"What I really need," I expounded at the dining table, "is some flexible plastic tubing that I can use to make super-long straws so you can lay flat on your back and still take a drink."
"That is so lazy!' came a reprimand from the next room. Eldest daughter Amber had caught a snippet of my conversation with youngest daughter Melinda. Taken out of context, my statement sounded like one more slide on my slippery slope toward morbid obesity. "That's terrible!"
"No, no," I protested, "you don't understand."
Neither did the grinning woman who stood behind me in line at the hardware store as I purchased several feet of 3/8" diameter clear plastic tubing that afternoon. The coiled mass apparently reminded her of some bygone revelry, and a knowing smirk spread across her weathered features. "You gonna drink some beer with that?" she drawled.
A point to her for deducing that the tubing was destined to be used as flexible straws, but otherwise incorrect. Nor was my innovation designed for the sole purpose of minimizing physical activity, as Amber feared. In fact, I was looking for a way in which Melinda and I could maximize our observation of meteors during last weekend's peak of the Perseid shower. We knew from experience that merely sitting up to take a drink can mean a missed meteor. All of our preparations for comfort and sustenance would be arranged so that we could keep our eyes on the sky for hours without interruption.
My sense of balance is challenged even before I don the distortion goggles.
Four high school seniors zipping along country back roads in the wee hours of prom night. John is driving, and I am behind him in the back seat, our dates aligned on the passenger side. We have gone out to dinner, attended the dance and played games at the official post-prom, and now we are on our way to a classmate's home for breakfast. Up to this point, our behavior has been exemplary, our innocent revelry free of any and all inappropriate activities, but now John is speeding, and this transgression has just been noted by local law enforcement.
It is heart-stopping to be a teenager and to hear the siren and see the flashing lights that signal an officer's direction to pull over. We are terrified. Well, at least three of us are. As the sheriff approaches our car, John seems remarkably composed. He rolls down his window and asks with a sincerity that would have made Eddie Haskell proud, "What seems to be the problem, officer?" I am simultaneously mortified and amused; I want to laugh and to disappear.
Risk taking, like athleticism, is apparently not part of my genetic makeup. For as long as I can remember, I have looked askance at my daredevil peers and assessed their feats with the observation, "Well, that's stupid." Perhaps my criticism is rooted in the jealousy I feel when I see people accomplish things that I cannot do myself. But I prefer to think that my risk aversion is due to a practical appreciation of consequences. That stage you've heard of when teenagers supposedly think they are immortal? I never experienced it. Rather, I was keenly aware that serious injury and death lurk on the other side of "Hey, watch this!"
I remember the day I saw my friend's older sister with a cast on her arm. Sue was a few years older than us at an age when such a difference seemed like a deep and unknowable chasm of time. She was proudly offering her white, plaster cast for signatures. "How did it happen?" I wanted to know. Apparently she had been at the playground just a block over and had made a failed attempt to jump from her perch atop the jungle gym to the distant monkey bars. I looked up to the sky and envisioned the scene, recalling the layout of the playground and noting the wide span that made such an act highly inadvisable, and all I could think was, "Well, that's stupid."
I've never known anyone with a greater capacity for taking himself too seriously than my old friend Matt. Admittedly, we knew each other best when we were teenagers, a time in which melodrama is often the norm. But even allowing for the emotion-scrambling potential of coursing hormones, Matt was in a class by himself. He seemed to thrive on inventing a life that was far more compelling than our mundane, Midwestern reality. It was a tendency that often alienated him from our peers.
But then it was always something of an uphill struggle for Matt. He was an alien from the start, a rare transplant from the Carolinas with a strict, Southern father whom he addressed as Sir. Some time around third grade he appeared at our little Catholic school. He was very sociable and seemed to make friends quickly, and it wasn't long before his mother was hosting our Cub Scout den meetings from the basement of their modest home just down the street. From the beginning, however, Matt spoke in a way that seemed aimed at eliciting our sympathy and admiration. He was candid about the heart surgery he had endured as a toddler, an apparently true event for which he would gladly provide evidence by displaying his scar. As time went on, he would embellish his medical history with statements to the effect that he "technically shouldn't even be alive," that he stoically faced greatly reduced longevity, and that he had been "clinically dead" for some matter of minutes.
A last glimpse of civilization.
You might think that a middle-aged man such as myself would have already taken to heart this rather obvious advice, but I should like to reiterate a helpful suggestion, as much for myself as for anyone else. Avoid unfamiliar shortcuts. Especially when you're walking on a cloudless day when the temperature is 90° and meteorologists are warning everyone that it feels like 98°. Even if you're traveling within otherwise very familiar territory.
I learned this last Wednesday as I set out for my community's 4th of July parade intending to document our youngest daughter's debut appearance with her high school marching band. Melinda had told me precisely where she would be in the band formation, and I planned on walking the mile or so down to a corner where I would have a decent vantage point. I arrived before the parade had reached that spot, and rather than stand still among the sweaty populace in the blistering heat, I decided to keep walking along the parade route until I met the advancing marchers. This turned out to be an excellent bit of luck, as it brought me near an underpass that I otherwise would not have thought to surmount.
