Friday, November 21, 2008


Four little words...

...and I'll only say them once:

Art Lad is back.

As always, the frequency of my son's blogging is something he has dictated. He never actually stopped blogging, you understand. it's just that there was an 18-or-so-month gap between posts.

When he told me he was ready to blog again, and told me all of the things he was planning to do with his blog, my only intrusive act was to tell him to think about it for a bit and be sure he was ready to blog again. "A lot of people really enjoy your work," I told him. "And if you go back online and promise all kinds of big stuff and then don't deliver, it'll be kind of an insult to them. You'll be like the boy who Tweeted 'Wolf!' Understand?"

Obviously, he did.

So if you are inclined, go on over and welcome him back. I think you'll notice my boy has grown, and so too has the way in which he will post future material. Basically, he will still pick his own artwork to display. He will take his own pictures and video when it makes sense (and when it doesn't, Dad or Mom or the Brownie will man the camera at his direction). I'll handle the tech-support end of things, which means that while I am busy cropping or uploading, Thomas will be busy writing his post.

At 10, Thomas is a scarily solid writer, way better than I was at his age. The words you will read are entirely his own. My only contribution was to take the text out of the single-block, minimally punctuated format he prefers, correct some spelling, and make a few indents for pacing. Everything else is his.

Except for the pride and excitement of having him back online. I've got the lion's share of that.


From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thursday, November 20, 2008


In Which We Marvel at Our Luck...

When it finally did break loose, hell broke loose slowly. As I turned my attention to Thomas and the Brownie, it was obvious they saw something behind me that was upsetting them. And now that my head was up, I could see out of the corner of my eye that there was someone (actually two someones) right behind me. But I couldn't turn to face them. I was still looking at Thomas.

Who had been pulling on something that I thought was his seatbelt. Who had yelled "Do something!" after the Brownie had shouted "Come here! Come here!"

Thomas was, I realized, activating his carjack proof plan, the one he had shared with me the night before.

It was a simple plan. It involved just two things.

The first thing was the item Thomas was actually pulling on. It was not his seatbelt. It was Blaze's leash.

The second thing?

Blaze himself.

"My plan is we take Blaze with us wherever we go," my son had told me the night before. "You know how he gets when he's in the car: he lays down in the way back, in the cargo place. And whenever someone comes by, he jumps up and does that crazy scary barking up against the window and he'll scare the carjackers away."

"I don't know," I dimly recalled answering. "You know I don't like to leave Blaze in the car." But then I reconsidered. "Well, he does like riding in the back there. And there's no chance of it getting hot enough tomorrow that he'd be in danger if we left him in the car. I suppose, if it would make you feel better, we could try it."

So of course we did.

And my, wasn't Thomas glad that we had. Despite his fear of the approaching men, he must have thrilled at the scene he imagined. I'm sure that he, like you, would revel in the moment when Blaze would come exploding over the back seat, barking his Killer Bark, the yawping, cyclical "WHOAH WHOAH WHOAH!" that makes deliverymen squawk and step back from the front door at home. I'm sure he could almost see Blaze bouncing off the side window in the back, his snapping teeth leaving great smears of crazed doggy drool on the glass and making the would-be carjackers turn tail and run.

It would be a great story in the retelling. It would be a fantastic blog post.

If only that was how it happened.

In the event, Blaze seemed particularly reluctant to make his requisite last-minute, day-saving appearance. When we had first arrived at the store and got out of the car, he was hunkered way down in the back and seemed to be fast asleep. Now, Thomas was putting all his weight on the leash trying to rouse his protector while the Brownie called for him to come. At last, I saw Blaze's big black and brown head appear over the top of the back seat. He had a look I can't say I've ever seen before, and it left me a little uncertain about his emotional state. But one thing was certain, he was already producing a generous ration of foam and drool.

And then, almost as if seeing the same danger Thomas had perceived behind me outside through the open door, Blaze suddenly jerked to life, sending loops of canine saliva every whichaway. In a trice, he had scrabbled over the back, then launched himself straight over the baby's car seat.

Right at me.

Delighted, the Éclair cried "Bazey!" as he flew over the top of her.

And then hell broke loose much, much faster.

Blaze hit me square in the chest, knocking me backward. I fell straight back, cracking my head on the tarmac, but not before brushing against the jacket of one of the men I finally realized was behind me. I knew this now, not just because I made contact with one of them, but also because both of them had been more than a little startled at seeing the dog that came bursting out of the van.

"Jeeeesus! What--"

"Ho, the fuck is--?"

They both must have jumped about 10 feet straight away from me. I lay on the tarmac, stars and tweety birds flitting back and forth in my line of vision. I couldn't breathe--there was a great pressure on my chest. That turned out to be Blaze, but he was already scrambling to get off me. He was trailing the leash--and some drool--and as both dragged across my face, I instinctively snatched for it. The leash, I mean.

I rolled as Blaze dragged me a few feet, the men still backing away. Then I was able to get to my knees and adjust my glasses, which had gone askew in the fall. The two men kept stepping backward, looking from Blaze to me and back to Blaze again.

"Hey man, you all right?" one of them finally asked, although he didn't look at me when he said it. He just couldn't seem to take his eyes off Blaze.

"Yeah, fine, fine,” I answered, rubbing the back of my head with my free hand. “This happens to me a lot. Sorry if my dog startled you. I-- What the f---?"

Suddenly I couldn't focus on completing my sentence, because Blaze had drawn my attention too. He was between me and the two men, facing them more than me. But all of a sudden, he turned slightly to the side and yarked up a great load of foamy bile. He whipped his head sideways, painting a crescent shape across the tarmac. The two men did a swift dance backwards to keep clear of the spray.

"Geez, he must be sick," the other guy observed helpfully, as he continued to back away. Then, almost as if they had a shared a telepathic cue, he and his buddy quickly kept walking across the street and out of our story forever. Despite Thomas' assurances that they were coming straight for me, I suspect these two guys were just innocent passersby, heading somewhere else as fast as they could, hoods up and hands in pockets, trotting quickly by to get out of the cold.

