In the 1960s and 70s, everybody smoked, everybody but my mother, who didn’t smoke, drink, or do anything that Ann Landers wouldn’t have approved of. She still doesn’t, although I seem to recall that she once drank a pina colada on a cruise, long after the children were grown, of course. No, she didn’t smoke, which made her all the more remarkable since almost everyone else did. Finding a young person who didn’t smoke then would be like finding a young person now who doesn’t have a tattoo, a rare and wondrous creature.
My family photograph albums are filled with old photographs of relatives engaged in all sorts of activities, all performed with the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from lips, or attached like another finger to their right hands. My uncle, hovering over the grill, flipping hamburgers, smoking a cigarette. My grandmother, sitting on the front porch, breaking beans, smoking a cigarette. My father, standing in the front yard with a garden hose, spraying something or someone, smoking a cigarette.
I flirted with smoking off and on from the time I was 13 to the night I quit for good, in a bar called — and I am not making this up — Tobacco Road on Christmas Eve of 1984. I was sitting at a table with my best friend, Stewart, nursing a Michelob and a broken heart, watching the smoke drift into shreds beneath the stage lights where Nantucket had just finished their third encore and called it a night.
It was somewhere between one and two in the morning, and most of what was left of the crowd had already dispersed and vanished into the night. We were pondering a move on a table of four girls and two guys — Stewart had been asked to dance by one of the girls four or five times over the course of the evening, and now they were playing the “I see you, and I know you see me” game of staring that inevitably led to dancing, kissing, and leaving, one car following the other who knew where?
But my heart wasn’t really in it, and neither was his, I could tell. I killed my beer and stubbed out my cigarette just a bit dramatically. I was upset that a girl I liked had decided to go back to an old boyfriend. I was also upset that I was upset about it.
“That’s it for me,” I said, twisting the butt of the cigarette into the tray longer than necessary for an exclamation point. “That right there was my last cigarette.”
I can’t be absolutely sure, as I was tilting a little toward drunk just then, but I think I felt that quitting smoking was symbolic, since the girl was a smoker. I was giving cigarettes up. I was giving her up. Rather, I was giving the idea of her up. Poof. Up in smoke. It made sense to me at the time.
I haven’t smoked since. Most of those relatives from the photographs have also quit or passed away, many of them from smoking-related causes — heart attacks, cancer, diabetes. Stewart quit, too, just a year or two ago. He promptly gained 30 pounds, got disgusted with himself, and then turned to bike-riding to shed the weight. Now he competes in triathlons.
Yes, these are different days, different ways. There aren’t many places where a person can smoke inside, or even on the premises of many places. Many campuses are tobacco free. Smokers have become outcasts, even pariahs. It is difficult to comprehend how much smoking was just part of the culture then, not just something people did but part of who they were. Where I came from, you either farmed tobacco or knew people who did. My high school had a smoking area, and not just for the teachers. A lot of the guys who didn’t smoke chewed tobacco, usually Red Man. It was easy to buy cigarettes or chewing tobacco regardless of your age. After all, you were just supporting the local economy.
These days, most of the tobacco farms are gone from that area, many replaced by acres and acres of Christmas trees. I don’t know what percentage of people in the county are smokers, but it is a tiny fraction of what it once was, and that is a good thing. It is also a good thing that most people now wear seat belts, which they didn’t used to do, and avoid laying out in the sun all day on the weekends getting a tan, which they did use to do.
You do not see many pick-ups out on the highway with a bed full of children jostling around, which was pretty common back then. You don’t see many people on bicycles without a helmet. I cannot recall ever seeing a person on a bicycle wearing a helmet in those days.
By almost any sort of reckoning, we are smarter, safer, and healthier now than we once were. Would it sound crazy, then, if I admit that I kind of miss the general recklessness of those times? Have we somehow become too cautious, too buckled up, too protected, too insulated from the big, bad world?
Maybe it’s just the people in those pictures that I really miss, breaking beans until after dark, blowing smoke rings at the moon.
When the legendary — and former — Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno died on Sunday morning, the first thought I had was of Oedipus the King. Like Paterno, Oedipus was much beloved by his subjects and, like Paterno, his moral blindness resulted in tragedy. There are those who say that Paterno, who was diagnosed with lung cancer not long after the news of the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke and an empire 46 years in the making began to crumble, died of a broken heart. I don’t doubt that it hastened his death.
Perhaps it seems the height of hyperbole to cast Paterno’s fall from grace as worthy of Greek tragedy, but consider that Paterno was not only an icon at Penn State but a genuine legend in American sports. If there were a Mount Rushmore for college football coaches, Paterno’s face would not only have been on it — before the fall — it would have been the most prominent.
