I entered summer with the following list of tasks: convert the shed into an office; discard several tons of debris from the storage room; assemble that Amish treehouse that’s been sitting in the yard; chop down the ash tree. A gust of wind took down the crabapple tree right before the Memorial Day barbecue. On the guest list: my younger brother, who moonlights as an unlicensed contractor; my wife’s cousin who built his own home; and Terry Schilling, who constructed a luxury treehouse. A normal man would have leaned on such a guest list to get the work done for him. A writer self-conscious about his manliness would make a show of chopping the tree up with the dull blade of a cheap chainsaw. Having learned the virtue of manual labor, I spent the next eight weeks on my feet. You cannot sit or lie down when you have shattered three discs in your lumbar spine. The shed is still a shed.
My seventh-grader was already in the process of becoming disenchanted with her father after I told her she’d be transferring to an all-girls school. The presence of two back braces made it apparent to the other four children. I am not Superman; I’m barely Clark Kent. There is no describing the mental toll it takes when one must tell a forty-pound kindergartner that you cannot carry her to bed. She calls the black braces I hide under my clothing “straps.” Mrs. McMorris thinks it has to do with her limited vocabulary, but I suspect the kindergartner is trying to recover some semblance of respect for her crippled father.
Perhaps that’s why I joined the lottery craze with renewed gusto. If you cannot earn the esteem of your daughters by lifting them up, you can buy it. The Powerball payout crept over the half-million mark right as the first Catholic school payments came due in June. An elementary education costs about as much as in-state tuition at UVA, but it is well worth it after Covid revealed what Virginia public schools are teaching kindergartners these days. I did not win the Powerball. It will take years for my daughters to appreciate a Catholic education, but they realized immediately the benefits of a broken back. The discomfort of sitting with a spinal injury prohibits one from falling asleep at the wheel. I drove down to Florida and up to Maine powered by agony alone.
We took family photos at each terminus along the Atlantic. There is no proposition that carries a higher risk and lower reward than the family portrait. A photo involving multiple children requires a resolve typically reserved for warfare. The ladies of the family study weather maps to determine suitable tides and sunlight. The proper uniforms are laid out based on the terrain and pressed accordingly. They game out worst-case scenarios for each participant based on windspeed, cartography, and crankiness. They employ siege tactics to get the perfect shot. There are threats to the food supply: “NO SNACK IF YOU DON’T SMILE”; comfort: “GET THAT THUMB OUT OF YOUR MOUTH”; and integrity: “YOUR BACK BRACE IS SHOWING!” In the past one could blame the painter for a bad portrait, but the triumph of photography has left only the subject to blame.
They say demography determines the tools at one’s disposal. And if they haven’t said that yet, then let me be the first: demography determines the tools at one’s disposal. The numerous photo filters on our phones were no doubt invented by an exasperated man. He thought he could solve his girlfriend’s fussiness by giving her the ability to perfect the photo on the back-end, just as Eli Whitney thought he could end slavery with the cotton gin. All those filters have made possible the influencer industry, which has created the illusion of perfection that mothers now chase for multigenerational photos. When photography was invented the surest way to take a good family photo was to instruct the children not to smile, which is why the only perfect pictures in existence are death portraits.
While Mrs. McMorris chased the dragon of the perfect photo, I spent both vacations trying to fish. It is the one activity that requires one to stand, but not move, an activity that will establish lasting memories in the children with minimal effort. Perfect for a middle-aged invalid. We struck out in Florida thanks to a lightning storm but hit paydirt in Maine. The redbreast sunfish and bass came from all corners. Number Two caught eighteen in the span of three days. We all laughed at the eighteen-month-old spastically swinging the $20 pole in the water. Until she yanked a bait fish out of the lake.
No wonder I thought I could handle the drive home without stopping to stretch out. We returned home the day before my MRI, but I didn’t need imaging to convince me my spine is ruined. That morning as I limped to bring the kindergartner her cereal, I dropped her spoon. She got down from the bench to retrieve it for me. “Dad, do you need to wear your straps to pick things up?” she asked. “Yes, daddy only bends over if he has a strap on,” I replied. It is the closest I’ve ever come to sounding like a public-school kindergarten teacher. I poured the milk, resolved to buy as many Mega Millions tickets as possible.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2023 World edition.