Mark Frechette, movie actor and bank robber, believed in astrology. His interest in it started before he joined an astrology-obsessed commune, based in the Fort Hill district of Boston, that called itself the Fort Hill Community and eventually answered to “the Lyman Family.” Like all cults, they denied being a cult, despite being led by a despot who proclaimed himself the Second Coming and was tagged the “East Coast Charles Manson” by Rolling Stone magazine in a 60,000-word exposé that appalled his apostles. Here’s how they characterized themselves in a pamphlet published in 1973, the same year Mark Frechette botched a bank heist and feathered a reputation already tarred by Rolling Stone: “We are a group of people between the ages of 16 and 30 who have been experimenting with communal living for seven years now and have come up with some amazing results which we would like to share with you.” The pamphlet advertised the courses they offered to the heathen, including two in astrology: “By studying your own chart, you will learn to make astrology work for you in your relationships with other people by a greater understanding of them, an understanding to which there are no limits.” Mark Frechette would certainly have studied his own chart, but whatever understanding he gained from it, he was captured and died cryptically in prison. His FBI file includes a photocopy of the Lyman Family pamphlet.

Louise Miller_select_8744So, you are a pastry chef and your protagonist Olivia Langford is a pastry chef…is this really an autobiography thinly disguised as fiction?

It isn’t! I’ve never lit any of my places of employment on fire, or had any affairs with people at work, or lived in the country. All of the characters of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living are fictional, as well as the places, the town and the plot.

But I did lean on many of the everyday details of my life. I have spent the greater part of the last twenty-two years in a professional kitchen, so it was delightful to get to play with the images and tastes and textures I experience every day. The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living is not only my debut novel but the first novel I have ever written. It was comforting to write about something so familiar while learning how to actually write a novel. That task alone felt like a big enough leap.

saturn devouring his son

There are seventy-nine minutes left in the day. I am clinging to consciousness as I write, half drunk, half sleepy. At least it’s almost over, my birthday that is. I didn’t have an official cake, so let this be the proverbial frosting, the telling of my forty-first birthday. I’ll tell it in one long unedited inhalation, the opposite of blowing out candles, that morbid ritual of extinguishing light with one’s breath, but not before making a final wish, followed by a gasp, and then an emptying of your lungs resulting in darkness. Blowing out birthday candles (tiny flames symbolizing each year of your even tinier existence) is a metaphor for death, right up there with a raven shitting on the Grim Reaper’s hoodie. There’s some luck in that, just as there’s luck in surviving another year. There’s also humor, but mostly the kind that laughs at you, which is fine by me. I have zero delusions of grandeur. I entered the world hysterical and naked, and I intend on dying like that too.

The runner’s the disciple of travel,
Ambassador from determination;
All the wars a runner fights are civil,
The self-turned challenge, the primal agitation.
We tritely say that running signs the human
Spirit, community of close-stepping pack,
Second wind as individual omen,
We measure with matched morals on the track.

Please explain what just happened.

Mighty Mystic just stepped on stage and the crowd erupted like a volcano.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Running from my mom who had the belt trying to whoop my a**.

 

If you weren’t a musician, what other profession would you choose?

Construction — particularly home building. That’s always been great passion of mine.

Vox Rockuli

By Joe Daly

Notes

It is the most important instrument in rock and roll and far and away the most underrated.

It takes years to finesse and the cruel irony is that just when most musicians start to master its many nuances, their physical aptitude for it begins to diminish.

It is the voice. The vox. The pipes, the golden throat, the mouthy spitter of words. OK, I made that last one up. It’s late. Cut me some slack.

The delusion persists that while you can teach yourself an instrument like the guitar or the piano, the voice is something you either have or you don’t- you spit out of the womb and either you sound like Aretha Franklin or you’re the next Bea Arthur. Sure, it’s understood that talented people might be able to improve their range with a vocal coach but most are convinced that they either sing like a bird or that they can’t sing for shit. Good luck convincing the latter folk that with a little training they could have million dollar voices.

But they could.

In fact, they have.

