Some Sounds Aren’t Heard Because They Are Not There

Sam (is a dog) and I live on the outskirts of nowhere, with no year-round neighbors within shouting distance, so any bumps in the night we hear are, by their very nature, of interest.  I mean, in the city we explained these sounds as the nighttime wanderings of the insomniac, the turning off and on of a piece of equipment in a neighbor’s garage or the murderer’s mutters as he searches for prey. We grow used to these sounds, and they don’t wake us.  At most, we double check our locks and return to bed, offering up a silent prayer the murder moves on to another neighborhood.  Here in the Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods, though, strange sounds in the night need to be identified, if not always explored.

Sam (is a dog) and I are well-suited on most matters, but not this.  While we both like long walks in the woods, rare beefsteak and peeing in the bushes, our nocturnal ears are set to different levels.  For instance, I can hear a bear outside, determining whether it’s worth breaking into our storage tent (it isn’t, for any ursine readers).  Once that sound has awakened me fully, I get dressed, turn on the baton-sized combination flashlight/nightstick next to the bed, open our door, and scatter light in crazy patterns.  Whether I hear the bear lumbering away or not, the sound stops and I go back to sleep.

Sam (is a dog), who is a dog, has more sensitive ears than I, and will at least once a night awaken me with either a little whimpering or a bushel of barking.  Since Sam (is a dog) can’t defend his reputation here, never having learned to type or talk, I don’t want to impugn him too roughly.  Still, I think he imagines things.  Specifically, I think he imagines sounds that are not there.  Once he awakens me to these phantom sounds, though, I still need to go through the drill of getting out of bed, putting on pants, boots and coat, grabbing the flashlight and going outside.  There has yet to be anything there.  Sam is a watch dog who is watches for and hears the nonexistent.

If this were the problem, I wouldn’t discuss it outside our relationship, except with a trained therapist.  No, the real problem is that Sam, to be honest, (is a coward) who’s never once left the safety of the Tiny White Box to explore the sounds he alone can hear.  He seems afraid of the dark, or at least unwilling to explore any of the dangers he imagines he hears.  Nor will he accept my groggy, “Sam, please be quiet.  There’s nothing there.”  Getting up and getting to it is the only way I can quiet him.  Unfortunately, because Sam has not been part of the inspection process, he’s often not fully satisfied the danger has passed, and continues to issue stray yips and yaps at the sounds that weren’t there to begin with.

Given the tiny size of a tiny house, and the volume of even a young boxer’s bark, sleep is out of the question for me.  As if to taunt me, Sam curls up on his side of the bed, returning to dreams punctuated by intermittent warnings.  Warnings of nothing.  These particular barks seem timed to issue just as the tide of relaxation has started to rise for me, right before I am fully covered.  With a whip snap, I am pulled back from sleep. Fully awake at, say, 2:30 in the morning, I often stare at the ceiling, listening fruitlessly for the sounds Sam doesn’t really hear, and wondering if Amazon sells canine ear plugs.


Words, Words, Words:  A Brief Sketch of Sally Piper, a Woman I Never Knew

Sally Piper was born in January, 1932, in Medford, MA.  Sally (Piper) (Newell) Hughes died May 3, 1965, in Lowell, MA, at the age of 33.  Sally Piper had diabetes mellitus and coronary thrombosis at her death.  Sally Piper had been graduated from an expensive private girls’ school and was very proud of a photograph of the mansion in which she was raised.  Sally Piper is buried in her family’s plot in Amherst, NH.

Sally Piper was married at least twice.  Sally Piper had four pregnancies.  It is unclear whether any of the pregnancies were the result of actions with a man she was married to at the time.  Sally Piper spent much of her adult life being monitored by social-service agency social workers who expressed negative opinions about her judgment and ability as a parent.

Sally Piper had a good vocabulary and excellent diction, according to one of those social workers.  Sally Piper took pride in the money her family had, and in the education that money had paid for.  Sally Piper apparently held one job as an adult, a clerical job she had for a brief time before being dismissed.  The reasons for this dismissal are unclear, as one report alludes to a diabetic “attack” and another to assaulting a coworker.

