Thomas and Ethan love the aquarium. LOVE it. As in, we'll pick up all our toys and speak at reasonable volumes for the rest of our lives if you'll only take us to the aquarium. Oh, those wacky, exceptionally bright kids and their insatiable thirst for knowledge. No, really. It's true. Stop looking at me that way. They're smart, I tell ya. Way above average. OK, so they want to see Nemo and SpongeBob. Still. They're sufficiently engaged that we thought it made sense to get a membership there, which literally pays for itself after 2 visits. Surely it rains more than two Saturdays a year, so the whole thing makes perfect sense, see? Saw. So. Ever been to an aquarium? Fun. Educational. Not too much walking. Crazy expensive cafeteria with crappy food. Lots of kids all the time, but especially on weekends. Seriously, if scientists could harness the power of white noise, the aquarium on a Saturday could power a small city. And if you're the least bit not an a-hole, nothing about this environment should surprise you. But, as the old saying goes, what has 2 thumbs and attracts a-holes? This guy right here. It was a rainy Saturday. Dark. Tired. Kids? Meh, not so much with the tired. Actually kinda pumped. Too pumped. Run around and break shit-pumped. Get them out of the house. Off to the aquarium. Thick glass there -- unbreakable. Insured. Every other parent in the tri-state area? Same damn idea. Woodstock parking seemed Disney-organized by contrast. Stay away from the brown fruit snacks. Once safely inside, we rely on our patented system of parent/Navy Seal hand signals to navigate the terrain (eg., fingers pointing toward eyes, followed by pointing at one child followed by fingers walking means 'you follow that one and keep him in sight, he looks like he's going over the wall any second.'). We make it to the hippo tank. Magic time. For those who have never been to the aquarium in beautiful, not-at-all-worthy-of-its-murder-capital-reputation Camden, NJ, here's the bullet on the hippo tank: It's magnificent. About 200 feet long by 100 feet wide, the viewer is separated from the exhibit by a thick, continuous sheet of plexiglass on 3 sides. There's also a wooden deck perch if you're not into the whole "up-close" thing. The grade of the floor follows the grade of the exhibit as it slopes from above water down to a roughly 8-foot-deep swimming section. And yeah, the water's more than a little skanky from all the hippo poop, but ya know, that's when you're most grateful for opposable thumbs, higher brain function and the invention of plexi-glass. And the underwater end is where the vast majority of visitors, including Thomas and Ethan, prefer to view the hippos. On this particular Saturday viewing space was at a premium and we found ourselves waiting for a coveted spot along the glass. And when after a few minutes a small family finally moved on from right in front of us, Ethan (my child to watch as I gathered from Sandi's hand gestures *points at me, makes hand goggles, covers right ear*) and I had among the best viewing areas in the house. Now, maybe it was the crowds or the weather or some freaky hipponip diet they were on, but these were the MOST animated hippos I've ever seen. And internet, I've seen me some hippos. There were dives, twirls, splashes, games of tag ... it was like hippo X Games. Grown men were audibly gasping in excitement. Masculine men. Manly. Men secure in their masculinity who defy anyone to question their sexual orientation. OK, I squealed like a little girl, but in all fairness it was pretty freakin' cool. The hippos appeared out of nowhere, sped past us and disappeared back into the poopy water, like some weird aquatic adaptation of Star Trek or something. Poop water. The final frontier. At this, the watery end of the exhibit, there's a carpeted 10-inch deep concrete curb into which the plexiglass is seated. Ethan, like every other kid there who wants to get as close as possible to the action, is up on this curb, face pressed so hard against the glass that he can no doubt smell the poop water through it. Another swim-by and Ethan now decides he's going to follow the hippo, so he runs along the curb. Right in front of him. He is: Late 20-/early 30-something. Uptight. Neatly dressed in bad clothes. Too well rested to be a parent. Younger, born-again looking wife/girlfriend in traditionally subservient approximation, equally as fashion-challenged. High-and-tight haircut, but not military -- Military wannabe. A walking bumper sticker of opinions with which I do not agree: Bush Cheney '04. I can have his handgun when I pry it from his dead, cold fingers. Calvin pissing on the Dallas Cowboys. The strap on the shoulder of his Members Only jacket is undoubtedly there to keep the chip in place. I