Tuesday, July 27, 1999

curse of the garden

Recently I have come to feel the full weight of an ancient curse God once levied upon humanity.

It's worse than the curse of Tutankhamen, worse than the mummy's curse that legend credits with the fate of the Titanic. This one's a real doozy: Children are destined to do the same thing their parents did.

Now you should understand that at my parents' home in Saunders Station, Pa., my father has a huge garden, I would guess 40 feet wide and 25 feet deep. Dad loves that garden, and spends several hours in it every weekend, pulling weeds, watering the plants and generally avoiding any housecleaning.

One summer in the mid-1980s, Dad planted three rows of Swiss chard. For the entire summer those bitter leaves showed up in everything we ate. We had Swiss chard salad, Swiss chard sandwiches, Swiss chard casserole, Swiss chard on our hamburgers, Swiss chard with our cereal, and Swiss chard in our pancakes.

Dinner became a screaming match as the four of us would shout in unison, "No! Not Swiss chard again!" and Dad would say, "It's good for you; have a no-thank-you helping." (No-thank-you helpings were my parents' way of making us eat things they knew we hated. I once tried to outsmart Dad by asking for a thank-you helping, and regretted it immediately. To this day, I insist on serving myself lest I make the mistake again.)

Relief finally came that summer when we offered to help Dad weed the garden. First we weeded out the actual offender, followed shortly afterward by anything that looked remotely like it. Many innocent plants were martyred for the great cause before we felt safe.

"Carrots?"

"Dunno. Could be related. Rip 'em out."

"Tomatoes?"

"Don't take any chances."

Dad still plants the stuff, but only half a row, and he never serves it to Mom or to us when we visit. He's probably afraid that if he tries, we'll soak his garden in gasoline and burn the whole thing down.

Now one of the other things I should note about Dad's garden is that it's made entirely of red clay. Red clay, to the horticulturally challenged, is really bad for growing things. It has virtually none of the nutrients plants need to grow up healthy.

Dad's solution was to conscript my two older brothers, and later my younger brother and myself, to dig a compost pit. Into that pit went pulled weeds; old litter from our menagerie of rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils (they themselves eventually were composted separately in small cardboard boxes buried throughout the back yard); raked leaves; bad produce and other organic waste.

The result of 20 years of composting is that Dad's garden now rises noticeably above the surrounding yard. This is handy in the spring, when rain turns the yard into a swamp, but it makes life difficult for the local topographers, who have to update their maps every couple years to show the steady increase in elevation.

The irony is this: Even with all the composted leaves, egg shells, potato peels and God knows what else, Dad's garden is still made of red clay. It's fertile clay now -- he gets better produce than some farmers -- but it's still clay, as he found last summer when the sun dried it up and nearly killed the entire garden.

Despite my childhood travails in Dad's garden, I was thrilled to discover when Natasha and I moved into our new house that the previous owners had planted a garden in the back yard themselves. There are a few things in there I could do without -- like the brussels sprouts -- but there also are tomatoes, onions and a few herbs I'd never heard of.

As I was saying, the curse is coming to fulfillment and I am following in Dad's footsteps, albeit without the benefit of forced labor.

This past weekend I dug my very own compost pit. It's not as big as the pits we dug for Dad since our yard is smaller and since he's not here to make me dig it any deeper, but it should be big enough.

"It looks like you're digging a grave," Natasha said as she stood over me in the hole.

"Don't be ridiculous," I said. "Hey, could you do me a favor and lie down in this for a minute? I want to see if it's long enough."

She muttered something inarticulate and walked away.

I was feeling proud of myself for having done something so useful, so I called my younger brother Ward, who said I'd have been better off with some above-ground palettes. Such a set-up helps aerate the compost, encouraging actual decay instead of just putrefaction.

"You only dug one because Dad had them when we were kids," he said. To his credit, Ward not only was right, but also tried to share my pride. "Well, how big is it?" he asked.