Sally Piper had one son, Richard, about seven, at her death.  Richard has been lost to history.  Sally Piper was married to Alva Hughes, not Richard’s father, at her death.  Alva Hughes has been lost to history.  It is unlikely Alva and Richard remained together after Sally Piper’s death, but who can tell?  Sally had been pregnant at least three other times. One pregnancy resulted in the live birth of a girl, released for adoption immediately, in June, 1962.   One pregnancy resulted in a stillborn girl in March, 1961. One pregnancy resulted in the live birth of a boy, released for adoption immediately, in November, 1958.

That last baby boy was me.

I was born Baby Boy Newell, and my original birth certificate records that.  It also records that Robert Newell, Sally Piper’s husband at the time, was the legal, but not natural father of the Baby Boy.  From social worker’s notes of the time, the unnamed natural father was selling magazines in Florida, having left the hotel and restaurant field.  The notes do not record that the natural father had been in hospitality management, nor that the magazine sales he was doing involved selling the publishing of magazines.  When I look in the mirror, I assume he was Caucasian, but who can tell? He is now doubly lost to history, having left no identifying information behind.  Except my DNA, of course.

But back to Sally Piper, who had a brother, a World War II combat pilot and the subject of a book-length biography.  I do not know if Sally Piper is mentioned in that biography, although the rest of her life suggests her family wanted little to do with her.  When Sally Piper was pregnant in 1958, living in Milford, NH, five miles away from her parents, her father did not know she was having a child, although she had mentioned it to her mother.  It is unclear if her father ever learned of the birth of Baby Boy Newell, of me.

When I prepared for life in the Tiny White Box, I got rid of almost all my physical possessions.  Furniture, shoes, books, electronics—all of it freed in a high tide of charity, with my daughters being the primary beachcombers.  I kept a folder of information about Sally Piper.

Words, words, words.


Why Was Picasso So Sad?

I was discharged from the Army in 1980, having entered in 1976 at 17. I graduated from college in 1982, but only attended the University of New Hampshire for a semester and a half.  Without wanting to turn this into a math word puzzle, how can this be?  How did I apparently earn two-and-a-half years of college credit during my four years of service?

I’d like to say I buckled down, taking college classes at every available moment, but that would be a lie.  Oh, I took, I believe, three or four classes during my enlistment.  As I recall, the University of Maryland’s European Division offered an Intro to Anthropology class, from which I learned the word “paradigm” and a Philosophy for the Infantryman course, which introduced me to the verbal gymnastics of Saint Anselm and his ontological proof.  From Drury College, I took a writing class.  The teacher was very nice, but I can’t think of anything I took away.  These classes, though, add up to less than a semester’s work.  How did I earn all that college credit?  Let me phrase it as a multiple-choice question:

The College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is

  1. A way for nontraditional students to demonstrate mastery of college material through successful completion of standardized testing instruments
  2. A means for students gifted at test-taking to “game the system” by successfully guessing the answers a test designer would use
  3. A diversion for soldiers allowed to spend one morning every two weeks taking tests instead of maintaining a jeep in the motor pool
  4. A short-sighted ruse that identifies smart students by testing them and makes it less likely they will ever truly understand the subjects they have earned college credit in.
  5. All of the above

I earned college credit in such subjects as art history, psychology, sociology, advanced math, chemistry and world cultures.  I knew very little about any of these, but I knew how to take standardized tests.  Although I’d graduated from high school third from the bottom of my class, I’d also been name a National Merit Scholarship Semi-Finalist for my high PSAT scores.  (The semi-finalist designation came when the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the manufacturers of the SAT and the CLEP tests, did minimal due diligence and discovered I had a D- average in my actual classes.)  Standardized tests, whether designed to test “intelligence,” “achievement” or “aptitude,”  had always come easily to me, owing to an ability to think like a test designer.

