I walk into the kitchen. The 14-year-old sees me, bends forward slightly and then slams her head into my sternum.
"Don't hurt yourself," I said, pretending I'd felt no pain. I gesture to my chest. "This? Titanium. Mixed with adamantium. It's an alloy. Coated in...what's Captain America's shield made of? Vibranium? Yeah, it's coated in that. And then dusted with Kryptonite."
"My goodness!" she says, trying to look admiring. She can't quite make it, and laughs instead. The idea of a 14-year-old seriously using "my goodness!" as a mild expletive makes me laugh. Which makes her laugh, which makes me laugh. And then she laughs some more. And I laugh some more.
"Okay, pal, go get dressed!" The birthday girl hops off the couch and run down the hall.
Octonauts has just ended, so the Golden Weasel and I are going to run to the grocery store. It's a tradtion in our house that the birthday girl gets to pick her breakfast and dinner—and, oddly, make her own birthday cake, which has led to some VERY attractive cakes over the years, I can assure you—so we need to run and pick up the ingredients for this morning's feast. We also need to pick up saline so Top Management can put her contacts in, so she can go to yoga. No big deal: we've got plenty of time.
Nearly half an hour later I hear Dora and Boots singing, "We did it!" and I realize the Golden Weasel hasn't yet appeared. I find her in the bathroom, immaculately dressed in her trademark princess-meets-bag-lady style, slowly, methodically, happily brushing her hair.
I have seen the future...and I'm not sure I care for it.
So it's been more than a little while since I last posted about my favorite series in the entire world. But I read this interesting piece on Harry Potter. It's fairly short, so you should click through and read the whole thing, but the part that really made me think was this:
The biggest problem begins with that obnoxious Sorting Hat. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that every last one of the major heroic characters gets sorted into Gryffindor, the “brave” house. Nearly all of the villains get sorted into Slytherin, the “ambition” house.
Already you’ll notice that things are getting a little bit vague, as “ambition” is a substantially more nebulous concept than “hard work” or “cleverness.” Well, that or it simply comes packaged WITH all those other virtues. But the point is our heroes and villains all get lumped in together.
So, not only is bravery implied to be the best of all virtues, but it also apparently trumps intelligence or hard work. Fine, sure. We’ll just go with that. And we’ll also try to ignore the blatant violation of these sortings that occur over and over again through the series.
I get that this is just a way to make a “hero” house and a “villain” house. Normally I’d write this off as typical fantasy-movie simplicity. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and a host of others do the same thing; they create a group of cartoonish baddies to embody the opposition to our hero. We’re not meant to really question it. Evil is evil.
The problem with doing this in the Harry Potter universe is the books and movies are obsessively focused on tearing down the walls built by prejudice and groupthink.
So why, then, is it just like… totally cool to write off as bad every single person chosen to be in Slytherin House?
I mean, I know WHY. Slytherin students are constantly undermining their classmates, and adults who graduate from the house tend to go on to undermine the rest of the wizarding community. It’s stated as fact that no evil wizard ever walked the earth that WASN’T a member of the house at some point.
And there 'tis.
Assuming that the bolded part is correct—and I don't recall it ever being stated that baldly, although I'm not much of a HP scholar and, either way, it is the clear implication—it seems to me the real question here is one of cause-and-effect, or maybe chicken-and-egg: are these kids—and that's all they are, just little, little kids at the beginnging—inherently bad, or are they already lost causes...or does Slytherin itself cause them to all go over to the dark side? And if that's the case, how on earth could Dumbledore and all his predecessors possibly justify keeping the house around?
Context is everything.
I've found that to be a pretty good rule of thumb, in general, but when it comes to Bruce Springsteen's music, especially so. Springsteen himself seemed to recognize this, as illustrated in a story told by Dave Marsh in his book Glory Days. When Ronald Reagan and others first began misinterpreting the songs on Born in the USA, especially (but not exclusively) the title track, Bruce was bemused but not terribly concerned; surely in the context of his entire oeuvre, the meaning was unmistakable. Only once it was pointed out that Born in the USA had sold more than all his other albums combined had did he realize how many of his fans had no knowledge of his previous work and how easily, therefore, they could misconstrue his artistic intent.
