Sunday, February 26, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 294: Biomythography - Note 44, Through the Ice, Part II

Biomythography 44

Through the Ice, Part II

Joe agreed to move fifty yards east to play along Piney Branch Creek.  We peered into all the holes that might hide snakes.  We dug out two of them.  It took an hour.

He was right about our chances, though.  In the winter, snakes were rare. They only came out on the warmest of days. This wasn’t one of those. We bothered the fish in the water by trying to catch guppies. We skipped stones across the water.  We ranged up and down the river banks, pulled out sedimentary rocks, slithered partway into water pipes, and dared each other to walk across fallen trees above the water.

Eventually, the sun overhead told us the time was past noon.  Our stomachs agreed.  After we started to head back, Joe took notice of the pond again.  It was just sitting there, looking trustworthy, pathetic, and lonely for his company.

“Come on!” he yelled as he ran to the frozen surface and used his hard-worn, smooth-soled Keds to skate a few yards.

I had been reading children's adventure books about life in the wild.  They all dwelled on how falling through ice-covered lakes into frigid water would lead to a quick death.  The stories added an extra thrill of fear to my school films and scout training sessions.  Nevertheless, I joined Joe on the frozen pond.  This time, I felt bold enough to skate across the thickest, whitest sections.  These were the parts of the pond where I'd seen adults jump and land during skating session the week before.  I trusted them.  They covered the darkest depths of the water but, importantly, they didn't make noise under me.

We drifted and skimmed over the icy patches for a while.  Once or twice, we tried sliding our whole bodies.  The surface started to groan again.  I scrambled away from the weakest, most see-through sections.  In other places there were dirty puddles on the frosty covering and I avoided those, too.  Joe noticed.

"You're scared of the ice!" he shouted.

"It's cracking!" I called back.  With that, I headed for the north edge.  It was the best spot to head for home.  "We should go."

"We've been all over it."  He picked out a weak section and skated through.  "There's nothing wrong."

He aimed for another transparent sheet, one in the center of the north half of the water.  He skated into it.  He drifted to a stop.  Suddenly, he looked up at me.  He'd felt something.  

The surface exploded.  The noise, all by itself, made me flinch.  Around Joe, bits flew up like broken glass. Plates of the pond ice rose up around him, too, much bigger and more impressive than the barely-visible specks.  The ice plates dumped him into the center.  He disappeared into the hole they left behind.  

"Joe!" I yelled.  My feet took me out onto the ice.  There were huge cracks in it now, most of them leading to where my friend had gone.

"Help!"  Joe's head bobbed to the top of the water.  "Help!  Pull me out!"

There was no one else around to make a human chain.

Joe continued to scream.  For a minute, I ran around the shore looking for big tree branches.  I got the biggest I could find and dashed back with it to let Joe grab on.  I slipped as soon as I hit the ice.  The fall hurt but I didn't break the thick, white ice.  I didn't break the branch, either.  I scrambled to my feet and shimmied forward as close to Joe as I could.

He continued to scream.  He flailed at the ice floes around him.  He was making progress, in a way.  The hole in the ice was bigger because he kept breaking off sections of it in his hands.  I watched as he tried to heave himself back onto the frozen surface.  Another piece broke off, bigger than his whole body.  He sank with it for a second.  Then he bobbed back up.

"Here!  Can you grab on?"  The tip of the branch didn't come close, no matter how much I extended my arm.

"You've got to come out farther!" he yelled.

The ice was popping under me.  Water lapped up around my toes.  Where had it come from?  I didn't know.  My shoes were soaked through.  This didn't seem smart.

"You've got to swim to the branch!" I countered.

"I can't!"

After he tried to swim and didn't get far, he started to scream, not at me but at everyone, everything.  He hung onto the west edge of the ice hole and cried at the top of his lungs.

I remembered what the instructor said about there not being much time.  I threw down the branch where it was.  Maybe it would be good for someone bigger than me.  Then I skated as fast as I could for the edge.

"I'm going to get someone!" I vowed.  It was a long way to find any people, though.  

I put my head down and ran from the pond in a diagonal across the borders of the horse obstacle course all the way to the road. I ran until the world changed color, brighter, as I got out of breath. To my surprise, when I lifted my head, I saw someone walking on the side of the road.

