Mortality strikes again

Samuel is going to die. We don’t know when or exactly how, but it won’t be anytime soon, we hope. He is, after all, just weeks shy of his sixth birthday, and full of the frenetic vitality of a moth before the flame. But on our recent trip to visit his grandparents, his understanding of mortality cemented, and not just mortality in general, but specifically his mortality. He would have rather stayed ignorant.

The grandparents live in Deep South Texas, which, if you ask any Texan, is not to be confused with North, South, Central or West Texas. Deep South is just an hour from where the Rio Grande anemically trickles into the Gulf of Mexico. More people in this patch of America speak Spanish than don’t, and the grandparents, known to the Mexicans as Q-Tips for their white hair and shoes, are part of the aging retirement community that don’t. The wind there blows more or less all the time, a blessing in March and a scourge of sandy grit in August. Shaggy, ornamental palm trees, inconsistently shaved, swagger on the sides of the roads like wealthy drunks. Birds of unusual colors and sizes dot the skies. Instead of crows in the country and pigeons in the cities, they have plagues of grackles – medium-sized birds with black iridescent feathers, alien eyes, and an astoundingly large vocabulary. They can chirp, wolf whistle, and scream in an eerily human fashion, but the most interesting noise they make is an odd crinkly sound like aluminum foil being chewed and swallowed.

This is where the grandparents have come to retire, for the warmth and the bird watching. Their home is the smallest permanent dwelling I have ever slept in. Inside, from one end to the other, is a ship’s bathroom, a bedroom just large enough for the king bed, a clean and serviceable kitchen, and the sitting room. The rest of the house is en plein air. The side door opens to an enclosed courtyard with a sun-drenched, ten by ten foot plot of grass and a paved concrete patio shaded with an overhang. You don’t play handball here, not merely because you might break a flowering cactus, but because one wall of the courtyard is the exterior wall of the neighboring house. This efficient building pattern continues down the line of homes, so that a squirrel with asbestos claws could scamper over the asphalt shingles from one end of the block to the other. The entire gated community is four long streets forming a military square that surrounds a golf course, with a few short cul-de-sacs to pad out the lots. And despite the promises made by the developer to covenant signers, the golf course is a private, pay-per-use course and the original clubhouse swimming pool has now been filled with cement due to fear of liability.

We had visited several times over the years, but this was our first visit since Granddaddy’s quarantine. For a man who has never admitted to being sick a day in his life, he spent an extended and unplanned detour last summer in a Jefferson, Missouri hospital during an RV vacation, and then weeks at home with an oxygen tank under quarantine.

Slowly he recovered. I knew him to be a tough old bird, warm, generous, and opinionated by nature, who neither the navy nor his first wife could subdue. It was reassuring on this visit to see him puttering around with the table saw, rasps, and nail gun in the garage, building a toy boat for Samuel, while his wife worked with Rose sewing a cape for her stuffed snuggle bunny, but it was clear that they both operated in a lower gear than our last. A grandparent can crow over a grandchild’s growth rings every year, but one doesn’t mention the relentless erosion of vigor in the grandparent. Not directly. You might note the large number of pills in the pill box, or listen to how the neighbors rebuilt Granddaddy’s back fence while he was on medical quarantine, and you connect the dots.

They could still play tour guide for us. We visited the USS Lexington museum in dry dock up at Corpus Christi one day and spent hours on the beach at South Padre Island another day. On the off days we read, and cooked, watched the children play pretend while we played cards. These trips are hard on my mid-life crisis, and I found it hard to relax and play cards. Card playing has often struck me as something one does to pass the time while waiting for Death. At least it did in that slow, sunny environment.

No, I lie. I enjoy cards, but I supposed my mortality has lately become like another child in the family, vying for my attention, increasingly insistent as the day progresses.

Thursday night, too tired to cook, we held hands together around two boxes of Pizza Hut pizza, one cheese, one half sausage/half veggie while Granddaddy led the blessing.

“heavenly father,” Granddaddy mumbled in gruff baritone, “we thank you for the bounty of this meal the glorious weather that we’ve enjoyed today the many blessings you bestow upon us and the gift of our grandchildren …” The words ran together, rising and falling in long waves, pausing only to catch breath rather than punctuate. I watched the children silently adapt to this unfamiliar ritual, and I cringed inwardly waiting for the awkward punch line to which we were careening. “… we ask you to look over us and give us your blessing in all things as we pray in jesus’ name amen.”

