paying out the slack until it dawned on me that maybe he was giving me only enough rope to hang myself.

Finally, I quieted down and waited for him to lower the boom, maybe send me to detention with the modern-day equivalent of Sister Agnes. Instead, he simply asked, "But you still come to Mass, don't you?"

I nodded.

"You still helped your son prepare for Reconciliation and make his first confession, right?"

I nodded.

"And you do these things despite your doubts and concerns," he added. "Well, all that proves to me is that you've got more faith than most." Then he patted me on the shoulder. "See you Sunday," he said, then left.

Which was probably a good moment for him, but he's just left me with more questions than answers. Beyond that, he's set me to thinking more about my faith and my religion in the past hour or so than I have in the past decade. And I'm not done thinking about it yet.

So, if pious reflection is Your idea of penance for my sin of hypocrisy, Lord, it's a pretty damn good one. Better than anything Father Kenneth and Sister Agnes gave me, I'll tell You that.

Just please, God, please, don't let my priest make a sermon topic out of me.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


In Which We Leave the Nest...In Ruins...

Well, as long-time readers may be aware, Her Lovely Self is not to be cheated out of her nesting urge when she is quick with child. But if we are to continue the avian analogy here, I should probably add that HLS does not merely expect me to fly around gathering up choice bits of twine and strong twigs with which to build the nest, oh no. She expects me to chop down the tree (saving it for firewood, natch), rent a backhoe to dig a huge ditch, and then transplant a humongous multi-branch oak on the same site, then bring her nesting materials--blankets, clothesline, fiber-optic cable, a few dozen cinderblocks, a TiVo, that sort of thing.

So forget simply cleaning the house and sorting the closets--that would be like a Caribbean vacation compared to what's been occupying the time I usually reserve for, say, blogging or scratching myself. No, HLS usually finds something major that needs fixing. When she was pregnant with Thomas, she convinced me and my Dad to strip out and rebuild the upstairs bathroom (which my dad ended up doing more or less singlehandedly) because she was worried about the toxic dangers posed by a lead drain pipe in the floor. And of course you know all about my adventure with the back-breaking bush when she was pregnant with the Brownie.

Thus it was that a few weeks ago she decided that the basement needed to be made "more livable," as she so quaintly put it.

"You mean you want me to finish it," I said, imagining a winter spent caked in sheetrock dust and insulation fibers as I sealed concrete walls and wrestled with drop-ceilings and figured out how to install a gas fireplace, not to mention a toilet that could flush upwards.

"No, no," she said, shaking her head. "I just want it more livable."

I just blinked at her for a bit, which is what I do when I'm stalling for time, or am completely nonplussed. More livable? What the hell does that mean?

I finally decided it boiled down to two things:

--A more serious elimination of my collection of CRAP.

--A more sophisticated storage system for the kids' CRAP in their quadrant of the basement.

Obviously, the second thing was the easiest to remedy, so I went out and bought a bunch of those modular storage shelfy thingies and ended up with a 24-foot long wall of cubes, some of which I filled with those cunning storage drawers that you can buy as accessories.


Aside from separating the kids' part of the basement from the furnace and the area where HLS keeps her gardening stuff in the winter, it actually looks kind of nice (not in the above picture, of course, I'm talking in the most general sense here). More importantly, it inspired the kids to keep their part of the basement clean.

Then I set about working on my CRAP, which involved setting aside boxes for donation, boxes for selling on eBay, and boxes for the second annual Giveaway of CRAP (which you thought I had forgotten about, but really I haven't).

While I was doing this, HLS came down and eyed the back wall of my area of the basement. Along this back wall, the previous owners had installed a simple but effective utility shelf, all wood construction, about 20-feet long.

"I could really use that for my winter gardening plans," she said in a strange, dreamy voice. "I could install grow-lights in the tops of the shelves and have lots of plants."

"But...but where will I put these five boxes of my old Mego action figures?" I asked, when what I should have said was. "Are you kidding? That thing weighs 200 pounds and there's no way in hell I'll be able to drag it 40 feet across the basement floor to your side."

But as it turned out, I was able to wedge thick carpet scraps under each end of the thing and thus slide it across the floor, just like the ancient druids did when they built Stonehenge (although they might not have used bits of Stainmaster carpet).

To my surprise, the move created this unusual anomaly: an actual empty space in the basement.


While I was doing this, I began to realize the only way to head this nesting urge off was to go one better, to do something HLS would never expect. I decided the best thing to do was to turn her area of the basement into a gardening center. In addition to the massive wooden shelf (which I finally jockeyed into position after an hour of making noises like a constipated wildebeest), HLS also has, of course, the indoor greenhouse shelfy thing I made for her last year so there would be no shortage of places to put plants. What she lacked, however, was a source of water. We have no sink in the basement and last winter I remembered how she used to cart water--or make me cart water--down the stairs like a one-man bucket brigade. I looked over at the stack pipe leading down from the upstairs bathrooms. We could probably cut in there and install a drain, I thought. How hard would that be?

