Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Warning: You May Die


"Let me ask you something," the man on the stool said. "You understand that putting a drill bit through your hand would really suck, right?"

The boy giggled and nodded affirmatively.

"I trust you to know things like that," he said, running a hand through his salt and pepper mohawk. "I know you're smart. I'm going to train you on other important things you need to know, but other than that, I'm just here to make sure you don't die. My main job as president of this company is to make sure people don't die."

He swiveled around to face the rest of us. The seat looked like a shiny red bottle cap. "Any more questions?"

We had just completed a tour of the Geek Group, a Grand Rapids maker space with rooms full of wires, bolts, volts, and giant robots. There is a vehicle hoist for changing your oil, and a tesla coil. There's a machine shop, a woodworking shop, an electronics lab, and a high voltage lab. If you're a member, you can use any or all of this, even if you're 5, with some restrictions. The energy of the place, and of their skinny president, conducted through our group at lightning speed; by the end of the tour, even the non-science-minded among us wanted to try a hand at a 3D bust of Carl Sagan.

The president's t-shirt:

Math is hard.
So is life.
Get over it.


The unassuming trailhead, with swings for kids and people at picnics, revealed nothing of the difficulty ahead. I had found the mountain biking trail on a forum and marked it down as good for me, a beginner. A gorgeous start, with a wide path through the green woods, led me to believe I'd be on a beautiful ride with moments here and there of challenge and risk. Almost immediately, I met up with one of these: a slope down to a narrow wooden bridge, a wall of dirt to the right, and a steep dropoff to the left. Directly after that, a climb. I looked--metaphorically, peripherally--for a sign. Where's the warning? My bike had been a gift, and I had hopped on not understanding that trails could be both manageable and dangerous at the same time. Surely I wasn't the only one silly enough to miss the mountain in mountain biking. They needed a sign here, something for people like me, surely.

The trail would ease up at times into moments of glory: riding through eight-foot corn, no view beyond the nose of your bike and a narrow keyhole sighting of what was ahead. The corn suddenly opened to a view of rolling hills below, and because the path was relatively flat, you could look around as you went, a treat. For that is the beauty and terror of mountain biking: there is nothing but what is in front of you. Look to the side, compose a facebook update in your head, you'll probably go down.

I was sure I had passed through the worst of it. The corn was a break I had earned; the trail gods had built in this restful, meditative patch as my reward. There was no reason to believe any of this, and I was proven wrong. Once again, the shift from carefree to panicked was sudden; but though the treacherous patches were no longer a surprise, they ceased to appear manageable. This view, like the others, had no basis in reality, but fear had seized me, the tired amateur, and I stopped. A narrow swerve to the right needs to swing quickly back to the left, pop over large, embedded stones, climb an ascent. I sat off path and stared at this S in the road. I would dream about it that night. And yet there was no warning, not there.

About three miles in I saw it. A paper sign covered in a sheet protector, with colorful, plentiful fonts, push-pinned to a tree. I got closer and realized it was not a warning for me.

Broken glass
Protect your Pet

When the path finally opened up and the parking lot was in view, I crossed what appeared to be the finish line and saw some signs that weren't readable from my direction. I circled my bike back around for the message.

You would see this sign only if you made it, which I did.


"You can't learn this in school," the man said, tilting the microphone stand. "You need to do it in the joint. In the grease. In the greasy joint."

He gestured toward the young man with a saxophone, and the tall lanky kid standing behind the bass.

"They know what I'm saying. You get up here, you try, you mess up. It's okay. You come back next week and do it again. This right here is your classroom of jazz."

The young people who sit in on his second set each Sunday night are new to the twists and turns of jazz. No music is passed around; these musicians step onto the stage of the SpeakEZ Lounge and off a cliff. The genre is forgiving of amateurs, and yet those with a real spark can shine. The others, whose enthusiasm outweighed their talents this night, grew larger in front of us, as they soared without fear through the shadows of the room.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Sitting With The Secret Service

originally posted July 13, 2011

Seeing former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Betty Ford's funeral in the news this week reminded me that I've been near the woman myself. Here's the story.

Where we lived in the late 90s was a morning's drive from Plains, Georgia, the setting for a small, unassuming rural church with avocado green carpeting, where Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School.

I summoned a friend to accompany me there one Sunday morning with the sole task of this: securing an autograph on a photo of Carter riding through my Pennsylvania hometown. My father, who collects presidential memorabilia, took the photo and had proudly displayed it in the decades since. He was the person who had alerted me to my proximity to Jimmy's church; he was sure the genial former president would sit down with me and swap stories.

