Friday, November 30, 2007

Hath November

I can't believe it! Only one more day of NaBloPoMo! Nearly there! I'll be in Baltimore tomorrow, of course, so I'll have puh-lenty to write about, although no time and no computer. But failure? Not an option. So I'll have to get up at 3am and break into a computer store to get that last post in, but by all that's holy I WILL post on November 31st, SO HELP ME.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

I Got Nothin', and Baltimore Calls

You know when you'll just be sitting at home and the phone rings and it's Baltimore? And the caller ID says "Baltimore" but you don't think it's actually Baltimore, the city of Baltimore, you think it's someone FROM Baltimore, so you pick it up, and but no, it's Baltimore, the city, founded in 1729 and second only to Lincoln, Nebraska in its ability to talk your ear off?

"Hello, BALtimore," you say, resignedly. Pretty soon you're hearing about how much better the cod trade used to be, and things of that nature, and a detailed description of how pretty Fell's Point is going to be once it's finished getting spiffed up, and how there are still cobblestone streets if you know where to look, and the crabs are still as good as ever.

And Baltimore talks your ear off, and your ear falls to the floor and you suddenly find yourself agreeing to visit Baltimore "real soon," but then Baltimore gets you somehow to commit to driving down there this weekend.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Multiplex Parkway

It's that time of year -- commuting home in the dark, when the Movies start playing. Most SUVs and minivans seem to have televisions these days, and driving along beside one, it's hard to tell whether the driver or a backseat passenger is the audience. In fact, it's hard to see that there's anything in those cars at all, living. Just the blue ghost near the ceiling, vague forms drifting across it, silent, a square of illness in the quiet dark of the highway.

Unfortunately humans are programmed to look at points of light in the dark, and I find that invariably my foot strays from the gas as I pull up to pass one of these large dark shapes with its sweet sweet teevee center. What are they watching? I wonder. And I ease my little car a tad closer, craning my neck. Is that I Love Lucy? And then I slowly sidle over to the passenger seat and pop the door, then step out. I'm sure I can see what's playing if I can just get a little closer.

Then, I die.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Christmas Part XXXVIII: The Encheapening

Hi everyone! You're all going to get Christmas presents from us this year! But we're going to spend VERY MODESTLY. (Read: some of you might get HAPPY THOUGHTS directed your way! Merry merry!)

That circumstance is a result of one of those empty bank account situations that happen once or twice a year. Could it have anything to do with us buying a MODESTLY PRICED but still BRAND-NEW car? Why, yes, yes it could. Could it have something to do with rapidly up-spiraling health care costs and a new health plan, a hospitalization and some new prescriptions? Sure it could. How about the money we had to front to the plumber for the first of several repairs related to a leak? Yessssss. Anything else? Gas $3.24 a gallon and a combined daily commute of about 136 miles? Toss that in the hopper. How about a little oil heat? Why not?

We keep looking for evidence of our profligacy, but it's nowhere to be found. After moving upstate, my wife sold the caviar hose, the truffle flinger, and all but one of our diamond-encrusted hookers. We took back the shoe dispenser and the Armani tissues and the complete set of life-sized farm animals executed in Amedei Porcelana chocolate. Gone are the vintage solid gold nosepickers that once belonged to a notorious governor of Oklahoma, not to mention a Jeff Koons heart sculpture AND Jeff Koons's actual heart (sold it to a medical school in Grenada just to cover a heating oil delivery).

So, yeah, cheap holidays this year. It's just that, even recouping the funds from the loot acquired during our New York years, there's occasionally this HOLE just over the horizon. Sometimes it allows us a look inside. It's so big, and so deep—if we could figure out a way to sell it by the cubic yard, we'd be rich.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Jiggety Jig

My earliest semi-adult trips away from home without my folks were two-night overnight camping trips in scouts. I have very specific memories of riding back into town in some other kid's dad's car and seeing the movie theater and the Amoco station and wondering how they could possibly still look the same, after I'd been away.

Driving back into that same town after a couple of months away this past weekend, it's flipped: I feel exactly the same, and the Amoco station is a KFC and the theater is a row of doctors' and accountants' offices. And I stick around for a couple of days, then leave town, and see that the bookstore is a dance studio and the Gap is a toy store. How does a farm become a Gap and then become a toy store all within my own memory?

I'd like to report that driving back into THIS town after the weekend away I couldn't believe everything had remained the same, except that while we were gone someone opened a sushi place and they hung a help wanted sign on the new burger joint and all the rest of the leaves fell and the whole place is covered in yellow maple and rainwater, and sometimes the new town, more than a year old, still doesn't quite feel like home.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Beaver Moon

Driving home this evening, we saw a ripe ol' grapefruit rise over an entrance ramp, above the motel, next to the water tower.

