Friday, June 30, 2006

 

In Which the Masthead Goes Radio-Silent for a Bit...

Folks,

Thanks so much for all your comments and emails. They have been a great comfort to me--yes, even the ones from people who felt compelled--with varying degrees of grace and kindness--to take my family to task for leaving Blaze unattended outdoors. I take the position, because I must, that most of them are well-intentioned. But I also understand that some people have a compulsive urge to share their 20/20 hindsight with others and are helpless to control the waggling finger of I-Told-You-So. My mother is one such person, and so I have a well-practiced response to that kind of behavior. I nod once in agreement, then I tune the rest of it out.

However, on one point I realize I wasn't clear in the previous entries, but I have mentioned it in posts past: As a rule we never leave Blaze alone. He eats, sleeps, lives indoors and when I'm home he goes outside on a leash, with me. In the warmer months, when the kids and Her Lovely Self are out back, he goes on his runner out back. As a rule, when they go in, he goes in.

With me out of town and HLS left to hold the fort down, she made the decision to let Blaze stay outside while she hauled the kids upstairs. They had been helping water the plants and were covered in mud and plant matter and so she hauled them upstairs to the bath to hose 'em off. Blaze was also no small amount of muddy from all the watering, so it made sense to let him stay out and enjoy himself for the 20 minutes it took HLS to handle the kids.

I say this not blame my wife, and not to be defensive. I would have done the same thing. Yes, I suppose the choice could have been made to hose Blaze off first and clean the mud out of his paws and towel him down and let him in before the kids. But that’s not what happened. On balance, my parental software--and HLS’--is set to "kids first" on most things.

And that's all I have to say on the subject, except to add that what's done is done and it does me no good to allow myself to dwell on it. Trust me when I say it does you no good to dwell on it either.

Meanwhile, I have more important things to attend to, but I don't see the point in putting you through an agonizing hour-by-hour account of it. Mostly, I've been making lots of phone calls, calling in or promising lots of favors to certain people, and knocking on a lot of doors I never expected to knock on. All this has allowed me to do is to rule out certain possibilities and point me more clearly in one direction.

As I write this, I'm waiting on a call from someone who, against his better judgment, is going to try to get me into a place I have no business being in. I don't want to talk about it, because I don't want to jinx it. But yes, where I'm going is not a wise or safe place for me to be. Yes, I'll be careful. And yes, I'll be back to tell you all about it as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, I want to share one last thought: Just a couple weeks ago, I came across one of those surveys research groups like to do. Coincidentally enough, it was about family pets. Specifically, respondents were asked whether they considered their pet to be part of the family or merely property. An overwhelming majority--more than three-fourths, for sure--said that yes, their pet was a part of the family. Which is nice and all, but always makes me wonder: How much did the respondents think about what the phrase "part of the family" means?

For me, it means simply this: If you are part of my family, there is nothing I will not do for you, there are NO lengths to which I will not go to help or comfort or support you. If you are in trouble, I will be there for you. If you are lost, I will come for you. If you are in mortal danger, I will use every resource at my disposal--including my own life--to save you.

I wonder how many of the people in that survey shared the same definition of "part of the family." And if that definition of "part of the family" was articulated to them, I wonder how many of those survey respondents would still have said yes, their pet was part of their family.

What about you? How would you answer?

How far would you go for your pet?

Feel free to answer in comments below, or in your own blogs. And by all means, if you have personal examples of the lengths you've gone to, I beg you not to be embarrassed to share them.

I'll be back as soon as I can.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead



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Thursday, June 29, 2006

 

In Which We Learn the Fate of One Good Dog...

My dear friends, my closest strangers, I need you to understand that this is not like my usual cliffhangers. When I write long pieces about stupid things that happen to me, I generally know what happens before I sit down to write about it.

Let me be clear, so there's no hard feelings or misunderstanding: This story is not like those stories. I've been lagging by a day in my account of Blaze's disappearance, but hopefully this post will put you in real time with me, at least for a few paragraphs. I am making every effort to tell you what I know, as soon as I know it.

Which means, much as I'd like to admit otherwise, that Blaze is still gone. It's going on four days now and I've seen neither hide nor hair of him. If I knew the ending to this story, I would clue you in now. But I don't. Each dot of ellipsis that I leave at the end of these entries is a bullet in my heart. I share your anxiety, your frustration, your feelings of suspense. These are not narrative contrivances to keep you coming back. This is my life.

Yesterday, Wednesday, I called in sick for the day and spent it focused entirely on Blaze. I called the police and filed a report. I called every animal shelter in the area, including the hospital that restored Blaze's health after he was abandoned by his original owners. I talked to every single one of my neighbors whose homes abut my lot, who are all good and decent people, and who all adore Blaze, especially after that time he saved us all from the divebombing blackbird. Joe, the Corgi owner was the last one I spoke to. As he told HLS, he had not seen Blaze. When he came home from work, he went straight in to get his Corgi and walk him. Blaze was already gone by then, otherwise he would have barked his head off at the Corgi. Joe loves Blaze and offered to help in any way he could, but in all likelihood, whoever walked off with Blaze did so just before Joe got home.

And if someone did walk off with Blaze, he/she couldn't have picked a better avenue of escape. From Indiana Avenue to my yard there is a strip of grass that separates Joe's house from our next-door neighbors, lovely but quiet people who I will call the Recluses. The Recluses have a six-foot high wooden fence. Directly opposite this fence, across the strip of grass, is the west wall of Joe's house. It's actually a garage wall, and is windowless. Someone could have easily parked a car on the street, dashed straight up that strip of grass, enter our back yard by the far corner, unlock Blaze and run back to the car with no one noticing. I scanned the grass from my yard all the way to the curb, but could find nothing, not so much as a cigarette stub or even a boot or paw print, but it still seemed the mostly likely avenue of approach.

I called or visited every neighbor on Indiana Ave. Some I know; some I know just enough to nod hello; most I don't know at all. None of them had seen a strange car parked on the street, nor had they seen anyone walking between yards. Which, the more I thought about it, was not a surprise. Near as I can tell, Blaze disappeared around 6:30, a time when many folks are sitting down to dinner, not looking out their windows for dog-nappers.

Later, I sat down on the front porch, drinking my 5th cup of coffee and making a list of known enemies and possible theories--as well as holes in the theories--to explain Blaze's disappearance.

--May have had some connection to the disappearance of Buddy, my neighbor's dog who is still missing. But why? And was the perv in the black Volkswagen involved (check with police to see if he's in jail, out on bail or what)?

