Duct Tape

 mousey

A man, A mouse, A dog, A house

 

About a week ago I saw a mouse in the kitchen. Actually, the dog and I both saw it. The mouse ran out from under the stove, zipped across the floor and under the dish washer. The dog looked up from her food dish and tracked the intruder with her eyes. Then she looked up at me to confirm that we had seen something. Satisfied with whatever she saw in my face she put her head back down in her bowl.

 

I got out a bunch of glue traps and figured I’d have it all wrapped up by morning. Morning came; nothing. And the next and the next. Ok, so these critters come in from the garden now and then; it’s been another unusually warm winter so maybe it slipped back under the door and returned to the wilds of Brooklyn. Having mentally set the mouse outside for the moment, I am left to wonder: How long do we call something unusual that seems to happen every year?

 

Days pass and last night my little guy and I are in the living room, sitting on the couch, working on his math homework. He takes a break to get a snack which is something he does about every twenty minutes, pretty much ’round the clock. He returns from the kitchen and says:

 

“Dad, there’s a lizard in the kitchen.”

 

My little guy is kind of known for attaching the wrong word to things but I suppose it is in the realm of possibility that someone’s lizard has wandered in. Still, it seems like an unlikely coincidence. I ask him where he saw it, just to confirm what I already know.

 

“It’s right under the thing with the numbers.”

 

There is only one thing with numbers in the kitchen and it’s the stove clock. Uh oh! That doesn’t confirm what I know. I’m still thinking floor. I can feel the paradigm shifting; it’s making me a little bit queasy. The laissez-faire approach isn’t going to work. I’m going to have to kill something.

 

“There’s a lizard in the kitchen? Is it possible he saw a lizard?”

 

Oop, it’s The Wife. Her paradigm is shifting all over the place.

 

This needs to be handled gingerly. She hates rodents of any kind. She also hates lizards. And amphibians. She’s not altogether too fond of birds either. Or fish. Insects, of course. Come to think of it, she’s shown a diminishing interest in children and the vast majority of adults too. She likes me and the dog. The dog and I are about on an even footing; we are locked in a battle for her affection. If I’m the bearer of bad news the wife is gonna freak and the dog is gonna rule, at least for a minute. Thankfully I can pretty much count on the dog to soil the rug at regular intervals but let’s face it, this is also a test of my manliness. And while ordinarily I am an excellent test taker, manliness may not be my strongest subject. Forced to choose sides along the hunter-gatherer divide, I would much rather gather. You don’t even need to force me; I like it better there. It’s like treasure hunting for snacks. Sure I could hunt for my meat if I had to but the fact is, I prefer to do my hunting with a fork. At Peter Luger’s or Spark’s; Smith & Wollensky or The Capital Grille; Five Guys Burgers & Fries or even a nice, store bought pemmican. The only thing I’m really able to kill with any efficiency is time. But that’s not gonna put Chateaubriand on the table or rid me of Stuart Little here.

 

I’m a product of urban civilization; highly evolved with a specialized skill-set but subject to bouts of the heebie-jeebies. Now it’s time to bring that skill-set to bear on this mouse. My specialty is heavy construction and I’m not sure how cranes, gas powered tools and concrete are going to help me sort this out but I feel certain they will.

 

“Okay pal, show me where you saw the lizard.”

 

Off to the kitchen and …… look at that; there’s a mouse on the stove top. We make eye contact and he’s into the heat vent for the oven, directly below the clock. Oh, this is gonna be a snap. Out with the glue traps again, I surround the vents and fire up the oven. In a few minutes the heat will drive the mouse out of the vents onto the traps and voila, mouse on the half shell. Until then I get back to parsing word problems with my young Einstein.

 

Okay, so let’s see:

 

Sheena needs to bake 55 cookies for her sleepover. She has already baked 21 cookies.

How long before Sheena realizes that cookies are loaded with refined sugar

and saturated fats and that diabetes is epidemic in her demographic?

 

It’s the new, New Math. I’m just here for moral support.

 

I return to the kitchen a little while later to collect my prey and there he is scampering across the counter seeking cover behind the fruit bowl. How is that possible? Really, it isn’t. It’s Inconceivable! He was completely surrounded by space age adhesive. I don’t have time to figure it out. He’s cornered and cowering and therefore at his most dangerous. His lightening speed, his barely discernible claws and somewhat bucked teeth are nothing to mess around with. I know! I saw that first Alien movie. Ferocious things come in small packages that come blasting out of your chest cavity. He’s capable of anything and I need to carefully guard my internal organs and major arteries as well as be ready for a screaming retreat if he turns and attacks.

 

And that’s the problem. What I want to do is stand up on a chair and shriek like a little girl. Mice give me the willies. I think it’s the hairless tail. But I’m gonna be no ones hero up on that chair. So what I’m gonna do is release the inner predator. Ok, I’ve released the inner predator and he doesn’t want to come out. Mice give him the willies too. I’m gonna have to go in there and drag his sorry predatory ass out and apply a little shame and encouragement. That done, I am now ready for battle. In his corner, a half ounce of mouse. Possibly ferocious. You can never tell, you know? In my corner, 155 pounds of Hebrew National Bologna. Unquestionably loyal. Questionably brave. Ferocious? I guess you never know until you’re cornered but all the evidence points somewhere west of fearsome; closer I think, to squeamish and reckless. You work with what you’ve got.

 

I rearrange the glue traps at the end of the counter, blocking his way back to the stove. I rustle the fruit bowl and he’s off again and…. I don’t believe it! He has somehow made it tiptoeing at high speed (my goodness they’re fast) across the traps on their plastic rims? Is that what I saw? Unbelievable! Inconceivable!

 

He crosses the stove to the counter on the far side and squeezes into the alcove that holds the microwave. I remember when microwaves first came out. If I had one of those beauties, before the shielding was more or less perfected, I could have turned the microwave to high and nuked him like one of those little pink potatoes. Just another drawback of man’s mastery over nature I suppose. 

 

The important thing is, he’s cornered. The problem is I can’t get at him. Once again I surround the area with glue traps but I’m losing confidence. I need to flush him out and force him onto a trap. But if I walk away I know he will somehow make good his escape. Time to call in my helpmate. By now she’s upstairs in bed with the dog warming her feet. I call her cell phone from my cell phone so as not to arouse suspicion or curiosity from the kids. I don’t need them to see either possible outcome. The one where I waste the City Mouse of storybook fame or the one where the helpless little creature kicks my ass.

 

Hi Honey. Are you two cozy up there?

That’s nice.

Could you please bring me

 

The Duct Tape and Some Bleach

 

Oh Yeah!

 

Gonna bring down some Trench Warfare on his furry little ass!

 

In my one hand, I am armed with Duct Tape; the indispensable tool of homeowners, jerry-riggers and paranoid survivalists (is there any other kind?) the world over.

 

In my other hand, household bleach. Sodium Hypochlorite (NaClO) 5.25%, the A-list antimicrobial pesticide and corrosive. Gas Attack! Cruel but effective.

 

I tape the sides of the microwave to the wall, I tape the bottom to the counter, I cover the top. There is a single opening, with a large glue trap in front of it. Pop the top on the bleach, a half cup down behind the microwave and there he is dancing across the glue trap on his extended little claws. He’s on the counter, clear of the trap. He sees me and jets right back the way he came, picking ninja style, like he’s walking on water. Worse yet, like he’s walking on pavement. It’s Inconceivable. If I so much as look at one of those traps it sticks to my elbow.

 

On reflection, these many days later, it occurs to me that this little creature, with its awesome will to survive and its Fred Astaire like dance moves, might have made a fine little pet. But that is today. Last week my course was set. I was determined to follow it through to its hopefully bloodless conclusion.

 

For House & Family!

 

To paraphrase an old saying, if you can’t bring the mouse to the trap, you must bring the trap to the mouse. I seal the entire microwave to the surrounding wall and counter after dumping more bleach. It’s unconditional warfare now. People used to do this to each other so there’s a lot of historical evidence as to its efficaciousness.

