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Family Tales


 

The Ether Scented Table

When I first taught “Prufrock”
In my early thirties,
Childless,
Wifeless,
Grand ambitions,
I still could feel the foggy cat
Curling ‘round my feet,
Smell the ether,
See the sawdust,
Perceive the pin poised
To fix me wriggling to the wall.

But now a son is three.
And though I see myself
Still fight the against the
Mermaids’ whispers,
Songs that pull me to the depths of age,
To some drowning despair of lost potential,
There is hope for him.

He knows the Jabberwock
That old men fear,
That young men wish to tame.
I taught him that from crib to now,
No longer fear his younger years,
The early tests or trials.

I fear the years I will not see,
When his minutes become hours,
When nostalgia fights regret
And I’m not here to hold him fast
And smooth his hair
And rub his back
And tell him it will pass.

My father’s burden
Now is mine.
Perhaps my son’s ahead.
I do not fear he will not feel
The young man’s joy
Or live life full and long.

But a time will come
When I shall sing the song
Of love and loss.
A lesson that I hope he hears,
Embraces, inhales like shaman smoke,
To do what’s right,
To eat the peach,
To leave the pants unrolled.
To be the artist spoken of
And stroke the downy arms
And gaze into the eyes
And kiss the open lips
And sing the ocean songs
That mermaids hear
And pull them to the shore.

So dare, my son.
Dare to do the things you’ll do.
Dare to leave regrets behind.
Dare to love and dare to lose.
Dare to fall and rise again.
And rise again.
And rise again.

It’s Prufrock’s broken spirit
That I dread.

 

Well, we had Banana Grandma’s funeral. It wasn’t as Banana Grandma-ish as I had hoped, but there were moments.

First, let me tell you that I send the previous post, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” to my grandmother’s pastor, a tall Southern Baptist from Baylor in Texas. He wanted family to send stuff, so I did.

Before the service I heard him ask my father if he could read a letter that was confusing him. I had assumed that he wouldn’t read my letter anyway, so I thought nothing of it.

A little bit later, while my wife and I were in the toddler room getting my mother-in-law situated with the kids the minister came down and said to me, “I finally found out what your grandmother’s last name was.”

I said, “Which one?” knowing that she has had several last names.

He leaned into me and said, “Dildo.” Then he turned and walked down the hall. That was pretty good, and he won me over with that. He read my letter in full.

My father eulogized her with about a thirty-minute eulogy. It was really good and hit all the right emotional notes.

They played a recording of my niece singing the Carpenters’ “Top of the Word,” which caused the requisite sideways glances from non-family mourners. My niece sang the second song live, and it was written by my ex-sister-in-law, specifically for this funeral. She couldn’t finish it, which was also a beautiful moment.

The final Banana-Grandmaesque moment of the funeral proper actually came as her own words. A young lady, the youth pastor from the church, had spent a considerable time with my grandmother over the last two years. She spoke quite lovingly of my grandmother, finishing her testimonial with a line my grandmother used to like to say her: “Go out and spread the Word, you little virgin.”

That was my grandmother. She was like a Confederate General, able to mix the oddly profane with the sacred. And no matter how much she layered on the bullshit, the nasty jibes, and histrionics, there was always a depth of sentimental nostalgia and fondness that seemed to blunt the corners and round the edges of her often acerbic spirit.

I will miss her.

 

Banana Grandma died last Thursday night. If you know why she has that moniker, then you have a very brief, but quite clear understanding of my family, our foibles, and the deep running offbeat, sometimes disturbing humor that is chemically bonded to our DNA. She is really the font of that humor, though most people wouldn’t know it. Most people would be surprised to discover that she was the most complicated person I knew.

Her last words were “I feel funny.” While I know that she meant something was physically wrong, that she was literally moments from sliding off her seat, slipping into the unknowable oblivion or grace of death, I take that phrase for its dual meaning. Perhaps in that moment of ultimate clarity she realized that she was our humor’s source, the comedic alpha to the now three living generations that she begat.

Because, I can tell you, most of the tears that we will shed for her will not be tears of sadness or loss, though of course there will be those. Most of our tears will be shed during the entertaining stories of her vibrant living, her stunning statements and proclamations, the retellings of her adventurous mishaps and eccentricities. They will be the tears that accompany joyful nostalgia.

My father suggested playing the Kenny Rogers’ song, “Ruby,” at the funeral. When I laughed, he asked why, noting it was her favorite song.

“I love it,” I said. “I love living in a family where we can seriously suggest a country song about a woman cheating on a disabled American veteran as a possible song for my grandmother’s funeral” And I meant it. Not many people would have understood it. Some may have even been offended. But grandmother would have laughed her flaming Irish ass off.