"Probably about 5 feet long, about 2½ feet deep and about as wide," said I.

"That's it?" he said, and started laughing like a howler monkey. "I thought you dug a big hole or something, the way you were talking about how long it took you!"

I thought of getting even somehow, but it's all right. Ward is two years younger than me, and I figure it's just a matter of time before the Curse of the Garden catches up with him. And when that happens, I'll be ready to help him out. You see, I know where I can some seeds for Swiss chard ...

Thursday, July 22, 1999

baby names

My wife and I are in a sort of baby-name hell right now. It's been virtually impossible to find one we like.

We've chosen baby names twice so far, but we still keep searching for anything that might be better than what we already have selected. It's only natural. We'll be out at the movies, shopping for groceries or reading a book, and a chance association will suggest a name to one of us.

"What about Natasha?" my wife asks.

"No."

"What's wrong with Natasha?"

"Nothing," I say. "Except it makes me think of Boris and Natasha from 'Bullwinkle,' and besides, as Jeff Holton pointed out back in college, Natasha spelled backward is 'Ah, Satan!' and I don't want my daughter to have to live with that stigma."

And so it goes with name after name. We've rejected names from Ozymandius and Sennecharib to Zachary and Nicholas, and from Lilith and Hester Prynne to Helen and Kinsey. With only three months to go, there's a growing chance the baby will be born with no other handle than "Hey, you with the diaper."

The hell we're in is quite real. It's located within the Eighth Circle, sandwiched between the simoniacs and the grafters, with all the other futurists.

Everyone knows that unusual first names have the power to ruin a child's school years, and a child with a truly cartoonish name could plunge down The Dark Side faster than Anakin Skywalker and become U.S. secretary of defense, like Caspar "the friendly ghost" Weinberger did in 1981.

Natasha and I have to be especially careful in this regard since, in my experience, the last name Learn can be bad enough on its own. In fifth grade, one girl loved to call me "David Learn About Words," after the vocabulary section in our reading class, and other children were quick with jokes about David "has a lot to" Learn. (Actually, some people still do that.)

My fellow students weren't the only ones keen to start an early career in comedy. Just about every teacher of mine thought it was clever and original to say on the first day, "Well, Mr. Learn, with a name like that, I don't think you'll have any trouble in this class."

So if the pressure isn't great enough already to come up with a good baby name, a group called the Society of Kabalarians has determined an exact mathematical formula for determining how your first name will shape your personality, personal relationships and physical health, as well your personal and business success.

I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to work, but they have all sorts of impressive-sounding babble and 60 years of experience of cultish thinking to back themselves up.

"Your name is your life! It is how you identify yourself. It is how others identify you," says their Web site. "The more insight you have into the powerful influence of your name, the greater opportunity to enjoy the success you are capable of achieving."

For only $60, they'll furnish the expectant parents with an in-depth name analysis that considers the baby's first name, last name and birthdate, as well as any lawn ornaments the baby may resemble in appearance.

I have to admit: I'm impressed. I thought only astrologers were this whacked-up.

But just to be sporting, I punched in the name Orpheus. I received a 255-word analysis that said a child with the name Orpheus would develop a quick, active mind, a desire to associate with people and a love of artistic expression, just like the mythological Orpheus.

The downside is a lack of organization and perseverance, a tendency to overeat, and a strong likelihood to get ripped to pieces by the bacchante after a failed bid at rescuing someone from the Underworld. So the name's not as great as it sounds.

In my search for good names, I've scoured great literature ranging from the Bible and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, to the Berenstein Bears' "The Spooky Old Tree" and "Uncanny X-Men," issues 99-142.

Natasha summarily rejected the names Lucio, Ma Bear and Cyclops, but I wasn't daunted. I have other irons in the fire. As soon as I learned we were pregnant, I asked friends and co-workers for help.

One person, with a clear love of "Popeye," has suggested names like "Sweet Pea" and "Bluto." Other co-workers, evidently the sort of people who made middle school so awful for the rest of us, suggested "Ubetta Learn," "Univer Learn" and "Livand Learn."

