Thursday, May 29, 2008

 

In Which We Start Rolling Down the Hill...


As I Tweeted last week (yes, I'm now on Twitter, as you may have noticed over in the margin), my family kidnapped me Friday afternoon and took me off on an adventure that had us traversing the highways and byways of the heartland, rummaging through antique shops and slaying local dragons. We ended up at one of those indoor water parks (the kids love them and, after all, the birthday weekend couldn't be ALL about me), where I became rather moist.

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(Yes, I wore glasses into the pool. What? I can't see a damn thing without em.)


Yet another surprise was waiting for us when we got there: Some old friends and their kids came to meet us. In fact, their room was next door to ours and our kids get on like a house on fire so there was great fun and no sleep.

There was also some cake eating. I managed to blow out the candles without passing out from lack of oxygen, although I had help. Having seen cake in large quantities at her birthday and then at her sister's, the Éclair became highly animated at the sight of the lighted candles, and insisted on accompanying me for the rest of the evening, more or less putting me under cake custody.


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(Yes, it's a Superman cake. What? You never saw a 40-year-old man with a Superman cake before?)

After she put away a little piece of her own, the Éclair had designs on my slice of cake, and won through, mostly by doing the Cute Baby Girl thing, but also by pointing very deliberately at my plate and uttering, with perfectly clarity, "That cake, Daddy. That cake. My have? Peeze-peeze?" I tell you, it was not speech; it was an incantation. Impossible to resist.


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I was still charmed by the whole moment even 12 hours later, when she abruptly puked all that cake back up on me and on her long-suffering pal, the Pink Bear. Hey, it's not a party until someone throws up on your rug.

Then it was home and more back-road adventuring along the way. I had some birthday money burning a hole in my pocket and so bought stacks of old magazines and comics and came this close to making a deal on an old-fashioned comic spinner rack--you know the old metal display spinners like they used to have in every drug store and newsagent? Well, now they're impossible to find. I had a chance to buy one a few years ago for about 50 bucks and now I wish I'd done it. I'd put one of those racks to great use in my own home, putting it in the family room and filling it with my old tattered comics and letting the neighborhood kids come and read. Who cares about the condition of the comics?

So, consider the word put out, my friends: If you find a genuine, good ol' metal comic spinner rack at your local flea market/antique shop, and can get it for $100 or less, yer ol' pal MM is good for it, and will gladly pay to have it shipped, plus he'll work out a nifty goodie box for you as a kind of finder's fee. I'm serious. If you find one, you e-mail me and we'll discuss the details.

And with that, I must leave you. My adventure plus the holiday weekend leaves me in a bit of a time-crunch and I've got to finish editing a couple of story pages for shipment this week. But I just had to say "thank you" one and all for your kind birthday wishes this past weekend. Best time I've ever had turning 40.

Except for the vomit.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, May 23, 2008

 

In Which My Son Has Some Hard Questions...

This morning, there was whispering in the pre-dawn darkness and it woke me up. Someone was in the hallway outside my bedroom.

"Ready?"

"Wait. Wait. It's slipping."

"It's not an it. It's your sister."

"Okay. THE BABY is slipping."

"Well, let's go then. Move it!"

"You said she's not an it."

"Not 'it' the baby! 'It' like YOUR BUTT! GO!!"

By this time, my eyes were wide open and I was just in time to see Thomas bound into the room, yelling, "Happy Birthday Old Daddy!"

The Brownie was right behind him, but I couldn't tell at first, because she was holding the Éclair up as high as she could. The baby was hooting with glee.

"Baby Bomb!" the Brownie yelled, and half-laid, half-dropped the Éclair on my stomach.

"Abom!" The Éclair shrieked while I hoofed breathlessly. She leaned in and gave me a fierce squeeze (she loves giving hugs). Then she sat back and regarded me for a moment, before clapping her hands. "Yay! Yay!" she exclaimed.

Thomas gave me the look he's been giving me all week, a look of mingled surprise and something else. Either awe or pity, I'm not sure.

"Wow, Dad. You're really 40," he said, not for the first time. The idea that his Dad has lived two score years has really captured his imagination and he's been able to talk of little else. Not in a smart-ass, joking way either. He just seems to be fascinated.

After we went downstairs, I found the birthday balloons (the Brownie found them at the party store. Instead of just saying "Happy Birthday" on them, they conveniently say "Happy 40TH Birthday" in huge letters and numbers. You know, just in case you might forget and none of your children would think to remind you) and a few presents (Bill Bryson's new dictionary, some clothes, and a design book about building treehouses. My parents had always wanted to build a cabin up on their hill in New Hampshire and were talking ever more seriously about it now that I had a family that was getting too big to stay at the house. Now that the land has passed to me and my Big Brother, I'd still like to build a cabin, but who says it has to be on the ground?). And while Her Lovely Self went upstairs to find clothes for the Éclair (the Brownie went along, to help), Thomas continued to give me that look.

"So Dad, have you done all the stuff you ever wanted to do?" he finally asked. "I mean, what did you dream about doing by the time you were 40?"

It's the first time my son has asked me such a thing, and I admit I was taken a little off-guard. I thought about it for a minute before I answered.

"Well, you know, I'm not done living yet," I joked, hoping to deflect my son. But he just looked at me.

"Seriously," he said, and I knew finally there was no deflecting this.

"Okay, yes, I guess I've done most of the big stuff I've wanted to do," I finally said. "Getting to travel. Meeting a beautiful woman and getting her to marry me. Having kiddos. Making a living by working with words. You know, stuff like that."

Thomas nodded, but he wasn't letting his old man off the hook so quickly. "Is there anything you haven't done? Or wished you had done when you had the chance?"

He mean regrets. I thought. Have I had a few?

I was a few moments responding to that one, although I don't know why, because really, that's one of those questions most people know the answer to right away, if they're at all honest with themselves.

"Well, sure," I said. "I mean, I've been able to make a living and support you guys just by writing and editing, which is really quite something when you think about it. But..." I paused. "I have to admit that I've always wanted to write some different things."

"Like what?" he asked.

"Well," I said, counting on my fingers. "I've always wanted to try my hand at writing a comic book script. I did a comic strip years ago and that was a lot of fun, but I always wanted to try an actual comic book. I've always wanted to write a book about the small town where Grandma and Papa lived. And I've always wanted to write a children's book. Something besides "The Hairball Express," I mean. I've always wanted to try my hand at a kid's detective adventure, like the ones I grew up reading."

"So what stopped you?" Thomas asked, like he was my little therapist.

"I dunno," I said, inexplicably finding myself feeling shy and embarrassed. "As far as the book about the town in New Hampshire, I suppose I always knew there were other people who could tell the story better--people like your great-aunt Barbara or your grandfather." Although that's no longer true, I thought. "And as far as the other stuff, I guess I realized that I wasn't very good at making up stories. I was pretty good at asking questions and doing research and putting information together to tell a true story. But fiction? I just wasn't good at it. Not when I was younger, anyway."

"Well, how 'bout now?" Thomas asked, really not letting this thing go. "Aren't you even going to try? What are you waiting for?"

I stared at my son for a long while, wondering what the heck had gotten into him. But before I could pursue it, his mother came back down and the subject changed and the moment was broken.

But not lost. Not on me.

Because he's right, of course. What am I waiting for? To become a better writer? Yeah, like that's going to happen. No, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, I'm at my peak, my prime (possibly even a little past it). I wish I was a better writer. I really wish I was a better storyteller, even half as good as my Dad or my aunt. But wishing won't make it so. I'm about as good as I'm going to get.

I'm 40 years old.

Seriously, what am I waiting for?


Thursday, May 22, 2008

 

When I Grow Up (A Random Anecdote)



Readers who recall what a smart-ass I was in high school--especially around my religion teacher, the long-suffering Sister Agnes--will not be at all surprised to read this one. You can tell I was just a few weeks shy of graduating high school--the fuck-you attitude just rolls off this thing in waves. Usually I held myself in check--or at least restrained myself enough to avoid detention--but as you'll see, at the time I had a pretty good reason for being pissed off.

Sadly, I'll never know whether Sister Agnes agreed or not. I kept waiting for her to call me into her classroom and sentence me to detention for the rest of the year. But she never said one word about this essay after I handed it in. A few weeks later, at the end of the year, she handed back a little stapled pile of papers to each student in her class--most had grades or comments on them. This essay was in the short stack she handed back to me. But there wasn't a single comment on it.

