Monday, December 18, 2006


In Which We Learn to Drive Again...

Whenever I feel Fate has dealt me a bad hand--such as ensuring that I would get three speeding tickets in EXACTLY one year--to the day!--and therefore be required to take a remedial driver education course--I like to think of someone who is a bigger fuck-up than I am in virtually every category of life. Recalling that person's misfortunes never fails to cheer me.

Luckily, I have a readymade source of precisely that kind of comfort in the form of my Big Brother. As long-time readers can glean, there isn't anything I haven't done that he hasn't done worse (the sole exception being the raising of children. And when it comes to screwing up in that arena, I'm blazing a fresh trail, baby.)

Thus it was that I was able to drag my sorry ass out of bed on the coldest fucking Saturday morning of the year. And as I drove through sleet to Wasteland Community College, way off at that point on the horizon where it looks like the earth is starting to curve, I recalled BB's traffic woes.

For years, one of my favorite stories was the time he was driving home from work as a catering chef in Providence, Rhode Island, and was pulled over by the cops for having an expired, out-of-state tag. BB was still in his white chef clothes and apron and even had that jaunty, poofy chef's hat on the seat next to him. The cops must have thought they'd pulled over the Pillsbury Doughboy. They made him get out of the car and decided to do a search--because you know, when you're dressed as a chef and are cruising around Providence in a piss-yellow Galaxie with New Hampshire license plates, that's probable cause right there.

And it just got worse. On the floor of the passenger seat, the cops found "a cache of concealed weapons"--also known as my brother's personal set of chef's knives (every serious chef has his own set of knives, you know). The best part, though, was when they found a Zip-Loc bag of white powder in the back seat. Before you could say "T.J. Hooker," they had handcuffs on BB and stuffed him, his knives and the suspicious white powder into a patrol car. Off they went to the local precinct, where my brother spent the night as a guest of the city of Providence.

The bag of powder, of course, turned out to be 100 percent, pure, uncut cornstarch, which my brother brought home, as he sometimes did when he was trying out new recipes. So my brother was not arrested for carrying a controlled substance, but they actually made a go of charging him with carrying a concealed weapon, a fact that so enraged my parents that my father--just out of detox and eager to do right by his family--took a day off from work and showed up at BB's court appearance, along with a pretty decent lawyer. In the end, BB got one of those deals where, if he kept his nose clean for a year, the charge would be eliminated from his record.

BB was well-behaved for the next 12 months. But long about the time I was using the Galaxie to get to my summer job, BB bought the car of his dreams--a Crown Victoria. It had once been a police car and BB had bought it at auction pretty much for this fact alone. It definitely looked like an unmarked police car, plus it had some swell extras, like a powerful searchlight you could operate from the driver's side, a switch that let you flash all of your head and taillights at the same time, and a protective grille that separated the driver from the back seat. BB adored that car because at the time BB was sick of being a chef and quickly becoming besotted with the idea of becoming a cop. He never did achieve that dream, alas, so he descended for a while into that pathetic life-form known as the cop-wannabe. When he moved back to New Hampshire, he got a license to carry a handgun and for a while carried a variety of the kinds of pistols he had seen on cop shows--.38 police specials, a .357, and even a Dirty Harry-style .44 Magnum.

Now, I will say that because of the overall appearance of the car, BB did seem to get away with speeding more than the average person. I personally witnessed at least three instances of state troopers or local cops giving him a coply wave as he or they passed. And the one time they pulled him over for speeding, he actually got off with a warning, in part because he started talking in some kind of hip cop lingo ("Sorry, I had a doobie on my tail and almost went Code-13 on his ass. I can give you his tags if you want to go bubble on him" or something like that) that conveyed the impression he was on the job or related to someone who was, so they let him go.

But one day, BB pushed his luck too far. We were driving into town to get to the bank before it closed one rainy Friday and we were stuck behind the world's slowest station wagon. Granted, we were on winding roads in rainy conditions, so one would expect to drive with a little caution, but this woman was going under 20 miles an hour. BB was practically apoplectic. Finally, as we turned at a stoplight to head into town, BB hit the switch that flashed all his lights. Even though the colored bubble lights had long been removed, the flashing lights nevertheless caused the poor woman in front of us to pull to the shoulder, believing she had a cop on her tail. BB zoomed straight by.

And right past the state trooper who saw the whole thing.

Wow, was that trooper ever angry. After yelling at both BB and me (WTF?) for a good 5 minutes, he started talking about arresting BB for impersonating a police officer, a felony offense, by the way. In the end, though, with poor BB reduced almost to tears, he settled for writing BB a fat ticket for reckless driving. And he made him walk back in the rain and apologize to the woman he'd pulled over (yep, she was still waiting on the side of the road, with no fucking clue what was going on).

So, you know, in comparison, me taking a remedial driver's ed course didn't seem so bad, even though it took what seemed like hours to get to the school where it was held, this squat compound of concrete bunkers set in the proverbial middle of nowhere. I was one of 14 cars in the lot when I finally arrived at 7:22. Naturally, all the doors were locked except one, which I finally found at 7:30 and walked in, finding my classroom just as the door was closing in my face.

"Class starts at 7:30!" A high, reedy voice cried from the other side of the door.

I paused, deciding whether or not to stay and pound on the door or just leave. But it was early and I don't think so good when it's early, so before I could make up my mind, the door opened again and there stood a short, sinewy, grizzled old man in pressed khakis and a bright red plaid hunting shirt with one long sleeve. The other sleeve had been cut off at around the bicep in order to expose the pink stump denoting where the rest of the man's right arm should have been.

"Okay!" he cried. "I'm giving you a second chance! Can't be late!" he cried, then ushered me in.

For the rest of the morning, it was as though I'd traveled back in time to every boring college course I'd ever taken. There were a dozen of us, me and my fellow speeders, but none of us was too swift that morning, except perhaps in our ability to bump the desks with our foreheads as we nodded off from time to time.

The man--his name was Leonard--seemed unperturbed by our lack of attention. He lectured to us for three straight hours in that reedy voice of his, reading from the state-approved driver retraining book and almost never making eye contact with us.

Eventually, for lack of anything better to do, I began to wonder where the rest of this guy's arm was. Had he lost it in an accident, perhaps while speeding? I'm not a terribly compulsive person, but I am a curious fellow, and it began to gnaw at me.

We finally got a 30-minute break around 11, and I ventured out into the tundra to see if I could find a place to grab a bite to eat. On the way out of campus, I just happened to spy, of all things, a Crown Victoria not unlike my brother's old ex-cop car. It was just idling in the campus lot near the exit, but I got it in my head that it was there for a reason, so you better believe I drove the campus-mandated 10 miles an hour.

Good thing, too, because on the way back, that car--now sporting colored lights from its grille--had pulled over one of my hapless classmates. I never got to find out exactly what happened, because the poor woman never returned to class. But I did mention what I saw to Leonard when I returned and he just cackled and scratched his chin with his one good hand.

"Yep, the local police know when we're doing the courses here, and these roads are not private property--they can pull anyone over," he said in between cackles.

"So, they lie in wait for people from this class?" I asked, incredulous. "That's awful!"

