Wednesday, October 31, 2007


A London October Log Moment...Thing...

19 October 1987

Have I really been in London for over a month? Can't believe it myself, but there it is. And what a month! Here are a few highlights:

--I have mastered the Tube (okay, schoolchildren ride it everyday so it's not exactly rocket science, but still)

--The other day, two American tourists asked me for directions (did I sound so loud and braying when I first arrived? My God, I bet I did). The best part: I knew the street they were looking for and was able to direct them. "Have a nice day!" they screamed at me. What an odd sentiment--I never say it anymore.

--I have found a pub, a really important thing in the life of any person living in England, I think. It is a place called the Swakeley, somewhere in Shepherds Bush, not far from the flat of two photo students with whom I have become fast friends, a tall drink of water named Jon and a diminutive creature (well, short, anyway) named Gretchen, who aside from being a very nice person, and aside from being a very nice person who introduced me to my new favorite drink (the mighty hard cider known as Strongbow. What will I do in the States without it?), also happens to think I'm one funny bastard. At least, she laughs at my jokes, which is more than I can say for Betty these days (we are currently enjoying a phase as roommates who are not speaking to each other, except via scribbled notes left on dirty kitchen counters of bathroom sinks clogged with stubble--not mine, I'm growing a beard).

--I've found a comics shop. Actually, I've found several--every Virgin Records I've been to stocks a pretty good selection of American comics, but what I'm enjoying these days are the weekly British comics. I found the famous comics shop Forbidden Planet a week or so ago, and there they recommended to me a comic called 2000 A.D., famous for the futuristic lawman Judge Dredd. But right now they're doing a story about a superhero/pop music brat named Zenith. It's hard to follow because it's a serial and I've missed several weeks, but it's an interesting story. [and no wonder. It was one of the earliest comics series by legendary comics scribe Grant Morrison]

--I have my plans set for mid-term break next week (actually, end of this week). After much deliberation and a careful review of my funds, I took advantage of a student-travel discount and got a flight to Egypt. Cairo, in fact. I'll be spending a week there, thus fulfilling one of my lifelong goals. I'm going to the Great Pyramids. No, I haven't made any reservations other than my flight--booking a hotel package from London was too expensive and more than a few student travel guides suggested I could haggle my way to a better deal once I got to the airport in Cairo and was accosted by any number of travel agencies looking to glom onto my American dollar. My mom would freak out if she knew I was going--remember how I promised her I wouldn't fly anywhere? But man, it's Egypt. For $199 round-trip. When will I ever have this chance again?

Also, Betty is coming with me. Even though she's not talking to me right now. That should be fun.

But now must run as my local Boots the chemist (that's a drug store to you and me) has my anti-malaria pills in stock and I need to start taking them now (actually, was supposed to start taking them two weeks ago, but didn't know it). Tomorrow, I'm skipping class and taking myself to some place very interesting. I'll tell you more tomorrow.

20 October 1987

Oh my holy God.

Where to begin?

Hmm, okay, here...

Since I'm going to be in Egypt over Halloween (or at least flying back at that time) I thought I'd celebrate Halloween this week. Last night at the Swakeley, I convinced Gretchen and Betty (who after last night is talking to me. I made a peace offering by giving her her very own bottle of anti-malaria pills) to come with me to Highgate Cemetery, of which more later. The evening started in this direction when I mentioned that I was celebrating Halloween this week and then Betty opened her big mouth and told our assembled friends that MM had lived in a haunted house for six years.

This is not a part of my life I like to talk about very much because, well, I think true ghost stories are a bit passé among the college crowd in the late 1980s. Having said that, Gretchen and my friends perked right up when this fact was mentioned and so I felt as though I had to tell at least the story of our first night in the house, and the tapping sound my brother and I heard, followed by my sighting of a woman in a blue dress sitting on the end of my parents' bed, a woman I actually mistook to be my mother, until I realized that I could see through this woman. But it's an awkward topic, you know? Because I know what happened and I know what I believe, whereas other folks are skeptics and if you go on long enough, they start to wonder about your sanity and then they're not such good friends with you anymore. So I deftly turned the subject to haunted London, and realized that of all the places I'd read about as a child--the Tower of London, the Grenadier Pub, Highgate Cemetery and many others--I had yet to visit a one of them in my time in London so far.

So we decided on the spot to go right then to the nearest place. We'd already had a few pints and so after a hasty and probably not very accurate review of our Streetfinders, we decided Highgate was the closest. I was excited. Besides boasting the final resting places of Karl Marx, William Wordsworth and members of Dickens' family, Highgate was also infamous as being the site of a series of grave robberies in the late 19th century, which was apparently associated with the vampire hysteria borne out of the publication of Dracula in 1897 or thereabouts.