Maybe she thought I was right after all, that I never would be priest material. It would have been the first time we ever agreed on something.




Theology 4-4-4

Vocation Week Essay

May 1985


We had Vocation Week finally. It was supposed to happen in January, but the teacher's strike postponed things, so now we're finally getting around to it.

Vocation Week--that time when parochial schools across the country invite priests and nuns from the many different orders of the Catholic Church to come and talk about their vocation--which is also known as a Calling. The hope is they'll inspire young men and women to hear the calling and become a priest or nun themselves.

For five years now--ever since 8th grade--I have gone through Vocation Week and listened to all kinds of priests, friars, sisters, deacons, and even His Eminence the Bishop. And every year, I've done an essay about how I will answer God's call to service.

Well, Sister Agnes, it's my senior year, and this is the last one of these that I'm ever going to write, so I think it's OK for me to come right out and say it.

There is no way in heck I am ever entering the priesthood.

Pretty sure I'm not going to be a nun either.

I know I'm only 16 (17 next week!) and it's hard for anyone to really know what he wants to do with his life at 16 (17 next week!), but I kind of do. And it's not going to involve the Catholic church. I'm taking a break from you guys for a while.

I don't know if you know this or not, Sister Agnes, but only my Mom is Catholic, not my Dad. He was born a Methodist. He doesn't really go to his own church and he sure won't go to the Catholic church, and I can't say I blame him. I found out that when he wanted to marry my mother, the priest at the local parish tried to talk him out of it, and when that didn't work, he refused to marry my parents. I think in the end he only did it as a favor to my grandfather (who's pretty pious as Catholics go). So if the Catholic Church had their way back in 1964, I wouldn't even be here. Boy, there's a pro-life attitude for you, huh?

And now, well, I guess it's all the gossip, so let's just put it out on the table: My Dad is in the hospital. He's in rehab, actually. He's an alcoholic and his drinking finally caught up with him this past year. I can't say we're getting along all that well these days (for reasons I'd rather not go into just now) because he's still having some problems. And I really have to say this, but I don't think the church has been much help. You could say, well, you're not my Dad's church, so he shouldn't expect much support, but the Catholic church is MY church, and my mom's and boy-o-boy, you've really let me down. I'll get to that in a minute.

Well, to be fair I guess my problems really aren't with the church, but the people who run it, yet another reason why I don't want to follow a vocation. I have to say, most of the priests I've known--especially here at school--haven't really inspired me. I mean, do I really want to be like Father Connolly, who made me bring my razor to school and shave in front of him? He didn't believe that my stubble grew so fast, so he made me shave for him one morning so he could check it in the afternoon. And guess what? I HAD STUBBLE. I'd think he had better things to do with his time. I'd think if he was truly answering a call from God, he wouldn't be wasting his vocation this way. You know?

And then there's Father Kenneth, who MADE me go to confession (you know all about that). Plus he censored the school paper, which as the editor of it I have a problem with. But I have a bigger bone to pick with him, as my mom would say.

Last week, I found a letter at my house. It had the school emblem on it, but it was hidden in the china cabinet in our dining room. I opened it and inside was an overdue bill for $500 to my mom and dad. That's what they owe on tuition for me. And Father Kenneth included a kind of nasty letter to my mom, telling her that the school had been waiting for months for their money, and how they really should have suspended me until they came up with the money. Father Kenneth went on to say that unless my parents paid up before the end of May, he was going to hold onto my diploma. He told my mom that without a copy of my diploma, I can't finish registering for classes at college. Then he called her "irresponsible" and kind of told her off for not being a good parent.

I think it's funny that he called her "irresponsible." If she's so irresponsible, how is it that she was able to help the school so much? For five years, she helped make all the costumes for the school play, donated all the fabric and doing all the sewing herself (and her own kids weren't even in the school play until this year). Before my Mom made the costumes, I found out from Mr. Mason [the school play director] that you used to have to pay a professional seamstress to do the work.

Plus every year at Homecoming, my mom has baked the big Homecoming cake that you have at the dinner-dance. Actually, it's two cakes my mom makes every year--the main cake and the centerpiece. Again, she donates her time and all the ingredients--that's at least $125 in ingredients alone. Every year, the school raffles off the centerpiece and puts the money into the activity fund--you're in charge of that, Sister, so you know all about it. In fact, you were the one who told me you make about $150 in raffle tickets each year off that centerpiece. Hmm.

Anyway, I kind of wish Father Kenneth would just give her a break and leave her alone. If she owes the school 500 dollars, it's because of me, so why not bill me instead? Maybe one day I'll have a job and can actually pay him.

I guess that's what my vocation is going to be for a while. I'm not counting on the church or anyone in it to do anything for me and my family--I mean, look what they've done so far--so I'm going to work on getting through college and finding a job where I can get paid for something I'm good at and something I love to do. Like writing.

Finally, while we have this little moment together here at the end of my paper, I just wanted to say "thanks" for putting up with me, Sister Agnes. I know I haven't been easy to teach, especially lately, but now you maybe know why.

I hope you understand why I feel the way I do about Vocation Week. It's probably a good thing. If I had wanted to become a priest, I might have ended up teaching here. Or even becoming principal. Can you imagine having to take orders from me? Ha ha ha.

Boy, would you hate that.




Yeah, I had that chip on my shoulder for quite a while. But eventually I figured out something Sister Agnes had never quite clued me in on during my four years with her, which is that following a Calling has nothing to do with which order you join or which vows you take, but everything to do with making the best use of God's gifts to you.

So I think it's fair to say I finally figured out what my vocation is.

And thank God, it didn't involve a vow of chastity.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

 

When I Grow Up (A Random Anecdote)




This next piece of writing dates from 6th grade and instead of writing a paragraph about what we wanted to do when we grew up, we were assigned to write about our jobs as though we were already living in the far-flung future of the 1990s and actually doing them.

By this point in my life, my parents had given me a hardbound journal full of blank pages and I spent every lunch hour and free period writing short stories and mysteries starring me and my friends. When I finished a new story, the book would make the rounds and my classmates would write comments at the end of each one--kind of like a hard-copy blog.

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I thought quite a lot of my writing prowess at this point, in case the following doesn't give that away. And it's a sign of just how much I love you that I can bring myself to share this with you at all. My brother peed himself reading this aloud, with extra emphasis on all the accidental double-entendres, so it almost goes without saying that laughing and cringing is allowed (and even encouraged).



A Day with A Detective


My day starts in the middle of the night. Sitting in my all-black Corvette, binculars aimed at the window where the crime is about to happen. I sit and I watch for hours. I never sleep--that's the detective's motto.

People think private-eye work is all easy--sitting in your office talking to gorgous dames and solving mysteries in a snap, but it's not. You have to spend a lot of time watching and waiting.

But sometimes you have to eat and go to the bathroom. That's why I have a partner, Shawn. He takes over watching while I get the grub and do whatever else a man needs to do.

When I buy the burgers at the all night burger store, the waitress screams when I reach to give her money. "Uh oh." I said in my mind. "She's seen my peice." All detective are liscensed to carry guns. My one is a .45 automatic. I practice with it every day down at the shooting range and in my back yard with some cans. I could shoot the head out of a penny if you through it in the air. But I'd rather shoot dimes. I like Abe Lincoln.

Just then, my wrist walki-talkie buzzes. It's 1997 and everyone has them.

"MM, get back here! There's trouble on the double!" Shawn yelled. "I think--" But then his voice gets cut off by the sound of gunshots!!

The waitress screams again as I whip it out. "Call the cops, sweetheart!" I said. "I'm a detective on a case!"

"Are you really a private dick?" she exclaimed. "Let's see."

I have ID and everything. So I flash her. That gets her moving.

And then I'm running, faster than fast. I can see the flashes of light from the window--bullets of death streaking down to my partner and my car!

"My Corvette!" I shouted. Uh-oh. Now all the attention is on me. Pow! Pow! Badang! I'm diving into an alley as lead slugs go flying! I jump into a garbage can for cover. But now I'm pinned down.

KA-Chow Ka-Chow! Good old Shawn is hanging out of my car window, firing his snub-nose .38 revoler up at the window.

"Eeeyargh!" a thug screams and falls out. It's 20 stories to the ground. Plenty of time for his bad life to flash before him before.....THUD.

