Sorry to be late, but I’ve been distracted by listening to the true sounds of summer: kids in the ambiguous distance squealing with joy, while one of them makes fake vomiting noises, and an adult voice cries out “Ryan, what are you doing?”
A thing to understand about my area of mid-Michigan is that there are sandwich shop chains. Particularly there are two sandwich shop chains with a New Jersey theme. There are good reasons for this. If you know them please submit them in writing care of an office. These events happened while I was eating lunch in one of them.
There was a kid sitting at the table next to mine. Well, sitting in the way that a young kid does, which is, hovering around the table and hopping onto and off of the chairs and putting her chin on the back of a chair and then calling out to an adult who existed somewhere about the prospect of having a cookie. She didn’t talk about the “prospect” of a cookie. That’s me putting words into her mouth, as she only had the promise of a future cookie. I’m not sure how old she was. Once they’re old enough to stand up reliably all kids look to me like they’re either four, ten, or sixteen. This kid was at the four-year-old level.
I wasn’t worried about the kid. Whatever she was up to, it wasn’t my fault, and the worst that you can really do at that age in a sandwich shop is spill your soda. She didn’t have a soda, so she must have got around to spilling it before I even got in. And then suddenly she asked me, “What’s that?”
I would have been happy to know what what she wanted the that to. I’m sorry, I feel seasick and have to lie down a bit. Okay, I’m back. I guessed she was pointing to the picture on the wall and tried to explain it was a woman sunbathing. This seemed to satisfy the kid so I thought, great! I’ve had my unplanned interaction with a stranger for the week. Now I don’t have to talk to anybody anymore. On later examination it turns out to be a picture of a woman on a sailboat.
“What’s that?” asked the kid again, pointing at about the same spot. I tried to follow her finger and guessed maybe she meant what the woman who was not sunbathing was part of. It’s a replica of one of those “Welcome To ____” postcards. This seemed like a vast conceptual universe to get across to a kid. I did my best: “It’s a picture of Point Pleasant. That’s a town on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a neat place. They used to have a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster and a beautiful merry-go-round there.” I was bluffing. But, like, it’s a Jersey Shore town. If they didn’t have a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and a merry-go-round they weren’t even trying. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Jenkinson’s Boardwalk! No, that’s in Point Pleasant Beach, a technically different borough in the same part of the Barnegat Peninsula. The kid was very interested in all this right up until I started answering. Still, she seemed satisfied so the world was all in order.
“What’s that?” the kid then asked again and I was running out of things to that about. My book? “It’s a book about Popeye,” I said and hoped that the kid would not be at all interested. I mean, I’d love for someone not-old to be interested in Popeye. But the book had a collection of strips from the 30s and 40s. And in those days comic strips had about eighteen panels each weekday, none of them with fewer than 600 words per panel. If the kid had any idea I was looking at comics she might want to read along and I won’t live long enough for that. But I could at least give an answer and hope that satisfied.
“What’s that?” she asked again. And I gave up. And now I must face knowing that, for all I think of myself as a self-confident and self-assured person, any four-year-old kid can break me with one question repeated four times. Maybe five if I wasn’t quite listening to start with. “What’s what?” I asked back and the kid wasn’t intersted in whatever I had to say.
She perhaps felt she had triumphed. She did not ask me “What’s that?” again. Instead she sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. When she reached the end, I told her, “That’s a very nice song. Did you make it up?” She didn’t dignify me with an answer. Fair enough although I’m like 85% sure my niece would have let me get away with asking that when she was four years old. I was honestly intending to give her the chance to call me silly for thinking she had made that up, or let her get away with saying she had. She’s the one who out-thought me entirely.
So I have to credit the sandwich shop kid for handily winning whatever social game she was playing with me. I’m completely defeated and I might never be allowed to buy a sandwich from anyone ever again.