But if they had harbored any carjacking intentions that day, I think it's safe to conclude that Blaze grossed them out of it.

I stood outside there, almost transfixed, as Blaze emptied himself of mass quantities of yellow-green bile. I had seen him throw up plenty of times before--it seemed to be one of his specialties--but never in such lavish amounts. I half-expected to see him eject his liver at any moment.

The Brownie was the first one to speak and so broke the trance that seemed to settle over me.

"Dad, he's really sick. We've got to call 911!" she cried, tears welling in her eyes. She has a strong emotional attachment to the dog, and not without ample reason, to be sure. But if you ask me, her affection and devotion is a little out of proportion to the rest of her family. When I was sick with double-pneumonia and had to stay in a hospital bed, hooked up to oxygen and IVs for a week, the Brownie could barely bestir herself to come with her mother to visit me or give me so much as the stingiest hug when she did. But if Blaze yelps from so much as a rabies shot, she weeps for him and says prayers to Jesus to help keep her beloved dog alive.

"You can't call 911 for a dog," I said, crouching near Blaze, who by this time was making odd, moist burping noises. They seemed to be coming through his nose. I picked him up, which was kind of a mistake, since it squeezed one more jet of bile out of him. I went around to the back hatch, opened it with not a little difficulty, and laid Blaze back in his favorite spot. He rewarded me with a particular warm, bubbly burp, right in my face.

I closed the hatch, ran back to the front of the van, got in and fished around. Under the seat, I found a roll of paper towels and threw them behind me. "Tear some of those off and put them on the floor in the back, all around him. Mom's gonna kill me if that dog pukes on the rug of her car." I heard the sounds of perforated towels parting as I put the car in gear and we tore out of there.

By the time we got home, the Brownie was full-on sobbing (“Dad! I thu-think B-B-Blazey’s dying! Wahhhhhhh!”). Thomas was stricken and silent. And I guess the angst was catching because over the course of the drive I found myself laboring under the burden of an ever-expanding sense of panic and worry. I had been so focused on the kids and my various responsibilities to them that I had not considered what I would do if Blaze got sick or hurt.

It sounds crazy to say it, but I had been thinking of him as my back-up. If I had fallen down the stairs and broken my neck, or just plain dropped dead from an unexpected heart attack, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had clutched onto the feeble life-preserver of an idea that Blaze would get help. Or failing that, he’d at least stick close to the Éclair and guard her and the other two with his life. Now he appeared to be out of commission and for the first time, I realized how truly alone I was this weekend. All of a sudden, I felt like throwing up a load of bile myself.

And then I had my mind changed for me. For, as soon as we were parked in the garage, we all moved like a well-oiled machine, as a team. Thomas expertly unbuckled his baby sister and handed her out to the Brownie, who carried her in while Thomas went around to the back of the van and stoically collected the used paper towels, replacing them with fresh ones. He left Blaze in the car and came in to wash his hands while I fished the phone book out and looked up the number for the vet. I knew they were normally closed by this time on Saturday, but I called anyway, hoping that the answering machine might offer up an emergency number. Miraculously, at that very moment, one of the staff was there to check on the animals in the kennel areas, and she answered the phone.

“Listen, this is MM. My dog is really sick. He’s been barfing up bile and--“

She cut me off. “MM? Aren’t you the owner of--? You mean Blaze? Our Blaze is sick?” It had been so long since I’d brought Blaze to the vet that I had forgotten: the staff there adore my dog. When we first got him, he had been suffering from dehydration and malnutrition and he had spent a week or so recuperating under their care, which must have been lavish and fawning, given the staff’s reaction any time I brought Blaze in thereafter. Whenever I walked through the door, whoever was on desk duty would start making little squee noises of glee and page the rest of the staff, who would burst through the swinging door leading to the back and surround Blaze. I might as well have been a ghost, for all they noticed me. So when I told the staffer what was going on, she didn’t hesitate a second in telling me to come in immediately, while she would place a call to the vet at his home.

Even allowing for bathroom trips and dashes upstairs to grab books and videogames for the waiting room, we were back in the car with everyone (the Éclair too) buckled and ready to go in less than two minutes--a land-speed record for us. Within another seven minutes, we were at the vet’s. After the staffer who let us in made a fuss over Blaze, she hefted him (shaking loose a startling series of moist burps that sounded almost like hiccups) and carried him back to one of the exam rooms, leaving me and the kids to wait for the vet’s arrival.

I thought it was a hard job keeping the Éclair from touching everything in the department store and the toy shop, but I was soon to redefine my definition of a hard job as I did my frazzled best to keep the Empress from scooping up a clump of hair that was under the waiting room fish tank, or trying to upend one of the containers of complimentary dog biscuits that sat at various tables around the waiting area.

Then a car pulled up outside and our vet got out. I told Thomas and the Brownie to watch the baby while I got up and met the man at the door, apologizing for disturbing his weekend.

“Not a problem,” he said. “My wife was going to the mall and wanted to leave the kids with me, but when your call came in, she had to take them with her. So thanks for getting me off the hook.” Then he winked. Had this happened earlier in my weekend, I would have understood and envied his joy, but now that envy was being slowly replaced by a new feeling. I gave a quick wave to my little team as left the waiting room and followed the vet through the swinging door into the back.

I explained Blaze’s symptoms. “So he’d already thrown up at home, then did it some more after riding in the car?” the vet asked. I nodded. “Well, it may not be worth worrying about. If he was already feeling sick, a car ride would only make it worse. Dogs get carsick too. Let me take a look at him. I’ll be out in a bit,” he said. I showered him with profuse thanks and went back out to the waiting room, half-expecting to find the two older kids engaged in reading to the Eclair.

But when I got to the waiting room, it turned out that all three of my kids were gone.

I did two full circles on the spot, looking everywhere. They weren’t hiding behind the reception desk, nor in the bathroom. I poked my head back through the swinging door and caught the staffer who’d let me in, thinking maybe the kids had gone in the back to visit the dogs and cats that were being kenneled there that weekend. But the staffer was the only one in sight.