Moreover, several sane, sober witnesses--people unlike us at that moment, in other words--have reported seeing ghosts within the graveyard over the past 300 years. One can be seen on certain nights at the main gate: just a shadowy figure that vanishes when you get too close. Another is said to be that of an old woman who has been seen running through the cemetery, apparently searching for the graves of her children, whom she murdered in a fit of rage.

Well, that was enough to get us moving to the Tube, where we got the next train out in that direction, then walked a few blocks to find ourselves at the main gate. Of course, it was now the middle of the night and the gates were locked, but we lingered, peering through the wrought-iron fence, catching glimpses of moonlit stones beyond. It was very eerie.

And then, about a third of the way down the fence from the main gate, I stepped right into a cold spot and froze.

Ever since my experiences growing up in a 200-year-old farmhouse in southern New Jersey, after seeing things like a transparent woman in my parents' bedroom and other weird things too numerous to mention just now, I have since found that I'm strangely sensitive to what a psychic friend of mine used to call the unseen. This friend was actually the daughter of a crazy old man who lived out in the bogs of south Jersey and was considered a genuine witch man. He wasn't so nice, but she ended up really helping me and a friend of mine after my brother started screwing around with a ouija board in our house and some truly scary stuff--terrible smells, animal growling--started coming out of the old chimney at the back of the house. Yeesh, I really don't want to go into that right now.

Anyway, my friend told me that once you're exposed to this weirdness, you get a sense for it thereafter. And at least in my case, she was right. I've had one or two experiences where I'd be some place--a place I generally had never been before, knew nothing about--and suddenly found myself feeling strange. I'd feel cold spots in otherwise perfectly warm places; or a tingling sense, like every hair on my body was standing on end, followed by other weird stuff--phantom smells, shadows or strange blurs moving across the room, stuff like that.

Now here I was outside the cemetery and there was a spot right there on the pavement that felt like I'd just stepped over a grate that was blowing air direct from the Arctic Circle. It felt like that--a really freezing wind. I could have sworn my hair was blowing all around me--although Gretchen Betty say no such thing happened. What did happen, they say, was that I got the strangest look on my face--for a second, Betty says, I didn't even look like myself, which really freaked her out--and my eyes got all buggy and my teeth started chattering. I guess they thought I was having a fit or something.

And just like that, it went away. Poof, gone. I looked around, thinking I might see something. But there was nothing. Just the cold spot.

(I know. Sorry. But that's how these things go some times.)

"I'm outta here!" I cried, and took off running for the Tube stop. It had been a while since anything that weird had happened to me and I guess I was pretty weirded out. Gretchen and Betty were too, since they were right on my heels and we ended up catching the late train of the night.

In the morning, I felt a lot better. Really, I think I was kind of invigorated by the whole thing, which is easy to feel in broad daylight. I tell you this so you can understand my frame of mind, understand why I might decide to blow off class and go visit one of the other places I'd been talking about the night before. I mentioned it to Betty and she was intrigued enough to skip class and come with me.

Thus it was that by 10:30 we found ourselves at the gates of the Tower of London...


Wednesday, October 24, 2007


An October Moment...

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but writing this year's round of October Moments has been one of the hardest things I've ever done. Not because they all revolve around my parents, but because I realized something fairly early on: I didn't believe in October Moments anymore.

To be sure, the events I've written about all occurred: my son saw eagles I couldn't see; the lightbulb in the garage blew out; the Éclair continues to stare at empty spaces with the most rapt attention; the duck night light was unplugged before it could cause a fire. But my suspension of disbelief--or to put it most bluntly, my faith in the idea of unseen forces acting in my life--was gone. It was only too easy to find a rational explanation for everything. I'm too incredibly near-sighted to pick birds out of the sky. The lightbulb in the garage was old and had never been changed in all the time I've lived in this house; babies constantly stare at nothing. As for the night light? As sleep-deprived as we were with a new baby in the house, I could very easily have unplugged it myself and forgotten. I mean, you're talking to a man who after an all-nighter in graduate school once stumbled into the kitchen to fill and set a coffee pot, eat an entire bowl of lime-green Jell-O, then urinate in the sink--all in front of his bemused housemates and one startled landlady--before stumbling off to bed for a 19-hour nap, waking with no knowledge of the event.

