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Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Gift Named Max

Linda and I got married in June of 2004.  At the time we were both 34 years old and eager to start a family.  We were living in Long Beach, California, but were readying for a move back to New England.  There were many reasons why we thought moving back east made sense, but the primary one was that we thought that with a baby being closer to our family would be a benefit to all.  It is; we just didn't realize at the time that it would be years until we found that out.

We ceased using contraception even before the wedding and wondered aloud about what would happen if we conceived on our honeymoon.  It seems so laughable a thought now since months and months of good loving passed without pregnancies.  We eventually consulted fertility doctors.  Without going into the details of the many, many explanations, tests, and information to which we availed ourselves, you'll just have to take my word that it was not a simple or swift process.  The good news is that the doctors couldn't point to a reason why we weren't conceiving.  The bad news is that the doctor's couldn't point to a reason why weren't conceiving.  They call it "Unexplained Infertility."

We went through several cycles of IUI and eventually moved onto IVF.  With the exception of one 'chemical pregnancy' (which basically means that there was a pregnancy but it was so weak other than chemical indications it wasn't really viable), each effort failed.  Between all the procedures, we probably did at least 6 fertility treatments.  (Of course Linda knows exactly how many, when they happened, and what we had for dinner those nights.)  You can imagine the hope and fear that accompanies each treatment.  Will it work?  When will we know?  What happens next if it doesn't work?  It's an emotional roller coaster no doubt well documented in countless blogs.  'It' never happened for us.  We were more than disappointed.

We eventually sought a second opinion of our medical situation from a fertility doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital.  He reviewed the reams of medical information we provided - all our tests, the history of each of our fertility cycles, the way Linda's body responded to medication, my sperm counts.  He basically said what our previous doctor said (though in a manner far less brusque).  We did some additional genetic testing which only confirmed that genetic issues were also not clearly to blame.  He then asked us to ask ourselves a question which was this:  What does it mean to be a parent?

The question cut right to the heart of the matter.  If we wanted to start a family, have a baby, conceiving was not the only option.  We'd discussed adoption in a cursory manner before, always saying that we'd be open to the idea.  Now, however, it might be the only choice for us to grow our family.  We'd already spent years trying to conceive and we were no closer to being a mom or a dad.  We weren't getting younger either.  Thankfully much of our fertility expenses were covered by health insurance (something required by the state of Massachusetts.  Had we stayed in California the costs for diagnostics and treatments might have been prohibitively expensive), it was beginning to make little sense to continue them.  After all those treatments are generally used to bypass some failing part of the reproductive process and there was nothing that those treatments were doing to address our unknown issues.  We decided to forego any further fertility treatments and to look closer at adoption.  We also believed that because there was no infertility diagnosis that there might still be a chance we'd get pregnant on our own (and certainly we are not going to stop trying for that).

I'll again spare you the many details of the long process by which we deliberated adopting.  Suffice it to say we did a lot of research.  International or Domestic?  Private or Public?  Open or Closed?  Newborn or somewhat older?  Caucasian or other?  And exactly how much is this going to cost?!  We went to adoption agencies' information sessions.  We spent the day at an Adoption Community of New England Conference going to several workshops.  There was so much information to be heard we left before the day was over, our heads already exploding with adoption information overload.  We looked at books and spent countless hours on the internet.  We talked to other people who went through the adoption process.  When we felt that we'd done our fair share of information gathering we settled on an adoption course.  We knew that we wanted an infant, a newborn.  And really the only way accomplish that was to adopt domestically.  We selected an agency that a friend recommended, Adoption Resources.  We'd gone to their information session and felt a connection to the woman who ran the workshop as well as headed the agency.

As you might expect there's a lengthly process through which one has to go to get approved to adopt a baby (ironically far more difficult than that of two teens in the back of a car seat).  We filled out dozens of forms, applications, and releases, were met several times by a social worker who completes what's called a home study (which is required for all adoptions).  We also had to make an album of our family that would be viewed by birth families to consider adoptive families.  The album was the most bizarre part of the process for me as it's essentially a marketing brochure of you!  We included a letter to the birth mother/parents and a lot of pictures of us and our family.  By the time we'd completed our home study and gotten all our background checks done and finished the album, basically marking the point at which we could be shown to birth parents, it was late summer 2007.

Then we waited.  The adoption agency said a match can take anywhere from 6 to 16 months - on average, sometimes shorter and sometimes longer.

Adoption Resources, like many agencies, doesn't necessarily tell adoptive parents when their albums are being shown.  No sense in getting us all excited before a birth mother selects a family.  It makes sense, but to not know at all when you might get a call is hard.  It was something somewhere on our minds from the moment we were ready to be presented until we got 'the call.'  In our application we listed some of the criteria that we'd accept in a birth mother.  There's a comprehensive list of things to consider - so many in fact we consulted a pediatrician to help us determine which medical items were inconsequential and which things might be more worrisome.   In the final analysis, we were interested in what would give us the best chance of a healthy baby.  And because we were open to a baby of any racial/cultural background we were in the 'non-traditional' pool.  In theory this meant we might be matched sooner rather than later.

Sometime around the middle to end of October, Linda got a call from our agency.  A match between a woman and an adoptive family had fallen through and they wanted to know if we would consider this woman.  The birth mom was past her due date and the agency was looking to find a new match quickly.  The match had fallen through because the birth mom wanted to have an open adoption specified in the adoption agreement (something she'd failed to make clear beforehand to the adoptive family).   Because Linda and I said we were amenable to an open adoption, they called us.  There were some medical items we were concerned about but after consulting with our doctor and a long weekend's private deliberation, we said we would like to be considered.

We met the birth parents at a 99 Restaurant in Billerica (Great Meal, Great Deal, Great Babies?!).  In what was no doubt the strangest gathering I'd been to, we met the birth parents (mid to late 30s, unmarried, poor, hard luck cases) along with our Adoption Resources social worker.  We stuffed ourselves in a small booth and I was convinced that every other patron there was aware of the nature of this gathering.  The birth mom was bursting at the seams, now several days past her due date.  As awkward as it was for Linda and me, it seemed equally so for them.  How could it not be?  Only the the social worker seemed accustomed to the bizarre scene.  After discussing the nature of the open adoption and getting to know each other over a small meal they left, later confirming that they decided that we were a match for them.  Apparently the relief of having found adoptive parents was what she was waiting for.  She gave birth to a boy at Winchester Hospital later that same night.

