Thursday, April 27, 2017
Three times in twenty-four hours, I was asked the same question - nearly the same phrasing. Each time, the answer got more complicated. At least I think it did, I'll let you judge for yourself.
"What's this even for?" Nick asked me this one evening as he was looking for a ping-pong ball near the dryer. I looked his way and he was holding up a spent dryer sheet. Now, if you didn't know what one was, I could see how it might confuse. Is it a really lame piece of paper? Why does it have a slight scent? What on earth could one do with it? I'd imagine these same questions coming to the mind of a future anthropologist several hundred years out as he finds them by the thousands in an old dump.
I explained what they were to Nick, which turned out to take longer than one might expect. I showed him a fresh one, hit on some properties of static electricity, shamed myself to him by explaining they had a lot of chemicals in them - though I use the unscented ones - and weren't really necessary and that they basically just coated the fabric to make it feel softer and that one shouldn't use them on towels.
We all basically know the nature of this question in this context. You've been there, holding up a leftover lock washer, bolt or even more curiously shaped part, fixing or assembling mowers or grills or bongs. It's wondering about that toggle switch or a slider on a sound board. It's wondering what an emoticon is or what the actual hell that icon is supposed to represent. You say it to yourself as your bumbling about a word processing program to change your indent and you see all this stuff you can do that is way beyond my skill level.
The thing is, it is an answerable question. Just because you don't know the answer, doesn't mean there isn't one. You didn't follow the instructions. You didn't look it up or haven't been taught something but the answer is available. You were buzzed or...
Let's move on.
My buddy Kirby sent me the lyrics and simple tune to a song he'd been working on. He plays a baritone ukulele and sang it like an old Irish ballad. We had a nice long discussion about it and he asked me to do, like, a cover of it. I changed the words a little, fleshed out the tune and taped myself doing it on my phone.
Here's a link to it if you're curious:
Somewhere in this exchange, he asked me "What's this for?" It was a good damned question.
He was wondering about the endgame. Would this lead to a final recording? Was this just a lark? Was it a song we might play regularly? Were we just goofin'? What was my level of commitment? All necessary questions when considering what to do next with something.
My answer, which was understandably frustrating to him - and is, frankly, not a very good one - was: "This."
Yeah... I'm like that.
(The boys aren't allowed to say the word "stuff" in their Science teacher's classroom and I think he has a problem with "thing" as well. I wouldn't last long.)
Here's the thing, sometimes stuff is hard to explain.
By 'this' I meant the very exchange we were having. For a couple of guys who had to call each other after midnight because it was cheaper then and exchanged cassette tapes for years to be talking about wave-files and digital algorithms is a moment to acknowledge. We were collaborating, which I think is a basic human need. We were laughing and teasing and thinking and creating. "This."
But there's more to that this.
Our journey has been a similar one, his and mine, except for one major deviation - I had kids and he did not. We've not spent a lot of time talking about the boys. I share a baseball victory or a band concert now again. Maybe a cute story about their cleverness or stupidity or silliness, but, I try to not make it the focus of our conversations. We've plenty of other things to talk about (sorry Mr. F.).
Would you mind an aside?
Thanks. There's a delicate balance that must be respected between those with and without children. I've many friends who are not parents and many of them have been annoyed by the notion that you haven't really lived until you have children, or that everything changes, or that it is something that simply must be experienced.
Yeah, bullshit. My friend Terri (remember the names are all changed around here, unless they're not) is a talented and successful ceramic artist. She and I had a discussion about all this at a bar one night. Another acquaintance, a dad, had been spouting off said bullshit and then had wondered off. I told Terri that not all parents feel that way. We laughed when I said something about how a lot of parents are in the opposite position, thinking the higher plane might be childlessness, and that I certainly had my moments like that. It was a longish conversation, but my point was, and still remains, that hers and mine is a parallel experience, that her life was certainly not a failed attempt at mine, nor vice-versa. Her inner journey as an artist, a creator, is just as important as mine as a parent, a creator. It's about depth of understanding, it's about joy, love, inner peace, spirituality, Faith. It's about work and desire and doing the next right thing. However, you get to these places doesn't matter... getting there does. Get it?
