Vashon Island Stories: The Ferry

Faithful blog readers: If you tell an embarrassing story a thousand times, it becomes less embarrassing, right? That’s the theory I operate on. Which is why I’m  going to tell you about a recent trip that my lovely wife Jen and I took to visit a relative on Vashon Island in Washington state.

There’s a ferry to get to Vashon from the south, in Tacoma. You get on at Point Defiance and cross to Tahlequah. I’m the type of person who hates surprises and needs to know the lay of the land whenever I go anywhere. (I’m a real thrill to travel with. Just ask Jen. Actually, take my word for it.) So I asked our relative where to meet the ferry, what it’s like, etc. He said, “It’s easy: you go through a traffic roundabout, take the second right, pay at the booth on top of the hill, then get in the line of cars that leads down the hill to the ferry. It’s a two-story car ferry.” I was thinking, Jeez, buddy. Hills, roundabouts, booths, lines of cars; which part of that is the easy part? But fine, whatever.

I hesitate to share the whole story with you here, but it starts 7 hours south of Tacoma in a coastal Oregon town where we had been staying the previous several days. Our teen was with us, and she woke up with food poisoning (Just a wild guess, but it was probably the dive-bar calamari from the night before). She was vomiting from 6 to 11 a.m., when we had to check out of our rental home. (That was an awkward conversation: “I know you’re feeling horrible, but do you think you can stop with the vomiting by 11 a.m.? We really need to turn these house keys in at the drop box by then.”) We skipped the scenic coastal route and took the more direct inland route to get to the ferry faster. (Amazingly, she stopped throwing up the minute we got in the rental car and made it to Vashon with no issues.)

So that’s the backstory: seven hours of highway driving, with a teenager holding a paper bag to her face most of the way; we were a little frazzled by the time we reached Tacoma. I wear hearing aids, and they have Bluetooth, so my phone is connected to them. Google Maps was talking in my ears, plus Jen was reading all of the route info from my phone aloud to me. When we got to the roundabout, we missed the second right. (And by “we,” I mean “I.”) So “we” (okay, “I”) took the third right, which led us down the hill into the Point Defiance Zoo (instead of to the ferry booth at the top of the hill).

So now I’m driving around a zoo, Google Maps is telling me alternate routes (“In 500 feet, turn right at the Monkey Pavilion”), Jen is reading Google Maps aloud (“It says that in 500 feet, you should turn right at the Monkey Pavilion”), and I’m weaving around thinking that I have to work my way back up the hill somehow. (EDITOR NOTE: He made up the part about the Monkey Pavilion; there probably aren’t monkeys at the Point Defiance Zoo, but he’s too lazy to look up the fact that Google Maps redirected him around the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and not the Monkey Pavilion.)

We came out at the bottom of the hill through this restaurant parking lot, and I can see that if I turn right, I will go back up the hill, which now has a long line of cars waiting to board the ferry. But Google Maps and Jen are both telling me, “Turn left now to get on the ferry!” I said to Jen, “Left here?” She was like, “Yes! yes! Turn left!” (You can see how I’m setting her up to take the rap for what’s about to happen.)

So I turn left, placing us on the pier where, 50 yards down, there is a security booth, guards, and ferry workers, but no ferry because it hasn’t returned from Tahlequah yet. Which means that no one is supposed to actually drive on the pier yet. The guards start yelling at me and waving their arms (I’m imagining klaxons blaring, security breach protocol kicking into action, frantic calls to Homeland Security), but they are too far away from me to hear what they are saying, so I do the only reasonable thing that pops into my tiny squirrel brain: I drive forward toward them, roll down my car window, and yell, “I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!!!”

This one guard looked at me and said, “That’s obvious.” Then she told me, “Put the car in reverse, do a U turn at the pier entrance, drive up the hill, and buy your ticket at the booth. Then get in line with all the other cars.”

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Postcard mural at Vashon Adventures in Vashon Town. I think they should add a tiny rental car, with a tiny me in the driver’s seat, yelling in my tiny voice, “I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!!!”

At this point, I should mention that if there was room under the passenger seat for our daughter to have crawled underneath, she would have. And you should have seen the looks I got from the cars in line as I drove past them up the hill. I shrugged at each of them with a face that I’m sure said, “Hello, I’m a Midwestern tourist obliviously driving a rental car in unauthorized areas out here. It’s part of my rascally charm.”

Long story short (too late, I know), we made it onto Vashon safely. And our relatives loved the story. It became a running theme for the trip: When they took us to Seattle to visit the art museum, they were trying to figure out the parking garage payment system. I told them, “Just roll down your window at the exit and yell, ‘I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!’ That usually seems to work for me.”

After our vacation, I was reading an article about avoiding post-trip hangovers and letdowns. One of the suggestions in the article was to bring some aspect of the vacation home with you and incorporate it into your everyday life. So I’m taking that suggestion. You might see me in town at the grocery store’s new self-checkout lane. I’m the one not wasting my time reading the instructions on the kiosk. I’m just standing there, gripping my cart, yelling, “I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE!!!” You’d be amazed at how quickly you get service that way.

The Best Films I Saw in 2021

When I was a sophomore in college, I wanted to impress my then-girlfriend (some of you might know her as my lovely wife Jen) with how “hip” and “literate” and “bohemian” I was. So I took her to see the movie “Henry and June,” which was the first film to ever receive the NC-17 rating. NC-17, or “no one 17 and under admitted,” was created to delineate arthouse films with edgy material from pornographic films, which were X-rated. “Henry and June” was playing at our campustown theater (the Co-Ed), and we walked over there. “You might want to bring your student ID and drivers license,” I told my freshman girlfriend, “you don’t want to be turned away because you’re just barely over the age limit.” Tee hee.

When we got to the ticket booth and I requested two for “Henry and June,” the cashier looked us up and down, slid one ticket to Jen, and said to only me, “Can I see some ID?” “What?!? Why?” I said. He didn’t answer me, but instead turned to Jen while verifying my age on my license, “I can’t be too safe: the guy looks like he’s 12 or something.” Jen got a big kick out of it. I ripped my license and my ticket from his hands and stormed into the theater. “How dare he!” I said. “He thinks I’m a little child? I’m a man!” Admittedly, if there was a “You Must Be This Tall to Enter” sign, I probably wouldn’t have made the cut. And my voice was squeaking while I was whining. And my feet were dangling from the theater seat a few inches from the floor. But come on!

Anyway, this is about my list of the best movies I saw in 2021. Another year of hardly any theater-going (I saw one film in theaters: “Free Guy”). Another low number of total films seen: 65 movies, or 1 every 5.6 days. (Is that low? I keep saying it’s low, but it’s still more than once a week.) I saw a lot of clunkers; this was maybe the hardest year to round up 10 good movies. That’s what happens when you follow the Netflix algorithm: “If you watched this bad film, you might like these three other bad films.” Annual disclaimer: These are not the best films of 2021, just the best ones I saw last year, regardless of when they were released.

Unknown1. “Adult Beginners,” 2014 drama/comedy directed by Ross Katz, starring Rose Byrne, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, and Joel McHale. This film is a reminder that the movies I love aren’t always the movies the world loves. It absolutely bombed at the box office, but I related to the story of Nick Kroll’s character struggling to find his way in the world, as he loses his job, moves in with his sister (Byrne) and her husband (Cannavale), and becomes the sitter for his 3-year-old nephew. Comedy/drama gold. Plus, any movie that finds a role for the quirky actor Bobby Moynihan is a bonus.

