Category Archives: Behind the scenes

Theatre stories

And their eyes will pop

When I was a high school drama nerd, a friend of mine asked if I could run the light board for a dinner theatre cabaret show. I went to a rehearsal and took a look at the board, a big old Frankenstein-style killer dimmer panel with giant levers to shove up and down. I signed up immediately, and sat down with the lighting designer to create my cue sheets.

The production took place in a high school cafetorium, and the custodial cleaning protocol of emptying the trash and mopping the floor did not really cover the needs of an old theatre. There was dust everywhere, with that wonderful musty smell of old hemp ropes that might let go at any moment and drop a thousand pounds of lighting instruments on your head.

It was in the days before non-drowsy antihistamines. I was awakening to the fact that I had allergies, and that I could not really take anything for them, particularly if I didn’t want to fall asleep while in class, while swimming, or while riding my bike. I knew it was important to stay awake during the performance, so I came prepared with a pocket full of Kleenex.

My parents dutifully attended opening night. After the performance, I asked them how it looked. My mom said, “It was okay, not terrible. But there was this one magical moment! When they did Surrey With the Fringe On Top, one of the horses had this wonderful, manic expression on his face. He was just so proud to be pulling such a beautiful carriage. It made my whole night!”

I didn’t want to tell her the real story. Randy, the actor playing the downstage horse, had looked into the wings and caught a glimpse of me running the light board, with a Kleenex jammed in each nostril. He had to bite his tongue to keep from breaking character and laughing out loud.

Waiting for the phone to ring

After I graduated from college, I spent some time working as a temp. I alternated between theatrical work and office work, one for fun and the other to pay the bills. One of my office assignments was at Hasbro Interactive in Beverly. The company has been out of business since 2001, so I think it’s safe for me to share this story.

I was covering for an executive assistant who was on vacation. I arrived a few minutes early, got my badge, and was introduced to the executive whose assistant was on vacation. He showed me to my desk and outlined my duties, to wit: if a fax came in, I was to make two photocopies. I would bring one copy to him, and put the other copy and the original into the file cabinet.

That was it.

I read toy catalogs until lunchtime. I ate a tuna sandwich in the employee cafeteria, admired the view out the window, then went back to my desk to re-read the toy catalogs. This is where I discovered Elefun. I may have fallen asleep at one point.

Around 1:30 a fax came in. I was very grateful to have something to do. I took the fax and went to the photocopier, but it was displaying an error message: replace toner.

“Sorry to disturb you, but where is the toner?” I asked.

“Oh, we have a technician from Xerox on site. Call the number on the poster and he will come change the toner for you.”

I assured him I was perfectly capable of replacing a toner cartridge, but no, only the Xerox Guy was allowed to open the machine. Okay then. I called the number and left a message.

At 5:00, the Xerox Guy had still not arrived. I went home.

The next morning, I brought a book with me. When the executive arrived, I asked, “Are you sure there’s nothing else I could be helping you with?”

The executive thought for a moment. “Actually, yes! You can check the email account. If an email comes in, print it out and make two photocopies. Bring one copy to me, and file the other with the original.”

I didn’t even try to explain all the different ways this was ridiculous. It’s their house; I am just a guest. I launched the email app (Groupwise, if I recall correctly) and was prompted for a password.

“Sorry to keep bugging you, but what’s the password for the email?”

“Oh, right. Well, there’s something strange about our email system. No matter what you type for a password, it shows up as an asterisk. So everyone’s password is five asterisks.”

I went back to the computer, trying desperately to keep my face neutral. I entered five asterisks and the email account opened up. There were no messages.

When I got home, I sent an email to Scott Adams. I never received a reply, but a couple of years later, he wrote a strip that I firmly believe was inspired by my email.

I was there for a week. The Xerox Guy never did show up. I think he was on vacation too.

Keep your old Confederate money

As I’ve mentioned here before, my house is overwhelmed with clutter. I’ve made some good progress, but there is still a long way to go. The level of disorganization usually hovers just under my threshold, but occasionally I need to find something that I know I have, and I get pushed over the line.

