Wednesday, February 28, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year One

The spring of 1991 was one of the craziest seasons of my young adult life. I was living just outside Chicago in what had once been servant quarters at the top of a dilapidated old manse on Dempster. The rent was good and cheap, but it still emptied my pockets every month. To make ends meet, I was selling off some of my old sports cards (for a New England boy, I had an amazing numbers of Bears, Cubs, White Sox and Blackhawks cards, which commanded premium prices in the city), but even that didn't cover my ass, so I had been doing an odd variety of freelance jobs. I was writing business profiles at a hundred bucks a pop for a city magazine and I was a researcher for a man who specialized in writing travel guides which he sold to the organizers of medical conferences, and which were included in attendee welcome packets. When I say writing I really mean plagiarizing, though. My research work consisted of poring over all the big name travel guides and typing vast amounts of entries verbatim into a huge document that my boss would whittle down to form his guide. It was drudge work, not to mention unethical, but it paid 8 bucks an hour and I could do it from my tiny garret in my free time, which was usually the middle of the night.

I think it's safe to say I was never so financially desperate in my life, and this is coming from a man who used to stop at every rest area on the New York State Thruway to scrounge enough loose change from under the vending machines in order to pay the toll when he got home. Instead of getting a job after graduation, I had gone back to school, and while I had won a fellowship that covered my tuition, I still had to pay for my books, room and board, gas and trainfare into the city, where I worked everyday--without pay--for the school's news service as part of the graduate program I was in. I had a car loan to pay, and 30 days after I graduated from this program, all the student loans I'd accrued during my undergraduate years would come out of academic deferment.

I had no money in the bank, no financial fallback of any kind, not even the usual fallback nearly everyone of my generation had, which was my parents. While my dad had recently snagged a long-term well-paying job after some years of doing pick-up work through the union, all of their money was sunk into an 18th-century home they were in the process of restoring, and into a real estate business that my mom and two partners had started up. Unfortunately, the business was faltering and in the harsh economic climate of the early 90s, the bank that had extended them a line of credit was in panic mode and they called in the loan. In response to this, my mom's partners both declared bankruptcy, leaving my parents holding the bag. They were just barely able to assume the debt, but they certainly had nothing extra to send to me. Even my grandfather, who had sustained me so often by mailing me the occasional surprise check, was unable to help. Both he and my grandmother had just come through a winter of various health problems, not all of which was covered by their insurance. Plus, my brother was actively sponging off them in an attempt to keep his apartment and not have to move home (an attempt that ultimately failed).

I really needed a job. A real job, salary and benefits and everything. I had gone to the spring job fair at my school and had applied to every entry-level magazine position that had opened up since the beginning of the year, but I'd had no success. And in a few short weeks, I was going to have a real dilemma on my hands. I would have to decide whether to move back to New Hampshire, where there were no jobs to be had in my field, or whether to stay in Chicago, where there were certainly lots more opportunities, but where I couldn't afford to live for much longer. Not without a job, anyway. Catch-22, in spades.

Meanwhile, I was busting my ass on my final project--the equivalent of a thesis, if you will. I and several of my classmates were developing and publishing a magazine prototype which we hoped to sell to one of the city's publishing companies. It was just as demanding as any real job, except that instead of getting paid for our work, we were paying the school. It was a trade magazine focused on home-office professionals and in the course of putting the prototype together, I got to rub elbows with several of the school's more successful alums, who were on call to provide guidance and to get us a chance to present our prototype to their company.

A happy perk of this contact was that these alums would also pass along any new job openings at their company, and these openings were posted on the bulletin board in the computer lab where we were producing our prototype. I had taken advantage of every one of them, even though it meant applying to jobs I really didn't want. I wanted a job at a big consumer magazine, but Chicago is a town with lots of trade associations and therefore also a town with lots of publishers devoted to printing magazines or newsletters to serve those associations. Thus I found myself in the running for editorial jobs at magazines with names like Sewer Treatment Monthly, the Journal of International School Managers (a magazine that never referred to itself by its acronym, I can assure you), Meat Packing Industry, and many more.

The ironic thing was that I'd gone on so many job interviews that it was starting to become cost-prohibitive. I owned just one suit at the time, along with one white shirt and three ties, and no matter how careful I was, the suit would get so wrinkled that I would have to take it to the dry cleaners after every interview. Between dry-cleaning costs and gas to travel around Chicagoland on interviews, plus a fresh set of photocopied clips and resumes for every interview, I was fast reaching a crisis situation financially.

The Monday after my 23rd birthday was about the lowest point for me. With absolutely no one else to turn to, I had swallowed my pride and gone to my college's business office to request a loan from the student emergency fund. If I had been stuck in Timbuktu and needed money for a flight home, or had been arrested on a drunk-and-disorderly charge in the Wisconsin Dells and needed to make bail, no doubt they could have accommodated me. But that morning, the administrator of the fund told me in so many words that they didn't loan out money to students who couldn't stick to a budget and were hitting them up for beer money. It was a bitchy thing to say, but I was so humiliated at having to ask in the first place that I didn't have anything to say in response to that.

