Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Present

Turning Over a Few New Leaves: The Backstory

23 Nov 2002
November 23, 2002

I have always been interested in the social aspects of technology: that is, how new ideas brought on by technological development seep into the everyday lives of regular folk. In the last few months I’ve been contacted with greater frequency by subjects of my writing or from those who have been alerted to my stories in the process of a doing a web search. Googling is becoming a natural process. And the interactions I’m having because of it add to my sense of the enlarging net community.


In September I began my 9/11 story with a quote by Jenna Jacobs, wife of Ari Jacobs one of the people who died in the World Trade Center. A few days later Jenna�s mother contacted me and we corresponded about what it’s like to be the mother of a young widow. In October I wrote of Irina Han, an intern at our museum who was murdered on her way home one night. A few days later I received a comment on my post from a family friend. A relative of Irina’s husband also posted a few comments. We exchanged emails, both of us wondering how this tragedy could have happened.

Last week Washington Post writer, Darragh Johnson, found me. She posted a comment to one of my two stories on my annual bout with autumn foliage. She was writing an article on “man verses leaves” and wondered if she could interview me. Since it was that time of the year again, we made arrangements to meet in the middle of my “crop” this past weekend.

• • •

While last year the conditions for clearing my lawn were perfect (warm and dry weather), this year has been anything but. Timing is critical in this process. With a full time job I only have my days off to do this laborious task. Most years I’m usually able prolong the actual leaf abatement process by mowing my lawn one last time. This mulches the initial thin layer of dead stock. Good for the lawn and good for my back (which, whether I rake or blow, is always at risk).

The leaves start dropping in mid October and by Thanksgiving the ordeal is usually over. This gives me approximately three to four weekends to work. But it’s critical to get the early crop blown to the street to make way for later droppings. If you don’t, the push from the back of the yard to the curb becomes difficult. The pile gets bigger and bigger as you push forward. And more unwieldy.

This year conditions have conspired against me. While it was the most spectacular year for the fall colors I’ve seen in a while, my nature duties were overshadowed by family obligations and the weather.

Two weekends ago would have been a perfect time to work. It was dry and the leaves were, well, fluffy. But Saturday we had to attend my youngest daughter’s ballet class—once a semester parents are allowed to watch. Then we had to go to a birthday party in the afternoon. On Sunday we had to go to the outlet mall to buy shoes for both girls (half price over regular stores and worth the 120 mile round trip considering we got five pairs for $115!). The daylight hours were completely booked. Of course I wasn’t avoiding this chore. No way. Uh uh.

I had to balance these activities. And now I’m paying for it. Last weekend a Nor’easter was forecast (a front coming up the east coast). Saturday was sure to be wet and indeed it was. The leaves now completely covering my lawn are soggy and heavy (wet leaves act like cement when trying to rake or blow them). While this boded very poorly for me, it was perfect for the Post article idea. The artist in me started to visualize the whole affair. We artists have to constantly adjust to changing conditions, seeing opportunity in adversity. I started to get excited.

• • •

We scheduled to meet “in the field” at high noon. The staff photographer, Robert Reeder arrived first. He had been in contact with his editor and both were sure the weather would prevent any good photos. I had other ideas. “You’re not going to blow leaves today are you?” he queried. “Of course not,” I stated. “But this is perfect! Man verses the elements” And I was quite content to lose this battle if it meant a great idea could develop.

His editor had already given him another assignment. There had been a parking garage collapse the day before and they were still looking for a missing construction worker. He felt a need to get over there as soon as possible. I convinced him to stay at least until the writer arrived.

When she did, it was clear she too was pleased with the meteorological conditions. Rain and leafy cement. It was perfect. Robert started to understand. I grabbed my blowing paraphernalia (my Toro 850 electric blower, a huge reel of industrial strength orange extension cord, goggles, dust mask, and ear protectors). I was ready. My wife warned me not to plug in the thing for fear of electrocution in the cold rain. Robert took off, scouting for the right vantage point. I could see his mind beginning click. He was getting into this. Good.

