Snow Story

We haven’t gotten much snow this year, but that hasn’t stopped the fine folks on the Weather Channel from predicting another ice age. Ellen, because she is a teacher, eats these reports up. On the night before an impending storm, she and my son huddle in front of the TV with their fingers crossed and pajamas turned inside out, hoping and praying for several feet of snow.

The fact that I would be the one shoveling all this snow is irrelevant.

Years ago, my mom was also a teacher. She was also a slavish Weather Channel devotee, but her reasons for watching were more complicated. Mom taught in Paterson, NJ, a place where they never closed the schools. So she watched the weather report to gage how aggravating her commute would be; that way she could plan ahead and lather up an appropriate amount of rage.

So when The Big Snowstorm approached Mom was on edge.

“Jim! Jim! The snow is coming! You have to get the tree out! NOW!”

I don’t remember the exact year of The Big Snowstorm, but I do remember that it took place shortly after the New Year, because our evergreen Christmas tree was now a naked everbrown. For some reason my parents waited for at least a week after New Year’s Day to get rid of the tree, which ensured that its journey to the front door would leave behind a mountain of needles.

Weather didn’t have the same peculiar effect on my Dad, but he had his own quirks. For one thing, he was not a big believer in seeing a job through to its conclusion. He would always get the job done, mind you, but if a one-day job could be completed in two, he was all over that idea.

So once he managed to get the disintegrating Christmas tree through the front door, he simply heaved it off the stoop and let it flop in the middle of our front yard.

“There!” Dad proclaimed, swelling with the satisfaction of a job half-done.

“Take it to the curb!” Mom demanded.

“I’ll take it to the curb on Saturday.”

It was Sunday.

Needless to say, Dad’s declaration prompted an argument. When Mom’s weather anxiety and Dad’s half-assed efforts came together, it was a deadly combination. It was the cue for me to go to my room.

A few hours later, in the mid-afternoon, the snow began to fall. And, right from the start, Mother Nature began to show off. The temperature was low, so the flakes were small and powdery, but the air was thick with them. We could barely see beyond our mailbox.

“They called a state of emergency,” Mom said grimly as she and I watched the snow accumulate. I was delighted – I wouldn’t have to go to school – but I tried to contain my glee. In Mom’s eyes it would’ve been traitorous for me to support the actions of The Enemy.

A state of emergency meant that Mom wouldn’t have to go to school either, which should have calmed her down, but it didn’t. Her ingrained sense of justice would not allow it; this storm had New Jersey at its mercy and that was wrong. Even with a day off, Mom did not like the situation. Not at all. Not. One. Bit.

“Jim?”

No answer. Dad was in his basement hidey hole reading a book on World War II and listening to Yanni.

“Jim!”

Still no answer.

“JIM!”

“Whaaat?”

“We need to call The Plow Guy!”

It was useless to call The Plow Guy, and all three of us knew it. The Plow Guy would be out. Plowing. Because that’s what he did in snowstorms.

Besides, The Plow Guy only plowed for his list of subscribers. When you signed up for The Plow Guy’s services, he’d plow your driveway whenever it snowed. It was a pretty straightforward business arrangement, but Dad didn’t like it. It was expensive — and vaguely emasculating.

“So when it snows two inches he’ll plow the driveway and make me pay?” Dad would sputter, aghast. “I can shovel two inches of snow. I can shovel two feet of snow. I only need The Plow Guy when it snows a lot.”

So we didn’t subscribe to The Plow Guy. And on those rare days when we wished we had, it was too late to do anything about it.

But not really. Dad had a Plan B. All of our neighbors subscribed to The Plow Guy’s services, so Dad’s strategy was to keep an eye out for The Plow Guy when he plowed our neighbors’ driveways. When he caught sight of him, Dad would pull on his work boots, throw on a coat, grab a handful of money, run through the snow to where The Plow Guy was plowing, and bribe him to clear our driveway.

So as the snow continued to fall and fall, the three of us kept watch. Sometimes we watched as a group, sometimes we watched in shifts, but never was our front window missing a lookout.

We watched, and we watched some more. But all we saw was accumulating snow.

One foot of snow.

Eighteen inches of snow.

Two feet of snow.

“We better not lose our electricity,” Mom said. Her words sounded like a threat, like she was trying to intimidate the overhead wires.

If there was one thing Mom hated more than weather it was a house without electricity. “If we lived in the pioneer era,” she often asserted, “this family would be dead within an hour.”

By 10 p.m., 30 inches of snow had fallen and it was still coming down. It was a snowy siege.

