Can Two Divorced Men Share An Apartment?
On the night Tony Randall died, TVLand ran an evening of "The Odd Couple." As soon as the boys were asleep, or at least silent in their room, I put my bare feet on the footstool, cracked a beer, and watched the one about Felix and Oscar going on "Password," the one about ticket scalping, and a little of the one with Monte Hall. Then I had to go to bed.
The episodes featured Felix lines such as "I'm not speaking to Allen Ludden," and "When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and out of ME!" I sprawled there and remembered the show's many keeper lines from other episodes: "I'd better bring my big spoon." Jump-ka! Oscar Madisoy. ...without driving each other crazy!
"The Odd Couple" has been special to me for years. When I was a grade-schooler back in Maine, my parents used to fight a lot. But they always stopped on Friday nights at 9:30, when Oscar and Felix came on ABC. The show received my mother's highest praise for a sitcom: "Somethin' ya can laugh at!" I remember once asking my parents why, during the opening credits, Oscar is bothered when he's following a pretty girl down the sidewalk and accidentally steps off the curb. Don't know, my parents answered. During "The Odd Couple," my parents answered questions civilly while sitting in the same room.
When I started coming to New York City 22 years ago, I found "The Odd Couple" was part of a killer line-up on an independent TV station, channel 11, starting at 11 p.m. and followed at 11:30 by "The Honeymooners" and at midnight by the original "Star Trek." I stayed at the West Side YMCA in those days, and every $55 room came with free TV. That line-up was the nightcap for Manhattan's newest man-about-town from Maine, a guy beginning a big adventure, and for whom bare feet up on a footstool in a good-sized apartment was a long, long way ahead.
Channel 11 kept that line-up through the '80s. Often, while a freelance writer, I wouldn't even start the evening's work until Oscar and Felix were off. The show always presented something for me to strive for. "I watch it for their apartment," I told my first roommate, Sean. "I know what you mean!" he said. As the freelance writing began to wither, I admired their jobs. A few years after that, I admired their friends.
I have always admired their friendship: Felix often got Oscar into messes (once with the IRS), and Oscar, the more passive but acidic of the two, was always ready to fire back when the mess was over. "What do you dream of, Oscar?" Felix asked. "Living alone," Oscar replied. But they liked each other, and more episodes than not it was them against the world, like when Felix helped Oscar get back into the movie in a bit role as sportswriter, or Oscar pulled Felix's son aside to tell him all the qualities of his dad that Felix would never voice himself.
I don't connect with television as much anymore. Evening time is at a premium with Alex and Ned around (Ned, who loves medicine, once honked like Felix, and the two of them together can quickly leave our living room looking like Oscar just passed through). "Scrubs" has bottomed out; I've lost the thread of "Enterprise." Jill pitches in extra on Monday nights to let me catch "Band of Brothers," but it's hard to keep the characters straight, and I'm not sure I'd care about them if they were just mismatched apartment-mates, and not paratroopers surrounded at Bastogne. Not sure I'm missing much else: On a recent business trip, I had an unusual amount of evening time to surf the dial. One typical click-through produced two channels of news tickers, two of weather nationwide, three of talking heads, somebody driving a nail, and a cow. When "The Odd Couple" was hot, such a collection would have been lampooned as dull television.
Channel 11 is the WB now. TVLand is on cable, which isn't free TV. All I could watch of the Tony Randall tribute was two episodes, but from the perspective of two decades in New York, I could suddenly see that Oscar stepped off the curb and into wet cement. Then I had to go to bed. It was late. It was 11 p.m. (June 2004)
(Jill again provides this week's essay.)
As everyone (or at least everyone's mother) knows packing for a trip is the most important part of your plans. I started our packing three days before we left, by designing index cards with a Cape Cod logo and typing out everyone's lists: the boys had detailed lists, Jeff's was sketchy (he can do his own packing); mine was kind of on the wing. Here's a summary of how it went.
Best thing we brought (and first thing we used): glue stick. Tossed a couple of these into my handbag thinking I'd save a label or postcard in a diary for posterity; used within 20 minutes of arriving at rental cottage, where Alex found a small, loose edge of wallpaper and managed to tear a huge strip off.
Stupidest thing we didn't take: Jeff's bathing suit. Maybe I should have written more things down for him after all.
Best thing we bought in Cape Cod: flotation ring for Alex and Ned, bought at one of those roadside traps (the ones with all the stuff outside) my mother would never let us stop at. Gave me to understand everything was a rip-off, but the boys used the ring at Long Pond and loved it. Cost: $3.99.
Best thing we didn't have to bring: oxygen for Alex. Last time we went somewhere we made elaborate arrangements for a supplier to meet us at our rental house and deliver tanks of oxygen that Alex still needed at night.
Other dumbest thing we didn't bring: pens. There is just one pen, which Jeff brought, and which I don't like, and is now in car. I am writing this with a little golf pencil we were given at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. Two days before we left I bought a Cape Cod pen at a gift shop, because it writes in four colors. On our last day, I found a pen advertising Zoloft in the utensil drawer of our rented kitchen, which I assume was left there by a vacationing psychiatrist. Or patient.
