Friday, June 29, 2012

It's My Narcoleptic Piano Teacher's Fault

My kid is starting kindergarten in the fall, and his new school has a menu of options for his extracurricular afterschool activities. We plan to enroll him in the afterschool program, as gainful employment precludes us from picking him up at 3pm. Martial arts and art are among the options, and as the boy has the energy to power Doc Brown's Delorean, and spends most of his sitting time drawing pictures of ninjas (actually ninjas, dragons, disemboweled supervillains, dinosaurs, skulls, skeletons, and Spider-Man), it seems martial arts and art are the obvious way to go.

One of his other options is music, specifically Suzuki Piano. I have no idea what the difference is between a Suzuki piano lesson and a regular piano lesson, but I'm a little leery of starting him on music lessons so young, particularly with a teacher at his school.

That seems counterintuitive even to me, because music has been my biggest hobby (and "hobby" doesn't feel like a strong enough word, but let's face it: my lifetime music earnings are south of a grand) since I was a teenager. I've played in a lot of bands, and in most cases I was the least gifted musician in the room. I got kicked out of bands for that very reason. But I stuck to it, and I got better, but one thing hasn't changed: in a room full of rehearsing musicians, figuring out how to play this piece or that, I always feel like a kid who flunked freshman algebra sitting in on an astrophysics debate.

That's because I can't read music off the page, I only know the names of about eight chords (the easy ones), I don't know what 5ths or 3rds are, I'm totally out to sea when musicians talk music. I'm able to keep in good musical company because I have good ears, and can figure things out myself given an extra moment or two, but that's no substitute in a pinch for just being able to play a diminished seventh when asked.

I taught myself to play guitar staring when I was 14, but I didn't take lessons. I resolutely refused them (not that anyone was begging me), and took a kind of weird pride in the fact that I'd taught myself, aided only by a chord chart and a stack of Guitar World tablature magazines. I got pretty good, but it took me probably three times as long as it would have if I'd just taken a couple of lessons.

I'd taken music lessons before, starting in the second grade. One of my best friends in the neighborhood let it be known that he was taking piano lessons from our second-grade teacher, Mrs. Waln, after school a couple days a week. Mrs. Waln would send our class home, and then come over to his house an hour after school and teach him beginning piano for 45 minutes. I was at this friend's house, and he played something on the family piano well enough that I was impressed, and immediately decided this was a skill I wanted. I told my mom about it and before I knew it, I too was signed up for afterschool piano lessons with Mrs. Waln.

I'm trying to think how to describe Mrs. Waln to you. She seemed to my 7-year-old eyes to be about 150, but in hindsight I'm going to say she was around 60, maybe 70. She walked kind of hunched over, she wore a very '70s pair of glasses on a ball chain around her neck, and she dressed like the Church Lady. If present-day Vicki Lawrence were to put on her old "Mama's Family" wardrobe (and why doesn't she? She's finally the same age as the character!), she'd look like Mrs. Waln.

With a deep sigh, she'd come in when I answered the doorbell, nearly dragging a big flowered tote bag, full of beginning piano books, lesson plans, teachers' textbooks, and unchecked tests. That's just what I could see -- the bag was vast, and clearly contained multitudes. I'd open the piano bench and pull out whatever book we were working from at the time, put it on the rack, and we'd sit down, she on the right, me on the left.

She taught me the names of the notes, that the black keys were the sharps and flats, and how to read basic sheet music for piano. Before long, I was playing songs, sight-reading (that's what it's called when you play something as you're reading it) simple traditional songs from the simple traditional piano books she'd brought.

I was excited to learn how to play piano, and I caught on pretty quickly. I practiced and I got pretty good, or at least I thought so at the time. I'm trying to remember how long I took lessons with Mrs. Waln for, because though I want to say it was a short time, it had to have been at least a couple of years, considering how much I learned.

In any case, however long it was it was long enough that I came to dread each lesson with Mrs. Waln. It wasn't that she was mean, or impatient, or belittling, or anything like that. She was just too old. Maybe not too old, but too tired. And who could blame her? She was an over-60 (maybe over 70) woman who just spent the day in a roomful of 7-year-olds. Of course she was tired.

But it did not make for a fun piano lesson. My lasting memories of these sessions consist of two things. One: in mid-lesson she could always be counted on to produce a sandwich bag (the non-Ziploc kind with the foldy pouch) full of damp-looking Nilla wafers, which she would chew slowly with her mouth open while I struggled through "Camptown Races." I can't be certain that they were Nilla wafers, of course, as I never saw any packaging other than the sandwich bag, but when she chewed them right next to my face as we shared a piano bench, they sure smelled like Nilla wafers (or their generic supermarket equivalent).

And two: her method of teaching, once I was good enough to sight-read something, was to sit there silently while I played, and write notes in the margins of the sheet music. If I had trouble with a particular bit she'd write "faster" next to it, and if I did something well she'd write "good." These notes weren't much good for later practice, but they were a good way to let me know how I was doing without stopping me or distracting me by talking.

But after a certain point, the lack of pep in her step advanced to full-on narcolepsy, and she would fall asleep, sitting up next to me on the piano bench as I played. Her felt-tip pen was as always unsheathed and resting at the margin of the sheet music, but as she dozed it would ever so slowly start to droop, so before long all my piano books were full of squiggly lines in the margins, where Mrs. Waln's hand had dragged down the page as the slipped deeper and deeper into sleep. Her tongue would always just barely stick out, too, and I distinctly recall her once drooling on Middle C. 