Two minivans. At least two families’ worth of kids spilled out into the tiny lot. The adults keep walking back and forth between the cars. The kids are protesting in the way kids brought to a deathly dull adult place will do. One is sitting against a minivan’s rear wheel. Others have taken to doing handstands, even cartwheels. They’re not in danger of cartwheeling into the street. They’re just going back and forth on the sidewalk, or again, between the minivans, while the adults try to shepherd them into the building. I have never been inside it, but I just know it’s a slightly dark room that’s quieter than a noiseless room, decorated with a couple of tables that have those heavy tablecloths you feel bad for spilling stuff on, and while there’s some food the kids are going to be allowed to eat, it’s only one or two things, and it’s something like coconut macaroons that as a child can’t be fit into any known food category. I empathize with every person in this scenario, including the Fine Catering clerk who just wants nobody to cartwheel into anything that that breaks.
So we were at Meijer’s trying hard to think of what we went to Meijer’s to buy. We succeeded as far as we know. The store had some toys in those little mid-aisle displays that make it harder to get around the aisle. This one was of those giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures. Well, I guess they’re not giant. They are like four feet tall and I think that’s about life-size for the Ninja Turtles. The 1980s Ninja Turtles anyway, that I’m kind of sure-ish about. They’re way giant compared to any toys.
We were walking past and this kid ran out of Seasonals, punched a Michaelangelo right in the stomach, and then ran off before the Ninja Turtle could retaliate.
It all seemed mysterious. And quite unfair. Who sucker-punches a Ninja Turtle? I mean a Ninja Turtle other than Raphael. There must be some story we’re not getting behind this.
We were at this event with some friends, one of whom brought kids. That’s all right. The odd thing is the kids vanished now and then, but came back later. Where did they go? I don’t know. I’m inclined to suppose that any kids not being observed are off doing what kids do at that age. I believe this to be “climbing trees” or “having impossibly complicated adventures to explain why they returned from the gumball machine you watched them walk to and from with neither a gumball nor the quarter you gave them to buy one” or maybe “gathering alarmingly huge piles of yellow dandelions to tie into knots and drop on the table. I mean, we’re in the middle of the Tri-County Expo Center. We’re inside Meeting Halls C-through-E. There’s like a twenty-foot patch of lawn outside the far side of the complex, in the middle of forty acres of parking lot. Where are you even finding dandelions? How are you doing this? How?”.
My figuring is the kids eventually come back if you leave them alone, although crying, and passing every cold going around North and South America to you. My love tells me that while kids vanished like that when our, Generation X, cohort was raised parents don’t do things like that anymore. I don’t see why they don’t. It isn’t like before our generation was eight we were all dragged off by binturongs to their bintur-lairs to become the victims of unspeakable acts of giant Southeast-Asian-civet-ness. Or buried under a mountain of pine cones.
Although, come to think of it, our generation cohort is a small one. There’s about 960 people in Generation X. There are more living former members of the United States Congress than there are Generation Xers. This is much smaller than the Baby Boomers, who numbered about 144,823,002,038 million all told. And it’s smaller than the Millennials, whose numbers are large but can’t be counted because the Baby Boomer and Generation X researchers can’t stand to talk to them long enough to count one. There’s got to be as many of them as there were Baby Boomers, though, based on IP address usage. Looking over the numbers now … my generation’s count is pretty low. Maybe most of our cohort was dragged off by binturongs etc etc while out dandelion-gathering. Well, you know whose fault that was? The Baby Boomers’.
We’re happy to blame the Baby Boomers. Everyone is. I’d say the Baby Boomers themselves started that, but their parents were blaming them before even the Baby Boomers were. And it’s a safe bet, too, like blaming something on “historical factors”. As if there were anything that weren’t a “historical factor”. They’re just this big, irresistible demographic target. Some Baby Boomers will defend their generation. They can point out how their generation saw transcendent artists like the Beatles, civil rights greats like Gloria Steinem and Dr Martin Luther King, inspirational heroes like the Apollo astronauts, or transformational political figures like Lyndon Johnson, not a single one of whom was a Baby Boomer. But the Baby Boomers were looking very hard and saw some or all of these figures, so that’s something. But for the most part, if you want to say something bad about a generation, say it about the Baby Boomers, and everybody will go along with you.