Writing these entries was a struggle, not because I knew they were ordinary events after all, but because I suddenly found it easier to believe in a rational explanation than in anything else. My gut sense, my instincts about the unseen, which have guided me since the age of 12, seem scrambled. It's as though whatever antenna inside me that once picked up those signals has become bent or broken, at a time when I really needed it in working order.

It's a terrible thing to lose faith, like descending stairs in the dark and missing a step, there's an awful lurching moment and a sense that you're about to fall into the void, only that moment just seems to go on and on. For so many years I really believed that unseen forces acted upon our lives, and considered myself one of the lucky ones for ever having experienced a taste of it. In the past six months, I've come to wish I never had.

At least, I did. Until I had the dream last night.

Or to be more accurate, I had the dream again.

For the past few months, it's mostly been a fragmentary thing: a sense that I'm in a moving vehicle, lights flashing crazily around me as the vehicle lurches. Then there's the sound of metal crashing most terribly, followed by darkness. I assumed that I was simply dreaming about being in the accident that killed my parents.

But last night, for some reason, I dreamt more than a fragment. I dreamt a revelation.

As before, I was in a moving vehicle. Lights flashed dizzily, sickeningly. The car lurched. The gnashing screech of metal filled my ears...

...and then the car turned sideways and in my line of sight I could see the grille of the truck. In particular, I could see the silver dog sitting on top of the grille. And I knew exactly where I was.

This wasn't my parents' accident.

This was my car accident, the worst accident of my life. It occurred in October of 1991. I wrote about it at length here, as some of you will remember. That night, I was broadsided by a dump truck at 60-some miles an hour on a crowded expressway. The collision sent me across four lanes of busy Chicago traffic, yet only one other car hit me, the car that knocked me to safety, into the breakdown lane beyond the reach of traffic.

In the dream, each second of that night was replayed with hideous clarity. As before, time slowed, and I had plenty of opportunity to look up into the grille of that truck, and more than enough time to realize that I had come to the end of my life. I was all too aware that the truck was now lifting my car up on its side and that in another second (or hour. Or year) the car would roll over and the truck would crush it, and me along with it. As before, I thought to myself, with an otherworldly and quite uncharacteristic serenity, So THIS is how I die.

And then a second later, everything changed. The truck didn't slow down--couldn't slow down, not for several hundred more feet--and yet my car stopped rolling. Somehow, something righted my car and forced it away from the truck, pinwheeling it into four lanes of oncoming traffic. There were cars in every lane, all going as fast or faster than that truck. I should have been hit multiple times. Instead, I spun across every lane, getting hit only in the last lane, and then knocked almost into the El tracks.

And still the dream went on, playing out the events of 16 years ago with total fidelity. I reached to open my door, but it was bowed inward, hopelessly smashed shut. In less time than it takes to type this, I was out of my seatbelt and across the passenger side. Except that door was blocked by the concrete retaining wall. I rolled the window down in three mighty jerks, then threw myself out the window and up onto the retaining wall.

And there was the El, bearing down on me.

I twisted and flopped forward across roof, sliding down onto the hood of my car as the El roared by. I caught my shirt on the jagged edge of the front fender, then flopped bonelessly onto the tarmac before rolling to my feet and sprinting from the car. I ran straight ahead, up onto the stopped Caddy in front of me, bounding up on its hood and over its roof before sliding off the trunk to the road again.

I probably would have kept on running, but just then...

Just then...

In the event, the driver of the Caddy--an older gentleman whose only distinguishing feature I can recall at this point is that he was from Romania--leapt out of the car and called to me.

But in the dream, there was no driver.

Instead, my parents were standing there in the breakdown lane. And I stopped running.

They were dressed as they always did when they traveled. My Dad was wearing jeans, a grey fleece pullover, a cap bearing the Cabela's logo. My mom was in a blue pullover, a denim skirt, her bag hooked on her shoulder. They were both smiling at me. It was a smile I'd seen hundreds of times, the expectant smile of parents waiting for their kid to come out of the gym after practice, to come off the stage after a show, to get off the bus and bound through the door.

Now they were waiting here, of all places, of all times, they were waiting here, on this strip of highway in October of 1991.

"What is this?" I asked.

They said nothing. Just kept smiling.

And then, as sometimes occurs in dreams, I was simply given to understand what was happening, or what had happened, or what would happen. I don't know if I can explain it to you now in a way that will make sense--or at least make the kind of sense it made in the dream--but I'll try.

In a moment, what I was given to understand was that I should have died in that accident. It's true. At the time, in the actual event, the cops, the truck driver, witnesses--EVERYONE marveled at the fact that I didn't have a scratch on me. For a long time afterward, many people--including my own parents--spoke of it as a miracle.

