Monday, May 23, 2005


In Which I Count to 37 (and skip a lot as I go)...

I have a reputation in my family for having a great memory. Not for useful things, like remembering to bring down the new roll of toilet paper (which I was actually sent upstairs to retrieve). No, my specialty is long-term memory, and in particular for details, or a short sequence of details, often to the exclusion of everything else, such as context. I've come to call it "anecdotal memory" and it has served me well over the years.

Last week, I mentioned that I tended to recall the week leading up to my birthday more clearly than the actual day. And while that is true, I still remember interesting (to me anyway) moments or anecdotes from past birthdays. Taken as a whole, they make for an odd, disparate crazy-quilt of images with no real connection other than that they occurred on my birthday (having said that, I notice now that three of the moments revolve around baseball, which is odd, because I'm actually not that big a baseball guy). I can only hope these images are not the ones that will flash before my eyes when I breathe my last; I'd hate to enter the afterlife all confused and shouting "What the hell WAS that?"

#1 (fragment): I'm moving very quickly across a huge, sunny room. And I'm buried under a mound of dirt.

See what I mean about details? This contradictory moment bounced around in my head for years, and would have ultimately been dismissed as a half-remembered dream. But one day, planting the garden with my mom, I caught a whiff of sweet, decaying soil and the image came back to me in a rush. I mentioned it to my mom and she looked startled, suddenly remembering herself. Apparently, on my first birthday, Mom was in the kitchen, baking my first cake, while I was rolling about the house in a 1960s-era baby walker: it was essentially a sack with leg holes attached to a metal framework on wheels. I had a short torso but long legs, so while I could push myself along in the walker, I could barely see over the top of the thing. I wheeled myself over to a giant potted plant my parents kept in the breezeway. The physics of it escape me--I could not possibly have had the leverage to do this--but somehow I managed to uproot the plant and pull it out of the pot, along with most of the soil that was clumped to the roots. The pot, which was as tall as the walker, tipped over, filling the walker’s cloth sack--and covering me up to my face--with dirt. And as it fell, the pot also nudged the walker, sending it across the hardwood floor into the living room. My mom looked out the kitchen doorway in time to see the walker full of dirt careening by, the only sign that I was still in it being my furiously kicking legs. She caught me half a nanosecond later, and hauled me out, spitting dirt and squealing furiously. The cake burned.

#5: The surprise gift this year is something called The Pitch Back, a large net strung across a metal frame. In the center is a square panel with the picture of a catcher's mitt on it. This thing has been advertised on TV every afternoon and weekend since the beginning of spring. I have only just started playing catch with my dad and brother, but neither of them really like to play with me for very long because I didn't have very good aim. The Pitch Back seemed like a great way to solve that problem, so I begged for it. The idea is you throw the ball at it and no matter where it lands on the net or how far away you are, it'll pitch it back to you.

I just want to throw balls at it. I'm dying of suspense during the 15 minutes it takes my father to assemble this collection of poles and wingnuts. Finally, it's up. I stand about 10 feet away and throw the ball for all I'm worth. It hits the net and with a speed I can't believe, the Pitch Back launches the ball right back at me, hitting me squarely in the crotch. I go down in a silent "hoooff" of agony. My father can’t stop laughing.

It takes several minutes to catch my breath, but when I do my first words are "I HATE THAT BITCH PACK!!!" (I was prone to wixing my mords when I got angry). No amount of cajoling or reassurance from my father will compel me to throw anything else at the net. My dad gets frustrated--I'm sure the Pitch Back wasn’t cheap. "Goddammit!" he hisses, snatching the baseball from me. "Now watch! If you throw it right and catch it, there's nothing to be afraid of!" He winds up, hurls the ball at it and...yep, you got it. Pitch Back smashes HIM in the crotch too. By day's end, it is stowed in the furthest corner of the garage, a jumble of poles wrapped in a net, where it stayed til we moved.

#7: My pants are on fire. Specifically, the left pocket of my pants is on fire, because the 10 dollars my grandfather gave me is a burning a hole through it. It's the first real birthday money I can remember and I can spend it on anything I want. There's no Toys R Us in New Hampshire in the 1970s, so we are on our way to the 606 Toy Store in Manchester. My brother goes there to buy model kits (if memory serves, half the store was devoted to hobby stuff like models and trains, but the other half was traditional toy fare). My beloved Mego Batman action figure needs wheels, so I invest my money in a sleek Batmobile, which I treasured and which I still own.

#9: I'm in 4th grade and the school year is winding down. We have a class project planned for the last week of school, where we each get to dress up as our favorite celebrity or historical figure and do a presentation about that person. Most of the boys have chosen sports figures, and I am no different. I have decided to be Carlton Fisk, whose performance in the 1975 World Series is still pretty fresh in my memory (and who, like me, also knew what it was like to get hit in the crotch with a baseball). All my friends are basing their presentations on information from encyclopedias and sports almanacs and well-thumbed copies of Sports Illustrated. But I remember hearing that Fisk was from Vermont and still has a home there, so I get it in my head to write to the guy. My teacher, Miss Seaver (who had a brother named Tom, but not THAT Tom), encourages this endeavor, to the point of letting me write the letter during English class and even giving me the stamps to send it (one for the letter, one for the SASE I include to make a return reply easier).

