Wednesday, June 25, 2008

 

In Which We Are Poor in Taste, but Rich in Something Else...


I hate talking about money. It's in poor taste and is nobody's business anyway, or so my parents always taught me. To their mind, money talk usually led you in one of only two directions--bragging because you thought you had a lot, or whining because you thought you didn't have enough. I'm not sure which was a worse offense in their minds.

And yet, money is one of the great driving forces of life, much as we might wish it wasn't, and it's been much on my mind lately, so I'm hoping my parents (and you, dear reader) will forgive me for being in poor taste today (something which has never stopped me before, of course, so why should it slow me down now?).

I never knew how much money my parents had or made, not the entire time I was growing up and even after their deaths, when it became my job to sort through their finances, it was still a bit of a mystery to me. My parents had had money in a lot of different banks over the years and dabbled in a variety of investments (almost none of them successful) and they never threw out a single statement, so it was hard to wade through 10 boxes of paperwork, trying to figure out what was still active and what wasn't. But based on what I did know about my parents and money, I was pretty sure most of the accounts I was looking at would turn out to be empty.

I would never call myself poor growing up--my brother and I never lacked for anything we really needed. There was always plenty to eat, a full pantry. We never lacked for proper clothing--new school shoes, warm winter jackets, and the like. We never went without.

And yet, I was always painfully aware how tight money was. My Dad worked in construction, as I've mentioned, and throughout the 1970s, he was forever being laid-off and looking for work at a new construction site, often away from home. And when he did get a job, he always worked the night shifts, the shutdowns, the jobs that paid as much money as he could make in the time that he had on the clock. In this manner, he was able to squirrel away funds for the slack times, when he would be laid off. He always signed up for unemployment when he was out of work--my Dad was not a ridiculously proud man about such things; he was a realist. Unemployment benefits were something he paid into, was entitled to, so he got it whenever he was eligible for it. But it was seldom enough and so he needed to rely on what savings he could set aside when he was working.

If you were to chart our financial course through life, it would be pretty rollercoasterish. When Dad was working and had a steady paycheck, we'd be riding high, and everyone was notably relieved. We never splurged, but we reveled in being flush, in having money in the bank. When Dad was between jobs, we'd hold our breaths a little as we began the long plunge to the bottom of the ride. Dad and Mom would stretch and stretch our money til the bitter end. Often, the last month or so before he'd start a new job, things felt pretty bleak. Even though all our basic necessities were met, there was no room for error, for unanticipated expenses. When I was 6 or 7, our family car was a battered 1970 Volkswagen Beetle. One winter, mom was driving us to a friend's house, hit a patch of ice and sent us spinning into a stone wall on the edge of the road. The car had no seatbelts and I hit the back of the driver's seat with my face, biting almost through my lip. It hurt, but the familial worries over money had filtered down to me so thoroughly that I remember being more worried about the car than about my lip and the blood running freely down the sides of my mouth. My Mom, I must say, felt exactly opposite, not even glancing at the car until she was sure I hadn't bitten off my tongue and had stuffed my mouth full of napkins from McDonald's (we always had a large supply of restaurant napkins in our house and cars. It saved the expense of tissues and paper towels). The car was in serious need of front-end realignment, and it was weeks before my parents could pay for the repairs and get the car out of the garage. That was the winter I remember walking everywhere, and hitching rides off virtually all of our neighbors. The repairs only amounted to about $150, but that was almost a month's worth of groceries for my family, and it hit us hard.

And as I learned later, my parents had other expenses to take care of. They had a mortgage on the house, of course, and they still owed money on one car. In order to save on rent wherever he worked, my Dad had bought an Open Road camper that he put on the back of his pick-up. He bought it from a friend for something like $500, a serious expense at the time. But the friend didn't charge interest--he was a "pay me when you can" kind of guy. My Dad was religious about paying him something every month, but it wasn't much--only 20 or 25 bucks at a time. That camper lasted a good 10 years and more than paid for itself, but until Dad paid it off, it was one more bite out of the paycheck.