What I was now given to understand was that it was a miracle that had been bought and paid for.

I was given to understand that this accident was just one counterweight in the great Rube Goldberg machine of the universe, a machine that somehow stood apart from real time, so that two similar events--two horrific car accidents 16 years apart, for example--could be parts of the same machine. Could, in effect, act one upon the other.

I was given to understand that somehow, after the accident that killed them, my parents were given the choice of dying in the accident (I know it sounds like nonsense now, but in the dream, in the context of time not mattering, cause and effect didn't matter either), with the understanding that this action would create a reaction. I was given to understand that they had made a conscious decision--a trade. In 2007 they sacrificed what time they had left here so that in 1991 I could emerge miraculously unscathed from a car accident that should have been--that WAS--every bit as terrible and fatal as the one that killed them.

Oh my, it sounds so insane telling you this now, but I swear to you that in the dream, it was like a puzzle piece finally falling into place. I mean, aside from all sense of time being thrown out the window, it made perfect sense. Given the chance, given the opportunity to save your child by sacrificing your own life--no matter how or when it occurred--wouldn't you seize that opportunity? I know I would, in a skinny minute.

Meanwhile, my parents were still standing there on the highway, silent but smiling. I opened my mouth to tell them that I understood what they had done, but before I could speak, they already seemed to know what I was going to say. My mother laughed, the softly derisive laugh she always had when one of her kids had so naively jumped to the wrong conclusion. My Dad just shook his head.

And then I really got it.

If you've read my earlier entries about the events of that night in October of 1991--written a full two years ago--you may remember that this was not just the worst accident of my life, but the best one, too. It led directly to me becoming closer to Her Lovely Self, which in turn led to, well, every good thing I have in my life. But now I finally saw how much more it led to: Thomas, the Brownie, the Éclair, not just as they are now, but as they will be. I saw their children. I saw their grandchildren. I saw hundreds of people--a multitude, a world of them--and they were all mine, all my family.

And all because I wasn't killed in a car accident.

And all because my parents were.

"I get it!" I cried. "I really get it now!"

Then, for the first and last time in the dream, my Mom spoke to me.

"No, you don't get it at all," she said. "This is just something you made up to make yourself feel better."

And I woke up.

Now, I don't know what to believe.

But as matters of faith go, I suppose that's better than not believing in anything at all.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, October 18, 2007


An October Moment...

So, we've had this nightlight in the shape of a duck for some years now--it was probably a baby shower gift from when we had Thomas. I tend to live in houses that are really dark at night--whether it's due to the house's relation to the streetlights, tree cover, or the fact that we just have really good shades, I don't know. But after we started having kids, my need for nocturnal roaming increased by a factor too high to compute. So did the number of scratches and bruises I accumulated from tripping over boxes and laundry baskets and household pets in the middle of the night. Thus we welcomed nightlights and I liberally scattered the several we received throughout the house.

Then my Mom came to stay one spring and was seized with the urge to rummage through the baby things and commandeer anything she thought was even remotely potentially harmful or dangerous to her grandchildren. This meant pretty much anything with wheels, or, really, anything that was sized smaller than my Dad's fist.

And oh my, did she hate that duck nightlight.

"Look at this? What's it made of? Paper? I think that's paper! That's a fire hazard!" she cried, running her finger along the duck's yellow back where the tip of the bulb--and we're talking a really low-watt nightlight bulb--barely grazed it. I don't know what the thing was made of, but it went on the throwaway pile. Then, for some reason--probably something having to do with me doing a nighttime faceplant into the bathroom--it got salvaged and ended up back on duty, and for the next couple of years, it served our needs just fine--and without incident.

Since that time, the duck nightlight has enjoyed a quiet retirement in a desk drawer in our guest room. Until the Éclair came along.

Thomas and the Brownie have long outgrown the need for nightlights, but I sure hadn't, so I fished this thing out of the drawer and plugged it into the wall socket in the bathroom, right by the door. Thus positioned, I figured, it would give off enough light in the hallway between my room and the baby's room that I could traverse the distance without breaking a toe. I plugged it in, flicked it on, and it came brightly to life. I couldn't help but notice that it was sporting a larger than usual (and brighter than usual) bulb in its socket and, being my mother's child, my first thought was Fire Hazard! I kept it on that day and checked on it regularly. It seemed fine so I left it on that night.