--Crazy Mrs. Belfry--with whom my family had a run-in this past winter and who hates my dog-- might have gone clean round the bend and nabbed him. She certainly has a history of trespassing on my property and would have a motive for getting rid of my dog.

--Jerk Who Lets his Mean Dog Run Free--We have never officially met--only exchanged words once--and he's never so much as walked past my house (that I know of), and his Mean Dog and Blaze have been implacable enemies for close to three years now. But why get rid of Blaze now?

--Some kid did it. Blaze is beloved by the children of the neighborhood; many have wished aloud that he was their dog. Would one of them have taken him on impulse? Unlikely, since they live in the neighborhood and I'd be bound to see my own dog. Unless...was it someone whose family was moving (three houses in our block have sold this year and the families were all moving out this summer)? Note: Check with Homeowner's Association to see who left recently. They would have a complete directory of everyone in every house and a forwarding address for sending a prorated refund of their association fees.

--The dick who was driving too fast that one night and tried to get out of his car and jump me when I told him to slow down? He'd likely have attempted to kick my ass if Blaze hadn't chased him back in the car. But that was ages ago. Why now?

--Something more nefarious. Petty criminals stealing pets. Why? Ransom? Too outlandish. To resell? Was Blaze some rare breed of dog (or mistaken for a rare breed of dog) that someone thought they could sell? The vet always said he was a mutt--her best guess was part beagle, part Rottweiler, which would explain his hound-dog tendencies but also his temperament towards the kids (unless they are conditioned as attack dogs, Rottweilers are naturally inclined to be both gentle around--and fiercely protective of family members).

--Why didn't he bark? He never barks at kids, rarely at women, always at men. Except for men he knows. Or maybe he did bark and no one paid attention. He's been barking a lot out back, what with all the rabbits running loose.

--??? Something I'm missing?


I was staring at what I'd written, trying to see if anything fit together in something resembling sense when I heard the patter of several little feet. From across Baltic Avenue here in Monopolis, several kids, including Bee and Kay and their older brother--the kids who lost their dog Buddy several weeks ago--were dashing to me.

"Thomas told us Blaze got kidnapped!" one girl said breathlessly.

"Dognapped," an older girl corrected.

"It's true," I said. And then I gave them my most serious look and asked if there was any chance they or someone they knew might have snuck back there and let Blaze loose, just as a joke. They shook their heads in unison and I was inclined to believe them.

"Hey!" one of the older boys piped up. "Me and the guys will take our bikes and ride around asking people."

"Do you have reward posters yet?" one of the girls asked.

"Almost," I said. In fact, Thomas was inside just then, printing the last of them.

"Because we can put them up on poles and signs and stuff," she said. "We really like Blaze."

"And we don't want him to disappear like Buddy," Bee said glumly.

Just then, Kay and Bee's mother--let's call her Alice--came over to get the story of Blaze's disappearance. She seemed pale and upset by the news, and I sensed she had more to say, but not in front of the kids. I got Thomas to finish the missing-dog posters and a dozen kids--my Baltic Avenue Irregulars--dashed off in every direction with a pile of them.

"Wonder if it will help," I mused.

There was a silence. Then Alice said, quietly, "He's dead, you know."

I felt my cheeks and forehead get hot and prickly. "What?" I stammered.

Realizing what she'd said, Alice patted my shoulder. "Not Blaze. I pray God you find him. No, I meant...Buddy." This last she said in a whisper.

My mouth dropped when she said this. "When? How? Don't the kids know?" I babbled.

Alice's eyes got red and she wiped tears out of them as soon as they emerged. "It was a week ago. They found him at the landfill on the other side of the city. He--" she stopped and cried for a minute. "He was all torn to pieces. They only identified him because we had one of those chips put in him. Aw, God!" And now she sobbed in earnest.

"I'm so sorry," I said, trying to hide my genuine sorrow and horror. "Was he hit by a truck? Attacked by a bear? What--?"

Alice pulled a tissue out of her sleeve, honked her nose, regained some composure. "No. He was killed in a dogfight."

I stared at her, unable to respond.

"One of those illegal dogfights," she continued. "You know, with the pitbulls? Well, to get them ready to fight, the bastards who own the attack dogs usually get them worked up by letting them attack a bait animal, like a cat or another dog." She started sobbing again. "Buddy was such a good dog. A gentle dog. He would have been totally defenseless. The other dog just ripped him apart." She finished the rest in a series of gasps. "The police found the body. They say it's a big problem around here now. Almost every state has dogfights."

Then Alice must have seen how pale I looked and she touched my shoulder. "I'm sorry. I had to tell someone. I don't know what to tell the kids. I don't want them to think he ran away and they'll never know what happened. But how can I tell them this?"

I shook my head. I had no idea. In fact, I had nothing like a coherent thought whatsoever at that moment. All I had in my head was pure, cold terror, coupled by the vision of my dog being staked in the middle of some kind of makeshift colosseum, waiting for some trained killer to come rip his throat out.

"Do you have the names of the police who found Buddy's body?" I asked...



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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

 

In Which You Aren't the Only Ones Tired of Cliffhangers...



While I was trying to get the poor, tired Brownie to explain exactly who stole Blaze and how he was stolen, the back door opened and in walked Her Lovely Self, holding a leash and a box of dog treats.

"So, not stolen, but just run away?" I asked hopefully, pointing at the box of biscuits.

HLS stared at me and without so much as a "Hello" or "glad you're back," she simply said, "Your dog has slipped out of that damn collar three times since you've been gone!"

Ah, the collar. Blaze's old one had snapped and just before I left I had bought him a new one that I thought I had adjusted properly. But it's one of those anti-choke collars so that if he gets caught on some potentially strangling protrusion--a low branch, a porch railing, the side mirror of a passing car--it'll release. But it's not supposed to release when he's just running around on his dog run in the back yard.

As my suffering bride recounted, Blaze managed to slip out of his collar on three occasions, all of them to chase rabbits out of the yard. As good a dog as he is, unexpected freedom sometimes goes to his head and in the past he has riot through the neighborhood. But ever since he got the behavioral training where you learn to speak his language, HLS has been able to growl at him and call him back.

"Which is exactly what I did those three times," HLS explained. "And he came right back. I tightened the collar back up and left him on the run while I got the kids ready for bed. When I came down 20 minutes later to let him in, he'd slipped his collar again. That was four hours ago."

I breathed a small sigh of relief. In the past, Blaze has vanished for as long as 12 or 14 hours and had been out in the dark at least one other time. But--

"Why do you think somebody stole him?" I asked the Brownie.

"I saw a man out my window upstairs," she said emphatically. "He ran around the corner. I think I saw Blazey with him."