(You'll be pleased to know that I have since perfected my response, which I give any time the school has the temerity to call me up and ask for donations to assorted fundraising projects.)

So there I was, sitting in the computer lab that served as the editorial bullpen for our magazine prototype, stewing about what had happened, wondering if selling my remaining sports cards--only minor players left--would be enough to cover at least half my rent and keep me afloat for another two weeks. The faculty advisor to our project was delivering his weekly lecture, but I was only listening with half an ear.

Just then, our professor's administrative assistant poked her head in the class and looked at me. "Phone call," she mouthed. I felt a tingle up and down my spine. I had had my phone shut off a few weeks earlier--I couldn't afford it--and so had been using my professor's office number as my phone contact on my resume. This could only mean someone was calling me back about a job.

On numb legs, I clumsily excused myself from the computer lab and went out to the assistant's cubicle. She handed me the phone, then left to get a cup of coffee so I could have my privacy.

"Heyyuh MM! It's Z, from Asset Systems and Security. Remember me?"

I remembered the twanging, irritating nasally voice all too well. I had interviewed at Asset Systems and Security just 10 days earlier. As the title indicated, it was a trade magazine devoted to the security industry, covering all the latest news in security cameras, card access systems, security guard equipment, and much else of need to the average paranoid manager of corporate security. Mr. Z, the editor in chief, had been, I thought, one of my worst interviews. Z was a truculent type. The interview had been more like a one-sided argument during which the man seemed to delight in making me feel about two inches tall. Indeed, the only way I had managed to gain any kind of ground with him was by telling him how I met J.D. Salinger. And I had my reasons for telling him. Not just because I was desperate for a job.

"Heyyuh!" Z said again. "I was trying to call your references, but couldn't get any of them on the phone. So instead, I don't suppose you could give me J.D. Salinger's phone number? I'll call him!"

I demurred, of course. It's one thing to tell a good anecdote like meeting the most reclusive writer of his age, but quite another to invade the man's privacy by handing his contact info over to just anyone, especially to Z.

"Well, I'm kidding," he said abruptly, in case I had actually believed him. "In fact I called all of your references. I can't say I was terribly impressed with that travel guide editor. It didn't really sound like you did editorial work. Sounds like you were just a glorified secretary!" And then Z laughed, a braying donkey's laugh. "Hyyuhhh! Hyyuhhh! Hyuh-yuh-yuh!" As I would soon learn, Z wasn't all gruff and unrelenting. He could be funny too. As long as the fun was at your expense.

I waited for the laughing to die down, then said, "Well Mr. Z, I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about my resume or clips--"

"Oh please!" he said, suddenly gruff again. "Your resume was self-explanatory. Not like there was much information there that needed parsing. And the clips--well, I can't say that they show much flair for business writing."

At times like this, I thought it was just better to keep my mouth shut, so I did.

"But, well, the truth is, Asset Systems and Security is about to undergo a total redesign and I need someone who has some experience on a launch or a redesign, as well as someone who's young and stupid and can be easily molded to do what I want him to do, when I want him to do it."

He paused.

"And I figured it might as well be you," he said.

Gee, thanks a pantload, I thought. But still I kept silent.

Then Z said, "So what did you have in mind for a salary?"

What the hell? I thought. This guy is just going to put me on the spot and hope I underbid myself? So I said, "Well, your salary would do it, Mr. Z."

There was a long, deadly silence.

"You know what, MM?" he said, voice cold. "I'll make the jokes if that's all right with you, hmmm? Now, since you've rejected my kind offer to name your own salary, I'm going to offer you $22,000 a year to start."

I suddenly felt every muscle in my body relax--yep, even the sphincters. A job offer. Not that much money, considering. But…a real honest-to-God job offer.

"Well," I said. "Can I think about it?"

"No," he said flatly. "What would it take to get you to say yes today?'

"Twenty-six," I said almost immediately, not really knowing why I countered at that amount.

"Nope!" he snapped. "Too high. Goodbye!"

My heart leapt into my mouth for a second and I almost cried after Z to WAIT! when he started braying like a donkey again.

"Hyyuhhh! I was just playing with you. Okay, let's make it 25, with a bump to 26 in six months. Assuming I haven't fired you by then. Deal?" he asked.

I swayed there in the seat for a moment, trying to collect myself. With almost every fiber of my being, I knew that working for this man would lead to a lot of miserable days. But how could anything be more miserable than what I'd been feeling just before he called?

Plus, there was another reason for taking the job.

Her Lovely Self worked there.

"Deal," I said emphatically, picturing HLS's divine features as I spoke.

