Memorial Dinner

Memorial Day dawned fair and promising. The mosquitoes had not yet arrived to Montpelier, and by noon it was glorious summer in the sunshine and refreshing spring in the shade. Samuel and I were still working the phlegm out of our systems from a persistent sinus infection, so our initial plans for a mountain hike were laid aside. We had a picnic lunch on the lawn. Fake chicken burgers with lettuce on home made toast, real potato and egg salad, lemonade laced with blended frozen strawberries, and chips, chips, chips. We inflated the rubber Jump-o-lene for the first time this year and chased the children around the yard. Dawn wove a new swing for Rose out of rock climbing webbing. We hung it in the Norway maple along with the Sky chairs we had bought years ago at the Alaska State Fair. The sound of distant lawn mowers and the warble of the chickadees mingled with the congested squeals of Samuel running about the lawn. A black and yellow caterpillar slipped down on a silk thread from the maple. Rose put it on her arm and let it crawl around her.

“This is my new pet. She’s a little sick, so I have to give her a gentle push now and then like this.”

We made sure Rose wasn’t torturing her invertebrate and then settled down in our Sky chairs, but only for thirty seconds intervals in between chasing Samuel out of the flower beds. The afternoon passed in a liquid blur.

Around 5:30, Dawn said, “I think we should just have salad for dinner.”

“Works for me. What about the children?”

“Rose can have tofu and melon, and I have some leftovers for Samuel. Give me half an hour.”

It took an hour. The sun was still out, a warm glow on the leaves, but it was too chilly to eat outside, so we came inside to the table. Though it had been a good day full of play and positive parental attention, dinner was late and the children were hungry. Happy Hour was lurking in the shadows.

“Here Samuel. Would you like some water.”

“Nyeah.” This is own special word which translates as either “No. I mean, Yes,” or “Yes. I mean, No.”

“Was that a Yes, please, or No, thank you?”

“Yes.”

I handed him his glass, which his two-year old fingers can easily grasp in one hand.

“Camper van.”

We were recently visiting Granddaddy in Texas. Granddaddy has a camper van, so this subject often comes up.

“Yes, Samuel.”

“Not eat pigs.”

“Excuse me?”

“Camper van not eat pigs.”

It took me a moment to find a suitable answer. “That’s right, Samuel. They don’t.”

Rose laughed, a short burst, “Ha!” but Samuel looked at me, almost sagely. I would have sworn he nodded privately to me, as if he had just announced some great wisdom and I was the only one who understood it.

He took a swig of his water and placed it on the table, half resting on his spoon. We’ve recently put away the high chair tray so Samuel can now literally join us at the table. I moved the cup before Samuel could accidentally knock it over and passed him a plate of veggie tenders. He ate one and began checking out what everyone else was eating.

“Want dat!”

“You want what, Samuel?”

“Dat melon.”

Rose was eating cantaloupe. “You want some melon?”

Dat melon.” Not just any melon. Rose’s melon.

“I’ll get you your own melon,” Dawn offered. She left the table, stepping over the baby gate to the kitchen.

“Papa,” Rose said. “You know what?”

“What, Rose? Samuel, leave your placemat alone.”

“Fiona is the Sky the blue fairy, and I’m Ruby the red fairy and …”

“Samuel, let go of your placemat.”

“…and on the playground she decided that we should be pixies instead of fairies and…”

“The placemat stays on the table, Samuel. You’ll knock over…”

“… and do you know what a pixie is, Papa?”

“No, Rose, what’s a Pixie?”

“I want melon.”

“It’s like a fairy, only they don’t have magic wands…”

“Use your good words, Samuel. ‘May I have more melon please.””

“Mayhavemoremelonpleez.”

“Mama is getting it for you.”

“…and elves don’t have wands or wings.”

Dawn returned with the remains of the cantaloupe, but there wasn’t much left. Before Rose was half done with her ethno-cultural inventory of the Rainspell Island, Samuel had finished the melon and was banging on a plate with a metal fork. Hard. Loud. I removed the spoon while Dawn handed Samuel his water glass. He blew bubbles.

“Hey little boy. We don’t blow bubbles at the table,” Dawn reminded him with a smile. “Where do we blow bubbles?”

“The bathtub!” he said with a big grin, the punchline of a very funny and familiar joke.

“That’s right.”

“So, Harry,” Dawn began, “I want to plan out menus for the week so I don’t have to …”

“Mama!” Rose interrupted. “Do you know what Fern the green fairy…”

“Rose, Mama was talking to me. Can you wait until she is done?”

Rose stopped talking and raised her arm instead, hand waving in the air.

“More melon,” said Samuel.

I began to prompt. “‘May I have…'”

“Moooore. Melllll. On.” He enunciates each syllable as if he is the adult, and I am the two-year-old.

“There is no more melon, sweet boy.”

“Want melon.”

Dawn left the table and returned instead with some dried mango. She broke it into smaller pieces. Samuel put several in his mouth and dropped even more in his lap and on the floor. In the pause, I looked down at my plate and discovered half my salad was missing. I must have eaten it, but I can’t remember having done so.

“Papa?”

“Yes, Rose.”

“Can we get a bigger house?”

“Maybe someday, sweetheart. Mama and Papa would like that, too. But not for a while. Samuel, stop bubbling your water, please.”

Samuel pulled the glass away from his lips. Holding it there, he noticed Winnie the Pooh on the side, so he tipped the top of the glass forward so he could see the picture better. The water poured out. With no tray on the high chair, his diaper and bare leg got soaked. I grabbed the glass before it was half emptied and placed it on the table out of reach.

But Samuel’s cheerful, mischievous face had disappeared. He looked as we had given him some terrible and confusing insult that he didn’t quite understand.

“Papa?”

“Yes, Samuel.”

“I wet my mango.”

I pulled out the few sopping pieces of mango from his lap. Dawn snorted and put her hand to her mouth, but it was too late. We both started laughing uncontrollably.

