Sunday, September 14, 2014

Transitionings


Perhaps you've noticed, although you're not really supposed to, that I am in a transitional place around here on my porch of the internet.  Thus far, I have been comfortable telling the boy's story with few filters and emotional edits.  I wanted to never seem mean.  Yes, I have teased and kidded, even cajoled a bit, but never to be mean.   I've attempted to paint mostly the strengths and the characteristics that I felt would be remembered sweetly, truly.

Well, uh, so...  I can't seem to find a way to say this with even a little grace; poetry is rarely used to describe the cruelty – too harsh, maybe – the meanness of humans to humans, not war or poverty or injustice, addressing that is not for today, but just plain everyday meanness.

Listen, truth is, I am afraid that some mean, shallow, attention-needing child is going to find these posts someday and use them to make fun of Nick or Zack.

I don't see a way completely around it other than closing down shop, which I don't want to do.  I try to stay under the radar and have no desire to go viral, which seems to not mean viral in the sense that it spreads everywhere but rather that your words and good intentions are attacked with the twin viruses of hate and stupidity.  I offer few opinions really, and, well, dammit... I have tried to pour all the tenderness, love, honor and respect I could dig out of myself onto these pages.

I have cherished, am cherishing, them with this. Others are not always going to see it that way.  A jealous boy or a lonely boy or a pretty girl or a jealous girl might find these words and images and fold them around, twist them, trim them, disrespect them, and use them to hurt the very soul of the child I am trying to celebrate here.  That's messed up.

Of course the boys know that I do this, they've seen some posts and know I write about them and other stuff.  I have told them, promised them, that I will never say anything mean about them, or embarrassing.  I will try not to go too far past the point where something I share might someday hurt them.

However, that point is difficult pin down.

Have I gone too far if I post this simple sentence I found on a sheet of notepaper Zack tossed in the trash?  I mean, it was in the trash.  Should I have not done that?


It says: "My family supports me in everything I do no matter what."  Maybe it is alright to show his well constructed sentence here, but do I cross a line when I say that knowing he knows that touches me deeply in a place where words fail?  Perhaps...

Is there a time when an evil clown drawing is no longer hilarious but borders on creepy?  Maybe his future employer or spouse shouldn't be privy to this.


It's not too bad, really, although the dead dolly looking thing is weirding me out.  (Should I have not said that?  Was it pithy, snarky?)  How long can I continue to show Nick's misspells before it becomes, well, enough?  I don't want anyone to construe that I was making fun of him at all.  Simply stated, I have a genetic mutation that somehow turns misspellings into a playful, quirky word game.  "Confetty" is, for some reason inexplicable, hilarious to me.  Not because of the mistake made, but because of the marvelous creativity shown in the very making of it.

Do I cross a point in time, now and, irrevocably ahead of me, where this won't seem worth mentioning because it shows how peculiar a little boy named Zack can be?


That's probably fine, but what if I were to show a close-up of this little guy and then make-up a long imagined story of his past and his people and his heritage?


Yeah, I'm not... but that's a helluva hat.  But, had I, would I have gone too far?  Would I have revealed my own strangeness and silliness and plain weirdness at the expense of a boy who just wants a "normal" dad?  I am beginning to think it might, you'll notice I didn't mention the story of Steve and his heroic defense of his native home, high in the hills of a Land called The Rounders...

Should I not share here the marvelous madness of Nick's math pages?  The assignment was to find words that, spelled correctly, added up to one-dollar-and-nine-cents using each letter's numerical equivalent.  Can you imagine an exercise any farther away in his mind?  


Perhaps I go to far when I mention how proud I was as I watched him figure out a word and a strategy to add it all up.  The satisfaction I saw on his face, the joy it gave me... should I not speak of that?  One of the words is disjointed, I find that particularly funny.

Should I avoid speaking of snuggles and kisses and squeezes and taps and smacks, pats and secret handshakes?

Sometimes, when Nick comes in with the dawn to tell me he is up, he lays his head on my chest, face down, a sort of face hug, I stoke his head trying to physically remember the shape of it.  Maybe I can go with that, but... What if I mention two secrets I also know about the face hug?  I know he inhales deeply as he presses against me.  I have seen him do it with his favorite stuffed animals, and shirts, and a certain pillow that came from an ER room that smells of courage and pain and continuity.  I also know that I did the same thing.  The power of smells, the permanence of taste, has greatly influenced the way I see the world.  Does that reveal too much?