The answer, surprisingly, was not very, especially when your dad is on hand for a few weeks to direct your efforts. With the help of a utility sink kit from the local home improvement store, and a little bit of rerouting of the plumbing over to the corner, we ended up with a pretty decent looking sink, right in the same neighborhood as the gardening shelves.


And look: See that pipe sticking out of the wall? The one with the green slinky hanging from it? That's actually a hose, see, so HLS can stretch it over to her shelves of plants and just spray away. Neat, huh? Isn't that neat? My idea.

But sometimes home improvement projects can be something of an old blanket: just when you think you're covered, you notice a loose thread, give a tug and suddenly you've got a big gaping hole that needs filling. Or worse, the whole fucking thing falls apart, and then where are you? That's right: you're standing in a pile of yarn (but hey, at least some bird could use it to build a nest, right?).

In our case, as we were installing the sink, Dad and I quickly realized that any water that came splashing up from the sink would soak the small portion of basement wall around the window that is not made of concrete, but actual wood. All the previous owners had done to cover and insulate these walls was to tape thin layers of Styrofoam over them. Most of that Styrofoam had long since broken or flaked away and was a health hazard anyway (can you imagine a newborn being drawn to all those pebbles of foam and stuffing them in her mouth by the fistful? Well, I can.). So we realized that not only would the remaining Styrofoam have to go, but the wood would have to be covered up with proper drywall. And we'd need a backsplash for the sink so the drywall wouldn't become wetwall. And as long as we were putting in proper walls, it was probably a good idea to run some wire from one of the junction boxes and install a few outlets so that HLS wouldn't have to plug all of her grow-lights into one precarious panel dangling from a single outlet.

You wouldn't think that sort of thing would take very long--or maybe you would, I don't know. Ultimately, it only boiled down to about two weekends of work, plus about three nights of extra work, after I demonstrated my ingenious feature of the sink and failed to realize that the pressure in the green slinky hose was more or less equivalent to that used to fight a hi-rise fire. Thus, when I squeezed the hose nozzle, the hose leapt from my hand, smashed me in the nose, then hit the basement floor. The impact, naturally, jammed the nozzle open so that the hose began whipsawing around like a snake on crack, spraying everyone in a 20-foot radius (which would be everyone in the basement), but me most of all.

I'd like to tell you I exhibited great presence of mind by shutting the water off using the handy check-valve I had installed. But in the moment, being soaked to the skin and surrounded by screaming children and pregnant wives and a barking dog an all, I sort of panicked and grabbed at the impromptu sprinkler, finally sitting on it like a rookie fire fighter trying to recover his firehose. That's when the high-power jet of water hit me square in the face, briefly turning my left nostril into a small but lively spillway.

Choking and sputtering, I tugged and tugged on the nozzle switch, but it was hopelessly stuck. Finally, I got a clue and turned the stream towards the sink, but as I did, the water hit a loose panel of sheetrock that was lying at an angle, which briefly deflected the water straight up to the ceiling.

Right into the open electrical junction box I had just finished wiring.

There was an impressive crackling noise like you used to hear on those old Flash Gordon movie serials, just after someone yells, "Activate the Death Ray!!!" And then the entire basement was plunged into a moist and uncomfortable darkness.

And still the water sprayed on, which took me a few seconds to realize, since I was convinced I had just been electrocuted and hadn't quite gotten over that (and still am not. Oh sure, I got zapped a little bit--not hard enough, as Her Lovely Self would later comment--but it was only for a second. What can I say? I'm a lucky guy. Of course, having circuit breakers that trip when I do stupid stuff like this doesn't hurt either).

I'm pleased to report that eventually I found the check valve and shut off the water and we all blindly squelched our way up the darkened stairs, sounding--and pretty much feeling--like extras in a low-budget zombie movie.

But that's all in the past. And once I found a few (dozen) old towels and mopped the floor and replaced a couple of pieces of unpainted sheetrock and threw out the worst of the sodden cardboard boxes and stacked everything in the driest corner of the basement and rewired the junction box and one or two other minor details, the basement ended up looking really nice.

Well, I guess I should say my wife's quadrant of the basement ended up looking really nice.

My section of the basement--being the driest part--still needs a little work.


Guess I better get working on the new CRAP giveaway, huh?

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, November 09, 2006


In Which I Smell the Smoke...

Dear Dad,

You and Mom are heading back to New Hampshire today, and we didn't have a chance to talk about this while you were here--mostly because Mom was never out of earshot. But if you're reading this, you know that I accidentally discovered the pack of cigarettes you hid in the garage while you were here. I knew you wouldn't leave without them, so the pack seemed the best place to hide this letter.

First, I want you to know this isn't going to be a harangue. You already live with Mom so you get plenty of harangue in the line of duty. Also, after some consideration, I decided not to share my discovery with Mom either. For one thing, I have no doubt that she already knows you've started smoking again. For another, it would just get in the way of what I want to say to you. Which is simply this: Please stop before it kills you.

