Boldly Going; Watch Out; Test House; Solemnly Sworn; An Honest Tragedy; Now Boarding; That Biting Cold

Boldly Going

There's a new "Star Trek." The show has a crappy little ship and a spooky feeling, and is about reluctantly going where you haven't gone before.

That's been the theme of "Star Trek" since all of us were pups, of course, but this show is different. It takes place about 150 years from now and 100 years before William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. There is no Federation; this Enterprise is only ship flying around out there from these parts. The captain, the guy from "Quantum Leap," keeps his log in Earth (actually, Christian calendar) dates, and has brought along his beagle.

The Earth-centric crew includes just two aliens. One is a doctor of incurable cheer. The other is a Vulcan, who are in this period of "Star Trek" history are cold, unbending, French-like know-it-alls. The rest of the crew includes a Southerner, an Englishman, a trembling linguist who I think is Japanese, and a space brat. The crew seems eager and brash, though I think they'd prefer their pioneering be less dangerous. Everybody longs to stick their heads in the sand, after all.

Indeed, the whole tone seems to hinge on being on your own and terrified. For example, in the second episode the Enterprises board a strange space ship and find the alien crew being siphoned for their precious bodily fluids by the clearly superior technology of another, unknown species. In the spirit of early explorers throughout time, the Enterprise zips away. Later, over his dinner, Capt. Quantum Leap develops ingestion over this decision and orders the ship back.

The aliens doing the siphoning return, of course, and put the crappy little Enterprise in immediate, inescapable danger. How they do in fact escape is a deft combination of cavalry-over-the-hill, like the first "Trek," and as much deepening of character development as TV usually tolerates.

"Enterprise" owes recent, innovative shows such as "The X Files" for its scariness. The lights are out on the alien ship of victims, for instance, and the Enterprise people have to poke around the tomb with flashlights (tools that no sci-fi series has ever succeeded in rendering truly futuristic). Anytime TV limits the senses like this, something's going to go "Boo!" And when it does, the tools we thought we could depend on aren't worth more than airport security gates. The transporter is a death trap. Phasers are untried. Photon torpedoes careen with minds of their own, as likely to kill their inventors as they are alien bad guys.

But at last here is another "Trek" that calls a bad guy a bad guy, at least in Capt. Quantum Leap's slang. The "Next Generation" didn't have enough bad guys. Even the Klingons (new to the Earthers of "Enterprise"'s time, they're first called "Klingots") were diluted to some sort of quasi-Native American. TNG was sexless, too -- whatever you could say against Kirk's mission, there was sex, even if it was usually just his -- and on TNG, every alien encountered came across like a strange new corporation crafted in a focus group. My biggest gripe against "Next Generation," though, was that I had a friend who worshiped it and eventually I had a falling out with him. Funny how friends fall away.

My favorite "Trek" remains the old show, which was based on Horatio Hornblower -- a solid adventure tale. The Kirk and Spock Hour wasn't realistic -- nobody would keep command of a starship with a gut like William Shatner sported by the second season -- but it was arresting TV, and that's the point. Fisticuffs, cheap music and effects, yuks at the best moments. Villains were villainous, and the Klingons still said things like, "Good, honest hatred: very refreshing!"

Jill asks what I think of "Enterprise." "I like it," I say. "I need something to follow these days."

"It just doesn't pull you in," Jill replies. "It's no 'X Files.'"

No, but the new "Trek" is a show for times of no friends and little organization or backup. A time when when you don't yet know a hundredth, a thousandth, of what you'll eventually discover through pain and loss. (October 2001)

Watch Out

I've lived almost two months without a watch.

My old one quit in November, minutes after I paid $5 for a new battery. Maybe the ex-Soviet shopkeeper who installed the battery botched the job, but I haven't had time to fiddle with the thing because of the holidays. Speaking of which, I also held off buying a new watch, thinking that one might show up with a bow in December. But it was look ma, no hands.

"December isn't over," Jill intoned a few days before Christmas.