Other mornings, this morning as a point of reference, Zack came in and laid down gently next to me.  I pulled the cover up and he quietly murmured thanks.  We shared a joke and a handshake and told a little story.  It seems fine to tell that, but, what about the sense I had that this could be the last time he will do this with me though he's done it since before he can remember?  Should I leave out the tired, threadbare, stuffed and restuffed, stained, tan bear called Bear-bear and how we was the great hero of the Watermelon Wars and coincidentally invented soccer, unfortunately originally played with watermelons.  Does that leave Zack open to misguided ridicule?

Here is the hard truth:  I think it might.

Tenderness and truth and love are of deep significance but speaking of them, remembering them, living them, leads to a vulnerability that should not be underestimated.  I'm cool with that, I know I seem flaky and emotional and odd.  But, should I expose the pure, simple vulnerabilities of these boys-who-will-be-men to the winds of the days to come?

Probably not...


Here's my plan.  I want to tell more stories of my own childhood, but, I'll be telling their childhood through it.  It is all one childhood.  I've mentioned that before but it keeps just pounding me with its  significance.  The telling little details, the hurts and scrapes and brokenness, can be mine, but the story can be ours.

I'm working out the details.

It'll be a slow transition.


 From Marci's  "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."

"I am very good with vocabulary.
I can use all sorts of words.
I am just very bad at spelling."


(how very astoot of him)

That deserves some confetty...

Listen, things aren't really gonna change too much around here.  Honestly, I wanted to remind myself to be careful here.  I wanted you to hear it.  Thanks for listening and, as always, thanks for coming around.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sticks and Stories


I love sticks.  Boys love sticks.  Men love sticks.  Oh, all kinds of sticks, from the formative power of a Blue Tip match to the fearsomeness of storm-snapped telephone poles on a rutted rural road.  We love big solid sticks with the stump of a branch near the top, whittled to a point to take the grommet ring of a blue tarp, a guide rope angled down to another shorter stick punched in to the dirt as a stake.

We love to break sticks against tree trunks and watch the broken pieces fly into the brambles just ahead; we love to worry green sticks back and forth until they fray, twisting and wondering of what stuff is this made - so tenuous and irritating?

Little boys like to pile twigs on dusty earth or make "fairy huts" leaning sticks against a young pine tree hoping for Skittles in the morning.  Grown men stack glorious bonfires from pieces of a dilapidated, fallen shed or a pile of gray driftwood at the edge of the meadow - piece by piece, stick by stick - and purposefully play in the fire.

Some sticks call to be thrown into a blaze or a brook, others call to be a sword, a rapier, an ax; some call to protect, some to attack.

Some just want to walk with you...

***

Joe B and I always had sticks, he called them "Moses poles," a reference I am not sure of to this day, I cleverly called mine "my stick."  We had dozens a summer.  They broke, or were broken.  I do remember two in particular, though.

Late one fall on a walk towards Mr. Poff's pond we were stopped under a break of trees between two reaped but still golden wheat fields, and Joe spotted it.  Long and ever so straight, it laid parallel to the to the edge of the field, surrounded by acorns and scruffy tufts of grass.  Anyone who knows sticks could easily tell that it had fallen just recently, there was no rot on the underside and it was dry and very hard to the touch.  It was fourteen feet long, as I recall, and peculiarly devoid of other branches or blemishes.

We were maybe eleven at the time and I thought it was the most important thing I'd ever seen, just then at least, in that moment, in that place, in this memory.

"Let's take it home," I remember saying.

"Okay," I remember Joe saying.

We were friends.  He didn't ask why, or how or give me a hard time about it, he simply went to pick it up.  It wasn't heavy - it was only, oh, three, maybe, inches across - and he grabbed it at the exact center point and it practically sprung from the dirt and into his hand, I can see it right now tittering a little, expectant.  I grabbed it in the front, and he took a few steps back.

We started off towards our houses, his I assumed, and after a while the trail went through a small wooded lot and it began to get caught up in the undergrowth and raspberries that grew alongside.  We'd carried logs and the like to and from before, so, without any conversation, we threw it, in unison, up above are heads and carried it that way.  It was a moment of triumph, somehow, we'd won, this perfect stick our spoil.

