Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Memory baffles me. The process of it. As I get older, approaching fifty-six, I look back with anything but clarity. I've tried to hold onto the timeline of it all, but, I gotta admit there are months I am not really sure about. Did I work for that drunken Algerian French dude before I worked in fine dining with that pretty, crazy girl at the Hilton? When did I live in that apartment with the deck and a pretty little sun room where I painted horrible paintings and was happy? A rich girl and a guest house in toney Michigan with a Chris Craft and a sinking pontoon boat? Was it when I was twenty? Was I ever that young?
It's overwhelming really. I sometimes feel like I'm not up to it, remembering causes avalanches of images and faces and places and, well... feelings.
It is easy to get caught up in the factual details of memory. You hear folks do it all the time, "Was it Tuesday or Wednesday?" or, "Where were we going on that trip?" Honestly though, I'm not sure a brain is capable of keeping all those details at the ready. If you're trying to tell a story about seeing a child, say, hit a home run or get thrown out at first, I don't need to know the model of the car you took to the game. But, and here's the thing, the trick of memory, the car may be revealed because it rode along with the story because both were discussed in the back seat of a late model Ford F-150, red.
Stories reveal emotion, it is their divine business, and they can be persistent. Just as I am writing this, in the back of my mind, I am going through the story of those two restaurants.
The owner was named Jacques, it was a four-star place with a menu full of rich, classic French food. I liked working there and he was pretty good to me. I waited tables on weekends and bartended a couple of weeknights and... here we go.
The moment I stopped trying to figure where this all fit in the time frame of my life, all the emotions flooded down on me. A wide, white bowl of Veal Navarin, with turnips and haricot verts with couscous, the aroma of fresh thyme and rich demi-glace coming up off of it as I set it on a white linen tablecloth. Crusty creme brulee, fresh orange juice mimosas. God, I loved that food. I loved working there. It was called "Voulez-Vous" - and that's the trick of memory I spoke of.
He fired me one night for neglecting to put a few entrees on a check, I'd served four Charcuteries and only charged for one. He was drunk and so was I. We shouted. It was an accident but for some reason he thought I'd done it on purpose, to get him. He was as red as the beets vinaigrette we'd served that night and as mad as only a French-Algerian can get. I walked out with my apron still on. I remember crying as I walked down Third Avenue. Crying in anger I'm sure, but crying at the loss as well. He'd taught me so much about service and elegance and grace, about cuisine and wine and technique.
From there I went to work at the Hilton - "Nicole's" was the name - and met the crazy, pretty girl. Just to prove my point, I'm now recalling how all that went down. A girl who'd worked for Jacques worked there and they hired me as a back waiter sight unseen. I don't think I'd have gotten the job without the experience I had there at "Voulez Vous." Her name was Cathy and she was an actress. We went out for a few months and she left for California and shortly thereafter I left for home, Ohio. Yes, there is more to that story, but it's best kept for another time.
Man, I'll tell you what, once you start thinking back like this, the waves just keep coming. Just before I left town, I went to see Jacques. I wanted, ostensibly, to ask him for a reference, but I also wanted to make amends and say goodbye. I went early afternoon and the place was dark and empty. He sat where he always sat at the bar, back to the hostess stand. He'd heard the door or noticed the light had changed and simply shouted that they were closed and would open at five. I didn't know what to do, in fact, I nearly just slunk out.
I hesitated and he turned. "Bill, Bill," he said, pronouncing it as he always had, like "eel" with a 'b' in front of it, "You've come back to us!" He was short and balding and a little tubby and I can still see him waddling across that dining room in all its elegance and shaking my hand. It's funny, he apologized over and over. He confessed to what trouble he'd gotten into with his wife. He told me I was one of the best young servers he'd ever had and offered my job back to me right there.
I explained why I was there. I told him, as I told everyone, that New York City had won, had beaten me, and I was heading home.
"To Hioho," he always mispronounced Ohio, probably to irritate me, "Merde, you are better than that. Stay, work for me again and you will run this place someday." It's important to note that he had an almost comically outrageous french accent.
I told him it was all arranged, lease let go, job quit, U-Haul ordered. (God, I'd forgotten all this, which is patently false it would seem because here I am recounting it to you right now.) He invited me to the bar and opened a bottle of wine, a Sancerre if memory serves - and it does. We gossiped about old employees and regulars. He winced as he told me how many of my regulars complained when his wife told them he'd fired me, she was the hostess and part owner, Julia.
I'd only planned to stop by quickly. But the wine was good and the staff came in, many of whom I still knew. I ate dinner with them, the chef made me serve. The rush started and I hung out for several hours, Jacques making drinks for me and introducing me to patrons, calling over regulars and making me feel important. Julia was happy to see me and continuously chided the poor man for firing me. It was an unforgettable night, though, apparently, I almost did, forget it that is.
You know, for years he gave me a glowing reference and, in all seriousness, he made me the professional waiter I became. But, what I remember most is him walking me out the side door onto the sidewalk of Seventy-sixth Street. He handed me a hundred dollars mumbling something about buying some good wine with it, and hugged me, tears running down his again beet red face.
I can't speak for you, but, the emotional back door to my room of memory is the best way for me to get in.
Over the years, I've let this digital diary act as a depository of memory, an archive of sorts, for both me and the boys. But, as I illustrated above, memory is not as easy as just taking a picture or jotting down a story, putting the date on it, and filing it away.
