Samuel

I don’t write often enough about my two-year old Samuel. At this moment, he is running down the hall outside my room yelling “Heterodontosaurus! Heterodontosaurus!”

I could not make this up. We gave him a dinosaur board book last Friday and he soaked it up like a sponge. I am glad of it. It is helping him break his strong emotional attachment to “Big Frank’s Fire Truck,” a book that I did not think I could pry from his fingers before the library fine came due. He is also putting his meaningless memory to better uses than I did as a child. The dinosaur names I learned in childhood are lost and obsolete, having disappeared from my atrophying gray cells as well as the scientific literature.

His language development, slowed by multiple ear infections his first winter, seemed to have caught up to where Rose was at his age, namely normal to advanced. Last week, the ENT doctor pronounced his ears healed. The surgically-installed tubes have fallen out and are entrapped in earwax. The ear drums have healed and there is no sign of fluid or infection. He speaks clearly and has the impressive vocabulary of a parrot. This doesn’t mean we always understand everything he says. We understand the words, but not necessarily the meaning.

For example. Just this past weekend, the sun blissfully lit up the lawn, and we piled outdoors with balls, frisbees, swings, jumping ropes, and such. Our children love the outdoors, and would live there if they could, but after only an hour Samuel was heading for the front door.

“Samuel! Where are you going?”

“Indoors.”

“Why?”

“I need electricity.”

We heard the word very clearly – electricity – no possibility of a mistake. We just didn’t understand why he could possibly need it. Was he fed up with the rustic, primitive outdoor setting? Did he crave the conveniences of modern life? What could he possibly hope to find in *our* house? We have no air conditioning, no home entertainment center, no room full of electronic toys and gizmos.

I think he just wanted to flick a few light switches up and down, something he does for fun at the most random and inconvenient moments. It can be rather difficult when you’ve just pulled a cake out of the oven, saying prayers to keep it from sinking in the middle as you carry it across the room to the cooling rack, but you’ve only got an old pair of oven mitts that you begin to realize aren’t as insulated as you could wish, and then suddenly the lights start flicking on and off above your head.

He seems to have a knack for timing. When he is older, I will teach him one of my favorite jokes.

“Ask me why I’m such a good comedian.”

“Why are you such…”

“Timing!”

His is still fascinated with cars, machines, construction and emergency vehicles. He reads about them, watches them when they pass, stops whatever he’s doing if he hears a lonesome train whistle inthe distance. But he won’t get too close. He cannot stand even the mild throat-clearing hum of a well-maintained motorcycle. He loves to run, to chase, to throw, to dance, but at the same time he is only two years old, shy of strangers and noises and things he does not understand.

Unlike his sister who can read books for hours, he lives in his body and is always finding new ways to use it and find out what it can do. He climbs to the arm of the couch and pauses to set his feet just so, perfectly balanced, like a batter at the plate preparing for the pitch. Then in total concentration he leaps and lands flat on both feet, arms in the air, and freezes in a perfect gymnast pose. You can almost hear the Olympic scores being announced over the arena loudspeakers. Then he whips his head around to find you with a proud smile.

“Mama! Papa!”

Yes, beautiful boy, we see you.

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Fireworks

I once thought of the township of Berlin, Vermont as a wilderness, a vast rural landscape that separated white collar Montpelier from its larger cousin, blue collar Barre. Liberal educated Montpelier, with the state capital, the government offices, the fields of lawyers and bookstores and upscale recycled clothing shops, artisan’s galleries, coffee shops, and fine restaurants had long ago eclipsed working class, multi-cultural Barre, with its granite and marble industry suffering its decade’s old coma, its thrift stores and Dunkin’ Donuts and its grand plans for revitalization set back yet again when the Winooski River jumped its bank in the heavy July rains and soaked Main St. in inches of river water, untreated sewage, and heating oil. Between them, I had thought, Berlin was the uncharted dessert, the wild forest, the vast unimproved prairie. It’s purpose was to wash the traveler’s mind free of his homeland identity before he could enter the other side.

But this was the misconception of a relative newcomer to the area. Barre and Montepelier share a border with each other as well as with Berlin, and the two towns are connected directly by an ancient route that follows a railroad bed and a river course, highway 302, also known as the Barre-Montpelier Road. This road is littered with potholes and frostheaves and the detritus of shabby little businesses and vacant crumbling shells of retail outlets, crowded together like tenement slums. Fast-food chains, equipment rentals, dollar and budget stores, stores that sell nothing but vacuums or tractors or party supplies, the world’s smallest Sears, the world’s least-read local newspaper, comic books, bowling alleys, the local supermarket no longer in business, the former clothing store no longer in business, empty deserted buildings choked in weeds. Commerce flows along 302 like anemic blood in a clogged artery, rarely stopping on the way from point A to point B, and never seeing the frontier of Berlin.

The other misconception on my part is that Berlin is no longer a remnant of Vermont’s rural past, no longer a patchwork of rolling dairy farms, unimproved wood lots, meandering brooks and wetlands. Berlin has the hospital. Berlin has the largest supermarket in the county. Berlin has the Appleby’s, the Wal-mart, the Toyota and Honda dealers, the health club, the children’s gymnastics business, even a small plane airport. Berlin has everything the suburban dweller requires for survival. All it lacks is a proper town center. The businesses, attracted by the open land and modest taxes (for Vermont), are small and scattered in clumps among the remaining farms, the festering fields, and the decaying forests. Traveling along the two lane roads around curves and over hills, the views obscured by slopes and trees, one never has the sense of how deeply the suburban blight has struck this area, how houses are multiplying in Berlin, how they will soon explode in a flurry of draining and deforestation.