In December, Nate’s school held a Cluster Cash auction. Parents were asked to donate items, and students could bid on them using the scrip money they earn by being well-behaved in class. I knew I had a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card, but the last place I saw it was on a piece of furniture that we retired three years ago.

I tore the house apart looking for anything remotely shaped like a gift card, and I ended up with a four-inch-high stack of gift cards, loyalty cards, and stored-value cards. I did actually find the Barnes & Noble gift card too, but I set it down for a minute and it walked away. We ended up having to send in a different card for the auction.

Some of the cards I unearthed were from a long time ago. The oldest one was a wedding gift from my first wedding: a Filene’s gift card. The last Filene’s was converted to a Macy’s in 2006. I didn’t know how much the card was for, but I knew I would enjoy myself with it. First I called the Macy’s gift card customer service number. The rep told me I would have to take it in to a store. Last weekend, we went to the mall to use up as many of the gift cards as we could manage. Nate and I left Sandy at the Sephora counter and promised that she would be done before we were. We marched into Macy’s and I asked the nice lady at the makeup counter where I could find the customer service desk. She said there wasn’t really a customer service desk, and maybe she could help me. I showed her the card and she got very nostalgic: “Oh, I miss Filene’s!” Then she sent me upstairs to the executive office.

We got to the second floor and I asked the man at the perfume desk to direct me to the executive office. He asked if maybe he could help me. I showed him the card and his eyes got wide: here is a potential headache. The office is just through the towels department, have a nice day.

We found the office and knocked on the door. A nice young lady looked at the card and got the same expression on her face as the man at the perfume counter. She said that she couldn’t do anything from the office. Any salesperson with a cash register can do a gift card exchange. They might have to call a manager.

I went back to the perfume counter. The clerk called the number for a manager but there was no answer. He sent me back to the office and suggested that the woman in the office could page a manager. Fifteen-love, your serve.

The woman in the office finally found a manager on the phone. She came in and asked us to have a seat in the waiting room. She took the gift card and said she would be right back.

After about 15 minutes, when Nate had run out of Minecraft things to talk about, Sandy called. I gave her directions to the towel department. She could not understand why I was so happy. I tried to explain it, but I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job.

When I was little, we used to go out for ice cream at Friendly’s. My father would always order the chocolate nut sundae. Invariably, they would bring him a hot fudge sundae and he would send it back. We would see all the waitresses clustered around the three-ring binder of ice cream recipes. My dad was the only one who ever ordered that sundae and no one knew how to make it. It was our family’s running joke. This was sort of the same thing. There was no way this gift card was still good. I got it in 2001; Massachusetts law was changed to say that gift cards can’t expire starting April 1, 2003. Whatever database held the stored value amount was probably in a landfill somewhere. But I was 100% certain that there was a process for this exact situation, written down in a dusty Macy’s three-ring binder somewhere, and I was delighted just imagining the phone call that poor manager must be having.

After 30 minutes, Sandy was ready to keep shopping, but we couldn’t just leave without the gift card.

After 45 minutes, another manager came through the executive office waiting room. “Are you being helped?” I explained the situation. Five minutes after that, the first manager came back, most apologetic, and handed me a Macy’s gift card for $100. Amazingly, she was able to determine that the Filene’s card had $50 on it, and yes, it had almost certainly expired but they couldn’t tell for sure but then a fixture fell on a customer’s foot and the customer’s father was very angry and she was so sorry for making us wait that she had added another $50 and she was really very sorry.

Sandy agreed that it had been worth the wait. We bought a new coffee maker and a stainless steel pan, and we still have a few bucks left for another trip.

Wipe Out

The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.

—Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Most of all, I remember the girl.