I don’t think I’m necessarily smarter than people who do poorly on tests, but I’m significantly better at taking tests.  I know this is syllogistic, but the entire test-taking industry is based on a syllogism:  we’ll define “intelligence,” for example, as “that which is measured on intelligence tests.”  Then, in a classic bait-and-switch, we’ll declare people who do well on such tests to be more intelligent, using the more common meaning:  “having enough smarts to figure stuff out.”   QED.  (Before I studied Latin, and learned that stood to “quod erat demonstratum,” I’d done my own reverse engineering and come up with “Quite Elegantly Done,” a formation I like better.)  But I digress.

CLEP tests were, and maybe still are, a way to “’demonstrate’ ‘mastery’” of a given subject area.  The flying inverted commas in the previous sentence are necessary, I’m afraid, for I don’t think I “demonstrated” anything, much less mastery of art history, by knowing Picasso (not Da Vinci, Winslow Homer or Grandma Moses) had a “Blue Period.”  I’ve always been a reader, and as an 18-, 19- or 20-year-old soldier I had the time to read books indiscriminately and the funds to subscribe to, among others, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Mother Jones, New Times, The New York Review of Books and The Village Voice.  None of this reading taught me art history, the way a college semester of organized studying paintings, drawings and sculptures would.  If you read enough challenging material by enough smart people, you’ll hear about Picasso.  (I’m struck by the similarity of that sentence to the notion of infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters, but don’t have time to develop it here.)

Likewise, the US History CLEP test asked questions like, “Which US President declared, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’?” Knowing the answer to this question, of course, gives no notion of the antebellum period, the rise of industrial production in the northeast, the class distinctions among the settlers in the west.  It’s simply a matching game, one I’m good at.  Without wanting to be crude (although that’s a pious hope, given all I’ve previously written) I’m reminded of a bit of public bathroom verse I saw as a child:  “Here I sit, broken-hearted.  Paid my nickel and only farted.”  Here, though, that becomes

Here I sit, with college credit.

Don’t know what it means but I know who said it.

But, as always, I digress.

I know the College Level Examination Program is designed to help deserving students earn college credit for material they already know—and to make money for ETS with each test given.  I know US soldiers are lucky to have the chance to take these tests at no cost to the solider—and avoid motor-pool duty.  I know I benefitted financially from the transaction—or at least had extra GI Bill benefits to use for graduate school and seminary.  There’s just one thing I don’t know:  during his Blue Period, why was Picasso so sad?


Literacy, I Like. Literary Insights? Not so Much

In Manchester last week, I had a few meals with readers.  I mean, I assume everyone I ate with can read, but these are people who’ve read a novel I wrote.  One nice thing about these people is they want to buy me lunch. One awful thing about meals with these people is they want to ask me questions.  If these questions were about me—“Would you like the fried clams or the calamari?” is a good one, as is “Would you like another espresso with your biscotti?”—it would be one thing, but instead they often sound like freshman English questions, using phrases like authorial intent, limited-omniscience and, especially, conscious use of imagery.

For example, “’Clayton Clevinger’ (the main character) is such a cacophonous set of homophones.  What was your intent in that choice, and what was the meaning of his moniker’s transition to ‘Clay’ by the end of the novel?  Is it meant to evoke the plasticity of the human character, or is there something deeper?”

Hmmmmmmm.  My authorial intention is to move the conversation back to the subject of life’s meaning, where I might at least be amusingly ignorant.  I mean, what kind of a man can’t explain the hidden meanings in a book he’s written except for the worst kind of charlatan—an author who’s told a story and nothing more.  I am that charlatan.  Until now.

In the following 15 or so brief paragraphs are examples of irony, metaphor, metafive, metasix, unreliable narrators, periphrasis, periscopes, periwinkles, divinatory scatology, divine scatology and devilishly fun scattergories.  If you can’t find these examples, but still find this narrative compelling, you’re out of luck, because it’s the first part of the first chapter of yet another novel of mine—and I’m only going to sell it to smart people who can tell me what I’m really up to.

Unless you want to buy me lunch and let me riff on life’s meaning, in which case you’re on.