“What?” Rose wants to know. “What’s so funny?”

Advertisements

Driving the Minivan

Once again, the shuttle driver was late. It should not have been any skin off my nose. Whether he came at 4:00 or 5:00, I would still be taking an hour away from my desk. But a promise is a promise, even if it is a rough estimate of an arrival time. I wanted a call, an explanation, an apology, something. I didn’t want to call the car shop asking, “Where is he?” but I called.

He had picked up all the other people first and then, having gotten lost looking for my house, took them all to the shop before coming to get me with improved directions. I should have guessed. It was not the first time he has done this.

He was a native Vermonter, an old timer, a retiree. I liked him. I liked driving in his van and listening to his stories about his exotic Jewish son-on-law, and what Montpelier looked like thirty years ago, and his father who had been a state representative from Rutland back when everyone in Vermont was a Republican. Clearly, this was a job that he did not do for the money. It gave him a captive audience of young people to chat with, something rare and valuable for an older person whose children live out of state. Chatty, he was. Chatty and a little flaky – lost my address though he had been to my house before.

Driving down Rt 2 we saw someone downstream on the Winooski standing in the water, which seemed odd, and I said so.

He looked for a bit. “Oh, yeah, he’s fly fishing,” he told me.

“Really? In the Winooski?”

“Yeah, you can sometimes catch a couple fish there. Not bad for eating.”

I just could not believe it. Not that it was impossible for someone to fly fish in the Winooski River. Years ago in Wisconsin, when Spring came and the ice was receding from the lake shores, I’d seen guys walk past sun-bathing college students, throw down a two by eight board to get across to the remaining ice, cut a hole and fish for hours. It’s an addiction. Certainly there was no reason some Vermonter couldn’t be out in three feet of water downstream of the water treatment plant looking for .. bass? Trout? I had no idea.

No, the reason I didn’t believe it was because he wasn’t in the water. He was on the water. I swore he was standing on a small boat facing upstream and not moving, but without the loaves and fishes. Later I found out, purely by accident, that I was right. Upriver canoe poling – not quite an extreme sport, but how else are you going to challenge yourself on a class 2 river.

So my driver was not only chatty and flaky, but a bit nearsighted too. Not a good combination in a chauffeur. Despite this, we made it to the mechanics alive.

“OK,” I said to the guy at the desk as he handed me the key to my car. “Give me some good news.”

He thought a moment with an apologetic smile before answering, “We’re having some fine weather.”

Groan.

“Yeah, well, let’s see, you got your oil change and winter tires swapped off, but you’re due for a timing belt replacement next which is a $2000 job on that engine. Your hoses are old and will likely start cracking soon which means air will start leaking into the engine which will mess with your performance and fuel efficiency. The car is at 98,000 miles. I recommend you sell it now. Once you click over 100,000 it will lose 30% of its value purely for psychological reasons.”

Have a nice day.

We drive twenty miles a day taking Rose to and from school. We drive a couple of miles several days a week to run errands, especially in winter when it’s too cold to walk. We drive 35 miles to Burlington once a month. And perhaps once a year we take the grand voyage down the coast to see family. With two preschool children to transport and, in the near future, their friends and gear, what kind of car should we get?

Yes. The minivan.

Rose and Samuel wanted one. It would be nice, they thought, to be able to see out of the windows for a change. Dawn didn’t object. If she wasn’t going to get the race car of her dreams, it might as well be something practical. As for me, well, driving a mini-van would certainly finish the job that my urologist had started.

We resisted, mostly from a sense of our ecological duty. It came down to two choices. A Honda CRV, which is technically a mini-SUV, or a Toyota Sienna, the grande dame of the minivan.

Both cars had the same mileage, same age, same price. The CRV was simpler and had a manual transmission and was a lot more fun to drive. But it would never seat more than five people, five small people, from my side of the family, on good speaking terms. The Sienna could seat seven and still have space for a full haul from Costco. It could carry everything we needed for a long trip south to visit family. But it had worse gas mileage than the CRV and no CD player.

As we kicked tires and test drove and pressed buttons, the friendly chatter of the salesman roamed from useful to banal to commercial to bizarre. At times he was brutally truthful, “It doesn’t matter to me which car you buy, as long as you buy something.” At other times he was inconsistent. “People are afraid of a car with lots of options. They think it’s just more things that will break. But you know what? They don’t break.” This being said in reference to the Sienna whose automatic sliding door button would cost over $1500 to fix.

In the end we went with the Sienna. The gas mileage, while bad, was still better than the car we were getting rid of. The safety record was unimpeachable. We wouldn’t need a car top carrier on those family vacations, nor a degree in engineering to fit the haul from Home Depot in the back.

But the real reason was that the CRV failed to live up to its promise. When asked to accelerate while merging onto the highway, it simply ignored my foot on the pedal and droned its persistent whining engine noise while creeping creeping creeping up to highway speed. I can’t stand this behavior in my preschool children when I ask them to pick up their toys, and I certainly won’t tolerate it in a car that costs over ten thousand dollars.

The Date

The Capitol is a small, first-run movie theatre from the days when going to the theatre was an event. This is a town of 8,000 and everything is on a much smaller scale. The ticket booth lobby is no bigger than my living room, and I have more counter space in my little kitchen than they have for their concession stand. There are five screens and not one could seat more than 150 people. Nevertheless, the plush carpet, honey scrolled woodwork, and faux-crystal chandeliers give the theatre a classic ambience you would not expect from its dull, fading 1950’s exterior. The candy is kept well-lit under security glass. The high school students who run the place are smartly dressed and friendly. They may not know how to run the popcorn machine, but they leave their adolescent argot behind when they come to work. It feels cozy and personal and pampered, as if you were entering the private theatre in the home of a wealthy friend. The kids are home. We have hours. What shall we see?