My indignation must have amused Leonard, because for the rest of the class, he seemed to take a liking to me. When he'd pause in his reading to ask questions of the class, he'd pick me two out of three times. Finally, we got a second break, after which we were going to take a written test to see how much of Leonard's nattering we'd absorbed. While on break, I happened to open my wallet to extract a phone number I was going to need, and out fell a photo of Thomas playing with some toy trains.

Leonard pounced on it. "That your boy?" he asked, handing it back. "Likes trains, huh? Well, I'm a railroad man myself. Twenty-eight years on the Pennsylvania Railroad."

I looked up. I couldn't help myself. "So is that how--?" I asked, pointing at his missing arm.

Leonard nodded seriously. "Got it caught between two cars, pinched it right off. Never did find the arm. Almost 20 years ago, that was, and my damn elbow still itches!" he said, pointing to the approximate spot where his elbow would have been, had it not been pinched off and carried away by a couple of boxcars.

We traded a few stories--I told him how my great-grandfather, a railroad man himself, had lost an earlobe--and I decided that Leonard would have been an interesting guy to know, if I hadn't had such a chip on my shoulder about coming to his class.

We had to cut short our reminiscences, though, as the break ended and Leonard handed out a two-page test. The room was filled with tension because, to be honest, most of us had completely tuned Leonard out. But we needn't have worried, because the test was almost all multiple choice and Leonard was offering copious help to people as he walked up and down the rows of chairs.

I went through the test fairly quickly, but my problem with multiple choice tests is that I always assume the person writing them has decided to throw in a trick question or two, some poison dart hidden there on the paper that renders you stupid and unmoving. In my case, it was a question about what the speed limit is when there's no marked speed limit. I knew it was 25 in residential areas, but wasn't it higher on the highway? In fact, I was sure I'd seen plenty of signs showing that minimum highway speed was 40. And both 40 and 25 were among the four choices I had.

I sat there for a moment, drumming my pencil, when I heard the high, reedy voice close in my ear. "Aw come on!" he said. "Don't know the state mandated limit in unmarked zones? Come on! You know it! We just discussed it!"

"I--" I started.

"Don't tell me you don't know it. Come on. Tell it to me and I'll tell you if it's right."

"Well," I said haltingly. "It's either 40 or 25, because on the highway--"

Leonard waved at me to shut up. "Don't give me bullshit, son!" he squawked in that reedy voice of his. "Give me a number!"

"I'm really not--" I started.

"Come on! A number!" he cried, spraying a bit of spittle on me.

"I'm not sure, okay? I'm STUMPED!" I blurted.

I think my little Freudian slip would have passed unnoticed, if at that moment everyone else in the class hadn't started snorting and snickering. Leonard's mouth snapped shut as though someone had thrown a switch and he looked involuntarily at the stump of his arm, then at me.

I couldn't have been more mortified if I had been asked to apologize to a woman I had just pulled over. "I'm so-- I didn't--" I spluttered.

"It's 25 in an unmarked zone," Leonard said shortly, then he marched straight up to the front of the class and sat down.

At the end, when we all got up to hand in our tests, a couple of my classmates smiled at me--one even patted me on the back--and I realized we'd all been taken by the man's missing appendage but none of us had said anything about it. And you'll be pleased to know that once everyone else left, I did proffer a complete, if awkward apology for speaking out of turn. Leonard, to his credit, waved it away. We said a few words about local train depots and places to take my son, then we shook hand and I exited from Leonard's life, stage left.

Outside, the sleet had turned to snow. There were only three cars left on the premises: mine, an old pickup I took to be Leonard's, and the unmarked car on the other side of the road. As I slowly pulled out, the unmarked car got into close formation behind me, which considerably tightened my various sphincters, I'll tell you. As I trolled along at 10 miles an hour, the car pulled so close behind me, it seemed like I could reach back and honk its horn.

As we neared the stoplight to take us off campus and out to the main street, I turned right and thought surely this was when the car would also turn and flash its lights, and pull me over for some undefined violation. But instead it went the other way. So much for my chance at a looped ending to this narrative.

Like my brother, I kept my nose real clean for the next two years, right up until just last week. I'm still stinging over the speeding ticket, not just because I got one for going a few miles over, but because even though I was supposed to get a clean slate after a year of good driving, the truth is your record follows you. When the cop handed me my latest ticket, he couldn't resist saying, "You better be careful, MM. This is your fourth speeding violation in three years." Apparently, when he pulled my record up on the computer, he could see all of my sins, but nothing to tell him I had spent a snowy morning learning driver safety from a one-armed man.

Instead of a smart remark, I just bit my tongue and went for self-deprecation. "Sorry, officer," I said, sheepishly. "If the lead shoe fits..."

The officer laughed, He liked that one, he said. He was going to tell that one to the guys at the station, he said. He wished me a good night and happy holidays, too.

But he still gave me the fucking ticket.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, December 15, 2006


In Which I Reach My Limit...

Well, I can't do all of my holiday shopping with the Brownie in tow, and so it was that last night I found myself driving to the local discount supercenter, intent on finding a certain video involving a certain fox and a certain hound for a certain scalper-fighting daughter. My heart was full of the Christmas spirit. All around me, the holiday lights flickered and winked from dozens of yards and rooftops.

So I can perhaps be forgiven for at first overlooking the rather insistent lights that were flickering and winking directly behind me, a show that turned out to be exclusively for my benefit. Then the black-and-white patrol car pulled to within very close range and squawked its siren at me once and I pulled over immediately.

"You have any idea how fast you were going, sir?" the cop asked, once he ambled over and relieved me of all of my vital papers. Why do they have to ask this question? It's like those trick questions your girlfriend used to ask you, the ones where there's no right answer. If you say, "Why, yes, I believe I was going 45 miles an hour," and you happen to have just entered a 35 MPH zone, well then you've just incriminated yourself. But if you say, "Duhhh, no," well, we all know you're lying.

In fact, the cop had clocked me at 41 in a 35 zone. Six miles over the limit, and he ticketed me. For going six miles over! Almost makes me wish I'd been driving like hell.

No one enjoys being pulled over, of course, but getting pinched by traffic cops is still a completely alien feeling for me, even though I'm compelled to admit that it's happened more than I'd like in the past few years. The thing you have to understand, though, is that for the first several years of my driving life, I was charmed. Honestly, I think it was physically impossible for me to get ticketed.

I don't know what planets aligned to grant me the power, but there was a time where friends considered me radar invisible. The first time occurred one night at college. I had had a little too much to drink the Sunday night before and so had been driven home by a sober classmate. I woke early the next day to retrieve my car, because it was parked on a campus street, and on that campus street, any cars found parked there between 8 and 5 on weekdays were ticketed and eventually towed. I couldn't catch a bus so ended up walking all the way back in to campus. When I got to the street, I saw dozens of cars still parked there, and all of them had tickets on their windshields.

All but one.

There was no way to explain why I was overlooked (and no, the ticket hadn't just blown away. I simply wasn't given one) except that I must have had some kind of cloaking device that obscured me from the cops.