The other day Nick was looking for something to do - yes, we let our boys get bored. He was in the corner of the closet rifling through the bins of forgotten toys and projects and books they've made when he found his writing journal from second grade. He brought it out and went through it, laughing at his misspellings - as I have been for years - and the confused little stories, non-sequiturs, inexplicable drawings and stickmen.
Soon Zack was looking over his shoulder and Nick told him his journal was in the bin as well and went to get it for him. Z began looking at his and realized because the assignment had been a daily writing prompt, they probably had the same or similar entries. Starting at the beginning, they laughed their way through, day by day - "Wacky Wednesday" or "Tell a Story Tuesday."
And "If I Had Three Wishes."
Zack's third wish was "3 more wishes," classic, and Nick wants a "germen sheperd named roney."
Here's a couple more, "Field Day" and "10 Things My Teacher Taught Me." (Nick went with "feald" and "tot.")
Here's the page with both from Zack:
And this is Nick's:
They've been teasing each other back and forth this whole time. Nick tells Zack he just wrote the "same flipping thing, over and over" for the 10 Things one.
"Well, who spells field, f-e-a-l-d?" Zack says back through a laugh, it's all good-natured fun.
"Well, you're over there bragging about hitting home runs."
"Yeah, well what part of 10 things don't you get, you only wrote down three."
"Yeah..." Nick replies back. And then he says "oh..." long and drawn out, the oh-I-get-it sigh.
"That was my first day back after I broke my arm."
We all go silent for a moment or two, the memories, Marci's, Zack's, poor Nick's and mine, settling in around us, so quickly, so effortlessly.
And that's why you can't pin a memory on a timeline. They twist and wrap around each other, one carries another, two, three, several seemingly unrelated bits lace together and tell another memory, a different story.
You know what? Go back and look at that last image. You can click it and it gets bigger. Just those two entries, side by side. His third and final thing is "helping." Man, that's a great story.
I can even overcomplicate it more. When the boys perhaps see this in forty or fifty years, what ghosts of memory will they see? Will it be their second-grade classroom or Mrs. G? Will they remember all the "Feald Days" of those early elementary days as one event? Will they remember sitting on a couch remembering and laughing at their silly journals? Will they remember how jarring and emotional the quick memory of Nick's broken arm was? Will they be more interested in the stories I tell of restaurants past and dreams set aside? Will they get to choose?
I think not, I never get to...
There's one last - that's a lie there's never a last thing. A long time ago, in the opening paragraph, I mentioned an apartment with a porch and a sunroom. I painted garish abstracts on big canvases with acrylics. I was happy. I had a large work table I'd made from two-by-fours and a sheet of plywood covered in a muslin dropcloth. On it, off to the corner nearest the porch, was a cactus, a "Christmas Cactus" to be precise. I'm sure you've seen them.
Here's a picture of the one that is blooming here in the dining room.
I wonder if seeing that bloom didn't put me in mind of that table which made me ask myself when that was and then all the memories who weren't sure where they belonged piled back on me. But memory is not kismet. It is poignant, playful, powerful but there always comes with it a deliberateness. As though we knew we needed to remember something.
I've kept you too long, thanks for sticking with me.
From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat... "
"He's pirouetting like a mad man."
I saw that ballet in college...
Peace, and all that.
Friday, January 27, 2017
Christmas came and went, didn't it? I wasn't too heavy into it this year, I can't say why, it just didn't resonate as deeply as it sometimes can. The boys are currently somewhere between the magic of Christmas past and the mystery of Christmas future. Santa's packed up his bag and moved on, but the depth of a God-child here on earth is yet to be fathomed .
It's only my opinion, but I think, after it is over, maybe we should all ask "What did you give for Christmas?" instead of "What did you get?" I guess that can get a little sticky, too. I don't mean what great game system you gave or new device or phone, bike or board. I mean what did you give of yourself?
We didn't give the boys anything big or important this year, just socks and toys and, you know, books, stuff. I think every Christmas Eve since the boys were born, Marci and I have laid in bed wondering if we got them the right things, gave them enough, did enough. I'd guess a lot of parents do that.
Will they like the bikes? Is this the right game or book or toy or hoodie? Are we doing enough?
It hurts to wonder about those questions. It hurts to feel you're not doing enough.
But, we are.
We've given the warmth of hearthfire and carols. We've shown them deep love and honor. We've lifted them up above the madness so they can see Hope on the horizon, taste Dream in the wind and hear the songs of Kindness, Courage and Wildness.
It's all hard to see, though, if your doing enough... most of the time.
Nick and Zack wanted to buy each other gifts this year. We've done it in the past but it's been sort of a "I want this" situation, veiled in "secrecy" - yeah. This year they decided to choose gifts for each other on their own, without any "suggestions." From what I gather, and gather I do, they told each other not to tell them what they were thinking about for the other. They wanted to be surprised and, on Christmas morning. They were.
Nick wanted to get Zack two things, a new Rubik's cube or similar puzzle and a book of music for flute. He and I went out together and found the puzzle and continued on to a local music store that I knew had songbooks. We found the beginner and intermediate flute books and Nick spent a long while deciding on one. There was a book of songs from the Harry Potter movies, which we were actually in the middle of watching. It had "Hedwig's Theme" in it, and he was excited about that. He said it would sound so pretty on the flute, which I agreed with, but many of the other songs were unfamiliar. He also found a book of Beatles songs, most of which he knew and knew Zack would as well. He decided on the Beatles one and was very pleased about his decision. Nick does pleased well.