A more serious expense, though I didn't know it at the time, was my Dad's education. He had gone to a 2-year associate's program in welding engineering at the New Hampshire Vocational Technical College in Manchester, back in 1962 or 63. Despite the expense it represented, my Dad was a big believer in the value of a college education, although I'm not quite sure where this belief came from. His own father had dropped out of school after the 8th grade and spent every day of his life working thereafter. When my Dad, as a high-school junior, had announced his wish to go to college, my grandfather--my grandmother too--told him in no uncertain terms that he would be wasting his time on "foolishness," and even if they could help him (my grandparents had no money to speak of either), they wouldn't. In the end, my Dad had to move out, renting a tiny apartment in Manchester with 5 other guys. He got two jobs--a janitorial position at the college, which he was able to work between classes (I will leave the reader to imagine the indignity he must have suffered pushing a mop and bucket around the hallways as people he'd shared a classroom with only minutes before watched him pass by); and a dishwashing job at an all-night diner, which paid almost nothing, but had the perk of allowing him free supper and whatever food he was supposed to pitch because it had gone stale or was more than a day old, but which instead he kept in a Styrofoam cooler by the back door and took home.

Aside from his living expenses, my Dad took out at least two student loans to help defray his tuition. Some years later, when my brother and I were still little, Dad took some summer courses at Purdue out in Indiana. The courses were focused on topics and training that would position him to work in the nuclear power industry (in particular on the massive cooling systems needed to keep nuclear power plants safely operating), which, whatever the controversy surrounding nuclear energy, presented a great career opportunity for my Dad. But the courses weren't cheap and to take the courses Dad had to take a month or six weeks off work to complete them. I'm pretty sure he took another student loan of some kind to pay for them. My Dad spent most of his adult life paying off his student loans--it was the one debt I remember him talking most about--but he never regretted it. In fact, when it was my turn to go to college, he was the first one to suggest I apply for a guaranteed student loan, perhaps not realizing that I would end up accruing more than 30 grand in the damn things before my academic career was over.

As I said, Dad was a big believer in college, still a rare thing among his peers. I overheard him talking to a colleague about it at a company barbecue once, and the friend summed up the position of most people my Dad knew and worked with. "Hey, if my kid wants to go to college, that's great, but he's gonna have to find a way to pay for it himself. Scholarships, loans, whatever. If he can't get a scholarship, I guess maybe he's not smart enough to go. In which case, he better hunker down and get a job, even if that means taking 6 or 8 years to get his degree. If he wants it bad enough, he's gotta work for it."

My Dad had a different philosophy, which I remember him sharing with us long about the time my Big Brother was getting ready to take the SATs for the first time, which means I would have been a freshman in high school, or thereabouts.

"Here's the deal," he said to my brother, although he gave me enough eye contact to make it clear that the same deal applied to me. "You apply to wherever it is you want to go. If you're smart enough to get accepted, then by God I'll be smart enough to figure out how to pay your way. I expect you to do your part--apply for scholarships or grants or whatever, and you take advantage of whatever student loans you can get--but beyond that, you let your mother and me worry about it."

The more I think about it, the more I realize what a remarkable commitment that was. Especially for my brother and me, who were (and sadly remain) not exactly geniuses. BB got into Johnson and Wales in Providence, thinking he'd like to be a chef (he turned out to be wrong, but by the time he was willing to admit he hated cooking as a career, he'd already spent four years trying to earn a two-year degree. It hadn't occurred to him that the reason he kept failing--and having to retake--certain courses was because he didn't like the work, not because he was incapable of doing it). My brother got student loans--which I'm sad to say he is still paying off--but no scholarships. Luckily for him, his tenure at college came mostly during a time when my Dad had been working steadily for almost four years, at a nuclear plant in the Pacific Northwest, where he was a foreman. I never knew how much money he made, but it was obviously the most he'd ever made in his life, as it was the only time I can remember that my parents did anything remotely resembling a splurge: they remodeled the kitchen for one thing, buying all-new appliances (a thing unheard of for my parents, who were forever buying second-hand). They paid off the cars, and they not only pre-paid my brother's tuition for two years, but also bought him a used car and gave him ample spending money.

