Post-snow Syndrome

There is still over two feet of snow on the ground. Despite the cheery brilliance of the sunshine, the thermometer hasn’t gotten out of bed for days. It still reads zero, both in temperature and declination. I remember last August when it used to stand on its tiptoes nearing 90 degrees. Now, when the wind blows, it can be downright dangerous out there.

We have wool and fleece and solid winter layers, but there’s only so much you can do outdoors when the snow is taller than your oldest child and you don’t have snowshoes or skis. Outside the window it looks beautiful. The snow looks like a snapshot of gentle ocean swell flooding the trees and neighborhood. The sun dazzles the snow so far beyond white that you might go blind looking at it. It nearly comes up to window by my office, and I often imagine stepping through the window and walking into another world.

For a day or two the children got restless and Dawn was going stir crazy. I came out of my office and found them playing a new game. She would reach up, pluck a long cobweb from the corners of the ceiling, and release it. The children would leap for the gossamer strands parachuting to the floor as if they were soap bubbles or feathers or some other ephemeral prize. That was a good afternoon; killed half an hour easy and got a little house work done on the side.

The city has the personnel and equipment to handle a twelve or even fifteen inch snowfall, but the thirty inches that struck us on Valentine’s Day closed the schools for four days because they couldn’t clear the sidewalks. Eventually the work got done. We watched the world’s largest snow blower on wheels vacuum our little dead-end street, leaving a four foot berm along both sides of the road. Last weekend we built snow caves and slides in it. The children built and slayed a snow dragon before making it their friend.

I think our food supplies will hold out, but tomorrow I’ll probably strap on some tennis rackets to my feet and set my tofu trap lines, just in case. It’s tough being vegetarian in winter.

The Trollop

Dawn and I are both avid readers, though it might be more accurate to say that Dawn is voracious while I am merely a selective dilettante. A new book for me is not much different than a new toy is for my children. When it first appears, I can think and talk of nothing else, but after a few days, the novelty wears off.

By the side of my bed is a wooden TV tray table with a stack of some two dozen books I have started. Unless a book is truly good or truly short, it might stay by my bedside for months. Eventually I will finish it through sheer stubbornness. Lately, though, I find myself gravitating to short story collections. With short stories, you can’t lose the plot after a week’s hiatus.

Dawn does not have this problem. She reads while cooking. She reads furtively in the bathroom. When Rose was a baby, Dawn used to read while rocking or nursing, but Samuel won’t let her do that. When she was a child, she used to read while walking down the street. She reads after the children are asleep with a mug of tea resting beside her on the floor like a faithful dog. We have numerous tea stains on the carpet and various paperbacks. She reads when she ought to be sleeping, when she is craving sleep, when knows she will be strung out and cranky in the morning if she keeps reading. But Dawn can read twice as fast as anyone else I know, so even when she declares “I’ll stop after this chapter,” I know that the chapter headings will blur into the prose.

Books in Dawn’s possession do not get a chance to sit around and spoil. And when she gets her hands on something especially fat and juicy, I know I’ll have to put it a few extra shifts folding clothes if I don’t want to pick wrinkled T-shirts out of the clean laundry baskets.

Occasionally I can give Dawn a run for her money. Dawn is not the only one who can lose her mind in a book. Sometimes a special book comes along and seduces me. Perhaps I will see it on display in Bear Pond Books like a runway model, showing off in its latest cover, knowing it isn’t the cover you are interested in. But I haven’t the time. I tell myself I am happily married with two dozen books waiting on the side, and I don’t need the complication of a new literary paramour. Eventually my resolve weakens, and I will sneak a copy home, hiding it in my bedside stack under a thick college Biology tome.

I do not read it right away. I want a time and a place when I know I won’t be interrupted. My job and the children and the house always require more attention than I have to give them, so I plan a secret date with my book, feeling almost unfaithful to Dawn, because she and I never have enough time for each other either. The guilt is mind-numbing, and many times I come close to confessing everything to her. But I don’t.