Joe's dad, Mr. B, had a classic workshop garage, replete with tool chests and cubbies of bolts and screws and a pegboard of neatly lined wrenches, spanners and screwdrivers.  A cabinet with a cord tied in a neat bow between the handles - ostensibly to lock it from curious boys - held insecticides and acids and fertilizer and shellac and dabs and drams of paints and glue and jars of kerosene and gas to soak carburetor parts and creaky door assemblies.  Above this cabinet, hanging between the joists, were a dozen or so long pieces of bamboo - carpets came rolled on them once upon a long ago - and Mr. B kept things that could be of use.  I remember he used one to check the level of the water in his cistern, which I helped paint some years later.

Our stick belonged there.  We both knew it and positioned ourselves under the wire hangers that held the bamboo and slid it in perfectly, it settled in silently, comfortable with its exotic new companions.

It promised to wait.

The next April we were headed  to a creek we thought might be running hard in the Spring rain, to see if we could maybe divert it and make a little island we could stand on.  It was important, of course.  Joe suggested we might need Moses poles and we went through the garage, to where, just leaned up against a rock wall, our sticks had wintered over.  There were none there.  We were surprised, but I said we'd just have to get a couple of new ones.  He turned and looked up.  Immediately, I knew the plan.

We pulled that patient, long stick out, measured it and decided to cut it at the center mark.  We wanted it perfect.  Joe pulled from under a workbench an antique, heirloom miter box and crosscut backsaw which we were explicitly forbidden to use.

"Better ask yer dad," I said.

"Yeah," Joe said.

Mr B came in and quickly assessed the project.  He said he didn't want us to use it on green wood like that but we promised him it was really dry.  He looked at the stick more closely, took it in his hand, it smiled at the boy in him and he smiled back, remembering.  We set up the saw in towards the front of the garage so the stick could sit in the box flat and true.  Under the watchful eyes of Mr. B, Joe B sawed carefully through that piece of wood, easily and skillfully.

Now, truth be told, seven foot poles were absurdly long for our boyish size.  Mr. B suggested that we trim off the other two ends, so we cut them off at about two feet down and, because we were allowed to use the saw, kept trimming little wheels off until the length was just so.  Mr. B was a carpenter, he knew tools and he knew wood.  He held one of those little wheels, turning it over in his big calloused hands like a big wooden nickel.

"That's a fine looking piece of wood there boys, oak and it seems practically kiln-dried.  A fine piece of wood, the grain is tight and it's arrow-straight.  I'd shellac those ends, though, keep 'em from rottin'.  You might want to shellac the whole thing, that bark wants to stay on it.  I'd thin it out though."

He untied the cabinet cord with one pull, set the string on the workbench and walked back into the house carrying that little oaken wheel.  I'd like to think he still has it.

We forgot about the stream and spent the evening carving our initials and spirals and handgrips in to that hard wood with our pocketknives, finally satisfied we coated them with a coat of shellac.  We thinned it out.

They lasted for the rest of the summer.  They helped dig the trench around the rocks to make our island where we stood, sticks held high, champions, heroes, boys.

I guess as we got older the sticks were forgotten as football and girls and school and time sped up our youth.  I don't remember what happened to them, but I can remember the way mine felt in my hand, remember the smell of it, the weight of it, the strength of it... the importance of it.

This is where I conjure up a picture of them, leaning up against that old stone wall, still waiting... but, no, no one thought of that sort of thing.  I doubt any one but Mr. B knew how important those sticks were to us.  Maybe they sit dusty in an old outbuilding somewhere in the rolling hills of Turtlecreek Township.  I hope so... they were very good sticks.

***

I still make sticks.  Almost every camping trip I've ever taken has involved procuring and carving a stick.  I've got a sweet Swiss Army knife with a great saw and a couple sharp blades and a nice file that smooths down the corners and edges.  I carry it every day in my purse.  It made these two sticks when the boys were three I think as they looked on.



Our backyard is always full of sticks I rescue from the mower, hell, I even provide them.

In this picture from way back they are using sticks and pretending to be the rock band, 2 Place Sluggers.


We utilize sticks around here on a daily, hourly sometimes, basis.  Smaller ones start our fires, both in the backyard firepit in the fall and the one in the living room on a cold winter's eve.  I sometimes temporarily border temporary flowers poked in the ground by the steps to the screened-in porch by temporary boys.


The tired playset in the backyard, there towards the locust tree, is a constant armory of sticks and plans and battles lost or yet to be won.



