Thursday, September 25, 2008


In Which We Play the Game...

My Big Brother turned 43 this week. His birthday was Tuesday.

By now, BB's pretty ambivalent about birthdays (At least, I assume so, owing to the fact that he completely forgot his own brother's 40th birthday this year. Ahem). But kids have a different opinion, and when Thomas took a look at the calendar on our fridge and saw the 23rd marked as BB's B-day, he insisted that he and his sister call their uncle bright and early Tuesday morning and sing "Happy Birthday" over the phone.

It was about 5:45 A.M., which is when my son, the consummate Early Bird, usually gets up. I knew BB had worked a late shift the night previous and was probably still in bed--just like I was when Thomas ran into my room to tell me his plan--so naturally I told my kids that their idea was an excellent one, and within moments, we had my brother on the speakerphone, muttering "Whafuck?" thickly into the receiver.

When the kids finished singing, I half-expected to hear a dial tone, but my brother was now sufficiently roused to have a chat with Thomas who, after a gentle reminder that he himself has a birthday in a little over a month, began rattling off his want list for presents.

"I want a protective cover for my DS, and some Pokemon cards from the Legends Awakened series. Oh! And I really want the Ahsoka Tano figure from the new Clone Wars set. She's really cool, but all the scalpers are buying her and selling her on eBay."

(Which reminds me--if any readers out there happen to see this figure on sale for its retail price of $7-8 or so, your harried pal MM will cheerfully reimburse you for it, plus shipping, plus a piece of original Art Lad art, plus a box of genuine CRAP from my basement.)

Thomas rambled on for a bit, then paused to take a breath. "What do you want for your birthday, uncle BB?"

"A woman, a new job, and a toilet I don't have to plunge after every dump I take," came the gruff reply. There was a pause, perhaps indicating a moment's reflection at the other end of the line. "And, er, I guess I want that new Star Wars video game," BB added lamely, trying to pull the conversation back to an E for Everyone rating.

"Oh!" Thomas cried excitedly. "We just got that! It's the coolest. You've really gotta get it, uncle BB, but, uh, only if you're better than Dad." Here, my son dropped his voice to hoarse whisper, in consideration of me, who was only standing about two feet away. "Dad is really bad at the game. He just runs in circles and then kills himself."

Instantly, the speakerphone crackled with feedback from my brother's stupendous guffaws. Ah, humor at his little brother's expense; few things in life please BB more. So you might be surprised, gentle reader, to learn that once he recovered from his laughing fit, BB was more interested in talking about the game than in pumping his nephew for more details about Daddy's latest bout of self-injury.

You have to understand: BB is rather fond of video games himself--much as a twitching heroin addict is rather fond of his drug of choice. When BB visited us last Christmas, he was constantly stealing Thomas' Nintendo DS and playing games on it. When he wasn't doing that, he was trouncing any comers foolish enough to play him in a shooting-gallery game on the Wii.

Almost as soon as he got home, BB sold off a few of his guns (of which he has a startling plenitude, locked in a safe somewhere in the house) and used the cash to buy an Xbox 360, a Wii, and a crapload of games for both. Most of those games, ironically enough, involved shooting opponents with the digital equivalents of the very same guns he'd just sold.

"Well, I had to unplug my XBox and the Wii. I got something else hooked up to the TV right now, so maybe I'll wait and buy the game for myself as a Christmas present," BB said. "But I guess I won't play against your Dad, next time he visits. He always did suck at videogames, even when we were kids," BB said.

"You had video games in the olden days?" Thomas asked, looking from the phone back to me, to see if he was being tricked.

"Oh yeah," snorted BB. And he proceeded to tell Thomas a little story, which I will include here. Mark well, I had to modify the story to make room for the truth, rather than allow BB's heavily slanted version to stand unchallenged. But it's essentially the same story.


BB truly was maniacal about video games, and it all came to a head in the summer leading up to his 13th birthday, back in 1978. At that point, BB was engaged in an almost daily campaign to get a video game system for a present, although he didn't call it "a video game system." No, whenever we sat down to have supper, no matter what topic was under discussion, BB managed to turn it back to getting "a console." If our parents could just see their way clear to getting him a console, BB insisted, they wouldn't need to get him anything else for his birthday or even for Christmas.

"What's a console?" I always asked, but was always ignored. All I could imagine when I heard the word was some type of large panel full of blinking lights and buttons, the kind of accessory super-villains always had in their lairs. What can I say? I was barely 10 at the time and wasn't really up on the latest technology.

"Well, we'll see," my mom said, trying to deflect the latest console assault.

"They ain't cheap, you know," my father said, pointing a fork at my brother. "I seen 'em in the department store. Just about shit when I saw the price tag. You know how much money I used to make when you was a baby? These goddamn consoles cost more than I made in one week back then."

BB nodded excitedly. "I know, I know! That's why you wouldn't have to get me anything else. Not for my birthday, not for Christmas."

