Archive for July, 2011

The itch next door

On the underside of my son’s wrist was a raised red rash, like a worm buried in the flesh. He kept pressing his arm to his side so he couldn’t run normally or carry his cars or—hell’s coming!—play Wii freely.

The weekend doctor prescribed anitbiotics for an infection. Then the worm jumped onto his abdomen, streaking up his ribs and mottling his chest and belly. A scratch formed, fingernail wide, down his whole buttcheek. 5 days later, with the antibiotics doing nothing, the other doctor—the dismissive dick we’ve grown accustomed to—diagnosed it as “some kind of chemical from a plant, like poison ivy, poison oak etc.”

But how, Dr. Dick? It’s been a month since we hiked through the deep forests of the Alleghenies; a month since the boy ran free range like a chicken in five wooded acres at his Nona’s; and his swim camp in a heavily chlorinated pool at a heavily fertilized park? Nope. Something in the house?  We scoured the basement, pitched the splitting wicker baskets that held his toys, and racked our brains for where it came from. It’s hard to find an IT when you aren’t sure what IT is.

When we got home from Dr. D, our car scraped the wild brush growing over our driveway from the rear of our neighbor’s house. Because she lives on the corner she doesn’t have a backyard. Instead the six-foot swath between the back of her house and our driveway is an unsuburban thicket of weeds, pricklies, and dwarf trees. I hadn’t trimmed and weeded the shit because it was on her property and she said apologetically that it was being taken care of. Walking to our side door, my wife veered to the thicket and bent over to dark green plant. “That’s poison ivy,” she said with all the authority of a dozen summer youth camps. Growing alongside a narrow patch of our driveway, like a handful of hastas, was a waxy green plant with the tell tale three-points. “Sticks out like a thumb,” she said, holding her thumb over it. I didn’t need to Google it. I remembered the week prior when the boy fetched a baseball out of that area. Dr. Dick was spot-on.

He prescribed a cream to apply twice a day for ten days. It’s been four and the rash is almost gone. The thicket is almost gone, too. I busted out my four-cycle Ryobi weed wacker for the first time this season (incidentally the first gas-powered tool I have ever owned) and, covered head to toe in jeans and long sleeves in last week’s heat index, clear cut my neighbor’s back yard. Had to respool the whip a half dozen times, filled up three bags, bought a half gallon of poison ivy weed killer. I haven’t sprayed yet because we’re watching my brother’s dog this weekend and because of the kids and our nascent garden we try to limit the pesticides and herbicides. It’s not my yard, though, is it?

It’s not about yards. It’s my kids’ skin. My wife wants to warn our neighbor, who has a dog. I told her its not going to change anything. I’m gonna poison the poison. Gonna build me a fence. That’s the argument for landscaping—to keep the unwanted at bay.


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Men vacuuming: drying out flooded basements

There are few things that look as effeminate as a man vacuuming: the rhythmic sashay of the hips, the limp wrist holding the cord, the inevitable humming of show tunes. Even with a wet vac slurping up gallons of backed-up sewer water, I spent the better part of yesterday feeling like a housewife from the 1950s.

As the storms continue, and the record rainfall here in the Heights of Arlington nears ten inches in two days, I’ve picked up a thing or two about storm-soaked basements. My brother and I helped our dad suck up water from two of the houses he rents out in the area. The unfinished basement was an easy problem to remedy.

The sump pump broke. There was standing water of a couple inches, so we sucked that up with a wet-vac/shop-vac, dumped it a dozen times in the curb outside. Dad, with his considerable pappy smarts, replaced the sump pump with what he called “the best”, an expensive Zoeller pump. The old one had become unmoored, tipped on its side, and was useless. It’s probably a good idea to dig into your sump pit every spring and make sure that the pump is on solid ground, ideally an inch or two off the bottom, where the silt and filth collects that could clog the pump. Setting it on two bricks could work, though I’m sure there are more secure and ingenuous methods out there, though make sure the float is unfettered.Clearing debris out of the pit is recommended, as well, as is having a back up power source, especially since Com Ed services the Midwest, where power outtages are more frequent than storms. (The ferocity of recent weather patterns must leave even the staunchest delusionist wondering more than Global what?)