Marci went with Zack, first to get a remote-controlled "Hexbug" - a toy he knew Nick liked because he had one he already played with quite a bit. From there they went to the bookstore. He had the idea that he wanted to find a cookbook for Nick. Nick cooks with me some and enjoys it and Zack thought he would like his own recipes. Apparently, he spent a great deal of time deciding and going back and forth between several. Most he found too simple, Nick's skills are well beyond beginner, and some too full of things he didn't think we'd like He finally decided on Complete Children's Cookbook, from the publisher DK. It's a wonderful choice.
The boys were both very excited about their gifts from each other and, here's the kicker, for each other. They both spent a lot of time considering the right gift for the other.
I've been thinking about this a great deal. Why, I wondered, were they so enthralled with this process? Initially, I just figured it was because they'd not had the chance to do it before, which is probably true. I thought maybe they just wanted the praise and thanks they might get for giving a good gift. This may be part of it, but, I think they are better than that. Recently though - like, in the last five minutes - I considered a deeper reason and I think it rings true.
In giving Zack a Rubik's puzzle Nick was telling Zack that he respected him, admired him, for all the hard work he'd put into learning how to solve the many different puzzles he's had over the past couple of years.
The remote-controlled robot said to Nick that Zack saw how much he enjoyed the one he had, that that his joy was important to him, Zack, and he'd like to add to it.
A Beatles songbook says "Hey, I think you're good at this." It says try this challenge and, I know you can do it. It says thank you for filling our home with music. It says I appreciate you.
The cookbook was more than paper and pictures and ink, it was a physical act of encouragement. "Here is this, I know you can do it." Zack has seen how happy Nick is when he helps with dinner, seen the determination he has to learn new skills, seen his pride in a job well done. He was simply showing Nick his appreciation.
Listen, brothers, men, boys, have difficulty saying "I love you" That's a broad statement, I realize that, and of course men do, say it that is, I do, the boys do. But... I'm gonna stand by it.
Here's why. I've seen how well we can show love to one another. Because love is such an all-encompassing emotion, because it so big and deep and scary, because it seems so overwhelming, especially to boys, we, well, we skirt it. We go around it, under it, over it, but, we feel it. We know it. We need it, it's just that there are so many kinds of love we find it hard to define, to hold onto.
I left a football out in the rain and snow not but a few weeks after I'd gotten it for Christmas when I was maybe twelve or eleven. It was ruined and I was mad and disappointed in myself. My brother, who was in high school at the time, a star football player, came home with an old, worn out football. He said something about how there were plenty in the locker room and some never even got used. It was a bit flat but he helped me pump it. I think I treasured that ball more than I'd have ever the new one. Knowing that he noticed how sad I was meant the world to me. My little boy's soul saw it for what it was, an act of love.
My older brother used to play chess with me. I was in fourth, maybe, grade and he was on the high school chess team. Until I had kids I couldn't imagine the patience it must have taken to play against a novice such as I was. But he did, more often I am sure than he would've liked to. It was an act of love. He noticed once, not longer after that, that I was reading books that were not the best and below my reading level. He let me read his Sherlock Holmes books and later his formidable collection of science fiction. I felt the respect he was giving me, I felt honored, loved.
It may surprise some folks, but I think men spend more time observing men than they do ogling women. And boys watch men and each other all the time. I know I did, I know I still do.
Men show affection, love if you must, in a whap on a shoulder, in a handshake with both hands, with a look in an eye. It's veiled in a friend's "I'm sorry" or a "nice shot" or "good luck." It's there when your dad says he proud of you, when a brother compliments a pass reception in a fall backyard or an unexpected chess move in front of a winter fire.
We share the burden on the first day of practice with one another as an act of courage:
We stand shoulder to shoulder, hats in hand, popcorn at our feet, under the eye of the old man in an act of devotion - to each other, to the past, to family, to justice.
Boys and men parse out their love. This bit in that, that bit in this.
Dancing, happily at the fair together is solidarity and trust:
And so is silliness:
Men, and boys, need to feel the wildness inside them, and they need to do it with others.
A jump off a "cliff":
Side by side marching into battle, stick-spears and stick-bows and stick-daggers at the ready:
A river walk:
All are acts of wildness and, when faced together, shared, they become the knotted bond of trust, which is, of course love.
There are more ways we show each other these bonds. We dream together, boys especially know there is nothing sadder than an unshared dream.
The dream of the big leagues, two boys a battery in the majors:
The dreams that are fiction and make-believe:
The dreams that radiate from a fire, from the past:
And the dreams that we look forward, together, often not knowing what those are, but not knowing together:
Yes, we dream together and it is done in love.
Sometimes these moments are short and quiet but echo in our memories for years.
A game remembered well after the players and fans are gone, a loss, a win. Acceptance:
A moment, frozen in a frame. A moment to last a lifetime:
Showing love is in our gestures and poses, in the winks and nods and smiles, in the hugs and even the punches; in every run scored, ball dunked, battle won. It is, and has always, lived in this pose:
I've seen this vignette so often, from battle fields to scrapbooks. And, I think, that may be my point. Although left uncaptured by cameras, I have been in all these images. I could insert myself into any one these scenes.