As I was saying, we don't talk about the boys much, but he wrote a song of great tenderness, a prayer almost, a blessing. He'd never said as much before, but from what he decided to tell me in this song, I learned that he thought about it, considered my road, considered the road of these young men coming up. It means a lot to me. That I guess is another thing I meant by my this.
As many of you know, I get the past and the present and, increasingly, the future all tied up in a big Gordian Knot in my mind. I try not to let it bother me but it does incline me to look at things (boy, I do that a lot, damn you Mr. F.), well, longer.
Think about this, nearly forty years of shared experiences, a stray significant anomaly - the twins - and a song that floats up out of it all that speaks to a hope for the future? Yes, that's the this I mean. The neverending and neverbeginning now is deucedly complex but speaks to me, and you, I hope, so profoundly.
Oh, I hate when I get caught up in these time paradoxes.
So, the last time I heard the question was in a different context. My friend Brian (remember the names don't matter) and I were talking over coffee. We are both the same age, latish-fifties, and both have children. We met in college some thirty-five years ago. We've, well, lived life. Though divergent paths, both have been rocky, twisted, rough and long; and both have been beautiful, joyful and rewarding. We are both men of Faith and we talk about that a lot.
We were discussing Fr. Richard Rohr's book, Falling Upward, which delves into the faith journey and how it changes as we approach and begin our lives in what I like to call "elderhood." We spoke of leaving our warrior selves behind, filling and emptying and protecting our vessels - our souls - and marveled at our profound lack of understanding faith and Catholicism and energy and eternity. We shrug our shoulders a lot when we talk.
I shared my reluctance to tell people an absolute in my life that folks just don't seem to want to hear: I have no regrets. People take offense at that, perhaps because so many embrace the burden of regret. They say, 'what about smoking, surely you regret that?' Yeah, it seems like I should, but... I don't. I have too many fond memories of cigarettes and the people I smoked them with to wish it all away with a regret. 'What about that move you made or that girl you dated or that shitty Toyota you had or...' Stop. Too many lessons, too much insight, too much growth, came out of all that to say I regret any of it.
Brian said that more than once he'd benefited from an oddly specific lesson he'd learned from what may, at the time, have seemed a regrettable situation. A horrible, rainy, very-bad, camping trip that taught him to build and tend a fire in the rain and, years later, a Boy Scout Jamboree where he used those skills to save a troop of boys from a very-bad and cold night. It happens all the time to me as well.
He said he looks at setbacks and disappointment and confusion and hears his mind asking a simple question, "What is this for?"
It helps, I think, to ask that of the cosmos, or the Holy Spirit, how ever you might see it. I do the same thing, perhaps you do as well. It's in the wail of "Why is this happening?" or in the confusion of the question, "What am I supposed to learn here?" or in the feeling of heartbreak I hear in my own head, "What am I missing?"
Unlike the first two instances, this 'whatfor,' if you will, is, in the moment, unanswerable. It is not rhetorical, there is no pat answer. In a way, I think when you ask the question it is a prayer, a prayer for understanding, clarity, peace, a prayer that goes out and remains unaddressed, impotent, untended. But it echoes in us, in time, in the corridors of memory and can, at any time, be suddenly, surprisingly, well... answered.
It happens to me all the time.
In fact, it's happening right now, my now, yours and another now way down the road.
I should just say peace out and end it right here, shouldn't I?
Well, I can't say I'm gonna do that.
There's a lilac bush outside the garage, I've mentioned it before. I just went out to get the mail and it is nearly in full bloom.
I planted the bush a dozen or more years ago, it was, frankly, a little runt of a thing and I didn't feel much confidence for its future. I probably asked myself 'what for' as I dug and watered and tended it for all these years. I've marveled at the beauty of it, the science, the botany, all that. It was years before it bloomed and it did poorly for a while. I wondered 'what for' about that old dwarf lilac more than once, I'd admit.