"Well, we'll see," Mom said again, but then looked at me. "Of course, something like this should be more of a family present. If you got one--and I'm not saying you will--would you share with your brother?"

Well, that brought BB up short. BB would sooner share an internal organ with me than let me play with his toys. His reasoning was always very vague--something about me being careless and breaking his things, or losing important accessories. All baseless accusations, of course, but there you are.

BB stared at me for a moment longer. Then, with what I can only imagine was a supreme effort of will, turned back to my parents and said, "Yeah. Sure. I'll play with him. I'll teach him to play and everything." I realized then that, whatever the hell a console was, it must be pretty damn cool for BB to be willing to overcome his long-held hatred of sharing toys, just so he could have one.

I begged one more time to know what a console was, and this time BB obliged me by excusing himself. He came back to the table bearing what I thought was a phone book, but which was actually the Sears catalog. He dropped it in my lap and it fell open to a specific and well-thumbed page full of pictures of video game consoles sitting next to television screens displaying the latest in high-tech entertainment. Full of instant wonder, I began reading the descriptions of each console, and then noticed the price of one unit. "Wow!" I cried, unable to help myself. "These really ARE expensive!"

BB shot me a fierce look, the kind that promised instant death if I didn't shut my mouth there and then. He snatched the catalog from me and scowled at the page. Then his face brightened. "See?" he said, swinging the catalog around so our parents could see. "That's the deluxe model with all these attachments and things, so it's the most expensive. I don't want that--I just want the basic console, see?"

"Okay, that's enough for now," said my mom, with a finality that assured us this conversation was over (at least until tomorrow). "Your father and I will look at this and decide."

Well, despite my parents' best efforts, BB didn't get a console for his birthday. It turned out that all but the most expensive consoles were sold out and on backorder until November, or possibly even December. BB's disappointment was crushing, and by then, so was mine.

Luckily, about a week after BB's birthday that year, we got a surprise that took our minds off of the sad, deprived life we were living: My grandfather, Papa Jim, announced that he was coming for a visit.

We were living in Kansas then and Papa had flown into Topeka from Boston. He stayed for two weeks and hated almost every minute of it. Oh, he loved us and was glad to see us, but Papa was a city boy after all, and didn't know what to do with himself out there on the prairie, where he was appalled to find he was 40 miles from the nearest movie theater, and 20 miles from the nearest drug store or even a proper restaurant. So he spent most of his visit walking from our house to the one bar in town, then back again. On the weekend, he'd had enough. He borrowed my mom's car and drove me and my brother to the nearest shopping mall--again it was 40 or 50 miles away. He took us to lunch at a restaurant there, found a liquor store where he could stock up on martini supplies. Later, as we walked the corridors of the mall, we went into Sears and spent a long while gawking in the toy department.

Of course, one whole aisle was filled with original, first-generation Star Wars toys. I loved Star Wars then as much as my son does now. Papa, who could refuse us nothing, let us pick out a few figures and one larger toy. I got myself some stormtroopers and a spiff T.I.E. fighter. I don't recall what BB chose. It hardly matters because, as we walked around the store to find a checkout counter that was open, we passed by the electronics department. And that changed everything.

A crowd was gathered over by a TV, one that had the volume turned up, so that I could hear a sound that would come to be as familiar to me as a horn honking or a telephone ringing. But back then, I couldn't figure out what it was--just a random collection of beeping and booping noises. BB could, though, and when he heard the sound, he gasped and dropped all the Star Wars toys he was holding. He pushed himself through the crowds and got a peek at the screen. Eventually, even weighted down by my toys, I managed to follow my brother and see what he saw: On the screen were a couple of small white vertical bars, separated by a long vertical line that bisected the whole screen. A single white square floated across this long white line. As it did, the short white bar zipped up the screen and blocked the progress of the square. The square hit the bar, making a strangely satisfying "bee-boop" noise and rebounding across the long white line.

For the first time, I was watching the wonder that was Pong.

I saw two teenaged kids in front of us, staring intently at the TV. They both seemed strangely tense and occasionally made swift, jerky moves with their shoulders. I craned my neck around and saw that each one had his hand on a dial on a small console, labeled "Telstar." Right next to the TV was a display of boxes, Coleco consoles stacked about 5 or 6 high. Nearby, a store clerk was unpacking yet more consoles from a large cardboard container resting on a dolly. While BB and even my grandfather were distracted by the visual spectacle on the screen in front of them, I read about all the wondrous features of this game console.

For one thing, I realized with some excitement, this console--the Telstar Alpha--was the same one BB had shown me in the Sears catalog, only apparently no longer on back order (if indeed they had ever been. Not that we thought our parents would lie to our faces or anything. Hey, it was an honest mistake. Probably.) I was thrilled to read that it played four games. You could have your choice of Pong, Hockey (basically the same game as Pong, only you got to control a few more short bars), Handball, and Jai Alai (these last two, you got one bar and you had to bounce the square dot off the edge of the screen). You could also pick three skill levels--beginner, intermediate, or really fucking fast.