Early the next morning, getting up to go to the bathroom, I tripped over the dog and realized that the light was out. In fact, I discovered in the bathroom, it had been completely unplugged and left to sit on the vanity. I decided Her Lovely Self must have unplugged it in the middle of the night--she probably wasn't used to the nightlight yet, let alone one quite as bright as this, but it kind of annoyed me too, in the way that little niggly stuff can annoy you when you're muzzy from sleep and have an unemptied bladder. Later, when I was more fully awake, it didn't occur to me to say anything to her about it, and by bedtime that night, she was already half asleep, so I sighed and decided not to pursue it. Instead, and with, I must admit, a certain husbandly vehemence, I slammed that duck light back in its socket, turned it on and went to bed.

Early the next morning, I discovered the duck light unplugged again. Now I was descending into one of those passive-aggressive moments that sometimes happens with folks who have been married more than a decade. Without a word to my wife that night, I just plugged the nightlight back in. And in the morning, again without having said a word to me about it, my wife had unplugged the light. So it went.

Until the morning of the fifth day, when I woke up to darkness again. But also to something new.

The smell of smoke.

I was out of bed in a second, stepping on the dog as I dashed into the hall and sniffed. It was the faintest smoky smell--why it didn't set off the hallway smoke alarm, I'll never know.

I leaned into the bathroom, still sniffing, then stopped dead when I saw the duck.

Evidently that bulb was too bright and too big for the light, because on the back of the duck was one black/brown scorch mark that was still ever-so-slightly smoking. Even the outlet and outlet plate had burn marks. This was no mere smolder. I wouldn't have been surprised if the duck had briefly burst into flame.

By now the baby was awake and crying and Her Lovely Self got up to get her. The dog got up then too, ready for his daily job of Following the Baby Around, but stopped long enough to give the air a good sniffing, then throw me a look that seemed to say You got off lucky, fella before he trotted after my wife.

As I stared at the smoldering duck, all I could think about was the four previous nights that I'd been plugging the thing in, again and again.



"Holy shit!" I finally cried to Her Lovely Self, feeling awful for my passive-aggressive behavior over the week. "Thank God you've been getting up and unplugging this duck. It would have burned the house down!"

Her Lovely Self came by and stared at me quizzically. "But I've never unplugged the duck," she said.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, October 05, 2007


An October Moment...

Over the course of this summer, as our wonderful little Éclair began to take more notice of the world around her, Her Lovely Self started telling me about a strange habit of the baby's. Whenever she awoke for a late-night feeding, her eyes were nearly always directed to a spot in the corner of our bedroom, near the crib. When she did this, she wasn't exhibiting the glazed-over look of a baby who toked out on breast milk either; she was staring fixedly, with intent, at an empty corner of our bedroom.

(If you care to, you can see the corner in question in this post. Second picture down. It's the corner obscured by a curtain. Incidentally, right about the time the Éclair started paying unusual attention to that spot, Blaze abruptly took up guard duties in the hall, just outside the bedroom door.)

As she got older and gained more head control, she'd often swivel herself toward the corner. When she began smiling, one of her first gummy grins for that corner.

Later on, we set up the crib and moved her into her own room. One night, I heard her crying and got up to comfort her. She was in her cooing phase so she gooed with real delight to see me.

But as soon as I pulled her out of the crib and sat on a twin bed that's also in the room, she pointedly turned her head to the closet, her eyebrows waggling in that adorable way she has whenever she sees something really interesting. She made cooing and gooing noises at that closet for the better part of an hour, completely oblivious to me. Eventually, she drifted back off to sleep.

I gently laid her in the crib and, heart pounding, edged toward the darkened closet. I experimentally put out a hand, hoping to feel something: a cold spot, a presence, some sense of something--someone--standing there.

I couldn't feel a thing.

The baby still has a habit of gazing with rapt attention at the most unlikely empty spaces--now she laughs as well as smiles when she looks. I honestly don't remember Thomas or the Brownie ever doing this. It was a little disquieting at first, but I guess it's harmless enough. After all, whatever it is she's looking at, it sure makes her happy.

I wish I could see what she sees.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


In Which I am Shocked...SHOCKED...

Long-time readers may well remember what a bore I am when my back is bothering me, so I guess it's time to be boring again.

Truth to tell, I'm in the middle of what has proven to be a fairly long phase of wince-worthy to mad-bastard back pain, and traveling around the country, hauling boxes out of cramped storage areas and carrying infants around for hours at a time hasn't helped it one bit.

I like to be able to say "I've tried everything," but until recently, I couldn't quite. But it must be said I have tried rather a lot in my past several years of back-pain, including physical therapy, smart-back school (whatever that was), massage, acupressure, acupuncture, more physical therapy, epidural steroid injections, surgery, still more physical therapy, and, of course, a wide and varied sampling of every form of opiate-based painkiller available to mankind, with the exception, perhaps, of opium itself.