“Do you want to see Spiderman 3?” No, not Spiderman 3. Movies today are made for octophonic megaplexes where your senses can be hijacked by CGI effects. Our little theatre is not well set up for such extravagances. It could honorably present Citizen Kane or The Color Purple, but watching The Matrix or Lord of the Rings there is not much better than watching it on a laptop computer’s DVD player. And though it may not be au courrant to say so, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst fall into that second-tier of actors who can’t seem to play anyone but themselves. When is that last time you saw Tobey Maguire in a theatre and thought to yourself, “Wow, can you believe that’s Tobey Maguire playing Henry the Fifth? I almost didn’t recognize him!”

“How about a cop film?” There was the poster, large as life. Two hard-boiled cops, one white, one black, looking tough, looking angry, looking like they wanted nothing better than exchanging gunfire with jay walkers and grapple fisticuffs with some ne’er-do-well grandmothers before stopping at a bar, off-duty of course, for a bourbon on ice with a plot twist. No, no thank you. We’ve seen this before. We weren’t in the mood for gratuitous violence as entertainment.

Everything we looked at seemed disappointing. How could there be nothing of interest or quality? Before we had children, when we lived in a big city, we would spend Christmas day in the theatres. We’d watch five movies, all of them worthwhile, and eat annual allotment of popcorn in twelve grueling hours. But ever since we’ve had children, our movie diet has been severly restricted. Recently we started going out twice a month on Sunday afternoons because that’s when we could get a babysitter, but we kept missing the movie start times by an hour. This week, we got the baby sitter to our house an hour earlier, which meant a big rush to feed the children lunch and get Samuel down for his nap before we could get out of the house. But we did it. We did our part. We left the babysitter with Samuel sleeping and with Rose and her friend at the table with vegie burgers and French fries and everything they could want to keep them happy for a couple of hours, and we dashed downtown only to have our hopes dashed as well. There was nothing worth seeing.

“Well, I guess that only leaves, though I’m embarassed to even mention it, Blades of Glory.”

We bought our tickets, and waited while the well-dressed adolescent called her manager for help with the popcorn machine, with the boxes, with the cash register. We were in no hurry. There was no one waiting behind us in line. There was no great press of Montpelier citizens lining up on a Sunday afternoon to watch a parody of professional figure skating. If we missed the beginning of the movie, that was no loss.

Imagine our surprise, then, when half an hour into this film, we are smiling. We are smirking. We have let loose a guffaw or two. This movie was surprising us. It was incredibly stupid, but then again, it was brilliant. It was not a Spinal Tap. It was not a Strictly Ballroom. It did not aspire to that level of wit. But neither was it hormonal, teenage drivel. Perhaps it was because our expectations were as low as we could possibly make them. Two hours of black and white static would not have disappointed us. The movie had … moments, moments that embarassed us by reminding us how starved for modern entertainment we were. We were surprised and shocked to say that this movie definitely did not suck. Consider the scene when the boy and girl, members of rival teams, go out for snow cones:

“My parents died in a car crash driving me to skating practice and my brother and sister have spent the rest of my life making me feel guilty for it,” she confesses in a single breath. He kisses her for the first time; in fact, it appears to be the first time either of them have kissed anyone and you aren’t sure they will escape unscathed. When they stop, he takes a shy bite of snowcone and she catches her breath before saying, “Wow. I never thought of that as a romantic story before.”

Perhaps you had to be there. After living on a desert island for five years. Not high art. Not even low art. Not art at all. But for a couple of hours we forgot our stresses and problems, and giggled quietly together in the back of a dark theatre.

Elective Surgery 2

WARNING: This entry is not for the squeamish. Enter at your own peril.

And now for something completely different…

A man with three testicles.

Four days after I hobbled out of the urologist’s office, I was still keeping the discomfort at bay with large doses of Ibuprofen. The swelling had not significantly lessened, and parts of it were hardening, as if he had injected wet concrete into my scrotum rather than Novocain. I started wearing boxers and baggy shorts and avoided my children during their wound-up, lap-bouncing cycles of the day.

The post-op recovery instructions expired after a week, and having followed them to the letter, I called Dr. S’s office again and arranged a visit. After a brief examination, he agreed it was a Good Idea I had come in. My scrotum was still about the size of a grapefruit, with a very large peach pit on one side.

As near as we can tell, he must have punctured a large blood vessel when he gave me the Novocain shot, because it bled/leaked for days afterwards and then began clotting internally. He prescribed a pain killer (use as needed) and an antibiotic (use thrice daily as a precaution) and he handed me a few sample packets of an anti-inflammatory drug that I only had to take twice a day. After three days, I was supposed to cut the dosage in half, but after an uncomfortable and sleepless night four days after, I went back to twice a day.

By day five, I was making panicked calls to the pharmacy as my supply of samples dwindled, and they came through for me. Then a few days later I thought, enough, this is taking far too long. Time to grab the bull (veeeery gently) by the cojones. I got aggressive with my favorite bag of frozen Chinese mixed vegetables and a hot water bottle, swapping back and forth every twenty minutes. Within a day, not only did I start getting some results in terms of reduction of swelling, but I found I was a lot more alert than usual at my work desk. Since then I have cut down the anti-inflammatory dosage and I once again fit back in my jeans.

Unless you also happen to be married to a physical therapist, you cannot imagine my relief. Those of you who have been following my blog will remember that I banged my knee back in April and that it swelled very large and calcified as well. The only way we managed to get rid of that injury was to have Dawn do some deep tissue massage to break up the blood clots over my knee so my lymphatics could clear it out. I was not looking forward to a repeat performance, let me tell you.

Bicycles

When the cell phone rang for the second time in an hour, I knew it was Dawn. Again. And I suspected the conversation wasn’t going to be any calmer or chattier than the first.

Though it wouldn’t improve her mood, I made her wait before I answered the phone. I don’t even know what the law is in Vermont, but I can’t shake this notion that talking on a cell phone while driving is a DUI offense. It haunts me. Just outside my peripheral vision, my own personal policeman waits, stalking me from behind dark RayBans.