Which brings us to "Valentine's Day," the gorgeous closer to Tunnel of Love, perhaps his most overlooked masterpiece. Of all the times rock and roll has broached the subject of love—which is to say, pretty much as long as rock and roll has existed—only Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks is superior to Tunnel when it comes to entire album-length meditations on the topic. With only a few exceptions, the songs all deal with the difficulties of sustaining an adult relationship. It's only on the final track that the narrator seems to finally realize what he's got and accept that the only path to happiness for him is through the love of his (presumably) wife.
It opens with the singer, as in so many Springsteen songs, driving. True to form, he's driving a big ol' car on the highway at night.
I'm driving a big lazy car rushin' up the highway in the dark
I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart
But unlike the narrator of "Racing in the Street," for instance, or certainly "Stolen Car" or "State Trooper," he's not looking for comfort or saftey in solitude or the open road—this time the road itself is bringing absolutely no peace.
It's pounding baby like it's gonna bust right on through
And it ain't gonna stop till I'm alone again with you
And then, for what was then tremendously rare, Springsteen wrote of fatherhood in unambiguously positive terms:
A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light
Of the skies and the rivers the timberwolf in the pines
And that great jukebox out on Route 39
They say he travels fastest who travels alone
But tonight I miss my girl mister tonight I miss my home
The bridge is interesting. The narrators ask several (unusally flowery) questions:
Is it the sound of the leaves
left blown by the wayside
That's got me out here on this spooky old highway tonight
Is it the cry of the river
With the moonlight shining through
But the answer doesn't seem to quite follow logically:
That ain't what scares me baby
What scares me is losing you
So...he's out on the highway not on business but, apparently, because he's scared of losing her? Meaning, what, that he wasn't due to return home yet?
We'll get back to that.
Let's skip, instead, to the final verse:
They say if you die in your dreams you really die in your bed
But honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled straight back in my head
And God's light came shinin' on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathin' and born anew
It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
It wasn't the bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
It wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
No no baby it was you
So hold me close honey say you're forever mine
And tell me you'll be my lonely valentine
And this is where context becomes vital. Because what finally hit home for the narrator, the huge epiphany he had, was never found when he was actually with her—it all came to him in a dream, when he was miles and miles away from her. So now he's on his way back home to be with her...but he's not there yet. And given that the things that have affected him the most are talking to a friend on the phone and a dream of his girl, it's highly unlikely that these overwhelming feelings of love will last long once they're actually together. The idea of love, his belief in the importance of love, is more powerful than love itself, or at least, than the love he and this woman have for each.
There are several clues that lead to that conclusion. The first is the context of the album: song after song explores just how hard it is to make a relationship work—and even the very few that seem, at first glance, to have things going okay actually reveal, upon examination, serious hidden and potentially fatal flaws in them. ("All That Heaven Will Allow," for instance: again, the narrator is trying to get to the girl but is unable to.)
But the other is right there in the final words. He sweetly asks her to be his valentine. But not his tender valentine or his loving valentine or his gorgeous valentine or his blushing valentine. He asks her to be his lonely valentine. But...what kind of valentine is lonely? Unfortunately, not a truly happy one.
And yet the keyboard line as the music fades out—one of the extraordinarily rare non-4/4 songs in the Springsteen catalog—is ever so lovely and gentle and soothing that you're tempted to believe things'll work out for them, that they'll live happily ever after. But even there's a hint: he could just as easily have gone with an ascending melody. Instead, it's falling. Beautifully, but inexorably.
The heart is a weird thing.
Top Management and I had been an item for months. I liked her a lot—in fact, I was pretty crazy about her. She was the funniest girl I'd ever known, the most insightful, erudite, patient, understanding, fun...if there was a positive superlative, she was it. She was the best actress, a lovely singer, a stunningly good writer, always laughing...and I found her freckles and almond-shaped eyes utterly irresistible.
And yet, for some reason I can't even begin to fathom, it was seeing a few shots a photographer friend of hers had taken a year or two before we met that tipped me into huh...I could maybe spend the rest of my life with this person.
Why? I don't know. They're lovely shots of a beautiful young girl, of course, and that's far from nothing.
Maybe it was the first time I'd ever seen her not smiling? (A state she couldn't keep for even three photos.)
Years have gone by when I've been unable to find these; we've moved at least six or seven times and she does most of the packing and unpacking and they've never held the same magical mystery for her they do me, so careful as she is with her Anne of Green Gables paperbacks, these priceless treasures don't warrant the same respect.
