Passport, Part III

Normally on ferry rides with Short Stack I get to enjoy a bubbly and entertaining conversation with him. Like most his age, he converses almost entirely in the form of questions and we have a great time looking for new things and then discussing them. This trip however, I was going to be second banana to the Shuttle. We’ve watched videos of various launches roughly forty-three zillion times and in these videos, most of the camera angles are very, very tight. Many of the actual movie feeds come from cameras bolted to the shuttle, the external fuel tank or the solid fuel boosters themselves. Because of this and because my detail driven son is a stickler for.. well… detail, he insists on reliving the experience as closely as possible with his own Shuttle. What this means is that he holds the toy up to his face, keeping his eye so close to its surface that it would be within reaching distance of an aphid. His mother and I have tried to dissuade him from needlessly endangering himself this way, but you might as well try to convince a horse to lay off the clover. It just ‘aint going to happen. So, for the last few months, Short Stack has essentially gone about the house with a Space Shuttle for a face, making eye contact with him all but impossible. As I sat and watched him launch STS-2452, I realized that what I hadn’t brought along with me today was daddy entertainment. No magazines, no laptop, no book. Luckily conversational salvation came in the form of Doug.

Doug is a new friend who has recently moved back to Maine and is in the process of getting his various ducks in their assigned rows. Today, he was headed to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his license changed and the two of us enjoyed chatting away about home construction, the weather and especially the entertainment value of watching small children play when they are totally absorbed in what they’re doing. The red headed object lesson across the table from us obliged by resting the point of the orange fuel tank on the tip of his nose and, with a aspirated “FWOOOOSHHHHH!” separated the Shuttle from its back as it continued to his own personal orbit.

“He’s pretty obsessed, isn’t he?” Doug smiled at my boy as Short Stack hummed audibly while flying his Orbiter over his head for a few seconds, then back to the table for landing and a quick reassembly of the component parts as it was prepared for it’s next mission, STS-2453.

“Oh, you have no idea. This is all we see or hear. It’s going to be great taking him to the Kennedy Space Center, but it sometimes feels like I’m chumming the water, you know? Like he doesn’t get enough of rockets already.”

I then explained to him that every morning, Short Stack got a dose of NASA with his dose of medicine.

For the first three winters of my son’s life, things were pretty horrible. He’d get sick with cold after cold. He had croup, which made his cough sound like he had swallowed a harbor seal whole. He was always run down and tired. He’s a real trooper when he feels sick and never lets it dull his enthusiasm for living but to watch him go through it was simply awful. We were first time parents then and were wary of becoming “those” parents who treated their children like precious snowflakes, freaking out when they all but sneezed by dousing the house in antibacterial soap and Clorox wipes. Short Stack is a tough little customer and we did what we could. Besides, this was normal, right? He’s a kid. Kids get sick, right?

Wrong. Not like this.

It took us two years longer than it should have but a late night trip to the emergency room and some seriously frayed nerves finally got us to a specialist and an answer, He has asthma. One of the reasons if faked us out for so long was that it isn’t the kind of asthma that you’re used to encountering. He doesn’t get winded easily. He can play all day and laugh his little belly sore with joy and never show the slighted sign of distress. It’s just not that SORT of asthma. There are, as it turns out, a variety of asthmas out there and his is subtler than the wheezing, inhaler needing type. His creeps up on him and will slowly make his life miserable until it blossoms into full blown pneumonia, which he’s had three times now in the distance of his short time spent on this planet. The fix was long in coming but it has thankfully, arrived.

The medicine he takes is taken in with the aide of a device called a nebulizer. All it is essentially is a vaporizer that he claps in his mouth and breathes in until the vapor stops. All in all, it takes roughly six minutes to suck it all down and as some of you might know from personal experience, six adult minutes translates into roughly four and a half hours in three year old minutes. A distraction, if not entirely necessary, does at least keep things from getting needlessly antagonistic in the father/son relations category. Essentially, it’s better for all parties involved. I plunk my computer down at the table, set up the nebulizer and then find something for him to watch. In the beginning of this ritual, it was cartoons that he wanted. Now, it’s the “orange tank” video, and nothing else will do.