It’s hating on the Millennials that takes some explaining. For the most part the only thing they’ve done that’s really awful is not put their cell phones away. I’m not saying that isn’t bad. But when you compare it to, like, the time in 1983 when the Baby Boomers laughed Manimal and Automan off the air despite their being the coolest TV shows ever, the cell phone business is nothing.
My hypothesis is that we Generation Xers hate on Millennials because of water pistols. When we were kids, water pistols were water pistols: small, hand-sized things made of translucent yet kind of pink plastic. You filled them with water, then got ready to shoot someone, and then the stopper in the back fell out and most of the reservoir spilled on your wrist. Then you pulled the trigger and the rest dribbled down your finger. Your target remained the dryest thing to have ever existed, what with being outside the maximum six-inch range anyway. Millennials have real water guns. They’re capable of holding enough water to douse the Great Fire Of New York, 1835, each. And they can spray them far enough to threaten Panama Canal shipping all the way from Grand Rapids, Michigan. And if that weren’t enough some of the soakers are made to look like dinosaurs even though there’s no way they can tastefully shoot a fluid stream like that.
I’m not saying the Generation X/Millennials thing is entirely caused by envy. For one thing, who invented water pistols that actually work? Baby Boomers. For another, my generation can actually afford to buy them. The only Millennials who’ve been hired are there so Baby Boomers would have someone to call the worst. They tried sticking Generation X with that label two decades ago, you know. But there were too few of us, and we were too hard to find, up in the trees, gathering dandelions, and talking over intergenerational politics with the binturongs.
I had a little medical test recently. It wasn’t anything big. I don’t have any big medical issues. To date the only medical emergency in my life was when I was a toddler and managed to hoist a spare tire enough that it could roll over and break my pinky toe. That might raise the question of how a toddler could hoist a spare tire, let alone move it enough to hurt anybody.
But parents know that toddlers have supernatural abilities to move things they’re not supposed to. Look away from an eighteen-month-old for ten minutes and there’s a fair chance they’ll have tipped the detached garage over onto their cousin. NASA’s original plans for the Mobile Launcher Platform that rolled Saturn V moon rockets to the launch pad for it to be dragged by a pair of 24-month-olds who’d be told they were “over-tired” but that the rockets had “Halloween inside”. The toddlers were replaced with pairs of 2,750-horsepower diesel engines only when the necessary launch windows implied rolling out to the launchpad in the late morning, when even kids wouldn’t buy the over-tired line. And yet there was still thinking as late as 1968 that they could keep some kids in artificially lit caves so they wouldn’t know they could not be “over-tired” at 10:35 am. Even so one rogue 16-month-old made off with the SA-500F structural facilities test article rocket and it hasn’t been seen to this day.
So past that exceedingly minor emergency room visit I’ve had a boring medical history. That combination stomach flu and back pain a couple months ago was my biggest health news in decades. But I did decide finally to talk with my doctor about an ongoing little issue. I’ve had this nagging cough for a long while. I’ve had it so long I don’t really notice it. But my love did, and pointed out that when I get up I’ll get into these coughing fits that last for up to twelve hours and that get loud enough to rattle fur off our pet rabbit. In my defense, our pet rabbit sheds a lot of fur and I’m not sure we could attribute any particular cloud of fur to any stimulus.
I saw the wisdom in asking about it, though, and the doctor thought it conceivable I might have a mild asthma. It’s also possible I just have too much postnasal drip. Or it might be that I kind of want attention, but without saying things or interacting with people. Coughing a lot is a way to get public acclaim without having to actually feel anything for other people. It’s not so acclaimed as it was in the days of vaudeville, when you could have professional coughers, and I’m not even sure I’m making that up. I know there were sneeze artists on the vaudeville circuit and that totally happened. One was even in one of those Gold Diggers Of Year Here movies. Probably someone held audiences spellbound with their coughing prowess.
