Friday, February 29, 2008

 

In Which We Become An Old Boy...



Sorry, sorry. I wasn't so stupid as to commit to blogging every other day again, but I did think I'd post a little sooner this week.

I have a good excuse for my tardiness, though. For one thing, our current issue is shipping this week (I just sent my last story a few minutes ago), and shipping week is always crazy, even if you're in the office every day, which I wasn't.

No, I got up early Monday morning and hauled myself to the airport where, after some worrying delays and thinking I'd never make my connections, I actually made them all and by lunchtime, I found myself a thousand miles from home, standing on the pretty, snow-strewn quadrangle of my college alma mater. I hadn't stood in this spot in almost 20 years, but I was perfectly oriented.

Here in front of me stood the campus chapel. I was only ever in here twice--once to tape a scene from the half-assed adventure series my roommate and I used to produce for our own private amusement. The other time was as part of a vigil after finding out that 35 of my classmates--two of whom I actually knew and had taken classes with--had been flying home from a semester in London--the same program I'd been in only a year before--and been blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb and had fallen to earth at a place called Lockerbie, Scotland.

To my left, and one building over, was the school physical education building, and the narrow room where I studied fencing for two semesters (right downstairs from the larger gymnasium where I studied karate--and perfected my Drunken Booger style of fighting--for another two years).

To my right, the massive stone edifice of the Arts & Sciences building, one of the first buildings on campus, and the place where I studied for my undergraduate degree in English. It was here that I brushed up against such luminaries as the great short-story master, Tobias Wolff, who never let me into his creative-writing classes, despite my numerous attempts to submit short stories to win his approval. Eventually I snuck into class, not caring about a grade, just wanting to benefit from the man's wisdom. But it was a small group and I was eventually found out and the moment that I was was just as embarrassing as anything you might read in, say, a college short story.

Behind me, the arts building where I bumped into two of my heroes, both on campus temporarily--either as part of a speaker's bureau event or to guest-lecture in a class.

One was the great Batman artist Dick Giordano, who was I surprised to realize was hearing impaired. It explained why he kept calling me "Kevin Dooley," although that is patently not my real name. Nor does it even sound like my real name, but it must look like it, since Dick was reading my lips when I introduced myself. A very nice man.

The other was the late Monty Python alum Graham Chapman, who delivered a hilarious talk when I saw him later, but who at that moment simply snarled at me for having the temerity to block his path. He would be dead of cancer in little over a year, so perhaps he wasn't feeling well then. Either way, I've long since forgiven him for his rudeness.

And now here I was, on campus for similar reasons. I turned and strode off the quad, heading down the hill to the squat, square communications center, where I earned my other undergraduate degree, one in magazine writing. Here, in a little over 24 hours, after a little less than 20 years, I'd be delivering a guest lecture of my own. I was going to talk about what life was like as a Magazine Man...


Friday, February 22, 2008

 

In Which We Are Bazed and Confused...



One more thing to add to my list of the nothing much that I'm doing: testing toys.

My earliest professional experience revolved around reviewing products--I was a field tester for Outside and man, that was a lot of fun. Over the years, I've tested gear and reviewed books and movies for a variety of magazines and newspapers, and one time I came this close to taking a job as the equipment editor at Men's Journal. I'm glad I didn't take it in the end--it's one thing to try out gadgets and write about them every so often; quite another to sing that song every day for your supper.

As some keen-eyed readers out there already know, I handle the Christmas Toy Guide here at the Really Big Magazine and that's about as regular a gig as I want to make of product testing. That one's fun because it's a family affair--Art Lad and the Brownie are my senior toy testers (their cousins and friends also pitch in to help, and my, what a sacrifice it is for everyone). There are other incentives too. While the kids certainly don't get to keep the toys, this past year they did spend a couple of days getting paid as models for the story's photo shoot. Several of you wrote in over the holidays to say you spotted them in our December issue.

