Saturday, July 31, 2010


The sun was just right that day, spread out across a clear blue sky reflecting back off the warmed water in the Russian River. Our friends Adam and JoHannah had invited us to spend some time with them in San Francisco. JoHannah had rented a house on the Russian River and it had plenty of room to add us on as guests. On that day at the beginning of July Adam was out kayaking,  JoHannah and Rick sat under an umbrella in a pair of red canvas lounge chairs, the kind with a hole sewn in to hold your glass of wine. Wine was plentiful but precious in Sonoma and JoHannah and Rick were no about to let a drop spill in the sand. JoHannah was Rick’s opposite when it came to worshipping the sun, she sat covered from the sun with a great floppy hat, Rick sat exposed and unprotected, burning away. If he didn’t think the rest of us would yell at him I think he would have slathered himself in baby oil and cooked himself to a pre-cancerous golden brown. At fifty-seven the fear of skin cancer or fine-line wrinkles no longer came up on his radar. The two of them sat, one with red and the other with white, sipping in between lengthy gossiping episodes and peals of laughter. But the story isn’t about them, it’s about  Emmy splashing away in the waist deep water of the river. In early-July you could ford the river at most any point. The water level rarely hit above my bathing suit’s waistband. Full submersion required falling backwards into the slow moving current that flowed from up river then down toward the Pacific Ocean. Growing from the river floor were water-worn limbs of trees long since dead raising their knurled fingers out toward the sun. Their thumbs and index fingers providing destinations for children to swim to, climb and dive back into the warm comforting water of the river. Rick had finally succumbed to the heat and had gone out to join Emmy cooing his toasted soul. The two of them had half waded, half swam out to one of the few places in the river where the current had worn a hole deep enough for them to submerge themselves and swim. The drop-off was a congregating spot for kids equipped with its own dead branch diving board.
Another family with three small boys had camped out on the opposite bank of the river from our rental house. The parents had spread out an old blanket laden with all their beach paraphernalia while the boys played games of dare and chase in the water. The two older boys were around seven and nine. The younger one was closer to five. Emmy moved out of the drop-off where she had been swimming so the boys could have full rein of the dead tree in the middle of the hidden pool. As the older boys swam and chased each other through the rippling water you could feel their excitement through their squeals of laughter and witness their joy through the smiles that formed under their glistening black hair. The five year old was desperate to mimic his older siblings. He splashed his arms and tried his best to keep up with the other two while the parents watched from the safely of their blanket on the opposite shore. The excitement of the two older boys became too much for their younger brother and soon he was wading and splashing his way to their king of the mountain perch. You could reach the dead limb from the back where the height of the river was only a few inches over his head but once you jumped off to the other side you were in the deep murky unknown. The older boys would tumble off their nature given diving board, pop up and swim to where they could once again run through the water. The littlest boy finally grabbed onto the dead branch and pulled himself up the diving position. With death defying verve he leapt in cannonball position into the depths of the other side. You could see the look of accomplishment quickly vanish from the little boys face as his eyes popped from under the water and his little fingers slapped at the sunlit surface. His parents six sense of knowing a child is in danger, rose from their blanket on the side of the river. Rick was still in the water and the closest to the little boy. The kid was panicking as he dropped below the water again his hands trying to grab on to the waves as if they had the ability to transform from a liquid to a solid. His mother, too far away to help, began pleading for someone to help. Rick swam over to the boy but the boy’s flaying was too much for Rick’s swimming and rescuing abilities. Emmy was standing on the edge of the drop-off.
Rick shouted to her, “Hon, you’re going to have to help. I can’t get him in.” The boy’s eyes had filled with terror. His little hands pummeling Rick and the water. Emmy swam out to the two of them. She grabbed the boy and he wrapped his arms around her. There was no panic in Emmy. She instinctively knew what to do. She was so confident in her ability to hold the boy and swim him to safety. It didn’t take her long before she had swum out of the drop-off and was able to walk the boy to the safety of his mom. All afternoon the parents took every opportunity to thank her.
On that day Emmy’s karma rose to automatic entry to heaven. Not everyone is given the opportunity to save a life so early in their own life. Her destiny is blessed.

