A Moment for Lou.

Each Thursday after church choir, I usually drive to Jamaic Plain, park on or near Green Street, and then walk to the combination convenience store and Dunkin Donuts to pick up a bag of Twizzlers. Many people believe there are two types of Twizzlers: black licorice and red. But that’s not quite true. Red isn’t a flavor, unless we’re talking about hospital gelatin desserts. Red Twizzlers come in cherry and strawberry flavors. And while neither even remotely approximate the fruit, it is important for me and my tastes to choose cherry and never strawberry.

If the weather is nice, I like to stroll the streets nearby in a loop on the way back to my car, with the bag displayed prominently in my left hand, and a single strip of the candy in my right. I try not to chomp at the Twizzlers too quickly. I like the bag to last me the entire circuit.

In high school, there was a teacher, Lou Pearlstein, who always carried a small stash of red Twizzlers in this way. It didn’t matter where—in the halls, in class—he was always chewing. I never met Lou in a classroom environment. He taught high school physics, and I was only a lowly eighth grader when he had his heart attack. Don’t worry; he didn’t die. No, in fact, he was quite alive. He did, however, manage to drain the teachers’ common emergency fund during his recovery, though. There were politics involved. But I was young and naive and he sometimes shared his Twizzlers with me, even though I wasn’t his student.

Mr. Pearlstein was a big, round man—not especially tall, but firm. He looked like a proper physics teacher. He also looked like good football coach, which he was not. In fact, he didn’t coach at all. But he did keep his right hand in the front of his pants like football players sometimes do when they play in the cold. It was kind of him to let me select which Twizzler I wanted straight from the bag rather than handing it to me himself. Hygene was important to him.

I hope the Twizzlers aren’t what caused his heart attack.

Happy Maundy Thursday, everybody.

I Need to Praise You Like I Should.

A few summers ago, back during my crazy college days, my friend Jackie stopped by my room to visit and catch up. She had been at UC Berkeley for the past couple months doing research in some sort of biology or neuroscience or history of science. Whatever it was, we didn’t talk about it. Rather, we reminisced about, of all things, a moment in her high school Spanish class.

She and her classmates were trying out the present subjunctive — Jackie and I didn’t attend the same high school; she went to Commonwealth, near Berklee School of Music. The laid-back, do-as-you-please music mantra infects that whole area in Boston pretty deeply. And from what I can tell, Commonwealth runs its school accordingly. I liked the semblance of order and underprivilege at my school. Still I can’t help but wonder how a school like hers would’ve affected me. — The task at hand: to explain to the class “Why my parents are pleased with me.” Now, I can tell you that this is a bad classroom exercise for a number of reasons. Chances are you can think of a few yourself, so I’ll spare us both the repetition. What’s worth noting, though, are the responses. By some stroke of bad luck for her, and convenience for my story, Jackie had to go first.

“My parents are pleased that I do my best,” she said confidently. That’s normal. My parents told me the same thing. Try your hardest and no more. That’s all you can do, that’s the best you can do. It’d hadn’t occured to me that anyone would respond differently.

But everyone else gave the same, different response. Their parents, they said, would be pleased so long as their kids were happy. Curious. It seemed that all the other parents were concerned explicitly with their child’s emotional welfare. Maybe our parents could take lessons from them. Research on motivation theory and praise from the 1980s until now suggests otherwise.

It’s an unwritten rule that harsh critism is somehow damaging to a child’s self-image. And we’ve long assumed that positive praise helps to construct a positive sense of self-worth. It turns out, however, that this is simply untrue.

Direct, personal validation after a success — something as simple and harmless as, “I’m so proud of you.” — can hinder a child’s performance. Yes, I know. It sounds outrageous. But it’s not. Such praise encourages the child, or anyone really, so long as he continues to succeed. As soon as the child meets with perceived failure, he’s likely to seize, much like a deer in headlights. Children how are overly praised in this fashion will eschew situations that they feel will cause them to look less than smart.

Growing up I had a friend, for anonymity’s sake, let’s call him Al. This guy is the single most selfish, irresponsible, horrible human being I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Really. There’s a good chance the “Does not play well with others” report card comment was first written for him. I mean this kid was bad, with a capital B. What makes him so insufferable, I think, was the way his parents treated him. No matter what Al got whatever he wanted. The cost, the time, the impracticality of it never figured in. And when they weren’t spoiling him with material goods, honeyed words in his honor flowed from their mouths. “What a good boy.” “You’re the best.” “I couldn’t be prouder.”

