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“Fact check, Tyler! Was gorgonzola even invented in 1970? It (gorgonzola) seems like a more recent development (You should really check this out yourself, but I’ll ask your mother—you know how she loves cheese.).”

“Have you considered the implications your bank heist might have had if placed in the historical context of the Taiping Rebellion [1850-1864] rather than gangland Chicago?”

“I think you’d like to reconsider the line ‘The derelict howls that issued from under the subway platform brought his thoughts inexorably back to Vietnam.’ Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon, and before that Prey Nokor before being annexed by the Vietnamese from the Khmer in the 17th century) doesn’t have a subway and won’t have one until 2014, I think. Or is your narrator in New York now? Are we supposed to believe he was also in Vietnam? I thought that was another character with the same name…What’s going on here, son? Are you on pot?”

“Once again, I’m afraid, you confuse correlation with causation (didn’t I suggest a reading of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature some time ago?) when your narrator says, ‘My father, I saw as if through a kind of gauze. He was there, but ephemeral, his head always in some arcane history book and his temper—if interrupted from his study—was legion.’ What a shit thing to say about one’s father, eh? Your narrator is an ingrate. Did you know that in China, if a child didn’t show sufficient filial piety he could be EXECUTED? Your narrator should think about that. Just saying.”

“Have you considered writing under a pseudonym? I know there are a lot of Smiths out there, and Tyler is not a common name. But it’s not an uncommon one either, and when you throw in your middle name (pretentious), people are going to know who you are and, more importantly, who I am. And that will embarrass the hell out of your mother. Which is not to say that this book will ever be published. Most books aren’t. I mean, the ones that are published obviously are, but works like this are tough, almost impossible, to get into print. Especially if you’re going to stick with the three names thing (pretentious).”

“Here’s a bit of something, son: Your narrator is a maudlin inebriate (like Churchill—but you didn’t hear that from me), so I naturally wouldn’t expect him to give great speeches on love. But Jesucristo: “We never knew if we were falling in love or just getting scared.” I mean REALLY. Have you forgotten my casual remarks at the dinner table on Plato’s Symposium when Aristophanes speaks so eloquently on the subject of love, and where Socrates gives one of the most compelling explanations of love’s origin ever recorded?  The Symposium did have a variety of dilettante drunks hanging about to enjoy the conversation, though, a role your narrator could conceivably fill, as he is both drunk and unskilled. Socrates’ speeches in the Symposium and in the dialogue of the Phaedrus are sublime, and infinitely more resonant than your generation’s post-modern formulas for love—you know, the ones that spring forth from our endless stream of capitalist infomercials and pseudo-intellectual brain candy, like “Men Are From It’s Okay To Cry/ Women Are From Attend My Seminar And Pay Me Money.” 

“Socrates on a scooter, Ty. It seems someone isn’t familiar with the expression “Barba non facit philosophum. Just because you spent some time doing acid and looking at Monarch butterflies at Esalen with your African-American girlfriend, doesn’t mean you’re Franz fucking Fanon. Then again, nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose. Speaking of ventures, how did you manage to spend $10,000 living in a “tent” in Palo Alto for three months? Were you building a superconductor? I guess when you were small and we’d say to you, “Son, you can do anything you want in life,” we didn’t really anticipate that you’d interpret “anything” as synonymous with “nothing.” I’m not trying to browbeat you, you understand. I just want you to recognize that a.) We love you very much no matter what and no your mother didn’t make me say that; b.) If you don’t tear up that credit card, I’ll tear you a new one (and I don’t mean another card), and c.) I think we’re doomed. How are the Rockets supposed to make the playoffs with this bunch of assholes? I have to question Tracy McGrady’s dedication. Call to discuss.”

“Fact-checked gorgonzola for you. It seems you’re off the hook, as my junior colleague Dr. Munz, who teaches HIST 351, Europe 4th Century C.E to The Crusades, says that gorgonzola was invented sometime after the sack of Argentia by the Huns, but before the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibelines. (I know, I know. There’s a 500 year window of opportunity between those dates. Pretty damned imprecise. That’s why Dr. Munz isn’t getting tenure, but you didn’t hear that from me).”

“Your mother says you should write a children’s book.”