"All righty," Z said. "I'll send the paperwork out today. You start the week after you graduate." And then he hung up.

Head spinning, I staggered back into the classroom. Our professor, I soon discovered, had stopped lecturing the moment I walked out the door. Instead, he had propped the classroom door open so he and the students could hear every word.

"Well?" my professor asked, beaming. Every one of my classmates was staring at me. Suddenly, I felt very light, as though I was floating on air and a wave of joy and relief washed over me.

"I'M GONNA WORK FOR A.S.S.!" I roared.

And my classmates burst into a round of applause.

Those that weren't falling on the floor laughing, I mean...


Monday, February 26, 2007


In Which I Am Forced to Do Her Bidding...

Where have you been? you ask, as I creep through Blogger's back door, smelling faintly of perfume, lipstick on my collar.

I am caught red-handed. I have no choice but to confess: I briefly left you, my dear blog. I left you for my first online love.

I left you for eBay.

Ever since a certain cyber-genius pal of mine showed me how to work an early, clunky version of Mosaic, I have generally been able to resist some of the more addictive forms of Web usage. I am not a particularly avid checker of e-mails or poster of messages. Even when I was at my peak of blog posting here, I wasn't much of a comment checker or Sitemeter scanner. I had, in general, a healthy relationship with the Web.

But eBay was the exception.

Like two people who revolve within the same wide circle of friends, I had of course heard of eBay--my genius friend often spoke of her in husky tones, his eyes glazing over--and not from boredom--as he did. But I had managed to resist her siren call for some time. It was, of all people, author William Gibson who sealed my fate. His early 1999 article about his own infatuation with eBay made me realize it was high time that a master accumulator of CRAP such as myself should once and for good head over and make his introductions.

It started, as these things so often do, with the merest shared impulse: I entered a meager bid on a minor item. It was just meant to be a test of the waters, not even a full flirtation. But she grabbed my small expression of interest and ran with it. I became high bidder on the item and won. And so was lost.

Within days I was both buying and selling. I remember now, with no small amount of guilt, hiding myself away in the spare bedroom of our first house, while my wife and baby son slept nearby. The guest room was the place we normally housed my in-laws, out-of-town friends, even my own mother. Now it was a filthy lovenest for our trysts. I was besotted, flailing in the closets of the room, where I used to keep all my great caches of CRAP. Now I was literally grabbing anything close to hand--obscure British magazines with a few stories by Neil Gaiman, a red cup in the likeness of an anthropomorphic strawberry, a hideous necklace with a Chewbacca pendant dangling from it--and offered them up as tokens of my affection. EBay accepted them and rewarded me with excessive attention far beyond the bounds of mere flattery (I mean, who pays 25 bucks for a Chewbacca necklace? LumpyBumpy in Denver did). And so I spiraled deeper.

It got to the point where I would conduct Thomas's nighttime feedings in the guest room, both of us bathed in the light of the computer monitor. I remember well the night when Thomas first demonstrated the manual dexterity to hold the bottle himself. I was thrilled--not because my little boy was growing, but because it now meant I had a free hand to reach the "refresh" button.

Looking back, I see now that it was a desperately uneven relationship. I kidded myself that I was making more money off of eBay than I was spending there. And can you blame me? She said all the things I wanted to hear, that minx. She validated my life choices--so much of my accumulated CRAP seemed to be so valuable!--and even made me feel young again, offering me visions of glory that I thought long lost: virtually any old toy I ever loved--and many I lusted for but never got--was here for the taking, often even mint in the box. Beloved old comic books, long since read to pieces, were here, too, restored to perfection, covers and all. All mine. As long as I didn't mind paying 10 or 20 or 50 bucks (and often quite a lot more) for it. And my old dial-up was fast enough to allow me to swoop in and snipe the thing in the last 10 seconds of the auction.

Some men squander their whole lives on such obsessive relationships. Thankfully, my passion burned itself out in about two years. Coincidentally enough, that was about the time Her Lovely Self signed for a massive box that contained every Batman action figure and accessory (including the Bat-Cave with working Bat Signal) that the Mego company ever produced in the 1970s--and which I had at one time owned and then lost or broke. What could I do? I came clean about the affair. I promised to break it off. Right after my current auctions ended.

God love her, my wife stood by me, taking me back. She even agreed to let me visit eBay from time to time. And what wife willingly lets her husband visit an old flame?

But eBay would no longer have me.

The end--or so it seemed--came in a spectacular scandal. Not long after we moved into the Magazine Mansion, my Big Brother visited and helped us unpack. At one point, I had accumulated a rather large pile of boxes in the living room--mostly full of books and CRAP I hadn't had time to pitch or donate before the move. I told my brother he could help himself to whatever he wanted. See, not only was my brother infected with C.R.A.P. Syndrome, but he also had become acquainted with eBay. And like a fool, I had helped him, setting up his account for him, allowing his listing fees to be put on my credit card (seeing as BB was credit-challenged and couldn't get a card in his name. However, he was always very diligent about reimbursing me). So I shouldn't have been surprised by what happened next.