All of this blindsided me as we drove along the back roads of Berlin heading for a secret destination that Dawn had scoped out earlier. It was the weekend of Barre’s homecoming days. There would be parades, live music, food vendors, entertainers, crowds of families expressing their geographic pride, and we white collar outcasts from across the wilderness were skulking about the outskirts looking for an uncrowded vantage point to observe their fireworks. But we were lost in the wilderness of Berlin and could not get out. The map was of little help, showing connections that did not exist or labeling dirt roads that had no street signs. The day had been hot and humid, even after the afternoon squalls had pummeled our roof and woken Samuel from his nap. Now the valleys were filling with mist and fog that crept along the ground like the ghosts of cattle.

We crested a hill and rounded a curve coming down and saw a rare piece of Americana, a working Vermont dairy farm. A warm light billowed from a picture window in the elongated farm house, and in the setting sunlight we could see the upright barns and the green John Deere tractors, the Guernsey cows and brown horses, the rolling fields covered in hay and grasses, and right up at the edge of the road, repeated every quarter acre as regularly as the tick of the pocket watch counting out the remaining seconds of my life, we saw the signs of the real estate broker. Another farm on its way to the subdivision mill.

We passed the unlabeled turn and ended up barreling down the hill right into the thick of the party in downtown Barre. With two children up past their bedtimes, we could not risk the crowds and the traffic jams, so we skirted the melee. At least now we were no longer lost, and we soon found the elementary school parking lot, perched on a hill south of Barre. We did not know where the fireworks would be launched from, but unless they were to be launched from the school building itself, we knew we should have a good view. We were forty minutes early. The parking lot was empty except for a single car parked in the far corner, its driver loitering as we did. There were no large trucks or unusual equipment, no road blocks or warning signs indicating that we were near a pyrotechnics launching site. On the other hand, if this were truly a good place to watch the show, why were we virtually the only ones here. It was doubtful that a family of four from Montpelier with an out-of-date gazetteer should have figured it out before the locals, and this turned out to be solid thinking on our part.

We flipped up the tumble seats in the back of the minivan, laid out the blankets, and arrayed the children in their portable nest with potato chips and bottled water. Dawn opened up the beach chairs and we sat listening to our children grow more and more nervous as the sky turned darker. Fortunately there was a bright orange moon floating on the horizon, and they had each brought stuffed animals which they carried to our laps in the chairs. Rose wanted to be back in the car, but she wanted to be with me more and I was too comfortable to move.

Then the cars began to arrive. The locals had come. There were perhaps twenty in all, mostly families and young couples. As each pulled in to the parking lot, blinding us with their headlights, they circled and parked in regimental rows all facing due north. Our car was the only one pointed towards the rising moon in the east. Hoping the darkness would cover our embarassment, we quietly reoriented the chairs ninety degrees to the left.

KaBoom! The first fireworks lit the sky and a bright green explosion shattered and rained down. The children dropped their stuffed animals in their laps and covered their ears, but their eyes were scanning the sky, waiting for the next burst of color.

KaBoom! But nothing happened. Kaboom! A vague and diffuse flash of light against the pale sky, like a lamp hidden within a shade. Crack, bang, kaboom! And then we saw it, a small red slice of a parabola, a thin slit of a neon fountain of lights against the blank sky, as though we were watching the show through a crack in a Venetian blind. What was going on? This repeated. Again and again we heard the noises but saw nothing other than fragments of fireworks, as if some large tree or building, the color of the backdrop sky, had grown before us and obscured the display. Dawn began to laugh, the laugh my family has reserved for centuries when we recognize that, despite our plans and organization and moral turpitude and general deservedness, fate has stolen our prize. Then I understood what was happening. The growing mist we had passed on the roads had followed us and risen in the cool of the night. A fog lay between us and the launch site, and only the very highest and tallest of the fireworks leaped over the visible partition.

Car engines began to turn over all around us, and soon the lot was emptying as everyone fled for a better location. “Quick!” Dawn said. “Let’s try the other spot I found on the map.” We clicked the kids into their car seats, dumped the chairs and blankets and potato chips into the back of the van, and headed off into the night. I rummaged for the Gazetteer, but Dawn said, “Don’t bother. I know where we’re going.”

I craned my neck all around looking for the tell tale flashes of light. Dawn was driving up a hill and then turned onto a rural back road. With the windows up, we couldn’t hear anything, and the trees and hills obscured much of our vision. Then I pointed. “One o’clock off the starboard bow!”

We were much farther away than before, so that the cloud of incendiary debris seemed no larger than the oaks trees on the far side of the pasture. Dawn pulled the car off to the side of the road and turned on the hazards. By pure luck, or perhaps as a gift from Fate for our persistence, Dawn had managed to park at an angle where everyone in the car could see the fireworks through the window without having to get out of their seat.

“Wow!” said Rose. “It looks like a bunch of colored rocks all broken up.”

The show lasted only another five minutes, but we could see it all, including the grand finale. Even Samuel, the great leg clinger who hates loud noises and runs when familiar friends and neighbors ring our doorbell, even he was entranced. Afterwards, he told us that Cookie Dog, the blue and purple stuffed animal he clutched in his hands, was nervous, but he, Samuel, had helped him feel better. The children laughed away the thin shadows that remained of their fears – the loud noises, the dark night, and the strange places. We drove home, a sweet taste of our mild victory in our mouths. Before we crossed the border from Berlin to Montpelier, the children were both fast asleep in their seats.

Night Duty

Dawn and I finished our chapters by 10:45 PM, early, brushed our teeth and headed to bed to get at least a minimum quota of sleep. Mature of us. Responsible. Boring. At least we wouldn’t be cranky monsters in the morning.

Only I had trouble going to sleep. Not sure why. I had spent a half hour on the treadmill and I usually sleep like a stone afterwards. I laid on my back in the dark room, ideas and wishes and upsets flicking through my head like a slide show. After an hour the rhythmic pinging of random thoughts bouncing against my skull lulled me to sleep.

Creak, Creeeeeak, Creak. Through the monitor, I heard Rose’s bed groaning as she shifted. Thump. Feet on the floor. Pad pad pad pad pad pad. The rattle of my door knob. She walked in quiet as the guilty and waited. I lifted my head up, and glanced at the clock: 11:55 PM.

“Yes, Rose.”