But I guess they should have been saving that money a bit more, because by the time I was ready to go to college, my Dad had hit bottom as a drunk and had spent most of my senior year of high school either in jail or in rehab. What money my parents had squirreled away went pretty quickly towards household bills, and also my father's assorted medical bills, which were largely uncovered by his insurance.

I, meanwhile, had been accepted to my school of choice, a modest-size private university in New York, then very highly regarded for its arts-and-sciences and communications schools. A four-year education at this school cost somewhere around $65,000--not quite twice what my brother's tuition at J&W cost. My student loans covered half of that cost, and I managed to make up another $14,000 in scholarships, two of them essay contests that I won using my only talent--my ability to write unmitigated bullshit. I worked several jobs at college to cover my living expenses, but in the final tally, that still left a little over $20,000--five grand a year--that my parents insisted on paying. Til their dying day, my parents always made a big deal about how hard I'd worked to defray my own college expenses, leaving them with comparatively little to cover, but these things are relative. Five thousand dollars was a lot of money, and at a time when my family could least afford to spend it. I found out later that my Dad went into deep personal debt--a high-school pal was president of the local bank where he lived in New Hampshire, and extended Dad a loan when no one else would. Dad made other painful sacrifices as well, selling off beloved antique firearms, parting with a significant portion of his boyhood coin collection, and other things I'll probably never know about.

I carried a lot of guilt about this for years, but once I had kids of my own and started to think about setting aside money for their schooling (it's never too soon to start!), I began to see that my Dad's commitment to his kids' education was as much for him as it was for us. It was a personal accomplishment that he took a great deal of pride in, not simply because he worked his ass off to support us, but because he'd instilled an ideal in us, furthered his family in a way that no previous generation had.

In one of his last visits to my house, he overheard me talking to Thomas one morning at breakfast. My son, then about 8 years old, had wanted to know what college was. I gave him the Reader's Digest version, and my son had extracted from it what most 8-year-olds would--abject horror at the idea that, after 12 years of public schooling, he would then have to leave home and study another two to four years to earn a degree.

"I don't want to do that," he said, very seriously. "I want to stay home with you and Mom."

"Well, sir, you can do that too. Just look at your uncle BB!" Dad chimed in.

We had a little laugh about that, but then I told Thomas, "Listen, you've got a long time before you have to think about it. But trust me: when you get older, you're going to feel differently about this. Just think: you could go to school to study art, or to learn how to design computer programs or video games. Or you could become a man who digs up dinosaur bones for a living. You can do anything you want. All I'm saying is, when you're ready, I'm going to make sure you get to go wherever it is you want."

My Dad was silent then, and could only look at me, his eyes shining. It was the first time he'd heard what was clearly a deeply held belief articulated by one of his own children, and I know it gave him immense satisfaction.

What I didn't know was that the old man kind of cheated on me. Which brings me to why I'm even writing about this.

After a year of wading through papers and writing to assorted banks and financial institutions, and dealing with the attorney hired to handle my parents' estate, I've just confirmed something I had begun to suspect months ago. Which is that my parents were a lot smarter or luckier (or both) with their money in their later years than they were when I was growing up.

Because it turns out they set aside something for each of their grandchildren, even the baby they never got to meet. It's a bit Byzantine how it's set up--all in their names, in such a way that I can't touch it (neither can they, til they're old enough). Perhaps my Dad feared that one day my own financial straits would become as desperate as his once were, and he wanted to spare me the temptation. Or maybe he just worried that BB would hit me up for a loan. But that's all incidental. Nothing changes the essence of this moment.

Which is that, essentially, my children's college educations are paid for.

I was strangely upset and disturbed by this realization yesterday. Because, after all, that was supposed to be my job, my commitment to my kids. My Dad should have been spending that money, enjoying it, using it to see to his and my Mom's happiness.