I think most men could. And remember men are, and shall forever remain, boys.
Listen, I've kept you too long, again.
Peace, and thanks for stopping by.
(There is something super funny about that last picture, give it a closer look.)
((I should probably add that all the images were vetted by the boys and some of these may have been in past posts here.))
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
It flares with a sizzle, a sound fresh and new which echoes back old and frail. The sulfur scent lingers on my fingers and still hides in the corners of the room. The curious looking folded piece of thick paper filled with red-tipped paperboard sticks, its black, sandy stripe ominous, sits on the table. Curious, yes, yet also comforting. I can almost taste the vaguely familiar smell, fresher and greener than the acrid smokey scent that wafts up from them.
They were everywhere when I was a kid. I can't look around the memory rooms of my childhood and not see them. In someone's kitchen, maybe Earl Wayne's, there was a blue trimmed ceramic bowl of them. Jack's Auto Parts, The Grange, The Whippy Dip, The Bigtop Diner, John Deere, exotic hotel and motel packs, The Mason Bowl, Kings Island, an always rotating supply. I remember even at ten or eleven taking a pack and shoving them into my worn out Levi's.
They were the business cards of tradespeople. Plumbers had them, car shops had them, clubs and civic groups got them printed. Gas stations, architects, the eye doctor, honest, and every bar and restaurant ever. I can't imagine how many packs I handled in more than thirty years of tending bar and waiting tables. Ashtrays always had a pack in them, there were plates or bowls or baskets of them at the hostess stand and on that funny half door at the coat check.
I had for years a matchbook from every restaurant I worked at, but, I guess I sorta used them.
There were basically two types of business matches back then, the paper ones I mentioned earlier and boxed ones, the matches wood, which were highly coveted and more expensive. My mom had a collection of matches, in books as I recall. I only vaguely remember looking at them as a kid, but a tornado ruined our house when I was thirteen and those matches were everywhere in a back bedroom where they'd been in a closet. I can see them now, a crazy variety of colors and shapes and styles, like wildflowers blooming in a room with no ceiling, no roof.
My dad bought them, a white paper box of, maybe, fifty. He'd rip just a bit of the paper away to get at them one at a time. That box of matches sat on a shelf next to his carton of Camels in a closet just inside the kitchen so that when I stole a pack of cigarettes from him I could easily grab a light, twenty smokes, twenty matches. I remember buying a box of those matches when I lived in Queens and a lighter wasn't in the budget some years later. I opened them just as he had and put them in a closet, next to my Marlboro Lights. The covers were an odd almost Tiffany blue, I remember. A color I'd only just learned from a girl named Holly Golightly, who I loved.
There was a third kind of matches, "strike-anywhere" the were called. We kept a box in the camper when I was a kid and I've always had a box of them sealed up in my own camping box. They were the coolest, really. You could strike them on a log or the rusted burner of a white gas Coleman stove, anywhere really, hence the name. In chemistry class in high school, Mr. Hendricks did a lab where we learned how they worked and made some. I can still see and smell the smoke of them all hanging in the air under the stained acoustic tiles of the ceiling.
You know the cowboy who lit his match on his pants? I could do that by the time I was twelve with the stike-anywheres. By sixteen or seventeen I'd learned to snap one to flame with my thumbnail. By the time I was in college, I'd learned all the tricks and dangers and etiquette matches required. I spent a month figuring out how to light a paper book match with one hand... 'cause sometimes your other hand is otherwise occupied.
There is a way to sort of fling a match by holding its head against the striker and shooting it off with one finger. You can get it five, six, feet... or it sticks to your finger. This is a useful skill when one is lighting a gasoline soaked bonfire and needs a few feet of safety. It's also a good skill for a match fight - think five or six young men shooting matches at each other on outdoor patio at the student center, or anywhere really - the safety of which was always questioned by campus police and dorm reps and forest rangers. One time a lit match landed in my friend Bob's pant cuff and, because one tends to move around a lot in a match fight, the air lit it into flames. We just stared at it as though it had never occurred to us that someone might catch fire in our insanely ill-conceived game.
It's funny, we grew up being told "Don't play with matches!" Seems like for twenty or so years that was one of my favorite entertainments.
But, we'd also grown up watching people use matches. In our homes, on television, in novels and movies, rock concerts and campgrounds we saw them in use all the time. I mean, who among us hadn't stood next to their dad in a bewilderingly dark basement as he lit a match and waved it slowly down then up the rows of round fuses? We'd all seen candle and lamps lit in a scene in a movie - darkness, a match flares and the light is but a small circle around it, it moves deliberately to a candle, the wick catches, in the broadening light faces are revealed - to the point it was really a trope, an overworked device.
My friend Don dropped a his Zippo - which I have and shall always loathe - at a a J Geils concert in maybe '77 or '78. It had been his dad's or his uncle's and... Zippos always had stories behind them, drove me nuts. Anyway, we were down on our hands and knees, on the sticky, littered floor of a concrete stadium looking for that brass, bragging lighter by lighting matches and hoping to see it shine in the flare as they were lit. I remember, even then, noting the irony was rich in that. Of course the band was rocking and the crowd was rolling. I don't remember if we found it. I still don't care.