But all of you apparently missed Blaze's cameo appearance:


gg1


Here's a hint:


ggbl


Well, it's not Christmas anymore, but in magazine time, it's almost June, and so now I'm assembling our top picks for a new Father's Day Gift Guide. This week I'm mostly testing cameras--still cameras with video function and vice versa. And as I was noodling around with this particular model, I remembered a few folks asking for fresher images of the Eclair, so here she is, along with her best buddy and unshakeable shadow. It's just a little slice-of-life moment, but I think it totally captures what goes on with these two, all day, every day: He's never far from her, he never misses a chance to have a taste, and she never fails to smile when he's around. And now, just lately (if you listen very closely), you'll hear that she never fails to say his name.

Or at least try to.





Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to finish up with these cameras and move on to video games. Guitar Hero and about 10 other titles are waiting for me to try them before the end of the week.

This job, I tell you, it's killing me...


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, February 21, 2008

 

In Which I Reside in a State of February...



Well, that's problem with getting out of the habit of doing something, isn't it? Once you stop doing it, you, er, stop doing it even more, and then where are you? Why, you're in February, where nothing much ever happens. And that's my life right now: February.

I wish I could give you a good accounting of myself since last year, but I'm afraid I've been up to not very much. Well, not very much that you would find interesting. I seem to have entered a phase of life best characterized by a total lack of setting myself on fire with a snowblower, or re-enacting Third World torture methods in the middle of an editorial brainstorming meeting. As proof, a brief catalog of my activities of late:

Feeding the baby: Since none of my mammary glands--not even the extra one--is capable of lactation, I always welcome the inevitable point when the baby of the moment decides that solid food RULES!, and proceeds to revel in it--not necessarily actually eat it, understand, but just revel in it. Apples and blueberries are a particular favorite. For me, I mean. When it comes to baby food, I think the Éclair enjoys sweet potatoes the most, but I enjoy feeding her apples and blueberries the most, because that's the puckeriest food she can eat, and watching her screw up her face and make thoughtful smacking noises just gives me no end of delight.

We all have our favorite foods to feed the baby. The Brownie likes giving her small, gummable pieces of cereal (and the occasional unidentified suspicious food that leaves telltale chocolate marks around both their mouths). Thomas makes such a ritual of feeding his baby sister Ritz Crackers that I think he might have a future as a priest. When he removes the trademark red-and-gold box from the pantry, he starts with this echoing, angelic chanting ("Ahhhh-ahhhh-AHHHHH-Ahhhhh-aH-Ahhhhhhhh") and walks solemnly toward her, as if he had altar boys waving incense behind him, while the Éclair hitches half up out of her high chair and begins screaming "Ra-ra! RA-RAAAAAAA!!" (her word for "Ritz Crackers") Blaze occasionally brings her one of his disgusting dried pigs-ear chewy snacks (a Christmas gift from Uncle BB). I won't tell you how many times we've rounded a corner to find her sitting in the middle of the floor, gnawing contentedly on one, and in return, she brushes all manner of food down onto him (including, once, my entire supper, plate and all) . It's a joyous time, generally. At least until the Éclair gets a distant look in her eyes and her face takes on a decidedly strained cast--think Uri Geller bending spoons, and you've got it--and suddenly we're arguing about whose turn it is to change the impending diaper of doom.

One word--Pokemon: Thomas and the Brownie are both surgically grafted to their Nintendo DS games, and a year or so ago, when Nintendo's PR person (who loves my kids) sent them a package, it contained the new Pokemon Diamond and Pearl games, as well as an assortment of Pokemon figures, a DVD of the cartoon, and about a dozen packs of Pokemon cards. Her Lovely Self took one look at these and made a face: After seeing the quavering stacks of these cards in a neighbor kid's room, and spotting their $3.99 per-pack price tag at the store, HLS announced she'd sooner have our kids buying crack than Pokemon cards.

