Friday, July 18, 2008


In Which We Tell a Tale of Beds, Butts, and Boxers...

I don't know what it is--some kind of congenital schadenfreude, maybe--but whenever I tell my kids stories from the vast canon of The Misadventures of Daddy, some of their very favorites come from the subsection known as The Misadventures of Daddy When He Had No Money.

Maybe it's because my kids have really never wanted for a single thing that they find privation so amusing. Of course, I can't claim to have grown up wanting for the necessities, but there were plenty of things I did without for many, many years, things that are so ubiquitous in our lives now, my children simply cannot conceive of their absence. And I'm not talking about the obvious stuff, like computers and video games (neither of which appeared in my life until I was pretty much an adult). I'm talking about things like air conditioning. A bed. Pocket money in excess of three dollars. Things like that.

In the wake of my last post--and since some of you asked--the dinnertime story I ended up telling the Brownie was about the time I bought my first bed. It was the very weekend I moved into my crap apartment in Chicago, right after the 4th of July, 1991. I had arrived in this vast, one-bedroom, unfurnished apartment with a duffel bag, a suitcase, a basket of garden vegetables transported all the way from New Hampshire, a 20-pound sack of potatoes and a 10-pound bag of onions, a shoebox full of vintage football cards (which I would later sell to make rent), two short boxes of comics (which I couldn't bear to sell), one small window fan, and three standard-issue plastic milk crates full of kitchen and bathroom sundries. My electronics consisted of two items: one black-and-white TV with a broken channel knob (I had to jam a fork into it to get it to work. I called it a tuning fork. Get it?). The other item was my one true valuable possession: a two-year-old Mac SE computer, with a whopping 2MB of RAM and an 8MB hard drive, my college graduation present from my entire family (and believe me, it took all of them to buy it), and which I carted around in a black foam case roughly the size of a child's coffin.

I was moved in and unpacked in less than four minutes.

The Mac sat on the comic boxes, with one of the overturned milk crates as my office chair. The other two milk crates I placed in my living room, about eight feet apart. They were end-table honor guards, marking the empty space where I hoped one day to have a couch or some other kind of actual item of furniture (I would get my wish just a few weeks later, when I intercepted my neighbor in the house next door, carting an ungodly sagging brown sofa out to the alley. He was only too glad to divert up my back stairs and drop it in my apartment, between the milk crates. A Salvation Army comforter--saturated with an entire can of Lysol--made an excellent slipcover). But that day I had no furniture to speak of, not even a bed. I spent my first night on my duffel bag, with the squashy foam Mac case as my pillow.

I've spent some uncomfortable nights in my life: once on a night train from London to Inverness, sleeping upside down in a hard plastic seat with the sleeve of my coat tied around my eyes because they never dimmed the lights. Once I drank a little too much and rather than drive home, accepted a friend's hospitality. But there were about 10 of us with that friend and there was only so much hospitality to go around. So I ended up sleeping flat on the bare, tacky linoleum of his kitchen floor and awoke with the Crick of All Cricks in my neck. Those were the most uncomfortable nights of my life.

But that first night in my Chicago apartment was a close third.

For one thing, it was HOT. The apartment had no air conditioning, as I may have hinted. I did have a fan, but the windows were all painted shut and not one of them could be pried or forced. I finally positioned my duffel bed in the kitchen, where I propped open the back door with the fan and let it suck in the sweltering, putrid night air from the back alley my building shared with, of all things, a liquor store. I didn't worry about anyone sneaking through the back door and murdering me in my sleep, because really, I didn't sleep at all. By 2 AM my duffel was soaked with sweat and I was stripped to my boxers. I was so desperately hot, I took a cold shower in those boxers, then went back in the kitchen and stuffed my sopping undies in the freezer (at the telling of this, the Brownie began choking on food, she was laughing so hard).

Alas, before I could retrieve my chilled boxers, I passed out sitting up, buck naked, ass perched on a shelf inside the open refrigerator (boy, THERE'S a picture for my scrapbook). When I awoke around nine the next morning, I borrowed a crowbar from the building super, pried all the windows open, and shoved the fan in my bedroom window, the one that seemed to be getting the most breeze. Then I put some clothes on and drove off to the nearest mall, determined to buy either a bed or an air conditioner.

Of course, an air conditioner was way beyond my meager financial means then, and for years thereafter, but Sears was having an Independence Day closeout sale on beds and they wanted 99 dollars for a particular full-sized model, which included both the mattress and the box spring. Well, I didn't have 99 dollars. I had about 10 dollars in cash--all that I'd have to sustain me until my paycheck from my first job, which wasn't coming for another three weeks. I had a single credit card to my name, but I had taken a cash advance on it to pay my security deposit on the apartment, on top of money I already owed on it. I guessed that I was about 50 dollars away from being maxed out on that card. So I offered the salesman 50 bucks.

Maybe it was the desperate look in my eyes, the look of a destitute man who'd just spent the night with his ass in a fridge, or maybe he was just really tired of seeing that particular bed and wanted it gone, but the salesman agreed to the price.

And then he ran my card through the register and it was rejected. With tax, see, the total came to a little over 50 bucks. So I broke my 10, gave him some cash and he finally ran it through at $49. The register was in hangtime for a long while, then finally blinked its approval. Just like that, I had a bed. But having it, and having it in my apartment were two very different things.

Delivery was out of the question--it would have cost as much as the bed--so I carried the thing a piece at a time through the Skokie, Illinois, Sears and out to my little hatchback. I heaved the box spring up on to the roof, then managed to get the mattress on top of that, where it wobbled precariously. I went round to the back, opened the hatch as much as I could and extracted my trusty length of clothesline. My Dad was a big believer in the many uses of clothesline and never went anywhere without a hundred or so feet of it. Before each of his sons left home, he made sure they too had their own lengths of clothesline, and by God, wasn't the old man right to do so?

I was terrible with knots and such, so I opened both the driver and passenger side doors and just looped that rope around and around and around my rooftop bed, running the line into the car and out through the top again and again. Then I slammed both doors shut--they barely closed--and that was enough to secure the bed to the roof. I rolled out of the parking lot and onto the street, feeling for all the world like a float in a parade.

It was a long drive back to the apartment. For one thing, I discovered that when I tried to goose the car up to speeds above 25 miles an hour, a stiff wind seemed to come up, lifting the bed, the box spring, and the front end of the car just enough to make the engine race and impede forward progress. But finally, I made it back to my apartment and, after a colorful moment of sweating and swearing in the narrow stairwell, managed to jockey the box spring through the door of the apartment and into my bedroom, where the fan was blowing puffs of what seemed like deliciously cool air. I went out, got the mattress, and brought that in too. I flopped on my new bed and was asleep in minutes.