I liked my latest watch. I picked it up in England in 1997, when Jill and I barged in on a couple of online friends and bummed a meal. The couple lived in Surrey, which is sort of like Westchester County except Germany once bombed it. The husband owned a global voice-recognition technology company. He drove a new Mercedes. No technology helped him, however, when the car started breaking down every other week. He told me he went back to the shop over and over, and finally got so fed up that the dealership started giving him Mercedes novelty watches -- complete with an imprint of the famous hood ornament -- every time he drove/got towed in.

He had a whole drawerful of the watches. "Bloody car," he said.

"Excuse me, do you have the time?" people used to ask me, spotting my watch. I always had the time. "2:43," I'd answer, or "Five to eleven." I enjoyed walking around New York with everyone thinking I owned a broken-down British Mercedes.

But time is against all machines, even watches. Now my wrist is bare. "Excuse me, do you have the time?"

"I think it's about quarter to 10, but I'm not really sure."

I never ask strangers the time. I figure they might, if they have a nice watch, think I want to catch a glimpse so I can maybe steal it. Or, this being New York, they might be lunatics. One of my favorite methods for catching the time on the subway is to scan for the wristwatches of others -- easier in summer: no coat cuffs -- and then tilt my head to read. This doesn't work as well with digital watches. Also, the trick is to not tilt your head too much, or they'll think I'm trying to see if they have a nice watch so I can steal it.

Living without a watch has reminded me of my days as a freelancer: bopping from office to office, free of the time clock and setting my own schedule of appearances. Lack of watch gives me a kind of automatic excuse.

If I do need to know the time, however, New York has many places for the bare-wristed to catch the time, some even more dangerous than the subway. For example, a famous ATM slip they recovered from under the World Trade Center reads "8:42 a.m., 09/11/2001." Cash registers tell you what time you bought your sandwich, which is more than most of the cashiers will do. Drycleaners always display a clock. I wonder why.

I can also look at my computer. Or I can ask Jill.

Jill usually tells me what time it's going to be, as in, "Can you get home a little early today? Say 4:45 to 5:15?" Jill makes me chillingly conscious of time, since Alex is home from school this week and we've had trouble getting steady babysitting. I'm always late. Even now, I have to hit the road by 3:30, and I see by my desktop that it's 3:09. Oops, no, 3:10.

(Afterward: Jill didn't give me a watch for Christmas. She gave me two. One was set to Daylight Savings Time -- a cruel trick on Christmas Day, when I was home all day with two kids and eager for every minute to pass. I wore of the new watches today; it makes my wrist cold. Nonetheless, I'm also getting the broken watch repaired.) (January 2002)

Test House

Jill likes to cook, and she's always wanted "a test kitchen," like the ones where big cooking magazines try recipes before publishing them. Actually, Jill wants a "test house," where we would have many expendable devices and would do the things you're always told not to do, or, if you're like us, have always wondered about doing.

I admire Jill's sense of fun here; I'm a fan of actions without consequences. It would be nice to cram stuff down the toilet bowl and see if it still flushes. It would be cool to see what I could "accidentally" leave in the gas oven. I've wanted to do this ever since we turned on our then-new stainless steel oven a little over a year ago, and a fire erupted. The contractor's people had left a little bottle of stainless steel cleaner inside. I scrambled for the hardware-store fire extinguisher thinking only of Alex's tall tank of oxygen, which was just on the other side of the wall where the fire showed an inclination to venture, quick. I felt manly using the extinguisher, but all in all it was too serious a test. Also, when Jill and were dating, I tried re-heating leftover Chinese beef and broccoli by wrapping it in tinfoil and putting into a lit oven. Fortunately for Jill, who still gets mileage out of this incident, I didn't wrap the tinfoil tightly enough; some juice leaked out and caught fire, and Jill taught me about putting out fires with table salt. (She still refers to my specialty dish of "Spicy Beef Reheated in Flaming Oven.")