But one thing led to another: The further Thomas and the Brownie got in their video games, the more of these clever little creatures they saw and learned about. Thomas in particular was impressed with the artwork in both the game and in the few cards he'd been sent. So it was that on his last birthday, after getting his traditional gift of 20 brand-new singles from Uncle BB, Thomas asked if he could buy anything he wanted, and when we said yes, he immediately insisted on some new packs of those damn cards. The fact that he could only buy 5 of them with his money didn't slow him down one bit, especially once he opened the second pack and found an ultra-rare Level-X card. And just like that, he was hooked.

To his credit, Thomas actually will build himself a deck and play the game with his friends or with me. His sister just hoards the cards and, when she gets a rare one, uses it to tease her brother's friends, a trait which I think bodes very ill indeed.

The truly horrifying thing is how much lore and lingo I've absorbed on the subject. I can't reliably name a single person in my wife's extended family past her aunt and uncle (although I've been to countless weddings and family reunions and had to share tables and lots of uncomfortable silences with these people). Heck, I couldn't even tell you the birthdays of my niece or nephews--even though two of them are my godchildren. But by God, I can tell you that Torchic evolves into Combusken (and in turn into Blaziken) and I know which Pokemon is the biggest (Wailord, which Thomas has. He's got about 200 hit points), and if you asked me whether the Empoleon Level X card is rarer if it's got the Poke-Power listing or the Poke-Body one, I could reliably answer you (but I won't here). I suppose it's no different than when my generation (and generations before mine) memorized stats off the backs of baseball cards, but that somehow feels like a more worthwhile pursuit, especially when you consider that baseball cards cost a quarter a pack AND you got a stick of gum with the damn things.

Writing (well, sort of): I wouldn't call it a New Year's resolution--because that's just an exercise in self-jinxing where I'm concerned--but one goal I committed myself to was finding a new agent and shopping a book proposal around this year. So I've been slowly picking away at a little something. I decided to start with modest ambitions, spinning off from my previous book-writing experience (when I wrote on topics related to men), and cleaving to what I'm immersed in right now in my world and the end result is that I'm cobbling together a quasi-memoir about my life as a Dad. I suspect I'll be able to use a few ideas that have already appeared in the blog, but mostly it would be an original work. I think there's a strong market for work like this. After all, I and other men like me represent a transitional point, the last generation who grew up with distant dads (defined not least by their enforced absence in the hospital delivery room) and who in turn expected--and by society have been expected to--play a much greater part in their children's lives than any previous generation. That alone ought to ensure a sizeable reading audience. The trick for me will be to make my experiences worth reading.

And true to form, the moment I decided on this course of action, I proceeded to do...nothing. Oh, I started researching agencies, and I pecked away at a proposal, but I have since done very little about the actual book. I wouldn't call it writer's block, per se, so much as writer's distraction. As soon as I start thinking about the book, I'm distracted by thoughts of other work in progress (well, in progress in my head). For example, I long ago promised my parents to write about my summers growing up in our small New Hampshire town, and in the wake of their deaths, the urge to tell that story has never been stronger. I've also toyed with the idea of finally writing an instructional-but-fun book about the kind of magazine writing I do, which is mostly service or how-to stories (and I find a "how to how-to" book tremendously appealing).

And of course, there's the story I promised Thomas I would write. Not long ago, I told him about my real-life boy detective adventure, and what really impressed Thomas was not that his Dad actually acted and thought like a genuine detective at the age of 11, but that he broke all these rules and still got away with it. Thinking fast, I assured him that I was simply very stupid and very lucky, and that today, if I'd been caught eavesdropping on the principal or trying to break into a school bus motor pool, they'd probably send me away to reform school. This led to a lively dinnertime argument in which Thomas insisted that I wouldn't go to reform school (or "kid jail," as he charmingly called it) because those were places for bad kids, and I was just a good kid who did one little thing wrong. He seemed to think there ought to be a reform school for good kids who did one bad thing. "You know," he said, "maybe you'd get sent to, like, a home for wayward boy detectives." Don't ask me where a 9-year-old boy living in the 21st century picks up such a Dickensian word like "wayward," but that night we started telling each other the story of a boy who gets sent to a summer school for wayward sleuths and we're in the process of imagining the kinds of friends--and enemies--he'd make, the sorts of classes he'd take, and the sinister secret he tries to uncover, even if it means breaking the law and getting sent to REAL reform school if he's caught. It's the sort of activity that keeps you busy on cold winter nights, but of course it also keeps you from your real work, as well as your friends who check in on your blog so faithfully, so perhaps I ought to drop it and get my ass in gear.