As I stood there studying the box, a steady stream of people came by, grabbed a console and proceeded to checkout. At length, a big guy gallumphed over to me, flanked by two hopeful kids of his own. "Awright, we'll just see..." he said grudgingly. He picked up the box next to mine and turned it this way and that. His kids were holding their breaths and I realized the Dad was checking the price. But the next second, he squawked. "Shee-it! HOW much?!? You have GOT to be puttin' me on!" he cried, then looked around, embarrassed at his own outburst. He set the console back down on the pile and stormed off in a huff, as if the price of the game had been a personal affront to him, as I suppose it had. I cringed and set the box down myself. I started to slink away, but just then, BB came over, Papa right behind him. More and more people were crowding around us, helping themselves to the consoles--the one I had been holding a moment ago had already been grabbed and take away for purchase. BB instinctively picked up one of the dwindling supply of boxes and clutched it to his chest.

"Isn't that something, dear?" Papa asked me in his thick Boston accent, pointing to the TV screen (my grandfather always called me and my brother "dear," although it was dead embarrassing when he did it in public). "Who knows what they'll think of next," he said.

"Ooh, it plays four games, not just tennis!" BB bleated, stabbing at the box, then handing it to Papa, so he could have a look. Not to buy it, of course, no, no, not that, but just to satisfy his curiosity about this new product. Papa dutifully looked at the box. "Hockey too? Well, I nevah," he said, tilting the box on one side, looking for the price tag. Before he could find it, BB made his move, telling Papa that he had begged our parents to get it for him, but only as a combined birthday and Christmas present. You wouldn't think it would be possible for a kid to sound remotely noble for making this kind of sacrifice--giving up all his usual presents just to get one!--but somehow my brother managed to hit just the right note.

Papa looked up from his reading. "Will ya share with ya bruthah?" he asked. BB gave him a look of surprise and mild consternation: What the heck? he must have thought. That was exactly what Mom had said. Geez, it's almost like these two are related or something. But BB nodded anyway, so Papa reached into his front pocket, where he kept his money clip, peeled off some 20s, and handed them to my brother. "Awright, you go and buy one of these. Just bring me back the change," he said, winking. My brother winched his jaw back up off the carpet--mine was right next to it--then he grabbed both game and cash out of Papa's hand and was bolting for the nearest register before my grandfather could change his mind.

I was stunned. "Oh, Papa," I began. "Whoa, that's--are you really sure? I mean--wow," I gabbled. I was beyond excited, but I also knew what kind of shit was going to hit the fan when my brother and I showed up at home with a bag of Star Wars toys and a brand-new videogame console. "Are you sure?" I asked again.

Papa looked down at me, a trace of mock irritation in his voice. "What? Ya don' wanna play tennis on ya TV?" he asked.

"No! No! I mean, yes! I mean--" I sputtered. "It's just, Mom might not like it, and--"

Papa bent down to me then, leaned in close, and whispered conspiratorially. "Please, MM. For the luvva Christ, please let yer old grandfathah get this for BB. Call it an early Christmas present, or whatevah ya wanna call it, but I'm squirrelly with boredom and if we don’t go back to the house without somethin' to distract us, I swear ta Christ I'm gonna go outta my fackin' mind!"

I nodded solemnly then. "Okay," I said.

"Good boy," he said, then stood up and patted me on the head.

When we got home, my mother didn't freak out like I expected. Instead, she just emitted a long, freighted sigh, the very echo of the one I so often hear from my own wife, and usually under similar circumstances. And that was that.


Back in the present, BB continued to relate an extremely truncated version of these events, as well as heavily editing his recollection of our many years with the Telstar console. For example, he utterly failed to mention how selfish and covetous he became after our grandfather left. How he would shove me away any time I asked to play tennis with him, or thrash me violently if he caught me playing with--or even looking at--the console.

"That's mine and you know it!" he hissed.

"But Papa and Mom said you have to--"

"I don't care what they said. It's MY game." And then he would throw something at me as an inducement to leave.

Things reached a breaking point one rainy weekend, when I, like my grandfather before me, was bored out of my mind and begging to play tennis or hockey. BB and I got into a heated shouting match in the family room, where the console was hooked up to the TV. Our fighting forced my father to intervene. "What the hell is going on in here?!?" he demanded.

"BB's being selfish!" I cried. "All he does is sit in here and play with himself!"

For some reason, my father thought this was funny; BB not so much. But he let me play video games with him--grudgingly--after that.