You know this isn't me being melodramatic. You know the statistics. You know that eventually smoking will kill you all by itself. But to top it off, you have asbestosis. Have had it for over a decade. This year it got so bad the doctor finally prescribed oxygen therapy for you. I can't imagine how hard it is to have to lug that little oxygen backpack around, breathing through those tubes and making the Darth Vader noises for six hours a day, but I know it's hard to watch. And I know you're canceling out its effects with every cigarette you smoke.

I know it must be a struggle, especially when you go to AA meetings and everyone is puffing away (and the nearest smoke-free meeting is an hour's drive from the house). And I've always said I'd rather have you smoking than drinking, although as time has gone on I see how stupid that sentiment is. With alcohol, you were an ogre while you were imbibing and calmer when you weren't. But smoking's no better; it just has the same effect in reverse.

When I discovered the pack last week, I wasn't really surprised, although I wish you hadn't lied when you first got here and told me how much better you felt now that you'd given up cigarettes. That really stung. Lying is what you did when you were a drunk. And you've beaten alcohol for over two decades now. I know you can beat this. In fact, I know you have. For six months before your shoulder surgery, you were smoke-free. I don't know what made you go back, and it's really none of my business.

What is my business is this: I selfishly want you around for as long as possible.

But if you keep smoking, I have a terrible foreboding that you're going to be dead before you get the chance to see Thomas become a great man like you. Before you get the chance to dance with the Brownie at your 50th wedding anniversary party. Before you even get to know your new grandchild. And that would be a fucking tragedy.

Because if you want to know the truth, they need you. Almost every quality I like about myself (except perhaps for my smart ass and my big mouth) I owe to you. My work ethic. My sense of integrity and honor. My inability to accept failure or defeat. My knowledge and appreciation of nature. My unyielding devotion to fairness and justice. My ability, however meager, to spin a good yarn. I can teach these to my kids, but I can't do it the same way you can.

You're the best grandfather my kids could ever have. Thomas reveres you, not just because you've taken the time to show him how to garden, how to identify trees and birds, how to bait a fishing line, but because you've taken the time to know him, and to show a genuine interest in the things he likes to do. It's the same with the Brownie, who is in absolute awe of you. But they are eight and five years old. I was almost Thomas's age when your father died, and I can count my memories of him on the fingers of one hand. How much do you think they'll remember of you if you're gone in a few years? Probably about as much as I do of your dad. And this new one, our little Jumping Bean? It kills me to say it, but I don't think she's going to remember you at all.

Unless you stop.

I don't know what I can do to help, but I want you to know I will do anything.

That's all I wanted to say, except to add that you are not just the best grandfather my kids could hope for. You also happen to be the best man I know. And I still need you too.

Please think about this and let me know what I can do. Call me when you get home and let's talk about it.

And, um, sorry I left you only one cigarette in this pack. I needed room for the letter.

Your Son

cc: the masthead

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


In Which We Push the Envelope...

Two weeks ago:

"Oh God!" Her Lovely Self cried. "This is terrible."

Given the position she was in, this exclamation could have covered a range of issues:

--The fact that she was lying on a cold, vinyl slab, legs up in stirrups, naked from the waist down.

--The fact that we were there in an exam room for worrisome genetic testing of the kind doctors like give you when you're pregnant and over the age of 35.

--The fact that she was awaiting the administration of said testing by a doctor who we had met exactly 180 seconds earlier.

--The fact that in another 180 seconds that doctor--a total stranger, really--would be mucking about with antiseptic swabs and applying a supremely disquieting device to her nethers, the kind of device I'm pretty sure I last saw at the International Museum of Torture.

--The fact that I was sitting right next to her, uttering my trademark Unhelpful Comments like: "Wow, this room is freezing. I'm so glad I'm wearing corduroys." or "Holy crap! Is that the speculum? Jesus, it looks like a cross between the Terminator and Daffy Duck!" or the hands-down winner, "Man, I remember once when I had a rectal exam, so I totally feel for you."

But no, it turned out my bride was agonizing over the two flimsy pictures we were given of our new Cheeto. Actually, less of a Cheeto, more of a Jumping Bean. Only minutes earlier, we were treated to our first ultrasound of the new kiddo, and I was secretly pleased to find the baby so animated. I mean, like really animated. Like it had made a Starbucks run early that morning and got back before we woke up. Even Thomas--who spent his ultrasound yawning and stretching and sucking his thumb (but not before poking himself in the eye with it)--had nothing on the Bean.

The secretly pleased part came when the ultrasound technician couldn't draw a bead on the Bean and started sliding her sensor thingy all over HLS's abdomen, like a harried maid trying to hoover up a skittering bug. "Jeez, this baby won't sit STILL!" she finally huffed. And then glared at me (WTF?)

That's my boy, I thought. Or girl.

Her Lovely Self, though, had no doubt in her mind. As soon as she saw the Bean flop out of the shot, she started moaning.

"You see that? He's even worse than Thomas!"

