Friday, January 27, 2017

Love and Stuff: An Accidental Ode

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:

A mudfight:

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.