Bob O’Connell sat behind me in 7th grade math class. I remember exactly nothing from that math class, other than Bob, and the girl. Bob played drums, and like most drummers I have known, he rarely stopped playing the drums. He practiced his paradiddles on the back of my chair, and tapped on my backpack with his feet—something about a double bass drum pedal. And when the girl walked by us, I felt a strange pressure in my chest. Ah, so that’s why they call it a crush. To this day, I am still horribly embarrassed at the way I couldn’t stop staring at her. Eventually, she let me know it made her uncomfortable, but I couldn’t help myself. I was hooked, hard, and I had yet to learn self-control.

As she walked by, that day in math class, Bob noticed me noticing her, and nodded, once. Me too, he was saying.

In high school, Bob adopted a pseudonym, based on his passion for the works of Stephen King, and submitted several florid love poems to the school literary magazine. I think he and I were the only ones who knew that they were about that same girl. The editor selected them to feature in a section unofficially titled “Walk On Me.” I may have had one or two of my poems selected to run in the same section. There is always more than enough teenage angst to go around.

Eventually, I found my place. At the Coffee Kingdom, I belonged. Bob drank Ethiopian Yrgacheffe by the pot, and I can’t remember a day when he wasn’t there. I would stop in on my way to school for a pastry, on my way home from school for a cream soda and some chocolate ice cream, and back after dinner for one of Mary Beth’s amazing desserts and some live music. He was always there, smoking, writing, drinking coffee. The next morning, the shower would wake up the smell of his cigarettes in my hair, and I had to smile, remembering the night before.

Bob was the drummer in a high school punk band. They called themselves Biohazard (no relation to the famous band called Biohazard). One of the band members had a family member who worked at the UMass Medical Center, and he managed to lift a roll of Biohazard stickers from the supply closet, so that was the name of the band. I volunteered at a theatre downtown, so when Biohazard got a gig at the local community center, Bob came to me and asked if I could borrow some lighting equipment. I made a ridiculous mess of the lighting plot, which my designer friend Jason straightened out in about 30 seconds. I helped set up for the concert. I remember a song called “Welcome to Managua,” which involved a lot of screaming. And they did a cover of “Wipe Out,” complete with extended drum solo. Bob’s glasses flew off his face during that drum solo, as they so often did, and his squinched-up expression as he tried to see what he was doing resembled nothing so much as a far-sighted hamster. I still have a couple of Biohazard stickers, and that lighting plot is around here somewhere, with the drum kit labeled Hamster.

I also remember that the band members were planning a post-show celebration. They were going to wear rented tuxedos and go to Denny’s. The plan was to order Hot Fudge Brownies à la Mode, in unison, monotone, faces expressionless, and when the sundaes arrived, to plunge their faces in and eat them without using their hands. I have no idea if that ever happened, but I would like to think they went through with it.

There were more nights at the Coffee Kingdom, and love, and heartbreak. We went off to college, but it wasn’t until the Coffee Kingdom closed its doors for the last time that I truly lost touch with Bob.

Twenty years later, he found me on Facebook, and what do you know? He was working in the building next door to mine. Could we get together for lunch? We could indeed.

Over burgers at the Rattlesnake, we caught each other up on our adult lives. It’s funny how the important events of twenty years can be summed up in twenty minutes. I was no longer working in theatre; he was no longer playing drums. He told me of the loss of his mother; I told him about how I’d lost Sarah to cancer. I told him about Sandy, and he told me about his wife, Tricia. Our eyes met, and he nodded. I get it, he was saying. The way he spoke of Tricia, the look in his eyes, I knew he understood. Love is so much more complex and powerful than we ever imagined, in that seventh grade math class, struggling against our carbonated hormones, desperately yearning for something we didn’t understand.

He’s gone, now. He died last night, after a month in the hospital. Lung cancer. Wiped out, if you will, like an eraser across a chalkboard, and my faded memories of him like the ghost of what was written there. I want to be very careful, how I write this next part, because I don’t want anyone to think for a second that I am blaming him for anything. Cancer is pure evil. It can and does strike anyone. But scent is such a powerful memory trigger, and I can never smell a cigarette without remembering Bob, sitting at a glass-topped table in the Coffee Kingdom, French press, Think Book, denim jacket, and all. So when you smell cigarette smoke, take a moment to think of what happened to Bob, to Josh, to Sheila, to your friends. How quickly and easily they were taken from us, here one minute and gone the next.