I always start a fire with newspaper and kindling - usually sticks -  and a match or a lighter.  There are better, faster ways, but that's just how I do it.  It's how the boys do it as well.  A fire needs to be tended, inside we use the cast iron pokers and tongs, potent talismans of fires remembered.  Outside... outside, well, you need a stick, a substantial one.  I usually designate one as the "firestick" and keep an eye on it lest some neophyte heartlessly throw it in the flames.  If I am going to be around a while, I might fashion one, cutting a square top, maybe smoothing it down to avoid the splinters.  I do that in the back yard here, well, I did once.  I made it from a green maple branch fallen from the tree just above maybe eight years ago.



It is the soul brother of that old stick I made so long ago - my stick, Joe's stick, your stick, our stick... you see, it is all the same stick, from the same roots, from the same tree, in the same earth, under the same sky, under the same stars.  It is the very stick of God.  Men love sticks because they love us back.

***

Sometimes, it is difficult to recall how some lonely old memory meanders in to our minds.  Sometimes, a boy says something that sparks a memory into a fire in just a flash.

We like to go to a park nearby, a mile or so of looped path wanders through some woods, over a couple creeks, down a ravine or two, you've been there, in fact we got some art supplies there once.  Lately, I've begun to let the boys walk across the woods beyond the path, through undergrowth and brambles, fording the two creeks, and coming back upon the path.  They like doing it, I like listening to them as they make their way, laughing and screaming, solving and switching back, hooting and hollering - champions, heroes, boys.

They scramble down the pebble strewn bank that leads to the culvert that starts a stream that winds through the late summer woods.  Zack goes first, he slides down, plants and turns to look up.  He squints up towards us, shading his eyes with his hand.

"Shove me down my stick, Nick, and yours, too," he says.

"Alright.  Thanks, man," Nick says, gently sliding Zack's first and then his own.

"Got 'em!"

"Well, that was cool of you guys, helping each other out like that."  I think only Nick can hear me.

He says, "Yeah, were Stickbrothers."

"Yeah, Dad, Stickbrothers," Zack echoes up, holding high a stick in each fist, triumphantly.

A memory ignites.

Joe and I were Stickbrothers.  I have had many over the years.  I am better for it.

***

I've taken too much of your time, I'd guess.  Truth is I left a big part out, the part about another great Stickbrother I've known and the part about how I hope the boys and I will be Stickbrothers for life, but those are sticks and stories for another day.  Thanks for stopping by, if you'd like you can leave your stick there by the door with those others... right next to mine.  That'll give you a reason to come back.



Monday, September 8, 2014

On Hats and the Dreams Therein


Situation Coming Available

Wanted: 

Hat, Baseball style.  No trilbies, fedoras or pork pies need apply.  Gentleman is over fifty and from a rural background and is not a hipster, more an oldster.  No boaters or berets, flat caps, fezzes or fruit hats either, although silliness could be considered.

Position:

Slightly tilted to the right... on head.

Background:

Currently, a circa 2004 green Reds hat with snap adjuster and stains around the band is considering retirement and has limited engagements to mowing and late night baseball watching.  It has become somewhat anti-social.


Requirements and Comments:

- Must be circular and have a bill.
- Color is negotiable, nothing too garish.
- Must be empty and prepared to be filled with memories of boys and baseball and campfires and guitar solos and sweaty soccer games and bitter cold sled rides... and dust and dirt.  
- Must be capable of both harboring and fostering dreams and hopes, ideas and principles.  
- Must be resistant to heartbreak and ache.  
- Must be able to withstand small blows to ego and assaults from low-hanging branches and high-leaping, mischievous boys and an occasional throw to the ground in anger or disgust.
- Must not smell of sweat and broken dreams and woodfire and pine pollen and canvas and the past.
- Must be open to getting wet in pools and lakes and rain showers and sleet storms and water fights under the trees.
- Must love unconditionally and be prepared for any sunset, sunrise or bad haircut.

Compensation:

Unprecedented loyalty from owner.  Lifetime gig.  Meet new and interesting people Enter into established relationships with kind and loving wife, sweet and tender nine-year-old twin boys, two cats and an occasional old friend or colleague.  Will be invited to watch boys grow up, maple trees turn golden, and an occasional episode of Downton Abbey.

Contact:  You will find me, you always have.


This is not the first hat I've had to replace in my days.  I can think of four others.  A short-brimmed sort of ear-flapped plaid red jobby I always liked as a boy; an old-timey wool Yankees hat I bought when I lived in NYC, it was hot as hell but never got smelly - I lost it to the wind on a ferry on the East River; a red nylon hat with a gray bill I got in high school and always liked because it had a patch of some sort that I'd torn off but the threads still remained, I thought that funny - it's gone now, the last time I remember seeing it was in a box of rags and ashtrays I left in a house in Athens, Ohio.