Excerpt from A Cult of One

With just minutes to go on the last day of sixth grade, Jacob Tischler was out in the hallway with Mrs. Dingle for about the hundredth time this year.  She looked at him and sighed.

In any school, there are classroom students, who stay in their seats for 180 days a year, and hallway students, who regularly have hushed private conversations with their teachers in the brick hallway.  Other kids who walked by smirked at the twosomes, knowing that the one doing all the listening was in trouble.

Jacob was one of the few students in the whole junior high who had moved from being merely a hallway dweller to a part-time office resident, being sent fairly regularly to have a conversation with the principal, Mr. Platine.

“Jacob,” Mrs. Dingle said in a whisper, which still managed to echo off the walls, “I’m just so disappointed with the way things have gone this year.  You’re not a bad boy by any means, but I can’t let you behave the way you do.  You can’t be so disrespectful.  Asking me in front of the class if I wear a jumper when my family goes to a nudist colony.  That’s just being mean for the sake of a laugh.”

She wiped her chalky hands on her navy-blue jumper, leaving ghost-like white marks

“I’m trying to be funny for the sake of a laugh, actually,” said Jacob, tapping his foot in what was more a fever than a rhythm. 

“Right there,” she said holding her palm up in front of his face.  “That’s what I mean.  I’m trying to talk to you person to person, and you have to turn it into a joke.  Why does everything have to be funny to you?”

He had been serious, but whether he was being serious and kids and teachers thinking he was joking or kidding around and having people take him seriously didn’t really matter.  This confusion had caused most of his trouble in life.  Either way, he spent a lot of time in hallways talking with teachers or in the office talking with Mr. Platine.

“You’ve got a lot of potential, Jacob, but you’re not living up to it.  You’re a smart boy and you’re capable of doing a lot of things.  The future is a big place, but you have to do something to get where you want to be,” the teacher said, emotion filling her voice, which made Jacob want to giggle.

“I know, Mrs. Dingle,” he said, looking down at the floor to hide his smile.  He studied the whirling pattern still faintly visible on the old tile floor.  “I’ll try harder next year.”

“It’s not just your effort, it’s your goals,” she said, rubbing her hands together to get the last chalk of the year off.  “Trying harder to be the class clown and to avoid doing your work won’t result in success.  It’ll just be more of the same.”

Whenever teachers talked like this, they got a soft, wet look in their eyes, as if they were saying something new, something Jacob hadn’t heard every day of his life.  That was the problem with having “potential,” whatever that was.  It was just another way of adults saying they were disappointed.  Sometimes he wished he were retarded, so people would be happy he didn’t drool or grab his crotch.  Instead, he heard words like dismayed or baffled or chagrined or dissatisfied. A chorus from the thesaurus of “You let me down.”

Luckily, the bell rang, freeing him from Mrs. Dingle’s sincerity.  He could leave school and shut the door on sixth grade forever.  He’d set a record for days suspended by a 12-year-old, eight days altogether.  Mr. Platine, the principal, had informed him of this accomplishment, and was disappointed with the pride Jacob appeared to take.

“Jacob,” he’d said, “You make me very tired and very sad.  I just don’t know what to do with you.”

Discovering his ability to make middle-aged men tired and sad was the high point of sixth grade, which just showed what a crummy year it had been.


A Damned Fine Lock

It’s good to be back in the Great North Woods, where life makes sense.

Sam (is a dog) and I got back to the Tiny White Box mid-afternoon Friday, both of us still a little full from Thanksgiving in the city.  Sam (is a dog) was a little bit less full, since he’d eaten one of two pecan pies I’d made Wednesday, vomiting some of it out within 20 minutes, but spending much of the day Thursday with his hind end dribbling nuts, corn syrup, brown sugar and cinnamon.

Excited to be back, we went for a walk before unloading the Jeep.  Sam (is a dog) seems to have solved his evacuation problems and was glad to be chasing squirrels again, instead of lunging at the end of his leash, as he’d been forced to do in Manchester.