 

                                                             

 

 

 

 

On the night my father died, I was knitting a scarf.

It was a ridiculous scarf, all pink and orange with hairy tendrils exploding from each stitch.  It was like something a chia pet would wear if it were attempting to be extravagantly redundant. I could imagine my niece at Christmas picking up the package, giving it a shake, and then clawing it open, unleashing it from its confines to burst open in her hands like a Pop Rocks sunrise.

Behind me, the door whispered open and the hospice nurse approached my dad’s bedside.  We made eye contact, she clearly aware of her own intrusion and me feeling oddly embarrassed.  I don’t know if I can explain the feeling.  There is something about watching someone close to you die that is extremely personal. It’s like being sick in the bathroom at a party – it should be done behind closed doors with a guardian staged at the outside: she’s fine, she wants to be alone, I’ve asked her already if I can help and she doesn’t want anybody around.

Before me, my father lay stretched out on his back, his face heavenward. His body was more or less catatonic, but I imagine his mind was as active as it could be after a few weeks of pureed nursing home food and the steady application of a morphine patch.

I had a strong urge to make him laugh.

He had always managed to make me laugh.

Once when I got bailing wire caught in my throat in an unfortunate church Youth Group incident, he took me to the emergency room late at night wearing the most horrendous pair of jeans. They were hip-hugging patchwork bellbottoms acquired in Italy circa 1965. It being the early 90s, the world was not yet ready for their return.

Having worked in college administration most of his life, he regularly wore three-piece suits and ties to work — every hair of his silver coif sprayed back into place, his shoes shining like hubcaps. I associate the smell of shoe polish with him. But when the weekends would hit and leisurewear was required, he would apparently become confused and start grabbing anything he had worn at one time or another over the previous decades of his life, no matter how outdated or threadbare.

Those patchwork jeans were evidence of his confusion.

To add to my teenage embarrassment of his outfit choice that night, Dad insisted on ‘cool walking’ down the hall to the examining room. Do not be fooled. ‘Cool walking’ is nothing if not a tragically ironic misnomer. He’d sort of strut, dipping his hips as he walked, swinging his arms. Usually he only did it at home for our benefit, my sisters and me giggling from the kitchen table. But that night, his courage bolstered by his hipster patchwork jeans, he did it in the wide inappropriate open. The teenage bailing-wire-stuck-in-her-throat version of myself should have been horrified. But really. What could I do but laugh?

My fingers gathered up a yard or so of scarf and compressed it into a ball around the needles, little pink and orange hairs sticking out through the creases of my fingers giving me the knuckles of a Jim Henson’s Muppet.  From the bed, his breaths didn’t change with the nurse’s approach.  They barely sounded organic – the deep, raspy mechanical sound of bellows running on automatic.  She stared at her watch, bobbing her forehead to the numbers in her head.

Earlier that afternoon she had stood in the exact same spot with another nurse.  The sheets were thrown back from the bottom up, landing on him mid-chest to expose a pair of cancer eaten bird legs.  Skin coating bone like a shroud. Notice the mottling pattern on his knees, they said.  He doesn’t have long.  It’s one of the signs, they said.  I looked away from a pair of legs I did not recognize and wish I could forget.

This was not worthy of my father. My father was a dignified man. He was an educator. A traveler. An ambassador. A hard worker, a singer, a hummer, a whistler, a lyricist, an artist, a speaker, a laugher, a storyteller, a mediocre golfer, a horrible trumpet player, an even worse driver, but he was a doer, a believer, a hug-you-close hugger, and the coolest cool walker ever to walk this planet’s crust.

They put the sheet down.

“It won’t be long,” she whispered again after recording her secret numbers.  Counting backwards to zero.

I nodded at her with a smile as if she had just informed me that she had spoken with the chef and that my poached salmon was on the way.  She hesitated as if there was more and I reinstated the smile on my face for her clear benefit, my closed lips holding in questions about numbers and time.  Go check on the salmon, my eyes pleaded.

The corners of my mouth went slack upon her exit and I resumed my task.

