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Nine and Counting; Fourth Night; Serenity Now; The Olive Branch; Currahee


Nine and Counting

This is my ninth wedding anniversary. "I have nothing for you," says Jill. "No card. No present. Nothing. And you know why."

"Why" is Alex and Ned, both floored for a week with a relentless fever and stomach bug. This week, the cool, very married palms of Jill and Jeff have felt their children's foreheads and scooped up load after load of soiled bedclothes. Our shirts and arms have been drenched in spurts of every-parent-knows-what. This morning, exhausted, I broke Jill's coffee cup. Still, I think there still worse ways of having your anniversary obliterated than caring for your two sick sons. We'll go out to dinner next week, Jill says, and exchange gifts then.

As I've escaped to work every day this week, I've been able to shop. At least today. Opera tickets are on the way. I also got Jill a transit card holder and a red metal-covered notebook from the Metropolitan Museum of Art shop, along with one postcard of a lady in an evening dress and another of girls in tutus. Before I give her the tickets, I'm going to write on the back of the lady's postcard, "Better dress up!" On the back of the tutu postcard I'm going to write, "Ballet. Opera. What's the difference?" Don't you think that's adorable?

Nine years. Not counting two years of living in sin beforehand, that's almost a fifth of my life. Nine years ago there was no Alex and no Ned. Jill had just hitched her wagon to the star of my "career" - most of which did then, and I hope still does, reside in the future - and we were sharing a ground-floor apartment on a quiet street in Ithaca, New York.

People ask how we met, of course. I've told them Jill asked me if I was married on the day we met. I never mention that she was an editor at the time and planning a wedding supplement, and she was gauging my experience as a freelance writer. At least that's the story she's stuck to.

"What did I care who this guy was?" she told a how'd-you-meet neighbor recently. "He had on a red T shirt and a purple dress shirt. He had a lousy haircut." I used to go to her newspaper office every Friday and just hang around and hang around and talk for hours, Jill says, adding, "I wondered, 'How come this guy doesn't have anything else to do?'"

Bless the neighbor: She rapped on our coffee table and said, "Hello? Jill? Anybody home?!"

We were married in New York City on a frigid day, in her aunt and uncle's place on Riverside Drive. We had a small ceremony, just a handful of relatives and friends, a guitarist, and shrimp. When we returned from our honeymoon, we found our car buried in snow at the Ithaca Airport. A year and a half later we moved to Baltimore. Jill never liked Baltimore much - I didn't either, really - but one night in that apartment she looked at me and said, "You know, even if we don't have kids, I can think of things worse than to grow old with you."

The following year we had Alex prematurely, and began to grow old a little faster than we'd planned.

There have been many Jills in the past nine years: the editor, the girlfriend, the cook, the editor, the wife, the editor, the sweet partner and slippery arguer. One version of Jill that remains vivid to me, though, is the woman in the hospital. She sat with me through the pointless doctors' conferences, held Alex and changed his first tiny diapers around the IV tubes, and pounded the keyboard and found the online support groups as the conferences grew more pointless. She answered the phone when I called Alex's bedside. She helped me hack our way through the jungle of his hospitalization. I can't imagine what other woman I would have done all that with. Sometimes Jill mentions her first husband - usually after I've broken something like a coffee cup - but I like to think Jill has had only one husband.

This morning the boys were up, Alex munching Cheerios and heading, we pray, toward his first and only day of school this week, tomorrow. Ned was flat. Jill's husband must call to see how they're doing. When he does, Jill will answer. (March 2003)

Fourth Night

I'm on no sleep. This morning, around 5, I drank a pot of coffee. This morning, coming to work on the subway, my head lolled toward a stranger who had a face like a striking longshoreman. Walking to work, a hitch in the sidewalk became a hill, and turning cars had a better-than-average chance of mowing me down. My joints ache, I'm taken with chills, my eyes hum, my hair is heavy.

I'm thinking of taking one of the dreary magazines from my In box, one of the ones I never read, opening it before me, shielding my eyes in mock concentration, and dozing. I'm reviewing the excuses you should use if discovered sleeping at work, such as "They told me at the blood bank this might happen."