"He?" I asked mildly. HLS has accurately predicted the genders of both of our previous offspring.

"Of course it's a boy! Another boy!" she wailed. Tears welled up in her eyes, then trickled down her cheeks and into her ears.

"Um, hello. Boy here," I said. "Not seeing the problem. You already have a boy and he was--"

"--a total fricking nightmare!!" she blurted, then grabbed my hand. "But don't ever tell anyone I said that."

"Promise," I said solemnly.

Although it must be said, my wife was absolutely right. Thomas's infancy was such a torture he should have been outlawed by the Geneva Convention. At night, he slept in increments of 40 minutes. For four months. He would wake up for good at 4:45. Every morning. For two years. And never mind whizzing in the faces of every single person who changed him. If he could, he'd spray your clothes with baby shit too. Despite every recommended remedy, the child was so gassy, I used to fall asleep--Thomas did too--with him draped over my shoulder, my arm cramped in the wizened Burping Claw position. And here's the thing: he'd burp in his sleep (and those were the solid burps that left me glued to the couch by the back of my shirt). And still the gas kept coming. I once witnessed him blow a secured diaper down to his ankles with a single gas-powered load of high-velocity baby poop.

So upon reflection, I guess I could understand her anxiety.

"Well," I offered lamely. "It could be a girl. Just a really hyper girl."

"Oh shut up!" she said. And then our 180 seconds were up and the doctor walked in, already snapping his latex gloves in place.

During the test, the ultrasound technician took me aside and said, "After this, I suggest you take her out for a gooey dessert. Something with chocolate. Lots of chocolate."

I nodded, taking this in. "But won't that make the baby even jumpier?" I asked.

She looked at me. "Honey, I don't see how that's possible."

One week ago:

We were still waiting for the results from the genetic testing which would, as it turned out, confirm the presence of all necessary chromosomes in the baby (yay!). But the test results would also tell us if any one of those chromosomes happened to start with a Y. HLS had been dithering all week with the idea of knowing the baby's gender before the due date, which would be part of the information contained in the genetic test report, although that specific detail would be in a sealed envelope separate from the rest of the report. I didn't see what the big deal was. HLS had already confirmed in her mind that she was having a boy, so why worsen her day by opening the envelope and making it empirical?

Still, she wanted to talk about it. A lot.

"I think I'm going to throw out the envelope when it comes," she said one morning.

I didn't respond.

"Well, say something. You think it's a bad idea, don't you? Why aren't you saying anything?" she asked.

I wasn't saying anything because it was 3:12 in the morning and I wasn't anything even close to conscious. Not for another 4 seconds anyway.

Once sufficiently elbowed awake, I sluggishly agreed, although in my semi-lucid state, I was under the impression we were having the conversation in the car.

"Mrmmmakes sense a me honey. Oh. Stop sign up ahead," I muttered. "Aferall, we din't get a nvelope brrfore thuther two. We don' need no stinkin' nvelope. But it's whatevvrrr you wan'do, honey. Shit! Turn right here! Right! RIGHT! Hrrrr..."

So it was settled.

Two days ago:

My mom called me down from the attic, where I was attempting to fix a length of coaxial cable that was causing our upstairs TV to broadcast abstract art.

"I think you'd better go outside and talk to your wife," she called up. And she was using her Mom Voice.

I looked down through the attic hatch.


"She's crying," Mom said, then paused. "And she has a pitchfork," she added.

Well, I didn't exactly sprint out there as fast as I might have, but I eventually made my way to the back yard, where I found my bride hurling mulch around the flowerbed--and occasionally into the neighbor's yard--and making disturbingly loud snuffling noises.

"What's the matter?" I asked. From a pitchfork's distance away.

"You are!" she cried. It's kind of a stock answer for her these days. "It was your stupid idea! We should never have opened that envelope!"

"But...but...but you wanted to know for sure," I said, attempting to reason with her. (A bad move, by the way.) "You told me to open it."

She threw the pitchfork down and it stuck in the dirt, wobbling. "But I didn't know it would be A GIRL!" she bawled.

I'd like to tell you I ran to my lovely pregnant wife and comforted her. But the truth is I was so fucking confused right then I didn't know whether to move towards her or turn and run away as fast as I could.

When I finally summoned the courage, I put an arm around her and said, in my teeniest, tiniest voice, "But you were all freaked out when you thought it was a boy. You--"


"Okay, that's right. Of course, that's true. You're allowed," I said, not really knowing what to say. "But-- but the Brownie was easy compared to Thomas, so I thought you'd be happy with another girl."

It's true. I hate to sound remotely like I'm advancing a gender stereotype here, but the Brownie was a perfect little baby. She scarcely cried (so long as I wasn't holding her. For some reason, I freaked her out). She slept like a log. She rarely woke up before 7. And to my knowledge she never caused the structural integrity of a diaper to fail.

