Windsey

A while back, Rose went through the natural catastrophe phase. She read books about earthquakes and volcanoes and floods and tornados and seemed to take great pleasure in the fact that there were forces of nature more powerful and chaotic than her own temper tantrums.

In many ways, children learn what they can handle by testing limits – the limits of their own strength and balance and endurance, the limits of their understanding, the limits of their parent’s patience, and especially the limits of their own fear. In this way, Rose became both fascinated and afraid by these unpredictable catastrophes. She would ask us if that could happen here, and fortunately we live in a state that has no history of earthquakes, tornadoes, or volcanoes. As for flooding, Montpelier has occasionally flooded in the last century, but having walked the 1000 feet uphill from downtown on her own two little legs, she has a visceral understanding that we are NOT in the flood plain. Nevertheless the frequency of these questions made me think of practical ways to reassure her.

The problem with reassuring someone, especially about something that you have no personal control over, is that it doesn’t work. In my experience it takes more than someone else’s wishful thinking to overcome my own negative thinking. I recently had a vivid illustration of this.

I was sitting at a coffee shop and overheard a conversation between three young women. They were the counter help, taking a break with pastries snitched from under the sneeze guard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were fresh out of high school.

One of them spoke in trembling tones about her father, about how the doctor had concerns and wanted to run more tests, about how inconclusive everything was and how worried she was about him. And her coworker, full of youthful optimism but empty of empathy or common sense, began to instruct her in the illogic of worrying about something that hasn’t happened.

“Look, they don’t think anything is wrong. They’re just ‘making sure’, right? Chances are really very likely that nothing’s wrong. So you don’t have to worry, ok?”

The first young woman paused for a moment, waiting for the initial emotional firestorm to subside. When she did start to speak, her voice was strangled with a sort of controlled anger that seemed to surprise her. Young girls in this country don’t get much positive feedback for expressing their anger.

“OK, but, like … I am going to worry. You can’t make me not worry.”

Then the others sheepishly left her alone at the table.

Moral: Don’t deny people their feelings. Don’t tell them how they should feel. Don’t tell them how they do feel. I have learned these lessons, and learned them and learned them, over and over and over. And for once, I actually remembered them before dealing with Rose’s fear of natural disaster. I borrow a leaf from our neighbor’s child-raising book, which is to interpret the world through stories.

Thus began the series of stories about Windsey, the Friendly Tornado.

Rose picked the name, let’s set that straight right at the beginning. In these tales, the small but brave Rose makes friends with the bumbling, klutzy, but lovable tornado named Windsey who is lots of fun and a full of exuberance but tends to make big messes and then had to clean them up afterwards.

It did the trick, but I wish to God I had never started it. Rose doesn’t seem to worry about tornadoes anymore. Instead she is always asking me, always always always, usually at tooth-brushing time, to tell her a story about “Windsey and (fill in the blank here)”. Windsey has been to the dentist, to the doctor, to school, to the playground, etc. etc.

Tonight, however, Windsey outdid herself, and for once, I was actually kind of proud of my spur of the moment tornado story. She went trick or treating.

“Ok, Rose. Sit down and open your mouth so I can brush your teeth.”

“Oh Kay Papa,” she laughs, as if asking her the same thing five times in a tired, exasperated voice is just part of some hilarious gag we have going every night (… which come to think of it … it is). She sits and opens her mouth wide. I put the toothbrush in her mouth.

“A-A. An u ell e a ory a-out in-sey, an ick oh eat-in.”

I remove the toothbrush from her mouth.

“What did you say, Rose?”

“PapaCanyoutellmeastoryaboutWindseyandtrickortreating?”

Oh God. Please. No. I’m too tired. I just can’t do it.

But then again, I nag to myself, I DO want to be a writer, and this is a perfect little exercise that she’s providing me with. And I know it will make her very happy. Especially if it involves Windsey picking up and spreading around lots of debris.

“OK, Rose, give me a moment … hmm … hmm … yeah … OK.”

“oh on, a-a, oh on!” (Go on, Papa. Go on!)

Once upon a time, Rose went downtown to meet all her classmates at City Hall to go trick or treating together for Halloween. She was dressed as a very beautiful princess, and when she got to City Hall, she discovered that all her friends were dressed as ghosts!”

“No, Papa! Millie is dressing up as…”

“Rose. Who’s telling this story? You or me?”

“Uh … oh, OK Papa.”

So there they were. Forty three ghosts and one princess, tramping down the streets of Montpelier, getting ready to go trick or treating.

But they hadn’t gone very far, when up the street hurrying toward them came … a tornado.

“Was it Windsey?”

Yes, it was! And all the kids looked at the tornado, and then looked at one another, and then they all said, “What a COOOOL costume!” and “How did you make it?” and “What a fantastic looking tornado!”

But Windsey was sad. She looked at Rose and said, “I’m not DRESSED as a tornado. I AM a tornado. I’m DRESSED as a water spout!” And you looked down and saw that she carried a bucket of water underneath her and little wispy strands of water, too small to really see, were spiraling up her funnel.

But you didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so you said, “You’re a great water spout. What a fabulous idea.” And then Windsey felt much better.