Scheduling my appointment got a little weird, since the original appointment last month got cancelled when someone (not me) drove his car repeatedly into the entrance of the medical center. The local news speculated he was angry with the medical center for some reason, and I suspect they’re right. But I admit I haven’t heard his side. He might insist they were the ones running their medical center into his car over and over. I wouldn’t argue, not while his car’s still running. My pinky toe’s still recovering.
The breathing test was done by breathing into this gadget about the size and shape and color of an off-brand Commodore 64 disc drive. They’d hooked up a rubber mouthpiece to it, so I’m sure they didn’t really just recycle my old Excelsior 2000 for this. The guy running the test did ask if I’d ever smoked, which I haven’t, or if I’d been exposed to second-hand smoke, which is a silly question. He could see on my form that I was born in the 70s. Back then you walked through clouds of smoke in every restaurant, office, movie theater, library, microchip-manufacturing clean room, Apollo space capsule, and anywhere within 25 feet of any street or highway. Also we used blocks of lead dissolved in benzene for automobile fuels.
But while the results haven’t been fully analyzed and the doctor hasn’t made his report yet, the first impression was that my breathing looks good. My breathing results were close to expectations. And they were very repeatable except for the time I coughed mid-test. I don’t expect mild asthma to have been the problem. Maybe I am just needy.
I’m sorry to go back to the dream-well so often but there’ve been a bunch of updates recently. So, suppose I have some vaguely related young kid, the kind that’s at the age where he communicates mostly with enthusiastic shouts or muttered words barely coaxed out. I admit that’s kind of how I talk too, although without the enthusiasm, because I got over enthusiasm when I was in college. Anyway, the kid’s question is, “if I had a brother how would I know which to choose?” It’s important enough to be repeated until I give an answer. And I don’t want to put any pressure on you all but I kind of get the sense that if I give the wrong answer the world may end. So, you know, any advice you’ve got, I’ll consider, but if it does end the world I’m naming sources.
There was this guy at the bowling alley with a couple kids, the kind you see at bowling alleys, the ones that are nearly three-quarters as tall as the pins. They had the bumpers up because a kid that small has no chance of a ball rolling all the way down the lane without it falling in the gutter. A kid that small has only a sixty percent chance of the ball rolling all the way down the lane. But this kid took the ball and heaved it from the front line, and it dribbled sideways, not even making it as far as the bumpers, and it dropped in the gutter. And, dear reader, I laughed. I am ashamed, but in my defense, this actually happened. Please forgive me.
My love and I were talking about presidents, what with our just having gone past a day, and the way that Abraham Lincoln feels so close and accessible while George Washington feels remote. But Washington worked so hard his whole life after that first time he started a world war to project an unapproachable dignity, while Lincoln eagerly leapt at the chance to get in touch with ordinary folks, like the time he toured as Jenny Lind’s opening act. It struck me too that Lincoln is just so quotable, even among dialogue that wasn’t made up for his appearance opposite some space potatoes on Star Trek, while with Washington … well, can you think of anything Washington said besides his awesome squelching of the Newburgh Conspiracy and, of course, “I cannot tell a lie”, which he didn’t even say?
And that got us thinking about the cherry-tree incident since my love and I realized that we all knew the story of how Young George Washington supposedly chopped down a tree and confessed it to his father, but we realized we had no idea why he chopped down the tree in the first place. It sounds like a jerk move, all around, and while yeah, boys can be jerks, it seems weird to tell a story that starts out from the premise that Young George Washington set out to be a jerk, but at least he talked about it to anyone who asked. So I got to looking up the whole cherry-tree thing.
We get the cherry-tree story of course form the biographer Mason Locke Weems, who was called Parson Weems even by his friends, to his face, while he was listening, and it turns out I might be wrong in thinking he just made the whole thing up. Apparently while there’s no independent source for the story, he claimed he got it from an old woman who claimed she knew Washington when they were both young, and anyway nobody’s found where he might have plagiarized it from, so, hey, maybe it did happen.