I'm sufficiently tired that I have nothing to add to that.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Same As It Ever Was

The nostalgia of place is in full force this weekend. I'm sixteen again, and twenty-two, minus the weight, reading the same comic books and hanging out at the same local pub with the same friend. My family goes up to Sagamore Hill on Saturday morning, stopping at the Jericho Cider Mill on the way up (the same old large-scale print is on the wall behind the counter—a vaguely feral-looking boy with a devlish look, cheek full of apple, slick of juice around his mouth, exposed white flesh in the red globe in his hand—but the old down-home customer service is non-existent), and the house is there as I remember amid its fields and outbuildings.

When I was a kid we had our totemic places at Sagamore Hill—the Pond, the Windmill, the Cannon Into Which You Could Pour Gravel. They're there today (well, not the cannon), as are the memory-worn objets inside the house. Old tired animal carcasses and parts thereof, looking if possible more resigned and bored with the passing time. A rhino's foot, ignominious as an inkwell. A chair made out of horns that I remember being more intricate, or bigger, somehow, when I was young.

But I'd wanted the Lad to come, because this was The Place. It had hooked us, all of us, from Mom on down. First, it was a rich person's house we were allowed into. Second, ANIMALS, as if I need to tell you. Third, presidents were still just barely important then, before their currency became devalued. And it had nice lawns. In returning I expected a certain erosion of awe, but like any good parent I wanted to also relive the wonder of my youth by forcing my kid to experience it.

Somehow, it worked. I guess you get a kid up close to those beech trees, like monuments to trees made from stone and gold, carved with dates that go visibly back to the mid-70s and whose earlier markings have blurred through the tree's slow healing, and something primal takes over. Not that he was reluctant to go, but I didn't want acceptance, I wanted him to acknowledge magic. And watching him clamber through the intricate multiple trunks of that ancient monster I, at least, felt its presence.

We ran around the tree a lot, and in the house we saw tusks and dead bison and beach-ball-sized bear heads openmouthed at the ends of their furred skins. We viewed the Victorian technology of the kitchen and the baths, trod on the old carpets under glass eyes in dim light. And then we ran again, outside, through drifts of leaves covering gem-green grass on broad sweeping lawns.

The night before, we'd taken out the Tapes, the Classic from 1971 ("Billy, stay away from the crib"), plus its sequel from New Year's Day 1976 ("this is Nancy Dickerson reporting.") I'm on there, both a year and a half younger and two years older than this kid. My piercing screams on the earlier recording and my husky trying-to-sound-older voice on the later one are brackets to his current perfection; his new memories of placing feet upon that smooth treebark, of looking up the Cape Buffalo's nose, are both outside and inside of my own memory.

On that later tape, my youngest sister takes on the reporting role of Nancy Dickerson, veteran journalist and interviewer of family members. When she's not doing that ("I think our audience would like to know, do you live in a house or in an apartment?") she's desperately clutching the microphone to herself while whining "I don't want to!" as we exhort her to speak. Well she's in for it now, herself, coming home to tell us that she's expecting. We all have tape recorders.

Speaking of nostalgia both real and imagined, and tape recordings, what better Saturday to such a weekend than attending a taping of A Prairie Home Companion? If there's a nostalgia gland and it hasn't already exploded from the red light filtering into my parents' library through the leaves of the Japanese maple just outside, A Prairie Home Companion ought to finish it off.

I'll let you know.

UPDATE: After the show we went to the old Greek place, said hello to the same waiter, then stopped at her old apartment stoop, where she pulled me in for another first kiss, as it was twelve years ago. Nostalgia satisfied.

Friday, November 23, 2007

There is no excuse for this

Look, I don't care if my fortune doesn't promise me riches, or predict some other incredible future. That's fine. I'm not a fortune hog. But what the hell is this? A little effort please, and a modicum of sense. If I go to the trouble to break open the cookie, at least give me something to go on.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Once a year

“It’s only once a year,” we say as we tuck in following a moment of poorly feigned reluctance. And it’s true: for those controlling their weight, as for everyone else, the obscene feast that is modern Thanksgiving happens only once annually. Once annually. So why not?

Other once-annual feast days you might observe:

    New Year’s Day
    Your bonus arrives
    Valentine’s Day
    St. Patrick’s Day
    Your significant other’s birthday
    Your best friend’s birthday
    Your birthday
    Your particular once-a-year feast day…with “the guys” or a sibling, your sorority, etc.
    Memorial Day
    Your anniversary
    Your kid’s birthday
    July 4th
    The weekend after July 4th
    Labor Day
    Ball game!
    The harvest
    Your sibling’s birthday
    Rosh Hashanah
    After the play
    Company Christmas party
    Holiday party
    Christmas Eve
    Christmas Day
    New Year’s Eve

I don’t know about you, but I’m going out for a run. I’ve got some once-a-year chowing down to do later.

To all of you, a healthy Thanksgiving, and my gratitude.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thank a Veteran

Sometimes I forget to just sit down and type when it’s time to start writing. And one of the stories that always recurs to me when I get blocked is the story of the guy who wanted to write something – I don’t know where I heard this story…maybe AP English? best class I ever took -- and he just sat down and started writing and maundered along until he got into a pretty heavy reminiscence about his war buddies and what happened to them all. Perhaps he had left the tent and the tent got blown up? Maybe I’m conflating that with another story.