The video actually has a lot more to it than just watching the Shuttle’s orange external fuel tank for ten minutes, though honestly, I think he’d be fine with that too. It’s actually a very well done production from off the NASA web site highlighting the STS-129 launch of Endeavor that took place a little while ago. The music is good, the editing is well done and it follows the launch from the rollout of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building all the way through liftoff and the eventual separation of the orange external tank in upper orbit. My son lives for this video and it always gets him running over when it comes time to sit down and beat back his asthma with the miracle of modern chemistry. It’s sort of Merry Poppins for the twenty-first century.

“Just a short NASA video, makes the medicine go down…”

The end result is that my son can function normally for a kid his age and also, he can tell you in detail what the launch sequence is for the Shuttle program, and will until you beg and plead with him to talk to you about something else… which isn’t so normal. All in all, I call it a worthwhile trade. I do rather wish we could watch some cartoons sometimes, though.

As the boat pulled into the dock, I picked up our coats and hats and to mild protests, the little wooden space shuttle as well.

“I was going to play Space Shuttle!” The miniature scowl on his little round face looked more comical than menacing but I knew it was the look of displeasure with my actions. He’s a cautious kid and I know how to play that.

“Buddy, we’re about to walk off the boat on the plank. You wouldn’t want to drop your Shuttle in the water, would you?” That made him stop. Besides being neck deep in the freezing temperatures of winter, the water is also way, way down there as you cross the gangplank. The handrails are good and sturdy, but anything dropped while you walk across it is pretty much doomed to the frigid waters below. He thought about this and came back at me with the best that any three year old has to offer:

“Why?”

“Well…” I had to think for a sec. There were a lot of answers to ‘why?’ but only a few right ones. He’s a smart kid and does not cotton to the one word answer, ‘because.’ I’d need to do better than that. “Because if it did drop, there would be no way for me or anyone else to get it. It would float under the dock and you wouldn’t have it anymore.”

That did it. The scowl vanished and the protest ended. We said good-bye to Doug and I wished him well in his battle with the DMV: The Place Where Things Never Go Well.

I had my son, his birth certificate and a check. Our first appointment was a quick stop to get some official pictures of him and then it was off to the Post Office to fill out paper work. The only error being that “quick” and “three year old” never go hand in hand unless you are dealing with a small mountain of chocolate. After paying the seven dollar fee at our local AAA office, I watched in pained fatherhood-ness as the photographer tried time and time again to get a good shot of my son. Over the last sever paranoia laced years, the US has implemented strict guidelines on how passport photos must be aligned and set. Getting a small child to adhere to these rules, even for a tenth of a second is kind of like trying to push water up hill. You can do it, but you’re going to loose your mind in the process. In the end, the sixth try was the winner and the frazzled cameraman happily gave it his resounding stamp of, “Meh, close enough!”

With the hard won pictures in hand, we moved on to the Post Office, place of Passport submittal. I vaguely remember doing this as a child, back in my hometown on some sunny day in a forgotten season. As a kid, the Post Office only meant two things: Boredom and wanted posters. As my Mother stood in a lone that would have made the ones at Disney World look tame in comparison, I would inevitably drift off to look around. Besides the slow moving caterpillar of humanity that zigzagged though the velvet rope obstacle course which I was not allowed to play with, there was little else to do other than study the faces on the FBI’s most wanted criminals which were always posted prominently near the door. Could one of these individuals be coming through town right now? Should I look around at the others here even now? The topic would tantalize my mind for whole seconds until I’d wander away again to have my eighth drink form the water bubbler and start playing with the velvet ropes that made up the customer corral until garnering “the look” from Mom.

Getting my passport was a different experience. We walked right by the twisting line and got to go into a previously unseen office. There was a desk, a smiling clerk and no wanted posters or ropes to amuse my self with. That, and the fact that the attention was somewhat on me, made its mark on my memory. I though about that long forgotten experience as I walked into our local post office with my son hoisted high on my shoulders and proceeded to the one window set aside for such transactions. Apparently, an entire office was no longer needed.