Although I hardly ever lock the Tiny White Box—I’m mainly near here, or will be after an hour’s walk—the eight-day whirl—award ceremony, family visits, meals and coffee with story-stuffed folks—had been long enough to justify closing the Brinks padlock onto the front door, after locking the back door from inside.  This eight days was also long enough for snow, cold and gremlins to get into the cleverly-designed lock.  When I inserted the key, it would not turn, wouldn’t open the only route from outside to in.   Although my picture may make me look incredibly strong and powerful (and moderately handsome), in reality I am not.  Locked outside the only home we have, though, I transformed into the Man of Steel, the metal in my hand becoming the Key of Butter and tearing off in my hand.  With the keyhole filled with what had formerly been our way in, I had thinking to do.

Luckily, it was only 2:30 or so.  Further luck, I could take an identical lock off the back door—locked from inside.  In the spirit of Arlo Guthrie, I took dozens of pictures of the locked lock.  We’d go to the Pittsburg hardware store, present all the information, and a clerk would say, “Here’s the tool you need.  That’ll be $12.50.”  The 15-minute drive into the center of town had a little gaiety, as Sam and I were excited to have a real life-and-death situation to solve.  (“Life and death” here is a bit of an overstatement.  Still, if we couldn’t get into the Tiny White Box, we’d either be freezing in a tent for the night or searching for a motel that would take dogs.)

The clerk at the Pittsburg store was very nice as she said, “Nope.”

“Nope?” I repeated.  Not an answer I’d included in our possibilities.

“Nope.  We don’t have any bolt cutters, and even if we did, I don’t think they’d be able to get at that hasp.  That’s a good lock.  Shame you’ve got to cut it off.”

Since she’d just noped my plan to cut it, I didn’t have the gumption to explain I wished I had shoddy lock, a crummy lock, a tear-away lock.  Instead, I asked her for suggestions.

“Hicks Hardware might have something,” she said.  “Down in Colebrook.”

Colebrook is about 40 minutes away, and it was now 3:00.  She called and found out they were open until 5.  Sam (is a dog) and I sped south, our gaiety somewhat diminished.

The Hicks Hardware guy agreed with the earlier assessment.

“That’s a damn good lock.”

A damned good lock keeping me in the snow, I wanted to point out, but didn’t.

“I don’t think you could use bolt cutters,” he said.  “Wouldn’t be able to get enough torque down into that tiny hole.”

I fought off the urge to say I knew we could fill a universe with things that wouldn’t work—a court order, magic, a flower; we sought something that would.  A hacksaw, maybe?

“That’d take you a few hours . . . and even then,” he trailed off.  “Let me get my locksmith up here.”

The locksmith examined my broken key, my pictures and my intact lock.

“That’s a good lock.”

Again with praise for my choice of ways to keep me in the cold.

“Well, I could sell you bolt cutters, but those’re about 50 bucks.”

“Cheaper than staying in a motel,” I said, “but the other guy said that wouldn’t work.”

“Wouldn’t,” said the locksmith.  “I said I could sell ‘em to you.  But I wouldn’t.”

“Well,” I said, counting to ten or higher in my head, “what would you sell me?”

“Nothing I got here,” he said.  “You really need a grinder, and that’s a two- or three-hundred-dollar purchase.”

“Well . . .” I murmured, “if that’s the only way . . .”

“My son’s got one he’d probably loan you.  Under the circumstances.  Let me give him a call.”

Within 20 minutes, the son had appeared with a grinder, a charger and a brand-new cutting wheel.  He took down my name and my promise to return the grinder today.  Within an hour of that, Sam (is a dog) and I had cut through the lock’s hasp, carried stuff into the Tiny White Box and loaded the grinder back into the Jeep.

Saturday morning, we returned the grinder to Hicks Hardware with profuse thanks, which were brushed off with smiles, as if to say, “We’d do that for anybody—but especially for a man who was savvy enough to have such a damned good lock.”

We went for a walk, stopped at the IGA for milk and returned to the Tiny White Box in the Great North Woods, where life makes sense.