I pulled over, parking on autopilot. There was no traffic on the street, and the open space on the curb measured at least three car lengths, but I had just manage to commit the poorest, most pathetic, parking job in my life. My front wheel was twelve inches from the curb and the rear wheel was even farther.

“Harry, where are you?”

Dawn’s voice was weirdly thin and tense like a stretched rubber band. I recognized this voice and the dire mental health it forecasts. Wherever Dawn was, her reality was being superimposed with a CGI image of a precipice, the boundary of her sanity. The noise and smell of a million chattering lemmings, pushing and shoving their way around her to leap into the abyss, was overpowering. It was difficult to resist. Plus the lemmings were kind of cute, and they seemed to know what they were doing.

I have known my wife a long time, and I could plainly hear all this in her four short words. But I was thinking of my Dad.

Dad learned to parallel park in the trenches of New York City, and my brothers and I each served our apprenticeship under his tutelage. My turn arrived one sunny Sunday morning in my fifteenth year, soon after I started wearing glasses. We drove to the local elementary school parking lot and found a spot where two curbs met at a right angle. He stood as a hypothetical bumper, the fourth corner of a mythical, available, parallel parking spot on 5th Avenue with money left in the meter. My task was to parallel park around him before some other bum stole the spot, without shifting the dust off either bumper ahead or behind me. If I ran over his toes, he made it perfectly clear that I would not get to borrow the car for the rest of high school. Parallel parking is a point of pride in our family. I would not have wanted Dad to see me now.

“Harry!?”

“Oh! Hi, Dawn. I’m sorry. I just pulled into Elm Street.”

“OK, please hurry. All the … Oh, never mind. Just hurry!”

Click.

Communication. The secret of our marriage.

I took thirty seconds to re-park the car properly. By the way, reader, that’s our little secret. Dawn might not have granted me those thirty seconds just then if I had asked for them, but it is easier to get forgiveness than permission.

I checked in with Samuel in the seat behind me. He was “OK.” He is always “OK.” He could have a foot-long scrape down his leg with particles of gravel embedded in the bone, tears and mucus streaming down his face, and if I asked him how he was doing, he would still scream, purple-faced, “OH (sniff) KAYYYY!” I turned off the motor and checked in with Rose.

“Are we there?” she answers.

“Almost. We have to walk about four blocks.”

“Good, ‘cause I really need to pee.”

* * * * *

It was the day of the annual Montpelier Bike Swap, sponsored by Onion River Sports (“Muscles, not Motors”). Spring had arrived two weeks earlier, and the signs were multiplying. The solitary appearance of a robin on the brown lawn. The sap running out the neighbor’s Norway maple where he had drilled and spiked a ten inch bolt through a branch to hang a now-very-sticky tire swing for his daughter. Tulips and violets and maple blossoms and gas prices blooming all over town. It was time for bicycles.

It had been three years since we owned bicycles, three increasingly flabby years. Our exercise time had been gobbled by work and preschool and meals and baths and bedtime stories and diaper changes and laundry, laundry, laundry. Many was the time we wished we had brought our bikes with us from Alaska, but the moving company had charged by the ounce. This was embarrassingly bad mathematics on our part. The proper formula was:

Net cost of not packing bicycles = (Cost of replacing bicycles) – (Weight of bicycles * Shipping Charge per ounce)

But the algorithm we used was

the books are too expensive to ship

the lamps are too expensive to ship

the tea pots are too expensive to ship

therefore the bikes, which weigh more, are too expensive to ship.

It was not our clearest, most level-headed thinking.

On Friday morning, in the heady mist of Spring fever, Dawn asked me when the Onion River bicycle swap was this year. I was working at my desk in the office/bedroom surrounded by the usual pile of bills, charity mailings, preschool artwork, and bits of broken plastic toys waiting for my skilled application of Elmer’s glue. There were any number of home projects piled up mewing piteously in the corner, but with an heroic “To the Internet, Robin!” I discovered that the bike sale was Saturday.

“Tomorrow!” I yodeled.

“Oh great!” Dawn yelled from the kitchen where a larger collection of unfinished business – dirty dishes, clean laundry, two bored and mischievous children – vied for her attention. “Why does everything in this town happen on Shabbat?”

We all needed bicycles, every one in the family, but we couldn’t afford even one, unless we bought them used at the bike swap. But you can’t shop on Shabbat. You can’t drive on Shabbat. You can’t use the phone on Shabbat. However, if we were going to get out pedaling this summer, and the warm sunshine whispered that, yes, we would be pedaling this summer, then we needed to sin.

The plan was simple. Dawn would take her morning constitutional downtown, detour up Elm Street, and return to Onion River Sports at 9:30 when the sale began. I would follow along later with the children and the car. Only the bike swap turned into Dawn’s personal nightmare, a competitive bargain shopping spree in an enclosed, confined space with a hundred of her “close personal friends.”

The first phone call came as I was getting the children ready in the mudroom.

“It’s 9:20 and the line goes around the block!”

“We’re just leaving now.”

“Hurry!”

The parking lot at Onion River Sports can hold either a dozen cars or a hundred bicycles and at least as many shoppers. If you line up the bicycles properly. And if the shoppers are all reasonably polite and showered. When we arrived, I found Dawn standing anxiously by the fence holding half a bicycle. There were no shopping carts, and she couldn’t carry more than one bicycle. If she put it down, someone else would take it, and the child-sized bicycles were going fast. The solution was obvious. Rose, Samuel, and I would stand guard over a small slice of real estate while Dawn would bring us bicycles to guard. Only first Rose needed a bathroom.

“Hello, love,” I said, with my most winning smile, shoulders submissive hunched over. “Can you watch Samuel? Rose says she needs a bathroom.”

This was probably not the first thing she wanted to hear from my mouth, but the sight of us was all she had been craving. She nodded and began cheerfully greeting Samuel, while Rose and I ran inside and waited for two other people ahead of us before she got in the bathroom.