 

Ok so that’s a wrap. I wash up and go to bed figuring to dispose of the mortal remains before I go to work and before anyone gets up tomorrow morning.

 

~O~

 

Rise and shine and let’s go see the carnage. Pull the tape, slowly pull the microwave out of its niche; it’s creepy, you know. Dead things are creepy. And mice give me the willies. I am facing down a case of the creeping willies here.

 

What is this? No mouse? Just an empty bag of Gummi-bears? You know, I was wondering where those got off to. So this is where the kids hide the evidence. Only the evidence isn’t so empty. Theres a live tail sticking out. It’s Inconceivable!

 

Thats it! I’ve had enough! I cover the bag with a bleach soaked dish cloth and an oven mitt to prevent escape and I start punching. This is maddening! It’s an outrage! I’m all juiced up with disgust and regret but the inner predator is out and he’s pissed.

 

I want it to be over but nothing is going to be easy about this one. No tidy package to slip into a bag and forget about. This will be a killing. In cold blood. Blunt force trauma. I’m shooting for the stars. Infinity and beyond.

 

I’d like to tell you it ended there but it didn’t. I went for the broom stick. Like an overhand pool cue I jab at the offending mass with the handle. One mouse in the corner pocket.

 

I read somewhere that mice have no bones. The whole thing is built on cartilage. But nowhere have I read that they have no internal organs. I pull back the dish cloth and I’m detecting life. It’s Inconceivable! I’m beginning to think that word does not mean what I think it means.

 

With my bare hands, I wrap the whole thing up in the bleach soaked dishcloth and pick up where I started off. Duct tape. I wrap the whole thing up like a homemade baseball and I am done. That was brutal. I kicked a rat to death at work not long ago but this was more hand to hand. More intimate.

 

Later, from work, I texted my wife:

 

The Mousey has left the Housey

 

 She wrote back:

 

Thanks!

 

Somehow “Thanks” does not seem like thanks enough. I think I have Post Traumatic Mouse Disorder. I’m still a little amped up.

 

I text her back:

 

It was a mighty battle

 

Her return text:

 

My Hero!

 

Ah, sweet victory!

 

Move over Rover.

The man of the house is coming home. 

Leaving on a Jet Plane

I dropped my 15 year old off at the airport this morning. He’s on his way to summer camp. I did the same thing yesterday but this time he actually got on the plane.

I had it set in my mind, erroneously as it turns out, that the flight was at 8:45. We were about 150 feet away from the gate at Newark, having a piece of crumb cake, with plenty of time to spare. There are no site lines to the gates. Concessions block everything. I’m not saying this as an excuse, it just so happens to be the case. We didn’t hear the boarding announcement because, with all these obstacles blocking sound, unless you are reading the lips of the person making the announcement, all your going to get is what sounds like a muffled trumpet. It’s the wah, wah, wah, of Charlie Brown’s elementary school teacher. Again, I’m not trying to shift any blame here, it just so happens to be the case.

Clay was hungry, as always, so we stopped at one of the concessions for the snack. It’s relaxed between us. I adore him but he drives me crazy. I’m sure he would say the same thing. Camp will be a nice break for him from my constant corrections. Corrections I don’t want to give, corrections I don’t want to have to give, but I just can’t seem to help myself. It must be some kind of developmental peculiarity of parenting. Camp will also be a nice break for me from his self-centered self and his own developmental idiosyncrasies. Beyond being a teen there is nothing wrong with him, but that is enough. Beyond being a parent there is nothing wrong with me, but that too is enough.

While we’re waiting, I’m trying to decode the ticket for information about his arrival time in Minnesota; after all, I already know everything I need to know about his departure time. The stub is printed in the same font size they used to use for microfilm. In other airports, there are TV monitors every 50 feet with arrival and departure information. Someone here determined that “information” was not a worthwhile use of a screen when that same screen could be used for non-stop advertising lightly peppered with celebrity gossip and inspirational stories about overcoming adversity. I’m not making any value judgements here, it just so happens to be the case.

Finally, I make out 825. That’s it. No : break, just 825 and it dawns on me that this might be the departure time. I check my watch. It’s 8:21. I grab the kid, we turn the corner and step in front of the gate desk just in the nick of time. It’s still 8:21. There are no less than 5 attendants trying to figure out seat 18A because it isn’t checked off even though everyone has boarded. I say to them, pointing at my 18A, that no he isn’t on board, he’s standing right here and can he get on the plane?

“Well, no.” says the lady at the desk. “The plane has left the gate.” which is a lie. I can tell it’s a lie because there is an eight foot tall window, a hundred feet long, directly behind her and through that very window I am looking at the plane.

“What are you talking about?” I say. “It isn’t 8:25!”  I hold up my phone showing the time.  It is now 8:22 and the plane is backing away from the building.

“Well, yes, but 8:25 is the departure time. The plane is gone.”

“Departure time from where? The gate? The ground? The State of New Jersey?” This conversation may or may not be turning relativistic but it is definitely passed the point of being academic.

I’m cursing up a storm because of my own idiocy but it isn’t made any better by the idiots I’m talking with. The senior guy comes over and immediately tells them to rebook me a ticket at no charge. It’s all pretty clear. They let the plane leave a couple minutes early because it was fully loaded. Fully loaded except for one of the passengers. An unescorted minor, who had already checked his bag, got his boarding pass and was supposed to be in the care of the gate. Whoopsy Daisy.

I’m calling my wife to explain this minor catastrophe, complete with my own culpability and the departure time details. The gate lady, listening in on my side of the conversation, is now trying to correct me that the time the plane leaves is somehow different than the departure time. I’m trying to figure out why this woman is tampering with my diminishing good nature as well as my understanding of my native language. I want to ignore her but her unsolicited comments, and something about her hair, are begging for confrontation.

“Depart means leave, right?”

Oh boy! I can feel the potential energy of this situation developing into kinetic energy. I don’t want that to happen in front of my son and while I am not totally averse to being arrested and strip searched by an overzealous TSA employee, this just doesn’t seem like the most opportune moment. Nevertheless:

“If not; if I have somehow misunderstood what is meant by depart; if that is the case, then “Departure Time” isn’t really all that useful a term is it!?! Maybe someone in authority should consider doing away with it altogether; replace it with a term and a time that match in a meaningful way. How about “Leave Taking” or “Decamping” or “Exiting” or, dare I say it, “DEPARTING!” What a perfect god damn word! Somebody should consider using that word to describe when the plane leaves the gate and then attach a hard and fast time to it. Holy Jumping Jesus Christ, wouldn’t that be a great idea?”

“And here’s another one. When people have checked in with their bags and all, make sure they’re on the plane. And if they’re not, get this, if  they  are  not, if there is a large checked in bag and nobody attached to it, maybe that should set off some kind of alarm; some kind of bells and whistles. At least a sparkler, right? Because, you know, there are people out there who like to blow things up! For some of them, it’s their actual job description.”

Great Caesar’s Ghost, I hope it’s a high paying job because these folks are working overtime trying to cut all the curves off this wheel.

None of this, of course, is in any way depriving me of my own dumbshit lapse. I’m just tossing out some ideas here; kind of opening up a conversation.

Well, there’s nothing to do but take tomorrow’s plane. There is only one seat available and it is on the last flight and unaccompanied minors are not allowed to fly the last flight. I guess the thinking is that if things are a little quirky in the morning, they must be an absolute shit-storm by the end of the day and we reserve shit-storms for people who are actually on urgent business or desperately trying to get home.

The shame of it all, is that we made it from Brooklyn to the so called Departure Gate in about 30 minutes flat. No traffic in Brooklyn, no traffic in Manhattan, no traffic at the tunnel, the bridge, the highway, nothing! Even the parking lot is damn near empty. We were the only ones in the baggage check line and when we go through security there are only a hand full of people ahead of us. I’ve always liked Mondays and this just seems like one more validation.