“Sorry. We can’t use this birth certificate.” As the clerk handed it back to me, I was more than a little confused. The paper work had specified that what they needed was an official certificate with a raised stamp, which this one was and had. What it didn’t apparently specify was what KIND of official certificate was needed. Silly me.

“Ok…. Why not? What do I need?”
“This is from the hospital. It’s not official. You need to get one from the city where he was born.” That was unexpected.
Luckily, we live in the city where our son was born so I wouldn’t have to send away for it. In fact, City Hall wasn’t that far away at all, so other than having to deal with yet another layer of beaurocracy, the situation wasn’t so bad.
“Ok,” I said with a pleasant grin which I hoped gave the feeling that I was not boggling at the foolishness of having to get another official birth certificate while I held a different one in my hand, just as official but not official in the right ways, apparently. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with the right birth certificate.”

As I gathered up what I had, the clerk hit me again. “And don’t’ forget to bring the child’s mother with you too. She needs to be here.” That stopped me.
“Pardon?”
“Both parents need to be present when a child pass port application is submitted. You both need to sign the form here and with me as a witness. You’ll also need to make sure you bring correct identification before you are allowed to sign.”
After a brief, “are you kidding me” pause, I just had to ask. “So… What would be considered proper identification for us to bring?” I waited and was rewarded with the reply I most suspected.

“A passport would be fine.”

For reasons unknown, all I could envision was a snake devouring itself. Around and around we go!

In the end, Short Stack enjoyed his time with me as we skipped along though the various public buildings in search of the correct documentation for his very own little blue book with the eagle on the cover. I’m reasonably sure he has only a vestigial grasp of why we were going through all the trouble, but like most kids, he’s used to going along for the ride while having little knowledge of the final destination. Come to think of it, that’s a fairly accurate summary of much of the time one spends from age zero to eighteen. Some even manage to draw it out longer.

As we finally stepped off the ferry and back onto our island home, we happened to bump into Doug again in the small herd of passengers that disgorged from the boat. In our brief reunion as we walked up the hill and away from the landing, I made a discovery that made me feel a little better. He too had been thwarted by the bureaucracy and was returning home empty handed. At least we weren’t alone.

Short Stack, at least wasn’t empty handed. He clung lovingly the bag containing his Space Shuttle. Within ten seconds of waking back through our front door he was already launching mission STS-2454 in the living room. If only our civil servants were so dedicated in their duty.

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The Sewing Circle

Every day, I get to learn more about my neighbors than is normal, or sometimes, comfortable. I hear about whose car is dead, whose child is having trouble at school, and why someone I know isn’t speaking to someone else I know and how someone else’s vacation went. All this information comes to me daily and none of it is solicited for. Well, almost none of it.

How many of you have struck up conversations with the person in the seat next to you on a flight to somewhere? Perhaps you’ve made a connection with a total stranger on a long bus ride and said things that really out to be reserved for loved ones, the confines of your own head or a therapists couch. Oddly, it seems to be a fairly universal occurrence. A strange phenomenon happens to people when you throw them together on some form of transportation. We seem to open up and talk with people whom we would normally pass right by with nary a nod or a smile.

Over the years, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this experience. The nice girl I met as I flew home to the States from Brussels. She had just finished visiting friends in Europe and was returning home to find a new job. She would be living with her mother for a while until she got her feet under her. Or the young man that my father got to meet on a flight to Hawaii. He was nervous because he would be meeting his fiancé’s parents for the first time. He was Caucasian, she was Japanese and the prospective in-laws were very traditional and old fashioned. It could be any one you meet. All you need to do is add forced confinement with moving in some form of public transport. Amazingly, it almost always seems to lead to loosened tongues and open conversations in my experience, any way.

talking

I have even had a brush with celebrity… sort of. He is famous, at any rate. I recall vividly the two hours I spent chatting happily about nothing in particular with a bearded, old man at a gate in Newark airport. He was animated, extremely interesting to listen to and a great listener in return. He told me about growing up in New York City when he was a little boy. About the day his mother, who was sweeping the front steps of their town house called to him excitedly to run to the front door. When he emerged and looked up, he was just in time to see the Hindenburg pass quietly overhead, heading for Lakehurst. Two hours later, it would be a smoldering wreck. We talked about this and that: kids, parents, friends and history. In the end, we boarded our flight and he wished me well on my trip. It was a pleasure to meet the distinguished Dr. C. Everett Coop, past Surgeon General of the United States. Of all the random chats with strangers I’ve had, his name alone do I remember.