Now just a little frantic, I pelted through the waiting room and burst outside. It was almost totally dark out there, and although the wind had died down, it was cold. I squinted and scanned the lawn in front of the office building, then saw my van under a street lamp and headed there, thinking the kids might have gotten in it. In our haste to get into the building, I was pretty sure I’d forgotten to lock it.

As soon as I reached the van, though, I heard some laughter and squealing and turned to my right.

There on the side lawn of the building were my kids. Heedless of the cold and the dark, Thomas and the Brownie were playing leapfrog and doing cartwheels and somersaults, all for the entertainment of their baby sister, the Empress of Everything, who was alternately screaming for joy and munching contentedly on, oh dear God, a dog biscuit.

I stood for a moment, watching this scene unfold. The baby was as happy as I’d ever seen her, and her big brother and sister were absolutely focused on entertaining her. At one point, the Éclair toddled back a few steps, causing the Brownie to dash over and grab her hand just before the baby would have stepped backwards off the curb and surely fallen. Then together, the two girls held hands as they walked back to Thomas. He stopped somersaulting and came over to grab the baby’s other hand--even though it was the one that contained the dog biscuit and must surely have been drooly and gross--and together they started swinging her, higher and higher. In the glow of the street lamp nearby, I watched her little body arc, saw her face alight with pleasure.

Thomas and the Brownie gave each other a satisfied look. They treated the Éclair like a treasure, and watching over her was one of the few things they did well--or at least without fighting--together. In that moment, all my tension and anxiety melted away, and I felt a great swell of affection surge up in my heart. In my preoccupation with the moment-to-moment demands of my family, I had quite forgotten how much I genuinely enjoyed being with my children, and how lucky I should feel to be able to spend this kind of time with them.

“Dad!” Thomas cried, suddenly noticing me. “Are you okay? You have a funny look on your face.”

“Fine, I’m fine,” I said, wiping my eyes a little. “Just watching you guys. Thanks for taking care of your sister--although you DO know she shouldn’t be eating dog biscuits, right?”

Thomas swallowed hard. “Those cookie things in the waiting room were dog biscuits?!? I ate three of them!”

“Cookie ting!” the Éclair agreed, holding up her uneaten half of the biscuit.

I was about to wrestle the biscuit out of her hand--a task I was NOT going to enjoy--when we heard a shout from the doorway and saw the kennel staffer motioning to us. Suddenly realizing how cold it was, we all dashed back in, the big kids ahead of me while I tucked the Éclair under my arm and carried her like a football.

Blaze was waiting for us, lying on the floor while the staffer cooed at him and stroked his fur. He lay in a euphoric daze, licking his chops in pleasure, stopping only occasionally to snort or make some other strange noise.

“Well,” the vet spoke from the open bathroom door, where he was washing his hands. “It looks like Blaze has allergies. The way he’s sort of snorting and hiccupping, plus the vomiting, it’s all pretty consistent. When they get allergies, it can really upset their digestion.” I nodded in understanding. I had allergies myself and knew all too well how something as innocuous as post-nasal drip could leave you begging for a few Tums. “His stomach was probably upset all day,” the vet continued. “And then when he got in the car, well, that was it.”

“At least he was able to use it to scare the carjackers away!” Thomas said, causing the vet to give him, then me, a sharp look. I just shrugged and shook my head. The vet gave me a small bottle of pills that he said would help settle Blaze’s stomach, and advised me to start giving the dog a single Benadryl tablet every morning. “It works on dogs the same way it works on people,” he said. I thanked him profusely, then I paid him profusely for the privilege of having him tend to my dog on a Saturday evening.

I was almost giddy with relief as we got back in the car. Despite my attempts to convince everyone (not least myself) that I was going to have a fret-free weekend with the kids, I had obviously been holding onto more than a little angst, waiting for some shoe of disaster to drop on me from a great height. Now the crisis had passed and really, it hadn’t been that awful, not with my team ready to help out. “So, what shall we do tonight?” I asked, as we turned down the street into our neighborhood.

“I want to set up these toys and do a video,” Thomas said, shaking his box of recently acquired Star Wars toys. “And maybe we can finally update my Art Lad blog. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time.”

“I want to do some coloring with Elizabeth,” the Brownie answered. “I thought we could work on a welcome-home card for Mom when she gets back tomorrow.”

“Lilbeth! Color! Mommy!” the Eclair agreed.

From the far back, Blaze answered with an enormous blubbery burp.

“What about you, Dad?” Thomas asked. “You should do something fun too. What do you want to do?”

I looked up, catching their eyes reflected back at me in the rearview mirror. “You know what, Thomas?” I said, as we pulled into driveway and found ourselves home once more. “I think I’m already doing it.”

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


In Which We Are A Little Too Distracted...

“So was it carjackers?” Thomas asked, a trifle nervously.

“I really don’t know,” I replied, setting a plate in front of him. It was 7 hours later on Friday and, miraculously, all three of my children were still alive, even though I was the only adult in the house to take care of them. Thomas, ever the worrywart, wanted to hear all the awful details of the incident in the parking lot. The only problem was, I couldn’t fully oblige him. “There were quite a few cops, but they were all busy and I couldn’t ask them what was up. Then an ambulance showed up and the EMTs were clustered around a woman who had a bloody gash on her face. She was sitting next to a van with its doors open. I suppose it could have been carjackers, although I didn’t see anyone sitting the back of a police car, looking like they’d been arrested.”

I turned back to the stove to get the rest of dinner distributed. From her elevated throne (also known as the high chair), the Éclair was shouting orders at everyone, but mostly at me. “More, Daddy! More!”

“Say ‘please,’” the Brownie hissed at her sister. The Éclair goggled at the Brownie and gave her a very serious look, then a big smile. The Éclair worships her big sister.

“Peeze. Peeze!! PEEEZE!” she dutifully barked at me--in precisely the same bossy tone as when she was shouting for “MORE!” I brought her a small plate and baby spoon with which to feed herself and also to apply the food to her clothing as a kind of messy accessory item.

I sat down with a whoosh, realizing this was the first time since morning that I’d actually had a moment off my feet. Jesus, I’m exhausted. How does Her Lovely Self do it? I wondered, not for the first, nor the thousandth time.