When I was eleven years old, my parents presented me with an awesome music rig for Christmas. Within minutes of opening the box, after installing the batteries and internal storage, I was listening to popular tunes. With the press of a button I could download songs and play them back at my leisure. And download I did.

But there were drawbacks to this particular rig. It possessed only one speaker. Its wireless connection was actually an AM/FM radio, and the internal storage was a finite supply of Certron Normal Bias 90 minute cassettes. Also, whenever I recorded songs to tape, the first ten or fifteen seconds were invariably marred by some jackass DJ talking over the top of the music. And the batteries ran out too quickly.

Chapter 1


Boston, Massachusetts

* Overview: White people in Boston are very proud of their blue-collar roots. However, for many of them, two generations is as close as they will ever get to a job requiring manual labor. This also extends to the many Bostonians who will still send their white children to public school, provided that public school is Boston Latin. Boston is also home to three alternative newsweeklies that provide many young writers with jobs that don’t pay enough to make rent. The Boston white person can also be found throughout rural New England, but this breed is special, having cast off the shackles of the workaday world to begin a small organic microbrewery, creamery, or farm.

* Strengths: Mayflower relatives give them low-numbered license plates; can hold liquor.

* Weaknesses: Baseball-induced depression; movies about Irish gangsters.

* Secret Shame: They don’t really like the Dropkick Murphys.


Ivy League

The Ivy League is expensive, exclusive, and located in the Northeast and has campuses featuring beautiful, actual ivy-covered buildings. All these things are beloved by white people, so logically it would seem that they all love the Ivy League. But this is not true!

White people have a tortured relationship with the Ivy League, and if you broach the subject in the wrong way you can offend and even anger a white person.

But before getting into the more nuanced aspects of the subject, it’s important to know that all white people believe they are intelligent enough and have the work ethic required to attend an Ivy League school. The only reason they did not actually attend one is that they chose not to participate in the “dog and pony show” required to gain acceptance. White people also like to believe that they were not born into a privileged (enough) family for the coveted legacy admission. This should always be at the back of your mind as you discuss the Ivy League with a white person.

Once you have determined that a white person did not attend an Ivy League school, you should try to give them the opportunity to explain why their school was actually a superior educational experience. Some easy ways to do this: mention grade inflation, professors who value research over teaching, or high tuition costs. Any one of these will set a white person off on a multiminute rant.

When they have reached the end of their defense about why they chose the “right” school, you should say, “I knew a whole bunch of people who went to Harvard and none of them work as hard or are as smart as you.” This is a very effective technique for gaining acceptance among white people, since they need constant reassurance that they are smart and that they made the right choice with their life.

If you actually attended an Ivy League school, you will be seen as a threat, so prepare for a lot of questions from white people. They will constantly ask about how much work you had, the type of students at the school, the professors, your dorm room, and your reading lists, and they will try so hard to figure out your SAT score. They desperately need a source of comparison so that they can determine if you are actually smarter than them. In fact, the only way to stop this line of questioning is to imply that you only got in because of your minority status. Once you say that, white people will stop feeling threatened, since they can now believe they too would have been accepted to an Ivy League school if they were a minority. It also gives them a personal story about the effectiveness of affirmative action.

White people also like to call their school “the Harvard of the [insert region or athletic conference].” Do not challenge this; it will ruin their confidence.


Conan O’Brien

The news that Conan O’Brien would be replaced by Jay Leno caused white people to erupt with rage and hostility. You might have expected them to lash out and do something about it, like take to the streets or write letters to NBC to voice their dissatisfaction with the network. But no, white people solved this problem the way that they solved the election crisis in Iran: through Facebook and Twitter updates. In 2009, millions of white people took thirty-five seconds to turn their Twitter profiles green, and consequently sent a very powerful message to the leaders of Iran. Their message was that they wanted their friends to know that they would stop at nothing to ensure freedom and democracy for the Iranian people. Thanks in large part to that effort, Iran is now a functioning democratic paradise (as far as white people know). With that issue settled, white people launched a similar campaign for Conan that is sure to have similar results.