Jeff verses his leaves

It was a picture perfect day! He had me stand at the base of a leaf-infested embankment. He grabbed a picnic bench and had Darragh dry off handfuls of leaves. He asked her to stand on the bench and just at the right moment drop them in front of the camera to simulate a leaf downpour in front of me. He used a fisheye lens. Completely covered in my uniform, I lost all interest in my soon-to-be public persona. No one would know it was me. We were quite a sight. Darragh interviewed me as Robert photographed. I imagined being on the red carpet of the Academy Awards. The paparazzi, the reporters, the leaves.

Cars driving by slowed down to watch. My neighbor, Peter, walked up, his curiosity getting the best of him. Like a true “happening” he became part of the event. We compared leaf herding styles. I admonished him for not loaning me his very efficient leaf tractor. I told stories of past years. Robert began to shoot both of us with a smile while Darragh got it all down in print. Behind my mask I could barely contain my glee.

• • •

This morning I walked outside to retrieve our Saturday paper. Luckily, my wife had taken 3 1/2 hours this past week to blow a quarter of our yard so I could find the thing. And there, on the front page of the Metro section was the headline: Let the Ground Wars Begin (PDF, 448K). I rushed inside to make the announcement.

Darragh had done her homework. She interviewed other weekend leaf men to discover their implements of choice (blowers verses rakes, the classic debate). She included statistics: a Tulip Poplar tree sheds, on the average, 25 pounds of leaves per season. Multiply that by the 35 Tulip Poplars we have on our lot and you get a total of 875 pounds of leaves! Add to that the other assorted trees (a total of 75 on our 1/2 acre lot) and that’s a lot of leaves. The next time I declare “I’ve got a ton of leaves to blow” (that’s 1000 lbs.), don’t laugh.

And what would an article on this subject be without an historical perspective (“Legend has it that Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, invented the rake…”) as well as a revealing statement from Jerry Herron, an academic expert:

“The American studies professor at Detroit’s Wayne State University dubs bringing in the leaves a ‘highly significant phenomenon’—particularly since the advent of the leaf blower. ‘It allows men to buy expensive and noisy equipment,’ he notes, ‘and then demonstrate their prowess in front of the whole neighborhood.’ Lawn mowing can’t compare: ‘Everybody does that.’ he says. And snow blowing is a waste: ‘The weather is too cold to allow much audience admiration.'”

The article states I heartily concur. “He hoists his Toro and shouts, ‘I’ve got this phallic power thing! I mean, look at this thing. Is this power, or what?”

Well, yes, I did say that. But it was part of the theater of the moment, meant to be a postmodern ironic statement. Personally, I could care less what the neighbors think (other than, “Oh my gawd, we’re the last ones on the block to clear our leaves”). My wife is the mechanical one in the family. She’s the one who gets excited about band saws and diamond-tipped drill bits.

And now the gods have conspired to thwart my efforts once again. It’s sunny and crisp right now. Perfect leaf blowing weather. But yesterday I came down with a bad cold and the thought of swinging that phallic instrument around for the benefit of my neighbors holds no interest, even in the name of Art.

We artists are a curious lot. The strangest things make us utterly happy. Somehow I felt responsible for bringing together the lot of us into this tableau. Oh wait, perhaps I should bow to Mother Nature on this one.

Related Stories:
Spores, Spores, and More Spores (October 28, 2001)
Moving Forward on a Number of Fronts (December 10, 2001)
Leaving: The Movie, an independent short film documenting our last International Leaf Festival (Quicktime 2.2 MB)
Let the Ground Wars Begin, Washington Post article by Darragh Johnson (November 23, 2002)

Photo courtesy of Robert A. Reeder, The Washington Post, © 2002

A Love Note

01 Sep 2002
September 1, 2002

Horoscope for September 1st As we walked from the black of the theater into the deepening shadows of the late afternoon, we began to discuss the movie. Neither one of us had expected to enjoy it as much as we had. Suspending our disbelief, even for only an hour and a half, was exactly what we needed. Walking down the street I suddenly noticed how quiet it had become: not a car nor a bird was singing. My hearing seemed to extend only as far as my wife’s voice.