I looked at Her Lovely Self, who was shaking her head.

"Joe was out in his yard with his dog," she said. Our neighbor Joe's back yard is at a diagonal to ours and easily visible from the Brownie's window. Whenever he gets home, the first thing he does it let his little Corgi out and run around with him in the yard. Blaze looks nothing like a Corgi, of course, but it was dusk and the Brownie had a tendency to exaggerate, which I'm afraid is congenital.

"Did Joe happen to see Blaze?" I asked.

HLS shook her head. "I asked him. He had just come home and Blaze had already gotten loose. Otherwise, he'd have rushed right over to see Joe and the dog." I nodded. Blaze loved that Corgi and would have run straight to him, so he was already on loose, sometime between 6:30 and 7.

I tried to assure the Brownie that Blaze would probably turn up in the morning and that we should try to get some sleep. I sure needed it. But my daughter wasn't letting me off the hook so easily.

"Dad," she said, in her here-come-the-instructions voice, "Aren't you going to go drive around and look like you did last time her ran away at night?" She didn't care that I was dead on my feet. She wanted her Blazey back. And in the end, I guess it was her sense of urgency that compelled me to agree. Other times that Blaze had slipped his collar, she'd never been terribly upset (even though he'd had some close calls with passing cars on at least two occasions). For some reason, though, this disappearance bothered her more than any other. Therefore, it bothered me.

Thus it was that I found myself trolling the sodium-lit streets of my neighborhood for the next three hours, car windows down, alternately calling my dog's name and leaning out the window to shake a box of Milk Bones. After a fairly thorough traversing of the streets, I steeled myself for the hard part: going out onto the busy boulevard at the edge of our development and looking for a body.

Thankfully, I found just two--an opossum and a deer. But Blaze has dark coloring and if--God forbid--he got hit and knocked into a ditch, I wouldn't necessarily have spotted him. I'd have to look again in the morning, which was coming all too soon. I turned around and headed for home.

I parked in the driveway, and sat for a moment, car door open, calling my dog's name and shaking his box of treats. He can hear my car from a long ways off--he's taken to greeting me at the door when I come home from work. Maybe the sound of me pulling into the driveway would make him head for home. I sat there and waited.

Next thing I knew, it was dawn, Tuesday morning. I had fallen asleep in my car in the driveway. With the door open, with the courtesy light burning away all night. Which meant that the battery was dead. Also, I had spilled the entire box of dog treats onto my lap. My pants were completely impregnated with the dog-treat dust.

And still no Blaze. I went around back just to be sure. As I did, I almost clotheslined myself on the cable that stretches across the yard and acts as Blaze's run. It was perfectly secure and intact, but it tends to sag every now and then and I have to tighten it periodically.

As I ducked under the line, I saw the other cable--the leash cable that depended from the runner cable and attached to Blaze's collar. This one:


100_2133


I stared at it dumbly for a moment, the catch looking for all the world like a small metal question mark. Then I jiggled it so it would make a ringing noise. Blaze loves his runner and that noise had brought him back before. But after a few minutes, it was clear he was nowhere in earshot.

I went back to the car, got the jumper cables out and opened the garage door so I could jump-start my car with HLS's van. I was so exhausted at this point, it was as though I was moving through a hazy dream. I did however manage to restart my car and while I let it run so the battery could charge, I brushed out all the dog treats from my car and put them in a bowl by the front of the house. Blaze never missed a meal and once he got hungry enough, he'd come back and find this bowl. I hoped.

When I satisfied myself that my car was sufficiently recharged, I started to unclamp the jumper cables, but in my fatigue I must have touched something I shouldn't have because, for a brief moment, I got the most intense electrical shock that run up my thumb straight up my shoulder and neck, and on into my skull, effectively jump-starting my brain as well as my car.

"Oh shit!" I cried to no one in particular.

I dropped the cables, left the cars running and dashed into the house. Early risers that they are, HLS and Thomas were just coming down the stairs. Thomas hadn't seen me since I came home, so he yelled with delight and tackled me.

HLS just stared. "Are you still wearing your clothes from last night?" she asked.

I ignored her question, in favor of one of my own. "Where is it?" I asked.

"Where's what?" she wondered.

"Blaze's collar. You said he slipped out of it. Where is it? You brought it in, right?"

She and Thomas looked at each other and shrugged. "No," she finally said. "It's probably still out there hooked on his dog-run like all the other times."

"I was just out there," I said. "There's no collar attached to the leash on the run. So if none of you unhooked it and brought it in then--"

HLS put a hand to her mouth. "--then Blaze didn't slip out of his collar," she said, somewhat mortified.

Thomas looked at me. "I don't get it. How did Blazey unhook himself?"

"That's what I mean," I said, feeling my mouth go dry. "He can't. Someone must have unhooked him."

Thomas opened his mouth to say something else, but he was drowned out by a loud cry from behind him. Startled, we all jumped and turned. There on the stairwell, in rumpled jammies and fright wig hair, was the Brownie, looking more furious and righteous than I've ever seen her.

"I TOLD you someone stole Blazey!!" she shrieked, then she began to cry. A second later, so did Thomas.

I felt like joining them myself...



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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

 

In Which I Am 0 for 2...

If you're reading this, you'll know I survived my trip--after a fashion.

As ever, I'm amazed at how tired one can be after traveling, even though you spend most of that travel time sitting around on your ass. I spent the better part of my quality ass time in four hotels (or was it 5?), in the viewing rooms of 10 focus groups, on roughly 12 planes (though one was really small enough to qualify as an SUV with wings and a shitload of horsepower), and on an uncountable number of airport lounge chairs. (Except at Newark where my connecting flight, rather than simply being delayed three hours, was delayed AND moved to six different gates, two of which were at the very Ass End of two different concourses. So instead of waiting in any one place, I was doing the airline equivalent of a circuit training course).

The highlight of my travels was the moment in the Memphis airport when I was randomly selected for the full security screening and pat-down, a first for me and boy, wasn't it a treat. A large and jovial fellow pulled me aside and began feeling me in places that even Her Lovely Self hasn't touched in months, then waved his Garrett metal-detecting wand at me, which reminded me of when I was little and how my mother used to assault me from head to toe with a lint brush (I tended to accumulate a lot of hair that wasn't my own).

My jovial security man turned briefly serious when his wand began beeping wildly every time he passed it over my face. Although not a trained security professional myself, I offered the uninformed opinion that the cause of the disquieting alarm was most likely due to my glasses. My metal-framed glasses. I removed them and handed them to the gentleman. He set them aside very seriously and waved the wand over my face again--just in case I had a tactical nuclear device in a nostril. Then he inspected the glasses as though he had never seen metal-framed eyewear before. Or perhaps I am having too much fun at his expense. After all, Archimedes allegedly burned up an entire fleet of ships with a polished mirror. Imagine the destructive power I could bring to bear if I were able to use my lenses to focus sunlight into laser-intense beams. He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it, right?