It was not only that Paterno had been at Penn State for 46 years and built a great football program that had endured over that span of time. It was that he was a symbol not just for succeeding, but for doing it the right way. If you had been asked to describe Paterno, you would have used words such as “integrity,” “honor,” and “loyalty” in a summary of his career and influence on the game. In a culture in which scandals, usually related to a “win at all cost” mentality, are all too common, Joe Paterno was the gold standard, the example you could point to if you wanted to demonstrate that there were still good guys out there whose character was beyond reproach.
The most bitterly ironic part of his fall from grace is that Paterno was the kind of coach you would want if you had a son who was planning to play college football. You would have trusted Paterno with your own child, and indeed, there are hundreds of players and former players who have stepped up to defend his reputation in the wake of the charges of serial child abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and allegations of a cover-up on the part of Paterno, the former president of the university, and several others. As scandals in American sports history are weighed and debated, this will go down as one of the very biggest ever.
Very likely, you already know the basic framework of the story. When Paterno was told that Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in the shower on campus back in 2002, Paterno “turned the information over” to someone else internally at Penn State. Sandusky was ultimately not charged, and Paterno did not follow up. This was nearly 10 years ago. Last fall, Sandusky was charged with 52 counts of child molestation, for which he will soon stand trial. On Nov. 9, not long after those charges had been made public, Paterno announced his retirement, but he was fired along with school president Graham Spanier less than 12 hours later by the Penn State board of trustees, who had gone into full-scale damage control as the scandal dominated the national news every day and night.
It has been sad watching Paterno scramble to salvage what remains of his reputation at the same time that he was literally fighting for his life from lung cancer. Less than two weeks ago, Paterno spoke on his action — and non-action — to the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins: “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn’t work out that way.”
To say that this explanation is inadequate, or even pathetic, is not just an understatement, but a mockery of common sense and basic human decency. Paterno was not just some guy at Penn State who had to follow procedure and observe the chain of command. He was the king. Had he chosen to do so, he could have pursued these charges vigorously, relentlessly, not only for the sake of the 10-year-old boy who was allegedly raped by Sandusky on that particular occasion, but for the sake of all those future victims who might have been spared had Paterno acted with honor and integrity when it mattered most.
Instead, he passed the buck. The very best that can be said is that he buried his head in the sand and rationalized that he had done what was expected of him. It is unlikely that history will be so kind in its verdict.
For all the good he did for so many young men, his epic failure to do more than the bare minimum, to do everything in his considerable power to protect young boys from a predator, Paterno’s final legacy is not just tainted by tragedy, but defined by it.
In the end, like Oedipus, he simply could not bear to look upon the truth. What a crying shame.
On Christmas Eve, my dad would always bring home a huge box of navel oranges and bags of pecans, walnuts, and almonds, all still in their shells. These would be arranged, though not artfully, on the fireplace mantel underneath our stockings.
We knew that these gifts did not come from Santa Claus — they came from Florida, where Dad had just been in his 18-wheeler. He was not what anyone would call a healthy eater, but he did love those navel oranges. He’d peel them with his fingers, and then tear off sections for us to share. I liked peeling back the thin layer of skin on my section and then pretending to be a dinosaur devouring hundreds of the exposed, tiny orange trees with one enormous bite. Christmas Eve.
We’d sit around the tree, poking at the presents — the ones from our parents or distant relatives — lifting them to gauge the heft, or giving them a gentle shake to see if anything moved inside, and how it moved, and what sounds issued if it did move. Since these were “parent” gifts, we knew that the contents would be something responsible, but dull, like tube socks or a flannel shirt, but since Santa would not be arriving for several more excruciating hours, and these presents DID bear our names and MIGHT be something at least a little more exciting than usual — maybe a Dallas Cowboys toboggan or a box of cashew turtles — we couldn’t help fussing over them obsessively while mean old Ben Weaver kept trying to get himself arrested in the Christmas episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” which we watched every year on Christmas Eve.
Ben Weaver. The Grinch. Ebenezer Scrooge. If Christmas possessed the magic to turn those hardened hearts, it was no less magical to us because it also had the power to bring our dad home to spend the evening with us, which was a rare and wondrous thing. He spent most of his time out on the truck, driving all over the country, and when he was home, he managed to find, orchestrate, or simply will a card game into existence, such was his love of gambling, or more precisely, his love of playing cards. Gambling was just his way of making the games more meaningful.
In any case, I didn’t begrudge it. I have always enjoyed, even admired, being around people who are in their element, doing what they love, and my dad was in his element playing cards. When we got a little older — old enough to drive — we knew we could find him at the golf course or the pool room or Southside Restaurant or Grady’s General Store playing gin for 10 or 20 or 50 dollars a hand, depending upon the daring, foolishness, and/or relative wealth of his opponent at any given time. He almost never lost, and when he did, he would usually win the next four or five hands in a row. He understood the game from the inside, somehow. If “Good Will Hunting” had been about cards, my dad would have been played by Matt Damon.
