It Was Wednesday

A couple of years ago, my Grandma Lila was shopping for some childrens’ toys. She went into a  toy store near her house and looked around for a while, but everything they had there was weird. She couldn’t imagine any of her great-grandkids wanting to play with any of this stuff. The lone sales clerk in the small store, a woman, approached her and asked, “Can I help you find something, ma’am?”

Grandma told her matter-of-factly, “I’m looking for some baby toys. Do you have any of those?”

The woman seemed confused. “I’m sorry. We don’t really have anything for babies. Um… Uh… What do you mean?

The store, which had the words “Toy Box” on their sign outside, was an “adult” novelties shop. Somehow Grandma managed to escape without them alerting the authorities.

Momma Ethel, Grandma Lila’s mom, used to make the world’s best chicken and dumplings. Although this was undocumented in any literature that I am aware of, nevertheless I’m quite certain that it was true. Certainly I’ve sampled enough variations on chicken and dumplings in my lifetime that I know for sure. When I was little, Grandma Lila made two things that everyone in our family loved: chicken and noodles, and banana pudding.  The pudding she used to make was that kind with actual, real banana slices cut up in it, Nilla wafers stood up all around the edges like a crust, with Nilla wafers both whole and crushed on top. Several years ago, she was making a batch of it because family was coming over, but it just kept getting thicker and thicker until finally she couldn’t even move the spoon anymore. She set it in the fridge for a while to do some other things, thinking she’d come back to it later and figure out what was wrong with it. When she got back to it, it was literally a solid chunk. She decided the pudding mix must have gone bad, so she took it out of the cabinet to throw it away. When she turned it over to check if it had an expiration date, she realized that it was actually powder for wallpaper paste.

Many years earlier, Grandma decided she was tired of the colors in her kitchen, so she resolved to repaint the cabinets herself. After the first coat, the color she picked didn’t seem to have covered thoroughly enough. So she painted over them again, hinges and all. By the time she was finished, the cabinet doors were so thick with paint that they literally wouldn’t close all the way. Undeterred, over the years, she would repaint her kitchen cabinets several more times. They positively were growing as they aged. She never once felt the need to strip them first. In my memory, you could press your fingernail against those cabinet doors, and they had a soft, putty-like texture, almost what I imagine the cool flesh of an alien might feel like.

She had a giant wooden spoon and fork that hung on the wall in her kitchen that fascinated me as a child. In the handles of each were carved elaborate, kind of scary, tribal-looking faces. I remember being frightened of them when I was small, but I simply couldn’t peel my eyes away either. Their horror was such a curiosity that they called to me, compelling me to sit and stare. I always thought that Uncle Roger had brought them back to her once when he came home from a trip in the Navy, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. I don’t care, though, really. That’s what they were to me.

Awesome Plate, Better Than My Sisters’Also on the wall in her kitchen, she prominently displayed a plate I had made in kindergarten. “BRAhhOh,” it said, with a house that looked more like a lighthouse or a rocket because of its height and thinness. I think she had plates from my older sisters, as well, but theirs were ugly and mine was magnificent.

Grandma had this series of weird, staggered cabinets that sort of divided one end of the kitchen from the living room. They just kind of hung there, almost magically suspended in the air on spindly little poles. Because they were open to both sides, that corner of the living room was the worst possible place for a chair. But that was where my Grandpa’s chair was, because it let him sit and watch the TV and still keep up with what was going on in the kitchen. Also, the shelf was a convenient place for him to put his ashtray—and his teeth when he took them out. When I was really little, Grandma had a bunch of plastic and glass figurines all over those shelves that you weren’t allowed to touch. But of course I did, and I broke (at least) my fair share of them. Okay—more than my share. But it was not on purpose. And on that you have my word.

Grandma has been staying at Mom’s for several weeks now because she had been sick and needed some help. Last night, Grandma went to sleep in my mom’s house. This morning when she woke up, she was not in her room. Grandpa and Uncle Roger and Aunt Nona and Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Ardith and Uncle Herbert and Aunt Maudie and Momma Ethel…and I’m sure a lot more people, some I’ve forgotten, and far more that I never knew, probably several from Dillard’s department store, certainly many more than just the handful she left behind here…were all really glad to see her today. In my mind’s eye, I picture them all sitting around a big table and smoking cigarettes and telling stories and laughing together, looking forward to when we will join them. And I find that somehow comforting today.

