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Hot fun on the cul-de-sac

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I heard the piercing scream first. Startled, I looked up just in time to see something small and furry fly across the room and land in a pile of clothes in the corner. The Unidentified Furry Object turned out to be a hamster named Snowball. His source of jet propulsion, my wife, was standing on the other side of me clutching a bleeding finger. I took a deep breath and thought, "Summer's off to a great start."

My oldest son, whose kindergarten graduation my wife and I attended earlier in the day, had volunteered to keep one of the class' two pet hamsters over the summer--without consulting us, of course. Which was why I'd been vacuuming up an assortment of sawdust and hamster crap from my boys' floor when Snowball took flight.

Well, that's not the whole story. My other son, a rambunctious 3-year-old who lives up to the nickname "Busy," had taken it upon himself, about five minutes before the hamster-launching, to climb on a chair and nudge Snowball's cage from its safe perch atop a 6-foot shelf. A split second after the crash and my son's screaming departure from the room, my wife and I had entered, FEMA-style, to salvage the hamster habitat. In retrospect, I can see why the little thing would be a bit nervous, but locking down on my wife's index finger was not the best response. I picked him up from the corner (he's OK, PETA people, no need to picket us) and placed him in solitary confinement while my wife dressed her wound and finished the cleanup.

My daughter, who'd just finished second grade, watched everything over our shoulders, no doubt thinking how she could work the tableau into a journal entry. She has a habit of chronicling embarrassing family moments in her writing assignments (wonder where she got that from?). I could already see the opening of her essay on "My Summer Vacation, Day One: Mom spiked my brother's hamster like a football after it tried to bite her finger off."

My wife and I had both taken a rare Friday off work, to attend the kindergarten graduation and get ready for a weekend beach trip designed to celebrate the last day of school and the start of summer. We needed it. Both of us had been going full-tilt for months, juggling T-ball games, family reunions and weddings with our responsibilities at a certain big company with an affinity for the color blue. So on Saturday--Our Summer Vacation, Day Two--we loaded the car and headed toward Atlantic Beach for some R&R.

Unfortunately, two hours of "Don't make me turn this car around" and "Y'all better cut it out" was not enough to counter two hours of non-stop arguing, "Don't touch me"s and hand-to-hand combat in the backseat. Within minutes of our destination, we turned around and went home. It was a long haul back to Raleigh. But very quiet.

Did I mention that this is going to be a great summer?

It has to be. All the optimistic energy I had heading into the new year? Gone. All my solemn resolutions to slow down? They've been disregarded like yellow traffic lights. When I rushed over to commencement ceremonies for a cousin who graduated from N.C. State this spring, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Resources Donna Shalala summed up the cause of my anomie from the speaker's podium. She quipped to the assemblage that one of the big differences they'd notice about not being in school anymore is that they would go from about 170 vacation days to five. Ouch.

That little observation still has me envying my children for being able to go to summer day camp. I wanna swim and make wallets, or whatever they do nowadays. Think I could pass myself off as big-boned ninth-grader?

On Sunday (Summer Vacation, Day Three), my wife and I decided to temporarily suspend the kids' punishment and make a late-afternoon run to the Exploris museum in Raleigh. We'd waited months to avoid the rush, and the museum was nice enough. The kids had a ball with the hands-on displays. We all pumped water as we learned how much effort it takes for people in other parts of the world to get the basic necessities of life. The only downside was that I hadn't paid attention to the operating hours when we arrived. We'd hardly been there any time--about an hour, in fact--when the museum staff whisked everyone downstairs for a We Are The World-type parade where we played tambourines and maracas, danced in a circle and pledged to save the Earth while they marched us right on out of there.

Then came Summer Vacation, Day Four: my first workday with that new, laid-back summer attitude. Yeah, right. Day Four turned out to be a perfect microcosm of the year to date, beginning as it did with a 2:30 a.m. crisis call from work. I managed to get two hours of sleep and then drive to work, where critical situations jumped ahead of all of my planned to-dos. On the way home, I was back in the I-40 500, nowhere near pole position, keeping an eye on the clock and the gas tank I'd forgotten to fill up as I hurtled along at speeds approaching 30 mph (it takes hard work, skill and concentration). I managed to pick up the children from two different locations before 6 p.m., avoiding a $12-per-five-minute fine at my last stop by 45 seconds. I was just logging off a conference call where management recaps the status of the day's problems when my daughter started giggling. I spend so much time on the phone, she said, that she's christened me Mr. 1-800.

Once we got home, things seemed normal enough. We settled down and had dinner. I set up the sprinkler to water the flower beds. Then, just when I was about to kick back, the cell phone rang again. I spent the rest of the evening locked up in my study, on the computer, watching the foursome of nosy neighbors from up the street--retirees with time to manicure their landscaping and critique everyone else's--tsk, tsk their way around the cul-de-sac, eyeing our mailbox planting and unfinished fence with disapproval. I have half a mind to dump a wheelbarrow full of crabgrass and dandelion seeds on their sanctimonious lawns, but that's another day.

I was still on the call around midnight, when my wife half-whispered, half-hollered: "Derek, you on the phone? Get up here!?" I hit the mute button and made my way up the steps to find her shining a flashlight into our sleeping boys' bedroom. The faint yellow beam was focused on the floor, where my 11-year-old cat crouched low to the ground, ears flat to the back of his head, butt wiggling. He was focused on the shelf, where the flashlight beam revealed Snowball, chilling, on top of his cage. (By the way, my son had volunteered to take Snowball because the other class hamster, Houdini, had been named for his habit of breaking out of his box. Apparently, Snowball had learned a few maneuvers from his friend.)

I scooped the critter back into the cage and covered the escape route with some heavy books. Meanwhile, the cat remained hunched, butt still wiggling in anticipation, his whole body saying "Fall. Fall. Fall." My life is a "Far Side" cartoon.

My wife woke me on Summer Vacation, Day Five with arched eyebrows and a question. "Honey, did you wake up reeeal early and turn on the sprinkler?"

"Um ... no ... damn!" With the excitement of the system problems at work and the runaway rat upstairs, I'd forgotten to turn off the sprinkler. In less than a week I'd endangered my relationships with both animal-rights activists and conservationists. What next? I wondered. Burn down a rainforest while barbecuing?

I 'spose my wife and I could quit our hectic jobs, sell the crib, buy a nice big tent and live the rest of our lives pumping up water in Umstead Park. But I don't think I'm quite that desperate. Yet. The stuff with the job is cyclical; it, too, shall pass. And there are some things that I can do to de-stressify. Writing relaxes me--well, except for the deadlines. Actually, now that I'm at the end of this column, I do feel kind of refreshed. I need to do this every year. The Annual Vacation Column. I lol (that's "laugh out loud" for you non-computer geeks) when I stop to think of the reader who was so perturbed by my Disney World diaries last June that he wrote in to call it the "most singularly unalternative thing" he'd ever read in The Independent. He'll love this one. EndBlock

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