Even colleagues I have little direct contact with have suggested their ideas.

"I have always thought that 'Gordo' makes a lovely name for either a boy or a girl," said one fellow, whose nickname -- by purest coincidence, he assures me -- happens to be Gordo.

So I give up. If I can't come up with a show-stopping name myself, I'm sure my readers can do the job for me. What would you name my baby, if you had the chance?

Send me your thoughts, and I'll print the best responses here on a future date. Make sure you include your name so I can be sure to give credit where it's due.

It might not get me out of the Eighth Circle of Hell, but I'm sure it will make the stay a bit more pleasant.

Thursday, July 15, 1999

senior moments

You have not lived until you have tried to keep step with a senior citizen on the dance floor, and failed.

Now it's not that I expected to be able to hold my own at ballroom dancing, or at any of those other formal-type dances that have been beyond my ken as long as I can remember. But I would have liked to think that as a 28-year-old, I would be able to hold my own on "The Electric Slide."

No such luck. My wife and I attended a dinner this Sunday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hydesborough Senior Citizens, and I was thoroughly put to shame. Disgraced. And not just on "The Electric Slide," but on "YMCA" as well. I held out fairly well on "The Twister," but by that time the damage was done.

I'm not sure what I expected when Lou Possemato, president of Hydesborough Senior Citizens Chapter A, invited me to attend the anniversary dinner. I don't recall ever seeing either of my grandmothers dance, but if I had, I'm sure it would have been done to the music of Bing Crosby or someone else truly sleep-inspiring at 16 RPM.

My maternal grandmother did enjoy listening to music. One of her favorite songs was "Why can't the English learn to speak?", the song Henry Higgins performs in "My Fair Lady." When my grandfather was alive, she would play that song on their gramophone so loudly that Queen Elizabeth II once sent her a letter asking her to turn it down or risk an international incident.

I credit my grandmother with my love of the English language and my decision to enter first teaching and now journalism. As a writer, I get to break with impunity all those rules she guarded so zealously, on the grounds that I'm doing it "for effect."

The bulk of my remembered activities with my grandmothers involves stories. A question about what there was for breakfast usually elicited fond memories of Uncle Webster, who in 1927 bought a boat for $50 -- which in those days was quite a lot of money, you know -- and took it south from Rhode Island to Florida with his one-armed nephew Cyrus, my second cousin, three times removed, as his only crew.

I usually enjoyed listening to those stories, and even when I didn't, I was too polite to leave. By the time she finished, four hours would have passed, and it would be lunchtime.

I rarely ever actually got to eat breakfast when we visited Grandma Ergood.

Somehow I never expected a senior event would be so, well, active. When I decided to attend the dinner, I think I expected to have a good meal since, in my experience, senior citizens nearly always eat well. After eating, I would be subjected to some boring speeches and more stories of Uncle Webster and Cousin Cyrus.

After that, there would be some rousing games of Scrabble or Bingo, and of course the regularly scheduled organ concerts. ("Oh, my heart"; "Oh, my liver"; "Oh, my kidneys" ...) Any dancing would be something suitably old-fashioned, like a waltz.

The last time I tried to waltz, I was an exchange student in New Zealand attending a dance run by a seniors group in Rotorua. Three different girls tried to show me to do it. I was in heaven with that much female attention, but I remained a miserable failure at the waltz.

Worst of all, the music was ballroom arrangements of songs like "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" with extra verses thrown in for the seniors in attendance. Every time I started to get the hang of the steps, the little old lady at the piano would croon, "How much is that kidney in the window?" and I would lose my ability to concentrate.

In all, I was quite surprised with the dinner Sunday afternoon. The food was good, as expected, but most of the speeches were short, and Possemato lightened his comments with amusing stories that had nothing to do with Uncle Webster's rock band or Cousin Cyrus' wooden prosthetic arm eaten by termites after they reached Florida.