On the drive home we sit in rush-hour traffic at the Holland Tunnel and make small talk. I can not wait for tomorrow. It cannot come soon enough to erase this error. Clay seems fine but I have already given this some thought. He is going to miss the introductory events that make for a smooth transition into camp life and he has always been a person who is troubled by transitions. I have 23 hours of self torture ahead. Clay will figure it all out by this evening and get a healthy 18 hours of self torture in before arriving at camp. Still, he is adaptable and makes friends easily. Another one of the many things that I admire about him. Also, by the time we get home, my wife has called the camp and they have reassured her, and therefore him, that it happens all the time and, in fact, Clay will be flying in to camp from Minneapolis with another camper who missed their flight. Ok, so I’m not alone in my misery and stupidity but I am alone with this child who I have let down and to whom I have exposed my imperfection. Alas.

As a small consolation, he and his mom have a night out together and go to the movies. They decide to see

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

Good plan. Now he’s too scared to worry about camp. He spends a sleepless night with the lights on. One more thing he shares with me. We don’t like scary movies. Or sad movies. Or chick flicks, naturally. Or anything with tension or romance. No tear jerkers either. No thrillers, dramas or low brow comedies. What can I say, we’re a tough audience.

Naturally enough, tomorrow comes. He’s starting to worry about camp and what he’s missed. He’s a very smart kid; he’ll adjust, but now he’s got me worrying. He’s a teenager and teen intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers. I guess all kinds of intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers but, as with everything else, those qualities are exaggerated in teens. I try to take comfort from the fact that he seems capable of learning anything they throw at him in school. On the other hand, he’s utterly incapable of learning to put the cap back on the toothpaste, or taking his phone and wallet out of his pants before putting them in the washing machine. Also, he is maddeningly disorganized but I think the blame for that may rest at my feet. We’ve tried to help him. We’ve tried in a hundred ways but it’s just no use. Heredity is just too strong a force. In fact, it is so strong a force that I think I can plausibly lay blame with my own father for the rampant disorganization around here. I can, but it doesn’t help. I still need to pick up Clay’s clothes if I hope to avoid a meltdown every morning because his only shirt, the “only” shirt he can wear “today” is missing.

Although he owns thirty shirts, the only one he wants to wear is, inevitably, the one he can’t find and, invariably, it is bundled up on the floor next to his dirty clothes basket.

He talks incessantly and while I’m grateful that he’s still speaking to me I dearly wish he had something to say that didn’t involve television, fashion or the petty squabbles and verbal assassinations of kids I’ve never met.

The girls I’m interested in. Everything else is filler.

The girl struggles are endlessly fascinating because, let’s face it, girls are fascinating and figuring out girls is a life long diversion. It’s interesting and challenging but ultimately pointless. The target is too highly evasive and too highly evolved. The target is constantly moving and changing shape. The bait that works in the morning is poison by late afternoon; and I’m a seasoned veteran. It doesn’t help that teens are so hopelessly inept. They seem to make sense to one another but that’s about as far as it goes and probably not even that far. If you are not of their tribe you are as good as a separate species. An alien. And a stupid alien at that.

My wife says “Teens should only be allowed to share the company of other teens.” I understand that viewpoint and agree with it about 96% of the time but it’s important not to forget the entertainment value of their struggles.

Often times I will see a boy and girl on the subway debating the fine points of some unbelievably witless question. They’re shifting around and smiling, the fluorescent lights gleaming off their braces and the conversation ebbs and it’s all awkward, the air is twisting around them and I want to scream:

“Kiss her you moron. She wants you to kiss her.”

Or

“Take his hand! Would you please just take his hand! Can’t you see he’s in agony?”

I know they’ll get to it eventually but meanwhile the rest of us are suffering, replaying our own teen insecurities and failures; our own struggles and self-doubts. I know this because I’m also watching the young woman standing in the corner pretending to read her book but she is mesmerized by their incompetence. As the teens exit the train this woman catches me looking at her looking at them and we both crack up.

Her smile says: “God that was painful.”

My smile says: “That used to be us.”

The camp my teen is going to is a language immersion camp. Yeah, I never heard of that either and I think it is reasonable to ask; “Who sends their kid to language immersion camp for summer vacation?” In our case, the answer to that question would be “Him.” This was his idea. We never heard of this place before. He heard about it through a teacher and he wanted to go. He really is the greatest.

The way it works is, each language has its own village complete with style, architecture, culture and cuisine. The villages include French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, English, Russian and a bunch of others.

The villages are separate but in fairly close proximity. I guess the idea is that the campers are immersed in the language and culture of their region of choice. It’s the next best thing to being there. Ideally they develop a certain pride in their group, they identify with their adopted culture and, ultimately, become xenophobic. Thus having become fully enculturated, when the time comes they can rise up, Lord of the Flies like, and reenact the Second World War. That last part might be my spin but, given the players, I think it’s a plausible scenario.

Today’s trip to the airport is the same as yesterday’s except in all the details. Going on the assumption that the same flight, same time, same circumstances rule should be in effect, we leave Brooklyn with two hours to spare. You can’t be too careful after a fuckup, you know what I mean? And I can’t wait to put this one behind me. Get him on the flight and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.

We leave home and turn right into traffic. I dodge around and take a back way to the tunnel. Ok, we’re good. Up onto the highway; more traffic. We make it to the airport where the parking lot is already filling up. We grab a distant spot and hurry into the terminal. His bag is already in Minnesota but I need to get a pass to get through security so that I can escort him out to the departure gate. Again. Of course, there is a line. We get everything squared away and head to security. There are fully 200 people ahead of us. It’s starting to feel like a conspiracy but I am on a mission here, totally focused. Not however, so focused that I don’t notice a half dozen soldiers who are not five years older than my son; young men and women, children really, saying goodbye to their grim faced families. My problems are petty and ridiculous; just the way I like them.

Finally we get to the gate and we check in with the staff. The nice thing is that we have not run into a single person from yesterday’s debacle. No explaining to do. Maybe they all got fired. The not so nice thing is that this new staff is easily as clueless as yesterday’s staff. My son’s ticket needs an unescorted minor stub which, somehow, did not get issued yesterday and nobody here quite knows how to do it. They give it their all and figure it out and immediately tell him to board. He hugs me and I hug him, “I love you”, and he’s gone.

Wait a minute! I’m not prepared for this. I’m upset. I don’t know how but I’ve been caught by surprise. How can that be? We’ve had so much practice! I have to call my wife. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for him and for me but now he’s gone and I miss him terribly. Immediately, I want him back. I’m all choked up when I realize they’ve boarded him a half hour early. I sit in the long window, looking at his plane, and we text until they tell him phone off. The last text I get off to him is that I slipped an iPod into his carry-on bag. His last text is “Haha great!” He’s happy and now I’m ok. I did something right.

Man Child

llustration: Clayton Mednick

Hey Drew,

I don’t remember much about my puberty and I don’t recall a thing about yours, which is probably just as well, but maybe you can give me a hand here. A little advice to your little cousin to help me through this trying time.

We had a week of extreme and changeable weather around here. Very dramatic. The Weather Channel was an orgy of predictions. The meteorologist, April Shauer, was so excited she had a fine mist of sweat on her upper lip. It was like the atmospheric turbulence had moved into her panties.

Then, just when things seemed to have settled down, our middle guy Miles sprouted almost a foot overnight. None of his clothes fit in the morning. I had to take a day off from work so the wife could take him to the doctor. We thought it was gonna be a bigger deal than it was. Clothing wise he actually fits nicely into Clayton’s clothes even though Clay is 5 years older. I hope Clay doesn’t mind sharing with Miles for a few months until we see what happens but you know a whole wardrobe is a lot of money, particularly if he’s gonna outgrow it all in 36 hours. What do you think, is that unfair?