And still I couldn't say I tried everything because I hadn't yet worn one of these babies:


Care to guess what it is? Numerous people in my life have made a wide range of creative stabs: Thomas wondered if I was becoming "bionic"; several neighbors thought it was a cell phone; at least one coworker misidentified it as a device used to measure blood sugar levels; another correctly identified it as a device that controlled electrical impulses but thought it was some kind of gadget to stop incontinence.

In fact, it is a portable TENS unit, TENS standing for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which is, of course, what the device provides.

The principle upon which it operates is a simple one: given that the sensation of pain is little more than an electrical impulse sent along a nerve pathway, a TENS unit sends it owns wave of electrical impulses through a specific spot on the body, essentially jamming the pain signal. In reality, when functioning correctly, what the device does is generate an artificial and ongoing sensation of pins-and-needles which, while not exactly painful, does take some getting used to.

In previous courses of physical therapy, I'd had TENS applied to my back after training sessions. But those were big, bedside models. I'd never worn a personal TENS unit. Thus it was that, roughly four Tuesdays ago, I found myself spending a half-hour with the helpful sales rep of the EMPI Company, the maker of the unit I was going to wear on a trial basis for the next month of so. The rep showed me how the device worked, and here I have to say, it's not as effortless as it might seem at first glance.

For starters, to effectively target your pain, you have to apply no less than four electrodes--each of which affixes to your skin by means of the world's coldest sticky gel (try slapping those on top of your ass first thing in the morning). Then you have to play around with the settings to find a rhythm of electrical current that best blocks your pain.

At this point, the sales rep made the wise suggestion that I ramp the setting on the TENS unit to the very edge of my pain threshold, just to see what I could comfortably stand. So I slowly adjusted the control button from setting 1 to 2 to 4 to 5 to 7 and so on. At about 11.5, I could feel my lower back and glutes begin locking up involuntarily as the current coursed through my lower body. Not pleasant. So I set the unit back down several notches and eventually found that a setting of 4.5 comfortably blocked out my pain.

I went to work with the unit the next day and it was almost like a miracle. I sometimes have to sit all day, which I don't have to tell you is hell on the back. But with the TENS unit thrumming quietly through my low back and hips, I essentially felt nothing, like my ass was asleep, really. It was wonderful.

Until I went to the meeting.

I think that in just about any other circumstance, I would have been fine. But that day, events conspired to create one of those perfect-storm moments without which my life would just not be complete.

For starters, I'd already been wearing the unit for most of the day--since about 7 AM, in fact. It was 3:30 when the meeting was called. I usually remove the electrodes around that time--I find that the gelled sides of the electrodes are pretty well dried out by then and don't stick so well to my skin--but removing the electrodes means untucking my shirt and fishing around in the back of my pants in a manner you really don't want to exhibit in front of your coworkers, especially at this meeting, which was filled with high-level executives, as well as some peon mid-level managers like me.

For another thing, I was wearing a pair of boxer shorts bought during a brief, freak episode of weight gain, when I dressed out at around 177 pounds. These days I'm back down to my normal weight of about 160, so the shorts, though comfortable, were exceedingly baggy. The trousers I was wearing were a bit baggy, too.

So when I stood up to go into the meeting, see, I didn't realize that one of the electrodes had fallen off the top of my hip and was now resting in the seat of those baggy shorts. Hey, my ass was asleep--how would I have known?

And the hell of it was, I still didn't feel a thing for some minutes into the meeting. So I didn't quite realize that when I sat back down in that conference room, that wayward electrode was now located approximately one millimeter from the back of my scrotum.

Then I turned to grab a piece of paper from a colleague sitting next to me. That's when the buttons on the front of the TENS unit rubbed against the armrest of the seat in just the right combination needed to disable the button lock on the unit.

So when I brushed against that armrest the next time, the TENS unit was jogged suddenly from its sedate 4.5-level setting.

To level 24.

Now, I'd like to switch your perspective for a moment.

Imagine that you are a fairly highly placed executive for a large publishing company, and you're about three minutes into a fairly intense brainstorming meeting packed with managers and bright people from all over the company. Sitting across from you is a man you know from your many visits to and meetings with staff at the Really Big Magazine. You can never quite remember his name, but you know him to be an animated and jocular fellow, usually full of witty things to say, and a good kind of personality to have in a brainstorming meeting. Or so you thought.