So you all started going door-to-door, yelling “Trick or Treat” and getting lots of candy. And some of the children started eating their candy, and then more children ate their candy, and before you knew it, everyone was eating their candy. And the kids were getting louder and wilder and they began running around and roughhousing and screaming. Even Windsey ate some of her candy, and before you knew it, she wasn’t a little tornado anymore. She was a big tornado, and she filled the whole street, and she sucked up all the little children dressed as ghosts and began to spin them around in the air.

At this point, Rose started laughing so hard, I had to wipe a few flecks of toothpaste off my shirt.

But she didn’t pick up you, because you’re her friend. She let you walk in the middle where there was no wind.

And as you walked down the street, the ghosts began to scream, “OoooOOooOOooooo” and “AAhhhAhhhAHHhhh” and “Leeet meeeeee dooooooown.”

More toothpaste on my shirt.

And you turned the corner where there was a street party going on, and everyone turned and saw a princess walking down the street with forty-three REAL ghosts making REAL spooky ghosts sounds and FLYING around in the air above her. And all the parents in the streets screamed and ran away, but the children thought it was really really cool.

So you all walked back eating every bit of candy on the way, so that when you finally got back to City Hall, you were completely tired and exhausted and jagged out from sugar crashing, even Windsey. She put everyone down safely and then you all fell promptly asleep, and your parents had to come carry yo
u home.

The End.

I finished brushing her teeth, and she stood up and spit in the sink.  Then, as she does every … single … dang … time I tell her a story, she turned to me and said:

“And then what happened, Papa?”

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The Fly

In retrospect, it was a perfect autumn day.

The rain in the night had given way to a warm breezy morning. The large gray stratus clouds broke into families, The parent clouds above at 15,000 feet watching their smaller children clouds down below at 8000 feet form cumulous cloud sculptures and chase each other across the sky. On a smaller scale, our family was doing pretty much the same thing on the lawn, the children pretending to be various invented creatures and chasing each other around the maple and birch trees.

The sun came out and dried most everything, but the temperature stayed pleasant enough for single sweater or fleece – unless you were carrying children on your shoulder uphill from the library, in which case, ditch the sweater. The maples had shed only half their leaves while the oaks had only just begun to turn, leaving the hills carpeted in the fiery colors of autumn. We spent the day walking, eating split pea soup and challah, reading books, drawing pictures.

At the time it didn’t feel quite perfect. The problem was that Dawn and I were behind on sleep and spent the day dragging our enthusiasm behind us like a ball and chain trying to keep up with the children. That, and the fact that everyone except myself (and I’m sure I will be next) had a runny nose. But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?

An hour or two before sunset we were all outside in the front yard again. Dawn was pushing both Rose and Samuel in their swings while I was climbing the maple to take down the webbing straps that held up the sky chairs. One of the children called “Help me” and because I was tired and punchy, I called back “Help me! Help me!” in a thin reedy falsetto voice as I climb down out of the tree. Of course the children had no idea what I was doing.

“What do you need, Papa?” Rose asked.

“Nothing. I was just remembering a line from a movie.”

Samuel was off the swing and he sidled up to me. “Papa, I want to climb the ladder.”

“OK,” I said, and held the ladder in place for him to slowly climb.

“What movie was that?” Dawn asked.

“The Fly. The original movie from the 1950’s with Vincent Price. I saw it when I was twelve years old and had nightmares for days afterwards.”

“Was it scary, Papa?” Rose wanted to know.

Ah, the familiar parental dilemma. How much do I tell my five-year-old girl? I don’t want to ignore her or patronize her. On the other, I don’t want to give her nightmares either.

“Yes,” I say, taking the easy path. Keep it truthful and leave out the ugly parts. “Yes, Rose, it was a scary movie.”

“How was it scary?” Typical five year old. Can’t leave the scab alone.

I tried to tow the middle line. My motto, keep it short. Especially since I had to spare most of my attention on Samuel who was climbing one handed, the other hand clutching a ball.

“Well,” I began, “it’s an old 1950’s science fiction movie in which a scientist makes a machine to move objects across space. The machine takes apart all the atoms and reassembles them across the room.”

She knew (sort of) what atoms were, but I glanced over to make sure I hadn’t lost her already. She was still sitting on the swing. Dawn and I had made it at the beginning of the summer by weaving webbing straps together. She was not actually swinging so much as leaning her body off it in various different directions and twisting herself around it. I thought she wasn’t paying attention but after a pause she urged, “Go on, Papa. Go on.”

“Well, he decides to put himself in the machine, but at the last minute, a fly comes in too, and when the machine puts the atoms back together, it mixes the bodies of the scientist and the fly together.”

Samuel was now on the fifth step of the ladder and made the crucial mistake of looking down. He hugged the ladder, without letting go of his ball. “Papa!” he cried plaintively, urgently. My hands were already on him, but I said, “It’s OK. I got you, Samuel.”

I showed him how to put his foot down on the rungs and helped him climbed down the steps. This made Rose, oblivious to Samuel’s distress, impatient.

“Yeah?…And…? So…? Go ON, Papa!”