There was some traditional dancing, as expected, but after most of the honored political guests had left, about 30 seniors ran up front to do "The Macarena." I joined them on "The Electric Slide," and I'm embarrassed to say that they know the steps much better than I do.

I'm not sure I really was at a seniors dinner on Sunday. They seemed too young. Either everyone there was dressed up in elaborate costumes to make them look older than they were, or getting old is going to be a lot more fun than I thought.

Thursday, July 08, 1999

summer frost

Now that July is here, I've decided it's time to break out my sweatshirts and other heavy clothing. I'm worried about getting frostbite.

This might seem odd, considering that the temperature for the past week has rarely dipped below 100 degrees, but I stand by my statement. For some reason, Americans have a fascination with air conditioning that drives us to get the temperature inside as cold as it is hot outside.

Maybe I don't mind the heat so much because I grew up without air conditioning. Maybe my blood is still thin from living in Haiti from 1992 to 1993. Or maybe everyone else has thyroid problems.

I just don't understand why we feel the need to freeze ourselves during the hottest season of the year. Humanity lived without air conditioning or fans for at least five years before they were invented. At least 3 percent of the world survives without those things today, even in the tropics, but you would never know it by visiting most public places around here.

The advantages to over-air conditioning are pretty clear for restaurants, since they can increase their freezer space by the size of the dining room, but it still boggles my mind.

One restaurant Natasha and I visited awhile ago had the air conditioning turned up full-blast before the season's heat had even begun in earnest. It might have been 80 degrees outside, warm enough to wear shorts, but not necessarily warm enough to go shirtless.

Inside, it was so cold that the hair on my arms and legs stood on end. I shivered uncontrollably. Hanging on the wall next to me was a frozen side of beef.

"Could you turn the air conditioning down?" I asked the waiter when he came to get our drink orders. I had to repeat myself twice because my teeth were chattering. "It's freezing in here."

The waiter looked down his nose at me, out of a fur-lined parka that looked like it had once been an Arctic seal.

"You're the only who thinks so," he said coldly. His breath misted in the air in front of him.

"Fine," I snapped, wondering if it would be bad form to chop the table up for firewood. "Leave it alone. But bring me a cup of hot chocolate."

Natasha grew up in the desert, so she's usually even more affected by the cold than I. This spring, when everyone else in our church was wearing shorts and light shirts, Natasha was still wearing her long johns under her jeans, and had a T-shirt and a flannel shirt under a heavy sweatshirt she's had since college.

"I have a high surface area-to-volume ratio," is her most common defense.

The members of our church have been running a pool since April on when Natasha finally would be hot and come to church in shorts and a T-shirt. Now that she's five months pregnant, Natasha finally did just that, much to the delight of the elderly woman who won the pool, which passed the $5,000 mark in late June.

Natasha impressed even me with how hot she's been feeling lately. When we moved into our new house, the previous owner told me he was leaving behind a some functional air conditioning units in the basement.

Since air conditioning units are great at driving up the electric bill, I figured at the time that we wouldn't use them.

Wrong. Last week Natasha said she'd really like to have one in the bedroom so she can sleep. Who am I to tell her no?

At least we got some extra freezer space out of the deal.

Thursday, July 01, 1999

house shopping

There are times in life when madness overtakes the best of us.

The first time I had a brush with insanity was when I decided between my junior and senior years of college to write an honor’s thesis on the religious themes of classic Star Trek. It cost me the respect of all three of my friends, but fortunately Mr. Spock appeared to me in a vision and showed me the Vulcan way to peace.

Then there was the time I asked Natasha to marry me, even though I knew there was a risk that she might squeeze her toothpaste in the middle of the tube. (Actually, I’m so in love with her that I still pop the Question on a regular basis, especially since she uses her own toothpaste, but she tells me she's already married me once, and that was enough.)

The most recent dance around the fringes has been with buying a house. I’m not sure why we thought we needed to buy a house, but we closed recently, and so we are now the proud owners of a 30-year adjustable-rate mortgage.