These lessons were the first time I was confronted with true human frailty, with the reality of aging, with the decay of the body, the loss of vigor and the onset of fatigue. It was the first time I realized I wouldn't be young and spry and able to stay awake through a piano lesson forever. It was the first time I saw an adult drool. It was a far deeper gaze into the existential abyss than my young mind was ready to process. Also, it got boring, because I couldn't learn anything from someone who was asleep.
In any case, the experience with Mrs. Waln turned me off the idea of taking music lessons, so when I got interested in guitar a few years later I was determined to learn on my own, not to bring some weird stranger and their personal habits/medical conditions into it. And even though it took me forever and I'm still totally out to sea when I try to play with more learned musicians, it's more or less worked out. So even though I'd like to see my son get all the same joy from playing music that I have, I don't think we'll be signing up for afterschool piano lessons with a teacher from his school. At least not without a more rigorous interview process than my folks put Mrs. Waln through.

Friday, June 22, 2012

When Collect Calling Ruled The Airwaves

I was watching the basketball game the other night, and during one of the many commercial breaks, I couldn't help noticing how many ads there were for various cell phone data plans, trumpeting higher speeds, and the relative superiority of their networks, and on and on and on... THIS one doesn't lock you into a contract! THAT one offers unlimited text! This OTHER one has the fastest data network in the country! This one HERE says it's the most reliable!

So many phones, so many carriers, so many data plans, so much technical jargon to absorb! It's enough to make a person of a certain age long for the simpler days when there were no such commercials, because cell phones were strictly for rich people and assholes, and the rest of us were forced to use olde-tymey phones with cords and no touchscreens that didn't vibrate or send text messages or provide turn-by-turn directions to restaurants it recommended itself.

Of course, the networks did not just show test patterns before cell phone commercials came along. Just as cell phones made landlines obsolete, cell phone commercials displaced the many, many commercials for long-distance and collect-calling plans, which by my scientific estimate accounted in the '90s or 96.9% of all commercials.

For a long time, 1-800-COLLECT occupied this space unchallenged, trumpeting that you could "Save up to 44%!" on collect calls. Eventually, the slogan was dumbed down to "Save a buck or two!" but I would argue that to most lazy motivationally challenged Americans, a buck or two is not worth all the trouble of dialing eleven extra digits, particularly if you're not the one saving the buck or two.

Then 1-800-CALL ATT came along to contest 1-800-COLLECT's hoarding of the ultra-lucrative collect calling market. "Know the code!" was their slogan, but since "COLLECT" is a lot easier code to know than "CALL ATT," they switched to "Dial down the center!," because CALL ATT dials as 225-5288, and 2, 5, and 8 are in the middle of the three-column keypad on olde-tymey phones.

It wasn't too long after that that long-distance calling options started popping up: "Dial 10-10-220 before the number you're calling! Calls up to 20 minutes are only 99 cents!" Then there was 10-10-321, and 10-10-900, and on and on, a numeral soup of calling options promising to save us money on our long-distance calls. This was after Sprint and MCI had been advertising reduced-rate long-distance calling for years, so having to dial a seven-digit prefix before dialing the actual number (we used to actually dial entire phone numbers every time we made a phone call, sometimes on *gasp* rotary phones) seemed shady, especially when the extra seven digits didn't spell anything clever.

You see, kids, at one time phone bills were divided into local and long-distance calls, and long-distance calls were very spendy. A phone bill could be a source of enormous contention in shared households. Roommates who otherwise got along famously would come to blows over the culprit in a 25-minute mystery call to Wilmington, Delaware or wherever. And God forbid a 976 number (usually a phone sex service and always four times the normal long-distance rate) turned up on one of those phone bills -- someone might have to move out.

In my freshman year of college, I completely cut off contact with a close friend I'd made a few months prior because I discovered he'd used my dorm-room phone to call home, to call his girlfriend, to call God knows who, and ran my bill up over $100. (That's 1991 college freshman dollars.) Never talked to him again. Long distance calls were a precious commodity is what I'm saying.

Now that we can all call Kandahar or Melbourne or Walla Walla, Washington for the same price on our cell phones, this all seems quaint, but even at the time I wondered who was making so many collect calls that it should be the most hotly contested sliver of commerce in television advertising. I don't think I made more than two collect calls in my whole life -- it seemed to be something you only did in emergencies, like if your car broke down on the highway and you didn't have change for the pay phone, or you got thrown in jail, or you were being chased by wolves and fed them your wallet in hopes it might distract them long enough to close the phone-booth door. (We used to have something called a "phone booth.") Under those kind of circumstances, saving up to (the "up to" obviously meaning "less than") 44% is not a high priority, particularly not for a two-minute call.

10-10-220 was not a collect call service, just a long-distance service, and it trumpeted that all calls up to 20 minutes were only 99 cents. Isn't that adorable, and weird to think about? Before text messages, people used to talk on the phone!  And 20-minute-plus phone calls were common enough to be mentioned in commercials! What did they talk about? I only remember this period dimly, and I've long been told that I have a very brusque, let's-get-this-over-with manner on my own phone calls, so I can only speculate. Did they talk about their feelings? Their hopes? Their dreams? The Iran-Contra scandal? Who shot J.R.?  I don't think my last 50 phone calls would add up to 20 minutes.

Weirdly, these services seemed to be a unique draw for celebrity endorsements, even in the '90s, when the grunge generation disdained advertising and equated it to selling out. I recall Jay Leno taking a lot of flack for appearing in a bunch of Doritos commercials right after he got the Tonight show. What does he need the money for? Could there be anything America needs less than more snacks? That kind of thing.

