Toujours l’audace

We closed out another difficult April with Jonah’s seventh birthday party, an event that didn’t even have a coherent plan as late as one week beforehand. We didn’t have time to assemble and send one of our trademark clever party invitations, so we made do with an Evite.

Last year Andrea sprang an idea on me for Jonah’s party that was challenging but obviously right. This year was no different. As we struggled with how and where to stage a Scooby-Doo party for him (his requested theme) — ruling out one venue after another on the basis of expense, distance, logistical complexity, unavailability, or thematic unsuitability — a plan suddenly occurred to Andrea. “Honey,” she said to me, “I love you, and I’m sorry to say this, but I think it has to be a slumber party here at the house.”

Once again the rightness of this idea was immediately apparent — as was the magnitude of the task ahead. Jonah’s guest list had the names of more than twenty six- and seven-year-olds on it. None of the families had yet attempted a sleepover with more than two guests at once. Our modest little house would barely contain them all while fast asleep, to say nothing of the wakeful hours before and after slumbering! And because we eschewed any location that might have provided its own Scooby-Doo-ish appeal — Alcatraz prison, an old movie house, a Victorian mansion, and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum were candidates — we’d have to stage our own mystery for the kids to solve.

Make no small plans.” In the week after sending the Evite, nearly every parent who RSVP’d made some comment along the lines of, “You are very brave” or “I salute you.”

In the afternoon before the party began, as we were getting the house ready for the onslaught, Andrea emerged from the study holding a deck of playing cards. “Boys,” she said to Jonah and Archer, “was one of you playing with these cards and writing on the backs of them?” “No,” they both said. Andrea held them up. Sure enough, each card had a letter written in permanent marker on the back. “Someone wrote on the backs of these cards. It wasn’t either of you?” “No,” they insisted, puzzled. “That’s strange,” said Andrea. “Yeah, that’s weird,” said Jonah.

A few minutes before six, when the guests were scheduled to arrive, Jonah checked on his Scooby-Doo cake, which he’d helped decorate himself. It sat protected in a pink cake box on a side table. A few minutes later, when his first friend showed up, Jonah brought him straight to the cake box to show off his cake artwork. But when he lifted the lid, the cake was gone! In its place was a note:

The cake is all mine, ha ha ha!
If you want to know where I took it, you’ll have to “puzzle” it out.
Signed, The Villain

Jonah was gobsmacked. “The cake was stolen!” he exclaimed and started looking for it all over the place. It was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile more guests arrived, and as soon as each one did, Jonah filled them in. “A villain stole the cake!” While they tried to figure out that mystery, there was pizza and there were hot-dog-pasta creatures.

Then I realized something. “Jonah!” I said. “I think I understand what the villain meant by ‘puzzle it out’!” “What?” Jonah asked. I brought out five boxes, each containing a Scooby-Doo jigsaw puzzle. “I bought these for everyone to do around bedtime, but look! They’ve already been opened!” Jonah got the idea immediately. “Maybe the villain left a clue in the puzzles! Maybe we have to put the puzzles together!” So amidst the general seven-year-old-boy chaos five groups formed, one around each puzzle. The puzzles were found to have some kind of design on the backs of the pieces, but they had to be assembled front-side-up first to make sense out of the markings on the back.

After a while, the first puzzle was complete and I flipped it over with a couple of stiff pieces of cardboard. On the back were two playing card symbols — 3 of hearts and 7 of clubs. Jonah looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes got really big. “That explains it!” he blurted out and ran off in search of Andrea. “Mom! Mom! Where are those playing cards from before?”

One by one the puzzles were completed and flipped over, each revealing a pair of playing card symbols. We found the altered deck of cards and dealt each kid a handful. “Who has the 7 of clubs?” I asked. “Who has the 3 of hearts?” Soon we had ten cards with these letters on the back:


The kids moved the cards around on the table for a while until they made the letters spell:


“Let’s go to the playground!” Jonah announced. With some difficulty, Andrea and I and a few grownups who were helping us organized 16 kids for a raucous walk to the playground up the street in the gathering dark. Our friend Greg, who was also helping but whose foot was injured, stayed behind.

At the playground, we discovered a piñata in the shape of the Mystery Machine, the van from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. I tied it up and the kids whacked at it until a ton of candy spilled out — along with a folded note. Jonah opened it up and read, “Ha ha, fooled you. Now the cake is all mine!”

