This is true.
I’m in Onda getting a cup of coffee. A former student bumbles in. “Hey, Mr. Stephens,” he says. “Hey, I like your tie. Purple’s kewl. Is it new?” In the second it takes me to respond to this, I run through this tie’s particulars: bought in a little shop in Trieste on one of those Saturday trips with Gabriella. We’d eaten Adriatic prawns, all garlic and oil, and wandered around the city, gotten lost in James Joyce’s old neighborhood under the limestone cliffs. The day was brilliant sun, but cold with the wind whipping over from Venice. I got married in this tie, too, in Slovenia. But not to Gabriella. I still have the tie I wore to my first wedding, too. Also not to Gabriella. I rarely wear that one anymore. It’s a pretty bullshit necktie, frankly, though I haven’t managed to get rid of it yet.
“Thanks,” I reply. It’s only been a second since he spoke to me, can’t have been two, but I’ve been far away in that time. “I like this one too, but no, it’s not new.”
Neckties are about as boring as an object can be. Still, every tie in my closet has its little story. Every morning as I tie that knot I retell to myself one story or another, whether I want to or not.
This tie I have on now, for example: this is the last necktie my father wore before he died. I’m sure he had no idea he’d never wear another necktie after this one. At the same time, I imagine he’d get a kick out of the fact that I not only have it, but that every time I wear this tie I am bound and compelled to think about how this is the last necktie my father wore before he died. He would think that was hilarious.
Maybe that’s not the word.
My wife is sure that he would also get an enormous kick out of, shall we say, ‘the disposition of his mortal remains.’ Every summer we visit my mother in Maine. When my father died she sold the big house on the coast and moved into a little condo. She turns the one-car garage into a playroom for my kids so we don’t all drive each other crazy in her new place. Her new place is small, with no sounds of waves out open windows at night to make it feel larger. There’s no moonlit Atlantic horizon or cool sea breeze. But in her one-stall garage she puts down a carpet and drags a futon couch out of storage, and the place turns into a Lego war zone for a couple of weeks while we visit. To further soften the concrete floor, the unfinished drywall, my mother likes to stop calling it ‘the garage.’ She renames it ‘the Mousehole.’
My wife and I sit in ‘the Mousehole’ and watch our boys wrestle over particularly desirable Legos.
“Where is he?” she whispers. “Where do you think he is?”
“He’s probably on that shelf,” I say. “He’s in a coffee can.”
These are my father’s mortal remains.
My sister and I picked up the ashes from the funeral home on State Street, just a couple of blocks from the big house we’d all grown up in. They made us wait a long time in the dim parlor of that big place. We didn’t want to be there. We felt grown up to be there, but we didn’t want to be. We were both a little punchy from the long flights and the stress of the certainty that this time it really was the last time. We were a little relieved that it was. Finally the tall, gray man who’d greeted us with his condolences returned with a white cardboard box about a foot square. He handed it, with condolences, to my sister.
“Wow, that’s heavy!” she said. “I doubt he weighed this much when he was alive.”
Inside, the box was full of dense gray foam packing, with a circular cutout in the middle occupied by a simple steel cylinder. A coffee can, let’s say.
We’re cleaning out his closet in the big house above Kettle Cove. “Your father had such beautiful suits!” my mother murmurs. “They’d fit you, too. Why don’t you take the green glen plaid?” I already have a green glen plaid, though, which my father bought for me when I got my first job. I don’t need any more suits. But I do take a few of his neckties. There are so many in the dark closet that it’s hard to even see them, and it’s hard to choose. I don’t want to be morbid, pawing through the dead guy’s stuff. Anyway, It’s not like I need them. Back home I must have 50 ties.
Every one of them has a story behind it, too.
I take the Black Watch plaid. It’s made from some very crisp taffeta. The purple and black one with the grape vine pattern was always a favorite of mine as a kid, but he didn’t wear it very often. “A little too flamboyant,” he’d say. “Exuberant, even.” My father valued precision in expression. He kept his exuberance under control.