I then suggested, only half-jokingly, that the family leave the ceremony singing “So Long, Farewell” from the Sound of Music. Again, she would have loved it. Our family would have loved it. But that’s our strange, some might say disturbing sense of humor. And it comes straight from her.

So, if you think you knew her, you were possibly only half right, probably only a quarter right. She was one of the most complicated people I knew. And the funniest without knowing it.

So…

There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall
And the bells in the steeple too
And up in the nursery an absurd little bird
Is popping out to say, “Cuckoo”
Regretfully they tell us but firmly they compel us
To say goodbye
To you

I have been married twice. My first was to a high school sweetheart. She could have been a model. I could have been a troll. She loved me because I saved her from her family and I loved her because she saved me from myself.

The marriage was a done-deal, predestined, expected by everyone and everything. So we gave into the expectations of others. To the seeming weight of fate. It was serious business. But we never danced.

I mean we danced. We held each other standing up and swayed to music, but we never really danced. We couldn’t. We were too guarded against what we knew was the inevitable. We had steeled ourselves by keeping the dancer hidden in the dark, way in the back of the big empty room.We had saved each other, but we spent ourselves, broke each other open, then went our separate ways.

I wouldn’t change that history, but that history sits with me much like Byzantine history. Or the history of the Punic wars. Something far away over some misty-minded horizon that I just can’t quite see in full color.

But it led me here.

And now I dance. And I don’t mean standing up and swaying to the music dance. My wife and I don’t do much of that. We don’t need to. Because when we talk we dance. Sometimes it’s swing when we’re laughing. Sometimes we waltz, sitting on the sofa watching a movie holding hands. Sometimes when the tempers flare we’re a mosh pit of two flinging ourselves against each other recklessly, wildly. And, honestly, there’s a lot of chicken dance.

But the fact is that we dance, even when we’re sitting still reading the morning paper, because I’ve allowed her to see my monster in the back corner, and she has allowed me to see hers. We’ve shared our secrets, the important ones at least. And, for the first time really, it doesn’t matter to me what others think. I could have said that when I was younger, but you never really mean it. It’s more of a threat when you’re younger, a gauntlet.

She doesn’t mind that I walk from one end of the house to the other turning lights off stark naked, and I don’t mind her twenty year-old ratty Supergirl underwear. She takes my freak-outs in stride, and I nod knowingly at her rare and surprising bursts of cattitude. She allows me my football insanity even though it brings her home to a halt. And I don’t mind that she goes to see her parents every weekend she can, even though it means my home goes with her.

Maybe it’s age or wisdom or insanity. Or maybe it’s some bizarre chemical reaction between two people who’s universal dust parted eons ago and has spun through the vastness only to miraculously coalesce at the right time, in the right place to assemble again in the bodies of two people who happen to meet in some dimly lit hallway on the only inhabited planet “of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe.” Could it be that cosmically romantic? Probably not. Luck, fate chemistry…it doesn’t matter. Because we dance.

 

What a rollercoaster of a weekend. Got a call on Friday around three o’clock that Banana Grandma was in ICU with congestive heart failure and that I should head to Des Moines as soon as I could, that she had been given hours. Then I got a call two-hours later saying that she had made a miracle recovery and was out of ICU.

Since I had a show closing that weekend, I decided to stay home to see the final show and work strike on Sunday.

My wife was taking the kids to Des Moines anyway. For weeks they had been planning on seeing the grandmothers and going to an orchard. My wife likes to get out of town on show weekends anyway, so it worked out well. She decided to stop by and see Banana Grandma, too.

My father called me during the show Saturday night to tell me that things seemed dire again, so I called my wife. They had moved my grandmother to a hospice. My wife suggested that if I wanted to speak to my grandmother I should probably be there.

I couldn’t sleep well that night. I had thought a couple times of just dressing and driving, and I hate driving at night…and it was raining.

When I got there Sunday morning I thought she was dead. She was sitting in a chair with an oxygen mask askew. I couldn’t see her breathing. She was alone.

I went over and kissed her. She looked up at me and smiled. It was one of those catch twenty-two relief/sorrow moments. Her breathing was so shallow. We sat and talked for a few moments before she fell back asleep.

I sat with her for a couple of hours until my parents came. They didn’t know I was coming. They left around three.

I hung out with her until seven that night. I was positive that she would go at any moment. We had finally moved her to bed before my parents left. She had slept almost the whole time.

She woke up once and said, “I hope I done the right thing?”

I said, “Yup. You’ve done the right things.”

She reached out her hand and I took it. She fell asleep again.

She awoke one more time and said, “Is today Sunday?”

I said, “Yes.”

She fell asleep again.

She began talking. Most of it I couldn’t understand. Her jaw was working almost continually.