Financially, that was a particularly desperate time of my life, but looking back now, it's hard to remember the desperation. What stands out for me was the way I adapted and improvised and made doing without a kind of badge of honor, promising myself that it wouldn't always be this way. But even as I looked forward to a future that involved having money in the bank and air conditioners in the windows, at the same time, my existence in those early days had a kind of romantic feel, too. And I came to appreciate everything I had in a way that's not easy to describe now. The simple joy of a cool breeze being sucked in by a fan, for example, or the delicious feel of a 50-buck bed under your butt, instead of, say, a cold refrigerator rack.

In time, I would have other experiences to appreciate, such as when Her Lovely Self would come by of a Sunday night, as she so often did after spending the afternoon with her grandmother (who, by the greatest twist of fate, lived about 10 blocks from my apartment). Typically, she would find me in my kitchen, baking cookies--chocolate peanut butter chip, her favorite, coincidentally enough (it never occurred to her that every Sunday afternoon, I ran down to the corner grocery and spent whatever spare money I had--and it was never much--on chocolate and peanut butter chips against the moment I saw her car round the corner into my street). We spent many wonderful moments in that kitchen (as well as an early awkward one, when she opened my freezer and discovered a pair of boxer shorts bound in permafrost. I swore up and down that they'd been there the day I moved in) and at times like those, the lack of air conditioning, or the dearth of foodstuffs beyond potatoes and onions, or the hardship of getting a bed, all blurred away, rendered inconsequential by the simple joy of being in that moment, with that person.

Which ended up being the moral of last night's story.

Alas, it was a moral that was lost on the Brownie, who only wanted to know one thing: Did I ever clean the fridge after I fell asleep with my sweaty butt in it?

But that's a tale for another dinner time.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, July 17, 2008


In Which I Reach A Pinnacle...

Wow, I done gots me another award.


Good ol' Dan, of Rockhoppers Daily Grind, was a participant in my supposed-to-be-but-never-quite-was-annual Giveaway of C.R.A.P. a few years ago. He got a bust of Gandalf the Grey from me in return for promising to start a blog that would make a wizard proud. Since then, Dan's actually gone on to maintain more than one blog, including Rockhoppers and the guilty pleasure known as Bitterroot Brakes, a kind of, um, visual theme blog, you might say.

Busy fellow that he is, you'd think that would be enough, but he also found time to tag me with the Arte y Pico Award, which I've seen other bloggers display, and which I've always thought of as an award for somewhat more visually compelling blogs. Aside from my swell logo (designed by yet another C.R.A.P. Giveaway participant), I don't feel like the Masthead has a ton to offer visually. The best I can do, the pinnacle of my art, such as it is, is to use words to make scenes and pictures in the heads of other people, and I'd like to think that's the spirit in which Dan intended the award. So I thank him most humbly.

There are a few conditions to the award of course, not least being that I need to post a few rules about it and then pay it forward. But for today, I'm just going to cheat a smidge, acknowledging Dan's kind gesture and promising to devote a future post to my five picks. This needs some thinking about, after all. So we'll mark this one "To Be Continued." And I promise to follow up sooner than I did the last time I got an award.

And thanks very much indeed.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


In Which We Gather for Story Time...

So, we do this thing at dinner. Every night, after we sit down and start eating, the Brownie will drop her fork and look at me. "Dad, tell us a story."

I've always told stories at dinner--can you believe it?--but made an extra effort to tell them more often right after my parents' death, and then those stories were all about them. It's the only way I know to bring them back to life and I fear without those stories, my kids will not remember their grandparents so well. They're not long--if you wrote them down, they'd amount to about a thousand words (or a really short blog post for me), but they carry the kids through dinner and they seem to enjoy them.

To be honest, we've got into quite a habit, a ritual, really. And over time the stories have expanded in scope--Grandma and Papa Up in Heaven still get a large share of the stage, but more recently I've begun to rotate in some stories along the old favorite theme of The Misadventures of Daddy. So it was last night. I never know what story is going to pop into my head, which I think is wonderful, although occasionally awkward too.

Last night, the Brownie said, "Tell me a story," and I gave Her Lovely Self a meaningful look, which she utterly failed to return. Although perfect in all other respects, my wife has the worst memory on the planet, and so had no idea why the Brownie's words would stir me.

Tell me a story she had said. Not "us," but "me." And it was that slightest change in her usual request that affected me powerfully. As a writer, I'm keenly aware of the value of recurring words, images, and themes throughout a story. Sometimes they can be overdone, but often enough, they just serve as excellent laces to knot the whole together. It happens in stories and it happens in life.

And when the Brownie spoke, I immediately thought back to a winter night in early 1992, when I was young and poor, living in a crappy, freezing apartment in Chicago. Her Lovely Self and I had just come back from a party. We were not quite dating yet, still at that exquisitely painful stage where the honking big elephant of your mutual attraction stands foursquare in the room, but you can't quite acknowledge it.

She wouldn't like me to tell you this--and of course has no memory of it herself--but my future wife was quite the fish when it came to drinking back then and that night she was positively shellacked. I rarely had more than one drink at a party--a family history thing, you know--so I was fine, but there was no way I was going to let HLS drive back to her apartment. I offered to drive her there and walk back--the perfect gentleman--but before I could get an answer, she disappeared into my bathroom and was gone a long time. When she came out, she was wearing a voluminous old t-shirt of mine and not much else.

While I was wondering whether I should tell her I had been using that t-shirt as a bath towel (I was very poor and couldn't afford the real thing), she staggered down the hall to my room, collapsed on my bed and proceeded to moisten my pillow with her adorably blubbery snores. The t-shirt/bath towel was hiked way up, enough that I could briefly admire her taste in lower undergarments (burgundy red with a kind of little starburst pattern), before I pulled the magic trick of yanking the sheets out from under her without disturbing her--like she was a vase on a tablecloth--then I covered her up and tucked her in.

I was a t-shirt-and-boxers sleeper myself in those days, so I prepped for bed, ran my head under water, brushed my teeth, then grabbed my trusty LL Bean camp blanket and my other pillow and was about to consign myself to a night on my couch--which I had obtained under salvage law the day my neighbor put it curbside. He had good reason--there were no springs left to speak of in that couch, so really it was like sleeping in a hammock.

But just then, Her Lovely Self stirred and muttered. "No no, stay here with me." And she slapped the empty side of the bed once or twice, like a master calling her dog to come on and jump up.

Well, I wasn't that perfect a gentleman, so I promptly dropped the blanket, and hopped, pillow and all, over her and into bed.

Now, let me say here and now that nothing happened. Honest. But it was still a milestone moment for me. I lay awake for a long time, just so damn chuffed to have this woman--however insensate she might be--in my bed. And then, just as I found myself drifting off, she stirred, gave the most enchanting little snort and looked around, puzzled, like she had no idea where she was (which I'm sure was the case). Then her eyes settled on me. I waited for her to ask me what I thought I was doing there, or just to tell me to fuck off.