It was John.  

“He’s fallen through the ice!” I yelled at him.

“Have you seen Joe?”  He grumbled, looming big and strong as he marched in his tense gait.

“It’s him!  He’s fallen through!”  Finally, I reached him.  I couldn't stop moving or huffing for more air.  I started hopping from one foot to the other.

“My mom wants him," John growled.  For the first time, I really looked at his face.  He looked more than irritated.  "He’d better not be in the woods.”

“He’s on the pond.  He's in the pond!  He’s in the water.”

John frowned.  “It’s too cold for that.”

“He’s going to die!  We have to make a human chain!”

Finally, my panic got through John's initial annoyance.  He didn't like being sent to look after Joe, especially since his brother had a habit of hiding or getting deliberately lost.  He'd been given the job of assistant parent without any pay or benefits.  But it was definitely his job.  His back straightened.  He studied me for an instant.

“Show me,” he said.

I had already turned back toward the pond.  Now I started to run.

Even before we got to the water, we could hear Joe.  We could see his head, too, as it bobbed above the muddy surface. Although I was running as hard as I could, John galloped by.  My vision turned spotty.  I had been moving at my top speeds for so long, I was starting to faint.  I tripped and fell before John reached the pond.  When John first put a toe on the ice, though, it cracked.  He stopped.

“Just climb out, Joe!” he yelled.  His voice had the power to cut through Joe's wailing.  “I can’t get you.  The ice is too thin.”

"I can’t," Joe cried.  His arms slapped at the edges of the ice.  He was continuing to enlarge the hole but he wasn’t getting out.

I staggered closer to crouch by the pond and try to catch my breath.  I was watching John watch his little brother flail for twenty seconds.  It seemed like a long time.  Joe looked weaker than he had after he'd fallen in.  He'd lost his hat.  His winter jacket had puffed up and elongated an inch or two in the sleeves, like it was losing shape.

“Oh, for heaven's sake,” said John.  He let out a deep sigh.  Then, with a look of steely determination he started to march across the ice.

The ice broke under him.  John almost slipped and fell. After a second of hesitation, he stared at the pond beneath his feet and stomped.  He put his boot through to the bottom. Where he was, in the shallows, the water was only a foot deep.

To me, it was like he was walking on water. Even Joe shut up about dying for a moment and stared open-mouthed at his brother.

Stomp, crack, fall.  Stomp, crack, fall. Each step that John took ended with a crunch on the level below, as if he was encountering a layer of ice at the bottom of the pond or maybe he was crushing the surface ice into a layer of semi-frozen silt.

With increasing anger and irritation, John thundered across the tiny lake.  The water got deeper and deeper, up to his waist, up to his chest.  He cracked the ice with his knees. He pushed floes to the side with his stomach. At chest height in the brown water, he grabbed his younger brother by the arm and shirt collar.

“Shut up,” he said, because his brother had started to howl again.

Horribly, the path back to the shore had filled up with ice floes.  It looked like a frozen surface.  John surveyed the obstacles in his way with a determined eye.  He smacked ice with his arms as he waded back.  He brushed away the small floes.  When he got to a big patch of fresh ice, the water came up only to his knees.  He stomped his way through it like he'd done on the way out.

Next to him, Joe was pale and blue.  

John set his brother down on his feet.  He looked intently, deeply into Joe's eyes.

"What are you going to tell mom?" he said.

"H-h-hot bath."  Joe's blue lips trembled.  "I need a bath."

"You fell in the creek," John announced.  "Or don't say anything.  Just go and change.  Get in the bath.  If she asks questions, tell her you fell."

"O-o-okay."  Joe would have agreed to anything.

John made Joe walk a few steps.  When Joe stopped, John pushed.  Joe clearly wanted to be carried but his older brother, just as clearly, didn't want to do the carrying.

"Were you playing on the pond after I told you not to go near the water?" John asked.


"You two are idiots."  John spared a glance for me.  Joe and I stared at him, open-mouthed.  Joe bowed his head a moment later.  He huddled as he walked, then as he tried to run for home.  He kept shivering.  John stalked behind him, angry, steaming, and about half as wet, which was plenty.