You can’t live every day as if it were your last. Our minds aren’t built to handle that level of awareness. But once in a while, when you smell cigarette smoke, surface, for a minute. Remember how fragile we are, how briefly we are here. Tell someone that you’re glad they’re alive.

As for the girl, she is still beautiful. I could email her tonight, and apologize for the clumsy, desperate way we loved her. It had nothing to do with love. I know that, now. But Leave me alone, she said, and I have, and I will.

A little family

When I was in college, the theatre department put on a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. The script called for a very young girl to play the part of The Child. Luckily, we had one handy. James, the auditorium manager, and Professor Jane, the costume designer, had three beautiful children: two boys and a girl. The girl, Nia, was six years old at the time, or thereabouts, and she was perfect.

I was in my early 20s at that time, and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I did not want children of my own.

I don’t remember having anything to do with Six Characters. I probably worked on the electrics crew or something. But I happened to catch the tail end of an evening dress rehearsal one night. James was there too, waiting to pick up his daughter. When the stage manager dismissed the actors, Nia spotted her father. She jumped off the stage and went tearing up the aisle, screaming, “Daddeeeeee!” She leaped into his arms and he spun her around into a big hug, The Child’s ghostly white dress fluttering behind her.

That instant of pure joy stabbed me right in the heart. That was the first moment in my life when I thought, “Maybe having kids wouldn’t be so bad.”

When Sarah and I started dating, we were in our late 20s. Sarah let me know early on that she wanted kids, and I knew that if I wanted to keep her around, I would have to get on board with that. When I met her nieces, all my resistance crumbled. I fell in love with them immediately. Watching Sarah with them, watching myself with them, I finally admitted that we would be good parents.

Taking care of a newborn is exhausting work. Being a single parent is exhausting work. Being Nate’s dad is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, but there are a lot of nights when I am just tired, and I have a hard time being the sparky, energetic father he deserves. Some nights, when I go to pick him up at school, he is delighted to see me, but I am too tired and cranky to appreciate it fully. And other nights, when I am delighted to see him, he is busy playing or coloring and would really prefer if I just went away. Sometimes, he knows he’s been naughty at school, and is dreading my arrival. But in the back of my mind, I remember Nia and James, and I know that one of these days we will both be happy to see each other at the same time.

Sandy’s lease is up tomorrow. She packed up her apartment and moved in with me and Nate on Wednesday. She drove in to work with me on Thursday and spent the day cleaning the old apartment. We drove home together, and together we went to pick up Nate at school.

And Nate saw us across the crowded room.

And his face lit up, and he ran across the room, and he ran right by me and threw himself into Sandy’s arms, hugging her with all his might.

And I thought, Oh—that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Welcome home, Sandy.

Behind the clouds, the sun is shining

In the sweltering heat of July, our star magnolia tree has its mind on the future. A tiny little bud appears at the tip of each branch, hidden by the green leaves. As summer draws to a close and fall begins, it drops just a few leaves and unveils the buds, slightly larger now. When the frost comes, the buds grow little fuzzy jackets, to keep them warm through the long, cold winter. Nate and I check on them every night when we get home from school. Fuzzy jackets? Check. Can I pet them? Sure. He gently strokes one with a fingertip, and smiles. He knows what’s coming next.

Winter will be here soon, with the shoveling and the shoveling and the shoveling. But as we always have before, we will wear our fuzzy jackets and keep ourselves warm. And as the last of the snow melts away, the fuzzy jackets begin to unzip, just a little. Nate is right on top of it: “Spring is almost here, the jackets are opening!” Every day, a little more, until finally KABOOM! the tree explodes in a riot of giant pink flowers. The fragrance is intoxicating, and there’s no mistaking it: spring is here again.

It’s such a basic life lesson: change is the only constant. Five little words—”we think you have cancer”—and everything changed for us. When Sarah died, it was March, the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It was strange to see the icicles melting and the world coming back to life all around me, when in my heart, it was winter. I kept my fuzzy jacket zipped up tightly.

