Bigger Things Indeed

river-802093_1920There’s a kid’s story I remember called Scuffy the Tugboat, about a toy tugboat who is sick of sitting on the shelf in the toy store, because he thinks “he was meant for bigger things.” The owner of the store, the man with the polka dot tie, takes Scuffy home to his son to let him sail in the bath tub.

But Scuffy is still unhappy–he was meant for bigger things. So the man and the boy take Scuffy to a small brook, and Scuffy sails away, making an escape down the river. “This is the life for me!” he thinks. His adventures include an increasingly boisterous river, a night of being scared by an owl, a flood, and finally Scuffy is at the river’s mouth. There’s a big, noisy city there with huge ships and nobody notices him. Then he sees the ocean.

“There is no beginning and no end to sea. I wish I could find the man with the polka dot tie and his little boy!”

Just as Scuffy is headed out to sea, passing the last dock, the man with the polka dot tie scoops him up and takes him back to the bath tub. Scuffy’s last line as he goes back and forth in the tub: “This is the life for me.”

That story got under my skin as a kid, and haunts me now. Of all the possible implications, the one I come away with is this: Who are you to think you were meant for bigger things?

Oof. What a gut punch. Sit down, shut up, get over your grand idea of yourself. Get back in the tub.

Who am I to think I was meant for anything but the bath tub? What hubris! The infinite possibilities of the open water are scary. It’s safe in the bath tub.

When I was about 23, I did a multi-day interior painting job for a friend of my mom’s. She and and her husband were older, well-to-do North Shore Chicago suburbanites. He was a retired executive of some kind, and she was an empty nest housewife, active in the Ladies Club. It was late fall and cold, and the husband sat on the front porch every day, smoking cigars he wasn’t allowed to have in the house, boots untied and a Holden Caulfield-style plaid hunting cap on his head, tapping ashes into a black and yellow Chock Full O’ Nuts can. He never said a word to me, and I never heard him say anything to his busy-fussy wife either, she of the perfectly coiffed blue-gray hair and neat little house sneakers I think they used to call ‘crickets.’ That house was thoroughly hers, a perfect shrine of cleanliness: the ultimate realization of her well spent, successful career as a housewife.

I was there for about a week, and left with the distinct impression that the old man was just sitting there in those untied boots and that Holdenplaid hat, smoking cigars, marking time, waiting to die.

He’d had a lifetime in the tub.

I’m floating somewhere it seems. Maybe it’s the river, and I’m hiding in the lee of a fallen tree, spinning aimlessly in a safe little backwater, maintaining my position for fear of being smashed on the rocks or tumbled endlessly in a hydraulic nightmare. Maybe it’s the sea, and the motion I feel is that deceptively complex rolling action of waves on open water, the surface lifting and falling, and I’m going nowhere after all, just up and down with the energy of the passing wave.

Or maybe what I’m noticing is the water rushing out of the tub.

I’m not ready for that Holdenplaid hat just yet.



AO platear·throd·e·sis



  1. surgical immobilization of a joint by fusion of the adjacent bones.


Seems as though an old injury has come home to roost, in a big, ugly, arthritic way. And the only cure is, well, it’s not more cowbell.

A total fusion of my right wrist is scheduled for Sept. 19, and I’m pissed. Losing what’s left of pitch and yaw, I’m looking at a 2 1/2 hr. surgery, four weeks in a hard cast, another 6 or so in a removable brace, who knows how much physical therapy, and I’ll reach ‘full recovery strength,’ whatever that looks like, in about nine months. Seven inches of titanium secured by seven screws. Fused. Like chicken nuggets.

Apparently I broke my wrist years ago, and shook it off. The first doctor, the one who found the fracture, called it a ‘guy injury’–that should have been the first red flag with him. I’d gone to see him for Dupuytren’s Contracture, a fun little anomaly in my hand that had begun to pull my ring finger toward my palm. I made the mistake of saying something about some pain in my wrist. The X-ray showed the old fracture, and he said, “Whenever you decide to fix the Dupuytren’s, I’ll fix that at the same time!” The idea was to ‘shave off’ some bony growth that had been impeding my thumb, remove some dead bone fragments, inject it with cortisone, and presto! Oh, he fixed it all right.