“Rose, that’s it. That’s the story.”

“That’s all?”

“Yeah.” But in my head, I thought, all of it that I am going to tell you.

Rose processed this for all of two seconds before pronouncing her judgment. “Papa, that doesn’t sound scary at all.”

“No?”

“No. That doesn’t sound any scarier than a mermaid.”

I had to agree she was right. Sometimes my children have a way of seeing the world that is so much better than my own.

Sleepwalking

I had chivied the children along in their clean-up routine, washed the dirt and sweat off their smooth, strong bodies, read them stories, sang them songs, and marched them off bouncing to bed. I had unloaded the dishwasher and loaded the dishwasher and started the dishwasher and then hand-washed the pots and pans and plastic items that would melt in the dishwasher. I had swept the stray finger tips of sliced grapes and the sticky crumbs of cinnamon toast from under the dining table. I had rinsed the dirty diapers and tidied up the remaining plastic toy novelties and library books and hung the bath mat to dry and wiped the dripping water off my arms and hair. I had exercised on the treadmill and taken a shower. And what I hadn’t done before ten o’clock in the evening, Dawn did for me and then went to bed herself. The day was done. I should have been in bed too. But this was my only time to write.

It was quiet. Even in the daytime, there was no traffic on our dead end street, and the windows, sealed against the cold days of autumn, shielded us from what little noise there was outdoors. We could barely hear the raucous indignation of the mobbing crows at sunset. At night, the only sounds were the thrumming of the dishwasher, the occasional grunts of Samuel over the monitor, perhaps the patter of rain on the window or a faint whistle of the train heading to Montpelier Junction a mile or two below in the valley. At night, the house was as quiet as a monastery. There were no distractions, no quarrels, no attention-getting mischief, no Monkees on the CD player, no desperate requests for toilet paper when the roll is out, no work calls five minutes before dinner. Blissful silence without distractions.

I entered the dark bedroom where the droning of the HEPA filter had lulled Dawn to sleep. Applying the slightest pressure with my thumb to the docking station button, the laptop popped loose with a percussive “Thunk.” Dawn’s breathing stopped a moment. She coughed twice, let out a long sigh, and went back to sleep.

The only light in the house, besides the night lights, was the fixture over the dining table the lit up the far end of the hall. The childrens’ bedroom doors were open to let more heat into their rooms, and I crept past them like a hunter trying not to startle his game. But the hardwood floor creaked under my foot, and there was another break in someone’s breathing, a shift of sheets and a turning over, and then the sigh and the descent back into slumber.

From the safety of the dining table, the dishwasher covered any extraneous noise. As my computer booted up, I hunted and gathered – a large glass of water and a bowl of yogurt mixed with flax seed and chocolate chips. To each his own.

For five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, I wasted valuable time reading email, blogs, the news, various online literary journals. By the time the yogurt was gone, leaving a sweet film on the back of my throat, my body and mind were glutted. It was time for writing.

I opened the story I was currently working on, a conglomeration of false starts and dead ends about a circus. I groaned softly as I read through first few disconnected paragraphs. When a story pulls me along, it is a joy just to transcribe it from my imagination. But when the story won’t come, I must drag it out kicking and screaming. On these nights, it is no easier for me to sit down and begin than it is to drag myself to the treadmill for a half hour’s sweat.

Creak. Creeeeak. Creak! The sound of a child shifting in bed interrupted me, but this time there was no contented sigh, no drifting back to slumberland. There was a bump and a shuffling noise. A glance at the dark monitor LED showed it wasn’t Samuel. I decided that Rose must be going to the bathroom. But I didn’t want to encourage any late night shenanigans, so I returned to my story.

I had just finished my first read-through when the hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle in a spooky, unpleasant way. I looked up and an icy chill froze my heart. Not eight feet away, like a specter made more frightening by its apparent innocence, Rose was staring at me with a wrinkled, lost face. How long had she been there? I had not heard her enter. For a moment, I entertained a series of bizarre notions – that she materialized from thin air, that she was a hologram, that she had died in her sleep and reappeared as a ghost, come to haunt her neglectful Papa with a reproachful look on her face. Perhaps some being of great power had possessed my daughter. I’d better be very polite to it.

There was something odd about the look on her face, as if she saw something behind me that I couldn’t see, perhaps a bright aura or a demon homunculus on my shoulder. Whatever it was, it made her squint and totter.

“Papa?” she asked.

“Yes, Rose?” I made my voice gentle as possible.

“Papa?” she asked again.

“Yes, Rose?” I repeated, a little louder.

The dishwasher gurgled. The laptop fan kicked in. I saw a fruit fly pass between us towards the kitchen but I let it go, waiting for her to answer.

“Papa?” she said again, but her gaze drifted left and the squinting look softened around her eyes. At the same time her voice took on a slight inflection of distress.

“Yes, Rose?” I said once more, but now I got up and walked to her. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”

“Papa?”

“Come on, sweetheart, let’s go to the bathroom.”

She didn’t say anything back, but I led her, stumbling and teetering. She walked right past the bathroom and into her room. Thinking she was heading back to bed, I followed, but instead she began to wander around her bedroom. It was a small room, not suited to aimless wandering.

