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Monday, March 30, 2009

Rambling man

I may have to apologize to the people of central Pennsylvania. Yesterday, Jamie and I were shopping at Target for some godchildren’s birthdays (I personally am worst. godfather. ever), and since Target is next door to Dick’s Sporting Goods, I mentioned to him that this might be a good time to get him that sand wedge I promised him at the end of our golfing exploits last season, since which, I believe, we have had only eleven months of winter.  “And loft wedge,” Jamie replied, to which I said, “ah, no.  First you learn to hit the sand wedge. Then we think about a loft wedge.  Remember what I told you—I still don’t know how to hit the dang loft wedge.” Which is true.  Sometimes I open my stance and swing outside-in and send a ball that’s buried in tall grass somewhere up into the clouds, landing it softly and deftly thirty yards away within a few feet of the pin.  And sometimes I move a large clump of earth a few yards, and sometimes I skull the ball, line-driving it into a bunker or a swamp or a stand of trees or maybe a sulfur pit.  Jamie has developed enough skill over the past two years to pull off some very nice finesse shots around the green, but he’s still a menace in sand, and of course I have to rake the bunker after he’s done because that’s the house elf’s job. 

Anyway, I bought him the sand wedge, and he hit some very nice shots off the astroturf in Dick’s practice room.  (Having seen his brother use Dick’s practice room, Jamie would not be denied.) But I now fear, seeing the frost on the grass and on the car windshield, that by getting Jamie a golf club I have doomed my fellow Pennsylvanians to another six weeks of winter. Real Feel® at 10 am as I type: 18 degrees.

I got home (at last!) on Saturday, and Janet left for Connecticut yesterday.  It’s a dizzying series of comings and goings here, and Lucy the Dog is beyond confused.  Last week, I had a moment when Jamie and I were flying back to Harrisburg from Baton Rouge, via Atlanta, and I had no idea where I was or where we were going.  Fortunately, I recovered my bearings in time to remember where we’d parked the car in Harrisburg.

And fortunately, the talks seem to have gone well.  At Grinnell three weeks ago, Jamie and I had a Minor Incident during the talk, when he tentatively came up to the podium at more or less the 40-minute mark of a 50-minute talk, and asked if I would get him Milo and Otis.  Sometimes Jamie sits through his father’s droning talks and writes lists of things on his legal pads (which is great, because it looks like he’s taking diligent notes), but whenever it’s possible, I set him up with his laptop, his headphones, and a movie.  He’s never interrupted a talk before, and I was briefly flummoxed.  “Sweetie, you have to wait,” I said, whereupon he lay down on the windowsill behind the podium for a few minutes before getting up and asking me again.  This time, I said “excuse me a moment” to the assembled crowd of 150 or so, turned to Jamie, checked my watch, and said, “I’ve got about eight more minutes here.  You have to wait until I’m done.” It wasn’t terribly disruptive, but it was weird, since I’ve long assumed he knows better.

When the talk and the brief Q-and-A were over, I asked Jamie, “weren’t you watching your movie?” He said no, and I realized that he’d simply been playing pinball for 40 minutes, and then got bored.  “You were playing pinball all that time?” “Uh huh,” Jamie said, at which I felt terrible, because I had been pretty damn sure that I’d put a DVD in there before the lecture began.  Later that day, when I packed us up, I realized that he did have a DVD in there—it just wasn’t Milo and Otis.  What’s more, next to the laptop he had his Talismanic Object, the DVD of Mamma Mia, a movie of which he is so fond that he insisted, a few months ago, that it would win many Academy Awards.  “Jamie,” I said softly but sternly when I put him to bed that night, “you have to understand something about what happened today.  You cannot stop me in the middle of a talk like that.” He hunched and squinted, which is his way of acknowledging that he knows he done wrong and doesn’t quite want to face up to it.  “I’m not angry, good kid,” I assured him.  “I love traveling with you.  But you had two movies to watch, and you shouldn’t have asked me to go out to the car and get Milo and Otis.  Listen.  I know this sounds strange, but those talks are my work. That’s the reason we went to Iowa.  And I can have fun with you and we can visit people and everything, but then when I do the talk, that’s business.  So if you do that again, I really can’t bring you on these trips with me.” More hunching and squinting.  “OK, I know you understand.  I won’t say any more.”

