Monday, March 29, 2010


In Which We Defile the Laws of Physics...

One of my worst parenting fears has finally come to pass.

No, the Brownie is not suffering PMS (although it seems to me she’s been rehearsing for it for years). No, boys have not been sniffing around, pitching whatever passes for woo in the 21st century (although it would be just my luck right now, what with Blaze on the disabled list).

In fact, this particular fear has nothing whatever to do with the girls, but with the boy. Thomas has begun asking me for help with homework that is beyond my comprehension.

I can feel stupid pretty much any time I want to, of course, but there is something special—something that really ramps up the Imbecile Factor—about staring goggle-eyed at a 5th-grade workbook and realizing that you are as clueless, as helpless to aid your son as if you were in a medically induced coma.

Math and science are the big problems, as I always knew they would be. I studied these subjects, of course, even excelled at them. I got (almost) straight A’s in high-school algebra and even passed a beginning calculus class my senior year. In college I took two years’ worth of science classes and did well at those too (although most of those courses were such light fare as History of Science and a Geology lab so basic it was known, even by its professors, as “Rocks for Jocks”).

The problem is that as soon as I passed these courses, everything I learned passed too—right out of my head. I comforted myself with the idea that my brain, having a (very) finite storage capacity, needed to make room for all the swell words and turns of phrase and cutting remarks I’ve felt compelled to store up over the years. Still, it’s embarrassing. From time to time, as I’ve rummaged around in the Lost and Found box of my memory, I’ve only ever been able to pull out a handful of formulae that, sadly, make up the sum total of my scientific and mathematical knowledge base:





The worst part is, I don’t quite remember what they’re for. I’m pretty sure one is for calculating percentage change, and another is the equation for a straight line (or maybe a curved line). The only one I’m certain about is the second one, and that’s not even a real mathematical equation: it’s the secret formula that obscure 1940’s super-hero Johnny Quick utters when he wants to run like hell. Which is what I feel like doing every time my son plops his homework in front of me.

Luckily, I have a solution to my math problem (as it were). Any time Thomas presents me with math that’s harder than long division, I send him to his mother. If it’s harder than basic algebra, Her Lovely Self gives him the phone and lets him call his aunt, who taught high-school math and can calculate pi to 20 decimal places without using her fingers and toes.

But for some reason, I get stuck with science. Even Her Lovely Self won’t touch it.

“You were a health reporter for years,” she’ll say. “Of course you know science.”

“No,” I’ll counter. “I know how to copy down what real scientists say to me. And I’m very good at repeating the words, ‘Can you explain that in terms a 5-year-old would understand?’ Not quite the same thing.”

“Well, you can do plumbing. You fixed the upstairs bathroom when it was leaking that one time. And electrical work, like the time you changed the overhead fixture in the Brownie’s room. You have to understand some basic scientific principles to do that stuff, right?”

And I try to explain that being able to switch out the wax ring under the toilet does not automatically mean that I know the first thing about fluid dynamics. And being electrocuted by my daughter’s ceiling fan does not mean I can tell the difference between an amp, a volt, or a watt, no matter how many of them course through my stiffened body. But it doesn’t matter. She called dibs on math, and blindsided me with science.

So it’s been a difficult winter, of me staring over my son’s shoulder, reading instructions, and then shouting things like, “Chemical equations? In fifth grade? Are you shitting me?” or “Bernoulli’s principle? What the f--?”

But this past week, Thomas came to me with a pad of graph paper and an assignment sheet. “Dad,” he said, with just a hint of forecasted doom in his voice. “I have to build a science project. Can you help me?”

Well, as we all know, when it comes to the practical application of science, I’m—well, okay, I suck at that too. On the other hand, I was the only kid in my high school ever to observe and record a case of spontaneous mayermorphosis in science lab, so I had that going for me.

“What’s the project for?” I asked, then braced myself.

“I have to build something that demonstrates the difference between potential and kinetic energy,” he said.

The moment he said this, I all but jumped and screamed “Eureka!” (attributed, apocryphally, to Archimedes, 3rd century BC, when he was sitting in a tub in Syracuse, trying to figure out a way to measure the volume of a crown and determine whether it was made of pure gold. Thank you, History of Science). For in that moment, the Lost and Found box of my memory had tipped on its side, and out from under a bottom flap, shiny like a forgotten coin, was a whole scientific definition.

