Friday, January 10, 2020

Coffee Cups and Mason Jars


Hey, boys, I think it's just us. 

So, I figure it this way: Young men, such as yourselves, don't want their parents' advice, especially from aged ones such as I; also, young men crave advice.  Clearly, the answer here is to give you some advice.

Right?

I'll start simply.  As you have no doubt noticed, everyone is walking around with water bottles and travel mugs these days.  It's cool, I get it, but, it hasn't always been like this.  In the sixties and seventies, when I was young, nobody carried a cup of coffee around or had a water bottle close by.  Yes, of course, people used canteens and such and there were buckets (literally buckets, with a ladle) of water at practices.  I remember seeing a farmer, Mr. Barnes, sitting under the shade of that one tree that always seemed to be in the middle of the field, and drinking water out of a Mason jar.  Folks used thermoses back in those days as well, usually full of strong, black coffee from the percolator and usually for a long car trip or a morning hunt or Spring planting.

I'll get back to those in a minute, but first a quick story.

***

We were walking, so it must have been when I was a freshman and Don was a sophomore.  We'd finished football practice - we were both on the Junior Varsity team - and, because we didn't have a ride, had walked to his house only a half-mile or so away.  He stopped to check on something in the garage, so I planned to knock and go on in as I usually did. 

The entrance that everyone used was off the back up a few steps and through a screen door into the kitchen.  I remember stopping on the little landing and looking in.  Mrs. M. was sitting at the Formica and chrome kitchen table, white green trimmed saucer in her hand sipping out of the matching cup.  She took a few sips and nestled the cup back into its little ring in the saucer but kept it in her hand, not setting it down.

Her gaze was towards the window above the big farm sink to my right.  She seemed still, calm, wistful somehow.  It may seem odd that I took the time to see her so, but here's the thing - I don't think I'd ever seen the woman sitting.  She was a busy housewife; five kids, mostly sporty boys, some grandparents lived there as well, as I recall.  She hung her laundry and cooked and made cookies and sandwiches and all that stuff.  I am only saying this to emphasize the fact that I don't think I'd even ever seen her still.

Looking back, I think that may be why I waited on that stoop, seeing her that way.  I didn't want to interrupt her reverie.  I heard Don coming my way, so I finally pushed open the screen door and walked on in.  I didn't startle her as I'd been afraid I might, she just looked my way and smiled in surprise that I wasn't her son.  She put down her cup and saucer after one last draining sip, she looked one last time out that window into the fading Autumn afternoon.

"Is everything alright, Mrs. M.?"

"Oh sure, Bill, I was just collecting my thoughts," she answered offhandedly.

Don burst into the kitchen laughing with an old hound behind him - he was a big, loud dude, Don, not the hound - and the dog's paws clicked and clacked on the linoleum floor and the stillness was gone.

She quickly got up and put her cup and saucer into the deep sink and asked if we'd like some sandwiches and set to work on them before we answered her.

"Collecting my thoughts."

 ***


Thermoses - you know, vacuum bottles, Thermos is a brand name - were lined with glass in those days so we treated them with respect.  There was a lid on the inner bottle which screwed on tight but there was also another lid which sort of half screwed half clicked onto the outer steel shell.  It was a cup.  One did not just glug out of them, you stopped what you were doing and carefully poured a few ounces into the lid and had that.  Sometimes, if you were in a car, the passenger did that for you, but, more often than not, you'd stop somewhere and have a cup or two, and collect your thoughts.

I can't remember where we were going but we were in a big-ass station wagon, me ensconced in the narrow storage well between the back seat and the reverse-facing back-back seat - I liked it there.  The windows were closed except for my Dad's "cozy wing" (look it up), which he used to ash the cigarettes he enjoyed while driving.  Maybe we were going to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving to see family friends, it occurs to me.  Dad lit a filtered Camel and asked my Mom for the last of the coffee.

I'd say we were well into the trip, my oldest brother, in front of me, was reading a cheap paperback science fiction novel and my other older brother was flopping about in the back-back seat trying to sleep.  I'd been watching the fields and barns and cows and power lines.  My mom grabbed the worn gray Thermos bottle off the long bench between them, clicked off the cup and unscrewed the lid.  She poured him a couple of sips, nearly upending the nearly empty bottle, and I remember the steam coming off the little stained stainless-steel cup.  The aroma of that dark black percolated Folgers mingled with the rich earthy smell of the Camel and I recall feeling good, safe, content.  My Mom asked Dad, as he passed back the cup if he was alright.