In any case, I aspire to be funny, and when I get a little jammed and have trouble putting something together, and that story occurs to me, I always end up wishing that I’d instead heard a story about some guy who had writer’s block and decided to tie banana peels to his shoes and run in traffic. Because that’s comedy.

But, no, I’m laboring along here under the weight of a veteran who wanted to work out some issues and sat down to write, maybe he was smoking at the time (although I think he wasn’t having a drink because that would undermine the whole enterprise), and his mind wandered over his past until it fetched up against the Biggest Thing hiding in there, and that flowed out of the pen.

And one of my Biggest Things is the story of the time my friends and I flushed the Klan and regretted it. It was perhaps the one time when as an adult I truly felt most afraid for my life, although as I remember it, some part of me did not believe for a second that I was going to be killed or hurt. Instead, the Klansman with whom we actually spoke was kind enough to tow (well, more like yank) my car from a ditch where I had stranded it, and told us to get the hell out of there, which we did.

This was some years back, and the man took down my license plate number and since he was a volunteer fireman (I happened to know this) I assumed that he had buddies in the police services and that this particular chapter knows (or knew) who I am. So I mostly kept quiet about it, only passing the information on to a couple of trusted people and nothing seemed to come of it. I can only hope that those rednecks waited in fear–they were meeting illegally on land upon which I was trespassing, but which belonged to none of us–for the next several years for the hammer to come down, just as I did, the bastards.

So okay, that mostly-forgotten veteran has done it again, drawn out a reminiscence from an unforseen direction. There are more details, of course, and the symbolocogical elements of the story go deeper--loss of innocence, the town/country divide, even Homer's Odyssey (we were on our way to Ithaca)--but those don't figure into this essay. Someday maybe I'll write it up proper. But today, the exercise is enough.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Is He Still Writing About Bears?

So the other night my friend Jane* was sitting at home in the kitchen about ten miles from here enjoying a small dinner, when she heard a Noise at the window a couple of feet away and, looking out, spotted a triangular tan shape floating in the dark. The shape, she immediately knew, was the snout of a bear going after the bird feeder attached to the windowsill.

"I was basically a fish in a bowl," she said, so she reached over and turned off the light, which allowed her to see the bear finish ripping the feeder violently off the windowsill (just a few feet away) and wander off toward the garage, suet in hand.

So she's telling us this on a Sunday night. And frankly, Sundays, who the hell needs it? Because I'm not sleeping on a Sunday anyway, let's be frank, because of all the imaginary bears and thieves and bigfoots prowling around outside, not to mention REAL ones. And Jane*'s going to be fine, because she's from Minnesota** and they used to coax bears into the house in winter for warmth.

Can we be frank? Sundays are the worst.

*Real name, but doesn't it sound generic?
**Wisconsin's name changed to preserve anonymity

Monday, November 19, 2007

Just in case

There's snow on my windshield this morning, so I thought I'd post early in case I get home late and am too beat. And because I had to dash out and get a turkey cutlet for the lad's school project (don't ask -- we also had to get monkey blood), I can only do this, from when we planted trees:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What Lies Beneath

That's right, NaBloPoMo, BRING IT ON. I'm posting TWICE today. The real reason? After waiting five years to write something about the Bigfoot Conference, I thought it was so lame and short that I'm giving you, my readers, a little lagniappe to make up for it.

And by a little, I mean very little. Don't get your hopes up.

Anyway, as I do most weekends, what with one thing or another, I spent some time on my belly under the house yesterday, poking around, taking pictures of mold, pulling out some wet insulation. Call it a hobby. In any case, as I tugged a sheet of insulation, a little acorn fell out and rolled onto the floor. An enterprising mouse had clearly put it aside for winter. Awwww.

Then I rolled the insulation over and became a cartoon as an avalanche of acorns rained down on my head, scattering everywhere.

Cute x 100!

On the Non-Existence of Bigfoot, Part II

Previously, on Exurbitude.

So we stayed at the hotel about 100 yards from the fairground where the conference was taking place. This was in a cinderblock building with a corrugated roof and an eight-foot plywood sasquatch cutout standing out front. Inside was a stew of hokum, bunkum, nonsense, and, most disturbingly, a cadre of true believers. I went in armed only with a modicum of critical thinking and came out convinced that Bigfoot is just a story. Don't get me wrong: stories are very important. And also don't get me wrong, the world is still magical. But Bigfoot? Nope.

As the first day of the conference wore on, it became very easy to tell those who believed in Bigfoot from those who did not. Those who believed in Bigfoot never claimed to have seen one. Those who did not believe in Bigfoot told carefully crafted and polished stories of their encounters. These latter seemed to pay a lot of attention to their own physical appearance. There is a lot of politics in Bigfoot, too.