Birth parents must wait four full days after delivery before they can sign surrender documents.  Linda and I spent several hours the first day in the hospital, as we were advised and as we desired.  We got to know the birth parents a bit better and while we didn't have anything in common, we found common ground.  We could sense the pain they were going through in electing to give their baby up for adoption (they each already had children).  Our social worker told us that she saw some red flags and was leery that they'd actually go through with the adoption.  (It's not uncommon at all for birth parents to change their mind after giving birth.  It's a trying time for both birth and adoptive parents.)  And while Linda and I tried to steel ourselves in the event they did change their minds, we had to proceed with the hope that they wouldn't.  We spend several hours at the hospital everyday.  We ran to Babies 'R Us to get supplies.  We confided the news to friends who unloaded their attic of a car seat, bassinet, and other assorted things newborns need.

The day before the fateful day we were to bring the baby home, I installed the car seat; I even had the local fire station inspect it for safety.  The next day we nervously drove to the hospital and met with the birth parents, for what would be the last time.  We talked candidly with them and shared our concerns with the social worker.  She in turn spent many, many hours with the birth family.  It was late afternoon, almost evening by the time we were told what we now expected:  they were leaning toward parenting the baby.  They wanted the weekend to think it over carefully.  Instead of the baby coming home to us, it would spend the weekend in temporary foster care.  (We offered to be that foster care, but said we only wanted to do it if they felt there was a reasonable chance that they were going to give the baby up for adoption, something that was not the case.)  We left the hospital with an empty car seat and heavy hearts.  We'd been warned that this could happen, even before we met this family.  By a few days after that boy was born, we were fairly certain that the birth parents would keep him.  None of that quelled our hurt in that moment.  It was not meant to be.  That boy was not meant to be our boy.

It was then that fate interceded (or perhaps it had already).  It turned out that prior to this birth parent seeing our booklet, it had been shown to another woman.  That woman liked us, but by the time she'd conveyed that to Adoption Resources, our booklet had been shown to the other birth parents who'd selected us.  When they decided to parent their baby, we were then 'free' to be considered by this new woman.  In the matter of little more than a week we went to being matched with a baby, not actually getting to adopt that baby, and then being matched again.  We learned on a Monday that the first birth parents had definitely decided to parent.  The next day we learned that we were going to meet with the new birth mom.  We met the following week and felt a much stronger connection to this woman.  We were to meet again sometime after Thanksgiving which was the following week.  The baby boy was due on December 15th (my birthday, no less)!

I went to work on the Monday after Thanksgiving and was just settling into my desk when I got a call from Linda.  The birth mother's water just broke.  "What does that mean, exactly?"  I asked.  "It means you're leaving work soon."  We drove out to Newton Wellesley Hospital later that day and met the birth mom and her parents (all lovely, lovely people).  By that evening, November 26th, 2007, Max was born via C-section.  We spent many hours over the next four days with Max and with the birth family at the hospital.  We were sensitive to their feelings and they to ours.  We gave each other space when needed, but also made sure to get better acquainted. We were doing our best to contain our anticipation, knowing that as close as we were, we were really no closer than we'd been before.  Given our recent previous experience, Linda and I were far more cognizant that nothing was certain until it was certain.

On the day we were to bring Max home we arrived at the hospital at the appointed hour, the birth mom and family having already said their sad goodbyes and departed.  The nurses were expecting us.  We entered the room previously occupied by the birth mom.  The bed covers were displaced from where she'd been just an hour earlier.  There were some flowers for us and a teddy bear for Max.  We spent some time in that room with Max and with the social worker.  Finally, we gathered our things and felt the heft of the little boy in the infant carrier.  We loaded him into the back of the car where Linda sat close.  We drove cautiously.  It was a sunny day as we drove north on Rt. 128 home to Salem.  Linda let tears of relief, joy, and happiness flow.  I snuck careful peeks in the rearview mirror while I quietly reflected on the enormity of this long awaited day.

It's been almost two years since that day and much has happened.  Max has become the center of our lives (much to the displeasure of our two cats).  We became parents, pretty good ones, too.  We keep in touch with Max's birth mom (and her parents) regularly.  In the two years since his birth we've met up with them several times and welcome the fact that Max is as loved by them as he is by us.  We've finally moved our family closer to our families in Connecticut.  Without the aid of fertility treatments we got pregnant last December.  Regular readers of this blog sadly know that in the 8th month, Leo was stillborn.  The only thing that served to console us was knowing that we had Max.  The immenseness of the blessing he is to us is immeasurable - just as any child is to any parent.  We still hope to grow our family, however it may happen, but we also know that if for whatever reason we only had Max he would still be more than we could ever have hoped.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Late One Summer Night

Many years ago, I dated a girl who lived in S. Boston.  It was summertime and the weather had been especially humid of late.  She had an air conditioned bedroom and many nights that's where we slept.  One night we returned to her neighborhood very late after some sort of outing.  We circled the blocks near her building but all the legal parking spots were taken.  She was tired and wanted to go inside.  I dropped her at her door and began to widen the radius of my parking search.  The streets were quiet and I didn't mind the time to myself as I crept up and down the parallel blocks hunting for a spot.  The many Southie bars were long since closed and it was the time of night even cities are still.

I eventually found a spot on a side street, but one that was still close to E. Broadway, one of the main arteries that cuts through this part of Boston.  I wedged the car into the spot, scooped up our belongings from the car seats and got out of the car.  I ventured up the block to read the parking restriction signs, making sure that I had actually found a legal spot.  As I ambled back to the car, I heard the telltale sound of squealing tires somewhere in the distance. I scanned the street up and down, but saw nothing.  A moment later, I again heard tires squeal and finally spied headlights coming perpendicularly toward the main street, toward me.