I didn't mention this, of course, because it's against the law to have a sense of humor at any airport screening section, as one long ago boss found out when he joked that his 5-day old socks were "dirty bombs" and spent the next 12 hours as a guest of the federal government. But he was an ass, so that's okay.

The very best part of the experience, though, was the inspection of my baggage. If you've had this experience, you know that Murphy's Law dictates that the most embarrassing things will unfailingly fall out of your bag and perhaps even travel some distance across the floor, the better for more people to see.

In my case, of course, the item that popped out was Jenny, the small stuffed fox that the Brownie had sent traveling with me.


100_2069



To the security officer's great credit, he didn't laugh or point or say anything, even as he carefully squeezed and massaged Jenny for possible plush breaches of security. Myself, I managed to muster every scintilla of restraint so as to resist blurting out some kind of explanation. After all, it's nobody's business, is it? So I stood there, smiling benignly, looking for all the world as though I traveled with stuffed foxes every day. Finally, the officer returned Jenny to her resting place and I was allowed to continue on my travels.

Sorry, his resting place. I keep forgetting Jenny is a boy (according to my daughter).

So it was too bad, really, that on the last leg of my journey, as I sat in yet another uncomfortable chair in yet another airline terminal, waiting for yet another connecting flight, I was wading through my carry-on bag for a book and realized that I was quite unable to account for Jenny.

My casual sifting became a frenzied rooting as wrinkled shirts, wadded socks, undies in bunches and more traveling detritus were all hurled from the bag in an increasingly desperate attempt to locate the precious Jenny. But after an inspection so detailed and invasive it would have qualified me for an airport security job, I was forced to conclude the unthinkable: that fucking fox was gone.

I laid back in my lounge seat and summoned what few wits I had left, trying to remember the last time I'd seen the damn thing. It had been the night before, at the Marriott hotel in Charlotte. I had been packing my clothes for an early check-out the next day--we had an 8 AM focus group to attend and were leaving for the airport straight after, so my bags were going with me. I distinctly remembered seeing--even holding--Jenny. I was 99 percent certain I had stuffed him in the side pouch where I keep my good shoes. But I had checked both shoes--two or three times, if you want to know the truth--and there was nothing.

So here's me at an airport phone kiosk, calling the hotel in Charlotte. It wasn't too late, but the very sleepy sounding young man who answered would have begged to differ, had he been capable of it. "Marrya Charla. Howmydreck yer call?" he slurred into the receiver.

It took several tries, but I finally managed to convey to the night manager that I was trying to locate a stuffed fox, which would have been in Room 230 and was there any chance that some kind-hearted chambermaid might have found the fox and put it into some kind of lost-and-found box?

Eventually, I was able to the discern from his mumbled replies that corralling wayward plush toys for traveling businessmen was not in his job description, and that I would do well to call during normal business hours, when the housekeeping manager would be on duty and could look in the lost-and-found box located in the housekeeping office.

Except that, having just been there, I knew the housekeeping office was about 10 feet behind the night manager (I went there myself the night before to request some extra towels. I like extra towels). And so, through a combination of groveling and what, given his state of consciousness, could only have been the power of suggestion, I managed to compel the increasingly surly fellow to traverse the 10-foot distance and confirm that the lost-and-found box in the housekeeping office contained no stuffed animals, only the usual contents of lost-and-found boxes the world over: dark wool caps bearing the logos of sports team, an empty fanny pack, assorted cosmetics well past their used-by date, and an Isotoner glove missing its mate.

The night manager hung up on me, thus saving me the trouble of thanking him for nothing.

I sat for a moment, drumming my fingers on my carry-on bag, trying to figure out a Plan B which, it turned out, was staring me in the face. For, across the concourse from me was one of many airport gift shops.

That's right, sports fans, in addition to overpriced soda and breath mints, you can also find a wide and astonishing assortment of shut-the-kid-up products in most major airport gift shops. Coloring books, Matchbox cars, video games, and shelf after shelf of stuffed animals. In one shop, ostensibly a news agent's, they had more plush toys than magazines or newspapers. I suppose it makes sense: you get to the airport and your little tyke suddenly goes into hysterics because That Special Bear/Bunny/Wolverine was accidentally left at home. No one wants a screaming kid on a plane, so the gift shops perform the admirable--if pricey--public service of stocking every kind of stuffed animal imaginable.

EXCEPT A GODDAMN FOX!

I know, because I looked. In the 45 minutes I had before my flight left, I personally handled every plush toy in the airport. They had every species of creature represented--alligators, cardinals, platypuses (platypi?), rattlesnakes, even--and I swear I'm not making this up--giant dust mites. But not one single fox.

Then I realized the background noise I'd been hearing for a few minutes was somebody making final boarding calls for my plane, and I had to run.

Once I was aboard, it occurred to me that finding toy foxes has always been something of a struggle for my family. I remember well when the Brownie asked for her first one some time around the age of three and Her Lovely Self and I turned every store in a hundred-mile radius upside down. We did find a giant and scarily life-sized fox puppet for sale online, but it was around 40 bucks and it was as big as the child herself, so we opted not to pursue it. We finally found a Beanie Baby fox and thought that would do.

As usual, though, my parents trumped us. When the Brownie's birthday arrived, my mom gave her an enormous wrapped box that contained--natch--the giant fox puppet and a slightly smaller stuffed fox that my dad had found in some godforsaken Vermont gift shop in the middle of nowhere. The giant fox puppet became known as Big Mama Fox and today generally resides in the Foxhole (the Brownie's secret room behind her closet), while the other fox from my parents became the famous Foxo. Our pitiful little Beanie Fox became Jenny, and for a while he spent most of his time inside the puppet handhole of Big Mama who, with the aid of my daughter, would "give birth" to him several times a day (she watches a lot of Animal Planet so she knows the rudiments of mammal reproduction).

Jenny was entrusted to me for the precise reason that he was the least favorite of the foxes, but as I flew towards home in an emotional state that can only be called growing dread, I knew his absence would nevertheless be detected immediately. The Brownie knew these foxes were hard to come by, and every night when I called from the hotel, she'd ask if Jenny was all right. I'd stare at him poking out of my carry-on and assure her that he was safe and sound. "Good," she'd say. "He's very special." And what had I done? I'd lost him. And I just knew it would be the first thing the Brownie would ask me in the morning, when she woke up.