Speaking of ass in gear, my lunch break is long over, so I'd better get back to work. And I can't really work late tonight: Her Lovely Self has a class tonight so I have to be home in time to feed the baby (tonight's menu: pears and peas. Mmm!). Besides, there's a new series of Pokemon cards that just came out, and I promised Thomas we could go to the store after dinner and get some.

I know, not the most exciting life in the world.

But that's February for you.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

 

In Which I Drop the Baby...



Call me a prince of self-denial, but for most of my life, I swear to God, I would not have called myself an anxious person.

And then I had kids and the scales fell from my eyes and I realized just what a wound-up ball of nerves I really am. I spent most of the first three weeks of Thomas's life just lying awake, staring into the darkness, playing a hellish version of "What If?"

What if the baby just stops breathing?

What if the crib collapses?

What if the giant oak tree in our back yard--the one that hasn't budged in 175 years--suddenly falls over and crashes through the roof and crushes us in our beds? How long would the baby lie in his crib and scream before he was discovered?

What if his poop stops coming out?

What if he's allergic to water?

What if one of Her Lovely Self's nipples, like,
falls off, and chokes him?

What if one of mine does?



I was a walking cliché for a while there, the epitome of the overanxious new daddy who somehow thought that, by worrying about every conceivable scenario of danger that could befall his child I was, in the most bassackwards way, warding it off. What I was really doing, though, was killing off brain cells (from general racking and lack of sleep) at a rate I hadn't matched since college, and gaining 27 pounds of nervous-eating weight that I wouldn't completely shed until, oh, last Thursday.

I tried a lot of things to get back on an even keel. One of the few things that helped, crazily enough, was prayer. I remembered back in my parochial school days, we had a nun who used to tell us the best prayers were short ones--she was a big fan of "Oh sacred heart of Jesus, I place my trust in you." I thought that was a good plan, and so as a young person I had devised two prayers for my personal use, and both were models of brevity. There was the Prayer for Divine Intervention and Removal from Unpleasant Circumstance ("Jesus, get me out of this!") and the Prayer of Excellent--Or At Least Passable--Performance ("Dear God, don't let me fuck up," a prayer I later heard that astronauts use as well).

By the time Thomas arrived, I hadn't composed a prayer in a good 15 years, and I was desperate enough to try anything, so I came up with the Prayer of the Desperate Daddy ("Dear God, let all bad things happen to me instead") and it finally allowed me to close my eyes for a good two hours rest (which was about the best you could hope for back then. Thomas was a terrible sleeper).

Of course, what really helped me over this phase of life was not endless worrying, nor a concise plea to the Almighty. What helped was when something bad finally happened and Thomas actually got hurt.

Now, it wasn't really that bad, no scars or lasting neurological damage. What happened was:

I was sitting with Thomas one night in the old rocking chair that used to be in his room. I was reading to him--I read to him long before he had a clue what I was doing. I was a bit fidgety around the baby and since I couldn't breast-feed him (not that that stopped me from worrying about my nipples falling off and choking him), I settled on reading as a good activity to help me burn off my nervous energy.