Last night was the fourth in 18 years in which I got no sleep. In 1985, I stayed up all one autumn night helping a man who turned out to be a lying sleaze put the finishing touches on the premier issue of his monthly newspaper. His paper turned out, in the following months, to be New York's only annual monthly, and his promises bright balloons. I spent another night in his "employ" in 1986 sleeping on the back steps of a printing house, but I got a couple hours' sleep that night, so technically it doesn't count.

In 1994, I tossed and turned worrying about my job at a low-budget, galley-slave daily newspaper in upstate New York. In 1998, just before Alex's birth, I stayed up all one night agonizing whether to take a job with yet another sleaze and his trade-journal Web page. As you can see, none of these situations was worth a minute's sleep. I didn't even lose a whole night's sleep during Alex's NICU stay.

Last night, the boys were quiet dusk to dawn -- a rare situation for Alex these days. Yet for some stupid reason, I violated my own moratorium on serious talk after 10 p.m. and mentioned to Jill that pessimism was slowly conquering my outlook on everything, professional, personal, and otherwise.

"Everything?" she asked. "Including our marriage?"

I told her that I wished she'd ask me more questions, that she'd pay more attention to me. She went to the bathroom to take out her contact lenses, and came back carrying her Walkman and wearing headphones, which she didn't take off until she went to sleep. So we had that. Years ago, Jill mentioned a maxim of marriage: "Never go to bed angry with each other."

Good rule. I didn't go to sleep. I gave up around 4:30, downed the aforementioned pot of coffee, and wondered what kind of chat she and I would have when she got up.

We had an okay one. "I heard you banging cabinets in your house wanderings," she said, banging a cabinet herself by way of demonstration. "What was that? Four-thirty or so?" She said maybe she'd try to turn her part-time job into a full-time one in the months ahead, allowing me to stay home with the kids for a while. And she went to work.

I begin to see why special-needs parents have a divorce rate higher than the high national average. Alex's future had set me off post-10 p.m.: talk of future agencies, his barely hanging onto an entry-level job at Burger King, maybe even his life in an institution and the fates that would be better. I realize that such thoughts are a long, long leap from Alex merely being not toilet-trained by age 5, from his screeching, from his school's growing frustration with his behavior in the classroom and our behavior as parents. But as the VCR clock glows in the night, special-needs parents have a cold and dark time. Rare is the one, I think, who doesn't want their child to die before they do.

"Gateway drugs," Jill called these thoughts this morning, over her second cup of coffee.

Now it's afternoon; today's yellow bar of sunshine slants across my desk. Sunny day, breezy, a 10-Best present from May before the heat settles in. I took a long walk at lunch, watching for turning cars and hitches in the sidewalk. I haven't dozed; the dreary magazines stand ready. I had to take a walk. In my office, in honor of a co-worker, they held a baby shower. No one has asked why I didn't attend. If they do, I will say, "Tired." (May 2003)

Serenity Now

"Serenity now, insanity later." - Lloyd Brawn, "Seinfield"

"I understand your concerns." - Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

Jill was talking about her job when I let her in on my latest secret of life. "Haven't you noticed how I've been reacting differently to things you say?" I asked her as she sat beside me on the couch.

I told her I'd been concentrating more on thinking before I speak, and treating nothing all that seriously. I went this route of reason as 2003 continued to become a lumpy year. Jill got a job but it's abusive. I sold essays to a big British parenting slick, but they haven't paid yet. We sailed Alex through the IEP school district paperwork, but we're stalled on finding him a kindergarten. We got him an ADD drug, but he won't take it.

As the problems pile up, it's either go the route of reason or give in to violence, I explain. "And rather than take that enjoyable though brief and destructive path, I have elected to give measured responses to find solutions to problems as they arise. In short, I've chosen to think before I speak to you."

"What did you used to do before speaking to me?" Jill asked.

I added that my role model is Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

"You should really be writing down all of this!" Jill replied, moving to the recliner.

It's a matter of isolating the problem and speaking quietly. About the job: Do you have a copy of your job contact? I asked Jill. What is most important to you on this job? What were the three toughest encounters you had today at the office? I sprinkle my serenity with a lot of questions and pithy, Picard-like comments such as, "Oh," "Interesting," and "I understand your concerns."