know this guy. This guy was in every cheap corner bar I ever played music in. He'd always stumble his drunk ass up to the stage and tell me to play some Skynyrd, but I'd probably fuck it up on account I was such a pussy so nevermind. Later, through the stage lights mid-set, I'd see him angrily shake off his woman as she tried to get his truck keys from him. She never got them and I always half expected to see flashing lights from their accident scene later after I loaded out. Maybe they lived in the other direction. He looks down at Ethan who has just wandered in front of him without obstructing his view or touching him or inconveniencing him in any way. He looks at me. He looks back at Ethan who is now scurrying back to his original position, waiting for the next hippo's pass. I more than sense his annoyance; I taste it. I get Ethan's attention and tell him loudly enough so Captain McColonstick over here can hear me that we do not cut in front of people. We say excuse me and we ask to get by. Ethan nods at me, regards Captain McColonstick and says, "Sorry." Adorable. Don't you just wanna eat him up? So Captain McColonstick turns away, in the general direction of the future Mrs. McColonstick, but he's not really addressing her, he's addressing me in that weird Colonel Flagg way, and says, "There you go." There you go. As if he'd been waiting for me to wake up and start parenting. As if my level of engagement had finally risen to an acceptable measure in his eyes. Now, internet, I'm no badass by any stretch of the imagination. I'm a lover, not a fighter, and aside from my participation in organized sports and once getting carried away while play-reenacting a pistol whip scene from Gunsmoke (poor Mark Mirage. I thought he was going to need stitches), I've never injured another human being in my life. No, I'm no badass. But what I am is 6'5", 275 lbs. of relatively athletic, incidentally imposing hairy guy. A friend once said I had the "soul of a poet, body of a linebacker." Right before I kicked her ass. Kidding. Anyway, no fighter. Lover. Lover of everything. Except, apparently, childless jerkoffs who see fit to weigh in on matters of parenting. My response was something like, "Really? 'There you go?' Did you really just say that, you Bill Cosby parent-of-the-year mother fucker?" I know. I swear I'm a pacifist. And lest ye think it was all cool and "No Country For Old Men" delivery, I am duty bound to disclose that by "Bill Cosby" my voice was pre-pubescence-Donny-Osmond high and wobbly. But apparently, threatening enough or psychotic appearing enough to force Captain McColonstick to reevaluate his thoughts of parental omniscience. He and she moved on. Hurriedly. I stared his wine colored Members Only jacket down until it rounded the corner. We did not encounter them for the rest of the day, and if he did hear what I said, Ethan never repeated it. In the van in the parking lot about to drive home, I'm playing the entire scene over in my head -- varying the playback each time. A little less falsetto here, a different phrase there. Creative people do that: see movies in our heads. If you know a creative person and you're in a car with them while they're driving on the highway and they slow down suddenly and for no reason? They're watching a movie in their heads where they're dying in a horrible crash. It's a blessing and a curse. So I'm sitting there just thinking it through, itemizing the reasons for which I blew up: he was out of line; he was showing off at my expense, etc. But the real reason is that he had no practical perspective from which to render an opinion. His idea of parenting is what he saw on TV or in movies or -- gasp -- witnessed his own parents perpetrating. Me? I've been in the trenches, man. Delivery room, sleepless nights, colds, fevers, rashes, feedings, diaper changes, daycare registrations, school shopping, specialist consultations, hearing tests, CT scans, tonsilectomy, adenoidectomy, moral support, hugs for skinned knees, playing on swingsets, swimming pools, vacations, bathing, staying with him until he fell asleep. This is one heady ride, yo. More work than I ever thought I'd do in a lifetime. And I think I'm pretty good at it. But even if I'm not, the last person in the world who's going to judge me is someone who at best read a book on how it's supposed to go. So maybe my response was a little disproportionate to the offense. I don't think so. If anything, I think he got off easy. Sandi apparently agrees as she flashed me the index finger passing through hole in fist of opposite hand, followed by sad face with fisted hands twisting in eye sockets: "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."
"It's a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes." -- Tessio