There is also this hat I wore through most of my college years, building sets and painting walls and flats and hanging lights and drinking beer.  I haven't worn it in twenty years, but I knew right where it was and the hopes it still held the instant I thought of it.  Old friends are like that.


It says "Kewaunee Engineering Corporation."  It jumped off a hat rack and onto my head in Wisconsin in the mid-seventies.  Yep, it found me...


I took another picture when I was trying to get some images of my green Reds hat (honestly, I laugh every time, a green Reds hat, that's hilarious).


I took this candid and, when I got to thinking about it, that's pretty much me distilled.  That tired old cap, an apron underneath, a threadbare but still toasty Bean field jacket and my handy black bag.  Nick and Zack will probably recognize all of these things as the years unfold and fold back on to themselves.  I will too...


From Marci's  "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat..."

Dad: "Would you guys like to go to a football game?"

Both: (no hesitation, in unison) "No!"


Nick: "You are asking the wrong people."


My work here is done...


You know, the more I look at it the more I think it'll be alright for a while longer.  I think I'll throw it in the washer one more time with a little Lysol and some detergent.  Who am I kidding?  I can't quit this old hat, it's too damn full.

Thanks for coming around today, I always like knowing you'll show.  My best to you.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Bean Tree and Me


The street we live on here is getting repaved and widened and, at the same time, they are laying a new water line to the water tower they recently constructed down towards the cemetery.  The tower... it's down towards the cemetery - not the water line.

Best intro ever.

Unfortunately, they must take down a  number of trees, some old and well-established, and, well, that is sad.  One is an old gnarly oak that grew in a great "Y" under the many low-hanging phone and electric and cable and who-knows-what-else wires out to the west of my neighbors driveway.  It was the kind of oak that lost it's leaves mid-winter instead of with all the other deciduous dudes in the fall.  I'll miss its tenacity and stubborn non-conformism.  And, for some reason, I'll miss those tired brown oak leaves skittering along the sleet-crusted snow, it's an Ohio thing.

Another is a grand old Catalpa tree that sits, sat, in the front western corner of the yard.  It is/was my neighbors tree, actually, but I loved it more.  Catalpa trees are funny old things, the leaves are wide and shady and particularly crunchy in October.  Their garish, Dr. Seuss blooms slowly turn to long seed pods that make it seem to hang even lower in the late fall, sighing under the burden.  We called them "Bean Trees" when I was a kid, but I am beginning to see that many of the names folks called stuff in my rural corner of the Midwest were, what... shall we say, inaccurate.  Of course, in my heart I called it "The Bean Tree" and she was, well, a she...

I dig trees.  I have on numerous times mentioned the twin maples that dominate our back yard, shading the baseball and spear-throwing, yellowing up in the fall to the color of ripe pears and dancing flames.  I'd hate to lose them and I hated to see "The Bean Tree" go as well.

I watched them take her down.  A helmeted dude on a lift limbed it all out around the wires and, in no time, just a monolith stood, totem-like, straight up, fifteen or so feet.  The lift guy swung to the old oak down a bit and then another worker with the same yellow helmet and a larger chain saw came in for the final cut, the death blow.  I had detached myself from the story of that old tree, perhaps because the process was interesting or, more likely, I didn't want to feel the pain of her long memory hitting me as she sighed back into the flow.

The long chain saw roars as it hits the flesh of that old gal and I sense that initial resistance and then it gains its bite.  The sawdust flies towards the four or five guys waiting for it to fall.  Suddenly the giant stump lurches funny, sort of jerks toward the street - where they don't want it to go.  The guy jerks the saw out of the way and with a giant crack that old beauty falls with a hollow, haunting thud, not feet from the men watching in surprise and, I think, awe.

You see, that grand dame was hollow, dying from the inside out.  Perhaps, I sensed that, perhaps I needed to watch her go, a silent, vested witness to her last quiet day.  I am glad I did.

The metaphor of the hollow tree is perhaps a tired one, like the foundation-on-sand one it has worn out its welcome from us.   But, you know what, not to a nine-year-old boy, it hasn't.  In an instant a boy can understand that that hollowness foreshadows the end.  That things are different on the inside than the outside, always.  That life goes on and trees have to go and water lines have to come.

It is all new to them and, forgive me, I keep forgetting that.  We must come upon these stories for the first time, well... some time.  It is not a cliche or a worn aphorism the first time we see something, and on the other hand, it is a well-worn metaphor because it is a good and useful one.

