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?
We stood looking at the dinosaur for quite awhile. As parents of children ages 7 and 3, we are more than a little familiar with dinosaurs. In fact, our home has become somewhat of a haven for dinosaurs, an impressive assortment of velociraptors, pterodactyls, T Rex’s — we got ‘em all, even a battle-scarred triceratops that my son sometimes sneaks into bed at night. If the dinosaurs are all freed from toy basket confinement at once, his living quarters more nearly resembles Jurassic Park than a bedroom.
Still, the creature before us now is something else entirely. Standing two and half feet tall, “Spike” is able not only to walk — stampede is a better word, I suppose — he is also able to rise on two legs, throw back his massive head, and bellow full-throated roars skyward, shaking his head with rage, as if he knows his kind will soon be extinct and available only as action figures in a box store near you.
I picture him in my son’s bedroom, the other dinosaurs cowering beneath the bed, or trying to blend in with the stuffed animals. I know that my wife is about to speak, and I know what she is going to say, so when she says it, I’m ready.
“There’s just no way. We don’t have room for that. That dinosaur would have to have his OWN room. You cannot be serious.”
“Well, I’m not getting it for him. Santa Claus is. He said he wanted a big green dinosaur, and this is a big green dinosaur. Just look at him. There is no way we can leave him here.”
And I have the trump card, which she knows I am going to play, so I go ahead and play it.
“And you KNOW he is going to just love Spike. Can you imagine his face on Christmas morning?”
She can, and that is the end of that. Within minutes, we are stuffing Spike into the back of the van. I couldn’t shake the vague notion that my wife thought I might actually want Spike more than my son would, that he would be just fine with a big green dinosaur half Spike’s size, which would, in fact, still qualify as big, especially compared to his fellows back in Jack’s bedroom.
No way, I told myself. It’s about the kids. I’m an adult now, and have put childish things away. Then, the night after Christmas, we went over to my brother’s house for dinner. He has three boys in the same age range as our kids, and among other gifts, they had received a Nintendo Wii game. We spent probably an hour or two bowling, boxing, playing tennis and baseball, even golf. The kids kept wanting to horn in, but we told them they would get a turn soon.
“Now this is what you’ve really got to see,” my brother said, pulling out a game called “Rock Band.” This game includes a guitar, a drum kit, and a microphone, and the idea is that you and your friends play along to great rock and roll songs, and the more accurately you play along, the higher your score. If you fail to keep up adequately, you get “booted” out of the band.
Within seconds, I had the guitar strapped on, while my brother, who briefly fronted a band called Eastern Thunder back when mullets were considered hip and we were both capable of growing them, took the microphone. Our brother-in-law, a truck driver who was once a mechanic in the military, manned the drums. Quite possibly the most unlikely band ever assembled, we nonetheless stumbled through the tutorial before I announced us “ready for a gig,” and my brother promptly cued up “Roxanne,” by The Police.
I would like to report that we were naturals, that our wives were drawn in from the dining room to gasp in amazement at us — which they did, in fact, though not for the reasons we might have preferred. I made it half way through the song before getting booted, but my bandmates made it all the way through.
“Totally awesome!” I exclaimed when the song was over. I had become Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.”
We crapped out on Bon Jovi, which is just as well, but we got through a Clash song cleanly enough to get a few approving nods from the audience.
“Hey, that was pretty good,” said my mom. My mom. Rock on!
Then I got a wild hair.
“Hey, I wanna sing,” I said. “Let’s do ‘Roxanne’ again.”
So with my brother now on guitar, we got completely through “Roxanne,” and then did a Nirvana song for an encore, getting through that one as well. I looked at my individual score for singing, which was 97 out of 100. It was without question the most gratifying moment of my entire life.
OK, it was not THE most gratifying moment of my entire life. But it’s up there somewhere. I cannot recall being more pleased by any score I ever made in graduate school. Then again, I didn’t grow up dreaming of writing an ace paper on Edmund Spenser, but I did play air guitar to “Don’t Fear The Reaper” about 10,000 times in front of my bedroom mirror, dreaming of thousands of screaming fans just beyond the mirror there.
“That was really good, honey,” my wife said. My first groupie!
“But you can’t have one, OK?”
It’s just as well, really. By the time I get good enough to make it through a Ramones song, my kids will be old enough to be embarrassed by this spectacle, which would kind of burst my rock and roll bubble, if you feel me. It’s about them, after all, as I keep reminding my wife.
You are 12 years old and it’s December and a school day. The days are shorter now, meaning it is still dark when the alarm clock blasts you out of your dreams like a cannonball fired at dawn in a war you don’t understand and didn’t choose. But you are not a cannonball. You’re a soldier, and this is reveille. Your mother is a drill sergeant, barking orders at you every morning before you are awake enough to understand them. Find your shoes, you always lose them! Brush your hair, it looks like a rat’s nest! Be careful with your milk, you usually spill it!
But not today. Where is she? You have managed to find the right knob on the alarm clock and the house is quiet again. In fact, the house is TOO quiet, no scraping of a spatula in a frying pan, no whistling of a coffee pot, no sprinkling of a shower head against a protesting occupant. Nothing but perfect stillness, utter calm, the kind of quiet that can only be accomplished by one thing — the accumulation of snow, enough to coat everything, enough to mute the earth. No cars passing by. No busses. Not even a dog barking. It’s as if the snow has enveloped every sound as well as every surface.
There is no joy purer than this recognition. It is a school day, and it has been snowing heavily while you slept, oblivious to the wonderful gift nature has prepared for you this morning. You can actually feel this before you see it, if you are properly attuned, as all kids soon become, to the ways and means of inclement weather. It is an epiphany that crystallizes slowly, deliciously, as you watch the bright red numbers on your clock change from 7:05 to 7:06. Once you have fully grasped the significance of this morning’s silence, you rush to the window and rip the curtains apart to survey the grandness of it all. And there it is, waiting just for you. Snow, two or three inches of it, maybe even more, covering everything — the cars, the mailbox, the neighbors’ rooftops, and, yes, the roads, as yet unbesmirched by even one set of tracks.
You look at this, and you press your face to the window to feel the cold glass against your nose and cheeks. You need something real, something tactile, to ground you a little. You breathe against the glass until it fogs over, then draw your initials in it. Now you’re feeling whimsical. Since there will be no school — you want to hear the “official announcement” of course, since that is part of the joy, sort of the whipped cream on the banana split of your good fortune — the whole day has been presented to you as a canvas. You can draw anything on it you wish. Potential activities crowd toward the top of your brain like fish in an aquarium seeking food.
You’ll build a snowman, a big one. You’ll build a snow fort, and assemble an arsenal of snowballs into the shape of a pyramid. You’ll develop some clever ruse to coax your sister and mom out of the house, then cream them until they both beg for mercy or run for cover. You’ll thaw out your wet, numb fingers by the fire in the fireplace, while you wait for the chicken soup to get hot on the stove. You’ll convince your mother to make you a side dish of tater tots since you are so hungry from this morning’s ambush. You’ll have a big glass of hot chocolate. You’ll watch a movie on television, or cartoons. With great stealth and cunning, you will extract your mom’s scissors from the kitchen drawer and carve amazing works of art from the morning paper, which you know will charm your father 10 percent more than it will vex him. “And this one is YOU, daddy!” That should do it.
You’ll play games with your sister, or you’ll antagonize her, which is the greatest game of all. You’ll stalk the cat through all the rooms of the house, fashioning a whip from a winter scarf and pretending to snap it in her direction like a cowboy on a horse. You will find this game more amusing than the cat finds it.
But right now is the greatest moment of all, when it is all still in front of you, and everyone else, including the sergeant, is still snuggled up in bed, and you can simply savor it. You go and turn on the radio and wait for the announcement. If you’re lucky, when you grow up, you’ll remember what days like this feel like for your kids and be a good sport when it is your turn to be ambushed.
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.
For most people, Lorenzo Charles, who died last week in a bus accident at the age of 47, is little more than a footnote in sports history. If you are under the age of 35 or do not follow sports, you have probably never even heard of him. In some ways, Charles is the very definition of the old cliché “in the right place at the right time.” In the spring of 1983, it was Lorenzo Charles who caught a last second desperation shot by Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg and stuffed it into the basket as time expired to give N.C. State the NCAA National Championship over the prohibitively favored Houston Cougars, a victory that is still regarded by most experts as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
The night Lorenzo Charles capped the most improbable run ever by a college basketball team with his last second heroics, I was in the basement of Owen Dorm on the N.C. State campus, surrounded by friends I had made during the previous two years when I was still a student at State. I had dropped out of school and drifted off, but not so far that I could not easily swim back for something this big. After all, these same friends and I had, during my freshman year, formed something called the HOZE Squad, which began as a way to get in on the 10-cent draft beer nights at a bar called Edwards Grocery (a promotion aimed at fraternities, but we found a loophole by ordering shirts with Greek letters. What could they say?).
There were about eight of us on the second floor of Owen Dorm, and we were all rabid sports fans, willing to camp out all night to get the best possible seats for football and basketball games. We wore our HOZE shirts on 10-cent draft night at Edwards Grocery, and we wore them to football and basketball games.
One sunny Saturday, one of us went to Radio Shack and saw a plastic fireman’s hat with a siren on top. Now the HOZE Squad had shirts and matching firemen’s helmets to wear to the games. Since we always sat in the first few rows of each game and were fairly raucous and creative in finding new ways to taunt and distract the opposing team, we soon began getting a lot of attention. The crowds at Reynolds Coliseum soon began taking cues more from us than the Wolfpack cheerleaders, so they eventually invited us to join forces with them to pump up the crowd.
Lorenzo Charles was still in high school that year, but it was Coach Jimmy Valvano’s first year at State, while Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg, and Thurl Bailey, who would form the nucleus for the 83 championship team, were all just sophomores. Led by Art Jones and Kenny Matthews, the team had a so-so year, finishing 14-13, but the next year, the team went 22-10 and made the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round.
Even though I was gone by the time the 1982-1983 season began, there were high hopes for the team going into the season, although the Virginia Cavaliers had this fellow named Ralph Sampson and the UNC Tar Heels had this other fellow named Michael Jordan. Bailey and Lowe were marginal prospects to play in the NBA, but neither had great star potential, and when Whittenburg went down during the regular season with a bad ankle, the season was in jeopardy. In fact, by the time Whittenburg returned, the team was pretty well mired in the lower middle of the conference standings and literally had to win the ACC Tournament to squeak into the field for the NCAA tournament.
Of course, the Wolfpack DID win the ACC tournament — they won three games by a grand total of 11 points, including wins over Jordan’s Tarheels and Sampson’s Cavaliers — and did earn a bid to the “big dance,” where they were slotted as a sixth seed in the West regional. The Pack was almost bounced out of the tournament in the very first game, as they were down by six points with less than a minute to go in a game against Pepperdine, but Pepperdine missed some key free throws and Cozell McQueen made a shot to put the game into a second overtime, ultimately resulting in a narrow escape for NC State in the first round.
There was even more danger the next round, when the Pack fell behind the favored Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, this time by 12 points with about 12 minutes to play, but once again State rallied and won 71-70 on a shot by Thurl Bailey with four seconds left in the game.
The “Cardiac Pack,” as someone dubbed them, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, where they had their one and only “ordinary” win, a 19-point win over Utah, which resulted in a rematch in the western regional final with the University of Virginia, ranked sixth in the nation and looking for revenge after the Wolfpack win in the ACC Tournament. Once again, State eked out a one-point win, 63-62, when Charles made two free throws with just seconds remaining in the game.
There is no way to overemphasize what a shock and delight it was to see N.C. State in the Final Four that year. Few, if any, fans expected anything more from that team at that time, especially with Houston and Louisville also in the Final Four. Luckily, those teams had to play each other in the semifinals, while State had Georgia in the other semifinal game. State did get by Georgia, while Houston, led by future NBA Hall of Fame players Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, looked every bit as dominant and scary as a college team featuring two future NBA Hall of Famers could possibly look in beating Louisville.
It has been nearly 30 years, and I still believe that if those two teams had played 10 more games after the championship game, Houston would have won all 10, most by double digits. But Valvano’s approach throughout the tournament had been to find a way to stay in the game, force other teams to make their free throws, and find a way to survive if they didn’t.
The only conceivable way State could hope to stay in the game was to control the tempo and get off to a good start, which they did by jumping out to a 32-25 halftime.
In the basement of Owen, we were about to come utterly unhinged. We were oh so close to winning it all, but we also knew that Houston could easily put up 50 or 60 points a half and win going away, as it had been expected to do.
Sure enough, the Cougars did rally and take a seven-point lead, but then the Wolfpack started to foul, a strategy that had served them well in getting to this point, and sure enough, the Cougars began missing their free throws. State eventually clawed to a 52-52 tie and had a chance to win the game in regulation, but the play Valvano had called broke down and all Dereck Whittenburg could do with time running out is fling up a wild shot from well beyond the top of the key.
That is when Lorenzo Charles changed our lives forever. When he stuffed the ball into the game and the buzzer sounded and Jim Valvano ran around the court looking for someone to hug, there was a frenzy of pure joy unlike anything that I have ever seen or felt. In the basement of Owen Dorm, everyone hugged everyone else. There were a lot of tears. People streamed out of the dorms and swarmed the campus, moving as one giant organism toward Hillsborough Street, where the party went on for hours and hours.
It was fitting that Lorenzo Charles had made the shot, and not Thurl Bailey or Sidney Lowe, because of how unlikely it all was. For the people who were there, Charles and the Wolfpack gave us an experience that we will never forget, a party to remember for the rest of our lives. For the HOZE Squad, eight guys who obsessed over the team as it developed over the course of three years into a national champion, Lorenzo Charles gave us something even more. He gave us a moment that any of us would name among the greatest of our entire lives, up there on the list where things like “birth of son” and “wedding” are listed, a notch below, perhaps, but JUST a notch.
On April 4, 1983, Lorenzo Charles taught us that literally anything can happen if you never give up. It sounds like some trite nonsense you would say to your child, perhaps half believing what you are saying, even as you say it. Except that we really do believe it. We believe it, because we saw it. We were there.
That’s why Charles’ death last week hit us hard. Oh, there were no more than a few Facebook posts to mark his passing among us, but there was a feeling in those posts that we all shared and all recognized. Lorenzo is gone too soon, but the spring of 1983 will burn brightly forever in our hearts. For us, he is no footnote; he’s an entire chapter, one we’ve dog-eared, highlighted, and committed to memory, a part of our very DNA.
May you rest in peace, Lorenzo Charles. The HOZE Squad says, “Thanks.”
Groucho Marx once said, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have someone like me as a member.” When I graduated from high school, my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Pattyrae Busic, gave me a beautiful edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and I believe this quote was one of the first I happened upon.
It obviously spoke to me, as I have straddled the barbed-wire fence between skepticism and outright cynicism about groups of all kinds ever since. I like people just fine one on one, but when you get more than two of them together at any given time and for any given purpose, the seeds of treachery and corruption are already sewn. Three is a crowd and four is a mob. I don’t think that’s in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, but it ought to be.
It could be that you think on groups more favorably than I do. You think of the Girl Scouts, and I think of Hell’s Angels, the American Bar Association, and the Miami Heat. Even if I did think of the Girl Scouts, I am more apt to think of an unscrupulous mother dipping into a trust fund to buy four truckloads of Girl Scout cookies so her precious daughter can win a month’s worth of horseback riding lessons and get her picture in the paper in the same section with the newly engaged. Treachery.
Of course, I know there are worse groups than the Girl Scouts. I have nothing specifically against the Girl Scouts — my daughter is one, at least intermittently — but can they really be completely trusted in those cute little berets with their satchels full of Thin Mints and Peanut Butter Crunch patties? Along they come every year, the little diet shatterers.
As I said, there are worse groups, much worse. In fact, perhaps no single group better illustrates the wisdom of Groucho Marx than politicians. I know, I know. I can feel 20,000 eyes rolling at the very mention of politics. Easy target. Low hanging fruit. Scooping fish out of a bathtub. Etcetera. But really, just when we think the fruit can’t hang any lower, along comes a John Edwards, a Newt Gingrich, or an Anthony Weiner to remind us of just how much we may have overestimated politicians, despite our best efforts to suspect the worst.
Edwards, of course, is really a peach, and a home-grown one at that. Here’s a guy who cheats on his wife, a wife who has battled cancer, and then tries to get points back because she was in remission when the affair occurred, according to him. He fathers a child with his mistress while running for President of the United States, blames it on one of his aides, and is ultimately indicted for using campaign money to cover it up. Yet, he certainly used his wife in the campaign while vehemently denying all of the allegations. Now he is finally admitting to most everything he had formerly denied except using the campaign money to cover it up, because that would be, you know, illegal. And he claims he did nothing illegal.
If he seems a little familiar, it may be that you knew a guy like Edwards in high school. Come on, you remember: He was the smarmy tennis player/student council president with perfect hair and no blemishes who used his older sister’s James Taylor records to seduce your girlfriend while you were out of town with your parents, later claiming “it was all her idea,” “he didn’t really want to,” and that you really ought to thank him for exposing her as a cheat now, before you go off to college and find out the hard way.
Then there is Gingrich, who has admitted cheating on his first two wives and seeking a divorce from one while she was recovering from cancer surgery. Nice. This is the same Gingrich who ran on a platform of “family values” while having an affair all the while during his 1992 campaign of terror against the Clintons. You probably knew a guy like Gingrich in high school. He was the preacher’s son who went to church every Sunday, but had a fifth of Jim Beam under his front seat and a stash of homegrown in the glove compartment. He may or may not have slept with your girlfriend, who may or may not be a lesbian, at the river party last weekend. Nobody can remember now, but the important thing is that he repented on Sunday, and he’s forgiven now, and, say, do you want a snort? He’ll skip history class if you will.
Finally, we have the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner (cue the Beavis and Butthead laugh-track), who just a week ago admitted sending lewd photographs of himself to various young women, even though he is still a newlywed and these young women barely knew him, if they knew him at all. There are poses of Weiner in his underwear all over the Internet, and earlier this week, President Obama suggested that he probably should resign, which Weiner said he would not do just before checking into a treatment facility, ostensibly for troubled, partially nude narcissists with uncontrollable impulses to photograph themselves for strangers.
Of course, you probably knew a guy just like Weiner in high school. He was the wrestling coach’s son, but also third in his class. He had a high IQ and 3 percent body fat and an ego about the size of Jupiter. All of this was a front for his terrible insecurity with women, which at least prevented HIM from stealing your girlfriend, who was too old for him. No, your little sister was more his speed. He would send her pictures of him wrestling, or photos of his ‘chiseled sixpack,’ impressive to some, but perhaps merely confusing to an eighth-grader.
Your sister: “Why is this guy sending me pictures of his belly? Gross!!!”
Gross indeed, all of them gross. Any one of them, you could probably handle, but get them all together and what do you have? The United States Congress. You want to be in that club, you’re welcome to it. I’ll take the Girl Scouts any day.
(Atlanta, GA) — We don’t get out much. Unless “getting out” means running out to Taco Bell because the fish we were going to cook has gone bad and there’s nothing left to eat in the house except half of bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and an 8-ounce can of water chestnuts. Unless “getting out” means going to Taco Bell one night and the grocery store the next, we really don’t get out much.