"Think of all the stuff you could try out on your appliances!" Jill marvels. "Can you hook the fridge up to dispense lemonade? Chardonnay? Which jams the mixer blades more quickly: a wooden or a metal spoon? Which makes worse noise? Can you chop a brick in the Cuisinart?" She also wants to have Melting Stuff races between the microwave and the conventional oven, the scenes of other Jill tests:

-A microwave oven. She wants to put metal in it. I haven't told her that I've accidentally done this with our current microwave, which is how it got those two pitted spots like meteor hits on the inside. All you get a blue spark and the panicky certainty that you've somehow given yourself brain damage. I say go all the way, and try a can of shaving cream at one minute, full power. Also a can of soda.

(I would never do bugs, incidentally. I had a friend who once put a cockroach in a microwave at full power, hoping to hear that gratifying little pop after a few seconds. After a few minutes, my friend opened the door to see what had happened. The cockroach came out and ran down the counter. True story, I think.)

-Hard drive. Download everything that may contain a virus. I have a theory that computer e-mail viruses in fact don't exist, but are instead composed of all the warnings that fly around e-mail channels about computer viruses.

-Bathroom drain. Drop quarters down until it plugs. When you have to call the plumber to undo the pipes, you'd find all this money to pay him!

-Bedroom air conditioner. Run it when it's 40 outside, and sleep under the down comforter.

-Drill. Can you drill into an egg? The wall beside a light fixture? Into the side of the TV?

-Children. I'm dying to try Homer Simpson's theory: "Nowadays, kids practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all."

Most valuable of all would be "a test spouse." Jill laughs at this idea -- which is good -- but this person would be the one where I'd first try such responses as "None of your business," "Downtown, drinking," or "Shut the hell up." I pretty much need a test spouse for these phrases. Jill's sense of fun only goes so far these days.

I'm unsure how you'd correct the damage. Move, I suppose. I can see where it'd would be good to have three or four test houses. Maybe we can try that. Jill laughs and laughs at the ideas written here. "But you've got to understand, I'm exhausted," she says. Who wouldn't be, cleaning up after all those experiments? (May 2002)

Solemnly Sworn

I get there at 9:10 a.m., 40 minutes later than the time stipulated on my Notice of Jury Service.

"Don't sweat it," Jill's friend Patricia, a jury service veteran and an attorney, told me the night before. "The first day I just sat there. The second day they let us all go home at 2. The last day they sent us home at 10:30! Most of the judges are on vacation this time of year anyway. Plus they show you a movie! It's about the justice system. But here's the thing: There's a little room off to the side of the main jury service waiting room. There are desks in there, and places to plug in your laptop. Go in there."

I don't have a laptop, but I do go in there and dump my stuff on a quiet, wobbly carrel which has the rich, phony wood finish I recognize from study halls. I listen to the speech from the guy who is first in the system to try to turn ignorant citizens into a part of 12 angry men.

"12 Angry Men was a movie," he says. "This is real life. Look around at your fellow jurors. They're smiling. They're happy to be here. People have met business associates on jury duty and later gotten rich. They've met the love of their life on jury duty. If you're an congenial individual, you'll make many friends here. If you're not a congenial individual, you'll make less. Plus we will be showing you a movie shortly about what we do here. Some of you will find that a point of sadness. Some of you will find it a point of joy. You will have to determine ...

"But we have found that no matter who you are or what you do in real life, as soon as you walk through these doors, you become what we like to call 'alphabetically challenged.' We will, therefore, be calling you clearly by last name to come up and give us your summons for jury duty."

He starts at the front of the alphabet - which is "A" - so I open my book and begin to read. Sooner than I expect, a woman who went with the A's returns to the carrel next to me and snaps open her Daily News. "'H' as in 'Hawaii' through 'M' as in 'Man-gooooo,'" I hear the guy announce.

Patricia armed me with a sure way to escape this civic duty. If I am called for a case, ask to speak to the judge and the attorneys privately, and tell them I have a special needs son at home and therefore am afraid I won't be able to give the case my best attention. "That's if you even get called, which I'm betting you won't," Patricia said.