Then comes a night. I’m sitting at the dining room table finishing up the last dregs of some work project that I could not complete before 6pm. The children are sleeping soundly, like angels. Dawn has been on her feet for hours and she cannot stay awake a moment longer. She kisses me on the cheek, reminds me not to stay up late, and off she goes to bed.

I wait five minutes. Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen. I wait until I can hear that her breathing is slow and deep in the bedroom. I tiptoe in. Stealth is essential. In a house with preschool children, you can never be sure what your bare feet will encounter in the dark. Slipping around the bed, I run a finger down the precarious stack of books in the dark and find the wide, sturdy binding of the biology text. Blindly, I reach underneath and slide out the hidden volume, stopping at any unnatural shift in Dawn’s breathing, but it is hard to hear from the pounding of my heart. Somehow I succeed without unsettling the pile, and I make my escape, quietly closing the door behind me.

Out with it! We are free. I dance to the living room couch with my partner in late night debauchery. I turn down the lights and break out the Oreo cookies. These are normally reserved for Sabbath, but I am shameless. Reclining together on the couch, I click on the table lamp, and all my gleeful anticipation curdles to murderous jealousy.

There are brown tea stains soaked through the outer edge of the pages. A bookmark rests in between pages 136 and 137.

In the morning, Dawn wakes with the children to find the book resting on the kitchen table. She knows I know, but we wait until Rose is off at school and Samuel is occupied with his blocks to have a whispered conversation full of accusations and tears.

In the end, we work it out, as we always do. We are good people at heart, living in a sad and lonely world. We share this little trollop of a book, taking turns, feeling ectasy and shame, but the book cares nothing for our feelings. In the face of its taunting disdain, Dawn and I band together again. After a few torrid and sleepless nights, we send the little homewrecker packing. It is cruel of us perhaps, but surely no less than was deserved.

Valentine's Day

Upstate NewYork lay prostrate under a record-breaking 110 inches of snow. We saw their beseiged homes on television barracaded behind white fortresses. We heard the disaster zone declaration and the inevitable complaint (well the plows have stopped running because there’s no place left to put the darn stuff). We grit our teeth and endured their whining and their bragging, because we are, after all, stoic Vermonters. But really, would it have diminished their glory if they could have spared us a few inches? A mere half foot of lovely, soft snow falling gently on an aging town tired of seeing last year’s dead weeds? It was February and, of our three snow falls to date, none had outlasted their respective weekend.

Then the weatherman told us a whopper, a real big fish tale. A large front moving through guaranteed to drop at least two feet of snow. It was so unbelievable it had to be true. No one could lie so boldly. Schools would close. Sleds would be dusted off. Cars would be stranded. We would all be shoveling and plowing for days. Just lovely to think about. And we even had enough warning to stock up the essentials. A quick trip to town for milk, eggs, books, and don’t forget the chocolate. It was the day before Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day has always been a conundrum for me. As a child raised in a Jewish household, we never celebrated Christmas or Easter. There was no Christmas tree, nor even that sad attempt at assimilation, the Chanukah bush. Cultural and religious lines were clearly drawn, and we didn’t have a problem with it. But for some reason, it never occurred to me to ask why it was OK to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day, or even Halloween, also known as All Hallows Eve which the Catholics observe with a midnight mass. At what point does a Christian holiday become secular enough for Jews to celebrate? For that matter, at what point does a pagan celebration become Christian enough for Jews not to celebrate? I don’t have the answer. But when Rose announced that she was making Valentine’s for her school friends and her gymanstic teacher and, days later, for members of her own family, we did not raise an eyebrow. Dawn had a shopping spree at the Arts and Crafts store and Rose spent days cutting and glueing.

Just after midnight on Valentine’s Day, the snow began to fall. When we woke up there was a decent six inches of powder on the ground, dry as sand and light as cotton. Like dry sand you could squeeze it in your hand and it would pour out when you opened your hand. Like cotton, it would blow away in a light breeze. We cleared away six inches off the driveway in no time. The shoveling was easy. At first.