What happened was my brother helped himself to more than the boxes in the living room. He also helped himself to the piles of unpublished manuscripts and galley review copies of books that I had accumulated as part of my freelance work (which, at the time, involved reviewing books for a variety of magazines), and which were in my office, nowhere near the living room.

About a month after my brother returned home, I got a call from an understandably upset PR rep for an extremely large publishing house in New York. Did I say upset? Try driven to murderous frenzy. Apparently, someone had just sold two of their unpublished manuscripts on eBay, including one manuscript of a popular author--imagine finding the galley of J.K. Rowling's next Harry Potter book online right now, today, and you've pretty much got the idea of this author's popularity, at least among her devoted readers.

Apparently, eBay, like a woman scorned, loosed her fury. The auction was flagged, the publisher notified. After making some heavy threats to the winning bidders--who had by this time received their items--the publisher got the manuscripts back (and I wasn't even aware that they were missing). Since each manuscript is marked or numbered in some way, it was easy to figure out to whom those manuscripts were sent. And of course, in case there was any doubt, eBay willingly--gleefully?--gave up the seller's info. BB had entered a false phone number, so eBay surrendered every shred of data, including the credit card information of the person who had set up the account. And then the shit really hit the fan.

Suffice it to say, I managed to emerge from that incident, but not without injury to all the guilty parties. I no longer review books, for one thing. For another, BB walked with a limp for months afterwards. And any eBay accounts with my name attached to them--both my brother's and my own personal account, long dormant--were suspended. And so they remain to this day.

That should have been the end.

Should have.

But about two weeks ago, Thomas was noodling around online and, in looking for information on the next wave of Justice League action figures, found himself at an auction listing. It all seemed curiously familiar to him, I'm sure, some vestigial memory attached to an oral fixation. And when I explained more fully what eBay was like, I saw to my regret that his eyes began to glaze and a sloppy grin spread across his face.

"You mean," he said slowly, eyes shifting from the screen to me and back to the screen again, "that I could sell my old toys here and make money to buy new ones?"

I tried to explain that it wasn't quite as simple as that, but yeah.

Within days, Her Lovely Self--perhaps in a long-delayed act of revenge--established her own account and, with my help, got Thomas's first tentative listings up. He was selling some truly battered old wooden Thomas the Tank Engine trains and some well-loved Hot Wheels cars so I figured--hoped--that they wouldn't sell for anything and he'd move on to something else.

Except the wooden trains all cleared more than 10 dollars each--one sold for 50 dollars. All told, in two weeks he's earned almost 500 clams, all but 20 of which was funneled into his savings. But 20 bucks is still a big piece of change for a little boy. When he deposited his money and saw his bank balance, when he gazed at the money still in hand, I saw a look I didn't like at all. Because it was like looking in a mirror.

This morning, I came down and caught Thomas, still clad in pajamas, typing with frustration on the keyboard.

"Dad," my 8-year-old said in a whiny voice, his body shaking with emotion. "How do I bid for this giant lizard? What's mom's password?"

I think we're going to have to do an intervention soon.

So I hope you'll forgive me, my dear ones. And know that I haven't truly gone back to eBay. I'm just visiting her for a bit.

No, really.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


In Which We Raise the Alarm (and Our Gorge)...

I have to admit: My dog is not the brave and loyal hound I make him out to be.

Sometimes, he can be a real pain in my ass, even worse than taking care of a fish (and as you know from my misadventure of last week, that's saying something).

Early this morning, at around 4:30, he started barking, this short, yappy "Come quick!" bark that makes you leap up and feel for the cricket bat underneath the bed. By the time I was fully awake, I was halfway down the stairs, hair and underwear wildly askew. I flicked on every light as I went. Which was a good thing.

Since I was able to see the vomit from a long way off.

(Unlike last time, this time, I will spare you the pictures.)

I still can't quite figure out how, but Blaze managed to get his muzzle up against the corner of his kennel and yark in a straight line across the kitchen floor, leaving a five-foot long ridge of steamy, chunky badness from the spattered cushion in his cage almost to the back door. And then he called me down to come clean it up.

Now I realized it wasn't his fault, that he obviously got a bad clam or something, but it was not quite five in the morning and I had only gone to bed around one, so I heaved a great sigh and swore for a bit. Blaze stood there in his cage, trembling, licking his foamy chops and gazing at me with a kind of don't-be-mad-I'm-just-a-dog expression.

"Awright, awright, I know," I said, opening the door to the kennel. "Come on, get out of there." And as soon as I said this, Blaze bolted past me and up the stairs. Oh great, I thought, now he's going to redecorate upstairs. But I had nowhere else to put him til I cleaned the current mess, so I set about that job as quickly as I could.