Monday, July 26, 2010


The alarm went off at 6:00am Sunday morning. It’s one of those alarms that activates with light not noise. My eyelids have always had the consistency of parchment. It was never the crow of the rooster but the crack of dawn that would wake me each morning. It’s what makes me more a winter person than a boy of summer. The light had already started to part the slates on the white wooden blinds in the bedroom at around 5:30. Anxiety hadn’t been my bed partner that night. I woke up rested and ready to put on yet another hat, one that might pull us closer to recovery. Sometime in March or April when there was still snow on the ground and Emmy was still participating in her skin research study, Rick and I stopped in at Madison’s Pottery Barn. We only had a few minutes before we would have to return to pick Emmy up from her session but it was enough time to go and introduce ourselves to the people at PB. We drove over to the West Towne Mall,. The Pottery Barn is located next to William Sonoma and across from Banana Republic.  This would make the West Towne Mall Madison’s upscale venue. You’re not going to find Armani or Donna Karan here but the vendors here are a step above Walmart and Sears. You are going to have to go to Chicago for real high-end.
We walked in with our portfolio and a couple of brochures. We had heard that the Pottery Barn periodically hosts lectures on everything from arranging flowers to planning your wedding. This was another of my cold call attempts at trying to see what might happen. This time my intuition was right. We met with Jenna, the assistant store manager, and she was thrilled to offer us the chance to do the color and pattern lecture coming up in July.
After the light of the alarm went off my other senses woke as well. Rick was there hacking to beat the band. In the time it takes to go from Saturday night to Sunday morning he had developed the worst summer cold. I was going to have to mount the podium all by myself. After a quick shave and shower I was off to lecture a class of fifty on how to use color and pattern. Here’s how it went:
I arrived in time to stop by McDonalds and treat myself to medium caramel frappe, no whip. Then I met one of the PBers outside the store at our appointed time of eight o’clock. The lecture was scheduled to begin at nine. I spent the hour between arrival and spilling my ounce of knowledge running around the store gathering props to detract the attendees from how much I really didn’t know. Satisfied I had accumulated every pillow in the store I sat back and waited for them to lift the gate to let the women in, well forty-eight women and two men.
I started with a bit of puffery blowing smoke so they wouldn’t see my nervousness. I pointed out our book and told them they could look at it after the lecture, hoping a few of them would still be there and hadn’t collapsed from boredom. Then I dug in my heels and went through what I had rehearsed and outlined.
Color paints the emotion within a home. There are now colorstologists, Michele Bernhardt being the most famous (her website is Benjamin Moore actually consults with her on new seasonal color trends. I mentioned BM a lot since they are partners with PB. Then it was on to color vocabulary and pulling out examples of color schemes: monochromatic, complimentary and analogous. This is where I got to pull out the props and do some pillow play. This kind of loosened up the whole session. The tongues started to wag and hands started shooting in the air. By the time I got done with color and how it relates to paint and light I was ten minutes away from my allotted hour and I hadn’t even touched on pattern. I did a quick overview of scale and how to mix and match and the lecture was over.
Questions took us way past the hour of scheduled chatter. By the time I left, the store had opened the till and added a tidy sum to the Pottery Barn coffers and I had handed out a half dozen business cards to people interested in consultations. The boys seemed to be my biggest leads.You have to start somewhere. I think we’ve finally started the ball rolling.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Unfortunately, most of us are not a part of our own naming ceremony. After birth itself, it is usually the second most important gift our parents give us. Most parents take the safe route naming their kids from the top of the most popular lists: Mary, Joseph, Charles, Susan or more recently Tiffany, Max, Emily and Jacob. My parents didn’t think that leaving me with a last name of Melahn (it sounds like the city in Italy) was going to be bad enough but they had to pair it with my father’s given name, LeRoy. Yes, capital “L”, capital “R”, LeRoy Carl Fredrick Ludwig Melahn the second. Later, shortened to LeRoy Carl Melahn Jr. I hated my name and I hated the first day of school every year. Every year the routine was the same. Everyone scurried around grabbing a seat or desk then waited for the teacher to walk to the front of the room and begin the first roll call of the year. I’d start twisting my head in various directions trying not to make eye contact with any of the other kids as the teacher started going through her list. Sweat would begin to form on my upper lip. I’d begin gnashing my teeth as the names escalated up the alphabet.  By the time she reached the “H’s” I’d be praying for that imagined hole in the floor to swallow my up. “Steven Hanson”, “Here”, “Susan Johnson”, “Here”, “ Joan Liddle”, “Here” and then here it came.