The church was not hard to find; the tour buses occupied more space than the building itself. Janet and I were ushered into what turned out to be an overflow room. He'd walk through here on his way to the sanctuary, but that, we gathered, was the best we could hope for. We'd have to take in the lesson on Blind Bartimaeus via the large screen television, whose volume was just loud enough to hear, if you leaned. I thought I made out something about no autographs after the lesson, but figured it was a way of telling people not to make a fuss during the church service. It was difficult, after all, to remember that this was a church and not a tourist site.

After the walkthrough and the lesson, we were surprised to hear that a busload had left, and room was now available in the church pews for the morning service, which Jimmy attends but does not lead. Janet and I quickly nudged into the line of elderly southern folk, eventually finding our way into a front pew next to a young woman sitting alone.

Christy was one of the few longtime church members, as would be demonstrated shortly when anyone who was not a first-time visitor was asked to rise. Only a handful, including the president and his men, would stand...right next to me. For after Janet and I met Christy, we were joined in the pew by the Carters and their Secret Service. This was their pew, it turned out; we hadn't seen the Reserved sign posted at the other end. Rosalynn slid in next to Christy, then Jimmy, then one of the Secret Service at the end. The other agent bookended the row, sitting next to Janet. When we'd reach for our large purses on the floor, he'd move with us.

Church went on, and we tried to play cool the fact that we singing hymns mere feet from a former president. When the service concluded, we were led outside and into a line, where we were told that no autographs would be given; pictures with the president only. Disappointed, I decided if I couldn't have an autograph, I'd settle for a picture of the picture--with Jimmy.

I fished the frame out of my bag and left it to the side of the line as we waited. "Ma'am," a Secret Service agent said, "Please pick that up." I did.

On our turn, we handed our cameras to a church member. I showed the Carters the picture and said, "Beaver Falls, 1980!" We flanked the couple and smiled. The camera was returned and we were immediately ushered away, at which point I heard a wife nag her husband.

"Jimmy," Rosaylnn said. "You can sign that one, can't you?"

I didn't dare look back. But moments later, I heard the Secret Service calling me again: "Ma'am?"

I turned. He asked if I was in a hurry. Not at all. He told me to play nonchalant near the rear fender of the president's limo, pen in hand. "We'll get you that autograph."

I dug in the large bag once again. Jimmy finished smiling for the rest of the line and walked with his entourage to the limo, where I stood, nervous. I handed him the pen and picture and said, "To Dave." He never looked at me or said anything. He leaned the frame on the back of the vehicle, signed it and handed everything back to me. The Secret Service opened a door and whisked him inside.

The limo windows were dark, but I like to think that had I been able to see inside, I would have caught a wink, one woman to another.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Tooth Fairy: bitter, caustic, ready to retire

August, 2015. A boy, 11 years old, walks into a room wearing pajamas and rubbing his eyes. His mother ruffles his blond bedhead.

MOM: Did the Tooth Fairy leave money under your pillow?

BOY: Yeah, and a note. She was kind of cranky.

I have been given access to the files of The Tooth Fairy, who made multiple visits to the Scheer house over the past six years and has unofficially announced her retirement. She regularly left notes alongside the monetary reward, yet has never been spotted; it is my hope that these found artifacts will shed light on her true identity.

Let's begin with the very first letter. The content appears to indicate she had forgotten to leave money the night before, which leaves us to wonder if this was a regular occurrence necessitating, finally, written communication to express an apology. Here we see, then, the first and perhaps only evidence of vulnerability, as well as the first appearance of "Little Jimmy." There is no "Jimmy" in the Scheer family or their neighborhood, to my knowledge.

December 26, 2009

Dear Theo,

Would you believe it? My fairy mobile got caught in traffic last night. It seems fat Santa needed two lanes to travel in, and he was taking his good ol’ time flying and stopping, flying and stopping. I made it to Little Jimmy’s house to fetch his odd-shaped tooth, but I never made it to yours. So sorry.

Please accept this bonus buck with my apologies. There’s an extra dollar to share with your brother, too—it’s the giving season, after all!

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

The next letter shows evidence of the caustic wit that will bloom and invade the tone of the correspondence over the next several years. We're laughing, but is she joking? Those exclamation points--a coverup? At this point, we still feel that The Fairy is on our side, but something tells us to watch our backs, especially when we're lying on them and she's reaching under the pillow.

March 29, 2010

Dear Simon, the Mighty Tooth Torquer,

Again? What’s next--you going to start yanking out random teeth now? Or maybe a finger? I’ll have to talk to the Finger Fairy about that.

Congrats on clearing out your mouth for the big boy teeth. I’m happy to have another reason to visit—and to help you towards your goal of filling the house with LEGO. Good thing I fly, or I’d be stubbing my toe on all those little pieces everywhere!

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

Jumping ahead, we detect sarcasm once again in these next two letters, as extra effort was required to find said pillow, tooth, and child. "Little Jimmy" reappears, probably confusing the child, who nevertheless is surely happy for the extra cash.