We get out so little, in fact, that about a month ago, I decided that we had to do something about it, something pretty grand, at least by our standards. We would have to rearrange our hectic work schedules, carve out a 48-hour swath in one of our endlessly booked weeks, and go somewhere to do something. We had been promising the kids that we would take them to the aquarium in Atlanta for, oh, three or four years, and with my son, Jack, now heavily into the new baseball season — his team this year is the Braves — I thought we could work a little Major League baseball game into our trip.
The next thing you know, I was on eBay buying tickets for killer seats down the third base line for a day game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field, while Tammy was working on a package deal for tickets to the aquarium and a nearby hotel in downtown Atlanta. Within an hour, we had tickets to the game, tickets to the aquarium, and reservations at the hotel for the following weekend.
We left fairly early on Saturday morning to make sure we made it in time for the first pitch a little after 1 pm. Tammy and Kayden were going to drop us off near the gate on Henry Aaron Drive, and then go to the mall for manicures, white chocolate, and other mallstuffs. In particular, Kayden was keen on going to the American Girl doll store to look at American Girl dolls, and Tammy was keen on going anyplace where she would not have to watch baseball being played for three hours.
We made it nearly an entire hour early, time enough for Jack and me to eat a couple of $8 hotdogs and watch a little batting practice from the outfield bleachers before heading down to our fairly remarkable seats about 20 feet behind the Cardinals dugout. Jack was decked out in his Braves jersey and cap, and we settled in for a pretty exciting pitcher’s duel. Two older guys next to us had just returned from Afghanistan, and one of them, a youngish grandfatherly type probably in his late 50s, befriended Jack by feeding him peanuts and teasing him about not catching foul balls that landed nowhere near us.
“You should have got THAT one,” he said, as a ball off Matt Holiday’s bat landed three sections over and about 20 rows behind us. “You gotta reach higher if you want to go home with a ball.”
The Braves took an early lead, but the bullpen squandered it as the Cards broke through for two runs in the top of the eighth to win the game 3-2. Jack didn’t care that much. He got to see “the big guys,” and as the crowd began to clear out, he made his way down toward the Cardinal dugout looking for bottle caps, loose change, or any other exotic souvenirs of his first big league ballgame
“Hey, little buddy,” I heard a woman’s voice call out. She was sitting directly behind the dugout with four or five other elderly fans, possibly connected with the team in some way, from the looks of it. “Come here. I’ve got something for you.”
Jack walked over and she promptly handed him a baseball, one that had actually been used in the game and tossed up to her as the teams changed sides between innings. Jack accepted the ball as if an astronaut were handing him a moonrock. We thanked the nice woman profusely, and finally made our way outside to take pictures of Jack standing with the statue of Hank Aaron in front of the stadium.
The cell phone rang. I told Jack before I answered the phone that his mother and sister were lost.
“We’re completely lost,” said Tammy. “I’m pulling off to figure out where we are, and then we’ll be there soon, OK?”
With a bit of time to kill, Jack and I wandered around Turner Field until we saw a small group of people clustered at the back, evidently waiting for the players to appear and sign their pennants, programs, and such. We just missed catcher Brian McCann, but when starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez came out, I grabbed Jack and hoisted him up among the throng, and in just a few minutes, his ball was autographed.
“I guess we’re lucky your mom got lost,” I said. “But I wouldn’t say that in the car, if I were you.”
Tammy and Kayden had as much fun at the mall as we did at the game, and the aquarium was an even bigger hit the next day. We got home pretty late on Sunday, exhausted, nearly broke, and pretty far behind on our work. It would take us days and a series of late nights to catch up, and we knew it. By the time we crawled into bed, we could barely form a coherent sentence.
“We need to get out more often,” Tammy mumbled, before nodding off.
The crane games are beautiful beasts, shiny and brightly lit, with a glass belly full of forlorn and lonely stuffed animals waiting to be rescued by obsessive 9-year-old girls with a pocketful of quarters and reasonably good aim. My daughter literally cannot walk past a crane game — not at Shoneys, not in a grocery store, not in an arcade or a Laundromat — without plastering herself like a sheet of badly laid wallpaper against the crane game, her nose pressed to the glass, looking in at the sad assortment of captive creatures, any one of which would be so very grateful to find its way to a little girl’s bed come nightfall.
“Oh daddy, oh daddy, oh daddy,” she half sings, half pleads.
How much is that doggie in the window? About $17, most likely, maybe more. I’m pretty sure that the crane game — or the claw game, as some people may call it — is fixed, set on some mysterious device deep in its internal organs to grip firmly enough to extract an animal from the teeming pile about one out of every 10 or perhaps 20 tries, and that is if the crane has been perfectly positioned by the victim, I mean operator, who has been feeding the crane game beast quarters like Ritz crackers for nearly half an hour.
More often, the crane attaches half-heartedly and very briefly to an extruding foot or arm, pulling it upward gently for just a moment so that the animal seems to be waving to the child, “save me, save me,” only to release the animal back to the pile, while the crane returns mechanically, even coldly, to its original position, waiting to be fed again.
My daughter, bless her, believes she has the game figured, the beast tamed. She doesn’t. She’s a 9-year-old version of Willy Loman from “Death of a Salesman.” Willy figured he was a great salesman and couldn’t figure why he was having such a hard time making ends meet every month. In the end, he relied on his neighbor Charley to pay his bills, essentially to subsidize his illusion of success.
In our version of the play, I am Charley, paying for my daughter’s illusions and obsessions. On her bed are approximately 65 stuffed creatures of various species. Of these, I would say about half of these are the spoils of victory from the arcade and carnival game wars. She has taken in these orphans, made them her children, arranged them in a community in which she is both mayor and head nurse, tending to them and their unpredictable and never-ending assortment of ailments.
I look in on them at night when she is fast asleep, surrounded by them, submerged in them, a foot poking out from under an alligator’s snout, one arm around a koala bear with one ear. Now I find that I am the one with my nose pressed against the glass. Believe this: I’d scoop her out of there and keep her if I could. I’d use all the quarters I could find, all I could afford or borrow, play all night if necessary. But there is no crane above her bed — just a ceiling fan, marking time. I know all too well how this game is rigged. She’s growing up too fast, and there is no rescue I know of for that.
“Oh daddy, oh daddy, oh daddy.” Those eyes.
“Here, baby,” I mumble, fishing out whatever quarters there are in my pockets. “Are you going after that turtle?”
“Nope, the yellow bird.”
She feeds the beast, and studies the bird, moving the crane past it, and then back, a smidge too far, and then over just a sliver. She studies it some more, looking first on one side, and then the other. Perfect. She pushes the button and the crane descends, its massive jaws closing over the bird’s head and upper body, pulling it just slightly before letting go.
It’s the not the letting go that bothers me, I don’t suppose. As I said, I know the game’s rigged. It’s how easy the crane makes it look to let go. It’s infuriating, maddening. My daughter isn’t fazed in the least. She’ll get ‘em next time. She has it figured out.
“Wait right here,” I tell her. “I’ll get change for a dollar.”
We’ll play all night if we have to.
One of the advantages of getting older is that you learn a few things if you pay attention. For example, when I was younger, I hid certain things about myself when I met someone I thought I might be interested in dating. My dislike of cheese of all kinds. My knobby knees. The general slovenliness of my apartment and car. My ability to recite entire episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show” from memory. My crush on Stevie Nicks.
I thought that disclosure of these quirks was best saved for later, perhaps quite a bit later, after we had had a kid or two and it seemed a bit safer. Of course, there is no such thing as “safer” when it comes to the minefield of relationships, where failure to disclose even the most seemingly harmless of quirks can be and often is interpreted as a form of manipulation, if not outright treachery.
“Yes, I appreciate that you are sensitive and know the right temperature for Petit Syrah,” she will say. “I don’t mind that every time you see Terry Finger, you start quoting lines from Ernest T. Bass or “Green Acres” and then laugh like a drunk hyena. That I can live with. But I will not spend my life with a man who will not eat lasagna as God intended it to be eaten, WITH cheese.”
That is why I told Tammy on our very first date about my fantasy sports thing. We were at a Chinese restaurant, where she pretended to enjoy Chinese food and I pretended to understand portion control. Otherwise, I intended to come clean about my fantasy sports thing.
At first, she was just confused. She thought I was saying that I fantasized about playing professional sports, something I have not done since puberty, when Stevie Nicks booted Steve Garvey out of the ‘obsession room’ in my brain — and believe me, it’s a pretty big room — taking up residence there for about the next four years, until I met a girl named Kim on a school trip to Washington, D.C. By then, my gargantuan baseball card collection had been collecting dust in the attic for some time.
Anyway, at the age I am now, I am more apt to fantasize about getting out of the bed in morning with no back pain that I am to fantasize about roaming center field for the Dodgers.
I explained to her that I am part of a group of guys who get together two times per year, every year, to draft teams for our fantasy league, which has been going on for better than 10 years now. Every October, we meet in Raleigh to draft our basketball teams, and every March, we meet here in Western North Carolina to draft baseball teams. I told her that these two days of the year were sacrosanct and were a non-negotiable part of any relationship we might (or might not) be having. Except that was not exactly how I put it. What I said was, “This really means a lot to all the guys, and I don’t have that many friends, and I want you to know right now how important it is to me that YOU have friends that you can do things with and I especially want to stress how welcome your parents would be if they ever wanted to come visit us.”
And then I gave her the last fake crabmeat wonton.
In our seven years together, she has been great about my fantasy sports thing, tolerating the glossy $9 magazines with Albert Pujols on the cover, smiling patiently when I am late to the table for dinner because I am still on the phone with my friend, Tim, debating the merits of choosing a shortstop with some pop or a five tool outfielder in the upcoming draft.
For the last two years, she has even agreed to let me host the draft at our home. She and the kids make plans for the weekend, get out of Dodge, and give us the run of the place. The draft takes just about an entire day, with guys sweating out each pick, looking up statistics on the Internet, contrasting those notes with their own notes, flipping through magazines and injury reports, comparing this player with that player. The intensity is maddening.
The beer helps some. And the NCAA tournament, which we either watch or keep one eye on, depending on whether somebody’s team is still alive and playing. By bedtime, we have our teams, which we study and analyze like a teenage boy looking at his first car, with a sense of awe and wonder and rich possibility. This team could WIN. This could be the year. I think that shortstop was the right pick.
As this pertains to relationships, I would simply say this. We are all complete weirdos about something. Along with “for better or worse,” the phrase “for normal or weird,” should be added to the marriage vows. I’ve got fantasy sports and my record collection. She’s got the Dave Matthews Band and reality shows about wedding cakes.
‘Til death do us part.
For nearly a year, my 3-year-old son Jack has been obsessed with heavy machinery. We rent films from the library with footage of backhoes, excavators, and bulldozers pushing around heaping mounds of debris, which Jack sits and watches with absolute focus as long as we will allow it. Whenever we are going someplace in the car, Jack erupts every time he sees a crane, a steamroller, or anything gigantic, mobile, and yellow that can lift or, even better, crush, things.
I don’t worry about it much. Crushing stuff is cool — I get that. I figure it is just a phase he is going through and that he will leave it all behind soon enough. For boys, life is just a series of meaningless obsessions until they’re old enough to notice and then obsess over girls, which crushes all their other obsessions like a giant monster truck rolling over a bunch of Volkswagens.
I guess I should have foreseen what would happen the first time Jack saw a monster truck. Before I really knew what was happening, he began obsessing about something called a “Monster Truck Jam.” I soon discovered that commercials for an upcoming monster truck extravaganza had been playing pretty much nonstop on television for the past few weeks. Every time “SpongeBob SquarePants” paused for a commercial break, there were “Grave Digger” and “Monster Mutt” rolling and rumbling over rows of crumpled cars.
“Daddy, I like Grave Digger! Please take me that monster truck show! Please daddy please!”
Soon, I found myself on the Internet looking at seating charts and ordering tickets, great tickets actually, on the lower level. My 7-year-old daughter, Kayden, decided she wanted in on the action, so I bought us three tickets and on Saturday, we drove down to the BiLo Center in Greenville to get a look at these monstrosities in action. The kids were so excited they could hardly stand it. We made up monster truck songs on the way down, and talked about all the great things we expected to see these monsters do.
We were pretty hungry when we got there, and thanks to a slightly late start and slow traffic, we had to settle for getting some food at the arena, which, of course, was a big mistake. I shelled out 25 bucks for two fossilized hot dogs, one rubbery hamburger, one order of charred fries in a cup, and one large soda in a cup that could have served as a swimming pool for a small otter. I had to carry all of this on a flimsy gray tray about the size of a potholder, while also holding onto the kids somehow and worming my way through a thicket of monster truck enthusiasts. Imagine, if you will, trying to climb a rickety ladder while balancing three hardboiled eggs on a popsicle stick with one kid on your back and another one pulling excitedly on your pocket, and you will have the basic idea.
Of course, our seats were on the other side of the arena, and by the time we made our way around the arena and finally reached the ramp leading down to our seats, the cup of French fries, top heavy with the addition of ketchup, took a sudden suicidal leap off the tray onto the floor. Four dollars, shot, just like that.
“I guess we won’t be having fries, huh, Daddy?” Kayden said, surprisingly chipper under the circumstances.
Once we found our seats, I was somewhat startled how close to the action we actually were. Wow, the kids were going to be thrilled with these seats, I thought. The brightly colored monster trucks were arranged in a semi circle on our side of the arena, and the closest truck was no more than 40 or 50 feet away.
We had made it just in time. I had no sooner passed out the food than the announcer took the mike to begin the show. A few seconds later, the drivers appeared to wild cheers from the crowd and assumed their positions behind the wheels of the trucks. The kids were leaning forward in their seats with anticipation.
Suddenly, there was an enormous explosion that rocked the entire arena, pinning the kids back against their seats, transforming their looks of eagerness into expressions of abject terror. The explosion did not subside — it was constant, all enveloping noise, noise more monstrous than the trucks from which it issued. It was merely the sound of the gentlemen starting their engines. Merely. I looked at the kids. Both were weeping.
“Daddy, I’m scared!” Jack said. “Please take me home right now!”
“Please, Daddy, get us OUT of here,” Kayden agreed.
I quickly reviewed the numbers. Fifty bucks for the tickets. Twenty-five bucks for two dollars worth of food. Another twenty for gas. Four hours of driving. Fifteen seconds of “entertainment.”
I tried putting my hands over Jack’s ears, while urging Kayden to cover her own ears. Still, they wept, harder, since it appeared that the ordeal had just begun.
I saw it was no use, and ushered them out of the arena, away from the terrible noise. I was ready to take them out for ice cream, or to go in search of some local park to salvage something from the trip, when an idea occurred to me.
“Hey, guys, what if we go up higher, far away from the trucks where it is not as loud? If you are still scared, we’ll leave in a few minutes, but let’s just try it.”
They were in no way sold on this idea, but they could see that I was determined to give it one more shot, so they played along. So we gave up our expensive, choice seats and headed to the upper level, up, up, and up some more until there were no more seats behind us and we had an entire section more or less to ourselves. From here, the monster trucks were not so intimidating, the noise not quite so earsplitting.
The kids were still uncertain when we settled in, but they stopped crying, and in a few minutes, when I stole a glance to my left, I could see Jack nodding his head in the affirmative, as if in response to some internal question he had asked himself. Yes, I can. Yes. Yes.
“Daddy, look at the one with the ears and the tail!” Kayden shouted with something like enthusiasm. “His name is Monster Mutt! He’s my favorite!”
Two hours later, I had experienced my first Monster Truck Jam. We made it through. By the end of it, I felt like one of the few survivors in the Poseidon Adventure. We had climbed out of the wreckage below to the hull of the ship, and were now waiting for someone to cut us out with a blowtorch.
“Did you have fun, Daddy?” Kayden asked, as we waded among thousands trapped in the flow, slowly oozing like tree sap in the general direction of the exit. I thought of Woody Allen’s comment on reincarnation. “Does it mean I have to sit through the Ice Capades again,” he wondered. There are no more Ice Capades. But there will be other Monster Truck Jams.
Then I looked at my two children, now buzzing with excitement like miniature monster trucks waiting to unleash their own torrents of noise on mom as soon as they got home, stories of enormous trucks crushing things, and motorcycles jumping off ramps, and dune buggies racing around the track!
“Fun?” I said. “You bet I did. One of the best times ever.”
I looked at Jack, who was nodding again. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I didn’t need to review the numbers again. This time, it all added up.
Of course I had HEARD of Facebook. I may be well into the marrow of middle age by now, but I am not completely out of touch with all things modern. I teach in a college, and I’m around young adults every day. If I don’t quiz them about what’s new and hip (which would not include the word “hip,” for example), I do absorb some things by osmosis. I have an iPod for instance, which is easier than carrying around a Walkman, which was easier than carrying around a boombox. As long as the latest technology makes life easier and I can still listen to Neil Young and the Stones on it, I’m all for it.
Still, I saw no reason to get myself a Facebook page, until I caught up briefly with a long lost relative of whom I have always been quite fond, and she suggested that it would be a good way for us to stay in touch, even share photos of the kids and such. I would be able to read her “profile” and see what movies, music, and television shows she was into these days, which is something I have always taken a perverse interest in doing with people I meet, as if the ownership of six John Cougar Mellencamp albums could tell you all you need to know about someone. I know a guy who won’t date a woman unless she likes John Prine, so maybe there is something to it.
I discovered that it is fairly easy to set up a basic Facebook page, especially if you don’t take the time to upload photographs or go into much depth in filling out the profile information. Within minutes, I had myself a profile that can best be described as “rudimentary,” and within an hour, I had my first Facebook friend (my cousin). We exchanged a couple of messages, and I was able to read her profile and see pictures of her, the family, friends, pets, and so forth. Although she suggested that I at least put up a photograph and add a little bit of information to my profile, I really had no intentions of doing anything else with my Facebook page. I had accomplished my mission of catching up with my cousin and establishing a pathway for future contact, and that was all I wanted or expected.
Then a strange and wonderful thing happened. I got a message from Robin. Now, as it happens, my wife and I had just been at my mom’s house a few weeks back, and mom had found some old keepsakes of mine in the attic, including a folder with several essays written by a bunch of fifth-graders. The essays were about me, because I was “Student Of The Week” that particular week in October of 1972. Not only was there an essay written by Robin, there were several others that mentioned Robin. Evidently, we were something of an item, at least so far as I could decode the murky symbolism of grade school romance.
Now, 37 years later, Robin lives in Pittsburgh and her children are grown. Before we had exchanged two messages, I had messages from four or five other classmates, none of whom I had seen or heard from in years, even decades. By the end of the week, we were having a cyber class reunion, with messages flying in all directions.
Finally, just last week, I got a message from a fellow named Thomas. He wanted to know if I was the same guy that taught English at Appalachian State in 1988. I recognized his name right away. He had been one of my favorite students, the type of student who is a class clown, but is secretly very smart and serious about school, so long as you don’t blow his cover. Because I ended up getting another job and moving away a couple of years after I taught his class, I didn’t know that he went on to graduate from ASU with a major in English. He now lives in Concord with his wife and two children, and he has become an endurance athlete. He says he is coming to Asheville on business sometime this spring, and we are going to find some time to meet for lunch while he is here.