In a dark cabin I watched a drunken friend strike a Diamond Blue Tip on the box, he lit his cigarette and casually threw the whole box into the fire instead of the spent match which was his intent. We watched those matches spit and sizzle for a good five minutes. It was something.
So matches were ubiquitous and in nearly constant use. Easily, dozens of times a day we saw them. We saw the utility and power of them, recognized their importance and, well, we saw the romance in them.
Here's where I falter. You see, the most frequent thing we saw matches used for was, lighting cigarettes. I don't want to seem as if I am condoning smoking, but there was a romance around it that simply cannot be denied, and lighting a cigarette, yours or another's, was a practiced art.
She asks for a light in a crowded bar and steadies your hand with hers as the music plays and hearts pound.
A beach walk in November, Belmar, the wind wet, wild, cold. A girl, a breakup, a match lit against the wind. Her bending in to light her Benson and Hedges, cupping my already cupped hands. Her face close. A tear.
A party, a couch, six friends, one match, seven cigarettes. Laughter.
A band of boys, warriors all, lighting matches for each other, smoking and posing, outside Mason High.
I best stop there. I could write endless essays and stories around my love affair with cigarettes and smoking, they're good stories, good memories. I will someday.
Fortunately, cigarettes, aren't the point today. Neither, really, are the matches.
By the mid '70s, disposable butane lighters came into the market. My dad was an early adopter, we still had those matches in the cupboard, but dad's pack of Camels now lay on the table with an adjustable "Bic Click." I went to college at the end of the decade and my welcome box in the dorm contained, along with razors and shaving cream, pizza coupons and a condom, a "Cricket" lighter. We ran them out real fast and when we discovered they were, like, a buck-fifty at Woolworths where the cigarettes were six bits, we just used the free matches, for a while.
Within a couple of years, the price of the disposables came down and we were learning how convenient and versatile they were, and, well, the matches ended up in the back of a drawer, waiting for the lighter to run out or for a pilot light needing a re-light. By the last decade of the century, matches were essentially, replaced.
It is easy to look back at the ways and things of the past and see them as arcane, or quaint, if not inferior or even ridiculous. But, you know what? - matches worked, and they did with style, we used them with style. Matches were never broken, dysfunctional... things just changed.
The avocado kitchen phone with the twisted, twenty-foot cord, still made my plans and got me talking to the girls. The carburetor in my VW bug regulated the airflow just fine, no injection needed. Gas stoves had pilot lights or you just used a match every time you fired one up, no electrostatic starters around for decades. It wasn't hard, before the remote, to walk to the television and change stations, the channel still got switched. We wrote letters with photographs in them and sent them on a arduous journey and waited for a response, same as today just in the time-frame of days or weeks, not minutes or seconds. A cone filter in a pour-thru coffee maker or an old stove-top peculator still gave us a hot cup of Joe and took up less room and money than the behometh that sits on my counter today.
We didn't know all these things were coming. That's so important to understand when we look back. We didn't think getting up to change the channel sucked, we needed to change the channel, we needed to light the lamps.
Nick said something interesting a few years ago. I thought it funny at the time, but, today it seems relevant. He said: "Didn't you miss the internet when you were a kid, Dad?"
Thanks for coming along with me today, I appreciate it.
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
It's been a while. I hope you've been well.
I've been having nightmares, dreams of loss and separation. In one, Nick and Zack are on one side of a tunnel busy with traffic and I, on the other side, am unable to cross and am so afraid they will try to get to me. I scream and scream but the roar of the traffic renders me mute and I'm left wondering if I still can make a sound. In another, Marci is waving to me from a tower, a tall parapet, I'd say. She looks happy and yet the stone of the tower is shifting to sand and it begins to tilt towards its inevitable destruction.
There are others, some in which I am searching, sometimes for the boys, often for Marci. In some the search seems almost like a chase scene, I get to where I am sure I should be and the thing I so desperately need is no longer there but I sense again where it is and am frantically off to where I know I will get it next time.
Some of the dreams are scarier, underscored in a tone of violence, where loss and searching yield to darker themes. I'd rather not think of them.
There is a part of me that wonders why I am telling you this. Why am I telling me this, why am I telling the boys this?
Well, the first part is easy. I think of "you" as the audience I have that might see this in real time, like, today or later in the week, and, honestly, your numbers are only a few dozen and you are all kind and sympathetic folks who I don't feel will be to judgy.
Why am I telling me this? Frankly, I'm hoping voicing them might help them go away.
And the boys? Yeah, that's the hard one. I'd like to say that, perhaps some day, when they might be confused and laid vulnerable to life's confusion and uncertainty, they might come upon this here and my honesty will touch them. Wishful thinking is my specialty.
"You don't just throw away someone else's broken heart," I said as Zack headed into the kitchen.
You see, the cat got up on the fireplace mantel and was heading towards the Nativity scene. Z went to get her off before any further mischief could begin. As he pulled her into his arms, Marci's little carved flat stone heart, marble I think, got pulled off and fell to the only tile in the room, the small area in front of the fireplace. It landed with a thwack and a skitter, skitter. I knew without looking it was in pieces.
Zack gathered them up. He felt bad for breaking it. He knew it wasn't his fault. He went to throw it away, eager to get rid of the evidence.
"Whaddya gonna do with 'em," Nick asked from the couch where he'd been watching.
