Wednesday, April 30, 2008

 

In Which We Count to 7...


Dear God, I can't leave such a depressing post up for that long, can I? All I can say is, thank God the Brownie had the foresight to be born today, so I'd have something fun to talk about.

I wish I had pictures to show you, but birthdays at the Magazine Mansion start so early that the only way we get images of the opening ceremonies is if there's a grandparent in the house or the dog spontaneously develops opposable thumbs. Although that's really not fair to Blaze. I mean, I have opposable thumbs, but at 5:46 in the morning I just do not have the wherewithal to handle anything more technologically advanced than the flush handle on the toilet, so who am I to talk?

And 5:46 is when the Brownie woke up. In her youth, she was such a slug-a-bed, but six years of living with her brother, Captain Early Bird, Master of the Dawn Patrol, has reset her internal clock.

"La la! I'm seven! I'm seven! This is my 7-year-old soooonnnng!" she sang down the hallway, as she came to wake me up. And in the second and a half it took her to reach me, I summoned whatever will and memory I had at that hour and reminded myself what birthdays were like when I was a kid.

If I have a parenting secret, sports fans, this is it: my ability to dig deep and try to bring back some scrap of what things felt like when I was their age. It isn't easy, certainly not as easy as it used to be. I have a better time of it with Thomas, probably because he's a boy, but also because he's just a lot like I was, growing up. The Brownie, though, is something else. I did not have her quiet confidence, her calculating mind. I thought I did, but I was just kidding myself.

Still...

I dug down. What did I remember about 7? When you're a kid, each year is distinctive, starting from the time you're even bothering to think about such things, which is usually around 4 or 5. Four is a big transitional year because you're on the cusp of graduating from toddlerhood, which means you're usually in school, and you're just about out of the accident-in-your-pants years, but you're still a bit of a baby. Five is really big because, well, it's 5. Five years, man! No way anyone can call you a baby now. Why? Because you're 5! Six is big because it's one year older than 5, and you can't believe it because you still remember what a big deal turning 5 was. For me (and for my kids, too) six was a year in which we started to use our powers, and not necessarily for good. Also, a big year for freedoms because you're out of kindergarten and riding the bus and being allowed to play with friends down the block.

What about seven?



And then I had it: Seven was the year in which I really got money. I mean, I understood that having your own was a very cool thing. No doubt this coincided with learning some rudimentary things about money in school. But it was also a year in which I was old enough to start having a discerning palate about certain things that I wanted--no more copying my Big Brother--and I realized that if your parents didn't get the hint and give it to you, you had to get it yourself. And man, there was just one way to do that.

I still remember looking at the ten-dollar bill my grandfather, Papa Jim, sent me. He always sent me money in a card, but until seven, I never really bothered with birthday cards before, I never really got that they sometimes contained some big presents in and of themselves. Typically, my parents just took the money and put it in my meager savings account, or held it in trust until we went to Zayre's in Manchester and they reminded me I had birthday money and could pick out one thing. I remember looking at that ten-dollar bill and wondering: How much were the items I'd let Mom buy for me in the past? And if they were less than 10 dollars, what exactly did Mom do with the change?

Seven, apparently, is also the year in which you first start to nudge your parents off their pedestal.

Anyway, I remember looking at that money--it really was a small fortune in 1975--and asking Mom if I could hold onto the money this time and spend it myself. She faltered for a moment, but hey, it was my birthday. How could she refuse? And so she said yes, and that afternoon we headed into Manchester to the 606 Toy Store. Back then there was no Kay-Bee or Toys R Us in New Hampshire. Toy stores were weirdly scarce in my neck of the woods--or so my parents had always led me to believe--which made the 606 a veritable mecca.

My impression of the place was as a fairly dark store with lots of stairs leading up and down. Once you opened the door, you had to go up a small flight just to get to the main sales floor. And to get to the hobby area--where my Big Brother always went to stock up on car models and tubes and tubes of hallucinogenic glue--you had to go down some steps.

I stayed on the main floor, where most of the toys were. I was a man on a mission. I was big into action figures in those days (my Mom once made the mistake of calling them "dolls" and I flipped out on her. But hey, I was only four). I had two kinds: the 12-inch GI Joes with their nigh-mythical Kung-Fu Grip and fuzzy patches of hair and beards that were weirdly satisfying to rub with your thumb; and the 8-inch figures made by the Mego company that included a stunted GI Joe knock-off known as Action Jackson. I had several of him and a multitude of his accessory outfits--the Jungle Adventure Safari Outfit, the Scuba Adventure Kit, the Nuclear Disaster Response Kit, and so on. But Mego also did a nice line of super-hero action figures. I had a Spider-Man and an Aquaman, but the prize of my collection was my Batman. He really looked just like Adam West on the reruns on TV (which was actually a selling point back then). He was also Mego's cash cow and there were a number of other figures and accessories that were part of his line.

I went in thinking I might get a Robin figure. I had fashioned for myself a makeshift Robin using one of my Action Jackson figures, an orange scuba suit cut way down to make a vest, one of my mom's yellow scarves, also cut down for a cape, and a pair of combat boots painted green for shoes. I drew on a mask with a black magic marker. But my Action Jackson/Robin composite was a letdown--and a rather disturbing one--in a couple of significant ways. For one thing, he had no pants--I couldn't make a pair of green shorts to save my life. For another, all my Action Jacksons were bearded--it was a 70s thing--and that totally ruined the effect. If you want to know the truth, it made him look like a degenerate pervert. So I thought an upgrade was in order.

The 606 Toy Store did have a Robin figure, reasonably priced at $3.49. I grabbed him, thinking I might then find a villain, like the Joker or the Riddler--I could buy two figures and still have money left over! But as I was looking, I noticed larger boxes on the shelf below me, and my heart stopped.

There on the shelf below the figures was a Batmobile. I could almost hear the theme song to the show coming out of the box. Until now, it had never occurred to me that I might be able to buy something this big. Whenever I went shopping with my parents, I was always constrained to get something small, certainly nothing as extravagant as a Batmobile. I looked at the price tag: $8.49. Nearly all my money. If I bought that, I wouldn't have anything left over for Robin. What to do?

And then my Mom came up the aisle and saw the Robin figure in my hand, and said, "Oh good boy! You're just getting the one doll?" And that clinched it. It took some serious pouting and whining of a kind I probably should not have exhibited at 7, but I got the Batmobile. And $1.51 in change.

I never did get a Robin. And so, whenever I had my half-assed Dynamic Duo roaring across the playroom in the Batmobile, it always looked as though Batman had an orange-vested, pantsless, masked, bearded child molester in the passenger seat and was bringing him to justice.

That was seven for me.



And then my second or so was up and the Brownie was in my room. "Lalala! I'm seven, seven, seven today. HOORAY!" she yelled, practically in my ear.

I hopped out of bed and gave her a hug. "You didn't open your presents yet, did you?"

"No," she said brightly, then corrected herself. "Well, just the ones from Uncle BB." Presents that come in the mail fall into a gray area as far as gifts that have to be opened in front of everyone (or even on your birthday) go and so I nodded, understanding. I also remembered something: Every year, my brother likes to do what my grandfather did, and send actual cash. BB usually sends singles, so he can get away with sending a little but having it feel like a lot. And having been seven, I knew what having money--any amount--felt like.

"So, did Uncle BB send you money?"

The Brownie lit up like I'd just said the magic word. "Oh yes! He sent me a whole stack of bucks!"

"So, I'm guessing we could go shopping?" I said, as she led me through the predawn gloom and down the stairs to the kitchen, where the presents sat.

"Sure, but not right now. You can take me later. I'm seven all day," she said.

Actually, as far as I know, she's seven all year.

Happy birthday, baby.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Sunday, April 27, 2008

 

In Which We Count Backwards...



It was late last night, and there was a piece of business in front of me to which I did not wish to attend, so I started noodling around in my email inbox and shortly found myself going through messages from a little more than a year ago. This one caught my eye.



April 23, 2007

It's us. Car is packed to the roof, hotel reservations are all made along the way and were just getting ready to head out the door to come see you. But thought we'd check messages one more time and there SHE was, our beautiful new granddaughter!!

Oh, that Elizabeth is one gorgeous kid, just like her mother (and thankfully not as fat as her father. you were 8 pounds 9 ounces and it was all around your head!)

Thank you for sending the pictures. I know we told you not to bother--after all we're going to see the real McCoy in a few days and know how busy you must be shuttling between the hospital and work and home to the Big Brother and Sister. But I have to say I'm SO glad you disobeyed your mother and sent them anyway!!

SO Beautiful. And seeing her with Thomas and Anna...just perfect. My God, Anna is growing so. She will be a great Big Sister. And Thomas, that knowing smile. The old hand. But I remember how excited he was to meet Anna when he was just 2 and a half (I was there, remember!) Hope they are not too worried about Mom. Although I know I am. I hope she is getting some rest now that the delivery is over.

Your father is in the room now yelling it is time to go...but then he saw the pictures on the screen and sat down to gaze. Going to take an extra minute to send them on to Aunt Cathy and Marianne and the gang--they will love them, but not as much as we do!

And then time to hit the road otherwise we'll never get there. REALLY Can't wait now to see that baby and all our other babies too.

Including you!