We had two or three favorites, including the ubiquitous Goodnight Moon, The Little Fur Family, and The Monster At the End of This Book. This last was a personal favorite from my own childhood, in which Grover (the blue monster Muppet from Sesame Street) spends the entire book warning readers that there is, as the title vaguely hints, a monster at the end. In growing desperation, Grover begins bricking up and roping off pages, in a vain effort to keep readers from reaching the last page, only to realize that--duh--the monster at the end is none other than Grover himself. I enjoyed the book as a child--it's a wonderfully inventive premise (which the artist has plenty of fun with)--and the urge to defeat Grover's increasingly anxious machinations, never mind getting a look at this monster that's got him so freaked out, is nigh irresistible.

Thomas was just old enough to start responding to colors then, and I think he enjoyed seeing Grover's shaggy, blue-furred self running from page to page, trying to keep us witless readers from plodding on toward the monster at the end. Of the three books I regularly read, this one certainly caused him to be the most animated. When I read, I would hold my son up so we could look at the book together, cheek to cheek. And when I would do the Grover voice, begging the reader to "Puhleeeeze" stop reading, Thomas would squeal and hoot and then rear back to regard me in that joyfully incredulous way babies do. If you've spent any time around a baby, you know the look I mean--at first it seems like they're just checking to make sure you're still there, but there's something in their eyes that allows you to delude yourself that what they're really thinking is, How cool is this guy? That was the look Thomas would give me, before giving me a gummy smile and letting his soft little face fall back against my cheek.

Except, this one night, as I was reading, Thomas leaned back to look at me, and I turned to look at him. He gave me the gummy smile. I grinned back and, instead of turning back to the book, as I always did, I let my expression hang for a second longer, mouth slightly open, grinning like a mad fool, thinking about just how much I loved this child.

But babies are creatures of routine. And as far as Thomas--and his little neck muscles--were concerned, the routine at this point consisted of him letting his head fall forward so he could press his nose and mouth against my cheek and neck--which at that juncture should have been all he was contacting, since I was supposed to have turned my attention back to the book. Instead, he flopped forward before I could move, and ended up mashing his soft little face against the sharp edges of my still-smiling teeth.

He had a hard little head and a good bit of momentum, I remember that. He had only one tooth in his own head at that time, but it was more than enough to cut the inside of his mouth when he hit, while my teeth cut his delicate little lip. And there was plenty of blood, let me tell you--in his mouth, on his face, on my face. But it wasn't the blood that I remember most.

What I remember most was that look of pain and betrayal he fixed me with, as he proceeded to scream his little head off.

At first, I was in a blind panic, all hugs and desperate whispers ("Daddy didn't mean it! Daddy didn't mean it!"), and then I was searching for any kind of burp cloth or paper towel to staunch the blood, settling on the interior of a clean, unused diaper (they absorb a lot more than pee, it turns out). But as I sat there rocking, trying to comfort my whimpering child and dabbing at his mouth with an inside-out pair of Pampers, I saw for the first time that, Jesus, no wonder I liked The Monster At the End of This Book I mean, after all, I was Grover, that poor shaggy blue bastard. Wasn't my life like that book, and wasn't my child like the reader, and wasn't I Grover, running myself ragged trying to keep some distance between the monster--the great unknown menace--and my loved ones? And in the end, wasn't I the monster at the end of the book, a self-perpetuating source of anxiety and worry? It's not often you find an epiphany in the form of a Sesame Street character, but I was grateful for it, and for the way that realization put my life in perspective, at least for the moment.

I was also, I must admit, relieved that the other shoe had finally dropped. Understand, I certainly didn't wish harm to my child, but there was a kind of catharsis in seeing that something could happen to the baby, and it wasn't necessarily the end of the world (although, I must admit, you would have been hard-pressed to convince the baby's mother of that fact, when she arrived on the scene a few minutes later and beheld her bloody-mouthed husband apparently in the act of trying to smother their child with a diaper, but never mind about that now).