And that’s why I got to actually reading a little bit of the biography where Weems made up all this interesting stuff about Washington. Now, it’s probably inevitable for a biographer to get into really admiring the biographied person. It’s hard to spend all that time writing about someone and not find something you like, no matter how much bad there might be to say about the person. Edward Renehan’s 2005 biography of robber baron Jay Gould, for example, mentions in its introduction that “while Gould was guilty of stock-watering, back in those days the public called stock-watering many things that we now regard as ordinary business practice, as if that makes us look any good, and besides four separate grand juries refused to indict him for his habit of eating babies even after Gould stopped payment on his checks to them. I can show you the papers.” And Washington is an easier guy to like, what with his shallower connections to corrupt railroad corporations.
Indeed, Weems was really quite Washington-mad, as in this bit from the introduction which I am not making up or exaggerating: “And in all the ensigns of character amidst which he is generally drawn, you see none that represent him what he really was, `the Jupiter Conservator,’ the friend and benefactor of men.” This is true. Nearly every biography I’ve read about Washington treats him as an intelligent, reserved, image-conscious man who overcame the inability of groups of Americans to competently manage anything and not just get the British to pick on India instead of America but also to build a federal government just able to overcome seventeen guys in western Pennsylvania not paying the whisky tax, downplaying the part where he’s an Olympian god suckled by a goat.
And the whole book is like that, just magnificently brassy. Washington can’t even die peacefully sick: “Swift on angel’s wings the brightening saint ascended; while voices more than human were warbling through the happy regions, and hymning the great procession towards the gates of heaven. His glorious coming was seen afar off; and myriads of mighty angels hastened forth, with golden harps, to welcome the honoured stranger. High in front of the shouting hosts, were seen the beauteous forms of Franklin, Warren, Mercer, Scammel, and of him who fell at Quebec, with all the virtuous patriots, who, on the side of Columbia, toiled or bled for liberty and truth.” I feel positively curmudgeonly in asking the obvious question of “does anybody know who Scammel is supposed to be?” I’m none too sure about this Warren character either. Somebody check if he’s supposed to be on the list of myriad angel-hasteners.
Anyway, for the record, here’s the anecdote as Weems gives it.
“When George,” said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. `George,’ said his father, `do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?’ This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, `I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’ — `Run to my arms, you dearest boy,’ cried his father in transports, `run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold’.”
I can actually accept its core point, that someone was stupid enough to give a six-year-old a hatchet and this immediately produced a wide swath of things hatcheted into pieces. If there’s anything six-year-olds shouldn’t be given if you don’t want things hatcheted into pieces, it’s things.
Have you ever had to put together one of those movies-in-the-park thing, where they set up a screen and a projector and sometime after the summer dusk sets in you show the kind of movie that attracts flocks of kids who take time out from their normal activities to run up to the projector and fiddle with the buttons? According to the crafty movies-in-the-park manager in my recent dream, that’s just fine. You have to set up an actual projector that handles the movie, and then put up a dummy right prominently in the middle where anybody can get at it. This one isn’t hooked up to anything, but if the film has any irregular things to it at all — like in the good old days of actual reels where there might be a momentary cut or something — it’s all right because the kids will figure their fiddling with the buttons caused the jump cut.
Apparently the crafty movies-in-the-park learned this trick from the years he spent organizing the shows for REO Speedwagon, who apparently couldn’t keep their hands off buttons either. This is almost certainly the closest brush with musical fame I’ve had in my own dreams, but I should point out that in the dreams of someone very close to me, I was doing pretty well with Russell Mael of Sparks.
I had a reputation as a calendar-giver, based on something like fourteen years in a row going by in which I figure that a calendar just the appropriate gift to give about three-quarters of the people I want to gift with something or other, mostly calendars. I’m not one of those johnny-come-latelies who’s gotten into giving out calendars because all the cool kids are. I gave them out because I have a deep belief that the people I care most deeply about could use a little more warning about just when this year April is expected to start and end.