"Court here is 9 to 5 each and every day," the guy tells us, "in case you didn't hear. You may arrive here tomorrow at 9:30, and Wednesday at 10 a.m. No later. You may have been told by some friend who had jury duty that you will be going home at 10:30. You may have been told my some friend that we won't even make you come in the third day. Patricia may have told you many things. They are all untrue."

I've entered a world, I sense, of instructions that are simplistic and slowly delivered, but inviolable, where my time is pre-arranged. This carrel room smells like an old airport in an August heat wave. Cream-colored walls under tired neon, scuffed paneling, a stark metal coat rack. When called, I leave this room - careful to take my bag - and hand in my summons. I return to the cream-colored room, along the way being told, "There is no access to the Internet; there'll be no surfing here."

There is of course a guy here who forgot to turn off his cell phone, however. "I dunno," he says into the phone. "Okay. What time are you leaving? Around 1?" How long before somebody shoots this guy a look and asks him to leave? I should have brought earplugs to perform my civic duty.

At 10:10 a.m., the guy up front breaks in again. "We're going to have to delay the movie," he says, "some of you are needed immediately." He starts calling names. Pretty soon, he calls mine.

About a half hour later, I've tried everything. Having first been advised to raise my hand, I Approached the Bench and whispered to the judge and two lawyers about Alex, who incidentally ran a fever that morning of 100.5. The judge's face contracts as if I'd try to bum a quarter to help buy a CD player. She asks why I didn't apply for an extension.

"This is my third extension, your honor. I am afraid I won't-"

Wince. "Step back."

A few more people shuffle up and whisper until the judge lifts her face and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, I remind you that this is your duty as citizens of this country. I don't want to hear about problems you think you're going to have next week!"

Pretty soon, I have a seat in the jury box. The lawyers start their questions, shattering the silence of the courtroom, to weed us out. It feels like the interview in MiB, when Will Smith drags the screeching table across the silent room. I tell them I was a crime reporter. I tell them my wife her had wallet stolen three months ago. Never caught the guy, either.

"Just to back up," the judge says to me, "you said you have two small kids?"

"Yes, your honor."

"What do you do for fun?"


Big laugh from everyone except the defendant. The prosecutor then asks if anyone would have any special feelings if only cops were to testify. Ah-ha. Up goes my hand. I say with complete conviction that I'd feel better if there were a couple civilians, just for balance.

"By the same token," something possesses me to add, "I do think police officers might be held to a slightly higher degree of scrutiny when testifying than civilians."

Jeff, shut the hell up!

"Could you be a fair and impartial juror of police testimony?"

"I ... think so." Power in the pause.

"Thank you for your candor," says the assistant DA, who could use a shave. He reminds me of Nixon.

The judge cuts us loose for a few hours while they select on. Maybe they'll plea-bargain, I tell myself all afternoon. Please plea-bargain. Please plea-bargain. Please plea-bargain.

"Is it a case where they could plea-bargain?" Jill wants to know when I call her that afternoon. Heavy with my instructions to not discuss the case, I've decided to only tell her with wit that it's a case where, get this, it's a case where somebody may, this is great, may, or may not, have done something, get a load of this, done something wrong!

"All cases are like that!" Jill snaps. I hear Ned in the background, screeching like Will Smith's chair.

"I wish I'd come up with better excuses," I say.

"I wish you had, too," Jill says.

I return to the courtroom. They have weeded. Two jurors went the first time, three the second. I'm not one of them. Someone says, "Would the rest of you raise your right hand, please?" and my hand goes up. (September 2002)

An Honest Tragedy

"If someone were an ambitious shit, he wouldn't care about Dick (Yates), because his books didn't sell and people thought him odd, a loser. But if you cared about writing, you cared about Dick." -- A Tragic Honesty.

There's a new biography about novelist Richard Yates. It's a good book. I wish I'd written it.

A poet-professor named Richard Weber turned me onto Yates some 20 years ago. "Another writer you should read is Richard Yates," said Weber, shambling in sandals and beaded vest through the creative writing workshop that highlighted my one calendar year of college.