It is not hard to understand why white people love Conan O’Brien. He embodies so many of the things they already like: Ivy League schools, Red Hair, the Boston Red Sox, Self-Deprecating Humor, The Simpsons, and Bad Memories of High School (likely, but not confirmed). Seeing him on TV five nights a week gives white people who still have televisions a comforting sense of community.

If your plan is to try to use Conan O’Brien as a way to get white people to become more interested in you, then it is imperative that you understand a few key rules. First, all white people love “the Masturbating Bear.” If you don’t know what this is, do not worry. Just proclaim your love for the character, and the white person you are talking to will simply fill in the rest. Second, all white people believe that Andy Richter never should have left the show in the first place. And finally, you should do your best to develop a “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog” impression. All white people already have one, so you might as well try to fit in. Complete these steps and watch your friendship with white people become considerably smoother.

Now, the biggest and most important thing to remember is to never, under any circumstance, bring up a Conan O’Brien sketch or joke that has taken place in the last five years. You will be met with only blank stares. For you see, while white people will fiercely support Conan O’Brien in any public forum, they always fail to support him in the only way that actually helps-by watching his show.

Note: Under no circumstance should you ever mention that you prefer Jay Leno. This might cause white people to think you have the same taste in humor as the wrong kind of white people, or worse, their parents.

Single-Malt Scotch

There is no getting around the subject: white people love alcohol. From their refined tastes in French wine to their fervent consumption of Maine’s microbrews, booze makes up a very important part of white culture. But many white people soon realize there are only so many beers that one can drink, and that being an expert on wine is almost impossible. Currently the most realistic way for a white person to look like a wine expert is to look at a restaurant’s wine list and then promptly order a bottle of a cheap-but not the cheapest-bottle on the menu. Advanced white people will pretend they recognize and enjoy this moderately priced bottle of wine.

With beer snobbery mastered and wine snobbery all but abandoned, white people were forced to try to find a new alcohol for snobbery. The process of elimination is a fairly simple procedure. First, any alcohol that’s mentioned by a rapper is immediately cast aside. Not just brands, but the alcohol itself. This is not because white people have any prejudice against rappers. Quite the opposite, in fact: their prejudice is simply against other white people who do what rappers tell them.

Increased sales of Grey Goose, Patrón, Hennessy, and Cristal have effectively erased any real opportunity for white people to participate in snobbery about each respective beverage. To a white person there could be no greater shame than waiting in line at a liquor store and having a twenty-year-old frat boy say to them:

“Oh what? You’re on that ‘yak too?”

“This is a Hine Triomphe, perhaps the world’s finest-“

“I’m on that Hennessy!”

Even the possibility of this exchange has sent white people, especially white men, scrambling for an alcoholic beverage to set them apart from these wrong kinds of white people. What they found was single-malt scotch.

It has everything a white person could want. It’s got European heritage, it’s expensive, college-age white people avoid it, and perhaps most important, crotchety old white men love it. The latter point is especially important, since you should understand that white people, for whatever reason, are generally inclined to like or force themselves to like anything that angry, intelligent, old white men enjoy: sweaters, jazz, things made from wood, books, records, and complaining about how everything is terrible now.

Complaining About the Death of Print Media

White people are expert complainers. Witness the events that transpire after they are served a dish they didn’t order in a restaurant. But that type of complaining is done by all people. No, what white people are best at is complaining without being willing to actually do anything about the problem; see Conan O’Brien, Iran, Oil Spills, Air Pollution, Tuna Depletion, and any problem that would require them to make a sacrifice of time, money, or sushi dining experiences.

But in recent years, the biggest issue that has been bugging white people to the point of complaint but not action has been the death of print media. Bring up any newspaper and white people will begin saying how they fear for a world with no daily newspaper and that we will all suffer as professional journalists wither away and are replaced with silly blogs that have no importance.

This love of the print media comes from two places. The first is that all white people like to believe that they spend the majority of their news-consuming time reading the stories that matter and make a difference. Whether this is true is irrelevant, but it is a good way to appear smart to white people. Say something like “I can’t believe no one is getting upset about what the city government is doing right now. It’s like no one read that amazing piece in the paper.” The white person will agree with you and respect your news acumen.