Grief is such a personal emotion. This is just a tiny glimpse into the life of a woman we will miss this Christmas Eve. We will memorialize her. And then we will go back to my mom’s and eat and open presents together and play games and laugh and enjoy our children and each other. No questions today. Share if you like. Merry Christmas, everybody. Love your people. :)

The Procedure

In the early spring of 2005, when our daughter Evie was still just a brand-new, shiny beautiful baby, I had a vasectomy. I’ve mentioned this particular procedure before, but I promised then that I’d tell you that story sometime. Today’s your lucky day.

I don’t know if all urologists are like this, but because mine, Dr. Samuel Little (everybody make your own joke) was awesome, he put us through a grueling consultation beforehand. Basically, he did everything in his power to try to talk us out of it. I don’t know if dudes get vasectomies and then have second thoughts after it’s too late, but that was totally not going to happen in our case. He said, “Have you seen those billboards between here and Dallas that advertise reversals? That doesn’t work. With the procedure that I use, it’s a done deal. When you…”

I interrupted, “Enough small talk. Let’s light this up, Little. You need us to sign anything?”

He said, “I’m serious. It’s important that you realize this is completely final. You really need to take time to think through…”

I cut him off again. “Hey doc, let’s me save us all some time here. Here’s what we’re gonna do: You’re gonna cut into me, and you’re not gonna just snip things and tie them off. What you’re gonna do for me is you’re gonna completely remove whatever plumbing you find in there. Just totally rip it out. Whatever you do with what’s left over after that is your business.”

He looked at us gravely for a moment. Then he smiled. “That’s all I had to hear. Let’s do this thing!”

When we tried to explain to our boys that Daddy was “having some work done,” we even told them we were doing it because we didn’t plan to have any more children. Kenny, our oldest, asked, “Why not?” I told him, “Because Mommy and Daddy only wanted a girl. And we had to go through two boys to get one. Now that we finally have her, we just can’t risk any more boys. Do you understand?” He nodded quietly. He really seemed to get it.

A friend who had already had his procedure told me that I should ask for Valium to settle my nerves. I’m here to tell you: That’s always good advice. Dr. Little (smirk) wrote me a script for exactly 1, and he told me to take it on the morning of my procedure on my way to his office. Check and check.

By the time we got there on the day, I was already feeling pretty good. (I’ve told you before how much I enjoy a nice Valium.) During our consultation, Kendra had asked if she’d be allowed to watch the procedure, and Dr. Little (hee hee) told her it was fine with him, as long as I didn’t care. I didn’t, so as Kendra and I strolled into the little examining room together, baby Evie in tow, sleeping peacefully in her teeny car seat, we discovered a lovely set of icy stirrups all ready for me. Events are a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure I was buck-naked and looking around for a gown before the door was even closed behind me.

A very polite older woman (who I assumed was a nurse) explained that she’d need to dry shave me a little (gesturing slightly)  “down there in your area.” She asked if that was okay, and I was all like, “Who am I to argue? We’re all professionals here, right?” (Honestly, it’s a shame that aspect wasn’t covered in the orientation video; I would gladly have managed that little pre-prep task myself and saved them the trouble. Probably not dry, though—more likely moisturized and Aloe-scented.)

When Dr. Little came in, a big grin on his face, we were pretty much ready for launch. He surveyed the manscape, made sure he had all his favorite tools (syringes, scalpels, knitting hooks, scissors, hammer, chisel, Brandy, that sort of thing). We bantered a little to set the mood. He asked if I was ready, and I said, “I guess so. Although usually, by the time I find myself in stirrups like this, my date’s already treated me to a nice steak dinner and a bottle of wine.”

Before we got started, he said, almost as a random aside, “I have a doctor interning with us who hasn’t gotten to watch a vasectomy yet. Would you mind an observer?”

I said, “No problem. The more, the merrier. Bring him in. And if you’ve got anybody else out there who’d like to watch, I’m cool with that, too. I had the sense your receptionist was kind of checking me out. Maybe some folks from the lobby.” (I’m not making any of this up, by the way.)