Now all those human crud-bums are shooting at my partner. My car is getting pretty holey. I can't see him any more. Is he alive or dead?

I peak out and aim my .45. I wait until I see the muzzel flash in the black night, then.....POW POW! I hear a cry and another bad guy buys the farm.

I stand up and call to my partner. "Shawn! Are you OK?" I heard a groan and then.....BANG! A third culprit by the door! I duck down but it's too late.

BANG BANG!

Arrrgh! He shot me through the can!

Blood blobs out of me like red Elmer's glue. The world goes swimmy. Everything seems to be spinning.....

I wake up. I'm in a hospital bed. Shawn is in the bed next to me, his head bandadged and his arm wounded but he'll be OK. The chief of Police is shaking my hand and there are cameras everywhere.

"You're a hero, Detective MM!" the Chief said. "You rolled yourself in the garbage can all the way down the hill and clobbered the last culprit all on instinct! Congradulations! Is there anything you need as a reward?"

"Yeah, a burger," said Shawn.

"And a typewriter," I said. Because when the long night is over, I need to write what happened for my next book of Real True Detective stories.

CASE CLOSED



Well, we are the product of our influences, and at this point, my friend Shawn and I were actively running our own little detective agency, and I couldn't imagine doing anything cooler with my life.

Except perhaps writing about it after I did it.

As I've mentioned before, I found journalism to be a close parallel fit to detecting, because I still used the same skills--interviewing people on the scene, and using my powers of observation (and occasionally deduction) to put a story together. I grant you, that doesn't happen so much any more, but when I was just starting out, it was a close enough fit to suit me.

Plus, journalism was a lot safer choice of occupation than being a private dick.

After all, I've never once been shot in the can.

NEXT>>

Monday, May 19, 2008

 

When I Grow Up (A Random Anecdote)


I've been saving these for a special occasion. They lived for years in a manila envelope in my parents' house, but then the cats peed on them and I typed each of them into a Word file (errors and all) before incinerating the folder. And washing my hands in carbolic acid.

They carried different titles over the years, but the first one is probably most emblematic. And if you've been reading this blog for even a year, you'll understand why I'm trotting them out this week.



What I Want To Be When I Grow Up


I want to be a Super Hero. Super Heros go around saving the people and hepling the hepless and fighting for right things. They save peopls lives, which is the best thing you can do ever and that is what I want to do. They don't take any money for being a super hero because like mom says doing good is its own reward. Some Super Heros have powers but I probly wont have them. I will have to train like Batman but geezum that is a lot of work. Maybe I will get lucky and get hit by a lighting bolt.

By MM, Age 7



Oddly, in a class of 20, I was the only child who picked "super-hero" as a future vocation. Everyone else wanted to be nurses and firemen and the President, and for some reason I thought I might find job satisfaction fighting for right and rescuing people who were not hep. I especially liked the idea of saving people, like my good pal Jesus (although He obviously saved people in a different way. He saved their souls. I was perfectly happy to swing off a flagpole and catching a falling girl. Preferably a real pretty one like my third-grade crush Liz).

This little essay worried my 3rd grade teacher mightily. I think she thought I was going to tie a bath towel around my neck and jump off a roof and so she spent a lot of extra time with me explaining that super-heroes weren't real (as if I didn't know, ba-doi!) As usual, I thought too deeply into the assignment: I thought my teacher was asking me to relate my ultimate fantasy--the best possible thing I could be, if there were no restraints. If she had just phrased the assignment a little more succinctly--"Children, today we're going to write a little story. The title is 'What Lame and Pedestrian Occupation Utterly Ground in Reality Would I Choose On That Unlucky Day When I'm Forced To Take My Place Among The Drones?'"--I would have just written that I wanted to be a welder like my Dad, so I could set mean people on fire and whack them with pipes.

Eventually, I allowed my teacher to convince me that, instead of a super-hero, I would pick the compromise occupation of paramedic, who are of course heroic and save lives--and also have a whole complement of super-heroic accessories, including neat uniforms, flashy vehicles, special headquarters, and even a loud and flashy signal that alerts them to trouble in the city. My love of the TV show Emergency! and my deep and abiding admiration for the actor Randolph Mantooth (who played the ultra-cool Johnny Gage) date from this period.

And as I correctly prophesied, being a hero was a lot of work. I discovered this the very first time I took a first aid course in high school, and managed to break the Resusci Annie I was practicing mouth-to-mouth on.

So I was a washout as a rescue hero, and yet, like so much of my childhood baggage, for years I never quite gave up on the idea that maybe I might one day be a bona fide super guy, saving lives and everything. But recently, I've become increasingly aware that I'm approaching an age where it's perhaps the right and seemly thing to do to put aside certain childish things and get on with finally growing up.

Then last night, I was following the Éclair around (she is crawling like a mad bastard) and saw from a distance as she reached the door, discovered a pretty pebble sitting on the floor by the entryway, and promptly popped it in her mouth.

There were a couple of violently purple moments, between my language and the color of her face, but in about two seconds, I had the pebble in my hand and I know the Éclair had her lungs back, because she was howling at me with the World's Most Offended Look. In the end, Mommy had to take her away for some quiet time. But as I watched them walk down the hall, my aggrieved daughter swearing at me the whole way, all I could do was smile and say, "You're welcome, honey. Again.”

For a moment, while my heart climbed back down out of my throat, I thought about all the times I've prevented the end of my children: Thomas was forever crawling to the edges of stairwells only to have me snag him by a diaper or a collar button at the last possible instant. And when we put up gates at the tops of stairs, he threw himself upon them until they fell like the walls of Jericho. One time I came home just in time to catch him surfing down the stairs on top of one of these gates and threw myself into the stairwell, catching both baby and gate--mostly with my head--and tumbling into the coat closet at the bottom.

The Brownie, meanwhile, went through a phase of trying to eat things that would not have agreed with a carbon-based life form. The most recent example I can think of is the time she was 3 and poured herself a glass of juice and was about to drink it, when I happened to look through the glass and spied a solid mass at the bottom. A mass of clumped dishwasher detergent that had settled. Without a word, I smacked the glass out of her hand just as the tainted juice was about to touch her lips. She bawled righteously, not understanding why Mean Daddy had smacked her juicy away (But then, a few minutes later she learned a new word: milkshake, so it all balanced out).

And these are just two of countless examples, not even touching on the innumerable chokings, the near-electrocutions, the nigh-strangling by (yes, I'm ashamed to admit) catching a child dangling from a bed post with a towel tied round his neck.

And don't even get me started on Blaze.

Then it hit me, not unlike a bolt of lighting: I had achieved my aspiration after all. Yes, yes, I wasn't bounding off rooftops and leaving thugs trussed up on the police department steps, but, doggonit, I was saving lives. Okay, granted, I've been saving the same three lives (four if you count the dog) over and over again, but still...that counts.

Right?

Mission accomplished.

NEXT>>


Friday, May 16, 2008

 

In Which We See The Wind-Up...



thomaspitch

By the grace of God, and a little rain (which I think amounts to the same thing), we made it home a day ahead of Thomas' pitching debut, which got moved from Tuesday to Thursday. And man, I'm glad I didn't miss it, because it was a sight to behold.

As parents, Her Lovely Self and I have had some trouble spectating when Thomas plays sports. I tend to be one of those loud screaming dads--not to the point of insulting the other team or berating the coaches or umpires; I just cheer, you understand. But I AM probably loud enough to embarrass my son (In case you doubt me, I refer you here, towards the bottom of the post. The audio clip embedded there is still painfully active. Be glad I edited the file to lower my voice just a smidge. On first playing, I blew out my computer's speakers listening to my own cheering).

I'm also loud enough to embarrass my wife, who almost can't watch Thomas on the field at all. This is because, as his mom, she is finely attuned to how her children behave in public. So when she sees her first-born on the field of play and spies him, for example, adjusting his crotch, picking his uniform pants out of his butt, emptying his nostrils one at a time by means of laying a finger aside of his nose and blowing, or any of a number of other things you see all the time in major league ball, well, she starts squealing inwardly and cringing, like she's in a bad dream where she's powerless to do anything but watch the horror unfold. I finally told her that if she wants to remain in the bleachers with me, she needs to pick some other child on the team and pretend that he's her kid. She may have taken me seriously.