Unknown2. “The Beatles: Get Back,” 2021 documentary directed by Peter Jackson, starring four musicians you might recall. Does this count as a movie? A three-part, 468-minute piecing-together of the original documentary that was made for the “Let It Be” album sessions, Jackson does a masterful job telling the story of the Beatles, both in the whole series and in the opening 3-minute clip of the first part (it reminded me of the scene from Pixar’s “Up,” where the story of the couple is told without words in a montage). I can say a lot about this, but I will keep it to these two things: 1. I thought I knew everything about the Beatles and their breakup, but this had some surprises and refutations of what we thought we knew, and 2. it displayed the slow, sometimes mundane, sometimes funny, sometimes fruitless creative process of four regular guys who happened to catch lightning in a bottle with nearly every song they made for 8 years straight.

Unknown3. “Love Wedding Repeat,” 2020 romantic comedy directed by Dean Craig, starring Olivia Munn, Sam Claflin, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Allan Mustafa. This Netflix film had charm, humor, eccentric characters, and (of course) a budding romance all centered around the (mostly British) friends attending a wedding in Italy. Munn is underrated as a comic actress, and Claflin appears in two films on my list. Honestly, it could have been straightforward film told chronologically and I would have liked it, but then it pulled a “Sliding Doors”/”About Time”-esque time jump. Still good.

Unknown4. “True Grit,” 2010 Western directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. A much better film than the original 1969 version with John Wayne, this one is more sober while also being truer to the humor-filled novel by Charles Portis. Steinfeld was 13 during the filming, and she pulls off the independent Mattie Ross, seeking justice for her father’s killer. Bridges as Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf make for an odd couple as they hunt down the killer for their own separate, selfish reasons.

Unknown5. “Beastie Boys Story,” 2020 documentary directed by Spike Jonze, starring Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz. You don’t have to be a Beastie Boys fan to understand this film, but it sure helps. Diamond and Horovitz wrote a book about their time in the rap trio (much of the film and book are devoted to praising the other member, the late Adam Yauch). They turned it into a multimedia stage performance, and Jonze filmed it. Funny, more emotion-filled than you would think, and worth it just for the story of the time they toured as the opening act for Madonna.

Unknown6. “Enola Holmes,” 2020 mystery/adventure directed by Harry Bradbeer, starring Millie Bobby Brown, Henry Cavill, Helena Bonham Carter, and Sam Claflin. I’ve read books and seen films that offer twists on the Sherlock Holmes canon, and this one is fun: Brown plays the title character, the young sister of Sherlock (Cavill) and Mycroft (Claflin), who was raised wild by their suddenly disappeared mother (Carter). Her first mystery is to follow the clues left behind; her brothers’ job is to step in and provide adult supervision for their abandoned sibling. This felt like a setup for at least a trilogy.

Unknown7. “I Used to Go Here,” 2020 comedy/drama directed by Kris Rey, starring Gillian Jacobs, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, and Jemaine Clement. Rey previously directed “Unexpected” and used to co-write movies with her ex, Joe Swanberg. This personal film is about Kate Conklin (Jacobs), a writer whose first novel tanked but is invited back to her alma mater (Southern Illinois University) by her former mentor (Clement, always funny). The brief visit turns into a longer stay, including hanging with the college students living in her former house on campus. A slow burner and a fantasy of what it would be like to relive the college experience.

Unknown8. “Standing Up, Falling Down,” 2019 comedy/drama directed by Matt Ratner, starring Ben Schwartz, Eloise Mumford, Billy Crystal, and Grace Gummer. Want to see a film in which Crystal plays a deadbeat dad to his adult kids and a pothead dermatologist? Did not see this one coming. Schwartz, a great improv actor, holds his own in this pairing as a stand-up comic forced to move back in with his parents on Long Island; a chance encounter with Crystal’s character leads to a chance for Crystal to be a better mentor to a stranger than to his own kids. Funny and sad.

Unknown9. “The Way Back,” 2020 drama directed by Gavin O’Connor, starring Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Michaela Watkins, and Janina Gavankar. Oh man. This sports drama had every opportunity to take the easy cliches and run with them, but it pulls no punches. Affleck portrays Jack Cunningham, a local basketball legend who takes the coaching job at his former high school. There are some backstory issues: his alcoholism, his difficult upbringing, his failed marriage and family. While we watch him deal with the fallout from his own problems, we see him make a group of young men believe in themselves. This film doesn’t take the obvious path; don’t expect “High School Musical.”

Unknown10. “Ghost Team,” 2016 comedy directed by Oliver Irving, starring Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Amy Sedaris, Justin Long, Paul Downs, and Melonie Diaz. This goofy film follows a group of amateur ghost hunters who believe an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the woods is haunted, so they decide to spend the night filming any supernatural occurrences. A parody of the long-running reality TV show “Ghost Hunters,” with Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) and Sedaris leading the way.

Movies that just missed the cut: “Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong,” “Opening Night,” “Emma.,” “Literally, Right Before Aaron,” “Palmer,” “Comet.”

Best Books 2021

When I was a grade schooler in the (ahem) late 1970s, I loved going to the school library at the center of the school building’s top floor. The library room was a pass-through: on one side was a door that led to the 3rd and 4th grade rooms, and on the other side was the door to the 5th and 6th grade rooms. Weirdly, each grade’s two classes were in one big room separated by either an accordion wall or just moveable bulletin boards, and for example, to get to the 5th grade rooms, you had to traipse through the back of the 6th grade rooms. So it was a constant stream of interruptions, with children or teachers or whole classes of children and teachers opening the main door and walking behind the desks of all the other classes; no wonder I have attention-span issues.

UnknownAnyway, back to the library: I fell in love with a certain type of book: realistic stories of kids leading normal lives. I didn’t want to read science fiction or horror or fantasy or anything that was too far out of the real world. The books that got all the attention were the Judy Blume books, specifically Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great, and Superfudge. So funny and relatable for kids trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Those led me to books by another author, Constance C. Greene, and her five “Al” books:  A Girl Called Al; I Know You, Al; Your Old Pal, Al; Alexandra the Great; Just Plain Al; and Al’s Blind Date. There was something about the way she wrote with heart and warmth about characters my age who weren’t idiots that appealed to me, even though I didn’t have divorced parents or live in an apartment building in a big city like they did. I bring this up because Greene, who published 25 books, passed away in 2021, at the age of 96. If you have a grade schooler or know a grade schooler (or are a grade schooler, or act like a grade schooler), track her books down.

I managed to reach my annual “24 books by New Year’s Eve” goal: I read 27 books, or 1 every 13.5 days. These are my top ten:

Unknown1. This Will All Be Over Soon, Cecily Strong. You might know Strong, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, from Saturday Night Live, but this book is not a typical memoir and isn’t a book of funny stories or “how I got famous.” It deals with some heavy topics: the death of Strong’s close cousin at age 30, some painful events from her youth, and a fledgling relationship during the pandemic. I was avoiding reading “pandemic” books, but this one was worth it. Very honest, raw, and unexpected.

Unknown2. Bewilderment, Richard Powers. The multiple-award-winning author (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) who grew up in the Chicago suburbs (is this a pattern on this list?), Powers’ latest novel had a few things going on. This is a story about a father and son dealing with grief; a science-fiction story about searching for life on other planets; and a comment on topics as diverse as climate change and the overmedication of our youth. It took me about a third of the book to figure out what was going on; that’s a sign that a book has my attention.

Unknown3. No Cure for Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), Kate Bowler. Another searing memoir, this time from a professor of religion who, at the age of 35, receives a cancer diagnosis that puts her life on hold. She walks us through the frustration and absurdity of dealing with her illness; the often misguided suggestions of the “live your best life now” self-help movement; and how to balance hope and despair while facing death.

Unknown4. Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney. It seems as if I have an Irish writer on my list every year. Rooney, tagged with the “voice of her generation” label, has already had one novel turned into a BBC series (Normal People). This novel follows four characters: an Irish novelist living in a small coastal Ireland town; her Tinder date/new friend, a warehouse worker; and her two best friends from Dublin, a man and woman who may or may not have a thing for each other. Filled with Rooney’s droll humor, frank sex scenes, class issues, and ruminations on art, aesthetics, and history, it also mirrors Richard Powers’ book (described above) in addressing a generation that feels that the world as we know it is beyond repair.