I recounted my surprise, when during a particular scene, I was the only one in the audience to laugh. Perhaps people were chuckling to themselves but mine was the only real sound mingling with the dialogue on the screen.

Visualizing it once more, I suddenly laughed a second time. This one was like a huge embarrassing belch, one that comes seemingly out of nowhere. It surprised both of us. My wife said my name in a way that signified “it’s about time!”

I hadn’t laughed like that in months. And, just like a burp, it was a wonderful relief to get it out.

We continued walking towards an Indian restaurant. The weather was warm but pleasant: a welcomed break from the endless humidity of a DC summer. Choosing a table outside (we never sit outside), we continued our conversation. We were on a date: alone for the first time in weeks.

I couldn’t help noticing the light, a blue even sort of glow, emanating from my wife’s face. I imagined making a photograph of her but immediately knew the reality was far better than any image I could make. I told her how beautiful she looked. She repeated my name in a way that said, well, you know.

While this arrived more gently than my earlier noises, my words surprised us once again. I hadn’t said something like that in months.

Vacation 2002: At a Standstill on Long Island

24 Aug 2002
August 24, 2002

The overture to our 2002 annual summer vacation conjures up recollections of preparations of years past. As a boy my memories are decidedly child-oriented: the anticipation of getting up before the dawn (what was special then has become a daily occurrence now) and going to unchartered places beyond my normal parent-defined neighborhood boundaries (“Don’t go past the Nichol’s house!”).

Now, it’s off to AAA for maps, arrange for someone to feed the cat, and pack, not just for myself but for the girls as well. To say that I was clueless as a child to all the preparations that went into our vacations is an understatement. So I can relate to my children’s wild and excited states of mind just fine now.

Last year, doing last minute clean up the night before, I stuffed too much down the garbage disposal and the pipes backed up. I should have known better. When multiple dosages of Liquid Plummer accomplished nothing we made a frantic call to our professional. He couldn’t get any one out that night but could come early the next day. “How early?” I pleaded. We had to get on the road. We didn’t think we could leave the pipes full of swill until we returned. I had to endure his reprimand (rightly so) never to put anything caustic down the drain ever again before he (and we) could depart.

We also decided to hired a professional cat sitter for the first time. The second day of our trip we got a call from her: she’d set off the burglar alarm for the second time. She was standing outside talking to me, just as the police arrived, swearing to them she was just, well, feeding the cat.

This year I wasn’t allowed near the kitchen for the final pre-trip cleanup and we put our cat’s fate in the hands of the 12 year old across the street. Both were excellent choices. I don’t recall our exits of my youth being this frenetic, but as I said, back then I was in my own vacation-induced excited little world.

I can imagine my parents discussing the itinerary months in advance. It was always a car trip. And it was never to visit relatives. Plane rides and relatives were saved for very special occasions like weddings and bar mitzvahs. And, luckily, they never seemed to occur during the summer.

My father outfitted the rear of the car with a plywood platform that fit perfectly over the axel hump in the leg area. Since our trips always began at 4 am I got to sleep there while my sister took the back seat. Very cosy but not too safe. With booster seats we’ve evolved. With backseat DVD players we taken a giant leap backwards. We were tempted to buy one this year but quality won out over the quiet. This time.

Five minutes after we left our driveway my eldest queried how long before we got “there.” “Hours” is too abstract for a five year old. But, I must admit, I love when my youngest asks “Are we here yet?” My children have turned out to be very good travelers. Yes, we have a few sibling arguments every 50 miles or so. But, for the most part, they are troopers. I wonder, though, as our future car trips become longer and longer if we will be able to resist that DVD.

My childhood trips started so early in part to beat the morning traffic but more importantly to beat the summer heat. Our ’53 Pontiac didn’t have air conditioning and if we headed east, towards Phoenix, the only way to survive was to make sure at least half the trip was spent in the relative coolness of the dawn.