XOXOXOX
Love,
Mom




I was tired--exhausted really, not having slept much this week, between the baby's continued teething woes, a nasty head cold that had attacked me from ambush a few days ago and my general state of mind. So I was exhausted, and it was very late at night. And it was raining hard outside and thunder echoed hauntingly in the distance and an eerie light flickered occasionally through the windows from somewhere far off. So I can perhaps be forgiven for the wild flight of fancy that seized me, that gave me the briefest, most insane moment of stark raving belief, and that compelled me to finally click the "reply" button and begin to write:



Dear Mom,

I'm seeing the date stamp at the top of your message, and it's just so damn big and bold right there at the front of the email that I can't help but think that even though I'm answering it today, a year and three days later, on April 26, 2008, this message is still somehow going to reach you a few seconds after you sent your note, while you're still sitting at the computer in the corner of the living room in New Hampshire, on April 23, 2007.

In which case, the first thing I have to tell you is: Don't leave the house. Don't get in the car. Toss the keys down the well. Slash the tires. Do whatever you have to, just don't get on the road.

If you do, in 3 days' time--or exactly a year ago from where I'm writing--you and Dad will be killed while you're sitting in traffic on the Indiana Toll Road, just 9 hours from the house. You would have made it that night, you would have got to hold the baby in your arms before sundown that very day. But instead, you both died a thousand miles from home on a rainslick highway just a few minutes after checking out of one of those hotels you made a reservation at.

It was not your fault. You were hit from behind by a truck driver who was looking around the cab of his semi for his cell phone. He was doing this while driving at 62 miles an hour, and so didn't see the stopped traffic on the highway in front of him, presumably, until he hit the first car.

You and Dad were 2 of 8 people killed in the accident. I know this for a fact. I spoke to the state trooper who filed the report at the scene. I talked at length with the coroner who supervised the removal of your bodies from the wreck. BB and I went through the wreck ourselves a few weeks after the accident, but not before we buried you. Not before I had to tell the kids that Grandma and Papa had died. Not before--

Sorry. The important point here is, STAY WHERE YOU ARE. I know you're eager to come see the baby--believe me, I know. So if you get this, give me a call in the morning. I will cheerfully pay to put you on a flight out here--both of you, first class. You have no idea how much I wish you had done that in the first place. But I remember whenever we'd offer to fly you out here in the past, you'd gasp and make a big deal and tell me--as you so often did, "Oh, I hate flying. I hate not being in control. I feel much, much safer being in the car."

Please reconsider this viewpoint.

Or don't. I don't care about that, really. I just want you to call me once you get this message.

Please. Call me.

Love,
Me



Then I went to bed.

This morning I woke up and it was just another Sunday morning. I went downstairs and checked the phone--no messages. I sat down at the computer, feeling vaguely foolish. My Big Brother still keeps my mom's email account open--it was the house account. Whatever will he think when he reads that message, I wonder. But in truth, I don't really care. I turn my eye back to the business I'd been avoiding the night before.

But now I did what needed doing, answered a few questions, then sent off the order...to the memorial company in charge of engraving my parents' names and dates on a slab of granite and placing it over their grave.

With all accounts liquidated, all bills paid (these two more or less canceled each other out), the house turned over to my brother, the personal effects either donated or thrown out or divided between us, this was the last piece of business related to my parents' death, and I was reluctant to complete it.

To well and truly have it set in stone.

Why? Because I'm still just a child--their child--and some part of me still held onto the notion that this didn't really happen. And that maybe, after some magical interval of time--a day, a week, a month, six months--the spell would be undone and everything would go back to the way it was supposed to be.

But each magical interval of time came and went, and now, here it is, a year come and gone. And still I took one last chance to reach them, to get them back, and it didn't work.

They're dead, a whole year dead.

It's time to stop sending messages backward. It's time to turn around, and head the other way.

I am glad of one thing, though: that I disobeyed my Mom and sent those photos. I almost didn't--the Web connection was slow at the hospital and it took forever to send images and Mom had insisted that I not bother with it. But I'm glad I did. It turned out to be my parents' only chance to see the baby.

I just wish they'd gotten my other message, too.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

 

In Which We Are (still) Companions on the Journey...


Either we're getting older or the drive is getting longer, but we are all of us physically and emotionally drained, whupped, just plain beat, having returned last night from a visit to Ohio and the extended family. April has always been a busy time for my family--in a good way, typically--and that generally translates into a lot of parties and celebrations and, as in this case, one hell of a drive on someone's part to get there.

My nephew had his First Communion on Sunday which, as his godfather, I was compelled to attend (it's a law for Catholics, you know. The Pope called me up and told me). Truth is, I would have gone even if I weren't under papal edict. I love watching kids handle new challenges and this was a big one for young master Gregory (or "Greggy," as Thomas called him when he was a baby). Now, when I mention challenges, I'm not talking about getting up in front of a church full of people and partaking of the body and blood of our Lord, although standing front and center in front of God and everybody like that can be a bit of an intimidating event, you know.

No, in this case, I'm talking about the post-Communion party. From a kid's perspective, this has got to be the weirdest damn thing. I mean, it has all the trappings, all the vibe, all the parentally telegraphed preparatory fluster of a birthday party, right, and so you're initially excited. Who wouldn't be? I mean, your parents spent the morning laying in food, getting a cake, putting up a few streamers or balloons (if you really want to go all out). And when you get back from church, not only is there cake, but there's a stack of presents for you too.

But then you get deeper into the event and the weirdness of it gives your little brains a turn. The house is full of people, just like at a birthday party, but they're adults as well as kids (and in fact the only kids are your cousins--no friends), and they're all dressed up. And while everyone is chatting and interacting, they're all so subdued, or at least struggling to be on their best behavior. If you were a little older and had a little more experience in the world, you'd be able to put your finger on it--everyone's acting like they're at a funeral.

And when you finally sit down to open the presents, the weirdness is complete. Because the presents are nothing you'd want. At all. Ever. Sure, there are some cards, and a couple contain a check or even a savings bond, but the rest of it? It's all rosary beads and statues of the Virgin Mary, and not one but two pewter plaques with a profile of Jesus, almost like He's posing for His mug shot.

That's the part I love the most, watching a kid struggle through something so contradictory as opening religious presents. He's old enough to know he's supposed to be polite and gracious, and to look up and smile at the assembled throng that is now circling him. He knows he's supposed to look genuinely happy and to thank each person. He may even be required to offer himself up to the depredations of a grabby, overly affectionate relative--usually a female one who's a little on the plump, bosomy, lilac-scented side. But struggle though he might to be the very model of a well-mannered young man, there's something in his eyes that gives him a way, that seems to say, "What the hell's going on here?"

Luckily for my godson, I have undertaken it as my person mission to be The Cool Uncle, so when Greg sat down next to me to tuck into some well-earned cake, I did my mind-reading trick.

"So, two pewter Jesuses, huh? What's up with that?" I asked.

He looked at me with a mixture of gratitude and alarm. Gratitude at having his inner-most thoughts validated. Alarm, I guess because he was worried for one second that he might have said something aloud, instead of merely thinking it. Then he smiled. "What am I supposed to do with them?" he whispered.

"Well, when I got my two pewter Jesuses at my Communion party--one was a plaque like yours, the other was a statue--I put them in the drawer with my underwear. Later, my brother accidentally melted them on the kitchen stove."

Greg snorted a little bit of cake up his nose as I said this. "He melted--?"

"The pewter stuff. Not my underwear!"

"Oh. You can do that?"

"Yeah, but not today, okay? Nothing stinks up the house like a melted pewter savior." This caused much giggling, after which I said, "How about we play catch instead? Thomas and I brought our gloves." And so we spent the afternoon in the damp, loamy backyard, throwing the ball around and getting grass and mud stains on our Sunday best.

The next day, as you know, was the Éclair's birthday. Unlike her cousin, she got lots of real presents, although being 1, she wasn't really sure what to do with them. Luckily, she had about four cousins and two siblings who were practically tearing their hair out for the suspense and frustration of trying to get her to open the things. In fact, my niece Grace, who has become a real pistol, decided she wasn't going to wait for that silly baby, and started opening all the presents herself, when nobody was looking.

Except for the Big Sister.

The Brownie, who doesn't often get to be anyone bigger and more intimidating in her own house, stomped over to little Grace and said, in a low voice, "Hey. What do you think you're doing?"

Grace just gave her a look and turned back to the business of opening the Éclair's presents. "I couldn't believe it, Dad," she told me later, her every molecule vibrating with indignation. "You should have seen the face she made. It was a Boss-of-the-World face. I wanted to...to...dump a glass of water on her head!" she blurted, having come to worst thing she could think of doing.

"Wow," I sympathized. "How rude. I can't imagine some little girl giving me a look like she was Boss of the World."

The Brownie stared at me for a beat, then decided to let the irony go whizzing over her head. "Anyways, I didn't dump water on her. But I did tell her I was going to get her mommy if she didn't stop."

"And that worked?" I asked.

The Brownie squinted her eyes at the memory. "No. So I gave her money instead."

I was thunderstruck. The Brownie is a regular Scrooge McDuck, hoarding every quarter she gets, every penny she finds stuck to the sidewalk. But...paying off a 3-year-old? I didn't know whether to be aghast or impressed. I went with impressed.

"That was a very creative solution, and awfully nice of you to look out for your little sister like that," I finally said. "And it was very generous of you to use your own money."