Weber told me this about a week before I dropped out, but a few months later, on my day off from Arthur Treacher's as I wandered the public library of Ithaca, N.Y., I dropped by the Y section of Fiction. I read A Good School first, and even while digesting the first paragraphs of that book, my mind began to fumble for adjectives adequate to Yates: deft, gentle, funny, brutal. I still can't describe Yates's style -- I can't copy it, either, but that's another funny and brutal story -- but for me Yates was the first writer who ever, to quote one of his characters, "made the difficult look easy."

(I was going to insert more samples of Yates's writing here, but I've learned that when writing an essay, you don't use the words of writers who are much, much better than you.)

He published just seven novels: Revolutionary Road (his first, swiftly lauded as a classic of post-WWII suburban angst), The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace, A Special Providence, A Good School, Cold Spring Harbor, and Young Hearts Crying, plus the short-story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love. The manuscript of his last novel, Uncertain Times, they found in his freezer after he died in a Veterans Administration hospital in 1992. The bio has spurred the publishing world to re-issue some titles, though you'll be lucky to locate more than a couple of these fine books.

Yates was apparently his own worst enemy. He smoked incessantly, in and out of TB wards almost until the hour he hit that VA floor. He drank. He railed against the Ivy League elite. He pissed on a friend's house. He was carted from Bread Loaf Writers Colony in a straightjacket; the nervous breakdowns in Disturbing the Peace are pure autobiography (as was much of his fiction); and Blake Bailey, his lucky biographer, recounts how more than one girlfriend endured tirades from the man who once screamed he was the "greatest fucking writer in America." Weber knew him at the Yaddo writers' conference, where Yates was in a funk because some poet just published in The New Yorker read the manuscript of Easter Parade and thought it stunk.

In the last two decades, Yates has become a minor focal point in my life. His daughter was the inspiration for Elaine on "Seinfeld," which Jill and I love. I once happened to meet Andre Dubus, one of Yates's students and admirers - and a great writer in his own right - and the first thing I asked Dubus was what he thought of Yates. ("He's a HE-ro!" Dubus said).

And I've steered more than a few people, including Jill, onto Yates. "Nothing like Updike's self-indulgence," said one professor. "I wasted a whole afternoon reading Yates," said my friend Jon, who meant it as a compliment to Yates's smooth style. Jill likes him, too, and wonders as I do why publishing mistreated Yates.

"'member the guy in Catch Me If You Can?" she asked. "The imposter? How he walks right into that class and slams his books down and says, 'I am the teacher here!' Well," said Jill, "Yates didn't know how to slam his books down."

In 1983, something about an under-appreciated great writer appealed to me, and I called Yates. Couldn't believe I simply found him in the Boston phone book.

"I'm trying to reach Richard Yates."

"This is Richard Yates."

"I'm trying to reach Richard Yates the writer."

"This is Richard Yates the writer."

Jesus, it really was. First thing he did was ask me about my writing. Seven years I'd been at it, then. "Oh," he said, "you're just a beginner."

He sounded gentle and quiet. He could be that way on first impressions. "Nicest thing about me is my stories," he once admitted to a therapist. My call also came about the time that Yates gave at the University of Massachusetts, and not one person showed up. Indeed, Yates often shambled with no beaded vests to endear him to passersby. Once in the mid-1970s, groggy on anti-depressants and probably whiskey, he actually wandered around Jill's neighborhood in Manhattan until a doorman drove him off and called him a bum.

I wish I'd been the one person in that reading. I wish I'd met him. "I wonder," I proposed to Jill the other night, "what my mother would have said if I'd told her in 1976 that her 14-year-old son wanted to go to the Upper East Side of Manhattan and hang out with his future wife and Richard Yates."

"A depressed teenage New York girl and a heavily medicated, alcoholic novelist?" Jill pointed out. I guess I know what my mother, now long gone, would have said.