Thomas wasn’t willing to give up our less-than-family-friendly dinnertime topic. “Yeah,” he said, acknowledging my earlier point. “But the carjackers could have got away!” he pointed out.

“Well, it’s possible. But the lady could have just fallen and hurt herself,” I answered back, pausing only to shovel food in. I was ravenous. “I checked the Web sites for the local paper and TV stations and there was nothing on there about it. And you know, I called the police officer who works with the neighborhood watch here. He says the carjacking rumor is just that--a rumor. There’s been no increase in carjackings in the area. There have been only two or three reported this year, and those were all on the dodgy side of town.”

Thomas looked at me and chewed thoughtfully.

“Yeah, but those are only the ones people reported to the police. How many are there that DON’T get reported?” he asked.

I sighed. Thomas rarely misses an opportunity to fret about something. I needed to nip it in the bud, because otherwise he’d be up all night--and making sure I was up with him. More importantly, he was likely to make me start fretting, too. And I had been committed to having a fret-free weekend.

I distracted my son after dinner in the usual fashion--with a movie. The Brownie chose it this time--some hopelessly soppy melodrama involving orphans and dogs. Thomas usually pooh-poohs the Brownie’s movie choices, but this one seemed to calm him down. By bedtime, he was much more relaxed.

“Are we still going to that store tomorrow?” he asked, as I tucked him in. I had already put the Éclair to bed and as soon as she was down, I started to crash. I could not remember the last time I had been so tired. So I gave Thomas a bit of a vacant stare.

“The store,” he clarified. “The one with the used toys and comics and videogames.”

“Oh!” I cried, suddenly remembering. Thomas was referring to a sort-of junk shop I’d found in my lunchtime drives around the city and environs. The proprietor at this particular store did indeed deal in used video games and old toys--specifically old Star Wars toys, which Thomas was keen to sift through and spend some birthday money on. “Yes,” I confirmed. “We’re definitely still going.”

Thomas smiled then, but a trifle warily. “But that store is on the dodgy side of town, isn’t it?”

“Well, not really. Sort of, maybe. But not really.” And by that, I meant “yes it is.” I’m terrible at lying to my children.

“Well, it’s okay,” Thomas said. “I figured out a way to stay safe from carjackers.” And then he told me his big idea.

“I dunno, buddy,” I answered. “I don’t think that’s gonna work.”

But Thomas was not to be swayed. “Sure it will. Can’t we try it?”

“Welllll,” I looked out the window, thinking. I absently noted a nearby window thermometer. It was in the 30s and it wasn’t going to be much warmer tomorrow. In fact, they were calling for snow. My mind was drifting like snow, too. Heavens, but I was exhausted...

“Dad?” Thomas asked.

I shook myself. Dear God, had I really almost dozed while standing up? I turned back to Thomas. “Well, we’ll try it. But it’s important that we just use common sense and lock up the car. Okay?”

“Okay,” he agreed, then rolled over and was asleep in moments.

Or at least, I assume he was. Myself, I don’t even remember leaving his room and crawling into my own bed. But I must have, because I awoke around 6 the next morning, fully clothed, and also fully surrounded. To my left, Thomas sat on his mother’s empty side of the bed, holding the Éclair in his lap. They were watching cartoons on our small TV. To my right, and totally hogging my pillow, the Brownie lay, still asleep, blowing moist bubbles of air in my face. I tried to move, but couldn’t: Blaze lay atop the covers, but positioned himself more or less fully between my legs, oriented so that his snout was perfectly aligned with my rectum, his nose separated from my ass by only a few inches of bed linens. How can he possibly find that comfortable? I wondered as I thrashed, helpless and immobile as a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board.

“Oh good, you’re awake!” cried Thomas, as he watched me try to roll myself over, but fail impossibly because of the dog. I at last convinced the dog to move, flopped over onto my back, and promptly found myself staring at the Éclair’s bottom as Thomas dropped her on me. “I think you need to change her,” he said, adding helpfully, “she has some serious funky butt.” That’s his code for a poopy diaper.

“Funky futt!” the Éclair agreed, as she squirmed around on the bed, her bottom practically emitting vapor trails such as you normally see on cartoons involving skunks.

And with that, my Saturday began in earnest.

I swear, there was not a single empty moment to my Saturday, not from the second I got up to change that funky butt to the moment I lost my temper. Every time I completed a task, or tried to engage in some meager survival function--peeing or eating, for example--I was beset by some new request (made typically in the form of a scream or shouted order).

“Dad! I can’t find any underwear!”

“Daddy, Lilbeth need you!”

“Um, Dad. Is there supposed to be water in the hall outside the bathroom?”

“Dad! I can’t find my shoes!”

“Daddy, Lilbeth want up! UP!”

“Dad, Blaze just threw up some yellow foam. I scooped it into this cup. Look!”

“Dad! I can’t find my ass with both hands!”


“Don’t drink out of that one, Dad! It’s still got some foam in it!”




And so it went. By noon, I was seriously put out, and you would have been too if you had been so harried that you almost drank from a cup full of dog bile. I started using my Shouty Dad voice and sent everyone to their rooms—including me. It was time for the Éclair’s nap anyway, but she was willing to postpone that for several minutes of good, quality screaming from her crib. I closed the door to my room, fished some earplugs out of a suitcase in the closet and sat on the bed, rocking and hugging my knees to my chest, mostly just to see why crazy people do it (I’ll tell you why: it’s actually very comfortable).

But after about two minutes, I realized I was feeling nervous about not hearing anything, so I got up and took out the earplugs.

Silence. Uh-oh.

I crept out of my room and peered through a crack in the door to the baby’s room. The Éclair was sound asleep. I poked my head across the hall, and spied Thomas up in his loft, reading. From down the hall, I could hear the electronic pinging of my daughter’s GameBoy. She looked up when I stuck my head in her door.

“Hi Dad,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry I bugged you about finding my clothes.”

“It’s okay,” I answered. “Sorry I got all shouty. I’m just not used to taking care of you guys by myself and I guess I got a little out of control. I really want us to have a fun time this weekend, but sometimes I get overwhelmed.”