Yesterday, out of the blue, I started getting authentically panicky, realizing I hadn't seen them since we moved her to SoCal over six years ago, and wondering if that was it, they were really gone this time.
And then this afternoon, I went into a closet I've opened maybe thrice since we've been here, looking for some old comic books to send to someone, and there those photos were, right on top of the comics. Fate and the universe once making its will crystal clear.
Bruce Springsteen has spoken before about how much attention he paid to the sequencing of his albums, the need for strong statements of purpose on "the four corners"—that is, the first and last song on each side of vinyl. While album openers tend to get the most consideration, Springsteen clearly put every bit as much time into thinking about how to close his records. For his six albums he covered an enormous amount of territory, from rock, soul and jazz to prog, country and folk. They include some of his most popular songs ("Jungleland" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town") as well as rarely-played fan favorites ("New York City Serenade") and critical darlings ("Reason to Believe"). With the closing song off 1984's blockbuster Born in the USA, he added pop with a song that went to #6 on the charts and which, as a result of its mass popularity, may be the most overlooked masterpiece of his first seven album closers.
"My Hometown" has several of the classic Springsteen calling cards: cars, fathers and sons, class consciousness, economic uncertainty and the importance and difficulty of hard work. But the most pervasive sense is one of quiet loss. Opening with a pair of scenes from the narrator's childhood—buying a newspaper for his father, and sitting in his father's lap, steering the car as they drive around—it's perhaps the most positive depiction of fatherhood yet in a Springsteen song, free of the angst and tension in "Adam Raised a Cain" or "Indepence Day."
Of course, that's a relative term, and even here things are far from rosy: the song closes with an identical scene, as the narrator is now the father, driving around town with his own son, allowing him to steer. But it's in the context of conversations the narrator's had with his boss and with his wife, acknowleding that jobs are scarce and getting scarcer as their town slowly dies, and that their best hope for a decent life likely lies elsewhere, meaning he's going to need to abandon the only home he's ever known.
Sandwiched between those two famililal tableaus are another pair of scenes, one the aforementioned work scene, with the boss warning his workers that their jobs are about to be eliminated, and the other a memory of racial tension back in high school. Interestingly, the scene of racial violence is the only time the title is literally sung, as all other times the narrator actually sings "your hometown." While it's clearly because the other times it's someone talking to the narrator—or the narrator speaking to his own son—the effect is to turn what could otherwise have been a strictly personal meditation into something far more universal.
The mirrored scenes that open and close the song are an effective technique, comparing and contrasting the narrator at eight years old with himself at thirty-five. But the most effective bit is the way he sings "your hometown" one and only one time in the last verse, rather than repeating it multiple times as he had previously throughout the song, allowing the song to gently fade out, the music lovely and gentle but, disturbingly—if like parenthood and life itself—ultimately unresolved.
Darkness on the Edge of Town was the first Bruce Springsteen album I heard when it was new—or, at least, newish; I think it was the summer of 1980 when I heard it for the first time. And for 32 years I've thought the narrator of the title track was related to the narrator of other Springsteen songs such as "Racing in the Streets" and "Adam Raised a Cain" and so many others: guys born into a tough situation struggling against the odds, having a pretty good idea of the score and their chances but not going down without a fight.
And then the other night a few phrases leapt out at me for the first time and I wondered if I'd had it wrong all these years. And I suddenly realized that it's possible that the narrator is, in fact, a victim of his own vices and weaknesses. Looked at it in a different light, the narrator sounds like he's not so much a guy struggling to beat the odds. No. He's actually a compulsive gambler, and the reason he's lost everything is through his own bad choices brought on by his addiction.
They're still racing out at the Trestles
But that blood it never burned in her veins
Now I hear she's got a house up in Fairview
And a style she's trying to maintain
Well if she wants to see me
You can tell her that I'm easily found
Tell her there's a spot out 'neath Abram's Bridge
And tell her there's a darkness on the edge of town
Everybody's got a secret Sonny
Something that they just can't face
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it
They carry it with them every step that they take
Till some day they just cut it loose
Cut it loose or let it drag 'em down
Where no one asks any questions
Or looks too long in your face
In the darkness on the edge of town
Some folks are born into a good life
Other folks get it anyway anyhow
I lost my money and I lost my wife
Them things don't seem to matter much to me now
Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
That's why you can find him in places like Abram's Bridge and on that hill with everything he's got. The blood may have never burned in her veins for the racing, but the implication, therefore, is that it did and it still does for him. He lost his money and his wife and yet he still cannot stop. The compulsion, the addiction is simply too strong. Even with nothing left, he's still chasing that one big win and will forever, no matter what happens, no matter how many times he wins or loses in the meantime. That secret that he just can't face? The secret is this: it's all his own damn fault.