It continued to fall all day, small grains no thicker than mist. At times it seemed like fog. It seemed as inconsequential as a summer drizzle by the ocean, but it fell relentlessly all day, and the banks began to rise. We could not keep up with the shoveling and stopped trying. Every once in a while I would look out the window and shake my head. I had never seen so much snow in one day, not in Wisconsin, not even in Alaska.

Rose made Valentines for each of her friends and her gymnastics teacher. Dawn spent hours making complicated cookies. Samuel made as much mischief as he could.

The snow fell all day…

and all night …

We woke Thursday morning to a clear day, cold, below-zero, a frail breeze that nevertheless cut like a knife. We gave up on the path to the front door. Instead, I chiseled a foot path from the garage man door, down the driveway, to the street.

The next day, we took the children outside and played.

We spent much of Thursday clearing our driveway, lifting shovelfull after shovelfull of snow over our shoulders and hurling it over the seven foot drifts beside our driveway. Dawn loved it; she worked off all the full-time Mom shut-in frustration and anxiety and was in a much better mood afterwards. We dug caves for the children in the walls beside the driveway. God help us if it snows again because there’s no place to put it.

Moving Day

Welcome to my new journal. Take off your shoes. The breeze off the ocean tastes salty, and the sand is warm under your toes. Turn on the Jimmy Buffet and cozy up with a beach chair.

I’ve relocated from my tiny condo in upscale Blogger to the unspoiled wilderness of JournalScape. I’ve been here a week, and I can hardly believe the place hasn’t been gentrified yet. The property manager assured me that the conservation trusts are in place for perpetuity, and that no “improvements” were planned or slated anytime soon. It’s all 1990’s HTML here, quaint and peaceful.

Still I tiptoed nervously for a day or two, afraid to uncover some hive of features or custom settings that would need attending to, perhaps even some scripting. Then I realized there was something not right with my subtitle. It was too large, and I couldn’t find any place to set the font size. Maddening. I’m usually a self-sufficient kind of tech guy, so it was with some humiliation that I broke down and called tech support. Imagine my surprise when an actual breathing human being answered the phone.

“Joirnalscape. Charlie here.”

“Hey Charlie. This is Harry over in http://www.journalscape.com/phoeniceus…”

“Phony what?”

“Phoeniceus. P-H-E … um, I mean, P-H-O-E, er…”

“Whatever. What can I do you for?”

“Um. Oh yeah. I’ve put a subtitle in my journal, you know, in the text box for subtitles. There’s just the one textbox you know, it’s kind of hard to miss. Ha ha.”

“Hmm.” In the background I hear the buzz of a TV.

“Anyway, it’s quite large. It kind of looks like the title just continues on to the next line.”

“Un-huh. And what’s the problem?”

“Well, that’s the problem. It’s too large. I want to change the font size. I was hoping to make it smaller, but I can’t find any controls or widgets to change it.”

“Widgets?”

He said the word as though it was some exotic foreign dish his wife had read in a magazine and then (surprise) served for dinner. Clearly he was a meat and potatoes guy. Widgets left a bad taste in his mouth.

“Or maybe. I dunno. Is there a scripting language?”

“Scripting! Christ, mister!” He was angry now. “This ain’t no Live Journal here. This is tech support, not life support. I didn’t leave that rat race in the Big Apple to spend all day teaching widgets and scripting to some four-eyed geek with no social life. You interrupted my daytime soap opera for this.”

“Oh, sorry about that. I just…”

“You can read the damn subtitle, can’t you?”

“Uh… yeah.”

“So what’s your problem? None. No problem. End of story. Chill out, guy. There’s booze in the bar if you need to relax, and shuffle board at the cobana where you can work off that type A attitude. Widgets, geez.” And he hung up.

That’s when I understood I was free. I mean really free as far as online journaling goes. He had given me permission to not care, in words I had often imagined saying to my own clients but never had the guts. No more endless tinkering with Form. I could lose myself in pure Content.