Rose is five years old, and has reached the stage of childhood that we call “Motor Mouth.” “Papa, this railing looks like it might fall over. Papa, look how high the seat is. No I don’t need any help. I can do it. Do you think we can read Fern the Green Fairy when we get home? Look at the sink. I can reach the faucets. Ha ha ha ha ha! What kind of bicycle am I going to get?”

When we got back, Dawn was no longer under the panic sway of the lemmings. Her family had come, and she was now Mommy in charge again. She left me with the children and waded into the crowd. Samuel sat quietly in his stroller, watching the crowds and the bicycles. To him, it was such a new strange scene, that it hadn’t occurred to him yet to start grabbing and fingering everything within reach. Dawn reappeared with a bicycle for Rose. Two minutes later she came back with a bike for herself and test drove it down the alley. Within ten minutes of our arrival, we had everything but a bike for me, and she sent me off to look.

While waiting on the sidelines with the children, I had been scoping out the remainders, so I went directly to a likely candidate and pulled it into the alley for a test drive. However since I was not fully recovered from the (ahem) surgery, I had to test drive this bicycle with extreme CARE, CAUTION, RESPECT, and far more COMMON SENSE than I had hithertofore displayed that morning.

There was one small painful moment, and my drive test was over for the morning. But I reassured myself that my voice couldn’t possibly get any higher than it already was. In the end, we bought three full bicycles, a tandem attachment bike for Rose (the half-bike), a seat for Samuel, and helmets.

In every family outing there comes the moment when you have reached the limit of your pre-planning, and a situation arises for which you must be creative and call upon the inner reserves of strength and patience that all successful parents have stored up from decades of their own lost youth. We had reached that moment. We stood by the side of the road with four bicycles, a toddler bike seat, a couple of helmets, two hungry pre-school children, and a large diaper bag. Our car was four blocks away. Home was an additional mile beyond.

This reminds me of a joke.


It is Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and an observant and beloved assistant rabbi suddenly finds himself with nothing to do. His schedule is free, his liturgical and community commitments are fulfilled until sundown. Twiddling his thumbs and looking out the window at the beautiful autumn afternoon, a wicked thought comes to him. “I could play golf,” he thinks. “But no, I couldn’t play golf on Shabbat, much less Yom Kippur, and I certainly couldn’t take a car to the golf course,” he sensibly realizes. But then a persuasive voice whispers, “Who will know?”

Because it is so bold and sinful, he does not dare stop to think or question what he is doing. He changes his clothes, donning a hat, sunglasses, and trench coat with the collar flipped up. He walks several blocks to an anonymous taxi stand and pays the driver to take him to a public golf course in a Gentile neighborhood far from anyone he knows. If he thinks at all of what he is doing, it is merely to observe, “After all, I deserve this.”

Meanwhile, up in Heaven, Moses is looking down and sees all of this. “Master of the Universe, do my eyes deceive me? Is that not Your faithful servant, Rabbi Herschel, playing golf on Your holiest of days?”

God looks down from his cloud throne, lifts an eyebrow, and says, “It would seem so.”

Moses is working himself into a frenzy. “Master of the Universe, he is breaking all Your holy laws of Shabbat – spending money, riding in an automobile, playing golf. On Yom Kippur no less! What will You do to punish him?”

“Punish him?” God answers. “Yes, I suppose I ought to punish him.”

Rabbi Herschel tees up on hole one. The weather is perfect. It is the middle of the week and no one is around. He decides to go easy on himself and just enjoy the day, not try anything competitive. He hits the ball a perfect stroke and it sails to the green, bounces once, twice, and roles into the cup. Hole in one. He can’t believe it. What luck! What a beautiful day!

Then comes hole two. He swings an imperfect stroke which sends the ball careening off to the left, but it smacks a rock and comes bounding back to the green. Pop. Hole in one. Again.

And so it continues. Hole after hole. On hole seven, an eagle swoops down to catch the sailing golf ball, takes a nibble and, realizing it is not an albino mouse, drops it straight into the cup. Each hole he manages to get the ball in on the first stroke. He had thought he only had time for nine holes, but he manages to get eighteen holes in, each one a hole in one, a perfect score, and there is still time to get home and change for closing prayers.

Moses is perplexed. Moses is baffled. Moses is as righteously angry as he dares to be in front of the Lord. “Master of the Universe! I do not understand. This you call a punishment?”

“Ah,” answers the Holy One. “Who can he tell?”

Or in our case, “How can they get all the bikes and the children home in a station wagon?”

The friendly folks at Onion River agreed to watch our stash for us while we got the car. We retrieved our luxury Saturn station wagon, pulled up right in front of the store, hazards flashing. We put everything but three bikes in the back of the car, got the children in their car seats, and gave them snacks. Then, with nothing but three good-sized lengths of rope-climbing webbing and the two parallel racks on our roof, we began to engineer a miniature Eiffel Tower above our car. In order to prevent the pedals from denting the roof, we placed the bicycles upside down, with the seat and handle bars making a thin isosceles triangle on the roof. It took both Dawn and me half and hour, passing the webbing back and forth, over and over, knotting and then unknotting to take up slack and knotting again. A jocular passerby suggested we “patent that system.”

When it was ready to go, I sent Dawn a half block down the street to watch as I drove towards her to see if it would really hold. In the back seat, Rose was nervous, certain that a bicycle was going to fall down on top of her head. Samuel, however, was “OK.”

We made it a half a block. In fact we made it at least five blocks before the curve of the entry to the traffic circle sent the bikes falling sideways with a loud thump on the roof. I could see a wheel spinning just over my left shoulder out the window. Fortunately there was an empty parking lot right there, so we pulled in and praised ourselves for our wonderful tie-down job. After all, the bicycles were technically still attached to the roof.