Unknown5. Stories to Tell, Richard Marx. Memoir from another Chicagoland native (it is a trend!). You might know Marx from his massively successful pop ballads from the late 1980s-early 1990s (“Don’t Mean Nothing,” “Right Here Waiting,” “Hold On to the Nights”) or from his massively poufed hair. You should know him for his ability to speak his mind on social media. This book is the best type of memoir: a rise/fall/rise again story with tons of name dropping (Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Kenny Rogers, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Loggins, and a cast of dozens more) and wild stories you don’t see coming, like his dealing with a Covid-like illness starting in 2019, or his band fleeing a Taiwanese gangster on a race to the airport. Good read.

Unknown6. How to Live, or A  Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. This biography examines the life and writing of Michel de Montaigne, whose essays in the 1500s in France arguably were the first time someone wrote honestly about their innermost thoughts and published them for the world to see. There’s a through-line from his writing to the personal blogs and Instagram of today. You have the sense when reading Montaigne all these centuries later of, “how did he spell out what has been in my brain?” Some 250 years after Montaigne’s death, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life.” Bakewell puts Montaigne’s writing in the context of the constant wars raging around his hometown his whole life.

Unknown7. Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor. Kastor, the great American marathoner, writes the story of how strengthening her mind did more for her running career than logging miles ever did. Not just for runners, her backstory is amazing enough (adopted at birth, no one in her family had any running experience, and it was a total shock to them and her when she immediately had success in grade school), but the mind games she lays out would work for anyone struggling with goal setting.

Unknown8. Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman. A great summer read, humorist Hodgman is recognizable as the PC in the old Apple commercials (vs. Justin Long as the Mac) and as a former Comedy Central The Daily Show correspondent. His earlier books were satirical almanacs with made-up facts; this is an actual memoir of Hodgman’s life, focusing on his family’s vacation homes in Massachusetts and Maine. Very funny.

Unknown9. Brat: An ’80s Story, Andrew McCarthy. Best known as a member of the “Brat Pack,” young actors labeled Hollywood’s next big thing; even though McCarthy was in some of what we consider the “Brat Pack” films (“Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Less Than Zero”), he was a New Yorker who wasn’t actually close with any of the other actors he was lumped with. McCarthy, now a travel writer and director, focuses on the early, years-of-struggling part of his career and his difficult relationship with his father.

Unknown10. Yearbook, Seth Rogen. The funniest book I read all year. This memoir is pretty much what you would expect and more from Rogen, an actor/writer/producer: stories from when he was a child, including starting his standup career in middle school; lots of weed smoking; and great vignettes about famous people (his description of two very uncomfortable encounters with Nicolas Cage is a standout, and I’m guessing they will never work together if Cage read this book.)

Books that just missed the top ten: I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy, Erin Carlson; Before the Ruins, Victoria Gosling; Good Company, Cynthia D’Aprix; Live Your Life, Amanda Kloots; Paul Simon: A Life, Robert Hilburn.

“Can You Hear Me Now?” and Other Dumb Jokes About My Hearing Loss

The first job I ever had was as a summer janitor in my old junior high school. It was as mind-numbing as you would expect: scraping gum off desks with a razor, cleaning out lockers, stripping and waxing floors, etc. The worst two-day task I performed was emptying the shop-class sawdust collection system; outside the building, there was this two-story-tall cylinder about 5 feet in diameter, and when you removed a door at the base of it, there was a zippered cloth liner filled with a whole years’ worth of sawdust. My boss parked me in front of it with a large lunchroom garbage can and said, “Scoop the sawdust into it with your hands and then empty it in the dumpster. Have fun!” It took me about 10 hours. No gloves, no mask, no eye protection. For a month I had sawdust in my hair, ears, eyes, and other places that I will let your imagination come up with. I wouldn’t be shocked if an x-ray showed sawdust still lining my lung cavities.

What I’m saying is, we didn’t follow standard safety precautions at this workplace. The next summer, my brother got hired, and the district decided that he and I would be a great carpet-cleaning crew for the five schools in the district. We spent the next four summers working with an industrial carpet cleaning system. Picture a machine about the size and shape of R2-D2, with a see-through semispherical lid so we could see it fill up with dirty water, and a long hose attached to a vacuum that would spray the water on the carpet, then cycle a brush over it, then suck up the water. Exciting stuff.

We got all of about 2 minutes of training: a guy named Red plugged this eardrum-rattlingly loud thing in and yelled things like, “Dump the water thing in the hall closet when it’s full.” Then we were unleashed on the ugly green heavy-duty carpets in our old grade school. Since the whole freaking school was carpeted, we spent most of the summer there, clearing out the rooms of furniture, running the machine over the carpet, waiting a day for it to dry, and putting the furniture back.  We then rotated to the other schools, which only had carpeted offices and libraries, except the tiniest school, which for some godforsaken reason had a carpeted gym/lunchroom. Why?

What was nice about the whole situation was that the janitors in charge of the different schools treated our job like it involved some mysterious alchemy that we apprenticed at for years under a master carpetologist. We’d arrive with the machine at a school, a janitor would show us to the library and ask how long it would take to clean it. My brother and I would look at each other and both be thinking, About 2 days, tops, and my brother (who did all the talking) would say, “10 days would be reasonable.” The janitor would close the doors on us and say, “I will leave you boys to it; let me know if you need anything.” Then we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone for 2 weeks. (NOTE TO MY FORMER BOSSES: I’m kidding, of course! We worked hard every day!) (SIDE NOTE TO MY BROTHER: Wink, wink!)

I’m finally getting to the point of this blog post; thanks for hanging in there! Like most teenaged siblings, my brother and I could barely tolerate each other’s presence, let alone having to do a task that required us to stand within 4 feet of each other most of the time (one of us would pull R2-D2 backwards while the other would have the hose over his shoulder and run the vacuum). The machine was so loud that if we wanted to talk to each other, we would have to scream. People would avoid the wings of the school where we were because of the noise. You would think that, for safety’s sake, we would be given earplugs, earmuffs, or some form of hearing protection. Did you read the first part of this post where I talked about inhaling sawdust for 10 hours? Do you think I told you that just to entertain you? Of course we weren’t given hearing protection!

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My brother and I thought we were as cool as John Cusack with our boombox. In fact, we were more likely to be getting caught by our boss while dancing to the Miami Sound Machine’s “1-2-3″ than to be wooing a girl with it.

As a matter of fact, my brother and I came to the conclusion that the best way to spice up this mind-numbing job was to bring a boombox to work and blast a radio station all day. A “boombox,” for you youngsters who didn’t live through the ’80s and ’90s, was a stereo that played AM and FM radio and cassettes that you could carry around for the specific purpose of blaring loud music to annoy older people. Great times. It ate 10 batteries per month.

So we would be rocking out to the radio, cranking the volume up when the machine was on, and (sometimes) remembering to turn it down when we were done. Our conversations throughout the summers went something like this:

My brother: “I like this new Phil Collins song.” Me: “What?” My brother: “I said, ‘I like this song!’” Me: “WHAT?!?” My brother: “ARE YOU TRYING TO PISS ME OFF? BECAUSE IT’S WORKING!” Me: “WORKING? YEAH, WE’RE WORKING! WHY?” Etc.

And now, the real-deal-Holyfield point of this story: October is National Protect Your Hearing Month, and I’m here to tell you, you should take the proper steps to protect your hearing. I did not, and I’m paying for it now. Here’s what happened in the ensuing years since my adventures with my brother: I put on headphones and listened to loud music to drown out noises at a desk job and at home. I went to many rock concerts with no hearing protection and listened to very loud bands (Green Day, U2, the Ramones, and blink-182 being among the loudest; congrats, guys! You did it: you broke my ears!). I was a stay-at-home dad to three kids, and the primary summer caregiver to a godchild, for many years and seemed to always have a crying/laughing/yelling kid on my hip, bleating directly into my ears.