"It's not the baby part I'm worried about. It's the rest!" HLS said between sobs. "Our other daughter already mouths off to me. She never listens to me. You're her favorite. She hates ME!" I thought this was overstating it a bit (except the part about me being the favorite) but it didn't seem the right time to even appear that I was going to open my mouth and say so.

"This one's going to be just the same, you see," she went on. "They'll both hate me. And wait til they get their periods--"

Oh God, I can wait. I CAN WAIT! I thought.

But just then, thank God, Her Lovely Self seemed to lose some steam, seemed to have ridden the crest of whatever emotional tsunami had just hit.

An awkward silence descended on us. And all I could think was, It's gonna be a long six months.

But what I said was, "Um. Hey. There's still some chocolate caramel pie in the fridge. You, uh, you want some?"

HLS looked at her pitchfork, then at me.

"Yeah, okay. With whipped cream."

I couldn't get to the kitchen fast enough. And as I ran, one thought went through my head:

Thank you, ultrasound technician.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, November 02, 2006


In Which I Couldn't Car Less...

Long ago, I realized I'm just not built like other men. Well, physically, I am. I'm talking about mentally, emotionally.

For most of my life, I haven't found that to be an impediment--not in the least--but this past week it bothered me a bit when I came to a realization:

Most guys I know are very emotionally involved with their cars.

I get it, I do. Aside from all the Freudian phallic projection stuff attached to cars, there's a much more practical reason that the men I know--or are related to--have a special bond with their automobiles: it costs them too much NOT to be emotionally involved with them.

But once I got out of childhood and outgrew my early attachment for our old family Jimmy, I've never quite liked the cars I've owned as much as I've wanted to.

So when the battery light went on in my Subaru wagon one night the week before last and the headlights started to dim to the point that I was almost holding a flashlight out the window, I knew it was time to ditch this thing. And I didn't feel nearly as bad about it as I supposed I should have.


Granted, this problem was only a bad alternator, but it was the latest in a long line of problems over the past year. Subarus are supposed to be very durable cars and most Subaru owners I know have driven theirs well over the 100,000 mile mark with nary an automotive hiccup. Not me.

Her Lovely Self and I bought this car as it came off a lease about 10 years ago, and it was very exciting when we did. It was far and away our most expensive purchase to date--we didn't yet own a house--and it was a HUGE vehicle, at least compared to our mincing little Toyota compacts. Plus it came with all sorts of extra bells and whistles--power locks, for example. All-wheel drive. A mesh cargo net and a "privacy screen"--a little pull shade thingy that covered the back hatch area, thus forcing thieves to smash your window in order to see what you were hiding under there.

But then the car quickly proved to be the mechanical equivalent of a high-maintenance girlfriend. The power windows didn't work at temperatures lower than 50 degrees. The passenger-side door was slightly off-kilter and made a whistling noise at speeds above 45 miles an hour. Also, it tended to stall any time it rained.

Most of these problems happened while the car was, thankfully, still under warranty, but it was annoying to have spent so much money and time on a car that was reputed to be a durable, go-anywhere kind of ride--it was an Outback after all. If it sputtered to an ignominious stop every time the skies clouded over, how could I ever expect to go off-roading in the bush country with Crocodile Dundee?

Then again, most of the cars I've owned have had some peculiarity or other--many had several--and I suppose that made it easy for me to be fickle about them and ditch them without a backwards glance when the time came.

My very first car was a gift from my dad: a piss-yellow 1971 Ford Galaxie. It was quite the boat. My dad had bought it in the Pacific Northwest back when he was working out there and I was in high school. It was great for long distances. He drove it all the way back to New Jersey, although his trip was briefly interrupted when he was arrested for smashing up a bar somewhere in the Midwest and had to spend a few days as a guest of the county on a drunk-and-disorderly charge.

By the time my brother and I were in college, my dad had moved on to a vintage pickup truck, and the car went to my brother, who needed it to get around Providence. After he graduated and got his own car, I needed wheels to get to my summer job, so one fateful day in 1987, my dad handed me the keys. And a garbage bag.

"Might want to clean her out 'fore you take her for a spin," he said.

No shit. It was like an archaeological dig in there. My brother had filled it with about three years' worth of fast-food wrappers and grubby paycheck stubs. And underneath that layer of sediment, I found gas receipts from Washington state, some paperwork from a county jail in Illinois, and even an empty brandy bottle from Dad's drinking days, wedged up into the springs underneath the passenger seat.

I had never had a car before and wanted to spiff this one up as much as it was spiffable. So I got my dad's shop vac out and proceeded to clean the carpet, a big mistake. As soon as I thumbed the switch, the vacuum made an ungodly racket and, with a great tearing sound, began sucking the carpet right off the floor of the car.

As I discovered later, the carpet was pretty much rotted through and all that had been holding it together was years of caked dirt, bits of food and wads of gum. I say I discovered this later because in the event, I too distracted by something else to notice the condition of the carpet. That something else was a small crop of mushrooms growing out of the thin layer of dirt on the metal floor of the car. Mushrooms. I shit you not.