Readers’ Questions Volume VI

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and I apologize.  While I should be hoarding the questions that come in until I’ve got enough for a column, I’ve been frittering them away by answering each questioning email I get at  I’ve gone back through those emails, and extracted those questions below.  If the answer I give today is different than the one I sent you three weeks ago, bear in mind I haven’t ruled out a future in politics—the ability to keep a straight face while having two mouths is earned through practice, not at birth.

  • How do you heat the Tiny White Box?

I’ve got three different heat sources at my disposal.  (Four, I suppose, if I were willing to start a trash fire in the corner of the box.)  Please bear in mind I always keep one window open in the box, to allow Sam (is a dog) and my aromas to escape and also to bring in fresh air.  Although it’s crazy, in any small space I start to worry that oxygen is at a premium, and that I need to prevent asphyxiation.

  1. A tiny electric blower heater, smaller than a bread box, that an office worker might use to keep her feet warm. Given that the TWB has only 120 cubic feet (picture a closet six feet high, five feet wide and four feet deep), this tiny element is plenty to take the chill off a 40-degree morning
  2. A larger, oil-filled electric heater, about the size of a standard house radiator. Nowhere near as quick as the tiny one, this takes five or 10 minutes to heat but at its lowest setting has kept the box warm so far.  So far, though, it has not gotten much below freezing, and that is unlikely to continue much longer.
  3. A Big Buddy propane heater, along with a bunch of fuel. When the electricity was out for three or four days, I used this—designed to keep a winter garage warm—and found it WAY too powerful for 30 degrees outside.
  • When will you have the next Veterans Writers’ Retreat?

Some time in January.  Details will follow.  Really.

  • How do you deal with loneliness?

By not feeling it.  I know that’s a glib answer, but it’s true.  While some humans apparently are either gregarious or solitary, I appear to have been gifted with both qualities.

For five years, I was central to a beehive of activity at Liberty House.  Each day, I interacted with four or five staff members, 10 residents, a dozen donors and 15-20 folks coming in for help.  While I may be remembered as eccentric, I don’t think I was seen as reclusive or antisocial, although my experience shows me many of us don’t really know how we’re coming across.  Likewise, my previous career (or at least the successful and gratifying parts) was composed of leading small- to medium-sized tribes of people, for how else can being principal of alternative schools be described?  In short, I can be outgoing, can work a room, can dance a number of social waltzes.

For the last three months, I’ve lived a solitary existence, save the companionship of my heterosexual canine life partner, Sam (is a dog).  While I carry on correspondence, talk with my daughters and various others on the phone, go to one or two secret-society meetings each week and go south monthly for two or three days, the bulk of my time is spent alone.  I hike at least four or five miles a day–sometimes listening to music, audiobooks or podcasts, sometimes in silence—write for five to 10 hours per day, nap and generally live a life without stress.  Barring the cold, which has finally started to be a constant rather than a fluctuating variable, and the occasional loss of electricity, which can be solved with propane heat and batteries, my life is pleasant and too full to admit loneliness.

  1. Are you available to talk to my school, gardening club, church, recovery group, parole officer, etc?

Sure.  Perhaps.  Send me the details of what you’d like, and we’ll try to make it happen.  I should warn you, though, that my practice is to prepare like hell before a talk—writing out notes, drafts of speeches, playing around with openings and closings.  Once the preparation is done, I chuck it in a corner and then talk about whatever pops into my head.  You might ask me to speak about life in the Great North Woods, and I’ll talk about being a homeless drunk.  You might expect a talk on homeless veterans, and I’ll give you 30 minutes on the Georges Orwell and Elliott.  Each presentation is guaranteed entertaining, but not on topic.

  1. How do you like your toast?

Buttered on both sides please.  When I drop it, this offers me the choice of cursing the greasy spot on the floor or expressing joy at the butter side up.