One of my former classmates, Jerry, is up to 660 Facebook friends. My 15 pales in comparison, but I am so inspired by my collection of new/old friends, that I finally did put up a photo — of my son — and a video of both my kids singing “Yellow Submarine,” which is getting good reviews so far.
Maybe I will put up a few more photos, or post an inspirational quote or two. I obviously need to spruce the place up a bit, since you never know who might drop in for a visit.
It was not my best day. I had just got home with the kids, who seemed a little grumpy because they forgot mom had to work tonight and probably because this meant Hamburger Helper or chicken with mushroom soup over rice for dinner, neither among their favorite meals. I elbowed open the front door, my arms filled with a stack of papers and my laptop, somehow managing to get the key in the lock to nudge open the door. The kids burst through in a dash for the video game bonanza downstairs, still pretty new from Christmas.
“Let the dog in!” I yelled after them.
I had no sooner walked 12 steps to turn on the coffee — blessed coffee! — maker than our dog, a miniature dachshund came bounding up the stairs, tearing around the corner like a car sliding sideways in a movie chase scene. He had on that ridiculous burnt orange and brown autumn sweater that Tammy bought for him at one of these boutique pet stores, and he was yelping as if he hadn’t seen a human being in two years.
Before I could get the coffee on and the dog settled down, the kids suddenly materialized in the kitchen as if teleported from downstairs.
“Daddy, I’m hungry,” said Kid One.
“Daddy, come downstairs and play Wii basketball with me,” said Kid Two, more or less simultaneously.
Before I could answer either kid, before I could calm the dog (who would continue yelping until petted, regardless if it took 10 seconds or 10 hours to do it), before I could press “start” to get my hazelwood coffee brewing, someone knocked on the door. You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. The dog was absolutely nuts now, projecting his eight-pound body at the front door like a furry dart, scratching over and over to get at whatever lurked outside.
The kids whined. ‘Hungry!’ ‘Won’t somebody play with me!!’
“Go downstairs for a minute,” I said, barely able to be heard above the chaos. “I’ll get you a snack in a minute, and then I’ll come play Wii basketball.”
I scooped up the yapping dog in one arm, and opened the door with the other. I can only imagine what a picture of pure frustration I must have been. It was Donna, the next-door neighbor. She and her husband, John, need to use our driveway on snowy days, because the only other way out of their driveway is down a very steep slope. We had sorted all this out last year when we moved here, when they explained the situation and asked us very kindly if we would be willing to share our driveway with them in bad weather. Of course we would, we had said.
While it wasn’t snowing on that particular day in January, it certainly had been in days previous, and their driveway was still completely covered in snow and ice. In my haste to get home and get dinner on, I had simply forgotten about the driveway and left my car parked right in the middle, blocking access. Donna needed to go somewhere, and couldn’t get around. Would I mind moving it, she asked.
I am not sure exactly what I said, but I know it was something along the lines of, “Just a minute. Give me a minute.” I walked back to our bedroom, tossed the dog on our bed, and shut the door, then pulled back on my boots, not bothering with a jacket, though it couldn’t have been much above freezing out.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, finally appearing outside. “I completely forgot.
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said. “So sorry to bother you.”
I jumped in the car and moved it, feeling like an idiot. Later that evening, when my wife got home from work, I told her what had happened and said I probably needed to call John and Donna and apologize, not only for forgetting to leave the driveway open, but for my irritable demeanor.
A couple of days later, there was another knock. This time Tammy was home, and the waters in our home were much calmer. It was Donna again, this time bearing a basket filled with all kinds of goodies, including a nice bottle of wine, truffles, chutney, and a number of other bottles filled with various treats. Not only was it obvious that each one had been carefully handpicked, each of the items had a Post-it note attached with a brief description or suggestion, handwritten by Donna.
“We just wanted to give you this to thank you for letting us use your driveway,” she said.
We thanked her, and spent 15 minutes looking through the basket, remarking at what an amazing and kind gesture it had been, especially in light of my poor response a couple of days before.
I had been thinking of some gesture of our own in the days following, even though we didn’t see them for a few days. Then, one night, we got a call from another neighbor, one across the road. She told us that while John and Donna were on vacation in some tropical place, Donna had complained of weakness moments after scuba diving, and then died suddenly.
We couldn’t make sense of it, not at all. These were retired people, but young, active, retired people, always on the go, always doing something outside. Donna in her flower garden, John in his workshop.
We had just seen her a few days ago. She had brought us this wonderful basket, filled with stuff, marked with personalized notes. You have seen those bumper stickers, the ones that say, “Commit random acts of kindness.” Well, Donna committed a specific act of kindness, where others might have complained about the neighbors’ lack of concern or tact.
She left the neighborhood much too soon, but we’ll never forget her kindness. We will surely miss her. I can’t help but notice that the flowers are blooming early this year.
My epiphany occurred on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, the snow having momentarily given way to a stray and fleeting glimpse of the actual sun — lately as rare as a celebrity sighting at Ingles. I was outside doing my best to break up the thick ice underneath two or three inches of packed snow in order to make a couple of pitiful tracks to the highway from the church parking lot, where our Camry was trapped like a kitten in a wet bathtub, unable to climb out regardless of how furious the spinning, how desperate the need.
Perhaps I have been softened by years of creature comforts — jet tubs, fleece blankets, microwave popcorn — but let me tell you, I was one miserable sight out there in my mismatched gloves and old workboots, nose raw and running, eyes squinting, teeth chattering like dice in a Dixie cup. Again and again, I attacked the ice with my big silver shovel, and about every third or fourth strike, I’d get through to pavement, then wedge out a heavy piece of snow-crusted ice about the size of a pumpkin pie — or maybe half a pie — an excruciating, slow pace. I tried not to look toward the road, to see how far I had to go. It was a long way, and my back was already screaming at me.
“CHIROPRACTOR,” it yelled.
“GROCERIES,” I yelled back, and kept digging, remembering the stale graham cracker I just had for lunch.
The wind kicked up suddenly. It felt like opening a jar of bees, stinging everywhere at once without pity or remorse. I tucked my chin like a concert violinist, kept digging, trying to position my back to the wind, which seemed to be blowing from all directions at the same time. I was getting tired, and I paused for just a moment to catch my breath. My wife had joined me, offering to take turns with me battling the snow and ice.
And that’s when it happened. A silver Subaru came around the curve, plowing through the snow like a pack of teenage girls going through a mall. We stood there and watched it in sheer astonishment as it crested the hill and disappeared.
“We have to get one,” I said. “We have to get one now.”
Requiem for a Camry
I stood there and looked at my Camry, to which I have an attachment that is both sentimental and practical. I took my Dad with me to buy this car in 1998, two years before he passed. My father was to buying cars what Stephen King is to horror novels or Peyton Manning is to football. I vividly remember him reducing a cocky Toyota salesman to a small puddle of frustration years ago when I bought my first car. This time, he let me do the negotiating, said very little to nothing during the test drive, just nodded slightly when I got the price we discussed on the way. Afterward, we went for Chinese, and I remember sitting there over my egg drop soup, looking out the window at my shiny new Camry, thinking, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels fall off.
Until my epiphany, 13 years and 170,000 miles later, that was still the plan. The Camry actually does pretty well in moderate snow, but you may have noticed that our past couple of winters have been lacking in moderation. Last year, I had a couple of close calls in her, but I chalked it up to an historic winter, the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until our children had children, when we’d haul out the pictures and laugh at the memories of it on holidays.
A year later, it is apparent that this was a profoundly foolish notion. You know what we call a snowstorm packing a foot of snow these days? Wednesday. It’s not historic. It’s just the latest snow. Ho hum, another foot of snow, another week out of school, another few days before we can get the Camry out on the road again, another round of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, another few hours of fantastic cardiovascular exercise shoveling snow.
I knew I would have to work a bit on Tammy, who is so frugal she is sort of an anti-Kardashian, unwilling to spend a nickel unless it is absolutely and utterly necessary. I reminded her that during last winter’s storm when a twig lashed open a two-inch gash just above our son’s left eyebrow, we had to get a neighbor to drive us to urgent care because — dramatic pause — we couldn’t get our car out of the driveway to take him ourselves. What if the neighbor had been unavailable?
A week later, we were test driving Subarus, and now there’s one in our driveway. From the kitchen window, I can see it out there all shiny and new, just daring the snow to fall, and I think to myself, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels come off. I’m pretty sure my dad would be cool with it. He loved buying cars.
Just as I was sitting down to write my column on the controversy surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which an Auburn University professor plans to publish with the intention of replacing the “N” word with the word “slave,” news of the tragedy in Arizona began to break. Even before the horrific facts of the tragedy were fully established — six dead, a congresswoman shot in the head and fighting for her life in the hospital, 14 injured, the suspected shooter in custody — commentary began to appear on the Internet ascribing blame for the shooting on the vitriolic tone that is so pervasive in modern politics, particularly from the right wing.
“I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in,” said Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at a press conference within hours of the shooting. “And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.”
Sheriff Dupnik’s comments have touched off a national debate on the power and influence of language, which is more or less the thesis I set out to explore with the recently censored edition of Huck Finn. Advocates of the new version of the book point to the potential harm to self-esteem the repetitive use of the word “nigger” in the novel might cause for young, vulnerable readers. Others fear that exposure to the word might result in its continued use as a racial slur among students looking for a way to justify bad behavior.
In both of these cases — different as they are — the issue seems to be the power of language to inflict damage, and what measures we, as a society, are willing to go to as a possible remedy. As ugly as the ‘N’ word is, are we ready to accept the censorship of what many consider to be the greatest of all American novels in order to avoid exposing students to it, even taking into consideration the context in which the book was written and the word used, not to mention the major themes of the book, not least of which is that the institution of slavery was profoundly wrong and immoral? Twain used the ‘N’ word, at least in part, to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man. Remember, in helping the slave Jim escape — in learning to see him as a human being and not “property” — Huck becomes an “outlaw” and believes that his actions will cause him to “go to hell.”
When the “N” word is “erased” from the book, the power, context, and authenticity of the novel are severely compromised, and the lesson lessened, if you will. Censorship is not the answer; understanding is.
On the other hand, there is perhaps no way to understand the mindset of a 21-year-old man who goes on a killing spree on sunny Saturday morning in Tuscon. I have not read any conclusive studies done on these mass murderers, but doesn’t it always seem as if they are cut from the same piece of cloth? Invariably, they are young male loners who have struggled to fit in anywhere or find a coherent meaning in life.
In this latest instance, the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had posted messages on YouTube in which he rambled on about issues he had with “informing conscience dreamers about a new currency.” According to friends and teachers, he had a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and had been kicked out of a local community college until he agreed to seek psychiatric help.
All of this makes it difficult to draw a straight line from the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh to Jared Loughner. On the other hand, when Sarah Palin has a Web site with a map in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims in the shooting, is listed as a “target” — complete with crosshairs — and when Palin tweets inane messages that exhort her followers, “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD,” it is fair to debate how much of this kind of rhetoric adds to a climate in which violence is perceived as an acceptable solution to political disagreement.
As with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the answer is not censorship. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions — and words. And it is holding those who do not act responsibly accountable for their actions, rather than remaining silent.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
So Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1927. True then, and true now. Whether or not Jared Loughner shot a bunch of people because someone told him to reload rather than retreat, we must stand up and speak out when the Sarah Palins of the world use the threat of violence — even if it intended as a lame metaphor — in an effort to incite their followers. The remedy is not censorship. It is telling them their 15minutes are up, and showing them the way off of the American stage.
When I was in the fourth grade, some dirtbag stole my hat. But it wasn’t any old dirtbag, and it wasn’t any old hat. The dirtbag was a kid named Terry, a garden variety bully with no manners, questionable hygiene, and no regard for people’s personal property. In other words, he was the kind of dirtbag who would steal another guy’s hat, and then wear it proudly the next day, as if it were a trophy, as if he were daring the victim to do something about it.
Under normal circumstances, I would have probably just let it go. A hat is a hat, not worth fighting over, and a dirtbag is just a dirtbag, no shortage of those in the halls and on the playground. However, this was not just any hat. It was a brand new Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap that I had just got as a birthday present from K&E Sporting Goods. I still remember the day I picked it out, tried it on, felt the stiffness of the bill as I began shaping it into a curve. I was a big Dodger fan, as was my dad. I thought that there was no blue like the blue in brand new Dodgers baseball cap, not even the sky.
I wore it all the time, to church, to school, even to supper, where my mother patiently let me eat my fried perch and mashed potatoes without making me take it off. Unfortunately, my fourth grade teacher would not allow me to wear my hat in class, so I had to put it in my locker, which was not really a locker but a little wooden cube barely big enough to stuff a windbreaker into, a cinch for even the most dull-witted thief, and Terry certainly was that.
When I discovered my Dodgers cap had been stolen, I had a feeling that I am not quite sure I can adequately describe. I felt angry, yes, but more than that, I felt confused and violated, as if the natural order of things had suddenly come undone and I had not been alerted to the new way of things. What if Monday suddenly followed Friday and someone had taken the weekends? What if someone had removed all the tater tots in the entire world? What if someone took all but three days of summer vacation?
Something important had been taken from me, by someone who had no business or right to take it. It was mine and now it was gone. I remember looking at the empty “locker” for a long time, as if looking hard enough might somehow force the hat to materialize right before my eyes. To be honest, I felt more sick than angry.
That was a long time ago, but I still remember the feeling vividly. A couple of weeks ago — on Black Friday — my wife was shopping at Belks when someone stole her pocketbook. She was looking at shoes, and had maneuvered her cart between two nearby rows of clothes so that it would not further clutter up the area. She had turned her back for just a few minutes, only to find when she turned back for the cart that it was gone … along with her pocketbook and everything in it, including her wallet, credit cards, license, photographs, whatever money she had, her keys, cell phone, and assorted other, more easily replaceable, items. When she looked at that space where her cart had been, I imagine she felt very close to how I felt when I looked at my empty locker all those years ago. I know she did, because I could hear it in her voice when she called me at about 5 a.m. on Friday morning, her voice trembling and frail.
It wasn’t just that her pocketbook had been stolen. We were able to cancel the credit cards, contact the bank, replace the cell phone and keys, and change the locks on the house easily enough. Luckily, she hadn’t been carrying much cash, so it turned out that the monetary loss was fairly minimal. The bigger injury by far was that feeling of violation, that the natural order of things was out of whack, that at any minute for no apparent reason someone will take what’s yours when your back is turned. She’ll get over this, of course, but it will take her longer to get over the sense of violation than it will to get over what she lost.
I ended up getting my hat back, by the way. And, years later, Terry ended up dropping out of school and going to jail. The moral? Sometimes, the natural order of things may be temporarily upset, but in the end, it’ll kick your ass. I think Aristotle said that, probably after some young Athenian stole his sandals.
Irene is not just a good student. She is one of the very best at her school, near the top of her class and hard working as they come. Under ordinary circumstances, she would be filling out applications to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke, Wake Forest, and other top universities. She would be competing for prestigious scholarships.
She would be visiting these campuses and talking over her options with academic counselors, comparing programs and getting a feel for what her life might be like in these different settings. It would be one of the most exciting times of her life. Having put herself in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose among excellent universities as a result of her extraordinary work and commitment to her education and future, she would have the whole world at her doorstep.
There is never again a time in person’s life quite like being 17 or 18 years old, especially for someone like Irene, a student with the potential and drive to do or be almost anything she wants to be. If the election of Barack Obama meant anything, it meant that the American Dream really does exist.
Unlike our most recent president, Obama was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, did not have every break and advantage handed to him along the way. He came from a very poor background, but he worked hard, never letting the challenges of his childhood or the negative stereotypes about his ethnic heritage prevent him from accomplishing his goals as a student. Not only did he attend Harvard Law School, he was the first black student to ever become president of the Harvard Law Review. Now he is President of the United States. His story is an affirmation of what is possible if a person is only determined enough to succeed.
All of this stands as an inspiration then, for Irene? Well, no. In fact, it is a pill perhaps even more bitter to swallow. The one thing Irene cannot do, regardless of how hard she works or what she accomplishes in high school, regardless of how highly her teachers think of her or how bejeweled her academic record may be, is to make herself an American citizen. She cannot change the circumstances of her birth, or account for the decisions her parents made.
And what decisions are these, exactly? To come to America to find a better life? To work hard and earn a place of respect in the community? To open a restaurant and feed people? To send their children to a better school?
The issue of illegal immigration has been hotly debated, and people of good will can certainly disagree about it. Unfortunately, the debate has not always been waged by people of good will; we have all seen depressing examples of how quickly bigotry can be introduced into the equation. “Those people” are coming here to take our jobs, spreading their diseases and lowering the quality of life wherever “they” go. Yes, depressing, the ignorance and the hatred that so often goes with it.
Still, the issue remains, and it is a serious issue that must be addressed by serious people, not the louts who typically dominate public discourse with their shrill voices, sharpened to a point by the whetstone of talk radio. That’s all well and good. In the meantime, what I want to know is this: What about Irene?
Irene should be filling out applications to the best universities in the state, but she isn’t. She cannot, because while she has a grade point average that very few students can match, she does not have what even the laziest, least ambitious students all have: a social security number. Without one, she has no realistic shot at getting into any of those schools. The very best she can hope for is to get in, and then have to pay out-of-state tuition, which so far exceeds in-state tuition rates as to make it impossible to even consider, especially since she cannot compete for any scholarships.
Under ordinary circumstances, her achievements in high school would have brought her to the beginning of something bigger, perhaps much bigger. That would be up to her, because in America, as Barack Obama has proven, you can be anything if you work hard enough and believe strongly enough in yourself and your future.
But these circumstances are not ordinary, even if they are not unique. Irene may not be the only child of illegal immigrants to excel in high school, and not the only one with the potential to achieve wondrous things at our finest universities. And yet, there she is, at the door, which, for her, is locked.
Whether we agree or disagree about illegal immigration, there are fundamental questions that go much deeper than the issue itself, especially in the abstract. If an illegal immigrant appears at the hospital so badly in need of treatment that death is a real possibility, would we choose to ignore it and let him die? If a student does everything in her power to achieve the American dream, are we going to deny her the chance that any of our sons and daughters would have? Remember, even if you have little sympathy for what her parents chose to do, Irene did not make that choice.
Adversity teaches us things about ourselves, sometimes things we might just as soon not learn. In these bad economic times, when so many are suffering, it is all the more likely that anger toward illegal immigrants will be ginned up. The question is, even in tough times like these, do we really want to live in a country callous enough to say “No, you can’t” to Irene?
President Obama’s mantra before the election was “Yes, we can.” I sincerely hope Irene is part of “we” and not just another one of “those people.”
“Unique” is a word much abused as a descriptor for human beings. I have heard many, many people described as unique, people who are actually a great deal more like other people than they would like us to believe. Scratch the surface of a gothic kid and underneath you’ll find someone who is most likely just as desperate to find his place and fit in as any fraternity boy. This is not a criticism — just an observation of how seldom we meet a truly unique individual, someone for whom being different is not a style, but a calling.
