Putty in her hands

That didn’t take long: I finished all 759 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in barely five days.

It’s no spoiler to say that the book deals with some pretty heavy themes, as indeed the climax of a seven-part epic must. The action must rise and the emotional stakes must become almost too much to bear. The author, J.K. Rowling, does not disappoint. There is loss and sorrow and despair and other things too, both good and bad, and Rowling played me like a fiddle. All this week, my mood was good when Harry Potter was safe or happy, but miserable the majority of the time as the themes in the story had me dwelling on Alex, my mom, and various other well-loved things in my life that are ending, such as our sons’ attendance at the wonderfully offbeat preschool Little Arrows. Even finishing the audiobook of Moby-Dick, which I wasn’t particularly enjoying other than as an intellectual appreciation for its place in the annals of literature, was made more poignant by the feelings Rowling was making me have.

It is a further testament to Rowling’s mysteriously begotten powers that finally reaching the end of Harry’s story after spending most of a decade with him did not also fill me with a feeling of loss, but of fulfillment.

Now, back to my RSS feeds


After finishing the free audiobook of Huck Finn recently (which was outstanding — better, I daresay, than trying to read Mark Twain’s written renditions of all those Southern dialects myself), I started on the Librivox audiobook of Moby-Dick. It’s no less dense than the first time I attempted it, but the reader, Stewart Wills, does a yeoman’s job of predigesting for me its turgid penetralia.

Here’s the weird part: as I’ve remarked previously, both Huck Finn and Slaughterhouse-Five, which I was reading contemporaneously, mention a French place name I’d never heard before: Tuileries. Today I heard it again in Moby-Dick! (Chapter 104, to be precise.) What are the odds?

Here’s another interesting connection: both Moby-Dick and Slaughterhouse-Five are hyphenated titles, and they both have subtitles (“The Whale” and “The Children’s Crusade,” respectively).

Well, it’s a little interesting.

Over the wall

Just in time to concentrate my pop culture obsession on the new Harry Potter book, which arrives from Amazon tomorrow — er, later today — a few minutes ago I finished watching season one of Prison Break on DVD. It was outstanding. It’s the story of Michael Scofield, a respectable white-collar professional who gets himself thrown into the same prison where his ne’er-do-well brother is on death row. Scofield has come prepared with an intricate plan to help them both escape and save his brother’s life.

A few interesting things about this show:

  • Scofield’s prisoner number, 94941, was my ZIP code for 10 years.
  • Scofield holds up a bank in order to get arrested and imprisoned. Although this scene is set in Chicago, the exterior shot of the bank he robs is of the distinctive-looking Ridgewood Savings Bank in Forest Hills, New York, where I had a passbook account in elementary school.
  • This was the final viewing recommendation made to me by my mom after a lifetime full of them. When she first started watching it, beginning with the pilot episode, it was mainly for the hunky Wentworth Miller, who plays Scofield. I thought the premise, which she described to me, was too far-fetched, but as the season unfolded she continued to rave about it and finally piqued my interest. She was right, and as I neared the climax of season one, the discs couldn’t come from Netflix fast enough.

Signing off

Amazon will be delivering my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on Saturday. But leaked copies are already floating around the Internet, and according to today’s headlines, spoilers are proliferating online. Having recently run up against another big spoiler despite my best efforts to avoid it, I am going to make an even better effort this time: I’m going to stay off the Web until I’ve read book 7.

I don’t expect abstaining from the Web to be as easy as abstaining from cable TV has been, so when that book comes on Saturday I’m going to read my little heart out.

And when I’ve finished the book and I’m back online you may be sure I won’t spoil it for anyone else.

Now to aim my wand at my web browser… “Expelliarmus!”

Ten like Ken

As this blog approaches its first anniversary, the proportion of posts regarding blogging inspiration Ken Jennings has dwindled considerably, which is as it should be, of course. But I’m still a regular reader of his and could not let this latest coincidence go unremarked: just a few days before our beloved — and incredibly aged — dog Alex went to her reward, Ken wrote about his own dog’s age.

For those keeping track, this is ten points of similarity between me and Ken which, if we were talking about fingerprints, is almost good enough for a conviction.

The Out on a Whim

I finally got my Honda Fit, the Out on a Whim.

It wasn’t easy to find one; in the end, I needed the help of Cartelligent, whose superior service I recommend very highly. At the time I engaged them, my Cartelligent agent, the wonderful Leigh Taylor, informed me (credibly) that there were a total of four Honda Fits in the state of California matching my modest criteria (trim level “Sport,” manual transmission). I picked one and they negotiated a price for me, handled most of the paperwork, and transported it to their office in nearby Sausalito, where I took delivery from Leigh a few weeks ago. To top it all off, they found a buyer for the Nimble Imp, my nine-year-old Honda Civic, at about three times the price I expected it to command.

The Nimble Imp, a red 1998 Honda Civic DX hatchback, was the first purchase I made with Amazon.com money after they bought the Internet Movie Database.

It replaced the Compelling Notion, a red 1994 Saturn SC2, which was my first new car.