So it went. A few years later, I managed to purchase a second-hand Atari 2600 game console for myself, putting me forever beyond the reach of BB's antagonism when it came to video games. Eventually, because I am kind and decent and in all ways a superior human being (and also because my mom struck a deal with me that was too good to ignore), I deigned to let BB play on the Atari too. That was the death-knell of the Telstar. It vanished soon after, presumed lost forever.

But in my family, crap is never truly lost. Sooner or later, it always turns up, and in the unlikeliest of places. Which explains why, on our second day of cleaning out my parents' barn in New Hampshire some weeks back, I chanced upon an old metal Coleman cooler, its bottom nearly rusted out, so that you could see the basin of the cooler inside. The latch was welded shut by pure oxidation, but I rapped it a couple of times with the head of an old shovel I found in a corner. The lock fell off and I opened the lid, revealing a cardboard box.

And in the cardboard box was the Telstar video game console.

"You don't think--?" my brother asked.

"Only one way to find out," I answered.

We carried the thing, cooler and all, into the house, where I took out the console--smelled vaguely of mouse pee and rusted metal--attached its power cord to it, and plugged it in. I switched it on, then remembered there was no power light or anything on the unit to indicate that it was up and running. I shut it off and looked in the box some more, until I found another cable, this one terminating in a small box with a switch and two pronged wires coming out. These attached to the old UHF/VHF antenna lead. BB's TV had coaxial-cable and digital inputs, but no antenna leads. But after some rummaging in the various junk drawers throughout the house, we found an adapter that let us plug the thing in through the TV's cable connection. Then we turned the TV to channel 3 (it was all coming back to me how to do this) and I hit the on switch again.

Almost immediately, a sweet sickly smell of something burning filled the air. But we ignored it because, onscreen, was an image neither BB nor I had seen in years. It was the Pong playing field.

I put my hand out to grab a control dial when BB put his arm out. "Hey! Whoa! The fuck you think you're doing? That's MINE!" he cried.

I looked up to give my brother my most withering look--along with a profanity-laden telling off--when he burst into laughter. "Gotcha! Your serve, ass-wipe," he said.

" that's what's plugged into the TV right now," BB concluded.

"No way!" said Thomas, in a kind of awe. "The game still works after all those years of being in the barn?"

"Well, yeah," said BB. "Of course, sometimes it overheats. Then the screen goes wibbly and the whole room smells like burned hair. But otherwise, it works fine. Next time you come visit, you can try it out."

But Thomas didn't have to wait that long. Later in the day, long after we'd let BB go to enjoy his birthday, my son found several Web sites that offer playable versions of Pong. He was excited to try it out.

(And if you're longing to do the same, there's a solo version you can play here.)

About 27 seconds in, Thomas glanced over at me (we were both hunched over, each of us trying to control his paddle using the same keyboard). "Um, Dad?" he said tentatively. "Is this it?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, trying not to let another ball go past me.

"Well, I mean, is this all it does?"

"Well, sure. It's called tennis. You use your paddle to hit the ball across the net--"

"But there's no paddle--it's just a rectangle that moves only up or down so you can knock a square over a white line. Uncle BB really has this hooked up to his TV right now? And plays it? When does it get good?"

I tried to explain the value in appreciating the simple things in life, the importance of reveling in one's youth and occasionally picking up the things you once put aside so you can be in touch with your inner child, or use them to get closer to others in your family.

But in response to this, all Thomas said was, "I think we better go buy that new Star Wars game for uncle BB."

So we did that instead.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, September 19, 2008


In Which We Crave Distraction...

These days, I never know what's going to distract me from work (or from blogging, come to that). If I'm not risking death by having a barn fall on me (about this more later, when I get around to my visit to New Hampshire), I'm throwing up from heat or flu, and then aspirating the damn stuff so I can lie in bed for a week. Sheesh.

So you can imagine my surprise, then, at having the most comparatively benign circumstance cross my path and slow me down this week. All thoughts of work, either in the office or at home, came to a standstill in the face of this distraction.

Which was the arrival of this.


Thomas has been ulcerating for this video game for months. It's all he's talked about. He sold off some of his other toys in order to make money to buy a special controller for the game, and also some Star Wars figures (which he adores almost as much as video games) that were released this summer, figures whose characters appear only in the game. He would peruse message boards for the latest news about it. He downloaded images from the game and from the box art. He went completely ape-shit fan-boy on me.

I have to admit, the excitement got to me, rubbed off on me, and I found myself counting the days until the game's release. So I was pretty happy to see a package in my office first thing Tuesday morning and note the return address--the press folks from LucasArts, the game's creator. I opened the package, saw the by-now-nauseatingly familiar box art, and knew that, for today at least, I would be cementing my position as World's Best Dad.

Naturally, when I got home, Thomas flipped out. He wasn't the only one. Her Lovely Self gave me a Look and a sigh, a heavily freighted one, a sigh with a footnote half a page long. A footnote that lectured me about bringing home more toys and games, especially violent games. But I was too busy watching Thomas fiddle with switches and cables as he fired up the Wii console and turned on the TV.