You can see how hollow she was.  You can also see the long piece that sticks up there, right by the mailbox - that is what cracked and sent her early to the pavement.  In the distance was the old oak I mentioned earlier.


Here is the hollow with Mr. Redlegs for scale.



In lieu of a backseat thingee, the other day Marci posted this picture with this caption:


Mom: "Why are there only 3 places set?"
Dad: "I don't know ... Nick, did you only set 3 places?"
Nick: "Yup."
Dad: "Who's not eating?"
Nick: "You."
Mom: "Why isn't Dad eating?"
Nick: "Because he made me set the table."


The respect is palpable, don't you think?  It really was funny, once...


Thanks for thinking about an old tree with me, I appreciate it.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Imperative Post


I tried for about twenty minutes to find the definition of a word this morning. Of course I googled it and then searched five or six results. I got two pop-ups and had to deal with that and then I tried to cut and paste the definition into the text document, which of course imported all the hyper links and I had to edit that out, I had to adjust the font, some italics issues and a couple of other stupidly vexing little problems. I finally had it done and was about to start writing to you and...

...the power surged and the computer restarted and I lost it all.

This took me less than five minutes, including travel time upstairs:





absolutely necessary or required.”

So, what?, a half hour later I still don't understand the word. The word “absolutely” there in the definition is pretty inarguable. 
 
I wrote something on the thing we call Face Book (remember boys, a dinosaur from the early days of social media, I told you about it) the other day. Brian, from this beautiful blog called The Cheek of God, asked me to name the books that had influenced me over the course of my life.  It seemed like a thoughtful assignment, so I did it.

Now you've got to remember that nothing, nothing, no singular thing, is important on Face Book.

So, clearly it was not imperative that I show this to you here. However, it is the kind of thing a son might like to know about his father someday, so it is imperative that you, dear sons, see this someday.  Get it? Nor do I...

Here is that post:
 
I was tagged by Brian to share the ten books that have influenced my life. It was difficult and this is profoundly inadequate and... I owe him a big thanks. In giving time to this I was reminded how beautiful and quiet and deeply, deeply meaningful reading and writing has been for me.

When I was maybe nine or ten I was reading my brother's SciFi collection pretty much straight through, Asimov, Heinlein and that gang. At the end of the shelf was a collection of Sherlock Holmes Mysteries by Conan Doyle. That really changed things for me, I loved the whodunnit nature of them and I loved the flaws and quirks of Sherlock himself.


A few years later I was goofing off in my freshman geometry because I was smart and a smartass and got it all fast and the other kids didn't. The teacher, in his wisdom, sent me to the library instead of the principal. I was a bit of a WWII buff back then and the librarian, a big influencer in those years, gave me a copy of Herman Wouk's The Winds of War and I fell in love with Natalie one of the main characters. It was the first time I felt the emotional power of reading.


My childhood pastor was a great orator and a very smart man. I remember the cadence and inflection he gave that good old King James Bible, and as I grew older I realized how those same words shaped the style and rhythm of so many great authors. At the same time I poured over an equally great and influential work, A Peanuts Treasury by Charles Shultz so I will lump those two together because the are oddly and forever connected in my mind.


In college I struggled to find my voice and the same copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White still sits on my desk right now. The plot of it sucks but, it sure helped me understand the diversity and utility of the words we line up.


Two books by the writer John Irving changed everything for me. First Cider House Rules because it showed me the depth and power of metaphor and the art of quiet, passionate narrative. When I finished crying at the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany, I flipped to the beginning and started that implausible journey over again. The power of plot and the indescribable cleverness of the foreshadowing in that book has stayed with me always. I have a signed copy of it.


To Kill A Mockingbird gave me a lifetime hero in Atticus Finch and showed me how beautiful was grace and how ugly was racism. That book still haunts me.


Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men not only blew me away in its simple and direct prose but, man, who can write with that sharpness and sureness. I read it again recently and remember wondering how could I ever write again.


Recently, I read a book called The Night Circus By Erin Morgenstern and it reminded me why I read, why I give the words so much respect. I loved it.


I was given the opportunity, and I gave myself the time, as a young man to read all the great novels and of course, en masse, they influenced me, got into my very soul, made me who I am. I could keep adding and adding, Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Stegner, so many. However, my last pick is a little book by Richard Rohr called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It helped immensely in my struggle with aging and the busyness and shallowness of this world we live in.