We plied the children with the rest of the snacks, but this time we merely stacked the bikes on their side and did a quick job, reminiscent of Spiderman wrapping criminals up for the local police to find later. Not elegant, but it got us the mile uphill back to home and fortunately left no dents in the roof.

Elective Surgery

I’ve certainly been in more difficult, uncomfortable positions in my life. But lying in bed, trying not to faint, with only a thin gauze bandage and a pair of Hanes briefs separating my scrotum from a bag of frozen vegetables easily makes the top ten.

I spent the morning with the urologist. He has dark hair and a short beard with just a hint of gray and a nose only slightly smaller than mine. His dry, friendly wit, his muscular arms, and the tasteful tie that follows the contour of his mildly pot-shaped belly lend him an air of congenial competence without arrogance. He reminds me of a less frenetic version of my cousin in Alaska, the one who stayed up until two in the morning installing an on-demand water heater to win a nickel bet from his wife who thought he couldn’t finish before midnight.

When I first met Dr. S for a consult, he went through a long list of reasons for and against the procedure I was considering. Possible complications, alternative forms of contraception, suggested but unproven links to prostate cancer, and let’s not forget a brief description of the procedure itself, developed in China, and complete with terms such as clamp, incision, suture, cauterize, and Novocain. Not spinal block, not general anesthetic, just Novocain. Afterwards he asked me if I had any questions.

“Well, in your opinion, do you think I’m one of these men who decide to do this for the wrong reasons?”

“No, I think you qualify. You’re forty-one years old. You have two children without planning on any more. You have a stable marriage. You seem pretty comfortable with all the information I’ve given you.”

“Almost. There’s only one part that truly worries me.”

“Which is?”

“Afterwards. The ice.”

“You’re a smart guy.”

He had me take down my pants for a quick exam. At its peak, my body was never much to look at. Age has softened the edges and creased the eyes. I’m generally healthy and am not shy of being naked in front of medical people. I’ve known many medical people in my life, both personally and professionally. I even married one. They have seen it all, and it would take more than my scrawny, chicken-assed, middle aged body to illicit a mocking titter or wry disrespectful smirk. Instead, Dr. S promised that if he only found one testicle, I’d get a discount. Twenty-first century medical humor.

Afterwards I dressed again and sat down by his desk. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure” he answered, washing his hands with industrial pink soap I associate with hospitals.

“Why did you choose to become a urologist? If it’s not too personal.”

“I don’t mind. It’s a good question.” He dried his hands and sat down with a hint of a smile on his face and a thoughtful look on his face. “I remember my first day of medical school. We all went around saying what kind of medicine we thought we might want to practice. When one guy said, ‘Urology,’ we all looked at him. ‘Eww!’ we told him. ‘That’s disgusting.'”

He let this sink in a minute, for effect, though I’m not sure it was the effect he wanted.

“But the thing about urology is that its one of those few medical discipline that it is still possible to master. The systems are simple enough and the body of literature out there is manageable enough that you can still learn all of it. And it has a nice combination of different kinds of work. There’s the whole clinical side, consulting and advising patients, and lab work and a little surgery and so on. It’s a nice variety.”

There’s a subtext, and I hear it. We all know adventurous people. Explorers and pilots and heart surgeons and so on. They are so afraid of boredom that they can’t stop risking their lives, changing careers, pursuing new lovers. They relate their exploits with dramatic expressions, and there’s always the moment in the story, usually just after they’ve rappelled down the cliff with a broken arm and then trekked twelve miles to civilization in jury-rigged snowshoes, when they have the far away look in their eye shining with the wisdom that says, “Life is short. Eat dessert first.” They are the center of attention at the parties they attend.

I am not like that. The only time I went rappelling, I was handed wet gloves that burned my palms as the rope slid between my hands. I was forced to lower myself hand over hand while drunken river rafters below yelled up “Jump!” My eyes speak a different kind of wisdom – “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” I just had this intuition that Dr. S was like me. Perhaps it was the fact that, although he was a doctor, he was not likely announce at a cocktail party, “I am a urologist,” to the assembled strangers. If asked what he did for a living, he would more likely say, “Me? I sell insurance, and you’d be surprised what a fascinating career it is.” I know that’s what I’d say in his shoes.

Nevertheless, there was a egotistical challenge for me in this procedure. I somehow thrilled at the idea that I was going to have surgery with only a local anesthetic. Years ago I had a tooth filled without any anesthetic, and then later had a gum graft operation with only Novocain. My wife, who fears dentists more than the angel of Death, held me in awe for both this feats of daring-do, but then last year she went and had arthroscopic knee surgery with only a spinal block. She walked into the operating theatre and watched the entire operation on video as it was happening. I wasn’t sure I could top that. The pressure was on. My manhood, or what was about to be left of it, was at stake.

We scheduled the procedure for the end of the month, and on the way out of the office, the doctor handed me a small manila envelope the size of a credit card. Inside was a valium which he suggested I take an hour before surgery.

“Doc, I really don’t think I’ll need this,” I told him. This was not bravado. Truth be told I was afraid to take it. I had heard of the sloppy and salacious statements people have confessed under its influence during surgery.

“Well, take it anyway. We got barrels of the stuff to get rid of. And you may change your mind.”

Later that month, the whole family succumbed to some preschool virus, and although I got better, I did not get better fast enough to suit the doctor. So we postponed the operation for a month, after all the April birthdays in our family. Then I whacked my knee on vacation in Texas. As the end of April approached, the swelling in my knee wasn’t gone, but I wasn’t going to postpone this procedure another month. A week before my surgery, I cut off the blood-thinning ibuprofen as directed.

On the last day of April, we dropped off Rose at preschool, and Dawn drove Samuel and me to the medical office building for my appointment. We were fifteen minutes early. I registered at the desk and then Dawn asked, “Do you want us wait with you?” I watched Samuel escape from her grasp and run around the waiting room, pulling all the medical literature off the racks. I suggested she take him someplace he could really run around and come back in an hour to collect me.