This morning, on our way out to the bus, I turned back because Nick was lagging and saw him hugging the lilac bush, face buried in the blooms, and, through the purple blossoms, I heard a muffled prayer, an answer, "God, it smells like life!"
And, that's the what for.
Peace and thanks for sticking with me, I appreciate it.
My friend Terri is indeed a real person and she is a beautiful artist and soul. You can check out her FB page here, her work is lovely.
Friday, April 7, 2017
When we were kids - and by we I mean me and maybe two others - I listened to a lot of comedy records. Weirdly, nearly everyone I knew had them, Carlin and Cosby, Bob Newhart and Red Skelton, Cheech and, of course, Chong, even an off-color black comedian or two like Redd Foxx. There was a societal homogeneity to life when I was a kid, I mean we all knew them, these funny guys - and they were all guys. Our parents listened to them late nights as the party was winding down and us kids, well, we listened to them when our parents were not around.
I'm glad I did, listen to them, that is. I was thinking this morning about how to proceed and for some reason those old albums came to mind, and I got to thinking about comedy writing - something I think is about as hard as writing gets - and then just writing in general. Comedians tend to structure their acts one of two ways. Some tell a series of jokes, one leading to another, often in staccato rhythm, you know, the classic "and speaking of shoestrings..." approach. The others tell longer stories, the jokes and bits woven into the fabric of a larger story. I always preferred the later, Cosby's "Noah" bit comes to mind.
When I write, I prefer to languish, even wallow some might say, in longer stories, but, lately I've been struggling with that. I could tell you that it's because I don't have the time I need. You know, kids and life and the fast pace and unslowing rhythm of this hyper-modernity we all must suffer, but that's just glorifying busy and I hate that. I could also reason that the time to reward ratio is way off-balance, but that would be self-indulgent and more than a little sad. I could say that often these stories get away from me and spin to places I don't want you to know are in me, but, I covered that in my last post... bother.
I did short silly pieces when I first started around here, my blog was formatted not unlike those old joke-tellers, and I wonder if maybe that wasn't a better way to go, you know, "one and done," that sort of thinking. It sure seems easier, perhaps even more engaging for you, but I have trouble doing that anymore.
"What's this got to do with meatballs?" you might be asking yourself, I know I am.
I made meatballs the other day. I make them from scratch grinding the beef chuck and pork country ribs in my trusty Oster. It's sort a pain in the ass but I grind five or six pounds and make a lot of meatballs, they freeze well. Nick came in and was helping me make the balls. There wasn't much teaching or even conversation, I'd already covered that a long time ago with Playdo. We stood, watching the birds and the wind out the tired kitchen window, and, well...
That's it. Here's the recipe:
There could be a lot to tell you about this recipe, like my inability to remember measurement abbreviations or why it says mysteriously "325g" there at the bottom. Or that I use flatleaf Italian parsley and not the curly kind and put in more garlic than this recipe calls for. I can only hope that in any number of years I'll remember that this stained and annotated piece of paper and ink holds a story, a pretty long story.
But today, all I want to remember is the watching Nick's hands shape meatballs as the porch chimes sounded and the wind blew brown oak leaves across the greening yard.
Here's a collage of things I found in pockets, which is quickly replacing "take-home folders" as my go to source for strange things around here:
"... but wait, there's more." That's what I always say, isn't it?
Who did which? What's the shark thing about? Who forgets the second "f" in stuff? Who's "Little Owlly" and is that his dog? Is that an oboe fingering?
Truth is, I'm not really sure. Like I said, I just pulled them out of the pockets of jeans before I washed them. Could I make things up, conject, even fictionalize? Sure, and that'd be fun. In fact I had long stories about all of those little pieces of paper fomenting in my little mind, but, for some reason, I don't think I'll do that today.
Sometimes the story might be in not telling the story, hell, I don't know. Maybe the story's not ready. Or, and I think this is closest to the truth, maybe the story is just short, and concise and, well, just simple and I have trouble accepting that. For now.