Second, white people fear the death of the print media because deep down all white people want to believe that it’s possible to make a living as a freelance writer. Of course, this is perhaps the biggest lie in white culture, pushing out such favorites as “I’m going to write a novel” and “I’ll be fine for retirement if I start saving when I’m forty.”

Of course, when you ask the white person if they actually subscribe to a daily newspaper, they will say that they get the Sunday New York Times. Which is a bit like saying you sponsor a child in Africa but only give enough money for him to eat on Sunday.

New York, New York

* Overview: The New York City resident is one of the most envied white people in the entire world. Their access to art galleries, restaurants, public transit, and pools of hobo urine is second to none. Fiercely proud of their city, all New Yorkers consider themselves to be the last one in. That is to say, everyone who moved to New York after them made the city a considerably worse place to live and thus are not considered “real New Yorkers.”

* Strengths: Can get you into places that don’t exist; able to survive in small spaces.

* Weaknesses: Cannot go fifteen minutes without telling you they live in New York. Also driving.

* Secret Shame: Actually from Ohio.

Unpaid Internships

Throughout most of the world, when a person works long hours without pay, it is referred to as “slavery” or “forced labor.” For white people this process is referred to as an internship and is considered to be an essential stage in white development.

The concept of working for little or no money under a mentor has been around for centuries in the form of apprenticeship programs. Young people eager to learn a trade would spend time working under a master craftsman to learn a skill that would eventually lead to an increase in the intern’s own material wealth.

Using this logic you would assume that the most sought-after internships would be in areas that lead to the greatest financial reward. Young white people, however, prefer internships that put them on the path for careers that will generally result in a decrease of material wealth (at least when compared to the wealth accumulated by their parents).

For example, if you present a white nineteen-year-old with the choice of spending the summer earning $15 an hour as a plumber’s apprentice or making $0 answering phones at Acme Production Company, they will always choose the latter. In fact, the only way to get the white person to choose the plumbing option would be to convince them that it was leading toward an end-of-summer pipe art installation.

White people view the unpaid internship as their foot in the door to such high-profile low-paying career fields as journalism, film, politics, art, nonprofits, and anything associated with a museum. Any white person who takes an internship outside these industries is either the wrong type of white person or a law student. There are no exceptions.

If all goes according to plan, an internship will end with an offer of a job that pays $24,000 per year and consists entirely of the same tasks they were recently doing for free. In fact, the transition to full-time status results in the addition of only one new responsibility: feeling superior to the new interns.

When all is said and done, the internship process serves the white community in many ways. First, it helps train the next generation of freelance writers, museum curators, and director’s assistants. But second, and more important, internships teach white children how to complain about being poor.

So when a white person tells you about their unpaid internship at The New Yorker, it’s not a good idea to point out how the cost of rent and food will essentially mean that they are paying for the right to make photocopies. Instead it’s best to say, “You earned it.” They will not get the joke.




Excerpted from Whiter Shades of Pale by Christian Lander Copyright © 2010 by Christian Lander. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




 

I was having a conversation with my friend Pat, who doesn’t read much, but who is nonetheless imbued with inebriated folk wisdom, he asked me, “what are you doing tonight?”  ” I am going to see (insert any name of any author reading in the Pac-NW) read at Third Place (or Elliot Bay, or Hugo House, or Pilot).” “Dude.” “Yeah.”  “. . . what the hell is a book reading?” “It’s when someone reads from something they’ve written, and you sit in the crowd and listen.  Then it’s usually followed by questions.”  He looked over at me with a dead look in his eye, “No offense dude, but that sounds boring as hell.  It reminds me of being in school.”

I hit the ball so fucking hard that as I approached second base, I remember thinking I should probably send a letter of apology to the ball’s manufacturer.  “Sorry I obliterated your product.  Nothing personal.”

***

July, 2003, Newton, Massachusetts

To the extent that men playing softball can be taken seriously by the outside world, I assure you that our league was viciously competitive.  To be fair, most of us were competing against the aging process, against the passing of our athletic prime so many years before, and competing against the emotional scalding you endure when you try to explain to someone that you play softball competitively, as they roll their eyes.

But back to the hit.