So I had a long interview with John Bindernagle, a true believer whose book on the topic approaches it quite logically. But I didn't chat with a guy whose story included tears and ended with a political discussion about how his sighting had not been deemed credible by the Western Bigfoot Society (which is, paradoxically, the parent organization to the International Bigfoot Society), so he started the Southern Oregon Bigfoot Society or something like it. When someone else delivered an impassioned speech about how Bigfooot is an early human prototype invented by the aliens who eventually created the Sumerians, it was time to go sample some of Portland's night life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

On the Non-Existence of Bigfoot, Part I

I've wanted to write about this since 2002, but haven't gotten around to it. In that year, on Mother's Day weekend -- the last Mother's Day when my wife wasn't technically a Mother, and I could in mixed conscience go on a road trip -- two friends and I flew out to Portland, Oregon for the Western Bigfoot Society's annual conference.

Let's just say I had to settle something in my mind before I was responsible for raising kids. Does Bigfoot exist?

For the first sixteen years of my life, I was pretty sure it did. Next decade it was more of a tossup. To age thirty-three I was tempted to give it a little credence. After all, from native tradition, to tracks, to hair samples, to purported sightings, to spurious but famous filmic evidence, people have been claiming that Bigfoot is real for hundreds of years. It seemed there had to be SOME possibility.

This was important to me as a parent-to-be. Before I got started, I wanted to establish for myself what kind of world we live in, so that as a parent I would give the kid the appropriate contextual feel. Was it a magical world, which would allow for a giant north american forest ape that had so far eluded capture or conclusive evidence of existence? Or is the world mostly the no less wondrous one we see around us...the one where an unseen brush-crunching shadow in the woods is a bear, and where a snapped tree is the result of a nearby deadfall?

I used to believe that Bigfoot exemplified the old adage that you can't prove that something doesn't exist.

Until I met the people who were making the claims.

Part II tomorrow. In the meantime, Bob Ross.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Harbingers of Doom Nothing

Look. You know and I know that a couple dozen vultures hanging out in a tree not far from your house means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. So why are you looking at me like that? Come on in! We'll have tea!

Where are you going?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The NaBloPoMoDo Ldrums

You can tell fatigue is setting in. But that's okay, because it's NaBloPoMoHumpDay. Buck up, bloggers! Buck up, faithful readers! You only have to endure two more weeks of mindless chatter! Dripping water! Snakes gone wild! Dead moles! Posts about blogging! Links! And one of those days is Thanksgiving!

In the meantime, can we talk about my commute? I was idling along in stop and go traffic the other day, not very much liking the newest BTIOTCD (A Thousand Dazzling Suns or something, by that dude), the radio not doing it for me, my cell-phone people all asleep, and just driving completely out of the question.

So I had to go allll the way back to the middle ages. I immediately fell into a trance, imagining that I was a humble peddler on line to ply my wares in Londontowne, waiting amidst the gray drizzle with a bunch of toothless middle-aged Britons, the entire line and all its attendant chickens (funny how there're always those chickens walking around in depictions of the middle you had to have one around or it was all "Ho there, sirrah, thine fowl be not in evidence! Produceth thine chicken forthwith or to the donjon with you!") lurching forward every few minutes as the pike-totin' gate guards grudgingly let a few more of the flea-ridden throng pass through the gap in the ancient Roman wall surrounding the City. Minstrels play, scabby urchins dash up and down the line begging for scraps of food or the odd farthing, spontaneous lusty brawls break out over one's place in line, tonsured monks sullenly sneak beer from their longnecks while massive hay wagons trundle forward, drawn by fly-swarmed oxen.

Ahh, damn, I blew it with longnecks, didn't I? Anyway, we haven't come that far, is my point.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Baseboards and labor: $1500.00
Nails: $1.60
Two small nails in copper radiator pipe: $0
Replacing new floors, one wall, insulation, removing mold, reinstalling radiator and baseboard: Priceless

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Book that is on the CD

Someone invited me to join, so I did. Judging by the name, you're not supposed to talk about books you didn't like. In any case, I gave up reading for blogging, but during my commute I've begun listening to books on CD(s). So far, The Abstinence Teacher and Pattern Recognition. Both good. I've got the new one from that Kite Whisperer guy cued up, and something else I forget. The trick is, get a librarian to marry you -- FREE BOOKS (for, you know, a week).

So that the books that are on the CD(s) don't get stale, and to reclaim some of that creative time I lost when I switched from training to driving, I think I'm going to bring a voice recorder for blog entries. I'll spare you my dramatic readings, though, and transcribe myself.

Is there a NaBloPoMo award for most boringest post?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Permeability of the No-TV Rule

We don't watch TV* here.

*That's what I tell everyone. In reality, we watch far less TV than the average folks, but I'm still surprised at how often the TV is on. Much of what we do watch is on DVD, after the fact. Take, for instance, Heroes. We're watching the first season now.