Best clothing we bought for trip: navy blue hoodies for the boys, bought at Target the day before we left. In early September it starts to get chilly on Cape Cod. Alex and Ned looked suitably nautical.
Most useless thing I brought: Possibly my copy of Mansfield Park (read about eight pages). Maybe the phone charger (never used). Other contenders: the checkbook, Jeff's electronic organizer, a small electric fan.
Best thing we brought and didn't use: Alex's nebulizer, brought in case of an asthma attack. He barely coughed, and we packed it up for our return home feeling relieved.
Other best thing we bought: memory card for the camera. Don't know what took me so long, but our camera, which is just a couple of years old, uses a memory card that is no longer made. Rushed around everywhere so we would be able to take more than 20 vacation pictures; finally found one at Duane Reade Drugs. Took about 110 pictures without feeling stressed that I was wasting shots on beach pebbles, ocean foam or seven shots of the boys doing the same thing.
Thing I most wished our rental cottage had, and which I'll never go anywhere without again: a bedside reading light. The first few nights we read under the glare of the ceiling light. Then we switched to flashlights.
Worst food we ate: gloppy seafood chowder from the Friendly Fisherman on Rte. 6. "Tastes like paste," said Jeff. "Tastes like hot paste. Hot, runny paste."
Best food we ate: kale soup, the linguica roll at PJ's, the freshly fried chicken cutlets that Alex ate without a murmur of complaint, even though they were clearly not from McDonald's.
Worst moment: When Alex ran away. We didn't catch him quite quickly enough (I thought Jeff would reach out; I'm sure he thought I'd do it). I was wearing sandals I can't run in, so I slipped out of them and ran in the direction I thought I'd seen him go. One of the cottage owners was watering her flowers; she immediately started searching. Another cottage renter helpfully posted himself by the road (busy Rte. 6). I went to check the car, where I found that Alex had climbed into his car seat, buckled himself in and was waiting for us to figure this out.
Best moment: Watching Alex at the beach. The ocean was unfailingly attractive to him, starting from our first day when we set out on a two-hour hike from the National Seashore Visitor's Center through salt marsh trails to Nauset Beach but didn't think we'd really be going to the beach, for some mysterious reason, so we didn't have suits with us. This was the last time we set out without suits. As the week went on, we started going to the beach about three times a day, and Alex grew increasingly confident and at ease in the water. He was never tense but so thrilled and excited that he seemed to be riding an edge of near-hysteria in the beginning. On our last day at the beach, he strode through waist-high water at Skaket Beach and playfully swirled a towel around himself at Race Point. In our pictures, he is looking at the camera head-on and smiling.
Best comment: After coloring in the smiling lobster on the children's placemat at a lobster restaurant and asking, "What's his name?," Ned was upset that Jeff was eating the creature's buddy. "That wasn't nice what you did, Daddy," said Ned, frowning.
Biggest change of heart: Jeff was lukewarm about this trip ("It's too expensive! It's going to be too much work!") until we got there.
Clearest sign of a mixed marriage: I ordered an oyster roll, which turned out to be nothing more than a mound of fried oysters on a toasted hot-dog roll. I find fried clams chewy and a little tough and thought these were tender and succulent by contrast. Jeff, who likes fried clams, thought the oysters were slimy. Oh, well.
Best after-trip remark: Ned and I were talking about going to the zoo the other day. "OK," he said. "Then we can go to Cape Cod in the afternoon." (October 2004)
Imaging the Positive
(Jill again contributes this week's essay.)
Iím ready for the money to start rolling in. It could be from something Iíve written. Something so special, so magical, so penetrating, so resonant, so earth-shaking, so head-turning, so life-changing, so mood-altering, so chord-striking, so touching, so simple, so thunderous, so right, so immediate, so intimate that everyone who reads it instantly falls under my spell, thinks, ďI must buy this book! I cannot live without her wisdom and insight a second longer.Ē Then they run to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy because they canít wait for it to be delivered. Or if theyíre homebound they log onto Amazon, click on super-saver shipping and buy my book at a slight discount.
Or it could be my actual presence, in an auditorium filled to capacity, where people in the front rows notice my perfect eyebrows and radiant skin. As a motivational speaker I am beyond compare. Warmth, kindness, empathy emanate from me until you almost want to back away from the heat. But my brilliance draws you back. Iím the candle and youíre the moth. Even though you may want to save the price of admission (you have dental bills, tuition fees, taxes, pool and lawn care to pay for), you canít stay away. As you fill out the form and sign the check, you smile. An evening with me is worth far more than orthodonture for your children.
I speak about the pointlessness of unattainable ideals. Your childrenís teeth are crooked? Everyone has a flaw. Maybe that flaw will determine your childís future happiness and success! Your daughter has a slightly overlapping front tooth? Imagine that she is at Starbuckís. She smiles at something this guy at the next table says. She has a beautiful laugh. This man is captivated. He is unable to stop thinking about her, spends all night remembering her smile, her laugh, that slight overlap in her front teeth. He haunts the same Starbuckís for the next three weeks until he meets her again Ė on line for the same movie! They fall in love, get married, and present you, three years later, with the most adorable grandchildren.