I was cold for a long time.

But my magnolia tree is a living reminder: winter doesn’t last forever. As 2007 was winding down, and the weather grew colder, my heart began to thaw out. I met a girl, and I asked her to dinner. I introduced her to Nate. And as we all decorated the Christmas tree together, I realized that we weren’t just celebrating our second Christmas without Sarah. We were celebrating our first Christmas with Sandy.

I’ve always known that I do my best writing when I’m miserable. So if you’ve wondered why I haven’t been posting as often, now you know. It’s not just that we’ve been busy, with the road trips, and the vacations, and the fireworks on the Vineyard. It’s the falling in love. I’m happy. We’re happy. And even though I’ll never stop missing Sarah—even though the leaves are falling off the magnolia tree—there are big, pink flowers in my heart.

Breakfast at the Black Dog Tavern


My childhood bedroom, circa 1977. Late evening—definitely past my bedtime. My father’s woodwind quintet was playing downstairs. I could hear his bassoon calling me, through the gap under my door. I slid quietly out of bed and tiptoed across the room. Very, very slowly I turned the cut-glass knob, opened the door, and crept silently down the hall. I lay down on the floor at the top of the stairs, hung my sleepy head down onto the first step, and let the music wash over me.

Performing Arts School of Worcester, circa 1986. My trumpet lesson was over, and I was waiting for my sister’s clarinet lesson to end. I had already finished my homework, and I had about an hour to kill. My friend Amy invited me to keep her company while she practiced. I was never a great trumpet player, but Amy was the star of the school. We went upstairs to an empty recital room, and I lay on the floor under the piano, and it was glorious. I felt the sound in my bones, in my stomach. I felt as if I were part of the instrument, and the music flowed through me.

First Congregational Church, circa 1988. My friend Suzanne had somehow obtained the key to the church, and permission to play the newly-refurbished pipe organ. Maybe she was going to be standing in for the regular organist for some reason, and she needed to rehearse? I can’t remember. But I remember the organ. The first thing we did was climb the narrow wooden ladder into the organ loft and admire all the neat rows upon rows of pipes, metal and wood, all perfectly lined up from tiny to huge. Suzanne went back down the ladder to the console and started to play, and I stood inside the music and wept for joy.

Then a big wooden plank clouted me in the head, and I laughed and called down to her: “Could you please turn off the tremolo?”

Memorial Chapel, Northfield Mount Hermon School, December, 2004. Nathaniel was sixteen months, and old enough to attend Christmas Vespers at Sarah’s beloved prep school. We stood in the foyer at the back of the hall, because we knew he would eventually start to squawk, and one of us would have to take him outside for a walk.

The house lights went down, and the chapel was completely dark. The door in the back of the foyer opened, and the choir rustled up from the basement, jostling each other to get lined up just so. We were surrounded by robed angels, each holding a candle. Nate’s eyes shone as he stared at them.

A single note was struck on the bells, and the soloist began to sing from the chancel:

Veni, veni Emmanuel;
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

And the whole choir, all around us, burst into song:

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

And as the music filled us up, Nathaniel’s eyes opened wide, and he gasped in awe and wonder, as if to say: You never told me—I never dreamed—that anything could be so beautiful.


(mumble mumble jumble) what he say?

On Thursday, my friend Sandy and I took Nate to the Official Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Boston Common. We had a truly excellent time. We saw all the celebrities: Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, Wally, and… what the heck is that green thing? Well, it was Fred the Frog: the new mascot for Frog Pond? No? Well, whatever. We had tons of fun. Carols, clog dancers, bagpipers, and fireworks. An excellent start to the holiday season. And kudos to Boston for not calling it a Holiday Tree or a Euphemism Bush or some such foolishness. It is a Christmas tree. Deal with it.