We’d find him, and then watch him play for 20 or 30 minutes. It was like watching a detective sweat out a confession, as he toyed with his opponent, joking one minute, grimacing the next, arching an eyebrow, the meaning of which was impossible to decode. The other guy would try to read something in his face — a huge mistake, a fatal mistake, as he transformed suddenly from a detective to a vampire, glamouring the poor fool into playing out another losing hand, and then handing us the proceeds to pay for gas, arcade games, fast food, or whatever escapades might await us on a Friday night in Sparta.
How many of our weekends, automobiles, or college classes were funded over the years from gambling is impossible to say, but suffice to say it was a lot. My sister once got a bedroom suite because a guy couldn’t pay. I once got my house painted.
Last week, my wife bought home a huge bag of navel oranges on the eleventh anniversary of my father’s death. It was just a coincidence, but this convergence brought him back with a force I haven’t felt for awhile, though he is, as he always has been, dead or alive, at the edge of my thoughts and dreams, barely out of reach, but still always there somehow, happy and in his element.
If you are lucky enough to have your dad at home on Christmas Eve, give him a big hug and savor him. If you are a dad, get home as much as you can all through the year. Find your kids in their element, and savor them. They’re growing up quick — you can bet on that.
Merry Christmas, Dad. I hope the navel oranges in heaven are as good as the ones from Florida.
When I turned 50 last week, I did not feel any older and certainly no wiser, but I did realize one thing I hadn’t really noticed before. I have now reached that age when people begin qualifying certain kinds of compliments, thus giving them a rather unappealing aftertaste. What should be sweet tastes instead like a spoonful of Pepto Bismol.
“Wow, you look pretty good for 50.”
“Fifty, huh? Well, you still get around pretty well.”
“Fifty and no heart attack yet? Not bad, big guy.”
You know you are getting on up there when people begin telling you that you look “much younger” than you actually are. Nobody says to a person turning 26, “Gee, Larry, you don’t look a day over 15.”
For one thing, it probably isn’t true. For another, and this is worse, it isn’t necessary. Celebrating your 26th birthday is grand. You’ve got all your hair. You can hike more than two miles without stopping to have a sandwich or a cigarette … or just a breather. You still get carded at Ingles, and you don’t care whether the wine you are buying will go with the lamb, because you’re not HAVING lamb. You’re having Taco Bell, which boasts a cuisine that matches well with a vast variety of wines, including the $3 bottle you just purchased. You get hangovers, but they last 12 seconds.
You have the nerve to dread turning 30. But not too much — it’s a LONG ways off, dude! You have a beanbag in your living room, and posters in your bedroom. Except for your parents and girlfriend — if you have one — no one expects much from you, since you’re only 26. You change jobs more often than you change your sheets, and no one thinks a thing about it. You get 12 phone messages a day and answer two of them, and it’s fine. You’ve maxed out three major credit cards, financing a trip to Cancun on one of them, and it’s all good. You’re 26. There’s plenty of time to be responsible later on.
When you turn 50, you get cards that make clever jokes about getting old, or not-so-clever jokes. You get sympathetic nods, or wide-eyed stares of feigned disbelief, or hearty slaps on the back. Damn, 50! Well, as one of my friends in the disbelieving camp put it, “you’ll always be 35 to me.”
See, that’s just the thing. I still feel 35 and think of myself as 35, until some 35-year-old doctor calls me “sir,” or I get a magazine from AARP along with my Rolling Stone in the day’s mail, or my wife reminds me that it is time to schedule that colonoscopy.
Sure, I can see some obvious signs of aging in the mirror every morning. My hair, what there is left of it, seems tinted with just a bit more silver each day, and the salt in my whiskers is making a hard charge these days to surpass the pepper, which is why I shave more than I once did. I can see a few more wrinkles around my eyes, and if I lay out of the gym for too long, my body revolts in the most violent and unseemly way, leaving me feeling about as firm and attractive as a bowl of cottage cheese. When I finally get up enough gumption to go back to the gym to resume working out, my body revolts again by aching for days. It hurts to wash my hair. It hurts to flip an omelette. It hurts to put the car in drive.
But there is a greater pain, still: the consequences of the desperate measures people will take to look 35 because they feel 35 or want to BE 35. For most men, such measures may include frequent trips to the tanning bed, hair plugs (or the more recent trend of shaving their heads, which I used to do), and various forms of overcompensation that are most likely associated with a paralyzing fear of sexual impotence. How about that new Harley Davidson? It sure is big and powerful, isn’t it?
Let the record reflect that I did not buy a motorcycle for my birthday. I celebrated at home with the family, and then went out for Japanese food. I took a nice warm bath in the Jacuzzi and put on a T-shirt and the new fuzzy pants my wife got me for my birthday. We put the kids to bed, danced in the living room for awhile to Billie Holiday, and then, well, let’s just put it this way. Not too shabby, considering I’m 50.