Her smile disappeared, replaced by her most serious look. "Oh, Dad, I didn't use my money. I got some out of the wallet on the counter." And then, as I looked wildly around for the counter in question, she dashed off to rejoin the party, leaving me to spend the rest of the afternoon figuring out a way to steal a 20-dollar bill from a 3-year-old and slip it back in my father-in-law's wallet without anyone catching me.

Meanwhile, the Éclair finally figured out how to rip the wrapping paper off her many boxes, most of which turned out to be clothes, which she enjoyed flinging at people far more than trying on. Then she opened the big gift, a plastic fire truck that she can sit astride and scoot around the floor on. Or she can once her legs get a little longer. For the moment, she was content to sit with her feet up, hands grasping the handlebars, while her big brother pushed her just a little too fast around the downstairs hallways. Later, there was cake, which she both ate and wore.

The next morning--this would be yesterday--all of us headache-y and more than a little cranky--no doubt it was a massive, collective, sugar hangover--we drove the nearly 11 hours back home. I kept thinking the day was special in some way, but couldn't put my finger on what it was. The best Thomas could come up with was that it was Earth Day. All Her Lovely Self could recall was that it was my grandfather's birthday--he would have been 89. I was impressed that she remembered--I should have recalled it myself.

The best I could come up with was the lame notion that it was the Day Before Our Anniversary. Which isn't so lame, when you think about it. I mean, New Year's Eve and Christmas Eve aren't lame. Why should My Wedding Eve be lame? The original one--April 22, 1994--sure wasn't. I spent it having a gunfight, almost breaking my leg, serenading Her Lovely Self, and almost getting arrested for disturbing the peace.

But this year, mentioning that it was the DBOA gave my bride something of a jolt. "Oh God! You know, what with all the plans we've been making for other things, I kind of forgot that tomorrow is our anniversary," she said, then laughed. I didn't exactly share her mirth--can you imagine if I forgot our anniversary? There sure as hell wouldn't be any laughing, I can tell you that.

But I understood, I really did. Between making plans for this trip and plans for the Brownie's birthday party (coming up soon) and helping me finish settling the last of my parents' affairs, and dealing with her own health issues, my wife has been the very model of the overscheduled woman. That last factor, in particular, has been something of a drain on her emotional and physical resources. Because of her Crohn's Disease, Her Lovely Self has been trying to make some healthy changes to her lifestyle. Some weeks ago, she shifted herself over to a diet virtually free of processed foods, heavy on organic, preservative-free stuff. She's even gone so far as to grind her own grain into flour (something our old blender--a wedding present, coincidentally enough--just wasn't ready for). That's helped some of her symptoms, but it has by no means cured her. So just recently, she finally secured an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in an effort to get some kind of last word on the extent of her condition and a sense of what she can do next. But making that appointment has made it necessary for her to make other plans, including what to do with the kids while we're gone for an overnight. In short, I can see how she might have overlooked our anniversary, and I certainly didn't hold it against her.

"I know," she finally said. "For our wedding present to each other, why don't we just take ourselves out to dinner on the weekend and call it good? That will be our present--we'll let each other off the hook."

Well, why not? We get older, the drive gets longer, we feel emotionally and physically drained, but at least we're still on the journey, and we're still on it together. So I agreed. Besides, I really wouldn't want my wife to have the added pressure of worrying about getting some present for me. I can't imagine that I'd even allow myself to enjoy it, knowing that it was just one more damn thing she had to do today.

So now I have only one cause for concern, and it's this:

If we're not giving each other gifts, what the hell am I going to do with this deluxe hi-speed blender I got her (the better to grind your own flour with)?

Maybe I'll just call it an early Mother's Day present? Or a late Earth Day present?

Or perhaps I'll simply call it a very belated--and thoroughly inadequate--present in return for her bestowing on me the biggest gift of all, 14 years ago today.

Happy Anniversary, honey.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, April 21, 2008

 

In Which I Count to 1...


Suddenly, and quite to my surprise, the Eclair turned 1 today.

First birthdays are strange little pieces of property on the calendar, aren't they? I mean, as children's birthdays go, they're as momentous as they come, and certainly reason enough to be excited. But the birthday boy or girl in question is really too young to care or remember (although I sort of remember mine), making it pretty much the only birthday in which the parents are more excited about it than the child. I certainly remember Thomas's and the Brownie's first birthdays with crystal clarity, and I think it's fair to say that I looked forward to them quite a lot more than either of them did.

Thomas's was quite the event, what with him being our first child, and the first grandchild on either side of the family. Both sets of grandparents traveled to us for the event, along with Her Lovely Self's sisters and their husbands, a couple of aunts and uncles, half a dozen friends and their babies, and even some neighbors thrown in for good measure. Thomas wasn't walking then--not quite yet--but he could pull himself up and motor along just fine with the aid of a Fisher-price four-wheeled scooter/walker doohickey. One guest--a little boy named Jeffrey, who was a couple of months older than Thomas and who could walk fairly well--spent most of the afternoon following Thomas around and swiping the walker away from him whenever the opportunity presented itself. The first couple of times this happened, Thomas was left stranded in the middle of the floor or back porch without his walking aid and screamed bloody murder. But by lunchtime he'd evidently grown tired of the ignominy of crawling from wherever he'd been carjacked, and he'd been fortified by an infusion of vanilla ice cream and chocolate cake, so thereafter Thomas resolved to stand his ground. He spent the rest of the afternoon battling Jeffrey for domination of walker. I remember my mom clucking about this--that her poor grandson should have to endure a birthday of being on guard lest he lose his pedestrian aid.

But in some ways, I think it was the best gift of all. Having a peer to compete with somehow sharpened Thomas's resolve and vigilance, and gave him focus and determination, all qualities that made him seem less like an infant, more like, you know, a boy. An actual person.

I had a similar feeling when the Brownie's first birthday rolled around a few years later. As a family event, her first birthday was only slightly less momentous--we attracted just one set of grandparents (mine, of course), no other extended family, and only one pair of friends and their daughter, but I still recall it fondly. When the year-old guest of honor devours half of her birthday cake by herself--and does so using only two clumsy little hands and a single tooth in her head--you remember that as a proud achievement. Even though it means there's no cake left for you, once it's gone round to your guests and the birthday girl's big brother.

But hey, I considered it a more-than-fair trade. Like her brother, the Brownie had up to that point done very little beyond being utterly adorable. But this changed all of that. Her effort, her act of sheer will--by God, she was going to have that cake--seemed to be putting the world on notice that there was a new force to be reckoned with. And I gotta say this: I welcomed it.

As a Dad, I have to admit that at this point in each child's life, I was just a hair bored with babyhood. I mean, let's face it, much as I loved my babies and wanted nothing more than to spend all my free time with them, by the time their first birthdays rolled around, the brutal truth was that the preceding 11 months, three weeks, and six days (give or take) had been defined primarily by each child's eating, sleeping, and pooping schedule. The most interesting thing Thomas had done during that time was to start referring to me as "Dadoo." The Brownie hadn't even gone so far as to identify me by name. My daughter's moment of interest was when she discovered that the bowl from which Her Lovely Self fed her was exactly the circumference of her head. That was it.

Call me impatient, but I wanted more. I was eager to show my offspring--I was eager for them to be interested in the fact--that there was more to life than upending a bowl of food on your head or giving your father's name a slightly excretory spin. There were games of catch. There were bicycles. There were comic books and cartoons. There were hills and valleys and lakes with their name on them--up in New Hampshire, this was quite literally true--just waiting for them to explore. I had so many things to show them, it would take a lifetime (that was the point, of course) and I couldn't wait to start.

So imagine my astonishment this morning to realize that I feel the exact opposite way with the Éclair.

I suppose I have no business being surprised. I honestly should have seen this coming. I mean, I know she's the last baby--three's our limit. So it's only natural to want to savor this experience, make it last as long as possible. And of course I am looking forward to teaching her all of the things I've taught her big brother and sister,

(and my, have they gotten big)


artladbrownie


but at the same time, I'm feeling just a little sad, lamenting the end of infanthood for this little woman of mine.

Who, by the way, just discovered at lunch that she loves chocolate milk.

Especially when she can steal it from her big brother without his noticing.


eclair4

And with that, I must leave you, as there are some last-minute presents to wrap and details to see to before this evening's festivities.

Happy Birthday, little Eclair. Your Daddy sure does love you.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, April 18, 2008

 

In Which We Review The Catalog of Cats...


So, there's this cat that's hanging around our back yard these days. In our neighborhood, there's any number of cats, but almost none of them frequent our yard, so I think this fellow must be lost or was abandoned up at the truck stop (which is actually a few miles away, but the bike path that winds through our neighborhood goes right by it, and it's an easy path for strays to follow). The Brownie claims he was up on the roof, looking in her window early one morning.

"I think he likes me," she said to me one afternoon this week. "I think he's lonely and he wants someone to take care of him." That's my daughter, subtle as a brick.

I pretended to be oblivious to the hints she was dropping like lead weights on my head, but the truth is I've been thinking about that cat all week, feeling the turn of those old familiar gears of compassion greased by pity.

I've heard it said that people are either dog-people or cat-people, but I don't believe it, certainly not in my case. While it's true I have only a dog right now, I'm actually rather fond of cats. Which is odd, considering I've already had enough of them in my life to be sick of them forever.