Most folks, I suppose, would attribute this strange opening up of personal space to the rational that we will son be leaving our new found confidants in the next seat and can walk away with no worry of seeing them or any one they might know, ever again. Well, it aint true. It’s got to be something else. I don’t know what, but I know it’s not that. Here’s how I know.

I live on an island and every day, I take a ferry ride to the mainland. The ferry is the great equalizer for the folks who live on the rock we call home. People from big houses and people from small houses alike must ride the boat. It doesn’t matter if you own, rent or are staying with a friend. If you want to get to town, we all ride together. The ride is not a terribly long one. Adding the time you spend sitting in your seat and waiting for the boat to depart on schedule, you’re looking at anywhere from twenty to twenty five minutes. In that short time though, we all get to reacquaint our selves with what’s going on with who.

Conversations are struck up with people whom you only ever talk to on the boat. You might never get together over a cup of coffee and a danish out on the island, but you could easily wind up chatting with this person every day for the length of the boat ride. Even if you don’t participate in the great chatterbox that is the ferry, you still get the benefit, if you can call it that. Though topics of conversation might be a little more restrained than if you knew you had anonymity, you do still hear the details of your fellow islander’s lives as the chatter floats among the seats of the cabin.

A woman down the street from me is going to a conference for a couple of days. She’ll be talking a cab to the bus station and then will be heading for Boston. She’ll get to the station early since she anticipates it being crowded. Her husband is worried about the roof on the building next to his new office. Snow is coming and it looks like it needs work. I find out about a private marriage ceremony on a boat in the marina; the parents, uninvited and the bride, many months pregnant. The public works guys a few rows back are explaining to a fellow islander how the budget for their department works versus the fire and police, and just what they think of that. A young couple I know will be going on a camping trip to Hawaii soon. They don’t know where they will be camping, but they are excited since neither one of them has ever been there before. One of the local fishermen experienced a hernia while he was out working. He made himself a girdle out of duck tape to hold things together until he could steam back to shore and get to the hospital.

None of this information was part of a conversation that I was active in. It simply came to me like radio waves, broadcast across the aether. There is a simple truth to living where I do. There are no secrets. People talk about six degrees of separation, but here, it’s more like two. Though I am continuously amazed at islanders I know doing foolish things such as having affairs, I conclude that they are either just that naive or simply don’t care that they will be inevitably found out. We all know each other’s business and if we don’t, we will soon.

And the truth of the matter is, that’s okay with us. The vast majority of islanders simply don’t mind. Who cares? In many ways, it’s defiantly helpful. There’s less to hide about your life, mostly because there is no point in expending the effort to hid it. We all know each other far better than we should. It also means that we tend to take care of each other pretty well. We know who’s sick and we bring them soup. We know who needs a ride to work and we offer it to them. We know who’s having a party and we show up with clam dip. It’s not quite communal living, but it is community living, to be sure. News travels fast here, good or bad and I rather enjoy that. Why invest in a telescope and a wiretap when all you really need to do is make sure that you’re on the five o’clock boat heading home.

“She’s been seeing HIM? No way!”

Living Inside the Moat

The sun has come up on our little corner of Maine and as the chilly night air of autumn finds its way back into the dark corners and hollows, it makes room for warmer breezes and evaporating dew. This morning I find myself driving slowly around the neighborhood on a pleasant Saturday morning. The combination of encroaching cool weather and the start of the school year has sent most of the summer visitors back to their primary billing addresses and leaves the roads wonderfully navigable again. Things are quieter now and the folks who I see enjoying the fresh, new day tend to be folks whom I know well. I love this season.

At the moment, there are just two of us in the car. My daughter, Lulu Belle sits, wrapped in pink and flowers as she takes her early morning nap. The only visible movement being the miniscule bobbing of the pacifier as she does her best to suck the beejeebee’s out of it. Action Girl has left for work and Short Stack is no doubt still dreaming about locomotives, little white bunnies with scooters and possibly a dump truck or two at his Grandparent’s house. That is, for my folk’s sake, I hope he’s dreaming. A night with a two year old is always a crapshoot.