My friend, Terry Presnell, was a unique person. I thought he might be a poser, or simply an advanced prankster, back in high school when we were on the tennis team, and he wore a rubber Richard Nixon Halloween mask in a match against West Wilkes, our conference rival, and refused to take it off, despite the protest of his opponent and the other coach. Nothing in the rules against wearing a mask to play tennis, Terry said. He wore it, and won the match.
Terry wasn’t big on rules anyway. Rules came from institutions, as far as he was concerned, and he had great, venomous contempt for institutions — schools, churches, government, you name it. Like Huck Finn, he was afraid that institutions were out to “civilize” him, and when he looked around, he didn’t much care for what civilization had come to mean in this age — war, hypocrisy, tyranny, fighting over oil but not genocide. He didn’t want any part of that “civilization.”
For Terry, the continental United States was his Mississippi River, and he drifted all across this country, never allowing himself to become too “tied down” to any particular job. Over the years, he called me from all sorts of places — Las Vegas, Kitty Hawk, somewhere in New Mexico, the Keys in Florida. He kept as much as possible to warmer climates, with the beach as a special favorite. He took any sort of job he could find, even delivering newspapers if necessary. He basked in the sun, but he really thrived in the nightlife. Within a few days, he became a “personality” in any town he lived in, which was as natural to him as breathing, with his background in professional wrestling, radio, and gonzo journalism. He had been a columnist for several newspapers, even started his own rag in the Ozarks, which lasted for a good while until he got behind on some debts and then pulled a stunt that would prove to be the beginning of the end for him.
Terry owed some company $1,400, which may not seem like an insurmountable sum unless you don’t have it and can’t get it. He could have called his friends — we would have pitched in and got him out of a jam. But he had never taken charity from any of us, and wasn’t going to start then. So he thought of a way out. He drew up a fake death certificate, sent it to the company, and hit the road with everything he could take with him, leaving whatever was left behind.
This bad decision — which I can easily imagine Terry rationalizing as a silly prank that he would somehow make good on later — led to other bad decisions. I believe there were some counterfeit checks, identity theft, I can’t remember what all. He stayed on the run for months, but one night in Ohio he got pulled over on a routine traffic stop, and within minutes, it was all over. In some ways, it was a relief to Terry. As the bad decisions accumulated, there was just no way to keep going without making another one, to get him through the next day.
He went to prison for a few years, and we lost touch. Then, a little over a year ago, he reappeared in our hometown, about twice his normal weight, barely able to move. Prison had been hard on him. He had a variety of very serious health problems, and no real way to make a living. Some of us did what we could for him, donating furniture, a microwave, a computer, groceries, whatever he needed to get on his feet. But he couldn’t get on his feet, not in any meaningful way. Part of being Terry was being on the move, beholden to no man and no institution.
He got by in a dingy little rent-controlled apartment for about a year. I saw him whenever I got home, which was only a couple of times. We visited and reminisced and laughed a lot — he had the greatest laugh in the world. He laughed with his whole body, his shoulders literally shaking up and down if he was really amused.
The last time I saw him, right around Thanksgiving, he gave me a grocery bag packed full of movies and CDs. He said he was getting the hell out of Sparta and moving back to Hickory, a town where he probably had the most success in making a decent living and where he had become pretty well known for his column on pop culture.
Now we know the real story. He “moved” to Hickory as a launching pad for his last big adventure, a trip to Florida, where he spent the last days of his life driving around, sleeping in the car most likely, or on the beach, drinking beer, which he had not really been able to do much with his health in such poor shape. He wrote a few fond farewells to his friends, and assembled packages for a couple of people containing the most meaningful scraps of his life. Somehow, he managed to get a gun, which he used to shoot himself two weeks ago.
Another friend from the old days, Stewart, called me last week to tell me about it. Initially, there were no reports of a note, which didn’t sound like Terry. Sure enough, two days later, Stewart called me again and said he had received a package, along with a note, in which Terry basically said that with his health getting poorer by the day, he was looking at another lengthy hospital stay, dialysis, even worse. He quoted Neil Young, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” He said if the preachers were right, he was “probably headed South,” but he thought the company would be more interesting there anyway. He said if reincarnation turned out to be true, he might come back as a fat Chihuahua.
He said that if there was going to be a service, he wanted only for a few of his friends to get together, drink a few beers, listen to some music from the old days, and remember some of the good times. He said he absolutely did not want the service to be held in a church, or for there to be any preachers.
There was a service on Saturday, at Saddle Mountain Baptist Church in Ennice, N.C. There were preachers. One of them had talked with him a handful of times in the hospital, the other had never met him at all. I was asked to speak, too, so I got up and shared a few stories, but whatever I said was swallowed up whole by 45 minutes of pure alter call preaching. For these two fellows, Terry was not a person. He was a platform. His life had no meaning for them other than as a cautionary tale for the rest of us. At one point, the preacher said, “Since I didn’t know Terry, I asked God what to say here today, and God said, “Remember me,’” which, it turns out, is translated as a very long story about the preacher’s own salvation, and how, thank God, he had not made the choices Terry had made.
It turns out that most of the memorial service for Terry was not really for Terry after all. Several times, I thought about walking out. I wish I had. After the service, someone told me they wished I had had an opportunity for a rebuttal.
Well, here it is. I don’t presume to know where Terry is today, but if God has a sense of humor, Terry may be pleasantly surprised with his accommodations. On the other hand, those responsible for denying him his final wishes ought to be deeply ashamed. Like Huck Finn, Terry once faked his own death. Unlike Huck Finn, he did not get to watch his own funeral. If he had, he would have been outraged. I have known him for 35 years, and I can guarantee that much. He would not have been alone. I spoke with at least a dozen of his friends after the service in front of the church, and every single one of them was upset by the service. Someone said it was more like a revival than a memorial for Terry. Someone else said those preachers ought to be ashamed.
Sometime this spring, there will be another service, the one he asked for. Call it a memorial mulligan, a do over. We’re going to get together, play some of the old songs, and drink a few beers in his honor. Then we are going to divide up his ashes and take them to various beaches — wherever anyone is going on vacation this summer — and set him loose on the tide.
If I see a fat Chihuahua running loose on the shore, I swear I’ll bring it home.
March Madness is upon us, and if you or anyone in your house has ever played basketball or perhaps even seen a basketball, chances are that you spent a long weekend feasting on the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. As you know, as a resident of North Carolina, you are required by law to watch any game with an ACC school in it. North Carolina is to basketball what Italy is to spaghetti. Other states may brag about their Nobel Prize winners or what have you — we have Michael Jordan. I said we have Michael Jordan. That’s Air Jordan, or Mr. Jordan, if you don’t come from North Carolina. So, Mr. Nobel Prize winner and the state you came from, you still want some? Didn’t think so.
College basketball is a religion here, of course, and March Madness is our 18 days of Christmas. There are those who have complete faith that God favors the Tar Heels — why is the sky blue, as the bumper sticker saith. Others insist that the Duke Blue Devils are the Chosen People, pointing to the arrival of Coach Mike Krzyzewski as proof of divine intervention or Manifest Destiny or whatever.
At one time, in 1983 to be exact, it seemed all but certain that a higher power was manipulating free throw shots specifically in order to help the North Carolina State Wolfpack complete the most improbable run in college basketball history. The “Cardiac Pack” won the championship by coming from behind again and again throughout the tournament, before finally slaying Goliath — the University of Houston Cougars, and their two future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — in the championship game. It was like Opie Taylor knocking out Mike Tyson.
Ironically, the point guard for the Cardiac Pack in 1983 was Sidney Lowe, who is the current head coach of N.C. State, a team that seems to have lost its way from the basketball promised land. This season, not only did the Wolfpack not make the NCAA tournament, it did not even get an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament, or the NIT. Now, the NIT once was a prestigious tournament back in the day when only the conference champion got a bid to the NCAA tournament. But with the field for the big tournament now expanded to 65 teams, failing to get into the big dance and having to settle for the NIT is roughly as exciting as taking your cousin to the prom.
And, failing even to get into the NIT, well, maybe this is the Biblical equivalent of the Wolfpack spending 40 years in the desert, “a great and terrible wilderness.” Can Sidney lead the Pack back to the Promised Land? Who knows? It doesn’t look promising.
I went to N.C. State myself. In fact, I went to school with Lowe, Derrick Whittenberg, Thurl Bailey, and the rest of that magical 1983 team. And though I had dropped out of college the semester before they won the national championship, I was in Raleigh with my friends the night the Pack beat Houston. To this day, it is my one transcendent moment in sports, greater than my hole in one at Lake Junaluska, greater than winning the first (and only) annual Alleghany Open putt putt tournament in 1981, greater than all my bowling trophies combined.
Lorenzo Charles grabbed and dunked the ball after a desperate last second shot by Derrick Whittenberg, and I spent the next several hours in ecstasy that felt like I imagine heaven feeling. Pure joy, shared by thousands all at once.
As I filled out my brackets last week, I remembered 1983, of course. Twenty-six years ago, I was witness to a miracle. Now, I just hope to win 20 bucks in the office pool. I completed my selections without much enthusiasm, fished out a dollar, and turned it in to the bracketmaster. Well, that was that.
Then, Thursday arrived, the first games tipped off, and I felt it all come back. Not just 1983, but 1973 (or 1976 or 1979 or...) when kids used to get out of school early to go home and watch the opening round of the ACC tournament. This being North Carolina, the first round of the tournament was an unofficial holiday. Everyone went home, including the teachers, to watch the games.
Before I knew it, I was home in front of the set, just like the old days. I’ll leave it to others to fight the holy war between Duke and Carolina. I’ll just enjoy the games and savor the memories. I plan on winning that 20 dollars, too. Manifest Destiny or whatever.
I love dogs. Except during that period in my life when I lived in a seemingly endless series of shoebox apartments that did not allow pets larger or furrier than goldfish, I have always had at least one dog, and usually two. I have seen a good many dogs come and go in my life, but I have never, ever actually bought a dog. With so many dogs in shelters, it is simply against my principles. All of my dogs have been either shelter dogs or strays I found out roaming around.
But I’ll tell you something I’ve learned: There are principles, and then there is marriage. If you are not married, then you may not know this — I didn’t — but marriage has its own principles that may not always snuggle up cozily to your own. If you do not grasp this basic truth, you will one day wind up in the doghouse with your shelter dog and your precious principles for company.
Now my wife is not an acquisitive person and not really an animal person either — let’s just say she is more tolerant of our pets than doting and leave it be — but for years, she has fancied dachshunds, especially miniature dachshunds. If we are driving down the street and she sees one in a neighbor’s yard or on a leash, she falls into paroxysms of pure schoolgirl joy, the way schoolgirls used to get over catching an unexpected glimpse at David Cassidy in Tiger Beat. If my wife were still a schoolgirl, I guess she would go crazy over the Jonas Brothers, but since she is married with kids, a job, a mortgage, and a minivan with a window that will roll down but not back up, her passions have shifted. Teen idols are out, miniature dachshunds are in.
So I did the right thing and got her a miniature dachshund calendar for Christmas. I thought it was the perfect compromise for someone who loved the breed, but already had one dog, one cat, two gerbils, two children, and one husband on her hands. She could look at dachshunds every day of the week, every month of the year, and never have to feed one, clean up after it, take it to the vet, or complain that it had been gnawing on her best work shoes. She would have her daily quota of dachshund cuteness, without any poop or barking. Pretty good deal, I thought.
But there are the things you think, and then there is marriage, and these things do not always sit comfortably together in the same carriage on the Ferris Wheel. In other words, she did like the calendar — it hangs in our kitchen now, where every single day one of 12 adorable dachshund puppies will supervise one of us making breakfast or washing the dishes until the year is up. If I thought this would cure her puppy fever, however, it didn’t take long to see that it had just the opposite effect. With a cute dachshund staring her in the face every day — Mr. February was especially adorable, I must admit — my wife suddenly could no longer contain herself.
All I’ve heard for two solid months is “dachshund this” and “dachshund that.” She manages to work dachshunds into every conversation, regardless of how ill fitting it may seem to anyone not quite so dachshund-centric. Yes, it is true that we may be able to get another 50,000 miles out of the minivan, but how many miles would we get out of a brand new miniature dachshund puppy? Sure, she has seen the brochures that came from Florida, and maybe we should go there for vacation this summer, but have I imagined how great it would be to see a dachshund puppy encountering the ocean for the first time?
After several weeks of this, I knew what had to be done, so on Monday, we just did it. We found an adorable miniature dachshund puppy for sale online, and made arrangements to meet the owners in Asheville to “look him over.”
“We can just look,” my wife said. “We don’t have to buy him.”
Well, there are the things you don’t have to do, and then there is marriage. Needless to say, these things don’t always drink out of the same water dish. I grabbed the checkbook and we were off.
We met the owners at Alan’s Pawn and Jewelry, and within two minutes after we pulled into the parking lot, my wife had the puppy in her hands. He was six weeks old, the runt of the litter. He was unbelievably tiny, a cigarette lighter with short legs and floppy ears, a Pez dispenser with puppy breath and needle teeth.
He also looked exactly like Mr. February.
You know how this story ends. It ends with a new puppy in your house, chewing on anything he can get his tiny mouth around. It ends with you out in the yard at 4 a.m., watching a shivering puppy do his business in the yard with the moon as the only witness. It ends with your children excited, even delirious, over the arrival of the new “mincer dot son,” as your son calls him.
It ends with your wife doting on the puppy, smiling and happy. When she’s not doting on him, she’s doting on YOU. And why shouldn’t she? You’re a genius. It only took you about three years to figure this out. You congratulate yourself and think about grabbing a quick nap.
You’d better hurry, before Mr. February wakes up from his.
I don’t really know when nightmares begin. I guess it is possible that babies have nightmares, shaken awake in the night by dreams of stuffed giraffes turned suddenly sinister or a nipple that you chase and chase and never quite catch up to. I remember some pained expressions on my children’s sleeping faces, but we always assumed it was gas, not nightmares.
One thing I do know is that by the time they reach the age of 4, children have nightmares — vivid, terrifying , wrenching nightmares. The kind of nightmares that shatter sleep like an errant baseball shatters a living room window. The kind of nightmares that do not evaporate on contact once they are awake, burned away by the daylight like so much early morning fog, completely forgotten before the Cheerios begin dividing like cells in the cereal bowl.
No, these nightmares linger for hours, even days, making the prospect of going to bed not only a bummer, but a source of pure and profound dread, worse, even, than eating a brussel sprout, nearly as bad as getting a vaccination shot or being hugged too tightly and too long by a well meaning relative. Dreams ... the polyester pressing hard against your face, maybe a sharp pendant scratching you, and the smells ... sweet perfume like rotting peaches, some kind of powder, too.
But dreams lately are even worse than that, a lot worse, worse than anything. You get a shot, the shot’s over. You eat a brussel sprout, you wash it down with a shot of chocolate milk and a jelly bean you smuggled in your pocket. Your great-great-whatever hugs you, you hold your breath and wait for it to pass. These are horrors, but predictable, manageable horrors. What to do about these dreams? There is no way to predict them, no way to manage them.
Worse, your mind reels and reels and reels as darkness falls, and the machinery of your nighttime ritual pushes you toward bedtime. The taking of baths, the brushing of teeth, the reading of stories, the singing of the familiar bedtime songs, the old repetition of kisses and goodnights, more kisses and more goodnights, a couple of last minute random questions designed for last-ditch stalling — yes, we may have ice cream tomorrow, no, we can’t go to the beach yet — one last good night. OK, one more.
Now it comes. Images. Sounds. Sensations. What was that? Did you see something just then, right there? You remember something you saw in a book, a monster with terrible yellow teeth. You remember the big bad wolf, the poor pigs. You remember something your friend said, something very scary about enemies and bad guys, and even though you are not exactly sure what an “enemy” is, it can’t be good, not if they’re BAD guys. You hear something outside. The dog barks. Enemies!!!
Time to go get Dad.
I know these dreams are fueled in part by popular culture. As a kid, I thought nothing of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Aunt Rhody and her dead old gray goose, or any other of the time-honored twisted tales that parents inflict on their children, but as a parent, I look at the rich history of flat-out weirdness in children’s literature with some mixture of fascination and disgust. No wonder we’re so violent, so warped, so in need of therapy and self help books. Maybe I was more affected than I realize. I do remember tossing and turning in my bed at night, imagining always what might be outside, lurking, looking for a way to get inside. Isn’t that a persistent theme in children’s stories, after all, something out there trying to get in here?
I remember getting a CD of famous children’s songs from a family friend a couple of years ago when we were getting ready to go to the beach and spend six or seven hours in the minivan with the kids. “This will help entertain them,” the friend said. Sure enough, they listened attentively for a good while, and my mind began to wander aimlessly and quite pleasantly until the lyrics of a creepy little song about lady bugs crept into my consciousness: “Lady bug, Lady bug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone.”
And we wonder where the nightmares come from? We started skipping the “Lady Bug” song, opting instead to send the bear over the mountain about 1,200 times before we got to Charleston.
Taking the advice of another friend, I have begun using Monster Spray every night before bed — yes, it is now part of the bedtime ritual. I spray around the doors and windows, under the beds, over the beds, even give a good blast into the center of the room for good measure. According to the label, it also works well on enemies and bad guys.
Now, good night, guys. I love you, too. Yes, we can throw the Frisbee tomorrow. Good night ... what’s that? No, we aren’t having brussel sprouts tomorrow.
Sweet dreams, buddy. Yes, the spray lasts all night. Yes, really.
It seems impossible that my niece is going to have a baby. She is 20 years old, which is about the same age as my favorite pair of Levis. I remember when she was born. We all crowded around the crib and agreed that she looked exactly like my sister, which she did. The next thing I knew she was waving a magic wand in a dance recital, and not long after that she was getting her driver’s license and writing tragic poems about teenage angst in her high school English class.
Now she’s having a baby, a girl she’s naming Betty that is due to arrive in about a week, give or take, and I have just this one question, addressed to no one in particular: Where did 20 years go? Why is the distance between the ages of 7 and 27 so very, very much longer than the distance between 27 and 47?
In keeping with the age, I have been following progress reports on her pregnancy — and the various moods that go with it — on her MySpace page. We have chimed in from time to time with chipper comments on her message board, where her friends congregate daily to see what is new. They offer help if she needs any, worry if she doesn’t answer the phone promptly, and gush over newly posted pictures of her belly, pushing out and filling her brightly colored cotton shirt so fully that it looks like some exotic new planet.
Oh, it will be a new world, all right. The world she has inhabited is about to go away for good, replaced by a completely foreign world in which she must learn the language, laws, and customs while trying to survive in it at the same time. One minute she seems to know this, the next she seems completely unaware of just how profound this change is going to be.
On the other hand, how could she be prepared? How could anyone? How could I? How could you? You can read all the books you can find, watch all the instructional videos, subscribe to all the magazines, write down every syllable of advice that experienced mothers give you, and still be utterly bewildered the first time your newborn gets a sudden fever, or can’t get to sleep no matter what you try.
You’ve done everything you are supposed to do, everything right by the book, everything you were told, and yet there you are, at 3 a.m., driving the back roads listening to the Eagles’ greatest hits, just hoping your baby will finally go to sleep in her car seat.
Nope, it’s not another tequila sunrise, but that won’t make it any easier in three hours when she wakes you up again, just as you are finally getting some desperately needed sleep. Welcome to the Hotel California. ‘You can check in anytime you like, but you can never leave.’