You've just handed out an agenda and are making a few opening remarks when all of a sudden this man snaps to in his chair. His eyes are wide and his mouth is opening, but no sound is coming out. His hands twist into two trembling fists and then his whole body begins to shake violently. Before you can even form a thought to utter the words to ask what the hell is wrong, this man suddenly and, it appears, quite involuntarily, jerks half out of his seat and does an impromptu impression of Elvis Presley dancing, slamming the side of the table three times--hard--with his pelvis--BAMBAMBAM--slopping drinks and scattering papers. He appears to be in the throes of an epileptic fit, or some darkly unnatural sexual spasm. And now he is making sounds--at first they are strange, strangled "Nuck! Nuck! Egggarrrhhhhh!" noises, but they quickly shift to a kind of hyped-up, ululating, effeminate yipping. Now he's swinging his arms wildly, smacking at his right hip, where he appears to be trying to beat away a small square object (is it a cell phone? A blood-sugar device? An electronic bladder control unit?). Finally, he snags two black wires and yanks them free, pulling a surprising amount of slack and most of his shirt up along with them. For a brief but grotesque moment, he gives everyone a good look at his hideous expanse of hairy, middle-age belly flab. Ladies--and not a few men--squawk and avert their eyes. Then he goes still, panting, his hair practically standing up on end. He stops and looks sheepishly around.

The room is dead quiet.

The man knows better than to hold a press conference. He mutters an abashed "sorry" and dashes from the room.

But one thing's for sure: You just remembered his name, and now you'll never forget it, not for as long as you live.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


An October Moment...

One of Thomas' jobs every morning and evening is to feed the dog. Often he has to be reminded, but even then he performs his chore with diligence and a minimum of farting around. In mid-May, that changed.

My Big Brother and I had just returned from Elkhart, Indiana, on the rather sobering and disquieting errand of searching through my parents' wrecked car for a few precious effects. In addition to my grandmother's gold bracelet and my mom's recipe book, we also retrieved several thousand baseball cards (which my dad was bringing to Thomas), a travel bag full of crushed jewelry and other assorted oddments we either thought we'd need for insurance purposes or in some numb, clutching mode, just bagged and put in the back of my car.

Nearly everything smelled of blood and motor oil or else was covered in a patina of slivered glass, so we put all of these bags--rather unceremoniously, I must admit--into a wheel barrow in the garage, right next to the box the coroner's office had used to send what valuables they'd taken custody of. BB and I had already gone through that box, and left in it my mom's empty shoulder bag and the two camera bags that had contained my parents' camcorder and digital camera, respectively (both of which turned out to be in perfect working order and which my brother now owns).

That night, as Thomas went to feed the dog, he stepped out into the garage--where we keep Blaze's kibble--and almost immediately stepped back in. "Something's wrong with the lights," he said.

I poked my head out. The garage was bathed in a quirky light, and I noticed that the lightbulb nearest the door was flickering on and off, like a ship's signal lamp. I experimentally flicked the switch near the door, drowning the garage in inky blackness. Then I flipped the switch again. The light was no longer flickering.

But the next morning, it was flickering again.

There seemed to be no pattern to the flickering. It happened for the next several days, sometimes for just a brief pulse, other times more or less constantly.

I would be lying if I told you I wasn't hoping for something like this. Anyone who's read about my experiences living in an 18th century farmhouse knows that I have some affinity for the unseen. And growing up, I remembered talking to my parents countless times about what we would do in the unlikely event any one of us was to actually die. It was generally agreed that we would try to send a sign to who ever survived, some small, non-scary, possibly wonderful thing to tip our loved ones off to the fact that we were okay.

The thing was, I didn't believe that this flickering light was the sign.

I've been in rooms with flickering electrical equipment before, and in my experience, whenever it's caused by something unseen, there's an accompanying, I don't know, sense that something's not quite kosher. Sometimes it's nothing more than a prickling sensation on my neck, other times it's a full-blown sense of being in an actual cold spot, but it's always there.

This time, I didn’t feel anything.

I mentioned the flickering light to Her Lovely Self, who finally asked the question.

"Do you think it's your parents?"

I so wanted to say "Yes." But instead I answered honestly, "No, I really don't think so."

After about a week of the flickering light, I got out a stepladder and climbed up to the light fixture. As it turned out, the bulb was almost rotated out of its socket, which would have explained the sporadic light. Opening the garage door or the door to the house would have created enough of a vibration to set the bulb flickering. Sadly, I screwed the bulb firmly into place.

When I came down the ladder, Thomas was watching me from the door. He looked from me to the light, now burning brightly and steadily in the garage.