Except, of course, I realize now that that's exactly what he was doing.


I hate talking about money. It's in poor taste and is nobody's business anyway, or so my parents always taught me.

But, as you must surely understand by now, this has nothing to do with money at all.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

 

In Which We Play to Our Strengths...

Well, my fellow Tweeters got an early alert, but last night was the final game in the tournament for my son's Little League team. Thomas's team, the Reds, showed great promise early in the season--power hitting and some solid pitching. But long about mid-season, when the rains started and games were delayed, they lost their momentum and ended up in the basement (and in these parts, that's a mighty soggy basement).

Thomas in particular seemed to suffer a crisis of confidence. His pitching turned sour in his second turn on the mound and the coach never put him back in there. When Thomas asked if he'd have a chance to pitch any more, the coach answered, "I don't think so, Thomas. We're coming up on the tournament and I've got to start playing people to their strengths. Do you understand?"

(I just happened to be clinging to the outside wall of the dugout like a howler monkey and so overheard everything.)

Thomas understood. There are three absolutely outstanding pitchers on the team--two of them devastating lefties. With practice, Thomas might improve, but there wasn't enough time this season.

And then the coach demonstrated why he's such a good coach.

"So, Thomas, what are your strengths?"

My son looked up. "I'm good in the field." He said.

"No, you're great in the outfield," he answered. "You know how many players on this team have consistently shagged flies from deep left and center? Only you. Last game, when that ball went over third base's head and it looked like the other team would score, who dug it out like a hero and snagged the ball, Thomas? You're a solid infielder too, so I'll probably alternate you between outfield and shortstop or second. Okay?" Thomas allowed that was okay.

I've had some mild arguments with other parents over the increasing competitiveness of baseball as the kids age, but I have to say, 9 years old is just about the right age to be exposed to the rigor of competition, to start facing up to some limitations, and realizing that in life others are going to make judgments about you and place restrictions on you. I'm not saying the coach was right in his opinion about my son and his potential or strengths. I'm just saying it's not a bad age to be faced with some challenges, such as resolving to excel in an area and change the opinions of others, or resolving to play to your strengths and absolutely own that thing at which you already excel.

Growing up, I tended to be the former. I hated it when people pigeonholed me. I often misconstrued it as being underestimated (which was not always true) and so became obsessed with proving people wrong. But as time has gone on, I've come to accept the joy and pride that can come from honing what gifts you may have (large or small) and learning to master them. Thomas, already wiser than his old man in that regard, opted to play to his strengths.

So we've spent many nights practicing in the back yard, me throwing impossible fly balls every whichaway, pegging line drives, lobbing awful bouncing grounders at him. Thomas's outfield instincts are generally pretty solid for his age, but he recognized that for infield work, he was going to have to be less timid about getting in front of the ball, and definitely more aggressive about tagging runners. As the season wore on, the opposing teams were becoming increasingly belligerent, sliding with spikes out, runners deliberately charging basemen to get them to drop the ball, that sort of thing. During a mid-season game as shortstop, Thomas had been knocked a good one in the hip by a churlish little thug from the Yankees and it left a mark on him in more ways than one.

As we headed into tournament play, things looked difficult for the Reds. They had sunk so far in the standings that they were going to have to win every game they played in order to make it to the final round of the tournament, which was not a handicap for some of the higher ranked teams, who could afford to lose at least one or as much as two games and still have some wiggle room for advancement. But over the course of the past two weeks, my son's teams did phenomenally well, winning every game. Until Saturday, when they lost--and lost hard--to another team.

We thought that was the end, but then something unexpected happened: another team dropped out of the tournament for reasons that have yet to be made clear to me--one rumor held that one of the coaches went nuts on an umpire or one of the parents and the team was barred from the tourney, but another rumor (I think this the more likely one) is that too many of the players were going away on summer vacation and the team no longer had enough players to play.