“I know that one!” I cried. “Potential is the energy something possesses owing to its position or condition. Kinetic is the energy something possesses because it’s in motion. And there’s a formula for it too—KE=1/2mv squared, but I don’t remember so much about that.”

Thomas seemed marginally excited at this news. “You really know about it?” he asked.

“Buddy,” I said, “I am so accident-prone, I am pretty much a slave to potential and kinetic energy. Mostly kinetic energy. But never mind. What do you have to build?”

“Well,” he said. “There are a bunch of things we can build, but I need to write a report about it too, and I’m supposed to explain the change between potential and kinetic, and when something goes from one to the other.”

“Oh, well that’s easy,” I said, hardly daring to believe that such words were coming out of my mouth in connection with a science experiment. “You can do it by example.”

“Okay,” said Thomas. “Give me an example.”

I suppose I could have sent Thomas to any of my previous posts involving me falling, or getting hit by something, but instead I cast about the room, and my eyes fell on our resident canine convalescent. “Okay, Blaze is a good example. When the dogs attacked us last week and he crouched down to get ready to fight, he was in a state of potential energy, right? Then when he lunged for the dogs, that potential energy changed to kinetic energy because he was moving to tear them a new—what’s wrong?”

Thomas had a look on his face, one I recognized because I saw it all too often when I looked in the mirror after any night that I was trying to help him with his homework. I couldn’t blame him for being confused—I didn’t know the first thing about kinetic energy until sophomore science class; in 5th grade, it probably would have fried my little brain.

But now Thomas wants to use Blaze as a kind of living science display, so over the weekend, he spent a lot of time with the dog, making careful observations, and asking lots of questions.

“Why are his ears sticking to the cone? Is that kinetic or potential energy?”


“So when he has an itch, is the itch potential energy, and the leg he scratches with is kinetic?”

“Look! Blaze is squatting to take a dump! So that’s potential energy. But when is it—oh never mind, here comes the kinetic energy.”

In the end, I think we’ll just put together some kind of apparatus involving marbles on a track. We’ll be sure to report our results here. All in the name of science, of course.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Weep not, my lovely pack!

Oh! Melodramatic monkey has worried you needlessly.

Honestly. Just a scratch. Stings a bit. Less so just now. Lovely veterinarian, free hand with the anesthetics. May yet be feeling their influence. Quite lovely.

At rest upon The Big Bed. In The Girl’s lap. She is scratching The Good Spot Behind the Ears. The Queen Baby here too. Weeping. Shed no tears, my darling puppy. I tell you, I am feeling no pain. None.


Where was I?

Cannot seem to lick myself. Something in the way. Oh. It's a...what is it? No matter.

I am well. I am lovely! The reports of my death, et cetera. Will take more than a little surgery to still this dog’s heart, which is bursting with emotion for you all. I love everyone! And I tell you this: never again shall

Roast Beef! Oh! The Boy has brought. Let me—

Rrr. Dizzy to sit up. Maybe later.

Mm. Big Bed. Good Spot. Roast Beef.




A Long Walk, Shortened...

Just time for a quick and somewhat sobering update.

It’s been a trying couple of weeks. Some kind of flu bug has swept through the house, striking first the Brownie (who never gets sick), then the Éclair. Thomas is now in the on-deck circle here at the Vomiting All-Star Game. I can only thank God that Her Lovely Self and I have thus far remained immune to the ravages of this inelegant and (I must say) rather explosive virus.

But that’s the least of my worries. Yesterday, I was walking Blaze on the grounds near where we’re staying. With everyone sick, I haven’t had time to give him a good long walk, so I thought I’d make it up to him. But then the two aging German shepherds who patrol the grounds came running over, barking their fool heads off. This happens nearly every time I go out. Usually, it’s enough for them to see me, and then they back off. If they don’t, I shout their names in a declarative voice and they usually turn away.

Not this time. This time they kept charging.

I don’t know what the deal was, whether they were all amped up from chasing squirrels all morning or canine Alzheimer’s kicked in, but these two dogs were on a mission. I dragged Blaze and myself over to the walking path where I was told the Invisible Fence was laid. If it was, it wasn’t working, or the dogs were past caring. They kept coming.