During the winter, we met every Tuesday night in the conference room of the First Methodist Church, and on the colder nights of December and January, the smell of the kerosene heater stung our nostrils and coated the inside of our skulls like thick black paint. We milled around in our starchy brown uniforms and bright red neckerchiefs like little soldiers waiting to be deployed while we were actually waiting for the scoutmaster to appear and give us the scout signal, which meant that we were to fall into ranks in our respective patrols.
I was in the Screaming Eagles, which I thought was an awesome — we used the word “awesome” a lot — patrol to be in, not only because of the obvious patriotic symbolism, but because the very idea of an actual screaming eagle seemed dangerous and thrilling. We were predatory and furious, soaring one minute, swooping down to snatch a goose from a pond the next minute. We were feared, but also celebrated and honored. And we had a cool patrol leader named Phil, who was laid back, but also knew his way around poison ivy and hatchets.
Once in a while, we would go camping, even in the winter, to prove our mettle and test the skills we had developed earning various merit badges, which adorned our sashes and made us stick out our narrow chests just that little bit extra as we marched down Main Street in the Christmas Parade every year.
I will confess that I was never the biggest fan of camping out in the winter to prove our mettle, regardless of the fact that my uncle’s goosedown sleeping bag — which I had inherited and which he had used during his days as a scout — had been tested to something like 20 below zero. On one of our excursions, the temperature actually did get down to 12 degrees. People were bringing their pets inside, and here we were stomping through the hard-frozen woods at dusk looking for the least crunchy patch of terrain to pitch our sad little pup tents and attempt a campfire.
It was so cold, that we tried doing everything with our gloves still on. Do you know how hard it is to pitch a tent, or operate an oil lamp, or cook up a little dinner on your Coleman stove with your gloves still on? We took them off, but within a minute or two our fingers were so numb that the net effect on our manual dexterity was the same, so we mostly kept them on and fumbled through, finally getting a fire big enough to thaw out our toes, which felt shrunken and remote in our boots. We would move our faces close enough to the crackling fire to get a little feeling and color back in them, and then quickly have to back off so that the acrid smoke did not choke us out.
We ate our beanie weanies and crackers, sandwiches, hot dogs, canned beef stew, and s’mores, and then drank hot chocolate and told ghost stories until we couldn’t stand it anymore. Even the stars seemed to shiver, and the trees groaned against a bitter wind.
“Good night, ladies,” said Phil, disappearing into his tent and then zipping it from the inside.
When I got home the next morning around 10 a.m., I took the hottest bath of my life, which lasted approximately four hours. I got so hot that I was forced to eat an entire box of Breyers French Vanilla Ice Cream when I got out, which made me so cold that I had to take another hot bath. I didn’t care. I was out of the woods, literally and figuratively. I had survived a camping trip in 12 degree weather.
I hadn’t slept more than a miserable hour or two. The rest of the night, I listened to the wind howl and batter our tents. I kept trying to find a place to put my face inside the sleeping bag where I could still breathe. When my face was not submerged completely, I felt like Mr. Potato Head, with ears and a nose that were so frozen that they felt detachable, as if they might actually fall off my head at any minute and be lost in the annihilating darkness, against which my wimpy little flashlight registered barely a protest.
I could still feel my face continuing to thaw out like a package of hamburger well up into the next day. I might go camping again someday, but never in the winter, not for any merit badge, not for anything or anyone.
And now, 35 years later, my son is trying out the scouts. His troop meets in the Methodist Church every Monday night, where the boys mill around in their starchy uniforms like little soldiers waiting to be deployed …. uh oh.
By all accounts, my wife’s trip to Riverbend Elementary School to talk to Mrs. Gidcumb’s first-grade class about her career as a personal trainer and fitness coach was a smashing success. I’ll go ahead and disclose that I had some serious reservations about our decision to speak to the class about our respective careers, even though it would be a chance to support and perhaps impress our 6-year-old son, who seems to have only the vaguest awareness of what we do when we’re not ordering him around and dashing his dreams. We leave the house every weekday to go conduct some mysterious business somewhere, and that’s about all there is to it, as far as he is concerned.
As a longtime college English teacher, I knew I could not expect to dazzle them with a plaintive recitation of one of Keats’ glorious odes, or a thunderous performance of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” even while I suspected they might at least find the title catchy, as my son very seldom goes gentle into his nights, good or bad.
In any case, I thought I could repel a ways down the poetry cliff to Shel Silverstein or the ever-reliable Dr. Seuss. I could breathe new life into “Green Eggs and Ham,” reading it with vigor and amazing theatrical flourishes — “I will NOT eat them with a goat!” — and then teach them how to explore and discuss Sam I Am’s role as the story’s antagonist, the protagonist’s dynamic transformation, the important themes in the poem (the courage to break old patterns and take chances in life, the courage to grow as a human being), and the significance of the rain and the dark as symbols in the poem.