That came after the Uffish Thought, the gold 1984 Toyota Corolla hatchback in which Alex and I crossed America.

Before that was the Fine Young Chap, a blue 1984 Toyota Corolla sedan. It was named for a comment made about me by the father of my friend Drue, and it was totaled in a four-car collision on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn (about which more in a future blog post).

That followed the storied Plate-O-Shrimp, a yellow 1977 VW Rabbit, my first college car, memorialized here.

During the few months before college I had the Beta Epsilon, a white 1974 Pontiac Le Mans, a gift from my dad’s fiancée, now my stepmother. It was named in loving memory of…

…the Brief Encounter, my first car, a green 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, given to me on extended loan by my friend Joelle, who bought it for herself without knowing how to drive, on the condition that I place myself at her disposal for transportation errands, which I was only too glad to do. It was smelly, it was rusty, it was moldy, and it was missing its gas pedal (you had to press your foot on the bare push-rod), but as Jack Sparrow points out, “It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs, but what a ship is… is freedom.”

Alex the dog, 1988 – 2007

In the spring of 1989, Andrea and I had just moved in together, and her dog Alex, still a rambunctious puppy, was a terror. She chewed through books and shoes by the dozens, and even the carpet of the apartment we rented. She refused to be housebroken. She routinely escaped into the perilous streets of Pittsburgh. She filled Andrea’s car with barf and pee. She barked her head off day and night. Our occasional sincere attempts to integrate her more fully into our lives usually ended with her sinking her needle-like puppy teeth into the skin of my hands.

Andrea, who had adopted Alex on an ill-advised whim and whose lifestyle at the time did not equip her properly to care for a puppy, had already once given Alex away in exasperation, to the shelter where she’d first adopted her. She repented of that decision within just a couple of hours and together we returned there to re-adopt Alex. Now, a few months later, it was I who’d had enough and persuaded Andrea that Alex would be happier in a more rural setting, where she could run and dig and bark to her heart’s content. We found an animal shelter in Washington County, about an hour’s drive away, where we took Alex and left her to be adopted by more suitable dog owners.

We wept silently all the way back to Pittsburgh. The several days that followed were unbearably quiet and empty without Alex’s maddening antics. On the fifth day, Andrea happened into a conversation at work with someone who knew the animal-shelter business, and who informed Andrea to her horror that shelters destroy animals who fail to be adopted, typically after a week.

A feather would have been enough to give us the push we needed to change our minds about Alex; this news was a shove. At once we were on our way back to Washington County and a joyful reunion with Alex, whom we adopted for a third time. We promised to be better dog parents and never to leave her again.

We kept our promise in spades. Obedience school finally taught us how to interact with Alex the right way and, before long, the rambunctious terror was gone, replaced with a full-fledged member of the family. By our caring for her and being cared for by her in return, Alex taught us how to be a family, a set of lessons and values that serve us right down to the present day.

There followed eighteen more years of amazing adventures and travels, love and play, worry and relief, loyalty and companionship. She reached an age that astonished the staff of her vet’s office. But a decline that began in earnest about a year ago finally reached a point where we judged her discomfort was almost continual, and her remaining capacity for joy almost all gone.

This afternoon, Andrea and I cradled Alex in our laps on our front lawn as her doctor made her first and final house call. We all wept, the doctor too, as Alex saw and heard her last. What she heard: declarations of love and praise, heartfelt assurances and farewells. What she saw: the faces she has loved best her whole life, smiling through tears, in the shade of a leafy green tree under a blue summer sky.

In nineteen years there has never been a time that Alex didn’t know exactly what was going on, and she never permitted so much as a toenail to be clipped without letting us know how she felt about it. Alex spent her last hour in a reverie of affection, happier than we’d seen her in a long time, and went calmly and at peace. Would that it could be as easy for the heartsick survivors.

It’s an Incredible Life

The greatest thing my parents ever did for me was allow me to attend Hunter College High School after I took and passed the entrance exam. It meant letting me ride the subway alone for forty-five minutes each morning and afternoon from the time I was a scrawny and unstreetwise not-yet-twelve-year-old.

At the time I appreciated their confidence in me; but it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I understood the effort of will that must have been involved. The natural parenting reflex is to permit no risks at all; recognizing that some risks are necessary for growth requires consciously overriding that reflex. As I tell my kids whenever they’re about to get a shot at the doctor’s office: being brave doesn’t mean being unafraid, it means doing what you have to do even though you’re afraid. Faced with that decision in 1978, my mom and dad showed tremendous bravery. Keep in mind this was the bad old days of New York City in the insolvent seventies, the city at its grimiest, most broken-down, and most crime-ridden. Under the same conditions, would I let an eleven-year-old Jonah or Archer venture from Queens to Manhattan alone each day by subway when there was a perfectly good high school just a couple of blocks away? The answer would be, “Of course not,” if it hadn’t been for the example of my parents.

The lesson I learned from them received a boost from the film Finding Nemo, which is superficially a comic undersea adventure but which is really about overprotectiveness.

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.