I started to suspect that something was amiss with my ears in 2018. I had gone to a concert, and the next day, as was typical, my ears were ringing. Eventually, that went away; also typical. A little while later (not clear on the timeline here because it was insidious and hard to pinpoint; weeks? months?), I noticed the ringing again. I thought it was temporary and would fade out; it never did. I started to ask around, and a few people mentioned tinnitus. I looked that up and saw a description of what I had: constant ringing or buzzing, worse when there was no other obvious noise to distract from it. I also saw a phrase that I dreaded, something like, “Many people learn to lead normal lives with this condition.” That’s never good. There’s no surefire cure for it,  just tricks to manage it or take your mind off of it. My tinnitus sounds like annual cicadas at their loudest; it’s a buzzing that is always there, louder in my right ear but definitely in both ears.

So I went for a year with tinnitus before I secretly planned on doing something about it. I say “secretly” because the other aspect of my hearing that I was noticing at the same time was that I was losing the ability to follow some conversations. Research on tinnitus led me to believe that tinnitus doesn’t necessarily lead to hearing loss, but I’d think, “Then why is the tinnitus drowning out peoples’ words?” It was frustrating.

I’d talk to people about it, and I’d mostly hear, “You’re in your 40s, that’s way too young, maybe you just have a listening problem.” But it’s hard to ignore when people are talking and they sound like every adult in a Charlie Brown movie: “Mwa-mwa-mwa.” It got to the point that it was easier to avoid conversations than to struggle through them, ask people to repeat themselves, or figure things out using context clues. Crowds were a nightmare; I’d let Jen talk with people and would ask her what they said afterward. If anyone thought I was ignoring them when they tried to say hi to me, it wasn’t on purpose. Jen and my kids were getting extremely irritated with my incessant “what did you say?” And if Jen wanted to whisper sweet nothings in my ear, that’s exactly what I heard: nothing. Very romantic.

I knew I had to do something about it, so I made a plan to see an audiologist in March of 2020.

Then the world shut down. So I put it off during the pandemic, and it got worse. In a way, it was easier for me to stay home and not talk to anyone. Mask wearing added yet another layer to the difficulty in understanding people in public. I have had to say, “I have a hearing problem,” on multiple occasions to cashiers.

Finally, this summer I went to an audiologist and underwent a hearing exam. It involved me wearing a headset to do the whole routine: raising my hand to indicate which ear I hear a beep in, repeating words if I understood them while there was crowd noise playing, and repeating about a hundred short words back to the audiologist in rapid succession. The results were a good news/bad news deal: The bad news was that I did indeed have hearing loss, of the “mild-to-moderate” persuasion. The good news was that I caught it early enough that hearing aids would help me. (Apparently, most people wait too late for hearing aids to keep the ear-to-brain connection working, so if you have an older relative who says, “I tried hearing aids and they didn’t work,” they probably should have gotten them earlier.) The audiologist told me that I was younger than most of her hearing-loss patients. This will probably be the last time in my life that I will be called “younger than” for anything. I’m not even going to pretend to provide technical info here about hearing loss and the associated health problems with it; talk to an audiologist for details.

I went to one more loud concert (the Hella Mega show at Wrigley Field with Green Day, Weezer, and Fall Out Boy), couldn’t understand most of it, and ordered the hearing aids.

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Sexy, no? (Answer: no.)

And has it changed my life for the better? Yes and no. Noises are definitely clearer. The audiologist took a piece of paper at my fitting and crumpled it up before and after my hearing aids were in; before, I didn’t hear the paper rustling, and after, it was amazing. It was like one of those toddlers who wear glasses for the first time and see their mom and start smiling. (Or are they color blind and they see colors for the first time? I’m a little fuzzy on this, since I’m basing this off one 3-minute video that popped up between cute puppy-adoption videos on my Facebook feed.) Many of the new sounds that I hear are ancillary ones, like these creaks in my kitchen when I step on loose floor tiles. Or running water: it sounds like I can pick out separate streams when my hearing aids are in. This isn’t mind-blowing, I know, but it’s different. I’ve learned that I still need to pay attention to someone speaking to me instead of multitasking.

How about the tinnitus? The audiologist said that some, but not all, people find that the tinnitus will go away when their hearing aids are in use. Alas, it hasn’t really improved mine. I’ve learned tricks to zone it out over the years, though. And if I don’t want to hear someone rant about something (way more common these days), I focus on the tinnitus cicadas and ignore the conversation.

Other questions: Does anyone notice them? Not really. They are small enough that people don’t see the clear tube coming out of my ear and connecting to the receiver behind it. The receiver is a similar color to my hair, and if I have my glasses on, it looks like part of my glasses frame.

Are they uncomfortable? At first, it was weird having something stuck in my ear canal. But I’m used to the feeling now.

Are they easy to maintain? Very. I got ones with rechargeable batteries, so at night and when I am going to shower, I take them out and place them in their charging case. I brush them off daily to keep clean, and that’s about it.

Was it strange or embarrassing to start wearing them? Sure, but it’s much better to deal with the awkwardness of people seeing and asking about them than it was to not be able to hold conversations.

Are they sexy? Heck yeah. There’s nothing sexier than a man who can hear when his partner talks to him. (At least that’s what Jen tells me; there might be sexier things, but I’ll take her word for it.)

So what did we learn, folks? If your hearing is fine, protect it now while you still can: wear earplugs with loud equipment or at concerts, keep the volume down on your headphones, and don’t have kids. I kid! I’m joking! If you already suspect hearing loss, I urge you to go get those ears examined. I promise you’ll end up in a better place. Also, if you find yourself cleaning out a sawdust collection unit, wear a mask; trust me on that one.

 

 

The Best Films I Saw in 2020

When I was in college, my buddy Mike asked me if I wanted to attend a matinee showing of Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” at the Co-Ed Theatre on Green Street in Champaign, IL (it closed in 1999 and later was razed for luxury apartment buildings).

We entered the darkened theater, and the opening credits were rolling: a mostly black screen with images in deep purples, blues, and reds of a jazz quartet’s instruments (and Denzel Washington’s profile). It was impossible to see the theater’s seats. Mike whispered something like, “I can’t see anything; let’s go about halfway down the rows.” I had to reach out and put my hand on his shoulder just to know where he was. He found  two open seats right next to this one guy. We sat down, and in the darkness, I could see this guy was staring at us hard. What’s his problem?, I thought.

When the first scene started and the theater lightened up, I noticed that there was not a single soul in any of the rows in front of us. Then I looked behind us; there were exactly three people in the whole theater: Mike, me, and the guy we sat next to. Awkward! The whole movie, I’d catch the guy glancing at us, I’m sure wondering what our problem was. The seats weren’t ample, so Mike and he had to share the tiny armrest.

After the movie was over, we walked out, and I burst into laughter when we got onto the Green Street sidewalk. I said to Mike, “Why didn’t you move to other seats and give the guy some space?” Mike said, “After a certain point, it would have been weirder if we moved away from the guy than if I stayed right next to him.”

I didn’t visit a movie theater in 2020. Like the rest of the world, I did my viewing at home. I watched 66 movies, or 1 every 5.5 days. That’s less than I usually average per year; I ate into that with binge-watching TV shows. Here’s my annual disclaimer: This isn’t a list of the best movies of 2020, but a roundup of the best films I saw, no matter what year they were released. Here we go:

cba4825e2936ce64d980d529d6f62a271. “Jojo Rabbit,” 2019 war satire directed by Taika Waititi, starring Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, and Thomasin McKenzie. I swore there was no way I was going to see and like a movie that had a comic portrayal of a boy and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Then I saw it. Oh man. At first, the Nazis are portrayed as bumbling, “Hogan’s Heroes”-era Germans, characters we can laugh at. Then things turn more sinister as the film develops. The story of a boy, his mother, and possibly another person living in his house in Germany during World War II. It reminded me of Roberto Begnini’s 1997 “La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful).”