I pictured them sitting forward in their seats to the point of tipping their chairs, spellbound by the revelations I would unfurl about a poem as familiar to them as a glass of milk, but somehow made new by this tall, interesting man in the corduroy blazer. I imagined them surrounding me after the performance like oddly wrapped little packages around a Christmas tree, peppering me with questions, begging me to come back next week to help them unpack the deeper meaning of “Horton Hears a Who.”
A week after my wife had literally dazzled them with some magical dissertation on the virtues of keeping fit, I arrived, prepared and confident and 10 minutes early, ready to blow their little minds like 20 caps in a cap pistol, pop pop pop pop pop, etc. I waited for them to file in from lunch and find their seats on the colorful classroom rug. I expected my son to move quickly and decisively to the front — that is MY dad! — but no, he chose a bean bag at some remove from “the stage,” and had to be told to find his place on the rug with his classmates. Well. Perhaps it was a little too weird for him, seeing dad in this alarming new context.
I had a few minutes to kill before the bell rang, so I made small talk with the children until one of them asked me to “do that trick” with my finger, one I had performed a couple of weeks prior when I came over to join my son at a table with his buddies for lunch in the school cafeteria. The trick is that you hold all of your fingers except the index finger straight out, bending your index finger and the thumb on your other hand, while holding the OTHER index finger over the crease where the first index finger and the other thumb join, thus creating the illusion that you can detach your index finger from the joint at will, up and down, up and down.
My uncle had turned me on to this trick 40 years ago, and my son and his friends were just as astonished by it as I had been four decades ago. Let’s stipulate, then, that the trick has stood the test of time.
I repeated the trick a few times, delighting the boys who had already seen it, as well as drawing considerable interest from those who had not, boys and girls alike (the trick is not “gender specific,” as they say). So what if I was warming them up with illusions? Whatever. I had their complete attention already, and my performance had not even begun.
Finally, it was time to start, and the teacher introduced me as extravagantly as if I were Robert Frost, which felt nice and increased my confidence even more. I thought I would lay just a little groundwork before launching into “Green Eggs and Ham.”
“Good morning, everyone! How many of you like to read and write?”
A few hands. Some whispering. Some squirming.
“Well, I teach college students how to read and write,” I began.
“Don’t college students already know how to read and write?” asked a precocious young fellow near the front.
“Well, yes, most of them,” I said. “But they are reading and writing at a more advanced …”
“Do the trick!” said a boy with preternaturally straight teeth.
“Maybe later,” I said, plowing on unperturbed. “I’ll bet that some you like poetry! How many of you…”
“I like rockets!” said a boy in a green, striped shirt.
“I like pudding!” said a girl with curly blonde hair.
“I like animals!” offered a girl in an adorable print dress.
“I have a bunny at home,” said another girl, whereupon eight or nine classmates began listing the various inventories of animal inhabitants at their homes, some of them including names with species.
“I have a goat named Johnny,” a boy said. “And a dog named Susie. And we have four cats, I forget some of their names …”
“Children, children,” the teacher interjected. “Please be still so Mr. Cox can continue. He has a lot of important things to tell us today.”
“Thank you very much,” I nodded. “Now then. How many of you have heard of Dr. Seuss?”
More hands this time. I was back in control, rolling now.
“How many of you have read or heard your parents read ‘Green Eggs and…’”
“We had green eggs in the cafeteria on Saint Patrick’s Day!” a girl exclaimed, springing up from the carpet.
“My mom says I’m allergic to eggs,” said the girl next to her.
“We get eggs from our chickens,” said the boy who likes rockets. “Their names are Lucy, Sarah, Old Betty, Donna …”
Egg stories popped up like dandelions all over the colorful rug.
“Children!” said the teacher. My son and another boy wrestled on the bean bag. “Jack, Odin, please return to the rug! Mr. Cox is going to tell us all …”
“Do the trick!” said the boy with the perfect teeth, followed by a chorus of children chanting “do the trick” over and over.
“I want to be a personal trainer and fitness coach when I grow up,” said a girl in the back. Could she have been taunting me?
I did the trick. A few of the kids jumped up and down, elbowing each other in the ribs and giggling. I did it again.
“Can you teach US how to do the trick?” said rocket boy.
I taught them how to do the trick, and by the time I left, some of them were getting pretty good at it. I didn’t read a word of the poem, much less delve into any analysis of it. My son has no more idea what I do for a living now then he did before my visit. No one is likely to say, “I want to be a college English teacher” as a result of anything I said or did on my career day visit.
On the other hand, a few kids can now detach their index fingers at the joint, or so it would seem.
“That’s my dad,” I heard my son say to a classmate as I turned to leave. “He knows all the best tricks.”
As long as he thinks so, I’ll continue to rage, rage against the dying of the light.
When will we say, “It is enough”?