Proving Television Wrong

If television has taught me anything, it’s that family members are assigned roles and learn to do their best within them.  For instance, there’s the gruff but lovable grandfather, the mystical grandmother, the aunt who used to be wild, the aunt who still can’t be tamed, the cousin who only makes three or four appearances, then leaves never to be heard from again, et cetera.  In the nuclear family, these roles are even more important—and once you’ve been assigned one, you’re pretty much typecast for the rest of the series.  While literature illustrates the possibility of growth, development and change, television demonstrates the immutability of human nature.  Lovable losers do not become romantic leads; if they’re lucky, they become psychopathic killers, but that’s only to avenge the hurt they’ve suffered as young lovable losers.

You’d think as the oldest child, adopted at the age of six months, thus having been off-camera for the messiest moments, I had a better than even shot at choosing my own role.  I mean, my parents were thrilled to pick me up at the pound—er, social-worker’s office—review my papers and bring me home.  From that moment forward, if pure existentialism were correct, I could start making the choices that would determine my future.  Like Camus’ plague, though, a natural external force was introduced into what could have been Paradise:  my parents liked having me around so much, they went shopping for another kid.  My baby sister, Jennifer, was delivered to the house when I was three, upsetting the paradisiacal apple cart and banishing me from my previous glory.

Although my parents had adored me before Jennifer arrived, now they had a chance to compare me to a newer model.  I didn’t bear up well in the examination.  While I had been a chubby baby with a ready smile, Jennifer’s slender lines as an infant seemed so much newer, more up to date, less a reminder of the 1950’s when I was born and more a symbol of the new Camelotian 60’s.  If we’d been used cars instead of used infants, I would have had a standard three-on-the-tree and Jennifer would have been a push-button automatic.  If we’d been music, I was Perry Como and she was The Beatles.  My parents may have fallen in love to Como, but they knew the Beatles were the future.  At three years old, I was obsolete.

Too young to retire, I had to remake myself, stage a comeback as a new man-child.  I had to defy television conventions.  By the time I was four, I’d begun my transition from sweet, chubby pre-schooler to smart-aleck midget.  I was physically very small, so small that when I began kindergarten, my mother had to lift me onto the bus or bring out a step-stool for me.  This lack of size meant I couldn’t perform amazing feats of strength, and even in kindergarten I knew dazzling people with my smallness was no winner against a baby for God’s sake.  If I was going to stay on the show, I had to break the chain, transform into a new boy, become what I’d never dreamed possible:  I would be a wicked boy.

I wasn’t capable of becoming evil—looking for the good and destroying it because it was goodbut I could be wicked, capable of upsetting any situation for chaos’ sake.  I was sent home from kindergarten for disrupting the teacher with freshness, and for pulling down my pants in front of poor Cathy Palmer, the girl forced to sit next to the bad boy.  In fact, poor Mrs. Granger (the word “poor” can be appended to any other people mentioned here—if they were forced to interact with me, they deserve sympathy), my kindergarten teacher, suggested I stay home from school from April vacation on.  Ostensibly, this was to give me a chance to run off my energy and because I had already mastered the kindergarten “curriculum.”  More honestly, in those days before teacher health insurance, I think she feared a breakdown.

While I was being wicked, Jennifer continued to delight.  She’d bring in wildflowers; I’d tear down the expensive sapling my parents had planted on the lawn.  She’d crawl into my mother’s lap; I’d be placed over my father’s knee.  (Although I remember threats vividly, and waiting for spankings, I don’t remember any actual physical punishment.  I expect my dad looked down the tunnel of my childhood, knowing that spanking his wicked five year old would have little effect.  If he upped the ante, but the time I was in third grade, he’d be tearing fingernails off me with needle-nose pliers.)  Jennifer was joy and delight, and I was, well, Keith.

If this were television, there’d be a final arc, one where I learned to be, if not good at least calmer in my wickedness.  If this were television, an Object-Lesson Uncle would be brought on for a two-part episode, where I’d see the error of my ways.  If this were television, call it Leave It to Keith, the writers would recognize they’d written themselves into a corner and either write me out of the show (military school, perhaps?) or ignore the boy they’d created and return my character to its earlier innocence.

Unfortunately, this is not television.  As you’ll learn in the weeks ahead, these are the recollections of a real boy, with lots of detentions and no denouement.