In fact, my first real pet--not counting a disastrous early attempt to keep turtles--was a cat. He was one of two orange tabby kittens we kept when my parents' old cat, Henrietta, had a litter under my parents' bed. Henrietta and the bulk of her brood went off to live with my grandfather after that, but my parents--no doubt because of my brother's and my own special brand of subtle hint-dropping--allowed us each to pick a kitten. My brother chose a feisty one that he named Stanley. I chose a rather lazy looking specimen that I named Arthur.

In hindsight, I realize now that I was too young to have a cat. I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6. I was too rough and quite unable to keep my hands off Arthur, who went in short order from a lazy, genial cat to a hissing monster who generally stayed under the sofa all day, except for brief intervals when he would see my ankles move past his line of vision. Whereupon he'd reach out and give me a good cuff.

Stanley, meanwhile, turned out to be a very sweet cat indeed. He never seemed to mind me, no matter how much I carried him around by his tail or the scruff of his neck. I tried to get my Big Brother to trade with me, but he wisely refused.

It was a moot point anyway, because in less than a year, both cats were gone.

Arthur just ran away one day, and I can't say that I blame him. Not too long after his departure, I began seeing the 9 Lives cat food commercial with their star, Morris the Cat, and was convinced for a long time that it was Arthur, run away to Hollywood to make his fortune.

Stanley, though...we know what happened to Stanley.

We had just come home from a weekend visiting my grandparents down in Boston, and when he heard our car pull in the driveway, Stanley came running to greet us. Both he and Arthur were outdoor cats--my Dad grew up on a farm and wouldn't have had it any other way--and so they'd been left to their own devices all weekend.

We could hear Stanley as he came pelting through the woods on the other side of the road from our house. I caught a brief glimpse of orange fur as he leapt from the stone fence on that side, then hopped into the street.

None of us saw the green Volkswagen until it was far too late.

The bastard was going way too fast down the little country road that ran by our house. I'm pretty sure he never even saw Stanley. I hope so, because the only other explanation is that prick just hit our cat and kept going.

I don't remember much of the actual impact, although it happened right in front of me. I do remember my dad swearing a storm at the driver and yelling at my mom to take us into the house. I assumed he just didn't want us to see what a mess our beloved cat had become, but later I found out that Stanley had survived the accident. My Dad could tell at a glance that there was no way he'd live much longer, and rather than let him suffer, he wanted to put Stanley out of his misery as quickly as he could, but obviously didn't want us to see him do it.

We buried Stanley in the back yard and that was it for cats--for pets of any kind--in our house for a long while.

But then, long about the time we were living in that haunted farmhouse in southern New Jersey, we suddenly became a magnet for stray cats. I say "we," but it was mostly my mom and me. At first it was just one, but then we found another. And another. And still another. I went off to college, my parents moved back to New Hampshire, and still the cats came. For my mom, I think it became some kind of strange midlife, empty-nest thing--she became physically and mentally incapable of refusing shelter to any cat. How many ended up living with my parents? I stopped counting at 15, when the number of felines in the house outnumbered the human occupants by a factor of 3 to 1. I told my mom she was in danger of becoming a living cliché--the mad Cat Lady in the old house in the woods of New England--but it didn't stop her. I moved out, but every time I came home, there was a new cat.

When I brought Her Lovely Self home to meet my parents, I tried to prepare her for the reality of a house where cats sat on every surface, dangled from every rafter, filled the house with their pungent aroma. She was as appalled as I was, and I don't think it's telling tales out of school to say the cat population was a big reason in our decision to visit as seldom as possible. For one thing, I had by my early 20s developed such severe allergies and asthma around cats that I couldn't stay a single night in my parents' house without regular infusions of Benadryl. But the bigger reason was that it just grossed Her Lovely Self out. And she wasn't the only one. My dad and BB had long ago gotten sick of cats underfoot, cats jumping up on the table while they tried to eat, cats eyeing them from the bathroom counter as BB or my Dad engaged in his morning sitdown ("You try pinching a loaf when you got a cat givin' you the stink eye," my dad famously remarked. "I'd have an easier time pushing a salami through a garden hose, by Gorry.")

But my brother and father let my mom have her way, and you would to if you'd ever met her. She was a force of nature, with an imperious will, and let their complaints--mine too--just wash right over her. "What do you expect me to do?" she'd demand, if one of us ranted a little too long about it. "I should just turn them out into the wild?" Because that was the other thing: she'd taken to keeping them all indoors. Imagine 18 cats (I lied before--that was the number at which I really stopped counting) in a 1,700-square-foot house. They were quite squirrelly by then, having been boxed up for so long. But my mom seemed to take no notice that her cats were slowly going round the bend, no doubt because she had too. "Each one of them is like a little person," she'd insist.

Well, I guess she was right there, because I remember something special about each one of them, although what I remember is probably not what she would have recalled. At this point, it's best if we move along via a series of brief character sketches:

Tigre: He was a big silver Tabby who appeared out of a snowy January morning and let himself into our house as I was bringing in firewood. We had two dogs by then, feisty little ones that would bark at grown men and take on dogs twice their size. But when this gigantic tom sauntered in and ate every last bit of food in both their bowls, then sprayed one of their doggie beds with a foul, acrid urine, they just stood by and let him do it. Tigre ruled the roost for two years, until he, like Stanley, was hit by a car. It broke his leg and hip, which cost a lot to set, but my mom unhesitatingly put up more than a thousand dollars for the operation to set and pin the bones (that should have been our first sign that cats were going to be trouble for my mom). And it was all for nothing. A month later, Tigre developed a severe bladder infection that turned into uremic poisoning, and he had to be put down. But by then, the damage was done, because we already had...

Octavia: I found her January 8th (hence her name) in a Dumpster behind the kindergarten building at my school, during afternoon recess. She was a white kitten with two black spots, practically feral, but so small and cold and sick that she could barely move. One of the class bullies, Frank Oger, saw me trying to make a little shelter out of a box and my school scarf so she'd be safe from the biting winter wind. Frank was a cruel little prick, and spent the afternoon in class making remarks about how, at the end of the day, he was going out to the Dumpster to stomp on the kitten and put her out of her misery. In hindsight, I suspect he said this more to egg me on than anything else, but I wasn't going to take any chances. During a free period, I went to the head of the Safety Patrol and asked if I could be put on fire escape duty when the final bell rang. Safety Patrol members got to get out of class 10 minutes early to position themselves at various stairwells and exits from the school to make sure no one pushed or fought as all the kids left for the day. As an 8th grader, I normally had a warm, cushy spot in an inside hallway--no one wanted to watch the outside entrances on such a cold day, and so I had no problem trading with a lower classman for the spot. As soon as I got outside, I ran for the Dumpster, found the kitten, stuffed her in an inside pocket and ran back. As he came out, Frank Oger gave me a leer and brushed by me, heading for the Dumpster. He looked around for a few minutes, but it was perishing cold, and so he gave up. He looked at me, standing there with my hands in my pockets, wishing death a thousand times over on him. "Well, maybe tomorrow I'll get that kitten," he called, then loped off for home. Not tomorrow. Not ever, you fuckhead, I thought, my hand curled protectively around the kitten. I smuggled her home on the bus and when Mom saw her, she declared the little handful of fur was too sick and cold to survive. But Octavia, who grew to be the fattest of cats, lived to the ripe old age of 21.

Ebony: I had almost forgotten Ebony's real name. My mom called him that because he was, of course, an all-black cat who we found on yet another winter day, curled up in an old bucket in one of the back sheds of our house. He was a very amiable, friendly cat. But however nice he was to us, he absolutely adored my Big Brother and followed BB everywhere when he came home from college for winter break. BB was around 20 at the time, and just starting to get a bald spot on the crown of his head. I was quite taken with that bald spot, and took to sneaking up behind BB and rubbing it whenever I could. I wasn't the only one. Early one morning, I was awakened by screaming and swearing and went to see what was the matter. Ebony had a habit of climbing up onto our beds and sleeping with us--all the cats did. But Ebony, so friendly, always came up to me at the head of the bed and, purring all the while, would bump his head gently against mine, rubbing a little bit on me, in that charming way that cats will, before retiring to the foot of the bed to sleep. Well, while BB was asleep, Ebony jumped up and started rubbing his head against BB's, too. It's just that, with my brother, Ebony used a different head, if you know what I mean. Thus it was that, as I peered in the doorway of my brother's room, I beheld a startling sight. BB was sitting straight up in bed, screaming and waving his hands. And with good reason: Ebony was hanging onto the back of BB's head, claws sunk into either side, and was, um, pleasuring himself against the bald spot. "Get him off! Get him off! He's humping my head! He's HUMPING MY HEEEEEEEAAAAAAADDDD!!!!" BB screamed. Unperturbed, Ebony--who was getting off, after all--now made a noise somewhere between a purr and a battle with a hairball, and continued thrusting his way to resolution, then jumped away and ran like hell, leaving poor BB frozen, one ear bleeding, hands in the air, unable (and unwilling) to feel around and check the condition of his head (which, if I had to describe in two words, those words would be slightly moist). Thereafter, BB slept with the door closed, and even though we got him neutered and cured him of his habit (the cat, I mean, not BB) my brother forever after insisted on calling Ebony "The Headfucker."