"I was just thinking, I guess," he said with a smile I could not see but somehow heard.

It was the same with Mr. Barnes in that field.  Down between his feet in a cardboard box, nestled into a wooden crate that was somehow affixed to the tractor, was his daily stash of jars.  They were in, of course, the box the jars had originally come in with little dividers, twelve I'd guess, and they were covered with a wet towel to keep them at least cool.  Of course, a man can't wrastle a tractor and a plow with one hand, so he had to stop and have his drink.

I was watching him from my perch in a tree we played in as boys, he was probably a football field away (a common measurement in the Midwest) and I couldn't really see his face but, it occurs to me now, I'll bet it held the same expression Mrs. M.'s had.  I could tell he was gazing into the distance; the field was plowed to where he was under that big tree, and he was looking towards the beige stubble of the unplowed half.  I'd guess, if one could have asked him what he was doing, he'd've answered "Collectin' my thoughts."


So, my advice isn't to not have a take-out coffee or drink from a water bottle, but, occasionally at least, do something that slows you down.  In a way, I think we all want to do it.  It's there in that moment you forgot that you were watching a baseball game on TV and are just staring at the pretty moving picture.  It's there when you wait in your car, engine running, to listen to the end of an old favorite song or symphony.  It's there watching a child sleep or a sun rise.  I know you recognize it in others, that wistful look on another's face.  A "faraway smile" you could say.  You've most likely had to get someone back from that place.  I've had to do it with you boys.  I see Marci do it - she'd usually smiling as she does, which is sweet.

I suppose, in truth, what I am talking about here is "mindfulness."  Yeah… no.  That makes it seem like a goal or a state of existence or a trance or something you need direction with.  As I said, it is something we all do, this "thought collecting."  What I am suggesting is simply to recognize your soul in it, your self.

If I were a man of faith (which I am) I might make one final observation (which I will).  As I look back on these moments - each serene, quiet, rich, even poignant - I sense something else.  I wonder if perhaps I saw it then, considering that I can so readily recall the details.  I wonder if I haven't always sensed it…

A prayer perhaps?

Peace, boys.

And to you kind reader, thanks for coming around.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Unlicensed



(Hi… yes, yes it is awkward to begin an essay with a parenthetical aside but I’m going to, hell, I might italicize it as well, being unlicensed and unregulated and all. I just wanted to say that there are several links to previous posts in this one.  Feel free to check them out if you care to.  But, hey, maybe you could read all the way through this one before you do, because, I’m pretty sure that if you jump elsewhere on your phone, I probably won’t see you again.  Thanks.)


They came to take away my "dad blogger" license away back in September.  A couple of guys sporting beards and superhero tees knocked on my door.  The one with the bigger beard suggested that I knew why they'd come. I did.

I hadn't done the obligatory back-to-school post yet.  I scrambled mightily to get one up on time the year before, but this year… yeah, nothin'. Also, I haven't posted in a long while, which is usually pretty forgivable but, months...?  I've also made a concerted effort to talk less directly about the boys, again, understandable, but, sort of off brand.  And, I neglected to do a Father's Day piece, which is, well, unheard-of.

I was informed that I can only wear my cargo shorts to do yardwork, which seems reasonable and I'd already been doing that.  They wanted my "World's Greatest Dad" mug as well but decided I could keep it when I told them it was in the back of the fridge full of bacon grease (which in and of itself makes me the world's greatest dad).  They also asked for the decoder ring I used to translate the stuff the boys wrote and said early on which didn't make sense.  I told them I'd like to keep it because I've actually got drawings and stories and such that I haven't yet figured out.  They seemed cool about it.

There were a few other caveats as well.  In honor of my nearly ten years of service to the community of dad bloggers, I am allowed to post anything I want on Father's Day and the first day of school – no questions asked.  But, I mustn't post new sentimental slop as I did for so many years at any other time, at least dad slop, I guess.  I can, and this surprised me, repost old pieces when I'd like.  I gather this is a result of the "throw-back Thursday" clause.