As it turned out, I was wrong about that.

Because when I finally got home after dark and sheepishly let myself in, I was somewhat astonished to discover that my 5-year-old daughter was still up, well past her bedtime. When she saw me, she rushed from the sofa, yelling my name over and over. I was briefly elated--it's always nice to have someone be happy to see you (besides our dog Blaze, I mean). Then I remembered my terrible sin and braced myself for the inevitable question.

But it never came.

For after she hugged me, she stepped away, looked at me with glistening eyes and said something that made me realize I wouldn't have to worry about Jenny coming up in conversation any time soon.

"Dad," she said, her face very serious. "Somebody came and stole Blazey away...



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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

 

In Which I Am Just Going Outside...

When I first started in magazines, one of the great perks--actually, pretty much the only perk--was the opportunity for travel. Oh, I had been around the country as a freelancer, driving an assortment of cars into the ground in order to chase stories, but these were nearly always under an expense allotment of, say, $100 or $200, which was never enough for a plane ticket and often barely enough for gas and one meal a day. If I wanted to, say, sleep in a bed instead of my car, or enjoy supper (or breakfast) I had to pay for it (but it made for good deductions come tax time).

Then I got an actual staff job and suddenly I had a company card and a travel budget and everything except a private jet. In my first job, I traveled probably 5 or 6 times a year on assignment, and another 3 to 4 times a year to attend assorted trade shows.

I loved the excitement and glamour (well, sort of glamour) of it and it would have been a perfect little career. But then I had to go and fall in love and every time I went on assignment and was away from Her Lovely Self for so much as a weekend, I got lonely and annoyed.

Getting married and having kids did nothing to change this, except for the worse. Now, instead of being merely lonely and irritated, I'm downright sad and bereft. Which is odd, because in truth there are days when I could really use a break and have some peace and quiet. But I mean around the house, not in the Best Western in Duluth.

Thus it is that where I once traveled almost every month on some magazine errand or other, I now travel less than once a year. And usually it's just for an overnight. And that's by choice.

Not this week.

This week, I'm off on a fairly long, arduous, and mandatory round of trips around the country to see what groups of five people selected at random think of our magazine. Somehow, the opinion of each of these five people is meant to have some bearing on the course of a publication that has millions of readers, or so you'd think afterwards, the way you hear some editors and executives spout about the valuable input we just got from less than a hundredth of 1 percent of our reading audience.

I know there's a valid statistical and psychological model for doing focus groups, it's just that no one has ever explained it to my satisfaction. As for me, I just like to go to focus groups because I get to sit in a soundproofed room behind mirrored glass and play peeping Tom, eavesdropping on these folks while they spout for better and worse about my magazine (makes you wish you could get folks you know--all your old girlfriends, maybe--and have someone lead a focus group about ex-boyfriends, just to see if your name comes up). And to be frank, even though it's a small group, it's interesting and no small amount of refreshing to hear people just unload about your work in a state of naked honesty. Except they're not really naked. I'll have to tell you more when I get back.

But even though I'm looking forward to the focus groups, it's a bit of a barnstorming trip--12 individual groups in 3 states in 5 days, with barely time built in for sleeping or eating. The inconvenience I can live with.

Leaving the kiddos, though, has become increasingly difficult.

Already tonight the Brownie had a tearful moment when she realized I was leaving in the morning and it just about killed me. And her. Being gone overnight is one thing. Being in the hospital for three days is another--at least I was in town. But I'll be gone all week--the longest I've been away in her memory--and it's totally throwing her out of whack.

"But...but I LIKE you HERE! At HOME!!" she insisted, confident that this should settle the thing. "You CAN'T go because I need you to STAY. Who will find Pinky Bear and Foxo at night?" (She loses them daily and every fucking night I have to perform a basement-to-attic search before finally finding them in unlikely places such as the back of the dishwasher, or the middle of the raspberry bushes). And then she did the thing with the quivering lip where you'll promise anything to make her smile again, except for the fact that the tickets are nonrefundable and anyway my boss is sitting next to me on the plane, so he'll notice if I'm not there.

After letting this reality sink in for a bit, the Brownie returned to me just before bed, somewhat more composed, hands behind her back. "I've decided to let you go, Dad," she announced. "But you have to take this with you!"

And she did a dramatic reveal.



100_2066


This is not Foxo, by the way, but one of the Lesser Foxes, named Jenny. Still, to be given any fox by my daughter, who loves foxes...well, it was so sweet a moment that the very air around us suddenly turned into fine particules of sugar that encrusted my eyes and caused the room to become very blurry.

"Well, thank you honey. I'm sure Jenny will keep an eye on me," I said hoarsely, gently taking and packing the little fox next to my socks.

"You can sleep with him on your pillow every night and think of me so you won't get lonely," she said.

"Him?" I asked.

"Yes," she nodded. "Jenny can be a boy's name too."

Oh God, how I have come to hate traveling without my family. Even with a fox for company.

But enough whining. With that I am officially packed and ready to leave tomorrow. I may be some time, and if there's Web access from wherever I end up, I may make a brief post or two. Otherwise, Jenny and I hope to see you this weekend, if not sooner.

Stay out of trouble while I'm gone.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, June 09, 2006

 

In Which We Tear A Page from the Datebook...

Yeesh, what a week. Here's a sample of what it's been like:


5:30 or so AM: Get up, hang out with Thomas, looking over his ever-increasing baseball card collection and going over the highlights of his last tournament game.

6:30: Creep downstairs with Her Lovely Self and make breakfast for Thomas while HLS goes walking with a neighbor. Send Blaze with her because she and neighbor want to walk on the trail, which has seen three incidents (including the perv from my last post) involving attacks against kids or women. Blaze is pretty even-tempered when I walk him, but he won't permit so much as a robin to flit within five feet of my wife when I'm not around.

7:00: Despite efforts to be quiet, we wake my Dad, who I helped position himself in my recliner last night around 2 in the morning. He is much recovered from his rotator cuff surgery, but he is wearing some kind of compression sling that holds his left arm and shoulder as immobile as possible. He manages to sleep for a few hours in bed, but eventually the pain wakes him up and he comes downstairs for water. I am usually just calling it a night, so we chat for a bit. I hate to see him so lamed up.

7:30:
The Brownie announces that she is conscious and expects someone to come and get her. Meaning me. This is a bad habit to indulge--she IS five, after all. Maybe next year we can wean her from this terrible scourge of Daddy having to come and pick her up out of bed, while she nuzzles my neck and sings

Good morning, good morning
(Doo da doo da doo da dootado!)
Good morning, good morning, to you.
(Da doo da doo!!)