Dr. Little said, “Great! Thanks.” Then he opened the door and invited in the hottest lady doctor I’ve ever seen in my life, probably all of 28 years old. (Apparently she’d taken a couple years off of supermodeling to knock out a medical degree.)

Before we go any further, let’s take a quick head count of all those present, shall we? We have myself, Kendra, Evie, the older lady nurse, Dr. Little, Dr. McHotterson (not her real name), and of course my two knobby knees, which at this point felt a little like they were floating up and scraping up against the ceiling. Add a few red plastic cups and some nice electronica, and we’d have a full-on frat party.

The actual procedure probably took just a few minutes. We continued visiting throughout, and at one point I remember Dr. Little telling me I was the most entertaining patient he’d probably ever had. (What can I say? If you slip me a narcotic, roll me over on my back, hike up my skirt, and break out the knives, my brain-to-mouth filter goes haywire. Honestly, it’s a lot like when I write for my blog, only I’m not wearing pants. No, wait a minute… It’s exactly like when I write for my blog.)

Because my view was blocked by draping, I just kind of had to take the audience’s word for it that everything was working according to plan. Kendra asked if they had a mirror they could bring in so I could watch, like she did when our babies were born. I assured them that wouldn’t be necessary. (As if I haven’t already spent enough of my life checking out my business in the mirror! Am I right? Who knows what I’m talking about?) Anyway, at one point, Kendra said what Dr. Little was pulling out looked kind of like spaghetti. I guess I can picture that—of course that wasn’t the first time I’ve been covered in pasta below the waist.

Dr. Little (woo hoo) held up a section and offered to let Kendra snip it. She considered, but only for a second. She’s much more frugal than I am, and I think she wanted to be sure we were getting our money’s worth out of this guy.

He finished up, cauterized something, tucked some things back in, and buttoned my accoutrement all back up. The entire show was apparently a great success. I can only presume the applause was for his work and not for my contribution; I’ve never received that much “golf clapping” at any other time that I can recall. In any case, nothing too dramatic must have happened because Evie managed to sleep through the whole thing.

The assisting staff gathered up all the medieval weaponry and the buffet leftovers, cleared out the room, lowered me off the rack, and finally gave me, Kendra and the baby a little privacy, so I could collect myself and re-gird my loins (what was left of them, anyway). I was a little sore that day, but I slept a lot, so I don’t remember much of the rest of it. What I do remember was the next morning, when I awoke feeling like Donkey Kong had throttled me with a hockey puck slapshot to the pills. But that’s where my original story picks up anyway, so I can stop here. Besides, just between you and me, I think I’ve probably told you quite enough already.

Have you ever had a procedure with an audience? How did it go? Did everything come out okay? If you have one, what’s your narcotic of choice for having work done? Why do you think it is that you never see a really hot doctor unless it’s on TV or when you’re at your most vulnerable?

One Good Turn

Have you ever noticed how many different variations we have  for the word “turn”? Most everything to do with turn kind of assumes that things are headed one way, but then they’re somehow redirected.

Just think of all the things you can do if you’re turning. You can turn the crank, and you can turn to the left or to the right—just don’t turn around. If I could turn back time, I think I could really turn things around. I’d like to turn the corner, but it’s not my turn. Whose turn is it, anyway? Oh, now suddenly it’s my turn. Of course, one good turn deserves another, although I’m not so sure that applies if what one happens to be turning…is tricks. A witch turned me into a newt one time. (I got better.) Technically, what actually happened was that Kendra kissed me and I turned into a prince. You might think I had to turn in my man card. Not so. (Although it did turn my life on its head.) That reminds me: Back when we were dating, Kendra and her friends were talking about me one time and she said: “He could be a powerful ally, if he could be turned.” But then the conversation turned, and, as it turns out, it was me who returned the favor. That’s not  as bad as when the milk turns. That’ll turn your stomach, and unfortunately, there’s no turning that off once it starts. Even if you try to turn a blind eye to it, it could still turn loose at any time. When that happens, what I like to turn to is two turntables and a microphone because that usually turns me on, Sonny, to something strong. Speaking of being turned on, I hope we have a good turnout. You never know, after all, how things are going to turn out.