The last tie I take is a regimental stripe in green and navy blue, with thin accents of red and gold. A fairly boring tie. Preppy. A school teacher’s tie. Unremarkable, but useful precisely because of that.
My mother runs her hand over the tie’s stripes absently. “That’s the last tie your father wore,” she says. There’s a hint of amusement in her voice, as though I’ve fallen into some trap, or fulfilled a prophecy. “He took me to dinner at the Falmouth Tavern.”
“Where is he?” my wife wonders. Our kids play on the floor. The shelves above us are crowded with paint cans and toolboxes and gardening equipment and my father’s mortal remains, too, up there somewhere. From time to time we talk about scattering those ashes. Kettle Cove, why not? Around the pond outside this very Mousehole. Maybe rent a boat and take him out into Penobscot Bay.
“I think he’d find it hilarious,” my wife says, “that his ashes are still sitting in your mother’s cluttered garage ten years later.”
I think so too. Knowing his sense of humor, I am sure of it. Knowing his taste, though, I doubt that this particular tie meant a lot to him. I mean, everyone has a tie like this.
Magda suitably festooned to meet local requirements
It is the custom here as March makes its lion-like entrance to exchange small trinkets of red-and-white thread with friends and loved ones. The little bracelet, pin, zipper-pull, etc, known as the Мартеница
(Martenitsa), symbolizes health and happiness for the coming year, and as the first of March progresses your collection of them mounts around the wrist both in number and ornateness of the individual bauble. It is not unusual by the end of the day to have an enormous and unruly wreath of the things built up upon your extremities. This serves the secondary function of making everyone a little more impatient for the arrival of spring, as there are certain rules about under what circumstances they may be finally jettisoned.
Season's first cast-offs poach on a lilac bush
It is said that you must wear each Martenitsa non-stop once your friend appends it to you. Failure to observe this stricture can result in dirty looks, hurt feelings, truncated friendships, and charges of your own personal responsibility for the delay of spring. Once you’re banded, you must keep wearing those Martenitsi until you see your first stork OR budding tree of spring. Once the target is acquired, you are then required to remove the Martenitsi, which by that time may have grown into your skin and which may or may not still be recognizably red and white, and tie them to a budding branch, preferably of a fruit tree. This last bit presents no difficulty at all as in this part of Sofia, at least, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting multiple plum trees, whose shocks of white blossoms are the first real harbinger of spring right around the end of March, which, with any luck at all, has become slightly more lamb-like.
Plum trees make all the non-plums look like slobs
In addition to the ritual donning and doffing of the Martenitsi, spring around here brings with it a smorgasbord of sensory and logistical stimuli. The snows of March recede, revealing tiny, important bits of the tire chains, maybe, and shoals of thawing dog shit. In the warming, fecund soil seeds are sown, which leads to the natural cycle of PapaAreThePeasGrowingYetPapaAreThey? PapaAreThePeasGrowingYetPapaAreThey? PapaAreThey? PapaAreThey? The feral dogs which abound in the woods behind our home express their relief at having been among the happy few to survive the harsh Balkan winter by capering through the back yard clutching Jolly Rogers in their maws. Millions of insects awaken from their long winter’s slumber, stir, and emerge into the bathrooms, where they seem really quite happy no matter how much poison Magda lobs at them. It’s Ant War
And, of course, with April finally under way, we enter the last month in the countdown to the fast-approaching first anniversary of shit in Alek’s pants.
Lonely plum tree Мартеница
Snaggle-nose death putto
Setup: We’re watching Julie & Julia. Adam has never knowingly eaten cheese in his life, and claims to hate it.
Amy Adams: …it tastes like cheese sauce, yum…
Adam: Papa, what is cheese sauce?