“Amen,” Granny repeated, and the rest of us smiled politely without saying a word. Without a pause, Granddaddy said loudly and with a hint of mock disgust, “Now who’s having some of this vegetarian pizza?”

“Me! Me!” cries Rose.

Samuel is usually a Greek Chorus to his older sister in these situations, but instead he leaned over to whisper into Mama’s ear, too quietly for anyone else to hear.

“Granny and Granddaddy are Christian,” he said, stating a fact.

Mama nodded at him.

“And we’re Jewish, right?”

“Right,” Mama whispered back, relieved that, not only had he figured this out, but he knew to say it out loud would make awkward dinner conversation. Unfortunately, his sister was not so savvy.

“What?” cried Rose. “What is Samuel saying?”

“None of your bees wax, missy,” Mama answered, and served her a slice of pizza.

Rose and Granny made angel food cake for dessert, with strawberries from Mexico and Cool Whip. Cool Whip is not something we would normally eat at home, and as the plastic container went round, I thought to myself, “Water, Corn Syrup, Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening,” but I served it to my children anyway and dropped a large spoonful on my strawberries, thanking our hosts. Time, age, and many visits have eroded the edges of our differences. It is not so difficult anymore to bend where possible.

After dinner, we sat in chairs around a table on the breezeway patio, Granny shawl-wrapped against the cooler night air. She was playing Gin Rummy with Dawn, but it was time for the evening’s treat – popcorn and mini chocolate chips. Rose served, spilling only one bowl of popcorn. I cut the children’s chocolate chip servings in half – Granny may want to spoil them, but I have to live with the hyperactive consequences before bed. Rose mixed her popcorn and chips together in a single bowl and then picked them out and ate them separately. She asked me for funny family stories and gross ones too, so I recalled some incidents from a teenage trip to Israel. The grandparents listened, with polite, expressionless faces, and I became conscious of their quiet presence, afraid of what they might be thinking, of saying anything that might offend them. Half way through our bowls, Samuel picked up something in the conversation and his mind motored along with it quietly. I thought he was merely eating. Had I been listening I might have heard the timer in his head ping. During a pause, he said in an alarmed, mouse-quiet voice, “Papa.”

I looked over and his eyes had filled up with tears.

“Sam,” I say putting down my bowl. “What’s wrong?”

“Papa, I just had a thought… A scary thought.”

“What is it?”

“I just thought that someday I’m going to die. And I’m going to be there, like sleeping but not dreaming, for how long and not ever going to wake up again.” The tears began to flow freely now.

Do you remember when you first learned you were going to die? I do, and like most of the traumatic experiences of my childhood, it was instigated by my oldest brother. I was six years old, and my father was in the back yard raking leaves, and my oldest brother said to me while we were under an ancient sour cherry tree, “Well of course you are going to die. Everybody dies someday.” He was perhaps impatient or disgusted with my naiveté, but either way a tsunami of panic chemicals bathed my cerebral cortex and bleached away my memory of anything that had happened before that moment, and I mean anything in my entire six years. I really have very few memories of life before this incident. I remember that moment though, the corrugated cherry trunk weeping with sap, the smell of moldering leaves, the weak autumn sunlight, and the hot tears turning to slivers of ice on my face as I went running to my father.

Somehow through the blubbering, my father understood. He held me and told me that I wasn’t going to die, not for a very long, long time. His words and touch soon calmed me down. OK, I thought to myself. Get a grip. It’s not like it’s going to happen tomorrow. I get a long reprieve. Maybe I can figure some way out of this. An exemption or dispensation or something.

Forty years later, I picked Sam up and bundled him in my arms. For a moment I said nothing, just rocked him and let the wave of tears run its course, remembering the cherry tree and my father’s words. When he was calm enough, I repeated those words to him.

“Samuel, you’re scared of dying?”


“Buddy, you aren’t going to die for a very long, long time.”



“When am I going to die?”

Wait. This isn’t part of the script.

“Well, uh … not for maybe eighty years or so. I don’t know exactly. But you’ve got a long full life ahead of you.”

“But what happens after that?”

“What do you mean?”

Actually, I know what he means, but I’m stalling. My son, at six years old, is already way smarter than I was at six years old. I had never asked my Dad such a question.

I am thankful for Granny and Granddaddy’s respectful and tacit silence on the subject, though I know they are listening. God bless them, they wouldn’t dare interfere here, even though they have very certain and solid answers that guide their life. Their refrigerator used to have a magnet that read, “Don’t ask God for favors. Just report for duty.”