Not much you can do if the sewer drains back up, as was the case with the second basement, which was finished with padded carpeting. Even after we dumped two five-gallon buckets at least ten times, maybe 100 gallons, the padding underneath was still so soaked that a puddle would form in your footprint. And it smelled like piss. Nothing you can do but open the windows, blow a fan, and hire professionals or gorillas to rip out all the wet carpeting to haul upstairs and outside to the curb. It sounds like most basic homeowner’s insurance in Illinois does not cover damage due to flooding, unless the incident broke a pipe that caused the flooding.

Whatever your insurance policy, it’s small solace for keepsakes and other personal familial ephemera—the kind of stuff housed in basements—that can’t be replaced. For those, like me, with a basement office, here’s some tips on how to preserve water-logged books. I can’t imagine it would be cost-effective to submerge computer equipment in sealed drums of rice, like you can do with a wet cell phone(Ziploc bag suffices). Then there’s the weeklong-process of clearing out and starting over with plastic Rubbermaid bins.

Luckily, our house, and its sub-basement with windows at ground level, has been spared any flooding. There is no pit for a sump pump, so the foundation is sealed, and one school of thought would argue that the hole for the pit welcomes more damage than it prevents. We have sewer drains, of course, but they didn’t back up. Maybe we’re higher up. We’re definitely lucky. Now I can get on with the laundry and other domestic chores,


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Time of death: guest essay by Ben Tanzer

Experiments in Manhood debuts a new feature: the guest contributor. This month’s essayist, author and e-media mogul Ben Tanzer, explores the effects of his father’s death on his kids and that moment when mortality becomes a fatherly preoccupation.

My father was 59 when he died. I was 32.

I never wondered when I might die or what the world might look like when I was gone and no longer part of it. I didn’t worry about who would come to my funeral or if anyone would even care.

Then I had my own cancer scare. Turned then passed forty. Stopped drinking quite so much or taking so many drugs and went into therapy and learned that in doing all this I would start actually feeling things.

Still, I never actually worried about death before I had kids and became a dad myself.

It started with the boys of course, everything does. Their mere presence makes me think about my father more than I might otherwise. About what he is missing and how much fun he would have had with them.

There is more though. And there always is.

All this thinking about him not living has also got me wondering whether I will outlive him. Maybe? Probably? Okay, but what if I don’t? That’s only sixteen more years. Sixteen. That’s plenty of time to write more, which is good, because there are so many things I want to write about. Like a novel inspired by, or possibly as an homage to, how a character might cope with his father’s slow, though still way too fast death. (Yes, that is a quasi- and probably totally unprofessional plug for my soon to be released novella My Father’s House.)

Sixteen years though is fine, fine for writing.

But the boys, what about the boys?

I am 43 now. Fuck.

Do the math. I don’t want to do the math. I don’t even like math. But that’s just one of the many ways thinking about death starts messing with you, it makes you think about all kinds of things you would rather ignore.

Myles is nine. Noah is five. Fuck. What does that mean? It means, that if I only make it to 59 they will be what, 25 and 21 respectively, and yes, they will be young men, and yes, I will get to see them through high school, and maybe, at least one of them through college, but what about weddings and grandchildren? Not clear.

What about the fact that they could be fatherless like me, what does that mean?

Not sure, not exactly.

It’s funny, because at one time I didn’t really think about them in relation to me. All I cared about was things that could happen to them, irrational things, porch parties and drunk drivers, and Leukemia.

Not that it was all about fear. Some of it was and is, but it has also been about all the great things they might become, documentary filmmakers, explorers, the President, and all the things we might do together, like hiking across the Grand Canyon and then sleeping in the lodge after gorging on enormous steaks and ingesting copious amounts of beer.

Still, good or bad, it was always all about them as separate from me, until it wasn’t, and until I started thinking about time, how much we might have, what we will do with it and do any of us have any control over any of that?

True, I might have cared about death and time and the relationship of all that to my dad as I got older, more sober and therapeutized anyway, maybe. And maybe it would have been unavoidable as I become more like my father all the time, trying to figure out how to live the artist’s life, even eating Maple frosted donuts.

The author's parents, Mike and Judy Tanzer

And when did that start anyway, the latter not the former, though when did the former start taking hold to the extent it has?

Some days, most days, I’m not even sure what I cared about before I became a father, writing for sure; and my wife Debbie, totally, especially if you are reading this baby; and the Knicks, but what did I really care about? I don’t know, because being a father has skewed and fucked everything. The boys are the filter, when I’m happy, or sad, selfish or benevolent, what role did they play in it, what is the affect on them, and what does any of that mean about being the kind of father you want to be, even if you cannot define what that is much of the time?