All I could think was that Blaze was obviously easing me back into my lifestyle as dad to a baby. When Thomas and the Brownie were each little more than a set of stunted limbs surrounding a giant screaming mouth, I always took the night shift, wiping spit-up off of faces, cribs, ceilings; changing out diapers that had been tested to within an inch of their design specs; and in general being the filler of gaping maws and cleaner of hard-to-reach crevices. And that duty seemed downright pleasant compared to mopping up half-digested bits of (Freak of) Science Diet from between the bars of the kennel.

At last, though, I got the damage contained. All that remained was to pick my way verrry carefully upstairs and retrieve Barfy the Dog. After determining no land mines had been left for me, I found him planted firmly in the doorway to the Brownie's bedroom and with much coaxing, got him back downstairs, where I fluffed up some old towels for his kennel and got him situated inside it.

For about 25 minutes.

No sooner had I started to doze off when the damn dog started in again--that same irritating yap that seemed to say, "Quick! Quick! Quick!"

This time, there was no vomit, and I should have been grateful for that, but I wasn't. I was really pissed and I yelled at Blaze for a bit. Instead of cowering, though, he pawed at his kennel door and I let him out. He then bolted for the front door and started doing the dog equivalent of The Pee-Pee Dance. I suppose the full-muscle effort of shooting the contents of his stomach across a room must have put a certain strain on his bladder.

So here's me, at 5 in the goddamn morning, suiting up in snowpants, scarves, a parka and gloves and walking my damn dog.

Oh, and did I mention that it was in the middle of a snowstorm?

Well, I will say this: Blaze had to go. Within five seconds, he had transformed half of the front walk into the Yellow Brick Road. Then he dragged me off across the snowblind wastes of my neighborhood, insisting on making his usual rounds, even though I was kind of thinking of this as a pit stop. No, we were out there in the white-out for a full 20 minutes.

Luckily, I didn't have any problem finding our way back to the house. Because when I rounded the corner to our block, there were some helpful red and blue lights flashing in the driveway next to mine.

Our next-door neighbors just moved and the new owners had been slowly moving in this week. I hadn't even had the chance to meet them yet, but I was naturally concerned. The patrol car had just arrived. Officer Jimbo--who replaced the recently retired Officer Peltz--was just getting out of the car. Blaze and I trotted across the street. I waved. Jimbo recognized me from the neighborhood watch meetings and nodded.

"You see anybody on your walk?" he called out through the wind.

"No," I said. Between the storm and the ungodly hour, the streets had been totally deserted. "What's wrong?"

"Attempted break-in," he said. "These folks have been moving in all week, somebody was probably casing the place, figuring to go in and walk out with stuff while it's all still neatly packed. But with the storm they spent the night here tonight, instead of going back into the city, so they heard the guy trying to break in through the back door."

All of a sudden, I felt dizzy.

"When was this?" I asked weakly.

"Little less than an hour ago," he said. "Why? You see something?"

Without answering, I started running across the neighbor's driveway to my house. Blaze was next to me, and then a second later he was pulling me, around to my back yard.

The wind had been blowing pretty hard through the night and the snow had been steadily falling, but not so hard that it obscured the single trail of footprints that snaked across my backyard, running along the fence, then under the tree.

Then up the stairs to the back door of my house.

Officer Jimbo caught up to us on the steps to the back porch. Blaze was literally running in circles, sniffing and making a keening whine, with intermittent yips. He got so worked up, in fact, that he started dry-heaving again. This time, I was ready to join him.

As you can imagine, what with making out the police report--Officer Jimbo theorized that the prowler came to my house first by mistake, probably disoriented in the storm--and the general excitement, I didn't bother going back to bed.

At 6:30, with Officer Jimbo next door and Blaze and me back in the house, Her Pregnant Self came downstairs to the smell of fresh coffee and breakfast being cooked.

But not for her.

In fact, she caught me in the act of sliding a big, fluffy ham-and-cheese omelet into Blaze's food dish. "What are you doing?" she howled as the dog gratefully tucked in.

"Just resetting the burglar alarm," I said.

I have to admit: My dog is not the brave and loyal hound I make him out to be.

Sometimes, he's even better than that.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, February 09, 2007


In Which It Sucks to Be Me...

Abby slipped under the drain cap and out of sight.

I made a strange, high-pitched "Awk!" of surprise and bent my head ostrich-style into the basin of the sink. Just under the drain cap, I could see the barest flicker of fin. Abby was a wide fish when it came to fins, and it was these appendages that had momentarily saved her from a face-plant into the U-bend. Momentarily. I had only seconds to act.