In retrospect, the pond was no more than seven feet deep anywhere.  It was probably no more than four and a half feet where Joe fell through.  We were pretty small kids at the time, though.  And we panicked.

We made everything way, way worse with our panic.

Sometimes things are not as dangerous as they seem but we make them deadlier with our bad reactions.  John, who at the time I regarded as a bully, looks to me now like a put-upon older brother.  He understood the situation better than Joe or I did.  The two of us who were younger treated the tiny, artificial lake as if it were bottomless.  Because that was wrong, I think Joe could have flailed until he froze.  He didn't understand that a different sort of struggle might have helped.  Or maybe it wouldn't.   

Sometimes the best thing to do is simply be brave and determined to do what is right.  That was John.

Another lesson, I guess, is that sometimes your brother can’t stand you. But he still loves you.  And he is willing to risk himself to save you.  And he will.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 293: Biomythography - Note 43, Through the Ice, Part I

Biomythography 43

Through the Ice, Part I

I was seven. Joe was eight. It was a winter day.

The half-foot of snow that had covered the ground on the weekend before was gone. Each morning and each evening, everything around us had melted and refrozen. This morning we saw it had happened again. The puddles in our yards had turned to ice. The grass turned greenish after a couple hours. By late morning, the soil alternated between feeling frozen solid and being spongy, dark and wet. 

Joe and I tried to play games inside, then outside, and eventually decided to do his favorite thing. We went to explore the creek. Permission from Joe’s mother came easy. She usually wanted her kids to make themselves scarce and his father liked to work at the University of Maryland on the weekends. Joe's father studied insects for a living, a profession I could only vaguely comprehend. 
I understood that Joe loving snakes was somehow related to his father’s job, though. Every trip in the woods ended up as a search for snakes.

That day, Joe and I hiked up Metzerott Road on the east end. This was a land where no cars ventured even though they could. The only destinations were vacant sections of the public park. We passed the baseball fields and the horse obstacle course. We passed the fishing pond to our right. At this time of year, it was also the skating pond.

The pond had been made when construction workers cut back trees to build our park sections. Someone among them had had the foresight to dig out a pond with an island. Although it was bigger than a baseball diamond and looked planned, it had been an unofficial accomplishment. It didn't appear on park maps. The water in it was shallow enough to freeze over for a month or two, when it became the neighborhood ice-skating rink.

Every winter, the neighbors would check the pond as it iced. When the surface was thick enough for use by adults, the neighborhood agreed it was allowed for children, too. Then scores of people would skate along the natural rink. Anyone who could find the pond and tie on skates was welcomed or at least not driven away, not even if they came from miles off. Some did.

Everyone skated with more or less equal skill. No one knew how to do any tricks more impressive than a figure eight and even then, most of those were done by teenage girls of a certain age and stylishness. They dressed like Peggy Fleming and skated as much like her as they could. Men and young boys, if they skated at all, met at the pond to rough-house on the ice or to play pick-up hockey games.

When Joe and I passed the pond that Saturday, we noticed the frozen glaze on top of it. A week earlier, we had been allowed to skate. We wanted to keep on doing it but my parents gave me a definite no.

"It's not safe," my mother said.

"Didn't you take the scout safety course?" my father asked me. "The den leader said you did."

In school and in scouts, I'd watched safety films on the dangers of falling through ice. They were dramatic in a black-and-white documentary sort of way. The voice-overs sounded authoritative. The holes in the ice looked wide and deep. Moreover, in the scouts, they showed us how to form a human chain. We practiced being heroic rescuers. We linked hands to ankles like in our film so we formed a human ladder of sorts lying horizontal across the ice, which was played in our drill by the den mother's beige carpet. When we used this method, our safety instructors told us, we wouldn't fall through the ice and we stood a good chance of rescuing someone who had.
"But it's still not safe," warned one instructor, who may have been married to our den mother.

"Follow the instructions of the nearest adult," added our den mother.

"Or the oldest kid." The instructor put his hands on his hips and shrugged. There weren't always adults around and he knew it. "You don't have much time. A few minutes, at most, when the water is near freezing."