Within minutes, my son was jumping and lunging and spinning around, moving the Wii remote this way and that. If you were to look in our window at that moment and see this spectacle, you'd have dismissed my son as a student of some new and unusual martial art. Or perhaps just a Riverdancer on crack. But on screen, a guy with a lightsaber mirrored my son's actions perfectly, and to digitally deadly effect, swinging his weapon this way and that. Dozens of hapless CGI men were falling left and right, emitting comic-book-type screams ("Arrgh! Eyyyahhhhh!")

After clearing the first two levels in about a minute and a half, Thomas turned to me. "Want to try, Dad?" he asked. He held out the remote, which was resting inside the special accessory my son had purchased, a two-foot long device known as a Glo-Sword. It was basically a mini light saber, with a handle (into which you inserted your remote) and a sturdy clear plastic "blade" that lit up bright red when you turned it on. Like this:

glo sword

As I took it, I felt like a kid again.

Then Thomas turned the game back on and I realized that, while my spirit might be that of a 10-year-old boy, my reflexes and reaction time were strictly geriatric.

"Get him! He's right behind you. Go! Go!!" Thomas shouted as I fiddled helplessly with the controls. On-screen, I began running in circles as I tried to master both the remote and the nunchuk extension, to no avail. My son desperately tried to save me from myself, offering helpful advice with every step: "You're standing inside a flaming ball of fire, Dad." "You're going the wrong way. That's the way we came in!" "Don't touch that, it's an electrical--no, never mind. You're dead. Again." I careened into walls, then inadvertently hopped over a railing into an abrupt black nothing. At length, I crashed into the ground while all around me, red laser beams flew, most of them hitting me in the back and the ass. My character made painful grunts and groans each time he was hit. I half-expected him to turn and look out of the screen at me and yell, "What the fuck, dude? Put the kid back on!"

What's more, while the Glo Sword may have been the coolest-looking Wii accessory ever, in my hands it proved to be an unmitigated disaster, not to mention a danger to myself and my loved ones. Well, okay, to myself. At one point in the game, a giant Wookiee came running up to me with a couple of nasty looking swords and I brought my weapon up abruptly to defend myself--too abruptly, it turned out. I smashed myself in the nose and then, swinging wildly to parry the flashing swords on-screen, I managed to strip my glasses from my face. Suddenly the world was a disjointed blur of red light, the flickering of the TV, and triumphant animal howling, intermingled with my son's plaintive cries.

"You have to move the remote up, then down! And hold the B and Z button and push!" Thomas shouted, increasingly agitated, as, later, I staggered across some kind of docking bay. I tripped over debris. I ran full tilt into a barrel that blew up in my face, sending me into the wall again. I got up and ran some more, like a drunk fleeing from the cops. Up ahead, there was some kind of door. I ran for it, thinking it would open automatically, but it didn't and I crashed into it head-first. A second later, about a dozen guys rushed in from the bottom of the screen and began shooting me at point-blank range.

"Fight! Fight them, you stupid shit!" Thomas cried, unable to contain himself. I realized then that I had somehow put my lightsaber away and didn't have the first notion how to turn it back on. So I pushed all the buttons at once. On-screen, my character jumped spastically, like a cat on a hot plate. Finally, I drew my sword and promptly began attacking a window. Behind me, a couple of my opponents started glowing.

"That means you can use the Force on them!" Thomas yelled. "Do it! Do it!" On-screen, superimposed over the action, there suddenly appeared a little image of my remote, accompanied by little arrows. Apparently, even the game was taking pity on me and trying to tell me how to play it. The little icon began spinning as the arrows turned red and green and moved every which way, evidently a universal video-game gesture that means "shake the shit out of it!" So I did, but it was to no avail. A few moments later, a stormtrooper came along with a big cannon on a tripod and blew me to pieces, putting me out of my misery. Thomas' too. In the silence that followed, I heard my son take a big breath, trying to master himself.

Then he said in a kindly voice, "Why don't you watch me for a while?" I looked down. Both of my hands were shaking. My left thumb was sore and red and by the next day I would have a huge blister on it and a matching one on my index finger. My glasses were bent and my nose hurt. My right hand was cramped shut (it took some effort to pry the nunchuk out of it).

So, perspiring freely from my exertions, I sat down. And as I did, I realized that perhaps just watching my son resume the digital mayhem would be distraction enough for one day.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Friday, September 12, 2008


In Which I Achieve My Greatest Aspiration...

So, Wednesday night last week was salmon night at our house. I confess I’m not a big fish guy--one of my earliest memories is of choking on a trout bone, while my parents leaned across from the far end of the table yelling “Are you choking? Are you choking?!?” before it dawned on them that there might be a good reason why I wasn’t answering. Whereupon my Dad got up, grabbed me by the heel and lifted me upside down into the air, pounding my back with a force sufficient to make my ribs creak. The only shining moment from the incident was that when I finally gagged up the obstruction, it landed with a moist plop in my Big Brother’s hair.