“Come on, Rose, let’s go back to bed.”

I lifted her over the gate that keeps her from rolling off her high bed frame at night. Laying her down on her side, I asked, “Would you like me to sing you your bedtime song?” But before I could begin, she sat up, ignoring my hand on her back. She began to talk, and her voice sounded more and more distressed. She stared at the nightlight, fingering Snuggle Bunny’s ears and began to repeat my name.

“Papa?”

“Yes, Rose.”

“Papa?!”

“Yes, Rose, I’m here.”

I tried to lean her back down to sleep but she pushed my hand away in slow motion and climbed down from her bed again. I didn’t stop her, but if she wasn’t going to sleep, I was determined to steer her to the bathroom.

With my hands barely touching the back of her shoulder blades, I led her to the toilet. In the light of a single night light, I found a dry cloth diaper on the counter which I used to wipe the edge of the bathtub. I sat down. Rose was still standing in front of the toilet, not moving, not looking at anything in particular.

“Take off your pants, honey, and pee in the toilet.”

She pulled her pants down and sat down on the toilet and then immediately stood up and pulled her pants back up.

“Papa?”

“Yes, Rose?”

“I need … I need … I …”

I shifted my bottom on the uncomfortable surface of the tub and strained to hear her. The night light lit up her face from the front so that I could see her lips moving even as her eyes stared aimlessly.

“I … I need …”

Whatever she needed, an evil witch must have cast a spell on her tongue. She couldn’t tell me. Instead she started to scratch her belly under her shirt with hard, raking scratches that would have left welts if I hadn’t cut her nails earlier that evening.

I didn’t really know what was going on. She seemed to be awake. She clearly recognized the toilet and me and could tell us apart, but she couldn’t find the bathroom and she couldn’t speak in complete sentences.

This must be sleepwalking, but I had never seen it before, had never imagined how bizarre and unnerving it was to watch. I was afraid of doing the wrong thing, of scaring her badly with a word or a touch. I was afraid she was going to hurt hersel
f.

But mostly, I was afraid she was going to pee all over the floor.

“Rose, please, sit on the toilet and pee.”

She scratched a bit more, her vacant eyes mesmerized by the bathroom night light. Dawn gets wigged out whenever I stare at her like that, and it was no less out-wigging to me at that moment. Then, as if making up her mind at the very last minute, Rose ripped down her pants and sat on the toilet. A strong stream of pee splashed the water in the bowl. The sound echoed throughout the bathroom. It went on and on and on. A very long time. I let out a very long breath, unaware that I had been holding it in.

Under normal circumstances, I would have given her a chance to wipe her bottom with toilet paper, flush the toilet, and wash her hands. And under normal circumstances she would have tried to leave the room without doing any of this. But now the roles were reversed. I wanted her back in her bed, but she just stood there with her pajama pants around her ankles staring into space. I pulled her pants back up for her and gently led her out of the bathroom. She moved in halting steps.

“Papa?”

“It’s OK, Rose. Let’s get you back to bed.”

Once again she diverted from me and began to pace around the bedroom.

“Rose, do you want to sit with me in the rocking chair?”

“O… K.” she answered. It was a doubtful “OK,” but I picked her up anyway and sat her in my lap in the rocking chair. She wriggled as if uncomfortable, so I moved her to the other leg, but she wouldn’t keep still. She jumped off my lap and began to pace the room.

“Papa?”

At this point, I was starting to get a little frantic myself.

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Papa … Can we … Can we …?”

“Yes, Rose?”

No answer. I didn’t know what to do. I thought, isn’t it bad to wake a sleep walker? I can’t make her stay in her bed.

Then she stopped pacing and turned to face the night light. The decisiveness of this motion alarmed me so much that I almost missed the significance of what she said to me then. She stood there with her lips moving slightly, like she used to do when she was three years old and trying to put words together into a whole sentence.

“Papa … Can we PLEASE go home now?”

I stopped rocking as my mind caught up to what was going on. Go home? We ARE home. Where does she think we are? What is she dreaming, anyway? I sighed, not in frustration, but because I knew in the morning she wouldn’t remember this, and I would never know what she had been dreaming.

“Rose.” I began. “Listen to me. We are home. We are home right now. We are home in your very own bedroom. Look ….” I grabbed her stuffed rabbit off the bed. “Here’s your Snuggle Bunny. It’s late. It’s bedtime. Let’s go to bed, and I will sing you a song, OK?”

“OK.”

I picked her up and deposited her on the bed again lying down. As I reached for the sheets, she popped up and sat upright in bed, staring at her night light. Her face was a picture of discontent.

“Papa … I want … I want … Papa…”

Then a strange thought entered my head, an idea so unnatural for a five year old child that it had not occurred to me before.

“Rose, is that night light bothering you?”

For the first time that evening, her answer was clear, definite, and awake. “Yes.”

“Would you like me to turn it off?”

“Yes!”

I reached behind her rocking horse and unplugged the night light. For several seconds I could not see anything at all. The room was plunged in darkness. When my eyes adjusted, I turned back to the bed and found Rose already lying down, head on her pillow. I covered her with her sheet and started to sing, but before I even finished the song, she was breathing softly and evenly, fast asleep. Even the creaking of the hardwood floor under my feet as I left the room did not alter the deep, regular pattern of her breathing.