Friday nights for him are routinely spent at their house. It gives him something to look forward to during the week and to be honest, it give us something to look forward to as well. We love our son, but getting to deal with just one kid, for one day a week is a real treat. We’re all very lucky to have this opportunity, parents, grandparents and kiddos all.

I had driven to my parent’s house shortly after Action Girl had gone to work for the day but upon finding their house dark and locked, I decided that we should go for a drive and try to actually enjoy the place where we live. It’s really beautiful here but between kids, work and the pile of construction materials I like to call a “house”, I rarely get to go out and see this place for my self. Coffee in hand and Lulu Belle in tow, we headed out to see what there was to see. It would be a circular drive. They always are.

I’m going to tip my hand here and let you in on something that I’ve been keeping to my self. The reason that our locals are so “local” and our community so tight knit is that we really don’t have much of choice. The geography dictates it. This is because where we live is pretty cut off from the surrounding area. Very cut off, actually. By water… All the way around.

Action Girl, Short Stack, Lulu Belle and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean reminds us of that every day. I take a ferry every day to get to work. The only other option is to swim and that’s really not a lot of fun. If I’m very lucky, it’s Action Girl who’s piloting the ferry and I get to kiss the captain and deliver her some good coffee. It’s a definite life style choice to live where we do and it isn’t a good fit for everyone.

We have a local grocery store that does a very admirable job keeping us all fed. There are a few places where you can go and eat out and some really nice people who make living here a very enjoyable experience. There are however, no secrets out here and you have to be all right with that. If you have a skeleton in your closet, you can bet that everyone has talked with it and found out your deep dark secrets. If that bothers you, then this place isn’t for you.

It cuts both ways though. We have barely purchased any clothes for our young kids since they keep appearing by the bag on our front porch. During a particularly nasty storm last year that had us with out power, water or heat for several days, we lived with neighbors who were only too happy to share their home and wood stove. We lock our door when we go out for the day, but it’s really a formality since most folks know where the key is kept. I really like it here.

As our drive progressed, I took the rare opportunity to take some pictures of the things that I love about this place, both beautiful and foolish. Here are the products of my drive.


The apples are dropping now and the island geese are very happy about that. I don’t actually know if these are anyone’s geese in particular. They hang out on this end of the island and cruse the shallows down at the beach. You can find them year round either looking for handouts, hissing at random kids or more often, both.


The cottages and year round houses here tend to date from the early 1900’s. This neat little row, over shadowed by ancient oak trees looks down to the water. The 1950’s era lawn chairs are probably the real deal. It’s such a pain to get stuff out to the island so folks tend to hang on to things longer and take better care of them.


One of the last, old street signs. Its blue enameled face shows the creativity that went into naming the roads.


The view across the swamp of the old gun battery. During the Second World War, German u-boats were known to prowl these waters. The remains of military installations dot the islands of Maine. Ours in no exception.


The view from “back shore” is one of open ocean and other islands. Some are empty, some have towns of their own and others are owned completely by the rich and xenophobic. We can all see each other from our own little rocks in the water, but don’t visit much.


An excellent example of why I like it here so much. An islander’s car wound up in this little swamp at one point and had to be towed out. The road crew out here thought that the event deserved a marker. If you come to visit, remember; no parking in the middle of the swamp!


And back we come to our main street. A typical off season Saturday morning with empty roads and quiet lawns. When it’s time for the ferry to make its visit at our dock there will be a brief flurry of activity but once its gone, all will be quiet again.

So, that was our drive on a nice Saturday morning. Lulu Belle had slept through most of it and by the time I had come back around to my starting point, my folks and visiting son were up and enjoying the day. It’s not often that I get to take stock of my home. We spend so much time immersed in the work of life that we forget to pop our heads up from time to time and actually look around. It was a good morning for that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a pile of lumber that needs to be cut, placed and nailed into the approximate shape of an addition on Lulu Belle’s room. I glad for the mornings respite.

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