“Papa, I’m too hot.”

Too hot. Well, she did choose some long sleeved pajamas, a little on the tight side. “OK, let’s find you some lighter pajamas.”

We headed back to her room and she shed the pink ballerinas in favor of a loose, short-sleeved T-shirt. Climbing back into her bed, she heaved a contented sigh and asked me to tuck her in again – just the thin sheet.

“Good night, sweetheart.” I headed back to bed.

Creak. Creak creak creak. Thump. Pad Pad Pad. I had no idea how long I’ve been sleeping. I squinted in the dark at the clock as the door swings open. 12:25 PM.

“Yes, Rose.”

“Papa, I have a big itchy bump on the back of my head.”

“Come here. Let me feel it. Put your finger on it, so I know where to look. Oh. Yes. I feel it.”

“I think I have a bug bite.”

“Probably a mosquito bite that your body is reacting to. Let’s go put some itchy cream on it.”

The anti-itch cream was in the kitchen somewhere, so I turned on the light to look for it. 800 watts burned my retina and by the time I could see again, I was hopelessly awake. I put some anti-itch cream on the bump and Rose sighed contently and flopped on her bed. I tried to do the same in my own bed. Dawn stirred but does not wake up.

Creak. Creak creak creak. Thump. Pad pad pad pad pad.

“Papa!”

Squint. The clock read 12:45.

“Rose, this is the third time you’ve woken me up in an hour. Can you please go to sleep?” I was irritated and my voice must have shown it, because she left immediately. Then I heard muffled sobs from the monitor.

I walked to her room and leaned over her bed. She was hiding in the sheets, crying the attention-getting cry, not the I’m-really-hurt-and-angry cry.

“Rose, what do you need?”

No response. I gently peeled back the sheet. She was lying in a fetal position, her bunny nested inside.

“Rose, tell me what you need.”

She uncurled, all traces of crying gone.

“Papa, I want my door closed.”

“You want your door closed?”

“Yes.”

“So why didn’t you close it?”

“I didn’t want to get out of bed.”

“So instead you walked over to my room to get me to do it?”

“Yes.”

There was a quiet moment in which the only sounds were the ticking of the clock in the living room and the creaking of my jaw opening and closing. One o’clock in the morning was simply not the time for either of us to consider logic.

“Rose, I’m going back to bed. Do you want me to close the door on my way out.”

“Yes. Please.”

“OK. Good night sweetheart.”

And I softly closed the door behind me.

Harry Potter (no spoilers)

Samuel, who does not want his diaper changed, is struggling on the changing table screaming “I feel better” over and over in increasing agitation. This is a learned response to our untrained attempts at “positive discipline.” When he throws a fit – kicks, screams, throws things, hits – we take him to a safe spot in his room, somewhere cozy with lots of stuffed animals and pillows and blankets, and we ask him to wait there, calm down, and let us know when he feels better. We often wait with him. So now, whenever we take him someplace he doesn’t want to be, his immediate response is to scream at the top of his lungs, “I feel better!” Like now, as I bodily hold him down on the changing table so he doesn’t flip off.

RING.

“Don’t answer that phone!” I yell across the house.

“What?” Dawn yells back, puzzled. She isn’t a phone person and rarely answers it anyway, so why am I asking her? “Aren’t *you* going to answer it?” she calls back.

“I’m wrestling with Samuel on the changing table, but don’t answer the phone! Just tell me who it is.”

RING.

There’s a pause as Dawn leans over the couch to read the LED display on the cordless phone. She doesn’t have her glasses on so this takes a moment.

“I think it’s someone in your family.”

“If it’s Mom or Dad then you can answer it. If it’s my brother Jon answer it. But don’t answer it if it’s any of my other brothers.”

RING.

“I can’t tell. It’s a 404 number, but it doesn’t have a name.”

“OK it’s likely Mom and Dad or Jon. But it could be Mike. Answer it, but if you think it’s Mike, even if you aren’t sure, hang up immediately.”

RING.

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

RIN… “Hello?”

Samuel has calmed down, listening to Dawn and I yell back and forth. I have one hand on his middle, pinning him to the changing table by the wings of his hip bones. He’s very strong, and it’s the only point on his body I can hold him down without hurting one of us. Since he isn’t fighting back anymore, I can let go. I gently slide him to the right so he won’t bang his head on the changing table frame. He’s taller than the table is wide, so one end or the other has to dangle over and I greatly prefer that it be his feet. By the time I’m attaching the Velcro on a new diaper, Dawn walks in.

“It was just someone wanting us to take a survey on electronic voting machines. Why don’t you want to talk to your family?”

I lift Samuel up and tickle his belly with my beard before setting him on the floor. “Lalalalalalala” he says, racing off to the living room.

“Well, Harry Potter has been out for 36 hours already. Everyone who is going to read it has already picked up their copy at midnight on Friday night, read through until Saturday morning, and by now have caught up on their sleep. They are itching to talk about it, but we aren’t even on page 100 yet. Now Mom and Dad won’t read it, and Jon couldn’t care less, but Mike and David are definite risks.”

“You think Mike would spoil it?”

We walked to the bathroom so I could wash my hands, and Dawn came along as I explained. “Do you remember when Mike lived in Prague for a year. Book six came out at that time, and he was six hours ahead of the United States. He had bought the book and finished reading it long before any of his friends could buy their copy. I think he called them all overseas and began telling them all that Voldemort was Harry’s real father.”

“No way! Anyway, he wouldn’t call *you* for that.”

“Who else can he call? His friends are wise to him now. None of them are going to answer the phone until they’ve finished reading the book themselves. I think we should follow their lead.”

“What about David? Surely he isn’t going to read it, and even if he did, he wouldn’t spoil it.”

“No, but his teenage sons are probably chattering non-stop about it with their friends and I wouldn’t want to overhear any of it in the background.”

“Good God, you’re quote paranoid about this, aren’t you?” she asked with an amused smile.