Bill Hicks was not quite a mainstream act when he recorded this rant, and I think the extremity of his position on the issue may have been part of the reason for that, but it does reflect a growing sensitivity in the culture at the time to artists *air quotes*selling out*air quotes,* and a disdain in young people for the ones who did it in the crassest form: by appearing in a commercial on TV. You do a commercial, you're off the artistic roll call. All that seems to have gone out the window when 1-800-COLLECT, or 1-800-CALL ATT, or 10-10-220 came calling, though. There are some surprising, (and some not so surprising) names that sullied themselves with 1-800-COLLECT: Phil Hartman and Chris Rock. This one kind of breaks my heart. Phil Hartman was, in my opinion, the single most talented cast member ever on Saturday Night Live. NewsRadio was the most underrated sitcom of the '90s, and there should be a statue of him in the lobby wherever they do The Simpsons; even if he were still alive and celebrating his 15th year as Ronald McDonald's TV chauffeur, he's got a free pass from me. All Chris Rock does is stick his head out the window to goose the star power up a notch; I can't decide if that's better or worse. Buffy and Angel. In character! Gross! It undermines Joss Whedon's whole achievement and taints everything he's done since including the highest-grossing movie ever! They sure did make a handsome couple, though. The Simpsons. Seems shocking until you remember that Bart was the Butterfinger spokesman for quite a while there. And he had a video on MTV. And there was almost nothing you couldn't buy with his face on it if you were so inclined. Right in the midst of their prime (seasons 3-7, obviously)! Mr. T. Not shocking, not disappointing. I'm sure Mr. T made an uncomfortably heartfelt pitch to be the permanent 1-800-COLLECT spokesman, and I would pay $1,000 for video of that pitch. $1,200 if it was in 3D. Ed O'Neill. He was still on Married... With Children at the time, which makes it very difficult to suspend disbelief and accept him as an officer in the Phone Patrol. Can't really get mad at someone from Married... With Children for cashing in, though. If memory serves, 1-800-COLLECT finally found its Maytag Repairman, its Ronald McDonald, in the person of Alyssa Milano's unforgettable character Eva Savealot. She was a private eye or something, and knew how to make third-party long-distance calling just sexy enough to stay on daytime TV.   1-800-CALL ATT's roster is a little less impressive: Paul Reiser, David Arquette, and a bunch a faceless young slackers. I did find this one interesting, though, because the subtext of the whole ad is the whole don't-tell-me-what-to-do '90s anti-consumerist ethic I mentioned earlier, under a totally not dated slathering of Extreme Sports! culture: The kicker came when I realized the voiceover was by none other than Janeane Garofalo, the poster girl for the whole don't be a sellout, be suspicious of corporatism in all its forms, ethos. "I'm not trying to be bossy," she says nonthreateningly, before closing with a singsongy "but if you use 1-800-CALL ATT you'll save some money!" Familiar as I am with her work -- I even nursed a little crush on her at the time -- I found this one surprising. I'm sure she got paid well and I'm sure at the time she needed the money, and I have no axe to grind with her, but still: weird, huh? 10-10-220's lineup had a couple of eyebrow-raising names on its call sheet: Dennis Miller. This was the first moment I realized one of my favorite comedians (thanks entirely to his run as "Weekend Update" anchor) might not be that cool. Time would prove those suspicions righter than I could have imagined. Christopher Lloyd. Since he's driving a cab, we can agree that this is a toned-down reprise of Reverend Jim Ignitowski, right? Like post-rehab Jim? That's kind of sad. Like when Richard Dreyfuss reprised his character from Jaws in Piranha 3D and got eaten in the first five minues. (Note: This is not a joke, it really happened.) It's one thing to do a commercial, but isn't it worse to drag your beloved character into it? (See also: Buffy and Angel.) George Carlin. This one is so heartbreaking it actually caused a stir at the time, and Carlin even talked about it onstage. Maybe he thought -- maybe they all thought -- who cares, it's an easy paycheck. Maybe he rationalized it, like it's not like this is some kind of Earth-raping capitalist conspiracy, it's one company buying telecom access from another and selling it at their own price -- who's getting hurt? What's the harm? Whatever they thought, it turns out they were right, or at least, not so wrong, because nobody remembers any of these commercials now, probably because they were for an industry that's vanished entirely. And anyway, they were ahead of the curve, Ms. Garofalo in particular, because uncredited celebrity voiceovers are all the rage in TV commercials right now. They think I don't hear them, but I do!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Keeping Track Of Your Keys

My wife is smart, a great mother, she's easy on the eyes, fun to hang out with, she makes me laugh, and we agree on most matters, be they political, personal, or domestic (other than interior design, where I have learned to just keep my mouth shut). Fourteen years into our relationship, I genuinely enjoy her company and look forward to our evenings together (to the extent that she can stay awake for them). I love her with all my heart and more all the time. 

She does have this one habit that gets on my nerves, though. Actually it's the absence of a habit, and I am taking the unusual step of airing this matter in public in case any of my vast audience suffers from the same problem, because it so happens that I have an easy solution.

It starts with this noise. She makes it a few times a week. It's kind of like an "Uggggh!" of exasperation, but repetition has attuned me to a particular timbre that says without words or syntax exactly what's going on: she can't find her phone. Or, she can't find her keys. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both.

The noise is always heard at critical moments, when she's about to head out the door somewhere, and thus needs her phone and keys. We've all been there, and it's maddening to have your coat on and the backpack packed and realize you have to stoop around the house looking for something seemingly designed to be invisible among household flotsam. That disappointment is closely followed by a semi-frantic search through the house, though I must say that whatever may be going on inside of her emotionally at these moments, she keeps to herself -- I assume because she doesn't want me to know, or at least she doesn't want to hear what I have to say, about her predicament.

But she doesn't have to say anything -- the noise says it all, and I can hear it from the other end of the house, even when she does it quietly. And it's happened often enough that I have learned to make a mental note whenever I see her keys or her phone in a strange unusual unconventional place like the top of the refrigerator, or the windowsill in our son's room, or in the medicine cabinet, or on the toilet tank; when I hear the noise, I can gently ask if she's looking for her keys, and then point her in the right direction.