Unknown2. “Columbus,” 2017 drama directed by Kogonada, starring Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film where the buildings are as much a character as the people. This quiet film follows Jin (Cho) as he travels from South Korea to small-town Columbus, Indiana, to tend to his father, a renowned architecture professor who has suffered a medical emergency. He strikes up a friendship with Casey (Richardson), a local librarian. If you’ve never been to Columbus, you should look it up: the city is filled with Modernist buildings designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei.

Unknown3. “Chef,” 2014 comedy/drama directed by Jon Favreau, starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony. I gravitated to parent/child relationship films this year, maybe because the pandemic and state lockdowns led to all three of my own kids living together in our house for what I imagine will be the last time (insert sad-face emoji here). I got into this film backwards: Favreau and his chef consultant for the movie, Roy Choi, went on to make a Netflix doc series called “The Chef Show,” on which they cook with other famous chefs or celebrities. I realized after the first episode that I needed to watch the film that predated the show. Just a gorgeous story on what drives chefs to such extremes, the stress of cooking for others (restaurant owners and critics), and also a wonderful father/son travel movie. Vergara was a pleasant surprise in this one as Favreau’s ex-wife who nudges him to be a better dad.

images4. “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” 2016 documentary directed by Lonny Price. In 1981, Stephen Sondheim (along with George Furth) created “Merrily We Roll Along,” a musical about a successful film producer and his friends, telling their story backwards, ending with them as youngsters about to embark on their lives. Sondheim (and director Hal Prince) got the idea to use teenaged, unknown actors to portray the same characters. It was a disaster; the musical’s Broadway run closed after only 16 performances. This doc takes a clear-eyed look back at all the ways things went south, including last-minute rewrites and the male lead having to be replaced because he wasn’t right for the role, but mostly the inexperience of the actors. The director (who was in the original cast) interviews Sondheim, Prince (before his death), and many of the original cast members, including Jason Alexander and Giancarlo Esposito. Funny, redemptive, and emotional watching the actors looking back on how their own lives played out for better or worse since the show, this is for anyone who loves live theater.

Unknown5. “Blinded by the Light,” 2019 drama directed by Gurinder Chadha, starring Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, and Nell Willaims. I love films that aren’t quite musicals but are dominated by their soundtracks. This based-on-a-true-story film follows Javed (Kalra), a Pakistani immigrant in Luton, England, in the late 1980s, a time of deep and vocal anti-Pakistani racism in British politics and society. A classmate of Javed’s gives him a cassette copy of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” and something about Bruce’s words speaks to him and changes his life. A touching film about the immigrant experience, the generation gap, and the power of dreams to drive us to a better place.

Unknown6. “Gifted,” 2017 drama/comedy directed by Marc Webb, starring Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Octavia Spencer, and Jenny Slate. A small film (compared with Evans’ Captain America films) about a guy trying to raise a 7-year-old girl quietly in a small coastal Florida town, and the girl’s mathematical talents draw attention to her that leads to unwanted attention from his family and neighbors. It started out predictable (hmm, will Evans start dating the first-grade teacher played by Slate?), but then it went places I didn’t expect.

Unknown7. “Dean,” 2016 comedy/drama directed by Demetri Martin, starring Demetri Martin, Gillian Jacobs, Kevin Kline, and Mary Steenburgen. I love cringy movies that derive their humor from placing characters in awkward situations. Martin does this throughout this funny movie about an illustrator in New York (and his father) dealing with his mother’s death and his lack of ambition. His work leads him to Los Angeles, where he meets someone at a party (Jacobs) and decides on a whim to stay longer. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re a fan of Martin’s standup (or his old Comedy Central show), you’ll get this.

Unknown8. “Good Boys,” 2019 comedy directed by Gene Stupnitsky, starring Jacob Tremblay, Brady Noon, Keith L. Williams, Molly Gordon, and Midori Francis. If 2019′s “Booksmart” could be (mostly inaccurately) labeled “Superbad” but with girls, then this film is “Superbad” but with preteen boys. Coming-of-age adventure about three boys who skip school and their misadventures chasing down a drone that they need to retrieve before a parent notices that it is missing. The raunchy parts are not for everyone (there’s a running gag about the boys misunderstanding what sex toys are; it’s that type of humor), but there’s a depth here too; in the end, it’s a sweet story about friends being there for each other.

Unknown9. “Marriage Story,” 2019 romantic drama directed by Noah Baumbach, starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda. Should have been called “Divorce Story,” am I right? I like Baumbach’s films, although this one had less humor than his previous output. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Dern winning Best Supporting Actress. It’s a breakup movie that involves cutthroat divorce lawyers   and cross-country custody battles (and mirrors Baumbach’s real life, a little uncomfortably), but it’s also about learning to raise a child with love and coming to terms with the end of a relationship.

61-YbvBswcL._AC_SL1481_10. “The Farewell,” 2019 drama directed by Lulu Wang, starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, and Diana Lin. Awkwafina, known more for her rap and her comedic turns in “Crazy Rich Asians” and a show on Comedy Central, plays Billi, an American woman who is called to China to attend a fake wedding for one of her cousins, a ruse to get her family together one last time with her grandmother, who has been diagnosed with a terminal condition but not told about it. A film about how much we are obligated to do for our family, and how big we are willing to let our lies grow to make others happy. Hard to believe that this was based on the true story of the director Wang’s family.

Movies that just missed the cut: “They Shall Not Grow Old,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “The Death of Stalin,” “Knives Out,” “Wild Nights with Emily,” “Lady Bird,” “The Trip to Greece.”

Best Books 2020

Can somebody poke a stick in 2020 and see if it’s really dead? I’ve procrastinated on doing my year-end book and movie lists because I can’t shake the feeling that we’re still slogging through last year. For the second year in a row, I got bogged down in a book that took me a ridiculous amount of time to read. Plus, it didn’t even make the list! (It was a feel-bad-about-what-we’ve-done-to-the-world New York Times bestseller with the subtitle A Brief History of Humankind. It was not brief, and it was not kind to humans.) I spent a lot of time reading up on the global pandemic and not enough on reading books for enjoyment; I read 23 books, or one every 15.9 days. Anyway, here are the ten best books I read last year:

511ZpFF6RuL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_1. Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu. This novel is either (a) the story of Willis Wu, an actor who can only get certain “Generic Asian Man” jobs in film (and never the leads) because he is of Asian descent, or (b) the screenplay for a kung fu movie in which Willis acts, filmed in his Chinatown neighborhood, or (c) the inner thoughts of an actor on the set of a buddy-cop TV show, or…There’s a reason this book won the National Book Award for Fiction last year. Funny, imaginative, deals with deeper issues like immigration, racism in Hollywood and the wider world, and how assimilation affects different generations of a family. I kept thinking, “Ah, now I know what’s happening,” and then things would change again.

81VYo5yM+HL2. Horror Stories: A Memoir, Liz Phair. Phair is a Chicago-raised musician who came to fame with her 1993 Exile in Guyville album, and anyone familiar with her stuff would not be surprised to know that this is not a typical celebrity name-dropper memoir. It’s a nonlinear recounting of dark moments in Phair’s life (there’s a reason the title is not Happy Stories), and she’s never more clear-eyed than when she examines her own failings. (In recalling an affair that ended two marriages, she says of herself and the other guy: “We both wholly and totally suck as human beings and we know it.”) She doesn’t talk much about her songs, which is fine; she speaks especially to young women who need to hear how to navigate a world (specifically, the music industry) that doesn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for them to show their talents.