At times like this, I'm amazed at how the mind works. Well, my mind. It really is an incredible machine, you know, capable of calculating any number of variables in mere fractions of a second. Of course, in my case, this nigh-superhuman ability only manifests itself at moments such as these, never when I really need it. That I have been in seven car accidents in my life should stand in mute testimony to this fact.

...and I reached in and tried to grab her with my thumb and forefinger but only succeeded in shoving her down the drain.

Stupid fat fingers!

...and I grabbed the tweezers from the vanity drawer, reached in under the drain cap, grabbed Abby's tailfin and pulled. And was rewarded with a wildly flapping, severed tailfin for my efforts.

Too sharp!

...and I grasped the drain cap, twisted and pulled up. And got a bird's-eye view of Abby sinking down the pipe into oblivion.

Fuck! Think!!

...and I ran some water down the sink, forcing Abby into the sink trap. Ran downstairs for my plumbing wrenches and a shitload of junk towels, ran back up and cranked open the U-bend. Only to find Abby dead from asphyxiation. Or from being grossed out by the great clot of congealed toothpaste and whiskers she'd landed in face-first. Hard to tell.

No good! Think of something!!

I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some small part of me that was willing to throw up his hands and say "Oh well." Except that I had rashly told Thomas I'd flush his fish if he didn't come up to help, and he'd never believe this was an accident. Nor, come to that, would anyone else in my family. They all know I come from a line of pet killers.

Remember yesterday how I said I'd once had turtles and it was a disaster? I'm not kidding. They were tiny black turtles--no idea what kind--and my brother and I named them Stanley and Arthur. I'm not sure why we fastened upon these names--we would later use them on the cats we briefly owned too--but that's what we called them. We kept them in an aquarium furnished with a little bit of water, some rocks for them to crawl on, some greenery. It was a very nice set-up. For a turtle.

But almost immediately, they began to stink up the place something fierce. It was as though you had taken some shells from the beach and left them in your car for a hot hour or two. That kind of fishy, putrefying, manky smell. And, like Thomas after us, my brother and I weren't about to clean the tank. So my long-suffering mother had to remove the turtles--I believe it got to be on a weekly basis--to swamp out the tank. And no matter what kind of temporary container she kept the turtles in, they often managed to escape and so we spent a long time tracking them down, usually finding them under a piece of furniture, a slow-moving dust-bunny. That would stink up the place in another six days.

I don't know how long this went on--couldn't have been more than a few months. But one day, when my brother and I came home from school, both Stanley and Arthur were dead. Belly up in the water of their little tank. My brother bawled--he was a big crier when we were kids--and then we buried them out in the garden, where they could join the circle of life and come back as cucumbers or red peppers. And that was it.

Except...what we didn't know...what we didn't find out for 20 years until a fateful Thanksgiving when Mom had too much wine...was that Stanley and Arthur had not conveniently died of natural causes on the same day, as we had naively supposed. They had in fact been murdered.

My mother, who was in the middle of cleaning the tank for the umpty-ump time, just snapped. She'd had enough of her house smelling like the back alley of a fish-mongers. And yet she couldn't live with her children's inevitable hue and cry when she told them she'd flushed them, or simply hurled them into the brook behind our house (which would have been a kinder fate for Stanley and Arthur, let me say here).

No, my mom fired up the stove, got a pot of boiling water going and dropped those poor bastards in.


In her defense--as if!--my mom claimed that she dropped them in head first, as she would a lobster, so they'd die instantly and not suffer. Then she fished the turtles right out before they could blanch in the boiling water and--Jesus, is this calculating or what?--deposited them back in their tank so it would appear to her gullible children as though they had expired of natural causes, peacefully.

My God, isn't it a miracle that I survived childhood?

Where was I?

Oh yeah...

No good! Think of something!!

And then I saw the straw. The flexible straw I had used in my attempt to modify the siphon hose when I was cleaning out Abby's tank.

...and I flexed the straw, put one end in my mouth and stuck the other under the drain cap. And inhaled. Abby was sucked back from the brink of doom. I scooped her up and deposited her in the bowl.

Except, of course, that that's not how it happened at all. Oh, I got the straw in there, all right. And when I made contact with Abby and drew in, it created a vacuum seal and Abby's fin rose slightly. Except that I had to take a breath. The seal broke and now Abby's fin was no longer visible.

In a panic, I lifted the drain cap and saw Abby sliding slowly down the pipe. I jammed the straw all the way down and sucked like the wind. There was only air, then a minute "voooomp" echoing through the pipe. Contact! I pulled out of the sink, Abby quivering wildly to the end of the straw, one tailfin half in the tube, me red-faced, eyes wide, cheeks puckered like...well, like a fish. If Thomas had walked in then, who knew what he'd make of that scene?

Something small and fishy came loose and I sucked it straight down my gullet. I gagged, Abby fell again. But this time, I had a cupped hand below her. I slam-dunked her into the fishbowl.