But Her Lovely Self really is the most wonderful cook and she manages to make a very nice salmon dish with a mild dill and mustard sauce that I truly enjoy, so it was a happy evening.

Until the salmon, er, swam back upstream.

I had been feeling increasingly bilious as the evening wore on--I blamed it on overexerting myself playing Wii Tennis with Thomas (who has a pro rating on the machine, whereas I rank somewhere lower than blind man. A blind man with no arms or legs). By midnight, I had the worst indigestion, but strove mightily with myself not to be sick. Eventually, I fell into a fitful sleep punctuated by bad dreams involving me racing around the rim of an active volcano, a volcano which occasionally spewed out great heaving masses of sulfurous magma. Then, through the acrid smoke, I peered into the volcano itself and saw the Éclair clinging to a single floating rock and screaming my name.

I sat up, not quite awake.


The Éclair has been cutting some molars--three at once--and the pain of it has been waking her, usually between 2 and 4 in the morning. I hopped out of bed, still half-asleep, and staggered to the baby’s room, where I found her trying to swing a little leg over the railing of her crib. Then she saw me and beamed; Daddy awake, mission successful.

But as soon as I had the baby in my arms, I was aware that an inevitable physiological process was already underway. I knew, in that way that you just can know, that I was about throw up on my daughter.

Not even trusting myself to utter a single word of explanation or comfort, I raced back to my bedroom and dropped the baby on Her Lovely Self, who shot awake with a startled screech. But I had no time to hold a press conference.

If I may be allowed brief moment of self-congratulations, I have to tell you that one of my greatest physical skills is the ability to hold the contents of my stomach until I reach a safe, porcelain haven. As a child, it was one my mom’s most sincere compliments to me, that during flu season I could always make it down the long hall from my bunk bed to the bathroom, saving her a messy cleaning job. It was a particular point of pride that I could do this and my brother could not. BB was a surprise vomiter, famous for appearing at my parents’ bedside in the middle of the night and saying, “Mummy, I’m gonna beEEEEAAARRRRRGLPPHH!!” to the dismay of all.

But this night, I almost didn’t make it.

My stomach was in full seizure, wrenching itself into knot of unprecedented pain and intensity. It took a superhuman act of will to keep myself from redecorating the bedroom there and then. I’m not kidding. I think if I had applied the same physical effort in any other disaster scenario, I probably would have found myself with the ability to lift an overturned truck off of one of my children, so mightily did I strive.

And then I reached the bathroom.

I can safely say now that I have never been so violently ill as I was the other night. That projectile incident in Kansas I wrote about? Not even close. I was heaving so hard that I smashed my forehead into the toilet seat, so hard that my toes were being pulled up into my feet from the suction, so hard that I half-expected to start seeing loops of intestine lassoing the toilet tank.

And I couldn’t stop. For me, as I think for most people, throwing up is something of a tidal action, with a distinct ebb and flow that allows you to at least grab a gasping breath between hurls. But that was not the case Wednesday night. It was one long heave-ho as my stomach just continued to clench harder and harder, until it felt like I had a stone sitting in my sternum. The world began to swim and go gray and I knew I was going to pass out. Finally, I managed to suck in one desperate gasp of air, and almost immediately began coughing and choking from the backwash. It was just awful.

(Ooh, I just realized: I should have put a vomit warning at the top of this post, huh?)

Anyway, after several minutes, I found myself hot and sweating and dazed, collapsed near the edge of the toilet just as if I’d been rendered insensate at the side of that volcano in my dreams. Though empty, my stomach continued to clench and unclench. It was truly misery. Eventually, Her Lovely Self, now fully awake (my retching--rendered even more impressive because of the bathroom acoustics--would have been a hard thing to sleep through) wondered from the other side of the door if I was all right. I muttered something thickly, then proceeded to clean the bathroom. Then I stripped and jumped in the shower--I wasn’t THAT big a mess, understand, but I just wanted to feel cleaner than I was. Finally, after protracted effort, I made it back to bed, shivering and doubled over, my stomach continuing to knot and unknot itself. And then, just as I would fall asleep, a bubble would shift somewhere inside me and I’d emit a positively satanic belch, which seemed to serve no other purpose than to remind me by taste that I wasn’t going to be eating salmon again any time soon.

The next morning, with a fever well over 100 degrees, I realized I had the stomach flu and just stayed in bed. By the weekend, Her Lovely Self got a dose of it too, and while she had the same intense stomach reaction, she was over the bug within 48 hours. As for me, things were getting worse. I know, that sounds like an exaggeration after the hurling spell I just depicted, but I assure you, my troubles were only beginning.