And I didn’t need to.  Jamie had a blast at LSU, not only because of that alligator tour but also because so many different people played ball with him (literally!), took him to the zoo, and dined and danced with him.  Seriously: the moment we got off the plane we were whisked away to a place called Boudin’s, where Jamie and I had some fine fine gumbo and Jamie danced to two or three songs played by a local cajun band.  In return, my good kid sat through a ninety minute event last Monday—a 4:40 lecture whose Q-and-A ran past 6.

Then I turned around and went to Toledo, becoming even more disoriented along the way.  Fortunately, when they took me to dinner after my talk, I got a kind of cuisine GPS.  In Baton Rouge, you understand, everything is gumbo this and remoulade that, and Jamie and I made our way through crawfish upon crawfish.  The killer was Sunday night’s meal, at which Jamie dined on crabmeat au gratin and I got a fish that came smothered in crawfish and shrimp and crabmeat and then more sauce and then some more food of some kind.  “We’re trying to make Michael gain ten pounds,” said one of my hosts.  “Mission accomplished,” I replied.  In Toledo, by contrast, our server announced that tonight’s special was a cajun steak, but, he reassured us, “it’s not too spicy.” Aha!  I thought.  That helps—I must be somewhere in the Midwest.  Indeed, the entire table found this announcement somewhat strange, and wondered why a restaurant would bother cooking a steak “cajun style” in the first place if it wasn’t too spicy.

Oh, and I did finish the His Dark Materials series.  More on that later this week, in which I prove everyone wrong.  In the meantime, here’s one last item from the latest Travel with Jamie installment.  One reason he’s enjoyed his excursions to Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, California, Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, and Louisiana over the past few months is that he wants to visit all the states.  So far he’s been to 35; when I was his age I had been to 12, and had never been west of Buffalo, NY except for one crazed road trip to Cleveland to sell bootleg Fleetwood Mac 1978 U.S. Tour t-shirts (long, long story).  Lately he’s taken to collecting the commemorative state quarters, which is weird, because that’s precisely what Nick used to do back when they first appeared in 1999.  Jeez, you’d think they were brothers or something.  A few weeks ago we found that Jamie had 42 of the 50 quarters, and that Jamie, being Jamie, could tell you which eight states he was missing in alphabetical order.  OK, so we set out to collect the quarters from Arkansas, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.  Whenever someone at a checkout counter realized that Jamie was combing through his change looking for state quarters, he or she helpfully asked him which ones he needed and went through the cash register; for my part, I got a couple of $10 rolls from the bank and poured them out for him.  Within two weeks we were up to 49, and then last week, woo hoo, we finally got a hold of Minnesota.

But that’s not the story.  The story is that while we were doing this, I began to keep track of when each state joined the union, since that crucial information is of course printed on each quarter.  (It is also carved into the steps of the state house in Baton Rouge, as we learned last week.) So at a dull moment in our travels, as Jamie and I and 80 other people waited in our plane for a gate to open up in the Baton Rouge airport, I decided to ask Jamie a question.  I also wanted to keep him from asking me to sing Beatles songs, not only because I didn’t want to sing but also because Jamie now demands that I tell him how old he was when I first sang each song to him.  This new wrinkle gave me an idea.  “Jamie,” I said, “when you collect your quarters, do you look at the years for each state?”

“Uh huh,” he replied.

“You know those are the years each state became part of the United States, right?”

“Right, exactly.”

“OK, then, what year was Missouri?”

“1821.” Holy Moloch.

“Yep, that’s right. Colorado?”

“1876.”

“California.”

“1850.”

“All right then, wise guy.  Virginia.”

“1788.”

Now, I’m very familiar with Jamie’s cognitive strengths, and I believe that on this very blog I’ve mentioned his uncanny ability to memorize hundreds of baseball cards.  But still, I never fail to be amazed.  He did miss a few, thank goodness—but then, so did the Baton Rouge state house, which inexplicably gives the year 1958 for Alaska.

Also, some of those designs are pretty cool.  Many of them suck, and were clearly designed by committee, like the quarters from South Carolina (1788) and Illinois (1818), which throw a whole bunch of crap on the back like an Abe Lincoln plus a palmetto plus a Sears Tower plus a Yellow Jessamine plus a state outline for good measure.  But Montana (1889) and Colorado are quite nice, and for you bison fans, there’s North Dakota (1889) and the surprisingly spare Kansas (1861), both of which forego the temptation to clutter their designs with “The Sunflower State” or “The Peace Garden State” and state outlines combined with birds.  But the household favorite here is Connecticut (1788).

OK, now to settle in.  Not going anywhere for the next few weeks.

Posted by Michael on 03/30 at 08:52 AM
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