On Sept. 19, a 14-year-old boy named Jamey Rodemeyer from Buffalo, N.Y., committed suicide after suffering from being bullied by classmates who harassed him with gay slurs both at his school and online. Rodemeyer had recorded his own version of a video modeled on a project called “It Gets Better,” which was established by a writer named Dan Savage to give hope to young gays and lesbians dealing with harassment over their homosexuality.
Rodemeyer had been in therapy, but had also been posting disturbing warnings on his Tumblr account. Just days prior to his suicide, he wrote, “No one in my school cares about preventing suicide, while you’re the ones calling me [gay slur] and tearing me down,” followed the next day by, “I always say I am bullied, but no one listens … What do I have to do so people will listen to me?”
Evidently, the answer to that question was to kill himself, because now, when it is too late, Rodemeyer’s story is finally getting attention, not just locally, but nationally. It hasn’t stopped the bullying, though. At a dance to honor Rodemeyer held on Sept. 22, several students taunted his sister, allegedly saying, “We’re glad he’s dead.” One of the students has been suspended, and the school is now investigating the bullying that Rodemeyer endured before taking his own life.
When will we finally say, “It is enough”?
Less than a week prior to Rodemeyer’s suicide, the North Carolina legislature voted to put a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages on ballot for the primary election in May 2012. It is already illegal in North Carolina for gays and lesbians to get married, but the amendment would make it even more difficult, and would bar the sanction of civil unions as well.
Gaston state Sen. James Forrester (R), who is a doctor and is lead sponsor of the bill, said this at a town hall meeting: “I’ve got a few homosexual patients and I treat them just the same as anybody else. I love them perhaps even more because I know they are going to die at least 20 years earlier and it’s something I have no control over and we need to reach out to them to try to get them to change their lifestyle and back to the normal lifestyle which we can accept.”
Of course, there is not a shred of credible evidence to support Forrester’s reckless claims, nor has he been able to articulate in subsequent interviews why gay marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage while divorce, for instance, is not. You will notice in the referenced quote above that Forrester uses the imperial “we” that excludes gays and lesbians by definition, while also suggesting that sexual orientation and “lifestyle” are interchangeable terms that mean the same thing.
We live in a curious stage in our nation’s history in which gays and lesbians are much more “accepted” than ever before, but this so-called acceptance comes with so many conditions, qualifiers, and exceptions that in the end, “our” cultural and political attitude regarding gays and lesbians is as exquisitely calibrated as a Swiss watch. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military was one example of this — it’s “OK” to be gay or lesbian as long as you do not talk about it or “make a show” of it, which is the way that the vast majority of homosexuals have had to live to get by in this country for countless years. In the nicer parts of town, you may no longer get savagely beaten or verbally attacked for being a gay or lesbian, as long as you don’t do something as egregious as hold hands on the street or in a restaurant with your partner, or life-mate, or whatever other euphemism that “we” find acceptable these days.
There is perhaps no better example of cognitive dissonance on the acceptance of gays and lesbians than the fluctuating positions on gay marriage taken by President Obama over the past 15 years. In 1996, he was for it. During his presidential campaign, he was against it. More recently, his position seems to be that it should be left up to the states. Obama has been quoted as saying that his position is “evolving,” which sounds a lot better than saying, “I am a hypocrite, and my position changes according to the situation and the audience and whether it is an election year.”
So what does all of this have to do with the suicide of a 14-year-old boy? Well, nothing and everything. If the President of the United States cannot make sense of his own position regarding gays and lesbians, if we as a people cannot let go of the conditions, qualifiers, and exceptions that block us from embracing gays and lesbians as being an actual part of “us,” if school officials will not investigate a teenager’s desperate cries for help until he is dead, then shame on us all.
When will we EVER say, “It is enough?”
I’ve loved rock and roll music all of my life. When I was a teenager, I listened to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles and Bob Seger and other staples of FM radio that most parents were listening to as well, unless they were hopelessly uncool, but I also sought out more “dangerous” music that didn’t just push the envelope of teen rebellion. It stomped all over the envelope and then burned it into ashes. I listened to bands like AC/DC, the Blue Oyster Cult, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. When I was 17 years old, my favorite album was “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. Black Sabbath had an album called “We Sold Our Souls For Rock’n’Roll,” and members of Led Zeppelin were said to have been obsessed with occultist Aleister Crowley.
Like a lot of kids, I was attracted to this kind of music for various reasons. It was not music that any parent or teacher would have approved of, which was one big selling point. It offered a place to go for people who didn’t feel they fit in anywhere else, and it gave a sense not only of community but of power to a group that hadn’t had much of either in life. The power was in the power chords, thunderous hooks, music that would rattle the windows in your car, except that your windows were down, because you wanted everybody in your stupid-ass town to know that you were into AC/DC. You were part of that. The normal kids could listen to Peter Frampton and date cheerleaders and go to the prom. You were on “the highway to hell.” Rock on.