Nanowrimo 2007

Just a short entry announcing my participation in the annual insanity known as National Novel Writing Month.

You will notice I have added a new link on the left which will take you to my official Official NaNoWriMo 2007 Participant profile. There you will find a twenty year old picture of me when I still had hair. More importantly, you will find, starting November 1, serial excerpts from the novel I will be writing. So far, this novel has no Title, no Characters, no Plot, no Outline, and no Words, only an Urgent Motivation to Become.

The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days. As the dishes and laundry and unanswered phone calls pile up, I will spend every spare hour in literary endeavor, so please send your kind thoughts, well wishes, and spontaneous expressions of support. To my family that is. I can only hope they will not leave me before December 1st.

Mortification

Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame edited by Robin Robertson.

(entry 2 in the Stack By The Bed Book Review)

Peat’s recent entry on how Robert Jordan scolded him in front of 500 people reminded me of this book.

Do not, repeat, do NOT, go out and buy this book. Borrow a copy, yes. Steal one, perhaps. Liberate one being used as a doorstop in a college dorm, definitely. Receive it as a gift, as I did (thanks Dad!). But do not spend your hard-earned cash on it.

This book is a collection of short essays by an eclectic group of American and British writers (poets and novelists) each of whom relate some tale of personal public embarrassment. It is the perfect bathroom book, comprised of one to five page snippets, each one long enough to pass the time pleasantly while voiding one’s intestinal tract and yet not so long that your boss/spouse/children will wonder where you’ve run off to.

I wish I could say that each one story was a gem, but frankly only one in three was worth the paper and ink. None of them were awful, but many of them were so similar to each other that they need not all have been included. Lots of misbehaving-drunken-idiot stories. Lots of poorly-attended-public-reading stories. And lots and lots of misbehaving-drunken-idiot-at-poorly-attended-public-reading stories.

There are seventy-two entries in the book. Unless you are a closet fan of modern British poetry, you will not likely know any of these authors outside Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, but it hardly matters as their stories are among the least interesting. It is the truly anonymous writers in the book who have the most brilliant yarns to spin. If you are short on time, go straight to the following:

Andrew O’Hagan: Out of the Sphere of Handicraft

Thomas Lynch: What You Are Thought To Be

D.B.C. Pierre: Choking It With Butter

Harry Sweeney: If Fortune Turns Against You

Elizabeth McCracken: The History of Pinheads

Alan Warner: The English Reading Public

John Lancaster: A Plant Can Discuss Horticulture

Niall Griffith: Rubbing The Belly

That’s about it. Eight essays out of seventy two is not a very good batting average, though the book was definitely worth it for just those eight. I think Mr. Robertson had a sound idea when he pitched the idea to the publisher, so I will give him the credit for trying, but I believe the ultimate execution of it was flawed.

Together readers, you and I can do a better job. And that is what I proposed we do.

I shall begin with two stories and leave it to my readers to pick up the gauntlet. If they dare. Consider it an exercise in writing honestly.

The first story is not my own, but I had it directly from the mouth of the person to whom it occurred. He is an old friend whom I consider trustworthy. He has always been terribly afflicted with foot-in-mouth disease, and I find his story entirely plausible. It has become my gold standard against which I measure all tales of humiliation. The second story, one of my own, will seem paltry in comparison.

————–

Story #1:

Several years ago, when I was a young single man out of graduate school working at my first real job, I shared a large house in Madison, WI with a group of friends. One of my housemates was an engineer who worked for the state in a program that gave out money for public building upgrades. His job was to evaluate design proposals. As such, he had to keep up with the latest technology and was often taking seminars offered through the local University of Wisconsin, seminars which attracted engineers from all over the world.

My friend was a tall, handsome, garrulous fellow with an infectious laugh and a taste for travel and the outdoors, and these seminars often depressed him. They were held in stuffy, florescent-lit, windowless rooms during the most gorgeous days of summer, and the boring, insipid engineers who attended seemed devoid of any interesting tales or jokes, despite coming from all points of the globe. One night he vowed that the next seminar he went to, he would try to spark some life out of his classmates.

When the day came for his next seminar, he found himself at the registration table with a group of pale, skinny, young men wearing identical button collar shirts and breast pocket calculators (this was after the days of slide rules but long before PDAs and cell phones). So after a few introductions had been traded and some of what passed for ice-breaking conversation amongst engineers had passed, he announced, a bit louder than was perhaps necessary, “Hey, how do you get a one-armed Norwegian out of a tree?”

The room hushed as the assembled engineers looked at him blankly or else stared at one another’s shoes. Perhaps they did not understand it was a joke. Perhaps they thought it was an engineering puzzle to solve but their English skills were not sufficient to grasp the mathematics of it. With slack mouths and pallid expressions, they stared but did not rise to the bait. My friend was nothing if not tenacious. He forged on.

“You wave! Get it?”