Now I know a lot of you bloggers write about the shows that the kids are watching today -- that America's Next Top Runway, and the Lost Restaurant, and the Real Estate Magnate's Apprentice (where the guy keeps chopping up the loft spaces into condos and they keep multiplying and supply seems to outpace demand...shudder). But it can't hold a candle to the simple pleasures of interacting with your family, enjoying a wholesome meal in one another's company, performing the day's mundane but meaningful tasks, reading a story, playing patty-cake. Am I right? I mean, I'm not sure, because I'm usually plugged in to the Internet, checking the sitemeter stats, but from what I hear, TV rots your brain.

Anyway, what's my point? Heroes is pretty cool so far. And I'm really starting to develop some respect for that lovable scamp Caillou.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Now THAT's a Sunday!

It's during the yard work that we spot the water dripping down the outside of the foundation. I get out the ladder and clean all the gutters, then head down into the crawlspace under the parlor (that sounds pretentious, but "parlor/laundry room" sounds stupid) -- a place I've never actually ventured before.

It's clean and concrete-floored and the floor joists above are insulated -- this is the new part of the cellar. However, since it's at least partly below ground, I'd donned my spelunking gear: a backwards baseball cap (underground is the only acceptable locale for that particular fashion statement), safety goggles, dust mask, paint pants, work gloves, boots. You know, in case I come across a spider.

I crawl like a worm over to the corner, where sure enough there's some water dripping down the inside of the foundation. The insulation above seems pendulous, and ripples ominously when I poke it. My wife brings down a bucket and heaves it to me. I cut a hole in the insulation and let it drain. It drains. And drains. I run out to the store, have dinner, build a car from a kit, paint the Sistine Chapel, come back. It's still draining.

Using my homeowner's skilz, I deduce that there is some water up in there. It's apparently leaked down either 1) the inside of the walls or 2) the outside of the walls. If there's a third option -- perhaps the walls were actually made of water and they're melting? maybe the Borrowers left the tub running? -- I don't know what it is.

Worse, I don't know what the source of the water is, even after cutting away the insulation. I rule out the washing machine, because it's not wet anywhere near it and the water would be on top of the floor, which it's not. It's either a leaking radiator pipe or my first thought -- that the gutters had overflowed. I can't satisfactorily select either, which makes me seize up...which expert to call?

So I'm just lying there on the floor of the crawl space, nice and cool, listening to the burble of the water trickling into my bucket, remembering Richard Carlson and wondering what the hell I've done with that god damned book, when my wife sticks her head back in and asks "what's the story with the dead mouse?"

"Which one's that?" I moan, thinking about just what a Sunday conversation this is going to be.

"The one in the dining room. Did you kill it?"

"What are you asking me? Does it have a story?"

"It's under your shoe."


"Your shoe. The ones you were wearing this morning."

"To the diner?" we both say. "Yes," she answers us.

"Is it, like, guts and everything?"

"I don't know," she says. "It's sorta squished. You must have stepped on it..."

She's of the opinion that the mouse is my job -- not because she's squeamish (not about mice, anyway), but because I'd apparently been the stepper. Reluctantly, I leave the pleasant woodland sound of the water filling my bucket, crawl forth from my little sanctuary under the parlor/laundry room and hoist my chemical-resistant corpus upstairs.

It's dead, but it's not a mouse. It's a mole. Possibly the unluckiest mole that ever lived. He must have popped himself outside -- "Back in a sec, hon, just gonna grab a worm...need anything?" and got trod upon, then sorta got stuck in the arch of my Skecher. Fortunately protected from any animal contact by my nature-proof clothing, I pick it up and bring it outside. Some crows are loitering in the backyard. I toss it to them and go back in to consult smarter homeowners than me about the water.

Ahh, Sunday, you never fail to deliver. Still, I'd rather be the human with the unwanted damp crawlspace than the mole who'll never go back to his.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cult-Like Programs I've Embraced, Part V: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and It's All Small Stuff)

In my old office I had a corner filled with black and white pictures of Men of Character. Arranged so that my head was positioned in the center of the group, when viewed from the door, were portraits of Hunter Thompson, Johnny Cash, Allen Ginsberg, my kid, and a tiny shot of a guy with a Big Toothy Grin and a slightly too-intense, almost forced, look of sheer ecstasy on his face. That last was Richard Carlson, author of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and It's All Small Stuff).

And here we go, go ahead, roll your eyes -- beliiieeeeeeve me, you're not rolling your eyes any more than I did when I walked into the downstairs part of Shakespeare & Co. back in '02-'03(?), followed the alphabet to the right shelf, thumbed past all the ultra-specialized Don't Sweat volumes, and settled on the classic. My own eyes had rolled so far up into my head that scoff-atometers a block away in the Derision Lab at Hunter College began sneering and saying "Puh-leeeze" and they weren't even turned on.

Weighing down one shoulder, as I walked to the cash register with that slim, brown, vaguely victorian-looking volume, were Stewart Smalley, Oprah Winfrey, someone saying "You go, girl!" and lots of kitty-cats and doilies. On the other shoulder was a feral wolverine of anxiety staring at my Adam's apple and licking its chops.

I decided to go with the Emo geeks on the other shoulder, and paid for the book.