This is a big baseball year for Thomas because it's the first year he--or anyone on any of the teams in this bracket--have had a chance to pitch. Last year, a machine pitched the ball (slowly); the year before, the coaches pitched to their team; the year before that was T-ball. With so many Little Leaguers nationwide getting injured or killed by pitched balls over the years, this league has shown commendable patience and restraint in introducing the kids to increasingly faster and more unpredictable pitching. But now the training wheels are off.

I'm not entirely sure what the process was that enabled Thomas to get singled out to be one of the four or five kids groomed to take the mound. I know when we've played catch in the back yard, he showed both amazing speed and aim. God knows he certainly has the power to get it over the plate (after all, he did put a ball through a neighbor's fence). I have to assume he demonstrated the same skills to the coach during practice, evidently in between sessions of picking his nose and his butt.

Myself, I would never have been tapped to pitch at that age. I was good for just two things on the Panthers team, my 9-year-old club: One was throwing the ball from the outfield fence all the way to home (I was the only kid who could do it. Power wasn't my problem; control was my problem. Nine times out of 10 the ball would hit an umpire or a coach, or go rolling out the gate into the parking lot). The other thing I was good at was getting on base, though not from hitting the ball, so much as getting hit by the ball.

I still hold the record in my league--probably in the state, and possibly even in the nation--for most times getting struck by the pitch in consecutive at-bats. I'm really not sure what the final tally was; I stopped counting after 9 hits in a row. It sounds like one of those weird baseball anecdotes, but there was a good reason for my bad luck: I was the only left-handed player in our league and this threw off every pitcher who faced me. They were all so used to throwing to right-hand batters that they seemed incapable of compensating for a hitter on the other side of the plate. I got smacked on every available surface of the side that faced the pitcher: my elbow, my ass, my knees (at least 4 times, three of which knocked me down). I even got nailed in the back and the crotch (two separate at-bats, of course). It got to be a little joke: needed to get a man on base? Put ol' MM in and let him take one for the team!

The hell of it is, towards the end of the season, the coach was no longer joking. In a big tournament game, he put me in to bat and gave me a very strange look when he said, "MM, you get on base any way you can, you hear me? Any. Way." I heard him, although there was nothing I really needed to do, except be left-handed. And stand still while the pitcher hit me in the face. Our coach was a nice guy, but I think he wanted to win a little too much.

So I think it's fair to say Thomas--who is right-handed--inherited his fine aim and control from Her Lovely Self's side of the family, many of whom are pretty talented athletes. Either way, I felt excited and lucky. The only problem was, I had to promise to keep my mouth shut, not to scream and shout and distract our pitcher when he finally got on the field.

You cannot imagine how hard that promise was to make.

Now, a word about the game, if you've never seen it played at this level: The thing you have to understand about 9-year-olds pitching to each other is that they either deliver nice, fat, slow balls that sail across the plate, or fastballs and screwballs and sliders that go every which-a-way. This leads to a lot of walks, which in turn leads to a lot of loaded bases and a lot of walked-in runs. That's not so interesting to watch, I grant. What IS interesting, though, is when a decent hitter comes to the plate and the bases are loaded and there's a chance of something big happening. In the case of this game, I witnessed at least two grand slams.

Unfortunately, they were both made by the opposing team.

Thus it was that by the third inning, when the coach pointed to Thomas and told him to warm up, his team was already down by more than 6 runs. And it was easy to see that they were falling apart. All in all, it was a tough time to go in and pitch. Just because I've never played that position myself doesn't mean I don't appreciate the pressure a pitcher is under. Especially when it's his first game. And he's just 9. And he's my son, who tends to be a little on the anxious side even when he doesn't have to stand on the mound in the center of everything.

To top it all off, it was starting to mist a little, and there was some fear that the game was going to be called off at any moment. With the other team ahead.

Still, the spectators were game and cheered from under cover. Mostly.


DSC_0185


Thus it was, with the other team up by 6 and real rain threatening, my son stepped to the mound.

And began throwing the most awful stuff.

His first three pitches went way wide, and after that I almost picked another player and pretended he was my kid, I was that anxiety-ridden. Still, I held out for my son, to no avail. The next pitch rolled across the plate, walking the batter. That guy stole second while Thomas pitched to the next batter (who also walked). The coach started shouting at the Thomas--not in a mean way--to watch his control. So he threw a perfect fat apple of a pitch at the next batter, and he knocked it into the outfield. Luckily, the centerfielder winged it to third and the basemen tagged a runner out.

Thomas looked around at his teammates with a nervous face, perhaps waiting to see if anyone was going to yell at him for letting a batter get a hit off him. I remembered earlier he expressed concern about letting anyone get a hit off him, even though I told him it was bound to happen, and when it did, he needed to trust his team to do their job. I tried to remind him of all of this in a burst of telepathic energy, which I directed at him until my ears started bleeding, but he wouldn't look at me. I can't say I blame him.

I couldn't stand it. God loves to make a man break his promises, my Dad always said. And I could almost hear him laughing as I finally opened my mouth and screamed, "THOMAS!! BREATHE!!"

"Breathe" is my old password to my son to pause a beat, take a breath, calm down. I only ever used it when he was getting overly excited or angry about something, so I'm not sure why I yelled it now. I guess I thought he was going to blow his cool and I wanted to somehow reach out into the universe with my influence and help him.

Which was just stupid. Because later, Thomas said he never heard me. He just knuckled down and tried to focus. Which is good, because I wouldn't want you to think I was trying to say I had anything to do with what happened next.

Which is that my son struck out two batters in a row with just 7 pitches.

As they ran in from the field, the coach turned and gave me a thumbs-up, then turned back to his team and gave them a pep talk. "Awright now, we held em. That's the first time they haven't scored on us in an inning. Let's get some hits and narrow that lead!"

And the team seemed to rally. They got four runs in their next at-bat, drawing to within two of tying the game.

Then the coach put Thomas in to pitch again. "Just keep throwing what you were throwing last inning," I heard him say urgently. "Don't change a thing."

I had a camera with me, as you may have guessed, and tried to analyze what he was doing. My son clearly showed great form--even the other team's coach commented on it. But every time he let the ball go, it seemed like it was this slow moving orb that just ached to be hit.

And yet, the first batter up couldn't connect. Three swings and he was out.

I was practically hanging over the fence by this point and the coach sidled over. "I don't know what he's throwing out there, but it's good. Watch how it drops just as it comes over the plate. It's got them buffaloed."

Well, I've never been one of those guys who analyzes pitching--or any minute aspect of any sport, really--but I have to say, Thomas was doing exactly what the coach said. In just about the time it took me to write the last 7 paragraphs, Thomas fanned all three batters, striking out his side. This was not something spectators of 9-year-old play had seen before, and a satisfying cheer went up from the stands. As Thomas trotted in, he doffed his cap to the crowd, the little ham (no idea which side of the family that comes from, though).

I was over by the dugout at this point, and overheard the coach.

"Thomas! That was some SERIOUS pitching. You feel like doing that the rest of the game?"

There was a pause, then Thomas said, "No, better not. I think I need to practice a little more. I was pitching too slow."

The coach laughed. "You can pitch slow like that for me any time."

Incidentally, Thomas's team spent the next two innings racking up hits (and walks) and ultimately beat their opponents, 14-11. We took Thomas to Dairy Queen to toast his pitching debut with a round of Blizzards. When we got home, the rain had still held off, and Thomas asked if he could practice his pitching some more.

"Sure," I said, and would have said so even if it had been pitch-dark out, I was that pumped up. "Let's catch a few."

"Actually," he said. "Maybe I could try pitching to you. There are some lefties on the team we play next week, and they're hard to pitch to."

"You know, I think I've heard that somewhere before. Yeah, sure. See if you can strike me out," I said.

So the day drew to a close on this perfect American moment, in a leafy suburban backyard, with the sun hanging low in the sky and a young boy pitching to his Dad.

As I stood at our makeshift plate, my old Louisville Slugger in my hands, I couldn't help but think: I have seen my son pitch in a baseball game. Even my own father can't claim that. It was quite a moment, one I'll carry around for a while.

"You ready?" Thomas asked, as he looked in.

"Give me what you gave those guys at the game," I said, bringing my bat up.

He went into his wind-up. "Okay. Here goes!" he cried.

It was the last thing I heard him say before the ball hit me upside the head and everything went all stars and cuckoo clocks.

And so my record remains unbroken.

Unlike my head.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, May 15, 2008

 

In Which We Find Out What's Wrong With Us...