“Leee-Roy Mel-lah-han.” I didn’t even bother to correct her as laughter catapulted through the room. I rang out my “Here” and hoped she would quickly move on to the next name. No little white kid in the late 1950’s living in a community of over one hundred thousand citizens of which only two were black wanted to be saddled with a handle like “LeRoy”. The undercurrents of racism were always present in the north just as they were in the south, only they weren’t as in your face here. We preached liberalism but the truth was there was a lot of bigotry hidden under those JFK for president lapel pins. It wasn’t until college I finally found the chance to transform myself from “LeRoy” into the more charismatic and less ethnically significant, “Lee”.
Then there were all the permutations of Melahn: Mel-a-han, Mel-lan, Malone and the always useful Melonhead. All my siblings suffered through this last one as the most useful name-calling employed by our friends and enemies alike.
But this wasn’t the end of my name game; at home I had another name making me cringe even more than “LeRoy” did at school. My mother came from a family of nine children, my father from a blended family of ten. They all had their own demons to deal with when it came to names: Agnes, Milo, Melvin, Lucille, Florence, Otto, Rodney and LeRoy to name a few. Then my oldest cousin, and at that time my only cousin on my mother’s side, was already named LeRoy so they had to come up with something to differentiate the group of “LeRoy’s” that had formed under the family tree. When I was born my mom thought I resembled her oldest brother, my uncle Milo. It may have been the baldheads or at least that is my hope. Despite being a golden-hearted bachelor farmer, my uncle Milo was one of the most unattractive men I have ever seen. He was all ears and nose. My mom’s family was famous for their Homburg schnozes, disproportionately large, covering a great deal of the face, and bending down parrot-like toward the mouth. He had very thin lips that stretched across his face in a broad grin running from one Dumbo sized ear to the other. He apparently didn’t like the name Milo any more than I liked the name LeRoy so the family called him “Butch”. This is what my mom decided she would call me but to distinguish me from my baldheaded namesake I became “Butchie”. I don’t think the irony of this ever struck her but a gay boy answering to the call of “Buthchie” just wasn’t right. The name clung to me like a sweaty t-shirt on a hot August day. Even now, some of my aunts still trip over my name when I see them at family gatherings forgetting that I am a grown man and spilling out the dreaded “Butchie” before they remember their error and correct themselves with little laughs of embarrassment.
It’s amazing how much a wrong name can torment a child well into adulthood. I’m sure my parents had no intention of hurting me although after I was named “LeRoy” they followed it up with Steven, Sandra, Debbie and Bonnie, opting for more run of the mill names that blended in with the current mid-western culture. I was able to grow into the name Lee, the name my father went by, and when coupled with the correct pronunciation of Melahn it becomes a series of very soft sounds that suit me. It made me think very carefully about the name we would eventually chose for our child, but like most kids she dislikes her name immensely. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Fourteen Years Ago Today

The drive back to the B&B was exhausting and yet sleep was unattainable and undesirable. When we opened the doors on the rental car after pulling into the B&B parking lot and turned off the ignition the suppressive heat of south Texas once again punched us in the solar plexus even though the sun was beginning to fade. Once through the doors and into the air-conditioning Janet and Pat were waiting downstairs to meet us. Their curiosity was smeared across their faces as they drew us into the common area just to the left of the long central hall. Exhaustion, exhilaration and nerves were pushing all of our buttons as they pressed us for information about our day. Reliving the day through their questions was almost as exciting as the actual day had been. They calmed our anxiety and suspended time, time that could not pass fast enough.  Janet and Pat had a way about them making them the perfect hosts. Good thing they opened a B&B.