The doctor said it was the most extreme case of Precocious Puberty he’d seen in quite a while but apparently not so rare as one would imagine. Something to do with the Pituitary yadda yadda. Who can understand doctors anyway? I swear, I think they just make it up as they go. I know that’s what the rest of us do, so it’s a pretty fair assumption, right? Even so, it’s probably just as well I’m not a doctor.

My mother used to say that she could have been a doctor but she hates sick people. Know thyself, right? Well I’ll tell you something else I know; kids can make you feel old in a hurry. Especially this kid!

I mean the height is kind of shocking but not nearly so much as his change of voice. He went right down into the lower registers and is able to hit a low C on the piano. That probably doesn’t mean much to you but when he’s humming it actually moves a glass of water across the table by vibration. Weird, I know.

The other disconcerting thing is the beard and chest hair. Way more than me, which I know isn’t saying much, but for an 8 year old it’s pretty startling. And boy is he strong. Every time Butch, the neighbor’s Pit Bull, looks at him Miles snarls and Butch runs away in terror. I’m actually enjoying that but don’t tell anyone. I think Miles put a beating on him when no one was looking. Only room for one alpha male on this block, Buuutch!

Now don’t get me wrong, he’s still the same sweet kid he’s always been but he’s a little more insistent about things like cookies and bedtime. We’re trying to act as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary but you can tell he knows that a rule change may be coming his way. For the moment he’s still susceptible to the old bait and switch but that’s only gonna last for so long. The upshot is that either we can address it now, before he makes demands, kind of get the upper hand or we can take a wait and see approach, deal with it as an evolving situation. Proactive or reactive, that’s the question.

Ok, so I started this letter yesterday and never mind about the question of sharing Clay’s clothes. He must have had a hell of a night because this morning he’s looking pretty comfortable in my clothes. And he wants to borrow the car and get a job. I mean, I admire his drive but still, I’m a little conflicted. I wish you were here to help me on this. I know you could talk some sense into him. A parent’s authority is so greatly diminished as a child reaches the parent’s height, but there is something about a stranger that always commands a kid’s respect. I mean, the job thing might be ok but I don’t know. What do you think? Should he finish second grade first? What a dilemma!!

Where do I draw the line? Where would you? Anything taboo just becomes more desirable, right? For instance the Scotch. I had to hold the line there didn’t I?  I’m still the parent, right? But still there’s the need for flexibility. So the single malt is forbidden but I bent on the blended. Compromise, right? But with an eye towards the future. Right?

I don’t know, it’s so disorienting. I mean, it seems like only yesterday he was just a little kid. Or maybe it was the day before yesterday.

Anyway, I guess it’s true what everyone says. They really do grow up so fast.

Que Sera Sera

Hey Drew,

My wife had to work last Saturday and so did Charlotte, the neighbor across the street. Her husband Chris was left with their two girls Miranda, 5, and Kendal, 7. They are a mixed race couple, same as us. Chris had six tickets for a members only event at the Brooklyn Zoo that included free rides on the restored Brooklyn Carousel as well as snacks and events at The Lefferts Homestead, an 18th century farmhouse. Chris called with the invite for me and my little guys Cole, 7 and Miles, 8.

I guess you can see where I’m headed with this.

Two middle aged white guys with four kids of color in tow. Two boys, two girls, two men. Gay! Pretty much guarantees that you’ll be ignored by the single mom’s and all the dads. Couples are occupied so you become a magnet for married moms, alone with their kids, looking for a gay guy to girl talk with. I let Chris field the heifers while I kept a laissez faire eye on the chilluns and watched the neurotics. It’s always fun to watch today’s parents molding tomorrow’s psychopaths. I try to keep a positive spin on it.

There isn’t really much to tell about the event. The zoo had animals; the big hit was the baboon’s ass. Bright red for reasons that only another baboon could fully appreciate though the kids came in a highly vocal second. The homestead had old fashioned handmade toys for kids to try, like 6 inch wooden stilts. I mean, what is the point of stilts that don’t make you appreciably taller? I guess when you’re under 4 feet tall, 6 inches is a big deal.

“Look at me dad, look at me! I’m a giant!”

The boys had them pretty well mastered in a few minutes, the girls wouldn’t go near them without crying. The kids are too old for the storytelling circle and too young to appreciate the house, built either in 1777 or 1783 depending on your source. It has a sloping concave roof with wooden shingles. There is a photo of it being moved across Flatbush avenue into the park about 100 years ago. In the photo there is a slowly cresting wave of brick houses and low rise apartment buildings creeping up the blocks on all sides. Blocks that didn’t exist when the house was built. Blocks that aren’t even squared to the lot the house sits on. The house seems dropped into the scene like Dorothy’s house into Munchkin Land.

The photo was taken at that moment when it wasn’t clear who the intruder was in the situation. Were the buildings overwhelming the pastoral scene or was the farmhouse getting in the way of progress? I guess the answer depended on whether you were standing on a porch or a stoop. Oddly enough the loser in that battle is the last one standing. Many of the new buildings in the photograph are gone now, replaced by apartment blocks only a generation later. The remaining ones have been stripped of what little dignity they originally possessed; glassed over and turned into cell phone stores, roti shops and cheap clothing outlets. Down the street, a few steps into Prospect Park, under the maples and sycamores, the homestead has its dignity and its porch intact.

And then there was the carousel. It’s an old beauty and as it is a device that goes round and round it’s purpose is to make you want to puke. Coleman was a little intimidated by it and wanted to sit on a bench instead of on the back of one of the horsies. As luck would have it the benches were few and taken so while the others rode, Cole and I sat out and watched. As luck would also have it the other kids wanted to ride again and Chris was looking a little green so we slipped into the cool vinyl couch of the beast, with brave faces and a nervous belly.

I never used to have this problem. When I was a lad I used to go on a ride called The Zipper. To my mind the reasons for calling it The Zipper aren’t entirely clear. I think it probably should have been called Vomit Now. This would have been the very early 70’s and the carnival was on the lower fields of Grey Nuns on Old York Road. The carnival was designed to take the small change from the kids and keep them busy while the adults played illegal slot machines up in the school. The slots were arranged in an oval with their backs open to the center where the operator could keep an eye on the innards. Whenever a machine was about to make a colossal payout a nun would come over to the machine, graciously ask to jump the line, take the handle away from the player and start jacking coins down the slot. Within a pull or two she would hit the jackpot, scoop up her winnings and walk away from the adoring parishioner she had just ripped off. And the adoring idiot would just marvel at the sister’s good luck. I swear it’s true. First hand knowledge. I was sitting cross legged under the table watching with my friend Richard as we were digging dropped quarters out from between the machines.

The Zipper was basically a dozen tipsy cages spinning on a pair of drive chains that were rotating around a parallel pair of 40 foot propellers that where spinning. Rated number 1 on any carnival ride shortlist, every description of it is priceless. I have only just now learned from Wikipedia that I was riding the pre safety improved model. Improvements came in ’77 after a hefty number of gruesome and litigable accidents. It is, in fact, hard to think of any description of this ride that would even remotely suggest that those injurious outcomes were anything but deliberate. I urge you to have a look at the Youtube clips of it and then consider this little gem of a fact. The stripped down model I rode turned about 40% faster.

Ordinarily I am loathe to use anyone else’s writing beyond the length of a short quote but this entry from another web site is just too precious to pass up.

# 1 Ride – The Zipper

Truly the most metal of all the amusements – the Zipper is King of Kings amongst carnival rides. No matter where you are, in any state, in any town, the Zipper ALWAYS guarantees you the following three things:

1) The most insane, scary, drunk and high ride operator in the entire fair

2) The largest line, consisting of more middle schoolers smoking cigarettes per capita than anywhere else in the nation

3) The ONLY ride that gives you both a 10 in Fun and a 10 in Likelihood of a Fatal Accident.