Lazy: Considering his poor relations with cats to date, it was ironic that BB should be the one to find Lazy. He found her at the Berlin Farmer's Market one hot Saturday just before he left for college. The market was a combination of flea market-type outdoor stalls and semi-permanent indoor shops that sold everything from fresh produce to comic books to clothes. BB was in the discount denim shop, trying on jeans, when he heard screaming from the fitting room next door. He peered over his door in time to see a young woman hop out of her room, clad in only panties and a blouse that she was clutching over her naked breasts. She was screaming that a giant rat was loose in her room. Ever the gallant gentleman, BB immediately volunteered his services and went into the woman's fitting room. He looked on the floor and under the little seat that had been nailed to the wall, but couldn't see anything. Then he noticed something stirring in the pile of clothes on the seat. He snatched at the clothing and came up with the woman's brassiere. A small creature tumbled out of one of the cups and into his hands. Instantly, BB saw it was no rat, but a black-brown furred, half-starved kitten, which had evidently slipped through a crack in the floorboards below. Then he heard more shrieking behind him, this time accompanied by cries of "Pervert!" and turned to see the woman and several store personnel frowning at him in the doorway. They only saw the bra; they didn't see what he had in his other hand. The first I knew of it, I was about five stores down at the bargain bookstore, rummaging through stacks of comics, when BB appeared next to me wearing a brand-new pair of jeans--fly unzipped, tags still on--and standing in his socks, holding his shoes, his belt, and his old jeans all in one hand. His other hand was behind his back. "What happened to you?" I asked. He handed me his clothes and smiled. "Aw, just got a little pussy in the dressing room," he said, then laughed raucously at his own humor.

Spot: Perhaps my favorite of all the many cats who lived with us, Spot's tenure started as a case of mistaken identity. A friend had just dropped me off late one frigid night after a long rehearsal for the high-school musical. As I walked up to the door of my house, I saw a black cat jump from out of the darkness and onto the porch steps. It took one look at me, then retreated to the shadows. I thought it was Ebony and that he had somehow snuck out of the house, so I squatted down and called to him, making smoochy noises and patting my leg. Instantly the cat hurtled out of the darkness and jumped into my arms. I realized that she--for so she was female--was much lighter and shorter-haired than Ebony. Also, Ebony was all black, whereas this cat had one single white spot on her throat. She was freezing cold, and practically hugged herself to me. As I held her, she climbed up on my shoulders--it would come to be her favorite perch whenever I was around--then squirmed her way down through the neck of my parka. I brought her into the house. Instantly, Octavia, Ebony, and Lazy crowded me, smelling the newcomer. My mom, ironically, hollered and swore when I opened my coat and Spot hopped out. But within moments she was won over by this cat's irresistible charm. We all were. Spot just had this very animated, almost human way about her. Unlike the others, Spot refused to be cooped up indoors. She was a veritable Houdini, always finding ways to sneak out, and so eventually we let her come and go as she pleased. She was a great hunter--in spring and summer it was rare not to step out on the porch for the paper and find the remains of some tiny varmint--usually it was just a pair of tiny feet and a gallbladder--left on the mat as a gift to us, her people. Spot lived a good 16 years, but like Stanley and Tigre, she too got hit by a car.

Seemore: This silver tabby was another Dumpster cat, rescued this time by my brother, who found him as an ungainly kitten with huge paws stumbling around behind the kitchen at the resort where BB worked. "You better not trying fucking my head, cat," BB said, then scooped up the kitten and brought him home. We deliberately misspelled his name. We traveled a lot as a family--and boy, was that ever a circus, trying to get four (now five) cats and two dogs loaded into a car. But we felt that living with us, this cat would "see more" and do more than if he just lived his life in New Hampshire. Seemore grew to enormous proportions--I swear he had a head the size of a soccer ball. He was dumb as a box of rocks and accident-prone to boot--he was forever running full tilt into sliding glass doors or getting his head stuck in flower vases or pitchers of water while sneaking a drink (he was a lot like me, in other words). But he was unfailingly sweet, almost dog-like in his affection for us, always jumping into our arms or bumping his big head against ours, and always, always, purring, a perpetually happy kitty. It was widely believed that he was one of the many descendants of my aunt's leviathan cat, the famous Alvin. He certainly had Alvin's hunting instincts, especially when it came to snakes, with whom he was not so affectionate. Seemore lived well into his 20s and died in his sleep.

Ginger +3:Once my parents moved back to New Hampshire, my mom started her own real estate agency, although really, it might as well have been a cat-placement service. Approxiamtely every other house my mom put on the market, she'd find a cat living there, abandoned by the owners. Ginger was the first, a fat little tabby mix who, it turned out, was fat for a very good reason, as my dad discovered a few months later, when he went looking for his missing boot socks and found them all rucked into a piled under the bed, the birth nook that Ginger had crafted for her litter of little tabbies. "Goddamn it all. Nothin' under that bed but stripes and afterbirth," he complained as we tromped, sockless, off to work. Two of the kittens died from a freak parasitic infection (the vet couldn't bring himself to say so, but I had to wonder if the infection was the result of feline overcrowding), but Ginger and her daughter, Smoky, lived on and on, two freak old maids that lived under that bed and never socialized with the other cats.

Pumpkin +4:About a week after Ginger came to live with my folks, my mom agreed to sell the farm of an unreconstructed prick of a man who I'm sure had to be related to Frank Oger. He certainly had the same cruel streak. The first time my mom met him, the guy was coming out of the barn with a .22 rifle in one hand and a yowling squirming long-haired orange cat in the other. It was obvious what the man intended to do, so as my mom got out of the car, she drew from beneath the seat her "equalizer"--a cast-iron pump handle she kept in the car at all times. "You shoot that cat and I'll spill what brains you have across this yard," she said evenly, bringing the handle up. And the man, who was easily twice her size, stopped dead. My mom, as I've said, was a force of nature, and when she spoke, she could use that Mom voice of authority to halt you in your tracks. The man complained that the cats were an infestation, but my mother wouldn't hear of it. Still brandishing the pump handle, she snatched the cat from the man's hands, turned on her heel--I don’t know about you, but I'd never have had the balls to turn my back on an armed man--and marched back to the car. As she drove away, she noticed the cat's right foreleg was bleeding, so she went straight to the vet, who determined that the cat--Mom named her Pumpkin, because she was such a roly-poly--had been grazed by a bullet (evidently the man had already taken a shot at her). The vet fixed her up, then informed my mom that Pumpkin was also in a family way. A few weeks after Ginger, she had a litter of four males. One died shortly after, but the other three--Sparky, Tigger and a 7-toed, giant-pawed kitten my mom named John L. Sullivan (you know it's bad when you run out of cute pet names and start using real-people names).

Templeton +1:This was not another pregnant cat. Temp was a male, and a bit of a thief, a stray who showed up in summer and was forever raiding our garbage or sneaking in the kitchen window--he once almost got away with a whole T-bone steak. Wisely, he wanted nothing to do with what I'm sure to his mind was a kind of weird cat prison (cats go in but they never come out!). But after the first hard frost that fall, he actually came to the door and howled until my dad let him. Whereupon he promptly jumped up on the top of the wood stove my Dad was stoking and just as promptly left behind a brimstone whiff of singed cat and four perfect paw impressions that remained burned to the top of the stove until the day we moved out of that place. Even with all four paws bandaged and slathered in liniment, Temp get trying to get outside that night. The next day, my mother followed himself outside, where he led her to a hollow tree up behind the house. There she found another male cat that looked almost exactly like Temp--we always assumed they were brothers. He had some kind of gash in his leg that looked terrifically infected, so Mom carried him in. I was home then--it was just a few days before I was heading off to graduate school in Chicago--and drove both my Mom and the injured cat to the vet's, leaving Templeton at home to recover from his burns. "Are you keeping this one, too?" the vet asked when he saw us. My mom sighed. "Ah hell, what's one more. I just can't think what to call him." "How about 'Enough'?" the vet said. He was joking, but that's exactly what Mom called him.

There were more, believe it or not--there was Barny (found in a barn, duh) and Chipper (found at the lumber mill where my brother shot himself in the foot) and Ol' Fella (a truly ancient cat that had been living in an old wreck of a car up behind the house), and Tuffy (who really isn't a cat, I don't think, so much as a pig with fur) and three or four others whose names I forget. You can hardly blame me: By that point I was out the door for good and then married within a few years, and then never came home very much. The turning point came when Thomas was born, and I flatly refused to let him spend a single night in the house. I wasn't worried about any of the cats climbing into the crib and smothering him (although it was a legitimate concern. These cats loved to crowd you when you were asleep, and ol' Headfucker was still alive and well at that time), but I didn't want him in a house where so much cat dander was flying, especially given my own reaction to the environment.

The first two times we came to visit, HLS and I stayed at the local motel, about 12 miles away, and after our second visit, it finally dawned on my mother that we were serious about this, and that maybe it was time to do something about the 21 cats in her house (I was still lying about losing count a minute ago). Within six months, my Dad and a contractor had built a great room at the back of the house--it was nearly as big as the barn that sat next to it. They laid down some flooring, piped in some heat, and moved every single one of those cats out there. Then they proceeded to strip out the main part of the house, tearing out all the sprayed-on, hairball-saturated, clawmarked wood and windowsills and drywall and wallpaper. By the time Thomas was 18 months old, the main living area of the house was so cat-free that even I was able to spend the night without the aid of antihistamines.