One of my favorite lines from the wonderful film Raising Arizona is when Holly Hunter’s character tells Nicolas Cage’s character to “Turn to the right” because it has a double meaning. You see, in the literal sense she means it because she’s taking his mug shots for his incarceration, one from the front and one on the left side, so she needs him to “turn right.” (By the way, his pictures turn out okay—we get to see them at the end of this scene.) But she also means that in order to deserve her love, she needs him to turn his life around (turn to the right). Clever, right? And of course decides to turn over a new leaf for her because she’s turned his head. (By the way, after that whole exchange, she takes his fingerprints and turns in his paperwork.) Their story gets better for a while, but then it takes a turn for the worse.

I’m going to turn the page to a different topic now: Why do we still say “turn down the TV” or “turn down the radio”? I mean, in the old days, it was because those things had knobs (remember those?), which you literally had to turn. But we haven’t had knobs like that since, oh, I dunno, the turn of the century (back when “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was still on the radio). So why are we still turning those things? (Also unrelated, my dad still says “turn the channel.” Pretty much everybody else I know says to “change” it.) While I hate turnips, I’d like to end on a positive note, so I’ll leave you with thoughts of apple turnovers instead.

I think I sprained something with all that. I could probably use a tourniquet. (Okay, maybe that one was a stretch.)

Come on, Turn. Seriously. We have other words. Why do you feel like you have to mean everything?

I’m sure I missed at least a couple. Fortunately, my lovely readers enjoy pointing out my mistakes for the world to see. Which “turns” am I missing? What was your favorite music video from the 80’s? Or the 70’s, I guess, for that matter. Why do you think peanuts (and tree nuts) seem hell-bent on killing kids these days?

Thinkin’ about Rufus

We have these really great friends whose son Drake (not his real name) is roughly 168% boy. He’s a great kid with a good heart, and he’s really smart. When I picture Drake, even now, in my mind’s eye, I can only see him smiling. But because he is all boy, and because our public school system’s really set up to benefit only the children who are willing to sit, silently comatose, and have lessons taught at them as they follow a tax code’s worth of Draconian rules… Well, let’s just say he struggled when he was five.

Unable to sit still, and also unable to stop asking “Why?” every fifteen seconds or so, Drake was constantly on the dark side of his teacher’s moon. Let’s call her Mrs. Manacle (not her real name). Mrs. Manacle had a really hard time keeping Drake under control, and Drake likewise had a really hard time with a sweet, smiley young woman constantly trying to keep him under her control. But then one day Drake stumbled upon, quite by accident, a magical technique of psychological judo for which Mrs. Manacle was wholly unprepared.

When Mrs. Manacle would ask Drake to do something, some task with which he had no intention of complying, or to answer some question that might as well have involved a slide rule and quadratic equations (keep in mind that he was five), he would simply look far into the distance, forlorn, and respond, “I’m sorry. I can’t right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”

And when Drake was thinkin’ about Rufus, there was simply no reaching him. It was as though he shut down emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, fortress walls and impenetrable forcefields surrounding the very essence of his being. He was C-3P0 in The Empire Strikes Back, blown apart mid-sentence by offscreen stormtroopers. Mrs. Manacle could tell that Drake was truly, profoundly affected by thinkin’ about Rufus. Often, his eyes would well and glisten with tears that never quite pooled enough to fall. And when it was so evident that she was not going to be able to break through, Mrs. Manacle knew she had to back down.

Drake skated by for some time on the “thinkin’ about Rufus” ruse. However, as is most often the case with elaborate plans masterminded by five-year-old kindergartners, Drake had not thought through the calendar and realized that eventually, inevitably, Mrs. Manacle would have access to his parents, at which point she would no doubt ask them that most probing of inappropriate questions: “Who is Rufus?”

In fact, at the very next teacher meeting, where Drake was not present, but where both his mom and his dad sat down with Mrs. Manacle, to chart out elaborate strategies and plans and a coordinated effort to help ensure that Drake’s academic performance in kindergarten would not suffer, because as everyone knows, that phase of life is so critical for five-year-old boys to one day get themselves into the right college, which as everyone knows, is the only way one can procure sufficient employment in adulthood, the question surfaced.