What’s got me thinking about this is I was in one of those odd little shops, that only exists in malls in November and December, that sells calendars and special editions of the board game Sorry, and it had a calendar of animals telling jokes. Not one of those page-a-day calendars where someone had worked up 365 jokes that could be matched with photographs of animals, or even one of those chintzy ones where they combine Saturday and Sunday and only give you approximately 313 of them. It was a monthly calendar. One of the jokes, coming from a pig, asked what you get from a pig that’s taking karate lessons. Answer: pork chops.
The calendar fascinates me. Who’s the person who wants a calendar which will, for not less than 28 days running, taunt you with the question “what do you get from a pig that’s taking karate lessons” and the answer “pork chops”? The first day, sure, you smile as broadly as anyone ever would. The second day, maybe a bit of a grin. The third, it registers as a kind of cute picture of a pig, I guess, with some text creeping around it. The fourth, you start to wonder what color belt the pig’s got to. The fifth, it’s now a question of how the pig would even tie the belt? Or would he have someone to do the belt-tying for him? Is it a him? Are boy or girl pigs more likely to take carate lessons? The sixth, you realize you spent all day yesterday treating the problem of pig karate as if it were serious and probably drove right past the turn for home three times before getting it right.
Oh, sure, you can give the calendar to a little kid who’s too young to be driving and that avoids the issue on the sixth, but that just means whoever’s responsible for the kid is going to have to answer whether the pig in the picture wanted to take karate lessons and, if so, was it just for the fun of it or was it because of bullies in the farmyard. Maybe it is. Then you’re going to have to explain why the farmer puts up with bullies, and that’s going to lead to questions about whether they’re doing it to impress the cows, and the question of why they aren’t called cowies, and you don’t really have a good answer to that. The English language is able to attach a diminutive ending to any word that’s got an ending, so why should it step briskly back from a cowie? Before long you’d be peeking ahead to the next month hoping it’s something blissfully simple like a sheep making a pun on “ewe” but then someone has to explain why that isn’t pronounced “eewiee” and that’s exactly what you were hoping to not explain.
If this had been a joke-a-day calendar I’d understand, since by the time you’d got to being haunted by the implications of the pork chop joke you’d have had four or five other gags about fish schools or owls asking who’s there and cow astronomers discovering the Milky Way to crowd them out of your mind. But this presentation just sits on you and makes you think about it and keep on thinking about it.
On the other hand, the joke isn’t going to be there more than 31 days, unless you lose so much interest in continuing to live that you never advance the calendar again, in which case the karate pig probably isn’t the real issue. So maybe it’s for people who want to be haunted by these kinds of problems but not indefinitely.
That kid who was pinching his friend’s wrist over and over again really was, just like he said, very concerned that his friend was adequately hydrated while at the amusement park all day, because it’s very much in the nature of ten-year-old boys to be worried about one another’s hydration levels and not at all to be looking for chances to see how long you could pinch someone before they start hitting back.
[ I offer here another piece from Robert Benchley’s Of All Things, as I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t have the time to prepare something wholly my own. Please don’t tell Mr Benchley. But this offers a neat send-up of the sorts of cute little kid anecdotes that I assume still line the pages of magazines I don’t read because I think they carry items like what this parodies. ]
LITTLE Bobby, aged five, saying his prayers, had come to that most critical of diplomatic crises : the naming of relatives to be blessed.
“Why don’t I ask God to bless Aunt Mabel?” he queried, looking up with a roguish twinkle in his blue eyes.
“But you do, Bobby,” answered his mother.
“So I do,” was his prompt reply.
LITTLE Willy, aged seven, was asked by his teacher to define the word “confuse.”
“ ` Confuse’ is what my daddy says when he looks at his watch,” said Willy. The teacher never asked that question again. At least, not of Willy.
LITTLE Gertrude, aged three, was saying her prayers. “Is God everywhere ?” she asked.
“Yes, dear, everywhere,” answered her mother.
“Everywhere?” she persisted.
“Yes, dear, everywhere,” repeated her mother, all unsuspecting.
“Then He must be like Uncle Ned,” said the
“Why, Gertrude, what makes you say that?”
“Because I heard Daddy say that Uncle Ned was everywhere,” was the astounding reply.