I don’t even remember if we were winning at the time but I do remember taking a pitch deep into right center field.  As I took off for first base, I recall thinking that it had been several games since I had hit a home run.  There was no fence in the outfield, so the only way you got a home run was to outrun the throw home.  I bore down.

As I rounded second, I lost sight of the ball, which was now somewhere behind me in right center field.  I looked towards “Bips,” our third base coach, for the signal to either hold up at third or to go for the home run.

Steaming towards third, I locked eyes with Bips, who looked back at me as if I had just asked him to name his top five favorite German theologians.  His stare was blank.

I realized that Bips, though physically standing at third, was mentally somewhere in the Bahamas.  I would have to blindly gamble on whether to go for it or not.

I recall thinking, “I’m fast as shit- I’m going for it.”

And so I did.

As I tagged third and made the turn towards home plate, I caught a final glance at Bips, who continued to stare at me as if we were just meeting for the first time (we had known each other for 20 years).  I gritted my teeth and charged towards home, arms swinging to drive my momentum through the final yards.

The ball entered my vision from the left , as I was about halfway down the line.  The throw first hit the ground, then bounced up into the catcher’s mitt while I still had a good three yards to go.

Our league had a rule where you always had to slide into the base when the ball was in the player’s hand or on the way.  This was to avoid injury, both by accident and fist.  So I did not have the option of taking the catcher out.  Instead, knowing I was dead to rights I lowered my right knee to the ground and slid right into him.

What happened next is one of the most horrifying moments of my life.

Sliding forward, my left foot hit straight into the catcher’s shin guard, and then time slowed as I watched my foot bounce back into my ankle, and then seemingly fall out of the joint.  My left foot folded ninety degrees inward and I lost the next 30 seconds.

I have been told that the scream in which I then indulged was of the blood curdling variety, but I don’t personally recall it.  I just lay there at home plate, out, and thinking to myself, “Shit- all these years and I’ve never broken a bone.”

My friend Marty was the first one to reach me from our bench.  He got right in my face, looked me in the eye, and with one of those overly-calm voices that people use when everything is spiraling out of control, said, “Joe, something pretty fucked up just happened, OK?  You don’t want to look down there- OK?  Just don’t look- look at me.  OK?  Just look at me.  You don’t want to look at it.  We’re calling for help…”

I took his advice, never again looking down at my ankle.  Even worse, while I could feel my foot hanging at an obscenely unnatural angle, my right cleat was still a good foot from home plate.

Fucking Bips…

Players came by and checked on me, including the opposing team’s catcher, who offered an apology, though he was completely blameless.  It was simply a freakish accident.

I noticed the wife of one of our players getting sick behind the bleachers, apparently from simply looking at my ankle.  Her reaction confirmed the soundness of my decision to not regard my dangling extremity.


***

The guys in the ambulance were vintage Boston- thick accents and absolutely no sense of propriety.  They were wearing street clothes, too, which I thought was weird.  It was like they had been mowing a lawn when the call came to get me.  The two EMTs in the back were having a field day.

“Jesus fahkin’ Christ, buddy.  What the fahk were you thinkin’?”

“Yah, we only see shit like this in fahkin’ cahr accidents.”

“Buddy, you were a fahkin’ mile from home plate.  Didn’t yah little league coach evah tell you to look at yah third base coach?”

“Jimmy,” one of them called to the driver, “Can you see this kid’s fahkin’ ankle?”

“Holy fahk!” I heard from the front seat.

“Hey pal, you evah have moah-feen?”

“Morphine?  No, never,” I said.

“Well yah gonna.”

“Great.  I can scratch another one off my list,” I said, finding a little bit of humor in this silvery narcotic lining.

One of the EMTs called ahead to the hospital and requested authorization to give me morphine.  He received it and went to town.

After a few moments, I said, “[h]ey, did you guys give me enough?  I’m not feeling anything.”

“Pal, yah lit up like a Christmas tree.  It’s werkin’.”

“You sure?”

“Yup.”

“Then can we put on some Allman Brothers or something?” I said.  “I need something to kick this into high gear,” I said, as I began giggling uncontrollably, still believing the morphine was ineffective.