Nate was very excited to see Santa. He also got a kick out of Frosty. He said that Rudolph looked like a person in an owl costume, and I was forced to agree. He was curious about the World Series trophy; I am afraid I did not do a very good job explaining the significance of the “golden hat.” Jose Feliciano performing “Feliz Navidad” elicited a shrug. But he could not have cared less about Mayor Menino.

I always enjoy seeing Mayor Menino. If you haven’t heard Mayor Menino speak, you need to. His nickname is Mumbles, because it’s even money he’ll mangle whatever he’s trying to say. He may sound like a moron with a mouthful of marbles, but he’s really pretty smart (at least, he manages to keep getting elected, and the city seems to be doing well enough under him), and in my limited experience, he seems like a very nice guy.

Yup, I actually got to meet Mayor Menino. This was back in the day, probably the year before I did the Nutcracker. I was doing pickup work setting up sound, lighting, and staging for various corporate events around Boston. One of these events was the famous Breakfast With Santa at Jordan Marsh in Downtown Crossing. I ended up running the sound board for Celebrity Storytelling, and so I got to pin lapel microphones on various newscasters and such. Then it was Mayor Menino’s turn. I clipped the mike to his collar and tucked the broadcast unit into the inside pocket of his sport jacket. I don’t remember whether he grabbed a book from the box at random, or whether one of his aides picked it out for him. But I remember what book it was: How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

As he opened the book and started to read, I could see an expression of horror creep across his face. He was clearly thinking, “What the hell is this? These aren’t even real words!” Indeed, Seuss is famous for his made-up words and his tongue-twisters. But His Honor’s tongue was twisted to begin with. Nevertheless, he bravely stumbled through the rhymes, and the kids roared with laughter whenever he got tangled and had to start a sentence over.

After a few pages, I noticed that the Channel Four cameraman had his camera pointed at the floor. I leaned over and asked him what was wrong. “Nothin’,” he said. “It’s just, I think he’d rather not look this dumb on the news tonight. The kids are lovin’ it; that’s enough. It’s Christmas, ya know?”

I did. I do. Merry Christmas, Mister Mayor.

Just can’t wait to get on the road again

Jeremy reminded me yesterday of this gloriously awful production of the Nutcracker that we worked on together, back in the day. His post brought back a flood of memories. My friend Ray ran the theatre at my college, and he knew a guy who needed a stage manager. I didn’t have much going on that month, so I signed on board. This was a touring show, mind you, so we spent a lot of time in a rented fifteen-foot box truck from Budget, either stuck in traffic or trying not to flip over on the interchange from 290 to 495 North.

The organizers had a good thing going. They ran a dance school in Cambridge, and they taught dance classes to little kids all over Massachusetts. The high-school kids got the lead roles, and the director played Drosselmeyer. But the little kids from the various regional classes did not tour. There was a different crop of between fifty and eighty kids (representing party children, mice, toy soldiers, snowflakes, sheep, angels, and Polichinelles) appearing in the show at every destination, which meant that there was a fresh group of parents shelling out buckets of cash every weekend: $15 audition fee, $35 “production fee,” and then of course the entire family was expected to buy tickets to the performance itself.

The kids were great. They were incredibly enthusiastic. When I went down to their dressing room to call, “ten minutes, please,” they would roar back, “THANK YOU, TEN MINUTES!” The lead dancers, in contrast, routinely failed to acknowledge my presence at all. Suit yourselves; show starts with or without you.

My favorite moment was when we were loading in to the auditorium at Wachusett Regional High School. We opened the loading dock door and discovered that the wings were filled with folded-up choral risers, plus an acoustical shell. The wing space was pretty limited to begin with, and these risers took up the entire space. We couldn’t even unload the truck with them there.

We were on a tight schedule; we had to put the marley down before we could even start on the lights. So I had my crew start wheeling these risers out into the hallway by the cafeteria.

Immediately, a little man fussed out of the orchestra rehearsal room, demanding to know what we thought we were doing. I explained that we had rented the auditorium, and needed to, you know, actually use it. We would be very careful with his precious risers and put them back where we found them at the end of load-out.