She raised her other hand in her “praise-Jesus” a couple of times, still asleep. Finally, still asleep, she said, “I just don’t want to get all bloody.”

That one creeped me out a bit. It was clear as could be.

At seven o’clock I kissed her and left to go home.

My car wouldn’t start.

Not a long post today, but one that is dear to me.

One of the many things I love about parenting is overhearing monologues or conversations with my children.

Today there were two that made me smile. The first was hearing my son play through a conversation between his feet. Yes, his feet were talking to each other. The left foot, named Smallfoot, was speaking to his right foot, Bigfoot, about sad he was that he was smaller. It was hilarious, mostly because he was doing appropriate voices for each. Bigfoot was also very sympathetic to Smallfoot’s plight, which was quite sweet.

The second conversation came between my oldest son and my wife while changing his diaper.

It begins with my son: “Tickle me! Tickle me!”

“Ticka ticka ticka!”

“Tickle my penis!”

“Um…nope.”

“Yeth, tickle my penis! Tickle my penis!”

“Sorry, buddy. Mommies don’t tickle penises. That’s something you’ll need to do on your own.”

Just not the kind of thing you hear everyday, and I love it.

A scene or state of wild uproar and confusion.

Originally, the word “bedlam” was simply the colloquial name for the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem in London—perhaps the world’s most famous lunatic asylum.

Thus is my home.

I feel like I am an attendant in a lunatic asylum. A Victorian era asylum. There is something creepier about a Victorian asylum.

If you want to know what that is like, have two children. Sorry singles, one simply does not cut it. I would have thought, when I only had one child, that I new what bedlam was, but I didn’t. And I’m sure that if I had three, I would scoff at those, like myself, with a mere two inmates.

If I were a simple-minded fellow I might even say that that both inmates need to be boys. This comes from the many friends who have girls. They are, generally, very different.

Now, before I had kids, I would have thought that someone who said boys are intrinsically different from girls was a traditional, small-minded, buffooning troglodyte.  But I have to tell you, many of the stereotypically boy things that my kids do are beyond me and anything I have taught to/modeled for/dreamed of. We do not have guns. I don’t pretend to have a gun. We don’t watch family movies with guns. And yet my son began shooting things with his finger well before he began seriously interacting with other children. Also, if it moves, he wants to beat/kick/throw it.

We have friends who have a girl the same age as my son. We went over to their house for dinner and were terrified from the moment we entered. They had breakables —serious, crystal and porcelain breakables— at knee level. Well, he went right for them. He wanted to climb up their built-ins and touch everything he could. Our friends were a little stunned. Their daughter never thought to do anything like that. She’s a pleasant young lady.

I’m assuming that some of you may be taking umbrage with my assessment of toddler gender differences. I do have a friend who has a daughter that exhibits the same crazy death-wish tendencies as my sons do. She has a second daughter who does not. Her assessment is the same as mine. “My daughter acts like a boy.”

But back to crazy. I have one son, the youngest, who is so preternaturally happy that he makes me nervous. How can someone be that happy? Don’t get me wrong, I love that he’s happy. I just can’t figure out what he has to be happy about. He’s living with a toddler-psychopath.

That’s my eldest son. I can’t figure him out. He’s my Randle McMurphy. Which I guess makes me Nurse Ratched. Which is not good.

He loses his mind over the craziest things. The cheese slid one-half inch down his slice of pizza today and it was the end of the world. I honestly don’t understand that. And I can’t reason with him. He’s only three. He hasn’t acquired that facility yet. But, God help me, I try. That’s my first impulse, to reason with him. And it does nothing.

Then there is the sudden screaming. The screeching at his brother for looking the wrong way or saying the wrong thing. The throwing and stomping and hitting and jumping. The sudden joy and even more sudden anger or frustration.

It leaves me in a cold sweat of bewilderment.

Maybe I’m the inmate.

Water and oil plus flame is akin to fatigue and illness plus children.

Today was a new one for me. I had to leave a room because I —momentarily— couldn’t stand my child’s whining voice. It made me feel like an asshole, and typing it for the world to read surely solidifies that assholitude, but wow. I just had a to get away.

Today was, indeed a tough one, and they were both at daycare for most of the morning. So how does that work?

It’s all about the whine. My three year old started whining when I told him we needed to have breakfast. He started yelling, and by yelling I mean a dog-fetal-positioning banshee scream that loosened backsplash tiles. He was yelling because his brother was looking at him. Then because his brother was too close —five feet away, strapped into a high chair. Then because he didn’t want his brother to eat. Then five minutes before we needed to get dressed to leave he decided he wanted pancakes and eggs instead of the peanut butter and bananas sandwich he had asked for thirty minutes earlier. There was no time, and I told him so. Well, that was the end of the universe. Which then made his little brother join…I guess just because, why not. Right?

