Basement Archiology.

I know that using the TV as a babysitter is not going to win me “Parent of the Year,” but there are moments where there just aren’t a lot of other options. To be fair to myself, I don’t actually own a television and haven’t for well over a decade. What I do have though is a laptop and my own personal “Leaning Tower of Pisa” built entirely out of the kid’s DVDs and the empty cases in which they are supposed to be put neatly away. I do my best, but the cases often do far less of a job protecting the movies that came in them than duty as coasters for either my coffee or beer, depending on what time of day you happen to catch me. Either way, provided that a disk remains relatively scratch free, popping one in will buy me about a half hour of productivity as Short Stack and Lulu Belle learn about something wholesome and educational. Thus far, I haven’t mistaken a Miffy DVD for say… The Guns of Navarone or Big Trouble in Little China, but I could see that happening eventually. THAT will be a fun time to explain.

Being the Christmas Season and I, being a sucker for the trappings thereof, I’ve been slowly tarting up the house with the trapping of the Holiday. It’s something that I get form my Mom and though the gene isn’t as strong with me as it is with her, it’s there nonetheless. Her house is always decorated like something out of a children’s book and it was magical to watch the transformation happen as a child. As a kid, I just assumed that everyone’s Mom went bonkers with the seasonal decorations and cookie making. I’ve since learned that’s not the case, so I do what I can with my own meager attempts to carry the torch for the sake of my own children’s holiday memories. The DVD that the kids were now successfully glued to gave me the chance I needed to do some rooting in the boxes that lurked in darker corners beneath the house.

Let me explain my house, just briefly. It’s small. No. It’s VERY small. We have exactly one closet in the entire structure and that is crammed to the bursting point with coats and boots. When we moved in here seven years ago, it was only a summer camp with no pretensions of being anything but that. It sat on posts and scoffed at the notion of insulation. I’ve spent the last seven years and a wheelbarrow full of cash changing all that. We now mostly have insulation in the walls and ceilings, but most importantly enough, we also have a basement. A FULL basement that is about seven and a half feet high at its shortest and nearly nine and a half at its highest.

It is also, do to the lack of storage anywhere else in the house, packed to the point of horror/hilarity. Finding anything down there requires persistence, the ability to balance on one foot for extended periods of time and very strong arms so you can carefully tilt four stacked boxes at once so you can peek into the fifth one. This can often result in something that Action Girl and I refer to as a “stuffalanche.”

With the few moments I had and the baby monitor turned up all the way and clipped to my belt, I moved boxes and totes in an effort to find a missing piece in my Christmas preparations. I didn’t find it, naturally, but as is often the case when I go spelunking through boxes of odds and ends, long forgotten, I did find something else that made me stop cold.

A rapidly disintegrating cardboard box spilled its contents at my feet, and among the old pay stubs, bank statements and notes to my self to do things in 2006, I saw a red binder.

My red binder.

THE red binder.

Once, I had a business that was based some distance from my house. It was a drive to get there and though it was hell on my car and the gas I burned up was impressive, it did give me one thing that I don’t really have any more. Solitude. I’d leave in the morning for work and since Action Girl works mostly night shifts, she’s be too groggy to be calling me as I drove on my commute. Content to leave the radio off, I’d spend that time in my car just letting my mind wander and observe things as I whipped by. It was a very nice way to start the day, to be honest.

One day as I trundled along the highway, I started to compose a little poem in my head. By the time I made it to work, I had worked most of it out and was pretty happy with it. Once my coat was hung up and the lights turned on, I sat down and scribbled it on a bit of lined paper. The next day, I did it again. Then again. I really grew to enjoy what quickly transformed into a morning ritual, and though I did not write something everyday, I did put my mind to it pretty often. By the end of the year, I had quite a little pile of prose. I’m hardly the one to judge its quality in the world of poetry, but it was good to me.

At some point, I got concerned about the scraps of paper with all that work and thinking poured onto them and decided I needed to transfer it all to my computer. I put them all in a red binder and brought them home. Then we lifted the house and the binder disappeared.

Normally, I’d not be too concerned about this. My attitude about these things tends to be, “Hey, it’s got to be here somewhere.” and I’m usually correct. This time though, I was worried. Very worried. After the house was picked up, had a basement put in and plopped back down on it’s new underpinning, my Father-in-law had come over and “helped” This is a dangerous thing. Though he has a good heart and the nervous industry that most twenty year old do not, he also has a very bad and well earned reputation for throwing things out that do not belong to him or that no person in their right mind would toss, all without clearance from the owner. Here I’m thinking about the bag of nuts and bolts that held my table saw bench together. No joke.