I keep a blog for two reasons. The first is to practice writing. Nothing goes in my blog that hasn’t been edited, rewritten, and passed through at least three times. Even then I am usually not satisfied with it, but one must send the children out in the world to fend for themselves at some point.

The second reason is to have a time travel machine. It’s a way for me to communicate with myself over time. Twenty years from now I can look back over these entries and remember the little day to day stuff. I will have forgotten it all by then. I have forgotten so much of my past twenty years. A lot can happen in a couple of decades.

Portrait 1987
1987
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
– Milan Kundera
Portrait 2005
2005

Did you see that? I did that with straight HTML, older than Creation, but ever so simple, and a dash of CSS. I could never do that in Blogger. And that was the problem.

Blogger came with so many bells and whistles that I didn’t need and never used. I just wanted a home page like my friend Debby’s, but I could never make Blogger do it. I’m sure it’s possible, but the more I tinkered with their arcane scripting language, the more frustrated I got.

One day I realized that the whole point of this journal was to get away from being a technology geek and write. It wasn’t to learn all the intricacies of the Blogger interface and how to manipulate it. And then a thought came to my little bit-addled brain. “Hey!” it whispered, “I don’t have to stay in this relationship!” It only took me three months to figure out, which, in retrospect, was the shortest I ever stayed in a dysfunctional relationship, so that’s improvement right?

Shuffleboard, anyone?

Great Balls of Fire #3

“Oh!” I yell from the kitchen, an open-throated roar of alarm.

Rose was asleep. Dawn was in Samuel’s room trying to rock him down for the night. I was finishing up the dishes, my hands covered in suds up to the elbows, lost in thought, not really seeing anything, relying on my hands to do the work. Then a bright light in my peripheral vision caught my attention like an angry tap on the shoulder. The light came from outside, and I looked out the window in time to see a fireball rise twelve feet in the air behind my neighbor’s house.

That’s when I yelled. A short burst that got Dawn running down the hallway thinking I had cut off my hand. She brought Samuel with her, now wide awake, who wanted to “see Papa! see Papa!” By the time she got to the kitchen, the accelerant on my neighbor’s stack of wooden pallettes had mostly burned off and all that remained was a cheery blaze roughly eight feet high and thirty feet or less away from our house.

Our neighbor is a young man in his twenties and perhaps not the most farsighted thinker. He lost his drivers license due to repeated violations of some sort or other. He likes to snowboard, but the snow has been poor this year, and I often find him taking short little rides down our dead-end street. Now as I watched him and his buddies standing a respectable distance from the conflagration they had gleefully ignited, their bottles of beer glinting red and crimson in the firelight, I realized that, without transportation, he must find life in semi-rural central Vermont a bit on the dull side. I’m certain this was just his idea of a little weekend entertainment to pass the time.

In my younger days, I might have naively gone over with some chips and dip. Instead, all I could think was “These idiots are needlessly endangering my house and my family.” And I vowed to do something about it.

Dawn refused to let me talk to them; for some reason she thought crashing a party of drunks and asking them to put out their fire and go home might not be the safest thing I could do. I didn’t agree, but said nothing. We didn’t know they were drunk, and if they were, well, then they should have no problem putting out the fire by themselves. But I did not want to upset Dawn, so I needed another plan.

I suppose if I had really wanted to get my neighbor in trouble, I could have simply called his mother. It was her house, and he was staying there by her good graces. But it wasn’t my intention to create undying emnity between us, so I called 9-1-1 instead.

Mind you, I had not intended to call 9-1-1. I had asked the operator for the fire department saying it was not an emergency, but she connected me to the 9-1-1 operator anyway. The woman on the line didn’t seem put off by my call; I suppose my neighbor was not the only person with nothing to do on a Saturday night in Montpelier. She said, “Hmm. No, I don’t see any information that says your neighbor acquired a permit for an in-city bonfire. I’ll call the fire department and we’ll see if they can issue one.”