I hear the brood come home. Because they've been gone for almost two hours, I have no choice but to go out and make sure nothing horrific has happened to them during that span—even though, yes, Top Management and I have texted several times in the interim.
We chat as I move the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer and I hear of the dire consequences the Golden Weasel suffered due to forgetting The Store Rule ("no running")—a bumped head and much embarrassment and grumpy contrition.
Top Management goes off to get lunch for the ever-starving chicklings and I go back in the office. I shut the door, sit down and actually gasp in astonishment as the present waiting for me on the keyboard, the same kind of present that would sometimes be waiting for me when I got back from class in college.
She loves me. She really loves me. And I have the proof.
(Well...I had the proof.)
It doesn't happen often, but whenever my just-turned-four-year-old does complain about naptime—which starts off, generally, with him lying on a bed, under a quilt, in a quiet room, cuddling with Top Management—I always think the exact same thing, every single time: that, right there, is proof positive that the male of the species has something very, very wrong with it.
So we've got a New Year's Eve tradition in this here household. Since we've lived in SoCal, we've not only let the girls stay up (if they can) until midnight, but the past several years we've picked a classic film to enjoy as we await the countdown. We take stories pretty serious around here; we rarely just channelsurf and let them see something great starting in the middle. So some thought goes into our New Year's Eve selections. These are, generally speaking, movies that they've just become old enough to watch—The Princess Bride was the first, I think, years ago, Raiders of the Lost Ark another, Back to the Future a third, and so on.
Although 2012 is almost certainly the best year I've ever had, the last few weeks have been difficult ones, for various and not terribly-uncommonplace if not terribly pleasant reasons. Some things fell by the wayside, one of which was the careful selection of the New Year's Eve film.
Around about noon I started doing some investigating. Our first three choices were all checked out at the library—as in, the dozen plus copies of each were all checked out from the entire system. Redbox had a few decent choices, but nothing that really felt right, and there was nothing that quite fit the bill on television. We thought about various options when my eye happened upon a boxset Top Management's father had given me a few years earlier.
"Hey..." I said. "What do you think about Monty Python and the Holy Grail?"
Top Management's eyes lit up. We had actually found ourselves watching it just a few months earlier, for the I don't even know how manyth time. Max had already seen it at least once and I think maybe parts of it twice. And yet the idea of cuddling up on the couch with our girls and watching it again was intoxicating.
"But...do you think the Bean's old enough?" she asked.
Although she'll be (kill me now) 12 in just a few weeks and, like most of Top Management's offspring, unusually bright, the Bean is, in many ways, like most of Top Management's offspring, young for her age. And yet in the past year she's been showing signs that her sense of humor is developing in unforeseen ways.
So we gave it a try. Initially intrigued but perplexed by the credits, she and the Rose were laughing by the end of them. Ten minutes in, I look over and I see all four of my oldest girls howling during the Black Knight scene. And I realized I had very rarely been so happy in my entire life, and that ain't a bad way for a year to go out.
So be it.
When our kids were younger, they—like the Dowager Countess—didn't understand the concept of weekends. Both their parents were freelance writers who stayed at home every day, so they didn't get how Saturdays were any different from Fridays. Thus began our family tradition of cartoons on Saturday mornings, along with Saturday morning cereals—the one and only time of the week they get to indulge in Calvin-like Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs and such. Now that the first few kids are older, they tend to sleep a bit (or much, much) later on Saturdays than weekdays, but they still loves them their weekly hit of Looney Tunes-accompanied Froot Loops and Lucky Charms and Crunch Berries and whatnot.
Most weeks over the past year, there comes a point where I look at the kids happily munching tooth-destroying cereal positively jam-packed with not one single naturally-occurring ingredient, staring at ebullient rainbow-colored cartoon ponies on screen, and I drift back to the bedroom. I grab my iPod and my headphones and as I slide between the sheets, the same thought always runs through my mind, unbidden: I have never been this happy before. And then I usually laugh at myself because, of course, that's what I think every week.