You need me to show you how things can turn out fabulously if you only have the courage to Image the Positive. You leave with the same feelings of relief and light and warmth you get from lambskin gloves or a pashmina or from sitting by the fire after coming inside on a rainy spring evening. Youíre newly and lastingly optimistic, and your posture is better. Many attendees report receiving raises the following day. Save your money and use it to buy something that will make your family truly happy. A wonderful vacation, a delicious meal, or your own happiness: an evening with me.
(ďImage the PositiveĒ is a registered trademark and is my sole province. It cannot be used without express permission from my foundation.)
But if Iím filthy rich, itís probably due to my hot fudge sauce. I make three different sauces, each devastatingly delicious. I donít market them. Mine is a $3 million a year business that runs on word of mouth. You canít find my chocolate in a store or on a website. You have to know someone. That someone will have a co-worker whose college roommateís cousin bought some and now orders directly from me. Youíll be informed that this hot fudge is the path to instant, lasting happiness Ė and itís not fattening when eaten properly. Once you know someone, itís easy. You call my number, say youíre interested in buying hot fudge sauce.
Youíll be sent a brief questionnaire that asks some personal questions about income, favorite restaurants, viewing habits and your undergraduate thesis. Donít ask about a low-carb version or suggest flavor pairings. If we wanted to make a Harvey Wallbanger-flavored fudge sauce, weíd call it an ďice cream toppingĒ and youíd be able to buy it in a gift basket with a jar of sprinkles and a set of glass banana split dishes. This is not an ice cream topping.
Our fudge has no trans-fats and no substitute flavors, and will last up to a week stored in your refrigerator. Itís made only in micro-batches. Just six jars a day are sold. I started with one flavor (original hot fudge), got bored making the same old thing day after day and decided to try another recipe. Our maple syrup, a natural sweetener that needs no processing, is produced in Vermont; base notes change monthly. Flavors range from mace to ylang-ylang to licorice to asoefetida to hyssop to durum semolina. Our third sauce uses Mexican chocolate flown in from Guadalajara, which got me thinking about a global line: Madagascar, Tahiti, Uganda. Third World nations with superb vanilla beans, the foundation of good chocolate. Each jar of sauce is made by me, or one of my carefully trained staff.
Weíre developing recipes now, and I think youíll agree it would be cheap at twice the price.
But chocolate is so two minutes ago. So itís probably my consultation fee. You call me with three questions, including predictions, any topic, which Iíll answer within 27 days (weekends and holidays excluded). Is your screenplay going to hit? What should you wear? I can help. Indigo, mist or orchid? Straight or naturally curly? Cobb or Caesar? Doric or Ionic? Its or itís? Moorea or Bali? Derivatives or futures? Brick or click? Johnny Depp or Leonardo DiCaprio? Mottahedeh or Limoges? Emma, Flora or Sophie? The Alcotts, the Goldschlags or the Barshays? Platonic or Aristotelian? White or blue-edged? Montessori or Waldorf? Malignant or benign? Malignant or well-intentioned? Blini or dosa?
My fees are based on results obtained. Screenplays require an extra four days and an additional reading fee.
I think youíll find itís $565 well-spent. (March 2005)
Out of the blue the other day came two confirmations that I may be moving up in the world. The Boston Globe e-mailed requesting a sound byte regarding a suburban NICU reunion. I missed the deadline, but in my ongoing effort to salvage crummy situations I asked the reporter how he'd got my e-mail. Google me, it turns out, and I pop up as some sort of authority on NICU fathering.
The second confirmation came from Ruth L. Guyer, who has authored Baby At Risk (www.capital-books.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=138431), due out this fall. Ruth, who wears among other hats that of regular commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered," asked me for a blurb for her jacket cover, and attached to her e-mail a Word document of her book.
I haven't read many NICU or autism authors, with the recommended exceptions of Carol Kranowitz, Temple Grandin, and a couple others. Most of the books in this genre -- and there are enough babies and kids these days to constitute NICU and autism "genres" -- seem as helpful as checklist-filled titles on business management or home repair: almost as many fonts as useful bits of information, and a few true tips. Mostly I read military history, E.B. White and Richard Yates, Shakespeare, and novels that Jill recommends like Jane Eyre. I re-read far too many books by authors who make me feel at once elated and despondent about my skill.
Ruth Guyer hasn't a checklist anywhere in Risk, but she has got history, honestly presented. She recounts how NICUs were inspired by chicken incubators in a Paris zoo in the late 1800's, how preemies were a major sideshow at Coney Island in the early 1900s (I've heard the survival rate was much higher than in hospitals of that time), and how miracle medicine turned neonatology into a cash cow for contemporary hospitals.
"My insurance company paid $500,000 to this profit center," says one dad. "It's the old story - follow the money."