This feeling was only validated in the years that followed. On my drive south to take a summer internship, I was on I-95, humming along, keeping pace with a group of cars that were traveling at well over 80 miles an hour. As we all crested a hill, on the other side we saw three state troopers, all out of their cars and gesturing at various drivers to pull over. But no one pointed at me and so I slowed and coasted on through the speed trap, half-expecting one of the cops to pull out a gun or something. But it was as if they hadn't noticed me and I just rolled on through as almost every other car in that group was hauled over and cited.

MM, the radar invisible man continued to live on. Understand, I tried never to abuse this strange power. I never deliberately tried to drive dangerously or evade the law. It was just something that happened. Driving to the DMV after grad school, I needed to renew my license, my car registration and my vehicle plates, all of which were expired. Under state law, it was technically illegal for me to be on the road. But when the staties pulled me over (they saw the expired sticker on my plate) and I explained where I was going, they just took my word for it.

Driving to a store that was closing in five minutes, I was roaring down a lakeside road fairly quickly when I spied a cop coming at me the other way. He flashed his lights at me as we passed and, thinking this was the end of my charmed life, I pulled over. But the cop kept going the other way. I sat on the shoulder for a few minutes, thinking maybe he would come back. But he never did.

Headed west to grad school in the middle of the night, I was anxious to get to Chicago, and found myself going somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 or 90 miles an hour. The car in the passing lane in front of me was trawling along, so I crawled straight up his ass, doing everything short of honking and flashing my lights to get him to move over. I must have been tailgating him for several seconds before I noticed the word "POLICE" emblazoned on the fucking trunk. Boy, did I back off in a hurry. I followed him almost all the way to the Chicago Skyway, thinking at any minute he was going to stop and arrest me, but when we hit the Loop, he went his way and I went mine.

That particular night was a two-fer because thirty minutes later, I had found my way to the slightly seedy neighborhood where I was going to be renting a room. I found the house easily enough, but there wasn't a parking space to be had anywhere on the street. I needed to call the landlord so he could meet me at the house and give me my key, so I pulled over at a spot where I was slightly blocking an alleyway. Since it was around 1 in the morning, I didn't think anyone would be using the alley, except perhaps as an impromptu urinal. I hopped out and ran across the street to a payphone to make my call. I made arrangements with the landlord, turned around, and there was a cop, writing me a ticket.

I dashed across the street. "Please," I begged the policewoman. "I just got into town and needed to call the landlord to get the keys to my apartment. Please don't let this be my first experience in Chicago." But she was already scribbling away and I had always heard that once a cop puts pen to ticket, they write it out. This cop didn't, however. She gave me a stern look, then said, "Awright, you get a break this once. Move your car. And welcome to Chicago."

I know it sounds unbelievable, but this was the sort of thing that happened to me all the time.

Right up until the year before last.

It was two days before Thanksgiving and I was on the Ohio Turnpike, headed for the in-laws, when a state trooper pulled me over. Thomas and the Brownie had been bickering non-stop for the previous hour and I was at the end of my rope. As the cop lumbered towards me, I briefly considered turning around and pinching one of them on the knee so they'd be squalling really loud when I opened the window, but I resisted.

"Hey there, buddy! You know how fast you wuz goin' there, chief?" Great. All the troopers in the state, and I get some gomer who wants to be my best friend. Officer Jocular proceeded to pass the time of day with the kids and I even tried to hold up my end of the conversation, having read somewhere that the longer you talk to a cop, the less likely he is to write you a ticket. But like the theory about a cop writing out a ticket once he's started it, this turned out to be a fallacy as well. After keeping me by the side of the road long enough for Her Lovely Self to stir (she'd slept through almost the entire drive. Even the bickering) Trooper Friendly finally handed over a ticket somewhere in the neighborhood of $100. And you can bet that when we walked through the door of my in-laws' house, the very first thing Thomas and the Brownie wanted to talk about was the nice policeman who pulled Daddy over.

I tried to put that ticket out of my mind, just as I tried to forget the next one, which I earned for blowing through a speed trap--65 in a 55 zone.

And then, the Thanksgiving before last, I was driving to the grocery store before they closed, when I was pulled over by not one but two police cars. For going 50 in a 35 zone. It was 10 o'clock on a weekend night, and perhaps they thought I had been imbibing, because they made me step out of the car, another first. I was waiting for them to administer a field sobriety test, which I would fail drunk or sober because I have a terrible sense of balance and could never walk a straight line. But in the end they just made me stand there in the cold while they beamed their powerful flashlights into the back of my car. Finally, without a word of explanation, the other cop left and the one who remained handed me my license along with a ticket and smirked. "Almost made it," he said cryptically.

I didn't understand the full weight of his words until two months later, when I got a letter from the state, informing me that I had earned three speeding tickets in the space of one year. In fact, I had earned them in exactly the space of a year. That one in Ohio had been given to me on November 26. The speed-trap one was in the summer, but that last one, the one given to me by the smirking cop, had happened on November 25. Two hours later and it would have been the 26th again, and therefore a new year.

As a result, the helpful letter from the state went on, I was now classified as a habitual speeder and would be required by law to either:

A. Forfeit my license or

B. Attend a "driver safety re-education course" at my own expense

Oh, the decisions...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


In Which the Brownie Uses Her Powers for Good...

So I was on my lunch hour last week and, in what could only be explained as a premature moment of senility, I decided to spend that hour in a store, doing Christmas shopping. After years of being the kinds of kids who never asked for anything, Thomas and the Brownie suddenly got very specific this year and I found myself in receipt of several carefully printed lists carrying the full names of a variety of toys. To hedge their bets, these lists also composed the bulk of their long letters to Santa. But after a brief exchange with the jolly old elf himself (what, don't YOU have his email address?), we divvied up the items between us and I ended up with a fairly manageable list of likely items to put under the tree.

Or so I thought.

I struck out almost immediately when I went to the toy aisle marked "Action Figures" and saw that it had been mislabeled. The aisle clearly should have been marked as "Empty, Forlorn Pegs." Aside from a few torn Power Rangers packages and a largely untouched stack of Superman Returns figures, the row was desolate. It looked as though a storm had just swept through.

Clearly, the clerks hadn't had time to restock after the previous day's sale, so I presented myself at the customer service desk and looked at Thomas' list.

"Hi there," I said to the heavy-lidded customer service rep glowering at me from the other side of the desk. "Do you happen to have the...'DC Superheroes Justice League Unlimited Vigilante Action Figure with Lasso and Quick-Draw Six Shooter?'"

I looked up hopefully from the list, but the man--I'm using the term loosely; he couldn't have been more than 18 or 19--simply stared back, unmoving. "No," he said shortly.

I kept my smile. "Oh. Don't suppose you could check with the stockroom and see if they have a box they haven't brought out--?"

Now he shook his head. "We don't DO that," he sneered. Then he turned his back to me and muttered something that didn't sound complimentary in the least.

Well, of course, I could be wrong about these things, but in my experience, one of the reasons they have a customer service desk is to serve customers. And one of the reasons they equip store employees with those cunning handheld scanners is so they can check at a glance to see if they have an item anywhere in inventory--including, say, in the stockroom. Her Lovely Self has had much success with customer service desks across the nation in querying in-store inventory, so it wasn't clear to me why this particular stockperson had his undies in such a bunch.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't hear what you just said."