I wasn’t throwing up any more, thank God, but I couldn’t help but notice that my breathing was increasingly labored. It hurt to lay on my right side. I had developed a nasty, hacking cough. In short, I had all the familiar signs of pneumonia, which I seem to be especially prone to. Thus it was that, with a fever still raging and my breathing no better, I presented myself to my doctor. Who confirmed that I had pneumonia all right. But not just any old bacterial pneumonia.

I had aspiration pneumonia.

Funny term, that. When I hear “aspiration,” I think of my greatest hopes and dreams, and I’m here to tell you they don’t involve puking and getting pneumonia. But as I’m sure you know, aspiration is the term used to describe what happens when you inhale a foreign object into your lungs, like water, or a popcorn kernel.

Or, in my case, a goodly portion of your partially digested salmon dinner.

And I thought ass strep was the worst thing that could happen to me. But no. Inhaling your own vomit and getting pneumonia from it, that ranks up there as the worst thing to happen to me in a long, long while.

So I’m home, on bed rest, inhaling somewhat more beneficial substances—nebulized drugs, for example. I had to call in sick to work, but when I told them what was wrong with me, I was pretty circumspect about it.

But I had to tell someone about it, of course, and I knew you wouldn’t mind.

I’m definitely on the mend now--fever’s down and breathing’s better. But both Thomas and the Brownie were feeling a little peaky this morning (it couldn’t be because I told them what really happened to me, though. Surely not.). So I’m keeping an eye on them. If either one of them starts to get sick, I’ll be standing by, ready to help them. I don’t want them to suffer the same fate as me, though, so if I start to see them bringing up their last meal, I intend to grab them by the ankles, flip ‘em upside down over the john, and whack them on the back until their ribs creak. I think if I’d had someone around to do that for me the other night, I probably wouldn’t even be in this pickle.

And with that, I’ll leave you to return to your lunch.

Assuming you still want to.

Have a healthy weekend.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


In Which We Keep On Walking...

Heavens, but I have been busy. I have much to tell, not the least of which being my adventures in New Hampshire with my Big Brother, but I think for today we’ll keep things strictly close to home, where there have been doings aplenty, I assure you.

Since I know the trouble I’m going to put you to this week, (let’s just say some upcoming posts come with Vomit Alerts and leave it at that for now), I think it’s only fair if I set us rolling with a story I know you’ll like:

The Éclair, as you may be aware, is walking now. She’s still a bit unsteady on her feet, and there are challenging stretches of the house--the tiled bathroom, the slick hardwood floor of the kitchen--where she’d rather crawl.

But day by day she becomes more enamored of those little legs of hers and in the afternoon, when the kids are home from school and everyone’s playing outside, she likes to stretch those legs on the length of sidewalk that goes from our driveway up to the corner. Sometimes she’ll bring things with her when she goes: her beloved stuffed bear, or a plastic doll baby; other times she pushes her stroller ahead of her or pulls her Daddy behind her.

This particular afternoon, she was by herself, while I was back in the driveway, fixing my shoe. The lace had just broken and so I was realigning the remaining slack through the eyelets so that I could continue to tie the thing. The Brownie was with me, engaged in an elaborate chalk drawing on the pavement.

We were about 10 yards away and could see the Éclair perfectly. She was on her way back to us, tottering from foot to foot and had just passed a fairly large mass of bushes that rests in the far corner of our next-door neighbor’s yard. She was waving in our direction, but was taking no notice of me. She’s got a pretty serious case of big-sister worship these days and so only has eyes for the Brownie. So she was waving extravagantly and yelling “Brownie! Brownie Brownie Brownie Brownie!” Just making sure she had her sister’s undivided attention, you know. Every few seconds, the Brownie would look up from her chalk masterpiece and dutifully wave back. I also waved, the lame attention-seeker, hoping for scraps, and continued to rethread the lace in my shoe.

Then several things happened at once.

First, I noticed some unexpected movement from the neighbor’s yard and looked up in time to see their bushes begin to twitch and sway suddenly. Rabbits love to hang out in there and I assumed one had just pelted from the bushes. Except the bushes continued to sway and no furry brown woodland creature appeared.

But the Éclair evidently caught the sudden movement out of the corner of her eye and it spooked her. She turned and looked at me, her mouth a perfect “o” of surprise and began toddling back to the house as fast as her little legs could move.

And then the bushes parted and the border collie burst from them.

Until that second, I didn’t even know our neighbors--a very nice older couple who have no kids (at least none who live with them)--had a dog. As I was to find out later, the creature was kept mostly indoors, for good reason. But apparently, the dog had snuck out of the house unnoticed and had been lying in wait in the bushes.

Now, I don’t know what your experience has been with the breed, but I find border collies to be a bit of a high-strung, quick-to-yap, fast-to-snap bunch, especially if they’re kept indoors and not given a chance to indulge their instincts, which lean towards rustling sheep into pens.