It only took me an extra 45 minutes to get hit by a car, comfort a mother in labor, drive the car that hit me to a parking garage, hand the keys of the car that hit me off to the head nurse at the hospital maternity ward, and hoof it (albeit slowly and with much wincing) back to the Mayo Clinic building where Her Lovely Self was waiting for me.

Except, of course, that she was still in the procedure room--apparently the technicians had been backed up (insert gastroenterology joke here). So I had an hour to wait. Which was good, since that gave the extra-strength Tylenol a chance to kick in.

Finally, the procedure room doors whooshed open late in the afternoon, and there stood an orderly, steadying my wife by her elbow.

The last time I'd seen Her Lovely Self like this was, well, at the last test where they had to dope her up. But the first time I'd seen her like this was in 1992 on a curb outside of a bar on Clark Street in Wrigleyville in Chicago, on her birthday. She was busy throwing up and wiping her mouth extravagantly on her sleeve; then throwing up some more, then wiping her mouth some more. I remember something special about that moment: being overwhelmed with an absolutely undying love for her. That, and wishing I hadn't let her wear my jacket.

"Why isn't she in a wheelchair?" I asked. And with a bedpan in her lap? I added mentally.

"She--" the orderly started.

"'M fine ta walk!" she slurred, pitching over into me. Then she started sobbing and rubbing her sniffly nose into my shirt. And suddenly I wished for my old jacket again.

I have no idea what they give you when they're scoping out your innards, but in the case of Her Lovely Self, it must be some serious depressant--perhaps Demerol or Valium, or a gallon of Everclear. Whatever it is, my wife sure does react badly to it. Last time I picked her up from one of these tests, I had to drive the whole way home listening to her tell me about everything that was wrong with our marriage (and an inordinate amount of the reasons seemed to involve me in particular). By the time I got her upstairs and into bed, she was forecasting her own death before 40--and was glad about it!--because it meant she wouldn't live to see her own children afflicted with such a terrible disease. And so it went.

It's at moments like this that I realize just how much of a Mary Sunshine, glass-is-half-full kind of guy I am, because I just can't listen to that shit for very long. My strategy in such cases is to get my wife's mom on the phone. She's a bit of a catastrophist herself, see, and that's without the aid of Valium or Everclear, so I figure she's in her element. Then I let them cry at each other for a while. You'd think such an action would result in a mother-daughter suicide pact, but typically what happens is the drugs wear off mid-conversation and HLS realizes that she can't listen to this shit either, so she eventually hangs up.

But first I had to get us back to the hotel and the phone. My own cell phone was long dead (we were only going to be gone for a day, remember, so I hadn't bothered to bring a recharger), so the only phone we could use was back in our room.

It was an interesting walk. "So where'dja go withowtme?" she rasped as she stumbled across the street (against the light, of course. And of course, no cars were coming. She has all the luck).

"Oh, well, you know. I just drove around a little,"

She tried to glare at me, but that's awfully hard to do with bleary eyes. "So you juss wenoff and leffme?" she demanded.

I blinked at her several times, wondering what to tell her. In the end, I just said "Sorry," which seemed to be all she wanted to hear. It's a strange thing to be married, I thought. But at least it's nice to have figured out some of the answers by now.

I got her back to the hotel without incident, although on the way, we passed by the restaurant near where I'd been hit, and the waitress who had come out to see if I was alive recognized me and poked her head out the door. "How you doin', honey?" she asked. I smiled and mouthed "Fine." Then I pointed at HLS lurching alongside me and gave the universal nonverbal signal that I had traded up from pregnant women to drunken wives and off we staggered into the hotel.

There's really not much left to relate. I mean, after the whole getting-hit-by-a-car-driven-by-a-pregnant-couple-on-the-way-to-the-hospital thing, everything else was largely anticlimax. I got my wife hooked up telephonically with her mother and they sobbed at each other for a while. Then, once the drugs wore off, and since my wife didn't have to start fasting for her next test (she had one more in the morning) til midnight, we went out to dinner.

"Feeling any better?" I asked, although what I meant was Feeling any happier?

"Not really," she said, and informed me that, from what she could remember of the test, the technicians seemed to be muttering about not being able to see very much, which I guess happens. "I feel like it was a big waste of time. I feel like I'm going to need surgery after all," she said.

Then all of a sudden, I was depressed.

So it's a good thing that, when we finally finished all the damn tests and got an audience with Mayo's top colorectal surgeon late the next day, he actually turned out to be this nice, big, bald, jovial fellow, the kind of man I could easily see in a Hawaiian print shirt, hosting a barbecue and being your best friend. In my experience, there aren't many surgeons who have such a great bedside manner (yes, sweeping generalization. Sue me), but this guy was aces.

Of course, the fact that he didn't want to operate on my wife may have skewed my opinion of him.

His view of things boiled down to this: If she felt all right, then he didn't want to mess things up by operating. Especially since he knew there was a whole class of drugs that HLS hadn't even tried.

My wife frowned. "But aren't there a lot of side effects, and won't I have to be on them, like, forever?"

He nodded. "The recommendation is to take them as long as they're working. But you know, there are some meds you can take that have a fairly low risk profile. There's one in particular that has been shown to work fairly well on your particular type of Crohn's." And shortly thereafter, he handed us back to the 16-year-old GI we'd met the first day. He wrote HLS a prescription and the upshot is, she's going to try this particular drug therapy.

An hour later, we were back on the highway, headed home. I think it's fair to say that my wife was--still is--a bit down. On some level I think she was hoping not to have to try drugs or surgery. But she also felt she'd got the best opinion she could on the matter, and so she was satisfied. Which, believe me, is an odd state for her to be in, married to me and all.

Myself, I was a little more than satisfied. As I may have mentioned earlier, I don't like leaving decisions hanging. I like to make my choice and take my chances. I like to map a course and then follow it until I hit another fork in the road (or, as can sometimes happen, something hits me and takes me in a new direction).

And wherever it is I'm headed, I realized, as I looked over at my bride, I don't want to go there alone.

"You feeling all right?" I asked Her Lovely Self, who was hunched over, arms crossed. "Stomachache?"

"No," she said. "Just a little cold. And a little nauseous."

I reached into the back seat and tossed a bundle into her lap.

"Here," I said. "Take my jacket."

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

 

In Which It Pays To Plan Ahead...


One of the best things--I'm using "best" pretty loosely here--about living an accident-prone life is that, if you survive it long enough, you actually start to form contingency plans in your mind against all kinds of adversity.

I think my mother sensed this early on, which is why she used to terrorize my Big Brother and me when we were kids. Every morning that she drove us to school, she would drill us in assorted disaster scenarios, so that at the tender age of 6, I already knew how to react in the event of massive catastrophes such as floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires (at home, at school, and in high-rise buildings, which was odd, considering there really weren't any in New Hampshire, but then again, this was the 70s, and that was a peculiar fear of the era), and also very specific situations, such as being trapped in a flooding basement, or under ice; being buried alive; and being stuck in a burning vehicle with my seatbelt jammed (that one always stood out in my mind. We were, after all, usually in the car when Mom spun out these simulated crises).

As we got older, BB and I occasionally played more elaborate scenarios out for each other, and then waited to see if those early years of training and our own native ingenuity would pay off. For example, there was the time my brother taped me into a heavy-duty cardboard packing box and rolled me into the landfill pit near our neighbor's house. I sank like a stone into about 12 feet of dirt, composting leaves, and other organic detritus. I panicked for a moment--being buried alive still ranks up there as one of my greatest fears--then caught my breath and waited for the box to dampen in the loamy earth. Then I busted my way out through the dampest side and literally swam to the top of the pile--just in time to see my brother, shovel in hand, throwing more dirt on the spot where I had sunk. "Just didn't want to make it too easy for you," he said. The big turd.

Another time, I lashed some stout manila rope to BB's ankles, knotted the other end around the chimney, and pushed him off the roof. To his credit, BB actually managed to curl himself up and reach the knot (no mean feat when gravity is working against you, and in the case of my brother, gravity had a lot to work with), and no doubt he would have managed to free himself. But just then, there was a crumbling sound behind me, and I turned just in time to dodge the chimney as the masonry came loose and it went skittering over the side, giving BB a whole new survival scenario to deal with.