“Back to the house!” Jonah declared, and again we organized for a noisy march. When we got close to the house, the kids broke formation and ran inside — where they discovered our friend Greg, with the Scooby-Doo cake in front of him on the table, about to eat it himself! “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

Cake eating followed, accompanied by Scooby-Doo cartoons, changing into pajamas, and unrolling sleeping bags. After that was lights-out, carefully timed to coincide with a sugar crash, producing a trouble-free night of sound sleep for everyone — even Andrea and me. In the morning, each kid took home a personalized “Meddling kid” t-shirt with himself as Shaggy.

Jonah was all smiles throughout the party and for hours afterward the next day.

After the last guests left in the morning, and after I literally passed out for a couple of hours that afternoon, I remarked to Andrea that though I used to feel guilty at Halloween time (because our kids wear store-bought costumes, even though my mom used to make professional-quality ones by hand), I don’t feel guilty anymore. We have carved out a funmaking niche of our own in which we excel.

Night fever

Tonight is the last of four nights that I’ve had the house to myself, and it’s crunch time at work, so I’m aiming to pull an all-nighter in my home office — a prospect that daunts me, because I’m no longer twenty-something (I’m no longer even thirty-something), and all-nighters were hard even then.

For example… (Now I’m about to relate a story about college when I should be working. See what I mean about focus?)

During the first several decades of TV and movies, if you ever wanted to watch a particular title, you had to wait until it came to you. No video streaming back then, no pay-per-view cable, no movie-rental stores — well actually there were movie-rental stores during the time I’m about to describe, but their inventories were limiting at best to someone with eclectic tastes in entertainment (what today we’re calling “the long tail”). Instead you had to wait, and wait, and wait for your favorite movie or show to appear in a local retrospective theater or on one or another broadcast TV channel, edited for sensitive eyes and ears and to fit in the time slot, and panned-and-scanned for good measure. Compared to what we have today, it was, to this keen consumer of filmed entertainment — in a way you young whippersnappers can’t properly appreciate — hell.

So there I was in college in the mid 1980’s, flipping, as I occasionally did, through the TV Guide, looking to see what the broadcast and cable gods deigned to deliver this week, when one of the highest-priority titles I’d been waiting to find leapt out at me.


O the nostalgia! My very earliest TV hero, back on the air!

…At six o’clock Sunday morning.

I knew there was no way I’d ever wake up to watch a cartoon at six o’clock on a Sunday morning. Even the most obnoxious alarm clock didn’t have sufficient power to get me out of bed in those days, even at a decent hour. But I had to see Underdog; so I contrived to stay up all Saturday night, watch Underdog, and then sleep until the afternoon.

When I pitched this plan to my friends, they were game, if not quite as eager as I was. So that Saturday we gathered at Bruce’s to hang out and watch the clock.

The night went by easily enough for the first couple of hours. Perhaps we watched some TV, possibly an old Route 66 rerun. Perhaps we played a board game, possibly Pente, or a computer game, such as the trippy Mindwalker. At some point, as the hour grew late, the night began to drag.

Then Bruce brought out the vodka.

Hours later — at ten minutes before six, in fact — I woke up groggily on the floor, a horrible crick in my neck and a big dry tongue in my mouth. Around me the others were passed out too. I focused on the clock and was overjoyed to have gotten up in time for Underdog. “Wake up,” I told my friends. I tried gently to shake them awake. “It’s five minutes to Underdog!” I shook them some more. I could not rouse them, no matter how I tried. I put on the TV and figured the sound would wake them up. I hoped they’d be up in time to sing the theme song with me:

(God, the ease with which I can now find and include that clip just kills me.)

But they slept through the whole show, while I watched, just as riveted to the screen as I’d been at age four. At six thirty I turned off the TV, quietly let myself out, and stumbled home satisfied.

The law of attraction to the law

For a short, wonderful time at the end of the last century, during the dot-com boom, before kids and homeownership, it looked like Andrea and I would be able to retire. What, I asked myself, would I do with my ample remaining time, once I’d had enough of sipping rum drinks on white-sand beaches? Surprisingly I had a single clear answer in mind: law school. I wanted not to practice law per se but to become a legal scholar so that when I wrote essays and gave lectures about the U.S. Constitution, which is what I saw myself spending my retirement doing — never mind why, I’m not entirely sure myself — I would know what the hell I was talking about. Plus, academic credentials would give people a reason to pay attention to my work.