Julie and I met each other on one of the first days of our freshman year in college at Ohio State. Were it not for the fact that my roommate and one of her roommates were maintaining a relationship that had started in high school, we might never have met. As it was, I gamely ambled along with Ken from the Stadium Dorm to North Campus so that he could have lunch at Raney Commons with his girlfriend, Christi. We stopped at Taylor Tower to pick her up, and Julie decided to come along.
The earliest memory I have of the young woman whom I would marry just four years later is sitting across from her in the dining hall and wistfully observing how pretty she was. So pretty, in fact, that I immediately put all thoughts of courtship to rest, as I was certain that anyone that attractive had to have a boyfriend. And if that were not the case, I reasoned that there had to be a million guys after her. Why beat my head against the wall? I didn't stand a chance.
Don Ward and I were utterly out of sync, from the day we met until the hour we last parted. We were baffled by each other, somehow forever falling short of achieving pleasant and productive conversation. Under any other circumstances, we never would have interacted at all. Fate had intervened, however, and he was as stuck with me as I was with him. For four inscrutable years, Don Ward was my appointed college adviser.
That was not the original plan, at least according to an initial schedule. Having declared my major in Photography and Cinema midway through my freshman year at Ohio State, I was assigned to receive academic counseling from an associate professor who had been with the department for over a decade. I had heard good things about him, and he had the bearing of a wise and approachable mentor. But when I tried to make my first appointment, I learned that I had been inexplicably reassigned to one of the newer faculty members.
The long-anticipated project to transform a corner of our basement into a functional office space is now well underway. Two sections of cinder block foundation wall have been liberally coated in DryLok and white paint, new electrical outlets and lighting fixtures have been installed, a portion of the exposed ceiling has been painted black, and a generous new carpet remnant stretches from wall to unfinished wall. Our master bedroom is, for the first time, starting to resemble the sort of sleeping quarters that befit adults rather than containing the hodgepodge of office furniture and assorted media that had lent it the air of an aging dorm room. Meanwhile, downstairs, I have been carefully arranging an inviting refuge, a secluded spot where I can work surrounded by cherished memorabilia that refreshes my spirit, even if my assorted tchotchkes are not revered by the rest of the family.
"Thank God that thing is going down into the basement," commented my wife, referring to a delightful three-dimensional diorama of Alice Cooper complete with a functional guillotine and a severed head prop. Apparently she has never liked having it in the bedroom, nor did she appreciate the nearby statue of Alfred E. Neuman, the autographed ELP tambourine, or the cardboard cutout of Salvador Dali. Not that she finds all of those objects necessarily repugnant (though I sense the diorama might warrant that categorization), but I guess she never envisioned such items persisting among our bedroom decor even as we live through our forties. No longer must she seek slumber within an environment that evokes an adolescent boy's bedroom. Instead, we shall have a basement office that evokes an adolescent boy's bedroom.
A fistful of quarters jangled in my pocket as I strode toward my destination.
When I was ten years old, there was simply no better place in the world than the humble campground store I knew as Barney's. It was the hub of a Michigan lakeside resort that my family frequented during the seventies. Every summer, we drove up north with the Monfort family, rented a pontoon boat, and shared a cottage that was adjacent to a tiny, private beach. I imagine that the proprietors, a couple named Barney and Eunice, considered the surrounding geography to be the main draw of their business. But while playing on the beach, swimming in the lake, riding on the boat and fishing were all pleasurable to some degree, I was happiest when I was allowed to burn a little time and money at Barney's.
It was nothing more than one long, rectangular room with a concrete floor, a place where patrons could find any convenience they might have forgotten to pick up in town as well as the preferred vendor of nightcrawlers and waxworms. There were vending machines for soft drinks and newspapers, and I certainly purchased my fair share of candy there. But the real attraction for me was the front half of the establishment, which was dominated by pool tables and pinball machines.
It's a common word, something you see every day...
E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-E-D, embarrassed. That's what I felt when I was eliminated from my school's inaugural spelling bee in the first round. I was also I-N-F-U-R-I-A-T-E-D, infuriated, because I never wanted to be a part of the competition in the first place. As I saw it, spelling bees were not potential pathways to academic glory but rather protracted exercises in dodging humiliation. You hang in there as long as you can, take your best guess when necessary, and wipe the sweat from your brow when someone else gets knocked out on a word you didn't know, either. That's under the best circumstances. At the other end of the spelling bee spectrum is the real possibility of making a shameful mistake and inducing self-inflicted P-S-Y-C-H-O-L-O-G-I-C-A-L T-R-A-U-M-A, psychological trauma.
Despite my reluctance, I had trudged up to the stage with the rest of the seventh and eighth graders and haplessly plopped down onto my assigned folding chair. The gymnasium seemed uncomfortably full, mostly due to the presence of the rest of the student body and what seemed like the entire faculty and staff. That included my mother, who worked in the office. She gamely chalked up my lack of enthusiasm to the general pattern of surly behavior that was emerging in my early teens. I imagine that she was glad to be there. I just wanted to be anywhere else.