Perhaps that's what those old vaudevillians knew, sometimes a gag is just a gag. Sometimes a joke is easy and plain. There's plenty of time for long stories, but sometimes, the story is done with us before we are done with it.
I've been in a writing slump lately, "writer's block" they call it. I don't really believe there is such a thing. I don't like the connotation it has. I may not be writing so much, but, I'm not in a creative void. I've been looking at other things, listening to music, viewing documentaries, singing new songs, reading non-fiction and children's lit, watching baseball.
It seems like there was one more little thing I wanted to tell you...
These dudes turned twelve this week.
I guess that's the story I've been trying to tell around here...
Peace and thanks for stopping by.
Friday, March 10, 2017
I sit, perhaps too frequently, at our dining room table. I face the backyard and watch the finches and titmice scurry, flit and flutter around the bird-feeder just down the steps. Squirrels forage around underneath and dig in the flower pots that await their basil, thyme and rosemary. The grass is greening and there are red buds on the maple trees. A cool wind sways the pine trees in the back against a pale blue, cloudless sky.
I often wonder what exactly it is I am looking for. Is it emotion or connection? Is it understanding, reconciliation, serenity? Why, somedays, do I laugh at the same landscape that today brings tears? What is out there beyond the shed, under the pines, beyond the fence? Secretly though, I know what I am searching for.
The right damn words.
There is an erroneous - if not silly - notion that writers slip behind their keyboards and effortlessly tipper-tap sentences and paragraphs one after another. It's just as silly to imagine painters constantly, well, painting or potters always at their wheel or sculptors endlessly chiseling away at wood or granite. No, it all takes thought, endless hours staring at a creek or busy street or falling leaves or wounded trees or baseball games or old movies or goldfish or even that taunting keyboard, wheel or chisel.
I don't always find them, the right words.
Sometimes they come easily. That was the case when I first started writing here when I was showcasing the boys burgeoning talents. The pieces just sort of wrote themselves, silly or sad or joyful, it was easy to find the words.
Lately... not so much.
The words I find these days are not always kind. Fear and anxiety seep into the syntax. The sweet adjectives become surly and insolent; the verbs seem more aggressive and urgent; the narratives are bleaker and my tone becomes discordant. This all, frankly, alarms me. I've found hundreds of words here, looking out on a cloudy and cold winter's morn, and, upon rereading them, wonder who wrote them, from where this darkness?
Here, in this silly little corner of the internet, they seem inappropriate. They juxtapose too harshly against the happy backstory. And, well, I usually delete them. Occasionally, I may send them to a friend, but mostly I just let them go. Will I come to regret not publishing them here? I may.
You know, I treat this digital diary - this blog - as a long love letter ostensibly for the boys, but, if truth were told, it is also a love letter to myself and Marci, my friends, my family, to life itself. This is all, at its heart, celebratory and sacred.
Sure, I can think of a few pieces I've left here, that missed that high mark, and, when I encounter them as I look back here, they are, even to me, offputting, jarring. But sometimes I want to just go off. I want the boys to know there was this side of me.
This all has been designed to bring me to the "wait there's more" part of my little pony show here. But, today, I'm not going there. Oh, I had a piece in mind, I even have already outlined and written most of it. It was sure to be acerbic and witty, sarcastic and razor-edged. It was going to be clever and current and political and condescending and... well, you get the point.
It was to be neither celebratory nor sacred.
So, I'll leave it for another time, another season. Perhaps I can soften the edges or turn to allegory or, maybe, I'll just change my mind and find the truth beneath all the bitterness.
Peace to you and yours.
From Marci's "... things you don't expect to hear from the backseat..."
"I really don't have anything to say. I just like to talk."
Yep... guilty as charged.
Thanks for coming around. Here's a picture of the backyard as I saw it this morning.
And, yes, yes that is a squirrel in the flowerpot, he just sorta showed up. I like that.
(I forgot to change the title of this piece from the original, oh well, Blogger gets confused if I try to edit that after I publish. Oh well, it sorta works... or not.)
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.