My father’s job was to determine the best way to get to where we were going and how far we’d travel each day. I have inherited his map-reading prowess. My wife, who thought she had a good sense of direction until she met me (her words), bows to my abilities at following the Auto Club’s green lined Triptiks.

Since our trip to New Zealand in the mid 90s, we have developed an excellent navigator-driver working relationship. Driving on the other side of the road requires each member of the team to be in top form. A simple “At the next light you will make a left” turned out to be dangerous, for in our minds we equated a left turn with a cross-traffic turn. In New Zealand, their left turn is like our simple right turn. It was too confusing. Our survival required directions be very, very simple. “At the next light you will make a BIG turn.”

And so, unlike our daily marital conversations, which are filled with subtly and innuendo, our auto dialogue is clear and concise. We have no time for “what did you mean by that?!” We might miss the next rest stop for 48 miles and that could be disastrous.

This year we were returning to the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey, but not before heading first for Syosset, Long Island to visit friends for a few days. We had met Rick and Peggy on a trip to China and have been friends ever since. Friends are not relatives. And we looked forward to spending a few days with iconoclasts similar to ourselves. They have made multiple trips to DC but this was our first sojourn their way.

The thought of getting up before the sun to start my vacation was too much to bear. We set a 9 am departure and I secretly hoped we’d get out of the house by 10. We pulled out of our driveway right on time: 10. Peggy warned us to get an early start. Friday afternoon traffic heading to the Hamptons can be brutal. We were clueless.

We forgot how long road trips can be with kids. By ourselves, my wife and I could have made it up there probably in 4 1/2 hours tops. But there are multiple bathroom breaks and we had to stop for a sitdown lunch at Bob’s Big Boy (Delaware House Service Area #5). We didn’t exit the New Jersey Turnpike until 3:30 and by that time we were doomed.

Crossing over Staten Island and inching onto the Verrazano Bridge to Brooklyn we had to make a critical decision: go north on 495 to the Long Island Expressway or take the southern route on the Belt Parkway past JFK Airport. We employed our 21st century tracking device: we called Peggy on the cell. “Your best bet is the Belt,” she replied without hesitation. “Tune your radio to 1010 AM for further updates.” Peggy was a seasoned NYC metro area driver and we put our trust in her. And she was decidedly more accurate than the electronic signs over the parkway.

But, in retrospect, it really wouldn’t have mattered. We were done for either way. A born Angeleno, I am a veteran of the LA freeways. And DC’s traffic is purported to be the second most congested in the nation. But, neither my wife nor I had ever seen so much “stop and go” and for so long as we did that fateful day. As we passed JFK, I secretly lusted to be on one of those planes taking off to anywhere but where I sat. It took us 2 1/2 hours to go the 50 miles remaining on our outbound ride.

But unless you are intimate with the terrain, you might as well be blindfolded. In LA I could drive across town on side streets if I had to when the main arteries backed up. But without constant calls to Peggy who offered up-to-the-minute alternate routes we would have been there for another additional hour for sure.

We started our trip at 10 and arrived at 6. Luckily, we also used our cell to place our bar order at Chez Peggy and Rick. Gin and Tonics were waiting as we pulled up. The extra time had allowed them to clean the house so we were duly impressed. Our vacation had begun! But next year, I see a dark, early morning departure wherever we’re headed.

Looking For Jeffrey Lynn

15 Jul 2002
July 15, 2002

Finally! Fret’s over. Now what?

• • •

Today is Jeffrey Lynn’s birthday. Jeff and I grew up together in Pacoima, CA. His house was just down the block, in the second keyhole, as we used to call his cul-de-sac.

One day he told me he was going to move and that was the last I saw of him. I don’t remember any days leading up to his family’s leaving, seeing a big van come to take their furniture to their new house, nor Jeff saying goodbye. He just seemed to vanish. Aside from sharing our first name, our birthdays were just a few days apart. And every year on his I think of him.

Jeff, if you’re out there, drop me a line. Back then, I had friends move away but never without saying goodbye. Did it really happened that way?