Long after the visit, I discovered that he had “helpfully” cleaned up an area in the house that, though I admit it, was knee deep in… stuff and debris, it also contained my binder of poems. It had been hastily put there with everything else during the house construction and was going to be dealt with… later… whenever that would be. When I looked at the spot now, it was empty. I knew he had also been to the dump at least twice during his time here. My heart sank. I never asked him if he saw it. I didn’t want him to feel guilty for only trying to help.

I actually wrote one last poem about my book of poetry moldering away under piles of trash at the city landfill, and then I didn’t write again. For whatever reason, the spirit to write poetry just sort of went dormant for me. I tried here and there over the years, but it just didn’t flow like it did before. Not having the commute to quietly reflect anymore, no doubt was a major impact, but thinking of a year’s worth of writing, gone for good also killed the joy.

With a lightning fast snatch that would have caught a fish by surprised, I grabbed it with both hands before it disappeared once again. Eye’s wide, I fearfully examined the open edge of the binder to look without really looking. I had other red binders like this one. It could easily be filled with receipts or old product information, long since irrelevant. No. It wasn’t that.

A smile spreading across my face, I opened it up to see sheet after sheet of hand written thoughts and personal observations. A year’s worth of thinking and writing. I scanned quickly and then snapped it shut and hugged it to my chest, eyes held tight.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” was all I could say.

The little spy speaker on my waist told me that the show upstairs was coming to an end and thus too, my ability to remain here any longer. Holding the long lost binder under my arm, I headed back to the living room where Short Stack immediately burst into a long and accurate description of the show they just watched as Lulu Belle scurried off in search of a lucky stuffed animal with whom to have tea. I listened with half an ear as I made a new home for my memories in a safe and easy to remember location upstairs.

I still have a lot of Christmas-ing to do around the house and that’s the main priority for me, but it will be over soon as well. Once it is, and the kids are tucked into bed, I have some transcribing to do. I don’t know what is in store for me present-wise this Christmas, but I’m already as happy as I could be. What was lost is found and with the distance of time, I’ll be reading these again with new eyes as I type away in the night.

Merry Christmas to me!

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O’ Tannenbaum

It’s going to have to come down at some point. It just has to.

The Christmas Tree is still sitting prominently in our living room, still covered in ornaments passed down to me from my child hood, garland and white lights that I must confess, I have switched on as I write this. I love the idea of a Christmas Tree and think that they are easily the very best part of the European Christmas tradition.. with some very serious caveats.

In the past, I’ve had mixed feelings about “The Tree”. Though it’s undoubtedly the centerpiece of most of my Christmas memories, I always felt a bit uneasy around that bit of forest we had dragged into our home and festooned with lights and baubles.

I have early memories of crunching through thin snow in a vast field of nearly identical little evergreen trees. My parents would walk along looking from left to the right and then to the left again, looking for just the right tree to come home with us and get us in the holiday mood. The big, red bow saw that my father carried both intrigued and spooked me with it’s elongated, almost grotesque teeth. As far as I can recall, this was the only time this particular tool had work to do each year. The curved fangs of the blade would bite into the trunk of the selected conifer, bringing it down with a few good pulls and minimal grunting from under the skirt of low bows as my father lay on the frozen ground, trying to get Mom and me to push the tree one way or another in an effort to keep it from pinching the blade.

Hauled by its trunk, we’d pull it to the car and lash it to the roof, leaving a little stump behind us and a patch of snowless ground. It made me uneasy. It’s not that I didn’t understand that these trees were planted here for the express purpose of cutting for Christmas. It just always struck me as a bit sad to see the hole it left in the otherwise neat rows of green, prickly soldiers who remained.

tree-farm

Then, it was time to head home. This brought on the next problem. When I was little, my job mostly consisted of staying out from underfoot, or at the most, closing the front door after Dad, swearing lightly… or perhaps not so lightly, wrestled the reluctant tree through the entryway. As I got older, my new job was to HELP Dad wrestle the tree in. This sounds like a good idea until you watch the chaos unfold. One of us would get the drippy, pinesap covered end and would be walking backwards. The other would have the highly fragile, infinitely pincushingly, pointy end and would be able to see nothing as they stumbled up the stairs, often times, accidentally causing the trunk end holder to stumble backwards and loose his balance.