Yes, I suppose I was. We preordered our copy from Bear Pond Books, our local independent book store, less than a mile away from our home. I *could* have walked downtown at midnight on Friday night, picked up my copy, and returned home for an all-night binge. But I did not. Instead, the entire family traipsed down and waited outside while I walked in and picked up our copy. Without even bending the spine on the paper dust cover, I stuffed the book into the diaper bag, and then we spent the rest of the morning at the farmer’s market nearby. I did not give the book a second thought except once, to tell Dawn how old I felt, how boring and mature. I had not even sneaked a peek at the table of contents.

Dawn and I have a long-standing tradition. When each Harry Potter book came out, we first read it out loud to each other, swapping the hardcover back and forth between chapters so we could take turns with our tea and cookies. It’s our private ritual. Of course, back in the days of book one (and two and three and four) we didn’t have any children and we could spend all weekend reading it if we wanted. Now with children, we can only read a few chapters at night before bed. It’s maddening.

Meanwhile I read my email and scan the internet with timid, squinting eyes, afraid of reading some blurb that will spoil the ending. I use the internet for work – I can’t really avoid it – but I’m being oh so careful and selective. It’s like having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night in a strange house. You need the light, though you don’t want it. Your finger is on the light switch but you hesitate. You don’t know how painfully blinding the bulb will be, nor even where it’s going to come from, but you’ve still got to pee and you can’t wait.

I suppose Dawn and I could stay up all night reading it, but it would be extremely stupid of us. Even if we read silently, sharing the single copy on our laps, we wouldn’t be done by 5:00 AM when Samuel wakes up. Even if we did manage to get through all 759 pages before then, how could we possibly bathe, dress, feed, and entertain our preschool children the following day. This is summer time, no baby sitters, no nannies, no preschool. We’d be zombies walking around the house, lost in a wizarding fog or snapping irritably at our children for every minor infraction, calling them Harry and Hermione much to their confusion. I just couldn’t do it to them.

Thinking of this makes me keenly aware of my mortality. I must concede that I am finally and irrevocably grown up. I can no longer contemplate fun, impulsive, late night adventures without considering the consequences. Am I beyond temptation? No, not really. My resolve to behave was given an large boost by a news article. A young couple in Reno lost their preschool children to foster parents, and they face up to twelve years in prison from parental neglect. The children were literally starving, too weak to walk, with infections and dehydration, a very sad and ugly scene. This wasn’t a poor family struggling to survive. There was plenty of food on the shelves, but the parents were too busy playing online video games to feed their one and two year old child. I wish I could say I am making this up, but sadly I am not. I felt the blood pounding in my head, so palpable was my outrage reading this article. That was a week before the book came out, and I knew I was not going to cheat my children one minute of my time, no matter how much I wanted to read it, no matter how many spoilers I might chance across in the meantime.

Later that evening, I found Rose taking out her Strawberry Shortcake book. She loves to read, and when I asked her to put it back again, because dinner would be ready in two minutes, she loudly whined at me.

“Why? It’s not fair. You *always* stop me right in the middle of reading! I’m never never never going to do what you say!”

Depending on the urgency I’m feeling at the moment, I have a variety of ways to respond to this all-too-familiar outburst. I could point out that she hadn’t even started the book. I could point out that she’s often reading, so it is rare that I can find a time when she’s not in the middle of reading. But frankly, such cold logic is wasted on a five-year-old. I asked her to go to her room and to come back out whenever she felt calm enough to talk to me about it.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Slam! [Waaah! – muffled from behind the door].

What hurts most about this behavior is how much it reminds me of myself as a child.

Two minutes later, she reappeared, tear-stained, but calm.

“Papa,” she says, and her tone is conciliatory. “I really want to read my book.”

“Oh Rose, come here.” I wrapped my arms around her. “Buddy. I really, really, *really* know how you feel. How about you have some dinner and read it afterwards?”

“OK, Papa!” And she bounced to her seat.

So we’re on page 268 and expect to resurface in a week. Feel free to leave a comment, but I won’t be responding until the last page is read, the last cup of tea is drunk, and the last chocolate chip is gone from the house.

Coffee

Mothers are those wonderful people who can get up in the morning before the smell of coffee.

Samuel has always been allergic to certain foods. When he was a wee infant so bran-spanking new that his only nourishment was breast milk, he began to leave bloody stools in his diapers. The filtering mechanism of Dawn’s mammary system did not keep out the offending proteins. A devoted mother, Dawn cut back to a very sparse diet of rice and beans and fruit, slowly adding one potential allergen a week and then backing off if there was the least sign of diaper rash.

After months she had assembled a list of a dozen items that. Those item that did not start him bleeding gave him a rash across his chest and eczema on his bottom which would turn to a fungal infection if not aggressively treated with various unguents. Some of these foods, such as bell peppers, were hardly missed from our diet. Others, such as milk and soy, presented us with some protein challenges in our vegetarian household. And then there were others that made life utterly miserable. Tomatoes. Chocolate. Coffee.

Before she became a PT-on-Pause (her term for stay-at-home-Mom), Dawn used to drink coffee fairly regularly. By coffee, I mean those liquid caffeinated desserts sold on every street corner in Seattle, though her dosage was moderate compared to most. Constrained by finances, she learned to enjoy her brew languorously and make a 16-ounce, vacuum-insulated, stainless steel mug with the designer label of some societé des cafes fins last the entire day. That is if it did not leap from the ineffective cup holder on the car door around the curves.

All this came to an end with Samuel. Along with many other deprivations, Dawn forewent coffee for two years. Through controlled experiments in various forbidden fruits, we learned when Samuel outgrew many of his allergies, but we did not experiment with coffee. She made cup after cup after cup of tea, many of which were left unfinished, neglected for the endless needs of story time, diapers, laundry, snacks, playdates, and snuggling. Having been on the wagon so long, Dawn was certain she had lost all drug tolerance and feared one cup of java might send her over the edge.