Defined Fretting

13 Apr 2002
April 13, 2002

Sometimes I’ve been known to fret. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m actually admitting it for the first time right here. In fact, I just came to this conclusion last week. And, quite honestly, I’m relieved. This is a load off my mind and simplifies my life quite a bit.

To fret: to be vexed or troubled; worry. Synonym: brood. A worrier? Hmmm, that’s what I thought I was before last week (for years, actually). After all, I was voted most pessimistic in my high school graduating class. This is not to say I don’t worry. But worrying is reserved for big things. In refining my personal profile, fretting better describes my more mundane, everyday preoccupations. A brooder? Yes, it fits the bill.

I came to this conclusion as I was laying in bed, watching TV. During a commercial I thought “if I could only find my Palm, everything would be perfect.” Suddenly it hit me. I’d been internally listing those little, gnawing things and after surveying the list I’d ruminate about each and every item. Finding my Palm, as it turned out, was the last thing on my list for I had dispatched my shoe problem the day before.

I’ve come to hate buying shoes. My long-standing size has suddenly become too small. The salesman told me as you get older your feet can grow. I asked if that was like your ears and nose, which tend to grow big and bulbous as you enter retirement. He nodded as he placed the next larger size on my feet. They felt great. I could wiggle my toes. I did the perfunctory shoe store walk back and forth and left. There was nothing remaining on my fretting list and I was very happy. It was a warm, early Spring day. I opened the sun roof and really enjoyed the ride, through congested streets, home. I felt the opposite of fret. I was content.

Two Yiddish words come to mind when describing these polar opposites: kvetch (kwetsch) and kvel (kweln). Somehow Yiddish defies specific English translation. This is, in fact, its attraction. Living in a Yiddish world defies any exactitude. Words often describe feelings. To kvetch mostly means to complain while to kvel means to take pride in. While these don’t literally describe the words fretting and contentment, they do apply to my state of mind. While I’m not complaining when I mull over my fret list, I am feeling the discomfort that complaining implies. Conversely, when I think about my contentment list items, I’m not showing any pride but I am feeling the fullness and well-being the word aptly conveys.

So I was kveling until I walked around in my new shoes at home and discovered the next larger size was now too big. My female coworkers smiled knowingly as I mentioned this during our daily morning check-in ritual. Women, apparently, have had this problem for millennia. This went back onto my fretting list. And I felt like a kvetch, a complainer.

I had to reduce this list as quickly as possible. Too many things bring me to the brink of chaos and that’s not a pretty picture. When I lay my head on the pillow for what I hope will be a good night’s rest I start to run down my list. I’m assuming you can relate.

However, if something really nice has happened that day I can focus on it as I fall asleep. It goes on my contentment list: like when I’ve written a new story (I will sleep very well tonight) or when my wife told me she really liked my stories (without me even suggesting she read them). That was written in bold on my list. Kveling is the best sedative I’ve ever taken.

My youngest has just come up to me to go over all her boo boos. She obviously has her own list. And my wife is wondering where her cell phone is. I have to find my Palm.

I quickly look in what I call the “first tier” locations: those places it would mostly likely be: my backpack, my desk, and the top of the bureau. Nothing. I move to the second tier: my cubby (yes, we all have cubbies; mine usually for mail and magazines) and storage boxes where my wife places all my overflow stuff (you know, those things she keeps asking me to remove from the top of any empty surface but never do). Nothing.

I’m starting to feel desperate as I start in on my third tier (those places I’d never put my Palm but now feel I must investigate): the bathroom, on top of the TV, and under the bed. Desperation can move you to extremes. You begin to wonder if someone has taken it (you know, stolen it). You’re almost ready to point a finger. It’s that bad. Suddenly it’s late and the inevitable has happened: I’ve spent my entire evening looking for this thing and it still remains on my list as I prepare for slumber.

My father told me when I got married to never go to bed angry with my wife. But he never told me what to do with the things on my fretting list. I wake up the next morning and immediately go over every place (logical or not) my Palm could be. I go back to my first tier, this time looking slowly and methodically. It’s time to query my wife. She lists all the places I’ve already looked and when I groan that I’ve already looked there, she offers to look with fresh eyes. Nothing. I fret.