But I have no sure answers. I don’t mean that I’m agnostic or skeptical or undecided in my beliefs. Indeed, I believe rather certainly that what happens after we die is not something that our Maker intended us to know. Whatever God expects of us, he expects it without the promise of reward or the threat of punishment. He expects that we should do it out of love simply because He created us. I don’t know if other people think this way. It is certainly similar to the attitude I take toward parenting, and so far it has worked remarkably well. But I recognize that this is not reassuring to a six year old, and perhaps not something the Grandparents would approve of either. I wish I did not have to have this conversation in front of them. At that moment, I would have happily lied to Sam if I thought it would cheer him up and keep the family peace. But he can smell a lie a mile away, and he remembers them.

“Samuel,” I started, “I don’t know. Some people believe that when you die, you go to sleep without dreams for a long time, until someday God wakes you up again, and we all get to live in another world. A better world.”

He was not reassured, bravely trying to hold in the tears, and his words were thick. “How long?”

“How long?”

“How long do I sleep?”

“A long time.”

“Like, a hundred days? Papa, I don’t want to sleep that long. I’ll be all alone!”

“Well, it doesn’t feel like a hundred days. It feels like almost no time at all.”

“What? Really? Wait… How?”

“I don’t know the ‘how.’ And anyway, that’s only what some people believe. Other people believe other things. No one really knows for sure.”

I was not doing a good job of this. I actually had something I wanted to say to him, something specific and reassuring, but I was caught unprepared, tongue-tied, and unpleasantly aware of four other pairs of eyes on me. I was looking for the right words that would be honest, reassuring, and not upset the grandparents, but his brain was three steps ahead of me asking new questions.

“Papa,” he said before I could continue, “I don’t want to believe something if it isn’t true.”

That stopped me cold. Somewhere on the other side of the back fence, the wail of an ambulance passed by. A tiny moth fluttered by my face, and then things were quite quiet. I heard another mouse-like voice say, “Papa?” but this time it was Rose, sitting in her chair with her knees bunched up to belly, absently rubbing her lip with a piece of popcorn. “Can we please talk about something else? This is making me really uncomfortable.”

We changed the conversation for Rose. Samuel, remembering his popcorn and chocolate, trundled back to his chair. He ate his snack in small bites like he usually does, half-listening to everyone around him. Eventually, everyone else finished and went inside to get ready for bed, but I waited as Samuel nibbled, last to finish as always. He still wasn’t half done with his chocolate when Dawn popped her head out the door. She had been getting Rose ready for bed, and she wondered what was keeping Samuel, who was now sitting in my lap again, his back to the door. I told her we’d be in after he was done eating. She closed the door.

“Are you ready for me to answer your question? About what happens after you die?”

He finished his bite and said, “Yes.” Nervous. Expectant. Waiting for bad news, hoping for good news.

“The answer really is, I don’t know. Nobody knows. Dying is like going through a door and never coming back. No one comes back to tell us what’s on the other side, so no one knows for sure.”

“Oh,” he said, disappointed, a little scared, the tears starting to fall.

“Wait. I’m not done. There’s something more. Something that I believe to be true.” I paused to make sure he was still with me, that I hadn’t upset him too badly. He began to eat again, tiny bites, but he was watching me.

“You have a soul. You know what a soul is? It’s a part of you, but it isn’t a part of your body like a liver or heart or brain or skin or even a cell. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t smell it. But it feels, and loves, and maybe wants and dreams. And the older you get, the more you’ll feel it, if you can learn to be quiet with it – like lying under the stars at night with nothing to do or think about. And after you die, Sam, this soul of yours is still there, and it still feels, and loves, and wants.”

Surprisingly, this worked. At least, he didn’t start crying immediately. He thought about it. He thought of other questions, other fears. Part of him was still focused on the idea that, after he died, he wouldn’t ever get his body back, and this is a Bad Thing. More tears and confusion and scary parts, not least of which was that he would have nightmares about this (ever the practical boy), but he was past the hysteria. He liked this idea of a soul. It was hopeful and believable. Papa believes it, anyway.

Dawn popped her head out again, but her impatience vanished when she saw the tears on Samuel’s face. No screams or wails, just quiet tears dropping down. She came out and sat holding him in her lap while I brought her up to speed on the salient points. She added a few ideas of her own that meshed with mine, but it was the warm smell of her sweat that calmed him.

He looked tired. It had been a hard night. I took him inside to brush his teeth and asked him if he felt any better. The words come slowly, with pauses. He was so ready for bed.

“Yes… But Papa… I’m thirsty… And I’m still a little scared… And I’m bored.”