But instead, she simply smiled at me, flopped back in bed and said, "Can't sleep now. Tell me a story?"

Tell me a story?

"Tell me a story, Dad," the Brownie repeated.

"Well, okay," I said. "But it won't be the one I was just thinking of."

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


In Which Life Imitates (Comic) Art...

It’s a standard dramatic theme of comic-book stories: The Secret Identity Complication. When a hero adopts a secret identity, he may do so for the sake of privacy, prudence, and the safety of his loved ones, but a secret ID also comes with its own unique set of problems, and in the comics, stories about them are nearly always pivoted on the danger of the heroes’ identity being revealed.

It appears that my blog--hell, my life--is imitating the comics. If you study any particular hero long enough, you’ll see that his identity tends to become less secret throughout the course of his career, revealed to others in various story types, and so it has happened here at the Masthead:

Story Type 1: The Reveal (accidental or deliberate) to a Loved One: This often happens in a hero’s earliest appearances, and the reaction from the loved one ranges from excitement to alienation. In my case, the first reveal came the night Her Lovely Self went to type in a Web site about masonry and got as far as typing "mas" when the browser history--which I'd forgotten to clear--prompted a Web site she'd never seen before. Her reaction wasn’t excitement or alienation. If I had to pick an emotion, I think I’d have to go with anger, as in “What the fuck are you doing putting up pictures of me in a bikini?!?”

Story Type 2: The Reveal to a Sidekick: If a hero is destined to have a partner, this usually occur about a year after the hero’s own debut, often when he encounters a young person with unique skills, yet sharing similarities with the hero. In my case, the similarity I shared with my sidekick was half my DNA. And so I revealed my identity and trained up my young partner, and Artlad, the sensational character find of 2005, exploded on the ‘sphere.

Story Type 3: The Discovery By a Close Friend/Deadly Enemy/Intrepid Reporter: These are bad stories, karmically speaking, because in the comics, any non-regular character who discovers the hero's identity usually dies by the end of the story, often just before he can blurt the information out in some public fashion. For the first couple years at the Masthead, it was the vogue here for readers to try to find me out. God, Shane Nickerson was practically my own personal Lois Lane, only hairier. I can't blame him: Everyone loves a mystery and the more people who stopped by, the more people I had sending me emails with guesses about my real name. Most were off by a very wide margin, but in those early days, two people nailed it.

I can now reveal that my old blogging pal Rurality sussed it first, and was so kind and classy about breaking the news to me that I didn't mind. Plus I was able to bribe her to keep quiet, so that was fine. Shane, by this time acting less like Lois Lane and more like that reporter that was always following Bill Bixby around in the Incredible Hulk TV show, finally cracked it a few months later, but only after making two wrong, but close (but wrong) guesses. But I give them props. At that point, finding me was no mean feat, let me tell you. I had a pretty tight rein on my anonymity back then, using proxy servers and posting from libraries and other people's laptops and all kinds of crazy shit.

And luckily for them, neither one was shot down by criminals or struck by a falling safe or suffered any other kind of messy death as a result of their knowledge. So far.

Story Type 4: The Reveal to Other Heroes: This usually happens once our hero has established himself among a pantheon of others like him. All is well for a while, but then comes an extremely serious event--in the comics they like to call it a "Crisis." Sometimes, in the course of such a crisis, heroes are unmasked, whether by accident or design. But usually, the information stays within the secret fraternity of other heroes, where it is (mostly) eternally guarded by bonds of affection and trust. And so it was me and, well, all of you, when in my grief, I leaked enough information to make a secret ID a non-issue.

Well, almost.

Because as much as my identity is now fairly findable for any reader here with the time and inclination to dig up the key posts, the fact is, my secret identity as a blogger has to date been completely intact among my coworkers.

Which means I've been vulnerable to that other story type:

Story Type 5: The Ironic Identity Compromise: You've seen this a hundred times: Perry White assigns Clark Kent the reporting task of finding out who Superman is. Peter Parker stands sweating while J. Jonah Jameson wonders aloud how Peter always manages to get such great pictures of Spidey. Bruce Wayne fidgets in his tux, part of a group of society partygoers being held at gunpoint by vicious criminals that he could flatten with his pinky toe, yet...he dares...not...ACT!

Well, I'm no hero, but because I've chosen to adopt a secret ID, I've been prone to encounter all of these difficulties. Even, now, that last one. Here's how it started:

Six weeks ago:

The editorial management team and I are in a meeting with the head of the Web site for the Really Big Magazine, who is going over all the latest changes and improvements to the Web site. It's a semi-regular meeting and I'm listening with only half an ear.

Until the Web site chief says, "Also, we're finally launching a blog, and we need the editors' help with it."

And I sat bolt upright.

As the chief outlined, this new blog would feature content written entirely by staff editors for the RBM, and they would be encouraged to write a little more off-the-cuff and informally, offering interesting stories, anecdotes, and a behind-the-scenes perspective on the editorial life here at the magazine. Since none of our editors (that they know of!) has ever blogged, the chief walked them through the very rudiments of posting.

"Can we include pictures?" one editor asked.

The Web chief explained that this was possible, and began to outline the process, when another editor interrupted him.

"What about videos? Lotta Web sites and stuff do that streaming video or whatever."

"Well," the Web chief said, realizing he was speaking to an elementary audience. "It's a little complicated."

"You mean we can't just upload the video to YouTube and then embed the video's URL in a post?" I blurted before I could stop myself.

All eyes turned to look at me, and I immediately gave a simpering smile. "I mean, I hear it's real easy to do stuff with, uh, video, on that YouTube site. Because, you know, I did that story about blogs a while back--remember?!?--and someone said something about that," I said lamely. The Web chief nodded and agreed that embedded video was possible, but he wanted the staff to do plain old writing first--walk before you run, you know?

The moment passed. I thought I had gotten away with it (whew!) but then:

Three Weeks Ago:

I bumped into the Web chief, who tells me the Really Big Magazine's blog is due to launch before the end of the summer. "You know, I read that story you did a while back about families staying in touch online. When you were working on that piece, did you ever dabble with blogging or setting up a family Web page just to try it out?"

Shit, he had me on the spot. I couldn't outright lie--heroes don't lie, not even when their secret ID is at stake, right? What would Superman do?

I faked a brief coughing fit, gathered my thoughts, then said the only thing I could think of. "Well, yeah. You know, I, uh, sort of put a little something out there. My son. He wanted to upload some drawings so his grandparents could, uh, view them. But then, you know, like a lot of people came to look at the pictures and it kinda got out of hand."

The Web chief laughed. "That's pretty funny. You know, there was this little kid once who had a blog with all these pictures on it. Huge deal in the 'sphere. Got thousands of visitors in just a couple days. Even got a write-up in the Columbia Journalism Review. I forget his name. Art Boy, I think." He leaned in conspiratorially. "Imagine if you were his Dad. You REALLY would have freaked out when you saw all that traffic coming at you."