The car was swerving slightly right and left and its headlights wavered back and forth across my path.  As the car sped toward Broadway, it swung quickly and wildly to attempt to turn, but the driver was going too fast. He couldn't bring the car in line with the road and the car veered closer to my side of the road.  At the last moment, the tires grabbed the road enough to begin to turn, but not sufficiently enough to avoid the sidewalk island between the road I was on and Broadway.  Still going fast, the car lept the curbed, struck two cars on it's right side and slammed stiffly into a concrete lamppost, coming to an abrupt stop.  Plastic flew into the air, metal folded like paper.  My jaw fell agape.  I looked up the street and saw no one.  I looked the down the street and only saw a person walking their dog, several block away.  Realizing that it was up to me to see if the driver was okay, I took a few steps closer to the car.  I could see a man in the driver's seat; he was dazed and his head bobbled.  As I began to edge closer to the car, it suddenly popped into reverse and quickly lurched backward, hitting the same two cars again and jumping off the curb before it again came to a stop.  The car idled and I wasn't sure if he was going to take off again, but then  I saw the driver turn to look at me.  Me:  a witness to what was clearly some kind of vehicular crime.  This was Southie.  There were legitimate tough guys in this town and I wasn't one of them.

View Scene of the Accident in a larger map - click on icons for descriptions.

The car went into park. The brake lights dimmed.  The car door opened slowly.  I again looked up and down the street, hoping against hope that someone else would come to our aid.  The dog walker was making his way closer, but was still blocks away and didn't look like he was in any hurry.  The driver staggered out of his seat and turned to face me.  His face was bloody and I could see that his windshield was cracked where his head must have slammed into it.  The driver maneuvered himself around the car, surveying it and the other cars he'd hit as took a couple of unsteady steps toward me.

"Are you okay," I asked.  He stopped and stared at me intently for what seemed like several minutes.  He appeared confused and why wouldn't he be? I stared back unsure if he wanted my help or wanted me to disappear.  He and I held each other's gaze, though he wobbled as he struggled to remain upright.  As I took in his features, looking beyond the bloody brow, I slowly began to realize that he looked familiar.  As I struggled to place him, I saw the corner of his mouth rise into a bemused grin.  "Ringer?" he quizzically slurred.  And when he spoke, in his thick Boston accent, it came to me.  "Billy!" I replied.  His face broke into a broad smile, ear to bloody ear.  We had gone to college together.  We were in the same fraternity.  And while we weren't exactly friends then, had little in common at the time and less so now many years later, there was a mutual amusement that here, in the middle of the night, on a deserted Southie thoroughfare in which he'd just slammed into two parked cars and a stone lamppost, we might happen to find ourselves meeting again.

I asked him again if he was all right and he said that he was.  He asked what I was doing here and I told him that I was just parking the car and going to my girlfriend's apartment.  His face suddenly turned serious.  "Was that your car I just hit?!" I assured him wasn't, that my car was luckily parked on the safe side of the street.  His tensed shoulders relaxed.  Just then the dog walker came up.  Billy recognized him, too!  He greeted the man by name, assured him he was okay and the dog walker barely broke stride as he continued up the street - as if this were nothing but a normal occurrence.

Billy and I stared awkwardly at each other for a few short while.  As I said, we weren't exactly friends and didn't really have much to catch up on, especially not in the strange aftermath of a car wreck.  Billy looked up and down the street, making sure it was still quiet.  Finally he said, "Well...I better get out of here."  "Yeah," I said.  The accident had generated quite a lot of noise and we both seemed to sense that it wouldn't be long before someone called the police.  "Good to see you, Billy."  "You, too, Ringer."  He fell back into the driver's seat and closed the door.  He dropped the car into drive and quickly accelerated up the hill and around the bend, the wheels squealing once more as his tail lights went out of view.

I walked the several blocks to my girlfriend's, marveling at the bizarreness of what had just transpired.  When I walked in the apartment she asked me what the hell had taken me so long.  I told her only that I bumped into an old friend, didn't add that he'd very nearly and literally run into me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I Spy

The weather has been unseasonably warm the past few days.  Like many New Englanders who know that days like these are gifts not to be under appreciated, I spent many hours outside.  Over the weekend, I spent half a day digging a hole for a tree we planted, a Green Mountain Sugar Maple. On Sunday I woke up early and went for a 10 mile jog as the sun rose over the hillsides and was eating breakfast at the Vanilla Bean before 9am.  Yesterday I went for a shorter, but no less satisfying run.  When I'm running, I actively endeavor to step outside my brain. What I mean is that often when one is running, it's easy to fall into a conversation with oneself about the run itself - a sort of constant back and forth.  How far should I go?  How's my breathing?  What is that twinge of pain I feel in my ankle?  Will I make it up the hill?  Am I running too slow, too fast?  In an effort to staunch that kind of thinking I make sure I look around.  And yesterday, like most days, what I see is much better fodder for an internal dialog.

There's a dirt road that runs up slight, but steady hill from my house.  There are only three houses on the mile stretch.  The rest of the land one either side is field and woods.  The road is narrow and the trees on either side form a wooden canopy that folds warmly overhead.  There's a stream on the left and in a few places, if you tune your ears you can hear the babbling water winding its way over rocks and branches.  It's rare that I see any cars on the road so the only sounds other than the brook is the rustling of trees and the sound of my footfalls on the packed dirt and gravel.  That and the sound of my own breath.

At the top of that hill the road becomes paved and as I follow it to the east it leads to a farm.  The farm is not of the Normal Rockwell variety.  It's run down and dilapidated.  Rusty tractors sit abandoned on the field's edge; the cow barn's siding is pockmarked and piecemeal.  There's a dog who barks loudly at me as I jog by.  He's tethered to his weather worn plywood house by a metal chain heavy enough to tow a tank.  Ferrel cats wander back and forth across the road.  Despite its appearance, the farmers seem to have placed their limited resources in the right place.  There's plenty of hay for the cows who seem unaware of their relative poverty as they happily lumber up and down the rocky fields surrounding the ramshackle barns.  Just past the farm is as rickety a domicile as you can imagine.  It's actually not a house, but a small compound of tarp covered RVs, trailers, and pickup trucks (with a few old chicken coops smattering the grounds for good measure).  It looks more like a movie set decorator's concoction than anything from real life.