61ypIeAVG7L3. Sweet Sorrow, David Nicholls. I can tell how much I’m enjoying a book by how frequently I want to interrupt my lovely wife Jen and read her the funny parts from it. I did that a lot with this one; I kept saying, “You should read this book, but let me tell you about this one section.” Eventually, I told her the whole plot and the ending. (Ruining books and movies for my wife; that’s part of my rascally charm.) In Nicholls’ book, Charlie Lewis is about to get married in London, but he gets invited to the 20-year reunion of a theater troupe that he belonged to one summer when he was 16 years old. In flashbacks, we hear the story of how this directionless kid with a falling-apart family follows a girl into a building and gets talked into acting in a local production of “Romeo and Juliet.” There are really four or five stories going on here, and Nicholls jumps back and forth, leaving us wondering what happened in his relationships with his father, his friends, and his teen crush, and what’s going to happen to him at the reunion and with his fiancee.

41ccu2CHdgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_4. When All Is Said: A Novel, Anne Griffin. 84-year-old Maurice Hannigan sits down at a hotel bar in his small Irish town and, throughout the course of an afternoon and evening, offers five silent whiskey toasts to the people who have meant the most to him in his lifetime. We hear the story of his life, his loves, his regrets, and one secret that he has kept since his teen years that changed the course of two families for generations. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel.

Unknown5. What Makes Olga Run?, Bruce Grierson. My neighbor loaned me this book because she knew I’m a runner and would like it. The hilariously long subtitle says it all: The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives. Grierson is a reporter who had heard about this nonagenarian track star, Olga Kotelko, and how she kept getting faster and stronger as she aged. He convinced her to allow him to put her through a battery of tests (physical, DNA, mental) to see if he could find the keys to her astonishing accolades and longevity. (At the time of the book, Olga held 23 age-group world records in track and field events.) Was it her genes? Her exercise? Her diet? Where she lived? A fascinating story of one woman’s life and how her resilience shaped her success.

Unknown6. Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson. I love reading good pirate stories, and this one’s about the seventeenth century’s most notorious pirate, who has somehow been all but forgotten. Henry Every commandeered a ship on which he served, aimed it toward India, and led a ruthless assault on an Indian royal convoy that led to one of the most lucrative robberies in seafaring history. The worldwide manhunt and bounty that the British government placed on his head led to the first global effort to stop piracy, and in the process, the British and Indian governments’ and the British East India Company’s roles in the outcome changed the course of world history and led to the rise of multinational capitalism. Think I’m exaggerating? Then read the book!

images7. True Grit, Charles Portis. I had watched the original movie version of this 1968 book, with John Wayne as one-eyed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, helping a 14-year-old Mattie Ross avenge her father’s death at the hands of his farmhand, Tom Chaney. The John Wayne version had a lighter tone than the Joel and Ethan Coen-produced remake; I heard that the book had way more humor than one might expect after watching the films. Portis’ only western novel tells the story of an elderly Mattie Ross recounting what happened in her childhood in Arkansas in the 1870s. After Chaney kills her father, young Mattie seeks out the toughest lawman she can find, and matches up with Cogburn. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who has been tracking Chaney, comes along, and they end up taking on the notorious Ned Pepper gang. A dryly funny page turner.

Unknown8. Less, Andrew Sean Greer. This Pulitzer Prize winner tells the story of Arthur Less, a (mostly failing) novelist about to turn 50, who gets an invitation to his ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Seeking an excuse to avoid it, he decides to say yes to an unusual series of adventures that take him around the world, from Paris to Morocco to Berlin to India. A picaresque novel that was a great summer read during my travel-free quarantine summer.

images9. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy. Did the subtitle already put you to sleep? Well, wake up, America! Because Tallamy proposes a new national park, one that stretches from sea to sea and runs through every homeowner’s backyard. Dubbed Homegrown National Park, it would create conservation corridors that would help stave off the extinction of animal life that is crucial to keeping our ecosystem thriving. He connects the reader to an online database that will tell you which native plants that you can plant in your backyard that will support the most diverse and abundant wildlife (hint: in almost every region of the country, it’s the oak tree). An engaging read that has me rethinking some of the plants I have in my yard. (The evil ornamental pear tree in my front yard is on his no-no list.)

images10. Star Wars From a Certain Point of View, various authors. This collection of stories was written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Star Wars saga and contains 40 different stories from (mostly) minor or as-yet-unexplored characters from the Star Wars universe. This is really for Star Wars fans who would like to hear what was going on in the mind of, for example, a Jawa on the sand crawler that found C-3PO and R2-D2 in the desert on Tatooine and sold them to the Skywalkers. The stories range from humorous to eerie to surprisingly heart-wrenching. A great tapestry of scenes that weave together all of the main Star Wars stories, and there are a few sections that provide new information that will enter the Star Wars canon.

Books that just missed the top ten: New Waves, Kevin Nguyen; The $64 Tomato, William Alexander; On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Emily Guendelsberger; What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez; A Very Punchable Face, Colin Jost.

Animal Stories: We’ve Been Skunked!

Note: This is the seventh and final story in a series of super-short stories about animals. 

A skunk sauntered by our door, stopped to look in, and continued on its way. We’ve had lots of different animals peek inside our home from our deck: raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and neighborhood cats. We’ve had foxes and, one time in broad daylight, a wounded coyote sitting in our backyard. (I correct myself from yesterday’s story: I did invite a friendly police officer to my front door, this time for the coyote. He came into our house with a shotgun to get a view of the coyote. Fortunately, he decided to chase it from our yard and not shoot it.)

But the skunk put the whole family on high alert. “Nobody move,” I whispered through gritted teeth. We let that little guy wander off unmolested.

Over the last several years, the skunk population has increased in the Great Midwest, and you don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to realize that. Just open your windows on a summer evening and you might get a whiff of that distinctive skunky smell. (Unless you live next to potheads; then it might be something else you’re smelling.)

Last summer, though, we got skunked so far beyond what we had experienced for a few days, I was thinking the skunk was purposely targeting our house. I’d walk around in the daytime, looking but hoping not to run into the critter.

My lovely wife Jen likes to keep the windows open instead of the AC on, so we’ve been on alert for skunks for a long time. That first night our yard got skunked, I ran around and closed all the windows at about 2 a.m. By the morning, the smell had mostly dissipated.

The next night, we got skunked again. Dang it! Something in the yard was frightening the little guy. Same routine: close the windows in the middle of the night, let the smell go away during the day, open the windows before bed.

By Day 3, no one in the family was happy, and the smell was stronger. Plus, I was a little cranky from sleeping with one eye (and one nostril) open, ready to activate the lockdown when needed.

I don’t know how to describe how bad the smell was. You’re probably thinking that you know how a skunk smells, but this was worse. It smelled like the foulest food smells (rotting onions, rotten eggs), rotting garbage, combined with the skunk smell; it was so rancid. It would actually irritate our nasal passages, and I would tear up. All night and then all day; this one didn’t dissipate. It got into our family room, and no one wanted to be in that part of the house anymore.

Jen said, “Have you found where the skunk is living? Maybe we need to call someone to have it removed.”

“I looked. I can’t tell. Hopefully it will go away.”

It didn’t go away. Jen was in the basement for something, and she glanced out the window and spotted it: the telltale black and white fur, sitting in our window well. She came upstairs and told me. She said, “How many times have I told you to get covers for the window wells?”

We don’t need to rehash how many times she did or did not tell me to get window well covers. I’ve had to rescue a few kittens and other small animals from the window wells, and my children loved hunting for toads in the wells. We had butterfly nets just to get the toads out. One of the wells is about 2 feet deep, and the other is deeper, about 3 1/2 feet.