But then: The cavalry.

“JIM! THE PLOW!”

Dad was not a fast fellow. In 1971 he had shattered both of his legs in a particularly nasty fall, but Mom’s battle cry got him about as close to running as I’ve ever seen him. He thumped up the basement stairs with an uncharacteristic sense of purpose. He was in his pajamas, but he didn’t care. He slipped his feet into his work boots without bothering to tie the laces, swept his brown corduroy coat over his shoulders as if he was the fourth musketeer, and set out through the front door into the whipping winter winds to wave down the distant plow.

Dad raced down the porch stairs and plunged into snow up to his waist. Snow soaked through his pajamas and poured into his boots, but he didn’t cry out or show any sign of weakness. He just let out a low, determined growl of sorts as he half walked half hopped though the powdery drifts.

It was all pretty badass. I was impressed.

That is, until Dad fell over the Christmas tree.

It was a remarkable sight. One moment Dad was there in the deep snow churning his legs toward The Plow Guy and the next he was gone. Vanished. He fell flat on his face and mountains of dry snow fell in on top of him. The earth swallowed him whole without a trace. Buried alive.

Mom and I were too stunned to speak.

There was a long, unsteady pause.

Then, in a sudden and heroic burst of energy, there he was! Fighting the good fight! Flailing! And stumbling! And lurching! He flopped about like a rag doll in his open coat and flimsy pajamas, trying and repeatedly failing to get his footing. By the time he eventually staggered to his feet, he was caked with snow from head to foot looking quite a bit like a drunken Frosty the Snowman.

Mom was horrified, worried, panicked.

I, on the other hand, was laughing so hard I was hacking up mucus.

“It’s not funny!” Mom shouted, swatting me.

But it was! It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Ever.

“Go out and help him!”

“Are you crazy?” I managed to sputter between wheezy gasps. “I’m not going out in that!”

“Oh, you are going out in that. Get your coat! Where are your boots?” She flung open the front closet door and pawed through it in search of my parka. Mom had lost her mind.

“What am I supposed to do once I’m out there?”

“Help your father up!”

“But he’s already up! Look!” I swung open the front door, ignored the stinging wind, and lunged my index finger through the opening.

Indeed, Frosty the Snow Dad was on his feet. We found him standing motionless at the far corner of our front yard silhouetted by the yellow glow of a street lamp. The dramatic lighting, Dad’s posture and the general air of melancholy that overwhelmed the scene reminded me of something I one saw in a Humphrey Bogart film.

Dad had tried but failed to get The Plow Guy’s attention. The Plow Guy had cleared all of the neighbors’ driveways. The Plow Guy was gone.

Dad’s valiant effort, his discomfort, his humiliation, was all for nothing. And the pain wasn’t even over yet. Now he had to come back to the house and listen to Mom yell at him.

His pace was slower now. Dad was defeated and numb and cold to his core. He was a sorry sight.

Until he fell over the Christmas tree again!

Again he fell face first into the snow! Again the snow swallowed him whole!

And it was even funnier the second time around!

Laughter exploded from deep within me. I made joyous noises I have never heard before or since – including something that sounded like “BWAAAAAAA!”

My insides ached. My lungs couldn’t get enough air. I was sure I was going to die – and I was totally OK with that, for I would die deliriously happy.

I knew right then and there that this was – and would always be – the Quintessential Dad Story – a delicious slapstick fiasco that never ever would have happened if Dad, for just one moment, did something slightly out of character. Like take the tree to the curb or subscribe to The Plow Guy or recognize that it was silly to leap out into nearly three feet of snow wearing pajamas.

But nope. Dad stuck to his life script and it was beautiful.

And, fear not. Dad was fine. In fact he was better than fine. Once he came back inside, Mom didn’t even think about yelling at him. Her anger wasn’t directed at Dad, or even that evil, awful weather.

Nope, her anger was directed squarely at insensitive me.

Mom fussed over Dad, helped him out of his coat and boots and got him new pajamas fresh from the dryer. She even made him cocoa.

As for me, I was in the doghouse. The next day Mom made me shovel the driveway by myself. It took all afternoon, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The driveway was the only safe place for me to get out all of my stray giggles.

 

 

It’s PiBoIdMo Time!

Yay! Woo!

I do love PiBoIdMo (which, by the way, is pronounced Pie Bow Id Moe — I don’t care what anyone else says) and I recommend It to everyone!

Except for me, that is. This year I decided to (unofficially) give the NaNoWriMo thing a go. I gotta middle grade novel in me that’s just bustin’ to get out. I know Tara will be so disappointed. Or, more likely, she won’t notice or care; this is a busy month for her!