Actually, this seems to be the basic need of the human heart in nearly every great crisis – a good hot cup of coffee.
~Alexander King

Then several months ago, the temptation returned. Our local food co-op is the daily hangout for many of Montpelier’s progressive gentrifiers, and this day it was particularly crowded. Dawn is quite claustrophobic in crowds, but the smells wafting from the espresso bar in the food co-op sang its siren song. Even though Samuel was still nursing, and even though she was pushing a cart full of groceries with a toddler in the cart seat late for his afternoon nap, she worked her way to the barista.

“May I help you?” asked a young woman by the espresso machine. Having decided to improve upon nature, her head had several extra holes than the normal number one is born with, and these holes had little bits of metal stuff in them.

“I’d like a mocha please,” Dawn asked, a guilty curve on the edges of her lips.

“May I help you?” the barista repeated, much to Dawn’s puzzlement. It was not the conciliatory repetition of the hard of hearing. Rather it was the annoyed parroting of a young person ill-suited for the service sector. Dawn had no idea what in her tone or manner had annoyed the young woman. A faint glimmer of conscience in Dawn’s mind whispered, “You shouldn’t be here. Your son is still nursing. You need to get home.”

“Yes, I’d like a mocha please.”

“Can I help you?” once again, all huff and impatience, not a trace of pleasantness. This, of course, is not the way to win Dawn’s affection. It is not the way to win anyone’s affection, but it might coe some people into a meek response. Dawn was not one of those people.

“Yes, a mocha. You know, some coffee – hot, some milk, some chocolate, mixed together in a cup.” Her voiced dripped with icy sarcasm, but in this transaction, Dawn was not the one being paid to be nice.

“May I HELP YOU?” A little gravitational pull of attention appeared in the air between the two of them, and people began turning their heads toward it.

Later that evening, after the venting had unspun its tangled, angry thread, and tired, cooler minds prevailed, Dawn and I sat at the table conjecturing what this person’s personal problem might have been. But at the time it was happening, Dawn wisely listened to the little voice in her head, which she amplified out loud. “Never mind! I shouldn’t even be here!” and as if to dramatize her point, she gave the shopping cart a shove to redirect it into the flow of congested shopping traffic. But it did not budge.

It was wedged under the counter. It took several minutes to work it loose, several agonizing minutes of increasing embarrassment, anger, and blood pressure, punctuated with the refrain, “I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here.”

Coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water.
~The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1674

I don’t drink coffee, don’t really like it, to put it mildly. Only once have I voluntarily drank an entire cup. I was in Peace Corps in Africa and it was my day to get on an airplane and fly home. But first I needed to provide a stool sample to the embassy health clinic during lab hours to prove I was parasite free. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to inform me of this requirement until four hours before my plane departed. I really wanted to get home, but despite my strenuous efforts, I could deliver on demand between the hours of 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM, not counting lunch time. Some helpful soul, some good-hearted, well-meaning Samaritan whom I hope never to meet again in this lifetime, suggested coffee as an intestinal stimulant.

I was desperate. I really don’t like coffee, but I really wanted to get back home to the United States, to family, to friends, to pizza and fiddle music and mosquitoes that don’t carry life threatening diseases. Once I took a solo drive across the country in a Datsun B210 hatchback, and halfway across the Pennsylvania interstate, the transmission failed in the middle of a tunnel with a loaded semi truck edging closer and closer to my rear bumper, its blaring horn echoing throughout the artificial cavern as though calling Lazarus to life again. I miraculously coasted in my powerless car all the way to the daylight and pulled over just before the irate teamster could squashed my little Japanese tin can like a gnat on the windshield. Yet this terrifying experience still remains the second-most desperate moment of my life.

Somewhere in the consulate buildings I managed to scare up a cup of a bitter sludge laced with sugar and artificial creamer. Its texture and color reminded me of the Chattahoochee River when the spring rains have eroded the topsoil from all the upstream construction sites. Though it might have been the best coffee the U.S. embassy had to offer in this post-communist African nation, it was not going to give Starbucks a run for its money. It was not going to give Sanka a run for its money. In the end it did not even give me a run for my money. I ended up staying another 24 hours with the bitter taste of sweetened asphalt churning in my stomach before I could satisfy the government’s requirement that I “take only pictures and leave only footprints.”

No, I am not fond of coffee.

Coffee makes us severe, and grave, and philosophical. ~Jonathan Swift

A month after the, “May I help you?” debacle, Dawn brought Samuel downtown for a children’s playgroup at the Recreational Center. From the outside, the old brick building looks like a small public school from the 1960’s. Inside it is mostly a gymnasium which, for this event, is filled with ride-on toys, games, basketballs with hoops four feet off the ground. Whether by design or accident, Dawn left home far too early, so she stopped off at La Brioche Café and Bakery on the way to get some breakfast pastries to share with Samuel. The siren song of coffee trilled its thrilling illicit call. Event though Samuel had not yet weaned, Dawn rationalized that he had outgrown many of his allergies. Perhaps today was the lucky day? She ordered a mocha, hold the attitude.

I cannot tell you what the weather was like, but in Dawn’s heart, it was a glorious day, cold but sunny, with a promise of spring in the air as she held Samuel’s hand in one hand and her fragrant beverage in the other. Samuel was old enough to understand where they were going and why, so that the closer they got to the Rec Center, the more animated Samuel became until he is practically pulling Dawn along like a puppy straining on a lead. Once inside, Samuel immediately dashed in the room, and Dawn barely had time to lay her to-go container on a bench before chasing him down and getting him situated on a tricycle. When she turned back to get her drink, she could no longer see it. Like good Samaritans at a the scene of an automobile accident, the bench was surrounded with a crowd of parents and children wielding napkins and paper towels trying to contain a large brown puddle spreading across the floor.

A fig for partridges and quails,
ye dainties I know nothing of ye;
But on the highest mount in Wales
Would choose in peace to drink my coffee.
~Jonathon Swift

Last week, my high school best friend came to auberge with us at Chez Sans Noix for a few days. Because he is a guest of high standing, and because he believes he cannot live without it, we provided coffee. This service is usually only provided for out-of-town grandparents, and then only because they bought the coffee maker and left it here, anticipating future visits.