In the films, schoolchildren lay themselves across the white expanse until the biggest and oldest of them reached a hole in the dark water.
“Let’s try it,” said Joe, meaning he wanted to test the warmed-up ice on our neighborhood pond. I opened my mouth to object. He ran to the edge of the water and slid a few feet across the slick surface. It crackled beneath him. I glanced down. Parts of the ice were transparent.

“My mom said no,” I reminded him. I put one foot onto the surface. It emitted a hollow sound. No cracks appeared, though.

"It's still fine!" Joe skated for three yards on his tennis shoes. Right over the deep parts. The ice made popping sounds but still no cracks developed.

“Your brother said no way.” His brother, John was eleven. Among the neighborhood kids, he was a figure of authority. He got as much respect as an adult.

John had brown hair, not red like Joe. He had muscles instead of being skinny. In all, John seemed like he had always been a much tougher boy than his brother. He also, it seemed to me, picked on Joe an unreasonable amount. When Joe complained or shirked on a job or just kept laughing and playing instead of listening, John hit him.

When I tried to intercede on Joe’s behalf, I discovered that John was effectively made of iron as far as my seven year old body was concerned. He would start pushing Joe down, and I would run in to fight. An elbow or even a mere shrug from John would send me flying. 

Once, we younger kids had wandered into the bedroom that Joe and John shared. We saw John was jumping off the top bunk onto the back of his neck and rolling flat. He was doing it deliberately to test his own toughness.

"I want to try," I said. I'd watched it twice. It looked fun, the way John did it.

"Absolutely not," he intoned. He hardly even looked at me.

"Why not?"

"Your neck is a matchstick," he replied.

I tried to come up with arguments in response. He refused to hear any. Except, oddly, he tried to persuade Joe to try the trick. Joe was a year older and his neck wasn't any stronger than mine, so it seemed odd. But John wanted Joe to be tougher.

"You've got to be strong, Joe," he said. "You've got to. You have to stop wimping out at things."

Maybe that was why, unlike the other big kids in the neighborhood who pummeled me when I came to Joe’s defense, John seemed to respect the fact that I was trying. Except for once, when I punched him in the nose, he seemed to think that my defense of his brother was proper. He still wasn’t going to permit it. But he made a sort of allowance that was the right thing for a friend to try.

"You two are idiots," he told us eventually. "Get out of here."

"It's my bedroom too," pointed out Joe. 

John gave him an annoyed look and stepped toward us. We ran.

We had seen John on that winter morning, too. He had been playing catch in one of the neighborhood yards. He'd noticed us. He’d ordered Joe to stay away from the water. He'd laid on an additional warning against getting lost in the woods. Their mom might want everyone home for lunch and John didn't want to come looking.

"You brother said don't do anything stupid," I told Joe.

"You're scared of the ice, aren't you?" Joe teased.

"It makes sounds, Joe." When it was thick, it never made a noise.

"It's fine." He ran, hopped, and glided for another couple yards to prove his point.

He kept playing on the ice. I kept sliding around the edges near the shore. The surface stopped making weird sounds but I couldn't bring myself to completely trust it. Inspired by a thought, I tried to lure Joe away from the pond.

"Come on, let's go look for snakes," I said.

"There won't be any. It's too cold." He knew what I was trying to do.

"But that's even better if we find them. We can bring them home and your parents will let you keep them. You said so." Joe had acquired knowledge on how to resuscitate hibernating snakes and he was eager to try it out.

“Yeah,” he breathed. His eyes got a faraway look.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 292: Love 2023

by Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons
Valentine Press Release: Love Version 11
Special Reporting by Secret Hippie

A Word to Our Users
from All Powerful Software Products
The Newest Release of Love (TM)

Product History

Love 1.0: By today's hardware standards, there were many deficiencies in the first release of Love, a product designed entirely with the New Parent market in mind. It was a strong, basic operating system -- completely adequate for its time -- but it has grown tremendously since. It should be noted that Love's basic foundation was solid, as has been proven over many years and billions of customers.

Love 1.1: Several features were added due to early consumer demand. These included Love for Pre-Adolescents, Love for Seniors, Love for Siblings, and Love for In-Laws and Other Relations.

Love 1.2: Due to complaints from users with special, problem In-Laws, patches were added to the 1.1 version code in attempt to fix the unsatisfactory situation.

