Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark

 

When the AARP membership letter arrived, I put it in a pile of misdirected mail and prepared to walk it over to my

The Old Dark House
The Old Dark House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

next door neighbor, Charlie. Imagine my elation and surprise when I discovered that it was addressed to me. Apparently, I had joined a new demographic.

I had unceremoniously turned 50 in September and had no interest in celebrating the autumn solstice of my life with 100 of my closest detractors. I told my loving wife that a quiet, more personal commemoration would be appropriate — perhaps a new sports car or a trip to Europe. This seemed infinitely preferable to ripping the seat of my pants while trying to do the worm on the dance floor at my 50th fete.

At a half century, I was now entering October country — that shadowy meridian that separates the last sighs of September’s Indian summer of youth and the cooler, denuded November twilight of mature life. It’s in the autumn of our days that the unexpected tends to happen. There are days when I really just want to be 10 years old again with my greatest concern being what I would wear for Halloween. Yet it is 2011, not 1971. Reality is no longer a horizon line road that seems to carry on forever. I felt jinxed.

Perhaps my negativity created a sort of karmic low-pressure system or I may have offended the gods of suburban living because no sooner had I begun to wallow in self pity that the Great Nor’easter of Oct. 30 hit. I was just two days into being Mr. Mom, having been left behind by my highly organized captain who had slipped out of the country to visit our daughter who is studying abroad. The remaining crew was a pathetic ship of fools — the hapless husband, two determined teenage boys, a bulimic Australian Shepherd and a demonic house cat that was now using her urine as a warped form of foreign policy.

When the electricity died Saturday afternoon, I initially smiled as the reassuring switches and subsequent thrum of the back-up generator kicked in. I was the ant who had elected to invest in the future while across the state, male grasshoppers were being berated by their partners for being too cheap or too New England-proud to make provisions for the potential for electrical outages. I admit that the purchase of the generator was a no-brainer. My home lacks a certain charm when there was no running water, heat and ESPN. It quickly becomes a giant port-o-potty.

As parsimonious people, the cost and logistics of burying a 1,000-gallon propane tank in my garden did not sit well with me. I elected instead to go with a smaller, above ground 120 gallon propane tank. Before moving to New England from California, the biggest propane tank I had seen was on a Coleman camping stove — and that damn thing lasted for a year. Surely a 120-gallon tank of propane could run my house for a month. I would later learn that 120 gallons can power a lamp and an electric clock for about a day. Throw in teenage electrical thieves who steal heat while you are freezing, computers while you are blacked out, microwaves while you are drinking iced coffee and take 20-minute hot showers — and your propane and serenity is good for 10 minutes.

As the propane tank slowly drained of its life force, the service company informed me that they could not make it to my house for several days — ensuring that I was now going to run out of power. Apparently, they were running out of power. This led me to the draconian decision to ration our electricity. My energy conservation plan was not well received by the natives. Truth be told, it bugged me. We had bought the generator so we would not have to sit in the dark. Yet, here we were sitting in the dark trying to conserve energy. It felt like the ever-perplexing paradox of having to clean the house before the cleaning people arrive. The dishes piled up. The toilets remained unflushed. By day three, we avoided the laundry room as if there was something living inside the 5-foot pile of dirty clothes.The cat disappeared and I feared the highly fragrant laundry mass had devoured her.

For meals, I resorted to take-out and a Mad Lib bachelor recipe: grilled cheese (you add the plural noun). When we ran out of milk, I suggested to the boys that they use the leftover Diet Coke on their breakfast cereal.

“It tastes good. I ate Corn Flakes with Tab all the time in college.”

The dog kept whimpering trying to convey to me that I was obligated to take him on his daily 5-mile run. I just whimpered back at him. The cat retaliated for my neglect of the litter box by peeing on the floor. I slipped in it. I thought about peeing on her but she was too quick.

Meanwhile, the propane gauge fell like a barometer. We were down to 5 percent. School was canceled which required me to work from home. Working from home is overrated for executives. One tends to lose credibility on business calls when dogs and teens are screaming in the background. With the propane dying, I had to decide whether to eat my children or ship them off to friends who offered to host them while I presided over the death of my generator. Since they are not properly tenderized, I elected the latter and returned home. The propane was now down to 2 percent. Like a lone survivor with a single bullet in the chamber of his gun, I was not sure whether I wanted to use the final wisps of energy to watch ESPN or clean the world’s most disgusting load of dirty dishes. I went for the dishes.

I turned off all the lights, sat in the darkness and ran the dishwasher — the only light on in my property was the tiny red dial indicating the status of the wash cycle. I sat adrift in ebony self pity. When do the boils and lice arrive? There was an odd thrum as the generator gasped and finally died. Outside, I suddenly noticed a light flicker at Charlie’s house. I heard the distant clicking of a computer printer resetting in the den. I cautiously approached the light switch and click, glorious light poured down from the blackened recesses of the heavens. Power was restored. I admit to waiting until the next afternoon (I’m no dummy), to pick up the boys only to be informed by our friends that one of them may have been exposed to head lice.

Yes, Job, there is a Santa Claus. The parasites had indeed finally arrived. One radioactive shampoo, two pick-ups and a reassuring Zumbach’s coffee later, our family was reunited. I relaxed for the first time in days. The phone rang. My Optimum cable, which has been as reliable as a blind man in a bar fight, had come back to life. The TV flickered. There it was — ESPN. A toilet flushed. There was a cheer and then just as quickly, the lights went out. I moaned and turned around — only to see my teenage son smiling as he flipped back on the light switch.

“Just messing with you, Dad,” he said.