His parents looked at each other, confused, as the words hung there in the air, a mist not yet fully dissipated. Drake’s mom, Andrea (not her real name), was first to break the awkward silence. “I’m sorry. What?”

Mrs. Manacle repeated herself. “Who is Rufus?”

Again the parents looked at each other, baffled. Mrs. Manacle realized she was going to have to do what she had not wanted to do: delve into this family’s personal business and press for that most difficult of resolutions. So she explained. “Well, sometimes—often, actually—when we’re doing work in class, I’ll turn to Drake and ask him to answer a question. Or I’ll ask him to complete some task—some center, some activity, some craft, whatever. And he’ll draw up, his eyes will water, and he’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Manacle. I just can’t talk about that right now. You see, I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.’ So of course, I feel like I have to know: Who is Rufus?

Andrea choked. She chortled. She wheezed. She snorted.

Mrs. Manacle wriggled uncomfortably in her seat. Clearly, Rufus was a person of some importance, someone very significant in all their lives, who just as deeply was felt as a wound in Andrea’s heart as in sweet little Drake’s.

And then Andrea full-on laughed. She roared. She guffawed so hard that she gasped. Tears came. But not like Drake’s tears. Tears of exuberance. When she was able to regain her composure, she began to explain. “Rufus,” she began, “is a cat.”

“Well,” she corrected herself, “actually, Rufus was a cat. Bryan (Drake’s dad, not his real name) and I had a cat for several years named Rufus. We still had Rufus when Drake was born, but he died while Drake was just a baby. Drake didn’t actually know Rufus. Not really. I mean, I guess, sort of through pictures. But he wasn’t attached to Rufus. It seems, Drake has found a way to avoid doing his work. I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Manacle no doubt realized she had been bested. It happens. It’s a hazard of the position, certainly. One learns, one moves on. Notes were made. Adjustments to plans and schedules and files. And the jig was up for Drake. Sadly, he would have to start “Thinkin’ about Lucy” or about “Peanut Butter” or about “Snowflake” instead. The “Rufus” work deterrent was taken from him, Benedict Arnolded by his own kin.

Now the beauty of the “Thinkin’ about Rufus” technique is that it’s available to anyone. Kendra and I use it. And I would encourage you to as well. The next time your boss wants to have one of those difficult conversations with you. The next time your spouse walks in and says, far too seriously, “We need to talk.” When a creditor or representative of the IRS is hanging on the other end of your phone to discuss “terms” or perhaps “irregularities.” You sigh deeply, inflating your chest fully with air, and find it within yourself to moisten your eyes from the inside. And you apologize with authenticity and say, “I’m sorry. I really can’t talk right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”

What works for you? How do you passively-aggressively avoid conflict (or perhaps work)? Has your child ever managed to put one over on their teacher? What did they do? Wouldn’t grown-up life be so much better if we all had a little “rest time” built into our workday?

Intruder Assassin

Twelve years ago, Kendra and I were sitting comfortably in our living room, enjoying a pleasant visit with close friends, Matt and J.J. It was early evening, the warm, late summer’s twilight just beginning to settle, visible through the windows into our backyard. And I saw him: The beast, slightly larger than a Yeti. Although his features were indistinguishable in the fading light, clearly he was possessed of a demonic rage and evil intent, his blood boiling, filled with malice, positively radiating a soft red glow like lava.

But I should back up a little: A series of two retaining walls held back our yard from crashing through our house, one Lego-stacked pile of carcinogenic creosote-soaked railroad ties stacked on top of the other. In the weeks previous, I had noticed a large hole underneath the top wall. Upon closer inspection, I observed evidence that some diabolical usurper had been coming and going from the hole. For days I dubiously staked out the hole, taking several hair samples and readings in an effort to gather more data about my foe, the better to formulate a suitable paramilitary response to his encroachment. But thus far, the wily creature was toying with me, demonstrating that he was onto me, as he was either using some animalistic ninja trick to turn invisible in his comings and goings, or perhaps escaping and returning at will through some miles-long tunnel system he had somehow managed to camouflage from my detection. I had caught not even a glimpse of the bumble, when suddenly this opportunity presented itself, a gift from the very gods of fate.