No one laughed. Those whose mouths were not already open subsequently dropped their jaws. It was not that these engineers were dull men unable to understand or appreciate humor. Rather, they were more like innocent bystanders witnessing an accident they were powerless to stop. My friend detected a sudden frisson in the room and noticed that several of his audience were casting furtive glances over his shoulder, so he turned his head around for a look.

Standing a few feet behind him was a one-armed man, a fellow classmate. His face held an expression that was not angry, not smiling, but, if anything, resigned. On his shirt was a nametag that read, “Sven.”

My friend’s jaws began to move up and down, but before he could spit out an apology, Sven looked him in the eye and said without a trace of emotion or irony, “I’ve heard it before.”

———————————-

Story #2

My own story takes place at about the same period in my life. I had taken up with a geriatric band of Morris dancers, and as this is crucial to the tale, I must pause and explain what this means for the uninitiated or else my story will be meaningless.

Morris dancing is a form of ritual dance from England that is at least 400 years old and perhaps older. It is mentioned in Shakespeare and elsewhere, and is supposedly descended from agricultural fertility rites. The dancers wear brightly colored knickers, streamers, baldrics and/or vests. Their shins are adorned with bells, not to scare off bears or cats, but to help them keep time with the music. The caper about with handkerchiefs or else three-foot staves that they clash together, ideally in time to the music. There is an air of Baudy Olde England in everything they do.

The music is always live. There is one or more musicians playing fiddle, drum, fife, concertina, or something of that ilk. The tunes are simple folk tunes, and it would not be overly harsh to call them “dinky.” They are the kind of tunes that one might expect to hear from an ice cream truck or in a roller skating rink.

Two rows of three dancers each line up, the music begin, the foreman yells some gibberish that no one can understand, and then all the dancers begin to hop up and down, forward and back, side to side, ideally together at the same time. The bells make an infernal din that tend to throw the musicians off the beat. Two dancers might face off and wave handkerchiefs or rattle sticks at each other, and then the entire group will take a step forward on one foot and execute a maneuver meant to produce a beautiful tintabulation of bells, but more often resembles six people imitating dogs urinating on fire hydrants.  And so it continues.

Morris dancers often perform where they are not invited, hop
ing to attract crowds of rubberneckers who can then be humiliated by the “characters’ – non-dancing members of the troupe such as The Fool (dressed like a jester) or the Hobby Horse (dressed like a horse) or the Betty (a man dressed as a woman – yes, I know – those wacky Brits). They will perform at fairs and parades, at weddings and wakes, at any odd event for which they can make excuse. My team once performed at 11:30 in the evening at the main post office on April 15th for all the last minute tax return filers.

Enough. I could go on for days describing the oddities, customs, and attention-getting behavior of these people. The main point I wish to make is that for a time, a rather long time measured in years, I was one of these people. In fact, I was perhaps one of the better dancers on the team, being younger than most of the others by twenty years.

And I have not even gotten to the mortification part of my story.

Our team was invited to perform at a festival being held in a tourist town in Wisconsin, a haven of Scandanavian folk arte, quainte reproduction houses, and midwestern cheese and beer. It was a warm day and our kit, the costume we wore while performing, had a few more layers than was comfortable. Our performance, like most, was loud and bizarre and attracted quite a crowd, but we let it go on a bit too long. The polite octogenarians up for the day from Milwaukee in their white sneakers and pink hair were beginning to glaze over. We decided to go out with a fun, raucous, stick-clashing number called The Black Joke.

I was in the middle of one line, directly across from a gentleman who learned Morris dancing in his native British Isles when he was a wee lad during the War to End All Wars (that would be the Second World War to you post-Generation Xers). As such he was a bit slow, and I was a bit pumped up on adrenaline, and I gave his stick a ringing blow with my own, but as his stick was a bit tardy, mine bit the air and kept swinging.

Right into the forehead of the dancer to my left.

Who happened to be my girlfriend.

Smack between her eyes.

She instantly collapsed in a heap on the ground to the audible gasp of several dozen tourists who were suddenly quite alert.

We had two things going for us. The first was that our foreman was a young man skilled in the theatre arts who had vast experience in Productions Suddenly Going Wildly And Disastrously Wrong In Unpredictable Ways which is a very handy skill to have on a Morris team. He was able to calm, distract, and reassure the crowd in a ceaseless prattle that came naturally to him. The second thing going for us was that one of our musicians was a medical doctor who appeared instantly with her bag.

My victim/girlfriend did not lose consciousness, or at least not for long. As the doctor ministered to her, I knelt by her side, holding her hand, speaking words of encouragement, studiously avoiding the accusing glares of the audience held at bay by the foreman. Finally, she whispered to me, “Harry, I just have to know one thing.”

“Yes, dear?”

“Who hit me?”

“Well, sweetie,” I began and then swallowed. “It was … it was me.”

There was a pause, and then she began to quietly chuckle. It might have been a self-deprecating, “Of course, this sort of thing would happen to me” kind of laugh. Or she might have simply been losing her mind.

In any event, she soon stood up with help, barely acknowledging the applause of the audience, and hobbled to a car. We went to a local hospital where they determined that she had escaped relatively unscathed and did not require stitches. She was soon released with an attractive butterfly bandage adorning the bridge of her nose.