It didn’t work out that way, which is probably just as well, because I know myself too well to believe I could devote the necessary focus to a single subject for the necessary length of time.

Only after I decided to study the law, then abandoned that idea, did I discover how strangely unoriginal that idea was among my cohort.

My closest friends in elementary school were David, Jon, and Sarah. At the time of Jon’s early death he was studying for the bar. When I reconnected with Sarah after a quarter century I discovered she was practicing law. David recently left his long-time job and is about to start law school himself (congratulations and good luck, David).

My closest friend in high school was Chuck. Upon graduating and moving to Israel, he too became a lawyer.

One of my two best friends in college, Bruce, after a somewhat dissipated lifestyle and careers as a computer programmer, saloon owner, and wrought-iron craftsman, is now also pursuing a law degree.

What gives? Apart from Chuck, I didn’t know about any of these career choices until after I’d decided (and then undecided) to go to law school myself; nor did any of them know that I had briefly considered it; and none of us was the type of person you might have expected to grow up to become a lawyer. So how did the same idea end up in all our brains? What is it about the law, or about my group of friends?

The next awesome

When you’re a kid, toys are awesome. Candy is awesome. Spinning around until you get dizzy and fall down is awesome. Mad Libs are awesome. For some unknown reason, stickers are awesome. A lot of things are awesome.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, because a few years later you discover that girls [substitute your favorite gender as appropriate] are even more awesome, and kissing one? Forget about it. But hold on, because with a little luck, not too much later you discover something a lot more awesome even than kissing.

More new awesome things await you, even if they can’t quite match the awesomeness of sex (which is what I was alluding to elliptically above, for those who couldn’t quite catch that [but who can understand “alluding to elliptically”]). Earning your own money, that’s awesome. Moving into a place of your own — awesome. Married life — awesome.

But wait, the best is still to come, because you haven’t had kids yet, and when you do, oh my God the awesomeness. And then all their awesome things become awesome for you all over again.

So each stage of life has some new awesome thing to look forward to that wasn’t in the stage before — but what’s next for me? I’ve had candy, I’ve made myself dizzy, I’ve kissed (etc.) girls, earned money, had kids. Now what?

The obvious answer is grandchildren, but that’s a long way off. Up until now I’ve never had more than a few years to tire of one new awesome thing before discovering the next; but grandkids are probably a couple of decades away at least. Well, that’s the way life is: first it teaches you how to be patient and then it requires you to be. No wonder my folks kept pestering me about having children in the years before we finally did. I made them wait a long time, but if their reaction to becoming grandparents is any guide, I may still have some really substantial new awesomeness coming.

Play ball

It’s only natural that I hope my sons turn out like me in a lot of ways, and I’m pleased to say so far, so good on that front. They’re (ahem) bright, witty, thoughtful, and devastatingly handsome. And they love the original Star Trek.

It’s just as natural, I suppose, that I hope my sons will not be like me in certain respects.

For instance, as a boy I disliked team sports, though in summer camp I was often compelled to play softball. I feared the ball; I feared underperforming; and I feared the bees that were my constant companions among the clover in right field. These feelings, and popular stereotypes about (e.g.) obsessive Little League parents, eventually morphed into the conviction that sports were somehow beneath me, and I dedicated myself to the life of the mind. In retrospect I regretted it, of course, belatedly waking up to the benefits of being well-rounded in all ways, physically and mentally.

Over the past few months, Jonah (age 7) has shown the same hesitation about participating in team sports, even ones that his friends enjoy. But yesterday we discovered that our neighbor is the local Little League coach and that it wasn’t too late in the season for Jonah to join in baseball practice that very evening. Andrea pulled Jonah out of his afterschool program early, urging him to try baseball practice at least once. He dragged his feet but agreed. I met them at the field.

I’m thrilled to report that Jonah took to it like a fish to water. He got a warm reception from the coach and the other kids on the team. If the others had been much better than him, that might have queered things right away; but Jonah’s throwing arm is strong, he’s a fast runner, he even shows some hitting ability — and though he can’t catch (I blame myself), neither can any of the other kids!

He was issued his cap and his jersey — number 14. His first game is this Saturday. Go Rockies!

Now I’ve got to get myself a glove and join in practice from time to time. I feel the old anxieties bubbling up. Maybe it took having a son to finally overcome them.