Then found a bowl of my own and began retching into it.

I don't know what I aspirated, but when I was finished bringing it back up, I was gratified--I'm using the term very loosely--to see Abby flitting around her tank, none the worse or wear. At the risk of anthropomorphizing a creature with a brain the size of a dust mite, I daresay she even looked happy.

Which is more than I can say for me.

And wouldn't you know it? As I'm carrying the tank slowly back to Thomas' room, who should come up the stairs but himself?

"Oh, why didn't you wait for me? I said I'd be right there," Thomas said.

"You can clean the bathroom," I told him.

And so all was well again. At least for another month.

Assuming Abby survives that long. Next morning, Thomas announced that his fish seemed sick.

"I think she has the chicken pox," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, she has this big round "O" on her tail. I hope she doesn't get any more."

She won't, buddy. As long as I remember to close the drain from now on.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, February 08, 2007


In Which Something Smells Fishy...

I've never quite got the hang of February. I realize it's a short month and it's the gateway to March and then spring is here. But meanwhile, back in February, I'm miserable.

I've been nursing--what else?--a cold that kept me home for a day and change, but clearly the virus I got is not yet done with me because by the end of the day yesterday, after I'd gone back to work, I was so beat and achy and feeling sorry for myself that I couldn't even contemplate the long commute home. I was ready to roll up in a sleeping bag from the prop room and call it a day.

Of course I did go home. And what should be waiting for me but Her Pregnant Self, demanding that I clean the fish tank.

Boy, that sleeping bag in the prop room was looking better by the minute.

First of all, it's not my fish. It's Thomas. He got Abby on a campaign platform that touted the virtues of ease of care. We wouldn't have to walk the fish, or change its litter box. Feeding it would be a snap. It had no hair to shed and was beyond the need to train with verbal commands. Who could ask for a more maintenance-free pet?

Well, as you can guess, Her Lovely Self never had a fish. I believe I had a goldfish or two when I was a kid, but they seemed to thrive on neglect, especially once they died. I did have a pair of turtles when I was about 5, and that was bad. But this wasn't a turtle. This was a fish. How hard could it be?

The answer is: hard. And not just hard, but truly nightmarish.

For one thing--the main thing--you have to routinely clean the algae out of the fishbowl, otherwise it forms great green sheets of slimy film that will eventually obscure the bowl and leave your son's fish floating almost inert along the bottom. I know now that I should have paid better attention in biology class, because I have no fucking clue where all this algae comes from. Is it coming from the fish? Is it the water? The decorative stones and plants on the bottom? What? Whatever's causing it, it's causing an awful lot of this shit.

And here's the thing: you can't clean it all out. We were warned by the clerk in the fish department that we wanted to keep some algae in. Evidently, if we got rid of too much algae, it would grow back even faster the next time. I ignored this warning at my peril, though, and the first time I cleaned the bowl, I rinsed every rock, every plant--everything but the fish. It was so clean, I could have lived in that bowl, if I was so inclined, and only an inch tall. But sure enough, a week later, the bowl was as green as a swamp in there.

And yes, I ended up cleaning the bowl again. In fact, I've cleaned it all but one time (and that one time, my mom did it for us). Thomas is okay when it comes to feeding the fish, but he's not what I'd call a dab hand at the cleaning part. "That green stuff is too gucky," he'd tell me, as if that was a factor we'd failed to warn him about and one that was never addressed in his campaign, thus one he could not be held responsible for.

Don't get me wrong: Thomas is absolutely right not to want this duty. I sure as hell don't want it. But somehow I can't just let the thing become a biohazard either. And anyway, it's not the fish's fault.

Now here we are, several months in and it's time to clean the bowl. Again. Didn't I just do this last month? Couldn't I just put it off til tomorrow? Well, I knew that dodge wouldn't work--I was supposed to do this on Saturday and had begged off. Now the bowl looked like something you'd see at a science museum. Ugh. Double-ugh. I was too beat for this.

I went into the living room, where my genius son was playing Nintendogs and watching TV simultaneously. Surely this young multi-tasker could bestir himself long enough to assist his old man in the care of his own damn fish?

"Yeah, I'll be right up, Dad," Thomas said in the lilting voice of one who is talking in his sleep, never taking his eyes off the game screen.

"If you're not upstairs to help me in five minutes, I may just flush your fish down the toilet," I grumped.

Of course, Thomas never came up.

Meanwhile, here's me, carting my box of accessories into my son's room.

A primer on cleaning the fucking fishbowl.

1. First, net the frickin' fish.
2. Slop her into the Auxiliary Container (okay, a wide flower vase).
3. Get out the siphon.
4. Marvel at what an ever-loving exercise in futility siphoning is. Oh, it sounds simple--just put one end into the tank, the other into a bucket and start pumping. Except you're also supposed to be using the suction from the siphon to hoover up the sheets of algae that have formed on the rocks, the walls, and the outer container of the filter.
5. Become so engrossed in this process that you lose track of the bucket, which is already overflowing onto the rug. And you.
6. Swear like a sailor (only appropriate, given the nautical milieu).
7. Refill bowl with water and fish.
8. Repeat.