Did she ever forgive me? That’s a good question. We’ve been married for several years now, and I’m sure one of these days I’ll get up the nerve to ask her.

The Children of Hurin

I am in the habit of reading several books at once and having quite a few more on reserve in a towering pile next to my bed. There is usually one longer work of fiction that goes back and forth between the bathroom and the treadmill. Then there is some educational work of non-fiction that travels with me on errands and public transportation. I usually have a finger in at least one collection of short stories. And very often, if one book is slow, I will allow another to jump the queue if it looks promising. At times this has caused a queue seven books thick, but I always work my way back through the pile. A book has to be truly dreadful or stupefying for me to give up on it. The stack by my bed is quite large.

I was toying with the idea of giving you a tour of them, a sort of miscellaneous What-We-Are-Reading-Now book review sort of thing. But as I sat down to write about the first one, The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, I found myself unable to staunch the flow of words. 

I have read the introduction and finished the first chapter and already I can tell that anyone who reads this book cover-to-cover, as I intend to do, will be challenged to explain why they bothered.

I did not seek this book out. I did not even know it existed, but it found me as if it were looking for me with a purpose. It was the gift of a long-time friend, in fact, my best friend from high school and even before high school. We met during a VERY boring Hebrew class when he bit my on the arm, a story I must remember to tell another time. This friend came to visit us in Vermont recently, and the book was a thank you gift he left us for hosting him a few nights. He is one of the few people I am still in touch with from that time in my life, one of the few people not related to me by blood who has given me a gift in the last ten years, one of the few people not related to me by blood who has visited us in Vermont, and one of the few people who knows of my love for Tolkien. Some might call it fate. Others, doom.

———-

During the summer between 4th and 5th grade, my family moved from Long Island to Atlanta. My father had worked for years in New York City in radio promotions and then decided to get out of the rat race. But after various investigations into alternatives (opening a bookstore in New England for instance), he decided to change his plan, to stay in radio but become a bigger fish in a smaller pond. I may have the background all wrong, and if so he can correct me in the comments. I was all of eight years old when we moved to Long Island so he could become the general manager of a small town radio station.

Despite his best efforts, the station was not a financial success and three years later the owners decided to cut their losses. We moved to Atlanta so Dad could return to a career in radio promotion where at least the pace of life was slower (which was true of Atlanta back in the 1970’s). A week after he started his new job, the radio station in Long Island burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. But that was not our problem.

And not my problem. My problem was culture shock. I spoke the fluid, motor-mouth argot of pre-adolescent new york, which in my new home south of the Mason-Dixon line required frequent translation. My dealings with adults became unwanted lessons in patience.

“Son,” they would begin, and I knew what would follow, painfully, slowly, each word chewed and savored like fine tobacco. “You have got…” and then the maddening pause while they considered. It was not the pause of someone carefully choosing a diplomatic word, but simply a pause for the mental cams to line up and release the next three words, “… to slow down.” They all said this. Slow down. And they all pronounced “down” with two syllables somehow. “I cannot … understand….” they would continue and in between the pauses, the snide remarks would insinuate themselves in my racing thoughts as a I tried to keep my composure respectful.  No, I imaging you couldn’t. “… a word … you are saying.” I grew my first beard waiting for sentences such as these to parse themselves.

At eleven years old, I had not yet known a time in my life when my tongue could keep pace with my thoughts. I didn’t wish to insult anyone’s intelligence, but I was quite the intellectual elitist at the time and feared it showed in my face or my tone or the words that slipped unfiltered passed my tongue from the dark, uncivil recesses of my thoughts. It wasn’t just Yankee snobbery on my part though I expect that was there too, something I did unlearn in time. Rather, I was a lonely, unpopular boy lacking in confidence and it took me a long time to find my place in this strange new land. The grass seemed normal, but under the surface oozed a blood-red clay instead of dirt. The ivy was a Japanese variety that had been known to infest and choke automobiles left unattended for a month. It was the first place I had lived where winter was a long, uninterrupted gloom of steel gray skies without the distraction or pleasure of snow.

We had left a beautiful enormous house in Long Island, a young boy’s dream house. The original part of the house was over 200 years old and the yard included a tree house, a stable full of abandoned antiques, a large lawn and several woods, and dirt ramps for moto-cross bikes that attracted all the neighborhood kids like moths to the flame and with similar results.

That first year in Atlanta, we moved into a three-bedroom apartment in a town house complex across the street from a strip mall. If that wasn’t bad enough, for the first time in my life, I had to share a room with my brother.

Worse yet, I had no right to complain. There is a book whose title and author escapes me, but it’s opening describes the situation perfectly. It goes something like this: “It was very kind of God to let Mr. Smith marry Mrs. Smith and thus make two people in the world miserable instead of four.” My older brother David and I were put in one room because my parents thought we might get along, and my oldest brother Jon and my younger brother Mike were put together because my parents felt they deserved each other. Once, years earlier, when my parents had gone out for the afternoon, Jon had convinced Mike and me to have a boxing match which ended with me doubled over with the wind knocked out of me and Jon begging me not to tell Mom and Dad. If I had to share a room, I was at least appreciative of my good fortune to have David as my roommate.