And pretty much every week, within ten minutes, this is what my quiet, music-laden oasis looks like.
As Lionel pondered, Why in the world would anybody put bairns on me?
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants kindergartners.
Sad but true. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must always take a backseat to the Second Amendment. Everything must. Even keeping the skulls of 5-year-olds intact.
So the Bean and I are headed home after running errands. We're talking, as people will, and I say something and she, to my shock and horror, responds with a (genuinely funny) sarcastic remark.
"Why?" I ask. "Why would you say such a thing? Why would you hurt my feelings thusly?"
She grins. "Oh, I'm sorry; I didn't know you had feelings."
I scowl. "Please. If I didn't have feelings, I certainly wouldn't keep all you little ragamuffins around. It's not like that's the fiscally prudent decision to have made."
"Well," she says, pursing her lips in thought. "You never know. I might invent something someday that'll earn a million dollars, and then I'll share it with you."
Ignoring the fact that a half million dollars a decade hence won't come remotely close to making things all square financially, I say, "Ah, but how do I know you'd share the money? After all, you'll be under no legal obligation to do so."
She thinks for a moment, then nods. "You're right. That's really more the Rose's style."
Fleeced again. In advance, even.
Just waitin' for the money to roll right in...
So the fireplace is Base, that magical place all children (humans?) instinctively recognize as utter safety, where not even the growling bear that is your father can touch you, no matter how close he might get or how loud he might roar. The toddler has been getting ever closer to me, taunting me, before running, shrieking, back to Base, at which point he always yells, half-defiant, half-terrified, "Base!" As I'm in the process of making a cuppa tea for Top Management, who's still fighting off a nasty cold, I'm not doing much more than headfakes in his direction, or maybe the occasional move of a foot in a hasty manner, but it's enough to keep him on edge.
I finish with the tea and, having delivered it, head back towards the office. I expect him to follow, so around the hallway corner, I duck into the girls' room, the Blue Room, and wait, eyes narrowed, claws out, ready to grab; he'll learn not to mess with the bear.
Only then the bear hears something in the wall behind him. As it's the time of year—when isn't it?—that San Diego's local tree rat population looks for someplace warmer to shelter, this is not an entirely unknown sound, but it's not a terribly common one, and is an entirely unwelcome one.
I turn and see that closet is mostly but not completely closed. And I see something moving in there. Something a bit larger than a tree rat.
A butt appears, covered not in fur but in a pretty print dress with flowers on it. This is followed by a back, covered in a much beloved pink sweater. Soon the Golden Weasel's golden locks come into view, slowly. She backs out of the closet and into the room carefully, holding something a bit too large for her to carry easily. She eases it down onto the floor and I can now see it's her bin of art supplies, recently reorganized for her by her loving mother.
I wait for her to turn and see me. But she doesn't. She's too intent upon her task, digging through the supplies, looking for just the right thing.
I realize that if she turns now, I'm going to scare the living hell out of her, and not in a good way. So I take one last look, then back out of the room myself. Once out in the hall, I peek back in, and she's still kneeling over the supplies, hard at work.
There's nothing quite like observing wild creatures in their native habitat.
And when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you, with googly eyes.
Sure, there are some who will claim there were other reasons, and in a nation as large and varied as ours, that may indeed be so. But the result is the same: she's stuck with me for at least four more years. And for that, I—if not she—thanks you with my whole heart and soul.
So tomorrow's Election Day. Much of the country has already been voting for weeks now, but here in California, there's little early voting, which is no big deal, since lines haven't been long for any of the elections since we've been round these parts.
Of course, a lot of the regular Left of the Dialians—is there any such creature as a regular Left of the Dialian, really?—live in swing states and themselves swing rather heavily to the right, and you know I love each and every one of you like the long-lost annoying little sibling I fortunately never had. And before you go vote, I'd like you to just take a few seconds and look at the following charts.
Even a quick glance tells you that if you're voting on economic reasons, Barack Obama is the only reasonable choice, as Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with former George W. Bush advisors and the very few plans he's admitted to having have all been to commit to returning to Bush's policies. Care about the deficit? Well, cast your mind back to early 2000 and you'll recall we didn't have one. We had a surplus. Until Bush's tax cuts—followed by two unfunded wars and the Medicare Part D giveway to Big Pharma—blew it up and sunk us into an ocean of red ink. It's not the bailouts and it's not TARP: it was Bush's tax cuts for millionaires that screwed us. Those are the same tax cuts Mitt Romney wants to expand—the guy who's hidden his money away in the Caymans and is the first presidential candidate in 44 years not to release his tax returns, something his own father said was shady.