"Wow," I said, adding the world's most awful har-har-har bluff laugh. "I guess I would have freaked." And we both laughed some more. But all I could think was Jesus Christ, my life IS turning into a comic book!

Last Week:

My boss called me into her office. She had a kind of funny look on her face, the kind of look that made me think I was either about to be fired or promoted.

"So, you remember that meeting we had about the magazine's blog a month or so back?" she asked.

"Mm," I said noncommittally.

"Well, seeing as you're the one who knows so much about blogging--"

"Me?" I said. "Oh, no, no--"

"Oh stop it," she said. "We all heard you at that meeting, talking about importing video into blogs or whatever. You were speaking a totally different language. You were speaking blogese."

And I hung my head. And I waited for her to ask The Question, the one I'd been awaiting and dreading for six weeks. I waited for her to ask me if I had a blog of my own.

But instead, she said, "So, we want you to run the blog for the magazine."

I looked up at her. "What?"

"We need a point person, someone who can generate fun copy and get it out of others. And you have at least a little familiarity with the technology, after that story you did a while back. So, that's the deal. We want you to be our blogfather."

I nodded dumbly through the rest of the meeting, then staggered back to my desk, feeling not that I had escaped, but only that the net was drawing tighter, ever tighter.

How CAN one man keep the two separate halves of his life from being inexorably drawn together, when it seems that the very FATES themselves are conspiring against him? Surely it's only a matter of time before our hero cracks under the strain and his secret is REVEALED to all the world?!?

Keep reading, True Believers. We'll find out in a future issue!

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Monday, July 14, 2008


In Which We Are Flush with Adventure...

When I was a kid, I used to hope for a life filled with adventure, always went looking for it when I was a young man. I never called my friends up and said, "Hey let's go shoot some pool," or "Let's go have a drink," or "Let's go to a movie." I always used to say, "Hey, let's go on an adventure." Sure, often enough we ended up just shooting pool or getting a beer or seeing a movie, but I always hoped for more. Wanted more.

Now I know better. I don't seek adventure too much these days, not because it tends too often in my case to lead to some horrific moment of self-injury, but just because I don't need it. If you wait, if you live long enough, adventure finds you, whether you want it to or not.

Take Monday, week before last (please!) Your basic Monday, the kind where I awake realizing the weekend is done gone and I need to get over it, an act of will that usually takes about a minute. From there, the day plodded on in its usual fashion, to the point that, by a few minutes after lunch, I found myself sitting at my desk in an uncharacteristic lull, waiting for someone else to finish working on one of my story folders and hand it back to me. And I found myself thinking Man, I'm a little bored. I could use some adventure.

I know why I was thinking this. Over the weekend, Her Lovely Self and I were talking about our summer plans and I realized that I likely wasn't going anywhere special this year. Or possibly even anywhere at all. We had talked briefly about taking a week and going to Colorado, but that got put on hold indefinitely, for a number of reasons. Then I spoke with my Big Brother about coming out to New Hampshire for a few days, and discovered that if I was going to go, it wouldn't be until fall, because BB wouldn't have any days off until then. And even if I did go, I'd be puttering around the house with him, most likely helping him dismantle the barn behind the house, which is just a breath away from falling over. And to top it off, my wife and kids were in the throes of planning and packing for an extended stay with the in-laws, which is shortly coming to an end now. Of course, I wasn't going. We were closing an issue and the rest of my staff was on vacation over the July 4th holiday, so I needed to be on hand to get my department's stories shipped. Don't get me wrong: I was kind of excited about the dog and I having the house to ourselves for a few days, but when the apex of your summer plans hinges on being alone in the house with your dog, well, clearly you've moved on in life, as regards your needs for adventure.

Such were my thoughts that Monday afternoon--I swear to God, the thought balloon over my head that read Man, I'm a little bored. I could use some adventure. had only just faded to nothing--when the phone rang. I'll confess: I let voicemail get it. I've been getting SO many calls lately--and all of them from PR folks shilling their newest product or service--that I just can't get work done.

So I went back to work. But then I saw the red light on my phone wink to life and my spider sense started tingling, so I immediately retrieved my message.

This is what I heard:

(Baby Éclair crying. Screaming, actually)

(Indistinct scrambling sounds)

(More screaming baby noises)

Her Lovely Self (sounding stressed): I guess you're not-- I don't know what--

(Loud scrambly-finger noises as the Éclair grabs at the phone and screams more)

HLS (did I say stressed? Try frazzled): Okay, this is bad. This--

(More screaming from the screaming baby. With screaming.)

HLS (did I say frazzled? Try panicked): Ok, we've got a big problem. I'm-- it's. The kids are fine, but--

(Again with the screaming screaming baby, who is now yelling "Momeeeeeee!")

HLS (high-pitched): I think I need you to--

(Message cuts off)

Well, of course I called right back, but I got the machine (natch). I guess I was hoping the dog might pick up the phone because I left a rambling, increasingly panicked message of my own, before realizing that the only thing I could do was get in the car and go home. I repeated my cell phone number in my phone message, then hung up and ran from my office as though I'd just been on the Hotline with the commissioner and needed to find a Bat-pole.

Tearing through city traffic on my way to the expressway, it was then that I had my first idea about how much I've come to hate adventure as I've gotten older. That's probably because I've had too many nasty surprises over the years that could also fit under the umbrella of adventure, and I'm at the point where I'd just as soon have some tranquility, thanks. How stupid of me to jinx myself and wish for adventure. Now I was getting it.

I seemed to take forever to get home, certainly long enough to envision some pretty awful scenarios. My wife had said the kids were fine, but I was parsing that statement like crazy. Okay, the kids were fine, but she often uses the word kids to refer to the two older kids, not the baby. And that baby was screaming pretty loud. Could something be wrong with her? Or in saying the kids were okay, was my wife therefore leading up to the but part of the sentence, as in, perhaps, The kids are fine, but I've impaled myself on a tomato stake and need some assistance. Possibly some emergency surgery, too. All I could think was that HLS had started her new drug therapy for Crohn's Disease only a few weeks ago. Was she having some hideous side effect? Was she going into anaphylactic shock even as I sat there in traffic?

At last, I pulled into the driveway, bounded up the steps and through the front door. Already, I could hear the incessant beeping of a smoke alarm from upstairs, and also from elsewhere in the house. My heart rate, already somewhere comfortably in coronary country, began beating at a rib-splintering rate as I charged into the kitchen, every sense on high alert.

In the family room, I saw my kids--all three of them. The Brownie was watching TV while Thomas was playing with the baby.

"Where is your mother?" I asked.

"Down in the basement," Thomas said, giving me a strange look. I didn't wait to query him, but turned and went straight down the steps. And that is where I found my wife.