I thought of my high school days the first time I saw the documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” in 1996. In this documentary, three teenage boys from West Memphis, Ark., were arrested, tried, and ultimately convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys. The essence of the prosecution’s case against the boys was that they committed the murders as part of some occult ritual. They dressed in black, listened to Metallica, and didn’t really fit in with the “normal” kids. One of the boys, the ringleader, was named “Damien,” like the antichrist character in the movie “The Omen.” In the documentary, much is made of his interest in Aleister Crowley. There is an appalling lack of any real evidence in the movie, and most of the prosecution’s witnesses were discredited on cross-examination, even by court-appointed attorneys who would remind no one of Clarence Darrow.
Still, the boys were convicted, and Damien was given the death sentence.
Once the documentary aired, there was an immediate and strong reaction among the many people who saw it and felt a terrible injustice had been done. Even celebrities such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, actor Johnny Depp, and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson — not to mention the members of Metallica — worked to raise money for the boys’ appeals and to raise awareness of the injustice. There were tribute albums, and a web site, and then a sequel to the original documentary.
There were also appeals, but even though the West Memphis Three had become quite literally a cause célèbre and had more resources at their disposal than the boys would have ever been able to imagine, for 17 years it all amounted to nothing in terms of changing their immediate reality. They were in prison, and would remain in prison, year after year after year. Echols spent much of that time in solitary confinement.
Finally, two Thursdays ago in a courtroom in Jonesboro, Ark., the three men — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley — entered into a plea agreement called an Alford Plea that essentially means that they are maintaining their innocence but believe there is a strong likelihood that a jury would find them guilty in exchange for being released from prison. It is a complicated legal maneuver that basically gets the state of Arkansas off the hook for a literal witch hunt that cost three innocent boys nearly 18 years of their freedom.
In a press conference shortly after their release from prison, Jason Baldwin said this: “This was not justice. In the beginning we told nothing but the truth — that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it. We had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is to say, ‘Hey, we will let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that is not justice anyway you look it. They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take the deal from the get-go. However, they are trying to kill Damien, and sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody.”
The third documentary on the West Memphis Three is scheduled to be released in November. There may be a happier ending in this one, but Jason Baldwin is right: don’t dare call it justice. Those boys can’t have back 17 years of their lives, the actual killer (or killers) of three 8-year-old boys got away with it, and the Arkansas legal system essentially resorted to legal blackmail to get itself off the hook.
The West Memphis Three are free, but this is no happy ending.
“It’s like floating on a cloud,” that’s what the man in the booth said about his nifty adjustable hammocks. We took turns trying one out, first my wife — the most frugal among us and therefore the hardest sell — and then the two kids. Finally, I climbed in, skeptical that the hammock, which hangs from one hook and collapses into an unobtrusive bundle of netting when unoccupied, could accommodate my 6’4” 235 pound frame.
It did, and within a few seconds, I was floating on that cloud, as bemused festival goers floated past in small, talkative clumps, now just other clouds drifting by me. I had to have one. Uh, I mean WE had to have one. Minutes later, we were choosing a color and writing a check.
The very next Saturday, I was out on the deck floating in my new hammock, enjoying a cup of coffee and the last few chapters of a good novel. But more than that, I was enjoying the stillness of a perfect Crabtree afternoon.
Tammy had taken the kids into town to brave the “no tax weekend” madness. They’d be a few hours picking out new backpacks and notebooks and pencils and markers for school, not to mention trying on these jeans and that shirt.
The dog was curled up on a cushion next to me, the cat stretched out near the railing of the deck, surveying the yard below. A cardinal pecked at the last few seeds in the birdfeeder, retreated to a nearby branch, and then came back again for another look.
A storm seemed to be moving in…or not. The sky was almost perfectly bifurcated, gray and ominous in the south, but blue with just a few wispy clouds in the northern half. Every few seconds, I could hear the distant rumble of thunder — somebody was getting pounded a ways off — but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and the animals were not disturbed from their respective spots of repose.
I kept floating, kept reading. Like my novel, summer was drawing to a close. I would be going back to work in a few days, the kids back to school in another week. The days, though still scorching, are already perceptibly shorter and will soon be growing even shorter, as we approach the beginning of football season, the arrival of the county and state fairs, the first chill, the turning of the leaves.
I imagined myself in the hammock on a crisp autumn day, drinking cider and reading a book of poems by Robert Frost, or maybe Yeats, trying to fight off the inevitable and ineffable melancholy that seems to find its way into my heart at unexpected moments this time of year.
Autumn is actually my favorite season, the richest and most lustrous of all the seasons. I prefer weather cool enough to require the wearing of flannel or a sweater to the searing, oppressive heat of July and August. I sleep better when it’s cold outside, and I always look forward to the day each year when we can finally replace the chenille bedspread with our goose down comforter and turn off the air conditioning once and for all.