Samuel had been weaned for over a month, and there was no reason Dawn should not indulge her pleasure. That first morning before our guest was awake, she boldly made eight cups in the coffee maker, and drank what turned out to be a weak, disappointing cup. She ran the coffee through again with more grounds, apologizing to our waking guest in advance because she still did not know if she made it strong enough. He assured her it would do, and it did. She left to run errands and by the time she came back, all eight cups were gone.

Black as the devil, Hot as hell,
Pure as an angel, Sweet as love.
~Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord

I went downtown to run some errands myself a few days later. Dawn begged me to stop at LaBrioche and bring back a mocha. We had missed our date on Sunday when our babysitter got sick, and she made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that, while she was willing to miss out on a date or two, she was not going to spend another day without drinking an entire caffeinated beverage all by herself. I brought it home at arm’s length, and she sat at the breakfast table in the soft morning light and slowly drank the entire cup, cruelly oblivious to Samuel’s entreaties to “share, Mama, share.”

Assessment

Our house assessment went up almost 50%, from $127,700 three years ago to $187,000. Ouch!

True, we paid a carpenter $10,000 to rearrange the walls and doors so that our two bedrooms are now three bedrooms. But the house is still the same size. We are talking about a 1360-square-foot, 1950’s house with one bathroom and a drive-in basement that fills with puddles in the spring thaw. Our pre-school children haven’t allowed us the time to maintain it, much less improve it.

We expected an increase, but our taxes will likely go up almost $2000. That means choices for us. We will still put food on the table. But maybe the kids don’t get to visit their grandparents in Georgia next year. Maybe they don’t get music lessons. Maybe we put off replacing the roof another year. Actually, no “maybe” about it. God knows what that would do to our assessment next time.

I want to pay my fair share. Montpelier has great city services compared to other places I’ve lived. Our streets are plowed in the winter, patched in the summer, and safe at night year round. The water is drinkable. The schools are decent. When I needed to update my address with a city department, I had a lovely chat on the phone with a friendly city employee who took care of it. Sure taxes are high, but that’s because we don’t have the big multi-national corporations subsidizing our tax base. I prefer it that way. I like having a local government that listens to me rather than McDonalds or Walmart.

But is it a fair assessment? I don’t know. I don’t understand how it was made, and if I want to know, I have to take time off work to go down to City Hall and read my file. Even with that information, I’m not a real estate maven. What would I do with this information? What would anyone do?

By chance, I found a link in a local weblog to the city’s assessment list ? 55 pages showing everyone’s assessment. I would not have known such a list existed; it wasn’t mentioned in the letter the city sent me. Of course, I checked out my neighbor’s assessment.

Yes, I am aware that as Commandments go, coveting is in the top ten. In my defense I will say that I do not covet my neighbor’s house more than any other three bedroom, 1.5 bath in the neighborhood. We just happen to see their house more than any of the others. It also has a deck, a sunroom, an attached garage, a much more useable yard with a flower and vegetable gardens. And my hunch was correct; it’s assessment was a few thousand less than ours.

I have been trying to persuade them for months to swap houses with us. Now I have the financial proof that our house is worth more and so it would be a good deal for them.

Criticism

I had a problem. A serious and difficult problem that I wasn’t going to be able to solve without help. Most folks round here, when they have a problem, they write about it. They put it in their journal and wait for the comments to roll in. You get sympathy, you get advice, you get encouragement. It’s a diverse crowd, and sometimes you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, but there are always gems in those comments.

Only I couldn’t discuss this particular problem in my journal, not without exposing myself to loathing, ostracizing, perhaps even exile back to Blogger. After all, I am the new kid on the block. Who could I turn to? And then I remembered. Reaching for the phone, I dialed Charlie.

“Yo. Joirnalscape Tech Support. Charlie here.”

“Hello Charlie. This is Harry … I mean, Phoeniceus calling. You may remember me. I called you months ago about my problem with the font sizing?”

“Font sizing? Hmm. Oh, yeah! Da guy with the widgets. Mr Type A personality himself. How’s it going Widgetman?”

“Not so good, Charlie.”

“Dame trouble?”

“What?”

“You got trouble with da ladies? There’s lots of them around this joint, if you haven’t noticed.”

“Yeah, I sort of noticed.”

“That’s OK. Look, keep it simple. Bring ‘em flowers every once in a while, pat ‘em on the tush so they know they’re appreciated, and if they get too demanding, ignore ‘em for a bit.”

My liberal sensors were flashing ominously, but I had to remind myself that Charlie has never led me astray before, that eventually he comes around to the right answer. I took a deep breath and counted to ten.

“Charlie. Are you married?”

“Well, no. Was. Was married. What’s your point?”

I said nothing, waiting. In the background, I heard his TV playing. DVD reruns of soap operas. Days of Our Lives. General Hospital. I couldn’t tell which one.

“Look, this is Tech Support, not Dear Abby here.”

“Charlie, my problem isn’t of a romantic nature.”

“You ain’t got no romantic troubles.”

“No.”

“My friend, you are either lying or dead.”

“Look, Charlie, I called you about something else.”

“This isn’t gonna be about widgets is it? Cause I’ve had enough of that.”

“I promise, Charlie. No widgets.”

“OK.” I hear the chair creaking, a thump which I take as the sound of a foot being put up on a desk. “Shoot.”

“Well, you know I’ve been doing some fiction writing on the side.”

“Yeah, you and every other blogger from Banghor to LA.”

“And you know I was looking for some critiques. Because I’m learning to write in a vacuum here. I read every book on style and grammar and prose and 25 tips for success and that sort of thing, but it only gets you so far. I want to get good, so I need feedback. I can’t drop 25 grand on a MFA program, and even if I had the money, I don’t have the time, you understand?”

There was a long silence on the line, and I heard a man’s voice in the background, panicked, shaken, She’s burning up! We can’t just let her die. What can we do?