Jill and I were on the way to a play the other day when she was complaining, again, about a business associate and using sharp, well-spoken barbs that to me, show shrewdness and a keen eye. I smiled. "You know," I told her, "when you talk like this I somehow think it's an enormous compliment to me."

"It is, isn't it?" she replied, and smiled.

At the play, we of course sat in front of a talker, a whooping big mouth whose chattering would've been well-checked with a rifle butt. I urged Jill to speak to the usher at intermission. (The usher was useless.) I told Jill I would moved seats, but was unsure how to proceed with such a maneuver in a crowded theatre. Fortune visited me, however, the way it often visits TV characters: while I was in line for the men's room I heard other members of the audience complaining about talkers behind them. When we returned to our seats, Jill, the talker, and me (still serene), I told Jill about my men's room line experience in a conversationally loud voice -- just the kind of subtle, effective action Picard might employ. I intended the talker to hear and take the hint.

As the second act opened, Jill finally had to turn around and ask the woman, twice, to be quiet please. Quiet second act, good script, no talking, me serene. After the curtain while we were on our way out, Jill caught the talker telling her mom that Jill told her to "shut up," and the mom glaring. Jill stopped to explain - serenity now - to the mom what she really said. Jill reported that the mom told her to "get on her way."

Being from Maine, my natural inclination has always been to put up with whatever misery the world hands me, and to, at my most indulgent, surrender to the anger.

But, about the talker, "You were perfectly in the right," I told Jill. "But what did you want to get out of that last encounter? What do you think you've learned?"

It works with everybody. Just now, I got off the phone with the doctor who prescribed Alex's ADD meds. We can't get Alex to take the pills, which are bright blue and bitter, and I fear we need a behavior specialist to help us work with Alex at home. This doctor has been a week calling me back.

About my son on drugs: "You have a behaviorist?" I say. "Oh, there is such a person! What is that person's name? How do you spell that? Yes, yes, yes. Like I've said, doctor, we've had a devil of a time with administration ..."

Beat beat goes my heart. Maybe I'm due for insanity later, but I don't think so. That never happens on TV. (July 2003)

The Olive Branch

Jill doesn't like some food. She doesn't like Twizzlers, for some reason. She claims to like clam chowder, but has to eat it as if nibbling through a minefield because she doesn't like clams. Fair enough. Lots of people don't like stuff. I don't like the New England soda Moxie, for example, a sort of bitter Dr. Pepper that my grandmother loved. I don't like mustard. I used to not like olives.

I hated olives for years, all olives, because for years olives were bad and Twizzlers were great. Not even gazing at olives as they bobbed up and down in a pitcher of beer with my brother, years ago in a tavern with a fireplace on a cold Maine night, could change my mind.

I ate a few olives after I met Jill, usually in pasta or on pizza, and always black olives. Black as Twizzlers. By the way, don't anybody else say "black Twizzlers." There's no such thing, technically, as red licorice; licorice is black. Also, "clam chowder" refers to New England clam chowder. I have never had the red New York stuff. I hear it's okay. I do notice the tomato-based chowder is never cheaply thickened with flour the way New England chowder is in crappier "restaurants." Hell has no fire hot enough for somebody who'd ruin New England clam chowder by thickening it.

Jill loves olives. She didn't convert me to olives, though. Rather, I was sitting at her folks' dining room table the about four hours after her mom had died. We were all teary and wiped, knowing that we had a hard few days ahead, and her step-dad brought out a bowl of green olives, and I ate a few. Just like that. It wasn't a transposed-spirit thing, either, because Jill's mother didn't necessarily love olives. Jill's mom did love licorice.

I used to stand by the olive bins in upscale markets, waiting for Jill to pick up my good old American Boar's Head at the nearby deli counter, and I'd keep myself from intervening as one shopper after another paused by the bins and furtively popped olives into their mouths. Sometimes they bought some. I could understand these people no more than I could understand methadone users.

"5.99 a pound?!" I said at the olive bins of an upscale market the other night. I popped one of the huge Greeks in my mouth. I didn't like the Sicilians. Not enough body.

I've had a bit to learn. Figuring out a fair price, for one -- amazing how foreign some prices look if you've spent 45 years never buying a certain item in the grocery store. Figuring out if I want anything stuffed in my olive. Figuring out that that salad olives fall apart when I dig them out of the jar with a fork. Figuring out if "pitted" means with or without the seed that could break my molars. Figuring out when they became "my" olives.