But that was over a month ago and now here we are just a few days away from the presentation and I am a bit of a laughing stock among my friends. Jimmy Carr, the class jerk, has been making fun of me ever since I wrote the letter. "You can't write to Carlton Fisk! What a stupid idea! Like he'd answer you, oh I'm so sure!"

So there I am, sitting at my desk, poring over a sports almanac, when there's a knock on the classroom door. It's my mom. She conferences with Miss Seaver for a second, then they both gesture me to the door. I wasn't too surprised to see my mom. After all, it's my birthday and on birthdays, parents often showed up with an afternoon treat for the class--cupcakes, stuff like that.

But my mom isn't holding cupcakes. She’s holding an envelope. She hands it to me and I see it's in my own handwriting, and bearing a Vermont postmark! Inside are three items: two index cards densely packed with handwriting, which begins:

"Dear MM,

I was born in 1947, the day after Christmas, in Bellows Falls..."

The letter went on from there. The third item is something I hadn't even asked for: an autographed picture of the man himself. The letter was signed "My Best Regards, Pudge Fisk." You better believe I showed THAT to Jimmy Carr!

(Sadly, I don't have the letter and picture here, otherwise it would be posted today. My mom assures me it's in the iron box back home where she keeps wills and birth certificates and other important documents. She'll bring it on her next visit so you can see the letter my friend Pudge wrote to me.)

***(UPDATE 3/08: The Lost Fisk Letter is FOUND! Click here to read it!)***

#12: The birthdays blur for a while, but I remember this moment: It was my last day in the Midwestern town where we lived for a few years. It was also the last day of school. We're within hours of hitting the road and my best friend Shawn and I are sitting on the front steps, watching the movers load the van. We're sad, but not talking about it. Instead, we're making plans for when Shawn comes east to visit (he will end up spending a couple summers with us. It becomes an annual thing for a while). But he has to get home soon and we both know it. He stands up to leave, but fishes in his bookbag first and hands me a clumsily wrapped package.

"Something to read on the trip," he says. "It's not Encyclopedia Brown, but they're kinda good. Happy birthday. Open it when I'm gone." We shake hands awkwardly and then he's off, loping across the field to the bridge that will take him over the railroad tracks and home.

I rip open the package and two books fall out: The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles (it is, I'm embarrassed to say, my first exposure to the character of Sherlock Holmes). Inside one is a brief inscription that brings a lump to my throat: "To my Best Friend, who I am real sorry is leaving. I'll miss you but see you soon. Your Friend Always, Shawn."

#21: like my 12th birthday, this day is a confluence of many events: having recently wrecked my shit-brown Chevette, I have just taken delivery on a brand-new car (partially paid for by my family, which gave me the down payment as a college-graduation present). It's a grey Chevy Spectrum (later, they were part of the Geo line). My girlfriend Gretchen is in town, bringing her own gift: a car stereo, which my dad has spent the morning installing. We are listening to it now as we tear down I-89 to...the dentist. After a year of pain and discomfort, the impacted wisdom teeth in my upper and lower jaws must come out, and May 23 is the only open day to do it. Some people honor their 21st birthday by allowing people to buy them drinks. Others might enjoy, say, a celebratory romp in the sack with their buxom German girlfriend (if they have one handy). I spend my 21st birthday in bed, all right: mouth packed with bloody cotton, slurping Jell-O and milkshakes, and taking spoonfuls of grape jelly with crushed Tylenol-3 inside.

#24: I'm in Chicago. Gretchen has come and gone. Graduate school has come and gone. Even the poor Spectrum has come and gone, lost in a spectacular highway accident that should have killed me. Instead, here I am, alive and well, in my apartment, surrounded by friends. Her Lovely Self and I have been dating for 3 months and she has spent a good chunk of that time buying me new clothes (at this point in my life, even a blind man has better fashion sense than I). She keeps calling them early birthday presents, so now that my actual birthday has come, I beg her not to get me anything else. She doesn't. Instead, she bakes me a cake. Not from a box. From scratch. She also makes this amazing buttery frosting. From scratch. Only my mom has ever baked me a birthday cake before, so I'm overwhelmed. The fact that it also happens to be a delicious cake is just, well, icing. My dad always said he married my mom not just because she was a good woman, but because she was a Good Cookin' Woman, a distinction he could never quite explain to my satisfaction. Now I finally know what he's talking about.

#27: I'm on the company softball team and we have a game. I have to leave early because Her Lovely Self is taking me out to dinner. But this game is important too: we are playing our hated rivals, the loutish, braying team who work for a local manufacturer of ball bearings. They argue every call, deliberately slide into basemen and swear at every opportunity. They also are excellent ball players and we have not beaten them once this season.