I'm not suggesting that I am any more intelligent or together than my wife. I am my own very special kind of mess, just not this kind. I'm not suggesting that losing her keys so frequently is a symptom of any kind of mental deficiency on her part. I mean, it's a symptom, but it doesn't even make her top ten. (
Kidding! I love you so much honey!) It is only because I have better habits, habits I developed when I got tired of losing my keys.

And my habits are these: my keys are on a keychain with a little squeezy hook that I put on the belt loop nearest my right hip. I then tuck the keys into the pocket nearest that belt loop to prevent jingling. When I come home, I pull the key out of the front door and put the ring in the exact same place, every single day. That way I know exactly where to look for them. I slightly adapted this method for my phone -- when I put my phone down (to the extent that I ever put it down, embarrassingly rare) I hook it up to the charger, whether it needs charging or not. That way I can avoid resorting to my wife's method of lost phone retrieval, which is to find another phone (mine) and call her own phone and then play Marco Polo with it while it rings until she finds it in the dog food bag.

My wallet, my sunglasses, my cocaine grinder -- everything I carry every day has a place where it lives when it's not in my pocket, and it saves me a lot of stress. I get stressed out watching my poor wife go through it, and though I have tried to help her adapt to my proven methods, she either can't, doesn't want to, or (most likely) would rather die than adapt to any method of my devising. I've gradually come to understand that she's just not wired that way.

To make it easier on both of us, I drilled a couple of holes in the wall directly opposite our front door and hung up a couple of fancy old-looking antique hooks she found somewhere.  The hooks were small, too small to put much of anything on them but a set of keys and a pair of sunglasses, and mine can be found anytime I'm at home on the hook on the left. The hook on the right holds my wife's keys about 50% of the time -- sometimes she hangs her purse on it, sometimes she hangs our son's coat on it. Sometimes I come home and she's got a purse on her hook and another purse on my hook, and after I take a deep breath and refrain from attacking her with the extra purse, I'll go to the bathroom and notice her keys in the shower soap dish. She doesn't have a system is what I'm saying.

My results speak for themselves, but I'd be lying if I said it was perfect. Every once in a while I'll slip up and misplace my wallet or my keys -- dragging my bike through the door, I've left my keys in the front door from time to time, and my wallet falls out of my pants pocket and under the bed when I'm undressing on occasion -- and I'm so certain that I can't possibly have put them anywhere but where they're supposed to be, I'll stalk around the house looking for them silently cursing my wife, who's obviously LYING when she says she hasn't seen them, and probably hid them just to MESS WITH ME because she's JEALOUS of my system that she's just too STUBBORN to adopt herself. I know better than to suggest any of these things to her directly, or to say them out loud, because I know these thoughts are wholly inappropriate and misguided at best, but they are there.

This kind of thing is the reason that I look back with such fondness on the brief period in my early 20's when I lived alone in a studio apartment. I wouldn't trade living with my wife and son for anything, but when you live alone, there's nobody to get mad at when you come home and find unwashed dishes in the sink, or a mess in the living room, or can't find the TV remote or your phone or your keys. When you live alone, you need only look in the mirror to know how things got the way they are in your domicile, and the total removal of even the potential for blaming someone else is more than a little liberating -- even more liberating than the usually false hope that someone you live with is directly responsible for your not having your act together.

This may come off as one big knock on my wife, but as I said I am my own special kind of mess so in the interest of fair play, I admit that she is justifiably driven insane by how I park our car -- more specifically, my failure to tell her where I parked it.

When I come home from my bar shifts, around 5am, I'm tired. After working all day at my day job, then coming home for a couple hours to kiss my family goodnight, then heading out to work on my feet all night, I've been up for about 21 hours, so I'm gibberish-talking, eyes-closing-involuntarily, hallucinatingly tired, so when I get home I park our car in whatever space I can find, with only perfunctory regard to whether it will have to be moved for street cleaning a few hours later. I get lucky a lot more often than you might think, but a lot of times I leave it in a bad spot.

So whether it needs to be moved, or whether my wife just needs it in the morning while I'm sleeping off the shift, it is up to me to let her know where it is, and I have not always been as diligent with that as I should. More times than either of us would probably care to remember, she has been forced to wake me up only a couple of hours after I went to sleep and ask me where the car is, and then stands there for a couple of minutes, with our boy in tow, both with their coats on, while I try to blinkingly remember where I parked it. I must say my wife deserves extra credit for not cutting my throat with her car keys during these moments.

I came up with an invention that I thought would solve this problem, and in theory it should have: a map of our neighborhood glued to a metal plate, with a magnet to indicate where the car is and another to indicate whether and when it needs to be moved in the morning. But even more maddeningly from my wife's point of view, I have seldom remembered to use it in those bleary after-work moments when I first get home from the bar. I've fantasized about creating an iPhone app that would serve the same function, with the information shared between our two phones automatically, but what can I say, I don't know how to create iPhone apps. Maybe you can help me with that, dear reader -- any app geniuses reading this thing?

Speaking of iPhones and inventions, I did have another idea for an invention that I strongly felt would be a smash, and ties into the lost phone/lost wallet problem: an iPhone case with a little door on the back where you can store your ID and debit card. With this, you wouldn't need a wallet, you'd dramatically lighten the load in your pockets, and you'd have a GPS attached to your ID and debit card. Or at least you'd be able to find them by grabbing your husband's phone and playing Marco Polo. 
Alas, a few weeks ago I went to a family reunion in Missouri and found that my sister-in-law has exactly such an iPhone case. Beaten to the punch! I guess I'll have to go back to my other Million Dollar Idea: superhero wetsuits for surfers. (Patent pending.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Cops Have Always Hated Me

I had kind of a weird experience the other night: I was bartending my Monday night shift as usual, and as usual I was parked directly across the street from the front door of the bar, in a space that I know after years of parking there to be safe from alternate-side street-cleaning tickets, late-night No Standing tickets (that's only in effect on the weekends), and after the 7pm expiration of the 2-Hour Parking regulation.