The one thing that really had the whole system messed up was that the name of my blog here is, and shall always remain, "ihopeiwinatoaster."  I guess not having a reference to "daddy" or "father" or "pop" or anything Star Wars lets me keep using my same domain.  Usually, you are asked to archive your "Dad" period and, if you wish to continue blogging - which no one in their right mind should - you need to start afresh.  Ha, I knew that stupid handle was a good idea.

There was a lot of mumbo-jumbo legalese.  I had to initial off on a few subjects I'd need to stay away from - Lego and tee-ball and doing laundry and broken arms and, let's see, uhm, homework and math and misspellings, whimsical writings and inexplicable drawings and, oddly Harry Potter – because, apparently, it's the dad's with younger kids turn to write about the good stuff.  I can see all that, really, and there's a really good cadre of fresh dads taking up the cause… God love 'em.  I had to write a piece to say I understood the terms of the dissolution and to say goodbye, see above.  However, because of the domain name loophole, I can just keep posting here.

Listen, I actually think it's good that they stopped by and took the license, I may go rogue every now and then and talk about the boys, but I think in principle the gag order is valid.  There is a sweetness and a sentimentality in writing about babies, toddlers - just children in general - that should be explored.  I certainly have read a great number of posts from men about their kids over the years which have moved me to tears.  And, you know what, I hope that continues.  However, I'm not really the guy to do it anymore.

The wickets get a bit stickier as children turn to adults or, in my case, boys grow into men.  The stakes are a little higher, tales of teddy bears and movie scares and misspellings and odd math no longer seem appropriate, even, as I worked very hard to do, if they are told tenderly and lovingly.  It's no longer my business (was it ever?) to tell you about them.  There are crushes and heartbreak and failures and successes and books and fights and glories coming to learn from, and they will.  But, those are now their stories to hold or to share.

So, I was supposed to have this submitted to and approved by the Blog dudes by the end of last year, but, well... I didn't.  That's because I didn't want them to see this last part.

You see, I'm not done yet.  I've got more to say, a few more stories to tell, some advice to give.  I've worked very hard to honor and respect N and Z over the years I've been doing this and I think I can still do that.  Not by sharing their awkward and embarrassing teenage angst and pubescent bodily functions (which I see bloggers using more than I'd like to), but by offering a little help to them as the years go forward.

I can offer them a little more of me by sharing my past dreams and even my current hopes, perhaps…

There is an undeniable arrogance in assuming your kids will want to know more about you as they go on in their own lives.  It's embarrassing but, here's the thing, two things really - I'd give a lot to see something like this from my own father and I've heard that from a lot of guys over the years.  Also, over and over again folks say to me that the boys will treasure the posts I've done here over the years.  I've been proud to curate their childhood, proud to have thought deeply about them, considered them, and I've been so very proud that they are my sons.

There are a lot of folks I should thank from those years I was sorta in the scene… but I won’t.  I would hope they knew, know, whatever.  Some offered me much needed technical support, others lifted me when I was falling, some were frank in criticism, some just liked the words I lined up into weird rows.  Trying to name them all would be irritatingly long and probably ill-advised.

However, there is one individual I would like to call out: You, kind reader.  Yeah, you.

When I write, I don’t imagine a big audience or entertain the notion that there’s some sort of “ihopeiwinatoaster Nation” out there.  No, I’m pretty much talking just to you on the porch watchin’ the trees grow and the wind blow or in the kitchen waitin’ for the coffee to finish and the biscuits to bake.  I’ve tried to keep it casual and soft here - although, I have gotten my britches in a bunch a few times - and I intend to keep it that way.

Thanks for stopping by, I know you are busy, I hope this maybe slowed you down a bit.  Feel free to poke around in the basement archives if you’d like, but that’s hard on the Blogger phone app… oh well.  It’s a sad truth that blogging was meant to be done on a computer monitor, not a tiny screen in your palm.

God’s peace to you kind reader. 

Here's a picture of me in a blue workshirt.  Not a picture of the boys. (Sorry, it was required... weird, I know.)




Cheers...