7:38: Bring Dad his coffee while Thomas, a.k.a. Captain Self-Sufficient, pours himself a few bowls of cereal. Sometimes, when he's feeling charitable, he pours a bowl for his sister, and even one for the dog.

7:40:
Mom comes down and makes breakfast for the grown-ups. She also sings the good morning song to the kiddos. Thomas pretends to hate it, but secretly, he doesn't.

7:41: Her Lovely Self returns. Blaze is trotting in front of her in a way that suggests he is in charge and tragedy has once again been narrowly averted.

7:42: Shower, dress, grab everything I've been working on.

9:00: Get to work and update my proposal document, a file that I have named Lifesaver. After some recent and somewhat unexpected changes high in the upper echelons of the executive management of the Large Corporation that owns the Really Big Magazine, it has been determined that 90 percent of the stories and sections that run in my department are way off base. In a recent reader survey, all but two of my regular sections scored as the lowest sections of interest for our millions of readers. Note: not AMONG the lowest. THE lowest.

This is not my fault: when I came aboard, I inherited these sections. In fact, the two sections that scored as being interesting to our readers were sections I developed in the past 3 or so years. Now I'm being asked to reinvent the rest of the department, retooling our coverage to meet the needs of a reader who is slightly older and makes slightly more money. But however slight these changes in who our reader is may be, I have to make sweeping changes to accommodate that reader. Or I can let one of my senior editors go and be happy with a smaller department. I've already lost one open position that I needed to fill; I'll be damned if I have to fire someone because a survey of 1 percent of our readership says that 74 percent of those surveyed didn't really care for most of the material I'm responsible for.

Maybe I should be taking that job at that small magazine after all.

9:01-5:47 PM: Spend the entire day tweaking my Lifesaver proposal, as well as editing incoming stories to fit the new voice we're also suddenly deciding we need to invent. Spend some time reassuring my staff, but the truth is I don't know what's going to happen. If my proposed changes aren't successful, my entire department--and me along with it--could be gone inside of 18 months.

7:00:
Get home in time to eat something cold--the remnants of supper--and them practice hitting and catching with Thomas. His coach has suggested he work on pop-flies. Our back yard isn't big enough for me to really whack a ball, so I hurl the ball as hard and as high as I can, straight up in the air. I can usually wing one straight up until it's higher than the roof of the house, then it comes down like a bullet. Thomas doesn't catch all of them, but he's learned to step right under them, which is the main thing, breeding fear of the ball out of him. We do this over and over til dark.

8:15: Get Thomas washed up and into bed. Tell him a few stories from my brief baseball and softball days. The story in which I get smashed in the eyeball with a softball is always a favorite.

9:00: Sit downstairs with my parents, chatting. My mom has brought some old photos. I spend hours each evening, staring into the hard, lined faces of my grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and third cousins. They had no worries about writing proposals to justify their work. Their work was self-evident: get enough food to keep the family fed one more day. Sleep. Get up. Repeat for 50 or 60 years.

1:58 AM: Dad comes downstairs, looking pained. I help position him in the recliner and bring him some water and aspirin. By the time I return, the dog is in his lap, chin on Dad's ample belly, gazing up at my dad like he's a long-lost relative. Dad absently strokes Blaze's big dumb head, but he's looking at the stony faces of his forebears in the photos I've been poring over. "Wonder what they'd make of the lives we've led," I say, following his gaze.

My dad nods. "I sometimes think the same thing. We traveled a lot when you and yer brother were young, and you boys got to go to college, which was something they never would have understood. Anymore than they would have appreciated the work you do now. Half of em couldn't read, I'm sorry to say. Even your own grandfather was barely literate. Hard to believe we're all branches on the same ugly-ass tree."

I nod and smile. But as I bid Dad good night and head up to my own bed, I wonder about that. For as old and wizened and weathered as they look, there's something immediately familiar in the eyes staring out from those old photos. I see it in my dad's eyes when he grimaces in pain over his injury; I see it when I look in the mirror every morning and resolve to save my department; I see it when I watch my son force himself to stand stock still in the field, glove out, eyeing a ball that's coming straight at his head.

It's a look that says, No ducking. Face it. Stare it down. Catch it and become the master of it.

It's the last thing I think of before falling asleep.

Then, three hours later, it starts all over again.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, June 05, 2006

 

In Which We Have Much Closure...


Goodness, what a full few days. Lotsa closure this week.

Let's start in reverse order:


The phone rang early the other evening and it was my old pal Officer Peltz, the Police Area Representative for my neighborhood watch group.

"So," he says, "I guess you been reading the papers."

"No, actually, I'm a little behind," I said. "What's up?"

"Friday morning out on the nature trail over in Yahtzeeville," he said, referring to 120 some miles of walking and biking trails that criss-cross our county (in fact, the local access point is less than a quarter-mile from the Magazine Mansion). "Two 6th grade girls were out riding bikes--first day of summer vacation--and some scumbag jumped out of the bushes and exposed himself."

I was thinking, Oh God, but my mouth went dry and I couldn't say it.

"They tried to get away from him and he got hold of one girl's bike, but some guy was coming the other direction and he had a mobile phone. Called 911. Scumbag took off into the woods. Girls were crying and what-not, but they caught a good look at the guy. At his face, I mean. Young guy, long wavy hair. Acne scars."

He paused to see if I would say something, but I didn't.

"Well, you know we all work together in the county, so when we got the call, soon as I heard the description, I remembered the guy you saw a month back. The one you thought was checking out the girls across the street. I still had the info you gave me."

Here he took a long pause. "I never ran the plate. I should have. But I kept the information and I told the boys over in Yahtzeeville to look for a black Volkswagen with the license tag you gave me."

He paused again, but I was too numb to speak.

"We picked him up today at his mom's house. One of the girls and the guy who called 911 ID'ed him. Confiscated his computer, stuff like that. Sick fucker. He gave it up. Even with a guilty plea, he's off the streets for a long time."

"Oh thank God you got him," I said, finally finding my voice.

"Yeah, well, the papers are making it sound like I caught him single-handed. I told them our neighborhood watch people saw him acting suspicious, but, well, you know I'm retiring end of the year, and they're running with that. Going out with a bang, like that."

"Well, good job. I'm glad you got him," I said sincerely.

He sighed. "Yeah, well, I called to tell you you're a goddamn pain in my ass--"

"Oh, thanks!" I said. "You know, I get that a lot."

"I bet you do. Anyway, I should have listened. I was...you know, wrong. I admit it. If you hadn’t spotted this shitbag, I don't know what ...I think he'd still be, you know..."