Now let's turn back the hands of time about 60 minutes. Her Lovely Self has been out in her garden, tending to various things horticultural. The baby is in the shade, sitting on a blanket, absorbed in concentration as she attempts to insert blocks of varying shapes into a containers with corresponding holes. She seems obsessed with the idea that the square block OUGHT to go into the circular hole. Is this a perennial thing with babies, or just mine? No one can say. But it keeps her occupied for hours.

Gradually, Her Lovely Self hears a growing tumult from the house. In the heat of the early afternoon, she has left Thomas and the Brownie indoors to watch a little TV. What she does not know is two neighbor children from down the street--oh, and seven of their closest friends--have let themselves in through the front door. A wild rumpus is underway.

It's when she sees a body hurtling by an upstairs window (but not, thankfully, out of it), that she gathers the baby and heads in.

It is pandemonium inside. The TV is at full volume and two children my wife has never met are alternating between playing a video game and catching snippets of an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. Another child has ever crayon, pen, pencil, and colored marker poured out on the kitchen table and is apparently drawing a mural of hell done all in stick figures. Some of his work actually is on the paper, while the rest is on the tablecloth. The kitchen sink is running at full blast. The downstairs toilet is running (the handle tends to stick). For some reason, the blower over the oven is on (though the oven is, thank you God, off).

Just then, Thomas, the dog, and two of his friends come pounding up from the basement carrying armloads and mouthfuls of dinosaurs and action figures, which are forbidden on the upper floor, since they pose a choking hazard for the baby. In fact, most everything my wife is witnessing is forbidden in some form, most especially in the case of allowing a busload of children in the house without so much as telling her.

It dawns on Her Lovely Self that the Brownie is nowhere in sight. This is because she is upstairs playing dress-up--with Her Lovely Self's clothes (oh, and some of mine)--with two new friends, a couple of neighbor children who just moved in (or so they claim).

My lovely bride blows her stack. She kicks all the children out--including, briefly, her own. Thomas and the Brownie are sent to the front yard to watch the baby while she continues working with the Square-Block-Round-Hole Conundrum and Think About What They've Done. Meanwhile, my long-suffering spouse permits herself the briefest of rest stops in the downstairs bathroom. She stands to flush, and that's when she discovers that one of the invading children flushed...something...down the can, clogging it so that, with the very next flush, there is an instant, immediate, rather Biblical overflow.

We only have 1.6 gallon tank on the downstairs john, but it seems that 10 gallons--a hundred!--is coming back up. Faster than you can "Holy shit!" the downstairs bathroom floor is covered in an inch of water and...more than water. But it is all quickly draining under the toilet and through the floorboards. Right down onto the row of bins where the kids keep all their toys.

And just to put a bow on the whole magical package, a heavy dose of water (and more than water) slops right into the electrical outlets that are mounted to the ceiling joists in the basement. The house's electrical system doesn't short out, but the water (and more than water) DOES set off the fire alarm system.

(And in case it occurred to the astute among you to wonder whether we own a plunger, the answer is yes. I bought a brand-new one when we moved into the Magazine Mansion and placed it in the downstairs bathroom, but was ordered to relocate it to the upstairs bathroom because it looked "gross." Thus it was nowhere close to hand when the flood could have been averted.)

Thus it was that my wife, in her moment of extremity, and unable to find a plunger, did the next best thing, and called me.

So I arrived and found her in the basement, which at this point smelled like a men's room at a sports arena. My poor bride was bedecked in junk clothing she normally reserves for painting and hauling compost. She was all but wearing a HAZMAT mask and rubber gloves. After her distress call, I was so relieved to find her alive and upright, I just about laughed with relief. But then she fixed me with a look that promised instant death if I so much as smiled, so I simply went and changed clothes, grabbed the bucket and the Pine-Sol and joined her for an afternoon's labor. After shutting off the power so I could pull the outlets and the smoke alarm out of their junction boxes and let the water (and more than water) run out.

Thankfully, it turned out to be nothing as bad as I had envisioned, but it still wasn't great. Nobody likes to spend an afternoon mopping up in the wake of what the Brownie would come to call "The Poo Water Flood." But you have to look on the bright side. I got to spend the afternoon with my wife. We managed to throw out about five boxes worth of toys that my kids no longer play with (but which they could never have been convinced to part with under any other circumstance).

Finally, with the basement mostly aired and sanitized, and with all the surviving toys soaking in the utility sinks in a solution of hot water and Clorox, I went upstairs, found my plunger and proceeded to get to the, er, bottom of our bathroom clog.

Now I was taught to use a plunger by my father, who could bring such suction to bear when plunging that he swore he once pulled a neighbor's child down into his own toilet and up through our pipes. So I know how to operate a plunger. But whatever the kids have flushed down there, it wasn't coming back. I was ready to go find my plumber's snake, but decided to give it one last try, heaving my whole body on the plunger and pounding away for all I was worth.

All at once, there was a mighty BLOOOMP and a six-inch solid block of toilet paper exploded up out of our basin. The toilet let out a huge, almost human gurgle of relief. And all was right with the world.

But at least now I know the Éclair isn't the only child interested in jamming square blocks in round holes.

Thankfully, the rest of my time since then has been quiet--almost too quiet, what with the wife and kids gone. Why, just the other night, I found myself sitting alone and bored, and felt that thought balloon--the one that read "Man, I'm a little bored. I could use some adventure."--about to pop over my head.

And then I picked up the phone and called a friend and said, "Hey, let’s go shoot some pool." At my age, baby, that's adventure enough.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


In Which I Fulfill Some Obligations...

I'm having a strange week. Her Lovely Self and the kids are off to the in-laws, leaving the two neutered males at home. No sooner were they out the door than Blaze went into a seriously depressive state. He began laying on the kitchen floor, his nose resting on the foot of the high chair, as if wishing for a baby to appear and drop food on him. Every day when I come home, he's at the front door. He comes running to greet me, barking his head off, but the moment he sees I'm alone, he gives me a look I should sell to Disney: all mingled cuteness and dashed hopes and forlorn despair. Then he goes off and vomits large tracts of bile on my rug. The vet prescribed an antidepressant.

Now me, I positively rejoiced at the idea of having the house to myself. As I've bitched before, I miss my alone time and was glad to have some. Do you know how long it's been? Two years and...wait a minute (consults blog), THREE years, almost to the very week.

Hmm, but even then I see from that post that my tolerance for alone time was on the wane. And so it proved this time. My family has been gone over a week now and I'm just about ready to start laying on the floor myself, moping and full of bile.

But I can't! I have work to do. First, I gave myself a project: A while back, Thomas and I came up with a story that he liked a lot, enough that he asked me to write it down, and so I said I would. And then I didn't. But now I am. I've set myself a goal of 1,000-1,500 words a day. I'll clear 15,000 words on the manuscript tonight.