"I bought us some olives," I announced when I got home.

"You bought who some olives?" Jill replied.

Texture delightful to the teeth, just enough resistance and just enough surrender, somewhere between nuts and gum. The resonance of the brine. Savoring the aftertaste, knowing you're finally sophisticated after 45 years. And what's better with a martini, aside from no Elmo in the TV?

Jill is happy I like olives. I'm waiting for enough time to pass so I can start denying that I ever didn't like olives. She's still trying to convert me to mustard. She'll succeed about the time she eats a Twizzler, and I don't mean a red one. (January 2007)

Currahee

"What's 'Currahee?'" she asks. Jill believes I know much there is to know about World War II, knowledge collected in the long, long years before Jill's appearance.

"I guess it's the name of their training camp," I say. "Oh no, it's their motto!"

"They" is the 101st Airborne Division as depicted in "Band of Brothers," the Emmy-winning - I think it won some Emmys - mini-series that ran on HBO a few years ago. I don't have HBO, but I do have a sister-in-law who gives me a pile of Amazon money every gift-giving occasion, and I recently bought the DVD set.

For some reason, Jill wanted to watch it. "I love it!" she says. This is not her; she's Food Network and "Supernanny." I've never even got her to watch Kelly's Heroes. "Brothers" is headier stuff: It's about 10 one-hour episodes, and traces the training and combat path of the 101st from boot camp in the South to D-Day in France, the Battle of the Bulge, and the surrender of Germany. It stars several guys we like, such as David Schwimmer, Ron (Office Space) Livingston, and Damien Lewis, who plays Major Dick Winters, the commanding officer of the company, a complete yet caring combat officer.

Jill especially liked Damien Lewis in one of those "Masterpiece Theater" things. "Because he looks like you," she tells me. "Well, because Damien Lewis looks like an idolized you." What in hell is that supposed to mean? I make a gesture to indicate the first letter of the word "idolized."

"I totally resent that 'Supernanny' comment," says Jill. "And it's 'idealized,' not 'idolized.' I can't believe Ron Livingston! He's just so good! My mother would have loved this."

"Brothers" does balance blood, grit, and humor. There are probably more cool lines than in most world wars, such as when one sergeant sits down next to another sergeant and asks him what he's doing there ("Well, I was in Ohio, but then Hitler started the war and so I came over here..."), when one sergeant makes a replacement soldier upset and the replacement's sergeant defends him ("You happy now, asshole?"), and when the snooty one-time commander of the company (Schwimmer) shows up at the end of the war and finds himself outranked by Damien Lewis.

"Captain Sobel, we salute the rank, not the man," Damien Lewis says.

I said this once to Jill during a bad spat, before she'd ever seen "Brothers." "I don't salute either one," she replied.

That was a year ago, when the death of her mother and a smoldering sense that I was taking her for granted wasn't doing our relationship any favors. Back then I watched "Brothers" alone, enjoying the manly aloneness of the experience, wondering if I might end 2006 in front of my brother's TV in Maine, eating a peck of steamers and watching "Brothers" and The Hunt for Red October and trying to re-assemble my life. Jill doesn't like clams or The Hunt for Red October. That was a year ago.

"Maybe it 'alone manliness,'" she says. These days we watch "Brothers" side-by-side on the couch, and she's even listening to me spill more World War II knowledge, such as how the magazine of the M1 sprang from the rifle when empty and often gave away a soldier's position, how unusually fast the German machine gun could fire, and what "points" meant when it came to a soldier being rotated back home.

It hasn't been wasted effort: A few nights later, Jill and I are walking by a toy store and I point out a toy soldier set to her. "That's a Sherman tank!" she exclaims. In the bookstore I point out the memoir of Dick Winters. "Gee," Jill says, looking cute and lovely, "I kind of want to read this now."

A few nights later, she looks up a Damien Lewis Web site. What we see are snapshots at some party of a handsome young actor - nine years younger than I am - who smirks and struts and looks bloated on his own ego. "He looks like such an asshole," Jill remarks to me. "But as Major Winters..." Idolized. (March 2007)

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