(In my defense, about 10 years ago, I did buy cheap plastic well covers, but I didn’t secure them, and they blew away in a windstorm. Like, just blew away. Somewhere. I’m imagining someone 3 or 4 blocks from us finding these things in her backyard: “What the hell?”)

The skunk was in the deeper window well. Naturally. Jen said, “How are you going to get it out?” When I rescued the kittens, I stacked some crates for them to climb up. I said, “I don’t wan’t to scare it.” “Maybe you should poke it with a rake handle and run.” “Do I have to?” “Yes, you have to.” Etc.

So I went out there with a long garden tool handle, poked it, and ran. After a little time (about 4 hours), I looked back in. “I think it’s dead,” I told Jen. “Then I think you have to remove the body.” “Do I have to?” Etc.

I knew just the person to help me with this problem.

“Randy!” I was knocking on my handy neighbor’s back door. He answered cheerily and put his dog on a leash to come over, not knowing what I was about to subject him to.

We both peered over the edge of the window well. “Huh,” he said. “That really is a dead skunk.” His dog stretched the leash out as far away from the well as he could.

“What do you think we should do?” I asked.

“Well, I think you should scoop the body up, put it in a bag and dispose of it off your property, and then there are chemical cleaners that get rid of smells like that.”

I said, “And when you say ‘you,’ you mean…”

“I mean you. There is no way I’m coming close to that thing. You’re on your own with this one.” And he and his dog left me.

Dang it. So I turned to Google. Turns out that when skunks die, they release all of the chemicals contained in their glands, and this can take up to 2 weeks, and then the smell can linger for more than a month after that. And everyone knows that you don’t want to get the chemical on your skin or hair because it’s difficult to get rid of.

The first thing I tried to do was take two hoes and slide them under the skunk body and lift it out of the well. The problem was, apparently the skunk had burrowed its nose into the corner of the well (probably out of panic), trapping itself between the home’s foundation and the corrugated-metal well. Jen came out to give it a try. She pulled on the skunk, and its tail removed itself from the rest of the body. (Ugh.) I picked it up out of the well and put it in a garbage bag. I suited up with clothes I didn’t care about and gloves, then I dropped into the well. I had to scoop the rest of the body out of the corner. The smell got worse.

Then I read that you have to remove the debris that the body was touching to get rid of the smell. So I scraped out a ton of rocks and put them in the garbage bag.

Also, what Randy told me was true: deposit the dead body off your property, or it will continue its foul ways. Since garbage pickup was 4 days away, I decided to take the bag to the dumpster at Jen’s office. I didn’t want to put the bag in any of our vehicles, so I got my bike out and tried to pedal over there.

Have you ever tried pedaling a bicycle with a black plastic garbage bag filled with 30 pounds of rocks? Not easy. The bag got caught in the spokes of my front wheel, so I abandoned that plan.

I hiked down the street for a half mile, in full sun, on an 85-degree day, wearing gloves, a long flannel shirt, and jeans, with a 30-pound black garbage bag over my shoulder. The world’s worst Santa Claus.

Halfway there, a friend spotted me and pulled over. She rolled down her window: “Looks heavy. Can I offer you a ride somewhere?” I didn’t know how to explain exactly what was going on with what clearly looked like a crime scene coverup, so I just said, “No thanks, you don’t want to get involved with this one.” She gave me a funny look and drove off.

I tried to fix the smell by spraying this deodorant spray all over the carpet of the family room, but then the house smelled like the fake chemical smell and the skunk smell. No one was happy with me.

I found two things that worked: One was an absorbent spray that I soaked the window well with. I used a rag to rub and scrub all the metal, the cement, and the window itself. That seemed to help. But the thing that saved us on the inside of the house was this stuff called Fresh Wave Odor Removing Gel. It claimed that the gel could absorb the smell and release a fresh eucalyptus scent using all-natural ingredients, but at that point I didn’t care if it was radioactive as long as it got the job done.

The skunk smell lingered in the house for a month. I remember thinking about 3 weeks into it, “Is this ever going to go away?” But it did.

Almost immediately afterwards, I bought high-quality window well covers and secured them in place. See, I told Jen I’d get to it eventually.

Animal Stories: Stay Away, Bunny!

Note: This is the sixth in a series of super-short stories about animals.

After a few years of flooded yards and icy sidewalks because of the runoff from our sump pumps, my neighbors and I decided to do something about it. The city had installed a storm drain along our property line, so three of us rented equipment to dig a trench, and we buried some 4-inch corrugated drainage tubes to connect our sump pumps to the storm drain. (And by “we”…)

I had two pieces of piping left over, each about 8 or 9 feet long. My handy neighbor Randy suggested that I might want to keep them in case any of the pipeline leaked and needed replacing. Instead of putting it in my basement or garage like a normal person, I laid it in the sedum against the north side of our house. My theory was, it was not bendable enough to wrap up, so I didn’t want 9 feet of tubing taking up space in the basement. I figured I’d find something useful for it eventually.

Fifteen years later, it was still sitting there.

I noticed that small animals liked to run into it when I was mowing. Specifically, my two favorite backyard critters: rabbits and chipmunks.

Chipmunks were my favorite animal when I would visit the zoo as a child. (Yes, I am aware that they weren’t part of the zoo’s menagerie.) I was thrilled when we moved into our house and I first heard the distinctive “chip-chip” call of the chipmunk. Over the years, I told my kids that the same chipmunk, Chippy, would return to our yard every spring. (Which would be amazing, considering the lifespan of a chipmunk is 3 years. Don’t tell my kids.)

Chipmunks like to live underground, so they wouldn’t usually nest in my black plastic tubes. Also, they had to stay away from the rabbits, who loved the tubes. Sometimes I would spot three rabbits at a time going into the tubes; they were like little rabbit hotels.

Our yard is a bunny haven, as if we are cultivating dandelions and clover just for them. Add the fact that some neighbors trap and release them because of their destructive tendencies on plants, and bunnies know it’s better to hang in our yard. I’ve had to hop the fence in our vegetable garden like Mr. McGregor in the Beatrix Potter tales to get rabbits out, though. Then I see them lingering outside the fence, pretending to munch nonchalantly on clover, but secretly plotting their next assault on the garden.

Last summer, I thought that maybe I should get rid of the plastic tubes. They had outlived their usefulness; they had a few cracks and holes in the sides, so even if the drainage system needed updating, these things were no good. As I went to grab one, I wondered if there were any bunnies in them right then. I took one end of the first one and gradually lifted it, peering into the hole. Nothing, I shook it a little to see if anything came out the other hole. Nothing. So I tossed that one to the side.

I did the same with the other one. Lifted, peered, nothing. But it felt a little heavier than the other tube. I looked more closely into the hole, and I heard a little pitter-patter-pitter-patter, and all of a sudden, a small rabbit was running up the tube straight at me! I tossed the tube aside, but he sprang out and landed on my chest. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled as he ran up my front side to my shoulder; I spun around, and his body brushed my chin as he ran back down my front side, down my leg, and landed on the ground beneath my feet.

We both stood there staring at each other for a moment. I’ve chased tons of rabbits in our yard and never caught them; this was the first time I actually touched one. I don’t think he knew what to do, after being so intimate with me. I grabbed the tubes and left; he was gone when I returned.

Animal Stories: Going to the Dogs

Note: This is the fifth in a series of super-short stories about animals. Except this one’s not so short. Sorry!

Let me set the mood for you: It’s the spring of 1983. The final episode of “M.A.S.H.” had just aired, Michael Jackson introduced the moonwalk to the world, and children across America were waiting for the final episode in the “Star Wars” trilogy to be released. On our boomboxes, we were rocking out to the Stray Cat strut, or passing the dutchie pon the left-hand side, or trying to figure out what a Vegemite sandwich was.

I was a sixth grader heading to a friend’s house on a sunny Saturday morning after watching the Smurfs and Scrappy Doo cartoons. No one was home at my house. I’m sure my parents had no idea what I was doing that day.