The kid turned. "You know, we get, like, a hundred scalpers a day calling and asking about the toys. We don't have time to go check on every single thing for you people."

For those of you who may not be familiar with the practice, a toy scalper is someone who prowls retail stores scooping up popular or expected-to-be-popular toys, only to turn around and sell them at a 100 percent (or higher) markup on eBay. As near as I can tell, manufacturers encourage this practice by creating deliberate shortages of some toys--packing only one of a specific toy to a case, for example. Scalpers somehow figure out which of these toys are going to be short-packed and they sell for even higher. Sometimes, though, it seems to me that the scalpers simply create the shortage themselves, by buying up every available item on the shelves in a particular toy line.

Now, let me say for the record that I bear no ill will against grown men and women who buy hard-to-find toys for themselves or to trade with other collectors. Everyone has to have a hobby, I say. Our neighbor down the street is an avid action-figure collector and can often be found prowling our local department stores with a cart full of GI Joe's and Pokemon figures. He's an upstanding man and a pillar in the community and he could be doing a lot worse, believe me.

What I DO have a problem with is grown men and women who deliberately hoard popular toys in the interest of making a profit off of those collectors or, worse, unknowing parents like myself. Granted, I make a good living and can afford to pay a little extra for a toy if my kid really wants it, but there are a lot of people who can't say the same, and they love their kids just as much as I love mine. What are they supposed to do? That's right, suck it up and buy it on eBay. Or else get lucky and just happen to be in the store on the day they're restocking the shelves. Which evidently the bulk of these scalpers are able to do because they don't have jobs. Or rather, scalping is their job, much as gorging oneself with blood is the job of a tick.

Meanwhile, back at the customer service desk, I was kind of annoyed at the kid who had jumped to conclusions about me, and said as much. Luckily--for him--before he could open his mouth to offer another retort, he was interrupted by a manager nearby whose sole job was evidently to keep a watch on his horrendous people skills, and she helped me right away.

"Sorry about that," she said with a shake of her head, after the kid had gone out on the floor to restock products in the Attitude department. "I think he's just annoyed because so many of his friends are making money and he isn't."

"Is scalping really that big a problem?" I asked.

She shrugged. "Well, the store gets money either way, so I wouldn't call it a problem, although we try to limit the number of hot items people can buy so everyone gets a fair shot. But I must say I've never seen so many grown men buying so many carts of toys, or coming over here and having us pull stock from the back. Like that new PlayStation. Or the cars from that movie." She sighed. "But I guess they make a lot of money on eBay. My daughter says she paid close to a hundred dollars for that new Elmo. I sure couldn't get one for her." She shook her head again as she stared at the screen. "I'm sorry, but we're all out of Justice League figures. We get trucks in everyday, though, and our last shipment of these came in on Tuesday, so we might get another box then."

I thanked her and went off to make some other purchases.

I didn't think much about this incident until this afternoon, when I got home early from work so that I could watch the Brownie while Thomas and Her Lovely Self went off to some holiday-oriented student council party by themselves. Almost as soon as they were gone, the Brownie turned to me.

"Dad," she said in a conspiratorial whisper, even though no one but us and the dog were home. "I think I want to buy Thomas a Christmas present this year. With my own bucks."

Well, my heart swelled at this. The Brownie has never before shown such a level of kindness towards her brother, and I was about to congratulate her, when she finished her sentence.

"I figured if I get him something, maybe he'll get me the Fox and Hound 2 DVD that I want." Ah, motivated self-interest. The spirit of the season, indeed.

As she said this, the Brownie pulled out a list very similar to the one her brother had given me. I remembered the store manager saying some new stock might be in today, so we dashed off to the department store.

It was just after work and evidently a lot of people were using that time to swing by the store and make some fast purchases. The toy section was well populated and, judging from a stack of folded boxes near one aisle, there had indeed been some restocking. The Brownie shook out her list and said, "Thomas wants The Cowboy Guy from Justice League, or else Kevin 11 from Ben 10, so let's look for those," she said.

But would you believe it? When we got to the action figure aisle, the place was almost as desolate as it had been the other day. What the hell?

Sensing a pattern here, I decided to take a closer look at what was hanging on the pegs--mostly those Superman Returns figures. While I did this, the Brownie informed me that she wanted to do a personal inventory of Barbie products in the next aisle over. It's a big-girl thing for her to do, and she knows not to go any further than one aisle, because otherwise Daddy will start to imagine that some pervert is going to grab her before she has time to scream for help and then he'll need to sit on the floor and breathe in a paper bag for a while until he recovers from such awful anxiety-induced fantasies.

I know, I'm such a freak.

So you can imagine how smugly justified some small part of me felt when a few seconds later, I heard a blood-curdling scream from the next aisle and recognized it at once as belonging to my daughter.

I'm not sure I didn't just plow through the wall separating the aisle. I was convinced something heavy had fallen on her or some blind old person had wheeled a cart over her foot.

But instead, I saw something that made me stop in my tracks.

My daughter was engaged in a lively tug-of-war with a man who was approximately 40 times her size. He wore a stained gray t-shirt and a puffy down vest the size of a life-raft. He conveyed the general impression of being covered with stubble--even his arms. His roomy jeans sagged under the weight of his wallet (with the trademark tough-guy chain hooked to one of the lugs). He was breathing heavily through his nose and sweating profusely, either from his exertions or on general principle. I couldn't fairly determine his age or his line of work or his personal habits in this life, but--and I hope I will be forgiven a base assumption here--it did strike me that if there was anything he had contact with less than a girl, it was probably a grooming implement of some kind.

He was flanked on either side by two overflowing shopping carts, both jammed full of action figures, Hot Wheels cars and other toys. I didn't notice that until later. What I noticed is that he was bent over, a sweaty, snarling face just inches from my sweet little angel of light, tugging mightily on a small package that the Brownie had clutched feverishly in her little hands.

"Give it! S'mine!" the guy said in a distinctly whiny drawl.

The Brownie wasn't interested in engaging in debate. She simply screamed bloody murder. The guy reached out with his free hand, about to touch my daughter. And that's when all the emergency claxons went off. Strange sweaty guys shepherding carts full of toys do NOT get to lay hands on my kid.

"Hey!" I shouted.

The guy jumped as though prodded and let go of the toy. The Brownie almost fell backwards on her rump, but instead turned at the last minute and hurled herself at me, crying "Daddydaddydaddydaddy!!!!!"

In less time than it takes to write, we were the feature attraction, the Blue Light Special. Parents from every aisle converged, partly to watch the show, partly to make sure the screaming child wasn't their child. And the guy was standing with his back up against the racks of toys, hands up as though caught in the act of something filthy. And, hey, let's look at it from his perspective; it looked bad for him. Here's a hulking grown man hoarding toys on one side. On the other, a little girl crying in her daddy's arms, clutching a little toy like it's a life preserver.

Yeah, he was pretty much fucked.

"Uh, she took that outta my cart," the guy said, when he finally gained the power of speech.

"What?!?" I said, incredulous, looking at all the stuff in both carts.