Knit one, purl one. Knit one, purl one.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Breathe in, breathe…

We were in a nursing home – a location I detested.  My mother had put him there when she she could no longer take care of him. There was no choice. He had been wandering the house at night and running into things.  Missing things like corners and toilets. Even then, he did not believe he was dying, becoming more and more disconnectedly zealous as the cancer gnawed away his brain.  Jesus was healing him. He would tell anyone who would listen: restaurant servers, friends, bagboys.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the table beside his bed and turned to examine its contents for the hundredth time:  A bottle of hand lotion.  A glass of water with a sponge.  A hymnal.  A pen and pad of paper.  A wrapper left over from one of his morphine patches.  I took a deep breath in and let it all the way out in deliberate syncopation with his.  Put my hand on top of his.  Looked over at his eyes, still focused steadily beyond the cabinet in front of him.  I wanted to do something for him.  If I couldn’t make him laugh, then at least make it easier.  Tell him that it was OK – that we would look after Mom.  He did not even know about her bypass surgery two weeks before. I told him we would take care of her.  She couldn’t be there, but we would take care of her and her broken heart.

Breathe in, breathe out.

His mouth looked so dry.  Earlier that day, I had attempted to sponge a little water into his mouth much like I imagined the people must have done under the cross with the vinegar for a dying Christ.  Since he didn’t move his lips, I sort of parted them for him and gave the sponge a tentative squeeze.  Nothing happened at first.  I was feeling very apostolic when he suddenly erupted into spasms.  He was choking.  Horrified, I stood there with the sponge poised guiltily in my hand.  It died down as quickly as it had started. I returned the sponge to the plate.

I picked up the needles and sang a little while I knitted.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I had been singing him this song all day.  Earlier in the week, I had a much broader repertoire – maybe a dozen songs that I had been cycling through: It Is Well With My Soul, Swing Low Sweet Chariot… When Doves Cry.

I may have been grasping.

After a week of wracking my brain for something new and interesting, I had finally given up and had settled on Amazing Grace.  It happened naturally.  Nothing else felt appropriate.

I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind but now…

I thought that I could detect something different about his breathing, and stopped for a moment to listen mid tune. I wondered if perhaps he was trying to talk to me through his breathing pattern.

I love you.  Tell your mother I love her.  Tell your sisters I love them.

What if he was trying to tell me that he was sick of me singing the same song over and over?

Knit one.  Purl one.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.

I tried to keep up with him so that I was matching him stitch for breath. I had to put the scarf down for a while when at one point, after having fallen behind, I caught myself hoping for a split second that he would slow down so that I could catch up.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.

I had begun singing again.  By default.

Somewhere behind me, I was aware of the hospice nurse taking up her station at a chair in the back of the room.  I kept singing, in spite of her.

I finished another row.  Something was definitely different about his breathing now. When I set the scarf down on the table beside his bed, I knew that the end was near.  The hospice nurse said, “Hm,” behind me.  The gap between breaths was widening.  I rested my hand on top of his, wondering if he could feel it there.  And then, the borders of his breath released and his breath became free.

In that moment, it was paramount that I record the time.  Feeling remarkably clearheaded, I stood to my feet and faced the whiteboard, jotting down the time with a red marker that squeaked.  I had experienced a similar level of clarity after a car wreck I had been in once.  I had just totaled the car and all I could do was reach into the center compartment for a Tic Tac.  My breath had needed freshening.  I would be talking to paramedics soon.  I needed fresh breath.

11:55pm.

Five minutes until the next day and I wanted to make sure that nobody got it wrong.  I could imagine the nurse saying that it had happened after midnight.  But it hadn’t.  It had happened then.  Right then. The nurse approached the bed.  Took his vitals.  Nothing. I stared at the numbers I had written on the board.  They were clear.  Completely legible.  There would be no confusion.  I should try to close his eyes.

They wouldn’t close.

I imagined then that he was up there somewhere looking down and so I waved at the ceiling, tearing up as I did so. I reached for the scarf.

Behind me, I did not recognize at first that the sounds I was hearing were coming from him. I turned in time to see him convulse violently three times, shaking the whole bed and knocking the table in the process.  For a brief moment, a smile lit up his face.  He exhaled one last time and then…nothing – the lids of his eyes slammed shut like a curtain dropped at the end of a show.

He had smiled.

I was shaking now, and he had smiled.