They’re big, too, half a head taller than Blaze, and scary when the pair of them are coming for you at speed. The more aggressive one, referred to as Adolf in the post in which they were introduced, got there first and was crouching to jump on me. But Blaze got between us and they skirmished for a second. In that second, the other dog, Eva, who has to date been sweet and retiring, came around from the side and, snarling, went for my leg.

(Thank God the kids weren’t with us.)

Blaze should have looked after himself. He would have been fine. But when he saw Eva go behind me, he turned and went after her. To protect me. And when he did, Adolf clamped his jaws onto Blaze’s exposed flank and almost tore my dog’s leg off.

I’m a real bleeding heart when it comes to animals, but I’m embarrassed to say, I flipped out. Thanks to Blaze, Eva only got my pant-leg, so my foot was free, and I pushed my boot-heel into her face as hard as I could. She wasn’t injured, but she let go. Then I brought my leg around in wide arc and stepped right down on Adolf’s head. That probably didn’t help matters—he still had Blaze’s leg in his jaws—but he let go quick enough (you would too if I was standing on your head). I’m ashamed to admit it, gentle reader, but I was this close to putting everything I had into driving that dog’s head into the ground, but I let him up and he took off yelping (he was also not injured). I threw Blaze over my shoulder like he was a sack of potatoes and rushed him into the house.

The bite went through to the bone on both sides and by the time we got Blaze to the vet, an infection was already setting in. The vet isn’t too concerned about his ability to repair the damage and save Blaze’s leg (it could have been much worse if Adolf had started shaking him). But, well, Blaze isn’t the dog he used to be—he’s at least nine years old, and almost 20 pounds overweight. The vet’s concerned about how well he’ll do under anesthesia. He’s worried my dog’s heart will give out.

Which, as a pro tip for all you vets-in-training out there, is not the sort of thing I would say in front of children, especially my children, who love Blaze more than anything, including popsicles and chocolate pudding. They’re stricken right now, and who can blame them?

We’ll know more this afternoon, but meanwhile, sitting here at my desk at work, I feel like I’m in the grip of an explosive virus, ready to throw up or feel my heart give out. Blaze and I have been through worse than this—far worse--but I can’t help but worry.

So what do I do? I worry all of you along with me. Sorry.

But I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking and am convinced your good thoughts and well wishes have helped us before, so please have a thought for Blaze today. How I wish he had just let that dog bite my leg instead.

More as soon as I know it.

But right now, I'm taking a late lunch and going to talk with someone about keeping Adolf and Eva behind something a little stronger than an imaginary fence.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


In Which We Establish Our Bona Fides...

Everyone has some aspect of his or her life that should be easy, but never is, that makes us wonder, Why does this have to be so hard? It’s usually a normal everyday thing, something that the rest of the population deals with almost effortlessly. But for whatever reason, there’s always something, some little thing, that makes Fate point a bony finger in your direction and say, “Him. He’s going to have a harder time dealing with that than anyone else.”

There’s no telling what that thing will be. I have a friend who probably holds the world record for dialing the wrong telephone number. It always takes him at least two tries to connect with whoever he’s trying reach. Even when he got a mobile phone and carefully entered all of his important numbers in the address book, he’d get a wrong number.

My parents, God love them, were fated never to invest their money well. Any time they had an extra bit of money set aside and wanted to invest it, the investment went sour. They would invest in stocks, only to see the company go under. They switched to real estate and the first house they tried to flip went to a couple who couldn’t get financing from a bank, so my parents held the note on their mortgage. Then the couple declared bankruptcy three months later. They went into business for themselves once or twice, and it never worked out.

My personal hardship? The thing that should be easy but isn’t?

Driver’s licenses. The universe just doesn’t want to extend driving privileges to me.

I was reminded of this fact the other day, when I went to turn in my out-of-state license and get a new one. I was told that here, in the new state I’m calling home, the bureau of motor vehicles is adhering to some new Secure ID policy, and that to acquire a new license I would need to bring in several forms of identification, including my birth certificate, my Social Security card, a W-2 form, and three pieces of mail with my in-state address on them (and those pieces of mail could not be more than 60 days old).

I get that they want to conform to the new federal guidelines, and crack down on ID theft, but come on! It’s a driver’s license. I’ve signed newborns out of the hospital with far less proof of identity than what my new home state was asking of me now.