The Zipper rules all that comes before it – a 48 foot tall beast, where the only thing preventing you from meeting an untimely demise is a two inch long pin, that’s half an inch in diameter. The ultimate deathtrap, the Zipper rewards those brave enough to look past the squeaking, creaking, and falling of integral pieces with an incredibly intense riding experience that changes every time you go on. What’s that clicking noise? No time to think about it – you’re being hurled head first toward the pavement. Is that a screw that just hit me? Doesn’t matter, because we’re going BACKWARDS, baby.

Nice right? Not anymore. A 99 year old carousel is now an alarming prospect. I’m sure it’s partly mental but still, after I turned 40, everything that could make me dizzy did. After I turned 50 even the mirror became disorienting. Then again that may be another story.

So there I was, facing down the hellish, nauseating threat of the carousel. The platform spinning round and round. The horses going up and down. And only two padded benches for the cowards. The merry old gentleman operator, a clever disguise for the roaring soul eater. He whose name must not be spoken. For a reckless torpedo of a kid, Coleman can have extraordinary moments of fear over the most mundane events. In retrospect, it was less like fear and more like shyness. As if a formal introduction to the wooden horsies might be all it would have taken to dissipate his anxiety. “Coleman, this is Sea Biscuit. Sea Biscuit, this is Coleman. You two are gonna be great buddies”.

I know his anxiety must have been on my mind because as the carousel started turning and I began testing myself, successfully, as to whether I could make myself dizzy I started to look for stable points for us to focus on. I started by pointing out the music maker. A one man band, minus the man, called a Wurlitzer Band Organ, it sits on the blacktop, unmoving, in the central area along with the drive motor and operator, the carousel spinning around them. Opposite the Wurlitzer there is a bare breasted caryatid, her arms draped languidly over her softly quaffed hair. Her breasts are high and her nipples suggest that she was carved on a cold day. A surprising addition really to a ride that dates back to 1912, and yet it doesn’t look at all out of place. Personally I  think they should have one like her on every street corner in America.

Now we’re picking up speed; pushing I would guess 6 rpm maybe even 7. I need a strategy, a game-plan to get us through this. Or maybe just to get me through this. When you look towards the center of a spinning object, as we did with the fulsome caryatid, you are looking at the slowest moving part of that object. If you are seated on that spinning object it’s a pretty good tactic nausea avoidance-wise. Better yet is to look at something else on that object that is spinning with you. As a matter of relativity you are now standing still, centrifugal forces aside. But staring at my hands is only going to alarm Coleman so I look up and I see the very slowly turning crank. The horsies that go up and down are not pushed up from below they are pulled up from above by a driveshaft with offsets like a hand cranked drill laying on its side. As the shaft turns these offsets describe a small circle. The crank passes through a sleeve at the top of the pole that carries the horse up and down and the pole slips up and down in a guide mounted to the floor of the carousel. Cole is either very interested in how this simple mechanism works or he is too petrified to resist my guided tour. Either way the ride is soon over and as the last strains of Que Sera Sera played by organ, xylophone and drums fade away I can see he’s ready to ride again.

The Piano Lesson

 

 

Hey Drew,

I’m trying to remember, did you guys have a piano growing up?

I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

Music lessons. Did you ever take music lessons when you were a kid? I’m trying to walk through the rooms of your row house at 8091 Fayette Street in Mt. Airy and I can’t find a piano.

Up the many steps to your front door, the entry leads directly into the living room followed by the narrow dining room. The uncommonly narrow kitchen is off to the left of the dining room. The kitchen and dining room are actually in the same space. A thin wall with an entry at the far end divides them.

The living room is where a piano would have been. To my right is the long couch with the uncomfortable fabric. Pet proof, child proof and husband proof as they used to say in the ads. I don’t know, that seems like a tall order. There’s a pair of end tables and a dog sitting on the backrest. Mittens. Black and white and dead all over these many years now. I’m blanking on the wall opposite the couch. A TV console maybe? Very sketchy but definitely no piano. A piano is not the kind of thing you forget about in a room.

The dining room is barely wide enough for the dining room furniture. No piano here. I’m ten years old and when people are seated I can’t squeeze by to get to the kitchen to see my mom. She’s in there with your mom doing what they do best. Solving world hunger within a twenty foot radius. They’ve made enough food to choke a swarm of locusts. The dining room furniture is mock colonial but the meals are genuine overkill.

A quick stop back into the kitchen for a mental snack (wow, it really is tight in here) and a look at the window thermometer. These things are kind of fascinating. It’s on the outside of the window looking in. It makes you wonder if a thermometer, looking in like that, a voyeur, occasionally registers the temperature of its family’s life. You know, just to flex it’s muscles and break up the monotony. I’ll bet those little fuckers can be pretty astute and you know they’re sneaky. A thermometer may not know what time it is but you better believe it knows how hot things can get in the kitchen. Especially this kitchen. It’s so pinched intimacy seems unavoidable.

You know while we’re here we might just as well have a look around upstairs. Your room is, Holy Jumping Jesus Christ Drew don’t you ever clean this place up? Dude, I think you’ve set some new standard here. I’m in awe. Huh?! Look man it may be my memory but it’s still your room. By the way, nice blacklight posters, you should save those. They’ll be collector’s items someday. What’s a collector’s item? You dopey teen, a collector’s item is something you throw away because it’s trash and then pay big money for later because it’s nostalgic, unless it’s a porcelain figurine. In that case you pay big money for it because it’s nostalgic and then throw it away later because it’s trash. Hmm? No, I don’t make the rules.

Ok, back out into the hall, test the wall to wall carpet. Pluuuuush. Seven steps and it’s Bonnie and Lissa’s room. Let’s see, Oh! Oh my gosh! Oh sorry, sorry Lis! Really, honest I didn’t mean, yeah yeah no no I won’t tell. Bye. Wow! This place is like a mine field.

Then the master bedroom, made neat for our visit so I’m looking in on some kind of standard template of 60’s domesticity. It looks like a textiles or home furnishings ad and you know that’s probably what it is. An ad fixed in my mind, interchangeable with reality. A default memory when the real thing is inaccessible. Look magazine June 1968. Avocado Green bedspread. Burnt Orange lamp base with frosted glass globe. Formica furniture. Some kind of two layer curtain blocking the light and damping the sound from the street. That’s all I got. I guess we never played in here. Let’s head back down to the basement.

Well, would you look at that! Here I am, thinking you didn’t have a piano and there it is, under some laundry, in the last place I look. Dear Abby used to say that everything you find is in the last place you look because after you find it you stop looking. Call it what you will, I call that genius. The piano is a pale wood upright but still it must have been a bitch getting down here. Oh wait! Now I see. This is the back space of the garage entry which is at the back of the house. The garages are sub-grade, exposed right to the foundation, along the entire length of row houses. Entry is from a central driveway that cuts across the backs of all the houses. No backyards. So getting the piano into the house was easy, the real bitch would have been bringing it upstairs. But nobody did. The piano never actually made it all the way into the house did it. Into the living room. It never really became a family member. It was left in its stillness to gather laundry, it’s strings vibrating in sympathy with the passing rumble of trucks. More of a listener than a singer.

Pianos do not make easy partners. A piano is demanding of space. It is physically large. It is visually heavy. Its sound expands to fill whatever space it occupies. Its quiet does the same. When a piano is not embraced by a family it becomes an awkward guest, its very presence a constant reminder of an unrealized hope. A piano won’t be ignored, it can’t be put away and forcing it to leave involves a certain amount of cruelty. Getting rid of a piano involves a rejection of ones own positive potential. It is an admission of failure. A small death perhaps, were it not attached to great expectations.

A piano is obviously a singular instrument. The number of strings varies with size and style but I’ve just counted the tuning pegs on our 1942 Knabe Butterfly Baby Grand and it has 215 strings. My brother’s 1937 Gulbransen Upright has 220 strings. A concert grand piano has 230 or more and that’s just on 88 keys. Stuart and Sons, of Australia, make a 102 key piano. That seems like the kind of thing you’d see in a Dr. Seuss illustration tipping precariously from the top of a feathered tree. To put a little perspective on this a full-size Grand Concert Harp (the kind used in an orchestra) has 47 strings. No other instrument comes close to the piano.