Now there were two of us swearing.

Once inside, we needed to get it up and secured. We had one of those ancient pressed metal stands with the four long screws and somehow it was always me who got the under the tree duty. I’d lay on my stomach or side, trying not to notice how heavy my head was getting and how crampy my neck was tighten as many of the bolts as fast as I could while loose needles trickled down my neck. More swearing was often needed at this point.

“A little more to the left”
“No. That’s too much now”
“Come forward now”
“TOO MUCH! Back it up a bit”
“I think it’s still leaning to the left. Don’t you?”

That taken care of, the decorating would begin. This, I enjoyed! Getting out the ornaments was like opening up a treasure chest. I had made some, some came from friends and relatives and others were from my parent’s days predating me. I loved seeing them after a long year in the basement and other than the expected pickings from the tree, I enjoyed putting them up.

The needles were my bane. I lived in a shoe-free house. All footwear came off at the door and I spent most of my time at home in socks. The room our tree was always set up in had a deep pile carpet and the needles just seemed to lie in wait for me to go padding by and yelp as a sap tipped assassin jumped at its chance to strike at its captor. It seemed like no matter how much vacuuming was done, some of these little buggers would make it through and lie low, patiently biding their time. Months later, they still would get me and send me hobbling to the sofa to extract them from the bottom of winter softened souls.

The final piece that didn’t sit well was when we tossed it. You’d think that after all the struggling to get it in and set up and then the indignities of having to pluck it’s quills from the bottom of my feet, that I’d be happy to see it go, but mostly, it made me kind of sad. I’d look out of the window and see it flung on the snow back by the road, waiting for the city to take it away. It was obviously too small to be milled into anything and too green to burn so it was destined to be mulch. It was just going to go to waste.

I hate waste.

One time in particular, I recall looking at an abandoned tree and seeing something glint from within its branched. When I went out to inspect, I found a missed ornament. It was a little golden pear that a friend had given my parents. After that, I was far more vigilant when it came to stripping the tree of its medals prior to being drummed out of the house. I still have the little pear ornament and can see it now glinting in the small white lights on my own tree.

Tonight I’ll take it down and strip my tree of its glory, but I’m not worried about forgetting something buried deep in its braches. I may miss one, naturally, but it will be safe until next year. My tree will fold up like a green, furry umbrella and fit neatly back in its box. It’s a fake. A good fake, to be sure, but fake nonetheless. My Mother still thinks that it’s awful to skip having the real deal, but I’m happy with it. I can leave those little trees out in the field for someone else to pick and since my tree comes apart, I don’t need to stuff it through the door jam as I turn the air blue. The best part is the needles are soft and permanently attached. Little feet in footy pajamas are safe, as are my own.

Interestingly enough, the old, red bowsaw that felled so many Christmas trees hangs in my own basement now. I have to admit. I have no idea the last time I used that thing. If the trees attack though, I’m ready.

Tickets, please

“Hey Kiddo, I have an idea.”

My wife audibly sucked in her breath on the other end of the phone. She’s used to my “ideas” and to her credit, lets me try a fair number of them. The ones that I think wouldn’t pass her scrutiny, I tend to start first and tell her about later… If they work.

“What’s your idea?”
“Do you want to see a show? I’m looking at two seats to see David Sedaris, live. They’re front row, center, balcony.” I held my breath. I love David Sedaris and the chance to hear him read his stuff in person sounded like a lot of fun.

“When is it and where?”

This was tricky. Not only was the show soon, but it was also a two hour drive away. If we were going to be going to see the performance, it would require kid watching.

“Well, it’s on a Thursday and it’s a drive. I think we can pull it off though. What do you say?”

Silence. Then, “Well, if you think we can swing it… Sure. It would be great to get out and do something fun.”