That was only the first of the Galaxie's eccentricities. Another big one was the air conditioner. It worked, after a fashion, but for the first few minutes that you turned it on, it would belch out this strange, green-tinged fog that made my eyes water (and for all I know could have caused permanent lung damage). The car had an automatic transmission, and every so often it would automatically shift into neutral. This happened once when I was driving it down the highway at about 102 miles an hour. That was one good thing about it: once you got it up to speed on the open road, that boat could really fly.

I knew I wouldn't have the Galaxie forever, though. For one thing, it was just too much work. In New Hampshire back then, any car of a certain age had to be inspected every six months, and it was a serious chore to bring the Galaxie up to acceptable standards for the day we took it to the garage. Dad and I had to glue the manifold on with furnace cement. We'd have to find fresh coat hangers to shore up the exhaust system. And I spent a small fortune in aluminum tape and Rustoleum paint in order to mask the rusted-out holes in the rear of the car. And the driver's side door. And the passenger's side door.

And then one summer, as I was driving the car to the country club where I worked, I heard a surprisingly loud clanging noise under the car--as though I had just run over a small toolbox--and a moment later there was a startling amount of slack in the steering. I spun the wheel like I was at the helm of a sailing frigate, but that frigging car arrowed right off the road and down an embankment, coming to rest in a ditch on the edge of a farmer's field. Luckily, I had been going up a hill when it happened, so my speed wasn't too great and the car was otherwise undamaged. But when my dad came and towed me home, he concluded that something crucial had come loose in the steering or the drive-train or possibly both, and that was the end of the Galaxie. I sold it for one dollar to a kid I worked with at the country club, just to get rid of it.

The next week, Dad took me to see Abe, a fellow he knew through Alcoholics Anonymous, and who turned out to be a car dealer. Just that week Abe had taken possession of a 1980 Chevy Chevette, which had been owned by his neighbor, the proverbial Little Old Lady who only drove her car to church and the grocery. It had about 14,000 miles on it and was in great condition, aside from the fact that it was the color of infant diarrhea. Abe wanted $1,500 for it, but he ended up taking just a little over $1,000. I paid him $250 down and for the rest of the summer, every Friday after I deposited my paycheck, I would drive straight over to the dealership and write out a check for $100 at the cashier's desk. Never again would I be so financially responsible. But it paid off: By the time I went back to college in the fall, I had the title.

Which meant I had it handy nine months later, when I accidentally contacted a Ford Bronco with the front of the Chevette, as related here in the paragraph headed "Crash Test Dummy." By the time I got back from the hospital--where I'd had X-rays to confirm my neck was merely sprained and not broken--the car had been towed away, the only sign it had been there being a lurid green pool of antifreeze on the tarmac. I should have felt sadness and remorse--it was my car, after all--but as I said, I just wasn't built that way. And besides, it hadn't been such a great car either. Granted, its flooring didn't host a fungus garden, but it was annoying in other ways. The rear defroster didn't work, for one thing, so in the winter I found myself driving with the windows open, or else breathing very shallowly in order to avoid fogging up the back window so I could see out. Eventually, the thermostat thingy in the engine died and I had no heat in the car, which made for an interesting winter. It was a four-speed standard transmission, but like the Galaxie, my Chevette too had a habit of slipping out of gear at the most inopportune times.

Nevertheless my dad, who you will recall suffers from an intractable case of C.R.A.P. syndrome, wanted to buy the car off me: he had recently acquired another non-working Chevette, given to him by a coworker who needed to clean out the car orchard in his back pasture, and my dad had an idea that the two cars could be merged in a Frankensteinian way to form a single operating vehicle. Thus it was that, a week later, when my classmates were getting ready to graduate and their parents were arriving with fancy cars as graduation presents, my parents arrived with a rented car trailer and my broken Chevette, mashed front end and all, lashed onto it.

I had expected that I would be the recipient of the Frankenstein Chevette, but a short while later, the sun shined on my ass when my grandfather, who had kept me afloat through college by slipping me 20 bucks here and there, bestowed on me my graduation present: a check for a thousand dollars. I had never before held so much money made out to me in my hand at one time. And I used all of it to put a down payment on another Chevy, this time a hatchback model known as a Spectrum, one of the first of the ill-fated Geo line of cars. With just six miles on the odometer, it was the first new car I ever owned.

If I had any kind feelings or sentimentality for this purchase, though, it was all wrapped up in an overarching sense of gratitude for my Papa, who had bailed my ass out in a big way: I had just accepted an editorial internship for the summer over a thousand miles from home and, after that, I was going to have to start looking for full-time employment. I expected to be putting on some serious miles going to and from job interviews, so having a reliable car was a priority. And this car was definitely a step up from the shit-brown Chevette. For one thing, it had a really good rear defroster.