"Well, sir, I appreciate that," I said, and I meant it. "My dad says only truly great men have the balls to admit mistakes. And I'm sorry I'm such a pain."

"Yeah, well," he harrumped. "Okay then. Good deal. Thanks."

He was about to hang up when one more thought struck me.

"Wait! Officer Z! Did the guy say anything about the dog?"

"Dog?" he asked.

"Yeah, remember, the girls in my neighborhood. Their dog disappeared just a couple days after I saw the guy. Dog's still missing. The girls are really upset. It's been a long time."

"No idea," he said. "But I'll pass it along to guys in Yahtzeeville. If he did get rid of the dog so he could get at the girls, he probably killed it, you know."

"You ever lose a pet, Officer Z?"

"Yeah, I hear ya. Better to know they're dead for certain than to wonder. I'll try to find out. Least I can do."

And so ended the most amazing phone call of the year.



Moving on back through the week...

Even more closure, as Thomas finished first grade and wrapped up his all-too-short baseball season in splendid style. He smacked a triple into the outfield, as seen here in this ridiculously large photo...


000_0082


...made ridiculously large so that you can see the ball--see it up there in the air, looking all, you know, ball-like?--because I'm sure you've never seen a baseball hit before ever.

With both video camera batteries dead as doornails, I brought along my digital voice recorder, thinking it would be fun to send my parents a radio broadcast of the game. The play-by-play runs to two hours, but I'll spare you that and give you the last two minutes. Two of the most exciting minutes of my life--in a public place, anyway.

Exciting, not just because these kids are still young enough that their first instinct is to duck when a spinning white bullet comes at them, but exciting also because it was game-ender, and not just any doinky old pop-up that you could catch by closing your eyes and sticking out your glove (which, to be honest, is exactly how all of the catches in this league have been made this season); no, this was a line drive, and Thomas didn't duck from it, but got in its way. If he had missed it, it would have smashed him in the teeth (and he was already playing injured, having been smacked in the eye by a pitch two innings earlier).

Um, so anyway, I was a little proud and excited about this. As you might gather from this little clip.

I guess that's it.


Oh all right, if you must know:

The word I went out on in the County level of the Spelling Bee was "convertible."

Happy now?

No, of course you're not, because I didn't tell you that I finally grabbed all five of my remaindered books and found a comfy chair and sat down and signed them all. Then, instead of putting them back on the remaindered table, I put two back where they belong--in the Health/Sexuality section. The other three went front and center, right on the New Arrivals table, accidentally dislodging Jim Belushi's Real Men Don't Apologize.

Given the title, I didn't think he'd mind.

Or at least expect me to express any regret over it.


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, June 02, 2006

 

In Which I Have a Bee in My Bonnet...



I don't watch a ton of TV, especially sports and contests of skill. But tonight, just after putting the kids to bed, I switched the set on and there was the National Spelling Bee, broadcast live, somewhere in the 8th or 9th round.

When I first heard it was going to be televised live on ABC tonight, I made my usual smart-ass remarks about watching another boring sport. And I should know: when I lived in England, it seemed like every time I turned on the telly, I was watching some marathon snooker tournament, or the World Series of darts, or even skeet-shooting. I learned to cope with these programs by drinking heavily. Now here was the American equivalent, I joked.

Except that when I actually turned on the TV, the moment I saw one of the lil guys standing in front of their parents, a huge live audience, and a viewing public of millions, trying to remember how to spell a word they will never use again in their lives, I had nothing but admiration for these kids. I watched the rest of it with rapt attention and no small amount of awe. I mean, I work with words everyday and am considered to have an above-average vocabulary, but these kids were fielding words I never even knew existed. Every time some young man or woman stepped to the mic and asked for his or her word to be repeated, I would shout at the TV to pronounce it one more time for me (luckily, some of the kids heard me and they were pronounced again). Surely some of these words had to be made up, or the judges were using the wrong dictionary. I mean "dghaisa"? "Kalanchoe"? "Ursprache"?

And yet, these kids knew them. And when little Kerry Close won tonight, I found myself cheering like she was my own daughter.

Her Lovely Self regarded me with her usual look of pity and amusement. "How is it you can't stand to watch the Super Bowl, but you can watch this?"

I thought for a moment as I watched the look of sheer jubilation and relief on the winner's face. It was a look I recognized. "Well," I finally said to my wife. "I never played in the Super Bowl."

I did, however, compete in the National Spelling Bee. Or I guess, to be more precise, I should say I made it to the playoffs.

I was in 6th grade when I competed in the District Division of the National Spelling Bee. I was living in the Midwest at the time, and our district consisted of several schools, which meant I was up against roughly 40 other 6th, 7th and 8th graders. In the five or six years that the district had participated, the 8th graders had always dominated, which made sense, seeing as they were older and knew more words. Once or twice a 7th grader won or was a runner-up, which was not bad, because back then they got to go to the county finals (you could send two spellers from each district to participate in the county, and two from the county division could go to state finals).

I easily won my class eliminations, but my spot in the district bee was challenged almost immediately by a teacher I will call Mr. F, because F stands for so many words I wanted to call him. Mr. F had taken an almost instant disliking to me the moment I entered the school where he taught. He thought I was too big for britches, he thought I had a smart mouth. He accused me of taunting the bigger kids into attacking me (like the fellow my Big Brother stuffed in a garbage can) so that they would get in trouble for beating the piss out of me (let's just think about the logic of that for a moment).

Anyway, Mr. F was out to get me, and here he saw an opportunity to trip me up. He went to the principal and complained that I was not old enough to participate because I was only 10--the age of a 5th grader (I may have mentioned a time or two that I started kindergarten at 4 and just kept going up a grade each year, making me the youngest kid in class--by a year or more--for my entire academic career). The Bee was for older students, he insisted, and I would just embarrass the school (and myself) because I was too young to compete with the big boys, such as his son Brent, who was the 8th grade champion and the winner of last year's district bee as a 7th grader.

I didn't find this out til much later, but the dispute went all the way to the state judges, who went to the rulebook and saw that the participants were restricted by grade level, not by age. If I was smart enough and mature enough to handle the workload of a 6th grader, I was smart enough and mature enough to participate in the Bee.

And the Bee was a big deal in our little section of Kansas, let me tell you. On the day of the event, the school gym was packed with kids and parents from all across the district. Even my own father left work early so he could watch me, which made me both secretly pleased and scared. This was during a long period of my childhood where he thought I was lazy and not of much account, so his coming meant he thought I had achieved something of value. But I was also scared because, well, the odds were pretty high that I would lose--no sixth graders ever won, or even ever made it to the final round--and I didn't want to fail in front of him and cement his opinion of me.