But a little after midnight, one of the security guys stuck his head inside the door to tell me I was getting a ticket. This made no sense: though it's not uncommon for that space, and all of Ludlow Street for that matter, to get annexed for a movie shoot (I've narrowly avoided being towed a couple of times in that situation), there were no orange cones and no signs indicating that, as there usually are.

So I hustled outside and found a uniformed NYPD officer copying my VIN (and, by the way, the 'N' stands for 'number,' so "VIN number" is redundant and we all need to stop saying it) onto a fresh parking ticket. "What's the ticket for?" I ask him in a friendly voice. "No parking," he says without looking at me, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the three stacked-up parking regulation signs for this side of the street. Just as I start to wonder if maybe they've changed the rules for this block (which has happened before) and open my mouth to ask him just that, he turns around and looks at the signs himself, then mumbles, "Oh -- it's Tuesday now."

We both laugh, and I give him a buddy-buddy "better luck next time" clap on the shoulder, and he wanders over to the other side of the street to write some valid tickets and I go back into the bar. What's striking about this is that yes, it's very unusual for a cop to admit he's done something wrong -- everyone I told this story to said anytime they'd tried to move a car in the process of getting ticketed, the cop insisted that once they had begun writing a ticket they were powerless to stop writing it, whereas in my case the guy just balled it up in his hand and shoved it in his pocket -- but on a more personal level, I was struck by how unthinkable this interaction would have been only a few years ago. If the bulk of my previous interactions with cops are anything to go by, the guy would have slammed me down on the hood of my car, handcuffed me, and sent me to central booking for the rest of the week at the moment I asked "What's the ticket for?"

There seems to be something about me that arouses contempt in the heart of on-duty sworn officers. I had a few run-ins with cops in my 20s, never for anything serious, but I always got nothing but stonefaced, barely suppressed hatred in any of these incidents. I don't understand it, because I don't talk back, or cop an attitude (pun accidental), or do anything at all to provoke them, but in every case it felt like the guy would go out of his way to mess with me. Maybe it's something about my face. Maybe I just look like a hardened criminal, or like I hate cops, or like I've got an 8-ball stuffed where it won't get sunburned. Even though I know, and everyone who knows me knows I'm no threat to anyone (except maybe the odd inanimate object during a home improvement project gone pear-shaped), cops seem to see something different.

Examples? Oh sure, I've got examples.

Right after I finished college, I embarked on a cross-country drive by myself, making stops to visit friends in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Breckenridge, Missoula, and Seattle before arriving at what would turn out to be my home for the next six years, San Francisco. I was driving south on the 101, coming down from Seattle, and had just crossed the state line into California; it was about 3am, and I'd been driving for 12 hours or so. I hadn't seen another car for hours, and I was only about 3 hours from the Golden Gate Bridge, so I was, needless to say, eager to get off the road and driving accordingly.

As I passed through a wide spot in the road I would later learn was a municipality called Willits, I slowed down a little, but not to the posted speed limit of 45mph, because as I mentioned it was 3am and the town was completely still and I was in a hurry and I could see the south end of the town as soon as I came in at the north end; had I kept my foot on the brake, by the time I got down to 45mph, I would have already been out of the town.

Indeed, I could see the sign raising the speed limit back up to 65 in the distance just as the red and blue lights went on behind me. I pull over, the guy gets my license and registration, and informs me that I was going 60 in a 45. I am, at least in my mind, answering his questions respectfully and succinctly, but apparently what he sees is a dangerous fugitive, probably with a couple of silver briefcases in the trunk and maybe a hostage, because he starts grilling me based on the fact that I have a Maryland driver's license.

I answer all of his questions about where I'm from, where I'm going, and what my general plans are honestly and patiently. I know better than to mess with cops. But he gets this strange gleam in his eye and set in his jaw, because the next thing he says is "I could give you a ticket, but you'd probably just go back to Maryland and forget about it, and there wouldn't be much I could do about it. So instead what I'm going to do is arrest you, book you, and set your bail for the amount of the ticket: $200." This seems insane to me, because it's insane, but I don't feel like there's much I can do about it but mention that I don't happen to have $200 cash on my person, but he says he'll be happy to drive me to an ATM.

My car is left by the side of the road, and he does me the minimal courtesy of not handcuffing me before I find myself illuminated by his headlights, withdrawing $200 from the machine. Then he takes me to a tiny police station and puts me in a tiny cell, where, mercifully, I am alone. An hour or so passes, and I am not sure what I'm waiting for; I can see there are no other prisoners here, and I can hear a few voices chatting and laughing as one does at a boring job, and I resist the urge to call out and remind them that I'm here.

The cop that arrested me suddenly appears and I think finally I can pay this stupid bail or fine or whatever it is and get out of here, but he says "Hey, we just got a call about a domestic dispute so we're going to have to go and handle that. We'll be back in a bit, just sit tight." As though there's anything else I can do. Another hour or so goes by, and I'm as tired as I've ever been in my life -- I'd been driving 12 hours before I got stopped -- but I can't sleep because a) the cell is too small to lay down in and has only right angles so I can't get comfortable and b) I'm so hungry by this time I can't think about anything else.