            Sleep came as a sweet gift that night with Rick wrapped up in my arms. Visions of the hospital, Amy’s eyes, the nurse’s soft pink hands with clipped polished nails and Beth’s belly and her back kept drawing me out of sleep. I got up early, shaved and took a long shower. Our first room at the B&B was on the second floor. We would move down to the first floor later on in our stay. The bed was very red, Janet and Pat’s version of a honeymoon suite. The bathroom was small, tiled in black and white with a window in the shower. It didn’t look out on much but it did fill the shower with a beautiful light. I stood in the shower while the window steamed over thinking of Rick asleep in the red satin bed and our daughter sloshing around inside Beth’s womb. The doctor had decided on her time of entry into the world. I kept thinking as the warm water washed over my body it should have been her decision when to come into this world. Questions continued to drip from my head. Could I love this child the way she deserved? Could I make up to her for all of the decisions being made for her, decisions that should have been hers or Gods? Would she grow to hate us for what we had done? Would she have rather not known us at all? Do we deserve this child? When I got out of the shower Rick was up. It was still early and we had time to sit. Last night, before we went upstairs, the girls had given us a basket to take up filled with fruit and breakfast muffins. There was juice in the frig. We sat down to breakfast before Rick took his shower.
            “How are you feeling?”
            “I’m not sure. I don’t know if I can handle being in the room for the birth.”
            “You’ll do it because you have to do it. Beth wants us there.” “I can’t believe how bad I am at that back rubbing thing. I think I was about to break one of her kidneys. I thought the more pressure you rubbed into her back the better it would feel.” “How long do you think it’s going to take?”
            “I can’t say. The inducing didn’t take yesterday. It could take a long time. I don’t know”
            “Rick, do you think we’re doing the right thing?”
            “What do you mean?”
            “We’re two men who are going to try and raise a child. This is real uncharted water. What if she hates us?”
            “These were my questions way back when. I don’t have an answer. We have the support of our friends. Suzanne has been our champion on this and we know we can be good parents. We want this child. That’s about as much as we can give her.” He got up and kissed me and went off into the shower.
            The same heat we had walked into the day before was outside the door again waiting for us and slapping us in the face just as it had done the day before but today we punched it back. We found our way to the hospital and just as it had been the day before, no alarms went off when we went in, there were no police in the neo-natal ward waiting to arrest us. The door to Beth’s room was open when we got there. As we walked into the room the activity of giving birth had already begun. Beth was sitting up in bed taking deep breaths. You could see the strain of childbirth in the shape of her mouth and the beginnings of beads of perspiration along the front edge of her hairline. Amy was squeezing her hand as we got there and the nurse from the day before was just leaving the room. We said hello to all three of them as the nurse brushed by us with a quick turn of her eyes and a small smile of acknowledgement. I thought about a token kiss for Beth but as I approached I decided to hold back. It seemed out of place. Beth gave us her best smile, a strained lifting of the muscles at the corners of her mouth and a barely perceptible shrug of her shoulders. There was no turning back and there was no desire to turn back. Rick and I knew without looking at each other this was exactly where we wanted to be, in this room with this woman who was going to give us a gift that would change our lives.
            We spoke to Amy deciding who would do what and then we all moved into our positions. Rick and Amy were to help with the massaging and when the time came Rick would help push. I had pulled out the still and video cameras. This is the job I was given placing me as far away from Beth’s back as they could get me. I think Beth had had enough of the uncontrollable brutality of my massaging technique. Beth had requested an epidural and they had asked us to leave the room while they hooked her up. The nurse came out right after and told us we could come back in. She had counseled us a bit out in the hall. She tried to sooth our nerves by telling us she thought things were progressing on schedule. I don’t know if its true or not but I think she requested to be with us. She was very protective of us in the way a sports coach is protective of his players. She was encouraging yet distant. It was a message that said she knew we could do this. We would make her proud.