Me: Cheese sauce is SAUCE made with CHEESE. Honey, cheese is one of the greatest things on earth and I can’t wait until you realize you love it.
Adam: I’m afraid it’s going to be when I’m 44 and you won’t be around to see it.
Setup: I’m putting a speedlight and shoot-through umbrella on a lightstand in preparation for shouting at the boys to hold still for one god damn second while I try to take one frigging decent photograph.
Adam: Papa, when you die don’t throw this stuff away so I can use it when you’re dead.
Setup: Trying to get to the bottom of this death thing, and maybe flesh out this weak post while I’m at it.
Me: Adam, do you think I’m going to die?
Adam: No, I don’t want you to die. Maybe you’re too old to die. I can’t wait until I am six and then seven. Maybe I will die when I am 45.
Me: Honey, 45 is pretty young to die.
Adam: Maybe you will die when you’re 100.
Alek: I DON’T HAVE ANY IPHONE!
Seriously, three years old?
Here’s Alek describing his birthday in his own words:
“And then there was a cake! Yeah, and presents! And I, ATE THE CAKE! I pushed it all into my mouth, and then it went down into my belly, and then it was [sad clown voice] ALL GONE… But then I was hungry! And I opened the presents!”
This was his preview version of it at 6.25 in the morning.
Though progress is ever slow on all fronts, we’re hopeful that in this, his fourth year of life now beginning, he’ll find the time to work in pooping in the potty, you know, as convenient — we’ve sort of backed off on that front and have resigned ourselves to his starting kindergarten a full year later than originally planned. Also, by centimeters he and his brother are occasionally playing together, sometimes with minutes at a time elapsing between the hurricane gales of screaming, brutal pugilistics, and grievous upper inner thigh gnawing.
Cake & candles boy
This excruciatingly slow pace of the two of them growing up and getting jobs is at odds with the utter weirdness of how fast they’re getting big and serious about stuff. A certain cognitive dissonance arises from this; It’s possible to have interesting, meaningful conversations with these entities that were so recently little blobs of protoplasm, while at the same time, the competence with which Alek deposits his liquid wastes in the proper receptacle makes it unbelievable that he can’t do the same with the hard stuff
, something he apparently never will do, though obviously he’s practically an adult already.
At times it is necessary to recall Magda’s dismissive, “I basically farted him out” in order to keep it all in what perspective is possible. Which is not much.
This post, unlike every other since the recent relaunch, is written in haste, with urgent other work baying at my heels, and with serious technical challenges conspiring to keep it from ever seeing the light of day if I don’t hit PUBLISH immediately.
As a means of observing Alek’s big day, go (re)-read Ian Frazier’s “Lamentations of the Father”, a fantastic piece of parental observational humor/despair in Old Testament-speak from the Atlantic Monthly c. 1997. Though I enjoyed it immensely long before I became a father, let alone began writing posts entitled “Your sons are killing me“, it seems especially apt now; from various clues, I am fairly confident that Frazier’s kids must have been in the three-to-five years range when he was so inspired:
And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I have said, it has come to pass.
Go read it all.
Happy birthday, Aleksander.
Alek -- overdue soft summer portrait
As contractually obligated as a blogger, I have found my thoughts turning to the decade just ended and with it the state of things ten years ago today. I doubt it’s unusual that I can recall exactly what I was doing as Y2K failed to deliver any sort of dramatic mayhem, but I count myself lucky that the memory I have is so fond: with some very good friends I rarely see but still treasure I was hiking into the White Mountains of New Hampshire in frigid but bluebird weather for some winter camping. An auspicious beginning to the decade. I seem to recall — I always only seem to recall — that the mood was heady, not only in general but on an individual level; I had recently dug myself clumsily but definitively out of a long-term relationship which had been a serious mess for a long time, and I could see the light at the end of the graduate school tunnel. I had plans. Vague, half-baked, un-gelled plans, most of which would go nowhere, but they were mine.