He said, “No! You don’t understand. It’s almost lunch time—the kids will throw food at the risers!”

I just gaped. Jeremy stepped in, and said, “I think what Dave is trying to say is, what the hell kind of place are you running here? Who’s in charge, the students or the teachers?” I honestly couldn’t believe my ears. If we had tried throwing food when I was in high school, there would have been hell to pay.

In spite of the apparent buckets of money coming into the box office, the show was pretty low-budget. This included the company manager’s tendency to take his time about paying me and my crew. I provided detailed time cards, and he grudgingly wrote checks. But when we finished the last show, they still owed us close to eight hundred dollars, and as the weeks turned into months, it became fairly obvious that they had no intention of paying us at all.

After the holiday season was over, they put on a spring production; I forget what it was. They found some other sucker to stage-manage. And they booked the theatre at my college, which, you may recall, was run by my friend Ray.

So they showed up bright and early with their beat-up Budget truck, and loaded everything onto the dock. The truck was blocking the alley, so Ray asked them to move it before they started to unpack and lay out the marley. They were on a tight schedule, as usual, but they agreed.

When they returned from the parking lot, they discovered that the theatre was locked up tight, with all of their gear inside. Ray was sitting on the front steps, looking pensive. When the director asked him to let them in, Ray drew on his cigarette, puffed out the smoke, and drawled, “I understand you owe my friend Dave some money.”

What’s in a name?

Thanks to everyone who expressed their sympathy over the loss of Sarah’s jewelry. I think I am basically over it. It’s not as if I had intended to wear it, after all, and I still have the memories. I cancelled the maid service and changed the locks, and I (tearfully) gave the charm bracelets to Sarah’s nieces. I still have the first piece of jewelry I gave Sarah, a silver Tiffany bracelet with our initials engraved on opposite sides of a silver heart. That will have to do.

In the comments of the last post, Peg raised the question of how my blog got its name. It’s not quite as simple as she guessed.

Sarah’s totem animal was the manatee. She loved homely animals, and the manatee topped the list. She had manatee jewelry, manatee socks, manatee mugs, just all kinds of manatee paraphernalia. This made it easy for me to pick out gifts for her. A manatee trinket was shorthand for “I love you.”

When we met, I didn’t have a similar obsession. This made it a bit more of a challenge for Sarah to pick out gifts for me.

One day, when we were packing for our first overnight trip together, Sarah presented me with what she called a “travel animal.” She explained that one of her ex-boyfriends had been in the military, and he introduced her to the concept. Apparently it’s traditional for an infantryman to carry a small plush animal in his backpack, to be his “eyes behind” and help look out for danger. He shared the tradition with her, and now she was continuing it with me.

My new travel animal was a Beanie Baby: Happy the Hippo. I was completely delighted. Happy has accompanied me on every trip I’ve ever taken since then. He’s been all over the world. As time passed, however, we realized that this gift was much more than it seemed. It had revealed my totem animal to me. Any time I saw a picture of a hippopotamus, it reminded me of Sarah and how much she loved me. Soon the hippo-themed gifts began in earnest. We even made a pilgrimage to Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, where we took the Animal Adventure Tour specifically so we could go backstage and feed the hippos. (Of course, we also visited the Lowry Park Zoo and hung out with the manatees for several hours.)

The suffix -potamus entered our vocabulary fairly quickly, but it really took off when Nate was born. When he was hungry, he was a hungrypotamus. When he was sleepy, he was a sleepypotamus. When he was spitting up, he was a messypotamus (from Messypotamia, of course). And when he was cranky? Obviously, he was a crankopotamus. And when he woke us up in the middle of the night, we were all crankopotamuses together.

Nate inherited the (dozens of) plush manatees, but they’re not his thing. I await with interest the revelation of his totem animal. At the moment he loves penguins and turtles, but it’s still too early to say.

As for me, I still love hippos, but my collection has slowed way down since Sarah died. We saw a great wooden hippo puzzle while on vacation this summer, but in the end I just couldn’t bear to buy it.

I miss my wife.