Now that I had seen him for certain, no way was I letting him escape. (Call ME crazy, I thought. You want crazy? I GOT your crazy!) I hastily excused myself and ran, Clark Kent-like, for the garage to grab a shovel, intent on manic violence. In just a few moments, I would learn that violence actually has a name. And a face. And that its name…is “Matt.”

Certainly one could be forgiven for misinterpreting my intentions that evening, as from all appearances, I was running in the direction opposite the threat, whereas Matt was in fact running headlong towards it. I bolted for the garage; he bolted directly out the back door. I was headed to procure a weapon; he was a weapon. At first, our attack might even have appeared to be coordinated, with him flushing the beast in a purposeful direction towards me, as I came careening around the corner of the house into the backyard from the garage, my Shovel of Destiny in hand.

And then Matt handily demonstrated how superfluous was my weapon of mass destruction, indeed, how unnecessary was even my presence. I could better have served him by remaining in the house and freshening up his sweet tea, perhaps running out to have his car detailed and to pick up his dry cleaning.

No, Matt was not flushing the Acid-Clawed-Monster towards me, as I had supposed. Rather, he was running it to ground. As it hurtled across the backyard, shrieking its murderous Hell-fury, I rounded the corner just in time to observe Matt close the distance between them, in perhaps three quick bounds, and in one deft motion, Beckham-like, he punted. Matt felled the creature by immediately increasing its velocity ten-fold, taking full advantage of the laws of physics by forcing it beyond—far beyond—what its advanced physiology dictated it could run. And it toppled, end over end, some twenty feet—not unlike a soccer ball, in fact (although of course fifty times the size).

When the beast came to rest, he was clearly disoriented, dizzy and damaged from his tumbling dance across the landscape. It was at this moment that finally I was able to see through his campaign of psychological warfare. He was, in fact, an opossum.  Although, clearly, he was no ordinary opossum, rather more like the giant spider from Stephen King’s It, capable of projecting himself as a terrible, giant fiend. I stood not three feet from him, faltering in that moment, my shovel hanging impotent in my grip, debating whether this might in fact be just another of his clever deceptions.

Then Matt caught up to him. Still without breaking his gait, Matt kicked him once again, this time more American-football style…directly into the brick wall of the house next door. In defense of what some might mistake for my apparent ineptitude and skill in dispatchment, Matt was wearing boots at the time, and I was wearing just sneakers. As everyone knows, of course if you’re going to kick an opossum, you’d best be garbed in the appropriate footwear. The implications of attempting such a feat in the absence of the proper equipment are simply too dangerous for one to even consider.

But Matt wasn’t done. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “playing possum,” and you thought these mastermind marsupials do that intentionally, you’d be mistaken. In fact, they can’t control it. When presented with grave danger, a chemical reaction occurs that both paralyzes and immobilizes them. Matt was counting on that with his first kick. What he was doing with his second kick was ensuring it. He placed his foot over the back of the opossum’s neck, and I suspected he was going to suffocate it or to crack its skull. But of course that’s no way to be sure that your opponent truly expires. What he was in fact doing was applying another principle of physics—leverage—pinning the base of its skull to the ground between the heel and forepart of his boot. He grabbed its tail and jerked its hind end straight up. It’s a maneuver I’ve observed in the game Mortal Kombat, although certainly never perpetrated against a real-live creature, and particularly not against a large rodent. C-R-AAAAAAA-C-KKKKKK!!! went its spine. Yup, he was finished.

I lamely offered to scoop up the corpse with my shovel to dispose of it. Still holding its tail, the opossum now essentially hyperextended to around five feet in length or so, Matt grinned at me, shook his head lightly, as though he felt some mild embarrassment for me inexpressible in words, and he chuckled. He simply released the head from under his heel, lifted it slightly higher by the tail, carried it to the trash bin, and dropped it in.

What can I say? The monster had seemed much bigger in the dark.

What’s the most savage creature you’ve ever dispatched? And what method did you use? By all means, share with us the gory details. Have you ever witnessed another person violently murder a helpless, innocent animal in a way you could never have expected? Why are Kraft Macaroni & Cheese boxes so insanely difficult to open?

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