She also recounts how the imperative took command in neonatology, something it would have been nice for me to realize in 1998, though to be fair I wouldn't have made any life-saving decisions different in Alex's case as he made his way through the "horrible, wonderful" setting of a NICU. Several things strike me about Risk. Guyer finds some fine quotes that cut to the core of not just neonatology, but the mind of the kind of doctor who chooses to practice in one of the only branches of medicine where the patient can't clearly tell anyone how they feel.
"The NICU in the United States today has gotten completely out of hand," says one doctor. "I never wanted neonatology to become a specialty, because the focus is too narrow." And there's my favorite: "When doctors don't recommend palliative care, it may because they have not reconciled a peace with life being finite. If they don't feel comfortable about their own mortality, they may not feel comfortable with the dying of their patients."
A good portion of Risk deals with outcomes: good, bad, and borderline. Babies die. Parents die a little each day, and freely say so, as they struggle to raise kids with scads of issues. Other kids who started in an incubator wind up in the Ivy League. This is good reporting, and it makes me glad I had a chance to read Risk.
"If I were you, I'd have the publicist hammer the balance of your book!" I told Guyer recently in a 50-minute phone call during which I sprayed unsolicited advice in the tone I reserve for helping commentators on national radio. But balance is the big reason I'd recommend the book to anyone who's ever even known of the preemie, or in fact any sick baby. Neonatology is book-ended with extreme views, from those who cry drug-conspiracy to those who trumpet miracles. Risk has punch and legs, I think, because it will appeal to both sides.
I gave it a heartfelt blurb. Watch the Globe call Guyer next time. (July 2006)
Dear Reader Mary e-mailed this list of Christmas preferences. You're supposed to fill it out and e-mail it to all your friends for their answers. Since I have readers but no friends, here it is.
Prefer giving or receiving? Depends on the gift. Giving tends to summon in me higher highs for the perfect gifts and lower lows for the clunkers.
Colored or white lights? We keep white Christmas lights up in our living room window year-round, until they're dusty and saggy and half burned-out around September. This year Jill bought twinkling lights, which she hates. "I didn't see that it said 'twinkling' on the box, obviously!" she purrs, so we'll get some more steady burning lights, and put the twinkling ones on the tree.
Eggnog or hot chocolate? Vodka.
When do you put your decorations up? The tree's about the extent of it, as we also celebrate Hanukah, and this year we'll get the tree on the Wednesday before Christmas. I don't like it when trees hang around. When I was a kid we used to get our real tree two weeks before Christmas, and by the big morning we'd be brushing brown needles off the gifts as we dug them out. Ned's birthday is also one week before Christmas. Does the twirly "Happy 6th!" Spiderman now hanging on our front door constitute a Christmas decoration?
How do you decorate your tree? This year red garland, gingerbread men, and the aforementioned white lights. We usually also go for toys that have been special through the year. I love icicles on the tree, but if we tried putting them up our cat Toast would give us an $800 vet bill for Christmas. When I was a kid, we had fine ornaments from about 1910. Jesus those things could cut your finger!
Favorite Christmas song? "Snoopy's Christmas."
Favorite holiday memory as a child? Petting my tiger cat on the bed, in the red light of the tree, watching it snow out the window.
When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? What do you mean? Seriously, I slipped the other night and said to Ned that I thought he was going to like what I got him for Christmas. "Doesn't Santa bring the gifts?" he asked, his eyes suddenly streetwise slits. "Well," I said, "it's a collaborative effort. Santa is my consultant. I pay him for 39-and-a-half hours a week, and no benefits."
Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? Some people do this and I have, too. My friend Jon once saved all his Christmas shopping until about 8 a.m. on December 24th. I met him that night at the Ground Round for a beer, and he said he'd been shopping for 14 hours and early on had run out of money for lunch or dinner. He made it a point to be near Hickory Farms about 5 p.m. to raid the sample table, but he got there and found out them closed. In the Ground Round, I gave him my popcorn.
Can you ice skate? For almost five consecutive seconds. Jill is trying to get me into this. She can skate. So can Ned.
Favorite gift? I had an aunt who used to give me and my brother $10 worth of quarters for Christmas, each quarter wrapped in tinfoil. The quarters were for Christmas afternoon, when we'd ditch our mother and go find a bowling alley with an open arcade and a ripe pinball machine. This same aunt made killer Chex Mix. That aunt's gone now; so's mum; and you don't see too many pinball machines anymore.
What's the most important thing about the holidays for you? "Snoopy's Christmas," now on an iPod. The boys, relatively new additions and who still wriggle with joy at a $2.50 oinking pig/blue flashlight from Bed Bath & Beyond. Jill walking through the door. A cat, black and not tiger, still in the glow. (December 2006)
My eyes open and see that it's 5:50. I could sleep at least 10 more minutes, an hour more if I had night duty with Alex. But I wonder, Which one is it? They're showing the second season, my favorite. Maybe it's "The Doomsday Machine."
I get up, make coffee, click on Channel 85. Sometimes Alex is already up and I have to evict him and his "Elmo" DVD." "No Elmo this morning, Alex. We're watching 'Star Trek'."