But to show my love — and to give myself  a little extra time to focus on said novel. I’m recycling the PiBoIdMo post I wrote for Tara last year. Recycling is good for the environment.

Enjoy!

Erector!!

THE PLAY’S THE THING

My mom has a habit of mixing bad news with the good.

“Happy anniversary!” she joyously sang into the phone. “Ten years! Congratulations!”

Before I could thank her, Mom followed up her salutation with words that were far less joyous:

“I think it’s high time you got your crap out of my house.”

Ugh. In an instant, my plan to use my parents’ home as a storage locker for the rest of my life was dashed to bits.

It was under these circumstances I found myself alone in my old room facing my childhood closet, mustering up the strength to take a reluctant trip down memory lane.

Inside were stacks of sketch pads filled with primitive drawings; old machines I, once upon a time, had a penchant for hoarding; and lousy souvenirs from equally lousy vacations. Then there were the toys – lots of them.

There was so much stuff to sift through, I was confident the job was gonna be a complete nightmare.

But it wasn’t. Quite the opposite, really.

I both smiled and winced at my homemade comic books. After reading a few, I decided that, with a little bit of tweaking (OK, maybe quite a lot to tweaking), the storylines weren’t a bad jumping off point for a new story.

I marveled at the bigger-than-a-bread-basket adding machine I got from my Great Uncle Bill. By force of habit, I removed the machine’s olive green Bakelite cover to reveal its steampunky guts. It was almost comical just how many moving parts it had. I punched a few numbers and watched the thing spring to life. In that moment, my mind filled with ideas about a kid inventor.

Then I spied my Erector set.

Shortly after this discovery, Mom strolled into the room to check on my progress. What she found was her 30-something-year-old son lying on the floor constructing a racecar of his own design.

She didn’t even blink.

“Good,” Mom said with a sharp nod. “You’re taking that home.”

Indeed I was. The Erector set, the other toys, the machines, and my primitive doodles. I was taking all of it. I had barely begun working on my closet and my brain was already swimming with new ideas.

Toys facilitate play. Play is an essential component of the creative process. There is a reason why social scientists say that The Creative Spirit flourishes in kindergarteners and begins to sputter once those same children head off to middle school. As we grow up, we voluntarily – eagerly – purge the fun stuff from our lives.

That was certainly the case with me. I still remember being a 12-year-old who desperately wanted to be an adult. I gave away most of the stuff that had once given me pleasure and shoved the rest into the far corner of my closet. I thought these actions would speed the growing up process; instead, they just made me a sullen teen with an un-fun room.

With age comes a sort of wisdom, however. Almost in tandem with the launch of my professional writing career, I began to rekindle my interest in toys. I soon noticed that my best ideas occurred when I was horsing around with a hand puppet or had a box of 64 Crayolas within arm’s reach.

I even had a Bert puppet! I was the cool kid.
I even had a Bert puppet when I was a kid! I was so cool.

Unrestrained, unselfconscious play moves my mind in new directions; moving my mind in new directions helps me to discover new ideas.

I am well aware that a lot of grownups don’t feel comfortable playing with an erector set without a grownup reason for doing so. Fortunately, many of us have children – or if we don’t, we can easily borrow some. Kids need Quality Time, and Quality Times gives us the justification we need to build with Legos, squish Play-Doh, and color Snoopy green.

You couldn’t ask for a better situation. You’re being a good parent and you’re mining for inspiration. You’re multitasking! Well done.

That kind of multitasking was exactly what I had in mind when I loaded up the trunk of my car outside of Mom’s house. I’ll bring this stuff home to my young son, I thought. We’ll play with it together. We’ll pretend together. And, in so doing, my little guy will become my unwitting picture book collaborator.

It doesn’t get more inspiring – or wonderful – than that.

Mom in the Morning

My love and respect for Mom knows no bounds. She taught me persistence, how to deal with failure, and how to relentlessly — yet morally — pursue my passions. In other words, she is a big reason why I am a writer.

And, as the following proves, Mom also taught me how to become an early riser.

***

In the early 1980s, when my age finally reached the early double digits, Mom let me stay up late on weekends. Not just late, but as late as I liked. This was heady stuff to an 11-year old. If I wanted to stay up to watch the late, late movie on UHF, I could! It didn’t even matter if the movie was crappy (because it usually was). It was late late! Woo!

There was, however, a big catch to Mom’s flexible bedtime rules. Though Mom didn’t care what time I went to bed, she did care what time I got up. Anything after 9 a.m. was strictly forbidden. If there was even the slightest chance I’d oversleep, she would give me The Wakeup Call.