Finally the cops come back, let me out of the cell (no apologies or even acknowledgement of what they're putting me through), and process me: mugshots, fingerprints, and paying the fine. Then he drives me back to my car and as he's letting me out of the back of his squad car he hands me a business card and tells me, "Write a letter to this judge and tell him what happened, he'll probably refund most of that fine." He also told me I looked terrible and I should pull over and take a nap ASAP, and I resisted the urge to point out that I looked a lot better before he arrested me for speeding and then left me in a cement phone booth for three hours.

Is there any other explanation for this than that I somehow aroused the darkest, most sadistic impulses in this guy? Under what other circumstances is someone thrown in jail for speeding? If anything like this has ever happened to you, I would love to hear about it in the comments below, but as of this writing, I have never heard of anything like it.

But one incident is only an anomaly. One incident can happen to anyone. Two is when it starts to get weird, so without further delay, here's example #2, which occurred three years later and managed to surpass it.

I took my then-girlfriend/now-wife, her roommate, and my buddy Matt to a party just north of the Golden Gate bridge, in the big national park called the Marin Headlands. Whoever was throwing this party (and I have no memory now of who that might have been or how we heard about it) had somehow commandeered a park ranger station deep into the park. If you know your SF geography, basically we took a U-turn to the left just after the bridge and drove 20 minutes or so through unspoiled park land before arriving at this ranger station, which was like a big house with cement floors and no heat.

As it turned out, the party wasn't that great: it was cold (of course) and the only thing they had to drink was two kegs of homebrew someone had brought, and the homebrew was awful. So awful I couldn't even drink it, which anyone who knew me in 1999 would stipulate must have been some pretty awful beer. It was bad.

So, before very long, we got back in the car and started heading back. A few minutes into the trip back, through the Headlands -- guess what! -- the red and blue lights hit my rearview.

Little backstory: I had recently renewed my car's registration at the DMV, and for whatever reason they did not give me the sticker that goes in the corner of the license plate -- instead they explained that it would be mailed to me, and gave me a temporary paper registration, a little square that I was supposed to put in the back window of my car, until I could put the stickers on my plates. I don't know if they still do it this way in San Francisco (I left ten years ago this week) but these little square-paper temporary registrations were not uncommon at the time.

So I'm pulled over by an unfamiliar uniformed officer who I feared at first was a State Trooper but I soon realized was a Park Police officer, with a gun and everything, and I'm sure he assumed I was drunk driving.  That had to be it, because I wasn't speeding. If I'm being completely honest, had the beer not been so completely terrible, he probably wouldn't have been too far off base, my habits being what they were at the time. But as it stood, I was not drunk, not even close. I couldn't drink more than a couple of sips of that terrible homebrew. But I did see a familiar gleam in his eye, a gleam I had last seen in Willits, California, and the ranger ordered me out of the car for a field sobriety test: touch your nose, walk a straight line, the whole bit.

As I mentioned, it was cold, and it being the Marin Headlands -- basically an awning between the bridge and the Pacific -- pretty darn windy. So this field sobriety test, though easily passed by virtue of my not being drunk, was a bit awkward. My three passengers looked on in stunned, respectful, we-don't-want-any-trouble silence as I stood on one foot with my head tilted back and my arms outstretched, my hair and collar flapping in the breeze. Nobody protested. Nobody did or said anything to provoke him.

And yet, even after my sobriety was firmly established, the gleam returned and got a little deeper and darker, and his eyes narrowed, and he said, "Your plates are expired."

"Right, I know, but I have the temporary thing here, see?"

"Where did you get that?"

"At the DMV?"

"That's no good, your plates are expired."

"They're not expired, that's a 30-day temporary sticker. That big 11 means November, it expires in November, they're mailing me the permanent sticker. You've never seen this before?"

He doesn't answer me, because he's going to the trunk of his car. I worry for a moment that he's going for his shotgun or his taser or maybe his Park Police butterfly net. I am relieved when it is none of those things, and then I am startled when I see it's a screwdriver, and he's removing my license plates.

"What are you doing?" I say, of course. What would you say?

"Your plates are expired, I have to impound them."

"You have to impound them? How do I get them back?"

"You can pick them up at the Park Police station."

"Where's that?"

"In the Presidio," he says, meaning the big former Army base on the other side of the bridge, in the city.

"What am I supposed to do if I get pulled over? You're leaving me with no plates!"

He leaves me standing there, tosses the plates in his car, and takes off. Once again: what other possible explanation can there be for this, but that I awakened some kind of primordial adversary instinct in this guy? Once again: Have you ever heard of anything like this before? If so I would love to hear about it.

Postscript to that story: The next day I find the Park Police station in the Presidio, wander around until I find someone to talk to, and tell them my story. They can only stare blankly. It is, I see by their expressions, not common for Park Police to remove people's license plates, and they assure me they don't have mine, and they seem puzzled that someone from their station would have even been over there in the Headlands. This led to some very difficult conversations over at the DMV -- their expression when I told my story was the same I imagine it'd be if I was telling them I had a dog that smoked cigarettes.

So the very idea that I stopped a police officer from writing me a ticket, that I said something that suggested he was doing something wrong, and then clapped him on the shoulder, and then nothing happened, makes me wonder what's different about me now. Did I somehow shed my (otherwise unknown to me) air of danger and menace, and get respectable? I feel a little more respectable. And then I realized: I just got old.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Devil's Kibble

We went to visit my extended family in southwest Missouri over Memorial Day weekend and our travel couldn't have gone smoother. Our flight was direct, nonstop, and on time. Our rental car was fast, comfortable, and easy to drive. Most important, our five-year-old was well-behaved on the plane, and, except for a minor meltdown directly followed by a nap, in good spirits in the rental car. It seemed that our little friend had graduated to being a somewhat easy travel companion, and we allowed ourselves to fantasize about other, more exotic trips we might soon take with him.