“It’s a lot of work, raising kids,” the Brownie said. “Mom tells us that all the time.”

“Well, she ain’t kiddin’,” I answered.

“No such word as ‘ain’t’” the Brownie said absently. She was already turning back to her game. So much for a nice bonding moment with my daughter.

About an hour later, we were all feeling much better for our time-out, and when the Éclair woke up, I announced we would head off to the shop Thomas wanted to visit. It took us a few minutes to round up shoes and jackets and for Thomas to take care of one or two things he said would “make us carjack proof.”

We were quite the motley crew heading out to the van. Outside, the wind was blowing under a dark, forbidding sky. Sunset wouldn’t be for another hour, but already it seemed like dusk had set in. I wasn’t at all surprised to see the first few flakes of snow pelt by as we got on the highway and drove around to the south side.

We found the shop quickly on a side street of dilapidated buildings. To get there, I had to drag the kids past a filthy, forbidding alley, and a couple of equally filthy winos crouched in doorways, one with his hand out for spare change. Thomas eyed them nervously, worrying I suppose that they might be bandits in disguise, ready to spring up and waylay us. But these guys weren’t going anywhere. We proceeded unmolested to the shop.

Thankfully, it was a neat, fun place, run by a friendly proprietor who did some good-natured haggling with Thomas before making a deal on a box Star Wars vehicles Thomas decided he couldn’t live without.

So it was a happy, somewhat distracted boy who accompanied us back to the van. Sadly, I could not say the same for the Empress of Everything, who was screaming in outrage. I had had to restrain her in the store, see, otherwise she would have knocked over every pile of toys and stack of used game consoles she could find. Now she was crying--screaming, really--right in my ear. I had a ferocious headache building behind my eyes, and now I was freezing cold too. In our hour in the store, the sun had almost set and a fierce icy wind was ripping around us. The Brownie dashed ahead of us to the van, partly to escape the cold, but mostly to escape her screaming sister, I think. I opened the van’s sliding doors with my remote and she clambered in. Thomas handed her his carton of acquisitions, then climbed in himself.

“Dad! It’s freezing in here!” Thomas cried. “Can’t you start the car?”

The Éclair was fussing in my arms, and I realized it was going to take me more than a minute to secure her in her car seat. So, ignoring the admonition of the Mommy who’d caught me doing this the day before, I opened the driver-side door, stuck my key in the ignition and turned the van on. Then I stepped back out and leaned in through the sliding doorway nearest the Éclair’s baby seat. The Empress decided to put up a fight. She took one look at the car seat and began screaming, “No! No! NOOOOO!” and bucking her body like a tiny horse.

I have to say, I was pretty preoccupied, what with wrestling my daughter into her seat. So between her squirming and screaming, I had failed to notice the two men who had just stepped out of the alley behind us. They were walking straight toward us, hoods drawn over their faces, hands jammed into their pockets.

Thomas did see them, though.

“Dad!” he hissed, suddenly scared. The men were getting closer.

I got one of the baby’s arms into a restraint, but she was kicking me now and I was losing my grip on her.

“Dad, turn around!” Thomas said sharply. I heard him, but only as background chatter, not registering the alarm his voice betrayed. The men were maybe a dozen steps away, trotting now, picking up speed.

The Brownie noticed them, too. “Daddy--" she said, and since she was sitting in the seat next to the Éclair, I could hear her. But even as she spoke, the Brownie was moving to the safety of the back row of the van. From there, she called out, “Come here! Come here!”

“I’ll get in in a second!” I snapped, not really hearing the tone in her voice either. I was still too focused on wrestling the baby (how could such a little person be so strong?). “Hold still, honey,” I muttered to the Eclair, as I finally snapped the harness together and secured her in her seat. My ears were ringing from her screaming.

The two men were now directly behind me, almost close enough to touch me, but I was completely oblivious to them.

Out of the corner of my eye, Thomas was tugging on something. It looked like he was yanking on his seatbelt in an agitated way. Then he finally found his voice. “DO SOMETHING!” he bellowed, his voice as loud and commanding as I’ve ever heard it.

“Wha--?” I asked, finally turning my attention to my surroundings.

I may have been late in responding to my kids, but I have to say: It was a good thing I looked up when I did.

Otherwise, I would have missed seeing the moment when all hell broke loose...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


In Which We Shop Til I Drop...

“So...that’s called an escalator, which is basically a moving staircase. I’ve been told they’re perfectly safe, and the idea that people can get sucked into them and die is pretty much an urban legend. Just the same, you won’t be going on one for a while.”

I said this over the howling protests of the Éclair, who I found about 19 inches from the bottom of the escalator that ran from the airport lobby up to the security checkpoint. She clearly was fascinated with the thing and was psyching herself to ride it when I caught her. Now she was cursing me in her peculiar baby language as I carried her fireman-style over my shoulder (her head and arms outstretched behind me, screaming bloody murder, if you can picture the scene) out of the airport and back to the car.

She pouted and crabbed as we got on the highway and headed back toward home, but then she settled down and simply started saying one nonsense word, over and over. I finally realized she was trying to say “escalator,” but only the last syllables were coming out, so she was saying something like, “Lalayta. Lalayta.”

“It’s es-ca-lay-tor,” I called back to her. “Only four syllables, just like your name.”

“Name?” I heard her query.

“Sure. Elizabeth. You can say your name, can’t you?” I asked, not actually knowing if she could or not. Good God, I really did need to be alone with my children more often.

We drove the next few miles with the Éclair trying to say her name, but failing. But it was a calming activity, thank goodness. In fact, the baby was so serene I decided to risk taking her to her Friday morning Music Together class which, if you’ve never heard of it, is basically a music class for little kids (and their tone-deaf parents) who all have to sit in a circle and warble a bunch of saccharine songs. When I got to the hall where the class was held, I made a big deal of it to the baby. In hindsight, I was probably overselling it--to me it was an event, but to her it’s something she does every week. So when I got her out of her seat and she had a chance to look around and see where she was, she turned to me and said, “No music. Bizabet ride lalayta!” Sigh.