The first step we had to go through was deciding whether we really wanted to buy one. Conventional wisdom has it that buying a houses is better than renting an apartment.

When you rent, you pay large sums of money on a monthly basis to some megarich cementhead with no idea what life is like for ordinary people on a tight budget. With a house, you have to pay money on a monthly basis to some megarich lending institution with no idea what life is like for ordinary people on a tight budget.

It’s a remarkable improvement.

Additionally, houses come with a lot of extra responsibility. As a new homeowner, it is my responsibility to procrastinate fixing the basement stairs and cutting the grass. When I rented an apartment, it was always the landlord’s job to put off that sort of maintenance.

Once we decided to buy a house, we had to find a good Realtor. A Realtor’s job as a superfluous middleman is to complicate unnecessarily what might otherwise be the rather simple task of finding and buying an affordable house.

Our Realtor took us on a wild searching spree all over Middlesex and Somerset counties at breakneck speeds to look at houses that cost $20,000 more than we could afford.

"You need to tighten your belt a little to get a good place," April told me when I objected to the cost of some of the houses she wanted to show us.

"I don’t mind tightening my belt a little," I said. "I just want to have a waist after it’s all over."

(I’m willing to bet April does squeeze her toothpaste in the middle.)

I soon learned that finding the right house is more difficult even than finding the right spouse. Before I met Natasha, I dated at most a half-dozen women, and went steady with none of them. During the week April was running us ragged, we must have looked at close to 20 houses. We saw townhouses, condos, tool sheds, caves with doors on them -- you name it, we saw it.

Some of the houses were downright frightening. One in North Brunswick was a two-story house selling for something like $120,000. That’s not so bad, but the second floor was really a converted attic, and every room was built on an angle -- a different angle. Oddest of all, the only way to the second floor was the staircase that was built in the bathroom.

"What were they thinking?" I asked once we made that discovery. I pictured our child bursting through the bathroom door to go upstairs or down while I sat there reading a magazine.

"They’d have to lower the price to $60,000 first, and I still wouldn’t take it," Natasha said, after we finished touring the place.

Fortunately, Mr. Spock appeared to me in a second vision, and showed us the only logical course of action. We settled on a two-story Colonial less than a mile from the apartment we had been renting.

The next step was easily the hardest. In a civilized arrangement, we would have called the sellers, dickered over the price and some minor repairs, settled everything, and then been able to close after a few weeks.

But I live in New Jersey, and civilized arrangements are usually against the law. Both the sellers and we had to hire attorneys to represent us during the discussions over how to handle minor repairs -- there was no railing on the stairs -- and major ones -- the roof wasn’t capped correctly.

Imagine coordinating a discussion with one middle party. Now picture two. Now picture four -- two attorneys and two Realtors. Then for good measure toss in a home insurance company, a mortgage lender, an entire religious order, a woman named Edith, and 27 gallons of tapioca pudding. That should give you a rough idea what we endured.

Somehow -- I still don’t understand how -- Natasha and I managed to close. Most frightening of all, we’ll probably have to do this again in the next five years as our family grows.

I’ve stopped flirting with madness. Mr. Spock is here to stay. But at least he assures me that Vulcans squeeze their toothpaste at the end of their tubes.

life as a movie

Life would be a lot simpler if it were like the movies.

Think of the angst that could be prevented just by adding a musical score. The minute someone walks into the room, you would know if the newcomer were an evil intruder because of the foreboding music. If there's romance in the air, the slow violin music would be a dead giveaway every time. It would have saved me a lot of trouble back in junior high.

If life were like movies, all problems could be solved within two hours, women would all be drop-dead gorgeous, men would be muscle-bound, and justice would prevail every time. (Women also would be inexplicably attracted to men three times their age, but I digress.)

Best of all, having a high-quality life wouldn't be a prerequisite for success. Just look at the most recent Star Wars offering.