Those hopes were soon dashed, however, as we pulled off the highway and realized that we'd have to make a quick stop at Wal-Mart before arriving at my grandmother's, because we knew to a certainty that she wouldn't have anything on hand that the boy would eat in a million years.

To say that this kid is a picky eater is like saying Jimi Hendrix was a guitar player. Though we did our best when he was a baby to expose him to all kinds of foods, he only liked a small fraction of what we gave him: bananas, cheese ravioli, fish sticks, chicken tenders, apple slices, veggie burgers, mac and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese, yogurt, cereal, and (of course) pizza.

That is a very limited diet, and we worried that it wasn't balanced enough, but at least there was seven days' worth of meals there, so he was eating something different every day. But at some point, things started coming off the menu. Bananas were first: after eating them almost every day for a couple of years, he was suddenly repulsed by them. Then ravioli, a dependable dinner staple, could only be depended on to get spit back into the bowl. Then apple slices got the hook, and peanut butter wasn't far behind.

I could feel my chest constricting when he started poking at his pizza and pulling the cheese off. Our go-to, our rock, frozen pizza, in danger? We put it on the bench and put in veggie burgers, which he'd always loved, though not without a strange little quirk: every time I gave him a veggie burger he'd scream and cry and protest that it's not what he wanted. Every time I'd eventually persuade him to have one bite, and every time he'd declare it yummy and then go to town on it. Eventually I shot a video of him enjoying a veggie burger with my phone so I could show it to him every time I served him one, but even that wasn't enough to keep him from eventually declaring them yucky.

It wasn't long before his diet was down to buttered toast in the morning, a grilled cheese for lunch, and either fish sticks or chicken tenders for dinner. Every day. EVERY. DAY.

Let me tell you what kind of person we're dealing with here: After refusing, in rising tones, every bona-fide healthy, questionably healthy, and obviously unhealthy but at least DIFFERENT option his mother suggested, she'd give in and accede to his demands for buttered toast. The butter would melt on the toast, sometimes as it sat in front of him on the table, sometimes before it got there, and he'd protest that it had no butter on it and was therefore inedible. If you have never tried to explain the concept of butter melting into bread to a screaming three-year-old, let me just say I envy you. For a period of about six months, my alarm clock was rendered superfluous as I woke each day to high-pitched screams about NO BUTTER and my wife's helpless, infinitely patient insistence to the contrary. In these circumstances, there is no right side of the bed to get up on.

He's mellowed a little since then, and there are no longer any screaming matches at breakfast, mostly because his mother has settled him into a routine of cereal and/or toast and possibly a (Trix) yogurt, and mostly stopped bothering him to try a strawberry ("you loved them nine days ago!") or an orange ("it tastes exactly like orange juice! You like orange juice!") or a banana ("THE ONLY FUCKING THING YOU ATE FOR EIGHT MONTHS WAS FUCKING BANANAS NOW EAT SOME BEFORE I SHOVE THEM DOWN YOUR STUPID LITTLE THROAT."). She kept the cereals semi-healthy (Life, Chex, Cheerios, and their all-organic Food Coop counterparts) but made the strategic blunder of rewarding him for good behavior with a box of Lucky Charms, which immediately became the Alpha and Omega of his entire existence; when his sixth or seventh box ran out a few days later, suffice it to say he did not take it well, and his mother suffered multiple contusions on her legs and hips. Once we banned the Lucky Charms -- or as we came to call them, The Devil's Kibble -- from the cupboard, things got back to normal and breakfast went back to being relatively easy, the boy alternating between toast and plain cereals.

Lunch is a crapshoot. His mother packs him a sandwich -- jelly on whole wheat, now that he's scratched grilled cheese off the menu -- plus a couple of strawberries and a handful of Goldfish crackers, and at least two days a week this lunch makes it back to the house unopened and uneaten.

As for dinner, as I mentioned he's down to chicken tenders and fish sticks, split about 70/30 in favor of the fish sticks. While that's an appallingly narrow diet, we comfort ourselves in the idea that fish is "brain food" (I'm sure I heard that somewhere) and if he's got to subsist almost entirely on one thing, at least it's not hot dogs or cotton candy or something. These are the pathetic stories one must tell oneself in order to parent.

Anyway, as we pulled into the teeny-tiny Missouri town where dinner was waiting on the stove for us at my grandmother's house, we had to stop at Wal-Mart, because no matter what was on the stove, we knew with a grim resignation that the boy wouldn't eat it.

Here's a question you might be asking yourself, and that I've asked myself, and that I've asked my wife about a hundred thousand times, usually through clenched teeth: So what if he doesn't eat? You make him whatever you make him and if he doesn't like it tough shit! It's not like he's going to starve to death. Let him go to bed hungry a time or two and maybe he'll be a little more adventurous next time!
Unfortunately, he seems to be one of those people -- like for example his mother, and come to think of it, his father (what are the odds?) -- whose mood shifts dramatically with his blood sugar levels -- we can tell when he's hungry before he even knows it, because that's when he turns into Demon Boy, disagreeable, argumentative, teetering on one rusty ice skate at the precipice of emotional collapse. That is not the state we want him in for our family reunion -- my cousins and aunts and uncles haven't seen him since he was a baby, and he's now the oldest of seven great-grandchildren visiting my grandmother -- so we've got to feed him something, so into Wal-Mart we trudge in search of fish sticks and chicken tenders.