The Wakeup Call soon became a cruel, cruel Saturday morning tradition. It was divided into three parts.

Part One:

“It’s almost 9 o’clock,” Mom said brightly as she entered my room.

I squinted at my alarm clock. It said 7:30.

7:30 is not “almost 9 o’clock” to anyone. I tried to explain this to Mom, but she had already hustled off to another part of the house wielding a laundry hamper and a can of Pledge. Mom, then as now, couldn’t stand still for very long.

I, on the other hand, could, then as now, stand still for quite a while. I was even more skilled at lying still — and I demonstrated this skill by immediately falling back to sleep.

Part Two:

“It is now 9 o’clock!” Mom announced with a stridency in her voice that wasn’t there in Part One. “Get up!”

She turned on the lights and raised my shades, filling the room with the weak morning light. The morning light was weak because the sun had barely begun its journey over the horizon.

It was 7:45.

Then, as before, she exited just as quickly as she had come, leaving my door slightly ajar.

“OK,” I said to the empty room. “OK, OK, OK…” I put a blanket over my head and wondered how my mom became a teacher without ever learning how to tell time.

Part Three (which I believe is outlawed by The Geneva Convention):

Part Three began downstairs as Mom’s canister vacuum cleaner commenced its industrial strength assault on the family room carpet. Mom’s vacuum was not like other vacuums. I think she had it custom made with Harley-Davidson parts. No corner of the house could escape it’s iconic roar. Not even my dreams.

“What’s that noise?” a breathless, bespectacled Lynda Carter asks. “Is it an earthquake?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing” I reply with irresistible confidence and elan.

“You’re my superhero,” she sighs, looking deep into my eyes. We resume our embrace…

KA-TUNK! KA-TUNK! KA-TUNK!

With the ground floor now free of dust, Mom ascended to the second floor, slamming the vacuum against each step as she climbed. There were 13 steps. She ka-tunked every one.

And my lovely Lynda was only a wistful memory.

My childhood room was at the very end of a long, carpeted hallway. In my half sleep, I heard the vacuum’s slow, inexorable approach. It didn’t sound like a Harley anymore. It was more like a caged jaguar riding an elephant driving a combine harvester.

And, as each second passed, it grew louder and louder.

At the end of Part Two, Mom left the door to my room slightly ajar. Mom never did anything by accident. As the vacuum reached my room, she had no need to turn the knob. Without breaking stride, she used the head of the vacuum as a battering ram. The door slammed open and my room was alive with noise.

Mom didn’t tell me to get up. That ship had sailed. Now the vacuum did the talking. When I still failed to move, Mom rammed it against the legs of my bed, creating a noise I felt more than heard – one I couldn’t escape no matter how tightly I wrapped the pillow around my head. My teeth rattled. My head throbbed. My stomach flipped. My joints ached.

“I’M UP!” I shouted. “I’M UP! I SWEAR TO GOD I’M UP!”

And Mom couldn’t quite conceal her smile.

I stumbled downstairs and found Dad seated at the kitchen table looking as exhausted as I felt. When Dad was dog-tired, he would stare at his coffee as if he had suddenly forgotten what he was supposed to do with it. The kitchen clock read 8:05.

“Mom got me with the vacuum,” I said.

“Oh, poor you,” he replied. “I got up to go pee an hour ago, and by the time I got back, the bed was made.”

Through our haze we stared at the TV. On it was the scene at the end of Psycho where the psychiatrist rambles on about Norman’s condition. This, too, was part of The Wakeup Call. Every Saturday morning Mom slammed the Psycho VCR tape into the machine. It was, I suppose, her housework soundtrack. By the time I’d make my way downstairs, the psychiatrist speech was always about to begin. To this day, both Dad and I have his speech memorized. It is our party trick.

We were not allowed to turn the movie off. No matter where Mom was in the house, she always knew the moment we tried to change the channel.

“PUT THAT BACK ON!”

“OK!” Dad and I would shout back in unison.

We did as we were told, neither one of us daring to complain. For, despite our weariness, both of us noticed that the house was dust free. The furniture was polished. The clothes were laundered. The dishes were put away. The house was perfect in a way that only Germans can make a house perfect. Man oh man did we feel lazy.

So Dad and I sat and watched the movie as Mom half listened to the dialogue from some distant corner of the house with that  vacuum by her side – a weapon she could wield with such terrible accuracy as to put Norman Bates and his pathetic butcher knife to shame.