Although my brother is younger than I am, he and his wife had kids before we did, so he gave me some free advice to help me prepare at least in some measure for what was coming.
“It is overwhelming in every way,” he said. “Sometimes it’s overwhelming in a great way, and sometimes it’s overwhelming in a not so great way.”
I don’t know if that really qualifies as advice, but it is a fundamental truth about becoming a parent that any new parent needs to recognize and, if possible, embrace. It is learning to live in constant fear that you are doing something profoundly, irrevocably wrong, and that even if you don’t do anything wrong, terrible things can still happen at any time. It is learning the real meaning of patience, and balance, and resolve. These are just words among other words until you have a new baby in your home, when they suddenly and forcefully take on a much more profound meaning than you could have ever realized. You only thought of yourself as a patient, balanced, and resolute person. You were nothing of the sort. Now you’ll learn. You’d better.
You will also learn the meaning of love the first time you see and hold your baby, the first time the baby holds your finger, the first time she smiles. You are going to have a year of firsts — everything will be marked, noted, photographed. It really is a new planet after all, and you are discovering all of its countries day by day, recording every one.
It is overwhelming in every way.
So my niece is having a baby. I guess I should write something else on her MySpace page, while she still has time to look at it. I should tell her that this is it, the adventure of a lifetime. I should tell her to savor every minute of it, even the tougher moments. She is not going to believe how quickly 20 years can go by. Also, no matter how many diapers she got at her baby shower, she is going to need more. Lots more. Bon voyage!
It was a perfect day for baseball: blue sky, a crisp breeze, the sun still hanging like a pop fly above the horizon. There were ducks on the pond. Runners on first and second, and just one away. Two runs were already in, and the blue team was threatening to break this thing wide open there in the top of the third inning.
The next batter was a hot shot rookie recently called up from Tee Ball. At the tender age of 5, he was called up along with his buddy, Charlie. They figured that together they would weather the inevitable hazing from their older teammates, as well as the rough adjustment to machine pitching and hard baseballs here in the big league, both a far cry from the hitting tee and rubber ball world of last spring. Alas, Charlie was traded from the blue to the red team before the first game due to some tricky carpooling issues negotiated between the mothers, and now the rookie was left to sort out his own place among the 6-, 7-, 8-, and (gasp!) 9-year-old boys.
Yes, there had been ups and downs. The pitching machine, which looked like a giant metallic grasshopper, had proved to be an intimidating foe on the mound, and there had been several strikeouts before his timing improved. The strikeouts finally evolved into foul tips, which in turn evolved into bunt singles, lazy grounders, and ultimately sharp base hits into the outfield. The metal grasshopper still racked up its share of strikeouts, but the rookie had learned to stand in the box and take his cuts. He had shown he could hit in this league.
Still, he had never been up in this situation. In the first game of the season, the blue team had scored a few runs and jumped out to an early lead, only to see the green team rally for a big 12-7 victory. Apparently, based on some scuttlebutt I heard from some scouts in the stands, the green team had a couple of nine-year-old ringers minivanned in from Sylva. One of them was nearly big enough to be a sheriff’s deputy, and both looked like they might be shaving by next spring. Never mind.
Today was all that mattered, right now, this at-bat, with ducks on the pond and the metal grasshopper winding up to pitch to the rookie. The first pitch looked a little high, and the rookie swung at it much too late. Strike one. The coach clapped his hands twice and said, “Shake it off, rookie. Go ahead and take the next pitch. Watch it across the plate.”
The rookie nodded, stood back in, and took the next pitch right around the letters.
“Now you’re ready,” said the coach, optimistically.
The next pitch was right down the middle, and the rookie took a good cut at it, fouling it off the screen behind home plate. The runners had broken to run, and were forced to return to their bases.
Now there were two strikes, and just one more chance. The pitch came, and this time the rookie hit the ball right on the nose. It shot between the first and second basemen into right field. The runner on third scored easily, and the third base coach waved in the runner from second for the second run. The rookie pulled in at second base with a stand-up double.
The coach was so excited he ran out to second base and patted the rookie on his batting helmet. The rookie smiled and said something, which we could not make from the bleachers. Whatever it was caused the coach to give him a high five with both hands and then come sprinting toward the bleachers where the 12 or so fans of the blue team were sitting, still buzzing with excitement over the growing rally.
“He told me, ‘I’ve never been this happy before,’” said the coach, still laughing.
The next batter added another single, and the rookie scored the last run of the inning. The blue team went on to win 10-1, and the rookie collected two hits and three runs batted in.
A private post-game celebration was held at New Happy Garden, which seemed only fitting. The rookie ate only two bites of an appetizer before moving on to an array of desserts, including ice cream, M&Ms, and cake. Fortune cookies were opened and read aloud, and then a final toast to happy days, to being happier than you’ve ever been before.
Lately, the days whiz by faster than usual. Now that we have finally decided to put our house up for sale after months of agonizing reflection, we have been trying to squeeze various projects into every available minute of the day in order to get it ready for people to see. We have a guy putting new wood floors down in all four of our bedrooms. We’re putting in a couple of new doors. We’re working on the yard, trying to coax the grass in a couple of places. We’re painting the bathroom, and, much to my wife’s dismay, the kids’ bedroom.
“Now remind me, why do we want to paint the kids’ room?” Tammy says.
I remind her that not everyone may necessarily be as charmed by the room’s pink and blue motif as our daughter has been. Well, then. Down come the decals of Snow White and the Little Mermaid, and up goes the primer. Even the kids get in on the action, and by lunchtime, we’re all speckled and ready for a big lunch. On the way to the Chinese restaurant, I can see my daughter working out a question in her head, her face having assumed the familiar expression that precedes such questions.
“Daddy, do you think anyone will love our house as much as we do?” she asks. “It’s a great house, you know.”
She’s right. It is a great house. We can walk to the library, which we often do. We can walk to Main Street, which is something we do several times a week in the summer, and as often as possible in the fall when the towering trees along Haywood Street bust out their autumn colors. As the weather warms, festivals pop up around us like dandelions. We live in a quaint, quiet neighborhood reminiscent of a Spielberg suburb, with kids riding up and down the street on skateboards or scooters, and dog owners walking their pets in the early morning sun. In our fenced back lot, our beagle, Walter, gives them what for as they approach and then pass by, waving at us on the deck sipping our coffee before work.
“I know it is, sweetie,” I say, searching for the slightest trace of melancholy in her voice. “I hope that whoever buys it will love it as much as we have.”
We hadn’t really planned on selling, or even thought about selling. But early last fall, we were approached by a realtor who had a client she said was interested in our home. Initially, we rejected her approach out of hand, but as we began discussing it and looking to the future, we considered possible advantages in moving, in buying a home together, in possibly moving out a bit to the country. We made an appointment to look at her other houses, and suddenly the idea of selling gained some momentum. We even took the kids along a couple of times, and discovered that they were actually excited about the prospect of an “adventure.”
Just as the idea of selling seemed to be close to a reality, the potential buyer backed out, opting instead to buy a bunch of foreclosed homes in Detroit. Since our home had never actually been “for sale,” the entire enterprise fell like the proverbial house of cards, and Tammy took it for a sign. She had been a little put out that we have, year by year, committed to a variety of home improvements expressly with the idea of staying put, only to turn around and sell the house after all that trouble and expense.
“We have a brand new roof, new plumbing, new windows, new siding, a new deck,” she would say. “Why would we want to sell it after all that? Where are we going to find another house that has what we have, where we can get to the school, church, or the grocery store in less than five minutes? We even have a good view!”
I told her that the work we were doing would either make the home more attractive to a potential buyer, or it would make it a nicer home for us. Our friends in the business tell us that although the market is not so great, homes in this price range are still selling fairly well, and that a four bedroom home in our neighborhood for under $190,000 should attract a lot of attention, especially with the upgrades we’ve done.
I guess we’ll find out soon enough. If you are interested in looking at it, drop us a line. If you come by soon enough, we may hand you a paint brush. You just have to promise to love it as much as we do. My daughter wants it in the contract.
I cannot remember the last time I watched a minute of a beauty pageant. I never had much of an interest in the first place, even when watching them with my family as a kid. The contestants were sparkly and had nice teeth. Some of them could sing, but I didn’t care much for the songs they sang. Mainly, we watched so we could pull for Miss North Carolina, and because in the early 1970s there were only two other channels to choose from, and programming on Saturday nights was pretty sad. It was Miss America, or the Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour variety show.
One thing I do not remember is the contestants being asked for their views on hot button political topics of the day. I certainly stand to be corrected by our resident pageant historians, but I simply cannot remember Miss Maine weighing in on Roe versus Wade, or Miss Idaho giving us her views on the SALT Treaty. I do remember that, regardless of the question, the contestants were all in favor of working to make this a better world, and this was the gist of every answer to any question. I guess we should have been heartened to think that 50 pretty young women should be so committed to working for world peace in a turbulent, complicated world.
I never expected to see another pageant, but due to a combination of completely random events, I ended up watching the last segment of the Miss America pageant a couple of weeks ago, partially because we were channel surfing, stumbled upon the pageant, and then realized that Miss North Carolina had made it to the final five. Soon, my wife and I were comparing stories about watching the pageant when we were kids.
We watched them in their sparkly evening gowns, and then came the questions. “This should be interesting,” I said.
Some minor Internet celebrity named Perez Hilton (what, they couldn’t get Rerun from “What’s Happening!!”) asked Miss California for her thoughts on gay marriage. She began to answer as if she were going to delicately sidestep the question and come out in favor of working for the betterment of the world before finally taking a stand that marriage, in her view, was between a man and a woman.
She made it to the final two, before ultimately losing out to Miss North Carolina. The next day she said that she felt her answer cost her the pageant. She appears to feel this way because Hilton is evidently gay and because we live in a time of rampant political correctness, in which the liberal elite media has pushed its agenda so far as to infiltrate the Miss America pageant! What’s next, Keith Olbermann promoting the movie “Milk” on a box of Corn Flakes? Where will it end?
Miss California might be consoled that gay marriage is still illegal in all but three states and is not recognized by the federal government. If it is true that political correctness has put people in the uncomfortable position of disguising their bigotry in the familiar garb of “family values,” it is also true that this same bigotry is very much still in force. In the 2008 election, voters in California, Florida, and Arizona overwhelmingly voted to ban same-sex marriages.
Now, Miss California has gone to Washington, where she will become a spokesperson — or, “spokesman,” since I wouldn’t want to indulge here in unseemly political correctness in identifying her as a person — for a group called the National Organization for Marriage. They are fighting “to protect traditional marriages.”
Well, when it comes to hard hitting journalism, I’m no Perez Hilton, but I do have a question for Miss California and anyone else who sees gay marriage as a threat to traditional marriage: Isn’t divorce a bigger threat?
If the conventional wisdom that half of the marriages in our country will end in divorce is true, isn’t divorce a much bigger threat to traditional marriage than if some same-sex couple down the street gets married? I’m in a traditional marriage, and I do not understand how anyone else’s marriage — gay or straight — is a threat to mine. The main threat to my marriage is forgetting my wife’s anniversary, or making one too many comments on how nice Miss North Carolina looks in her dark blue sequins.
Now, before folks go lunging for their laptops to send me quotes from Leviticus proving that gay marriage should be banned on biblical principles, please remember to show us where Jesus is quoted on the issue of gay marriage, and then explain why divorce is legal, since Jesus actually is quoted more than once on that issue.
Moreover, when can we expect groups to spring up in favor of putting to death all those work on the Sabbath, a sanction that is clearly spelled out in Exodus? If my son is disobedient, should I heed the words of Deuteronomy and have him stoned to death? When will we see groups boycotting Red Lobster because hardened sinners are inside eating shrimp or crab legs with no regard at all for Leviticus, which forbids us to eat shellfish? How can we stand idly by every fall when weekends are so cluttered with people touching the skin of dead pigs? Leviticus calls it an abomination. We call it football.
If we are going to base all our laws on the Old Testament, we had better get after it. When Miss California gets back from Washington, she’s got her work cut out for her.
When people say that Jim Carrey can’t act and that his movies are terrible, I always point to “The Truman Show,” which is not only a great movie, but has a great theme, a warning of the pernicious influence of reality television. In some ways, the movie was prophetic in anticipating the atrocities to come, the exploitation of human beings in the name of entertainment. But if we could see shows such as “The Bachelor” and “The Apprentice” coming, who would have dared guess that “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” would ever be possible?
In the pursuit of instant fame and easy money, it is hardly surprising that people would subject themselves to various forms of ridicule. After all, in our culture, there is no greater wish that can be granted than to become famous, whatever the reason and by whatever means necessary. If someone is willing to eat a bowl of slugs, drink goat blood, or have their physical imperfections pointed out with a laser pointer by Lorenzo Llamas in front of a hooting audience, these are their own choices. The right to degrade one’s self is one bonus of being an American. You get to choose.
Choosing it for your own kids, well, that’s another matter. That is my objection to “Jon and Kate Plus Eight.” In the interest of full disclosure, I had better add that my wife is a fan of the show. Last year, I began noticing a bunch of episodes piling up on TiVo, and I asked her about it. She gave me her pat response.
“But those kids are so CUTE,” she said, so breathlessly that I feared if I pushed it, we might soon be talking about converting the upstairs bedroom back into a nursery.
“I’ll bet they are!” I said. “Have fun watching them.”
One afternoon, I walked in mid-episode and decided to give it a try. I didn’t want to be accused of passing judgment on something I’ve never seen. Then again, I’ve never eaten a bowl of slugs or drank a pint of goat’s blood. Still, I watched for about 10 minutes or so until I got a good whiff of Kate’s personality, Jon’s maddening passivity, and the show’s only real reality, which is that these children are a bunch of little Truman’s, whose lives are being recorded for the entertainment of others, without their consent.
Please don’t tell me that the children actually LOVE this and that it is good for them. Children would also love ice cream for breakfast, and to attend Chuck E. Cheese rather than school. We don’t let them because — all together now — we are the ADULTS, and as such, we are responsible for deciding what is best for them. It is best for them not to have ice cream for breakfast. It is best for them not to have their lives become a source of entertainment for the voyeuristic masses.
Even if you could make a convincing argument that they are accustomed to the cameras since they have always been there, what happens when the cameras — and the attention that goes with them — are suddenly taken away? Have either Jon or Kate ever done the slightest bit of research on the troubled lives of child stars? Go ahead and Google Danny Bonaduce. I dare you. For every Ron Howard, there are 12 Danny Bonaduce’s. Google the three child starts from “Different Strokes.” It’s not pretty, and these were child actors, not kids whose own lives are the plot and theme of the show.
Given the recent tabloid stories about alleged infidelity on the part of both parents, and the admitted friction between them, surely there is some squeamishness among even the most devoted fans. “Tune in NEXT week when the Gosselin children break down in tears while Daddy packs his clothes!” Riveting television! Maybe they’ll save the divorce proceedings for sweeps week.
I understand that raising eight kids poses a financial burden I can barely imagine, and that the appeal of getting some help — not to mention moving into a million dollar home, among who knows what other perks — must be very great indeed. But what price can be placed on an ordinary, healthy childhood outside the glare of the lights, away from the fawning masses all crowding in to hug children they know from seeing them on television?
I admit that I watched the premier of season two a couple of weeks ago, just out of morbid curiosity. I wanted to see how the producers — not to mention Jon and Kate — would handle the publicity frenzy surrounding their troubled marriage. It was a thoroughly depressing experience, and I immediately felt guilty for whatever part I might have played in keeping the ratings for this show high enough to keep it on the air.
If you really care about these kids, send a donation for their college fund, and then turn the channel. Let’s do the right thing and put this show out of its misery. Free the Gosselin Eight! Kick the reality TV habit, while you still can. Renew your library card. Become part of the solution.
James looks at me, briefly averts his eyes, then looks at me again, this time with a purpose and a certain intensity, as if I am an algebra problem he’s about to solve. There is a flicker of recognition, a slight smile beginning to form. He knows me.
“James,” I say, relieved, sticking out my hand. “It’s so good to see you.”
But even before he takes my hand, I see that the flicker is gone, the tiniest ember of recognition turned to a cinder. Now he is looking for my nametag, a white sticker with my name Sharpied on it in capital letters. I see this, and quickly pull aside the lapel of my jacket and thrust my chest forward like Wyatt Earp showing his marshal’s badge.
“Oh, Chris,” he says, nodding. It’s the nod you give when you look up the answer to the algebra problem in the back of the book, and it comes to you in an instant how you missed it, how close you were, but not really. “Good to see you, too. Do you know my wife?”
There is surreal, there is just plain weird, and then there is your 30-year high school class reunion. Salvador Dali never painted anything stranger than a group of people bearing down on the age of 50 gathering in a place called the Silver Dollar Saloon to compare notes, photographs, memories, and a rather acute sense of shared disbelief. We are like survivors of a plane crash, walking around in our pressed shirts and khaki pants to see who made it out alive, and what they remember about it. Our wounds, if not mortal, are crow’s feet, a few pounds here, a few more pounds there, male pattern baldness, and the hair we do have touched with gray, some of us a little more than others. It’s fitting, I guess, that we’ve chosen mid-October, as the leaves here are beginning to turn, just as we have. Nobody wants to say so, except in a variety of jokes and jibes, but autumn is upon us.
Some of us really have not changed all that much. Others need their nametags. But one thing that is abundantly clear is that we are all still so profoundly us, which will sound insane to many people, I realize, but not to people who have just attended their 30-year class reunions.
If you are a younger reader, I will let you in on a little secret, one you may find liberating, reassuring, or terrifying, depending upon your circumstances. The secret is, you are not going to become a different person when you reach middle age. You are not going to suddenly become someone else, losing all of your interests or your personality quirks. You are not going to become your parents, as you have been warned that you will. You are still going to be you, through and through, and you’re going to have a hard time believing that 30 years could pass so quickly.
Yes, I am well aware of the cliché there. I also know that there is change, most of it for the best, if you don’t count the aches, pains, and assortment of “mechanical problems” that factor into 30 percent of our conversations at this reunion, compared to, oh, zero percent of our conversations at our 10-year reunion. What can I say? We’ve got a few miles on us now. Every so often, the “check engine” light is just bound to come on.
Otherwise, we are doing pretty good, maybe better than ever. By now, we know who we are. We’re more comfortable in our skins, wrinkled or not. We don’t have to impress anybody. We either drive nicer cars or don’t give a damn if we don’t. We’ve learned a few things, among which is not to say, “I wish I could go back to then with what I know now.” Most of us are pretty happy right where we are. If we could go back, it would be only for awhile, just to check in and say, ‘hi,’ but certainly not to stay.
If I could go back, it would be to tell my 16-year-old self, “Hang in there, buddy. It’s going to take awhile, but you’re going to have it all, everything you ever wanted. You’re going to know love, know happiness, know contentment. You’re going to love and be loved. You’re going to like your life and not wish it to be any different. And, oh yes, you’re going to have a hot wife and a kick-ass stereo!”