Yet another of these dubious exercises occurred when we were in our 20s. I remember the incident well, because we had been sitting around one Saturday morning, watching TV, when on came a program about Hollywood stuntmen and some of the tricks they used to make their stunts look so realistic. In particular, I recall a segment in which the stuntman host showed us how to survive getting hit by a car. The trick, he explained, was to jump up in the air at the last second before impact, and let the hood of the car clip you at the backs of your knees. This would automatically roll you onto the hood of the car and even up onto the roof, without seriously injuring you.

Of course, having a trained stunt driver probably figured in there, too.

Nevertheless, we couldn't wait to try it, and the fact that I'm here to write these words should give you some sense of our success in this particular endeavor. Really, the only casualties were BB's front windshield (I cracked it with my elbow) and BB's foot, which I broke when I accidentally drove over it.

Alas, as is so often the case, the preparations we make in following the dreams of youth are seldom realized. Despite continuing to have a fairly accident-ridden life, I've always managed to find myself in pickles that I never anticipated. I suppose all that early training still paid off in some small way, but I always crazily hoped I might--just once--find myself in a situation that BB or my mother had covered with me.

So you can perhaps imagine the strange mixture of shock and joy that hit me--and it wasn't the only thing--that afternoon in Rochester, Minnesota, when I had a fraction of a second to register the car coming through the intersection and realized that it was going to run me down. And by God, I did just what the stuntman did, and jumped up.

Just a little too late.

The hood of the car caught me above the knees. Any higher and it would have simply slammed me face-down on the pavement and then run me over. But I was already pitching myself towards the car and so my momentum carried the day--and my body. I hit the hood with a loud BA-BONK and rolled partway up the windshield before the driver braked to a halt and sent me flopping back onto the road.

I got shakily to my feet and stumbled backwards away from the car, catching my heel on the curb, and landing on the sidewalk--on my rump--so hard that my teeth clicked.

Aside from the purpling horizontal line I would later discover on the backs of my thighs, I was completely unhurt. In fact, as tends to happen to me in crisis situations, I felt great. Adrenalin is a fantastic mood-booster, let me tell you, and I had just had about a gallon of it slopped into my bloodstream. It also has a wonderfully focusing effect. A miraculous drape of clarity dropped over my head and I became intensely aware of everything going on.

I could feel the damp of the dish towel in the hand of the waitress who had emerged from the restaurant behind me and had put her hand to my back to see if I was okay. I could smell the lingering aroma of the shampoo she'd used that morning as I assured her that, weirdly, I was just fine (I almost wanted to tell her I'd been planning for this moment for years, but that would have sounded just crazy). I could see the little green walking figure in the pedestrian traffic light across the street, only now turning to the red stopping hand, confirming that I had had the right of way and that the car had run the red light, or at least turned blindly from the cross-street (which was probably what happened. If the car had run straight through the light at speed, I have no doubt I'd be in a lot worse shape).

And I could hear the arguing from the car that had hit me, now fully stopped on the street in front of me.

The car was an old but small hatchback (thank heaven for small favors) and inside were a woman and a man. The man was driving and he looked like he was trying to put the car in gear and drive off. He looked like a man who had no idea where he was or what had just happened--I could see his eyes, big and white and panicked, even through the windshield. The woman was turned away from me, and had her hand on his arm. I was instantly aware that she was trying to prevent him from leaving the scene of the accident. A second later, the motor roared, the car hitched forward and I really thought he would take off. But then the driver seemed to gather himself, and braked. The car lurched to a stop and the man jumped out.

He started speaking to me in a voice so high and so rapid that I couldn't make out what he was saying. Thankfully, I didn't have to ask him to repeat himself, because just then the woman rolled down her window and said, in a strained and husky voice, "Oh my God! I'm so sorry! Are you all right?" She grimaced as she looked at me, and it was that grimace--coupled with my magical moment of near-death clarity--that clicked everything into place for me. Suddenly, I knew exactly what had happened and why. But just to be sure, I stepped towards the car, on legs that were still a little shaky, and got a good look at the woman.

More specifically, at her very pregnant belly.

While part of me marveled at how often my life descends into cliché, the other part of me--the part that has had to drive his pregnant wife to the hospital three times--almost smiled in fellow-feeling.

At such times, and despite my mental clarity, I tend to say the most inappropriate things. It's some kind of weird, trauma-induced Tourette's, I think. I have no real control over this, and learned long ago to just deal with it.

So when I opened my mouth, instead of berating them for hitting me; or announcing that my unconscious wife was somewhere over at Mayo, and had narrowly escaped waking up without knowing where the hell I was or what had happened to me; or even just assuring them I was, luckily for all of us, pretty good, thanks; I looked down at the woman and asked, "How far apart are the contractions?" Like I really cared. And yet, I kind of did. God had put me in their path--in an unnecessarily showy and dramatic way, if you ask me, but He never does, so never mind--and I seemed now to have some link to them.

In response, the woman let out a gurgly groan and snapped both hands--fingers spread wide--to the sides of her stomach. She began panting extravagantly and the man--the guy who'd hit me--just seemed to lose it. He dropped his keys in the street and began pulling at himself--one hand tugging at his hair, the other yanking on his top lip.

"Are you going to Mayo, or the regular hospital?" I asked, meaning Rochester Methodist, which was literally across the street (and which I later found out is actually a part of the Mayo Clinic, but hey, my near-death clarity only extended so far).

This seemed to reach the guy. "Rochametha!Rochametha!" he shrieked.

I knew just from my own walking around that the main entrance and parking area was around the block, but I didn't think it was a good idea for these people to be driving any more. I looked up across the park where Her Lovely Self and I had spent an idyllic afternoon the day before, and saw what looked like a side entrance. And just beyond the tinted glass of that entrance, I spied a wheelchair.

I pointed at the dad. "The hospital's right there, across the park. You run over and get that wheelchair just inside the door. Bring it back. We'll wait right here." Clearly the guy was in full fight-or-flight mode and was glad to have someone confirm an option for him, because he was off in flash. I couldn't help but notice he was in his socks as he ran, and wondered if he'd left the house that way or if I'd find his shoes there on the street when I stepped around to the side of the car.

Just then, I was interrupted by the pregnant woman, who was panting rather less, and finally got around to answering my question. "Less than two minutes apart," she gasped.

"Don't worry," I said, hunching down by her window, my back and knees popping like bubble paper as I did. "There's still plenty of time, especially if it's your first." I turned back to the waitress who had come out to see if I was okay, assured her again that everything was fine, and so she went back inside. There may have been other bystanders, but I just don't remember. My moment of clarity seemed directed in just one way.

I kept the laboring mom company--she never told me her name and I never asked--and we were there about five minutes. As we waited, I found myself doing a mental check of everything, finally confirming that I really was pretty much unhurt, not just numb from shock. And once that fact sunk in, I realized that I was, in the most insane sort of way, grateful to these people.

When times are tough, I am only too capable of descending into a well of self-pity that is so deeply satisfying (in the darkest possible way) that it takes me forever to climb back out. But one thing that usually works for me is crossing paths with someone who's in a fix, whose needs are more urgent than mine. I'd like to think these people fit the bill. Granted, my wife had a serious medical condition and I really wanted--needed--to be with her. But she was not in any immediate peril, In fact, we were, I realized, in better shape right now than we had been in years, and soon enough, we'd have a course of action to follow and finally get a handle on this thing. Meanwhile, here were two people in extremis. They seemed to need my intervention. God knows I wouldn't have trusted the man to drive me 10 more feet, not in his condition.

And as I was thinking this, up across the park came himself, lugging the folded wheelchair under his arm. Why it never occurred to him to open the thing and simply push it to us, I'll never know. But as soon as he got to the car, I grabbed the wheelchair and snapped it open while he got his groaning partner out of the car. Together, we jockeyed her into the seat and without another word to me, the couple wheeled off across the street, through the park, and into the hospital.

Leaving me to stand guard over their car, both doors wide open, keys still lying on the tarmac.

Just then, a cop came ambling around the corner--they really are never around when you need one--and took in the scene. I thought maybe he had been called to respond to the accident, and perhaps he had. But now all he saw was the car and me, standing upright. "You gonna move that out of the street?" he finally asked.

I waited one beat, then shrugged. What the hell? "Yes sir!" I said. Then I stooped on legs that were already starting to ache, scooped up the keys, got in the car, started it up, and piloted it towards the hospital garage...



NEXT>>

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

 

In Which We Are Struck By More Than Thoughts...