At my friend Jim’s house, we decided to play either Kick the Can or Whole-Block Tag or some game where we sneaked into backyards. Jim’s block was unusual for our neighborhood; it had an alley, making it easier to open neighbors’ gates.

I remember it was cold; I was wearing jeans and a winter coat. It might have been the end of spring break. Most of the 12 houses on the block were fair game, although everyone knew to avoid the house next door to Jim; that was the home of Macduff.

Macduff was some sort of terrier. Not too big, but he made a lot of noise (he had a Napoleon complex going on, and as a smaller-than-actual-sized human myself, I related). The rumor was that he had bitten multiple people. So stay away from Macduff’s yard.

At one point in the game, my friend Dave and I found ourselves about to be caught, and rather than giving up, we decided to do what no one would expect us to do: we’d cut through Macduff’s yard! Genius!

Dave went first. I was always the kid hanging in the back of our group of friends, saying, “Guys, I’m not sure this is a good idea.” We entered from the alley, and there was Macduff, sitting quietly on the patio, on a long leash. Dave cut straight past him to another gate, but  I hesitated near Macduff. He was wagging his little tail, looking at me curiously. I don’t know why, but I went to pet him.

That’s when he turned into the Tasmanian devil. He snarled and leaped into the air with his teeth baring. He clamped down on my right thigh and locked his jaw.

I let out a scream that was so high-pitched that neighborhood windows probably shattered. Flocks of geese lifted up off of nearby ponds and scattered. Other dogs started barking.

I came to my senses and smacked Macduff off of me. I turned to see Dave holding the gate open, and I went to run, but Macduff wasn’t done with me yet. He lunged back and latched himself onto my calf muscle, digging in. I shook my leg up and down with him still attached; for a split second, he released his grip, and I kicked him away from me.

If you are picturing the scene from “There’s Something About Mary” when Ben Stiller wrestles with Puffy the border terrier, you’re on the right track.

I ran out of the yard, and we all gathered back at Jim’s place. My jeans were ripped open in two places, and blood was oozing down my leg. What we probably should have done was gone into Jim’s house to tell his parents and seek medical attention. What we actually did was mumble, “Well, I guess we should get going,” and I said, “See ya tomorrow!” and limped the 4 blocks home by myself.

When I got home, no one was there, except our dog, Tiger. I took off my jeans, which was painful with the open wounds, and tossed them in the garbage. I grabbed a package of Band-Aids and (I remember this clearly) used 16 of them to cover the thigh wound. The blood soaked through almost immediately, so I used 16 more. I sat in our living room with my leg propped up and covered both wounds with Kleenexes. I kept thinking, “Oh man, Mom and Dad are going to kill me.” There may have been a little bit of shock involved. Tiger knew something was up and stuck close to me.

My dad was first to return home. He walked into the front door, saw all the blood, and went into emergency mode. “What happened? Are you alright? Where’s your mother?” This was in the age before cell phones, plus I was 12, so I have no idea how he contacted her and let her know he was taking me to the ER. There was never a moment where my parents got mad at me.

We spent the afternoon in the hospital. Turns out I had done a decent job stanching the bleeding with my 16-Band-Aid soak-and-replace routine.

I remember that for the next 2 weeks, I got permission to wear sweatpants to school because it was too painful to pull jeans or cords on over the bandages covering the wounds. (Was there a dress code at our public school in 1983 that wouldn’t have allowed me to wear sweatpants without the permission? Seems unlikely; I used to wear a T-shirt that said, “Where the Hell is Nashwauk, Minnesota?,” and no one said anything.) There was a lot of bruising, similar to when you have surgery, and afterwards the bruising and swelling is sometimes worse than the incision pain.

The Monday night after the bite, there was a knock on our door. A police officer wanted to talk to my parents and me. If ever there’s a moment in a 12-year-old’s life when he decides to dedicate himself to the straight and narrow, having a cop at the door would be that moment. Officer Friendly explained that since Macduff had already bitten people before, he was all caught up on his shots, so I wouldn’t have to get any shots myself. (How convenient that he was a repeat offender.)

Also, since I had gone into the yard uninvited, Macduff’s family wasn’t getting any citations. Put yourself in their shoes: your little dog has bitten someone, so you decide to erect a fence to your backyard, and for extra safety, you put the dog on a leash so he can’t go anywhere anyway. And somehow a neighborhood kid still manages to get himself bitten by your dog!

The scars faded. I can just barely make them out if I look closely. One bonus to the whole ordeal is that, as a general rule, I try to avoid doing things that lead to police officers knocking on the front door. (I was probably heading in that direction anyway, but Macduff gave me a good nudge.)

Animal Encounters: Free the Bird!

Note: This is the fourth in a series of super-short stories about animals.

I woke my lovely wife Jen early one morning. “Do you hear that?” There was this scratching sound outside our house. She heard it too. It sounded like someone or something was trying to dig its way into our house, from the roof. I ran outside to look for where the noise was coming from, but it stopped before I could find the source.

A week later, I was coming home from a walk, and I saw a gray squirrel, gnawing on the wooden gable vent over our garage, trying to break into our house!

“Hey!” I yelled. “Hey!” It didn’t stop. I looked around; we have rocks in a landscaped area in our yard. Generally, I would not recommend throwing rocks at your house, but I grabbed a handful and started tossing them. The squirrel took off, ran along the roof’s edge, and climbed off the house.

The wood on the gable vent was partially destroyed, chewed away. I knew I’d have to fix it eventually. I put it on my to-do list.

A few months later, I heard a different noise. “Jen! Jenny! Do you hear that?” Of course she heard it. I said, “Maybe the squirrel’s back. Or the raccoon.”

Outside the house, I looked at the chewed gable vent; no squirrels were there. The noise was coming from the side of the garage. It sounded like something was running back and forth. I couldn’t pinpoint the noise. I knew what I needed to do.

“Randy!” I was pounding on my handy neighbor’s back door. Probably thinking Here we go again, he came over to my house.

He thought we should look in the crawlspace above the garage because that’s what the vent is there for. So we set up a ladder and both climbed up. The crawlspace is huge; we could convert it into an extra room, but there’s no access to it other than the cutout.

Randy spotted the problem: The squirrel had broken through the flimsy insulation sheet that was behind the vent, and animals had been coming and going freely into the crawlspace. The builder should have installed a screen behind the vent to keep animals out. (Again, should I just leave the doors wide open to let all the critters in the house?!?)

We then found the noise: A bird, who had been living in here (judging by the mess), had gotten trapped in the soffit along the crawlspace edge and was running frantically along the soffit vent. We couldn’t get to it because it squeezed into a tiny opening.

“We have two options,” Randy said. “We could let it die, or we could rip off your siding and try to take the end of the soffit off and see if it would fly out through that.”

“Well, I don’t want it to die,” I said. So we decided to tear apart my house to save the bird’s life. (And by “we,” I mean “he,” while I handed him tools. I had gotten adept at working on projects with Randy, and my home and auto repair skills improved. I was learning the names of tools, which was the most important thing. Randy would be fixing something at my house and say, “Do you have an Allen wrench?” I’d say yes, then run to the tools in my basement while Googling “what is an Allen wrench.” I’d then put back the crescent wrench I was holding and grab an Allen wrench.)

Project Freebird took about an hour. Randy got on a ladder, removed a portion of our siding covering the soffit end, and with some coaxing, this starving robin flew out the hole. Randy snapped the siding back and said that two things needed to happen: the end cap, and any openings all around our house, should be caulked or foam sealed; and the gable vent should be taken down and chicken wire should be attached to the back of it to keep squirrels and birds out.

So we took care of that. I Googled “how to caulk.” We climbed an extension ladder to remove the gable and install chicken wire to the back of it. And by “we,” I think you know who I mean.