And so Al needed to be the best. We’d played — yes I publical confess that we gather around a few time a week to play — Dungeons and Dragons. At the start of each new campaign we’d have to make new characters: figure out their race, alignment, skills, etc. At the beginning everyone is weak. It’s another one of those unwritten rules. You start out small and work your way big. Al hates this rule. He wants to be the biggest, the best from the start through the finish. He made such a fuss that we let him be the highest he could be in all the initial stats. The trick, though, he had to be human. So he was the best at being the worst. You see, unlike the other races, like elves or pseudo-dragons — I was two pseudo-dragons. Like their name suggests, they’re not dragons but magical, flying lizards no bigger than a cat. They have scales and a poison-tipped tail. We chose these two characters for me instead of one because they’re not especially powerful. However, when Al tried to sell me to a travelling circus I stung him in defense, sending him into a permanent coma. Pseudo-dragons can communicate to their master and no one else, and then, only through telepathy. I’d frequently fall asleep during gameplay. Then Bob, my owner, could play for me without his raising a ruckus.— the “normal” human can’t level up. He’s stuck with whatever he starts out with, including his health. As the game went on, everyone else in the group received more hit points, and therefore could fight the bigger, scarier enemies, as they gained more experience. Al didn’t. Not long into the game Al would die after one attack from a monster. He could no longer play. And that made him mad. He forced us to stop the game prematurely. No one could mention D&D in Al’s company for weeks without a fight.

In the face of failure, Al turned mean. It contradicted his parents praise, which he heard over and over and over again. It was impossible, even for his friends to escape it. When presented with a situation that might prove that he was not the best, Al became helpless. And this is the technical term, too, helpless. He couldn’t form strategies. He didn’t persevere. He gave up, picked up his ball, and went home. Sometimes, literally. Al is not alone. In fact, a little under half the population responds to difficulty in this way.

Once, after a long break from volleyball, Al took the longest to get back into the swing of things. He’d accompany each missed shot with an unprompted denigration of his ability, that is, with an excuse, “I was never good at spikes anyway.” Sometimes he spontaneously divert attention from whatever he thought to be a failure to one of his successes. After a failed dig, he might remind us, “I can land a somersault on my feet on the trampoline.” He’s parents had spoiled him with their praise, really. Their constant, personal validation had planted a deep-seated vulnerability and fear in him.

But only about half the population react helplessly. The other half answer in the face of difficulty with what psychologists call a mastery-oriented response. These kids see what other might call a failure as a chance to learn. I don’t mind telling you about the countless hours DJ and I spent playing that invidious video game Soul Caliber on his Sega Dreamcast. He’d play as Taki, a particularlyl pneumatic female ninja who fought with double ninjatos. I’d always choose Kilik, an orphan raised by temple elders and general badass with a bo staff.

After coming home from cross country practice around 4pm, DJ and I would play, regularly, until three, four, five, even six the following morning in a blood brawl, one-on-one in the games versus mode. We choose Misturugi’s alternative level, the one on the floating wooden platform in the middle of a lake during a winter battle in the mountains of Japan. Something about this particular stage we found soothing. One night we played for 278 rounds straight. Needless to say, we grew accustomed to each other’s fighting style. To this day, it is unwise for anyone — except for me, of course — to oppose DJ as Kilik.

Every once in a while a round would end in a tie, but inevitibly someone lost. If DJ lost, he might answer with a menacing though inviting, “Bring it on. Play harder.” Defeat only presented him another chance to get better. He stopped, analysed, and revised his strategy. Learning theoriest call such behavior metacognitive. And it’s exactly the sort of response educators, or at least educational literature, try to instill in their students.

People who display a mastery-oriented response to obstacles often blurt out self-directed motivating comments, things like, “I can do this.” And they’ll reason through the situation and adjust their action dynamically. DJ’s video game habbits exemplify the mastery-oriented learner: “How is he beating me?”

The tricky and interesting thing about praise and response is this: how a person reacts to an obstacle establishes that person’s contigent self-worth. Kids who feel they’ve somehow let their caretakers down by failing actually think that they themselves are failures. Children think that a bad kid always does poorly on tests at school. And, conversely, if a kid does poorly on tests at school, he must be a bad kid. And failures are somehow stickier than successes.

In one study, children in the fifth and sixth grades were separated into two groups of equal abililty (based on standardized tests) to perform a few tasks. Children prone to give the helpless response were in one; children likely to show a mastery-oriented response to the tests in the other. The first eight problems were designed so that all the children could successfully complete them. They were followed by four more problems that designed to lie beyond the students’ abilities. When asked, students in the helpless group reported only successfully completing between three and four of the problems on average, whereas the mastery-oriented group accurately recalled finishing eight of the problems correctly — twice the amount they were unable to complete. The first group were swamped by their failure to the exclusion of their successes.

But there is hope. The helplessness and mastery-orientedness aren’t hardwired. It is possible to elicit a mastery-oriented reponse through praise. And here’s the connection: praise which focuses on a child’s strategy and effort and not on the child himself can produce a mastery-oriented response to hardship.