By the time I didn't have to ask anyone's permission to hang around with New York women or the heavily medicated, I'd lost my edge to write fiction (a drifting Yates would found unconscionable). Nineteen-ninety-two came and went. Still, I carted my complete works of Yates apartment to apartment. Now I'll do the same with his biography, which I'm using to guide me to not only the work of Yates but to the fiction that wowed him, like Gatsby and Madame Bovary. I'm hoping that something in there will teach me how to slam my own books down, because I'm no beginner anymore. (October 2003)

Now Boarding

I call Jill at the airport before boarding. A squalling kid nearby reminds me of Ned. I've left her alone with Ned and Alex, and I'm alone here too, at the airport. "I just called to check in," I tell her. "You didn't have to do that," she says.

Now my day splinters. Self-serve check-in and leaving my suitcase with the security guy leaves me 20 minutes until I have to start the security mess. I drop my carry-on and slap my inside breast pocket for my boarding pass, which is in its airline-issued paper folder, which is in my corporate-issued heavy yellow business-size envelope with my dot-matrix-printed itinerary.

Cash in the breast pocket of my shirt: a couple fives and many singles, to buy headphones and booze (which will go down as "Tips: Misc." on my office expense report). Airlines should either charge an even $5 for a munchkin bottle of cabernet or be willing to make change! Breast pocket is important, because there's no room to root in your pants pockets once the slug settles into the middle seat next to you. Earplugs are in the breast pocket of my sport coat, which is even more accessible.

Quick trip to the magazine store leaves 15 more minutes until it's 35 minutes until boarding. I scope the security check-in line. Not too bad. Glance at the CNN ticker on the bar TV on the way to the bathroom. Something happened in a desert.

Oh my goodness, that all took almost 15 minutes!

Once when travelling with Jill, she mentioned this block of time stuff, along with how weird the architecture is in airports. Air travel also makes me do weird things at weird times of the day, such as slipping on shoes and a sport coat at 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday, taking three trips to the bathroom to tinkle between 10:20 and 10:35 a.m., or doing a crossword in a narrow seat while brushing elbows with slugs from the South at 11:10.

At security, I drop my carry-on in the tray and slip the metal stuff in my pants pockets into my sport coat pockets (watch the earplugs!), fold my coat and place it in the tray. I whip off my belt -- careful to not accidentally flog the woman behind me -- and drop it in a second tray, followed by my shoes. I also try to not stare at the sign above the X ray belt, that says that the U.S. Secretary of Transportation has determined that airports utilize security measures insufficient to insure air travel safety. I hear another squalling kid.

Past security, graduating the wands and beepers with a tiny ceremony ("C'mon through, sir ..."). I slap my torso to check for cash, and for the ticket in its airline-issued paper folder, which is in my corporate-issued heavy yellow business-size envelope with my dot-matrix-printed itinerary. I slap for earplugs. I bring earplugs because I can't abide the announcements, the canned music, the chatter of fellow cattle. The squalling kids I don't mind as much, anymore. Important: Take plugs out before cabin pressurizes, but after seat belt spiel.

For a while near the gate, there's time to read and doze, browse for chips and decide they're too expensive, and explore the bathrooms. Time ticks on, though; options fall away one by one like career choices never pursued. Can't risk the chips now, but will hit the bathroom. Then can't risk the bathroom now, either. I will please have my photo I.D. out and ready.

This Sunday morning is gone like a block of ice under the sun. Down the tube now, pausing near the entrance of this great machine. Through the gaps in the gateway I see the skin of the plane, fine rings of bare gray aluminum outlining each rivet, screw, or whatever in hell they are that will hold my life together in the thin air. The air in among the seats and strangers is dry, hissing from the ceiling. I find my window seat. I slap myself for earplugs one last time before I dive into where the only purpose in life is to stow your carry-on safely under the seat in front of me, wedge novels into the pouch of the upright seatback 18 inches in front of my face, and prepare for take-off. (November 2003)

That Biting Cold

The forecast: teens, teens, wind, snow, teens, sleet, teens. Ice on the sidewalks. Ankle-high mounds of snow, rock-hard and awaiting a new storm of reinforcements. Jill went about a week ago, started raving at The Weather Channel and abandoned her silk underwear on principle alone. "I'm having my own cold snap," she said.