“Yeah. I’m thirsty, and I’m scared of having nightmares. And I’m bored.”

“Well, let’s brush your teeth and get you to bed.”


An Artistic Movement

I don’t spend a lot of time sitting in coffee shops or bars, but what’s wonderful about both is that you can blatantly eavesdrop in either. You buy your mug or glass, and that is the ticket that reserves you a seat at a corner table. You place your ticket on the table and take one sip and magically your seat is reserved. No one can budge you. Then you hold your notebook at an oblique angle so no one can see inside, and you write in your most illegible scrawl, just in case, and you begin to record the intimate, embarrassing words of perfect strangers. No one seems to mind or even notice. It’s the same whether you are in a bar, a coffee shop, or a McDonalds. The only difference between venues that I have been able to discover is the acceptable vocabulary for the male reproductive organ and how it may be used in context.

“I’m teaching a class about the history of the white, artistic, penis-dominated culture that existed in Paris between the world wars.”

Not something you often hear in bars.

I’m in a coffee shop this morning. The difficulty with these university people is that you can never tell from age, dress, habit, or language, who is a teacher and who is a student. I had three of them sitting at the table next to me, and one man was holding forth. Someone had asked him whether it was possible to be part of an artistic movement.

“Well, certainly not in Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne is a corpse. That’s why artists went to places like Paris.”

“To be with other artists?”

“Certainly to be with other artists. But also, to be in Paris. I mean, nothing ever happens here. People hole up and there’s no life. Christ, I was in Cairo and I walked out of my apartment one day, and there was a dead donkey, lying right there in the gutter. I mean, Christ, I walk out of my home and nearly step onto a … Dead  … Donkey! Nothing like that ever happens here. You can’t have an artistic movement in Fort Wayne.”

The wonderful thing about eavesdropping in coffee shops is you sit there totally open to everything until your mind fixates on something and starts to become judgmental. You plant a seed and it grows and you water it with thoughts, impressions, and prejudices. And you wait. Will it be a weed, a flower, a nourishing vegetable?

This morning I planted the question of whether the pedant was right about Fort Wayne. There was certainly Truth in what he said. One does not generally find dead donkeys outside One’s apartment here, even if One is the second coming of Our Savior. And there is a certain bland normality that doesn’t change day to day. People definitely hole up. At least in the winter they do.

I thought about this while I walked the half mile home from the coffee shop, rubbing my burnt tongue gingerly on the roof of my mouth. Too old to learn from mistakes, I always order something very hot, and drink it too quickly. My way home was slowed by the crusting mounds of last weeks snow heaved off the roads by the snow plows and covering the sidewalks two feet deep. Someone before had walked this path, and someone else had followed their footsteps, and so on, so that by the time I came along, each footprint was size fifteen and my leg dropped through the crust to the knee.

I thought about Cairo, home of the dead donkey, and the thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. I have never been to Cairo, though, technically, I have spent some time in Egypt. It was a trip to Israel, and we visited the mountain which is thought to be Mount Sinai. This was back when the peace treaty with Egypt had been signed and much of the Sinai desert, including this mountain, had been returned to Egypt. It was there I saw my first working camel and glass bottles with “Coca-Cola” written on the outside in Arabic. We were invited into the tent of Bedouins where we drank their bitter, unfiltered coffee followed by a glass of sugar with a little tea added for wetness. It was Rather Different from Fort Wayne.

And then the seed erupted and bloomed. An image came to me, a very strong image. An Egyptian woman visiting Fort Wayne. She finds she can walk about without a burqa and no one stares at her. Or more likely, she keeps her head covered like everyone else here because its friggin’ five degrees today, but no one cares whether she does or she doesn’t. She can speak her mind, and not only don’t they throw stones at her, but people stop to listen, and maybe even encourage her thinking, and to them, it’s no big deal. Then one day, she walks outside her apartment and there is no dead donkey. It smells nice. She sees a towering, ancient, leaf-less oak with a pile of oak leaves stuffed in a fork of the branches and out pops a bristle brush tail of a squirrel. But that’s nothing compared to the paved and curbed road – it seems everyone’s road is paved and curbed here. Today the entire road is covered in a white powder up to her calves.

She pulls off a glove and, without thinking, reaches down to touch it, because after months in this country, she is shedding her fears daily. She sticks her trembling, bare fingers in the powder and it is so cold, it burns. She brings it up to her face, surprised at how light and cottony it is. She inhales it and then prods a tongue into it. It begins to melt in her fingers like her first pistachio ice cream when she was six years old, but it isn’t sticky, and it tastes of fresh coldness without any sweetness, like eating winter air.