I turned back to the whiteboard and replaced the final 5 with a 7.  Two minutes had passed.  There had been nothing and then nothing again.  A pause in the workings.  An argument with God.  Behind me, the hospice nurse said, “Well, now.”

I picked up the scarf from off the floor where it had fallen in the commotion and stuffed it in my bag, knowing even as I did so that I would rip it apart the next day.



I recently finished The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Schields. As the title suggests, it’s a kind of essay/meditation/memoir about getting old. What the title doesn’t tell you is that in it, Schields addresses at length his relationship with his father.

His father, the story goes, is a 96 year old ubermench, more active and able-bodied in his 9th decade on this planet than the author is in his 5th. There is hubris and exaggeration in this claim, but it’s a psychological portrait as much as anything else: we can forgive his conjuring of childish pride.

Schields packs the book full of his own observations about the changing human body—his own, and that of his father—and with memories of being youthful and active and flawed, and he combines all this with scientific trivia about the aging process. Did you know that for women ages 50 to 78, it takes 1 to 5 minutes for vaginal lubrication to follow sexual arousal? Now you do.

It was an interesting read, but one thing kept standing out, nagging me, not letting me completely buy into the athletic drive of Schields’s prose: he mentions his mother all of three or four times, and she died when he was in adolescence. That is to say, here’s this book about death and family, and Schields almost actively seems to avoid one half of his parentage.

Obviously, all authors create frameworks to work within. In the broadest sense, if you don’t put limits on the scope of your book, you will never stop writing. But even without the absurd extreme, I can fully sympathize with the need to single out one parent and ponder the specific relationship you have with that person, especially if that person is exceptional, as Schields’s father surely is.

So what was the problem? Why couldn’t I get past it? Strangely, once I’d finished the book, this issue stayed with me longer—or at least more potently—than the book’s ostensible topic. And the answer didn’t come to me until I was going back over a manuscript that’s taking up permanent residence on my hard drive.

Here it is: most of my characters have only one parent. I’ve made this “choice” again and again in fiction, from short stories to novels. There is a relationship between the protagonist and his or her mother, or father, but rarely both. It can play a role central or peripheral to the narrative. It can be a healthy, supportive relationship, or it can be sick, broken or in some way stultifying. But either way, it’s just the one.

On face, this smacks of a failure of the imagination. Am I simply unable to create two interactive parental figures? Not that that isn’t difficult—making fictional characters interact in a way that seems natural requires super-human feats of imagination and stamina—but I think this difficulty is only part of the problem. The other part has to do with my own parents, and maybe (dare I generalize?) with parenting in general (yes I dare).

One of the defining moments in my relationship with my father happened when I was 16, and masqueraded as quite familiar familial interaction. He’d asked me to straighten up an area of the living room I’d left strewn with photographs, and I’d done so with the snide indifference I’d been actively cultivating. The result wasn’t so much a “tidy” area as it was a mess someone less messy might have made

When he returned (he seemed, those days, to be always returning), he reproached me for not having done what I’d been told, and I countered with something like a phoned-in Socratic method: “Exactly how neat,” I asked in so many words, “would this area have to be for you to think otherwise?” I moved a few pictures closer to the center of the stack. “Is this neat yet?” I moved a few more closer. “How about now?”

He looked me straight in the face, held my gaze for a moment, and said, “Oh, you’re really good, aren’t you.”

The fact was, yes. Or rather, I was getting there. I was challenging him to define his terms: something he’d done with me since I could speak. Something I practically associated with the word “father.”

Something my mother never did.

A small thing to appear so large in hindsight, no doubt, but who’s to say which events are formative?

Anyway, it was—as 16 is for most of us—a time full of epiphanies. It was around this time, to the point, that I became a witness to a strange truth of long-term, dysfunctional partnerships: couples become polarized. Surely you have some experience with this, whether from watching your parents, or from watching your own marriage/partnership. Each person slowly looses dimension, slides into more or less rigid roles within the relationship.

Who knows why this is? Is it easier? Is it comforting to slouch into expectation? Whence the inclination toward binary? This is a much bigger question than can be tackled here, but the urge is, well, urgent enough for me to feel comfortable including it here as a “given.” A rule patiently waiting for exceptions to prove it.