Whatever the reason, it created an odd little hiccup in the standings, which was resolved by allowing Thomas's team into what was now a two-game final round. In the first game, the top two teams would duke it out for first and second place. In the second game, Thomas's team, the underdogs by a long way, would get to play for third or fourth place. Although, of course, we all know there is no fourth place. Fourth place is the goat, man.

Oh, and just to make it interesting, they were going to be playing against the Yankees.

"Oh, they're so mean and rough, Dad," Thomas told me one night not long before the game. "I hope coach keeps me in the outfield. I don't want to be anywhere near Number 6--that guy who hit me before."

Kind, loving Dad that I am, I responded, with all the compassion I could muster, "Hey buddy, you gotta man up and be aggressive. You gonna let some nose-breathing Yankee own you?" I asked. Clearly, I've been a Red Sox fan for far too long.

For some reason, my son, who is an anxious child, did not take quite as much comfort in this counsel as I had hoped, and so I had to temper it by reminding him to play to his strengths, just as his coach had been telling him, to trust in the countless hours of practice we'd spent together in the back yard.

"And don't be afraid of the ball when you're batting. Get a little closer to the plate when you're swinging," I added. Hey, never said I was a perfect Dad.

The game started just as work was ending for me, so I was a little late getting to the park. Almost 40 minutes late. By the time I got there, the news was grim: the nose-breathing Yankees had scored six runs in their first at-bat. We had three runs. Within another inning, it was 8 to 3, in favor of the Yankees. Things looked very bad indeed.

I edged over to the outside dugout wall and did my Spider-Man impression. I peered over the top and saw Thomas sitting inside and hissed to him. He looked at me with a grimace of pain and worry.

"This is my last time playing baseball, ever!" he said.

Oh crap! I thought. "Why? What--?"

"It's too much. And now we're losing. I hate it!"

I was nonplussed. Clearly my aggressive-Dad talk had been useless, but so had all my years of being the decent, hey-no-strain-it's-just-a-game Dad. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe 9 was too soon to be putting a boy through the wringer.

"Listen," I finally said, "you just focus on what the coach tells you and do your best. It is just a game you know."

Thomas looked at me evenly. "Dad, that is such a load of crap." Then he turned his back on me and I slunk away.

And then, as so often happens at this level of play, things suddenly turned around. The Yankee pitching fell to pieces. Slowly, we began racking up the runs. By the third inning, it was 8 to 6, Yankees, with two outs on us, as Thomas came to bat. He managed to get to first and advance a man to third. As he touched his base, he briefly, tensely waved to me, who was hanging limply over the fence on the first-base line. "Be ready to steal," I rasped hoarsely, having already yelled my lungs out in the last inning and a half. I guess he took me literally, because the moment the ball left the pitcher's hand, Thomas bolted, barely sliding safe to second. But it put him in perfect position for the next batter, who belted a line drive between first and second. The man on third scored and the third-base coach signaled Thomas to wait. He didn't. He charged on as the Yankees threw the ball home. The catcher snagged it, turned to tag...and Thomas limboed under him, sliding home. The game was tied.

Wait, it got better. This new development so flummoxed the Yankee pitcher that he walked the next runner. With two men on base, the next batter hit a ball deep to right and stretched a triple into a freaking home run. It was now 11 to 8.

It was like a dream--a dream where I was whispering "I can't fucking believe it!" quite a lot. The inning eventually ended with our team at 12 to their 8, but there were still two more innings left to play.

Things got really tense next inning, as the Yankees came up to bat. Why? I'll tell you why: because the coach suddenly took Thomas out of center field (where he'd been doing some great back-up for the infield but had had no serious challenges hit out to him all game) and put him at second base.

From way over on the first-baseline fence, eyes crossed, tongue hanging out, I was still cognizant enough to see my son's tense face. He was exactly where he didn't want to be. He kept sneaking glances over at me and I had no idea what to say. Finally, I just cried. "Remember what you practiced! Do the work! Be aggressive!" Dear God, I'd become a walking cliché. Or a tone-deaf cheerleader.