The original series, the TOS. The one and only. I've flirted with some of the sequels, had a thing with "The Next Generation" ("TNG") that was so eighties, but as you get older you always return to your true love. I could of course just buy the whole three years of the series on Amazon for $179 (and I finally plan to). I like watching it broadcast just as it was 35 years ago, if for no other reason than I get to bitch about lines of dialog that have been cut, lines I first memorized in a time of too many model Flakpanzers and not enough dates.
Most of the cut lines seem to be Spock's. "Vulcans never bluff," was missing from "The Doomsday Machine." "I assume you mean they disappeared in a manner inconsistent with the normal workings of the transporter?" also went from another episode, as did Scotty's reply, "Well of course I do. Ya think I'd be calling ya if they'd just beamed down?"
Spock had a lot of the good lines. "I shall quicken my pace." "Captain, a little alacrity, if you please." "I shall attempt a compensatory reading of Klingon units."
Many of the lines have gone to make room for even more inane corporatized commercials, these days for wheelchairs and drugs that end in an X. In my day, the commercials during TOS were for toys and junk food. Somebody paid too much attention to demographics. When I watch the future in the morning, just before I have to comb my hair over for the day, I don't want to see a wheelchair; I want to see my old Kenner crap. How come the commercials during "Star Trek" are for wheelchairs and X-drugs when my 6-year-old sits there as spellbound as I ever was? And "just beamed down..." I love it. This century can barely make a good pizza. And I liked looking at the future when there was still a little more time, and this is as good way as any to think about the future at 6 a.m. And when all was said and done, Kirk had pretty nice hair.
Ooooo, the Nazi planet! I begin booking my night duty depending on which episode is on next morning. "Assignment: Earth" is on tomorrow, for instance, and that one I'm not so wild about, but "The Enterprise Incident" will be on, let's see, next Tuesday, and that's the one with the Romulans and their cloaking device so Jill can just jolly well get up for Alex in the middle of the night.
Another reason I like TOS is, as a friend of ours put it, everything on TV 35 years ago was "so bad it was great, where everything on TV today is so great it's lousy." He's a filmmaker, New Yorker cartoonist, and a smart guy where TV is concerned. Though he does prefer Star Wars over "Star Trek."
The brood is learning TOS. "Elmo?" says Alex. "Watch 'Star Trek?' El-MO!!" Jill thinks whoever designed the uniforms had an eye for timeless clothes. Ned loved Galaxy Quest, a sharp Tim Allen satire on the show, though Ned did wonder why the captain kept rolling in the dirt.
Forty-five years have taught me not to buck my own current, and I suppose if you gave me some twenties I could sit through something like "CSI" with its geriatric level of physical activity (what ever happened to investigators who leaped over the hoods of cars?), or some reality show with its orchestrated conflict cooked up without having to pay one writer. But TOS gets me up at 6.
"What about the new one," Ned asks, "with the bald guy?" That's not as good, I tell him. "Because it doesn't have as many fights," Ned says. Other reasons become clearer as years go by. The corporate mentality and costumes, and missing for me from "TNG" was the sense that three centuries from now people will still gripe and piss and snap at each other, yet still find a way to work and live and love together. We're all watching "Enterprise" one night. "They started taking themselves too seriously," says Jill. "Sometimes on television you just want to see a captain take his shirt off."
What "TOS" had that all sequels have lacked is the twin components: TV's emotional component, as well as a cerebral one. The cerebral one, with "Star Trek," is either that you think it's simple-minded hooey, or you know it's simple-minded hooey and you don't care.
Scotty's dead, you know. So's McCoy. They probably needed wheelchairs and drugs ending in X. It'll be a sad day when William Shatner dies. (October 2007)
The Mister Uppers
"The top of Babe's head came off." -- Marathon Man
(Aunt Julie: Don't read this one. - The Editors)
Weeks ago, I cracked something upper left on a hunk of cold chocolate. It's always the uppers. My dentist took an X ray. "If you didn't tell me something was wrong, I say this was a pretty little picture," said he, a straight shooter with an office overlooking Rockefeller Center and who has never taken more from me from the insurance payment. Too bad: I could've put his son through law school.
So I'm protecting the upper right the night before Thanksgiving when I'm eating cookie dough, for Christ's Sake, and I bite down on something at once familiar and foreign, harder than anything should be rolling around in my head.
"It's scary really, when you bite down on a piece of tooth," admits my dentist, before he starts shopping for furniture for his fourth bedroom.
I am not in pain. My teeth have broken, but exposed no nerves. It hurts only when I bite wrong, which I do appreciate. Still: Wouldn't it be nice to achieve more than "not in pain?"
In the last two weeks I've eaten more hard-boiled eggs and bananas than over the previous 10 years. I lunch at soup wagons. I chew with thought. I feel about Grape Nuts the way German citizens once felt about the Gestapo. Jill proposes rice one night for dinner. Fluffy rice is great, but there's always one little bastard that gets burned to a bullet in the bottom of the pan. I dig out the box of macaroni. "Oh sweetie, I'm sorry," she says.