A little subsurface exploration and we find that except for the highest and lowest tones each key on a piano has two or three strings. The strings of a single key are called Unisons because they are identically tuned. The multiple strings even out the volume across the keyboard. Very thoughtful. The piano covers the full spectrum of any instrument in the orchestra from below the lowest note of the double bassoon to above the top note of the piccolo. That and the fact that it’s able to produce melody and accompaniment at the same time is what makes it such a great instrument to compose with. But it isn’t just the strings. According to the Steinway web site there are 12,116 parts in a Steinway piano. I’m thinking there are probably a couple of thousand parts in that number that are just there for numerical superiority but even so it’s a pretty astounding figure. And you know what? None of them would be worth a frogs fart without the bridge, a narrow ledge of hardwood that transfers the string vibrations to the soundboard. Isn’t that how it always goes? It doesn’t matter how powerful my computer hardware is and it makes no difference how sophisticated my software is; if I can’t plug it in, it’s just junk. The bridge is the plug that activates the piano. A terrible metaphor and more than likely inaccurate but hey, it can’t all be poetry.

I’m sure you’ve turned the crank on one of those little music box contraptions. It’s a tiny metal barrel with little nicks in it. As the barrel rotates the nicks pluck at a tiny metal comb; the fingers of the comb corresponding to an octave of notes. Plink, plink plink, plink plink and we have “Send in the Clowns” or, as with my grandparents favorite music box, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”, a big hit from 1910. The point is the little bastard didn’t make much sound until you cranked it while it was sitting on a table. The table was a soundboard through which the sound could amplify because, as we all know, sound travels better through the densely packed molecules of solids than through the widely spaced molecules of air. The same holds true for a piano. The wooden soundboard accounts for the volume of sound. Such a great word in this context, Volume. Volume is the degree of loudness or intensity of sound but Volume is also the amount of space occupied by a three dimensional object. The way sound occupies a space is three dimensional. So that makes sound an object, right? Sounds good to me.

We had a piano too; a Kurtzmann. I asked my father how we came to own a piano and if he charged it off to his business. My father’s explanation goes precisely like this.

“There was a man who had a shop on Germantown Ave. where he restored and sold pianos. Our oldest child played flute and our middle child was a layabout and our idea was to get him off his ass and the piano might uncover some latent gift buried who knows where. So we invested in the piano and the child and the rest of the story has yet to be writ. Alas I didn’t think to charge it to the studio and that’s why I remain a free man despite my parole officer’s protests.”

For a time it got a reasonable amount of use but mostly by me which was not going to be a good sign for any instrument. At one point I thought it would increase my non-existent cool factor if I learned to play guitar. Thank goodness I broke my wrist after the first lesson. It saved me from having to admit another failure. Our piano, like many, was never really embraced by the family as a musical instrument but we all recall it fondly as being a stellar piece of furniture.

It seems like everyone had a piano in the sixties. Factories must have been cranking them out like confetti. Pianos must have been a status symbol from the very beginning but mass production must have made it a more affordable postwar symbol of affluence. Like all such symbols it was subject to a hierarchy. A grading system. From huge, ornate, hand carved cases to little more than functionality and packing crate simplicity. From old to new, from concert grand to grand to baby grand to upright. From Steinway to what, Kenmore? Kmart? Edsel? World wide there have been thousands of brands.

Naturally you would expect that all those pianos must have degraded the symbolic value of the instrument. But there is always a lag time between the end of an objects perceived desirability and actual market saturation, between exclusivity and the realization that all a piano bought you was a piano. There’s nothing like owning a piano to help you draw that conclusion for yourself but by then of course it’s too late. I’ve been told by people who know about this stuff that exclusivity can end with a market penetration of 30% while saturation is more like 80%. You can see that the lag time between message degradation and image degeneration can be significant but that’s not going to be an issue here. With 10 million pianos in this country and well over 110 million households, the piano’s strong image and message are still well aligned. So what does it all mean? It means there is something about a piano. Something that vastly exceeds the sum of its parts. Maybe the piano maintains its regal position based on the simple hope that some of that high grade something will rub off on us second rate owners.

My family, living in a large house, opted for a used baby grand. It filled the space nicely and made my parents, a couple of ghetto Jews, feel like they had, if not arrived, at least departed the want of their depression era childhoods. My sister suffered a year of piano before making a break to the flute. I went through years of lessons and though I resented having to practice, I don’t recall hating the instrument. Or loving it for that matter. I don’t think I liked it or even disliked it. I was not a passionate child. Not enraged like my elder sister or uncontrollably exuberant like my younger brother. I am, after all, a middle child. I see all sides of an argument and they are all equal before me.

All of that time, all that parental hope and expectation culminated in my final lesson. It was the end of the school year. I was 13 years old. Before going away on summer vacation I asked my teacher if he thought I should continue my lessons in the fall. He said, “Technically you play pretty well but you have absolutely no feel for the instrument.” I don’t believe this came as any surprise to me. It was a relief really. My father warned me for years after, that I would eventually regret not finishing my piano studies and becoming somehow competent at this instrument. As if there is ever an end to the study of an instrument. My father didn’t see my potential as clearly as my piano teacher. I had learned Für Elize, and Russian Folk Dance. I had gently gutted Beethoven, Bartôk and Mozart, purging them of any passion, emotion or sentiment. I had dutifully learned how to read music. My potential was met. There may have been more to learn but there was nothing more for me to learn. Without any regrets I would not touch a keyboard again for another 35 years.

Our middle guy, Miles, takes piano now. Early on it became apparent that Miles had language and word processing problems. He stuttered and couldn’t retrieve words that he knew. We tried to get him help and he was evaluated but he exhibited little of those problems while being interviewed. Then one evening at dinner I took out my cell phone, put it on video and asked Miles what he was holding in his hand. I don’t know how I knew beforehand but I knew he wouldn’t be able to answer. I just felt it the way an experienced mountaineer can feel an avalanche before it happens. There is a tension in the surrounding air before the snow lets go, breaking the bonds of traction, the snow slipping away along a submerged layer of instability like a final kiss goodbye.

Miles couldn’t answer. He was holding an orange. He stuttered and struggled continuously until the video memory was exhausted. He qualified for help after that. What is interesting is that the problems of retrieval were not problems of memory but of processing. Kind of like hand eye coordination but between reasoning, language and mouth. The particulars of the strategies he learned have, for the most part, slipped away from me except for one element. He was to concentrate on the musicality of speech.

There is a slew of evidence supporting the claim that people who study music have higher IQ’s. Instruction in music greatly improves children’s performance in reading and math. College bound students score over 50 points higher on the verbal portion of their SAT’s and over 35 points higher on the math portion. Studying music improves abstract reasoning skills. Piano is the most complicated instrument and, to my mind, promised to offer the greatest degree of benefit. As luck would have it we already owned a piano that we inherited from my wife’s Aunt Bert, a life long piano teacher. The bulging contents of her music bench prove her to have been an avid player of classical music, show tunes and early to mid-century popular music. The real Tin Pan Alley stuff from the likes of:

Boosey & Company, Inc. -The House of Song Fame- New York (And London)

Sole Selling Agents: Boosey-Hawkes-Belwin, Inc. 43-47 W. 23rd St.

New York City.

There are addresses of major publishers in the RKO and the RCA Buildings at Rockefeller Center as well, offering sheet music from the likes of Aaron Copland, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein, Noël Coward, Lerner & Loewe, and the ever popular writing team of Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, represented here by a song called Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom). Distressing right? Powerful people were deciding this was a good idea. I guess it was big; there’s a picture of Perry Como on the cover. There’s a tune called Flirty Gertie from Bizertie. I wont even attempt to explain this stuff except to say that it is proof positive that we all grow up on a different planet then our parents did.