"She did!" he insisted. "Just reached in--"

"It wuh-wuh-wuz on the fl-fl-fluh-flooor!" the Brownie sobbed, her little voice hitching in that way that makes your heart hitch too. "And huh-he has a muh-million of them and I don't huh-have any! Wahhhhhhhhhh!"

There were two big, beefy guys behind the toy scalper, and I'm pretty sure both of them were ready to hang the guy from the end of the aisle. But just then, two store employees came around the corner, although neither were the two I'd met the week before. The older employee took one look at the guy and his carts of toys, then one look at me, and said, "What is going on here?!?"

While I can't vouch for the guy's social skills, I think it's fair to say his survival skills were fairly intact. Crying little girl versus money-grubbing, stubbly scalper? Yeah, no doubt who's gonna win that one in the court of public opinion. He threw up his hands and said, "I'm outta here," abandoning his carts, even as the older employee--who I took to be a manager of some kind--followed him, shrilly reminding him that he couldn't go hogging all the toys and disrupt the shopping experience of the other customers, things of that sort.

As soon as he was gone, one of the beefy guys turned to look at me. "Awright, honey! Way to go. That guy is always in here buying up the toys. I've seen him elbow kids out of his way when they're buying Hot Wheels."

I realized then that the man wasn't calling me "honey." At least, that was my hope. Sure enough, the Brownie was no longer sobbing into my shirt, but instead looking shyly around. She smiled at the beefy man, then looked up at me.

"Are you okay?" I asked, realizing that my heart was still somewhere up above my Adam's apple.

As the beefy man and a few other parents in the aisle began fishing items out of the abandoned carts, the Brownie wiped her nose with her free hand and nodded. "That was pretty good, huh Dad?" she said. That's when I realized she wasn't crying at all. In fact, had maybe only been crying for the same reason she turns on the waterworks at home: to get her way.

I didn't know whether to be amused or scared shitless.

"Wait a sec--" I said, as something else occurred to me. "You didn't really take something from that man, did you?"

The Brownie shook her head. "It WAS on the floor, Dad. I saw it fall. Finders keepers, and I win, right?"

Then I saw what she was holding.


Brownie--1, Scalpers--0.

Geez, she must really want that Fox and Hound DVD pretty badly.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, December 08, 2006


In Which We Keep Our Feet on the Path...

When I got back to the old pasture that night in the blizzard, I had serious second thoughts. Well, okay, third or fourth thoughts. The flat, open expanse was a veritable spillway for the cutting winds that were roaring through now. It was so cold I couldn't breathe; I had to turn and duck my head and cup my hands over my mouth to get even the smallest gulp of air. Even more disturbing, though, was that my feet, sheathed in sensibly warm boot socks and the very same kind of boots they wore up at the Mount Washington Observatory, were nevertheless fucking freezing. I couldn't stop to catch my breath. I had to keep moving, and so I did, slogging back to the forest, cursing myself with every numbing step.

Back in the woods, conditions were better, but only just. I had the flashlight on now, but it barely cast its light a few feet beyond me, so I was stumbling over lots of deadfall and brambles. I kept casting about, looking and listening for signs of cars, which would signify that I was parallel to the road that went around the lake on this side of town, but it was obvious that every other sensible person had already elected to hole up somewhere and wait out the storm (indeed, my brother ended up spending the night at work rather than risk the drive). Except for me, of course.

Oh, and Sasha.

Who a moment later came running at me out of the swirling snow and practically jumped in my arms. Evidently she hadn't turned and gone back up the hill, but had followed me across the town lot and through the forest. I had never been so glad to see anyone--human or canine--before.

Sasha, for her part, seemed completely unperturbed by the deteriorated weather. To her it was just a big frolic, and so she gamboled about me, jumping and woofing and urging me onward. Figuring her nose and sense of direction were much better navigational tools than my own, I followed gratefully, thinking Dear God, please let me have such a wonderful dog someday. That is, if I don't end up an ice sculpture out here in the woods. Amen.

Unfortunately, a few minutes later, I found myself in a kind of clearing. The trees had petered away to nothing and the wind was like the sweeping hand of a giant monster, pushing and pushing. Even Sasha hunched down in the snow as each colossal gust passed.

"What the hell?" I cried. Was I back in the pasture? Had Sasha led me in a big fat, circle, yet another metaphor for my life at the moment?

When the wind abated slightly, Sasha returned to bounding forward. I hung back, but when I did, she barked at me, ran to me, then ran back in the direction she was heading, like some latter-day Lassie leading me to the latest well Timmy had fallen down. She obviously had no doubts about where she was headed. So I continued, pushing my legs through the knee-high drifts, peering ahead in the feebly flashlit darkness, looking for any kind of landmark that would tell me where I was.

And then, almost miraculously, I saw a set of lights. They were tiny--almost pinpricks--but they clearly belonged to a car--a plow, in fact--and they moved slowly along an invisible line way off to my left.

Where the hell are they? I wondered to myself, trying to get reoriented. And then a moment later, my perspective slipped into place and I immediately stopped walking.

The question wasn't where the plow was. It was where I was. There was only one place, one large, flat expanse in town where I could see a plow on a road from such a long way off without my vision being impaired by a hill or stand of trees.

That place was the lake.

And Sasha had led me right out onto it.

Dear God, about that wonderful dog? Can you make him smarter and with a better sense of direction? Thanks.

I honestly didn't know what to do. Only a few days earlier, just before the storm, the weather up here had been unseasonably warm. Warm enough that the lake had not yet frozen over. And even if it had, I would never have had the nerve to walk out on the ice. Even my dad, who's pretty fearless, used to tell us how he'd always wait until January before daring to venture out on the lake to cut ice for the icehouse or do some ice-fishing. Between the weight of the snow and my own plodding footfalls, it was all too easy to imagine a growing web of cracks broadcasting out from beneath my feet at that very moment.

Sasha started barking and came running back, only now I saw that she was sliding just a little bit every time she came to a stop. I realized I was holding my breath and let it out in a fevered whoosh. I knew I'd wanted to make a change in my life, but breaking through the ice and drowning was a bit more of a drastic life-change than I really wanted. On the other hand, I couldn't just stay there. No one was going to come to me. In fact, I realized as my stomach turned to liquid, no one even knew where I was. The house had been empty when I went out and I'd left no note. So, carefully, gingerly putting each frozen foot down, willing myself to be lighter than I actually was, I slowly, agonizingly followed Sasha across the frozen lake, trying as we went to angle our path towards the place where I'd seen the lights of the plow. It would be dangerous to walk on the road, of course, but one hell of a lot better than where I was.

That was one of the longest half-hours of my life. I kept waiting to fall through and disappear, to be found in the spring thaw, blue and rigid, my GRE scores clutched in my petrified hand. Out on the lake, the wind was merciless, bringing me to my knees more than once and all but rendering me snowblind. It was loud, too, but not so loud that I couldn't hear a couple of deep, shuddering, thunderous sounds, which I took to be the newly frozen ice shifting beneath me.