By the end of the evening, dear readers, we took to dancing. I had made a mix-tape CD of some of our old favorites for the occasion, a soundtrack to the late 1970s in a small southern town, mixing in a little disco on the off chance somebody might want to shake it to “Brick House” or something. Well, someone did, and before you know it, the dance floor was full. We danced and danced, partied like it was 1979, and at the very end, everyone remaining at the Silver Dollar Saloon danced to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” as required by law in all southern states. You may not believe this, but after a verse or two, we spontaneously formed a giant circle, everyone holding hands, old friends bonding again after three decades apart. It sounds unbearably corny, the very kind of thing that would cause most people to cringe and our children to die of embarrassment, but as I may have mentioned already, one of the perks of being this age is not caring about any of that.
I think my 16-year-old self would have grimaced at this news, but I also like to think he would have smiled just a little, maybe recognizing himself well enough not to have to look up the answer in the back of the book.
(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville.)
Irene has been in this country for only four years. When she came, she could not speak a word of English. The smugglers became frustrated with her because she kept mispronouncing the one word she had to get right in order to make it across — “American.” When the time finally came, she got it right, and her family was reunited at last, after four long years. Her mother had come previously, and was working as a cook in a local Mexican restaurant. She had hoped to get established and have her family join her. Finally, they did.
Due to Irene’s outstanding performance as a student in Mexico, she could have entered high school here as a sophomore. But she chose to go back a year because she wanted to make sure she learned everything she needed to learn before graduating high school. She didn’t want any short cuts. In four years, she has not only learned the language as well or better than most native speakers, she has excelled in all subject areas and graduated near the top of her class this spring.
She had high hopes of being accepted at Berea College, which had been one of few pathways in higher education available to young undocumented students like Irene, students who have earned a chance by virtue of their performance, but who find most doors closed because they lack a Social Security number. The news that came last winter from Berea was more bitter than the weather. Despite her excellent achievements as a student, she had not been accepted.
Then came her hour of darkness. Make that several weeks of darkness.
“I have always been a person who has a lot of hope and faith,” she said. “But when I got the news from Berea, I lost hope for awhile. It was just gone and I didn’t know what to do.”
Irene is one of those rare people who have a passion for both math and art, which is part of the reason she wants to become an architect, so she can combine these passions in her work. But that day, all she could do was take down the beautiful pictures and photographs she had put up on her wall for inspiration. Suddenly, they were too hard to look at.
Even worse, she had no idea what to say to her younger brothers, Angel and Daniel, who relied on her not only as a role model, but as the source of their own hope — if Irene could make it, maybe THEY could too.
“Our family dinners have always been so noisy,” she said. “My brothers are always talking about what they are going to be. One wants to be a doctor. The youngest wants to become a marine biologist. But after we got the news I wasn’t going to be going to Berea, it just got very quiet at dinner. For like two weeks, nobody said anything. We just ate in silence.”
It was then that I noticed Irene’s voice trembling. She tried hard to fight back the tears.
“The most important thing to me is that my brothers not lose hope,” she said. “I could see that what was happening to me was affecting them, too.”
Slowly, Irene got back on her feet. She focused on her studies, on regaining her lost hope somehow. And then, months later, came a letter from Meredith College. She had been accepted. She was in. Her response was not what you might expect.
“I couldn’t really feel happiness,” she said. “I knew if I didn’t get a scholarship, there was no way I could go.”
Indeed, it was going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 for Irene to attend Meredith. They might as well have sent her an invitation to the moon, as long as she could provide her own transportation.
A few weeks later, the transportation arrived as well, in the form of a major scholarship. It didn’t cover everything, but between that, a local scholarship, several private donations, and what she and her family could scrimp together, she will be able to go. In about a month, Irene will be just another freshman at Meredith College, the largest women’s college in the entire Southeast.
The question now is, what about next semester? And the one after that? Irene is an excellent student, but even she cannot complete a degree in one semester. The scholarships will cover most of her expenses — and there will be other scholarships, once she proves that she can excel on that level just as she has proved herself on every other level before — but what about the rest? She is willing to work, of course, to subsidize her own education. The irony is that it will not be easy finding a job because she is undocumented. Still, she expects she will find a way to find some work that will help her get by.
The last time I wrote about Irene, I received several supportive letters, including a few offers of monetary support. If there are people out there who do want to help, please email me and I will direct you to the proper funding source. Believe me, any donations that are given in support of this student are going to be paid back to the world, with incalculable interest.
Irene is finally excited about her future again — “I guess I know what happiness feels like now,” she said — but she is even more grateful for the change she has seen in her brothers.
“It is real for them now,” she said. “It has been noisy again at dinnertime.”
There is only so much you can do to help a child recover from a broken heart, especially the first time it is broken. You can say, “Honey, I know it seems like you’ll never get over it, but someday you will. You’ll learn the difference between infatuation and real love. Your hormones will calm down and you will make better decisions. Being an adult isn’t all peaches and cream, but at least you will learn to control your feelings, instead of having them control you.”
You can say that the fire that consumes adolescent hearts will one day be replaced by something not quite as hot, but still warm, and more abiding. You can liken love to a blanket that protects you, rather than burning you up if you get too close. You can say that passion is great, but dignity is even better, and they will understand that one day when they are older. You can say that even though it hurts so much now, that one of the consolations of adulthood is that you no longer have no control over reckless impulses and obsessive thoughts. So what if they wrote an embarrassing letter that all their friends have probably read and laughed at? It’s not as if the entire country knows about it — no one is reading excerpts from it on the nightly news, are they? In two weeks, everyone will be talking about something else anyway, right?
Regardless of what you might say, you must admit that kids have a way of asking questions for which there are no good answers, no satisfactory metaphors or soothing platitudes.
“But mom, what about Mark Sanford?”
Can we just step back from this for a moment and admit that we are no longer shocked — or even mildly surprised — when stories break on the sexual indiscretions of politicians? Tom Brokaw might as well report that a truckload of produce was delivered to Ingles this morning. Oh really? You don’t say.
Can we also agree that, notwithstanding the sanctimonious posturing of the Republican Party during the Clinton/Monica Lewinski scandal, this is one issue that is definitely bipartisan? Want to start scandal swapping? I’ll see your John Edwards and raise you a Newt Gingrich.
The Sanford story is remarkable not because another politician got caught in a sex scandal. It is remarkable for how much it veers from the script we all know so very well. The story begins with rumors. Strong denials are issued. There is a “smoking gun,” either a scorned mistress or an “anonymous source” talks to the press, confirming the rumors. The press bears down, gathers evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Documentation is discovered.
Now come the tearful confessions, the press conferences, the mea culpas, the promises to do better, the appeals for forgiveness. Always, ALWAYS, with the wife standing dutifully by his side, gaze steady, resolute. The unspoken message: WE will weather this. We will rebound. He really IS a good man, after all, and I am a strong woman, strong enough to forgive him, strong enough to endure this humiliation for the sake of the marriage, for the sake of his career, for the sake of our mutual ambition.
Evidently, Jenny Sanford did not care so much for this script. Indeed, she has written her own, one that resembles a Greek tragedy less than it resembles ... well, high school. In her drama, she and Mark are king and queen of the prom, popular students who have been going steady for a long time, which EVERYBODY knows. And then this exotic foreign exchange student appears one day, and suddenly he’s acting all funny and stuff. Things begin to change. She catches people whispering, shaking their heads sadly when she walks into her organic chemistry class.
Now she can’t get a straight answer from him. Finally, she gives in to her suspicions, begins looking into it. His cell phone records, text messages, Myspace, Facebook, whatever she can think of. And then she finds this:
“You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light — but hey, that would be going into sexual details ...”
Her tan lines? Two magnificent parts of herself? What was he now, William Freakin’ Shakespeare? Danielle Steele? Next thing she knows, the whole thing is published in the school newspaper, so now the whole school knows about it, and you know what, it’s good enough for him! Pathetic wretch.
Of course, he begs her to stay with him. BEGS her, in front of everybody! Maybe, she says. They do have a history together, all the way back to middle school. She can see he’s really sorry. She says there might be a chance, but he had better straighten up. Most of all, he had better NEVER see what’s her name again.
So what does he do? He tells her he’s going camping with Chowder and Big Stan to “clear his head,” and then spends the weekend with her at some hotel in Gatlinburg. Can you believe that?
It’s going to take a LOT to get her back. Everybody in the school is on her side. She’s the victim, but she’s also in total control. She has all the power, all the sympathy. He’s the schmuck, the fallen prince who has become the fool. It’ll be up to her if he ever amounts to anything in this school ever again.
She’ll keep a copy of his emails with her. If he so much as LOOKS at another girl in the mall or wherever, she’ll whip out his “Ode to Tan Lines” and read a couple of verses to him.
OK, so maybe adulthood is not the guarantee against a broken heart you may have told your kids it was. I guess you could say, “Kids, the good news is that you could grow up to be a governor some day. The bad news is even that won’t save you from getting a broken heart if you get a little reckless.”
Or your girlfriend from giving you hell from now on if you do. You may want to keep that in mind.
My daughter is 8 years old, which is one of the greatest ages a person will ever be. She has outgrown Dora the Explorer and “The Cat In the Hat.” She does her own exploring now, thank you, and writes her own adventure stories, complete with illustrations. Last week, for example, she wrote a story called “Tornado!” In this story, she and her brother are out playing on the swing one fine summer day when, all of a sudden, they hear a big wind, a REALLY big wind. There, on the horizon, is a funnel cloud! “Tornado!!” they both yell.
The rest of the story involves them going around informing a series of people, including their parents and a variety of her friends and their families. All the while, the wind keeps getting louder, and the tornado follows them around from house to house, never seeming to get a lot closer. In this respect, it reminded me of a zombie movie, but I didn’t tell her that. She’ll get to zombies soon enough, I figure.
Of course, all the families band together to go in search of a place to hide from the tornado. Apparently, and this is just an aside, our family is incapable of making friends with anyone who has a basement. Luckily, this alarmingly large group is able to find a house for sale on Main Street, a home with a basement. “Whew,” they say, with no small amount of relief. They get a key to the house, go inside, retreat to the basement, and (this is my favorite part) lock the door behind them, as if they are all third graders hiding not from a tornado, but a fifth grade bully trying to steal their Hello Kitty lunchboxes.
At last, the tornado passes, but not before a lot of plates, cups, spoons, and other kitchenware come crashing down around them. In the final sequence, the protagonist (who happens to be the author, in case you were wondering) is suddenly being jolted awake in her bed by her mother.
“Time for school!” Mom says. “You don’t want to be late again!”
Ah, just a dream. I know this is a fairly common narrative device these days, but she’s eight. Plus, it turns out to be a more complex ending when you turn the page and see “The End” followed by a question mark and a tornado clearly visible through her bedroom window. Was it really just a dream, after all, friends? She has already learned the most important lesson a young writer can learn, which is that you must aways leave a way for a sequel. Coming soon: “Blizzard!”
Another great thing she has discovered is sleeping over at a friend’s house. She has done this about four or five times now, to the point that she has developed a pre-sleepover routine. It begins around midweek, when she begins generating a list of the items she will need to take to her friend’s house. Toothbrush. Shirt. Ducky. Pants. Sleeping bag. Underwear. Baby doll. Pillow. This list of essential items continues to grow with each passing day. When she begins listing canned goods — corn, carrots, Spaghettios — we gently remind her that she is going to a friend’s house for a one night sleepover, not moving to Canada. I have never been able to explain the concept of over-packing to her mother, but I do my best to explain that there will likely be some food at her friend’s house, and they will probably give her some, and if they don’t, that she should give me a call.
“Oh, daddy,” she says, in the tone of voice reserved for when I have said something more ridiculous than usual.
I admit that I could not be more envious. One of the very best parts of being a kid is sleeping over at a friend’s house. They have stuff that you don’t have, eat things that you don’t usually eat, do things that you don’t usually do, stay up later than you usually stay up. And even when you DO go to bed, you stay up talking — and giggling, lots of giggling at the absolute absurdity of everything! — until the adults finally cannot take it anymore and threaten to separate you if you cannot be quiet.
There will be plenty more thrills to come in her life, but it will be hard to top the exhilaration of being called down “for the last time” at 1 a.m. by an exhausted parent. Savoring the sound of footsteps retreating down the hall, and yet more giggling.
If I could illustrate this column like my daughter illustrates her stories, I would draw a picture of two eight-year-old girls elbowing each other in the dark, their heads under the pillow to muffle the giggles. And maybe I would draw a funnel cloud in the bedroom window.
There, swirling miserably in the bottom of my morning coffee mug, are the dregs of summer. I had such plans just a few months ago. There would be a beach trip. Several rounds of golf. About two dozen novels that I have not had time to read in the past year or so. Time to put the finishing touches on our home and sell it.
We have had a thousand conversations this summer, all of them exactly the same.
“Honey, have you seen the _______?”
“Sorry, babe, it is in storage.”
All we have left in the house, it seems, is a fork, a spoon, and a scented candle, but to what end? We’ve discovered that there are three types of potential buyers out there. There are those that LOVE the house, but need to sell theirs first. There are those that LOVE the house, but haven’t made up their minds yet. And then there are those that don’t really love anything, but will kick the tires on everything. They have no intention of buying, but still they come. For them, the price is too high, the kitchen too small, the grass too green. These are the kind of people who go to funerals of people they didn’t know. They just like to feel like they are part of something, that they’re in the game.
Once it became clear that our house wasn’t going to sell in the two weeks we had foolishly allotted in our planning, we began to look toward the beach again. We could make last minute arrangements and sneak in a trip before vacation was over! But then something terrible happened. We managed to find an opening for a procedure that I have been putting off for quite some time now, the same procedure, more or less, that we have scheduled for our puppy in a few weeks. Yep, that one. Goodbye, fertility. Hello, Vicodin!
I had still hoped to make that beach trip, but the doctor quickly scuttled that notion.
“You’ll be spending a few days resting with your feet up,” he said. “All you will need is rest and ice packs. Keep them rotating. Lots of ice packs.”
I wasn’t timing it, but the procedure itself took about twenty-eight seconds. The Doc and I were discussing the “Cash For Clunkers” program, while I kept my eyes fastened on a spot on the ceiling. I wasn’t really all that nervous, but I also wasn’t really anxious to see what devices he was planning to use in the procedure either. It was easier to imagine that I had just dropped by to discuss current events for a bit.
Then, there was a strange little puff of smoke, and in a few more seconds it was over.
“You mean, that’s it?” I said. “That’s what I’ve been dreading all this time?”
“Well,” he said, hesitating a little. “The numbing hasn’t gone out yet...but this part is over. Do you have any questions?”
“Yeah, do you know anybody that wants to buy a house? Do you know where I can find another summer? I seem to have lost mine.”
He was right, of course. The thing about “the procedure” isn’t really the procedure. It’s the recovery. My wife said that one of her customers told her that he ran a 5K race immediately after his procedure. I, on the other hand, look like a guy walking on a giant sheet of bubble wrap trying to not to pop any of the bubbles as I tip toe from one room to the next. My face has frozen into a seemingly permanent grimace. And this morning, perhaps as a measure of preemptive revenge, the puppy trampled my lap, causing me to discover an octave I didn’t know I had in my vocal range.
Sing it with me now.
I have lived in a lot of places in my life — countless apartments, dorm rooms, and houses, some of them I can barely remember — but in nearly 48 years, I have only had two homes. I left one of them when I was 18. I am leaving the other one on Friday.
After spending nearly a year looking at other houses while getting ours ready to sell, we finally found the home we were looking for, and finally found a buyer for our home. We feel lucky and are looking forward to beginning the next stage in our lives in the new home, which has more room both inside and out for our growing family. But that does not make leaving the only home our family has ever known any easier. I have been here for 15 years, the family for nearly six.
We can pack away our possessions, putting them all into nice, neat, numbered boxes. But what are we supposed to do with our way of life, those habits that are tied directly to living here, in this house? I am not talking about memories — we will be taking those, of course; they were already packed away long before we even looked at the first empty box. I am talking about something else, the rhythm of life, the little things we all take for granted.
Rushing out for a pizza because the chicken’s gone bad. The arrival of the ice cream truck on a sunny afternoon. Crowding into our one bathroom on a Sunday morning, jockeying for position like basketball players battling for a rebound as we get ready for church. The sound of the kids talking in their sleep, so audible with our bedroom right next door. Impromptu walks around the neighborhood, the houses as familiar as the faces of old friends. The place where the Christmas tree goes, the place where it always goes. The music, always the music. Family dances to “Rock Lobster” before the kids are off to bed. The indescribable feeling of turning off of Church Street and on to Meadow, after a few days away from home. The feeling of the gravel under your tires — how your own gravel sounds different from other gravel. The feeling of the key turning the lock, the dogs competing for attention. The feeling of belonging so completely in one place.
So tell me, where do we pack these things?
Even the memories we can and will carry away with us have become so very heavy, so sopped are they in the place itself, the bricks, the mortar, the creaks in the wood floors, the cracks in the walls, the trees outside. As we draw closer to leaving this place behind, trying to wrest the memories away from the objects to which they are so profoundly attached, a weird thing is happening. Suddenly, everything in my life here in this house suddenly seems to be happening all at once. I sit at the kitchen table, divorce papers spread out before me, pondering my life here alone. I find in the mailbox a document that tells me my book will be published. I look out the front window and see my friends in the yard moving toward the front door, come to say and do whatever they can on the day my father has died. I am on the computer all day, sending the cleverest messages I can think of to the woman who will become my wife, my heart out of control as a feral child. I am putting on a tie to get married in, this decision having been arrived at and executed on the very same January day.
I am driving home with the baby in the backseat, taking him to see his room upstairs for the first time, the one we painstakingly converted from an office to a nursery. I am driving 20 miles per hour, maybe as high as 40 on the interstate. I am teaching him how to walk. I am trying to figure out the new camcorder on Christmas morning, the kids tearing into their presents like brightly colored piranha. I am taping crepe paper to the ceiling and lighting birthday candles. I am on the phone negotiating a price for the house.
In 15 years, I have lost my father, three grandparents, and two dogs, one of them buried behind the garage. I lived alone for more than half that time, watching the last years of my youth slip away in impossible increments, so much so that I wonder if the man who moved in here 15 years ago would even recognize the man who is moving out.
I have heard that moving is one of the most traumatic events in a person’s life, a notion I would have laughed at 25 years ago, when I was in the habit of moving someplace new nearly every year. But now I see not only that this is actually true, but why it is true. Moving is a metaphor for death — if you are a believer in an afterlife, and I am. It is saying goodbye to one life and hello to another, a life yet unknown in a place you think will be better, but don’t know for sure, can’t know for sure until you get there. It’s all about faith, after all.
I heard Loretta Lynn sing that “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” No doubt, a little bit of me will die on Friday when we take one more tour through the empty rooms of our home — uh, no, THEIR home now — to look for any last remnants of our life together here before we get in the truck to leave Meadow Street, to say goodbye to it all, to say, at last, thanks, thanks for everything.
I do not much like having my photograph taken, but there is one picture of me I have always liked. In it, I am standing near the road between my old apartment and the park across the street. In the crook of my right arm, I am holding my nephew, Adam, who is 3-years-old. I am wearing my favorite shirt, a gray R.E.M. T shirt, and it is a beautiful day. Adam is squinting, and I am smiling broadly, as if to say, “This is MY nephew!”