Well, after more than a few painful phone calls made in an effort to shore up our lives while we spent an extra two days at the Mayo Clinic, we headed off to a local pharmacy to fill the script for the noxious Roto-Rooter glop Her Lovely Self was going to have to drink in order to prep for her test the next day. It turned out she didn't have to start the stuff til the afternoon, so that gave us a few hours to get a bite to eat, and to buy whole changes of clothes we hadn't thought to pack--right down to our underwear--at the local Wal-Mart.

Still finding ourselves at loose ends for a while yet, we walked around Rochester, Minnesota, which, I have to say, is my kind of town. I've lived in big cities--London and Chicago, to name them both--but I'll always be partial to small towns and cities, and it seems to me that Rochester is one of those places that progress has forgotten, in the best possible way. For starters, it had an active and almost vibrant downtown, packed with shops and banks and at least two bookstores (one a secondhand shop, the other a Barnes and Noble, but cleverly retrofitted into the old movie house). It had its share of chain restaurants, of course, but also some wonderful local places where I snuck off to have my meals (seeing as Her Lovely Self was able to consume only about 600 calories in the entire 3 days that we were there).

This is not to say Rochester was backwards in any way. To be sure, it also had its share of suburban sprawl, with two big strips of commercial hideousness stretching away into the distance. And yet, even that seemed appropriate--out-of-towners need must have their choice of Wal-Mart or Target when they have to buy two more days' worth of undies. Of course, I may also be biased because without those commercial strip malls, I never would have discovered one of Rochester's two comic-book shops (hey, I have my priorities).

Meanwhile, back downtown, Rochester had a distinctly modern feel to it, or at least the sense that the town fathers (and mothers) were not letting their home descend into obsolescence. The entire time we were there, construction folk were hard at work finishing a fountain, what appeared to be the capstone to an impressive town-square-type refurbishment. Old buildings were in evidence aplenty--the movie theater-turned-bookstore was just one example--coexisting alongside the humongous but nevertheless elegant masses that compose the Mayo campus.

I was pleased to see the care with which some of these places were being maintained, and so began to feel a growing and quite unexpected fondness for my hotel with its tiny rooms. After all, this was a Days Inn, a national chain that could have torn down the building and put up some horrible box of a motel. But instead, they refurbished the old place--built in 1919--and found clever ways to fill the space, even though it happened to be with the tiniest possible rooms. Yes, I wasn't happy about the lack of an air conditioner (they began appearing in the windows the very day we checked in, but the work crew never quite made it to our floor by the time we left). On the other hand, within 15 minutes of my first minor gripe about the lack of AC, the manager herself delivered a plug-in fan and much profuse apologies to my room, to the extent that I quite forgave the Days Inn for their lack of foresight as regards my needs in the way of chilled air, and guiltily enjoyed my little fan for the rest of the visit.

Shortly after she began her Roto-Rooter dosage for the next day's, Her Lovely Self and I repaired to the park across the street--still within sprinting distance of the hotel's lobby restrooms, which were pristine (you can take it from one who's made a careful study of these things). There we sat and read our books--she had her latest choice for her Yummy Mummy book club, while I had lugged out a goodish selection of out-of-print Jack Finney and John Bellairs novels, as well as a modest stack of about 100 comic books (purchased from the fantastic bargain coffers of the local shop: six long boxes of Silver and Bronze Age comics starting at 50 cents--the cheapest way I know to reclaim my youth).

"You know, if it weren't for the fact that I've been threatened with surgery and signed on for a whole bunch of GI tests I didn't expect, and that I've eaten only one small meal in the past 41 hours, this would almost be nice," said Her Lovely Self.

"Yeah," I agreed, gazing around the leafy park. "It's like a preview of what retirement will be like."

She nodded. "Nosing around old shops together--"

"--buying our underwear at Wal-Mart--"

"--sitting on park benches and reading--"

"--filling in the empty space between procedures--"

"--living in a one-room apartment because that's all we can afford--"

"--that's only because we spend all our money traveling," I offered.

She looked over at me, and the teetering stack next to me. "Travel, and comics. You'll be like some whole new class of crazy old man.

"Yeah, the Geriatric Geek!" I agreed. For some reason, this vision of our future pleased me strangely, and I found myself spending the rest of the day in a quite uncharacteristic state of grace, one that was only intensified by the sudden thunderstorm that blew up early that evening.

"Nuts," said Her Lovely Self, as she looked out the window. "The park benches will be too wet to sit outside tomorrow."

"Yeah, but this same storm system is going to be over our house tomorrow afternoon," I said, taking my gaze off the Weather Channel--hey, if we were in a preview of retirement, I might as well embrace it fully and be just like my Dad, who was a disciple of the Weather Channel in his final years. HLS looked at me, not understanding. "Well, if this storm hits home, Thomas's game will be postponed," I added for clarification.

And in fact, that's exactly what happened.

We didn't find that out til much later on Tuesday, though, by which time I had delivered Her Lovely Self to her appointment and was instructed to return for her in about 2-3 hours. I had to option of staying in the waiting room--and let me say here that the Mayo Clinic has spared no expense when it comes to outfitting its waiting areas which, though they may be the size of Chicago stockyard cattlepens, are nevertheless equipped with the most comfortable armchairs and couches, the brightest windows, and the fastest WiFi I've ever encountered in a hospital waiting room. Nevertheless, I opted to leave, mostly because I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, and all I'd had then was the tiniest piece of coffee cake at the Starbucks across the way.

It's a strange thing to be married, I thought, not for the first time, nor for the thousandth, as I made my way to a diner that I had seen serving sandwiches and other luncheon fare in portions that had food dribbling off the plate. I have read where couples become physically and mentally alike and even dependent upon one another over the years, and I've heard all sorts of theories as to why this is. Whichever theory you pick, it's true: if it works, if the union takes, you do become a kind of symbiotic being. What one feels and does, the other feels and does, although there's no real reason why they should. It certainly doesn't jibe with the survival instinct, not all the time, anyway.

Take me and food, for example. For the past two days, Her Lovely Self had been able to eat almost nothing. I was under no such restriction, yet I couldn't bring myself to eat, except in extremity (i.e. when I was dizzy and passing out), and even then, my refueling was just that, with no pleasure taken, a furtive, almost unseemly act that I was glad to have done with. Because I felt disloyal.

Now here I was, having lunch by myself. I was, let me say, starving. And yet I couldn't bring myself to enjoy my food, although one some level I registered that it was really good. Instead, all I could think was that I should be somewhere else.

I admit, I fell out of my state of grace over the course of that lunch. A cloud of gloom, my own personal thunderheads, seemed to fall over me. And then a question popped into my head, as if from nowhere:

What if THIS is what retirement will be like?

And I saw myself, alone, marking the days listlessly, each and every meal a joyless repast at a table for one. I always vaguely thought retirement would be pretty OK, you know? But having the reality of my wife's health rubbed in my face the past couple of days had rattled me, clearly. And suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to be by her side--because I could be, you know?

Thus it was that I threw a too-large bill on the table, left my lunch half-eaten, and dashed back to the hospital. I really wasn't thinking about hypothetical retirement scenarios at that point. I just had a single, driving need: to get back to my wife.

So I can perhaps be forgiven for failing to notice the car.

You know: The one that hit me...



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Monday, May 12, 2008

 

In Which We Visit the Clinic...


Just when I think there could not possibly be a busier month than April, May comes along and blows my expectations out of the water.

Unlike April, which is replete with birthdays and anniversaries, May really only has a couple of birthdays to its name, and those are mostly in-laws, so it's not like they pop up on my computer's calendar and demand major amounts of my time (the one exception of course, is my own birthday, which I will write about in the fullness of time). But May is still busy because it seems to function as our overflow month, when all the stuff we put off in April gets done.

For starters, Her Lovely Self and I got in the car two Sundays ago and drove up to the Mayo Clinic. I understand that when you get older, driving to distant medical clinics for tests and opinions you can't get at home becomes something of a pastime and takes the place of real vacations, but I really would rather have had these kinds of trips begin to occur in my 50s or 60s. Not two weeks before my 40th birthday.