But then we got to class and she was in her element. And I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one she bosses around. During a lull in the music, the Éclair marched over to two windows on the far side of the room. A little boy--little, but much bigger than the Éclair--was standing in front of one, looking out. The Éclair went straight for him and gave him a shove. The little boy turned to look at her.

“My winnow!” she howled. The boy blinked at the fury of the little empress, but a moment later, he moved over to the other window.

Bad idea. The Éclair started yelling, “No! No! No!” and, keeping one hand on the sill in front of her (to establish total possession, of course), she shouted at the little boy and began waving her free arm at him in a terrific frenzy, like an aircraft carrier crewman waving a fighter jet off.

I finally shambled over and grabbed her, then apologized to the boy.

“It’s okay,” he says. “She does stuff like that all the time.”

Oh great. My baby has a reputation, I thought.

But the rest of the class was uneventful, thank you God, and we headed out to the car. It was pretty cold, so as soon as I opened the doors, I put my key in the ignition and started the engine, figuring it could warm the place up while I buckled the Éclair into her seat, a feat you have to perform standing outside our minivan and leaning in to the passenger area where the baby seat is secured.

So there I am, leaning in through the sliding door and buckling the baby in, when a voice says, right behind me, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?”

I jumped so high I smashed my head on the top of the door. I whirled around and there was one of the mommies from class. She looked furious, but alarmed too.

“You don’t start your car and then get out to buckle the baby! Haven’t you heard about the car-jackings going on?” she shrieked in my face.

I gave the woman a few moments of my patented deer-in-the-headlights look, then I said, “But I’m right here.”

The alarmist mommy was shaking her head. “It only takes a couple of seconds for a carjacker to jump in the driver’s side and take off. They’d leave you in the lot and take your baby with them!”

I just smiled sheepishly and thanked her for butting her nose into my life, then got in the van and drove off, thinking dark thoughts. I had already heard about the car-jackers who were reputed to be on the rise in our area, and I had thus far resisted the temptation to worry about it, figuring I could find plenty of real things to worry about this weekend while my wife was gone.

Still, I guess the mommy had a point. I suppose it was stupid to have the car running while I was outside of it. I resolved not to do that again. Especially with any mommies around.

It was still early in the day and since I was out and about and the Empress wasn’t screaming about her missed escalator opportunity, I decided to try and do a little early Christmas shopping. Her Lovely Self has been complaining about her lack of a winter wardrobe and I haven’t bought her a decent sweater in 10 years, so on impulse I swung into our local Kohl’s department store. I had only visited the store once before, on my hunt with the Brownie to find Ahsoka Tano, the elusive Star Wars action figure Thomas wanted for his birthday. At the time, I noticed they had some nice sweaters in colors my wife liked, so we parked and I carried the Éclair in.

It was almost an unmitigated disaster.

While I was looking for some kind of cart to put my toddler in, the Éclair bolted into a warren of shirt racks. I literally had to crawl on my hands and knees to locate her.

How can someone with such short legs be so freakin’ fast? I wondered, as I ran to intercept her. By the time I got to where I thought she was, she was already several yards ahead of me, running from department to department. I finally caught up with her just shy of the store’s small toy department. In the time since I had been here, the store employees had acquired a lot more merchandise, evidently expecting a holiday rush. Here was a boxed stack of plastic scooters. To my right, a tower of interactive globes of the world. We were surrounded by walls of teetering toys.

“Yizabeth want ball!” the Empress said, pointing at the globes, having evidently recognized in miniature the entirety of her domain. I grabbed her and picked her up in one swoop, but she was already lunging for a globe and brushed one. It was a box on a lower tier of the tower, of course, and when it fell, so did all the worlds in that multiverse. The crash was spectacular, and it activated the demo mode on every single one of the damn things, so that for the next three minutes, I was treated to an out-of-sync chorus of chirpy voice shrilling, “Welcome to the World of Learning!” Welcome, indeed.

I tried to restack the globes and keep an eye on the Éclair, who was now moving from aisle to aisle in the toy section, oohing and ahhing as she went. A store employee came over and thanked me for my pitiful efforts at retail display, but made it pretty clear she wanted me to move on and let her do her job. So I backed away, apologizing all the while, and trotted to the next aisle to catch my daughter.

She was in the aisle of Star Wars figures, where the Brownie and I had been just a few weeks earlier. Only the Éclair wasn’t looking for any specific figure. She wanted all of them, and began pulling them off the pegs and handing them to me. I kept putting them back, but she was actually faster and in short order a small pile of action figures was growing around me. I was beginning to feel a bit like Gulliver in Lilliput.

And then I looked at one of the figures and realized I had never seen it before. I glanced around and at the end of the aisle I noticed an empty box marked as having contained the latest wave of Clone Wars figures. I looked at the back of the package I was holding, trying to see if any of the proverbial Other Figures Sold Separately might be something Thomas wanted. There were about five or six, all of them ones I recognized from the Clone Wars cartoon, and I was pretty sure Thomas didn’t have them. So, with the Éclair still assisting me, I looked for the other five or six and got them all, figuring if I was wrong and Thomas had them, he could always return them for something else. Suddenly my Christmas shopping, for Thomas anyway, was complete.

Now I was following the Éclair down another aisle (only this time I was juggling a load of action figures. Why, oh why hadn’t she waited for me to get a cart?). This aisle contained toys for babies and toddlers and the Éclair was utterly captivated. As she made cooing noises over a simple box of blocks, I realized with more than a little parent guilt that my youngest child had very few age-appropriate toys, and what few she had were whatever hand-me-downs had survived her brother and sister. No wonder she had gone ga-ga for the Star Wars toys; they were typical of the kinds of toys she was exposed to. Stuff that was too old for her, in other words.

The Éclair settled on a box of stackable cups. With a great effort, she pulled it off the shelf and looked at me.

“Daddy get?” the Empress asked.