The creation of the Cat Room finally broke the spell for my mom. After that, she invoked what my Dad called "a cat hiring freeze," with one notable exception: As Thomas became more mobile, he proved to be just as ungentle as I was as a child and just about drove Her Lovely Self's cat, Moxie, purely crazy. And Moxie was a biter, and we weren't about to risk her taking a chomp out of our baby. I was prepared to give her up to someone at work, but my Mom insisted she come to live with them. I felt a little hypocritical about that, even though Moxie had stayed with them a time or two before, when we'd lived in an apartment that didn't allow cats. But in the end, that's where Moxie went (and long-time readers recall that her departure inspired the story I made up for Thomas).

After that, though, as each old cat died off, he or she was not replaced, and so the population slowly began to dwindle. At the time of my parents' death last April, there were only four cats in the house (not counting the two in the freezer. A living cliché to the end, when those two were put down after organ failure due to extreme old age, my mom instituted a literal freeze, wrapping them in multiple layers of plastic and popping them in the cooler. They had died in the winter, you see, and as anyone from northern New England will tell you, you can't dig a grave up there in the middle of winter--not without dynamite, anyway. So she'd been waiting til spring to lay them to rest.

But then my parents died themselves, and last time I checked with BB, he hadn't quite got around to putting those cats in the ground yet. In fact, he's been talking about a new stray he's noticed up back by the barn. He had a certain tone in his voice when he said this, a tone I'd heard all too many times from my mother, a tone that made me think this madness of hers had now jumped to the next generation. But hey, it's his house now, his cats, his problem.

Back at our house, I had a problem of my own. The Brownie had been laying on heavier and heavier hints about bringing in that poor stray cat. When she brought it up at the dinner table one night, I founded myself almost speechless with indecision. How to change to her mind? Should I tell her about the madness that seems to grip our family once you let a cat in the house? Should I share with her a detailed description of the cloud of stink that hangs over everything once you let too many cats in? Should I remind her that cats die--often horribly--and that it would be a shame to put herself through the experience? Should I tell her about the Headfucker?

But I needn't have worried about which tack to take, because no sooner did the Brownie finish speaking than Her Lovely Self looked up at her and said,

"This is a one-pet house, so you decide, honey. You want a cat? Fine. But then Blaze has to go. (under the table, I heard a quick, panicky shuffle of paws and a startled, dismayed "Ork?") The cat or the dog? You decide," my wife said.

The Brownie stared at her mother for all of one second.

"Oh," the Brownie said. "Well, never mind." And she went back to eating.

Now why didn't I think of that?


Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, April 10, 2008

 

In Which We Meet in the Fog...



It's been rainy, bookish weather the past few days, and that plus recent events like the death of Jon Hassler have no doubt got me in a literary frame of mind. I've been spending the past few nights rummaging through my bookshelves and marveling at how many of my writing heroes I've managed to meet--or in the case of Mr. Hassler, at least trade e-mails with--over the years. There are some I still hope to meet--Stephen King, for one example, and Neil Gaiman, for another, although we've brushed by each other several times over the years. When I was doing a story a few years back about ways to get your kids interested in reading, he gave me some great tips and quotes for the story, albeit all via e-mail, and all through the middleman of his publicist, so we didn't actually have a conversation. Later, when Thomas was a brief Internet sensation as Art Lad, I ended up as the middleman for my son's e-mail exchange with the man himself, after Neil had so kindly mentioned Thomas on his Web site.

(Hmm. Isn't it curious that I call Neil "Neil" but call Jon Hassler "Mr. Hassler"? What's that about, do you think? But I digress...)

I know people in the business who are incorrigible name-droppers and I try to avoid that myself, but I'm in a bit of an odd mood tonight, and not long ago, a reader and I were trading stories about brushes with fame, and so I think I'll get this out of my system:

As it happens, Mr. Hassler is not the first writing hero of mine who has both died and been someone with whom I had at least a passing exchange. Once, several years ago, and on a dreary rainy spring day like this one, I had an encounter that made my day. Hell, my year.

I was a poor graduate student in Chicago back then. I really was quite astonishingly destitute in those days. I had a job freelancing for a small publisher of travel guides, but he paid by the month, so I went through long periods of utter broke-ness when the only thing I could afford to do on the weekend was take long walks around town and campus. Thus it was one foggy, wet Sunday afternoon in May that I found myself once again scuffing along a pathway by the lake, peering into the gloom, trying to pick out landmarks on campus, but not really seeing much, only hearing the water off to my right. Otherwise, I was quite alone there on the fogbound path. Or so I thought.

But then, quite startlingly, an immense figure loomed up out of the fog in front of me. An enormously tall man with white hair and a largish nose was suddenly standing before me, looking down at me. He smiled, but he had the air of someone who was in a hurry.

"Hallo," he said, looking all around, then staring at me. "Um, look, we're a bit lost." As he said this, I realized three things. First, he was British. Second, he wasn't alone: behind him two older, shorter people--a man and a woman--emerged from the fog, blinking and alternately looking at me and at their watches. Third, this guy looked awfully familiar. For the moment, I assumed he was a professor or somebody on campus whom I'd seen, but just couldn't place.

"We're looking for Brentano's bookstore," the man continued. "In fact, we're expected there something like, oh..." he looked back at his companions. The man showed him his watch. "...five minutes ago. Would you happen to know the way?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, and started to give him directions, but realized that in the fog there was no easy way to give him landmarks to follow. "You know what?" I said, "I'll walk you over there. It's pretty much on my way home."

"Oh, cheers. Cheers. Thanks very much," he said and gestured to his companions as I led them across campus. In those first couple of minutes, I didn't really speak to my new companions because I was trying to figure out where I knew the man from. I had definitely seen him from somewhere before. At first, I regarded him with a sort of excited buzzing going on in the back of my head that the guy was famous, but he didn't have what I would call a celebrity's face. Still, I knew it. Or at least, I knew I was supposed to know it, if that made any sense. I suppose I could have just introduced myself to them, but instead, I decided to engage in a little small talk.

"So, you're visiting?" I asked.

"Mmm. Just in town for the day. The afternoon, in fact. Then it's back to airport and off to the next stop. Always assuming we can take off in this," he said, gesturing all around us.

Then I remembered that Brentano's often hosted book readings on Sunday afternoons.

"Wait," I said. "Are you here for a reading?"

He gave me a kind of impish, knowing look and opened his mouth to answer, but at that point, my brain finally started working and I placed the man.

Who was, incidentally, THIS man.


JC or DNA



I slapped my hand to my mouth. "Jesus Christ!" I screamed. "Douglas Adams!" I screamed.

He just smiled. "Right the second time," he said.

I was so flabbergasted, so excited, so distracted, I promptly walked into a light pole. Ever since 8th grade, Douglas Adams had been one of my favoritest, funniest writers. That year I was in 8th grade, our local NPR station had been broadcasting its dramatized version of Star Wars and had been following every episode with this quirky little BBC production called The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In time, I came to tune into NPR for that rather than Star Wars. And then, that spring, I saw the novel in my local bookstore and I was hooked. Now, here he was, stepped out of a fog bank in the spring of 1991, here in Chicago. And I was conducting him to the bookstore.

Where it turned out he was in the midst of a tour to promote his excellent (and often overlooked) nonfiction work, Last Chance to See with Mark Carwadine. I had been so focused on my graduate work (and so poor) that I hadn't even been around the bookstore to see their posters announcing the event. I would certainly have missed the reading altogether, if I hadn't bumped into the author himself, whose handlers (the old folks) had got turned around in the fog after they'd picked up Mr. Adams at the airport and parked in the garage nearest the bookstore, at the edge of campus.

Right after the event, I wrote to a couple of friends and told them everything, but right now, I'm hard-pressed to remember what I said. I was 22 and it was the first time I had--knowingly, anyway--met any hero of mine, let alone a writing hero. I babbled about how much I loved Hitch Hiker's Guide and (to a lesser degree) Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and had inquired about any future sequels. He led me briefly to believe that Dirk Gently would appear in the next Hitch Hiker's book and when I started to flip out and get all fanboy on him, he quickly let me know he was having me on.

By this time, of course, we were at the bookstore--once I recognized him, our meeting seemed to last only a split second--where he was so late that store staffers were actually out on the street looking for him. As they hustled him inside, I had a moment to decide. I could go in and stay for the reading, or I could run home (it wasn't quite on the way, as I had told him, but was in fact completely the other side of town) and get my well-thumbed copy of the first Hitch Hiker's book, which I always packed and took with me wherever I moved. I mean, when was I likely to have another chance? And anyway, it wasn't like I had the money to buy another copy there at the bookstore (the truth was, I realized with more than a little embarrassment, I didn't even have the money to buy a copy of the book he was promoting). So that clinched it. I ran home, found my book, and ran back.

For such a simple sentence--only nine words--you'd never guess that the doing of it took me almost an hour, so that when I finally arrived back at Brentano's front window, glasses as fogged as the air around me, panting and gasping extravagantly, my book clutched over my heart (which was all but beating through my rib cage), the reading was already over.

And of course the store was locked shut.

The staffer guarding the door was turning people away by the dozens and I could see why. A huge line snaked all the way around the interior of the store, ending right by the door as the signing portion of Douglas Adams' visit began. "Too many people inside already," he said as he gestured people on. "Fire regs," he said to someone else.