The hole in Mr. Upper Right No Cookie Dough is big as a popcorn kernel ("That's a big hole!" says Jill, who will later claim this was sympathy). I stick in my mouth the stuff from the tiny vial I bought in the drug store for $5, to "effectively replace loose crowns and fillings." It looks like clay - tastes like it, too, if my kindergarten memories are right - and comes with a pinkie-long white plastic scimitar to smear it on the tooth. I take scimitar in hand on Saturday afternoon in front of the bathroom mirror, and I'm surprised how tricky it is to hit the target; on the first couple tries I smear the stuff on undamaged and bystanding neighboring teeth, but at do plug the hole. This patch lasts until my second martini and first nacho chip that night. Sunday morning I try again and wind up kind of proud of this job, which results in a relatively filling-shaped bit of plaster to keep my brains from leaking out.
I don't think my father ever ate rice, for he had crummy teeth, something to do with a Depression-era dentists and living in Central Maine. My mother had false teeth, which, even early on, I envied. "You don't want'em," she warned.
Oh? When I was a kid my dentist used to drill big holes for big fillings. In the Sixties, big meant big. He used to use drugs on me that made the world skip and hum, and after his drillings were all over he'd hand me a Dixie cup of water and say, "Schpitt away!!" I think he fought in Europe in World War II. Through the years, as old fillings have crumbled, bigger and bigger ones have gone in to replace them. "You're no stranger to this chair," a dentist said to me once. True. Measuring my fillings makes a great party game, and there's enough metal right now in Mr. Upper Right No Cookie Dough to anchor a canoe.
I have three crowns. I like them because they don't decay, but my first crown came off 10 years ago on a Popeye's biscuit. Around that time I went through a whole shrimp barbecue with just a filling hanging down, the molar that had once surrounded it gone to, of all goddamned things, a boiled and soft Chinese wanton. Childhood years of candy probably hasn't helped; one November 1st, I was rooting in my Halloween bag at 6 a.m. Debts are coming due.
So for now Mr. Upper Left No Cold Chocolate likes to announce himself with a cold spear into my brain after I bite wrong on some booby-trapped leftover such as sausage pizza, and on which he finds the single pinhead of gristle. He has come to seem jealous when I favor Mr. Upper Right No Cookie Dough, and his punishment in some moments makes me fear the top of my head will not come off. I feel like I'm never going to want to eat without thinking again. It just isn't safe. (December 2007)
First it was the name of my uncle, Pvt. Arthur Stimpson, who was killed in World War II. Mum always told me Uncle Arthur was killed in the Battle of the Bulge by sticking his head out too far beyond a wall. When I worked for an upstate New York daily I got to know Holly, the owner of the local Army-Navy store, and he, in those pre-Internet days, had a friend in the Defense Department who could look up the history of any soldier back to about the Civil War. "This poor guy," Holly said, reading my uncle's record. "He'd been in Europe about two weeks when he was killed."
When we went back to Maine last August, Ned and I visited Uncle Arthur's grave. Ned seemed more interested in it than in the graves of my mother and father. "What'd Uncle Arthur look like?" Ned wanted to know. I said I didn't know, that I'd never seen a photo of Arthur. He was a very young man, only about eight years older than Alex is now. I have always imagined how Arthur's uniform must have hung off him, how his helmet must have looked like a olive-green mushroom.
Next the name popped up in my senior year in high school, in "Arthurian Legend" class, where that spring, while one chapter of life dissolved before another began, the last thing we read was Camelot. The teacher played the soundtrack record (as in LP, played on a Victrola and powered by Dino running alongside on a conveyor belt). Oblivious to what it might mean to rumors of sexual orientation should word ever leak, I listened to the Camelot cassette (see above) a billion times, and for me it came to represent the romance that just didn't seem to be anywhere in the those hallways. Instead friends and I quoted Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and romance wasn't nearly as important as being able to do a good British accent.
I went to college on Long Island, and when I dropped out I wound up working in an Arthur Treachers - wow! I just noticed that! - in Ithaca, New York. There one of the first movies I caught on the Cornell campus was Arthur, with Dudley Moore. I then began quoting Arthur ("Where's the rest of this moose?"), though my life being what it was the time there was nobody around to listen. The movie got out at 10 that night, and I mumbled lines to myself all through that late night of wasting precious quarters in a Collegetown arcade.
"I just want to say," says Jill, I see 'romance' here, and nowhere do I see the word 'Jill.'" Okay. Let's all pause for a moment and imagine what the 22-year-old Jill would've said if approached by the high-school senior me. End pause.
Much, much later, one of our first Broadway experiences together was Camelot, starring Robert Goulet as Arthur. He'd played Lancelot in the original production, which was on stage about the time I was born. To make sure Jill didn't get too much culture, I introduced her to television around this time, one of my favorite shows being "All in the Family," which of course she was familiar with. Nevertheless, I plowed ahead as boyfriends do even after the woman's eyes glaze ever so slightly and reminded her of that time Edith wanted Archie to eat dinner in the kitchen and he didn't want to, and Edith said, "Arthur used to love to eat in the kitchen!"
"Arthur was a cat!" Archie replied.