Ever since, with each child I've had, I've always found myself the same way: wound like a spring for the first several weeks or months, waiting for that shoe to drop, worrying about some unlikely peril or other, and then breathing an illicit little sigh of relief when something (never something too bad) finally happens. With the Brownie, it wasn't a shoe, it was the baby herself, and it was the result of some quite spectacular negligence: I was going down some stairs off the back porch and, instead of taking her out of the stroller and holding her with one arm while I eased the pram down the steps, I just snugged the safety belt around her and tilted the carriage on down the steps, not realizing that the Brownie was way too small for that belt, not realizing that she slid right out of it--not just out of the belt but out of the front of the stroller too. She plopped out onto the steps, and since I was back up at the top of the porch holding onto the handle from the rear, I didn't even realize it until I rolled the stroller right over her. And when I saw her little eyes blinking up at me from the ground in what can only be called mild surprise, my first thought was--well, my first thought was Oh Jesus, sweet Jesus, what have I done?!? But my second or third thought, after I snatched her up from the ground and realized that she was completely unharmed (had not even so much as uttered a single cry, that's how tough she was), was Well, there, that's over and done with. With the catastrophe come and gone, I could now get down to the business of enjoying life as their Daddy. Clumsy, clueless, hopeless Daddy, but Daddy nonetheless.

This weekend, Thomas and I were sitting on a bed we set up in the basement--it's the Brownie's old bed and it served us well as a guest bed when my Big Brother came to visit over Christmas. We were watching a TV I had only recently mounted up near the ceiling, so our attention was turned slightly up and away from what we both should have been watching--namely the Éclair, who was sitting between us, gabbling to herself as she juggled her blocks and waggled an assortment of linky monkeys.

And then she was just gone.

Now, I hadn't been completely oblivious. Out of the corner of my eye, I had been watching her. And I could see the back of her little head as it bobbed over her toys. But then, in a blink, her head dipped down, followed by the briefest flash of baby butt, the quickest fluttery kick of legs, and then she simply vanished.

!!!

I still can't quite grasp the physics of it. We were all of us situated well in the middle of the bed, far from the edge, so I can't figure out how she managed to fall off the edge--or really even get near it--with such abruptness. But she did, and evidently with enough of a time lag that she realized (even if we didn't) what was happening to her, because she had a moment to utter a brief and horrifying squawk as she disappeared.

Thomas's squawk was much louder, and filled with exponentially more alarm. "The baby fell!" he shrieked, as we both lunged, far, far too late, for the end of the bed.

It seemed to take forever to get my head over the end of that bed. My mind raced far faster.

Daddy didn't mean it! Daddy didn't mean it! I thought.

Oh Jesus, sweet Jesus, what have I done?!? I thought.

After the year I've had, I was certain my luck had gone from worse to abysmal. I had already constructed in my mind what I would see--blood, brains, disaster.

Which explains why, at first, I couldn't make sense of what I was looking at.

Mostly there was lots of dark color. Then a pair of reproachful eyes stared up at me, too wide and black to be those of a happy, healthy baby.

And then I heard the giggling and looked away from those eyes, down at my baby, who had two tiny fists clutched full of fur as she clung to Blaze's big, soft side, where she had just landed. Blaze continued to glare at me as he ever-so gradually shifted himself so the baby could slide down to a nestled spot between his paws. The Éclair looked up at us, eyebrows waggling as if to say, "Was that a great trick, or what?" Then she looked at the dog. "Baze!" she hooted, grabbing at his nose. He thumped his tail indulgently, fixed us once more with a baleful look, then lay back down to continue his nap.

As before, I felt relief, but I have to admit that my sense of guilt has lingered longer than usual. Because the incident, however well it ended, served only to remind me that the Éclair isn't the only baby I've dropped or let fall.

Over the past several weeks, I've neglected the blog--and consequently, all of you--to a degree that should be earning me baleful looks from more than my dog. But instead of taking me to task for my neglect, you've all simply been kindness itself, leaving concerned comments or dropping me gentle e-mails, wondering if everything--and everyone--is all right.

Well it is, and they are. I promise I'll be back--and this week, too--to tell you more about it.

After all, if you really want to see the monster at the end of this book, who am I to keep you from turning the pages?

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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