Along the way, I thought of my mom's grandfather, Great-Papa Harry, who had worked for the railroads in the switching yards. To save trolleyfare in the winter, Harry would walk to work across the frozen surface of the Charles River. One cold January morning, he was late; no one knew where he was. It was assumed he was sick in bed, but about an hour after he was expected to punch in, he lurched through the door in clothes that were board-stiff and dripping with icicles. Halfway across the river on his morning walk to work, the ice gave way and he had nearly drowned. He was able to break through the ice a little further along the river, but every time he tried to heave himself up onto the surface, it would crumble beneath him. And so, like a human ice-breaker, arms windmilling furiously, he plowed his way to the opposite bank. He always claimed his exertions in trying to get across were what kept him warm enough to stave off freezing to death. When he got to the opposite bank he almost couldn't walk, but somehow he eventually made it to his little office, where coworkers helped him strip off his frozen clothes and sat him by the stove.

As he sat, thawing, Harry felt a terrible buzzing, burning sensation from his ear. He reached up absently to scratch his earlobe and it snapped off in his hand. Once Harry warmed up, he got to a doctor who treated him for severe frostbite on his hands, feet, ears and nose. He ended up losing a part of his other earlobe as well, but most people forget that part of the story. What they remember is the "snap" when Harry broke off his own earlobe.

Such were the reveries with which I comforted myself as I walked across the ice of our lake.

Finally, after what seemed like days, Sasha and I reach the opposite bank. I immediately clambered up to the road and walked practically down the middle of it. Naturally, not another plow, truck or car came along during the next half-hour it took me to reach the access road to our hill. But by then, I was so grateful to be almost home, I didn't mind.

Sasha stayed with me the entire time, right up until we heard a faint voice calling in the distance. Just a hundred yards ahead, I could see the barest glimmer of light from the cabin that Sasha shared with her owner Jen and the woman's little girl. As we loomed out of the darkness, Jen, who was standing in the doorway calling to her dog, seemed more than a little startled to see me. "What are you doing out here?" she demanded both of me and her dog. "Get in here!"

I couldn't feel my feet at this point, so I gladly staggered in and got up close to the small hearth she had set into one wall of the cabin. As Sasha jumped and hopped and made a fuss of Jen and her daughter, I quickly, if ham-fistedly pulled off my footwear, half-expecting to shake blackened bits of necrotic toes out of my socks. Thankfully, my feet were only the slightest bit frostbitten and I kept all of them. Heck, even my earlobes survived. Jen made me a cup of tea that wasn't especially hot, but to my unfeeling hands, the mug was so warm I could barely stand to hold it.

In between sips of tea, I told Jen where I'd been and what had happened and she fixed me with the universal mother's look of stark disgust. "What in hell were you thinking?" was all she could manage to say.

I wanted to explain to her what my week had been like, how unsettled I'd become by the changes that were happening all around me, how I wanted to be in charge of the change for once and have the changes I made result in something good, something positive, something forward-thinking. But it was hard to reconcile that desire with my actions. Like all ideas that seemed good at the time, I was at a loss to justify the predicament I'd got myself into. So instead, I just drank my tea and nodded penitently as Jen scolded me. At length, when I had recovered all feeling in my body, I thanked her for helping me and got up to head home. She offered to give me a ride the rest of the way up the hill, but it was only a quarter of a mile. Just the same, she insisted on calling ahead of me to let my parents know I was on the way (an act they turned out to appreciate very much, especially my mom, who was for some reason concerned about my location, given that she had returned home to a darkened house and her son's winter togs missing and no note to indicate where the fuck he might be).

It was still blizzarding out, and biting cold, but I was more than up to the remainder of the walk. In fact, if I can be allowed a small confession, I rather enjoyed it. It stands out as one of the top three Great Walks of my life. As the wind and snow blew down the corridor of the road ahead of me, it seemed as though I was in a great, white, mystical tunnel. And at the end, clear as a Christmas star, I could see the powerful white Halogen porch light my dad had installed near the steps of the house.

Of course, I made it back safely. And by the end of the week, I had my application to graduate school completed and filled out. Since the GRE folks took almost a month to get an official copy of my scores to the school, it was a good thing I had a personal copy of my scores handy. It kept my application from being delayed. As a result, two months into the new year, I got a call from the head of the graduate program at the school, calling personally to announce that I'd been accepted into his program and telling me how forward he was looking to meeting me when I moved to Chicago to start school that fall.

In a season of Fucking Big Changes, that last-minute decision to apply to grad school had initiated some of the biggest changes of all. Because of grad school, I was forced to move out and make my way in a strange new city. I earned my master's degree and got my first job in magazines (graduates of the program I was in were in fairly high demand at that time, something I hadn't even realized when I applied). At that first job, I reconnected with a lovely young woman I'd met by chance at my summer internship. She and I fell in love, got married, had kids. And I ended up here, in this place, working for a magazine I could barely have dreamed of working for back then, during that long, severe season of Fucking Big Changes, when I was desperate and unemployed.

I think if people like change, they like it because it gets them out of uncomfortable or difficult situations, gives them a new lease on life. And if they don't like change, it's because they fear the unknown, the potential of losing some or all of the things they've come to enjoy about the life they lead.

Clearly, I straddle the fence, having a kind of love/hate relationship with change. But whether it's a change I make, or a change that I can't control, all of those changes are just part of the same path, aren't they?

And in the end, it's not about control, is it? It's about keeping your feet on the path and moving forward, keeping your eyes peeled for the light that will lead you home.

Seventeen years ago, the blizzard howled ever louder around me. Snow fell in gusts and clumps from the air and from the tree branches where it had collected.

A wind blew out of the north, knocking my cap off and turning my hair white, but I didn't mind. I tilted my head back, lifted my face into the storm.

Slowly, gratefully, I made my way into the future.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, December 07, 2006


In Which We Are Blind in the Storm...

It had been snowing steadily since I'd moved back home and now there was easily a foot of snow on the ground, most of it having fallen just that morning. After I brushed my car off and got it started, it occurred to me just how bad the storm was when I gunned the engine and the car resolutely refused to move from its spot. The wheels spun fruitlessly, my car a three-dimensional analogy for how I was feeling about my life just then. I let up on the gas and sat in the car for a few minutes, watching the snow blow sideways.

I did some mental calculations. In a straight line from this house to the shed on the other side of town, it wasn't even a mile's walk, and most of that was through the woods, where the trees actually protected the ground from accumulation. I'd probably have an easier time walking there than driving. How hard could it be?

And with those famous last words bouncing in my head, I went back to the house, got a hat, gloves and a flashlight, and started off into the woods.

Once I was in the forest, the wind died down considerably. I could see a good ways ahead of me. All around were great old pines and maples, forming the walls and ceiling of a stupendous arboreal cathedral that was dimly lit and eerily quiet. As I had hoped, the trees above had caught most of the snow that had been falling and while there was some accumulation, it was easy hiking. Good thing, since it was late afternoon and there was no sun out whatsoever.

I trudged on down the hill, walking more or less parallel to the access road that my parents and their neighbors used to get home. Through the woods, I could see the lights of the small cabin of our neighbors, a single mom and daughter and I wondered how many more houses I'd see as I walked in my straight line through the woods to the storage shed on the other side of town.

But I was interrupted in this reverie by a low growl that came out of the dusk, just off to my right. I froze, and then up over the drop of a fallen tree, a dark form leapt at me and I screamed so loudly I half expected to tear my face off.