We made quite a sight at the checkout, me with a stack of figures under one arm, a baby in the other, with the baby holding a box large enough to obscure her head. I set everything on the cash register conveyor belt--including the Éclair, so she briefly got an escalatoresque ride after all. I totally forgot about getting a sweater for Her Lovely Self.

“Ready for lunch?” I asked as we stepped out of the store, baby in one arm, giant bag of purchases over my shoulder.

“Lunch! Lunch! Lunch! Lunch! Lilbeth wants it!” she hooted and smiled at me and I remembered why I loved her.

“Well, what L’ilbeth wants, L’ilbeth gets,” I answered back, heading into the parking lot to find our van.

But I couldn’t at first.

Not with all those police cars out there in the lot...

Monday, November 17, 2008


In Which We Are Working for the Weekend...

“Well, you just have a great time, and don’t worry about us!” I exclaimed, kissing my wife.

Her Lovely Self sagged for a moment. “Now why did you have to go and say that?” she asked.

My wife is not a terribly superstitious person, but she’s lived with me long enough to see how easily I manage to jinx myself with such statements. And if with my parting words I managed to give myself a massive karmic whammy this weekend, she wouldn’t be around to pick me up: We were at the airport and I was putting her on a shuttle to the Big City, where she was going to meet up with her sisters and have a girls-only, no-kids, responsibility-free weekend.

I would be having the exact opposite.

But I had spent the whole week psyching myself up. I was excited, ready to meet the challenge of watching all three kids, something I try to do regularly anyway. It’s never been lost on me that my wife, who left her career as manager of an environmental communications office in order to be home for our kids, has by far the harder of our two jobs. On weekends, I regularly hold down the fort while she goes off for some alone time. But here it was, early Friday morning, and she wouldn’t be back for 60 hours. That was 10 times longer than she’d ever left me alone with Art Lad, the Brownie, and the Éclair before, with only Blaze the dog as my backup. Granted, I really wasn’t worried about handling Thomas and the Brownie--neither was my wife. At 10 and 7, they need very little from me, except hot food, money, and regular comic relief.

The Éclair, though, was another story.

At 18 months, my littlest daughter now holds the record as youngest, self-appointed Empress of Everything, Especially You, Daddy. The Brownie occasionally calls her “the Queen Baby,” with a sense of irony and humor that she can afford because she doesn’t have to convince the kid to eat the yogurt, to please not drink the liquid soap, to lie still for diaper-based poop remediation. I, meanwhile, am helpless in the imperious gaze of Her Minuscule Highness. And everyone knows it.

The Empress in question was, at that moment, locked on my hip like a howler monkey, legs clamped around my midriff, arms Velcroed to my neck. The Eclair looked at her mother, standing there with her overnight bag and her boarding pass and her face betrayed no emotion. She put her hand up and waved. “Bye!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. She’d been doing this since about 6 that morning, ever since I’d mentioned that Mommy was going away for a while. It seemed to me that the Éclair couldn’t wait. I suspect that this hurt my wife’s feelings a little. She says the baby has been going through a daddy-obsession phase. I don't think it's that so much as the fact that the Éclair has correctly identified the weak link in the chain of command and knows who in the house is most likely to eventually succumb in a battle of wills over, say, whether to have oatmeal or M&Ms for breakfast (incidentally, I now mix the M&Ms into the oatmeal. Go, compromise!)

“You sure you’ll be fine?” my wife asked. “I know how you can get.”

“What? Me? Get how? I’ll be fine. I’m not going to let her totally run roughshod over me,” I answered. Just then, Her Lovely Self gave A Look, and I felt compelled to offer some proof so, over the baby’s instantly shrill protest, I set her down and nudged her towards a small children’s activity center, right near the escalators to the security check-in. The Éclair made a few attempts to get me to pick her back up, but then she saw that the activity center had a tiny slide, and at my prodding, she toddled over to have a go on it.

“See?” I said, turning back to my wife. “Seriously, we’re going to have a great time. I’ll take the baby shopping with me while I run a few errands, get home in time to feed her, get her down for a nap, be there when the kids get off the bus, make dinner, get everyone bathed--“

My wife interrupted me. “You don’t have to repeat my day back to me. I just don’t want you freaking out about crazy stuff, like gas leaks or other things.”

I made a face. A few weeks ago, I had spent a little time--certainly no more than three hours--on my hands and knees, in the basement, with a flashlight, trying to suss out the source of a mysterious but telltale odor of escaping gas. It turned out to be a dead mouse giving off a faintly methane-like odor, but still. At the time, I might have made some slightly alarmist remarks about the house blowing up.

“Gas leaks are nothing to poo-poo, you know. My friend Lisa’s grandmother’s, um, grandmother, died in a gas explosion,” I said sternly.

My wife threw up her hands. “That was in the 1800s!”

"But--" I stopped myself. “Anyway, it’s over and done with.”

“Yeah, but you blow things out of proportion. Like that whole thing with the carjackers.”

Oh boy. A night or two ago, I simply remarked that reliable sources at work had told me there was a rash of carjackings in town, which was unusual in and of itself, but rumor had it that the carjackers were now moving into the suburbs and targeting unsuspecting mommies running errands or doing their Christmas shopping early. I wasn’t worried about it; I was just telling her something I heard.

Now, Her Lovely Self had a point: ordinarily, if I was about to be faced with the idea of taking care of my kids alone for the weekend, I might start to catastrophize about potential dangers that might have the slightest, most remote chance of affecting me and the safety of my family--it’s a thing I inherited from my mom. But as I said, I had been psyching myself up all week. This was going to be a good weekend for everybody. We were all going to have a great time. There would be no carjackers, not even in my imagination.

I said--well, promised--as much to my wife, gave her one last reassuring kiss, then turned her around and gave her a gentle shove-off towards the escalators.

And, all too predictably, turned back to find the Éclair had vanished entirely from the airport waiting area.

So began my weekend...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


In Which We Do Our Duty...

So I voted today.

Where I live, the volunteers who run the polls are kind of intimidating. Scary, really. They’re very crisp and businesslike and actually a little strict, reminding me of a succession of grammar school teachers I had. But some of them are not the nicest people. Nor the smartest, come to that.