And she thinks to herself, Cairo was a corpse, everyone afraid to speak their minds and working like dogs from sun up to sun down. Here, I walk out of my apartment and (she probably would not say “Christ”) the world is covered in snow!

The Devil Plays Uno

In the cul-de-sac, I parked by a snow bunker the street plows had formed on someone’s lawn. The short daylight had faded an hour ago, and the street was lit up by an amber glow from nearby strip malls. I heard the faint thrum of traffic from the highway a mile away. The flat, midwestern landscape hid nothing. I took a deep breath of the chill air, and then got my violin from the trunk.

Playing fiddle is how I keep my sanity in the winter, and after a few years learning by the seat of my pants, I decided to take some classical violin lessons and see what I was capable of. But I was always a little out of sorts in my teacher’s neighborhood. It was a suburban development like so many others, and not unlike the ones I had grown up in, but I hadn’t lived in one for decades. A contractor leveled this patch of unimproved land outside the highway, and a weedy crop of two story houses, built of gypsum and pine and concrete, sprung up overnight with streets named after the few remaining trees left behind. At least, that’s how I imagined it happened, though it would have been ten or twenty years before I arrived to town. I didn’t blame the home owners. They needed a place to live, and there was a limited supply of drafty, expensive eighty year old homes on the market, so what alternative did they have? But the prefabness of the neighborhood, extended over acres and acres of what was once post-glacial woodlands depressed me along with the gun metal winter skies and the paranoid rhetoric of the local papers.

The studio was in a small room at the very front of her house. Through the picture window, I saw a young girl, maybe six, sitting in a small chair and holding a violin in her lap like a baby doll that she was not thinking about but instinctively knew not to let drop.

I was early. Outside on the stoop, I kicked the clinging snow off my shoes, and opened the front door. The house was typical of a young, new parents, the walls pressboard white, the floors a non-descript laminate, and the furniture serviceable, modern, and sparse. At the end of the short hall, Dad was in the kitchen in a suit and tie, washing dishes in the sink, with a toddler holding unsteadily to his leg. I was about to call hello, but the boy’s mouth opened and out came a scream that had been building up for a good ten seconds before I had walked in the door. Dad knelt down and said comforting, apologetic words; he must have dropped something on the boy’s head. I decided to not disturb them.

There was no coat rack, closet, or wall hooks in the hallway, but there was a carpet remnant to keep the slush from spreading. I put my shoes on it next to a pair of Sorrels and, folding my coat and hat, laid them neatly on top. To my left, through the closed door of the studio, I heard the slow, creaky notes of a scale being dragged unwillingly out of a student violin with a student bow. Inwardly I winced, remembering those days and wishing they were farther behind me. I slipped into the living room on the right, thinking to take out my fiddle and warm up, run through  some scales, wondering if that would be too disturbing, when I noticed two people in the living room.

A father and young daughter were sitting on the floor playing cards. The girl was quiet and watchful, waiting for her pink, clean-shaven father to take his turn. It must have been her older sister next door who was pulling out notes like bad teeth. I didn’t know the father, but I recognized the girl right away from my last lesson. I was unlikely to forget her.

Dad smiled and said hello to me, in the friendly, chattering way of young parents who have spent far too much too much time reading popup books and listening to repetitive, electronic, learning toys. He was quite ready to let the game hang for two, five, even ten minutes just to have an adult conversation, sweet manna in the desert of parenting preschoolers. He chatted. He told me about Uno, the game they were playing, about how the manufacturer redesigned the game and made it much worse, and how he had been looking for the original set to buy, and finally they re-introduced it, and Target was selling them for a dollar, and he bought three sets, one for them, one for grandpa, and an extra set, just in case. He spoke to me and to his daughter, but the girl said nothing. She just looked up at her father, patiently waiting, and since I was looking at the girl, he noticed her waiting and played his turn. When he paused, I introduced myself, and he did likewise for himself and his daughter.

“Yes, I know Sophia,” I said. “I met her a couple of weeks ago. She was sitting in that chair in the corner, and she caught my eye, because when I looked at her, despite her innocent, cherubic face, there was something odd and almost sinister about her, and then I realized there was smoke rising up over her head from behind the chair.”

Dad’s eyes opened a little wider, “Oh, I heard about you! You’re the one who stopped the fire.”