Love 1.4: Love for Pets was introduced and became an instant hit. This popular feature has been carried forward in all releases. Further patches to the In-Laws code were issued.

Love 2.0: Critics applauded the new, friendlier interface for Love, which divided the program into five sections: Agape, Eros, Narcissus, Familia, and Platonia. Users found it easier to get all sorts of Love. This was the version which made the product a household word. There were, however, system crashes caused by certain users attempting to make the product achieve things the designers did not anticipate.

Love 2.02: Patches to the 2.0 code were installed to prevent affection crashes under unusual circumstances.

Love 2.03: An Arranged-Marriage module was added. Love for Pre-Adolescents was extended to cover adolescents.

Love 2.1: A same-sex "lifelong" feature was added. The In-Laws section was re-coded and renamed the Extended Familia module.

Love 2.3: This release was issued by mistake. (The version number is unofficial.) A tool in it featured several programmer shortcuts which, when abused by inexperienced Lovers, often resulted in complete affection destruction. It was briefly popular. Pirate copies of this version still exist.

Love 3.0: Single parents greeted this release with joy at the new Step Parents feature in Agape. This module (still recognized as superbly written, despite competitors' attempts to offer alternative arrangements in the same market) is in use in its original form in the most recent release. Unfortunately, this particular Love sold poorly and had to be pulled from circulation due to difficulties in the interface.

Love 3.1: Errors in interface design were fixed in response to customer complaints. A move toward standardization of the hardware situation (in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas) made stable code seem within reach to our programmers. The drive toward "perfect" code started.

Love 3.2: A safety feature was added to prevent Lovers from disfiguring themselves (a common occurrence with affection engines at the time). Additional safety features are now available in Love but no product can be perfectly safe. Caution with affections is always advised.

Love 3.3: Despite some inadequacies with respect to modern hardware, this version of Love has proven very robust; it was the result of the attempt (now recognized as impossible) to create perfect code. In fact, 3.3 is still in use in many regions of the globe. This was the most popular release of Love, partly due to pirate copies. All of the main features for which Love is famous are present in 3.3, though some special tasks may prove unreasonably difficult to achieve. Upgrade from this version is strongly recommended.

Love 4.0: The evolution of the user environment prompted an entirely new look at the Love operating system. Hardware began to last longer and require more intricate management. The Eros and Familia sections had to be modified. Twenty-three new modules were added in an attempt to supply Love to "expandable" systems designed to stand the tests of time. The overall package was revolutionary. Unfortunately, some copies (no one knows how many) of 4.0 were released with a virus.

Love 4.01: A patch was added in the form of basic virus-protection. This protection, it should be noted, is now regarded as inadequate in today's volatile environment. All Powerful corporation urges users to upgrade or to buy third-party protection if they intend to continue running any outdated release.

Love 4.1: The Extended Familia feature was disabled. A Distance Relationship package was offered in its place. (Mapping functions and travel recommendations were included.)

Love 4.4: A special War-Time Love edition. Very rare. Included are all the familiar Love features but the sum total was repackaged and offered to service families at a lower price. One notable change was the Distance Relationship module, which was expanded to include all possible permutations at the time (a feat made possible by the brilliance and dedication of war-time programmers and engineers). Distance Relationships are still an important affection market and Love is still its overriding provider.

Love 5.0: This is one of a handful of versions considered to be “classic.” It is very stable in most of its features. The new, completely-revised In-Law module failed under certain hardware configurations.

Love 5.03: This is the free upgrade version distributed to purchasers of Love 5.0. Special handlers in the In-Law module prevent most crashes. Some of the code in this section works slowly. Users are advised to be patient with In-Laws.

Love 5.5: In this edition, a special Commuter module was added to the Distance Relationship package. Contrary to popular rumor, this module was not 'stolen' from the Traveling Salesman package offered by a rival company. (Note: the company in question is no longer in existence. Love has acquired the Traveling Salesperson responsibility.)

Love 6.0: With changes in hardware becoming more frequent, Love stepped up to the speed challenge.

Love 6.1: Special Love Compression software arrived. With heart space at a premium, code reduction schemes allowed for the queuing and unpacking of various emotions necessary to run the new, more-complete In-Laws module. The lack of necessary affection channels in most hardware kept these modules from being practical before.