Most recently "Arthur" has come to mean "Arthur," the PBS cartoon of kid angst we're using to pry Alex off Elmo. We all like "Arthur"; when cartoon characters have problems, they seem more like real problems. Ned, incidentally, has noted the shape of the helmets the knights wear in Holy Grail, and calls it "the bucket movie." We think that's cute, then we make sure to send both boys to bed well before 10. (March 2008)
George Carlin never saw the house where I spent my eighth-grade year, but he was there. My father had died 18 months before, and, at my insistence, my mother and I had moved to a nearby town.
Every Friday night during the winter of 1975-76, I'd celebrate another week of having survived Weatherbee Junior High School by listening to my older brother Lee's stereo. He had two, and one was in his new apartment in yet another neighboring town. Mum had a bit of a problem with Lee moving out so soon after my dad died, but growing up in the woods of Central Maine and going to work at age 12 to help support her family taught her to live with these things. Besides, Lee had left me his George Carlin albums.
Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; Class Clown; FM & AM; An Evening With Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; Take-Offs and Put-Ons, the last my favorite because it had a non-blue material I'd seen on "The Flip Wilson Show." After Carlin's death a few weeks ago at age 71, suddenly the names of those albums were all over newswires; AARP even issued a bulletin.
Carlin would've been, let's see, eight years younger than I am now when I'd clap on the potato-sized Radio Shack headphones and use "Wonderful WINO," "Attracting Attention to Yourself," "The Indian Sergeant," "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," and all the rest to blot out that I was a new junior high kid in a new town and I didn't have too many real friends except the losers, and I wore funny pants mum insisted were "worth the money and perfectly all right."
"You ever notice you never seem to get laid much on Thanksgiving?" Carlin asked me. "I think it's because all the coats are on the bed."
Fellow eighth-graders liked my version of "The Hippy-Dippy Weatherman," which they didn't seem to realize extended only to desperate memorization ("Of course the radar's also picking up a squadron of Russian ICBMs ... So I wouldn't sweat the thundershowers..."). Observational humor lubricated a lot of social situations in Weatherbee, especially since most other kids in Central Maine at that time didn't have big brothers who left them George Carlin albums (or perhaps didn't have mothers who let their 13-year-old son listen to Carlin because all she'd seen of him was on "The Flip Wilson Show."
You know what they are, don't you, the seven words you can never say on television? E-mail me.
"He influenced me tremendously, not because he was hilarious - there are lots of those guys around - but because he helped me discover a different way to look at life and still remain realistic in those views," Lee said after Carlin's death. "He helped me find more humor than I thought existed in those little things in life we usually take for granted if we notice them at all. He was one of a kind."
Carlin's anger I could get behind, and he seemed smart. Decades ahead of the Greenhouse fear, for instance, he gave us, to the tune of "America, the Beautiful":
O beautiful, for smoggy skies, / Insecticided grain. / For strip-mined mountain majesties / Above the asphalt plain. / America, America, Man sheds his waste on thee, / And hides thy pine / With billboard sign / From sea to oily se-heeee!
Lee advised me that would be a good song to know if I was ever hazed.
I tell people that Carlin's death is sad, and they agree. One co-worker did. "George Carlin's how I got my job," I said. "I just said the 'Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television' on my interview, and they hired me."
Carlin got a little wacky toward the end - I got a foretaste of this on "Flip Wilson" years ago, when he just came out and stared at the audience without a word for two solid minutes, then thanked them and walked off. I found one of his later HBO specials just embarrassing and unfunny - unbelievably - and - I never read his books.
Still, a month ago when I landed in Vegas for a two-day conference, I noticed on the ride in from the airport that Carlin was playing three nights at the Orleans Casino Hotel. His last night was my first in town. I toyed with the idea of trying to get a ticket, but got busy and forgot about it. That night was Carlin's last show. It almost makes hope that someday, somehow, I might still get hazed. (June 2008)
Queue and A.
(Jill again contributes this week's essay.)
Where we live, you can see a free Shakespeare play in Central Park during the summer. All you have to do is wait on line for tickets. "Oh, it's fun!" people say. "Pack a picnic! Make a day of it!" But your day can start as early as 6 a.m., when the park officially opens, and doesn't end till 1 p.m., when they hand out the tickets. I haven't waited on line for years. Last summer, someone with press tickets took me to see Midsummer Night's Dream. A few years ago, Jeff and I saw Twelfth Night by using a friend's tactic: Go on a night when the weather's a little uncertain. Most people opt to stay away. Another sure bet: Fourth of July night.
This year, we didn't see Hamlet (poor reviews) but decided to see Hair (rave reviews). Did I say "we"? I meant me. And a friend. Jeff didn't seem that enthusiastic, so I did the line-sitting after my brother-in-law did it and assured me it wasn't that big a deal. "Go between 8 and 9," my sister told me. "You'll be fine."
A trip like this requires packing. Books to read, the New York Times, some food, some water. Had heard there is a coffee shop that delivers to the line. Decided it would be a pleasant way to kill a few hours, free of the tether of the Internet and all the bad Palin news streaming into my brain.
Following are some snapshots of my morning.
One: number of too-sweet coffees ordered from Andy's, the deli that delivers to the Delacort Theatre line.