And if you vote for pro-life reasons, as so many of you do, as the father of nearly twenty-nine kids, I'd like to remind you that for almost the first six years of the Bush administration, Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. And they didn't introduce one serious pro-life bill. No personhood amendment, even though they controlled all three branches. In other words, if you're pro-life, there's absolutely no reason to vote Republican, as all they ever do is play you as patsies, giving nothing but sweet talkin' lip service in a battle they clearly have no intention of winning but which exists merely to win elections and enrich lobbyists, and why on earth would you reward that kind of behavior?
Finally, as many of you may know, the first decade of the wondrous new century was not a great one for me, for a variety of reasons. But perhaps the biggest was the funk into which I was cast by the stunning appointment of George W. Bush as president, and then perhaps his reelection in 2004. Things were, I will say for the first time publicly, more than a little difficult at home at times, in no small part, due to the daily horrors I believed were being inflected upon my beloved country. The criminal negligence that led to 9/11 is the most obvious, but the unimaginable incompetence in the way the Iraq War was run, as well as the immoral disregard for Katrina and its victims...well, y'all know the drill.
So I'm just saying that if you love me and/or Top Management and you live in a swing state and you cast a vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, you may as well be voting for us to get divorced. And here's the really bad news: in the split, she gets the kids and the books, and you get me.
So Top Management is having a crisis because she's a writer and that's what creative people do.
No problem. I've been a (theoretically) creative person for 20+ years and, much more important, in addition to being married to a legitimate artist, I've been an editor for much of that time and have dealt with creative people and I get it. I know how these things go. I know that it's not unusual for even the most creative of creative people to hit a wall, for whatever reason, and worry that they've lost it, that this isn't working out, that they're never going to be able to do anything worthwhile again, that that's it, it's all over. Usually, a little talk gets them off the ledge and a (generally very productive) day later, it's as though it never happened and I mean that: often I think that just a day later they literally don't recall feeling so deathly despondent no more than one day earlier.
So Top Management and I talk but it's the witching hour, as she used to call it. It's the evening, and the kitchen needs to be cleaned, the dinner dishes done, homework overseen, hair washed, laundry folded and put away, kids slammed into bed, the whole shebang. So I listen for ten minutes but then I just, I have to go, I really do, but I promise to come back in just a bit and angst with her some more.
Fifteen minutes later I walk in, things semi-taken care of, temporarily. "I'm ready to be understanding!" I announce heroically.
She slowly and silently looks up at me as though I've got three heads, one of which is speaking Mandarin, another Swahili and the third vomiting blood. "What's wrong?" I asked, actually worried for the first time.
She just keeps staring for a few more very long seconds. "I'm writing," she finally manages to mutter, after painfully switching from the right hemisphere to the left in order to be able to process and answer my question.
All righty then.
Man, I'm good.
So the other night I tell the 3-year-old to go pee, which he knows means he's about to get ready for bed, a prospect which pleases him not at all.
"Newmit," he grumbles. Then, pleased with it, he mutters it again several more times, sending his three oldest sisters and his mother into near hysterics.
"Newmit," of course, being a combination of "Newman," my most common expletive, and "dammit," the runner up.
Now it's Top Management's most favorite curse word. Newmit.
My wallet's falling apart. My wallet seems to always be falling apart, even though Top Management is wonderful about getting me a new wallet every seven or eight years, whether I need one or not. Within a few months, it seems like the new one's in only slightly better shape than the old one. I don't know why it happens, really; it's certainly not like my wallet gets used much.
Trying and failing to find my library card earlier today—although, inexplicably, I noticed I still have my Virginia library card, which expired five years ago—I stopped and looked at the only thing in my wallet I really love.
It was Easter Sunday 1997. We were in the hospital; our oldest, Max, had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia eight days earlier. We didn't know it then, but we'd be in the hospital with her for most of the next nine months.
Two of my brothers, the ones who lived within four hours of us, had left their families before dawn to come spend Easter with us—this despite the fact they'd done the same thing one week earlier...and that despite the fact that I'd initially told them not to come. Knowing me better than I knew myself, they ignored me and had left before dawn to spend as much time with us in the ICU as they could.