A Few Good Men

Cover of "Men Are from Mars, Women Are fr...
Cover of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus

A Few Good Men

“You want me on that wall!  You need me on that wall!” ~Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men

I have traveled extensively on business over the course of a 29-year career.  As a road warrior, I’ve developed coping mechanisms which includes an emotional auto pilot that switches on as I move across countries and continents.  I often return from these trips like a veteran returning from a foreign war and wonder why my spouse looked so tired and compromised.  There was no band or patriotic appreciation for my sacrifices of the week.  In fact, all I really got was the look. Men know the look.  It is a silent statement of contempt that says, “You think you were fighting the Taliban?  While you were sitting with your buddies in the officers club, I was in the bush fighting three little kids.”  Immediately, I would be plunged into resentment.  “It’s not like I have been sitting in a hot tub with my buddies” (well, at least not on this business trip).

How hard can it be to hold it together for a few days when I am away?  “Get some help” was my most common retort when I was rightfully called out for being unhelpful at dinner and bedtime.  She would rationally respond, “The kids want to spend time with you, which means you need to get off the sofa and help… and preferably without the eye roll.”  I would relent, but not without noting her obvious lack of appreciation for how important I was.

Over the years, I realized she was right.  How fleeting the time was when the troops were young, idealistic and hung on my every command.  They wanted to cuddle, hear a bedtime story or just talk.  I learned from John Gray, who wrote Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus that everything (a person does in a relationship) is really only worth one point.  Putting the kids to bed?  One point.  Jewelry?  Sorry, just one point.   I had to accept that a relationship was tantamount to a bank account where your surplus or deficit was determined by how many withdrawals or deposits you made.  Deposits were best made without being asked; withdrawals required permission.  I was constantly overdrawn.  Still, I would wallow in self-pity and think, “I’d love for her to do my job for a day.  Let’s see how she would feel after hiring, firing, traveling, then dodging angry clients and rabid shareholders.”  Never mind that she had experienced an 11-year career as an executive when she finally retired.

I got my first taste of my spouse’s logistical genius when we went away together and my brother-in-law and his wife agreed to watch the kids.  They had no children, and we figured this experience might prime the engine of parenthood.  The kids were excited … he’s a popular uncle — youthful, high energy, and funny.

Upon our return home, my brother-in-law literally fled the house like it was haunted.  As he was racing to load his car, he kept repeating, “I don’t know how you guys do this.”  His wife was more subdued, but it was obvious the experience had set them back in their plans to have a family.  As their car screeched out of the driveway kicking up pebbles, I asked my daughter, “What happened?”  She was nonchalant: “Nothing, Dad, really.  Every night Uncle Andrew would go to bed with a stomach ache and Aunt Marguerite would take over.  I think he wasn’t ready for all the stuff that Mom does.”  “How hard can it be?” I thought.

A year later, my wife had a family emergency and we agreed she needed to go to Los Angeles for a week.  I made sure I cleared the calendar at work so I could get everyone to school and then be home for the afternoon routine.  The days leading up to her trip were filled with naive bravado.  “We’ll be fine” I smiled.  I was not really listening as she told me all the details to remember.  It’s a known fact that men retain on average 50% of what their partners tell them; I’m no exception.  “Just write it down,” I said absent mindedly as she talked to me while packing her bags.

The eve of her departure she handed me something that looked drafted by a Chief Master Sergeant of the Marine Corps.  0630 – Breakfast, load backpacks, etc.  This went on until 0830, when all the kids were supposed to be on different buses and out the door.  I completed the tasks and raced to work, which turned into a confusion of business and carpool calls to other Master Sergeants confirming drop-offs and pick-ups, the logistics of music lessons, sports practices and play dates — all timed to within minutes of one another to allow for minimum collateral down time.  From 1500 to 1800, I was watching, driving or cooking for what seemed like nine kids, many of whom I had never laid eyes on before or who lived on strange streets that I never even knew existed in this town.  All the time I would be hearing, “Mom knows where Jimmy lives.  Mom never makes me eat this.  Mom already did that, Dad.”  The mind-numbing routine went into overdrive at 1800 as the troops chafed against their substitute Sergeant.  “The teacher said we don’t have to hand this in…” my son pleaded.  I checked the Master Sergeant’s field manual.  Page 3, paragraph 5 under Homework: Always sign and make sure that the homework is provided to the teacher.  It is always due on Thursday.  The Master Sergeant had expected this resistance and had made provisions.

At 2330, I was standing over the kitchen sink wavering in a sort of half sleep, mindlessly putting dishes into the dishwasher and surveying what looked like a scene from a DEA drug bust.  The house was trashed.  The school snacks had been ransacked, the laundry pile seemed to have exploded and there were five more pages of coordinates dedicated to the following day.  The next morning I felt like I had never slept.  My secretary asked me if I was sick when I crawled into the office.  “Yes” was all I replied.

“So how is everyone?” the sunny voice asked over the phone from California.  My son blurted, “Dad forgot my lacrosse stick today and left Jack at the field.  His Mom had to pick him up.” Turncoat!  Benedict Arnold!  I was busted.  “I wrote it all in the book,” she said with that disappointed tone.  I felt like I was in front of the court marshal inquisition explaining how my unit got overrun so easily.  I threw myself on the mercy of the court.

Like Patton’s Third Army at Bastogne, the Master Sergeant finally returned to relieve her besieged fort.  She walked in to examine clean barracks with all children’s logistics successfully executed.  Kitchen Patrol was concluded.  “Not bad,” she smiled as she surveyed the order.  I never got around to telling her that I took two days of vacation just to deal with the chaos.  I woke up the following morning and was relieved to once again see the guard tower to my left occupied.  Driving to work, I smiled.  My side of the “wall” never looked so good.