Love 6.2: Due to lawsuits involving the Love Compression engine, this version shipped without it. The In-Law module available in 6.1 continued to be offered but with a special disclaimer in the setup program as to the extra space needed to house the unpacked code.

Love 99: This release presented a radical change from previous versions. Lovers benefited from a smoother interface. Allegations arose that the look and feel were unfairly similar to the Adore (now iAdore) package. Fortunately, court decisions sided with the Love designers. The All Powerful interface to emotions continued to grow.

Love XL: A new generation of lovers required extra large devotion with additional features. As a bonus, the Love XL package came with the ability to troll for compliments at leading social sites like MyPassion.

Love Visa: Designers allowed for an improvement in touch interface. However, this version did not perform well with the newest generation of hardware. In this release, the company lost market share to iAdore.

Love 7.0: This release achieved “classic” status in the opinions of many reviewers. The new Love Expander module competed strongly with iAdore and won back market share. Thanks to a more efficient Nepotism affection engine, the In-Laws module cemented its hold in business relationships.

Love 8.0: In the era during which MyPassion gave way to LikeFace and gSpot, Love concentrated on reaching out via phones.

Love 8.1: Improvements arrived to Love telecommunications. Many of those found their way into traditional Love hardware. Popular business apps like Quickie and LinkedUp stimulated offices around the globe. Games like HeartRace and Lovey Birds made everyone's pulse beat faster. The developers made antivirus protection part of the standard Love feature set.

Love 10: Love was everywhere. Most especially, it was in the air with LoveCloud. As demanded by our business customers and as a free add-on feature for our single Lovers (with a small monthly maintenance charge), a new wave of technology arrived to spread Love even farther. With LoveCloud, affections grew shared more widely and more securely. Customers used LoveCloud in business, during official and recreational travel, and at home.

Love 10.1: Cumulative patches to the LoveCloud service allowed for more security. Users reported the benefits to having their Love tracked more precisely. Among them, advertising associated with affections grew more targeted.

Love 10.2: Some governments tracked forbidden affections too closely and, with this version, LoveCloud became unavailable in some nations and in some parts of the United States.

Love 10.3: Love as a service grew even more popular in this version. Terms of service changed. With this release, unsubscribing required a call to All Powerful to explain more fully. This was for the benefit of the service and other customers. 

Love 11: Introducing LoveAI! 
All Powerful corporation has heard the call of the public for Artificial Love. We acquired the LoveChat engine, which we have combined with our powerful LoveCloud to form our LoveAI service. LoveCloud (TM) now offers more intelligent matching, fun catfish games, special distance add-ons, premium services, and custom writing. The chat function is so good you may no longer be able to tell whether or not you're in love with a non-person! But you definitely are in Love! 

Anyway, the special person in your life deserves a handwritten, individual card. Does anyone care if it wasn't written by you personally? Almost certainly not. The LoveAI can take your ideas (or even a sketch) and generate cards that you would have written if you'd expended more effort. This service is available even in the basic package!

FreeLove is Not All Powerful
As always, we must issue this disclaimer: You may have heard of an open source product called FreeLove, originally produced by a former employee of ours using many modules of our original code. This hobbyist product is under legal dispute and it is not covered under All Powerful terms of use. It is strictly an imitation. You should be warned there have been complaints about the FreeLove line of affections. FreeLove has many design flaws and bugs in implementation. Of course, it is free and you may think it is a good bargain until it ruins some important relationship. Remember that you end up paying for what you get.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 291: Longest Night

For Diane at Yule 2022

Put down your burden, rest your pack.
Straighten up your tired back.
All the things that you're achieving
Can rest upon the longest evening.

Ease your worries, smooth your smile.
Close your eyes a little while.
Take my hand and sit with me.
Rest beneath the green fir tree.

A pause to breathe, a moment to drink,
Time to look into a fire and think.


Tomorrow we will lift our loads
and keep our promises
and hike our roads.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 290: Biomythography - Note 42, Hating to Sing, Part II

Biomythography 42

Hating to Sing, Part II

Outside, the world was windy, cold, and wet. My parents didn't care to make me do chores. My brothers had been left to play. And so we had. We had battled each other in cribbage and rummy for hours. But the youngest had left the game. My middle brother wanted to read. Fortunately, I found there was going to be a Nova special I wanted to watch. I tossed down the curled-over TV guide and knocked on the door next to my bedroom.