Like me, David was studious and unassuming, easily forgotten in a public school classroom full of discipline problems, content with just a friend or two. The room we shared had two twin beds with an armistice border between them, twelve inches wide. At the foot of the beds were our desks and somewhere, perhaps the closet, were our clothes. The single window was next to my bed, but this was hardly a perquisite. It overlooked a small slope that had been dug out of the surrounding woods to make room for the building’s foundation, and it exposed a bleeding scar of red clay with sickly pine roots reaching out like the fingers of corpses.

Despite being on the cusp of adolescence, I do not remember complaining much about this situation, at least not out loud, but perhaps my family remembers otherwise. I knew I had more than others – food, shelter, water, television, and the teasing and rough housing that passes for love and affection in a large family without sisters. School was neither boring nor overly challenging, and eventually I would make friends, including the friend who would eventually give me the book I am slowly working my way to writing about. But I hadn’t met him yet, and it takes two years to settle into any new community. I often felt bored and lonely.

One weekend afternoon, there was nothing on television but golf and tennis. I did not want to DO

anything. I felt like indulging in pathetic, self-pitying indolence. At the time, my talents were mathematical and I could happily spend several hours with books of puzzles or mazes or magic squares, but not that day. But there is an Imp inside all children that leads them to try new things and expand their horizons and get into all sorts of mischief.  That day, it led me to ask my brother David if he had something to read. Something good.

David considered me for a moment trying with an appraising sort of look. Finally, he asked, “Have you ever read The Hobbit?”

Had it been my brother Jon, I would have assumed he made up the title on the spot and was trying to gull me into believing him. I had stopped believing anything Jon told me since two years earlier when he got me to take a deep sniff from an open bottle of ammonia. But this was David. He might tease or pick on me or snap at me to leave him alone, but mostly we got along. There was not a trace of guile in his voice at all. His appraising look had simply been an attempt to gage my maturity, not my gullibility.

Looking back thirty years later, I am surprised to realize how suspicious I was then about my brothers motives whenever they talked to me. It was a constant, low-level anxiety, a sense of alertness and endless weighing of words and gestures that seemed perfectly normal at the time. I don’t mean to cast my brothers in an evil light. My own behavior was no worse than theirs. We spent equal amounts of time taking care of each other and taking advantage of each other’s weaknesses, which we knew intimately. As an adult, David once described it as “Europe before World War I. Alliances changing constantly,” and I think that is as fair a description as any. It was ordinary sibling rivalry, plain and simple, though the new accommodations confined it to a glass beaker over a heated flame.

David handed me a yellowed, paperback copy of the book and left the room. I began to read.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Several hours later, after my Mom had screamed my name up the stairs for the seventh or eighth time, some horribly responsible part of my personality dragged my body down to the dinner table, leaving my mind still floating above a spider-ridden forest east of the Misty Mountains. It was the first time in my life I can remember preferring a book over dinner. But not the last time.

I stayed up as late as I could, but couldn’t finish it until the next day when I began to read it again. David saw that I enjoyed it, and perhaps feeling pleased that he had done me such a good deed and wishing to expand his brotherly affection, he mentioned to me that there were three other books that continued the tale. I knew then that there was a good God in this world who had a reason for everything that He did, including forcing me to share a tiny bedroom in an alien land with my older brother.

Tolkien somehow opened up the world of reading and books to me. I have read many, many books since that day, though surprisingly not so much fantasy, or rather, speculative fiction as it is called today. But for a time I read everything Tolkien ever produced, including such plodding Anglophilic tales as Smith of Wooten Major and Father Giles of Ham. I must have read Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion ten times in my life since. When The Silmarillion was posthumously published, I was frantic with glee. I bought a cheap paperback as soon as I could afford one and worked my way tenaciously through the Ainulindale several times. I would read it for a day or two, slowly trying to retain the complex genealogy before giving up in despair only to try again a week later and penetrate the text a little further. Finally I broke through the crust of mythology to where the actual Story begins, realizing with some frustration that most of what I had spent months trying to memorize from those first few chapters never appears again later in the book. 

Once while haunting the dusty, teetering, pine board shelves of a used book store, I found (and purchased) a rare recording of music written to some of the poetry in his books, composed by someone from the pre-radio, music hall school of piano and operatic voice. I remember staying up passed my bedtime to illicitly listen to BBC dramatizations of the books on NPR. I watched every one of the original Rankin and Bass cartoon productions. For a time I tried writing notes in class to my best friend in Elvish script.

Recently, I went to theatre to haughtily poo-poo every one of Peter Jackson’s attempts at co-opting the characters from the Lord of the Rings into a badly scripted, special-effects laden, Dungeons and Dragons movie (Gimli – “Come on Aragorn. Let’s get some food.”). And I will be sure to be first in line at the theatre so I can be disgusted with their attempt at The Hobbit as well. Because no matter what the popular media has done with it or said about it since then, Tolkien started me reading.

So, now that The Children of Hurin has been postumously published, I will work my way through it, one page at a time on the treadmill if I must.