Gleefully, I hung up the phone and punched my credit card number into the computer, reserving two fantastic seats. We were going out. No, not merely out, we were going out to see a show! After nearly three years of small children, the prospect of going out to see something live made me giddy. Though I love my children with all my heart, I’m pretty sure that since Short Stack joined us in 2006 we have seen exactly three movies, gone out to dinner as a couple no more than five times and gone to see a live performance, zero. There’s a song written by the musician Jonathan Coulton that explains this the best I’ve ever heard it put. He wrote it for his first child when she was born and it’s titled, “You Ruined Everything in the Nicest Way” I find the accuracy of that song to be dizzying. But, hey! We were finally going out! This was going to be fun.

hands

I knew that making this happen was going to require some juggling. For starters, the show didn’t begin until eight o’clock. With an almost two hour car trip to get back home, that meant we were looking at eleven-thirty to midnight for our return time. The added rub is that we wouldn’t actually be home. We’d be close but barred from making the last leg. The problem is, we live on an island. It’s not a very big island and it’s not too far off the mainland, but it is surrounded by water and you do need a boat to get you there. We own no boat and every time a storm blows up, I’m eternally grateful for that fact. It does, however, make us dependent on the ferry and the ferry does not run all night.

So, we wouldn’t get to go home, but that’s not the end of the world. A ways down the coast, my Grandfather has a place and as luck would have it, it would be empty on the dates around the show. Now I had a place to go but needed kid watchers. What I needed were parents. Luckily, I have those too! My folks love to be with their grandchildren and watch them most weekends while I try to do industrious things to the house with spinning saws and overpowered drills. Action Girl works Saturdays and Sundays, so if I’m going to be loud and lumber minded, someone’s got to sit on the children. My folks enjoy this and have gotten comfortable watching two munchkins. What they haven’t done is watch them over night and frankly, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Lulu Belle is still a wee-critter and gets up two to four times a night and while Short Stack will sleep right through MOST of the time, if something goes wrong, having both kids up and unhappy at three in the morning is just miserable. So, the plan goes thus:

1: Bring kids to my Grandfather’s house on the mainland.
2: Meet my folks there.
3: Go to show
4: Return to Grandfather’s and spend the night.
5: Go home to our island in the morning.

Perfect!

You know where this is going, don’t you?

The first fly in the ointment was that I’m bad at paying attention. I had gotten the date of the show wrong. As things turned out, if I had actually read it correctly, I would have noticed that it took place two days earlier than I had planned. The next problem was that Action Girl worked that day. She would have to take personal time to make it. Then there was the fact that my parent’s couldn’t watch the kids on Tuesday so I’d need to find a sitter. Then, the last straw was the weather. Snow was forecast, and a lot of it too boot.

I gave up. It wouldn’t happen. If it were just me, I probably would have pushed on through sheer bloody-mindedness and testosterone poisoning but with Action Girl giving me “the look”, I admitted defeat. Now I need to find a buyer for my two wonderful tickets.

Anyone on the island would have the same problem that we had. They wouldn’t be able to get home, so I knew that it would be a long shot. Surely, someone would know someone else and a buyer found. I put out the word and called all my friends who were likely suspects. Nothing. No takers anywhere. Lots and lots of them WANTED to go, but for one reason or another, no one could. I heard a lot of, “Aw, MAN!”s. It was time for Craig’s List. The tickets were offered for face value and I waited for a bite. And waited, and waited. The show was just a few days away now. It was really quiet out there. I had one nibble, but no bites.

It would have been a crime to let the seats go unwarmed by someone’s butt and when a friend who had to pass on the tickets her self, called with a lead, I jumped on it. Her roommate would love to see the show. The problem was, being a poor graduate student she was broke. Was I still interested? With a small wince and a thought about this being the Christmas season, I said, “yes”

As it turned out, her roommate wasn’t just happy, she was ecstatic. In our phone conversation, she told me about how things had been going so miserably wrong for her the last month. There had been few bright spots and mostly trial after trial, capped off with the fact that he car had just died and needed to go into the garage. This was the first thing that had gone right for her in weeks. I smiled, told her where to meet me the next morning and packed the tickets in my bag.

The next day, we rendezvoused and I handed over my dream of a night out with my wife to a stranger who had been beaten down by life of late. She was gleeful, thankful and promised me Christmas cookies, banana bread and a piece of her artwork just as soon as she could make it. With a big hug and a “Merry Christmas” she just about danced off in the freshly falling snow.

I hope she has a great time at the show. I’m betting she will. I’m out the money, but honestly, I feel pretty good. It is Christmas, after all.

I will, however, do my best not to notice when eight o’clock on this Tuesday rolls around.

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