I would say this prototype sketch of Mustard Man is imperative:


As is this epic mustard/ketchup battle yin-yang:


And this skull-shirted, screaming cafeteria bully:


Yes, but it is now imperative that I add The Musterd (sic) Chronicles in full for context.  Book One introduces the characters and explains their super-powers:












There is an amusing cryptogram on the final page:


Book Two, Raining Relish, introduces their arch-nemesis, Relish Boy:






















That's the only two issues out so far, but...


... the next book is Toxic Hummus.


You know what, I wrote all the above yesterday, and today it doesn't seem imperative at all - in fact it doesn't even seem very good. 

Not my point.

I was going to end this yesterday with a flourishy finish, when I had to stop because the sun had come out making it imperative that I mow the lawn.  And then I got a call from the school, on the tractor, mind you, that it was imperative I go to the school and pick up my son who had a fever of one-hundred-and-one.  And, once he and the other boy were home - it was imperative that I bring them home together - it became an imperative that I tell their soccer coach that they were ill and, though they'd like to play, they may have a limited amount of energy.  And then I had to retrieve the tractor from the yard, before the storm.  And then...

I don't think I understand this word.  We live this life moment-to-moment.  Everything can shift on a thought, slip on a dream, stop on playing field or carpet.

I don't think I know what's important.

Is the memory of a nearly forgotten dictionary, a New Edition Webster in 1991, gifted to me by my parents, even worth mentioning?


Is this, the coolest guy ever important, even relative, right now?  Even though a boy made it in full concentration and delight?  I mean, it seemed really important to him at the time.



You know what?  This post by Brian on Cheek of God, called "My Daughter Told Me To Write This..." seems like a very important thing for you to do right now.  I'll wait...


Clearly and simply, I do not know what is imperative.

I know I must hit publish after I write a post because, if I don't, I'll keeping adding and adding to it.  I know, without a doubt, that having these boys has changed everything forever and I that I must keep doing this because, deep down, it seems so very important.

And, I know I must go make lunch...


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Mowing


I have spent some time on, behind and fixing lawn mowers.  I associate them with being alone but not with the loneliness that's crept behind me in my life.  No, when you are on a tractor or behind a push mower you are getting something done.  It's a good time for thinking some things through as well.


I do the yard here in three steps and they all yield different thoughts, moods, memories and dreams.  First I trim out the yard.  Much as you would when painting a room, I use the push mower to get the edges and around the beds and the fence.  Sometimes, I'll take the hand-shears and hack back the grass under the fence and surrounding the poles before I pull that familiar foe, the starter cord.

I sit or crawl and marvel at the length of the fence from the low angle I see it.  I think back and wonder if those fences between the fields of my boyhood are as long now as they seemed then, forever stretching out beyond the hills and woods and into the place I did not know would come.

I'll casually cut back a blue flower, a dry August weed I remember blooming quietly through the brambles.  We called them "cornflowers" I think, though I can't imagine why and they are the color of the sky.  As I sit and sweat, as my hand becomes a little fatigued from the thick trunks of oaklings, maplings and English Ivylings pushing up where the mower blades won't go, I think of tenacity.  My mood darkens - perhaps, resolves might be a better word - and I stop and stand and the fence does go on forever, off towards town and the future, down through the hot, sticky now, and down into back pages of my mind.  I finish for the time being with the shears and start the push mower.

Suddenly, I am ten again, startled at the surprise of memory.  It isn't the noise of that simple little engine and dull blade that sparks it, not the exhaust or the sudden smell of cut fresh grass, so familiar, happy, evocative.  No, simply, it is the red color of the deck of the mower.  One summer someone on the street had found a mower without the engine and blade.  I really can't remember how it happened, but, the handle had been unbolted and, for our reckless imagination, it was a little cart and it was red.  Other kids found more of them, barns and sheds were abundant, and we probably had six or eight of them.  We called it "lawn sledding" and I can't imagine a more dangerous summer pursuit.

No one got hurt... very badly.  I think Joe lost a chunk of skin from his thigh, but he shoulda worn jeans.  I think a little brother lost a tooth or two, I busted my nose and I think someone wrenched their back and still suffers to this day, but, that's not my point.  We were warriors.  Champions.  That same energy flushes in me as I attack the lawn.  Push, shove, jerk back.  You can see feel the power and watch it as you win the battle with the tall grass.  It is hard work, sweat drips in your eyes, salty, irritating and real.  I am that boy, I am that warrior, and, and... I am this older man now still winning that battle.