I hesitate to tell you any of this because I've been very superstitious about this story and worried that talking about it would jinx it, but 15,000 words is far enough along that I can at least reveal its existence.

More than that, I didn't want to say anything because there is no way in hell I'm going to post any of it here.

And no, this is not some cheap tease to get you all to beg me to post a chapter. I'm only telling you that I'm writing at all so you'll understand why I haven't been posting. This thing is a long way from being read by anyone except me (and even I am not going back and reading what I just wrote). My goal right now is to just get the throughline of the story down, the basic this-is-what-happened of it. Which means this thing does not scan, not in the least. It's barely a step above notes. I've been trying to buoy myself up all week by reminding myself of the great piece of writing advice from Anne Lamott: Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft. But then I look at it, and I think Surely she didn't mean THIS shitty? So I try not to look at it at all. I just open the document up everyday and deposit my 1,500 words.

When I'm not doing that, I have a list of things I'm long overdue in finishing. Most of these are household tasks, but one of them is a blogging obligation. Not a chore, let me hasten to add. This is something I feel obliged to do, but also only too happy to do, as I will explain momentito.

Some while back my fellow blogger, friend, writer, and all around wicked good human being, Suldog, bestowed upon me a Thinking Blogger Award, which is both an award and one of them thar pass-along meme things that's popular with all the kids today.

It's actually mighty cool (you'll find it in the sidebar below), and originated here. The original 5 Thinking Bloggers were given the award because the nominator felt their work was a cut above the run-of-the-mill journaling of a typical blog (and of course, "run-of-the-mill" does not apply to anyone reading). Their work, in short, made ya think. Those first 5 were supposed to pass on the award to another 5, and so on and so on, until, presumably, there was no one interesting left to tag in the blogosphere.

Jim tagged me, said some embarrassing-yet-secretly-pleasing things about me, and moved on, secure in the knowledge that I would hold up my end and pass this award along. And I totally let him down.

Granted, right after Jim gave me the award, my blog-reading went way down. It was for some pretty pedestrian reasons--baby born, parents killed, you know, the usual--but a year and change later, I'm STILL not caught up on all the blog-reading I used to do, which is embarrassing to me--especially when online friends write and refer to things going on in their blog and I have no idea what they're talking about--and unfair to them. And if you're not one of the 5 listed here, I'm probably going to seem even more unfair, but please don't feel bad. If it's any consolation, the blogs I'm listing here are ones I don't read every single day (whereas I might check others--possibly even yours--two or three times in a morning), which is, I think, wholly appropriate. I don't know about you, but I can't read blogs that make me think on a regular, daily basis (thinking is hard!).

So with that said, here are my picks. If you are one of my 5 and you're actually reading this, be sure to go here to get yourself a label, assuming you crave such things; you deserve it. You should also do your best to nominate another 5. And try not to wait more than a year to do it, hmm?

So, to the list. Hopefully, you'll find it full of fun and interest and surprises for all. Or not. What am I, the barometer of cool?

Beth Cherry is Not Dead Yet: So I lied: I DO read Beth Cherry everyday. She holds a special place on my blog and, I must say, in my heart. I discovered her on Day 2 of Seeing What This Blog Thing Is All About, when she was mentioned on Dooce, so I clicked on over to her blog, and was immediately enthralled by her short, evocative posts. In just a couple of paragraphs she could convey beautiful thoughts, startling ideas, and slices of life that were of unfailing depth and sweetness. I couldn't help but read, and be smitten. She and the Brownie have become special online pals--my daughter refers to her as "My Cherry Godmother," and it is no easy thing to be held in my daughter's esteem, let me tell you.

Beth's life, and therefore her blog, has undergone many changes over the years. When I started reading, she was working for a bank in North Carolina. Then she moved to New York and went to design school. Then she stopped blogging and I thought my heart would break. But then she came back, with a new blog, one that features only one post at a time, no archives, each new post wiping out the last, which has the effect of making her work that much more special and rare (and which is also why I read her everyday. I couldn't bear to miss one of her posts). Right now, she's in a new job that apparently takes her everywhere: she was in India some months ago and now she's moved to Germany. And with each sentence she writes, she manages to take me along with her. If I were the editor of an anthology of best blog writing, she'd be in there. And probably more than once.

Jon's Jail Journal: In the late 1990s Shaun Attwood was a stockbroker by day and a prince of Phoenix's rave scene by night (a rather breathless, perhaps overexaggerated account of his exploits is recounted here). That's because he dealt massive amounts of drugs via a massive criminal syndicate, or so said the law, which finally caught up with Shaun and charged him and his associates with more than 150 felony violations. Shaun went to jail, which pretty much put an end to his hedonistic lifestyle.

And it's there that his story gets interesting.

While awaiting sentencing (he would ultimately sign a plea bargain that would get him a sentence of just under 10 years in jail), Shaun spent two years in the infamous Maricopa County Jail, a cockroach-ridden sweatbox run by local Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man as notorious as his jail. Shaun, under the pseudonym "Jon," started writing about the inhumane conditions in the jail and smuggled the passages out to his parents, who published them on this blog.

I followed Jon's travails over the years, as he left Maricopa, went to another prison, and began serving his time in earnest. His description of prison life is pretty stark and eye-opening, although not exactly groundbreaking as these things go. What is interesting is watching Jon/Shaun's evolution as both a writer and a human being who comes to terms with what he's done. Prison life is the stone on which he sharpens himself, and we get to read about it as it happens (well, with a lag of a couple of weeks, the time it takes for him to smuggle out new posts). In time he takes up yoga, becomes a vegetarian, studies philosophy and solidifies his writing skills by interviewing other inmates and recounting his daily life in a way that becomes extraordinary. Shaun is out now--out of jail and out of the country--and struggles to make his way in his new life back in England. But that doesn't make his experience--or his archives--any less interesting to peruse. But don't eat while reading. There's some pretty graphic, gross stuff in here.

Hoarded Ordinaries: Well, here's one of the dangers of not reading a blog everyday. When I checked on Lorianne DiSabato's blog once after a time away from her site, it was gone. Just a blank space, like someone had tipped my computer and all the words slid off the screen. I eventually found her again, and I'm glad I did, because her posts, especially her words and images celebrating nature, are precious to me. The fact that she spends a lot of time in New Hampshire, my home state, is just icing.

Lorianne--or perhaps I should call her Dr. DiSabato--also teaches English and writing, which makes her insights and ideas especially compelling to me, who is thinking that in all likelihood teaching will be the Next Thing. Somehow, though, I don't think I could ever be as good as her. I mean, as she (for some reason, being around English profs--even virtually--makes me want to self-correct my grammar, when I otherwise wouldn't a shit), but that doesn't stop me from being inspired by her. In all kinds of ways.