My self-help reading is not that extensive. And I've never bought one of those for-dummies books. (Aside: I heard a funny George Carlin joke the other day on the radio. To paraphrase: "How come people buy self-help books, but they're written by someone else? That's not self-help. That's help.") But I was in the midst of a confluence of existential crises and I wanted a list of things to do that would make me feel better. If this was delivered in a somewhat smarmy, tooth-achingly earnest style, with lots of exclamation points punctuating dozens of little revelations, all the better.

Whew, I thought on the subway later. Just what I was hoping for! I read the thing deliberately over the next week.

Here's the power of Don't Sweat. You're every day running full-tilt into some particular problem, feeling, situation, or cycle. Over and over. There's no way out of it. It's driving you to [insert addictive behavior here]. I mean, dude, you're freaking out. So you pick up this book, and you flip through looking for the part that says "Here's how to stop having your particular problem," but there is no such chapter. It doesn't do that. Nor is it all vague like "Dude? Why'nt you just relax?" Instead Dr. Carlson lays out a series of 100 exercises, some physical, some mental, some procedural (for lack of a better term) that don't have anything to do with your problem. Shit! you think. Wrong book! But you've bought it, so you read it, and you find one of the little techniques that will inconvenience you the least, and you try it.

And then next day you're walking to work from the subway and you're overcome with the usual rage and remembering some event from junior high and nothing has changed. So that afternoon at lunch you read some more and you find another technique that sounds doable and has nothing to do with your problem and that night you try that one. And so on. One day you realize you haven't thought about that particular problem in a couple of days. Even though you've been in the same situation, with the same people, facing the same challenges, and your junior high past hasn't changed either. Somehow the edge -- the anxiety-producing, rage-building, time-consuming, goal-diverting edge -- has been dulled.

It worked for me. I needed a way to attack my problems laterally, because years of smashing face-on into stuff had proven counterproductive. As with any of the cult-like programs I've embraced, feeling better by reading this book required a certain drinking of a certain amount of Kool-Aid. It required believing that such a book could help, which belief in turn led to a certain commitment to practicing Dr. Carlson's recommendations, which do, in fact, work.

And a year or two later, that's why his face ended up on my wall. When he died unexpectedly -- young, from a heart attack, on a plane from San Francisco to New York -- it was a little confusing. Because of his age (45) and his apparent calm. The obvious gag -- that maybe he died from the ironic buildup of pent-up steam -- had no allure for me. I can only assume that he felt like a success when it was his time to go. And even if, as my cynicism sometimes suggests, he was a marketing genius first and a quasi-buddhist do-gooder second, at least his marketing efforts went toward something useful. RIP, Richard Carlson.

That ended heavy. Tomorrow, yardwork!

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Internet Tells Me It's Patellar Tendinitis

My knee aches. You know how I often write about the many hills to be run in this area? How steep they are? How many ups we do on a weekend morning? Well, they all go back down eventually, and that can be hell on one's knees. Couple that with races on two consecutive weekends and a little more mileage than usual, and you can develop tenderness and a little inflammation of the patellar tendon, which connects the kneecap to the, umm, fribula. The one in front there. The shin, yeah.

It only hurts when I keep it bent for a long time -- for instance, during an hour-long drive or sitting at a desk for eight hours. Fortunately I only do each of those things once a day (well, twice, the driving). For my lay readers, I have prepared a diagram that will illustrate the condition.

Don't be alarmed: this is a fairly common syndrome and I expect a full recovery. Although your concern is appreciated. (PS: I'm still running, because it only hurts after.)

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Reading This? Thank Blame a Librarian.

It might be that I don't know enough about the history and philosophy of libraries to hold forth on the topic, but I do know a committed, civic-minded, performance-driven librarian whose budget just passed yesterday, and who does a lot of personal good for the town where she works. And while I mostly didn't like the crotchety old ladies who ran MY library growing up, you'd've had to pry me out of there with a, like, a Twinkie or something if you wanted me to stop reading or shuffling my feet along the carpet and then touching the abstract bronze to get a shock. If I'd had a librarian who resembled this one, I might've been a lot better-read and a lot thinner (because, I guess the joke here is that someone was always prying me out of the library with Twinkies, I don't know).

So also there's Nancy she a phenomenon of Seattle, or does she make Seattle? Does it matter? Could I make a more obvious and done-to-death librarian-outsider reference? Anyway, from what I hear about the ALA conferences, Ms. Pearl comes out on stage through a burst of dry-ice smoke in a rhinestone-covered suit wearing a giant pair of cat's-eye glasses and the hall goes freaking nuts, and there's a reason for that and it's books.

But not just books. Most librarians have something a little off about them -- and I know how many of you there are out there, and that one or more of you might be reading this, and I want to be on record that "a little off" is JUST FINE WITH ME, but really, admit it -- and it's that slight touch of the mystic, a little witch-doctorishness that comes with knowing how to know...and I suspect that people either respect that or fear it.