So, it seems Jackie’s and my parents had it right. Their praise expectations have more complicated results. It inspired a desire for learning, persistence, greater self-worth, and self-directed motivation. Praise centered about strategy and effort tells a child that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes. At least it doesn’t preclude it. It takes the pressure off of outward appearence. Such praise allows a child to look vulnerable, to ask questions, to make mistakes. The Bible got it right, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But it missed, “Praise the work, encourage the worker.”

In retrospect, I should thank my parents, and I do — Hi, mom! — for wanting me to try hard rather than be happy. Thank goodness my parents weren’t hippies like those other parents at Commonwealth. I’m happier for it.

[If you want to read more about this sort of thing, check out Self-Theories by Carol Dweck. It’s a collection of essays on personality development and motivation written for teachers and moms and the lazy psychologist.]

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Odd Man Out.

Tonight I spent some time with my neighbours who happen to be friends from high school, though they are a bit older than me. They are married and have two kids, both boys. The older one, Kyle, is six, which puts him at just the right age to start kindergarten, something he did, in fact start, last September.

I love asking kids questions. Hell, I like asking anyone questions. But kids are usually the best because things which we, the grown-ups, would consider old hat are, to them, brand new. After slowly walking towards Kyle in what he called “a chase” around the back yard — I like to walk slowly rather than run. Because it’s unexpected, it tends to freak them out a little more — we sat down inside at the kitchen table to prepare our hamburgers with Caesar dressing, grilled red bell peppers, and all the other fixings. I took this time to ask Kyle what he was doing at school. “Oh, just some math. But I’ve already seen math, so it’s not hard,” he replied as a matter of fact. I smiled. Everyone in the room smiled, but no one gave it away. They didn’t know what, but they knew it was coming.

“Yeah? Sounds like you’re ahead of the game, then,” I answered. It wasn’t time yet.

“Yeah, but not always. We learned about odd numbers and I didn’t know about them before,” Kyle offered. He’s a good, helpful kid. He’s constantly trying to help his younger brother, Luke, who’s just about to turn 14 months in a few weeks, do whatever kids that age do: throw the phone on the floor from on top of chairs and rip CDs out of their cases, I suppose.

Now it was time. Kyle had given me something to play with. I couldn’t resist, so I started out, “So what is an odd number?”

He thought about it and after a moment he responded, “It’s a number that doesn’t have a pair. If it’s an even number then there is always a partner, but in an odd there is one all alone.” Hey, it even made sense, at least to me. To see what sense he had made of it, I asked him for examples of odd numbers. He gave me one and three. And the next? Five.

“Okay, what is the biggest odd number you can think of?” I thought I had won, but you can’t ever underestimate little kids. If you do, they’ll prove you wrong. Kyle pondered my question.

At last he spoke, “There isn’t one.” Foiled, I smiled and regrouped.

“You’re right, but can you tell me which is the largest one you can name?” I’m sure that we can glean some fact about cognitive development or learning theory or maybe just that people can be tricked even if they themselves have supplied enough information not to be — and in my experience most people, not just children can be fooled even if you tell them “This is a lie:” — Kyle answered anyway.

He told me that “one-oh-one” was the biggest odd number he could name. It’s certainly odd, I agreed, but which odd number came next? He quickly gave one hundred three. Kyle would be the last one to finish his cheeseburger. His was cold before I downed two. By now I was working on a Sam Adams Boston lager, which I had saved for last.

We continued in this way until we made it up to nine thousand eleven. [I stopped after only one beer, though. Kyle told me that he is allowed to drink root beer, which is like beer except that it’d didn’t have alcohol.] Not satisfied with our latest contender, nine thousand thirteen spoiled its chances, we gave up.

Cindy Crawford and the Emergency Room

Disclaimer #1: If you are my mom, either do not read this entry or read it in its entirety before calling me. Once you have done that, read it again. And if, after you have read it three times, you still think that someone is sick, in danger, pregnant, or dead, do not call. Everyone is fine. Actually, my foot is a little sore from volleyball. But that’s exactly what I’d tell you on the phone.

Disclaimer #2: DJ, like many of my friends, is a hypochondriac. Once he went to the ER because he was cold — he only had mild hypothermia; because his stomach hurt — his spleen had ruptured and the refuse which circulated his body put him in severe danger of dying, but we got him an ambulance. I don’t see why he refused to walk back to the house so we could call for one; because his it hurt to walk — he had strained his groin, but you can only really walk something like that off. Anyway, you shouldn’t ever take his ailments seriously. I, myself, probably suffer from chronically recurring meningitis, but do you see me rushing to a hospital for “treatment”? No, no you don’t.

Last night, after my first five games of volleyball in about six years courtesy of an adult pick-up nearby, DJ decided that it had gone on long enough: the fever, stiff neck, and headache which had localized in the base of his skull had played enough on his psychology that it was time to go to the hospital. I consulted with my doctor friends Emily and Laura before finally acquiescing to DJ and his symptoms.

He had spent the last five days as his own personal disease detective and, and in accord with various Yahoo searches, he now was convinced that he had meningitis. That didn’t stop him from going to community volleyball. At least he’d be infecting a neighbouring town.