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl: Book being read by woman who jumped the line right after Delacort employee walked up and down broadcasting the rules about place-holding, line-jumping and what to do if you have to go to the bathroom. "My daughter was here while I parked the car... I'm just too tired to walk any more," she said.
Two: number of aluminum lawn chairs being carried by line jumper.
Three: number of yellow balls on strings being swung by woman in park (not waiting on line) and recognized by fellow linesitter. "I used to do that! She's doing it all wrong!"
Zero: number of Times crossword puzzle answers I could fill in without even thinking. Thought to myself, "Right, it's Friday," the worst day to do the puzzle. Everyone knows this. Next time, will get tickets on a Monday or Tuesday, when the puzzle is easier.
Zero: number of times my brother-in-law called my sister the day he sat on this very line. Because he didn't bring his cellphone.
5,000: number of times he would have called, according to my sister.
Four: number of times I called my sister.
Two-three: the approximate distance in city blocks between where I was sitting and the bathroom.
One: number of interesting overheard comments, such as, "You better talk to the judge today!"
One: number of Weight Watcher points in Au Bon Pain's curried lentil soup brought to me by friend who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not far from the line. As promised, quite flavorful and wildly filling.
Two: number of books brought in preparation for waiting on line for hours.
Three: number of irritating pieces played by flutist "entertaining" people on the line. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, something by Strauss and the theme from The Godfather were among those that I just wasn't in the mood for. Felt glad he was far away; then I looked up and realized he was getting closer to my spot. Also glad I was deep in conversation with line mate, and didn't have to simply bury my nose in a book.
The first hour is the hardest. When it's not quite over, you look at your watch, moan to yourself that you have HOURS to go. Then you order coffee, get to talking with your neighbor and get on with the business of reading the Times cover to cover, and ignoring the books you brought. (September 2008)
CNN is wrapping up its coverage of AIG, which was a pretty BFD on Wall Street that day, when the talking heads start in on wobbling Washington Mutual. Their talk drags on.
"Why are we watching this?" Ned asks on the couch beside me.
"Because Washington Mutual is our bank, Ned!"
"Really?" Pause while Ned remembered that he himself has a $100 starter bank account. "Is my money in Washington Mutual?"
"Take it out! Take it out! Take it out!" he shouts, hammering the couch cushions with his little butt and probably joining at that moment hundreds of thousands of depositors on couches across the nation.
As I comprehend it, Wa-Mu, as it used to be affectionately known, drove too many financial stakes into the marshy ground of mortgages. I thought our grandfathers took care of this stuff with the establishment of the FDIC, a federal insurance program to guarantee the accounts of small fry like me. I still remember looking at the golden FDIC plaque beside the teller's window in the Penobscot Savings Bank in 1970, and asking my mother what it meant.
"It means your money's safe," she said. Mum died 10 years ago, unbelievably, this week. She used to have another saying: "The bottom's just going to fall out one day!" Maybe it was hope in her voice that put me off, but she would've felt vindicated these days.
The bail outs. The draining of the FDIC and the realization, for the first time in many of our lives, that it's a finite fund. The implosion of the attitude that traces its roots back to the election of 1980, when we decided to let business run its course for all our good. It can run its course, apparently, until it hits the rocks, then we have to call in the government we've always claimed we never needed.
I first saw the front of a Wa-Mu bank on the news a few weeks ago. I had the sound off and was about to herd the boys to bed, and I thought no more about it than I did about the Savings and Loan mess of, when was that?
Now I'm noticing the lines inside when I walk by a Wa-Mu, wondering as I slide my card in for another day's maximum cash withdrawal until this mess goes away if the nice machine is going to slide me out some twenties. "It may not be just a matter of doing something about our bank," I tell Jill, "but for the first time in our lives a matter of also doing something fast."
"Yikes!" said one correspondent upon hearing I was a Wa-Muer.
"Don't contribute to the run," Aunt Julie advises (Take it out! Take it out!). This is what was missing from my life when I came to New York: a support system, just somebody you could call and hear some words that may or may not be correct but at least made you feel better. I remember standing all alone in a rush-hour crowd at the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in 1986, the boom times, having just seen that I had about $5 left in my bank (Bowery Bank, long gone - their one-time flagship branch near Grand Central is now a restaurant). I stared at the crowds and all the buildings and said to myself, "There must be some way I make a living around here!" I didn't have kids then, or a wife. Or a home.
"What happened to Wa-Mu?" Ned wants to know.
Who in hell knows? "Ned," I reply, "if you have 10 friends and they all owe you a dollar, do you have $10?"
"Yeah!" he says, eyes brightening.
"Well, suppose five of your friends move away and never pay you? Do you still have $10? And suppose you owe somebody nine dollars?"
Is that correct? I don't know. I may never understand what ensnared me in what this morning's Yahoo headlines called the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s. Curiously missing, so far, is the reporters hanging around outside the branches of my bank, questioning little depositors about the impact on their lives. Maybe the little depositor just isn't worth what he used to be. Maybe he's worth more, though, than he'll be worth tomorrow. (September 2008)
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