It must be the rare decade that one can gaze upon retrospectively and think well not much changed in those ten years, but I think any ten-year span, particularly the one in which you finish school, somehow expatriate yourself, marry a Pole, father some simians, and spend it in South America and Slovenia and Bulgaria must be worthy of a lazy look back.
And this is going to be lazy, not only because that is the way that this macro-blogging thing has been trending in the closing days of the zeros (or whatever term we are going to settle upon to refer to these years), but because I am attempting, and mostly succeeding, to write this blog post on my telephone. While I realize that to be saying this in 2010 does not make me all cutting edge or anything, or even probably as pretentious as it makes me feel, it does seem emblematic of something, and I certainly wish the me of January 1, 2000 could have read that sentence written by the me of whatever day this is.
As 2000 dawned my computer, a hand-me-down Mac notebook upon which I would never write a blog post, or indeed visit a website, let alone use to search via Dogpile or employ Napster, was somewhat less capable than the phone upon which I now type. RAM was in shorter supply by a factor of 64; my PowerBook’s hard drive was 20 MB, compared to the 800 times more storage in this telephone, most of which is taken up by music in a format I would not even be aware of for another year. Speaking of mobile phones, I had just acquired my first, a Motorola whose battery was twice the size of the phone I’m telling you about it on.
Last night I scrolled through the music at hand to find something I would have been listening to ten years ago, and the pickings were slim. Plenty of music made it through the Y2K barrier, and in fact many of the compact discs upon which one used to purchase music legally are extant still, boxed up in my Bulgarian basement for no apparent reason, but still I found it difficult to find much that felt emblematic of those days. Beginning in the summer of 2000 and continuing for the next two years or so I underwent a renaissance of music acquisition — almost entirely unrelated to the changing technology, oddly enough — that changed my musical landscape like an ice age clearing a landmass. This was almost certainly related to the wrapping up of that insalubrious relationship, during which music was one of the few areas where we actually got along.
In early 2000 and the months that followed I discovered or had thrust upon me Belle & Sebastian (essentially the soundtrack for the first half of the decade for me), Dan Bern, Camera Obscura, Cinerama, Death Cab For Cutie, The Flaming Lips, The Go-Betweens, Hefner, Low, The Lucksmiths, Magnetic Fields, The New Pornographers, Pulp, what Radiohead was really for, Sigur Ros, Travis, The Wedding Present, Weezer, and the deeper genius of Brian Wilson. Looking at the music I listen to most, there are certain uneroded peaks left behind the receding upheaval that the early part of the decade wrought, but I can’t imagine the landscape without all that rich glacial flour ground out under the pressure of Stuart Murdoch et al.
At New Year’s 1999 I was exactly two years away from obtaining a digital camera and only dimly aware of the proto-existence of such a thing. I would be persuaded by the expense of film and processing in Argentina 18 months later during a particularly formative year in which I took, comparatively, no photographs at all.
A year in advance of that Argentina episode, meaning just a few days after I hiked out from Carter Notch, my father would take me shopping for a Brooks Brothers suit I would wear to a job interview in Japan. My father had precisely half a decade left with us at the time of the suit-buying expedition.
(The suit still fits beautifully, and the two neckties my father chose to go with it remain among my most elegant and favorite ties. In addition to the job interview, I would wear the suit to an all-night Argentine wedding the day after I arrived in the country, which is emblematic of something, too. I would not be married in the suit.)
At the beginning of 2000 I had never visited (nor in most cases particularly thought much about visiting) Argentina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Malta, Poland, the Republic of San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, (possibly?) Switzerland, Turkey, or Uruguay.
All of these omissions amaze me now, but of course the most glaring is that ten years ago Adam did not exist, Alek did not exist — I mean actually DID NOT EXIST, which may seem weird to you, but is almost literally unthinkable for me. For that matter, as far as I was concerned Magda did not exist. Which means that I did not exist ten years ago — that is, so many of those things that define me and my existence now, trivial and profound, did not obtain a simple (and by most accounts, dumb) decade ago.