Despite my doctors’ unofficial, unaminous advice to sleep it off and go to the clinic in the morning, DJ insisted we go to the emergency room — but not before he showered, nor before I ran home to fetch a math and notebook for the wait. We almost got suckered into one of those science documentaries about nuclear explosions and government secrets that continously play on the Discovery and History Channels at night, but we forged on: first, to one hospital which DJ deemed “too full” upon a drive-by; next, to the hospital he always goes to, always.

His registration sounded pathetic. Symptoms? “Well, I’ve had a headache for a really long time. About five days, and it’s in the back of my head.” The paraprofessional was unimpressed. But we were just warming up for the triage nurse. She was pretty convinced that DJ did, in fact, have a headache. She ran into the back, mixed up a few pills in a small plastic cup suitable for dipping sauce and brought them back with a cup of water. “Take these,” she said, following with, “On a scale of one to ten, with ten indicating the worst pain imaginable and one representing no pain at all, how do you feel?”

There was a chart in front of me taped to the table with just such a chart. It ran smiley faces to crying faces from left to right. The end with the pained faces had curled up, obscuring the most truly pained face. Good thing, too. It was sad, full with a frown and one black tear rolling down from each eye. It’d be more painful, I think, if the face were missing one or both eyes. I kept my thoughts to myself. Tonight was DJ’s night and it his turn to talk — not mine. He thought about the question. The pause made his reply seem all the more ridiculous.

“Well, I guess a two. No, maybe a three. A two or a three,” he decided at last. “What did I take, anyway?”

“Motrin and some advil.” It was official: DJ did have a headache.

The waiting room was separted naturally into two parts by an entrance in the middle and matching built-in shelving units for the TVs and magazines which flanked dividing wall and faced outwardly on opposite sides. DJ and I, being anti-social unless we have to be or are drunk, sat in the smaller, though perhaps slightly more crowded section furthest from the registration desk. In the corner a man and woman sat in chairs. The woman had brought a tan blanket and presently covered herself with it. The man had already removed his shoes. I caught up on my math. But something inside of me felt empty. It was my stomach. After some discussion, I ran to the adjacent town with a mission: I would retrieve four junior bacon cheeseburgers, a staple on the Wendy’s 99� menu and substitute for McDonald’s double cheeseburger from their dollar menu.

When I returned, triumphant, I called DJ from the parking lot. I left the engine running, but shut off the exterior lights and played Cool, a song from West Side Story and made famous more recently by a GAP ad. I also like to play it at night when I feel like following a random car to its destination. It’s my all-purpose, night-time, stake-out music. DJ found the car and passed on some very interesting news.

“You know that couple in the corner next to us? They’re not even sick. The security guard came over to them and said, `Come on, guys. You can stay here tonight, but you can’t come back tomorrow. You were here last night, too. And I could lose my job.'”

“So they’re homeless?”

“Yeah. Don’t do crack.”

“Pass me my other burger.”

We finished our midnight snack and rejoined those whom we now knew to be crackheads. Suddenly it made sense. The woman kept repeating long, full sentences that DJ and I had said to each other or had directed at the TV but not to her. All the while she laughed and rocked. But by this time we were all friends and thoroughly enjoying an episode of Sibling Fear Factor together. Her laugh was deep and purposeless. Many of her teeth had fled her mouth, leaving two fragmented rows — one top, one bottom, both displayed prominently in the front. By now she had turned on her side, her head on the neighboring seat, her feet flung on the floor behind her in an awkward cross.

Shortly after Fear Factor ended — the pair of obnoxious brothers who had won all of the contests leading to the end lost due to a freak, technical failure of equipment. Steroids don’t help you breath underwater. — a nurse called DJ’s name and I was alone to further math. Someone wanted to put on the Colbert Report. The woman writhed to one in particular, “What’s that, sugar? Oh, put it on, I’ll tell you if I like it.” Then, without any prompt and again to nobody she started, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about now. You mean Benny Hill? I love Benny Hill.” The man, who had not until now said a single word, broke his silence. “I like Benny Hill,” he shared.

Alas, the hospital didn’t subscribe to those fancy pay channels. We would watch, instead, an infomercial advertising for the Bombardier Outlander 800. A man sat down next to me. He reeked of cheap booze. I continued my math. He watched what I wrote. I felt uncomfortable. The other waiting area had cleared out, and the TV over there was playing Leno. It was time to move.

I fell asleep but my rest was short-lived. A woman whose name was Meghan woke me up with her phone conversation. She had come in because she “had an anxiety attack.” Someone named Craig hadn’t picked up when she called him earlier in the night. But now, at 3am, he was all ears. Meghan told Craig, and me by means of my proximity and her flagrant disregard for others, that she simply “couldn’t sleep.” And “Yes, [she] drove [herself] to the hospital,” and “if it takes too long [she would] go home to bed.”