I wouldn’t go back. If I did who else would kick me in the balls and pretend to be The Beast from X-Men? Or parade around the apartment naked shaking their ass, though Debbie honey, again, if you are actually reading this, you know you are always welcome to dance naked and shake whatever you want. Still, if not the boys, who else would I watch grow-up before me and then someday leave me, us, to have these same kinds of fears, possibly, even as they too grow-old, improbably mind you, and awesome?

Ultimately then, my plan these days is not to die at 59, or die at all if I can swing it, and so any role you can play in accomplishing this would be great. Also, did I mention My Father’s House is coming out soon? Good. But did I also mention it’s currently half-off the cover price if you pre-order it now? Yes, now. There. Perfect. I should add that I’m in no way trying to imply that if you buy My Father’s House it will extend my life, but it could, right? Sure it could. Think about it. And thank you in advance for doing so.

Ben Tanzer is the author of the books 99 Problems and You Can Make Him Like You among others, as well as the forthcoming novella My Father’s House and humor collection This American Life. You can find him online at

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Day 3 of being powerless

It hasn’t been a total inconvenience. Cleaning out the fridge and freezer was a whole lot easier. Kids have been staying up late with a campfire, and we’ve been telling stories instead of reading them. Creative play has increased right along with competitive fighting. Flashlights have become a weapon.

But three days in, the novelty is over.

ComEd sucks

Taking a shit in the hot dark—what could only be called a shitbox—has given me a real respect for modern conveniences of the middle class.

Garage door openers

Automatic ice makers

Electric nannies like Word Girl and Phineas and Ferb and Wii

The option to have a freezer section sampling in your home

The world wide internet

Cable television

Ceiling fans


Cool conditioned air

Being a stay at home dad while Wife works crazy hours to make up for what I lack, however, means that most of my domestic and professional production is done at night. The house is a mess. Writing momentum has been stopped. I wrote by Citronella moonlight the first night. It was a strain. The neighborhood has been roaring with neighbors’ generators instead of cicadas. And while it has been fascinating to think of what one was before houses were tied into massive webs of electricity, I do not long for a simpler time. Things, from washing dishes to wiping asses, take a lot longer and move at a much slower pace. I don’t miss TV but I do miss reading a book before I go to bed. The finality of flipping a switch to go to sleep, powering down. I suppose you could get that finality of the day from blowing out a candle. But I’m a modern man and I’m a slave to ComfuckingEd.

Debuting this Sunday on Experiments in Manhood will be a new feature of guest columns. The first will be by author Ben Tanzer hitting the bigger questions by looking at how his father’s premature death affects Tanzer’s relationship with his own kids.

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Manhood at the Movies

Going to the movies with my dad and brother involves a simple set of tacit rules: never go on a weekend; don’t sit right next to each other; and if you want popcorn get your own. Or at least your own vessel so that fingers never risk touching. Same thing with leaving one seat open between each of us and at either end—elbows or knees should never touch. If it’s too crowded to take up the six required seats then we don’t go.


It has been suggested—mainly by our wives—that we have intimacy issues. But that’s the whole point of the irregular movie night, to make shit of the crap that gets thrown on the big screen and appreciate the rare film that moves you. It’s the comments afterwards that are usually more entertaining than the movie anyway.

The last movie I can remember us enjoying was Inception. Action, intrigue, plot, good acting, cool visuals, great story—we were all pleased. Usually it’s much more hopeless, like Fast and Furious Fuckall 5. Even with the lowest of expectations, midway through my brother and I glanced over at our father, a car junkie and action-movie devotee who idolized Steven Seagal’s glory years (1998, 1992?) before he got too fat for his ponytail. Dad can watch five movies a week. Dad looked as if he’d be enjoying himself more if he shit his pants. And that’s why we go to the movies.

Until last week. We were on our way to see Bad Teachers, each of us indifferent in our own way. At a stoplight I asked if it was too late to see Horrible Bosses, and my dad said, Super 8 might be worth the special effects. My brother asked why the hell we were going. The light changed and we were on our way to get margaritas and Palomas at the local Mexican place.

We hung out talking for three hours. Had a few beers on my dad’s stoop. Talked politics, economics, plans. Heard stories I hadn’t heard in my lifetime. Talked in those idiosyncratic patterns distinct to and distinct from each family. Not having a movie to hash over gave us a lot more to discuss. Best Movie Night Ever.

Next month we’ll most likely go back to a movie. But knowing our options will surely make for a better selection.


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