In the end (though, truly, relationships long dead by any reasonable standard persist nonetheless, a shadow of themselves, a parody), a dichotomy takes over, leaving each person to endlessly enact only a fraction of what might be their normal, fleshy attitudes and behaviors. The disciplinarian and the permissive. The emotionally available and the remote. For every role there is a counter-role, and my parents had so many that though they walked and talked like otherwise dimensional adults, their every action became flat.

Thankfully, they divorced when I was in my early 20s, and a number of amazing things happened. My father lost his disciplinary edge. My mother began expressing personal needs. On both sides, they began to take shape as if inflated by the air in the space between them. Which makes me wonder about this trend I now see in my work: is it because my parents were not, when together, real fleshy people, that now I have no model for real parental interaction? Is it because I’ve only had two real people for parents since they’ve separated that this division is projected into my own fictional worlds?

Perhaps this is the kind of question that is more useful as a point of departure than it is a device meant to fuel the answer machine, but I’ve been keeping an eye out since first having these thoughts, and a surprisingly high percentage of novels and stories I read feature one or another central parent without the other. They do so, furthermore, without any real textual justification for that absence. Is the real fiction that most parents are ever really together in the first place?

My girlfriend Erin is reading the The Thing About Life now, and in speaking about it recently with someone else who’d read it, we were asked what we liked more, the autobiographical parts or the science trivia? “The autobiographical stuff,” I said, “without a doubt.” Erin thought about it for a moment, then said, with certainty, “The trivia.”

My old man in a nut shell: he’s too proud to wear a hearing-aid, yet he has no qualms whatsoever about donning a Donald Duck visor with two squares of cardboard fastened behind his ears, and strolling down Viking Way on his afternoon errands.

My_old_man

 

His errands consist of things like buying a piece of sheet-metal that he can bend into a box for the prototype of the sonic ant-deterrent he recently invented.

He calls the cardboard squares behind his ears his parabolic reflectors. They actually work. Try it sometime.

My old man’s a tucker. He tucks everything in– his fucking jacket. He’s also got what I consider to be an unhealthy relationship with Velcro. He wears it everywhere. He fastens his shoes with it, his jeans. He fastens the curtains in the old Nash station wagon he drives with it—and that’s so he can use the porto-potty he installed in the back, which he practically has to fold himself in half in order to utilize, because there’s only about three feet of vertical space back there.

And believe me, he utilizes it.

Sometimes while he’s driving, he has to pull over to the shoulder and fasten the curtains and drop a trout, even as traffic whizzes by. You see, he’s got a self-diagnosed diverticulum. It’s like his esophagus runs straight through to his rectum, I swear. He’s got his crap chute timed like a station master. He’s already eyeing the bathroom halfway through the salad course.

He refers to the whole process, invariably in a matter-of-fact tone, as passing his bowels. He refers to it often. After all, it’s just a metabolic function, right?

My old man pretty much ran out on me when I was eight or nine years old. I still don’t consider him a deadbeat, though. He always paid his child support and the rest of it. My sister’s death really took a toll on my parent’s marriage, so I’m willing to cut my old man some slack for flying the coupe.

Like most kids, I looked up to my dad. But I knew from square one he was certifiable. Other fathers didn’t teach their children Morse code, or get them squirrel monkeys for pets. Other fathers didn’t invent humane pest control devices, or make ice cream out of soy beans.

Over the years, my old man has worked as an aerospace engineer, a Methodist minister, a professional bodybuilder, a videographer, and finally, a naturopath. And like Frank Norris, he never “truckled.”

That’s enough for me.

And I’m not even certain what truckled means, but I’m pretty damn sure my old man never did it, or he probably wouldn’t be wearing parabolic reflectors right now.

I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my father, in spite of the fact that we’ve spent so little time together. Until recently, he’d been living (quite happily) in the back of a cube truck in the high dessert of south-central Oregon, where he spent his days inventing shit in the sweltering heat– eating carrots, reading the scripture. Fastening shit with Velcro.

But two months ago—upon the behest of my older sister, who was beginning to worry about him alone out in that godforsaken desert in a Donald Duck visor— my father relocated to the island my sister and I live on.

He now lives 4.8 miles away.

So, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I’m seeing my father daily. We walk in the woods every afternoon with our dogs– me in my sweat pants, with my hangover, and he in his Velcro-fastened shoes and parabolic reflectors. I have to talk REALLY FUCKING LOUD, because I’m usually in front of him, and parabolic reflectors—in spite of their many attributes – are decidedly uni-directional in their function.

During our walks, my dad frequently says things like:

“Old Laddie is getting ready to pass his bowels.”

Or:

“Good Laddie. Good dog. Boy, you really had to pass your bowels, didn’t you, old boss? He hasn’t passed his bowels since yesterday morning. He really needed to pass them.”

But you know, the old dude is pretty interesting—my dad, I mean. He speaks a little Latin, a little Greek. He knows his theology and engineering and nutrition inside and out. And he knows volumes about the human excretory system. We have some good talks.

Last night, was my old man’s 75th birthday.

My sister and her family are up at Whistler for the week, and my brothers live out of state, and my wife was working– so it was just me and my old man for his birthday dinner.

He’s a pretty finicky eater– not because he’s got a sophisticated palette or anything, just because he’s a health nut.

So I made a salad with organic spring greens, goat cheese, walnuts, and blueberries, with a light drizzle of vinaigrette. I grilled some Japanese eggplant. I made some farfalle with wild mushrooms, kalamata olives, and sun dried tomatoes. I bought a carrot cake.

And I bought two bottles of the only alcoholic beverage I’ve ever known my father to imbibe– Manischewitz Blackberry Wine.

Manischewitzblackberry750

My old man is a cheap date, I guess. I generally can’t drink Manischewitz, or I start feeling like I’m slipping into a diabetic coma—and I’m not even diabetic (though I’ve been told my piss tastes sweet – ah, but that’s another post, perhaps).

Well, last night, in spite of my aversion, I drank Manischewitz Blackberry Wine, and it agreed with me for the
first time.

My old man loved the dinner.

He passed his bowels between the farfalle and the carrot cake.

Old Laddie passed his bowels, too– in case anyone’s wondering.

After his second glass of Manischewitz, my old man got a little woozy and sentimental, and began talking about his mother, whom the rest of us knew simply as Sweetie. She was a gem.

I lived with Sweetie in a senior citizen mobile home park in Sunnyvale, California the last two years of her life.

I was going to college.

She was agoraphobic—hadn’t left the house in over fifteen years. She smoked two packs of Pall Mall Golds and drank a half case of Hamm’s a day.

She liked Ironside better than Perry Mason. I’d say that’s a pretty rare quality.

She spent the better part of her days lounging in a bile-colored lazy boy, popping Tums antacids like tic-tacs. She ate nothing but Swanson’s frozen turkey dinners. Two per day– noon and six.

In fact, when I found her dead– with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth– there was a Swanson’s frozen dinner on her bedside table. And I swear to God, the thing was untouched except for the cherry cobbler.

She ate the fucking cherry cobbler and checked out! How cool is that?

We buried her with a Hamm’s and pack of Pall Mall Golds. You may think that’s disrespectful– but then, you don’t know shit.

My father started getting teary as he talked about Sweetie, last night.

Sweetie was the only parent he ever really had.

His father died when he was four.

He grew up in a one bedroom flat in Oakland during the depression, with Sweetie and Grandma Rae.

He said they had a single naked light bulb in the middle of the room, and Grandma Rae tied a button on the end of the chain. And my old man said that pulling that chain and watching that light bulb go on and off as a kid was the thing that made him become an engineer.

He said that things were so lean growing up in Oakland, there was only enough money to feed two people most of the time.

And so my father breast-fed until he was four-and-a-half years old.

He said he can remember stomping around the flat banging pots and pans and complaining he was hungry, until his mother took him in her lap.

He had a mouthful of teeth.

Last night, my father started weeping as he talked about his mother.

He just couldn’t seem to get past all the nutrition he’d deprived her of by all that nursing. She lost all her teeth by the age of forty, he explained, due to calcium deprivation.

His doing, of course. She finally weaned him by drawing spooky faces on her breasts.

Poor guy. Poor everybody. There was my father– on his 75th birthday– gooned on Manischewitz, weeping
like a baby about his mother’s milk.