Cindy Crawford followed Leno. The ad for her Meaningful Beauty skin treatment system lulled me back to sleep. By 4am, Conan was on again. Meghan had left and both the crackheads were comfortably asleep. A staff attendent asked me if I had been helped and who I was with. On rerun, Martha Stewart and Conan made an Irish breakfast for St. Patrick’s Day; Macaulay Culkin peddled his newly published collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, essays, and sketches. The interview was so painful, I got up and paced to distract myself. Macaulay admitted to being a closeted Save By the Bell fan. I wanted to die.

Then DJ emerged. We had been at the hospital nearly six hours. A nurse told us that the average wating time for a doctor was four hours. We brought down the mean. And what had happened to him in there? No spinal tap, no CAT scan — he had had a test sent to the lab, though. It came back negative. The doctor thought that DJ probably had meningitis, but since it was on the downswing, no immediate action was necessary. He did write a prescription for vicodin. The instructions read as follows:

Onetab p[backwards c]q6h per PAIN.\\\\#10 (ten)

Something about it seemed too easy. I asked if DJ had used codewords to ask for drugs.

“Look, doctor, I’m looking to develop a casual drug addiction. I don’t want nothing too dangerous. I saw them crackheads in the waiting room. Now, I’ve got this headache, what do you say to that, eh? What’ll you give me? It’s real bad and I need some medication.”

I said that he got jipped and should’ve waited until he upped it to some oxycontin and a morphine drip.

Two Real-life Jokes.

Real-life Joke #1: Last night I went to a presentation given by the new (and I mean that this position is new) so-called Alcohol Czar of Harvard at Leverett. It’s not exactly clear what his job description is, but it must include talks on responsible drinking. So we invited him to speak in our Pizza, Pop, and Port series, which seemed apt enough. During the Q&A portion of his talk, one student questioned the validity of the “hair of the dog” hangover recovery strategy. Rather than answer straight away, the speaker asked, in return, “Who invented those drinks [mamosas and bloody Marys]?”

Without giving it a thought, Jenn raised her hand just above her head and slightly forward, and with one earnest swoosh yelled, “The British!” timing her comment with an abrupt stop which made for quite the dramatic response. Ryan, the speaker, was surprised but not undone. He tactfully posed a follow-up.

“Yes, sure. But more specifically?” I started to think. There’s got to be a trick to it. Who drinks these things? I do, when I can, and when it’s funny. Ian does, too. It was a Sunday afternoon. People go to church on Sundays. Ah, ha! I had the answer.

So it was my turn to scream a stupid response, this time after thinking it over. With just a tiny bit less histrionic gesticulation, I pointed my right index in front of me and proclaimed proudly, “Old women.”

Ryan was looking for us to say, “Alcoholics.” No cause is a lost cause like ours.

Real-life Joke #2: In Math 235: Minimal Surfaces, Professor Yau has been using the Kerr metric — a stationary, rotating black hole — to introduce various topics in general relativity. Today he wanted to discuss gravitational radiation and Bondi mass, even though the Kerr metric doesn’t radiate on account of its being stationary. [No stationary black holes radiate; that’s the point of them.] But he proceeded somehow even still. One of the magical things about the Kerr metric is that in the right coordinate system, its wave operator actually admits a solution by separation of variables. This is a suprising and blessed [though still tedious] fact. In some high schools, AP calculus students learn this method. To dream that it could work in the case of Kerr is unbelievable. To remind us how to perform the trick, Professor Yau wrote the following mnemonic on the board:


He then laughed for about forty-five seconds. This is a long time for Yau during lecture, and an even longer time for anyone who saw the joke. [Richard Courant was the famous mathematician after whom the Courant Institutue of Mathematical Sciences at NYU is named. So, you see, it’s funny. Courant worked on partial differential equations and functional analysis and the calculus of variations, so this joke is not only funny, it’s appropriate — even more than it is funny.]

The United Kingdom

Most of the guests had left. Like them, their host was drunk. Only the lights on the Christmas tree and the glow of his computer monitor filled the room. Otherwise it was quite dark and empty. It was cold out, blisteringly so, but it hadn’t yet snowed. If recent history was any indication, it wasn’t going to snow. Suddenly he had an epiphany. He would buy a ticket out of here, but to where? Where would he most rather be? The answer was simple: Scotland. And so without further hesitation, he purchased a ticket, but he was still alone.

The next morning, when the reality of what he had done the night before struck him, he asked two of friends, one of whom has a very common Scottish name for a girl, to accompany him. They did. One of them lost part of a tooth on a roundabout. The rest of him came back safely.

Jeanie, who had grown up in Scotland and made her way across the Pond to settle, laughed when she learnt how he made his way to Scotland, saying, “That is a great story.” Then she got into her car and left.