Or, in this case, terrorizing toddlers.

The Éclair screamed bloody murder as the collie came charging across the lawn. Myself, I was overcome with a sense of déjà vu. Overcome, but not overwhelmed. I was up off the deck and hopping across my driveway with one shoe on, but it was hopeless. The border collie was much closer to the Éclair and on a line designed to intercept her.

Of course, the baby shouldn’t have tried to run because I’m sure that only triggered the dog’s instincts. He was maybe a dozen feet from her and closing the distance with a speed and determination that made my heart shrivel. Then, as I knew would inevitably happen, the Éclair stumbled and sprawled on the sidewalk.

I opened my mouth to yell something—anything—to distract the dog or shoo him away, but before I could utter a single noise, the Brownie was on her feet behind me and shouted what, evidently, was the first word to come to mind, probably the only word she would ever think to utter in a situation like this. Probably the only word long-time readers of this blog would ever bother to utter either.

She shouted “BLAZE!”

I have no idea where our dog was. This time of day, he usually hangs out in a patch of late afternoon sunlight in the living room, where it also happens, he’s close by the front windows and gets a good view of the kids. I assume he was either there or possibly out on his runner out back. Which means he would have had to pull some serious Houdini out of his butt to either work free of his collar that was latched to the runner, or develop the opposable thumbs needed to open one of the doors to the house. But really, it doesn’t matter. Because while my older daughter’s command was still echoing throughout the neighborhood like some latter-day Billy Batson calling on the power of Shazam, I heard a bang, a skittering of toys in the garage behind me, felt a displacing breeze shunt me aside, and saw a fat, furry bullet launched on perfectly straight line across the yard.

The border collie saw it too. He paused about a foot from the fallen Éclair and got a good look at what was coming. I realized in that moment that he was kind of a small dog, really not much bigger than the Éclair herself. But in my view of things, no matter how big or small you are, the moment you decide to chase after a defenseless toddler, you pretty much deserve what you get. Which in this case was a high-speed Blazeyburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The last time something like this happened—the event that triggered my earlier moment of déjà vu—was just a short while after Blaze had come to live with us. He had saved the Brownie from a ravening mean dog, but had done so simply by interjecting his body between the offending dog and the girl, creating a contact-free standoff that I was able to break when I finally arrived on the scene. I’m not sure what was different about this scenario—whether it’s the fact that Blaze has gotten older and slightly crotchetier, or because he now considers our street to be his undisputed territory. Or it may be that he simply adores the Éclair above all (even the Brownie, if that’s possible). He certainly does follow her like, well, like a dog, all day, everywhere.

But regardless of reason, this encounter was no contact-free standoff. The border collie turned to face Blaze, had time to open his mouth for one preemptive yap, and then Blaze hit him at full speed.

The yap turned into a surprised yelp as Blaze charged on dragging him across my neighbor’s yard, putting as much distance between themselves and the baby as he could. For a moment, there was just a jumble of feet and fur and then Blaze was up. He had the collie by the back of the neck, shaking him like a rag doll and for a beat, I could only stare. My dog and I have been through a lot together. I’ve seen him scared and beaten; I’ve seen him angry and determined. But I had never seen him like this. Oh Jesus, he’s going to kill that dog, I thought.

But first things first. I hopped over to the screaming Éclair (who for the record was not screaming “Daddy! Daddy!” but “Bazey! Bazey!”). I swept her up into my arms, then turned to look--we both did--at the full-blown dogfight unfolding before me.

I’ll give the collie this: he evidently realized he might be in the fight of his life, because he had found his feet and was now darting under Blaze’s defenses, ducking to snap at his vulnerable under-belly. But Blaze wasn’t having it. He whirled and dodged and finally got a good purchase on the collie and pushed him to the ground. Blaze was like a different dog in that moment, his muzzle curled back to show a goodly row of teeth, his throat full of growling menace. The collie moved marginally, perhaps hoping to get out from under this threat, but Blaze snapped aggressively at the collie and he went absolutely still, his body inert in total submission.

By this point, my neighbor at last emerged from the house, all apologies and worried that the Éclair had been bitten (in her excitement, she let slip that this dog, had a history of chasing and biting people, which explained why they were generally at pains to keep him indoors). Well, thankfully my daughter hadn’t been hurt, but that collie sure had. When we finally convinced Blaze to step away and let his opponent up, I could see that blood was running from a torn ear, as well as from superficial bites on the back of his neck. Blaze didn’t have a mark on him.

The Éclair, you’ll be pleased to know, escaped with only a few scuffs on her hands and knees. Afterward, I was afraid she might be too scared to walk outside now, but thankfully that hasn’t happened.

I do find, though, that whenever she gets ready to go outside now, she stops and looks around, yelling “Where Baze?” and will only proceed when she sees that he has taken up his position in the patch of sunlight by the window, ready to emerge the next time someone utters the magic word.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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