But then, we weren't going to the Mayo for me, but for my wife. As you may recall from a previous post, my lovely bride is afflicted with a rather unlovely case of Crohn's Disease. For a year now, she's been toying with the idea of either getting surgery to correct some of the bigger complications in her digestive tract, or submitting to treatment with a class of drugs that is in itself like surgery, insofar as there's no going back from it. You pretty much have to be on it for the rest of your life. For me, it would be a bit of a no-brainer: in the rock-paper-scissors of life, drugs generally beat having something cut out of you (although you have to remember that this is coming from the man who had back surgery), but HLS sees them as being on pretty even terms. So she does what she always does when she's faced with a big decision: she defers. My wife has many wonderful qualities, but making decisions quickly is most definitely not one of them, and I swear I am not saying that because she made me wait two weeks after proposing to her before she finally said "yes."

Thus nearly a year has passed and we have found ourselves doing nothing. Luckily, HLS's symptoms haven't worsened in that time, but who knows what's going on in there? Not like I have X-ray vision and can check. I confess that I've come to imagine there's some kind of ticking time bomb in my wife's innards and I'd really like to have spent the last year on some kind of mainstream course of correction or remediation.

But it's not my guts, and HLS has been pretty adamant in doing things her way. Thus it is that we've spent the last year pursuing less invasive, less permanent, but decidedly more naturopathic remedies. In short, my wife has started taking herbal supplements and radically altered her diet--and since I eat what she makes, mine too--to see if she couldn't at least keep her disease from worsening.

I know people have passionately differing opinions about the efficacy of herbs and natural modalities. I personally was a skeptic for many years. But then I found myself the editor of a humongous book of herbal remedies and came in close contact with people who were not only confirmed converts, they had actual proof that herbs and natural remedies saved their life, or at least prolonged it.

And I must say, after the first few weeks of eating mostly organic, non-refined foods, I found it easy to adapt to the more natural diet HLS put us on (I certainly didn't mind dropping back down to 152 pounds, after reaching an all-time high of 178).

But--and here's the cruncher--while my wife wasn't getting any worse, she wasn't getting any better. Her disease has progressed to a point where it is what's known as fistulizing Crohn's, which means that her body is creating all kind of new tunnels and loops in her abdomen. So far, she's been very lucky that these tunnels have only gone between other loops of intestine. They could just as easily have tunneled through a vital organ or right out through her abdomen and into the wide world (it happens). The fact that this hasn't happened yet doesn't mean that it won't in the future, unless something is done to stop it, to knock her body out of its flare-up mode and into some kind of remission.

My wife is not a stupid person, by any means. And I think she realized on some level that she was operating on borrowed time. Thus it was that she finally made an appointment up at Mayo. We corralled my in-laws to come watch the kids for a couple of days, and off we went.

And almost immediately, things went to hell.

For starters, our hotel room was the world's tiniest. I'm not kidding. I know from small hotel rooms. I've stayed in hotel rooms in New York City where I could reach out and touch all four walls with my hands and feet, but in this room, if I'd tried it, I'd have broken my fingers and toes off at the knuckles. The bathroom was smaller than a closet; there literally was not room to turn around in there without pitching over backwards into either the shower, the toilet or the sink (it was a miracle that all three fixtures managed to exist in the same space). Plus there was no air conditioning. In my adult life, I have never been in a hotel room that didn't at least have some asthmatic, dripping window unit. I asked about this downstairs and discovered that this week was the week they'd be installing them, one at a time, room by room. I thought about asking them to uninstall a substantial percentage of my room bill in return for the sleepless night I was going to have in their stuffy little garret, but my wife was strangely charmed by the place (Her: "Look, the bed is right next to the windows. We'll get a breeze and we can see that lovely park out there." Me: "OF COURSE it's right next to the window. If the bed were anywhere else in this room, we wouldn't be able to open the door to get out!"). Plus it was only 40-some bucks a night, and the thrifty Yankee in me sang for joy at the thought. Aw, what the hell? We were only spending one night in the place. Right?

Well...

So we slept and got up in time for my wife's appointment Monday morning, which was at 6:30. We chose a time so early so that we would have plenty of time to drive home that afternoon or evening. It turned out 6:30 was the first appointment of the day, when the clinic opens its doors. Except of course, nobody told the security people that, so they didn't open the doors where we were standing (along with about a thousand other people from across the country, and in various stages of illness, some quite probably catchy) til a little after 7.

Thus we were late, and thus we had to wait. But at length, we were brought in to the Mayo's storied department of gastroenterology, where we met the doctor who was assigned to my wife's case. And discovered that he was about 16 years old.

Okay, maybe he was 29. Still. I swear, I never thought I'd become one of those crotchety old guys who equated people's relatively young ages with a certain lack of experience--the kind of person I could never stand when I was in my 20s and knew everything, I mean--but there it was. My wife's GI doc was younger than us, and it bugged me.

Right up until he opened his mouth, and proceeded to display such outstanding bedside manner and such tremendous experience and breadth of knowledge that I was ready to adopt the man.

But that knowledge and experience came at a price, and the price was our sense of well-being. Because this doctor was not just any gastroenterologist, but a Mayo gastroenterologist. Where our GI doc at home had maybe seen one or two other cases of Crohn's as bad as my wife's, this guy had seen hundreds. And while that gave him street cred I would not have been willing to grant him almost a moment earlier, it also meant something else: He had seen enough of this kind of Crohn's to know that things were going to get worse for my wife before they got better. He had looked at all the scans and exam reports and MRIs my wife had dutifully sent up the week before, and all of it worried him. In fact, he wasn't entirely sure what to do first: whether to start HLS on meds or to get a colorectal surgeon in to open her up then and there.

"We'll only know once we get a couple of tests done," he said.

"Oh, you mean like blood work?" my wife asked optimistically.

No, he did not mean blood work. He meant a full colonoscopy, which required at least 12 hours of prep time, drinking some nasty stuff that empties you out like the Roto-Rooter man with a streak of sadism. And then after that test, he wanted her to submit to a CT scan. "We have a state-of-the-art machine here that can see things most scans miss," he explained.

My wife looked at me, but I was too busy pulling my jaw up off the floor. She turned back to the doctor. "You know, we only made arrangements to come up for a consult for the day. That's why I sent you all my tests, including two previous colonoscopies. You can't make a recommendation based on what I've already had done?"

The doctor smiled kindly. "With respect, we'll get a much better idea what's going on if we do these two tests here at Mayo. Seeing it for ourselves, in real-time, gives us a view and understanding that we just can't get from reports and copies of scans. You certainly don't have to do it. But I'll be honest: looking at what's here, I'm not sure but that you may need surgery right away. I don't say that to scare you. It's just that there's not enough information in the materials you've sent. If there's any way you can stay tomorrow and Wednesday, it'll make a world of difference. We'll get the scans tomorrow, process the results and have a consult with the head of the department and our chief colorectal surgeon on Wednesday."

And here's another sign that I've become a crotchety old guy: Time was, the news that I'd have to stay longer than expected in a strange city would have been cause for excitement, a call to adventure. I can think of several instances in my youth where such unplanned delays led to some of the greatest adventures of my life (the time I went to Providence to care for my brother is just one example, the very least of them). Now my first reaction, I'm embarrassed to say, was Are you fucking kidding me?

But I also knew that we came up here to get some answers, and a course of action, and if staying another 48 hours would get them for us, then by God that's what we'd do. Even if it meant staying in that tiny stuffy room through Wednesday.

So I put on my bright face and patted my wife's hand and said, "All right. Done deal. Let's call your folks and tell them."

But as the doctor left to get some paperwork filed and to write a prescription for the Roto-Rooter stuff my wife was going to have to take, Her Lovely Self turned to me with tears in her eyes. "But, what if my parents can't stay that long?"

"Are you kidding me? They're retired. What else have they got to do but take care of grandchildren?" I said, having the funniest feeling that I might come to deny ever saying such a thing in the far future, when I was in retirement.

"And what about the kids?"

"They'll be fine. It'll be exciting for them," I said, like it should be for me, I thought.

"But...what about Thomas?"

And here was strike three on my crotchety old guy checklist: At first I thought my wife was just talking about my son's tendency to freak out over any unexpected change in his routine (something that was a problem when he was younger, but not so much in recent years). But clearly I was growing so old and enfeebled that I had forgotten something very important, one of the many reasons why May was such a busy month for us: Thomas had just started Little League. More than that, he had been practicing in the back yard with me every night, for a very good reason: On Tuesday, he'd be making his debut as pitcher. If we stayed, we were going to miss it. And I had completely forgotten.

"Oh fuck. I AM getting old," I said, to no one in particular...



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