Monday, May 20, 2013

Clean up, aisle 3... and 4, and 5. Just follow that guy.

Warning: The following blog post is not meant for the faint of heart, the weak stomached, or anyone who may be repulsed by the mere thought of contact with tinkle, poop or vomit. In other words, most parents should be able to handle it. 

As any parent of young children knows, you eventually grow accustomed to contact with excrement and the like. It starts in the first days of parenthood.  Babies spit up, creating the first callous on whatever pre-existing aversion you may have had to a child’s bodily fluid. It builds from there.  

Explosive newborn poops that soak their cute little onesies; late-night tinkle leaks that signify the need for larger diapers; and the occasional stomach virus that causes projectile vomiting that would make the director of the Exorcist proud – it all becomes commonplace, to the point where it transforms into the mundane.

As the father of four, I thought I had seen it all. I remember days when a bug would work its way through our family, causing the wee ones to take their turns vomiting incessantly; in every room, on every piece of furniture, on me.  

The rule in our house: never vomit on the living room rug. If you are going to vomit, try to make it to the toilet. If not there, a bucket. If no bucket, the hardwoods. But, please do not vomit on the living room rug. We got it at Marshalls for a steal, and it perfectly matches the curtains. So just don’t. And, for the most part, everyone has obliged this rule. There is also a rule not to vomit directly on the couches, that’s why you’ll notice all the towels underneath you when sick and watching television. But everyone has broken that rule. It’s okay, they are Scotch Guarded.

As an aside, I love the word vomit. There are few words in English with a sound more suited to their meaning. Just saying vomit can almost make you gag.  

Like I said, as a veteran parent, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve gotten poop on my hands, had undiapered kids tinkle on my shirt and been thrown-up on quite a few times while holding sick children on said couch, careful not to let any of it drip onto said rug. Most instances have happened within the confines of our home, away from the gawking eyes of the public. This week, that changed.

I was returning home from a work-related engagement on a Sunday when the phone rang. It was my wife calling from the parking lot at Wegmans in Dewitt.   For those unfamiliar, Wegmans is simply the finest grocery store chain in the world and the Dewitt location is its crown jewel, with a massive prepared food section and everything you can imagine. To give a sense, when Syracuse University hosts Parents Weekend, all the students drag their out of town guests to the Dewitt Wegmans to see the bewildering sites. 

This Wegmans also happens to be our local grocery store. My wife said they were just coming back from a trip to the mall, and she needed to run in to get a few things. The problem: our two-year old was saying his tummy hurt. She needed me to run over to Wegmans and pick him up, while she and the three girls ran into the store. So, I obliged.

When I got to Wegmans, the parking lot was packed. It was Sunday after all. I found the family van and pulled up in the nearest spot possible, as the kids all hung out the sliding van door waiving at me. The news was good. Drew was suddenly feeling better – must’ve been car sick we thought – and everyone was excited about having dinner at Wegmans. Not my favorite thing to do because of the expense, but I didn’t have a better dinner plan.

So, as a family, the six of us went into the finest Wegmans in the world to get ourselves some grub. We did this every once and a while, and the kids always loved it. Drew and the two younger girls always got pizza slices. My wife usually got a sushi. Our oldest daughter and I would opt for the Asian bar. She’d get an assortment of Chinese foods and I’d get Indian or Thai, depending on what looked good. Wegmans isn’t the best place to get any of these, but the only place to get all of these things.

On this day, as we cased the many options from the salad bar to the array of soups, little Drew asked if I could pick him up. It was crowded, so I figured he just wanted to get away from all the legs. I continued to work my way around the various food stations, searching for something better than normal. That’s when he told me he was feeling sick again. I asked if he was going to throw-up.  He said, no.  I should’ve left right then. But hunger blinded my judgment. I kept looking. Maybe the carving station had something I’d want today. 

That’s when I heard the unmistakable sound of a child vomiting. It started with a deep-gurgling, like a burping geyser, then a loud liquid splat, followed immediately by a low-pitched moan. I looked at the tiny little boy in my arms, and he was covered in vomit, from his chin to his toes. I looked down at my fleece vest and my shorts, and these too were covered in vomit. My free hand, which I had instinctively used to cup what I could, held a bit of vomit. And my sandles, too, were surrounded by a small pool of vomit. I’m not going to describe the vomit -- that would be gross. Suffice it to say that he had a strawberry smoothie and part of a soft pretzel at the mall, and it looked like he also had some chocolate milk and a cheese stick at some point in the day.

I looked back at the boy’s face, and he gave me a there’s-more-where-that-came-from look. I didn’t know how it was physically possible. He’d already vomited three times his own body weight. But I didn’t doubt him either. 

Instead, I froze. 

World-famous Dewitt Wegmans on a much happier day.
They say when things like this happen time slows down in your mind. It’s true. Time actually stopped in mine. I looked around to see if anyone saw us.  The carving station guy definitely had. I gave him a shrug, and mouthed, “Sorry.”  His facial expression never changed, and I saw him subtly push a button under the counter like a bank teller witnessing a heist. Clearly, not his first rodeo.

I started calculating what to do. Was there a trash can nearby I could put him over for round 2.  Becuase, as everyone knows, vomits come in threes. Nope.  All the trash cans had secure lids, and I couldn’t stick his face inside one. That would garner more attention. How about the bathroom? It sat a solid 30 yards away, past the coffee and sushi station. No way I’d make it. So I just stood there, frozen.  