And then, it hits me (where these things come from is a mystery to me): the glove compartment of my car! I must admit, I am filled with anticipation. I know it’s there. I’m almost sure of it. In the recesses of my mind I actually think I remember putting it there. Is this just wishful thinking? I’ve never gotten to the fourth tier before.

Just the thought that I might finally have solved this is enough to move it from my fret to my contentment list (the more tiers you’ve scoured, the greater the pleasure). I’m in a very good mood. But should I be wrong, I can just as easily walk back through that border to the dark side unencumbered. This continuum is so transitory. But I’ll try not to fret too much about that.

Parenthood: A Borderline Schizophrenic Experience

02 Mar 2002
March 2, 2002

horoscopeI am an actor. I act in morality plays. I am a street performer of sorts, displaying my lessons on the DC subway. I captivate some, yet most are captives. My daughter is both my unwitting foil and the object of my ulterior motives.

While my focus is on her (just yesterday, we performed a One Act about a nearby little girl whose father was no where to be found), she teaches our captives what they need to know. Her admonishments are clearly enunciated, perfectly timed, and to the point. Recently, in that famous scene from our wildly popular delight called Rules from the Underground, she chastised someone in the first row for eating. Oh, she appears to be talking to me but it’s clear THAT WOMAN WITH THE PLUM PIT is the object of her disdain. I try to read her her correct lines but to no avail. She repeats her edict with equal, if not greater force: “she should NOT be eating on the train!”

I look around for a quick diversion and find it sitting next to me. A woman smiles while she reads her copy of Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good. Is there something I should know?

She’s just at the part where married Dr. Katie Carr finds herself in a parking lot after having fallen from grace by sleeping with another man. This, as it turns out, is the beginning of a long spiritual journey. Simultaneously, her husband, David, is having his own ecclesiastical awakening. No longer the newspaper columnist of, nor, in fact, the “Angriest Man in Holloway,” he is, indeed, determined to be a saint.

I confess, both daughters and I have struggled with these same issues. You think you’re teaching your children limits when you suddenly find yourself on your own precipice. Your toes are dangling over the edge! You feel it. And yet you move forward undeterred. Parenthood is, afterall, a borderline schizophrenic experience. I’m sure of it.

One minute you’re glowing, inspired by your children’s innocence and pure love. When, out of the blue, you have entered a parallel and utterly chaotic universe. Your shock at how you ended up at this point must take a second seat to extricating you and your loved ones immediately. Step back! Step back from the edge this instant!

I wonder just where my family and I are in our spiritual journey. Just like Katie, who blurts out her intense desire to divorce David from her cell phone in that parking lot (when her initial reason for calling was simply to remind him to write a note for their daughter’s teacher), I find myself in the audience of our little morality plays laughing and crying ironically.

How many times have you found yourself as both actor and audience in a scene from real life? The tension between active and passive participation is great. Timing is critical.

At this very moment my daughter has stubbed her toe. Is there a lesson here, is my simple parental sympathy needed, or do I just continue writing while acknowledging her condition from a room away? The initial injury is over but the fact remains: she is totally incapacitated or so she would like us to believe. This could be great acting or it could be the truth. She is equally capable of both. The tension in the audience is palatable.

“I want more apple!” “Come and get it. I’ve got 3 more pieces sitting here just waiting for you!” “I can’t. My toe still hurts.” I deliver the fruit while trying not to lose my train of thought.

Minutes later, I hear the rumblings of sibling rivalry from that same room. It’s always hard to say what my role will be in these scenes. If I ignore it, it might dissipate. Or not. I enter, stage left, and tell my injured daughter to stop rocking the chair my eldest occupies. “My toe really hurts.” [She moans]. Don’t rock your sister’s chair please.” Her moaning intensifies the more I suggest she step away from the chair.

The portal between universes suddenly reveals itself. [Applause. House lights up.]

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074