(Not that I can afford to pay George Lucas $112 million to upgrade my life with computer enhancements. I would be more popular - except possibly for the Jar Jar Binks factor - but I'd hate to compromise my artistic integrity for Dave Learn action figures and Lego sets.)

There have to be ways to compensate for this deficiency. One idea that occurred to me recently was that stores and restaurants could distribute flare guns to their customers as they walk in the door.

See, my wife and I recently went on a quest to buy a toaster oven, which we finally found at a Target store -- sort of. They had a floor model with everything we wanted, but none of the boxes on the shelves corresponded to it.

In a movie, the camera would pull out to a wide-lens shot, and it would have been obvious to the entire store that something was wrong.

Instead, I had to work hard to get the attention of store employees. I marched up and down the aisles calling "Bartender! Bartender!" like a demented Daffy Duck, and still no one came to our assistance.

After a fruitless search, I grabbed the display model and carried it around the store until an employee stopped chatting long enough to scowl at me and see if I needed help. (I wonder what gave it away.)

The whole melodrama and spectacle could have been skipped if the store had given us a flare gun. Picture this: We reach the toaster section and find they're all out. Before panic sets in, Natasha pulls out the flare gun and fires a blue flare up into the ceiling. The light show alerts a manager, who grabs a walkie-talkie and sends help at once.

"Francine, this is Freddie at the customer-service desk. We have a mayday over in Aisle 12. The fat guy and his wife can't find the Iridium Pyew-39 Explosive Space Toaster."

Suddenly the time lost hunting for a toaster oven that they won't sell me - they don't sell floor models -- is cut from an hour to just under a few minutes. Department store owners, take note: Provide shoppers with something simple like flare guns, and customer satisfaction will go through the roof -- literally.

The other advantage to making life more like the movies is that you get unconventional solutions to problems, especially if you watch some of the same movies I do.

That would have come in handy last Thursday, when Natasha and I went to get our first ultrasound done of the baby at St. Peter's in New Brunswick. Darth Grappler -- our working name for a baby boy -- was every bit as reluctant as me to be captured on film, and so steadfastly looked down at Niki's spine.

The doctor, whom I will identify as Dr. Goosehead, decided the best solution was to shake Natasha's abdomen vigorously with the sensor like he was stirring a bowl of chocolate pudding. I won't print Natasha's thoughts about this here, since this is a family newspaper.

Had this been a movie, all sorts of sci-fi solutions would have been possible. We could have got Geordi to back up the toilets into the warp drive, couple the deflector dish to the impulse couplings, and plug in the Pac Man cartridge on Deck C. With all that done, Dr. Goosehead could have pressed the button on his command console, and Darth Grappler would have rolled around.

Another possibility was suggested by "The Phantom Menace." With a high enough concentration of midichlorians in his cells, Dr. Goosehead could use the Force to rock Darth Grappler gently in the womb. Alternatively, if Darth Grappler had a high concentration of the double-speak critters instead, he could have rocked Dr. Goosehead and not so gently. Actually, that would have been a lot more satisfying, ultimately.

And just think: If life were like a western, touchy confrontations would be great occasions for deadpan comments, like the immortal "Yep. Nothing like a good piece of hickory" from "Pale Rider."

After the ultrasound, Natasha and I made an appointment for a second one to pinpoint the baby's development more clearly. Dr. Goosehead walked over and told the receptionist, "I want them to come in for genetic counseling," without telling us what that was or why he wanted us to come in for it.

"Hello," I wanted to shout. "We're the parents; you can talk to us."

A much better solution comes from "A Fistful of Dollars." I can see myself standing before Dr. Goosehead in a Clint Eastwood posture.

"I don't mind a doctor who's rude," I could tell him. "But my horse is sensitive, and you hurt his feelings. I think you ought to apologize to my horse before someone gets hurt."

Ah, the drama we miss out on. Still, it's just as well life isn't more like the movies. With my luck, I'd be played by Jim Carrey.