Our house had two televisions. That Sunday, my father chose to watch Gunsmoke re-runs downstairs in the smoke-filled haze of his combination library and recreation room, which lay next to my bedroom. The air around him was so thick he couldn't see his show but it didn't matter. He didn't look up from his crossword puzzle. He'd seen every Gunsmoke episode dozens of times. He wouldn't let me switch to the Nova special.

"Not interested," he said. "Anyway, you've seen that one."
He wasn't curious to see a re-run of the Six Million Dollar Man, either, or the Muppet Show. It was too early in the day to lure him into Kojak or the Rockford Files, so I headed upstairs to the living room. There, to my surprise, I found my mother watching television.

"What is this?" I gestured to everything in the room. My mother never watched this television without my father's presence. She always worked outside instead.

"It's a rebroadcast of Pavarotti in an opera," my mother explained. She had a brunch tray in front of her, mostly finished. "I've been looking forward to it. I missed it when it was live. It's pretty good."

"Nova is doing a special on star formation."

"You can see it later. I'm watching this." Her tone was final.

For a while, I wandered around the house, banging on surfaces to have something to do, eating cereal, and eventually pulling cheese slices out of the fridge. I peered into my brothers' rooms as I ate cheese. One was asleep. One was reading.

I grabbed a tangerine and sat down on the couch in front of the upstairs television. As far as the house rules went, I was allowed to listen to classical music and to big band music if I could stand it. Radio shows from the 1940s were pretty much mandatory. Opera was permitted with the idea that it was classical. My father didn't care for it, though. I'd seen a ballet (well, I'd slept through four) but I'd never seen an opera performance.

We had an album of the H.M.S. Pinafore, which was passable enough, but no one referred to it as opera.

Partway through peeling the tangerine, I started to hate what I was hearing. Pavarotti looked like he was supposed to be playing someone young and poor but he was about two hundred pounds heavier than he should have been. He bellowed about the weather for a few minutes. He went on about an apple or a ribbon, too, or some other prop. The other actors pretended to chuckle for him. Everyone's acting was so bad that, aside from the fake laughter, I generally couldn't tell what emotion they were hoping to portray.

That was it for "La Bohème" and for all of opera, forever and ever as far as I was concerned. I grabbed another copy of the TV guide and thumbed through it. I noticed the Nova show would get repeated on a different PBS station in an hour. I could kill the time by re-reading science fiction books, probably. Or I could thumb through the library shelves and find something that had looked boring the first two hundred times. Sometimes it looked okay the next time.

Most of the hour, I spent in silence. I secluded myself in the back corner of my room, far away from the noisy televisions and the billows of cigar smoke as I read my books.

"Is that Nova?" I asked when I came upstairs. I'd gotten lost in the cheap novels so I was a few minutes late for my show.

I got no answer. I was in the kitchen, where my voice sometimes didn't reach my mother or where other people could pretend not to hear. I ambled into the living room. There, in front of the TV set, sat mom with a plate of cheese and fruit. She was watching an opera. For a moment, I thought it was the same one. I asked myself how long operas ran. But no, the guide had said this one would end before Nova.

"The cast looks different." The music sounded different, too.

"It's a better opera," said my mother. "This woman is a gypsy."

"Ugh." She had never watched opera before. It seemed horribly unfair, from my perspective as a perpetually-bored teenager, that my parents should take up new, even more boring hobbies. They enforced more than enough tedium already.

There on the living room carpet, I glowered at everything. I scowled at my mother. I cast mental balefire at the television. For a while, I listened to Carmen. My mother was right. It was better. But I wasn't going to be seduced. I made up my mind to oppose this somehow. Enough with the fancy arts. Enough ballet. Enough opera. Enough slow, repetitive big band music.

Then Carmen started singing a new song. It was the best piece I'd heard in my limited opera experience. It was called the Habanera and the vocalist was fantastic as dancer and an actor. I'd made up my mind, though. I took a deep breath and swelled up my grudge against all of life. Then I began singing. Angry and fifteen and no vocalist at all, I made up lyrics as I went,

This song is boring.
It isn't Nova.
I should be learning
about star formations.