Monday, October 28, 2019

Folding Memories


This post was originally published on City Dads Group where they inexplicably welcome my meanderings.  If it seems familiar, that's why, that or I already wrote something similar eight years ago... and yes, I could look into that, but, I don't want to.

***

I’ve heard parenting described as a vocation where the goal is to work yourself out of a job. Seems pretty accurate to me.

As a longtime stay-at-home-parent, I see myself doing it all the time. In fact, as I write, the washing machine is spinning noisily and the dryer is droning away, and I didn’t start either of them. My 14-year-old twin sons are doing their laundry today, a job I did for them for years. I showed them the ropes a few months ago and now, begrudgingly and with a bit of prompting from me, they’ve been doing it on their own.

Late last week, I found one of them riding the lawn mower, finishing the last part of our long backyard. The other will do it this week. There’s a lot to learn about mowing and there is an inherent danger in it, so I had been reluctant to show them how. But this year, I figured they are both tall and strong enough to wrestle the old Cub Cadet around the yard. I’ll show them how to do the trim work with the push mower in the coming weeks.

This morning, I woke up — later than usual — to the smell of sausages and potatoes. I went into the kitchen to start my coffee but I couldn’t tell if someone had made breakfast. The counters were wiped, the dishes in the machine, even the frying pan was hanging clean and dry on the rack. I thought maybe I hadn’t smelled right or something.

I asked the boy on the Nintendo Switch in the living room if he’d had breakfast. He had, and for the first time, had cleaned everything up.

Perhaps some of you are thinking to yourself: Damn straight, ‘bout time they pulled their weight around the old homestead. Yeah, I get that, But, and I might be criticized for this, I didn’t have children to do my work for me. An acquaintance of mine called me late one night decades ago to tell me his toddler had gotten him a beer from the refrigerator. He’d, uh, trained her, I guess, to do it and he thought it was a hoot. I still know the daughter and she stopped getting his fucking beers when she turned 12 — they were never close.

There are, I’m sure, dozens of other examples just like these of me working myself out of jobs. I’m OK with it, of course, but there is another description of parenting that I’d like to share with you: Parenting is just one long damn goodbye.

I always thought of doing my boys’ laundry as something I was supposed to do for them not because of them. Did it overwhelm me at times? Yes, but not often. Mostly, it was just another chore, a part of my job, just labor. I’d set timers for when a load was done, I folded on a custom-built folding table just beside the dryer, left-handed boy’s stuff on the left, the other’s on the right. I’d stand and fold and pair and pile and … think.

I can’t begin to tell you how much you can learn about your children from doing their laundry. You learn what they favor, what pants and shirts, what socks are worn most often – that kind of thing. But, there’s a bit more. All those loads of laundry gave me a sense of how good life has been to them, to us. Jeans with holes and grass-stains, mended and scrubbed, are a reminder that they are healthy, that the yard is green and long enough to shag flies. A fruit-punch stained white shirt is from a birthday party at the laser tag place. A blood stain on the collar of a gray hoodie is from cut on the forehead from a killer tube ride at the lake. I wasn’t folding clothes; I was folding memories.

When they were really little, two years old maybe, I’d take them for rides on the tractor without the mower engaged. We’d laugh and curve around the yard, them marveling at the wildness of it all, me at their delight in it. As they got older, I remember them watching me mow and feeling like a mounted knight, a sweating hero for them in the blistering August sun. In fact, there’s a picture of one of them, watching me go around the yard, standing on the porch with a shoe in his hand, hoping for a ride. A few years later, the fascination with it faded, but I still remember their little faces watching me. It felt good.

Today, as I look upon backyard from the dining room table, thinking about laundry and tractors, they are making lunch for themselves. More a raiding party, really. They are heating leftovers and adding this and that, improvising as one does in the kitchen. I watch and listen and think back to a time when I made every meal for them, never really imagining a day when I didn’t have to.

One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to the closeness I felt to them, handling all those clothes, steeped in dirt and stains and memory.

One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to knowing I’m watched, appreciated, needed. To feeling like a hero, a man, a father on my gas-powered steed.

One long damn goodbye. Farewell to cooking every meal, preparing every snack, packing every lunch, buying every banana, pear and apple, roast and chop.

You may be thinking, shouldn’t I be glad to not have all that work to do.


Maybe I should, but mostly I don't.