            By this time the room had been fully outfitted for the birth. The warming bed with its heat lamps had been wheeled in, the stirrups had been raised and the epidural apparatus had been connected. The day before we briefly meet the doctor who was going to assist with the birth. He had come in to call off the inducing and then rescheduled the process for today. He had come in now to check on how Beth was progressing. He spoke to us only briefly directing most of his orders and questions to the attending nurses and Beth. There was no small talk. There was no sense of humor. He was there to do his job and to do it professionally and that was where he chose to draw the line. We had been at the hospital for an hour. The doctor had taken his position at the foot of Beth’s birthing bed. He looked to see how she was dilating. It was eleven AM when he said, “Let’s go”. Beth was at eight centimeters. It was time to begin. Two nurses remained in the room with the doctor, Amy, Beth, Rick and myself. There was a sheet draped over Beth’s knees making a curtain over the proscenium of our daughter’s center stage entrance. We had heard so many horror stories of twelve, sixteen even twenty hours of labor. We had no idea what kind of fight this little girl might put up. She hadn’t asked for this entry. Instead the gate holding her in had been artificially unlocked and she would have to decide how much of a struggle she wanted to make. Was there security in that womb or curiosity as to what lay outside? The contractions where now coming fairly rapidly. Rick had been asked to stand behind Beth and help her push supporting her back as she raised up gripping the bed rails and her sheets for strength. I remained removed from reality viewing the whole event through the lens of a camera as if I was watching a movie. The image of Beth so lost in the moment of childbirth and the astonishment painted on Rick’s face was focused within this tiny frame. The camera controlled what I saw. My heart controlled what I felt. It reaffirmed the miracle of birth. The second contraction kicked in. Rick picked up the pillows supporting Beth’s back and gently helped her force her body forward pushing and pushing. I could now see the crown of the baby’s head. The doctor’s hands were busy massaging and probing and easing the baby out of Beth and into the world. Life’s beginnings are frequently a measure of searing pain, an anguishing scream coupled with a slap induced cry. Emmy’s birth came quickly and without any of these. Rick would always say she swam out like a dolphin her eyes open and her arms and legs stroking the air as she glided into our world. The doctor scooped her up into his arms and from over his shoulder he asked if I would like to cut the cord. One of the nurses handed me the scissors. My hands weren’t shaky but steady. I clipped the cord and the doctor passed our child to the nurse. I looked up past the baby and beyond Beth into Rick’s eyes. They were wet with joy.
            The nurse put our daughter on the warming table and began the process of cleaning and measuring. Checking to make sure she had all of her toes and noting her vitals. She quickly swathed her in a blanket. Beth had told everyone she didn’t want to hold her after the birth. She didn’t want the physical contact to change her mind. In a whisper Rick asked if he could hold her. The nurse turned directly to him, “Of course you can. She’s your daughter.”
            Elisabeth Maud Shaver/Melahn, Emmy. We had pulled names from our families. Elisabeth was my mother’s middle name and Maud was Rick’s favorite grandmother’s name. We wanted her to be connected to our families. We wanted her to know her history would be with us. We were where she now belonged. We were her family. We were her future for better or for worse.
We were all exhausted and starving by now. I volunteered to go out and get food for everyone. Beth through her haze of childbirth had said she had a craving for fried chicken. I found the nearest sign for the Colonel and returned as soon as I could. Rick and Amy were waiting in the room. Beth was asleep. We gave the food to Amy who said she would share it with Beth when she woke. It was time for us to separate. As we left Amy handed us a card. I opened it, it was a typical Hallmark card, pink and flowers with a typical rhyme but Amy had added, “Congratulations dads”. It was another moment that made us blush with pride.
Rick had begun fighting for Emmy’s rights from the first moment he saw her. While I had gone out hunting for the Colonel Rick had gone to the nursery to see where they were going to put her. The windows to the nursery were made of glass embedded with wire making all of the babies look as if they were being held in some sort of stockade. When he got there a nurse was finishing checking Emmy out for anything they might have missed in the delivery suite. He jumped into parent vigilante mode when he saw the nurse pushing and prodding in ways he felt were too brutal.  His fists immediately began banging on the glass as he mouthed to the nurse to stop the rough stuff. No one was going to harm this child. The nurse had looked up and smiled at this, thankful the window had sufficient wire to keep Rick far enough away from her endangered throat.