“Well, I don’t know about a fire,” I said, warming to my little tale. “There was a little plastic lamp on the floor in the corner, shaped like a bowl, with a halogen bulb inside. I think it was under-lighting for their Christmas tree. The tree was already gone by then, but the lamp was still there. Something plastic inside was burning, maybe something had fallen off the tree. It gave off a tendril of smoke, and it didn’t smell very good. Sophia didn’t seem to notice, so rather than alarm her, I said, ‘Excuse me,’ and reached behind the chair and unplugged the lamp. Then I got Ellen. ‘Sorry to interrupt your lesson,’ I said, ‘but I think your house is on fire.’ Of course it wasn’t really, and when we came back, Sophia was still sitting in the chair, perfectly unperturbed, although the room stunk of burning plastic.”

At the sound of her name, Sophia gave me an attentive look, but when I didn’t say anything more, she turned back and played a card. Then her Dad put a card down and significantly left his finger pointing at it, “You have to pick up four cards now, sweetie,” he said. He repeated “four” while holding up as many fingers. Sophia picked up the first card from the deck.

“What does the name ‘Sophia’ mean?” I asked, while watching her drop the card carelessly on the floor inside her crossed legs.

Dad, was examining his cards. Without looking up, he answered, “Um, I don’t know, actually.”

“I feel like I ought to. It’s familiar.” Sophia looked at her Dad, and then picked up a second card and placed it  in her hand. “Oh, wait,” I said, “Philosophy, or rather philo-Sophia, isn’t that ‘love of learning’ or ‘love of wisdom?’ I think it means ‘wisdom.'”

Dad pulled a one-sided grin. “She’s certainly smart. She’s a wiz at Uno, and I have to think very carefully when I play against her. Of course, well … do you know how she used to play? Tell him, Sophia.” He looked at Sophia, who was studying her cards for the first time since I entered the room. “No? Well, she used to cheat.”

He said it fondly, proud of her precociousness, watching for my reaction.

“Was she any good?”

“At Uno?”

“No, at cheating.”

“Oh, yes, she was very good. She used to arrange the deck ahead of time, and hide a couple of cards in her lap, and if you weren’t looking, she would slip you a card that you didn’t want.” He chuckled at the memory of it. “But she doesn’t cheat anymore. She doesn’t need to. She’s too good even without cheating.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Sophia quietly pick up the card she had dropped earlier in her lap. Her Dad turned back to her, “Did you take your four cards, sweetie?”

She nodded yes, and Dad picked up a card. I said nothing, but shared a meaningful glance with Sophia. Had I known her better, I would have winked. When her sister appeared and I went in for my lesson, I realized I was in better spirits than I had been when I first arrived.

The Trestle

One summer, D. and I stayed at Swarthmore to do research work for Professor G. in the math department. Another professor was traveling that summer and she let us stay at her home in Wallingford in return for keeping her two cats happily in kibble. One cat was rather ordinary in its disdain for humans, but I remember the other was positively canine in its affection and willingness to please others. Also, it once leaped to catch a moth and fell behind a chest where it got wedged and mewed pitifully, wanting rescuing. To this day, that remains the most clumsy and ungainly act I’ve ever witnessed by a cat.

Most days, we usually commuted to the computer lab by bicycle, a fairly hazardous enterprise on some of those heavily-commuted, potholed roads. But one day I got caught up in completing a particular algorithm and worked late, with a pizza and several napkins to keep my greasy fingerprints off the keyboard. By the time I was ready to go home, it was too dark to bike, and the last outbound train had already left. I decided to walk home, taking the shortcut on the railroad tracks over the Crum Creek trestle.

It was a clear night. Crum Woods was empty of people, summer-warm, and full of crickets singing. I walked along the railroad tracks, planning algorithms in my head and trying to stay upright on the balance beam of one rail. I remember the crunch of gravel whenever I slipped off, startlingly loud like a cough drop wrapper in a darkened auditorium.

When I reached the trestle, it was a hard to see across, because the moisture of the cold creek water was condensing and turning to fog as it rose, but I didn’t think twice about crossing. I had missed the last outbound train, and though I thought a later inbound train unlikely, there were two sets of tracks, so I could get out of the way if necessary.

Halfway across, tunelessly singing Cat Stevens in my croaking tenor, my attention was diverted by a glow on the horizon, like a distance forest fire, but white. It could only be a train approaching in the distance, out of sight behind the sweep of woods. I was twenty-one, too young to seriously consider mortality, and I wanted to see this, so I gingerly stepped across to the outbound track to wait for it to pass. I say “gingerly,” because there were gaps between the railroad ties through which one could drop a stone to the creek a hundred feet below. The gaps were not large enough to admit my entire body, so I would not have plummeted through, but a wrong step might have sunk my leg up to the groin.