There’s a sheet for a Jerome Kern tune, The Last Time I Saw Paris, apparently sung by a star named Hildegarde. Just Hildegarde. Actually that’s not entirely true. She was also dubbed The Incomparable Hildegarde by Walter Winchell and The First Lady of the Supper Clubs by no less a fashionista than Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Whether that was a high compliment or a vicious insult is anybodies guess. So, Hildegarde. Really trips lightly off the tongue doesn’t it? I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone to have her change her name. For that matter I wonder if Hildegarde, to a mid-century ear, sounded like Fergie or J-Lo or Prince. On the cover of the sheet music is a photo. Hildegarde from the waist up, looking over her shoulder, unsmiling, no backdrop. Plain as an unsalted cracker. I don’t know how we’re supposed to be having a good time with this when she clearly isn’t. Hildegarde is a platinum blonde with a face reminiscent of Madonna but her hands look like they belong to Mike Tyson. Clearly the industry hadn’t perfected the art of image making.

The pre-war sheets are heavy paper stock printed with an abundance of scrollwork and unrestrained self promotion. The cover was the sales pitch.

WILFRID SANDERSON:-

OUR MOST CONSISTENT COMPOSER OF GOOD SONGS

GIVES MUSIC LOVERS ANOTHER GEM IN

REMEMBERING YOU

The Beloved JOHN MCCORMACK

HIGHLY ENTHUSED OVER THIS FINE BALLAD

INTRODUCED IT AT HIS FIRST CONCERT OF 1933-34 AND HAS REPEATED IT

WITH SIGNAL SUCCESS ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS INCLUDING, TWO BROADCASTS

Words by Music By

DENA TEMPEST WILFRID SANDERSON

.35¢

Composed for the home entertainment market before that market was finished being steamrolled by radio, this “Gem” is a duet for three hands; two hands playing chords one hand playing an ultra simple melody. The chords can be managed by any piano student. The student can easily coach the one hand melody. The melody player wouldn’t even need to read music. The key strokes can be memorized in a matter of minutes. With music like this anyone who had a piano could play a piano. And you know what? With songs like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” I’ll bet the sing alongs were a blast.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Let me hear you whisper that you love me too.

Keep the love-light glowing in your eyes so true.

Let me call you “Sweetheart,” I’m in love with you.

Sure we think of those as simpler times but that’s us, not them. Every era is somewhat more complicated than the rabble can cope with. Ergo politics. And sure people weren’t too bright back then but really, how different could it have been than it is now. Not too different, rest assured. Within their own timeframes, how different are pianos and video games. Less different than one might think. While they utilize different technologies it is by no means a given that a game is more complicated then a piano. The possible combinations of gameplay are limited. When you include composition and improvisation, a piano becomes the true machine of unlimited possibilities.

By the post war period the cover art on Aunt Bert’s sheet music, when there is any, consists of awkward one tone publicity photos and discount illustrations. In fact the whole package, from cheap paper to poor printing seems to lack any decidedly divine inspiration. Until you get to the songs. There are some clinkers in here but for the most part we’re looking at the American Songbook. Standards that seem to defy the certain death that stalks most popular music. It turns out Aunt Bert’s piano lessons were also lessons in good taste.

Miles started lessons through school when he was five, in one of those group keyboard classes. When he was six we started lessons at home with Gabe, the teacher from the public school outreach program of The Piano School Of New York. A great program and a great teacher. For the final lesson all the kids in the program were required to play to the gathered families on a Steinway Concert Grand in a recital room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle. Miles, cool, calm and confident to a fault, played his piece, then jammed a bit with his teacher and after all that, leveraged the occasion to get a Pineapple Sunday from the Mister Softee truck parked on the corner.

During this time I started pulling free sheet music off the internet that we could work on together. I would play a piece and if he liked it I would show him where to put his fingers. He watched, memorized and repeated in a way that I never could. He continued in school lessons when he was seven but the music was not interesting to him. These school lessons tend to present the instrument as a fun thing to do but it didn’t seem like Miles wanted it to be fun. Fun wasn’t going to hold his attention. We had noticed that the part of his home lessons that he liked best were when he and Gabe would jam to some simple blues progressions. At these moments his concentration level was at its height. With all this in mind I went in search of a jazz teacher who would work with him.

Throughout this period his language and reading skills really started to gel. He was getting help at school and he was playing piano at home. But it wasn’t until we landed Sonelius Smith that it all came together. Sonelius is an old school jazz man with a reality check on business. He’s played with some of the greats including Lionel Hampton and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He talks to Miles about the diversity of styles he’ll need to play in order to make a living. This to an eight year old. Sonelius has no time for fun and games. Piano is a serious pursuit. He’ll start and stop Miles over and over again trying to make a point. There’s no tickling the ivories with Sonelius. It’s about mastering the instrument through mastering yourself. At eight years old I wouldn’t have lasted a single lesson. I’d have curled up inside and refused to go back again. Miles is amazing and unshakeable. Sonelius’s critical tone rolls off him with no effect. Miles has made remarkable progress and in the process learned how to ignore Sonelius at particular moments, apparently for the sole joy of getting under his skin. Miles is thriving on the discipline. He’s playing Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Mongo SantaMaria, some classical works as well as improvisation. His reading has improved dramatically and his math homework is painless. More than that, as the white father of a beloved mixed race son, I believe Sonelius is the black man that Miles needs in his life. He’s like another grandfather. The one who you respect because he’ll whoop you upside the head if you sass him.

We have three boys and it goes without saying that one on one time is at a premium around here. Miles will go to the piano on his own to practice or just to experiment but when it comes time to really concentrate I am at his right hand. We talk about the notes, intervals and fingering. I read the music as he plays and I point out weak spots and mistakes. He corrects me when I’m wrong. Recently he’s started to ask me if I think I can do better and of course the answer is no. He loves to hear that. He enjoys letting me know that he is better than me at this thing. I enjoy letting him know that he is better than me at this thing. I am able to function and teach and be supportive without being masterful. And at this point I am reminded that a long time ago I learned as much as I was able, that it has exceeded in value any worth I have ever assigned to it and that it was just enough for me to help my little boy.

Birthday

So the nurse hands me the mask and says to put it on and trots off to her other duties.

I put the mask on and wait to be called into the operating room where Heather is being prepped. She’s only a few feet away and I wink and wave to her through the open door and think to myself that the mask is a little tight but I’m no doctor and my experience of this kind of thing is severely limited and if I try to tie it again I’ll only fuck it up anyway and then they call me in and it’s too late and there I am sitting by her head with a little hospital green fabric screen erected over her chest to separate us up at the thinking end from the action down at the plumbing end. As they start to do the caesarean, I’m whispering to her and trying to keep her calm and me calm and why is it that I think this is important; to be calm, ever so calm, even casual about the whole affair?

Maybe I don’t want to disturb the doctors or I think they’ll think I’m an asshole for getting excited about this most everyday occurrence and it’s important to be cool and maintain a sense of distracted disinterest as if I have something else on my mind; something really deep and important and if they’ll pick up the pace a little I can return to my important and impressive life which they can only imagine to have a glimpse of, these dirty little surgeons; these gory mechanics.

Did you know they use scissors to cut holes in ladies? I can’t say I’ve observed this but the sound of it is quite unmistakable. This girl at the art school where I work had a baby about four months prior to ours and her husband had left her quarantined head area and gone to the other end to watch the caesarean and had gone on and on about how cool it was to see her opened up like a fillet and all the organs and drains and pipes and conduits and junction boxes and this thing is connected to that thing and he had really wanted to do a bit of the stitching but he couldn’t convince the doctor, even as he was trying to edge him over and get in there.