Last election, I was running a little late on the morning of voting day. I barely had time to run through the shower and throw on some clothes. I didn’t have time to eat anything or even swig a cup of coffee, which was a mistake. I’m not the biggest eater of breakfasts, but I do have to eat something first thing in the morning--even it’s just a granola bar or a handful of raisins or something. Because if I don’t, I find that, about an hour after waking, I tend to feel a little ill.

So there I was, standing in line at the polls, and the wooziness set in hard. My knees started to wobble and the room went a little gray.

“Are you all right?” the woman in line behind me asked. “You just went totally pale, like all the blood just dropped out of you.” I felt like it too. I shook my head to try and clear the cobwebs a little. It wasn’t working.

“I’m okay,” I muttered to the woman behind me. “I just ran out without eating and now I’m wishing I had.”

The woman opened her mouth to say something, but just then we were interrupted by another woman, a volunteer at the desk near the door who had overheard us. She was busy putting on a jacket and scarf--apparently going off shift--but she was willing to delay her departure to give me a once-over.

“You know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” she snapped, reminding me of Mrs. Dodge, my kindergarten teacher, who used to say the same thing to her class. The woman behind me nodded in assent.

“I know,” I responded weakly. “I’ll get something after I vote.”

But the lady wouldn’t hear of it. “Wait right there,” she said, and then walked about four people ahead of me to a folding table that was situated well away from the line of voters. It was full of plates and napkins, as well as a big box of donuts and a coffee urn, goodies someone had brought in for the volunteers. The lady grabbed a random donut from the box--it happened to be covered with a rainbow of sprinkles--and poured a cup of black coffee. She brought both to me and commanded me to eat the donut.

“But these are for the volunteers,” I began.

“Well, that donut’s mine, then. I’m just not going to eat it, so you can have it,” she said sternly, hands on hips, waiting for me to take a bite. So I took a bite. “’Fank ‘oo,” I said, dribbling crumbs. “Oh God,” the woman in line behind me muttered, her head in her hands. The volunteer simply nodded and, with a swoop of her scarf, departed the polling place.

The line started to move very quickly after that, so that I was now moving past a long row of volunteers who were handing us our ballots. I tucked mine under my arm and continued to eat my donut. As I finished the last bite, I noticed another volunteer--a puckery old lady who put me in mind of my 8th grade teacher, a terror known as Mrs. Moore. She was glaring at me with undisguised loathing. I swallowed the last of my donut and smiled at her, but she just stared back. I self-consciously wiped crumbs and sprinkles from my lips and then became very interested in my ballot, so as to avoid her gaze. A moment later, a voting booth opened up and I gratefully went into it.

It was a proper booth, just about the size of a phone booth, only instead of a door, it had a curtain that you pulled shut for privacy. I did that, set my ballot on the desk in front of me and began looking it over.

As I was filling in ovals on the paper, I became aware of a somewhat shrill voice outside the booth. It was the Mrs. Moore lookalike, sitting at her place a few feet away from me, and bitching to another volunteer. About me, as it turned out.

“Can you believe the nerve of that man?” I heard her exclaim. “He stole one of the donuts from the volunteer’s hospitality table! Who does he think he is?”

I heard someone else--another volunteer, no doubt--muttering something in reply.

“No, I didn’t see him. But he was eating the rainbow-sprinkle one. I saw it in the box when I came in--and you know how much I love those rainbow-sprinkle ones. And this man just came along and ate it!”

I was finished voting, but for some reason, I didn’t want to step out of that booth. I could imagine a whole gauntlet of volunteers waiting for me, ready to beat me to a pulp, or perhaps stick a finger down my throat and force me to give up my unauthorized donut.

Eventually, though, I summoned the nerve and when I stepped out of the booth, I was surprised and relieved to see that no one was glaring at me. No, not even Mrs. Moore, who was just an arm’s length away, still bitching to her fellow volunteer.

“Poured himself a cup of coffee too. I can’t believe it!” she screeched.

I stepped over, my hand in my back pocket.

“Ma’am I am so sorry I ate your donut,” I said. I was totally contrite and sincere when I said it, but it didn’t matter. As soon as I spoke, the old lady squawked and whirled in her seat to look at me, her mouth an O of surprise. The volunteer she’d been speaking to and the people waiting in line--who had certainly overheard her--all began laughing.

I opened my wallet. “The volunteer by the door gave me the donut when she saw that I hadn’t eaten and was feeling woozy. She insisted I take it. I didn’t know you had dibs on the one I ate, so here,” I handed her two dollars. “You get yourself some rainbow sprinkled donuts on me.”

This caused more laughter as the old lady looked from me to the voting booth and back to me again.

I nodded. “Yeah, I was standing three feet from you in that booth right there. Only a curtain. Heard every word.” I pressed the money on her. “Please take this.”

“Oh! Oh no, no! That’s all right. If-if someone gave you--“ she answered, backpedaling like crazy.

“No, I insist,” I continued. “You have a hard enough job without people stealing your donuts.”

I really was trying to be nice, but the laughter around us only continued. A camera crew by the door was taking an interest--oh great, we were going to be on the news! In the end, I just dropped the money on the table and got out of there.

The woman who’d been in line behind me was outside, standing at the curb.

“That’s the last time I go to vote with you,” she said. “If you EVER tell this story to anyone, don’t include me in it as your wife. I don’t want any part of it.”

“Okay,” I said meekly, and followed her to the car.

So this year, as you can imagine, I was a little nervous about going to my polling place, for fear the same old lady whose donut I ate would be lying in wait for me. She wasn’t, but the other lady--the one at the door who’d helped me in the first place--was there, at her usual post.

“Good morning,” she said as I walked in.

“Morning,” I replied, then hefted the box I’d carried in and handed it to her. “Just brought a few donuts for you volunteers,” I said then leaned in conspiratorially. “I made sure there are plenty of rainbow-sprinkle ones in there,” I whispered.

Then I went off to vote.

And if you’re reading this today, and you’re an American, and you’re of age, I hope you all go off to vote too.

You don’t even have to go bearing donuts. You just have to go.

Happy Election Day.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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