I worked building stage sets in college.  I was an actor, but I was frequently, uhm, uncast, as it were, in the bigger shows, the "Mainstage" productions and, if you weren't in a show, you built it.  One of the adages of stagecraft is "worst first" and means simply do the hardest thing first, like the inconceivably over-designed spinning two-story piece the director called for, not the platform back-stage right.  I feel that way about the mowing, once the hard labor is done, after the battle is won in the tall edges of the yard, the tractor waits.

I love like doing the tractor work.  I don't really know what the word zen means, so I don't use it, but, well, maybe this... 

I'd imagine all farmers are poets.  Repetitive hard work, once learned, can really free the mind - give you time to think.  Think about how blue her eyes really are, sky blue, kind and crinkly and full of the kind of happiness an awkward fourteen year-old can only wish at - cornflower blue, yes, that color right there, over by the woods, down by the fence.  Time to think about the way that book ended, how sad I was that it was over.  Time to think about the way the hot August day has just the edge of Autumn in it and how, just as that thought emerges a slightly yellowed maple leaf flutters on top of the tractor and you laugh - and hope.

On a tractor there is time to think about math, shapes and angles and curves and straight, long, important lines from one end of the yard to the other, from one end of life to another.  The line is interrupted by a tree or a stick or a garden or a death or a wound or loneliness or celebration.  Sometimes, the curves are slow and graceful other times, sharp and urgent.  The country paths from my childhood curved slowly around a barn and a meadow and then turned immediately at a gate or creek.  One turn reminds me of another, this turn led there, that one leads here. 

If you don't mow on a tractor in straight lines, then you probably go in circles - a spiral actually.  That's how we did it when I was a kid, how I did it until my old tractor's steering bar got so badly bent it wouldn't really turn right anymore.  I liked the  way it looked.  I liked the change from an old way of doing things to a new one.  It was challenging and those long, straight passes were like a hay field and I was, am, a poet-farmer.



Tractors are undeniably hot and uncomfortable and my knees twinge and my hands ache and my face is dirty with sweat and dust when I finally dismount.  I need to finish though - finish the thoughts, finish the memories, finish the task, close up, summarize.

Me?  I sweep with an old beat-up hand broom.  It's not that hard, I do the front walk and the driveway and the garage because I forgot to close it and I am glad for the rhythm and the silence and the finality of it all.  I know a lot of guys use these blower things, leaf blowers and the like.  I like a broom.  I know how to use a broom.  It's quiet and forgiving and efficient and, well, sweet, somehow...  old-timey.  It feels light and welcome.  As I sweep the grass and dirt from the steps and porch sills and drive, I let go the long poems and wistful goodbyes and hopeful longings.  I see them for what they are, what they were, a lovely way to pass the time.


I am not a fan of "stream-of-consciousness" type writing, and it is not a device I much employ... except when I do.  I wrote this in a damp dirty shirt and grass-stained work-shoes with a blue bandana around my head.  I am not sure really why.  I imagined it as a sort of mowing lesson for the boys but a toaster manual would have more advice than this.  On the tractor I'd envisioned a sort of weaving past and present dream-like vibe, but this just seems like a hot mess.  But, I don't care.

These are missals to my sons, love notes, letters from the past that is the now to me and you perhaps, but the past as a boy looks back, as I look back as... I don't get it.


From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear form the backseat ..."
 

“At indoor recess we were bowling … I was the ball.”


 Well, there ya go...


Thanks for stopping by, you are always welcome but, and this is important, but... you don't always have to stay.


Nick?  Is everyone gone?  Listen, dude, our people do not know the ways of the weedeater.  I mentioned it once in a post called "Twoodles" but it bears repeating.  Avoid string-trimmers at all cost.  Seriously, it is genetic.  They have vexed me as long as I can remember; they have hurt me and angered me and wasted my time and money, tears and talents.  Avoid them at all costs... maybe Zack'll do it for you.  Oh, and guys, always wear a pair of work gloves, promise?  You'll know why someday... if you don't.


(This whole post has been an elaborate ploy to justify showing this image):








Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Swirly Sun Rises


Swirly sun rising.
Color unnecessary.
Hopeful little boy.


My posts have been too long lately, sorry internet.

From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat ..."
 

N: "I have a vision in my head."
Z: "So do I."
N: "Well, I don't like your vision."
Z: "You haven't even seen my vision."
N: "And I don't want to."



Yeah, it's sort of like that...


Thank you sweet friends.