Beyond the farm and the rusty trailers the road curves around a hill and the view expands to reveal two sprawling homesteads on either side of the road.  The properties are well tended to and bucolic.  The large farm houses sit in the midst of verdant fields and neat fencing.  In the field to my right are cows with a white band encircling their midsection.  Having never seen this type of cow before, I first thought they were lawn ornaments!  It turns out that they are Belted Galloways, affectionately known as Belties, and they are one cool looking breed of cow.

Sometimes instead of going through the farm and past those farmsteads,  I'll continue up the hill to add another mile to my run.  Going this way, I wind up through some more fields before being deposited at the top of a steep hill that soon runs along property that's been turned into Vineyard Valley Golf Course.  The nine hole course is carved into a steep rise affording gorgeous views of the countryside.  Running this route permits me the same vantage without the frustration of suffering my poor golf game.

Whether I jog past the farms or the golf course, I end up turning back to the main road that leads me home.  Here I must hug the shoulder more closely than I might on the back roads - the cars tend to speed fast on this flat stretch of road.  On this more trafficked byway it's not uncommon for me to see sights somewhat less attractive.  There's usually a new bit of road kill somewhere along this stretch every few days.  Yesterday it was a possum.  Sometimes it's a squirrel or a skunk.  Occasionally there's an incredibly flat snake or frog, rolled no thicker than a penny.  When I run the same road a few days later the roadkill is gone.  Vultures?  The other thing I see too much of on these roads is discarded beer cans.  The good news is that the litterers seem to be weight conscious as the brands they toss are almost always of the less calorie variety:  Bud Light, Miller Light, Busch Light.  The bad news, of course, is that they are drinking and driving and littering to prove it.

I pass by a massive old manor (estate?) largely hidden by a leaning masonry wall and wonder who lives there and how they came to possess such a property.  Beyond that is a small campus operated by the New England Laborer's Academy.  Its collection of brick buildings is well manicured, but somehow still looks like a cross between an addiction treatment facility, a minimum security prison, and a home for little wanderers - something out of a John Irving novel.

The last mile of my run takes me down a slight decline.  I pass Babbitt Hill Road (a road I occasionally divert on and also where one finds Majilly) on my left, the Pomfret Volunteer Fire Department on my right before coming to Hull Forest Products' entrance.  I stopped in there the other day to inquire about getting some mulch for the tree we planted over the weekend.  When I asked them how little mulch I could purchase, they asked me how big my truck was.  I told them I didn't need that much and didn't mention that my truck was a Honda Civic.  I should have known better judging by the giant log trucks that rumble down the road, past my house, and up their drive.

I trot the last half mile down the hill to my house, pass a few houses set amongst the woods on my left or overlooking a field on my right.  The road is straight and I can see the bottom of the hill where the road turns just past my house.  I feel as if I am funneled home, gravity easing me down the slope and delivering me to my driveway and to a chair on my back porch.

Jogging up and down the hills I burned several hundred calories.  And in addition to the health benefits to my heart and lungs, I filled my soul with the sights and sounds my environs.  I saw dirt brown roads, felt the crush of earth beneath my feet.  I saw white girdled cows, standing like statues in still green fields.  I saw rusty trailers from which I feared the hillbilly cast of Deliverance might appear.  I enjoyed the majestic view of old vineyard hill fairways.  I sidestepped bloodstained rodents while shaking my head at the discarded shiny, silver beer cans.  Winter's coming, but it won't prevent me from dashing through the snow.  There's too much that's good to see, too much that's good to breathe.

Photo courtesy of:

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Time Behind the Wheel

In the fall of my freshman year of college I had a job checking student IDs at Boyden Gymnasium.  The job stunk, didn't really allow me time to study, and barely paid enough to be worth the time. I don't even think it paid more than $4/hr.  It wasn't long before I realized that there had to be a campus job out there that was more commensurate with my unique character and talents, something that permitted more individuality and freedom.

In the winter of 1987-88, I trained to drive a bus. A big bus.  I learned about the opportunity from my soft spoken crew coach.  As a novice oarsman on the UMass Crew Team that fall I grew enamored of our quirky and handsome coach.  He drove an old hearse that he'd retooled to have a pick up bed; it looked not dissimilar to the Eat Me car from Animal House.

He also parked an old ambulance in his yard (think Ghostbusters).  He had a beautiful girlfriend, owned an off campus house filled with 5th year seniors (that to me, a 17-year old freshman, seemed like some kind of Shangri-La). And despite my skinny frame and poor rowing talent, he treated my kindly.  The guy was cool and I wanted to be like him.  He also drove a bus for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA).  During winter session that year, he told me that PVTA would pay me to learn how to drive a bus, help me get a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) with a passenger endorsement, and that the job paid close to $10/hr.  (He did not tell me, however, that with that license, I'd be drafted to drive the Crew Bus - more on that later.)

By the spring of 1988, I had a CDL and while just 18 years old was yet licensed to drive any single vehicle with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 or more pounds (11,793 kg), or any such vehicle towing a vehicle not in excess of 10,000 pounds (4536 kg) GVWR.  This was, by far, the most powerful I'd ever felt in my entire life.  PVTA operated (and does still) busses and routes throughout Western Massachusetts including the University of Massachusetts Transit system as well as lines that service the 5 colleges of the area (Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, Amherst, and UMass) and surrounding communities.  I drove several routes each week.  The campus routes were the dullest, driving endless loops, picking up wise ass (or drunk) kids too lazy to walk the 1/4 of a mile from class to class or party to party.  I much preferred the town loops or the routes from one college campus to another.  I had a late night route to Mt. Holyoke College where light traffic allowed for a long layover at their student center.  I'd park the bus, leaving the front and rear doors open for passengers to board before our scheduled departure.  I'd wander into the student center, admiring the finer accoutrements of the private all women's college, vastly more refined than that of my sprawling state school.  I only had ten minutes or so to kill and soon it was time to return to the bus.