August 16, 2010

Dear Simon,

Last time you people made me find you in a hotel, and now you’re up in your parents’ bedroom. You messin’ with me? Next thing I know, you and Little Jimmy will be hiding in a suspended tree house.

Here’s a buck for your efforts.

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

November 25, 2010

Dear Simon,

You thought I wouldn’t find you in Indiana, didn’t you? It took some time to get through the cornfields and past Thanksgiving traffic, but here I am, delivering your dollar (even though you didn’t produce an actual tooth—but I’m not bitter). Good luck gobbling down turkey with one less incisor!

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

Apparently the younger child had been worried about the state of his pillow, as found after The Fairy's visits. She is not happy about this, but tries to play it off with additional exclamation points and a chummy use of "sheesh" and "toofer."

December 9, 2010

Dear Theo,

Is your pillow all right? Should I fluff it when I’m done depositing the money?

Sheesh—I think you’re the first kid to worry about my pillow technique. I hope I passed the test. Congrats on losing another toofer!

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

I will skip the October through December 2012 letters, which include references to the younger child misplacing the lost tooth (The Fairy questions the existence of the tooth, naturally), and also the younger child losing part of a tooth and having a dentist remove the rest. ("I thought about giving you part of a dollar, and ripping off a corner for the dentist," she writes.)

The bitterness is still evident in March of the following year. Blood is mentioned twice:

March 28, 2013

Dear Theo,

You’d think the snow would be off the ground by now, allowing me to land my FairyMobile in less mess. But no: I have to drive in the cold air and wear boots in March all because some kid lost a tooth.

Do you think there’s a connection between your toe bleeding into your boot and your bleeding tooth falling into the drain? Either way, this is the stuff of great poetry. Or at least a haiku.

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

Even a brief mention of "Little Jimmy" would lighten the tone in that and the following letter, but she persists with themes of resentment and exhaustion.

November 20, 2013

Dear Theo,

This is the 14th letter I’ve written to your family, and to tell you the truth, I feel you’re all just a little old for this fairy business. It’s about the money, isn’t it? Money, money. My boss warned me when he hired me, but I was all like, No, there’s good kids out there, like that Theo critter. But now I’m not so sure.

Don’t mind the streaks on this paper. That’s just my tears staining the letter. I’m honestly happy for you. Really, I am. Losing a tooth is one of the many steps along the way to adulthood, where you’ll most certainly find the job of your dreams. Like I did.

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

March 8, 2014

Dear Theo,

I go ALL THE WAY DOWNSTAIRS looking for you and the tooth, but NOOOOO, you can’t be bothered to put it under your pillow. But I bet you didn’t forget to look for the money, am I right? So here I am, hiring a tooth-sniffing dog—the ones who didn’t cut it finding drugs—to figure out where the heck your tooth is. Maybe I shoulda put your money in a different place and made YOU hunt, too. Do a little of this work for a change. Maybe I’ll go SPEND your dollar for you. Yeah.

Okay, I’m not all that bitter. It’s just that it’s been a long week of trudging through all this snow, and I don’t expect to have to trudge all the way through a house. I like to just appear where I should be, like how a tooth should be UNDER. A. PILLOW.

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

Sept 30, 2014

Dear Theo,

I thought we were done with this a long time ago. Seriously—how many teeth could you possibly have left to lose? I believe your mother told you I’m busy. And tired. So could you perhaps consider pulling the rest out and getting this done in one fell swoop? I’ll leave a five under your pillow tonight to cover the remaining teeth. What’s that? You only found one dollar? Must be the fault of your brother. I’m sure I put it there. Despite the tiredness, the tooth fairy never forgets [insert ominous music here].

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

And finally, what is most likely the last letter appeared this week, which I've reproduced here in its entirety:

August 4, 2015

Dear Theo,

I finally figured it out: you got that 3-D printer you always wanted, and you’ve been printing teeth. Yes, that’s got to be it, because it can’t be humanly (or fairy-ly) possible that I’ve been visiting your house and writing letters for five years. You CAN’T HAVE ANY MORE TEETH LEFT. Can you? I’ve lost count, but seriously: this is getting a bit ridiculous. Soon you’ll be, like, 30, and I’ll be using a walker, and little 3D teeth will be lying under your pillow. You will be lying on your pillow, unshaven and slovenly, awaiting the cash. Can’t a gal catch a break ever?

Enjoy this buck, because it’s sure to be the last one. Cause if there’s any more teeth, I’m retiring to Florida. See ya.

Keep on brushing,

The Tooth Fairy

It is my sincere hope that this carefully curated correspondence will benefit the children, either in the eventual writing of their memoirs, or participation in exhaustive psychotherapy. I trust that in either endeavor, they will remember me fondly.