It's really boring.
Did I say boring?
Because it's boring
It's so very boring.

I kept it up, a deliberately awful parody, and my mother ignored me for a whole minute, maybe two. The actress in Carmen was so good. The music enchanted my mother. Finally, though, she snapped.

"If you don't like it, leave!" she shouted. "Go on! Get out!"

Still sulking and actually, still singing, I stomped from the living room to the dining room, where I bumped into my middle brother.

(An aside: Nowadays, when people ask me if my kids were difficult because they cut themselves up or got in a fight or argued about doing their homework, my answer always seems to go through a comparison of things like this I did and much worse things I did, too, when I was their age. So I usually reply with something like, 'meh, they're probably better than I was.')

When I say I bumped into my brother, I mean literally. He moved into my path, not out of it, and he had no problem with physical contact. He didn't seem as angry as I was, or as bored. He'd probably been hungry and helped himself to another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He'd been grazing on them all day. In fact, he did dodge a little at the last second. His gaze on me was wide-eyed and intent. His mouth fell open.

"What do you want?" I asked.

I moved past him into the kitchen. He followed me. His expression seemed even more focused, like a haunted child from a movie who hasn't got anything else to do but stare.

"Well, what?" I said.

"I think," he said as he blinked away some of the puzzled, unbelieving look in his eyes, "that you were singing."

"Huh." Come to think of it, I had seemed to be hitting the same notes as the woman in the opera. Well, an octave lower, maybe.

"Do it again."

"You're crazy." I pushed him on the arm, partly because he was reaching out to me and I wanted to keep him back with his weird, overly-intent expression but partly, too, because I worried that I had sung only once in my life. It seemed unlikely that I could ever do it again.

"Can you?"

"I don't want to."

"But can you?"

"Of course," I lied. My mind reeled a few minutes back in time to what Carmen had been singing. Her syllables were like notes on the piano. I could imitate the notes. Better yet, I could make fun of them. That was the thing. I'd forget that I couldn't do it as long as I kept being insulting, as long as I was pulling a scam by pretending to sing. Only pretending. All I had to do was parody Carmen and poke fun at my mother. I could do that.

"La da da dee dah, la da dee dah." I started dancing like a gypsy woman. My brother laughed. It was working. "La da da dee dah da dee dum dum dum."

"I've never heard you sing," my brother said quietly.

"La da da dee dah, la da dee dah. La da da dee dah da dee DAAAAH da dum!" I pretended to blow him a kiss even more exaggerated than the actress had done. He made a grimace-smile because he knew I was trying to be funny but he didn't necessarily agree that I was. I had to admit to him, "I didn't know I could do this."

"You couldn't last year."

"Yeah." Maybe he had heard me chanting into the forest. Or maybe while he was in my room, I'd tried to accompany a pop song on my transistor radio and he had been a reluctant witness.

"But now you can sing."

"Yeah." It was a weird change to acknowledge. "I guess I can."


Making fun of bad music was the only way I dared to perform for about a year. Parodies were how I could sing in front of other people.

Satires of opera led me to a similar mocking of the Bee Gees, which led to me wailing like Led Zeppelin, which led to me deliberately mangling Grease. However, lots of teenaged girls liked the musical Grease and didn't enjoy me making fun of it. Anything that made girls frown, I shut down pretty fast. Eventually, I loosened up and sang to Abba hits along with the girls. That made guys frown but I wasn't trying to kiss them so they were welcome to scowl until their faces broke apart or we could fight about it.

One thing led to another. A high school director asked me to sing in a musical. I started working my way through college and found an opera coach who directed a choir and liked my voice enough to stand me next to his star (who went on to be a professional performer in operas, as I later saw in the newspapers).

In another college, still trying to hold jobs and manage to get through it all, I sang with a more contemporary chorus. We did complicated pieces (four P.D.Q Bach cantatas were my first) but they were fun. When I was tired of the bass parts, I decided to make my voice transition from low to high like Freddy Mercury. I had mixed success but it was just enough for the director to move me to baritone, then second tenor, and to occasionally give me solo lines. Over the span of a few years, she gave me the impression that she trusted me to sing.