“Charley? You there?”

Creaking sounds. I heard his feet hit the floor. “Meet me at the cobana.”

“What?”

“Five minutes. Up at the cobana. Buy me a beer. I can’t sit here and listen to you whine about writin’ problems without a beer or two.”

Five minutes later I was sitting in the shade of a palm-thatched pavilion, sipping lemon soda and watching the sea gulls fight with the flies over a few crumbs of toasted melba and brie. The sun was ferocious, but the ocean was cold. In the shade, I almost shivered when the breeze blew from the water.

“Yo, widgetman!”

And there he was, Charlie, not quite what I expected. He had gray hair in the two-day shadow on his chin. He walked stiffly with a cane. His belly had gone soft, but he looked like he was once a powerfully built kind of guy, if a little on the short side. He wore a large black Hawaiian shirt with enormous white printed flowers all over it. His hair was cropped short, military style. That was my first impression – ex-military, retiree, and I guessed divorced, not widowed. I shook his hand, prepared for the bone-crushing grip, but I was surprised by how soft his fingers were. His large hand engulfed mine, like he wanted to test my mettle, but there wasn’t hardly any strength there. He settled into his chair with a grunt, just as Manuel came by, starched towel over his arm.

“Genteelmen,” he said.

“What can I order for you, Charlie?”

“Coors, light. Doc says I got to watch my cholesterol.”

“Manuel, una cervaza Coors Light para mi amigo y un otro limonade para mio.”

Charlie leaned back in his chair and turned his head toward the sea, but he was stealing glances at me, observing me with one eye while relaxing with the other. Was he sizing me up? Manuel put our drinks on the table, but he didn’t touch his.

“So you hablo the espanol, eh?”

“This is the internet, Charlie. I can search foreign word dictionaries as well as anyone.”

“But I bet you was in the Peace Corps. You look like a do-gooder. No offense.”

“None taken. French West Africa, not Latin America. I didn’t finish my tour. Didn’t have much to do and didn’t like wasting my life and other people’s tax dollars. Not the proudest time of my life. How about yourself? Let me guess – retired army NCO?”

“Nah! I did a tour in Iraq as a military contractor, technical staff. Got sent home early with a check for five grand and a piece of metal in my leg. That was in the early days when they still gave you the check.”

He reached for his beer. It was so cold that when he popped the top off the bottle little veins of ice formed inside. Almost immediately a fly crawled in and drowned. He waited for it to sink to the bottom before taking a swig.

“So where were we?”

“I was looking for feedback on my writing.”

“OK, before you go on, let me ask you something first. There’s two kinds of writin’ groups in the world. There are the wine and cheese groups. They get together, shmooze a bit, praise each other’s work and give lots of encouragement. On the other hand there are the cigarette and stiletto groups, where they don’t waste time. They really rip your work apart until it’s a bloody dissected corpse on the table. So what kind of feedback you looking for? I’m betting you’ve never puffed a cigarette in your life.”

I knew exactly what he meant. “Stiletto, definitely. I’m new at this writing stuff. College and grad school was all mathematics and computers. I’m starting at square one, reading all the books, writing every day, but I need some honest feedback. Something I can use to improve. You’re right, I don’t smoke, but I’m serious about this. I want to get published someday.”

“Got ya. Go on.”

“So I did a sort of swap with someone. You know, you critique my work, I critique yours.”

“You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You sure this isn’t a lady problem?”

“Can I just tell you the story without the interruptions?”

“Whatever.”

“So she critiqued my work. She loved it. Raved over it. Gave me just a dozen mild slaps on the wrist for this and that, and praised the rest in a general sort of way. Thought I was … gifted. Great for my ego, but I can’t say I learned anything.”

He’s nods, swills his beer, and a little too much sloshes down the wrong pipe. His bends his chin to his chest to stifle a coughing fit, while his hand circles in the air to let me know I should continue.

“Then she sends me her story. It’s one fifth as long as mine, but I spent two hours going through it. It had soul, you know. It was a sweet little story, but I thought it needed a lot of work, and I mean a lot. Pretty poetic images that didn’t make any sense. Lots of contrived sentences that were hard to read. Dangling participles. Poor parallelism. Dependent phrases and clauses with nothing to hang on to. You know what I mean?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yeah, well, neither did she. She kind of fell to pieces when she read the critique.”

“Yeah, got it. It’s a dame thing.”

“Charlie!”

“We’re talking Venus and Mars here. Only you, my friend, are out on Jupiter. No, you are beyond Jupiter. You’re not even on a planet anymore. What is it they’re calling Pluto these days? Whatever it is, you’re out there with Pluto.”

I leaned back in my chair – slouched really – and stared daggers at him over the top of the glass bottle in my fingertips. “I think you’re missing the point.”

“No-ho-ho my friend. I got it exactly. How many negative things did you say about this woman’s work?”

“I haven’t made an accurate count.”

“Excyoose me,” he says, but I can tell by his half-smile that he is amused, not offended. “Roughly how many, Widgetman?”

“Roughly? A hundred.”

“Right. And how many positive things?”

I scratched my nose, hoping it looked thoughtful. “Three, maybe four. But they were really nice things, and …”

“Widgetman, you’re batting under 0.040. That’s not minor league. That’s not even little league. That’s not much better than I did with my wife and you can see I’m not married anymore.”

“There’s more.”

“Oh, it gets better.”

“Yeah, she wrote about it in her blog, and … ”

He started laughing then. Really laughing – a drunken, blue collar, throaty roar, slapping his open palm on the table, startling the seagulls. They flew away, laughing with him. I grinded my teeth waiting.

“Are you through?”

“Too much! What did she say?”

“She was as even handed as she could be considering that everything else in her life fell apart that week. I get the sense that something disastrous happened to her that she didn’t want to talk about, something that made my current problem look like childish, runny-nosed whining. She had the good grace to keep my identity anonymous, and she prefaced everything by saying how much she respected my writing, which of course only made everything worse. She told everyone – and Charlie I don’t have to tell you that we are talking about the entire wired internet world – that I only had negative things to say and I left only 5 out of 1500 of her words unscathed.”