Because there was no uniform for PVTA drivers, there was nothing to distinguish me from any other passenger.  To amuse myself I'd board the bus like the other passengers, through the open rear doors.  I'd take a seat in the middle of the bus, and grab one of the many discarded school newspapers scattered on the seats.  As the scheduled departure time neared, I surreptitiously watched as the passengers began to look at their watches and wonder where the driver was.  I'd wait until a few minutes past departure time and enjoy the looks of frustration as passengers began to squirm in their seats, impatient and miffed.  At last, I'd dramatically and noisily rise from my seat, make a show of throwing my newspaper on my seat in indignant ire and march purposely toward the front of the bus.  I lingered before the driver's chair and made like I was surveying the complicated cockpit - the ignition button, the steering wheel, the gear shifter, the air brake.  I then plunged into the seat, snapped my seatbelt, started the bus, closed the door, dropped the bus into drive and punched the accelerator.  I relished looking in the rearview mirror at the unsure faces of the dozen or so riders as they tried to figure out if I was really the driver or just a vigil ante commandeering the vehicle.  In the many times I executed this performance, never once did anyone ever say so much as a word.

I eventually quit the PVTA in the fall of my senior year.  It wasn't the monotony of the routes or the annoying drunks.  It was the combination of being a full time rower, fraternity carouser, student, and social animal.  It all finally caught up to me after a late night drive on a dark stretch of country road.  I started to fall asleep at the wheel and woke only due to the vibration in the steering wheel and sound of rocks and pebbles from the shoulder being shot up on the underside of the bus.  My heart raced as I eased the wheel back toward my lane.  I looked in the rearview mirror, but none of the passengers seemed to realize what had nearly happened. The adrenalin pumped through me all the way back to the garage and I gave my notice not long after.

The other bus I drove while a student at UMass was a used school bus, owned and operated by the UMass Crew Club.  It was painted maroon, rattled loudly, and was used to bring rowers back and forth from campus to the river - a 15 or 20 minute drive from Amherst to the Hadley/Northhampton divide through which the Connecticut River flows.

The main route to the river was along Route 9, but traffic was thick and there were back roads, windy and narrow country roads, that often allowed for faster travel and were definitely more fun to drive.  Crew practice began at 4 o'clock and my role was to make my way from central campus down to the distant satellite parking area to fetch the bus, drive it up to Totman Gym and pick up rowers.  Practice ran a couple of hours and by the time the rowing shells were back in the racks, oars replaced, and the boathouse doors were closing, there was often just a handful of minutes to get back to campus before the dining commons closed for dinner.  I can't count the times I peeled out of the boathouse Dukes of Hazzard style with student athletes barely up the stairs, the doors not even closed in an effort to haul ass back to campus.

I had 30+ hungry athletes counting on me to get them to the dining hall before the doors locked.  After crossing the bridge on Rt. 9 from Northhampton to Hadley, I'd cut down a dirt path, through a corn field, kicking up a dust storm, hitting ruts in the road at 40 miles per hour and sending kids in the rear seats up the roof.  Once on the paved road I'd go faster, feeling as if the bus were up off its wheels as I hugged the corners tight.  Tree limbs would snap loudly against the open bus windows, sometimes wresting the smaller branches and from the trees.  Tree debris would fly into the bus and cause people to duck for cover.  Half the bus was cheered me on and the other half cowered in fear.  It was not unusual to hear screams.

More often than not I'd get to campus on time, stopping in front of nearest dining hall.  The sweaty rowers would leap off the high front steps and jump out the rear fire exit door.  They'd charge up the hill to the commons, shouting, "Thanks, Dave!" as they fled.  Sometimes I could park the bus nearby and join them to eat myself, other times there was enough time to park down at the satellite lot and hoof it back to another dining hall, but often it was too late and I had to scavenge a dinner on my own.

My CDL permitted me to land a couple of above average paying summer jobs. After my freshman year I got a job at a moving company.  I didn't often have to drive the moving truck but did have occasion to from time to time.  More often, I was just another grunt, humping furniture up 4 flights of stairs.  The moving company was a small one based out of Belmont, MA.  I lived in Cambridge at the time and had to take to take the T and a bus and then walk another 15 minutes to get to the lot where the trucks were parked.  The movers were rough around the edges.  One was an ex-con on parole and another, a raging alcoholic.  His talents were expertly packing the truck and also making a liquor store our FIRST stop on the way to jobs in the morning.  By the end of the two months I worked there, I knew the location and store hours of every liquor store within a 3 mile radius of the truck yard.  The owner knew the predilictions of his employees and only gave us our paychecks after the banks had closed so that his workers couldn't cash their checks that night, go on a bender, and miss work the next day.  By mid-August, I faked a back injury and spent the rest of the that summer making sandwiches in Harvard Sq.

The summer after I my sophomore year I leveraged my CDL to get a job at Northhampton Lumber.  Instead of passengers, I now carried 2x4s and other building supplies on the bed of a 24 foot flat bed truck.  I enjoyed using the hydraulic lift on the truck bed to dump lumber on job sites.  I was still a skinny 19 year old, but driving that truck full of wood made me feel older, stronger, and more blue collar than I really was.  That truth was later born out later that summer when a fork lift accident dumped three stacks of 1' x 6' x 20' cedar decking on me, breaking my left humerus bone in half and requiring 20 stitches in my right hand.  That was the end of my lumber career.  And of summer jobs requiring a CDL.  It wasn't, however, the end of my driving career.

After graduating college and being turned out into an abysmal job market, I eventually landed a job in Boston at Old Town Trolley.  I had worked for them the summer after my junior year at an information booth in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, but to drive a trolley one had to be 21.  The job paid well for the times.  I made cash tips, got to drive a cool trolley bus, wear a headset microphone, and entertained visitors from the world over as I drove around Boston's many fine historical, architectural, and inviting attractions.  There's not enough time in this entry to recount the richness of my Old Town Trolley experiences (lasting several seasons); I'll reveal more in future writings.  What I will say is this:  if missing a few dining hall meals, nearly driving off the road in the dead of night, breaking my arm, and moving cat hair covered couches was the price I had to pay to eventually become a tour conductor, I'd happily do it all over again.