Luckily my wife tapped her inner Harvey Keitel and suddenly became the Wolf from Pulp Fiction.  

She pointed at me, “To the parking lot, now!” She turned to the carving guy and let him know about the mess. We’re on it, he nodded. Then she wrangled the girls. “Let’s go, everyone out.  Move!”

I booked for the main door, beyond the bathroom. It was the right decision.  No reason to sully even more of Wegmans. If only we could make it. I held the boy close to me, with our vomit-saturated shirts pressed against each other and his head tucked into my chest. I was trying to protect the world from the next wave, and shield their view of us. As I passed several moms entering the store, each had the same expression: First a smile at the image of a father and son in embrace walking briskly toward them, followed by the change to a look of horror as each realized of what they were beholding. Oh, the humanity. 

Luckily, I hadn’t recognized any of the moms.  … And then, I did:  the wife of the elementary school’s physical education teacher. She was heading out the door with a few bags of groceries. And she hadn’t noticed us. I tucked in behind her, hoping she didn’t turn around.  

We were almost out. Then the doors slid open and we were home free. Well, we were sort of home free. I was still standing in the crowded parking lot of Wegmans, holding my son, with vomit covering 80 percent our bodies.

Frankly, I was surprised he hadn’t vomited again. Most vomits do come in waves of three.  Maybe his first wave was so voluminous that he was done. Or maybe, in my initial frozen state, I’d missed a quick succession. In any event, we only had to make it to the cars now.  

To avoid being seen by any more people, I decided to cut a zig-zag path through the parking lot. I figured if I kept moving and turning, nobody would have us in their sites long enough to realize what they were seeing. We ducked in an out of rows of parked cars, up one row, across two cars, down one, like the parking lot version of Frogger. Finally we made it to the van. My wife and the gaggle of girls were right behind us.

We stripped the boy to his skivvies, packed his cloths in a plastic bag, and used baby wipes to clean him as best we could. I took off my fleece and snuck into the side door of Wegmans, two steps from a bathroom, to wash the vomit from my hands and arms. Then it was back to the cars.
As we’d originally planned, I took the sick boy home in my car as the ladies went back into Wegmans for dinner and some supplies. 

Luckily, Drew and I made it home without further incident. I gave him a bath, cleaned us both up and prepped the couch with towels. Needless to say, he vomited several more times that night -- once or twice on me. But, the rest of it happened within the privacy of our home … and none of it ended up on the rug.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Writing Lessons, Revisited

This week I finished the grading for the news and PR writing class I taught this semester at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with a group of such talented young people. And I hope the advice I doled out helps them in their careers and in their lives. 

What I shared with them was the advice I’d been given by past professors at Newhouse and read in my favorite writing book, "On Writing Well." And, while I hope the advice helps them, I know passing it on helped me – as a writer and otherwise. These are the lessons all professional writers need to be reminded of as often as possible.  Yet, we often get so caught up in the daily grind of writing, churning out press releases, speeches and talking points, that we forget the basics.   

First, write simply and clearly. In a world where too many professions create their own complex words and obscure vocabulary to communicate concepts, writers need to remember that the best writing avoids both. As my former professor Charles Salzberg often advised, write like you speak. Do not elevate your language to impress. Break it down to communicate your ideas. If you see a phrase like “best practices for long-term profitability” or “improved healthcare outcomes” dismantle and rebuild. The best professional writers translate complex ideas into words and examples we all understand: simple and clear.  

Follow a logical path. This one always takes me back to grammar school, where the nuns would make us outline our work before we began. It was an exercise in path making. And it worked. While I never made my students write an outline, I told them that good writers guide their readers along the path. It was the lesson most needed among a generation that usually writes in 140 characters or less. I told them to use their words, sentences and paragraphs like steps on a path. Once you master that ability, you can add complexity. But if you don’t follow a path, the readers won’t follow you.  

Everyone who writes professionally
should read this every year. Just saying.
Use strong verbs. This sage advice has been the hallmark of every writing instructor from Strunk and White to Roy Peter Clark. Professor Bill Glavin forced the lesson of strong verbs on my generation of Newhouse students. He made us write a few paragraphs without using any forms of the verb “to be.” It is hard. That’s not to say strong verbs need to be long and complex - far from it. Think of how the verb to breathe evokes a basic emotion. Strong verb convey meaning, motion and emotion. Make them work for you.  

Show, don’t tell. Often stated, but easily forgotten, this lesson separates the strongest writing from the rest. To make the point, I told a story. A few years ago, I went to see former President Clinton speak. He covered a wide range of topics and societal problems in need of fixing. When he spoke on health care, he told the story of a woman who had approached him on the rope-line after a speech in Georgia. She had two jobs and two children – one of whom was quite sick, a pre-existing condition -- and she worried about her family’s healthcare coverage. These years later, I don’t remember any of the policies covered. But I remember the story, and how it stirred the crowd. Stories, quotes, specific images, supporting facts, these are the writer’s best tools. It’s how we show, not tell.  

Thinking about the fundamentals of strong writing again, I revisited lessons I’d too long ago forgotten – or at least forgotten to remember. And I realized that, in my career, I had often strayed from this basic advice. I'd written too many press releases that read like policy briefs, speeches without stories and talking points devoid of facts. Rhetorical marvels all, but crappy examples of writing.   

So, my final piece of advice to the students was to revisit these simple rules of strong writing as often as possible. I'm sure glad I did.