Truth be told, I had brought a book with me, a very good book that I had started weeks ago and was still trying to read in the few free moments of time my scheduled allowed. Reading a good book in such small incremental pieces is maddening, like eating a piece of cake one bite a day. I expected to make some serious progress this morning, but no sooner had Dawn left and I had cracked open the spine, the nurse appeared at the door and called me in.

The examination room was modern medical utilitarian. Linoleum floors, eggshell white walls, a fold-out examination table, a stainless steel sink with the industrial pink soap and the motion-detecting paper towel dispenser, plus various computer equipment with lights and jacks and beeps and pings. All the sharp and dangerous tools were hidden away somewhere, as just the sight of them could unduly raise a patient’s blood pressure.

I handed the nurse the little manila envelope with the valium still inside. “Can I get my deposit back?” I joked. She did not answer, did not smile or frown, but quietly took the envelope and placed it in her lab coat pocket. I don’t know how to put it, but her bedside manner was distressing. She was not prim, not impatient, not demanding. She didn’t do anything particularly wrong, but there was a noticeable lack of warmth, as if she absorbed all emotions in the room as a sponge absorbs blood, and her presence was stained with it. You sensed it would all wash off of her in her next shower.

She took my blood pressure – 120 over 70. She took my pulse – 60. She took my temperature – 98. If I hadn’t known this was SOP, I might have suspected that she doubted my claim that I didn’t need the valium. She seemed an odd, but appropriate foil to Dr. S. I suppose a vivacious, pretty young thing in a svelte nurse uniform would not be the most efficacious care provider in an office that sees a lot of men with their pants down, nor would you want an older, palsied veteran when there were surgical knives being passed around. And then it occurred to me that if there was anyone who would be less proud to admit their occupation at a cocktail party, even more so than Dr. S, it might be a urological nurse. I had to admit, she was one of us. She was in the club.

I declined the box of CDs she offered me, holding up my book by way of explanation and secretly hoping she would take the hint and leave me be. When she left, I quickly undressed and sat on the medical hide-a-bed with a sheet over my lap, but just as I had found my page and remembered what was happening in the story, the doctor walked in.

“Well, you threw me for a loop,” he began cheerfully enough, as I closed the book in my lap but kept my finger holding the page. “I usually don’t schedule this procedure first thing Monday morning. In fact, I usually only do them on Wednesdays and Thursdays.” He paused thinking about the effect this statement might have on me before hastily adding, “though I’m sure I’ve performed them before on a Monday.”

“Doctor, just tell me you’ve had your coffee this morning.”

The doctor began prepping. He moved with the practiced motions and endless patter of a traveling magician, explaining everything as he went along and distracting me from the things I wasn’t supposed to see. Since he was laying things in my lap, I had no place to open my book, but I figured things would settle down soon.

First he stuck an adhesive pad on my left butt cheek with a wire lead that plugged into a machine to “electrically ground” me. Then he taped the shaft of my shrinking appendage out of the way with a jocular warning that the tape would likely pull some hairs when it came off afterwards. There was some communication with the nurse about repointing a somewhat noisy and archaic fan in a more useful direction, which was followed with some localized shaving and then a careful setting of sterile towels which I was explicitly forbidden to touch. I listened and watched and nodded, half sitting up, trying to keep my book out of the way, but I wasn’t ready to lay it aside. I was just waiting for the Novocain, which I figured would be the worst part, so that I could finally lay back and read my book.

At this point, you might have a certain anxiety growing in the pit of your abdomen. If you are a man, you are likely having uncomfortable, vicarious sensations below your belt. If you are a woman, well, imagine hanging your eyeballs in a thin sack between your legs and go from there. Like most gourmands of the horror genre, you are continuing to read with a macabre fascination despite the several warning alarums sounding in your head. You know that you don’t want to know what happens next, yet you cannot stop yourself. Dear readers, fear not! I come from a long line of men who courageously face their problems in life, but who faint at the slightest tinge of their own blood. I will not spill any gory details, at least not many, and I certainly won’t invent any for your twisted titillation.

I lay back at the angle of the raised back rest as the minor prick of the needle entered my skin. A cold sensation like ice water, ran down my leg. I said to myself that now was the time for my book and the sooner I got immersed in it the better. But I couldn’t.

There was a mildly unpleasant sensation in my left testicle. A clamping sensation. And rather than drown in the icy wave of Novocain, it was not going away. I mentioned this to the doctor, pointing with my left hand, but before he could ask me to remove this hand off the sterile towel, I asked in the same breath if he would very much mind lowering the back rest all the way to horizontal position before I passed out.

Unfortunately, the nurse had momentarily left the room. I had been so accommodating, calm, and unaffected by everything that she had been sent on some errand. My sudden alarming request caught him off guard. His hands were busy somewhere blessedly below my field of rapidly diminishing vision. They were too involved to be of any help in my need, so he stretched his left foot towards me on the floor. I heard a click and the mechanical whirring of gears as my head lowered to a more inviting inclination. My hands and feet felt cold, and as my eyes closed, a small surge of nausea threatened my compsure. At that moment the nurse returned and soon had a cold compress over my forehead.

I did not pass out, and eventually the Novocain kicked in. My testicle stopped hurting and soon my fluttering eyelids revealed the white moonscape of the ceiling tiles. The doctor kept up a distracting chatter, occasional firing friendly questions my way, but after the third single-syllable guttural answer, he stopped asking questions and instead began to tell me about his recent trip to Costa Rica. He had visited an indoor preserve for wounded birds where a toucan came up and bit him on the arm. Yes, I thought to myself, you are one of us too. I was starting to feel better, despite an occasional painless but distressing tug from below, and before I could stop myself, a ill-conceived question popped out of my mouth.

“By the way,” I asked. “What’s that burning smell? Is that the fan?”

There was a slight pause, I might say a pregnant pause, before the doctor answered, “Um. No.”