"What was it, Dad?" he asked.

"Just a loose bulb, buddy," I said.

"Oh," he said, sounding at once relieved and disappointed. "I thought maybe--"

"I know," I said, cutting him off. "But there was nothing special about it. See?" Thomas took a good long look up at the light, then nodded to me. We turned to go in the house.

And that's when the bulb blew out.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, October 01, 2007


An October Moment...

(Don't know what an October Moment is? Details here.)

My Dad was a bird-watcher. In a corner of the living room of his house, there's an old window with a view of the crab-apple tree, the collapsed stone fence in front of it, and the bird-feeders my parents kept filled nearby. On a desk right by the window, my Dad always kept one or two bird books to identify the birds he'd seen. He got Thomas a bird-book too and together they used to trade phone calls and the occasional e-mail filling each other in on what birds they'd lately spotted.

Thomas was always jealous of my Dad's bird-identifying prowess, but my Dad was jealous of Thomas, too, because where we live there are an abundance of raptors, my Dad's favorite type of bird. We see hawks of every kind, kestrels, like that. But one shared ambition they had was to spot an eagle. Thomas had never seen one, and it had been years since my Dad had seen one. The hell of it was, some eagles had been spotted flying over the little town where my Dad lived, but he had never managed to catch a glimpse himself. "Next time you come for a visit," he told Thomas, "we'll go birding and we'll both get to see an eagle."

Alas, the next time Thomas visited, it was to bury his grandparents.

My family stayed at a hotel during the funeral, but there was one afternoon when the kids came out to the house. Of them all, Thomas was the grandchild most affected by my parents' death, and the shock of it really hit him walking into that empty house. He paused for a while by the corner of the living room, looking out the old window, toward the crab-apple tree. There were no birds out there. Thomas idly thumbed through my Dad's Sibley guide and out fell a list of all the birds my Dad had seen that year--no eagles, but there was quite an assortment on there--grackles and nuthatches and what-not. There were even a few Dad had seen the week before his death and had never gotten around to telling his grandson. Thomas showed me the list and asked if he could have it and my Dad's bird book (and so now he does).

It was a glorious early May day, sunny, windy, cool, and eventually no one could bear to be in the house--except me. I was on the computer, printing out photos to paste onto poster board for display at the memorial service. Then I heard Thomas shout, "DAD!! Get out here!" I looked up and caught a glimpse of my brother moving vigorously past one of the windows. My brother doesn't run for anything, so I assumed something was wrong.

When I got outside, Thomas was standing on the picnic table out in front of the house, pointing into the sky and shouting. My brother hustled back from his truck, where he had just retrieved his binoculars. "I don't fucking believe it," he muttered to himself.

"What is it?" I asked, squinting into the bright sky.

"It's an eagle!" Thomas shouted.

"Actually, it's two eagles," my brother said, as he peered through the binoculars.

"Where?" I asked, squinting.

"There! Right over the house!!" Thomas pointed excitedly, indicating about a thousand cubic miles of sky. "I see the other one!"

I looked. Nothing. Unlike my son, I have the worst eyesight in my family, and on countless nature trips growing up, I was the despair of my Dad, who was forever gazing off into the distance and spotting bears or moose or Bigfoot, for all I could see. Then he'd spend a half-hour with me, trying to direct me to a fixed landmark and then giving me coordinates to find the thing he'd spotted--at 12 o'clock or 1 o'clock or whatever o'clock from whatever the fixed item was. Sometimes it worked, but often it was fruitless. I would have given just about anything to have him at my side at that moment, directing me, helping me to see the eagles.

"Look at the top of the maple," my brother advised, almost as if he'd been reading my thoughts. "One of em's at 2 o'clock from the top of the tree."

I peered and squinted and bobbed my head this way and that. Nothing.

"Oh for Christ's sake, you look like a nearsighted turkey. Here!" my brother finally said, shoving the binoculars at me.

I fiddled with knobs and readjusted my glasses and even climbed atop the picnic table. All I could see was magnified patches of blue and white.

"Can you still see them?" I asked Thomas.

"Of course!" he shouted. "They're right there!"

But after about five minutes--and long after my brother lost sight of them, Thomas finally announced that they had disappeared behind a low-hanging cloud. Back in the house, he ran to his grandfather's list and wrote "EAGLE--2" in his big looping script.

Actually, quite a few people in town saw the eagles that day. It was unusual to see a pair of them like that, and there was some comment on it later.

Thomas and my brother still talk about those eagles.

But I never saw them.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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