The Beast

It was New Years Eve. Liz and I didn’t know what else to do, and Heidi had insisted pretty strongly that we come. So we followed her and some of her friends whom we had never met before to a convenience store which we had driven by several times but where we had never before actually stopped. They stocked up on soda and chips and other snacks that seemed reasonable for a New Year’s celebration before heading for the highway. Once there, Liz and I took the lead. You see, there were enough of them to populate two partially full cars. We offered to take passengers in our car, but they declined. But there was a small problem. No one in Jay’s car knew how to get to Providence. I had recently been to cheer the women’s water polo team during their away game at Brown, and, so, had the directions fresh in my mind.

I kept pace with the rest of traffic; Jay followed behind. We slowed down several times at their request. It seems my maroon 1998 Dodge Stratus was more powerful that I thought.

We arrived at Heidi’s dad’s apartment, which he had graciously loaned to his daughter to ring in the new year, around nine o’clock. The place was dark — the walls were covered with panelling which gave the appearance of wood and distinct feel of the late 70s. The built-in shelves held knick-knacks and momentos: a few pictures of Heidi and her younger brother and sister, two Christmas cards, some glasses, a stack of receipts, and an ash tray. On the wall next to the shelves towards the kitchen he had taped up the deadbeat dads from the newspaper. Someone pointed to one of them and told me that Heidi’s dad knew him and that his particular case had complicated circumstances which cleared him from charges. With and with few obvious light sources in the parlor, we had little choice but to congregate in the tiny kitchen.

In the center was a oval table and a few mismatched chairs. Because standing meant standing next to someone and that meant socializing, I sat at the table. Rita sat across from me. We didn’t say anything. Instead, I turned my head up, as if to examine the ceiling and started to stroke my neck, starting with the chin, ending at the cavity in my chest just above my rib cage. Rita may’ve already been drunk. As soon as we arrived, everyone produced the secret stash of alcohol each had brought. Someone blasted Amber by 311. Instantly there was a loud roar of noise. This wasn’t singing; at least it was in unison. Liz and I didn’t know we were supposed to bring our own alcohol. I’m not sure that things would have been different had we known. I was driving and Liz didn’t plan on staying. Even still, no one likes the kids who don’t drink at a party where the purpose of going is solely to get drunk. They’d yell at us for that later. For now, Rita was mad at me for another reason.

“Stop it! Stop it, Josh. Stop calling me swan,” she demanded. I hadn’t said a word, and she had got it wrong.

“Rita, I’m not calling you a swan. I’m calling you a giraffe because in addition to your long neck, you have a monstrously long tongue,” I explained. Rita’s face got long, her eyes and mouth opened wide.

“Stop it! You’re being mean,” she said. And I was. There was no doubt about it. And for this, I apologize, Rita. I was clearly in the wrong. Kaitlyn, for no reason, other than upset Rita further, rallied to my defense.

“I don’t think Josh is being mean,” Kaitlyn interjected. She agreed, “You do have a long tongue.”

At this, Rita sprang from her seat, turned to Kaitlyn, and like a flash of lightning struck. Rita struck Kaitlyn’s forehead with the palm of her hand. Kaitlyn, who had been leaning against the wooden trim which lined door frame of the bedroom adjacent to the kitchen as she drank, fell back with a trendous force. There’s a good chance she would be concussive for the next several days, but certainly for that night. Upon realizing what she had done, Rita burst into tears, perhaps because of her unusual empathetic powers.

Liz had been talking to Paul about what it’s like to be a professional tree climber, and therefore missed Rita’s battery against Kaitlyn. After high school, he found a job as a landscaper. His specialty: trees.

Shortly after midnight Liz and I packed up for home. We took Mark back, too; he had to work in the morning. I stopped at a gas station in Pawtucket off the highway for fuel. Getting back on, I drove the wrong way on a one-way that connects to the exit. Since then, I’ve made the same mistake once, both times without incident.

Mark took us to Hanover. We weren’t terribly sure how to get home from there but managed not to get lost.

One Sunday at Church.

Reverend Doctor Stan Johnson was giving his sermon, the third of a series of six, on one of the four ends of the Presbyterian Church. This week he turned to truth, though he seemed to be talking an awful lot about the all-but-irreconcilable war between man and God. And just as he was about to get to the point, something happened. Ruth McColgan, a new grandmother for the third time, collapsed. I was immediately transported to Missouri, to my cousins’ church, one of those Methodist churches established in the revivalist spirit founded just before the Revolution and carried westward by Manifest Destiny. There it is not uncommon for a woman to faint and fit. There they have a volunteer staff of large, mostly bearded men charged to catch and cradle anyone who might run up to the altar proclaiming His return until, overcome by the Holy Spirit, she drops. This is only really dangerous if the local prophet hits a pew on the way down. Hence the large, mostly bearded men.