I catch myself wanting to say that Forehead Meets Keyboard is new to the 'sphere, but the truth is, I'm new to it. Its writer, the lovely Suzanne, has been posting, so say her archives, since 2006. And yet in all that time, she seems to have attracted very little in the way of comments or attention. And for all I know, that could be by design. Maybe she's a shy person hoping to quietly speak her truths and be lost in the crowd. If so, I guess I'm kind of blowing that desire out of the water. But it seems a shame to me that such a warm and funny (and occasionally profane and gross) writer should go unnoticed. So, I noticed. You should too.

Last but not least, I feel compelled to include The Caustic Bunny as perhaps the ultimate blogger who makes me think, although I'm conflicted about that for a couple of reasons. The first reason is, of course, that his blogroll link to me doesn't work and wouldn't you think he'd have fixed that by now?

The second reason is, he's the only person on this list--and almost the only person on my entire blogroll--who I know in real life, and that feels like it's a little bit against the rules, like I'm showing favoritism to a friend. Except--and here's the point--it's because I knew the Bunny in real life that his blog made me think. Because if you were to meet the Bunny in real life, your first impression would be that he was the most humorless sourpuss you'd ever met.

This is not just me saying this: I checked around with others and this is a pretty consistent opinion. In fact, I know someone who almost didn't recommend him for a job because she thought he was utterly devoid of a sense of humor. But spend any time with the Bunny and eventually--not on your second go-round or even your third, but eventually--it might begin to dawn on you that, in fact, you're in the presence of one of the funniest people you've ever met.

Of course, on his blog, it's mostly the funny that stands out, so you just have to take my word on the sourpuss part, I guess, but I heartily recommend the blog, not just because it is great, and hilarious (ropes-of-snot-depending-from-your-nose-and-into-your-helplessly-open-laughing-mouth hilarious), and deserving of a wider audience, but also because, in the spirit of this award, it reminds me of the many and varied ways which people can surprise you.

Can, in short, make you think.

And with that, I must leave you. I have some work to finish, then I have a dog to walk, and then I owe myself another 1,500 words. And if I'm gone for a few more days working on this shittiest of first drafts, I assuage my guilt by knowing that now you have something else to read.

Go. Think. Enjoy.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


In Which We Miss Our Friends...

My son's best friend moved away today.

They say the secret to becoming a successful writer is to make sure you start out by writing the saddest thing you can think of, so as to win your reader's sympathy. I suppose there are sadder sentences to write, but few catch on my heart in quite the same way as that statement.

Thomas' friend was leaving in the morning, so they said their goodbyes last night. Fewer things are more painful than watching friends part, especially if you've lived for a while and come to understand that not every friendship, no matter how special the bond and despite the aids of letters and phone calls and the Web, survives distance and time. It's a hard thing to realize that this might not just be the parting of friends, but the beginning of the end of a friendship. And it was even harder for me, because it's my son we're talking about, and I can't ease his pain. He just has to muddle along like the rest of us.

Thomas wanted to be alone for a while after his friend went away, so I left him to throw sticks into bushes and kick stones off the sidewalk, and other such therapeutic actions as children perform when their hearts are troubled.

I've moved a lot in my life, and can certainly remember the pain of leaving friends behind, although the first time we moved away, I was the friend who left. Over time, I've decided that if you have to part from your friends, it's good to be the one who leaves. At least you have something to do, somewhere to go. Being the friend left behind is just awful, because you're just one, left to haunt the playgrounds and the secret hideouts that were formerly explored and enjoyed by two.

Like Thomas, I was 9 the first time I was parted from friends. My family was moving to Kansas and, having lived in New Hampshire all my life, that sounded like excitement itself, right up until we got there and I realized that I was going to have to live in Kansas. But up until then, it was just a great overwhelming adventure, so overwhelming that I barely felt a tug of emotions at saying goodbye to my two best friends at the time, Mike and Chris. Mike was my best friend at school, but Chris was my best friend everywhere else. His family and mine were very tight and did a lot of stuff together. Either way, I barely remember our parting. I was a young 9 and didn't really think too much about the fact that I wasn't going to see Mike at school in the fall, wasn't going to be spending any time this summer--or really any others--in Chris' back pasture, playing G.I. Joe or Robin Hood.

Leaving Kansas, though, was exponentially harder, even though, again, I was the one who was going. I hadn't made very many friends in my three years there, but I'd made friends with Shawn, and that was enough.

Shawn had a tough life, certainly compared to mine, I always felt. He was the oldest of several kids, all of whom lived with his mother, and all of whom had different fathers. In the evenings, and especially on weekends, Shawn's mother tended to leave her eldest as a live-in babysitter to care for the other kids while she went out, a lot of responsibility to put on a 9-year-old, if you ask me.

I found all of this out one Saturday morning, not long after we'd moved to town. My Big Brother and I rode our bikes uptown to mail some letters for our parents. It was kind of early--we had to wait for the post office to open before we could mail the letters. But once it did, our duty was faithfully discharged, and we were free to go where we wished. We stopped by the Perry house, a big old house full of kids--BB and I each went to school with a Perry kid; I think everyone did--but astoundingly, no one was home, so we kept riding. On a whim, I suggested we take a long dirt road that ran along the back of town and as we did, I began to recognize the houses. I was still learning my way around town, but I soon realized I was on Shawn's street. We'd met only a few months earlier at a pick-up game of baseball up behind the school and I'd walked home with him after the game. BB knew where we were, although that was because he had a friend at the other end of Shawn's street who he'd met at basketball camp a month earlier, so he had decided to head down there.

But when I got to Shawn's house, the shades were pulled, and there was no car in the driveway. BB was about to leave me and go on down to his friend's house when we both heard a muffled clattering from inside and realized that either someone was home and hadn't bothered to open the blinds on this bright, beautiful Saturday morning; or someone had broken into the house and was ransacking the kitchen. So like idiots, we went right up to the front door and knocked. I learned later that Shawn was never supposed to answer the door when his mother was out, but he opened it fairly quickly when he saw us. He was holding his baby brother, who was screaming in his ear, while in the background another brother was screaming and his little sister was standing quietly by the door, wearing a dirty pajama top and nothing else.

My friend had a pretty reserved demeanor, but this morning he looked absolutely at his wit's end. "Can you cook?" he asked. "Mom didn't come home last night and there's no cereal or milk and I can't leave em to go up to the store and anyways there's no money and--"

It broke my heart to hear him so flustered, to see him so beset. I guess I was catching a bit of his panic. I looked up at my Big Brother. He took in the situation, gave me an owlish look, then some inner resolve of his--the resolve of all older brothers to break their younger brothers' balls--seemed to sag. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I can cook." And he could. BB had been cracking eggs with one hand and flipping omelets at the age of 8. Now at 12, he was practically a master chef and certainly in his element when he went into my friend's kitchen. He looked through the pantry, found some Bisquick and a can of condensed milk and proceeded to make pancakes for the kids, leaving Shawn free to change his brother's diaper, while I herded the others into a cramped bedroom full of bunks and proceeded to try and find clean clothes for everyone.