So this continued in the confines of the car on the way to daycare. Lovely.

He apparently had a great day at daycare. When I’m not actually in the room. His whining began again in the hall on the way to the car, continued inside the car, then finally spilled out into the house while I tried to put our youngest down for a nap.

I am coming off a bout of the stomach flu. I am in the middle of a cold. I am tired. He apparently has a map of each of my buttons with the launch codes and keys.

I was reading the Joel Stein editorial in the September 24th issue of Time. It’s entitle “Mother’s Liquid Helper.” Before becoming a parent, I remember thinking how quaint it was, the stories of nap-time/bed-time cocktail guzzling mothers from the 50s and 60s, the Valium poppers, mother’s little helper. Well, Stein’s article hit me a little hard. I realized that nearly every night of a full day with the kids, once they’re down I’m all about a bottle of beer or a glass of wine. Sometimes a little Maker’s Mark.

I had a friend who once overheard that I have horrible problems getting back to sleep when I get up to comfort one of my kids in the middle of the night. He turned to me and said, “Boxed wine.”

I said, “What?”

He said, “Boxed wine. It kept me sane and kept my marriage together until my kids were at least five. Drink a glass before you go to bed. Trust me.”

Stein’s article mentions two Facebook groups: Moms Who Need Wine, with a following of over 640,000, and the other group —the one I would have joined today— OMG I So Need a Glass of Wine or I’m Going to Sell My Kids, which, oddly, only sports 127,000 members.

Feel free to judge me. I won’t know unless you post a comment. And, although there might have been a time that cared, I don’t any more.

I have come to understand childrearing as a high stress business where the customer always seems to have the upper hand and is always particularly discerning about the product you are providing.

So, if a little snoot at the end of the relaxes the neurons and rejiggles the jelly, I’m all for it.

And, perhaps the reason for today’s hellbath of personal irritability is that, due to the past days of illness, I have not allowed for the soothing snoot. Perhaps the equation should read:

Fatigue × Children ÷ Snoot = AOK

Not that I was one to imbibe in externally acquired digested chemical enhancements, but, for the sake of this post, if, say during my college years, I acquired a taste for, I don’t know, shrooms or acid, I have recently discovered a natural and safer alternative.

My three year-old son.

Living with him is much like I imagine living with William boroughs might have been. Without the shooting. But the violence, alas, is similar. My son has become my psychedelic enhancement. All I have to do is listen to him.

Today, for instance, he said, “I don’t like to eat the talking fish bones.”

Words lo live by. But not only that, it sort of sent me into some kind of meditative trance. My first thought was that these words might never have before, in human history, been put together in that order. If you are a frequenter of this blog, you may remember that is something that I generally strive to accomplish. So the pride factor that my three year old accomplished this feat was quite high. The next thought was how in the hell did he come up with that? Is it from some cartoon that I should clearly know about? Finally, I simply wondered what on earth that might mean to his clearly firing and conscious mind.

Daily. Daily he delivers at least one of these acid-worthy gems.

“The donkey is a princess,” he has said.

“The donkey is a princess?” I ask from the front seat of the car.

“Yes, but he’s not very pretty.” I look in the rear-view and he has never been more earnest.

He has also said, “The dish is a hickory stick.”

We had a good five-minute discussion on this one because I simply could not comprehend what he was saying to me. It was undeniably boggling.

It’s good stuff. The acid is never brown. And there are no pesky flashbacks. Yet.

I had to tell you about today because, truly, it couldn’t have encapsulated the experience of my parents’ illnesses any better if I had scripted it.

Dad finally got released from the hospital today. Around 3pm.

Mom was admitted to the hospital today. Around 4:30 pm.

Shit you not.

Apparently Mom has acquired some blood clots in her lungs. She also may (may?) have had a mild heart attack over the last three days. The blood clots have fucked up her labs so much that they just can’t tell. Anyway she’s in the hospital for the next few days for labs and observation. Her chemo may be put on hold for a bit which, if you know her situation, doesn’t necessarily bode well.

Oh, we’re pretty sure our in-home childcare provider has quit, too.

Oh, and my wife wrenched her back out.

In case I haven’t mentioned this, I have been home (with wife and two boys) for seven days (not all together) out of the last six weeks.

Luckily, one of my wife’s sisters is taking the boys for a mini-vacation until Wednesday and the other will be at our house with the boys until Saturday.

Also, the following week is my wife’s spring break, so we’re good that week too. Little miracles.

I’m pretty sure that when this is over—however it gets over—the wife and I will host a party where, later in the evening, I will undergo a Cuba Libre enema and snort some bath salts. I’m joking about the bath salts.

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