"I think I can fix it. Just put them back on the mantel, Zack, I'll look at it later," I was fairly confident I could.
It's been an hour or more and, well, it turns out I can't.
The day after the election we were waiting for the bus out front and we noticed this:
It's a little wildflower blooming in the ditch in front of our house. I don't like that ditch. I can't get in to mow it, its sides are too sharp and I don't own - nor can I use - a string-trimmer, so the ditch gets full of weeds and tall grass. Earlier in the year the township had come through and trimmed all the culverts and such on our road. I raked the tall grass trimmings out and, on a whim, Marci planted a packet of mixed wildflower seeds. I think we both imagined a ditch bouquet of blooms and blossoms, transforming the unsightly scar in the front yard into a colorful carpet of whimsy.
That didn't happen. The grass and weeds came back and the ditch remained, well, unsightly. And yet, so very late in the year, we see this brave little flower, variety unbeknownst, reaching out over the wilting grass and withering weeds.
Recently, I've been trying to find the meaning in more things. I am not one to regret - which pleases me... which I regret - and I've often wondered why. It turns out that pretty soon after something happens, say I make a bad decision, say the wrong thing, fuck up, I see what I am supposed to learn from it. These are, historically, not revelations to be celebrated. Conversely, when I make the right move, make a good decision, say the right thing, not fuck up, I also try to see what I should learn there. Oddly, these are not celebratory moments either, more a reminder that I should always do the right thing and not be a dick. Somehow, these sometimes painful insights have led to an understanding that leads to a lack of regret. But, I have a secret to tell you, I have, my whole life, felt, well, guided.
So what sort of Guide wishes me bad dreams or broken hearts? Who would frighten me so manifestly that I wake up in sweat and tears, a silent scream in my throat? Who would have the audacity to remind me that sometimes hearts go unmended?
The same one that puts a wildflower in a ditch. And that one flower is the whole carpet we dreamed of, the whole ditch abloom, it is our hope fulfilled because the joy was in the hoping, not in what we were hoping for.
Well, wish me a dream where I find my sons, where I rescue my love, where I mend hearts.
Wish me the hope of future fields of fresh flowers.
I wish you peace.
Friday, November 11, 2016
This piece first appeared on the website City Dads Group and I have permission to post it here.
My 11-year-old sons will be home from school soon. We discussed the presidential election this morning. They seemed a little stunned, but I was glad to see they weren’t frightened. They may come home that way, though.
I imagine different scenarios. What I might say to a kid who asks if everything will be OK; who asks if a president can really deport people or ban a religion? What’ll I say to the other when he asks if Mom will still have a job, or if we are going to have to move somewhere?
I will answer them gracefully, I will say important things like, “Your life shines brighter than all of this. Decency, courage, honor, truth, love never go away, they are steadfast. Things will change, a darkness may descend, but the light of hope cannot be extinguished.”
We will hug in the driveway. I will weep for and with them. I will lift their quivering chins and look them in the eyes and tell them they are safe and cherished. I will apologize for my naivete. I will choke back a sob as I tell them I was wrong, very wrong.
I will watch as they throw a backpack down in disgust at the injustice of it all. I will tell them I understand, that injustice cracks hearts and weighs heavy on the soul. I will tell them to stick up for themselves and advocate for others. I will tell them hope is never lost.
Because no matter what side of this whole thing you are on, you can do this: Volunteer. Find a place you can help and call them, go there. This new administration is going to change things, and it may add more misery to millions of lives.
You can donate food or money, support LGBT causes, make sure children are safe and fed, walk a friend home after dark, embrace the homeless, advocate for others. One thing, even one little thing, could help. Helping others is just that, helping others, but, you see, you are an “other.” You need to give that frightened man, that widowed mother, that shivering child, your warm hands, for they are you. Fuck that “there but for the grace of God go I.” No, it is more like “There goes I.” Shining hope into the broken corners of society shows you your own light.
Do the important things — love, give hope, lift others. Let this not be the end of decency. Let this not be the end of honor. Let this not be the end of courtesy. It’s up to us now, let us not be afraid, let our light shine.
Never relinquish hope.
+ + +
The boys came home a few minutes ago. I wait in the driveway as I always do, the bigger boy tosses me his backpack as he often does. The other boy is quiet, as he usually is.
“Hey, Dad, I need to ask you something …”
Here we go, I’m ready. I steel myself, and wait for the scene I practiced all afternoon to begin.
“… what’s for dinner?”
“Oh, and Dad.”
Here it comes.
“I think we are going to start basketball practice next week, the coach’s son is in math with me and he said something about it.”
And they walk into the garage and on into the house.
You see, they didn’t lose hope. They can’t. They are hope. To them it is dinner and practices and friends and difficult math homework and books. It is the good yet to come. They are not innocent and selfish, I don’t mean to say that. No. They are confident and sure in that good yet to come. And, isn’t that hope at its purest? They can’t be distracted away from hope, it is designed into them.
I’ve come a long way from the volunteering thing I mentioned.
Or have I?
The truth is, I am the trembling boy in the driveway, just as sure as I am the homeless, the forgotten, the disenfranchised and broken who have and will need my, your hope.
Remember, we are all each others hope and that hope has a home in the heart. Let it shine. Do not place it under the bushels of fear, cynicism or despair. Let it shine bright in you, from you, aim it toward the others, particularly the children, and see theirs lighting you as well.