I toured literally thousands of guests around Boston (and later Key West).  I impressed them with both my knowledge of of the city as well as my ability to thread a trolley through double parked cars on Newbury Street.  I charmed them from their dollars and received promises of marriage to their granddaughters.  More than once I was offered Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  The riders were putty in my hands; I could easily persuade a trolley full of riders to yell out the windows and harass my unsuspecting friends as they walked along Boston's streets.  Many of my co-workers from that era are still my best friends today, some 17 years later.  We reminisce about the unparalleled fun we had at that job and wonder why work can't be as much fun anymore.  We selectively omit the innane questions, cheap riders, itchy polyester uniforms, back to back to back tours, hoarse voices, bursting bladders, fascist overlord bosses, and diesel soot.  The monotony eventually got to most of us.  I left the trolleys in 1994 to go to graduate school and a few years later my CDL expired for good.

I sometimes miss sitting high above the other cars in a hydraulic captain's chair.  I miss the oversized steering wheel and making wide, sweeping turns.  I miss the giant side view mirrors and the hiss of the air brake.  But probably what I miss most is my captive audience.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Measure of a Day

"Take a load off Fannie, take a load for free;
Take a load off Fannie, And (and) (and) you can put the load right on me."

I don't use an alarm clock, but I do have a toddler son.  Fact is, I don't have to wake up at specific time to go to work.  I am not employed. But I do have to wake up. I do have things to do, things that I want to accomplish, progress I wish to make.  Measuring those efforts, however, is a task not easily done when the yardstick is subjectively calibrated.

Each morning Max begins to stir sometime between 6-630.  Linda and I lie in bed and listen to the crib rails as they start to rattle.  This is our daily reveille, our factory whistle.  We listen via the monitor on the night stand and try to gauge Max's mood by the nature of his morning babble.  "I poopy!" is a common refrain.  Or "My blanket" or "My ladybug" or "My truck."  Lately he's been claiming all that he sees as his.  As Linda and I begin to stir ourselves, it alerts Tommy, our 20 pound cat that it's time for breakfast.  Sometime during the night, Tommy positions himself on the foot of the bed, ready to meow, purr, and nestle into me as soon as he senses waking.  It might seem just an affectionate morning greeting, were it not such a thinly veiled mechanism to just hustle us up to give him food.  If we don't move quickly enough for his liking, he pointedly steps on my chest, thrusting all his heft onto a single paw.  The weight of a 20 pound cat placed acutely to the sternum is a forceful impetus to arise.

There is no designated Max fetcher.  Depending on who has more morning energy, Linda or I will go upstairs to greet Max.  If it's a good day, he'll stretch his little hands high above the crib rail and exclaim, "My Mommy!" or "My Daddy!"  If he's on the crankier side, there's a short debate about whether he actually wants to get out of his crib. If he says he doesn't and I go to leave, he cries for me to come back.  If I go to get him out, he throws himself down and says no.  I tend to ignore his protests, pick him up, change him out of his pajamas and into his clothes completely independent of his state of acquiescence.  We walk down the stairs together and when he gets to the bottom, arriving in the kitchen he exclaims proudly, "I did it!"  If only we took similar pride in the smallest of our accomplishments, there'd be many more to tally at the end of a day.

The weekday morning routine for Max consists of some soy milk, oatmeal, and a healthy dose of Sesame Street.  There's a bit of play, sloppy teeth brushing, and the rigmarole of trying to cajole uncooperative limbs, hands, and a squirmy head into jacket, mittens, and hat. Then it's time to go to day care.  If I am the one to drive him the 14 minutes there, we sing a few songs or look out the windows for cows and ducks.  When we turn the last bend before day care, Max sees the green roof of the building and happily sings, "There's my school!"  I escort him in, hang out for a few minutes and chat with the other kids in Max's age group.  Maya knows my name and likes to say, "Hi Mister Dave."  Gavin is a rambunctious boy who shows me his latest boo boos and, lately, wants me to give him a hug before I go. Drew is mostly suspect of me, preferring to just observe me and answer my questions with only a nod or a shake of the head.  When I left school this morning one of the teachers said, "You want a job?  The kids adore you."  I chuckle at the notion and reply honestly, "I can only take them in small doses.  There's a reason Max comes here every day."  And it's the truth.  I can't love anything more than I love Max, but I really don't know how I could spend the entire day with him everyday.  He's exhausting.  And that might sound callous, but the Sagittarius in me compels me to be blunt: it's hard to spend the entire day, everyday, with anybody - much less a tireless toddler.  Day care is the best place for Max.  He gets to play, learn, interact with teachers and kids, and he loves it.  His day is structured and full.  And so is Linda's now that she's begun her job here in Connecticut.  She's a physical therapist and has a full roster of patients to treat and the requisite paperwork that accompanies each visit.  I, however, have a day ahead of me that is almost completely shapeless.

It's after I wake up, feed the cats and Max their breakfast, after Linda goes to work and after I drop Max off at school, and after that last cup of coffee from the pot is drunk that the weight of the day begins to impress itself upon my consciousness.  I have things to do, of course.  There's dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and food shopping to be done.  There's household projects that I can do, yard work at my in-laws, genuine internet research that's waiting for me.  I pride myself on being on top of the mail, the bills, the correspondence both paper and electronic; I can easily lose an hour or two on that if I am not careful. There's all of that plus the urge to read the news, scan Facebook and last night's sports scores.   Then there's my hobbies.  I want to learn more about gardening, so I visit the Putnam Farmer's Cooperative and browse their supply of spades and garden forks.  There's this blog that I've committed myself to, this honing of my craft in hopes of somehow translating my written words into paper dollars.  I must also eat and because I try to eat healthily and don't even have a microwave (by choice), I can't just zap a pizza pocket or inhale a Pop Tart.  Before I blink it's usually 11:30am.  And before I blink again it's 2pm.  On the days that I go running around the hills of Pomfret, the days become shorter.  God forbid I require a shower; the day dissipates faster than the water runs down the drain.  And with the recent time change, the day's end comes with a swiftness that is cruel, unyielding, and unforgiving.  With the coming darkness I look outward as well as in and try to assess where the hours went.  What do I have to show for the time that passed?