And that fear might be the only reason that every library budget in the country doesn't pass with flying colors, the only reason that governments aren't building ever bigger, better public libraries, with huge windows and quiet rooms, auditoriums and exceptional collections, brand-new best-sellers gleaming in their ranks, tried and true classics lovingly stored alphabetically, the runic Dewey Decimal system ranging far and wide over human inquiry, placing all thought on an equal footing. Fear because knowledge is scary. You know why? I have to go back to Spidey, here, but with great power comes great responsibility. Once you know something -- say, about Darfur, global warming, evolution, the Tuskeegee study or where your own sewage goes when you flush, you can't un-know it. And even if you don't do something -- change your behavior, donate to a cause, enlist, quit your job, stop flushing so much -- you feel that nagging sense that you should be doing something. That nagging is discomforting. We like comfort. And that's why libraries inspire fear.

I guess they should. But in the meantime, you can also use them to escape, and that's just as important. So go ye forth, and get ye to your local public library, and kiss the industrial carpet, shake hands with the reference librarian, scream "thank you!" as loud as they'll let you (hint: not very) and take out a book. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Raccoon Informs Me That It's Time to Write About Compost (with Curses!)

Each morning this week I've come out to find the compost bin open and unidentified compost missing. The raccoons, with their nimble fingers, can slide back the admittedly easy catch on the lid and then flip it off. (In fact, writing this at 9:45pm, I think I hear someone knocking around out there right now. Fucker.) Of course, the sliding catch is intended more as a defense against a strong breeze or random chance, as opposed to a determined omnivore who smells the delicious aroma of coffee grounds atop macaroni and cheese.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about; let's just leave the raccoons to their mischief, shall we? They're welcome to their little bit of rotting vegetation, if that's what it takes to keep them from breaking into the car and stealing the current book on CD. The little scamps. No, I'm here to talk about the joy of composting. Did I say joy? I meant joys.

The main thing is that between recycling (plastic, paper, glass, metal), the cloth diapers, the cloth dinner napkins, and the composted food scraps, we have to SEARCH THE HOUSE to find things to throw in the regular garbage. Actually, that's not true: food packaging, paper towels/tissues, and cat shit will do nicely, thanks. But that's really about it. And as primary garbage-taker-outer, I have to say that it's an improvement over the old forklift and manual labor process. The sanitation guys seem to be happier, too -- they've stopped pelting our car with leftovers, anyway.

Second, though, all that rich foody goodness, plus some leaves and grass clippings, decays into the most incredibly rich, dark, trufflacious stuff, bursting with nutriments for the plants. This year I planted a single tomato plant in a patch of soil dug in with last summer's compost. Okay, yeah, every tomato had blossom-end rot (we ate some anyway), but we got four crossbred pumpkin-zucchini that grew out of the compost. And that's fuckin' spooky.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I Guess I Planted

Saturday morning we leapt from bed, jammed everyone into their fleecy clothes, gobbled down a quick cup of coffee and some oatmeal on our way out the door wandered around the house for a while like a herd of sleep-deprived goats, looking for shoes and rejecting all breakfast ideas, before finally getting into the car and driving to a tree-planting organized by the Hudson River Estuary Program's Trees for Tribs initiative. The idea is to create erosion and runoff buffers around Hudson tributaries by planting trees, and to then eat pizza.

We got out of the car and shoved the stroller (the town stroller, not the woodland stroller, whoops) through waist-high grass down toward the bank of the Moodna Creek, ignoring the plaintive bleats of our son, who hated his coat, and his shoes, and his too-large work gloves, and us, and who was cold. It was simple enough to follow the rows of plastic tubing that had been erected to protect the newly-planted saplings from browsing deer, until we found the other hippies concerned citizens who had decided this was important enough to do on a Saturday morning.

Although we had been alerted to the event by an email from a friend in another town who couldn't actually make it to plant trees, we found ourselves in the midst of a who's-who: the woman we bought our house from, a friend we made through other friends, one of our babysitters, the water authority consultant I'd already talked to about our seemed as though we'd found the right crowd.

The work was very light (somehow the holes had dug themselves) and our companions had done much of it already. Almost before the lad had asked if we were ready to leave, we were ready to leave. Just then, atop the mighty iron Moodna Viaduct, something like 200 feet overhead, a Secaucus-bound New Jersey Transit train hove into view. That did it for the boy, and the look on his face did it for us.

While we had worked, shoving dirt in around the root balls of the thin sticks and staking up tubes of corrugated plastic to protect them from nibbling teeth, I had tried to impress the boy with the seriousness of what we were doing, tried to get him to picture a time twenty years hence when a proud stand of oaks and maples that he had helped plant would keep the creek within its banks and help the adjacent fields retain their topsoil, while providing habitat for animals and shade for hikers— and what he'll remember is the train.

Which is also fine by me.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Orange You Glad We Didn't Give out Bananas?

We don't get down to New York City that often—at least not to Manhattan—but the marathon is powerful enough to draw us out of the mountains in our flannel, beards, and suspenders to stand on Fifth Avenue and croak obscenities from baccy-stained mouths at the sneaker-clad city slickers in their polyester gym shorts. Our toddler is especially good at this.