But my consternation was far from complete. After reviewing my paperwork and all but doing a DNA swab and demanding blood and stool samples, the clerk handling my application informed me that I would now have to take a written test to qualify for my license. She pointed to a dark corner of the building crammed with little desks. Then she handed me a thick sheaf of paper. “There’s your test,” she said. It was 50 questions long!

I slumped into a desk over in the corner and glanced through the test questions. They were multiple choice. The first one was:

The minimum age to acquire a driver’s license in the state is:

A. 16 years, 270 days
B. 16 years, two months
C. 18 years
D. How the hell should I know?

Or something like that. I read through the entire test and it was filled with questions like this: stuff that was somewhere in the state driving manual, but had no real bearing on my ability to safely pilot a motor vehicle. Which we already know I can do perfectly well. Ahem.

It wasn’t so much that I was dismayed with the questions as I was with the fact that I’d have to take a test. Unless they’re essay format, I’ve never been very good at tests, driving tests in particular. Not because I’m stupid (so much) but because, as I’ve said, the universe doesn’t want me to get a driver’s license. And the way the universe tells me this is often through the medium of a driver’s test.

I’ve known this since I was 14, when I was a sophomore in high school and first had to take driver’s ed. Back then, the way it worked was: you had however many hours of classroom instruction; at the end of the year, you took a written test which, if you passed, would earn you your learner’s permit. Then, in junior year, you’d take the behind-the-wheel portion of driver’s ed, log in however many hours of practice driving the state required and by the end of that year—or your 16th birthday, whichever came last—you’d take your actual driving test and get your license.

Problem was, I was the youngest in my class by almost two years and wouldn’t be old enough to use a learner’s permit until my senior year, but I was made to take driver’s ed anyway. It was taught by our health and phys-ed teacher, a real piece of work named Mr. Jack-Ass.

I’m joking, of course. That wasn’t his real name. His real name was Mr. Super Humongous Jack-Ass.

By the time I met him, Mr. S was well past his career zenith—hell, his life’s zenith. He had briefly played professional football, or so we’d been told. Between the intervening years of that apex moment and his tenure as my phys-ed/health/driver’s-ed teacher, he had devoted himself to a new sport, one that evidently involved over-eating. As I scan my mental Rogue’s Gallery, I have a general visual impression of him as a fleshy fellow in food-flecked velour tracksuits whose elastic supports had been stretched literally to their limits.

Talking to him was never something you wished for because Mr. S was a spitter and in conference with him, he would convey large amounts of saliva—along with bits of whatever food he’d recently been eating—onto your face and shirtfront. As if this wasn’t enough of a deterrent to interacting with the man, he also had a tendency to treat any conversation with a student as an opportunity for derision and public humiliation.

I discovered this on the first day of driver’s ed, when I went up to his desk and asked if I might instead be permitted to take a study hall period in lieu of a class in which I was legally too young to participate. After making fun of me for being the baby of the class (a constant refrain of my formative school years), Mr. S essentially told me I had to take the class whether the state of New Jersey thought I was old enough or not.

“But what’s the point?” I asked. “By the time I’m old enough to use the learner’s permit, it’ll be expired and I’ll have to do this all over again.”

“The point?” he cried, liberally distributing spit and masticated chili dog across my glasses. “The point is you take the class now or get an F!” A few of the jocks in class snickered behind me, which only encouraged Mr. S. “And don’t worry, I’ll let you repeat the class with me next year,” he added, then grinned at the jock douchebags behind me, as if he’d scored a lovely point of wit at my expense.

It was one of those moments—I had them often in my youth--where I wished for clairvoyance, so I could inform Mr. S that he’d never get the pleasure of having me in class again, that he’d be gone from the school in less than a year, fired over an incident involving him dropping his velour trousers to moon a bevy of pert young cheerleaders. But in the event, I just slunk back to my seat. I took the course, I passed the test, I got my useless learner’s permit. And then the next year, my schedule didn’t permit me to take driver’s ed with the sophomores and their new teacher. I could have done it senior year, but my ego got in the way and I couldn’t stand the thought of retaking a course I’d aced two years previously. So I graduated and started college without a driver’s license. Which you wouldn’t think would matter (since I was also without a car), but my student ID wasn’t much help when it came to cashing checks.