Linda or I will pick up Max sometime between 4 and 5 and in the two or three hours that follow we play, eat, bathe, read, and get ready for bed.  By the time he hits the pillow it's close to 8 and there's dinner to be made, eaten, and cleaned up.  If we choose to relax in front of a baseball game (basketball now- damn Yankees) or a portion of a rented Netflix movie, it's only an hour before we both start sinking into sleep on the couch.  Bed calls.  We read for a bit, but it makes us both sleepy and it's not long before the lights are off.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

The past few days I've been going to my in-laws to stack some of the cords of wood that were recently delivered to keep the cottage warm in winter.  It's been satisfying to turn an unwieldy pile of logs into neat stacks.  I enjoy being able to clearly see the product of my labor, a physical manifestation of work.  On days when I write, I feel a semblance of accomplishment - taking unwieldy thoughts and turning them into some kind of narrative - though not always a neat one.  I enjoy getting the comments I do, especially when they come from readers not related to me (though I appreciate those comments, too) - it's proof that someone other than me and my loyal family has read it.  It makes it real.

On the days when I go running, like yesterday, when I charge up a steep country hill, my heart pounding and my breath forceful, I feel a kinship with nature - both the nature that surrounds me and the nature that governs the flow of blood and oxygen in my body.  There's a feeling of satisfaction I get from feeling the direct effect of physical effort, the clear causal relationship.  On the days when I nourish my body with foods that are not processed, packaged, or laden with fat, sodium, or sugar, I feel like I am honoring my body, that I am translating ideas into actions and actions into a healthiness I can feel in my body and see in the mirror.  On the evenings that Max is wholly content and gives us the most satisfying squeeze, the tightest goodnight hug his stubby arms can muster, I am grateful and satisfied that I've somehow impacted his day in a positive way, that the safeness he feels in his home is the result of the love Linda and I can't help but heap upon him.  And later when my wife and I curl up together in bed and hold each other, I am deeply grateful for her love and companionship.  That's a measurement of a day to be sure.

I don't have an employer.  I don't punch a time clock.  I can't look at a pay stub to see the 'value' of my time.  I don't measure my day in sales calls made, patients seen, classes taught, papers corrected, or customers served.  I can't account for the hours of my days in meetings attended or in miles driven.  Since I stopped working, nearly 11 months ago, it's been difficult for me to assess if my day has been of value or not.  More often than not I feel that I haven't fulfilled the promise of the day.  Intellectually, I know there's been value in it, but I don't know how to tally it - or frankly, why I feel I need to, yet I do. Emotionally, my ego - the most dangerous of psychic apparatuses - silently screams for more accurate accounting.  Some days I can offer a physical manifestation of my effort.  Other days there's a strong sense of satisfaction that quells the ego's thirst.  But most days, the question lingers unanswered in the dark and slumbers as I do only to awaken in the morning to the sounds of the rattling crib rails and the weight of a heavy and hungry cat.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Mime Chews Gum

I was young and it wasn’t clear to me that my mother, sister, and I lived in apartments.  And to have understood that the apartments were mostly full of college students was a leap my brain was as yet unprepared to make.  To me, the rows of four-unit, two bedroom apartments was simply where we lived.  There were probably six or seven buildings on each side of the road.  Each building has 75 yards of space between.  And the further down the road one went, the more sheltered by trees the buildings became until the road ended in a cul-de-sac beyond which was a steep hill of rocky terrain, thick woods, and a babbling creek.

Our unit was 18C.  18C Carriage House Apartments, Hunting Lodge Rd, second building on the right, second unit from the right.  The apartments were never, nor would they ever be carriage houses.  There was not a hunting lodge anywhere, not even a plaque to commemorate one that once stood.  The only marker of any sort were two natural stone obelisks between our building and the one down the street, leftover from some ice age, the same one likely that left all the stones that colonial farmers piled along the edges of their farms.

Less than a mile from the house was my school, Northwest Elementary.  Each morning, fall through spring, I walked the couple hundred yards down the hill to the bus stop at the bottom of the road.  I clasped my books under my arm, my glasses - already bent out of shape - loosely affixed to large ears.  I know this look from the pictures that my grandfather took of me one sunny spring morning.  I remember that day, crisp with the scent of morning dew on wet grass.  I remember that my dog, Heather, was allowed to come with us since grandpa would be able to bring her home.  And from the pictures, my memory of sun dappled light filtering through the not-as-yet-caterpillar-ravaged-maples is confirmed.  I am sporting a blue ‘baseball jacket,’ but not one licensed by Major League Baseball so the baseballs don’t say “Red Sox” or “Yankees,” but generically refer to cites, “Philly” and “Frisco.”

From riding the bus I knew that a lot of other kids didn’t live in apartment buildings.  The bus might stop at the top of a neighborhood entry road and beyond that point, I knew that they had their own house, and likely their own room.  I had neither, but it was then only a comparison, not a divide.  And there were several other children who lived in the apartments.  Children of graduate students from Europe; children of divorced parents, like us; and children whose parents simply didn’t make enough money to buy a house of their own.

My tenure at Northwest Elementary School is a foggy collection of images and sound bites.  It’s hard to fathom that five years - 900 school days! - now amount to a dozen memories, but then, as now, I think that I rarely was paying close attention.  Here are the highlights:

Kindergarten:  The ONLY thing I remember is that my teacher’s name was Mrs. Rosenberg who had curly blond/brown hair.
First grade:  Mrs. Rogers had some kind of handicap that required her to use a motorized chair.  She would give us rides from her classroom to the cafeteria.  She also played the ukulele and, at least as far as my recollection, she only played Frere Jacques.
Second Grade:  I think I must have been napping this entire year as I only recall the name of my teacher, Mrs. Marlin who was nice enough, had short straight brown hair, but wasn’t especially warm.
Third/Fourth Grade.  This is where things started to really come alive.  The class was a double classroom of 3rd and 4th graders co-taught by Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Dinan, who resembled two of the three original Charlie’s Angels (not Kate Jackson).  And I am pretty sure they also had their own television theme song.