Aside from being hit on the head by a softball earlier in the season, I am actually not such a bad fielder. I am, however, a terrible batter. Just awful. If I don't ground it to second base or doink it into the pitcher's glove, I end up popping out to right field. I have already struck out once today (and who strikes out in softball?), so in my second and last at bat, the ball-bearing team is waiting for me and begins jeering in earnest. We have two outs and two men on base. I am primed to choke and they know it.

So it surprises everyone--including me--when I send the first pitch flying. And I mean in one of those perfect arcs out to right field, way over the fielder's head, just 6 feet from going over the fence. I'm almost too stunned to run. Time slows, then stops completely. My dumbfounded teammates are off the bench, mouths all open in mid-scream. My friend Pudge Fisk is hunkered down next to me, catching the game--he winks at me through his mask. Even Randy Newman is here on the sidelines, sitting at a keyboard, playing the theme from the movie The Natural.

And then I see the right fielder chugging after the ball like his life depends on it and I bolt.

I make it home, even though the cut-off man snaps a throw to the plate that almost takes my head off (jerk). Those three runs put us in the lead and we win the game. It is a sports performance that will never again be duplicated.

#30: We're at the hospital for an ultrasound. The ultrasound is hooked up to some kind of VCR apparatus and last time we had asked for a copy of the tape, but were told by an imperious nurse that getting a personal copy was against state and hospital regulations (which turned out to be bullshit, but never mind). This time, while we're waiting for the technician to come in, I take a VHS tape out of my bag, pop it in the unit and hit the "record" button. The technician comes in to run the doohickey over Her Lovely’s Self’s abdomen and is so busy watching the screen, she never notices the red recording light is on. We watch in stunned silence as our son puts on an amazing show, doing things no baby has ever before done in the history of mankind, including yawning and sucking his thumb. In a few minutes, the technician steps outside to get some paperwork and I find the presence of mind to eject the tape and slip it in my bag. Back home, after fast-forwarding through 7 minutes of static, we watch the miraculous images over and over and over again.

#33: Like my good pal Jesus, here I am, crucified. Only I'm nailed to the cross of my own spine. The pain is enormous, a pulsing force of nature ramming down my leg. It's been this way for a month, ever since an afternoon of yard work gone horribly awry has left me with a bad back and this never-ending, inescapable, shooting pain. I am lying on the sofa, which is damp from the countless ice packs I have propped under me. My young son is crying, wanting to know why I won't give him a piggyback ride. Her Lovely Self comes in and says, "Trade you?" Without waiting for my answer, she leads my son away, but not before putting my 3-week-old daughter on me. The girl I will come to know as The Brownie stirs, muttering, gives me a baleful look, then settles on my chest and begins to make contented grunting noises. I can feel her rabbit's heart thump-thump-thumping against my own chest. I focus on the sound, the pain subsides. In seconds we are both asleep.

#35: The phone rings. It's the Really Big Magazine, with a really big birthday present. "We want you to come work for us," someone says. I don't remember the rest of the conversation or, indeed, the rest of the day. It's kind of a blur.

#37: That’s today. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Thanks for sharing your stories, they're funny and heartwarming - I smiled my way through the Fisk memory. What a moment!

Hope your birthday is an enjoyable one. Don't forget to have cake in the foxhole! (that, by the way, is magical - your kids are lucky to have parents who are as young-at-heart as you and your wife.)
Carlton Fisk - He was a hell of a player! I'm sure I have some old Carlton Fisk Cards around somewhere.

It's nice to know that you still have your batmobile. I still have my old "Turtle Wagon" from the first Ninja Turtle Cartoon.

Honestly, I actually have the new "Turtle Wagon" from the new Ninja Turtle Show.

Happy Birthday MM! About half of my friends share a Birthday with you.
I'm stilled stunned by the fact that you actually remember dumping a plant on yourself when you were ONE!

Laughed hysterically at the Bitch Pack.....I mean Pitch Back story!

Some great memories. Here's to many more!
No actually I wasn't too busy to read blogs yesterday, I was just, you know, waiting til the day after. The day after birthdays can sometimes be a let-down, see, because the cards have all been opened, and the presents unwrapped, and THEN what? So that's why I almost always wait til the day after to wish someone a Happy Birthday.

Hope it was a happy one!

I had a Batmobile once - I think I painted it from a kit but I doubt it's still around. Hadn't thought of that in years! Mom did keep all my old Johhny West dolls & horses though.
Happy Day After Your Birthday!
That is freakin amazing. Seriously I can hardly remember anything ... much less that many anecdots... Wow.. thanks
Happy birthday MM, found you through my random blog hunts .. :)

You are now officially bookmarked.

your writings are hillarious ... I love the foxhole blog.

The Brownie, just made my day.
Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

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Come and check it out if you get time :-)
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