This situation makes me feel exactly ten years old.
It all makes me think it might be worth sticking around to see if the next decade turns out to be at all interesting.
Stand still for one Christly second, will you?
If your own personal paper version of this has not yet reached your presumably holly-decked halls, feel free to blame the Bulgarian postal service, and/or us. While the photo session that ultimately produced this card was held before the snow flew, the actual producing, writing, and mailing of the cards was held up by everything from faulty computers to malfunctioning credit cards and most of the predictably vexatious things in between, which I will leave to your imaginations.
Enjoy the holidays, and love any children you may happen to share it with even if it kills you.
Their reports, that is. The boys themselves never left, more’s the pity. So the reports are back, though not necessarily monthly. There used to be a rationale for such regular updates on their pooping and so forth, as the pace of change in each (boy, not iteration of poop — though, come to think of it, that too) was so quick. That rate of change has slackened a great deal, but some token documentation on a regular basis still needs to be done. So we’re taking this up again on Come friendly bombs, though maybe more like quarterly than monthly. Or whatever the mood will bear. We’ll see. Let’s get down to it:
McQueen cake dry run
Today Adam is five Malkoviching years old. This frankly freaks us out. It seems so recently that he was that tiny wrinkled red squalling stick of a baby that would fit on your forearm, fragile egg of a head in your palm, non-existent ass in the crook of your pitying elbow. He changed so fast in those days, changes that were a major impetus behind the founding of isoglossia to begin with. The changes that come now are not so outwardly visible but impressive on the inside — the curiosity, the swelling cerebral cortex, the incessant earworms. He’s FIVE and sitting here at my feet singing “Jingle Bells” in a constant, error-ridden loop, and making me question my dogmatic abhorrence of Christmas. I feel I ought to have put together something a bit more momentous in recognition of this milestone, but this is what I was able to throw together.
Adam’s recent obsessions include the scientific, as we see here in his proud displaying of “THE BEST PRESENT EVER, BETTER THAN TWO MCQUEENS”, a Bulgarian-language periodic table of the elements, upon which he’s become fixated lately. He’s also been making great progress with reading and writing, though the quantum leap is still in the offing in both areas.
Vex me not sorely
Alek? You have been pissing us off lately. First of all, this potty-training opt-out is just not on. May the Malkoviching first we put you on the potty, with the goal being a September start date for Kindergarten. Now it’s clear that it’s not going to happen for a January enrollment. You’ve been making all kinds of progress, sure, but evolving more sophisticated ways of making your older brother howl in pain or frustration is not the kind of progress we consider productive. The poop goes in the POTTY. Get on that.
Thomas the tractor beam
Worse yet, your sleeping schedule has deteriorated as your behavior has become more chaotic, willful, violent, and generally Tasmanian. You were a great sleeper as a baby, in stark contrast to Adam, but as a two year old you frankly suck.
Sorry, three year old — in a month you’ll be three and it seems like those god damn terrible twos just become more and more unbearable for you and for us.
Quit that thrashing.
Oh, all RIGHT. Here’s your Malkoviching choklit mook at zero four hunnerd you unspeakable pants-shitting baby. I am tempted to hold any further reports hostage until you agree to our demands: release your deuces into the proper receptacle.
Because you have chosen to live in a country which inexplicably refuses to import Sriracha chili sauce, and because your dependence upon Scoville units shows no signs of abating, and because you are the sort who is not afraid to experiment with a blender, you have created an airborne toxic event in the kitchen. With a result rather pleasingly similar to the authentic product, the chunky widemouth seedy one, the one you prefer to the smooth and squeezable one, the one which is even harder to obtain. So you made some. Once the coughing had subsided and it was safe to go back into the kitchen (about 90 minutes after you first took the lid off the blender and inhaled, you ridiculous, hacking moron), you found it was pretty god damned good.