Alas, that was about all it had going for it. It had no air conditioning, which turned out to be a real necessity when I drove down south for my internship. The car had vinyl seats and was apparently built to retain heat, so even though I often parked it in the shade, with the windows cracked and a reflective windshield visor in place, the interior of the car still managed to have the mean temperature of a working blast furnace. Once, coming out of work at the end of the day, I reached over in the passenger's seat to retrieve a cassette that had been sitting on the cushion, only to discover that the cassette was stuck to the seat. Did I say "stuck"? I meant welded. Even after I managed to scrape it loose (with the aid of a spatula from my apartment) it left behind a blackened cassette silhouette that was the regular feature of comments from anyone who happened to be in the car with me.

Another peculiarity of the Spectrum was the placement of many of the control buttons for various functions of the car. The headlights, parking lights, windshield washer and rear window wiper controls were all arrayed in a series of buttons along the top of the raised dashboard that sat about level with the top of the steering wheel. I'm sure some ergonomics whiz in the Chevrolet R&D labs thought this was a great selling point--you would turn on your headlights with your hands still placed on the steering wheel! Just extend your fingers and voila! But in practice, these buttons were a little too convenient to reach. I was forever turning on lights or the wipers with an accidental brush of my hand or swipe of books or papers as I got out of the car. In short order, I ended up buying a new battery because I'd left the lights on in too many parking lots.

As long-time readers may know, the Spectrum met its end rather dramatically when I moved to Chicago and got creamed by a Mack truck, less than three years after buying it. I survived the accident and so did the Spectrum, after a fashion. For about a month afterwards, I was forced to drive it to work, although I had had to cut off the back bumper to do so (it had been bent so badly in the accident that it was rubbing against the back wheel, and we all know what hell that can be on your gas mileage), and I had to steer slightly to the right, since the frame had been bent significantly after getting rammed by the truck.

There was other structural damage to the car, too. For example, there was a hole in the underside at the rear of the car, just near the exhaust pipe. I didn't learn about this, though, until one morning when I was at work and two security guys for our building appeared at my office door. One was laughing uncontrollably.

"You got the gray hatchback?" he asked, looking at his clipboard, which apparently contained my name and license plate.

I nodded, bracing to be told the car had spontaneously ignited or something.

"Well," the guy said, barely able to contain a smile, "your lights are on. Better go down and shut em off."

I looked at his mirthful partner. "What aren't you telling me?" I asked.

Then the man finally did smile. "You go see," was all he said.

I assumed he and his pal were amused because the car really did look like a total wreck (the Chicago police certainly thought so, when they pulled me over a week later and gave me a ticket for driving an unsafe vehicle). But as I got outside and neared the car, I saw something else was up. For one thing, from a distance I could already see that my headlights were blinking on and off at weird intervals.

When I got up next to the car, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the reason why.

A crazed squirrel was chittering at me from the interior side of the glass. He screeched in a most put-out way, hopping up and down on the dashboard in a frenzy of tiny scrabbling claws and the occasional bouncing squirrel turd. Almost every time he moved, he activated the headlights or the parking lights or both. At one point, he jumped to one side and found the windshield washer button, then began squirting the car--and me--with washer fluid.

I don't know what possessed him, but the fluffy rat had found his way into the car through the hole in the back and then apparently lost his bearings. I opened all the doors and the back hatch but that little bastard didn't come out for almost 20 minutes. To add insult to injury, when I came back out at the end of the workday, he was back in the car. I guess he liked it. And at that point, I'd have gladly given it to him. Instead, I had to turn it over to the insurance company, when they eventually cut me a check for the car, a check that turned out to be significantly lower than what I still owed on it.

Through luck and pluck, I ultimately scraped together enough money to pay off the Spectrum and buy a severely used 1982 Toyota Tercel. Unlike the Spectrum, I went into this purchase fully expecting the car to break down at any minute. It made terrible noises when you gunned the engine, it listed strangely and dangerously to one side, and it had rust holes big enough to put your feet through.

So naturally, that very summer, I impetuously decided to drive it east for a 10-day vacation in New England. And somehow, I convinced Her Lovely Self to go with me. It was our first big trip together. And it started out very ominously indeed. Our very first night on the road, the battery light went on in the car and I went through a process of discovery that I would repeat 15 years later. We ended up stranded in Youngstown, Ohio, where we coasted into a Motel 6 in the pissing rain and spent the night in their last room--a smoking room, alas, in which it appeared that the previous occupants had tried to smoke not only cigarettes, but also the curtains and some of the furniture, judging by the burn marks all over them. But it turned out to be a fine night (and the furniture turned out to be quite sound and stable. Ahem.) and the next morning we got to a mechanic who was able to put in a rebuilt alternator. For the next 9 days and 5,500 miles I didn't have another problem with that car, not until I'd been back in Chicago for about a week, at which time the right rear wheel fell off, taking a significant portion of the axle with it.

From there I jumped straight into another Tercel--a 1992 model--and that was my second brand-new car, although it didn't stay brand-new for long. That car, I swear to God, was an accident magnet.

On a camping trip up to Wisconsin, Her Lovely Self strapped her bike to the rack on the trunk in such a way that the bike slipped. And so all the way home, the frame of her bike rubbed most of the paint off the back of the car.