Then I felt a pair of paws stuff themselves into my crotch and I heard a laughing pant and I realized it was Sasha, the German shepherd that lived with our neighbors. She was a lovely dog and very friendly, but kind of impish too. She had a real knack for crouching behind the stone fence in front of her cabin and leaping out at you as you walked or drove by. More than once she'd forced my brother off the road when she'd jumped out and startled him into swerving into the ditch.

Once I caught my breath and determined that I wouldn't need to go back to the house for a change of underwear, I gave Sasha a good scratch behind the ears and kept walking. She followed me all the way down the hill, and I have to say, I welcomed the company. I missed my old dog Pilgrim, who I had put to sleep just the day before and who was not even buried yet (indeed, wouldn't be buried still the spring thaw. My dad elected to put her in the deep freeze til then). And the woods had become increasingly dark and creepy as the blizzard intensified. Wind began to rip through the trees, causing an odd, keening whine to reverberate through the forest. As if that didn't make me edgy enough, the wind also began to dislodge great clumps of snow that were exploding all around me like bombs.

At the bottom of the hill, I came to an open lot that the township used to store compost and sand. I slogged across this space, trying to stay in the ruts made by the plows that had been coming and going all day, collecting truckloads of sand as they went. When I got to the other side of the lot and went back into the woods, I realized that Sasha was gone, no doubt having returned up the hill to her cozy cabin.

Maybe I should go back too, I thought.

But by my reckoning, I was over halfway there. All I needed to do was follow the forest that ran parallel to the lake and keep walking until I reached the pasture that marked the eastern border of the old property line of my family's farm. From there, I could cut across the pasture and be right at the foot of the hill my parents owned.

My directions were unerring, if I do say so myself. The only problem was that the snowstorm was so intense that by the time I reached the pasture, the wind was almost blowing me over. I was knee-deep in snow at that point and had almost no balance to speak of. So instead of being able to trot across the field in about five minutes, it took almost 20. The practical upshot of this is that it was full dark by the time I reached the hill and began the arduous climb up through chest-high drifts to the shed.

It took another half-hour, but I reached the far side of the shed, where a makeshift overhang protected the door from the elements. I thumbed the combination lock on the door and slid the bolt open, grateful to be in shelter at last.

The shed was one my dad's CRAP specialties. Every single piece of wood, every window, door and length of sheet metal roofing had been scavenged from the dump or one of the many job sites my dad had worked at. It was frigid as an ice box in there, but there was no wind. No light either. I fished out my flashlight and played it around, startling both myself and a huge-ass rat (which skittered off into the torn upholstery of an old sofa), then I picked my way through the boxes of antiques and tools and detritus, heading for the rickety stairs that led up to the second level.

By flashlight, it took almost an hour to find my boxes of stuff and longer still to fish through every inconsequential piece of paper I had saved from school. But eventually, I found a familiar oversize envelope with the GRE logo on it and saw my test results inside. I carefully folded the paper and stuffed it in an inside pocket. Then, with slightly numbed fingers, I pulled my gloves back on and got ready to leave.

By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, I knew I should have waited for the storm to let up. I don't know if you've ever been out in a blizzard before, but I'm here to tell you that if you're walking about in blowing snow, with a raging wind that drowns out all sound, and it's pitch-dark to boot, it is very easy to get disoriented. Suddenly I remembered every horror story, every cautionary tale my parents and uncles had ever told me about friends and neighbors who had been imprudent enough to wander off into a blizzard and were never seen alive again. I knew the town like the back of my hand, but I was still anxious. It wasn't just the idea of being disoriented. The temperature had been dropping steadily and with the wind chill, it had to be well below zero. It was not hard to imagine suffering frostbite or perishing from exposure.

So when I got to the bottom of the hill, I immediately set out for the road that wound its way past the family farm--what we always called the Homestead. This was an old country road that should have been maintained by the town, but wherever the plows had been going after loading up with sand over at the town lot, they sure hadn't used it here. If anything, the snow drifts were worse on the road than in the woods, and the wind was positively punishing. Plus, what would I do when the plow DID come through? Why I would die, of course. Be crushed beneath the wheels of the great churning truck, every tender organ in me squirting out my assorted orifices like toothpaste from a mashed tube, all because I was too slow and sodden to waddle off the road onto the relative safety of the shoulder.

So, after a few nervous minutes of trudging down the road and looking back and forth for any signs of impending, plow-driven, organ-squirting doom, I saw a dark bulk up ahead and realized it was the Homestead. We weren't much on speaking terms with this side of the family, but there was no way my uncle would leave me out in the snow. I waded up to the door of the darkened house and pounded. Of course, no one was home (I later found out that my uncle and his family were in Florida on vacation). I briefly considered sneaking in through the side window, which had a broken lock that had never been fixed (as long-time readers will remember from this story), so that I could at least call home and get my dad or brother--who I hoped would have been home from work by then--to fire up the Jimmy and come get me. But then I remembered that my uncle had no telephone. He was a notorious delinquent when it came to paying bills and my dad had only just told me how the phone company had refused to turn the service back on until my uncle paid some two hundred dollars in arrears to them.

I stood there, shivering, for a thoughtful moment. The only other neighbor on the road was old Mrs. Warner, whose house was just across the upper field and faced the Homestead, but I couldn't see any lights on in that direction and it occurred to me that she wintered in Arizona now. I finally decided that I could waste time and body heat trudging around looking for neighbors who might or might not be home, or I could just suck it up and head back the way I came.

I was young and stupid, so there should be no question about what I did next...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


In Which It Is the Season...

You know how most people measure the year in the four seasons?

Well, for some reason, I have five: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Fucking Big Changes.

I'm not sure why, but FBC has always come between fall and winter for me, and like all seasons, it has its mild years and its severe ones. The jury's still out on what kind of season this one will turn out to be.

But I'm pretty sure it's the cause of the doldrums I'm finding myself in lately. I was thinking it was merely job stress or holiday angst or a general malaise from not feeling so hot. Then it dawned on me that I'm probably in another season of Fucking Big Changes.

Most people fall into one of two camps: they either really like change or really hate it. I'm on the fence. In principle, I like change. I bore so easily, I sort of have to like change. Where I have a problem during the season of Fucking Big Changes is when I start to get overwhelmed by the changes I can't control. There have been a lot of changes at work, for example, and I predict there will be an exodus of staff in the next few months, not so much from layoffs or firings as from people just deciding they're not happy with the change in management and figuring it's time to leave. I have no plans to be one of these people, you understand, but the changes at work have been profound and ongoing and when they happen all around you, affecting you without being controlled by you, well, it's stressful.

But I have to be careful when I cope with change I can't control, because my typical reaction is to do something stupid, under the guise of making a conscious choice of my own. It's a juvenile form of acting out, and I wish I wasn't wired this way, but some times I just can't help myself.

For instance, some years back, just after I graduated from college, I spent months fruitlessly trying to find a job in magazines. Wasn't to be had. At the time, I blamed myself, told myself I must not have wanted it badly enough. But with some perspective now, I can safely let my 21-year-old self off the hook: You did your best, kid. But that was just one change you couldn't control. The economy was bad, the industry was suffering and there was nothing you could do about it.