What had been some annoying pain in the thumb side of my wrist was, after surgery, weeks in a splint, and physical therapy, completely untenable. Way more of the same pain I’d had before, and only about 40% of my grip strength. My physical therapist actually suggested I go find another doctor, who looked at the x-ray and said, “It’s hindsight of course, but I wouldn’t have done that surgery. Your wrist is trashed, arthritic. You need to have that fused.” Great.

Back to the first doctor for follow up, and he explained, “What we tried to do was  was preserve the most motion with the least intervention. The result isn’t what we’d hoped for. Nobody signs up for two surgeries, but you’ll need to have that fused.” He went on to say there were a couple of options, but I was pretty much done listening to him by then.

The third doctor says, “You’ll need a total fusion. I do a lot of ‘second surgeries.’ You don’t have much movement anyway, and this will take care of the pain.” Great.

So the word of the day is Arthrodesis. Screwed seven times.

so the mid-life part…

At 52, I’m a little late. But I started a couple of years ago, so really–50 is the new 40, right?

The backstory: I finished a Masters in English Literature when our first kid was a year old, in 1996. The small state school I attended had a position open–an entry level PhD slot, non tenure track. Nothing for me, but a pretty good indication of what that market was like at the time. They had something like 350 newly minted PhDs apply, and I saw the writing on the wall. I’d be dragging my new family through a PhD and then chasing jobs to Lower Nowhere State for years. I had been a “Literary Theory Kid” from the ’80s, all high on dead-bald-gay-French philosophers, once in a program called “Comparitive Studies in Discourse and Society.” Heady times indeed…

By the time I got back around to going to grad school, that particular academic bubble had burst, which was actually lucky I guess. I’d gone back to school to answer two nagging questions: “Could I do the work at that level?” and “Did I want to pursue the career?” The answers turned out to be yes and no.

That answer firmly in place, we moved here. Mary had been a nurse here at the University hospital years earlier, and was able to re-establish herself on a great career track. And since we didn’t want to pay someone to raise our kids, I became a full time, stay-at-home dad. What could possibly go wrong?

What a great gig! There are volumes I could write about the years my kids were kids. What a great ride. Mary and I had the flip side of traditional gender roles, which worked out well–when Mary was not working she wanted to be with the kids, and I needed a break. I got to go flying.

We had a lot of fun, and it seems like we didn’t mess the kids up too badly. I did a little handyman work on a ‘school’ schedule–put the kids on the bus, go play handyman, home in time to get the kids off the bus, take summer off. A great gig.

But fast forward about 20 years. Now I’m an out of work housewife with no income and no resumé. And it stings.

When I half-heartedly threw my hat in the ring a couple of years ago, I got crickets: I couldn’t even get hired as a greeter at the hospital. When I used my old handyman boss/friend as a reference for a senior-at-home-care job, he offered to hire me back, at about triple what the at-home-care job would pay, so…..I did that for another year or so.

But now my wrist is trashed–an old injury come home to roost. Even typing hurts.

So I’m midlifing like hell. And it sucks. I always joked about how the male primal directive is a variant of “must kill meat for family,” and how I never subscribed to that. I know I was priveledged and lucky to spend all those years with my kids. It was a no brainer–it was right, whole, and completely worthwhile. But as my youngest starts his senior year, and I find myself at this place where they don’t really need me any more,  I’ve been gobsmacked.

Heard a great little interview with legendary TV producer Norman Lear. He’ll be 94 soon, and when asked for ‘advice,’ he offered this: “Two words: Over, and Next. When something’s over, it’s over, and you move on to next. If you can hang your hammock in between the two, that’s present, which is a pretty good place to be.”

So yeah, Over. An unemployed housewife. What’s next?