A month later, as I was sitting in traffic, minding my own business, a pick-up truck turned out of a parking lot to pull into traffic next to me, except the driver badly misjudged his turning radius and clipped the right rear quarter-panel of the car, peeling it away from the frame like a can opener.

Three months after that, I took a job back east and moved from Chicago with the help of my roommate, who had a car with a trailer attachment to which I could hook a U-Haul. He had agreed to follow me all the way to Washington, D.C. and then drive back to Chicago with Her Lovely Self, who would be living there for a while yet. Once we got the U-Haul loaded on the back of my friend's car, I gave him a map marking our route. "Don't worry," he said. "I won't need the map. I'll be on your tail the whole way."

Boy, he wasn't kidding.

Just outside of Chicago, all the traffic in front of me came to an abrupt halt. I put on the brakes and slowed. A second later I heard the squealing of tires behind me and looked into my rearview mirror just in time to see my roommate behind the wheel of his car, his face showing the kind of strain that immediately brings to mind the idea of shitting a brick, which he no doubt was. Apparently he'd been driving at around 75 miles an hour and had to jump on his brakes rather suddenly when traffic slowed. But he had reckoned without the weight of all my stuff in that U-Haul. The momentum of the trailer shoved him forward, completely out of control, and he rear-ended me at about 40 miles an hour. My bike had been on the trunk rack this time, and the force of the impact hammered one of the pedals right through the trunk lid, jamming it hopelessly. Worse than that, the impact shoved me forward so that I ended up rear-ending the car in front of me. A BMW. Was that ever fun to straighten out.

And that wasn't all. Over the years, other stuff happened. Rocks from a gravel truck smashed out both headlights and left an impressive hole in the center of my windshield. A tree branch about the size of a canoe fell on it and crushed the trunk (again). A kamikaze raccoon hurled himself into the path of my car one night. I thought I left him behind (I distinctly heard the thubba-dub-bumpp of his body as it went under the car), but when I got home, I was mildly startled to find his disembodied head staring out at me from the caved-in grille. Nevertheless, I still managed to get almost $2,000 trade-in on that car when I finally turned it over to the folks at my suburban Subaru dealer, in exchange for my high-maintenance Subaru girlfriend.

And now, 10 years later, that selfsame old wagon sits in our driveway, waiting for the local charity to come and tow it away, where it will be sold at a benefit auction to help homeless kids. I stared at it for the last time this morning, willing myself to have an emotional response because, in truth, I really did want to like this car a lot more than I actually do.

It was, after all, the first big purchase of a young, married couple. It's the car I drove to two really crucial job interviews (both of which resulted in job offers). Most importantly, it was our first family car, the car that safely transported Her Lovely Enormously Pregnant Self to the hospital twice and safely returned bearing the most precious cargo it will probably ever carry. It served me well on more than a few misadventures involving uprooted trees and toy construction hats and stolen dogs. And now, after having replaced most of the electrical system, the clutch (twice), the oxygen sensor (three times), the brakes (including the rotors), the driver's side door, and ridiculously expensive portions of the All-Wheel Drive System, I'm just casting it to the wind for nothing more than a broken alternator.

I guess I'm just a cold-hearted bastard.

Or maybe I'm just too distracted by what I found waiting for me in the driveway when I got a ride home from work the other day.


See, I was perusing classifieds for some junker I could use to commute back and forth. After all, who has the money to waste on a new car, especially when you're going to have an extra mouth to feed soon?

Well, apparently Her Lovely Self does. She's been doing freelance writing like a crazy woman since the kids started school. I just didn't realize how much she'd been doing. Evidently enough to pony up 25 percent of the purchase price of this bad boy, which she bought privately from a meticulous gentleman who himself bought the car barely two years ago and has put all of 15,000 miles on it. But now that gentleman has been transferred to Brazil and he needed to unload his car. His car that got a clean bill of health from our mechanic and whose service record for the past 24 months is scarily well documented in a little binder in the glove compartment of the car.

"Just consider it your Christmas and birthday present. For the next five years," HLS said when she picked my jaw up off the ground and handed me the keys. "That goes for them too," she said, gesturing to my parents.

Mom and Dad hastily corrected her on that point. Apparently my mom and my aunt recently settled all of my grandfather's affairs, including the disposition of his old Cadillac and his house, which he bought in 1956 for $10,000 and which just sold for about 40 times that. As a result, they've had a little windfall, most of which they've applied to their own debts. But when my car conked out, my parents huddled with Her Lovely Self and decided to match whatever funds she was putting up for the car. They just didn't bother to tell me about this until after the fact.

So once again, my Papa has helped me get a new car, a car that I happen to like a lot (I've had my eye on Honda's baby SUV for years, which my wife well knew), and which my family sneakily conspired to buy.

And for the first time since I was a child, I have an emotional attachment to a motor vehicle again.

At least, I will until the first flat tire.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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