I remember a girl named Catherine who brought in her cat to school.  There was the time I punched a boy named David in the glasses.  In a truly cruel moment the entire class of 40 plus kids started frantically waving their hands up and down to make fun of the way the excitable boy flung his own hands when, say, he’d built a fort just the way he wanted.  A boy named CJ who would sit on his hamburgers before he ate them because he liked them flat (which didn’t prevent me from asking to have his pickles). This was the same CJ who would urinate in the tea cups of tea set in the play area.  I remember how I figured out that if at recess I let all the many yards of string out on my kite and only began to reel it in when they called us in, I could get an extra ten minutes outside.  I remember the time playing soccer (on a field that sloped noticeably toward one goal) a ball kicked squarely into my chest knocked the wind out of me for the first time in my life. That’s an experience you don’t forget.

And in the longest and most vivid memory, Mrs. Anthony, our principal and a woman barely taller than the first graders, squirts us with water guns as we enter the gymnasium for a presentation for the entire school.  (I am pretty sure that principals are not allowed to shoot their students in school anymore, but at the time, they were just squirt guns and we couldn’t spell ‘appropriate’ anyway.)  For a liberal community the school trained us in military efficiency.  If we were practicing fire drills, we’d form a line quickly, always knowing our position and who was in front of you (Carol Riesen) and who was behind you (Mary Royal) and thus we, as a class could evacuate or indeed enter our gymnasium with marching band like precision.  As each class filed in we took our dedicated position on the floor, sitting in straight rows before the raised wooden stage.

This room was our gym, our playhouse, our musical auditorium and the venue for  award and ‘graduation’ ceremonies.  Today, however, Northwest Elementary School of Hunting Lodge Road was featuring a mime.  I had never seen a mime - or at least one that I remembered as anything other than a really quiet person.  I was struck at how he could not make a sound and still keep a gymnasium full of rambunctious kids as quiet as he.  It was the stillness of that afternoon that carves its way into my memory.  The rest of childhood was noisy so this, being so different, stands out.  The mime (why always in tights?) did the obligatory man trapped in a box and pulling a rope in an imaginary tug of war (with who and for what prize?).  And then he pretended that he was unfolding wrappers of sticks of chewing gum and one by one stuffing them into his mouth.  The more gum he put in the wider is mouth was stretched until at long last he couldn’t fit another stick.  His mouth, stuck wide open, mute, and obviously near choking.  He mimed that he was taking this ball of gum out of his mouth agape and looking for a place to store it, but there was no garbage, no container and as he spun in circles we children were spellbound by the fix he’d gotten himself into. What to do with this big wad of gum?  This was a big problem that we all identified with.  We’d want that gum later and so would the mime.  He then bolted upright as if struck with divine inspiration and made a great flamboyant show of his personal genius, placing the giant wad of gum behind his right ear.

I was thrilled to be both watching this and chewing a big wad of real gum myself.  What good fortune.  We had a kinship that few of the other kids picking their noses or wetting their pants could know.  As he’d put in another stick so had I until finally I also had a ball of gum the size of Delaware in my mouth.  The sugary juices were sucked out my gum and I was left only with malleable plastic.  And I, too, didn’t have a trash can nearby, not even a desk under which to stick it for later.  Imagine my relief when I saw that I could temporarily stash my gum behind my ear.

The main difference between mime gum and real gum must be its inherent stickiness.  It was the mid 1970s and I had the long hair that came with the times.  My hair wasn’t straight, but I imagine it to have been the general shape of Nicholas (played by the inimitable Adam Rich), the youngest boy on Eight is Enough. (I learned a lot of good lessons from that show and from one of my many television fathers, Dick Van Patten).  The gum quickly became entangled in my thick and wavy hair.  I’d like to believe it wasn’t long after that I understood, viscerally, the difference between what a mime does and what happens in real life.  I also knew I couldn’t go home with a big wad of gum in my hair.  I wasn’t very old, but I was pretty sure that I was old enough to not to have made this major blunder.

The teachers and kids were still rapt in the show and I snuck out of the gym and made my way along the long and eerily empty corridor back to my classroom.  I went directly to Mrs. Dinan’s desk, opened the drawer and took out her finest rubber handled, snub nose scissors.  I felt the hair and gum nest behind my right ear, estimated the scope of the infestation and then calmly removed most of the hair on the right side of my head, neatly dropping the clump in the trash.  VoilĂ ! No more gum in my hair.  Feeling quite proud to have been my own problem solver I sauntered proudly and unabashedly back to the gymnasium where the show was wrapping up.  I was immediately spotted by Mrs. Dinan, but luckily she approached from my left and plunked me down between Riesen and Royal.  The show was at the end of the day and as soon as it was over we marched, Riesen, Ring, Royal, to our bus pick up spot (numbers 1 though 10) and I was home before General Hospital was even halfway through.

When my mom got home from work, it didn’t take her long to notice that there was a lot more ear exposed than when I’d left for school that morning.
“What did you do to you hair, David?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I lied.
“Are you sure, David, because it looks to me like you cut your hair,” she calmly replied.
God, she was sharp!  How could she have possibly noticed? I hadn’t thought through how I might even begin to address any questions.  From my point of view there was no gum in my hair so why would anyone say anything about it.  I hadn’t even considered being asked about it. With no story to explain, I panicked and did the only sensible thing.  I cried.  I told the saddest version of how the mean mime had made me put my gum behind my ear and that I was forced to cut my own hair.

My mom was disappointed with me, she said, not because I had cut my hair - though I should never do that again - but because I had lied to her and it was for the lie that I would be punished.  But given that it was the 70s, and Nancy Reagan hadn’t yet taught us how raise children, I was able to choose my own punishment.  The parameters were made clear to me.  I was to choose a punishment that was equal in degree to the offense I had committed.  I pondered my options until I finally settled on something that would be a genuine sacrifice for me.  That night, I would forego watching Welcome Back Kotter.  No Barbarino, Horseshack, Epstein, or Washington - to say nothing of the Kotters or Mr. Woodman.  My mother agreed that this was a fitting punishment.

It was only years later that I confessed to stowing myself in a closet with wood slat blinds and peering between them to watch the show anyway.  I mean if I could figure out how to cut gum out of my hair, how could she not know I’d engineer a way to watch my favorite TV show?