But we’re much quieter than that. Our church has a steeple, an organ and a grand piano, no electric guitar or overhead projector, and we only tithe once per service. Only the children are allowed to rush the altar, and then, only when called for “Our Moment with the Children.” So, Ruth gave the rest of the congregation something of a shock. And the accompanying seizures prompted three phone calls to 911 for ambulance service rather than alleluias and reputedly laudatory declarations in tongues.

His sermon interrupted by a grave medical emergency, the Reverend Doctor played it cool. Everyone did. Dr. Johnson called for prayer. Everyone lowered his head and took the hand of his neighbor. The organist provided soft, pastoral music to underscore Stan’s comforting words. The prayer continued until the paramedics arrived and ended shortly thereafter. Then the congregation joined their voices in an round of hymn 327: I Have a Friend in Jesus even though it was not announced in today’s bulletin. As soon as they carted Ruthie away, we did what we came to do: take communion. It was the first Sunday of the month, after all.

After church service ended, the lingering members applauded Allen’s postlude. He had chosen a piece by Franz Liszt, to whom Allen is directly related, in the music geneological sense. We joked about how much Ruth must not have liked what Stan was saying, how we were prepared, and about poor old Ben Wellington, who, a few years later, had finished a sermon during an ordination only to sit down in the choir loft, in the pew I normally call my own, and summarily died. This sort of thing happens about once a year. Jack Harris, who sits in the pew behind me, had had his heart attack there. But medicine is fairly miraculous. They put a stent in him and Jack was back at choir rehersal four days later.

I told my dad and sister about it at the Brockton Bickford’s afterward. Being on the Massachusetts’ South Shore, its sign boasts all-day breakfast, steak, lobster, clam, and beer and wine. What a mix. Then they took off to Sudbury to exchange a pair of my sister’s diamond earrings. She found a speck of carbon in one of them.

Someone about all this feels very New England to me. If there’s a problem crops up, fix it and get back to work. I can think of no better example of the Protestant work ethic. In fact, I’ve noticed a lot of typically New England things lately. I’ll give you only two, but I only expect you to read one. I’ll tell what they are so you can choose: self-service check-outs first, then Dairy Queen second. Both are short, and they’re related sequentially.

Last night, DJ came over because, and I can’t justify this, we have about two and one half dozen eggs and he wanted an omlette. The Grove store closes well before 6pm on Saturdays, so he was stuck to either do it himself or find someone else to do it for him and my will is fairly pliable. We met my sister at the Stoppy down the street. She and her friend April purchased ingredients for a home-cooked steak bomb, done properly with mushrooms, green peppers and onions. Somewhat coincidentally, we picked up a green pepper and yellow onion for the omlette, and told Janice to put hers back. As is, we still had too much pepper and onion. We also got maple syrup sausage links. I just ate the last seven as an after-dinner snack. Without the eggs, they’re a bit unsatisfying.

Not wanting to wait, no one inside of 495 does, we tried our hand at the self-service check-out. This thing is awful. Not only does it cheat real, living people out of jobs, it doesn’t work. We found the barcode for a yellow onion, placed it on the scale, and then moved it to the conveyor belt as directed. The belt ran backwards, causing the onion to hit some sensor bar, which signalled the computer to line-item void the onion, which we could have then easily taken, saving a full sixty-nine cents. We did not, however, steal the onion. Instead, we looked up the barcode in the produce catalogue one more time, weighed the beast, and dropped it on the belt. Having some practice, the belt figured out to run forward, the computer charged us the sixty-nine cents, and we proceeded with the easy stuff that scans without all that complicated searching and weighing.

DJ just visited Virginia, where, it seems, all the gas pumps are pay first and there are no self-service check-out lines at the supermarket. Here we’re on the honor system, and it must work. Otherwise, stores would have taken us off of it. I’m glad that corporate America trusts New Englanders not to steal onions.

After musing on this point exactly, we went to McDonald for, wait for it, a few double cheeseburgers and headed home. To the kitchen. To make the omlette. But, what would you know, Dairy Queen has opened for the summer. In fact, it’s been open since March first. We had snow March second. We drove right by, pulled into an empty parking lot, turned around, and went to Dairy Queen, debating Blizzard mix-ins along the way. The wind was bitter cold last night. And Dairy Queen, as you might know, is a shack with soft serve ice cream machines and freezers full popsicles inside and not much else. It takes two people to work the counter during the early season, three during the peak. While the girl behind the counter prepared DJ’s mudslide Blizzard thing, a couple got in line behind us. They were both bundled up, especially the girl. It was obvious that she was freezing and not especially happy about it. She haunched over to conserve heat. Her hands were placed firmly in her puffy jacket pockets. She scowled as she studied the menu. Despite the decidedly frigid weather, people formed a line outside the Dairy Queen at 7:30pm on a Saturday night in a small, suburban town. [Avon is only about one mile in diameter.] The man who owns the DQ, I am told, now lives handsomely year-round in his vacation home in Florida.