The movie has a lot to say to parents about the dangers of sheltering kids from the risks and wonders of the real world, and coping with the unavoidable worry that entails. It teaches that worry is an inextricable part of parenthood, which is a comfort in a way. Thanks to Finding Nemo, when I encounter a worrying situation in my role as a father, I cope a little better. I know that it goes with the territory, that it’s universal, and that there’s a right way to deal with it. This is the mark of a well-told story: it addresses an aspect of the human condition and helps make sense of the challenges and complexities of life. Its lessons can be put to practical use, even if they’re nothing more than how to handle a difficult emotion. As long as language has existed, people have used storytelling as a guide for living.

So I was disappointed to read that our friend Vicky thinks that Pixar‘s movies “aren’t interesting if you’re above the age of nine or so.” To her, they’re colorful and diverting and not much else.

It grieves me to think that she and others like her saw The Incredibles unaware of its affecting subtext. As that film opens, two superheroes, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, get married — just as a wave of lawsuits by ordinary citizens against superheroes drives the “supers” underground. Most of the film takes place fifteen years later, when Mr. Incredible has a suburban house, an economy car, a terrible insurance-company job, three kids with Elastigirl, and a life of quiet desperation, longing for the glory days. Occasionally he sneaks out with his old superhero buddy to perform some good superdeeds. The deception threatens to destroy his family.

In the story, the timing of the lawsuits that end up criminalizing superhero activity is a coincidence, coming as they do right as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl get married. But in storytelling terms it’s anything but. For The Incredibles does not merely take place while its protagonists are middle-aged; it is an allegory about middle age. In our youth we develop and employ those attributes that attract attention, friends, and the opposite sex, and bring us glory — our superpowers. If happiness is “the exercise of vital powers,” then these are our happiest times. The moment we get married, though, those powers are promptly embargoed. They may no longer be used. They are driven underground, and we must learn to live without that part of us that made us happiest, even though the powers still lurk tantalizingly just beneath the surface. Many people fail at learning to live like this, which is where infidelity and mid-life crises come from.

Marriage and family are not without their compensations, however, in real life and in the film, where together, Mr. Incredible’s family is an even more formidable force against evil than Mr. Incredible ever was alone. Events lead to the middle-aged couple suddenly finding themselves costumed and battling bad guys together again. At the first lull in the action they fall into each other’s arms and proclaim, “I love you.” They have rekindled the spark of what attracted them to each other in the first place. The Incredibles teaches middle-aged couples the important real-life lesson that with luck and a supportive partner, the way to avoid pining for the glory days is to make these be the more-glorious days. All we have to do is trust each other to use our “powers” responsibly and we can thread the needle of remaining superpowered within the confines of family life — we can be sexy and committed. Everyone knows a supercouple or two like this.

Now, our friend Vicky is smart, beautiful, funny, a talented chef, and many other things besides, but there are two things she is not: a parent, and middle-aged. She may not be ready for the messages in Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. I can hardly fault her for that, because of my own experience with It’s a Wonderful Life.

Somehow I managed to miss It’s a Wonderful Life throughout my entire childhood, even though — being out of copyright and therefore free for TV stations to air — it was broadcast about a hundred times each Christmas season, and I watched lots of TV. When I finally did see it, it was at age 19 in a college film class. At that age I could not help but identify with the young George Bailey, who was full of dreams about tremendous accomplishments. Time after time these dreams are thwarted, and in the end he has traveled nowhere, built no great bridges, amassed no fortune. Worse, he had to watch from the sidelines as his old friends and even his brother did do all these things. It was the most depressing movie I’d ever seen, and for the life of me I couldn’t comprehend the film’s devotees who found something happy in that tacked-on, insincere ending. What could George Bailey have been so deliriously joyful about, crammed into his living room surrounded by all those yokels? For weeks afterward, George’s desperate, bitter plea just before surrendering to a life of domesticity rang in my ears: “I want to do what I want to do!”

It was only a couple of years later that I saw It’s a Wonderful Life again, a little more mature, and was ready this time (for whatever reason) to receive its message in the spirit intended — and how! At the end of the film, my eyes strangely would not stop leaking. I was filled with a spirit of selflessness and community. And I was amazed at how much I could have changed in so short a time as to have the polar opposite reaction from my prior viewing of the film.

Just wait, Vicky. If Pixar’s movies don’t resonate for you yet, they will, in time.

Jeez, this shit really works

Recently I decided to stop using anti-perspirant. I’ve applied it religiously, unquestioningly, almost every single day for most of my life without stopping to wonder whether it does what it claims, or whether I really need it. Is it all a put-on by the cosmetics industry? Does someone who showers daily and exerts himself minimally really need it?

The answer, for the first four days of the experiment, was “no.” That changed to a clear “yes” today, day five. ‘Nuff said; that concludes this experiment.

This was the second in an occasional series of personal grooming experiments I’ve conducted. The first was a test of the effectiveness of Rogaine (motivated by a suggestion from my doctor and only in part by my own vanity). I used it for several months and documented the condition of my scalp in a sequence of photographs taken once a week under identical conditions. Outcome: Rogaine is great for making your scalp feel itchy all the time, not for much else.