Hey boys, head on over to this post if you want to know how I really felt and still feel, about the events of this past week. In other words, wait, there's more, there's always more.
Hey, you're here.
Listen, I'm gonna drop character here for a sec. The results of this election have stymied me, gobsmacked me, bewildered me, stunned me. I feel, well, roughed up a bit. I may have hit my head so hard with my own hand that I'm not sure who I am anymore.
Am I that boy who grew up in the country with grass-stained knees and yellow hair? Surrounded by good country folks whose opinions about others were questionable? Where there was a sameness as dull as milk but not nearly as refreshing?
Am I a teenage football player ogling cheerleaders and saying off-color things, bullshit things, things as untrue as the mustache I tried to sport?
Am I that same teenage boy playing Peter in a fall production of "The Diary of Ann Frank"? Crying real tears as the despair hit me at the end of the second act that cold opening night?
Perhaps I'm that same boy, a senior now, standing in a field, leaning against a beat-to-hell, piss yellow VW Beatle, Rolling Rock in hand screaming "It's only teenage wasteland" to The Who and any Gods that might have been listening?
Am I a college freshman leading a posse of man-boys out into the cold Athens streets into bars and trouble and legend? Or, wait, am I that same kid getting his mind blown by Sartre and Kafka, Ionesco, Williams and that Shakespeare guy?
Am I a lonesome waiter, a boozesome bartender, surrounded by a busyness I'd never known in a city I'd no business being in? Am I taking in every face, every gesture; feeling every emotion, weeping through them; listening to every story, remembering every sorrow?
Am I a fresh start, different place, different faces, the same stories - the only stories, essentials. Am I a thirty year lifer of tables and barstools, winekeys and tablecloths?
Am I suddenly a husband?
Am I improbably a father to twins, to boys?
Yes, yes I am.
But who am I right now, at this moment of confusion?
I'm all those dudes, and scores of others. When emotion and memory entwine, tense is suspended. I can taste that skunky Rolling Rock right now. Every table I've ever waited on, every person I ever laid a bev-nap in front of, are right here. A moment in a wedding, white and good. Two babies laughing. All in present tense.
But what of the real present.
Ah, that's the problem. I've not had time to understand who I am this time.
Should I spew my emotions out here? Get on board the vitriol train which runs both ways these days? It's tempting, but that yellow-haired boy doesn't understand why we have to be so mean.
Should I be more sympathetic to the locker room talk, try to understand the back room racism, be more understanding of the xenophobe because once - now, you see - I was like that? No, because the teenage boy and the college would-be Lothario and the wily bartender will all tell you it is bullshit and we know it.
Should I be the Pollyanna I play so often on my blog? You know, when I speak on love and honor and charity and capitalize them for affect? When I look forward for and with the boys with faith in humanity, with dignity, with hope. Do I mean it? The father looks back at me in the mirror and says "every damn word."
Should I put on my warrior hat, tarnished with years of disuse, and charge into the injustices so many tell me won't come, but will? No, because the me typing these words in not up for the fight, although "Teenage Wasteland" boy says he is.
Should I run towards my gay friends, arms outreaching, only to have them run away as I scream, "No, don't run, it's a happy, hippy, philosopher's beard not a redneck beard!"?
Should I wear a safety pin on my sweatshirt and point myself out as a "helper"? Will any one believe it? Do we need blue and red stars on out foreheads like some dystopian Sneetches so we know who to trust?
Do I stop drinking Yuengling because the owner's a dick? Is that the distribution team's fault, or the truck driver's, or the men and women who designed the logo, or the bartender that pulls the draft?
Does that place with the burgers I like so much not get my business anymore 'cause I heard the investors are Republicans? What of the servers there, the mom with two daughters, the college girl at X? What of their vote?
What if the fireman thinks I'm a Liberal, will he let my house burn down? Will the cop be leery of my old Ford truck.
Do I go back to church where most disagree with the choice I made?
What the actual fuck?!?
I'm scared, boys, because I am unsure of the path ahead.
But, this is the hard part to understand, all those others are. They've defined me so well, shown me who I am so thoroughly that their collective soul, here, alive in me right now is sure of the path.
I can't imagine this makes much sense.
Boys, it's hard to be an adult. Choices are never very clear and there is a lot, a lot, of improvisation and questioning along with every one we encounter.
You know what? I was willing to give myself a place to rant here tonight. I wanted to but my rant confused and contradicted me. I've typed twice as much tonight as you see here. But, I deleted it because it made me uncomfortable. Some of it was hateful, some was violent, some was laced with more expletives than even I am comfortable with. Most of it was a betrayal of myself, myselfs, all that I was and have come to be.
In the middle of one of my more rantier moments here tonight, I lifted my steaming head and looked out into the backyard and saw this.
There is not a one of me that wouldn't stop to look at that.
Yeah, maybe I'll just stick with the Pollyanna thing.
It's late, I've no time to really edit this, which it obviously needs, and the boys will be home from the Xavier basketball game they went to tonight.
Peace, we'll get back to our regular programming next week.
Friday, November 4, 2016
This was on the grocery list a few days ago:
It's cute, isn't it?
There's more, of course. When we were first married, Marci used to put little love notes and smiley faces and such on the list that hangs on the side of the refrigerator, she still does. When I asked Z to put cookies on the list, this is what he did. I don't think he ever saw Marci do it, or saw it on a list before, it just occurred to him.