“Oh,” I realized too late. “That would be me, wouldn’t it? Cauterizing, are you?”

“Um … yes.”

“It has more of a burnt tire smell than I would have expected.”

The doctor laughed, more of a snort in disbelief. “Usually, it’s that very smell that causes my patients to pass out.”

Surprisingly, knowing this didn’t make me feel any worse than before. I did a quick internal inventory. My toes wiggled, my fingers flexed, neither as cold as before. Eyes were no longer open, but I could have opened them if I wanted. I was still light-headed, but no nausea anymore. There you have it, I said to myself. I may not be tough enough to watch my own sterilization, but at least I don’t faint at the smell of my own flesh charring. And I defy any other man to remain vertical with his testicle in a clamp. Overall, sir, a pretty impressive performance, I told myself.

“I’m feeling a little better,” I announced for no reason in particular that I could explain.

“That’s good,” said the nurse, “Because your skin was looking a ghastly gray pallor a few minutes ago.” She smiled. She had a made a joke. She seemed positively human. Now that I had been revealed as a fainter, she had something she could deal with as a nurse. At her dinner table tonight, at least she could say to her family and guests, “I ministered a young man with fainting spells until he was able to walk out,” which was a lot better than saying, “Oh, you know, the usual. I handed the doctor a razor so he could shave someone’s testicles.” It positively improved her attitude.

When the surgery was over, I lay still for a while, not wanting to leap off the table just to crack my fainting head on the linoleum. The doctor took advantage of this time to go through the home recovery procedures: ibuprofen, rest, the dreaded ice. And do not let my children jump into my lap for a few days. “Stop, you must not hop on Pop,” I recited, but apparently Dr. S was not well-versed with his colleague, the other Dr. S.

By the time the nurse returned with Dawn and Samuel, I was dressed and sitting in a chair, holding my hand straight out in the air to see if I could keep it still. Samuel immediately began to wander through the room looking for things to pull down, but most everything was out of reach, and the sharps had been promptly disposed. Dawn lassoed him back to her lap, where she plied him with banana chips and ignored his persistent questions of “What’s dat, Mommy?”

“How are you doing, love?” Dawn asked me.

“Better. We can head home as soon as I’m feeling steady on my feet.”

“No rush.”

I watched Samuel eating banana chips on Dawn’s lap, glad that this was over. We really are too old to have more children, I thought, and was glad to be sitting for a peaceful moment in the company of my wife. The procedure wasn’t a big deal like having a limb amputated, but I would not have gone through it for any other woman.

“It says here,” I said pointing to the post-op instructions, “that I’m not actually sterile yet for a few weeks until things wash out a bit. And I will have to bring in a few, um… samples later for testing.”

She waited a moment for the point. “Yes?”

“So, how you’d like to help me out with that?”

I took her smile for a yes.

Texas Vacation – Part Three

Samuel turned two years old last month. His birthday coincided with the last day of Passover and also with the day we packed and drove to Burlington to spend the night before our flight to Texas. Under the circumstances, a party with balloons and cakes and friends was out of the question, but some sort of celebration had to be cobbled together. His big sister was having a large celebration later that month for her birthday with cake and presents and a pińata. We didn’t want to hear it thrown back in our faces ten years from now when the hormones would begin to surge.

YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT ME! YOU NEVER CARED ABOUT ME! EVEN WHEN I WAS TWO YEARS OLD! YOU GAVE Rose A TWO YEAR OLD BIRTHDAY PARTY, BUT NOT ME, OH NO! YOU DIDN’T EVEN MAKE ME A BIRTHDAY CAKE! I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!

We all remember being teenagers.

[Which reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I just saw in which a Mom is talking to her young teenage girl. The girl is on her bed and the Mom is standing across the room saying, “If you think you hate me now, wait until I am old and a burden to you.”]

So after unloading our gear at the hotel, we drove the station wagon to the local mall and slipped dollar after dollar into the three seat mechanical merry-go-round. Eyes as large as saucers. He rode on the train and on the boat and on the yellow dog, with Rose graciously taking whatever seat Samuel didn’t want. Then we had ice cream.

You wouldn’t think it much of a birthday, but for a two year old it was New Year’s Eve in Times Square. And it was enough to stave off our guilt. We bought him numerous presents, all small enough to take on airplane carryon, and he played with them all the way to Texas where Granny was waiting with blue-frosted cupcakes. We covered them with multi-colored dinosaur sprinkles that Dawn carried all the way from Vermont. We sang Happy Birthday and Samuel sang along with us. We watched him try to figure out how to blow out a candle, and then he sang Happy Birthday to the rest of us. It was a good birthday.

The rest of the week also did not suck. There were walks and games and eating. We spent a morning at the local library and stocked up on books for the children. Granddaddy and Granny gave the children a wading pool and they took it for a test drive. Rose leaped in right away and leaped right back out, because despite the hot weather, the water straight from the hose was close to 40 degrees. It took Samuel a day to warm up to the idea.

There were also three separate trips to South Padre Island, which is one of the largest Spring Break destinations for college students in North America. Fortunately, we missed that insanity. On our previous visit to Texas two years ago, we could not get Rose within ten yards of the water because the noise of the surf scared her too much. This time, however, she was Aquagirl with Mama. They spent hours splashing in the waves, while Samuel kept his distance.

On the third and last trip to Padre, Rose found a mermaid’s purse. For those not in the know, certain sharks bear their young in these rubbery pouches and you can see the tiny inch long baby shark through the translucent shell around it. We also watched a group of paragliders – picture young risktakers in wet suits riding on surfboard and tethered to enormous billowing kites a hundred feet above them in the air. Kind of the opposite parasailing. One came up onto the beach so we got a close look at the equipment. To top off a perfect day, G&G brought out the stale bread and we were literally mobbed by kittiwakes catching pieces of it in mid air.

During that whole week, I read most of two books. This is four times what my normal reading rate has been since I have had children. It was a good time all around.