The EMTs shook their heads at me as I, unable to stop laughing, continued to try to persuade them that I needed more.  Amazingly, I believed it.


***

When they wheeled me into the ER, I was still lying on my right side, clad in my dusty, sweaty uniform.  I had been in this position since the ill-advised slide, frightened to move my left leg at all, due to the freakish sensation of my left foot flapping in the breeze.

The ER doctor was a tiny woman with gigantic empathy.  She smiled sadly as she took a look at my ankle, asked me a few questions, and gently poked my silly little foot.

She said “[i]t doesn’t look like a break, but it’s a complete dislocation.  I’ll be right back.”

I lay there feeling the morphine wearing off and trying to imagine all the creative ways my girlfriend would surely find to call me a jackass.  We had, only weeks before, brought home two golden retriever puppies.

Puppies that were not yet housebroken.

Our “house” being a tiny one bedroom apartment on the third floor of an ancient building on the busiest street in Cambridge.

A building with no air conditioning.

In the hottest month of the hottest summer in a decade.

In that moment, I understood that her summer had just gone from zero to crappy in about an hour.


***

The ER doctor reappeared with two massive dudes in white doctor coats.

“Mr. Daly, you know what we have to do, right?”

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that they would have to pop my foot back into place.  Missing this detail was likely a consequence of the morphine coursing through my veins.  But drugs or no drugs, the way she asked the question led me to believe that the process would be considerably far from pleasant.

The female doctor began directing the two other doctors to hold me down, which raised my anxiety significantly.  I could not recall any experience in my life where being held down was associated with something fun.

Then she began, “OK, on my count.  One… two…”

Hold it!,” someone shouted suddenly.  I think it was one of the guys holding me down, but I had my face buried in my forearm.  “Give him some more morphine.”

My hero.

They shot me up with more morphine and then got back to business.

“One… two…  three!”

I know my scream was loud because when it eventually stopped, the entire emergency room was silent.  Not a single word could be heard from the waiting room, the nursing station, or the other patients and doctors around us.  Just the beeps of the machines.

But my foot was back in place.

***

My girlfriend soon arrived and she did call me a jackass shortly thereafter, having long mocked me for being a grown man playing softball.  She did take fantastic care of me, which was no picnic for her on a number of levels.  While I spent the next couple months beached on the futon, whacked out on Percocets and red wine and watching “Blind Date” reruns, she had to carry two puppies up and down three flights of stairs easily ten times a day in sticky New England humidity.  This of course earned her both rock star status and lots and lots of bargaining chips in future negotiations.

I attended the final game of the series on crutches.  We won the championship, and the guys gave me the game ball, which still sits on my kitchen counter to this day.  It is the one ball the dogs do not get to chew.

My left ankle has lost a considerable amount of flexibility, and whenever I run for too long, I experience sharp pains through the area.  Still, I came back the next season, although I moved from second base to right field.

When I moved to San Diego a year later, I entered the San Diego Adult Baseball League’s open draft and got taken second in the AA division.  I lasted one season, batting somewhere around the Mendoza line before hanging up my cleats for good.  My ball playing career, which begun at age eight on a tiny field in Worcester, Massachusetts, ended on a dusty field just north of the Mexican border, twenty years later.

Given the constant reminders that my ankle provides me, I reflect on the accident pretty regularly.  I don’t have many regrets with how it all went down, but if I could change just one thing about the entire experience, it would be this:

I would have asked someone to take a picture of me lying at home plate with my foot hanging off.  Seriously, how fucking cool would that be?




16 August, 2007

Today is the penultimate day of our vacation with Anna’s family. Tomorrow evening, we will pile our two boys and our belongings into the trusty Corolla and head back home to West Hartford, Connecticut. Except of course, that we are not really heading back, or home. We are heading out, going forward, doing something new and quite unlike what we’ve done before. We are leaving our crowded little apartment in the crowded little city of Somerville, Mass. (preceded by like abodes in Cambridge and Brooklyn), for a proper house, three bedrooms and a living room and a dining room (fully separate from the kitchen, mind you) AND a finished basement, all sitting upon a quarter acre of gracious, green, unapologetically boring, suburban land.