I'm glad it did.
I've decided to do a thirty-four week "retreat for Everyday Life." It is presented by the Collaborative Ministry Office at Creighton University and is founded in Ignation thought and the tenets of the Jesuits - The Brothers of Christ. It suggests a theme and a path for prayer and reflection and...
...blah, blah, blah...
It's not complicated. I won't be wearing holes in my jeans knees or thrice whumping my chest above my heart or fasting or proselytizing - all laudable - but, I will give it some thought.
One of the bible dudes said something like "pray without ceasing." Yeah, that's a tall order. But, what if our very thoughts are like prayers, every action a folding of the hands, every breath a celebration? If I welcome an idea into my heart with the hope that it will bring me deeper in Faith, wouldn't then every subsequent thought and revelation and fear be but a prayer?
This week tells us to prepare for the journey. This week asks us to be honest and joyous and free. Mostly though, this week asks us to go back in our lives, to think about our young childhood, our adolescence and our young adult life.
"Let's let the Lord show us our lives."
That's some radical thinking, right there. I always look back at my life as a self-guided tour. I feel my own sorrows, I rejoice in myself, I brave the memory of bad times, I celebrate myself for my victories. All, bolstered and lifted by my own damn self.
But what if someone else led the tour? What if God led the tour?
I've been all through my life, honestly. If nothing else, I've always been introspective. My timeline is pretty solid. I've felt the feelings, all that. In my arrogance and sheer smugness, I figured their wasn't much for God to show me. And you know what? I was right.
Except... the light was wrong, or the perspective was off or something. I wasn't the hero or antagonist in this writing. I was not the main character in this narrative, I was in the chorus at best.
This time through, my attention was called to what others - what God, for God is always in others - were doing for me. This kindness, that help, that understanding. Beautiful things and powerful wisdom, enormous love. From parents and friends and family, strangers, lovers, enemies. So much I've missed in my story, or forgotten, really.
It's a great exercise, but I think we are doomed to be tragic heroes of our own stories, I know I am. But...
I was looking at some old photographs from my childhood days, hoping maybe to see something new. Something profound or heart skipping, looking for what God was trying to show me, which one shouldn't really try.
As I flipped around pages, looking at pictures I know well, I didn't see just the trapped moment, this time.
A picture of a boy in a football uniform beside my old school isn't just about me. It's about the dirty split uniforms and scrapes my mother cleaned and mended. It's about trips to and from practice. It's about coaches and community and place. A picture of little Billy Peebles, posing with a football on a fall day in rural Ohio, is, lastly, about me. It is about the respect and honor put - sometimes undeservedly, I might add - towards me. The picture is just a culmination of countless acts of love bestowed on me by others. Sound familiar?
I think I knew all this. Especially now as a parent. It's good to remember that we are lifted along the journey by others. I think I fulfilled the basic intent of this weeks theme, don't you?
But there was something else, something I couldn't grab. I kept, in selfishness, looking at my face in picture after picture. Yes, even when I was trying to see something different I kept searching my own face. Now, remember, I am trying to take the tour, not lead it. Then, why do I keep scrutinizing each expression, trying to read a boy's mind decades ago?
There is a series of pictures taken on an old Instamatic in seventy-two. Black and whites of a shed JB and I built one summer. The shed from this story about Mr. Barnes and us. JB is in some of them. In one he's petting our old dog, Deputy. There is a blurry one of me peering from a window - the window - of our shack, but this is the one that caught my eye:
I flipped back to a few others and it suddenly occurred to me, I wasn't looking at the boy, the boy was watching me. I looked at other pictures and in many I am watching something. Candles on a cake, a brother, my dad, nowhere. Even when I am looking at the camera, I seem to be looking at the person behind it, or even through them and on to the future, my now, now.
I've spent my whole life watching and it all probably started as a kid. I've never thought of that really. That as a boy, as the last of three sons, there was a lot to watch. I grew up in the late sixties and seventies, there was a lot to watch. I grew up around fields and woods and gravel pits and ponds, there was a lot to watch.
I think though, all I did was watch. I wasn't trying to understand, infer, learn. I was just taking it all in, knowing somehow, that I'd have time for that later. And, that has served me well over the course of a lifetime. I didn't then, and I may still not, know the importance of all that watching, but it occurs to me that it might now be that "later" I've been waiting for.
I look at that boy sitting in a shed and see him watching me, a pleasant, expectant look on his face and I hear him say, "You're turn."
I'd like to tell you about a long term plan that has me publishing something here on Fridays about this retreat, each post framed around the theme of the week, you know, sort of as a writing prompt. I won't though, I am really not good at long range things, I can think of a few other ideas I had like this which now lay fallow in the back pages here.
I will tell you this, though. I can't give an honest account of myself without including my journey through Faith. I can't not use words like God and Spirit and, if it's fitting, even Jesus. And, to be honest, I'm tired of trying to work around them, trying to be vague in the hope of not offending those who aren't walking this road. I don't want to be didactic or condescending or disingenuous, although some might see it as such. And, most certainly, I don't want to offend or insult. If I have, or do, let me apologize now.
Peace to you all. So few come around anymore, I appreciate your time, I really do.
It's funny, it pretty much just "occurred" to me to write this today. I was going to write on cuteness.