My sister, Lisa, was the first of us to have children, and Adam was her firstborn. As soon as he was old enough, I took him to see professional wrestling matches, the Harlem Globetrotters, even the Charlotte Hornets when they used to hold their preseason training camp in Boone, back in the days when I was a sportswriter for the Watauga Democrat. Adam was pretty dazzled to be able to get that close to the players, even if it was just practice.
One day after practice, I tried to get Rex Chapman to give him an autograph, but Chapman snubbed us, leaving Adam standing there at the door to the locker room holding his unsigned Hornets basketball. I was so peeved that I wrote a nasty column the very next day about pampered athletes, as well as placing a private hex on Chapman, which in turn caused him to have a terrible season.
Now, the Hornets are in New Orleans, I’m in Waynesville, and Adam is on the verge of being in Iraq.
I went back to Sparta over Labor Day weekend to see him. He had come down to visit for a few days before shipping off in just a couple more weeks. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with him, bumping fists, talking about music, watching his kids play with my kids, who are only slightly older than his. On Saturday night, we somehow got involved in watching a segment of my mother’s favorite movie of all time, “The Sound Of Music,” picking it up right around the time that Captain Von Trapp realizes that the Baroness is not really the girl for him, after all.
As we watched the family Von Trapp basically sing its way out of the clutches of the Nazis, as we watched them climb that mountain and out of harm’s way, propelled upward by the soaring music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I wondered what Adam must be thinking. He is, after all, heading back down the mountain, toward the fray, where matters these days are a good deal less black and white.
Near one end of the couch, his girls, who are 4 and 2, got involved in some type of minor dispute that quickly escalated into accusations, followed by tears. He handled this the way he always handles his children, with a calm, soft, but firm touch that miraculously settled the issue almost as quickly as it began. He is a single dad who dotes on his girls without spoiling them. I have never seen him get remotely upset with them, not even once. He tells them what to do, and they do it.
Later on in the evening, we watched sports highlights and just talked about whatever came up. His girls were laid out on the couch next to him, fast asleep, one with her head in his lap. I can’t imagine how hard it is going to be on him to leave them behind, but that is not one of the subjects we talked about. It was just easier to talk about the Bruce Springsteen show I am going to see this week, or the Tool show he is planning to see. It is easier for me to tease him about the mean imitation he used to do of Michael Jackson, moonwalking across this very same living room floor not so very many years ago.
Now he is a grown man, a father. Now he jumps out of airplanes. Now he is a member of the US Airborne Infantry.
The next morning, we all had breakfast together, and it was time for us to go back home. My kids had missed their mom, who had to stay behind and work, and I needed to get caught up on some work back at home. His kids hugged my kids, and I hugged Adam.
He promised to keep in touch via Facebook, and I told him I would look for him there. And I will. But I will also probably dig out that photograph of the two of us, just standing there in the road. What’s that Van Morrison song? “We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun.” I love that picture.
His harshest critics delight in daring you to characterize their frothing hatred — and there is no other word for it — of President Barack Obama as “racist.” They whine, “You just can’t criticize Obama or you’ll be labeled a racist by the socialist, liberal elite media.” Now this is rich. A group that has, for decades, depended upon the labeling of people who disagree with them as a substitute for real debate on the issues is suddenly in a twist over being labeled!
During the campaign for the presidency, we saw repeated, sneering mention of Obama’s full name, Barack Hussein Obama, with a decided emphasis on “Hussein.” We were subjected to rumors about his citizenship, rumors about his religion. I am sure that there are still people who feverishly believe that Obama is a Muslim (he isn’t) who is not even an American citizen (he is). If this isn’t a form of racism, it could pass as a body double.
While this lunatic fringe bears watching, I am more interested in the opposition reaction to three things, all much more recent: Obama’s push for health care, his failed efforts to lobby for the 2016 Olympics to be held in America, and his win of the Nobel Peace Prize. On the surface, these things may not have anything in common, and it is sure that health care is a complicated issue about which people can reasonably disagree.
But the word “reasonable” belongs nowhere near any description of the reaction we have seen regarding Obama’s push for healthcare. The opposition, perhaps gripped with severe amnesia, believes that hundreds of thousands of poor children, just to choose one example of the millions who do not currently have health care, SHOULD have health care, but that we should just find another, less “socialistic,” way to do it. Again, these are the same people whose favored party has been in power for the past eight years. Now I know that the priorities of the previous administration were more centered on war, torture, and tax cuts than finding effective health care options for Americans who do not have coverage, but still, in eight years, you would think they could find half a day or so to discuss it, right?
It is not so much the opposition to health care that gives away the true motives of Obama’s opponents as the reaction to the other two events, however. When Chicago lost out on its bid to land the 2016 Olympic games, Obama haters were delirious with joy. It would only take about five minutes of searching on the Internet to find footage of Americans cheering wildly as news broke that America had lost out on landing the Olympic games. I know it sounds crazy, but you would think that Americans would be happier if we actually landed the games, but apparently not, not if that meant some kind of moral victory for Obama, a president already far too “uppity” for some, evidently. Here was a man in need of a “comeuppance,” and losing the Olympics was just what the doctor ordered.
Except that he turned around immediately and won the Nobel Peace Prize, transforming those joyous cries into apoplectic fits of disgust and despair. When have we seen indignation so absolutely pure as that over Obama’s achievement? Obama himself said he didn’t deserve it, and I am actually inclined to agree with him. After all, you can only put the Nobel Peace Prize so high in your trophy case when you are presiding over two wars, you have failed to initiate an investigation on the possible war crimes of the previous administration, and you have not yet suspended use of the military tribunals of that same administration. If Obama is pacing himself, he needs to pick up the pace. Let’s just say that the Nobel Peace Prize is like a new set of clothes he needs to grow into quickly.
But you see, these are not the arguments of the Obama haters, because these arguments are based on a critical review of the evidence, and not a more deeply ingrained dislike for the man himself. So what are their “arguments”? Maybe no one really knows for sure, not even them. They’ve despised him from the start, and the condition only gets more acute as we go along. It has only been a few weeks since these folks were enraged because Obama gave a pep talk to students about the importance of staying in school and studying hard. Well, we certainly can’t have a sitting President stress the importance of education to America’s students, can we? The very nerve of this fellow!
The people who so dislike Obama say it is no different from people like me who never liked George W. Bush, who never gave him a chance. Well before he was elected, I admit that I thought of Bush as the feckless son of a more successful father, and every time I heard him speak or every time I read anything about his record, I became more and more amazed at the seeming gullibility of those millions of Americans who voted for him as leader of the free world — twice. But I didn’t despise him, not until he and Cheney cooked up this war we’ve been in for over six years, exploiting a national tragedy as a springboard to start it. I just thought that George W. Bush had no more business being president than I had singing opera at the Met.
Is this animosity against Obama different? Yes, I think it is. Is it racist? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s not a duck, but it certainly does quack like one.
I felt something clutch, almost seize up, and then a shooting pain in my chest, and my first thought was, oh no, God, please, not this, not now, not yet. I was standing over a frying pan, just browning some ground turkey for the spaghetti sauce. The kids were sitting at the bar, sort of watching me, sort of involved in their own pursuits. My daughter was making another list of some sort — she loves making lists — and my son was busy arranging Hot Wheels cars in some type of face-off, as if they might be about to race toward the oven.
I am sure I must have paused when I first felt my chest tighten, but if my face registered anything alarming, the kids must not have noticed. I turned toward the kitchen window, gathered myself, and took a breath, then another, and another one after that. The pain was not getting any worse, but it wasn’t getting any better either. I thought about the symptoms I could remember from those days when my father was still alive, always seemingly on the verge of a major heart attack, from the time he reached forty until the time a heart attack actually did take him, almost nine years ago.
By the time he was the age I am now, he had already had one, and was only a couple of years away from another one that nearly killed him, followed shortly by a quadruple bypass that bought him a few more precious years. In those days, we lived in constant fear of losing him. Any calls after 10 p.m. were cause for profound dread, until it turned out to be a friend who’d simply lost track of the time. When the call finally did come, it was a beautiful, cold Friday afternoon in December, not even two weeks before Christmas. I was just about to leave work, and had quite a few plans made for the weekend. I had imagined receiving the call a thousand times, but never imagined it would be like that. Life may get predictable sometimes, but death is always a surprise.
Of course, I was thinking of my dad, remembering the other symptoms from the heart attack years. Dizziness. Shortness of breath. Tingling in the arms and legs. Numbness. What were the others? I took inventory, and as far as I could tell, I had none of the other symptoms, but when I tried to move my arms, my chest tightened further still and the pain increased. I remembered that my dad had described his heart attacks as incredibly intense and painful to that point of complete debilitation, and I wasn’t quite to that point. Then what was happening?
I looked at the kids sitting there at the counter, oblivious to this, oblivious to the terrible fact of our mortality. I could have a heart attack and die. Or I could go on browning the turkey and eventually wrangle them into the bathtub, as I always do, before reading them their nightly story on the couch. We have our rituals. We have our expectations. We all believe vaguely in some allotment of years. Somewhere in the back of my own mind, I take the 62 years my dad lived — and his dad before him — and I add a couple of decades based on some very fuzzy math that I’ve invented without really thinking about it consciously. I exercise, I gain a week. I don’t smoke a cigarette, I get another half hour. I take the stairs instead of the elevator, there’s another half a day. Surely this adds up, doesn’t it?
Then I think of all the people I know who are dead, some of them my age, or younger. Somehow, their math went wrong. Or maybe math is no match for fate — or luck.
Do you feel lucky? I do. After spending the better part of an hour researching chest pain on the Internet, I found that one cause could be a pulled muscle, and then I remembered that my wife and I had moved an enormous television — one of the old picture tube TVs that weigh about as much as a medium-sized cow — out of the van and into our bedroom earlier in the day. I hadn’t felt any muscle pull then, but I’m at the age now where such injuries often as not turn up later, like hours later. I tried a few more movements and found that there were certain things I could not do at all, the pain near my heart was so intense.
I have never been so relieved and in so much pain at the same time. I could not give my son his bath, but I was able to supervise as he bathed himself. He’s almost old enough now anyway. I couldn’t pick up anything off the floor, but the kids helped with that. I could not breathe deeply, but I could breathe. I was going to die all right, but not yet, not now.
Not long before bed, my daughter called me over to the upstairs window. With the last of the leaves barely clinging to the towering oaks in our front yard, we now have a great view of the sun setting in the west, and that night the clouds were burnished with a dark pink tint that had us completely transfixed. Minutes after the sun disappeared completely, the sky just above the mountains was still lit, just like a stage, and those clouds shined deeper, the last embers in the dying light of day, glowing still.
“Beautiful, isn’t it, daddy?” my daughter said, her arms around my waist. We kept watching for quite awhile.
Part of becoming a parent is making peace with the proposition that virtually everyone in the world except you knows best how to discipline your children. I was once part of that world, casting judgmental “if those were my kids” glances at parents whose children were running amok in restaurants, attacking the salad bar with little balled up fists, or pressing their faces flat against the fish aquarium, alarming the fattened goldfish into a frenzy.
Seven years into my education as a real — rather than a theoretical — parent, what I have learned so far can be summed up in one sentence: Trying to find the “right” discipline for your child is like trying to tie your shoes with a strand of cooked spaghetti for a shoelace. It looks like it might work, but it won’t.
This doesn’t mean you stop trying, of course. You don’t want your shoes to fall off. You don’t want your children to wind up in the principal’s office … or the penitentiary. I know I don’t, which is why when my children act out, I get out the “box of consequences” from my handy parenting tool kit and search for just the right instrument for the job. What will it be? Time out? No television? No electronic games? No ice cream for dessert?
Whatever I choose, I know it will stir dramatic, perhaps Oscar-caliber performances from my children, who are never more prone to histrionics than when they feel falsely accused of a crime they may not have committed, at least not alone, and, hey, it wasn’t their idea anyway! When this happens, I usually get the same response, sort of a forlorn “my daddy hates me” slumping into the chair, as if the meting out of punishment included the literal removal of all bones from their bodies, such that whatever chair they may occupy now contains only a large pool of child … with shoes.
“Why do you hate us, daddy?” they say. “Why oh why?”
Of course I don’t hate them. They’re very expensive, and they often look cute in their school pictures. They make people think I’m younger than I really am, and they give me an excuse to play video games and eat ice cream instead of working in the yard or cleaning the garage. What’s not to love?
I guess I owe them more than that, though, so I decided to give the question a lot of serious thought and not bail out with obvious, easy answers such as, “I’m your daddy, and you’re my world.” This is the kind of drivel parents post on Facebook, but it’s just sentimental parental boilerplate to kids.
So, what’s the answer, then? What IS the best, most compelling evidence, that I actually do love my children? I think the most persuasive evidence by far is that I go to carnivals. You heard me. I go to carnivals.
Let’s be clear about one thing before we go a step further: attending a carnival is a small act of insanity.
Each year, right on the cusp of fall, we draw out a large sack full of cash from our sad little bank accounts and take our kids to the carnival — because we love them — where we must run a gauntlet of hectoring carnival folk, not one of whom you would ever, in your most desperate straits, let your children be around for 20 seconds in any “non carnival” context.
We hand over $20 bills like politicians handing out leaflets on election day to these con people — I mean “carnival workers,” or “barkers,” if you prefer — so that our children can play games that they: a) cannot possibly win, or b) “win” every time, if winning is defined as taking possession of a plastic lizard about the size of your thumb instead of something from the array of stuffed animals hanging above the game like little carnival angels, looking down benignly on the proceedings, almost as if what they are watching is something other than a corrupt rip-off.
We know these games are rigged. The basketballs are inflated to a degree that if you dribble one before shooting you risk fracturing your jaw. The rims are about as big around as the lid of a pickle jar, and fastened so tight and at such an angle that if the ball hits any portion of the rim — which it surely must, given that it will barely fit through in the first place — it will carom so high as to be a threat to birds and small aircraft.
You’ll have better luck with the darts and balloons, perhaps, but you will find that the balloons you do break are ALWAYS the balloons with the thumb-sized plastic prizes, and not the enormous stuffed animals that could pass as friends if your children are lonely. Luckily, you can play again, and trade up for a larger prize. After approximately 17 “trade ups,” you might win one of the biggies. Or you might go home with a pocketful of plastic lizards to mingle with the 37 cents in change you have left from your sack of money.
The rest you will have spent on food you would never eat anyplace else, or on rides that you would never ride anyplace else, contraptions that jerk you around violently, as if the carnival gods will not be appeased until you cough up that corndog you just paid $7 for.
I know you’re upset, children, but don’t ever say that daddy hates you. Daddy goes to carnivals.
(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County.)
“Winter Storm Warning, Haywood County.” That’s what it said on television Thursday night, up in the top right corner of the program we were watching. Winter storm warning. Yeah, we’ve heard that one before.
“Better get to Ingles quick,” I said, rolling my eyes while zipping through sixty-three channels with my remote during the commercial, which is just a thing men have to do.
“Hey, we don’t live in town anymore, smart guy,” Tammy said.
“Oh, I know, I know,” I shot back. “How will we EVER get to town through all the snow flurries? If we get two inches, it’ll be a miracle. When was the last time they got a winter storm called right? 1993? We’re fine.”
The snow had already started before dawn on Friday. School was out, of course, so we slept in and finally managed to rouse ourselves enough for a late breakfast. I was sipping coffee at the kitchen table, watching about 20 birds compete for spots on our big feeder on the deck. The snow was pretty steady outside. Hmmm, maybe we’ll get those two inches, after all, I thought. Kids might even get to try out their new sleds.
I took a long shower, and decided I might as well get a jumpstart on the day’s work. I had another day to meet some deadlines I had — and only three or four hours worth of work to do — but I liked the idea of finishing early, and since we were “snowed in” (haha), I figured I might as well knock it out. So I poured a fresh cup of coffee and sat down with my laptop. Outside, the snow was a little more urgent than before. Well ...
Before I could finish that thought, Tammy opened the door and our dog, a miniature dachshund, burst in, his face a mask of snow.
“Uh, you might want to see this,” Tammy said, stomping her boots.
I went over to the door and opened it, which resulted in the dog darting back out the door and diving back into a layer of snow at least six or seven inches deep. He was there for a second and then he was just gone. All I could see was the top of his back and head. He looked like a dolphin just breaking the surface of the ocean. He tunneled around until he found his way back to the porch steps, emerging with a fresh mask of snow, quite pleased with himself.
The snow poured now, and although it was not yet even mid-afternoon, the sky was dark. I could feel a thought trying to force its way into view, but I couldn’t quite make it out. So I sat down to work for a bit, thinking that if I distracted myself, the thought would finally make itself clear. In about 15 or 20 minutes, it did, speaking to me with great authority and, I thought, a hint of mockery.
“You are going to lose power, you dolt. You are going to be stuck here, probably for days. You don’t live in town anymore, genius.”
Lose power? Lose power! But what about those deadlines? What about that trip to Ingles? What about an alternate heat source?
I began working frantically, trying to cram as much productivity as I could into whatever time we had left before the power went out, which turned out to be about 45 minutes. Tammy was in the middle of a shower, covered with soap, when the whole house went dark and silent all at once. Stereo gone, heater gone, water gone, all gone. There is no silence quite like the silence when the power goes off in your house.
“Now what?” Tammy said, pitifully, nestled down inside her big white bathrobe.
“Blankets, candles, flashlights, sandwiches, ghost stories,” I said, trying to think of other “like” things to go on the list. It was like answering a question on the SAT.
We found that we could light the eye on our gas stove, which meant we could boil enough snow to furnish water for drinking, washing our faces and hands, and flushing the toilets. When darkness asserted itself about an hour later, we were able to make dinner by using the flashlight. We lit candles and huddled around the table, eating some pretty decent chicken fried rice. We discovered that our new house has pretty good insulation — the temperature remained pretty comfortable right up to bedtime, which was around, oh, 8:30 p.m. or so.
Right before bed, the phone rang. A friend who lives in Cullowhee called to check on us. He said that they must have five or six inches over there. Just then, Tammy came back in holding a tape measure, her thumb and forefinger pinched a little over the 15-inch mark.
“Fifteen inches here,” I said. “And it’s still coming down. We won’t have power until next week.”
I got off the phone and went outside, just to absorb it all before bed. I love the quiet of heavy snow, the absolute stillness of it. But all I heard were trees snapping, branches breaking off and thudding heavily as they shook the ground. One tree fell about a foot in front of our minivan, its topmost branches reaching out for the hood like the tentacles of some newly discovered creature.
We won’t have power for a week, I muttered to myself. Winter storm. Yeah, right.
Poor Tiger Woods. He is not only the greatest golfer of all time, but also perhaps the world’s most popular athlete. He is still in his prime and is already rich beyond imagination, still at the top of his game. He has a beautiful wife, adorable children, and a mansion for all of them to live in. He has movie star good looks and keeps himself in peak physical condition.
He has everything. Well, almost everything. What he doesn’t have is a good answer for the events that unfolded in the wee hours of the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, when news of a bizarre accident in his own driveway began to unfold in the media. First it was reported that he had been involved in a serious accident and was hospitalized in serious condition. It was reported that the “serious accident” involved backing his Cadillac Escalade into a fire hydrant, and then a tree. It was reported that his wife had broken the window with a golf club to get him out, where he was found nearly unconscious and bleeding from facial lacerations when the police and rescue workers arrived on the scene.