The funny thing is that the move to me seems worthy of excitement. We have purchased a perfectly sensible, utterly unexceptional Dutch colonial (that is a kind of house, I have learned) in a bland, agreeable suburb in central Connecticut (very fine schools, of course). Anna has a tenure-track position at a highly respected university and I have what promises to be an engaging non-profit lawyering job. In short order, we will buy a second car – a minivan perhaps, or a station wagon – to park in the second spot in our two-car garage and tote around our two children, presumably to soccer practice, PTA meetings, Klan rallies, and the like. We are standing on the precipice of no precipice at all, just the long slide toward middle-class, average, American comfort.

And yet, I feel I’m entering uncharted territory. I’ve never lived outside a city, never lived in anything but an apartment. As a teenager and even in my early twenties, I assumed without much thought that I’d never own a car, let alone a house. I described West Hartford to my best friend, who grew up with me in Brooklyn: the endless, quiet, tree-lined streets, the sidewalks empty of people after dark, the well-kept houses uniformly filled with the flickering blue glow of television. He said, “You’re kind of like a spaceman there.” He’s right, but instead of feeling like I’m taking an appalling cultural step backward, selling out, failing it to keep it street, etc., I’m excited. It’s like I’m embarking on a sociological adventure, an exchange program far more exotic than the year I spent in Argentina when I was fifteen. Also, it will be nice to have enough space, which we have not had since Max was born, and less still since Reuben came on the scene. Did I mention that we might buy a new car?

Maybe I am selling out and loving it. Anyway, the great unknown begins now . . .


17 March, 2010

The first half mile of an early morning bicycle ride in the cold is never good. The air is always sharper than I expected, finding its way between layers to chill my back and toes and make me think I should have bundled up more. No matter how hard I pedal, I can’t seem to move as fast as I’d like to, a point made manifest by the little speed meters the town police have installed here and there, one of of them a block from home, informing me that I am topping out at 17 miles an hour. Actually, that’s not bad for an old three-speed loaded with lunch, computer, and a 200-pound man in khakis and loafers, but the first half mile is about perception, and it feels slow. And cold.

It’s mostly dark at a quarter of six, and my end of town is shielded from the east by a pair of hills, so the dawn looks like someone shining a dim flashlight up from behind Hartford. As always in my godforsaken suburb, the only people on the street are dog-walkers and joggers, who are marginally more scarce at this hour. Cars, though, are mostly absent, so it is quiet. Just behind me, I hear the soft, regular clicking of the antique bicycle hub, parts forged and assembled forty-odd years ago in a northern English factory town, where hundreds of people likely plodded to work on three-speeds in pre-dawn hours; just ahead of me, I hear the zizzing whisper of an equally aged tire negotiating the asphalt. This is the part of the ride where I think about life.

And so? I suppose if I could have chosen an existence for myself in a central Connecticut suburb, had I even been able to name a central Connecticut suburb three years ago, I might have liked this: the misfit doing a 60-mile commute by bicycle and train in a place where people won’t even walk three blocks to the grocery store. That is an encouraging thought for a chilly March morning: I have not sold out. I still ride my bike whenever I can. I still work in the ghetto, still meet my clients at night in project hallways, still fight the good fight for a lot less money than most of my law school classmates are earning these days.

But!

Oh, the “but” is a serious thing in this internal conversation: I spend a lot of hours in the car every week. I have gained fifteen pounds. I live in West Hartford, an uppity, mostly white suburb that seems to pride itself, above all, on being different than the desperately poor city it adjoins – the kind of suburb I hate, not just because it is boring, but because it represents the abandonment by those with means of those without, the unapologetic self-interest underneath our vaunted American individualism. Oh, and in order to engage in this pleasurable bicycle commute, I have left my house before dawn and foregone the pleasure of breakfast with my wife and children, and Jesus H. Christ, commuting 60 miles by any method short of a helicopter is fucking absurd, and on top of that my job is too crazy, and I can never get enough done, and we can never make a dent in our credit card debt, and I really need to go to the dentist, and . . .