The train seemed to take a long time to arrive, clacking along with gravid determination. But I was mistaken by the scale of it. It appeared around the corner out of the trees on the far bank, like a rampaging bull, enormous, heavy, and very powerful up close. The halogen light on front of the engine shattered against the fog, and the entire valley, the very air, seemed to burn with a magnesium fire, and I in the middle of it, unconsumed. I could see nothing, not even my hands. Every direction I looked, even up and down, the world has turned to a brightly glowing swirl of white light. But that wasn’t all. When the engine was less than 100 feet away from me, the engineer, perhaps suddenly aware of my presence for the first time, pulled and held the “whistle,” a rather antiquated term for that high-decibel horn.

The sound erased my brain. “Too loud to think” doesn’t adequately describe it. The sheer violence of that noise drove everything from my mind, leaving no room for a thought to interpose itself. I felt my heart thumping in my chest, the blood pounding in my ears, but I could hear neither until long after the crescendo of the passing horn was replaced by the comparatively gentle screech and clacking of the metal wheels on the other track, and the groaning of the wooden trestle timbers beneath my feet. I remember feeling very alive at that moment, trembling, my senses assaulted, all my hairs on end, and a new found faith in my utter insignificance, crushable as a bug.

When the train finished crossing, and I heard its brakes from around the far curve settling into the Swarthmore station, it was though my body was finally released from some spell. I moved suddenly, picking my way across the trestle as quickly as I dared and high tailing it home before any uniformed agents of the SEPTA system could track me down.

Help Me Solve a Puzzle!

Here is a puzzle for you mathematical and/or electrical people.

Harry has a basement room with two overhead lights in it. For some reason, these lights are not on the same switch.

One light, which we will call Tom, is a simple, easy-going light. It turns on and off with a single switch in the basement.

The other light, Cristobel, is more complicated. There is a separate switch in the basement AND at the top of the stairs. Either of these two switches will toggle Cristobel on and off (this is known as a three way switch).

Got it? One switch upstairs toggles Cristobel on and off. Two switches downstairs in the same box. One toggles Cristobel, the other toggles Tom.

Harry’s children are afraid of the dark. They also know they are supposed to turn off lights when they leave a room. When they go down to the basement, they turn on all the lights, but when they have finished playing in the basement, they forget to turn off Tom. They don’t touch the downstairs switches. They dutifully climb the stairs and turn off the switch at the top of the stairs. This turns off Cristobel, but it leaves Tom burning, sometimes for days, wasting electricity. No amount of reminders from Harry seems to stick, so that every time Harry walks downstairs to do laundry, he finds Tom burning and “PING” another hair on his head turns gray and falls off. Harry’s hair are an endangered species, and he would like to save what little remains.

So one day a new light bulb turned on, this time over Harry’s balding head. “What if I just rewire the switches in the downstairs box so both bulbs run off the same three way switch?” thought Harry. But after working on it for an hour, half of which was spent scratching his head and turning on and off breakers and carefully bending stiff wires with pliers, he has pretty much concluded it is impossible. At least, it is impossible only by rewiring the downstairs switch box. Actually, he would be happy if both Tom and Cristobel only toggle off the light switch at the top of the stairs, bypassing the downstairs switches completely. What he does NOT want to do is snake wires through the wall.

Is he right? Is it impossible?

Here are the details. There are five wires in the downstairs switch box: A, B, C, D, and E.

If the upstairs switch is flipped up, and you connect A and C, Cristobel turns on.
If the upstairs switch is flipped down, and you connect D and C, Cristobel turns on.
If you connect B and C, then Tom turns on no matter which way the upstairs switch is flipped.
No other combination will make a light go on.

The astute reading will observe that E apparently serves no function. I am guessing E is a ground wire, but I’m not sure. This is an old house with old wires all with black casing, and I’m not sure they did grounding back in the day.

Scrabble is a math game

One of the really nice things about Dawn (my wife) is that she can’t remember the punch line of a joke, no matter how many times she’s heard it.