I tried to speak to the guy, but realized I didn't know what to say to him. "Hey, let me in, I brought Douglas Adams over here in the first place"? I tried to get in as the signing continued and people were being let out, but almost got in a tussle with store staff then, as they looked at my scuffed up little copy of Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and told me in no uncertain terms that the signing was closed (at this they gave me significant sidelong looks that seemed to suggest the signing was especially closed to poor dumbasses like me, who clearly didn't have the money even to be a paying customer).

Luckily for me, the signing desk was actually fairly close to the door. Luckier still, Douglas Adams was, as I mentioned, a very tall person indeed. He saw over the heads of the crowd, over to the door, and spotted me instantly. He called out to the dink at the door and waved me over. Heart almost bursting through my chest now for completely different reasons, I shrugged past the store staffer and came over.

"I was looking for you earlier, but you went missing," he said. I gasped something about going home for my book, which he looked at, smiled, and took from my hand. He turned to the person who was next in line and excused himself for just a moment, then turned back to me and signed my book. As I reached out to take it back, he reached behind his chair and pulled out a brand-new copy of Last Chance to See and plopped that on top of my old book. "Cheers," he said, and held out his hand. Feeling lucky and foolish, like a character in a book or a show, I grasped his big hand and we shook. "Thanks. Thank you," I said.

He waved my gushing gratitude away. "Thanks for being my guide here," he said.

And that was that. A second later, I was out on the street again, with my two books. I still have my copy of Hitch Hiker's. But in an uncharacteristic fit of generosity, I gave my signed copy of Last Chance to See--Douglas Adams' personal copy, which he gave to me--to my best friend.

(You DO still have it, right?)

Over the years, I've heard it said--actually, it may even have been Neil Gaiman; he'd have been in a position to know--that Douglas Adams was especially kind and decent to his fans, of which he had a very great many. I saw that first-hand, not just in his treatment of me, but even in something as small as taking a moment to apologize to the person who was next in line, while he made that person wait as he signed my book. I always hoped I would have a chance to go to another of Douglas Adams' readings and this time actually sit through it and enjoy it, then get to meet him once again and thank him once more for his kindness.

I never got another chance. Almost exactly a decade later, Douglas Adams died suddenly, and with him went all hope of me getting to thank him again.

But I think of him often, especially on rainy nights like this one, when I have one of his books in hand. I smile to think of the pleasure he brought me and others like me, and I hope that, if I'm ever lucky enough and my writing ever puts me in the position to do so, I can follow his example, and give some poor guy (or gal) a break, and bring a smile to someone else's face.

And now, back to my reading...

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

 

In Which We Say Goodbye to A Best-Kept Secret...




Ah, jeez. I just found out that Jon Hassler died.

I've told several people today, and their reaction, sad to say, was the same as yours may well have been: A blank stare and a one-word response: "Who?"

Mr. Hassler wrote some 20 novels in a career that spanned a little over 30 years. He was probably best known for his first book, Staggerford, the story of a week in the life of a small Minnesota town, as seen through the eyes of its high-school English teacher. A couple of Mr. Hassler's books ended up on best-seller's lists and one of his books was turned into a made-for-TV movie starring Angela Lansbury, but that's about as deep a penetration as he made into the popular consciousness. By and large I liked to think of him as one of American fiction's best-kept secrets, which I always thought was a shame, but a bit of a guilty pleasure too. I think we all like to feel that we each have some secret treasure that's largely ours, undiscovered by the masses, and Jon Hassler was mine. (Although really, that was just a personal conceit. He was by no means ignored nor unsuccessful. I know he was held in high regard in Minnesota, and among other writers and novelists, and Hillary even had him to the White House, so how much of a secret could he have been?)

I myself had never heard of the man until 1990. My girlfriend at the time--herself a creative writing student and about as well-read a person as I could ever hope to meet--had given me Staggerford after I shared with her my desire to one day write about my own small town. I read the book in one sitting and found myself hoping then--and hoping still--to write just one book half as fine. Because even though it was a work of fiction, the book shone with truth and a gentle humor that made me a fan of Mr. Hassler's for life. I gave copies of the book to several friends, and also to my mom, who shared the same birthday with Mr. Hassler, March 30. She was especially fond of his work and I was pleased to be able to give her the gift of a new writer to enjoy.

But like so many of his books' protagonists, Mr. Hassler had complications in his life. For the past 15 or so years, he'd been dealing with a steadily worsening Parkinson's-like condition that affected his speech and motor skills. When I first heard of this, I was working as a health editor at the time. About a week after I'd discovered this fact, I'd received a bulletin about new clinical trials looking for people suffering from the very same condition. In short order, I found Mr. Hassler's Web site (maintained by fans and close friends in Minnesota) and passed the information along to the admin, just an FYI from an admirer.

I never expected to hear anything about it, but two days later, I got an e-mail from the man himself, thanking me for the information and my kind words about his work. For the next couple of years, we traded the very occasional correspondence--mostly me providing whatever health information I could glean that might be of use to him, while he was ever gracious, courteous, and kind in his replies. Although we never met or spoke, his messages conveyed a charming affability but also a certain shyness. I got the distinct impression that he was very happy with his level of notoriety and success and would not have welcomed greater prominence on the literary or public stage. He also had a grace and strength of character that I admired mightily, especially in the face of his deteriorating health (and indeed, it appears that it was this health condition that ultimately claimed his life).

He died almost three weeks ago, but of course having just found out, I'm feeling the loss rather keenly today. It's a terrible thing when one of your favorite writers dies. I'll always have his books, of course, but there will never be any new stories about Staggerford, or about Agatha McGee, perhaps his best-known character. I understand he finished yet another novel just before his death (a feat that fills me with awe and respect, considering the man could barely move, let alone type) so I suppose I have one small thing to look forward to.

As for you, if you're in the mood for something great to read, Mr. Hassler's books are still very much in print. I recommend Staggerford for starters, of course, then A Green Journey, its sequel. Simon's Night and The Love Hunter are also very fine--if somewhat different--works, and he's done one or two short story chapbooks.

But if you happen to be one of those lucky readers who shared the secret that was Jon Hassler, you probably already have your own favorites of his work and will be reading them again, comforting yourself with his humor and graceful turns of phrase, and realizing as I am, that the world has lost a great writer and a great storyteller.

Even if it didn't fully realize it.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hassler.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

 

In Which Good Fences Make...you know...


Thomas is really not a troublesome kid, certainly not compared to some of his peers, and most definitely not compared to some former children with whom he shares the same gene pool.

But he's been a little unlucky in his friends of late. His best pal right now is a lad a few houses down the street, who has a mother who can be a real pain, asswise. The fact that the Asswises (for so we shall call them) are neighbors, and therefore harder to avoid than if they lived elsewhere, makes it a bit of a double-whammy. Mrs. A is furthermore one of those selectively hyper-aware mothers--the kind who is quick to notice problems in other people's children, but generally blind to her own offspring’s flaws. Of which there are many. Because these are kids, you know? They're works in progress and it's the height of arrogance to think they won't have a predilection for misbehavior now and again.

I certainly have no illusions about my children. Although I am quick to defend them if I think they are being treated unfairly, I am also the first to admit that my kids have their own unfortunate tendencies. Which is more than I can say for Mrs. A, who seems to feel that our son is some kind of bad influence on her perfect angels.

In the almost 6 years that we've lived in this neighborhood, Thomas has been in trouble with someone else's mom exactly once, and that was when he endangered himself by running into the street to pull that mom's toddler child to safety (and even then he wasn't exactly in trouble, you know?). But since this family has arrived, we've received so many telephone complaints following up a visit from Thomas that we pretty much dread letting him go down to their house.

Once, while the kids were playing super-heroes in the back yard, it was Thomas who was singled out for roughhousing, although every kid involved had skinned knees and grass stains on their clothes. Mrs. A's reasoning apparently was that because Thomas was the oldest (by maybe a year) he must of course be the engineer of the rough play and therefore should shoulder the blame for everyone's injuries and dishevelment. Another time, when Thomas came down to trade Pokemon cards, about as innocuous an activity as you could imagine, Mrs. A just decided that Thomas--again, no doubt because he was older--was trying to take advantage of her perfect, albeit naïve children--let's call them Cheeky and Sphincter--and so she supervised their trading session. Which by itself is just so fun-sapping and wrong, you know? But then she forced Thomas to surrender a rare card in exchange for a pretty crappy one that her younger son--that would be lil Sphincter--insisted was an even trade.

Oh, don't even get me started on that kid. Sphincter is about the Brownie's age, and is a real piece of work. If he were to take one of those aptitude quizzes and got a list of careers he'd be good at, I have no doubt that "super villain" would be at the top. That, or "used-car salesman." I find that the skill-sets for general slipperyness and deception are pretty interchangeable there. He's a great whiner when it comes to getting his way, and he has absolutely perfected the look of blank uncomprehending give-a-shitlessness that he can give you when you tell him not to do something in your house, like throwing a ball. Or a baby.

This past weekend, we had some gorgeous, quasi-summer weather, and we allowed Thomas to go down the street to play catch with his friends. Within about 20 minutes, we got the call. This time, Thomas was caught throwing a baseball at the Asswise's back fence. It's a wooden fence, not a chain-link one, and apparently Thomas threw one ball so hard that it split one of the cedar pickets and shot into the next yard.

At first, I was all, Cool. Just like in The Natural when young Roy Hobbs pitches a ball right through the wall of the henhouse but of course it was clear that a Deal was being made and that I was going to have to go down and survey the damage.