“Widgetman! What a sweet talker you are.” He was clearly enjoying himself.

“I hasten to add that all of this is quite exaggerated.”

“I’m sure. What did her friends say?”

“About what you expect in the comments. People saying what a jerk I was, that she should tell me to F off, that I had S for brains, that sort of thing. The usual profanity.”

He stopped smiling long enough to look disdainful. “What’s with the initials?”

“This is a PG blog, Charlie. I don’t do profanity here.”

“Hah! No S? You’re F-ing with me.”

“H no.”

“You sure these people don’t know you?” he asked.

“They all know me, Charlie. We’ve been commenting on each others blogs for months. I’ve got over 7,000 curiosities served in half a year.”

“No, I mean, have they figured out that’s it you who did the critique?”

“Don’t know. I feel like my picture is on the dart board and they are all lining up with poisoned shafts. I just don’t know if it’s my photo up there or a blurry silhouette.”

“Did you say you was sorry?”

“Yes, of course! I wrote her an email right away, but she hasn’t read it yet. She told me she’s not quite ready to deal with it. Of course, she’s sorry everyone’s saying all these mean things about me – she tried to make it clear she respects me – but ..”

He was looking at me, taking everything in, didn’t shift his gaze away, and then his closed hand was clenching the air in front of his face, and a buzzing noise, that I hadn’t been aware of until that moment, stopped. It happened so fast I didn’t even see a blur. No sign of effort or awareness in his face, as if his hand did the work without wanting to bother his brain. He lowered his fist gently to the table.

“OK, I got the picture. Look, Widgetman, are you ready to hear the truth. Because I’m gonna give it you straight.”

“Yeah, that’s why I called you. Shoot.”

“You’re too honest.”

“I’ve been told this before.”

“Women do not want honesty. They want fantasy. They want to know how great they are, how much you love them. They don’t want people pointing out their flaws.”

“What makes you think men are any different?”

“Pffff,” he dismissed. “Men deal with reality better.”

“No they don’t. Men don’t deal with it at all.”

“Exactly. Same thing. Let me ask, did you get any negative critiques on *your* story?”

“Yes, lots. Not from her, but from other people. People liked it, but they also trashed it.”

“And did you write about this on your blog?”

“No, why would I?”

“Exactly. Why would you? Even you, a cultured, over-educated, Peace Corps kind of guy – you’re still a guy. You don’t go expressing your “feelings” to everyone, certainly not to the whole world on the internet. But she did, because that’s what women do.”

“I don’t buy it, Charlie. Yeah, ok, even if men and women are different like you say, we aren’t talking about ordinary women. Some of these Journalscape women – I believe the expression is ‘they can take care of themselves.’ I would not want to meet them in a dark alley. They would just as soon kick my ass.”

“You forgot your abbreviation.”

“Sorry. Kick my A.”

“Yeah, they would. But first they would write about how angry and hurt they were. And then afterwards they’d go write about how satisfying it felt to do it, and maybe a week later they’d add how guilty they felt in retrospect. I mean, what did you expect this woman to do? ‘Thanks for trashing my piece?'”

“Yes. I mean, No. I mean …. I expected her to do what I do when I get a critique. Go through it point-by-point, decide if she agreed or not, and then write another draft. A better draft. I go through a dozen drafts like toilet paper, you know?”

Charlie didn’t answer. He opened his hand again, and a small fly wobbled out and buzzed off into the distance. He turned his head to one side and watched it trail away like a crow considering a shiny bit of metal.

“OK, it’s not a Venus-Mars thing. I was right the first time – it’s a Pluto-Earth thing.”

“How do you figure?”

“Look, I get calls all the time from folks who don’t know squat about computers, much less web pages or HTML or such. That’s why I’m here. They just want to tell their friends about their day and not have to deal too much with the internet. But some of them want to write fiction and poetry, and of those, some even do it a little bit. If they ever finish a piece, they show it to friends and family who coo over it, but it usually doesn’t go any farther. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a hobby, you know what I mean? You with me so far?”

I nodded.

“OK. The fun part is over. Now comes the drudgery. The rewriting. Not many people have a stomach for it. Some people will go over it once, maybe twice. There aren’t a lot of people who will do more than that. And even if they do, they don’t enjoy it. It ain’t fun. But you, my friend, are part of that very strange and sick breed, that one-billionth of a percent, that actually enjoys the rewriting. I bet you even enjoy it more than the first draft.”

I shrugged. Whether I enjoyed it more than the first draft, I didn’t know, but I did enjoy it.

“Sure you do,” he continued. “You were serious about the stiletto thing. So, my advice to you is don’t be critiquing no one’s work, and I mean no one, male or female. Because no one really wants to hear it.”

I put down my unfinished lemonade and stared out at the sea. There was no breeze right then, but I shivered. For a middle aged man, I still spend a lot of time feeling naïve. “Well, I hate to admit it, Charlie, but that was worth another beer.”

“Thanks, but I have to get back to my soaps. They’re marooned on an island, and Laura is dying of some rare tropical fever and the guys, you wouldn’t believe it, they dig a pit with some drift wood, start a fire in it, heat some rocks, bury the whole thing, and lay her over it in blankets trying to sweat it out of her.”

“You really like those soap operas?”

“Oh yeah. Talk about writing. Those guys just hack out their hour-long stories, minus the commercial breaks, day after day after day. And it sells, you know? They sure don’t have time for critiques. Which reminds me. I would advise you to give yourself deadlines, because otherwise you’ll be lucky to finish maybe one story a year, if you don’t worry it to death first.”

I stared at him blankly. A man can only take so many revelations in a day. “I guess I owe you two beers now.”

“I’ll collect later, Widgetman. See ya.”

He levered himself out of his chair with his cane and walked back inside.

Reprinted with kind permission of the victim.