Imagine a large, informal social gathering with more people than can comfortably fit in the kitchen alone. Somewhere near a heating source or close to the table laden with food, you’ll find Dawn and myself and eight or so people. Dawn and I are the ones with the root beer and cookies. Eventually, inevitably, as the sun must set each evening, someone will unwittingly make The Straight Line.  “Oh, yes,” I say, clearing my throat, “in fact …”

At this point half of those eight people will recognize that Harry is about to tell The Joke. Again. These astute listeners will suddenly see a person across the room they must speak with immediately. Or they find their glass needs refilling, having just spilled it down their own shirt. But the remaining hapless souls, genteel and polite deer in the headlights, are frozen in place. Dawn is one of them. As the joke uncoils and understanding of the dangers dawns, every facial expression slowly rearranges and locks into a defensive, smiling grimace, braced for the full-frontal punch line. Except for Dawn.  Her eyebrows furrow. Her tongue sticks slightly out one side of her mouth firmly wedged between her teeth. When the hateful punch line is delivered of my mouth, they all flinch, and then nod and smile knowingly with the best manners of the well bred. Except Dawn. She laughs. A real laugh. She’s heard the joke a hundred times, and she still finds it funny.

I married the right woman.

This miraculous trait of hers extends to other realms. Lately I discovered it includes the game Scrabble. When the grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins converge from the four compass points to meet at a cabin or beach rental for some holiday, after we have processed more carbohydrates than an ethanol Hummer, dutifully followed with the latest seasonal sweetmeats from the Disney mill, we stay up until the wee hours playing Scrabble. People rotate in and out of The Game, taking turns putting children to bed, washing dishes, or  finishing up the birthday cake; it is always near enough someone’s birthday at these gatherings.

Dawn loves Scrabble, but she can’t seem to win. I can beat her easily, though her vocabulary, counting medical and biological terms, is at least three times as large as mine. Because she can’t seem to understand that it is not really a word game. It is a math game. You can beat anyone if you know a sufficient number of short words (including all the two-letter words published in the Scrabble instructions) AND if you pay attention to those little colored squares on the board. Dawn thinks they are decoration.

She has managed to start our last three games with six letter words and can come up with tricks like adding “ous” to my “hide” but she doesn’t get many points for it. Whereas I will put down an S and an X, forming two words across and one down with the X on a triple letter score, thus getting 55 points. Count ’em – fifty-five! That’s an average of 27.5 points per letter! You see, it’s a math game.

By the way, the word was “SIX,” ok? Honestly, you people.

I think she’s finally catching on though, so I need to distract her. I suggested we start a new version of Scrabble called SciFi/Fantasy scrabble. You can form any word as long as it appears in some science fiction or fantasy novel or story. Words such as “orc,” “muggle,” or even “tardis” count, if the purists will allow that Tardis has graduated in the lexicon from acronym to full-fledged word, much like the English word “tip” supposedly coming from “to insure promptness”. However, I would still insist that proper nouns are illegal. So even though one could truly rack up points with it, however tempting it might be, one could not use “Eryx” from Lovecraft’s “In the Walls of Eryx.” Nor could one empty the tray with “Ni” (as in, “The knights who say…”). I think that will keep her mind off those little, decorative, colored squares for several months.


I am getting ready for the New Year.

There. All done.

My new year is not anticipated to be much different than my old year. No plans to relocate, switch careers, or start a business venture. I don’t expect to have more children (or fewer), more wives (or fewer), or more teeth (or, God willing, fewer). But craving conformity as I do, I will propose my share of New Year resolutions:

  1. Move beyond the plumbing problems in my house. If I cannot fix them or get them fixed, they will be reclassified as “works as designed.”
  2. Get five-year-old Sam to say, “except” instead of “incept.” I am thinking of something Pavlovian involving cheddar bunny crackers.
  3. Exercise more often than I did this last year. I’m looking for improvement, not perfection. Consider the amount of exercise I did this last year, the bar is pretty low. I should be able to knock this one off easily. In fact, I calculate that if I run five miles every day for the month of January, I will meet or exceed this specification for the year. That will look good on my tombstone on Feb 1: “exceeded expectations.”
  4. Get Rose to separate her underwear from her pants before she tosses them down the laundry chute. Just kidding. It will never happen.
  5. I thought about resolving to stop losing my temper with my children, but one man’s temper is another’s whining hissy fit. However I have unconsciously developed a steely glare and icy tone that I never knew I had inside me and that emerges under duress.  Surprisingly, it puts the fear of God in my children, when all I want is a little undivided attention. I think if I can get someone to capture me doing this on video just one time so I can see it myself, the remorse (or embarrassment) will cure me of the habit.
  6. Write a novel. OK, this is not likely to happen, but I believe that if this was the only resolution I kept this year, I would as happy as if I kept all the others.