It was becoming clear we had generated a bit of a buzz around the birthing floor. There were a lot of nodding heads and furtive glances cast our way as we made the rounds of the nursery windows and vending machines. We had acquired celebrity status. It was now time to find out which kind of role we had been cast in and it didn’t take long to find out. One of the nurses that had been with us in the birthing room was now in the nursery area. When she spotted us there looking in at Emmy from the other side of the glass window she came out and told us to come with her. It was just about feeding time and the babies would soon be taken to their mothers for some nipple lip lock. Emmy would not be going in to Beth so the nurses had made a special room for us just off of the nursery. They had equipped the room with a changing area and boxes of formula and disposable bottles and nipples. The kindness of all of the nurses at this Methodist hospital was remarkable. They showed us how to change her, how much formula she should take, and what was the proper way to burp her. They did it professionally, with respect and humanity. The first time they brought her in to us was almost more than I could bear. At the moment of birth and even through the wire reinforced glass I couldn’t really get a good look at her. It wasn’t until they laid her in my arms and I could smell her babiness and look into her eyes that I realized what an unbelievable gift she was. She was perfect and beautiful beyond imagination.
“You’ve got a real beauty here.” I assumed the nurse had said this to every new couple when she handed them their child for the first time.
I countered with “All babies are beautiful.”
“No they’re not. We see some really ugly ones. This one really is special.” And of course she was. From that first day you could see her classic beauty, full lips, perfectly spaced eyes, the Gerber baby nose and chin. Emmy’s beauty was the kind that took your breath away. Our job would be to make sure this physical beauty was matched with an inner beauty of kindness, self-confidence and respect.
Months later when we were back in New York I had made plans to meet Rick at a nearby restaurant. It was still warm enough that the outdoor cafe tables were out and people were dining al fresco. I had gotten there before Rick and sat down at one of the outside tables. I had Emmy in her pram and ordered some ice tea. Another couple was sitting at the next table and I could sense them looking at us and discussing Emmy. Since Rick wasn’t there they could not have had any idea she was the product of two dads but I could overhear some of what they were saying. The guy finally couldn’t contain himself any longer. He tapped me on the shoulder and said,  “No matter how hard I tried there’s no way I could produce a baby as beautiful as the one you’re holding in your arms.” I said the only thing I could think of, “Thank you.”
At the hospital we were given a rundown of daily feeding times. We weren’t allowed to be there during the night so until the next daytime feeding came up we decided to go back to the B&B to rest and freshen up. 

Friday, July 2, 2010


Tuesday night, well according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology I’m really talking about Wednesday morning, at 12:01am the next episode in the “Twilight” series, Eclipse, premiered at a half dozen local theaters. Amazingly the half dozen theaters were not only showing the movie at 12:01 but at 12:02, 12:03, 12:04 and 12:05 and even more amazingly ALL five shows at all local theaters were SOLD OUT. Who knew? Even in a market the size of Madison a half dozen theaters could sell out five midnight showings of team Edward versus team Jacob. I, for one, don’t get it. If I didn’t have a fourteen-year-old daughter I would be completely out of it, but this is the point. I’m working very hard at not being out of it. I figured out if you want to continue to be relevant in a younger world you have to hang with the homies. This continues to be part of my education and awareness of the current culture. There are times where I continue to feel a little like Phil on Modern Family – WTF (Why the face?). So here’s my suggestion to all you over the hillers out there: adopt a child if you want to stay connected to what’s happening on the cultural scene several generations removed from your own. If you’re in the fifty and above segment you should skip the baby stage and go directly for a teenager. You don’t have the time to mess around with a newborn and wait out those years of baby talk where the only insight into their vision of the world is a poopy diaper. You need to get the ball rolling and fast. Miley Cyrus has already gone from cute to sex kitten in the snap of a finger. You'll need the dreamy eyed vision of a Twilight groupie to keep you up to speed on what’s hot and what’s not, someone to explain why a bug-eyed kitten called Hello Kitty makes millions in merchandising dollars or why a sixteen year old baby-faced Canadian kid kicks ass crooning love songs just prior to his balls dropping and his voice changing from a hen’s to a rooster’s.
Having a child is the gift of a small vile from the fountain of youth. You once again get to vicariously feel the joy of new discoveries, first loves and the reasons why Hello Kitty is so cool and Justin Bieber can make a young heart melt, and after the midnight showing of Eclipse why just maybe you might want to switch from team Edward to team Jacob.