Ten minutes later I stole a glance out the window. A red pickup truck was parked on the street and a uniformed officer of the fire department was having a little chat with my neighbor, an open ticket or receipts pad in his hand. Ttwenty minutes later, I checked again and the bonfire had magically moved fifty feet farther up the hill on the other neighbor’s property, a bit smaller and chastened. At least it was a decent distance from any dwelling or trees.

Great Balls of Fire #2

The second time I started a fire in a microwave oven was twenty years later, in the first house I ever bought. It was a 1950’s house, a charming single-story dwelling standing between two identical units in Ballard on equitable 1/8th acre lots. Built for returning GIs, the entire building was not much larger than a trailer home. It had four rooms, three closets, two exteriors doors, and a single bathroom. The rooms were decorated with different colors of shag carpeting and fake wood paneling, except the largest room, the kitchen, which had psychedelic-colored, indoor-outdoor carpeting and a drop ceiling made of the large accoustic tiles one associates with institutional buildings.

The house was a time capsule from the 1970’s, and not an upwardly-mobile part of the 1970’s either. The widower who had lived and died there had bequeathed it to his girlfriend, another retiree who, coincidently lived across the street from the house I had been renting, although I didn’t know this at the time. His home improvement projects were eclectic, dependent on cast-offs from the local hardware chain store where he had worked. All such projects froze after his retirement twenty years earlier.

With some help from friends, Dawn and I managed to tame this shy, feral house. We removed the carpets, wood paneling, and drop ceiling. Underneath were lathe and plaster walls with knob and tube wiring behind them. I cut holes in walls with a reciprocating saw, rewired with modern Romex, and put up sheetrock over all of it. It was during this process that I learned that home-decorating is an innate skill that cannot be learned, and that I was fortunate to have Dawn. One small example, Dawn was set on blue for the kitchen, but I did not want a wall color that I thought would be depressing in the gray Seattle winters. We compromised, and in a sense, I succeeded, because the final product was indistinguishable from eggshell white.

Our parents visited not long after. The bathroom was so small that her six-foot-tall father had to put his feet in the bathtub in order to sit on the toilet, though as a retired navy sailor, he was not put off by this too much. My mother, on the other hand, took one look at it from the inside and said, “You’d better marry that girl, because if she’s willing to live in this house with you, she must really love you.”

The previous owner had left us an abandoned out-building. It was roughly twenty by fifteen feet, and inside there was a wet bar with a mirrored wall behind, a refrigerator, an electric heater, and the same shag carpeting and fake wood paneling as we had found in the house. We referred to it as the “dog house,” for we intuited that the previous owner had spent many pre-widower hours in it alone or with his drinking buddies when he needed some space. Our intuition also informed us that he never set foot in it again after his wife died. The needles from the overhanging shore pine created a large composting pile on the roof which soaked up the endless winter rains until they rotted through the shingles. The carpeting and walls smelled of the mold and mildew so fierce that the refrigerator was annealed to the wall.

Clearly the building had to go and not merely because it was a significant health hazard. I wanted that space for my vegetable garden. Dawn helped me dispose of the large appliances with the help of a rented UHaul and appliance dolly, but then school started, and she began work on her physical therapy degree in earnest. She left me to the task of demolition, not without some mild anxiety and foreboding.

I worked on weekends and evenings, dismantled it in pieces with the precision of a surgeon, removing nails and screws and bolts, peeling off carpet and tiles and paneling and facade boards and windows. After a few weeks I had finally stripped it down to it framework, and now was the dangerous part. I feared the roof collapsing on me, and I did not want to die for a few vegetables, so I called in reinforcements. A former client of mine, one of the nicest people I have ever known and a man who loved demolition, arrived with his wife and we began the dangerous work of knocking down the rest with sledgehammers and crowbars. We started early in the morning with a UHaul and made several trips to the dump.

On returning from one such trip, I walked through the house and Dawn raised her head from dusty volumes of anatomy to remark, “By the way, there was a tremedous crash out back and I’m not certain your client is still alive, but I was too scared to go see for myself.” When I went out back, I found him standing over the remains of what had been the final standing wall with a proud Lookee-at-what-I-did grin on his face.