Which didn't seem that obvious to me. It was a fence with a double layer of pickets and the picket that broke was not on the Asswise's side, but on their neighbor's side of the fence--and would have been much more obvious to them than anyone else. As I examined the scene, I learned too that the next-door neighbors must have had a puppy at one time, because I could see that they had rather ham-fistedly nailed some blocks of wood to the picket at ground level, to keep a dog from digging under and out.

Mr. Asswise--who is actually a pretty nice guy, to tell you the truth--came out while Thomas and I were taking measurements. I like Mr. A not just because he's a regular Joe, but also because he seems to have this perpetual apologetic look about him, and there's no doubt what it is he's apologizing for. He noticed the chunks of wood his neighbors had applied to his fence.

"Yeah, they've got a pretty aggressive dog next door," he said.

"Oh, really?" I said, although I was thinking Why, of course they do.

"Yeah, pit bull. Doesn't bite, you know, but still makes enough noise to scare the kids. He was getting under and chasing 'em around the yard."

I made a mental note to check with the neighbors before I tried to fix the fence. And it was going to need fixing. What no one seemed to notice was that, because of the chunks of wood the neighbors had tacked up, they had split the picket long ago, so that pretty much any subsequent force--a good sneeze, say--would have split the picket all the way through and knocked it off the fence. Some 500 pickets on this huge damn backyard fence, and my son picks the one that's already broken.

Still, it seemed easy enough to fix. Thomas had already got an earful about respecting the property of others and now he was feeling rather guilty and responsible, so without any prompting from me or his mother, he had insisted on buying a new piece of fence and then nailing it back up.

Which was exactly the right attitude, and I told him so, although I was already pissed at the fact that my morning was going to be spent helping him be a more responsible citizen. For starters, there are many circles of Hell I would rather visit more than the local home-improvement store of a Saturday morning.

Plus, well, I guess there's no easy way to put this, but I was feeling mighty conflicted. Of course, fixing the fence was the right thing to do, but in the event, really, I couldn't get over the feeling that Mrs. A was making yet another mountain out of my son, poor Mr. Molehill. So he broke a fence-slat that, let's face it, was already split and ready to come off. It just wasn't that big a deal. I mean, I've suffered every indignity imaginable at the hands of the kids in my neighborhood--including young Cheeky and Sphincter. They have put some sizable rips in some expensive furniture, painted my walls, let their dogs crap on my lawn (I even had one kid drop his drawers and do the job himself. And guess who had to pick it up?), killed two trees and countless of Her Lovely Self's gardening projects, blown out the screen on my back door, scratched up my car, and even once managed to put an earthquake-style crack in my driveway (how that little shit got the sledgehammer over his head, I'll never know). And do you know how many times Her Lovely Self or I have felt compelled to call those kids' parents and make a stink? That's right: Zero.

Because to my mind, that's the cost of doing business as a parent, you know? You make a decision to have kids and that means they're going to attract other kids to them and pretty soon stuff gets dinged up. It's the way of the world. Or so I was always brought up to believe. I guess I just have a greater tolerance for disorderliness, which is fine most of the time, but when that sensibility butts up against the ideals of someone like Mrs. A, well, it makes me feel like I'm in a fight with both hands tied behind my back.

And I couldn't really share any of this with my son who, by the time we got to the home improvement store, almost seemed to be taking a kind of perverse glee in his guilt, telling the guy in the lumber department what kind of fencing he was looking for, then explaining to him (and to a random guy on a forklift and to the cashier) why he was in the market for cedar fencing anyway. I just went along with him--the dutiful Dad helping his son make it right--and we got our cedar fence piece and a small box of galvanized nails. Thomas carefully counted out six dollars of his own money and we went back to our neighborhood to effect repairs.

Now, careful readers of my life are already waiting for the part with the pit bull, because, for one thing, I'm just not that subtle when it comes to frontloading a story. For another, in the history of my blog, almost anyone who's read even one story here knows that if there's a pit bull introduced in the first part of a post, it will end up attached to my ass by the end.

However, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you a bit when I tell you that the very first thing I did when we arrived to fix the fence was to knock on the neighbor's door and see if we could get permission to go into their backyard and nail up the new fence piece. And before the doorbell could proceed from Bing to Bong, a tawny mass of teeth and hair was hurling himself against the glass on either side of the neighbor's front door. The dog was snarling and woofing at me in a way that seemed to suggest that he, too, was a regular blog reader, and was only too anxious to play his little part in the drama of my life.

Thomas looked a little anxious at this development, even though he was holding the hammer. "Maybe we should go get Blaze," he said. I assured Thomas we'd be fine. And anyway, Blaze was out on his backyard runner up at the house and could supervise our work from there. We waited a reasonable interval for the neighbors to appear. Finally, I peered into their garage window, saw their cars were gone and decided we were good to proceed.

We hopped the neighbor's fence and carried our tools to the spot where the split piece of cedar fencing lay in fragments on the grass, a baseball nearby. Almost instantly we heard the distant yowfing of our dog as his head appeared above our fence. Thomas waved to him (to much increased woofage from Blaze). Then we got to work: I showed Thomas how to use the hammer to pry out some of the extra nails that were still sticking out of the fence and as I did, I was surprised to note how wobbly this part of the fence was. Like most modern wooden fences, this thing had originally been installed in prefabricated lengths about eight feet long, and as I examined things more closely it looked to me as though this length had been nailed back up at some previous point--and with regular nails, not galvanized ones, so that they were pretty near rusted through.

As I was making this discovery, I heard the unmistakable voice of young master Sphincter, on his side of the fence.

"Whatcha doin', Thomas?" he asked, in exactly that way that suggested that he knew exactly what Thomas was doing.

My son showed remarkable restraint, focusing his agitation through the hammer as he pulled those extra nails from the spot on the fence where we'd be putting up the new piece. "He's so mean!" he hissed to me, each word punctuated by the Reeeenk! of a rusty nail. "He and Cheeky were throwing balls at the fence too, and they didn't get in trouble."

I looked up from my inspection. "Seriously?"

Reeeenk! "Yeah," he said. "He just (Reeeenk!) lied and said (Reeeenk!) he didn't do it." Reeeenk!

All of a sudden, it occurred to me to wonder just how often Cheeky and Sphincter threw balls at their own fence. Perhaps often enough to warrant a whole panel being knocked down (and having to be renailed, albeit with substandard materials), a detail nobody bothered to mention to me, or to Thomas during his lecture on respect for other people's property?

But then I didn't have time to wonder about that anymore because several things happened at once:

--I realized that Thomas had been pulling out way too many nails. In fact, he had pulled out all the rusty nails connecting the fence panel with the rest of the fence.

--Blaze's distant woofing, so often just sonic wallpaper in my average day, ramped up to a decidedly hysterical level.

--I turned to see what was bothering my dog and had time for one quick thought, and it was this: Doggy door!

--Which, coincidentally enough, is what the neighbor's pit bull had just come hurtling through on the back porch.

--As the dog came shooting across the yard, Thomas yelped and I felt a great weight smack me from behind as the entire eight-foot panel of cedar fencing collapsed on top of me. I pivoted in time to get both hands on it as the weight of the thing bore me almost to my knees, then I got under it and pushed it back up. A little too hard, as it turned out, because now I was lifting the thing up off the ground.

--Just then, Thomas climbed straight up my back and perched more or less on top of my head. The pit bull had arrived, snarling and snapping for all he was worth.

"Go! Go! Get the fuck out of there!" Blaze seemed to be barking in the distance. But you know, when you've got a 9-year-old on your head and about 70 pounds of cedar planks in your arms, getting the fuck anywhere is problematic. So I did the only thing I could, which was spin around and try to keep the fence between us and the dog.

For a second anyway, the plan worked. I don't think the pit bull expected me to try the Moving Fence trick. He backed away, growling at us for all he was worth. Then he tried to cut around the fence, so I kept turning, like a player in some surreal modern dance epic. We must have spun in about three full circles. Thomas said later it was like watching a bull fight, only, you know, with the matador wearing his son instead of one of those cunning hats, and using an 8-foot length of fence instead of a red cape.

And then I got the idea to sort of trap the pit bull between my piece of fence and the rest of the fence. So when I spun around a fourth time and got within sight of the fence, I took a step forward, nudging that tawny bastard up against the fence. He hopped back and I surged forward again, finally resting my burden up against the rest of the fence.

Except I hadn't, quite.

No, what I had actually done was put the length of fence precisely back in place. But in so doing, I'd also pushed the neighbor's pit bull out of his own yard.

And into the Asswise's yard.

Where, it turned out, he was only too happy to reacquaint himself with lil Sphincter.

Well, it all worked out okay in the end. Luckily for everyone, Mr. A was right: The pit bull turned out to be all bark and no bite. In short order, I was able to get him back into his own yard. It took considerably longer to convince the Asswise's youngest boy to come down from his perch atop the swingset (in fact, as of this writing, he may still be out there). Thomas got a somewhat unearned lesson in taking responsibility and mending one's fences, but I think it's fair to say that he also got an object lesson in poetic justice.

And no doubt you, gentle reader, learned a lesson too, which is that when a pit bull shows up in the story, you can be pretty well assured that he's going to get hold of someone's sphincter.

But it won't necessarily be mine.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


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