So this time, I decided to move everything into the bathroom, where it would be infinitely easier to mop up any mess. I had briefly toyed with performing the entire operation in the tub, but it's hard to lean over a tub to do this stuff and I wasn't going to get in with it all. And wouldn't it be just the barnacle on my stern if the algae clogged up the bathtub drain?

So I carried the fishbowl--fish and all--into the bathroom, setting the bowl on the wide vanity around the sink. I netted the fish and got her corralled into the Auxiliary Vase. I got my siphon set up and proceeded to suck algae from the bowl directly into the toilet right next to the sink. Yeah, baby, who was thinking now?

Except...I noticed that the end of the siphon wasn't exactly sucking up all the algae. It had a wide, perforated nozzle and wasn't what I would call a precision instrument for inhaling algae out of tight spots between the rocks. I briefly tried to modify the nozzle by using a drinking straw. I can only thank God I had the presence of mind to try this in the bathroom. In one attempt, water shot out of the straw and straight into the bathroom mirror. The effect was like the proverbial cow pissing on the proverbial flat rock. I was drenched with greenish fishbowl water. Thomas' fish, Abby, fluttering in the flower vase nearby, seemed to regard this spectacle with what I can only call keen piscine interest.

I discarded the straw approach and continued siphoning in the traditional mode. But of course, I ran out of water before I ran out of algae, which left me having to reach in and make contact with the glops of algae.

I've read more than a few horror stories in my time, and you know those parts where the zombie or the monster or whatever comes up out of the swamp and the writer waxes on about the smell of the thing, being one of moist rotted matter and putrid flesh? Well, when I read those passages, I'm imagining the smell of that algae. The British have a wonderful word--manky--which I've always associated with a special brand of wet stink. This was worse.

But I eventually removed most (but not all!) of the algae and filled the bowl with a few gallons of clean water, plus the most ungodly stinking treatment fluid, which apparently scrubs the water and makes it safe for the fish.

I was about to start back for Thomas' room with the clean bowl, when it dawned on me that the vase was too small to transport Abby. The swaying movement of walking might throw her against the wall of the vase and kill her. Better to put her back in her bowl and carry them all together, just as I had brought them.

Pleased to have this ordeal done with--at least for another month--I netted Abby and prepared to drop her into her bowl. At the last possible instant, she jerked, flopped out of the net, and slid into the sink.

As I watched frozen in horror, my son's fish slipped straight down the side of the basin, under the drain stop and out of sight...

Friday, February 02, 2007


In Which We Foment Fiction Friday...

I don't often do this. In fact, I never do this, come to think of it. But it's Friday, and because it's Friday I wanted to draw your attention to something. To someone.

In the past, I've remarked that there are much better writers than I in the blogosphere, and some of you have paid me the indirect compliment of accusing me of having an overdeveloped sense of humility when I say such things. But this is not modesty. It's true.

And as proof, I offer you Jack Fear's Fiction Fridays.

Jack is one of my Motivations and Inspirations, one of the Reasons I Do This. But he is also one of my oldest and dearest friends. He was well-established online and in the 'sphere when I came along, and when I shyly informed him of my first tentative blog postings, he welcomed me wholeheartedly and was the first person to blogroll me. He didn't do this because he was my friend. Jack doesn't play that way. He did it because he thought my efforts had merit (or at least might aspire to merit one day). It meant a lot.

It meant a lot because, between you and me, Jack is quite possibly the most creative person I know. He's a writer. He's a musician. He's an awtist. He's a force of nature. I count him as one of my family, and also at the top of a very short list of Bestest, Favoritest Writers.

And so I send you to Fiction Fridays, where Jack is in the third week of "The Honeythief," a very promising and engaging fantasy tale. As you will see, Jack's prose is easy on the eye; it will take you no time at all to catch up on what has gone before and once you have, you'll be hankering for more. I particularly enjoy Jack's turns of humor. The man is a brilliant punster and is able to slip in the best jokes and turns of phrase without drawing undue attention to himself ("Lookit me! Lookit me! I'm writin'!!"), as in his scene with the main character and a pair of gate guards. "Soldier aunts" indeed! Great stuff, which you'll see when you read.

I don't know if Jack meant to attract attention with this effort, so I hope I'm not embarrassing him by turning you on to his work. On the other hand, he recently re-engaged the comments feature on his blog, and I can't believe he'd do that if he didn't want to hear some feedback, which presupposes a desire for--or at least a tolerance of--an audience.

Start here.

Then go here.

Then here.

Enjoy. And tell him MM sent ya.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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