Thus it was that the next summer, I rode my bike way the hell across town to the local DMV and sat once again for the written test to get my learner’s permit. It was harder than I remembered, but I passed. A few weeks later, I went back to take my behind-the-wheel test and it was an epic failure.

The main problem, as I saw it, was that I had done all of my practice driving in small cars, mainly an old diesel VW Rabbit and a Chevy Citation. The car I used in the actual test was some ungodly Detroit-made monster that shared the same dimensions as a World War II aircraft carrier. Thus when it came to the pivotal moment in the test—the dreaded Parallel Parking—I humiliated myself. I misjudged the distance to the curb by about 20 feet, so that when I turned to back in and gave it a little gas, the aircraft carrier didn’t just hit the curb, it took it out. And kept going. I crunched on through the pulverized cement and up across the sidewalk, leaving a tire mark in the grass of the yard beyond. Then, just to make a day of it, I put the car back in drive and accelerated forward, off the yard, off the sidewalk, out of the parking space, and right into the path of an oncoming car. Luckily, the driver of that car must have passed her road test with flying colors, because she put on a textbook display of defensive driving, weaving around me and managing to give me the finger without losing control of her vehicle.

I had to wait three weeks before I could take the test again, but this time I borrowed a tiny Dodge Omni, and made my friend bring it to my house at the crack of dawn, where I amused some of my early-rising neighbors with an exhibition in parallel parking that went on for almost an hour. I parallel-parked that sucker about 200 times, leaving curbs and lawns intact with almost every attempt, then drove straight over to the testing site. I passed, but as the instructor handed me my paperwork that finally enabled me to get a driver’s license, I remembered feeling a sense of hollow victory, and thinking to myself, Why did this have to be so hard?

I had the same feeling many years later, when I moved to Pennsylvania, another state that required you to take a classroom exam before they’d grant you driving privileges in their state. That was almost more humiliating than the incident with the aircraft carrier. Because it wasn’t a traditional written test. The classroom featured three large antiquated boxlike consoles that each looked like a cross between a Soviet-made television set and a slot machine. In fact, they were audio-visual devices that flashed a slideshow up on a screen, showing you different traffic signs and driving scenarios. After giving you about three milliseconds to study the image, the screen would switch to a question about the image you just saw and you were required to press one of three lighted buttons on the console to give your answer. If you answered correctly, the machine whirred pleasantly on to the next slide. But if you got the question wrong, the contraption made a resounding CLUNK that signaled your failure to everyone throughout the building, possibly even across the state. Pennsylvania gave you a very small margin of error. Three CLUNKS and you were out. I got three CLUNKS, and had to wait two weeks before I could face the devices again. Even then I barely passed because when I accidentally bumped the machine with my leg, some kind of malfunction occurred and I got two unearned CLUNKS. Luckily, I answered the remaining questions correctly (and rather gingerly).

Ever since, I’d been lucky enough to live in states that required me only to trade my current license for a new one. It had been 17 years since I had to reckon with another test, and now here I was having to deal with a freaking exam of 50 questions—none of them essay-type.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Except of course that it wasn’t, so much. I took my time, employed what common sense I have, and finished the test. I only got one question wrong—the first one (turns out it was 16 years 270 days, not 16 years, two months). Then proceeded through the rest of the processing without incident.

Until the end, when the clerk who took my money and my picture, informed me that I would have to use a paper receipt as my license until the bureau of motor vehicles finished processing my information and making—by hand, I suppose—my new super-secure ID.

“Oh,” I said. “Do I just come back in and pick it up?”

“No,” the clerk said. “We’ll mail it to you.”

I paused a beat. “Can you send it to my office? I’m not home during the day to sign for anything.”

The clerk shook her head. “That’s okay. We just send it regular mail.”

I blinked for a few seconds, then said. “Are you shitting me?”

The clerk blinked back.

“I have to bring in every personal credential to my name so you can confirm my identity and create this secure ID—which you then just pop in the mail and trust to the US Postal Service?” I said this last a little shrilly, I admit. I had suddenly morphed into Mr. Super Humongous Jack-Ass, minus the velour tracksuit. I may have even sprayed a little spittle and microscopic bits of food at her while I said it.

The woman shook her head—I gathered this was not the first time she’d heard this response—and muttered, “Why does this have to be so hard?”

Took the words right out of my mouth.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

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