In a few moments, though, it didn't matter. The two judges from some distant town (a neutral one that had no interest in who won or lost in our district) had arrived with their dictionaries and shushed the crowd so that we could begin. Right then, I found myself focused only on the words, watching them appear in my head, even as the crowd faded to nothing in my mind.

The first hour was a blur. More than half the sixth graders from the other districts were eliminated in the first round, on their first and only word. And then I got my first word--

(technique--T-E-C-H-N-I-Q-U-E--technique)

I remember sweat trickling down my back as I spelled it, but the first hurdle was over.

I'd love to tell you I remember every word I was given, but I don't. All I remember is that, in the next hour, the 40-some students were whittled down to 6 kids, including three from our school--me, an 8th grader named Kim (who had been a runner-up last year) and her classmate Brent, Mr. F's son and the defending champ. I remembered well when he won last year, on the word "ambidextrous." When his victory was announced, he bounded into the stands and slapped five with his classmates, who all cheered and taunted the losers, including poor Kim, who was left standing by herself in the empty row of chairs, no one congratulating her on making it to the county bee as a runner-up.

This year, Brent looked on track to win again. But then he got the word "mollify." He started to spell it:

"M-A...I mean O! I mean O! M-O-L-L-I-F-Y." he blurted.

The judges were about to disqualify him when Mr. F, a big and imposing fellow, raised his voice to the judges and insisted that Brent be allowed to stay. It was obvious he knew the word; he had simply misspoken, Mr, F argued.

This caused a murmur in the crowd. I mean EVERYONE knew there were no take-backs in the spelling bee. If you said the wrong letter, that was it. You were out. You can bet Mr. F would have made sure I was physically thrown from the room if I had made a similar gaffe.

But in the end, the judges decided to let it pass and allow Brent to stay in. Kim spelled her word correctly. I spelled mine.

(ossification--O-S-S-I-F-I-C-A-T-I-O-N--ossification)

By the 10th or 11th round, it was down to Brent, Kim, some 7th grader from the next town over, and yours truly.

Brent got out next, and I'm pleased to report it was his own bone-headedness that caused it. Especially because he got what seemed like an easy word.

"Heart," he heard one of the judges say.

Brent smiled. "Heart--H-E-A-R-T--heart," he rattled off.

But the judge hadn't actually said "heart." The word she had given him was "hart." The male deer, not the blood-pumping organ. Brent had failed to ask for a definition of the word. And boy, was it a righteous failure; even Mr. F couldn't contest it.

Two rounds later, the 7th grader got out on "onomatopoeia," which I remember, because if I'd gotten the word, I'd have spelled it wrong too.

And just like that, it was down to Kim and me, the only 6th grader (and 10-year-old) to make the finals.

It went back and forth for a while. It seemed we were suddenly getting easier words, but I kept bracing myself for the poison dart, the unexpected toughie that would throw one of us off.

Kim got it first: "garniture."

She stood silent for a second, then asked for a definition to buy her some time. I didn't know what to hope for. I had never heard of the word before, and to win the bee, I had to correctly spell the word she got wrong and then spell a new one. I was as likely to get it wrong as she was.

And then, she got it wrong, spelling it with an "m" instead of an "n."

I figured I had nothing to lose. If I got it wrong, we'd just go round again. So I just took a stab--G-A-R-N-I-T-U-R-E.

"Correct," the judge said, and suddenly there was a mighty gasp from the 6th graders. If I got the next word right...

"MM, if you correctly spell the next word, you will win. Are you ready?" one of the judges asked. I nodded. My mouth suddenly seemed too dry to speak.

"Canopy," I heard the judge say.

Oh my God, I've won! I thought. Canopy was easy!

"Canopy," I said. "C-"

Then I stopped.

"Is it too late to ask for a definition of the word?" I begged the judges.

"Yes!" blurted Mr. F from the stands. But the judges ignored him. One of them looked at me.

"We can give you the definition, but you will still have to begin spelling the word with the letter C. Do you understand?" I nodded.

Then she read from the dictionary: "'A thin piece of bread or cracker served as an appetizer.'"

I closed my eyes. "Excuse me," I said. "Is it pronounced 'can-o-pee' or 'can-ah-pay'?"

The judges looked at each other, then puzzled over the pronunciation section of the dictionary. Finally, one of them looked up. "Yes, it could be pronounced 'can-ah-pay.'"

"Canape," I said, pronouncing it just as I'd heard my mother pronounce it hundreds of times when we'd had people over for Christmas partied. "C-A-N-A-P-E. Canape."

It was almost 30 years ago, but the moment the judges smiled and said "Correct!" simultaneously remains as clear to me as if it happened yesterday, and ranks among the top 10 greatest moments of my life. I had never won anything before, certainly nothing like this.

My classmates all stood in the stands and cheered, hands up, ready for the celebratory back-slapping and giving each other fives.

Instead--and I don't know what possessed me, because I was a pretty cocky, ill-mannered smart-ass kid--I turned to Kim, the runner-up for the second year straight, and offered her my hand.

"Good game," I said, which was what we always said after baseball games and didn't really fit in this context, but it was the only thing I could think of. But it was that moment that people remembered more than me being the first 10-year-old to win the district bee. Even Mr. F told me how surprised he was to discover what good sportsmanship I displayed. My dad commented on it as well. My stock had risen ever so slightly in his books.

The rest of the afternoon was an impromptu party of cheering and hollering and the presentation of trophies. And somewhere in there, a guy from the county paper showed up, and, sadly, immortalized the moment for all time.



beefinal



Incidentally, I placed 4th in the County Bee, going out on a word so simple I can't bring myself to tell you what it was. As third runner-up, I was an alternate to go to the State Bee if the winner and the other two runners-up suffered some kind of mass catastrophic accident, which I'm ashamed to say I sort of hoped for. This was a farming community, after all. Lots of dangers could befall kids when they were around threshers and combines and animals with long horns. But nothing happened and so that was the short life and death of my Spelling Bee career.

But I've never forgotten that moment of relief and pride and satisfaction and exhaustion, when I realized I had beaten everyone else. The look I had on my face then had to have to been similar to what young Kerry Close felt tonight, with those beaming eyes, that radiant smile. That memory will stay with her forever. And even when she's old and can't spell so well anymore, I hope she'll think back on this day and, for a brief time anyway, smile that smile of pure incandescence.

I-N-C-A-N-D-E-S-C-E-N-C-E.

Incandescence.

Way to spell, kiddo.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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