We cleared the debris. Underneath, along with the skeletal remains of one cat and the mummified remains of a second cat, there was a grid of bricks on which the frame of lumber had rested and a buried extension cord that had provided power for the lights and heater. The bricks themselves were very old, unevenly shaped, larger than normal and stamped with the foundry in which they were created. They would eventually become the terraced herb garden, but that was much later.

I double dug down twenty-four inches of soil, screening out stones greater than a quarter-inch across. I mixed in compost and chicken manure and lime and all sorts of healthy organic soil additives. By the time winter arrived, the soil was ready for its winter sleep, after which I expected it to awaken refreshed and reinvigorated, teeming with earthworms and beneficial nematodes. I spent several winter months planning and ordering seeds.

At the time, I had more money than I needed and no children, so I did not stint. There were three kinds of potatoes, broccoli and sugar peas, spinach and arugula of which I am particularly fond, carrots and radishes, tomatoes and even tomatilloes put out early under the protective shelter of plastic, water-insulated teepees. I even tried my hand at corn including (and here is where I finally get around to the story I meant to tell all along), yes, even including popcorn.

The harvest that autumn was fairly good for a novice, and I had a few spindly ears of beautiful, multi-colored popcorn that would have looked rather nice on a Thanksgiving table setting. Dawn and I read up on popcorn and learn that we needed to dry the ears until they reached a particular range of humidity. It was something like 12-15% though I really can’t remember the details. Smoke inhalation can cause memory loss you know. We hung them in the kitchen with fishing line for weeks, testing them regularly with our humidity-sensitive finger tips until we we certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we were too curious to wait another minute.

Now, I do not like to point fingers, but in self-defense I feel obligated to say that it was Dawn’s idea to test out one ear of popcorn in the microwave. She “vaguely remembered” seeing this done somewhere before, and she was “pretty sure” that there was a reasonably good chance of success. We such brave assurances, we put one of the stubby little ears on a tupperware plate and closed it inside the microwave.

Microwave ovens had come a long way since the late 1970’s. They no longer had dials and switches but rather a flat panel display with at least twenty buttons, one of which was labeled “Popcorn.”

Amerika!

We pressed the button and went about getting the butter and salt ready.

Fortunately, smoke detectors have also come a long way since the 1970’s. Dawn yelled at me from the kitchen and I arrived in time to see her wearing oven mitts and escorting a smoking microwave oven onto the back deck. We managed to escape that episode with a molten slag of tupperware and an acrid carbon odor that outlasted the ringing in our ears by an hour.

EPILOGUE:

We did try again. Not with the microwave, of course. We shucked the rest of the kernels into a small pot with oil, covered it with a lid, and heated it the old fashioned way. After a minute or two, we were rewarded with the satisfying “Ping!” of exploding kernels bouncing off the lid of the stainless steel Revereware. When the noise and steam subsided, we removed the lid and had a strange moment of cognitive dissonance. The pan looked exactly the same as it did when we put the kernels in, but on closer examination we discovered that each kernel has a jagged split down its side. Such is life.

Great balls of Fire #1

The very first time I ignited a bag of popcorn in a microwave oven was in 1979 when I was fourteen years old. At the time I had glasses and braces on my teeth, and I was as socially awkward as a young boy fed on Monty Python and Dungeons and Dragons could be. But I wanted money. I wanted to be able to buy junk food and science fiction books and go to a movie now and then. I wanted to achieve some measure of independence from my parent’s purse, however symbolic in nature.

It would not have occurred to me at the time to spend money on a girl. It would not have occurred to me that any girl would have been so desperate for money. My self-esteem was reasonably propped together with the spit-and-duct-tape comraderie of my brilliant and erudite buddies, and I wasn’t ready to risk its teetering collapse by wandering far from my gibbering adolescent herd just to “chase skirt.”