But this isn’t just another fall. The kids are beginning to get older, especially our daughter, who has suddenly stopped clinging to her mother like another layer of skin and has, without warning, entered into a kind of pre-teen, semi-rebellious, mood-fluctuating, completely unpredictable funk. Sometimes, she’s her old self — giggling, ebullient, playing with dolls — while at others, even the task of eating dinner is simply too horrific to contemplate, as if her fork suddenly weighed 80 pounds and the act of lifting it from her plate to her mouth is very nearly an impossibility.
Questions, no matter how innocuous, are met with a theatrical rolling of the eyes and audible sighs. The very idea of asking about her day! Can you comprehend the absurdity of it?
In the meantime, our son is busy perfecting mischief, or discovering new ways to whine about eating squash or creamed corn, the very same foods he ate with relish as a babbling toddler. Now he finds ways to “hide” food by carving it into tiny morsels, and then reconstructing it on his plate, an elaborate project that could almost pass for modern art. Or he stalls, waiting for us to finish so that he can scrape his plate without being noticed while we are preoccupied with some part of the post-dinner routine.
He has become the family’s ace negotiator. Yes, he’ll eat one more bite of chicken IF he can play one more game of Mario Kart before bed. Yes, he’ll brush his teeth IF Charlie can come over this weekend.
The kids are changing fast, just like everybody warned they would when they were born. They’re crashing through childhood like bears through the forest, wild and lumbering and scary. Before we know it, they’ll be out of the woods, enrolling in college, holding up placards at televised games that read, “Send money.”
I do love this new hammock, but I guess I’d better be careful how much time I spend in it, huh?
EDISTO, S.C. — If you’re going to roast in a record-breaking heat wave anyway, you might as well do it at the beach. Here, at least, we have the ocean breezes, a swimming pool at the resort, merciful air conditioning in the cottage we’re renting, and putt putt. No, strike that last item. Putt putt provides no respite at all from the withering heat except for the questionable shade afforded by the Spanish moss and a few scraggly Palmetto trees. It’s just that I have played so much putt putt this week, I cannot seem to form a list of any kind without including it.
Today is our last day at Edisto, so I just completed the last of 712 rounds I have played this week. If I had been forced to play one more hole, I would feed my purple golf ball to the snapping turtles and impale the model lighthouse on the fourth hole with my green putter. I would have thought my son’s obsession with putt putt, which began early last year would have waned by now, but, like a hurricane, it has only gathered strength, picking up in the gulf stream the added obsessions of ping pong and actual golf, the latter of which is almost compensation for the former. I would play golf at least five days a week if I had the money, time, and easy access to a good course, but since I don’t, I usually play once or twice per year, so it is a nice bonus when I get to come here and play the Plantation course with my son and my old buddy, Bill, who lives in Charleston and drives over for a round when we’re here.
This is our third year at Edisto, and we love its quiet, slightly goofy, almost surrealistic charm. In the offseason, there are barely enough people here for a decent game of touch football, and even in the high season, it is easy to get around, find parking places anywhere you go, and do whatever you want without enduring excruciating long lines and obnoxious, frequently intoxicated tourists. As long as you understand that you must leave your frenzied pace at the county line when you arrive and that you are not going to be dining every night in a five-star restaurant, you would probably love Edisto, unless you’re an obnoxious, frequently intoxicated tourist, in which case you’re probably not going to love anything anyway.
As an indication of the slower pace, the first adjustment you have to make at Edisto is that as long as you are there, you will be driving about as fast as the average golf cart or 12-year-old-on-a-bicycle goes, since you will be spending most of your time behind one or the other or both. There are almost as many golf carts and bicycles on the roads as there are cars, but if you come to think of your vehicle as a REALLY FANCY golf cart — with air conditioning and a radio! — and let go of the habit of racing to get everywhere you go, you’ll be fine. As the locals say, “It’s Ed-I-SLOW.” Learn it, know it, live it.
Every year, my wife grabs the real estate listings out of one of the racks in front of the Piggly Wiggly and regales me with various ads, as if it would be the most natural and obvious thing in the world for us to get into one of these places. I remind her that I am a teacher working in the state of North Carolina, which means that any second home we might be able to afford would have to be made of fabric or cardboard.
“Oh well, a girl can dream, can’t she?”
My favorite thing to do at Edisto is to walk out along the bay to watch the sun set and to see the dolphins playing about 50 yards or so off shore. I have yet to visit the bay and not see them there, and, of course, the sunsets are simply gorgeous. The kids like the dolphins, too, though they enjoy chasing the fiddler crabs after dark even more. By the time we leave, we have to use the flashlight to find our way back to the access, and both kids are coated in a film of sand and sea spray — there is no crevice, no nook, no cranny that the sand will not find, and no matter how thoroughly we shower and clean, there is always some residue. For weeks afterward, sand from the beach will spill out of shoes, hats, toys, and clothes, little souvenirs of our vacation.
If we can’t yet afford that place on Edisto, at least we can take a little of it back with us.