Of course, the first thought most people might have would be that this was alcohol-related, but that was quickly dismissed as a contributing factor. As the hours passed, the Internet swarmed with rumors. There had been reports of an affair between Tiger and an attractive socialite in the gossip rags just days prior to the accident, and now various Web sites were busy “connecting the dots.” In the meantime, reports began to emerge that Woods’ wife had given two stories to the police, and now neither of them were talking. For three consecutive days, arrangements had been made for Woods to meet with the police to discuss the incident, and for three consecutive days, Woods canceled those meetings.
In the meantime, with no clear explanation for what had happened, the speculation and gossip continue to build. Had there been an argument between Woods and his wife over the alleged affair? Had she actually whacked him with a seven iron and busted his windshield in a fit of rage? Was he trying to cover for her now to save embarrassment?
Finally, on Sunday, Woods posted a message on his Web site that he alone was responsible for the accident and for the embarrassment to his family. He acknowledged that some “curiosity” about the accident was natural, but that the rumors being bandied about on the Internet were false.
Whatever happened — or did not happen — Woods’ strategy appears to be to hunker down, to weather the storm of bad publicity and wild speculation, to rely on an assumption that his right to privacy will ultimately trump the public’s curiosity and the media’s zealous pursuit of a juicy story, especially a potentially lurid one.
While this might be a strategy that would work for you or me, for celebrities, it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Privacy might be important to Woods — he once said that the thing he liked most about scuba diving is that the fish don’t know his name. He even named his first yacht “Privacy.” But whether it is important to him is of no interest to the media, and the longer Woods is silent, or posts only the vaguest messages imaginable in order to avoid answering questions, the worse this is going to get.
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but gossip thrives in one. In the vacuum of Woods’ silence, the rumors and speculation are only going to intensify, the flames fanned by Woods’ own stubborn refusal to put them out. Ironically, sometimes the best way to put them out is to confess to everything, regardless of how embarrassing the truth may be.
Woods would do well to study the recent cases of David Letterman and Roger Clemens for some instructive lessons on how to handle an embarrassing situation. When rumors began to spread that Letterman was involved with a much younger intern on his show, rather than “hiding out” and issuing vague messages, he almost immediately acknowledged the affair in full, even using it as fodder for self-deprecating humor on his show. He apologized to everyone, especially his wife, but didn’t try to “accept responsibility” while also somehow keeping his reputation intact and pretending that things were other than they were.
Clemens, on the other hand, denied everything — charges of steroid usage, charges of infidelity — despite mounting evidence to the contrary. All this did was keep the story afloat longer, even drawing out new allegations as the scandal’s momentum continued to build over a period of weeks and months until Clemens had no credibility left and his reputation was essentially ruined.
None of this is to excuse Letterman’s actions, but it does go to show one thing. As gossip driven as the American public may be, it loses interest fairly quickly once a confession is offered. Some have said that the public is “forgiving” if the guilty are appropriately penitent. I doubt it is that so much as there is nothing left to gossip about once the truth is made plain.
Of course, Woods could simply issue a statement claiming that mistakes were made, and never answer any questions or make further comments on the accident out of respect for his wife and children. But he had better hope that anyone who might have been involved with this accident — his wife, a buddy he talked to about it in the aftermath, a family member, a neighbor who might have heard or seen something — has the same high regard for privacy that he does. And he had better learn to be very patient with the media, and with fans.
Whether Woods likes it or not — whether we like it or not — in the information age, stories do not go away until all the information is accounted for. If Woods feels that whatever happened is nobody’s business but his and his wife’s, I am in complete agreement with him. But if I were his friend, I would tell him that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County.)
I have an irresistible urge to make a list. Apparently, it is what people must do at year’s end, especially if the end of the year is also the end of the decade. In the past few weeks, I have seen lists everywhere I look. Top 10 movies of the year. Top 10 movies of the decade. Top five most influential people. Ten albums to take to a deserted island. Top 50 entertainers of the decade. Top 10 books of the last 10 years.
The list of lists goes on and on, and I admit I cannot turn away from them. In fact, I have always been a gleeful participant. A few years ago, when The Smoky Mountain News used to gather top 10 lists from various people in their areas of expertise — for example, a musician might be asked for a list of her favorite recordings of the year, a bookstore owner a list of his favorite books — I practically begged to be included, even though my area of expertise is teaching English. How much interest would there have been in a list of the 10 most commonly misspelled words (“lose” and “loose,” “their” and “there” — isn’t this exciting?) or my top five indefinite pronouns?
But I was allowed to play along anyway, and I submitted a list of my top 10 albums and top 10 movies as if they meant something, despite the fact that I might have heard only 20 or 30 albums of the thousands produced each year and only seen 15 or 20 movies.
My frame of reference is even more limited now that I have children. For example, I can tell you for certain that I think “The Road” is the best movie of the year, but if I also tell you that the other movies I’ve seen this year are “Confessions Of A Shopaholic” and “Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” would that undermine my credibility as an authority? These days, I tend to get around to the better movies (which are usually released toward the end of year to get more consideration for the Academy Awards) only when they are finally released on video, usually after March. Even then, I will only have seen a fraction of the movies released this year, so who am I to judge? I can say that here is a movie I think you should see or a book I think you should read, but the best of the year? Who knows?
Maybe we need to be more realistic and honest with our lists. Maybe we need a new approach altogether. Instead of my top 10 movies of the year, what about my top 10 excuses for avoiding the painting I’ve been meaning to do in the basement? Instead of listing my top 10 books, how about the top 10 meals in a box or from a jar that I make for dinner when my wife is working?
If you want to know my favorite albums from 2009, I would enthusiastically recommend Leonard Cohen’s “Live From London” as the best of the eight or nine albums I actually heard, but my experience is pretty limited. On the other hand, I can give you a great, comprehensive, and authoritative list of the top 10 reasons I did not go to the gym since July.
“Top Ten Reasons For Skipping the Gym in 2009”
1. I want to be less superficial, because it’s what’s on the INSIDE that’s really important, even if my doctor is increasingly concerned about my ever-expanding outside.
2. We bought a new house, and I’ve been planning home improvements, although we seem to be more or less permanently mired in the “planning” stage. Never have people negotiated so intensely over the color the guest bedroom should be painted. We may have to retreat to Camp David to work it out.
3. My wife hasn’t been going either, and I don’t want to make her feel bad by getting too buff. I’m just that caring.
4. I used to be obsessed with working out, and I’m just trying to quit cold turkey to get some perspective. Now, when I go on vacation, I do not immediately look up the number for “World’s Gym” in the yellow pages. But I do look up the number for “Krispy Kreme.”
5. We may plant a garden in 2010, so I’m just trying to “clear out some space” in my daily schedule for that. You can’t have home grown yellow squash and 18-inch biceps, can you?
6. Did I mention the painting in the guest room?
7. I’m finally getting busy on that novel, now in the planning stage. It’s about a guy who finally reaches fulfillment by leaving the gym and getting his guest room painted.
8. Because there are other, more productive ways, to burn calories, such as watching the first two seasons of “Mad Men” on DVD while running on the treadmill, as soon as I get a treadmill.
9. Did I mention becoming less superficial? The life of the mind, that’s the way to go.
10. Do I really need to be able to bench 350 pounds at my age? When will I need such strength? Isn’t it a little like algebra, impressive but essentially useless to the common man?
So there’s my list for this year. Got to run now. My wife tells me we’re going back to the gym. Never mind what I said. But do get that Leonard Cohen album. It’s the album of the year, without a doubt.
“Don’t do it, Dan.”
Michael Douglas is Dan Gallagher, and he is sitting across the table from Alex Forrest, played by the incomparable Glenn Close. Alex is beautiful, all right, but she is also not his wife, who is out of town. And though she is beautiful, even with her poofy 80s hairstyle, there is something slightly askew about her, something not quite right. Dan is walking into a nightmare. Anybody can see that.
My wife can see it, even though she has never actually seen “Fatal Attraction,” the 1987 movie that taught a generation of women that the charismatic, handsome, cultured married man you just “connected with” at a party is never, ever going to leave his wife to be with you, and a generation of men that the sexy woman who isn’t your wife will not only pour acid on your Volvo if you sleep with her and then go back to your wife as if it never happened, she will also boil your daughter’s pet rabbit in a stock pot on your stove.
We hadn’t really set out to watch the movie in the first place. It was already past our bedtime, a little after 1 a.m., and the movie had just started. Dan and Alex had met at a party and were having that fateful dinner, perched right there on the brink of an odyssey that would ultimately leave her dead in the Gallagher’s quaint, country estate bathtub, and then dead again when she sprang to life after being apparently and quite convincingly drowned by Dan, having broken into their house and attacked his wife, only to be shot in the heart — oh cruel irony! — by the newly empowered wife. She was left dead, and poor Dan was left ... well, severely chastened — weary, but perhaps wiser.
When Alex sprang out of the water for one more go at Dan before the wife finished her off for good, my wife screamed and jumped so hard that she catapulted our miniature dachshund, who had been slumbering on her lap for a good hour, halfway across the room. He woke up midflight, yelped, and then barked at her for five minutes once he landed and regrouped.
“It’s a MOVIE, woman,” he barked (I’m translating now, for the benefit of readers who may not speak dachshund). “It’s not REAL. Glenn Close isn’t really crazy or dead. She has that television show now — you know the one. People cannot just drown in a bathtub, then come back to life, you know.”
Mouthy dog, he doesn’t realize that in the 1980s, dead movie villains frequently came back to life after being killed by the protagonist. You nearly always had to kill them twice (or, in the case of the “Friday the 13th” franchise, dozens of times). Usually, someone other than the protagonist had to do it the second time, since the protagonist was compelled by the curious laws of 1980s movies to sit near the “dead” body for several minutes after killing the villain the first time, his head in his hands, reflecting on the mistakes that brought him to this sorry place.
After my wife gathered her composure, as the credits rolled, she said, “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
“Well, if she was actually attacking you with a kitchen knife, I would do whatever was necessary to subdue her,” I said. “I don’t want to drown anyone, but...”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” she said, poking my arm. “If I went out of town...”
“Honey, sweetie, valentine,” I said, grabbing her hand. “You’ve BEEN out of town half dozen times since we’ve been together. The closest I’ve come to cheating on you is getting Chinese takeout. As much as I love crabmeat wontons, they don’t even compare to you. Not even CLOSE!”
“I want you to know that I would have killed her a lot sooner,” said my wife, with terrifying conviction. “Probably would have killed you, too.”
“But, honey it’s just a movie,” I said. “You should listen to the dog.”
“What on earth are you talking about? What dog?”
“Never mind,” I said. “Look, I love YOU, babe. Glenn Close can find someone else to go to the opera with, OK?”
Just as we were getting a lid back on our own boiling pot, we saw that “Basic Instinct” was getting ready to come on. Must be a Michael Douglas sleazy guy marathon. I grabbed the remote and clicked it up channel, and there was Tom Cruise grilling Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” I sat up a little straighter.
“Honey, it’s three in the morning,” my wife said. “We both have to get up in the morning.”
“Let’s just watch this one scene,” I said. “Tom Cruise is really good in this, and Nicholson...”
“Honey, it’s three in the morning...’
“You can’t HANDLE the truth!” I shouted.
The dog, once again yanked from sleep, barked sharply at us both. I’m not going to translate what he said.
I was just finishing up my lat pull-down exercise when I heard it, but I was too busy thinking about how sore I’d be tomorrow to fully register the sound. Out of the gym all summer and good to be back, but now I would have to pay. Maybe I would get in the hot tub after…
I looked in the general direction of the “pssst,” and saw my wife over on the glut/hamstring machine. She raised an eyebrow and gave her head a little jerk, motioning me over.
“How’s the workout?” she said, but before I could answer, she lowered her voice, adding, “You see that guy over there, the guy getting off the calf machine?”
I looked, saw him, handsome fellow with a summer tan and salt and pepper hair, neatly cropped.
“That’s a good-looking guy, right?” she said. “Don’t you think he’s probably about 50? Imagine how young he would look if his hair wasn’t turning gray. Forty, 35 maybe?”
I understood right away that we weren’t really talking about the distinguished guy getting off the calf machine at all, because I’m sharp, you see. I should be, since I’m nearly 50.
Also, we’d been down that road before. The topic had been broached in the car on a trip, when we’d already worked the crossword puzzle already and had time to kill. I had argued for aging gracefully. She had argued for taking advantage of existing technology to “look your best.” I accused her of ageism or some other “ism,” and she said she had nothing at all against aging in general or gray hair in particular, just that it would not look very good on my particular head.
I then did something that I can now see as a poor strategic maneuver in the subtle art of domestic negotiation. I horselaughed.
“What?” she said, quite visibly taken aback.
“Well, honey, don’t you think it’s a bit late to be worrying over what color my hair is, since I have so little of it left? Too late to buy new locks when the house has already been robbed, you know.”
It wasn’t a perfect analogy, but I did make a note to self about a great idea for a new fairy tale for young boys about a hair thief who sneaks a sleeping potion into the Chinese buffet, then takes your hair a little at a time every night for 12 years until you finally shave your head or just start wearing a lot of hats.
“What are you talking about?” she said, with convincing incredulousness. “You have plenty of hair.”
“Compared to what? An onion?” I said, equally incredulous. “You see, we have this mirror at home … plus, I don’t want to be accused of being vain.”
Now it was her turn to horselaugh.
“Accused of being vain?” she snorted. “Is this the same man who has spent 12, 485 hours in the gym since we met? Is this the same guy who buys protein powder online? The same guy who wears his World Gym tank top to Ingles to buy groceries?”
“Well, excuse me,” I said, not that far off from a Steve Martin impression. “I thought we were trying to stay healthy.”
“Healthy shmealthy,” she said. “Do you need to bench press 350 pounds to be healthy? Do you need to spend an hour doing curls three days a week to make your biceps bigger to live longer? What about the treadmill or the stairmaster? What about the stationary bike?”
It was true. I did tend to avoid the cardiovascular area of the gym … wait, weren’t we talking about hair?
“You’re right, honey,” I said. “I need to do more cardio and less macho. I get that. But I don’t get the hair-coloring thing. Isn’t coloring what little hair I have left like buying a new set of tires today for a car I totalled yesterday? Won’t I look a little ridiculous?”
As I said, we’ve been down that road — 200 miles of it, more or less. In spite of my wounded vanity, I’m pretty sure the issue isn’t about hair as much as it’s about mortality, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” I am a good bit older than my wife, but it’s not something either of us thinks much about … unless a few gray insurgent whiskers appear to remind us. One thing we can agree on: she doesn’t want me to “leave the buffet” too early, if you know what I mean, and I don’t want to leave it. Why shouldn’t we be able to hammer out a truce on that sturdy foundation?
I may color my hair. Don’t bet against it. Maybe there is some kind of syllogism that can be worked out between looking young, acting young and living longer. But just in case, I’m definitely getting on that damned treadmill.
By Chris Cox
I did not expect to, but I feel sorry for Enka Middle School teacher Rex Roland, who made national news last week when WLOS aired a story that he had written the words, “-20 percent for being a Loser” — with the word “loser” underlined twice — on the paper of a sixth-grade girl. Her mother appeared on the newscast demanding that something should be done about this, claiming that he had done the same thing in the fall and had been warned then by school officials not to do it again.
According to reports, Roland — who has since been suspended — said that he had apologized and that it was part of his teaching style. Somehow, for him, writing the word “loser” on a student’s paper helps him to better “relate” to his students. As a parent, educator, and columnist, I could not get to my keyboard fast enough to pound out an editorial demanding that this insensitive clod be removed from teaching so that he could pursue a profession that better suits his “style.” Perhaps he would make an excellent clown in a dunking booth, shouting insults at his customers — just part of the show, you know — but a middle school teacher? No thanks.
Just as I was getting ready to sit down and write this column, WLOS aired yet another report, this time with the mother sharing examples of a hundred or more Facebook posts, text messages, and emails deriding her 11-year-old daughter. Many of the messages were hostile. Some were even threatening. The reporter said pages had been established on Facebook both in support of the teacher, as well as one seeking his removal.
I visited both pages, and was surprised to see that more than 300 people — including many students, former students, and parents who knew Roland — had joined the group, with literally dozens and dozens of testimonials of how kind and helpful he had been with them. The general tenor of the comments was that, yes, the teacher did use this type of language to “joke around” with his students. Many students said that he had called them “losers” as well, and they knew he was just kidding. One girl claimed he had thrown her shoes in the hall, as well as her school supplies. Like a lot of others on the board, she wondered how this incident could have been taken so seriously and blown so far out of proportion. Indeed, I saw a banner story on the incident — complete with video — on Yahoo on Saturday, as well as a news report in a paper in the UK. The story had not only become national news, but international.
Because Rex Roland has suddenly become the national poster boy for “worst practices,” embarrassing local school officials, I would be surprised if he escapes with his job, and that the suspension is merely a prelude to a much more permanent outcome, despite an impressive show of support, however misguided some of it may be. I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to come to this. Based on many of the anecdotes shared by his students and the parents of those students, Roland has some good qualities that you would want in a teacher. But whatever those qualities may be, under no circumstances can writing “loser” on a student’s paper — or calling any student a “loser,” even in jest — be rationalized or defended, not by the teacher, his students, parents, or the school system. If this is a part of his strategy to “connect” with middle school kids — to “get down to their level” — it is a strategy that should have been obvious to any administrator who is part of the school system. It should have been made clear to Roland long ago — he has been teaching at the school for 12 years — that calling students names may be “getting on their level,” but that one big part of being a teacher is getting students to a higher level by modeling good behavior and teaching respect for themselves and each other.
While some students may respond favorably to such “buddy buddy” tactics, other, less confident, students would likely be harmed by Roland’s tactics. I have read posts written by students and parents who insist that this girl should toughen up and “get a sense of humor.” Most of the students who have written these posts do not yet have enough sensitivity or life experience to know any better, but their parents ought to be deeply ashamed.
Making this 11-year-old girl out to be the villain in this story does their cause much more harm than good, and her mother only did what any decent parent would do, and that is protect her daughter. If Roland is the compassionate man that they claim he is, he ought to stand up now and call for an abrupt end to any more messages directed at this student or her family. If the school system has a “muzzle” on him, pending an investigation, they ought to meet with him now to craft some type of statement asking that supporters leave the girl and her mother alone. Threats have been made about what will happen when this girl returned to school this week. A very clear statement ought to be issued that nothing of this sort will be tolerated, and that anyone acting out against this student will be sent home.
So, what actually happened here? It may well be that school officials WERE aware of this behavior and did issue strict, clearly defined warnings to Roland to stop. He might have been — or certainly COULD have been — offered professional development opportunities that would help him better understand the fragile psyches of his student population. At the very least, he should have been given very clear directives for appropriate and inappropriate humor. But was he? Given the context of the comments, it seems that this was a day-to-day part of his teaching style, which would mean that if even if such warnings were issued, they were either not heeded or not taken very seriously by either Roland or the school officials who issued them in the first place.
If that is the case, the school system failed Roland every bit as much as he failed it, and now everyone loses.