Well, except to react by doing something stupid.

For starters, I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, Gretchen. I had no real reason to break up with her, to be perfectly honest. She was a sweet, loving, wonderfully attentive woman who for some inexplicable reason was under the impression that I was the cat's pajamas. But she also wanted us to find a place together and begin a journey that would ultimately lead to marriage. That was one journey I wasn't even packed for, let along ready to take, so it was enough of a pretext to break up.

And while that most definitely was a change I could control, it wasn't so much one change as a whole fricking domino-field of change. Breaking up with her meant I could no longer live in her parents' house (where I was staying because they lived in Connecticut, close to New York City, and therefore the ideal place from which to launch my fruitless job search. Having one's girlfriend under the same roof didn't hurt--kind of like utilities included, you might say. But if you break up, of course, that all goes to hell in a handbasket). Breaking up with her meant I was going to have to give up my job at the local temp agency, where I was making the princely sum of 15 bucks an hour. Breaking up with her meant I was about to embark on a two-year long stint of involuntary celibacy.

But even worse than that, breaking up with her meant I was going to have to move back to New Hampshire.

So within 24 hours I was packed up in my old Chevy and driving north through a steady freezing drizzle. With each passing mile, the enormity of what I had just done was beginning to dawn on me. Yes, I had made a conscious choice for change and, I tried to tell myself that on the whole, it was a good one. Gretchen and I had not just graduated from college but from each other, we just couldn't quite bring ourselves to admit it at the time. That wasn't the issue. The issue--the enormous thing that was sinking in--was this: I was doing something I had sworn I would never do once I got out of college. I was moving back in with my parents. Worse, I was moving back in with my brother.

At the time, my parents were renting a tiny two-bedroom house that looked like nothing so much as an A-frame cut in half—and someone had stolen the other half. The downstairs was one great room dominated by a kitchen area and a woodstove that my dad kept stoked round the clock, which may have saved us a bundle on heating bills, but which also turned the house into a sweat lodge.

And nowhere was this effect more profound than upstairs, where there was an open loft, half of which had been walled off to make the second bedroom, a tiny little cell under the eaves that just fit a desk and the two twin beds my brother and I had slept in during childhood. I remember well my first miserable night in that stifling space, sweat streaming off me even though it was freezing outside. My brother was five feet from me, snoring with a ferocity that made me wonder if he was in some somnambulant competition to be the Sleep Apnea Poster Boy.

That was one of the first times I seriously thought about the nature of change and whether or not I was the kind of person who enjoyed it. I'd sure made quite a bunch just lately, but somehow they didn't seem to be very good ones, or I wouldn't have ended up here, of all places.

And, as I would soon find out, the changes were only beginning.

When I got up the next morning, I could hear Mayflower, our old but spry terrier, barking outside. My mom usually let them out as she left for work and one of the dogs would always bark to be let back in, but this bark was different. It sounded urgent. Something was wrong.

When I got outside, I saw why May was barking. For one thing, it was pretty cold. Up north, the drizzle had turned to full-blown snow and the dogs were out in about four inches of it. May was hopping around in the snow and wagged her tail to see me, but she was still agitated. And the reason was Pilgrim.

Our old beagle was about 12 or 13 by then and in her doggy dotage, she had grown increasingly lame, the result of injuries sustained in her puppyhood, when she was grazed by a car. Even though she limped most days, she could still get around. But this morning, out there in the snow, she wasn't moving. She was just laying in the snow, looking up at me and trembling.

I got her inside and put her by the fire. But later, once she'd warmed up, it was clear that her walking days were done. Every time she tried to get up, her whole back end seemed to give out and she'd lay back down with a kind of resigned look.

Oh God, please don't tell me that on top of everything I'm going to have to put my old dog to sleep, I thought. It just didn't seem fair that one should fail so abysmally to get work in one's chosen field, have to move back in with one's folks and, on his very first morning at home be faced with the idea that he might have to kill his dog.

But of course, that's exactly what happened.

The vet had warned us that Pilgrim was getting older and that if her hips gave out (which it turned out they had) there wasn't a veterinary surgeon in the world who would try to fix them (nor could we have afforded it in any case, even with all the money Dad was saving by keeping the wood stove stoked). So I had to drive her over to the vet's and held her old grizzled body while they gave her The Shot. The moment was over in a blink, but its effects were long-lasting. I drove back home with her body in the trunk, tears streamed down my face, not just for my beloved dog, but for me too. There were just too many changes going on, and all of them--even the ones I had made--seemed to be pointing me towards some terminal end, some directions I didn't want to be heading.

So naturally, I decided to cope with it by making yet another change. That day I decided it was time to stop looking jobs that weren't to be had and start looking at going back to school.

I had tried to get into grad school before. In my senior year of college, I had sent out a battery of applications to assorted schools, hoping to pursue an advanced degree in English, thinking for some reason that I might be qualified to study or even teach English and literature and composition. Unfortunately, none of the schools I applied to agreed with me. Every single one of them declined to invite me to come study with them. I hadn't been so comprehensively rejected since high school, when I'd asked five different girls to the prom and they all turned me down.

This time, though, I decided I was going to target my efforts at one program, a school that offered a master's program focused very specifically on magazines. My boss at my summer internship had told me about it, but I had pushed it to the side of my mind. Among journalists at the time, advanced degrees were the object of scorn and derision--may still be, for all I know. Even my academic advisor had wondered why I wanted to waste my time and money on another year or more of school when I could be out earning practical experience, not to mention a steady paycheck. Problem was, I wasn't even earning that.

So the next day, I called up the school and requested all the application materials I needed. There was a long pause on the phone, then the person I was speaking to informed me that even though it was December, the application deadline for the next fall semester was fast approaching--less than two weeks away, in fact--and in those pre-Internet days, she frankly doubted whether I would have time to gather and send in all the materials I needed for my application, which included three letters of recommendation and a copy of my GRE scores. I thought I could get the letters quickly enough, but back then it took a couple of weeks for the Educational Testing Service to process a request for a copy of my GREs to be sent to the school of my choice.

Fortunately, the woman in the admissions office took pity on me and told me that I could include a photocopy of my GRE results, with a note that the official copy would be coming from ETS shortly. That way I could still technically meet the application deadline, even if my GRE scores were late. To expedite things, she also FEDEXed me the application. I never got her name, but I owe her a lot.

I spent the rest of the day calling up old professors and tracking down my manager at the internship, the one who first told me about the graduate program. Everyone agreed to write letters for me as soon as possible, and I would end up having the letters I needed within the week.

The only problem was those damn GRE scores. I couldn't find my copy of them anywhere. And I searched the house twice.

Eventually, it dawned on me that there was only one place the scores could be: In among my boxes of papers from school. Which were in storage. Up on the hill in an old shed my dad had built. Across the lake on the other side of town.

I suppose I could have--should have--waited. There wasn't any particular reason for me to get the scores right there, that afternoon. But I was pretty fired up by the idea of the change I was about to make and I felt an undeniable sense of urgency. So I grabbed my keys and my coat and trotted out the door.

Right into the teeth of a good old New England Nor'easter...

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