The microwave oven in question was mounted in a cabinet in the break room of my mother’s office building. She worked as an editor on trade publications with such racy titles as “Solid Waste Management” and “Elastomerics.” These were full color glossy periodicals revealing the news, rumors, and innuendos of arcane occupations populated by engineers and balding scientists, the kind of adult I was destined to be when I grew up. I had never known such magazines existed, but I intuitively guessed they would not be found on a newstand or in a doctor’s office.

Once a year these magazines would put out an industry directory, a yellow pages of sorts with every entry crammed under a single, unpronouncable category. My mother’s job was to assemble and edit these directories, painstakingly assuring that every single name, address, and phone number was spelled correctly. It was an ideal job for a woman who, after twenty years filled with nothing but cooking and cleaning for her family, continued to cook and clean for her family after work and on the weekends. It made housework seem positively exciting and exotic in comparison.

The CEO of this company had a side business all his own, a business that, like chlorine factories or water treatment plants, we all knew had to exist somewhere but never expected to see. He sold cheap plastic toy soldiers, the kind sold in the back of Archie comic books in between the advertisements for Acme whoopy cushions (“A riot of laughs, guaranteed!”) and Charles Atlas weight lifting programs (“I’m sorry Jim. I love you, but I can’t be seen on the beach with someone who lets sand get kicked in his face.”)

The soldiers were inch-high, molded green plastic figures on flat plastic stands. Compared to the meticulously-painted, collector-item, pewter figurines sold for large sums in hobby stores todays, these were primitive Neaderthals still dripping with primordial slime. But they sold like hotcakes and probably cost less per pound.

They arrived in large carton boxes from Taiwan, and they seemed to multiply in the darkness of the basement. I never saw the truck come, but every once in a while I would arrive in the workroom and find that the shrinking stacks of boxes was now precariously stacked up to the ceiling again.

My day began in a windowless, florescent square of concrete floor near the loading dock, with a new list of address labels and a pint of Coca-cola – this was Atlanta, GA on the cusp of the eighties. My job was to sort, count, and repackage the soldiers into smaller boxes with individual labels which were sent to young boys and girls (though admittedly, mostly boys) in all fifty United States and Canada.

Between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM, my nostrils would fill with the smells of petroleum plastic, and my fingers would get increasingly tackier with label glue. I spent the intervening hours dreaming, dreaming endlessly about how I would spend my money, about whether I would become a rock star or mercenary adventurer, about which girl at school I currently and secretly liked the best, about what treat I would buy from the vending machine at break. Much later I would manage to rope some cash-strapped friends into joining me in the dungeon, but until then my only companion was a non-descript office wall clock that took sadistic pleasure in watching me count the hours and minutes until my next break. I had possibly the only job in the building more tedious than my mother’s.

Every once in a while something novel would come along to revive my fluttering pulse. An address label directed to exotic Hawaii or Alaska. Or the resourceful but mutilated soldier that had managed to escape the Quality Assurance gulag in Taiwan. I had a small collection of these on one of the metal shelves that housed my technical work gear – a pair of scissors and a roll of clear scotch tape. But the most exciting days, the miracle days that seemed to arrive randomly because I could no longer keep track of the endless days melding into one another like warm plastic soldiers on a hot summer dashboard, were the days when the vending machine upstairs was restocked.

There would often be something new and interesting to eat that might divert a full five minutes downstairs depending on how slowly I ate. I wasn’t particularly gluttonous, but food was definitely my main diversion those days, and now that I was earning my own paycheck, it was my privelege to waste a certain share of it however I pleased.

One thrilling day, my heart was sent skipping at the sight of, oh joy, popcorn! Popcorn had come to enliven my dreary days! Popcorn was a rare treat, something we got at the movies and did not make often at home. I did not even look at the other options but pluncked my money in the slots and pushed the buttons, salivating at the Pavlovian whir of the spiral loop as it rotated and pushed the bag over the edge of its shelf. I reached in, thinking for thousandth time how I wished I had rubber arms like PlasticMan and could reach anything inside that glass-fronted machine my jaded heart desired.