Sunday we went, and a very generous woman who lets me sleep at the house spent some time slicing oranges in the kitchen before we left. I haven't watched the race since 2004, and I didn't hand out fruit then, but I received a slice of orange while running it in 2005. That's when I discovered that oranges are hand-made by Santa Claus, and he uses magical go-juice to make them.

I don't know if you fish, but that physical feeling when a fish mouths your bait? And the more decisive tug when it takes the lure? That's what it felt like when runners dipped into the gallon-sized ziploc I was holding, extremely grateful, looking me in the eye, calling me nice things ("lifesaver," "godsend"...I would have given my wife the credit, but she was three or four feet away, and I like being called nice things), asking if they could take one "for a friend."

The three pounds or so that I held outstretched went as quickly as my wife had said it would, and even the last forlorn little orange section, awash in a pool of juice, got snatched up by a Swedish lady whom you could tell felt a little thrill of victory at getting the last orange.

Ordinarily I would sum up by digging out a metaphor and broadening the orange story and the running and the time my wife spent slicing them into something to walk away with and chew over. But not today. Today I would like to simply report that it was really fun to give out oranges to runners during the New York City marathon.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Raisin Joke

The lad was in the bath the other day. His mother came in and checked his fingertips.

"You're going to turn into a raisin," she told him.

"Dad!" he called. "You better get me out of here or you're going to have to cover me with yogurt!"

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Vermin Who Came in from the Cold

The high today is supposed to be forty-eight. And you know what that means. Out in the woods about a mile away, a raccoon will wake up this evening in its hollow log, shivering, and thinking about how the hell it's going to chew through another withered, jerky-like corncob, with the skeletons of the stalks all around mocking it for living such a crappy life.

Or! this raccoon might think, Or, I can go to town! And as it weighs the pros and cons, reluctant to leave the relative warmth of its loamy bedroom, the idea will become more and more appealing. The fears--angry dogs, cars, bright flashlights and the shouts of bathrobe-clad homeowners--will fade away as the raccoon convinces itself. Instead, visions of driveways covered with flimsy, thin plastic kitchen garbage bags, so tender, so vulnerable, will begin to form in its head. And just visible through the pale plastic, Good Things to Eat. Parts of bagels. Crinkly little packages with plenty of leftover food. Whole rinds of tasty melons. Fish parts!

Stomach growling, the raccoon will gather its keys and cellphone and head down the hill toward the lights, muttering to itself despite its excitement I've got to get this place set up for winter or I'm gonna freeze. Passing bushes whose berries have long been gathered, walking over the rocks where salamanders hid in warmer days, the raccoon will wonder if Earl's likely to be out tonight, or whether those skunks from the park will show. They're always good for a laugh, as long as they don't get too excited, the raccoon will think.

And about a hundred yards outside of town, the merest whiff of garbage and compost on the air, the raccoon will come around a curve in the game trail to find a couple of woodchucks, the possum twins from the Big Oak Tree, his cousin Earl and his girlfriend Arlene, and a whole tribe of skunks jamming the path, milling around and muttering. A coyote will slink back through the crowd toward the woods, snarling "This is freaking ridiculous, I come here all the time."

And standing up on its hind legs, craning its neck, the raccoon will see a bear and a velvet rope blocking the trail. The bear will explain reasonably and implacably to a couple of demanding, agitated weasels--"But if you'd just check the list!" "There is no list. I am the list."--that it doesn't make the rules and that if they would just join everyone else on the line, that would be best.

And of course the bear will step aside for two does who bat their long lashes and will unclip the rope with a little smile as their scent wafts over him, then turn back to the assembled masses and shake its head and shrug at their sarcastic jeers.

The raccoon will sidle up next to Earl and Arlene and roll its eyes. "Man," it'll say, "this place has really gone to hell." They'll all nod their heads. But they'll be patient. Because it's chilly, and there's garbage in there.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Stepping Up?

We'll be down at the Moodna Viaduct tomorrow, planting trees and shrubs for the watershed. Because trees remove carbon from the air and add cool, refreshing oxygen, this will also overlap nicely with Step It Up Day.

Hope y'all step up too.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

What You're Gonna Need

You've been renting for eight or nine years and you want to move out of the city and get a house. You can do this, because you can get your landlord to buy out your lease, because even though the rest of the country is hurting, home prices in Disneyland New York are still strong. Your shopping list:

cars (2)
shovels (2)
ice melt (50#)
rakes (4.5)
lawnmower, ride-on (1)
paint (6 gal.)
cat's paw (for prying up nails, carpet, etc.)
lock de-icer
garden hose
cinder blocks
duct tape
more furniture
hangers (2 dz)
televisions (2)
Duraflame™ logs (4)
needlepoint: "bless this house" (1)
kids (2.5)
welcome mat

I'll try to keep this list up to date. Feel free to add your own findings in comments.