We had everyone at the kitchen table, fully dressed and wolfing down pancakes, when a blue car came tearing up the street and careened into the driveway. Shawn had recovered some of his reserve, but now he lost it again.

"My mom!" he hissed, then proceeded to shove us through the kitchen entryway out to the back door. "I'll get in SO much trouble if she sees I let you guys in. Thank you and all, but you gotta go!" BB and I knew what it was to fear a parent--our father was erratic in his own way, after all--so we hauled ass out the door and were vaulting Shawn's back fence before we realized we'd left our bikes laying on the front lawn. "Damn it, YOU'RE gonna go get them, you little ass-wipe!" BB said, his ball-breaking resolve now back in full force. "Made breakfast for all those little kids and I didn't even get one pancake!" he muttered as I left. I ran the long way around and retrieved our bikes which, apparently, Shawn's mom never noticed. I never found out why she was so late that Saturday morning, but it's possible she was in a condition considerably past caring about strange bikes on her lawn.

BB was kind of a big-mouth, so at home that night, he told everything to our parents. I cringed throughout the story, half-expecting that we'd get in trouble--why, I wasn't exactly sure. But instead, my mom just gave me a funny look. "Sounds like he needs a friend," was all she said. But it was enough.

Monday, after school, I saw Shawn at his locker. He'd been avoiding me all day, embarrassed, I think. He saw me coming and his expression got very sheepish. He opened his mouth to say something, but I stopped him by handing him a slip of paper.

"What's this?" he asked.

I never said a word. On the paper, I had written a set of instructions: "Walk 10 paces, then take a drink."

He turned, saw the drinking fountain down the hall and walked to it. He looked it over, looked at me. I gestured that he should keep looking. Eventually he found another note, taped to the bottom of the fountain: "Twenty paces west of the see-saws. Dig."

And so he went outside, following my little treasure hunt, which I had put together over the morning and afternoon recesses. It wasn't an elaborate thing (nothing like what I would send my future wife on, years later.) At last he found himself in one of the baseball dugouts in the field behind the school. In the corner, I had stuck a cardboard carton. When he opened it, inside were two things: a box of Captain Crunch cereal, and another slip of paper, this one with seven digits on it.

"My phone number," I told him. "Next time your mom's late, you've got a box of cereal. And if you need a jug of milk, just call me. I can bring it when I come over." My friend looked at me, smiled, then pulled out his wallet and carefully put the slip of paper inside.

Shawn called many times thereafter, although never for a jug of milk. I often went to his house to watch the kids with him (and while I was over there, we took turns planning all kinds of treasure hunts for each other), or helped him load up one of his brother's red wagons with laundry and together we rolled it into the Laundromat in town, then sat and read comics. Or sometimes I brought my little yellow-plaid-covered book full of lined pages and wrote a story, a solve-it-yourself mystery that I'd make up and read back to him. Shawn was good at those--or perhaps I was just really bad at them--because he nearly always solved them. Eventually, when we got tired of the stories, we decided to solve some mysteries for real and founded Detectives, Inc., our own private investigation agency, which we ran out of the back of a rusted-out mail truck in our neighbor's field. When we weren't doing that, we were doing, well, everything else together.

So when I left Kansas three years later, the day of my 12th birthday, it was with a heart far heavier than I ever imagined. On our last afternoon together, Shawn and I just hung out at my house, doing nothing special. Before he left, he gave me a combination birthday/going-away present (a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories), then we shook hands and that was it.

I stayed outside until dark, throwing sticks into the bushes and kicking stones in the driveway. Eventually, my Mom came out. "You know, I had a talk with Shawn's mother," she said finally.

"Oh yeah?" I asked. Shawn's mom and mine weren't exactly friends, but they were on cordial enough terms.

"Yes. I told her Shawn was coming to spend the summer with us as soon as we've moved in. She seemed fine with that--I suppose his sister is old enough to help take care of the other kids now. I think it's time he got a summer off, you know?" I did know. And Shawn did come and spend a few summers with us. We also wrote to each other all the time, and very occasionally called one another. Despite the distance, we stayed close for many years, well through the rest of our respective childhoods.

Although it's impossible to know, I'd like to think we would still be in touch today, but when he was 20, Shawn killed himself (as I've written about here and here). And yet, Shawn never stopped being my friend, nor I his.

Years later, when I was in Topeka for a magazine assignment, I called the town where his family had settled and got hold of the clerk responsible for the town's cemetery. She found my friend's grave on a map. The map was too big to fax to me, so she gave me walking directions from the main gate. I arrived there late one Saturday afternoon. I followed the directions, which I had written out in a series of paces--20 paces to the Jordan monument; 80 paces to the Jameson plot--a final treasure hunt that led me at last to my friend's grave.

It's impossible to know what combination of experiences and words, spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten, will conspire to keep friends together. I have friends I've known for 25 years and with whom I can share one 5-minute phone call every few years and that's enough. I have other friends who I strove mightily to maintain contact with, writing them epic 20-page letters and sending them huge expensive care packages overseas, only to have the friendship peter out after a year or two. My friends Chris and Mike, the first friends I was ever parted from, fall somewhere in the middle.

Chris and I wrote to each other off and on and visited each other very occasionally. Still, we were friends enough that he came to my wedding and even danced at the reception (although I found out later he did so with a broken foot). Now, he's good pals with BB, of all people (both share a passion for guns, so I guess it makes sense).

Mike never wrote a letter to me, and I've seen him maybe four times in the past 30 years. The second-to-last time I saw him, we were teens and we got into a bit of an argument over a comic-book trade (Brief digression for the comic nerds: He had a small stack of old, battered Marvel comics that I wanted and kept holding out for a bigger and bigger stack of Batman comics from me. We completed the trade, but I felt pretty raw about it. A few years later, I found the stack in a box in my parents' house and saw it contained a copy of Hulk #180, so I guess I had no room to bitch). But then he showed up at my parents' funeral and it was like we'd never been apart.

I lived in Kansas for only 3 years, but that was enough to make Shawn my friend for life, and maybe even a little bit beyond.

Last night, I was downstairs in the basement, picking up toys and generally tidying things up when Thomas found me. He sat and watched me for a while, silent.

"How you doin'?" I finally asked.

He exhaled, a long, shivering sigh, and I realized he'd been crying. Suddenly, I felt like joining him. "Just sad," he said, his voice cracking a little. "Sad that my friend is gone."

It was on the tip of my tongue to remind Thomas that he was in an era of unlimited cell phone minutes, of Web cams and live chat. I wanted to assure him that distance didn't matter when good friends wanted to stay in touch.

But instead, I just said, "Me too, buddy. Me too."

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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