I held the bag of popcorn in my hand and instantly thought, “Wait, this is wrong!” The bag felt cool to my touch, and I felt a shiver of anti-climatic revulsion. Cold popcorn! Popcorn was meant to be hot, covered in butter and salt and other heart-clogging, blood-pressure-elevating delights. Cold popcorn did not interest me anymore than cold pizza or warm soda. There was a moment of keen disappointment, of ironic and lesson-learning waste, and I knew I would be throwing this bag away unopened (how prophetic!), a sacrifice to my greed and stupidity.

And that is when I saw the microwave oven.

Please note that this was 1979. Microwaves ovens were still something of a novelty and “microwavable popcorn” as such had not been invented. This was a bag of plain old regular run of the mill popcorn. But before you judge me too harshly, allow me a little historical aside in my defense.

The microwave oven was invented as a by product of radar research. In 1946, Dr. Percy Spencer, self-taught engineer who never completed high school, was testing a vacuum tube at Raytheon Corporation, when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. I love this particular detail – even in 1946, engineers were clearly junk food addicts. Dr. Spencer, being an inquisitive scientist, next placed popcorn kernels near the tube, and they began to pop.

Dr. Spencer later went on to create the first microwave ovens, though it would not be until the 1970’s that they were be cheap enough for the average household. The point to note here is that popcorn was the very first item to be deliberately heated with microwaves, and this event actually predated the invention of the microwave oven itself. So the brilliant idea that came into my head in 1979 was neither new nor particularly risky or innovative. I was merely following in the footsteps of the great Dr. Spencer himself. In a strange way, this was even more true than I knew, for in his very next experiment Spencer tried to heat an egg which subsequently exploded in his face.

I had, of course, been thoroughly trained in the use of this particular microwave oven. Early techno-geek that I was, I was quite comfortable and familiar with its knobs and buttons. I put the bag inside, set the dial for sixty seconds on maximum power, and turned to get something to drink from the fountain across the room, gleefully humming some rock-operatic tune by Queen. I did not get very far, not even to the point when Freddy Mercury hits one of his sold-my-soul-to-the-devil sopranic notes. I heard a dreadful noise, worse than fingernails on a chalkboard, as if a beloved family feline had been sucked into a vacuum cleaner but was still alive desperately clawing its way out.

[At this point, let me note that if my daughter Rose could read this, she would look at me with tear-moistened eyes and tell me in a voice as cold and serious as the grave, “Papa. That was NOT funny.”]

The microwave oven was filling with sparks and smoke and zapping like B-movie lightning striking the corpse of Frankenstein’s monster and bringing it to life. The panic hormones surged and, without thinking, I opened the door of the microwave.

What was I thinking?! In an instant, too late to turn back, I had irradiated my entire body with a fatal dose of gamma rays. I was sure I had contracted leukemia, the kind where the sores start appearing under your armpits at noon and before you can punch out at five, you’re cold on the slab. And if by some miracle I managed to survive the lethal bombardment? Well, of course there would be no super-human, crime-fighting powers, not for this scrawny white boy from New Jersey. I would never, ever be able to sire children, no sir, at least not any human children. Not that women were lining up to have my babies, but that was very besides the point. The point was I had irrevokably damaged my DNA, and even worse, mortally embarassed myself in front of strangers.

It was the lunch hour and the room was full of editors, copywriters, and graphic artists. There were a few gasps and some relieved snickers. A kind soul, noting the foil bag of popcorn in my hand (was it glowing? or was that my radioactive body?), managed to tell me without laughing that I should never put anything metal in a microwave oven.

You are probably wondering, and the answer is no, I did not eat the little charred lumps of popcorn inside that bag. I had already had enough cancer-causing radiation for one day and I wasn’t about to ingest something I had just impregnated with a five-hour nucleus-deteriorating half-life. I threw it away directly and left the room before anyone could dock my pay for the expensive appliance I was certain I had just destroyed. I wasn’t stupid.