Luckily there’s not too much time for quiet reflection. I am past the hills now and moving through Hartford at a good clip. It’s warmer, and the air feels less like raw late winter and more like the muddy, optimistic ferment of early spring. Every now and then, the lovely, gold-domed Capitol peaks up ahead of me with glorious dawn behind it, and I get to thinking that phrase that has become my mantra since moving here: Maybe life isn’t so bad.

Where Farmington and Asylum Avenues converge, an empty lot slants downhill to a tangle of highway ramps. Above sits a huge patch of sky-blue openness, fringed with Hartford’s chrome skyline and punctuated on the southwestern edge by the Capitol, tall and unapologetically overwrought. I hesitate, caught between wanting to take a picture and worrying I will miss my train, but then I am buoyed by the pleasing thought that I will get to see this breathtaking panorama many many times again. I keep moving down Farmington, under the highway overpass and to the train station. Of course, I should have checked the time: I arrive at with fifteen minutes to spare.


I did something this morning that I swore I would never do:

I picked up a steaming pile of dog shit—with my hand.

Dog owners do it all the time, and I assume it’s no big deal to them. They carry around their extra plastic bags from Target and Stop & Shop, and when their dogs take a crap, they stick their hands in a baggie, lightly grasp the turds, turn the bag inside out, and tie it shut at the top. Done. No shit on the street, no shit in your hands. Everything contained neatly in plastic.

But I’m not a dog owner. And the idea of touching a hot crap while it still holds the body’s heat disgusts me—even if there is a layer (or two) of plastic separating skin from excrement.

Before any pet owners jump on me, let me say: I see the need for this, and I support it wholeheartedly. Out here in Boston, where green space is limited and houses lack the spacious yards that I grew up with in Minnesota, the hand-bag-crap grasping is a necessity. Unless you want shit everywhere on every sidewalk, you’ve gotta do it. (When I went to Paris several years ago, I never saw Parisians chasing their puppies with plastic bags, so turds littered the sidewalks like confetti after Mardi Gras. It was repulsive.)

But I don’t own a dog. So I wasn’t planning on doing it.

Where I grew up, in a farming community 45 miles west of Minneapolis, my dog shit in your yard and your dog shit in my yard, and we called it even. Or, more often, my dog shit in her outdoor enclosure, and I took care of it later: hours later or days later. When I picked up the poo, I did it with a shovel; there was never any risk of physical contact.

This week, I’m dog-sitting for my sister and her partner, who are vacationing in Sanibel Island. It was 70 degrees and sunny there this morning. Here in Dorchester, it was 30 degrees: cold enough for shit to steam when it comes out.

They have four dogs. Four dogs make a lot of steaming hot crap.

Before my sister left, she asked me to pick up dog shit once a day or once every other day. “There are baggies under the kitchen counter, and you just reach inside, grab the poo through the plastic, and jooooooop!” she said, retracting her hand fast to illustrate.

That’s what she thinks.

I eyed the snow shovel on her pack porch. Yes, I will pick up Luca, Lily, Sweetie Pie, and Ginger’s crap. But, no, I will not do it with my hands.

The first day out in her yard on crap duty, I spent 15 minutes chasing turds with a shovel. It was like a frustrating game of hockey. Every time I thought I had a log ready for bagging, it would roll back off of the shovel onto the grass. Chase, roll, repeat. Quickly, I changed my strategy: instead of shoveling willy-nilly at the turds and futilely chasing them across the grass, I would scoop uphill or into a stationary object, like a fence, to keep the hardened logs from rolling away.

Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the turds just smashed all over the shovel, making a second mess for me to clean up.

I gave up and went inside.

This morning, after letting two days pass, I wielded the shovel again. I engaged in chase, roll, repeat with two piles of hardened turds. But then I came square against a mustardy-brown pile of hot, steaming crap, fresh out of Lily’s Chow Chow ass.

This would make a dastardly mess of the snow shovel. Then I would have to clean it off with paper towels—increasing the hand-poop proximity.

I exhaled, defeated.

Stuck my hand inside of two bags.

And gingerly retracted the poop claw.

I swear the dogs were laughing at me.