Sounds easy enough, but of course -- and if you don't know where this is headed, I would love to co-star in a body-switch movie with you -- it's not enough to get fish sticks and chicken tenders, they have to be the RIGHT KIND of fish sticks and chicken tenders, the kind he's familiar with. Which is why it's particularly inconvenient that like good little Brooklyn center-left pseudo-citizens, we do our shopping at the Park Slope Food Coop, where only grass-fed, free-range, karmically pure, pesticide-free, no-GMO, yoga-practicing chicken tenders and fish sticks with aligned chakras are sold, and there's nothing close at the Wal-Mart (which put the other two reasonably-sized grocery stores in my grandmother's town out of business, God bless the free market). So I buy a frozen pizza, which is also unfamiliar -- Wal-Mart doesn't have Amy's Organics, if you can believe that -- but seems to be the best bet. (They don't have any minced fish sticks, just the filets, which are unacceptable, and when I reach for a big bag of frozen chicken tenders, he and his mother say in unison "He doesn't like those"/"I don't like those.")

He ends up turning up his nose at the frozen pizza, of course, when I cook it an hour later, and for the rest of our three-day visit he subsists entirely on Honey Nut Cheerios, which he spotted on top of my grandmother's fridge on arrival and which we banned from our house three years ago when, shortly after they came into his life and foreshadowing the Lucky Charms Siege of 2011, he started shriekingly demanding them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We decide just to go with the flow on this and let him live on Honey Nut Cheerios for the weekend if he wants to, as he's otherwise behaving beautifully, adapting to the role of Oldest Kid in the Family with aplomb and generally having a great time, and we don't want to wreck that with a Dinner Scene.

You know: A Dinner Scene:

MOMMY and DADDY sit on either side of HENRY, 5, at the small square table.

Just try one bite.

I don't like it.

How do you know you don't
like it?

Did you try it?

No. I don't like it.

But you didn't try it!

I want cereal.

Mommy didn't make you cereal,
she made you this.

How about some yogurt?

Yogurt with honey?

All right!

You can have yogurt with honey if you
eat one bite of your dinner.

Mommy said I could have yogurt!

If you eat one bite of your dinner! This is

(screams, weeps, lashes out physically)

(to Daddy)
I really need you to read this book.

Daddy k
ills them both with a hammer.

Small problem with letting him live on Honey Nut Cheerios: right after dinner the last two nights we were there, he complained of stomach pains and then suffered about an hour of painful gassy diarrhea just before bedtime. Guess what happened then? Honey Nut Cheerios came off the menu and he didn't eat anything at all for the rest of the trip.

So now we're back from Missouri, and he's settled semi-comfortably back into his routine, though, weirdly, he still didn't want to eat dinner the night we got back despite his three-day Cheerio fast, and he threw a fit when we ordered a Grandma's style pizza last night instead of regular pizza ("you liked Grandma's pizza four and a half weeks ago!"). It's clear we've got to do something about this. Not because we're worried about his nutrition, or that he'll starve or something (has any kid in the history of America ever starved himself?), but because this situation has made it very difficult for us to go anywhere. Because let's be honest, concerns about rickets or malnutrition are abstract -- Whether or not we can go to someone's remote summer cabin is real life. When we find ourselves discussing the logistics of transporting frozen fish sticks on a commercial flight, that's real life. He's ruining our real life!

Of course, this is only our latest in a long series of resolutions to Do Something About This. Our most successful previous effort to get him to try new foods was when I drew a grid with ten squares on it and told the boy that for every new food he tried, I'd put an X in a box, and once he got to ten, we'd let him watch Star Wars. He did it, he got to see the movie, and then he did it twice more for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, for a total of 30 new foods tried. This seemed like a triumph, and I crowed to my wife that I was a genius, for this plan had been my idea and she'd been more than a little skeptical.

Not one of the 30 new foods he tried stuck -- when offered again, he turned his nose up at each and every one of them. A year or so before that, we made the mistake of telling him he could have a treat (a cup of chocolate pudding, a cookie, a brownie, something like that) if he finished his dinner. Because even when we give him something he likes, he takes about 24 years to eat it.

That resulted, naturally, in a couple of pink pages for the Dinner Scene:

MOMMY and DADDY sit on either side of HENRY, 5, at the small square table.

Eat your dinner, Henry.

We've been sitting here for forty minutes.

It's yucky.

It's fish sticks! If they're yucky it's
because they're cold!

Just eat it. You have five minutes to eat it.

If I eat it can I have a treat?


How much do I have to eat?

Two of them.

I don't like this one.

So eat one of the other ones.

What's wrong with this one?

It's yucky.

It's split, some of the breading came off.

It's the same thing! There's no way you'd
ever notice that if you were blindfolded.

Should I get the blindfold?

Now can I have a treat?

You ate one. You have to eat two.

Mommy said I could eat one of the
other ones!

I said you have to eat two.

If I eat two can I have a treat?


I need more ketchup.

I'm going out for cigarettes.

Mommy kills him with a rusty pipe wrench.

It's a disaster, and we're running out of ideas. You can lead a kid to celery, but you absolutely cannot make him eat it.  My wife, for her part, is diligently searching the Internet for the book that will Change Our Lives and Teach Us How To Parent, as she has with each big parenting obstacle we've faced up to now. She's got a pretty good batting average with this method, so I'm trying to have faith.

Meanwhile, I have to try and suppress my hatred of people whose kids just eat anything. A six-year-old of my acquaintance actually prefers vegetables to all other foods, Henry's best friend Zeke and to an even greater extent Zeke's little brother Jack will eat anything and they just prance around in front of us eating anything and it makes me NUTS. I actually saw red when my 2-year-old nephew ate fried chicken gizzards when we were in Missouri while I tried in vain to get Henry to try some onion rings ("Onion rings! Look at these photos of you eating onion rings!") after he had rejected the delicious chicken tenders he'd ordered ("They're chicken tenders! You like chicken tenders! You eat chicken tenders no fewer than three nights a week! I will sign over the deed to our house to you right now if you will eat one bite of deep-fried chicken! What do you mean, Mommy went out for cigarettes?").