A week later, we were out of the pediatric intensive care and in a regular room on the pediatric oncology floor. The staff had tried hard to make Easter as enjoyable as possible for their Christian patients—a large percentage of the patients, maybe even a majority, were Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, giving the playroom an amazingly New York melting pot feel—and holding an Easter egg hunt for nauseated little bald kids hooked up to IVs with pretty limited portability is no mean feat.
My brothers arrived bearing far too many gifts and gave Max far more laughs in a few hours than she'd had in a week; Max was always an unusually serious baby, and almost the only uncontrollable bellylaughs we'd ever seen her have were courtesy her beloved uncles.
Back then Max wouldn't even try candy, but she was happy to sort Skittles by color for hours, and her parents were more than happy to be the ones eating the Reese's eggs for her.
The hospital kitchen was open, of course, and brought a tray up but there was little to nothing on it Max was interested in, and that went double for the rest of us. So we ordered in from the only restaurant open on Easter: a Chinese restaurant, of course.
It was fantastic. Max was happy, the food was tasty, and for a few minutes the terror went away, at least a little.
The nurse came in to change Max's IV. Noticing the unopened fortune cookies, she said, "Aren't you going to read your fortune?"
"Oh, no," I said seriously. "I had a fortune cookie the night before Max was diagnosed and now she has cancer. I'm not doing that again."
The nurse's eyes got very wide before Top Management hit me and explained to her that I had an odd sense of humor.
After she left, Top Management and my brothers and I had our cookies, reading our fortunes aloud. They were the usual pleasant platitudes, common sense advice.
"Aren't you going to open Max's?" my brother asked, looking at the last cookie left on the bed.
I shrugged. Max didn't eat cookies, so I didn't see the point.
"All right," he said, grabbing the cookie. "I'll do it. Here you go, buddy, this one's yours."
He broke the cookie in half and took out the slip of paper. He started to read it out loud, then stopped. He handed it to the other brother, who looked at it and said, "Oh my God."
They handed it to me.
I'm not a superstitious guy, in general. But other than taking it out today to scan it, I've had it in my wallet every second since.
It's now permanently stuck to the photo we took of Max a few weeks later, also always in my wallet. The photo was taken right before we cut off her ponytail, as her hair was falling out. Behind her you can sorta see, if you know what one looks like, the blue IV pump that she spent much of the next year hooked up to, as well as the bedrail that had to always be up, as she was considered too young to be allowed to sit on a bed without rails. On her neck is the bandage she got the first night in the hospital, when they stuck a tube in what I think was her carotid.
When we first read that fortune, we were still weeks away from learning that Max hadn't actually been handed the death sentence we'd thought, still weeks away from being told by the head of oncology that it was possible for her to be cured, and not just have her life extended by a few more years.
In an hour I'm heading to the airport to pick Max up; she spent the summer about 1200 miles away, in Austin, at an intership at a software design firm. In my pocket as I drive will, of course, be my wallet. And in my wallet will, of course, be that fortune she got so long ago, fifteen years now, back when an extra five years seemed wildly optimistic. Do I think the fortune had anything to do with it? I do not. But I am also never, ever letting it go.
The wiimote dies. The Boy requests help. Naturally, I call for one of my seven thousand daughters to do it because Allah forbid I go to the trouble of finding new batteries and taking the cover off and replacing the old ones and so on.
The Bean comes right away and cheerfully hooks her brother back up.
She picks up the book she'd been holding and I see that she was about halfway through the last chapter. "Oh, jeez, kiddo, I'm sorry," I say, and for once I mean it. Getting interrupted when you're 97% of the way done with a book isn't cool.
"No problem," she says, and as usual she sounds like she means it.
I shake my head. "Oh, Bean. You are just too impossibly wonderful. We don't deserve you."
I stop and think. "You're a con man, aren't you?" I ask, coming to the only logical conclusion. "A grifter. You're working the long con, right? You're planning on taking us for every penny we're worth? Which, obviously, isn't much, but that's your scheme, isn't it?"
"Well," she replies. "First of all, I just like to make people happy. Secondly, I don't like when people are mad at me. And third, you're my dad."
She picks up her book and heads off for her room to finish reading. I shake my head in wonder.
An hour later, I realize she never actually answered the question.
Caught in the process of artfully luring more unsuspecting marks.