I never knew about silk underwear until Jill. Growing up, I had the firemen's checkered weave long-johns, off-white even before I wore them uninterrupted from Thanksgiving until Easter. But for the holidays one year recently Jill gave me a pair of silk long-johns from Eddie Bauer. Soon I got tops. Then more of each. They're airy, yet they keep me so warm I think they should be issued to astronauts. The oldest of them is also turning to threads, and beginning, I think, to smell. Maybe if I wash them the cold will leave.

I'm near a snap, too, even though I grew up in winters like this, in Maine. I used to take a 45-minute walk to school, along with a friend, a habit we sort of both fell into one September and, despite our both being on the college-prep track in high school, never dumped when the snow flew. Junior year, I recall, was the deepest cold: below zero, double mittens, my breath making frost on the fur of my parka. That was an "open winter," meaning no snow, just soil like the poles of Neptune. Lot of times we got snow, of course. Then cold. No melting until late April.

My family seemed to treasure their long driveways. We had a quarter-mile monster at the house where I grew up, I remember shoveling (Maine's big winter sport, no matter what the ski industry says) with my brother and dad and mum, cutting the banks with my blade and seeing levels of snow that had built up like geologic layers during a two-day N'easter. That's what we called blizzards in Maine, "N'easters." "Wish it was two weeks ago," I panted to my brother as we went after a drift. "Wish it was July," he replied. "This stuff wouldn't last 20 minutes." I looked through the whiteout and saw my mum down by the foot of the driveway, standing with her shovel propped like a musket under her arm, defying the oncoming city plow to bury us again.

A few years later my dad died, and mum was on her own with me, and she got started on her new life by getting a house with a driveway perhaps two feet shorter than a quarter of a mile. She did decide to get into the 19th century, however, and hired a neighbor to plow it with his Jeep. Thing about plowed snow is, it's compressed, and takes it's revenge at being pushed around on the fool who tries to shovel it to a convenient side. One year we got bombed with two feet, and after the plow my mother and I got to work. Once she paused, leaned on her shovel/musket, and with great clouds of gray vapor announced, "At least it's not that biting cold!"

No mum, it was a balmy 30 below. It got into your clothes. The snow squeaked.

It squeaks now in New York. The bad news is, we've had a January like Maine. The good news is, I admit, we also had a July like Maine. I'm no fan of heat waves, but walking down the street now, my cheeks stinging, the wind slicing through my gloves and seeping into my pullover, I try to remember what a coating of sweat and mid-summer city grime feels like on my neck. Can't.

"It is that biting cold," says Jill. For herself this year, Jill got a toasty pair of new boots. "My feet feel like they're still in bed," she announced one frigid afternoon. New Yorkers becoming fed up with their boots. Our PTA president e-mailed to say she got so sick of lacing up her Timberlines that she elected, on a day of single-digit wind chill, to wear open-toed red sandals. I'm guessing that after about two blocks it was tough to tell where the sandals ended and the toes began, as she stumbled her way over the squeaking snow. Winter Tip One: You can tell the quality of the tread on your boots by how soon after you step through a snowbank you have to stamp the snow from your boots.

Winter Tip Two: Sometimes snow doesn't squeak, must instead gets ground by tires and boots and sandals into a brown-sugar-like, slippery meal of road salt and dirty slush. Alex hates to be dragged through this.

Alex hates the cold in general. I look down as the pink of his cheeks and nose trembles on red. "It's cold. it's cold!" he announces. Sometimes I take Alex and Ned out in the cold, all bundled up in the double-stroller, the plastic windscreen buttoned down. I took them out in the stroller the other day in a sleet storm, figuring 32 degrees was at least more like a planet closer to the Sun, like maybe a moon of Saturn. The wind screen quickly iced over; sleet dripped on their boots. Maybe I think this will fortify them somehow for the future, maybe thinking it will help them one day in high school. Maybe I'm trying to give them a pinker, more vivid picture of my own youth. Maybe I just want them to appreciate our living room, and July. (February 2004)


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