Puppy Surprise

This weekend Ian and I drove to LL Bean in Freeport, ME. After investigating home goods on the second floor, we came across a canoe—Bean’s is peppered with them—filled with clearance and seasonal items. In this Old Towne red a pile of iridescent spring time frogs. Each had its mouth zipped shut. Not heeding the lesson learned by the cat, curiosity got the better of us and we unceremoniously unzipped one of the frogs thereby revealing a string of insects, which, we are to believe, the frog had caught sometime before being zipped. Their colors were fantastic and shiny. The cheerfulness in design presented a bold contrast to the morbidity that necessarily accompanies partially digested prey. It creeped me out a little bit, and I’d venture it creeped Ian out a little, too.

We stuffed the bugs back into the frog’s mouth, secured them with the zipper, and put the frog back in the canoe for someone else to discover. As we walked down the stairs over the trout pond, Ian mentioned that he had never seen such a disturbing toy. It was horrible, but not nearly as bad as what they had cooked up in the early nineties. “Oh, come on. Don’t you remember that stuffed animal dog with the litter inside, and you grabbed in the womb and pulled out the puppies?” I asked.

“No, I don’t think I do,” he responded. He face agreed, though, what a terrible toy indeed.

I continued in a slow, dry tone, “Surprise, surprise! Puppy Surprise: how many puppies are there inside? There could be three. Or four. Or five.”

At this he remembered. The consequence of the toy was startling. It wasn’t clear if the five-dog mothers were the most desired. Many dogs from the larger litters died. And so to receive a mother with five dogs in her litter was often the same as one with only three or four in practice. These dogs then required a burial for one or more puppies. While it teaches the child a perhaps valuable lesson in mortality without the grave circumstances surrounding, say, the death of an aunt or a playmate from down the street, it is nonetheless a delicate and difficult cross to bear. Most of the kids did not know just how real the toy makers had made Puppy Surprise. My sister was lucky enough to get a four-puppy dog. They were all very small. Smaller than the puppies in the three-dog versions which had more room to grow and didn’t have to compete so strongly for nutrients. One of hers was born with a broken leg. It’s not clear if it were broken during the violent birth process, and if my sister were just a little to excited to reach in and tear the babies out, or if the leg broke during transport from the factory to the store. A clumsy attendant could have easily dropped the box, causing long-lasting reprocussions. It wasn’t his Puppy Surprise, so I guess he didn’t have to take that much care.

Another less awful though still disturbing toy from about the same time were the Pillow People. The new-age security blanket, these Pillow People were rectangular creatures with exaggerated faces. My sister had a Little Miss Muffet-type. It didn’t bother me because it wasn’t in my room. Mine, however, was terrifying. He was a blue, sleepy Sand Man. He wore a red and white striped night cap and carried a small pouch of sleepy sand. I wanted to do anything but sleep with him around. He was in constant yawn. His eyes were large ovals which were permanently drowsy. Yet his stare was penetrating, aware, and deep. His gaze followed me both in day and in night regardless of my position in the room. I remember turning him toward the wall before I turning the covers over my head for protection as I slept. It’s hard to know if my slight paranoia was caused by or merely identified because of my dozing Pillow Person. My Lincoln logs never caused me this much trouble.


Last night I went with the Sophomores back to H-block to take in my high school’s annual cabaret. Things have changed drastically since I was in school. From what I remember, kids sang showtunes and performed magic acts. But now all that has been replaced.

The types of acts can be broken down, first, by gender. The boys were assembled almost exclusively in heavy rock and punk bands, lasting more time and generating more noise than I could physically handle. Some of the musicians were quite talented. But almost everything that was played was too loud and too long. There was a duet which sang a selection from Phantom of the Opera; the boy was, however, in several of the bands, as well. In fact, there were only about eight boys in the entire show. They mixed and matched and reconfigured to form ten different bands, though. By the end of the night, my ears were humming. It may been my severe cold, but my ears are still rining.

The girls could be divided into two groups: trashy dance troupes and vocalists. Those who sang were good. No one in the audience paid them much respect — because they didn’t strip is my guess. The dancers, I use the term euphemistically, disgusted me. I cannot begin to explain my outrage when six fifteen year old girls took off their shirts [to expose tang-top underneath] while gyrating and riding each other [quite literally] to suggestive R&B in front of their parents, colleagues, and friends. In spite of my sore throat, I could not help but scream, “Stop!” in the middle of their routine. It came from deep within my aching soul.

One of the girls father was sitting in front of me, bobbing and dancing along, ostensibly proud of his daughter. I turned to Mark, who was sitting next to me, and loudly exclaimed in the name of all that is decent on this earth, that the parents of each of those girls ought to be ashamed of themselves, that concerning the hyper-sexualization of children there can be no other opinion, that this was one of the most distasteful and dispicable things I have ever seen. And the crowd loved them.

Who knew that when they asked me if I wanted to go to a cabaret, they meant it?