Here’s how you will do it again:
You will need
– a can of peeled tomatoes. I know, I know. This is not tomato sauce you are making, but consider this the substrate, highly necessary to dilute the hell you will release from
– a bunch of the hottest, reddest, deadliest chilies you can obtain; enough to fill your two hands
– some garlic, say, four, five, six cloves, unless you want a lot more
– a few minims of salt
– a glug of vinegar. Ideally the stuff left over from that jar of peperoncini you just finished
– a tiny jar
– a zip-lock bag
Drain the tomatoes and thrown them in the blender with the garlic and salt. Blend the hell out of that shit. Coarsely chop the chilies and add them to the mix. Blend slowly, monitoring the consistency — you want the chilies to retain a little bit of chunkiness. CAREFULLY removing the lid, pour in a little vinegar. CAREFULLY replacing the lid, continue to blend, adding more vinegar if necessary, until the mixture is a chunky, spoonable, chili hell.
The catch — shelf life and potency are at odds. The quantity you have just made is far more than any sane person could use before it goes fizzy, and not in a good way. So spoon a small, sane-person amount into a five-ounce jar and keep it in the fridge. The rest goes into the zip-lock and is frozen.
Congratulations, pinhead! You have learned how to utterly disable both your lungs and your tastebuds with a single stone. When you have depleted the little jar’s supply, thaw the zip-lock, refill the jar, and refreeze the balance. This batch should last until real Sriracha becomes available again.
While reasonably close to the real thing, this is not identical to Sriracha. Around our house this variant is known as ‘my mouth is the fire’ sauce.
Get off my back
So a friend and colleague writes, is it worth my time to upgrade the bitwrathploob wordpress installation, or has the project come to a close?
and I’m all like, really? BITWRATHPLOOB is running WordPress
? Doesn’t he know how open to exploits that is? but whatever. And no. No. No no no no no. The BITWRATHPLOOB project is no way, shape, or bucktoothed rope-armed troll-haired woodbear form, pantsless or otherwise, coming to ‘a close’. Hello? This is the BITWRATHPLOOB we are talking about. This woodbear will be pantslessly circling the globe when we are all forgotten ashes
. This peripatetic rope-armed monstrosity did not touch down in Denmark, Denver, D.C., NovafrickinGorica, Cantabria, Albion, Beijing, Aotearoa, Benelux, and Hawaii, with side trips to countless other colorful locales only to become becalmed in Bulgaria of all places. Okay, he’s enjoyed his stay, maybe overstayed his welcome a wee bit, but ‘a close’? Please. The BITWRATHPLOOB will be moving on.
What do you think I meant?
Sad mouseless lad
Apple shop owner: Hello. What is your name? Can you say ‘hello’?
Apple shop owner: I said ‘hello’. Look, I have a present for you!
Adam: HELLO! [accepts Apple-branded mousepad]
A few minutes later…
Adam: Papa, now I need a MOUSE.
And a COMPUTER.
And I think I am ready for a KEYBOLD.
Still a bit baffled by his liquid phonemes, ‘owly’ is how Adam still pronounces ‘early’; so his oft-requested Thomas the Tank Engine video, “Thomas: The Early Years” comes out “Owly Yewills’. Laffs.
[NB: Sofia has two authorized Apple shops. Neither one is readily Googleable even if you know they exist. Enter a string like apple mac computer sales service sofia bulgaria and you will not turn up links to either iStyle, the trendy boutique at Rakovski and Graf Ignatief in the heart of the center, nor Creative Center, the far more utilitarian and service-oriented place (excellent service, I might add — these guys replaced my logic board competently, quickly, and for free) on Ul. Svetoslav Terter. Why these guys, of all places, are not search engine optimized I do not know, but maybe they’ll be slightly more Googleable now via this addendum.]