This seemed a bit on the extreme side but I maintain a rather strong interest in the sciences and this crossed my obviously not busy enough mind while I was listening to the music of the scissors over the little green hospital screen and I started to wonder what was really going on over there. I mean, I might be missing the chance of a life time and not even might but definitely am and by god I’m going to go have a look at my son being born and what the insides of a live corpse look like because I am a man of science, yes science, creator and destroyer of worlds; a glimpse into, and I do mean into, one of the secrets of life, the very meaning of life. And there is no way I’m gonna let those doctors think they know something I don’t know and what with it being only just over the little green hospital screen, all I have to do is stand up and take a look. And if it’s not to scary I’ll mosey on ’round to where the action is because I belong where the action is because I am a man of science. But first I’ll take just a little peek because even though I am a man of action and a man of science it has always been the dry sciences, math and archaeology and sociology and a hand full of other ologies which did not require me to cut into anything that might put up a fight. But after all how different is one science from another? In fact, they are all one continuous inquiry with a bunch of specialists. Damn the specialists! Where are the Renaissance men? The big picture men with the big minds and the big curiosities? I’ll tell you where they are, they’re right here behind the screen and here I go to take a look, a peek, a glimpse, whatever; I will not be denied!

“I’ll be right back honey, I’m right here with youuuu”…..What the hell is that? Some blood on the sheet. I don’t see any gore. It’s just a bit of blood. I didn’t see any skin at all, the nurse was in the way. Just a bit of pinky reddy linen and man, is it warm in here or is it just me? I mean I can hardly breath! This mask is so tight I can barely pull a breath through it! A hot breath and there is no air in here! No air at all! And this mask is choking me like a noose; can’t breath. Pulling it open from the bottom trying to find some air in this vacuum and how am I going to phrase this? “Honey, I’ll be right back. I just need to go out and get a bit of air. Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” How can I say this and put a good spin on it and where the hell is the air in here? This mask is so tight it’s like a lamprey on my mouth; like that thing in Alien when it sucks onto that guys face. It’s definitely going to look bad if I throw up in the operating room. That’ll be the end of my proving to these doctors what an interesting and learned colleague I am but the thing is I cannot breath and this mask is not only tight but getting tighter. It’s gripping my throat and crushing the bridge of my nose and I’m prying the bottom open with my left index finger in a nonchalant manner so as not to call attention to myself and I think I’ve managed to open it just enough to get a stream of oxygen molecules through when I realize that my stomach is unhappy and what was I thinking when I had breakfast? Oh yes, I remember thinking that this would be a good day to skip eating since I am rather sensitive in the tummy department but it’s way to late now but I’ll probably pass out before I hurl because I CANNOT BREATH!

At this very moment the surgeon chirps “Well, there’s his behind” and suddenly I am transported to an oxygen rich atmosphere, cool and breezy and seconds later they are handing him over their heads from hand to hand and they slide him under the heat lamps and I think to myself that this baby-warmer temperature-stabilizing unit is not only very like the french fry warmer at the fast food joint, it is the french fry warmer at the fast food joint and I wonder if anyone else has noticed this scam and I am in awe of the medical supply guy but hey, look how cool that kid is. My kid I suppose but anyway he is very very cool and he’s there and I guess I should go say hello and I do and he looks at me because he knows my voice and they stick a tube into his nose and down his throat to clear his lungs and he cries and cries until I say “it’s ok buddy” and he calms right down and the power I have over this little one becomes all too clear. I will be able to mess with him for the rest of my life.

Bedtime

I knew right away it was the beginning of the end.

He stayed in our bed for the first two years or so. I don’t think my mother approved. I believe she thought it didn’t encourage independence. She cloaked her concern by appealing to my pragmatic self-interest. The family bed didn’t sound very good if only because it interfered with “intimacy.” That conversation ended after I pointed out that the bed wasn’t the only place to get “intimate.”

No, the family bed ended because our bed faces east and west and like a live compass his head always ended up facing north. Even in a king sized bed there wasn’t enough room and I got tired of him kicking me on the way to his magnetic repose.

From the time he began staying in his own bed or at least starting out in his own bed, there was always a connection from his room to ours. Amputees talk about ghost limbs. They report that a severed limb is not only still there but itches. The mind fills in that loss. The umbilical cord is like that. At night it stretches easily from his room to ours. During the day it stretches all the way to school but its influence is diminished, wrapped and tangled as it is with all those other cords. It’s a good thing it’s only a metaphor. That influence is slow to fade. I suspect it is like a parabolic curve that forever approaches its infinity but never quite arrives.

The call would come in the night. “Mommy.” And off I would trudge to his room to bring him back into the cozy fold of our bed with a quick stop for a midnight pee on the way. Eventually he found the way on his own and really it was remarkable and exciting. A little rustling from down the hall. Like a dog that can’t quite get the right number of circles one way and then the other to find its rest. And then that sound, pad pad pad pad pad pad pad. It makes you laugh to hear it. It almost sounds human but the weight of the footfall is wrong; too improbably light. And then the hands thrown straight up in the air beside our bed. Not a word, just him standing there, arms thrust up. Not like a holdup at gunpoint. No, this is more like superman soaring up to heaven. Or like a high diver who has sprung from his board, reached the apex of his dive and is simply waiting for gravity to turn him towards his final fall into a sea of arms and covers. He never made a sound but then he never had to wait for his flight.

In his own bed he would always start out with his mother. Eventually the routine became that when he awoke and called “Mommy”, she would go lie down with him until he went back to sleep. Occasionally I would start out with him but I was not a first round draft choice. It really happened because his testing of her began to extend beyond lights out. He simply wouldn’t stop talking. She would threaten to leave but eventually threats stopped working and then she would leave and oh the laments. The crying and the sorrys. The agony seemed so real and maybe it was. Maybe they are manic-depressives when they are tired because no sooner was she back in his bed than he was excitedly chattering away again.

Enter Daddy. Bedtime disciplinarian. It worked out great because as soon as I lie down in the dark I am history. Hell, as soon as I lie down period. A book or two, lights out and that’s all. No one to talk to, no one to test. I’m already in dreamland. Half the time I would fall asleep while reading him a book. Sometimes I would drop off in the middle of a sentence and he would grab my nose or push my head to wake me. “Reeead” would come his voice through the fog. Many a time my eyes would close and I would hear myself finish a sentence all wrong; the last comprehended word having triggered some kind of random association. I would hear my voice behind the black screen of closed eyelids and think, “hey, those aren’t the words”. I would catch myself and open my eyes and we would look at each other and crack up. Sleep was never a chore and we became good at it.

Now, in the middle of the night comes the call for “Daddy”. Or the occasional “Mommy, I mean, Daddy” which his mother finds particularly galling. I go to him and we shuffle off for the midnight pee. He usually has a word or two like “let’s get cozy” or “I’m having trouble with my covers”. He lies down and I flip the sheet and cover and as they settle down over him he says “come in” like it’s a cabin in the forest. We are like two conspirators in our cuddling. He rests his head on my shoulder and I kiss his curls. When he turns over and rolls his head on to his pillow I know he’s asleep again and I return to the big bed. I am aware that eventually he will stop calling. More and more he sleeps through the night. He’s still a kid but his bladder is growing up.

Much of my parenting revolves around the awareness that he will outgrow almost everything without my help. For a short time when he was four and would ask me to carry him I would say, “No, you’re a big boy you can walk yourself.” I’m sure I thought I was teaching him to be strong but then it occurred to me that he didn’t need to be weaned from this request. Someday he was just going to stop asking and I was the one who would be alone in my regret. Carrying is just a hug in motion and soon, too soon, will come the last. Yes he’s heavy but so what. I’m strong.

And then, just a few nights ago it happened. He called for Daddy and when I came in he wouldn’t talk to me. Just a low growl. We went for a quick pee and I put him back in the bed. I straightened the covers and he grunted and didn’t make room for me. I asked him if he wanted me to stay and he grunted again and turned away. No room at the inn. I returned to the big bed and felt the strength of that cord again and that the balance of pull works in two directions. Like fishing; sometimes you pull on the fish and sometimes the fish pulls on you but in the end the big one always gets away.