Thomas wasn't the only one who began to get tense. Two Yankee batters struck out, but three scored, making the tally 12-11, our lead hanging by a thread. With two outs and a man on third, and our team smelling the smell of goat in the air, guess what nose-breathing Yankee stepped to the plate?

I saw Thomas go rigid as his nemesis, Number 6, began his practice swings. He was a chunky boy and, if memory served, a good hitter. He bludgeoned home plate with his bat a couple of times and yelled, "C'mon! C'mon!" to the pitcher. Thomas stood stone still with anticipation.

On his second swing, Number 6 sent the ball right over Thomas's head, and it looked like the Yankees would tie it up. The man on third began trotting home. But Number 6 wasn't trotting. As the right fielder scrambled for the ball, Number 6 bulled around first, charging for second.

And I swear to God, as the outfielder snapped the ball to Thomas, I saw that nose-breathing little Yankee bastard change his course on the baseline so he could plow into my boy.

But the outfielder had thrown the ball just a smidge too hard. Thomas took one fateful step back, just out of the path of the bull, caught the ball, then swung around blindly to tag the runner.

And caught him right in the nuts.

Number 6 dropped like a stone and across the park, men and boys alike joined in the chorus of the Great Manly "Ohhh-hhhh-hh!"

Except for the umpire, who simply shouted, "Out!"

Thomas, good guy that he his, stayed on the field as his teammates headed in, leaning over the player who had once been his nemesis. The coaches converged, there was some hubbub, but none of it was over the low blow, which even an unbiased spectator could see was made blindly and innocuously.

Still, it was a sweet moment.

Of course, Dad that I am, I would want you to think it was that play that made the game, but in fact there was still another inning to play. We didn't score anything in our at-bat, so when the Yankees took their last turn (this time with Thomas in centerfield), there was still every chance they could tie or win. What really carried the day was some stellar pitching as the Reds hurler managed to strike two Yankees out. The last batter hit a bouncing grounder between first and second base, but the right fielder quickly relayed it to first and that was the game.

You wouldn't think it possible to get so excited about someone taking third place, but let me tell you, third place beats the hell out of fourth place.

As we headed off to the party one of the moms was holding at her house (a party we would never find, sadly, since yours truly got hopelessly lost), we had a long talk about the season, a talk that was really a dance around a certain question, which I finally managed to ask.

"So, you think you're going to play next year? It only gets more competitive, you know. But you're certainly up to it," I added.

Thomas was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, "I don't know yet. Let me think about it."

I'm not a thinker. I'd have done a gut check and answered right away. But not Thomas. He was playing to his strengths.

Which, like taking third in a baseball tournament, was more than good enough for me.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Monday, June 16, 2008

 

In Which We Remember Dad (and the Coyote)...



In my family, we never celebrated Father's Day. Or Mother's Day, come to that. It wasn't that my big brother and I were ungrateful shits (well, I'll admit on occasion that in fact we WERE ungrateful shits, but not all the time), but it was just not an occasion my parents believed in. More than once I heard my mom dismiss these days as "greeting-card holidays" and so we followed suit.

Thus it is that I cannot honestly remember a single instance of doing anything for my Dad on Father's Day. Not a card, not breakfast in bed, nothing. And we were all okay with that. After all, it's not as though we ignored him on real red-letter days, at Christmas or on his birthday. In fact, we always went to some lengths to treat him quite well on his birthday (which was the first of June, making any subsequent June festivities seem redundant). Father's Day, though? Total non-event in our house.

So how do you explain the fact that I spent a solid two hours yesterday, sitting in the dark, crying for my Dad?

A little context: At the Magazine Mansion, and largely under the influence of Her Lovely Self, Mother's Day and Father's Day are big deals. I go along with it because, hey, why not? Yesterday, I got to sleep in, I got a nice breakfast with all my favorites, and then for my afternoon enjoyment, Thomas and the Brownie announced that they would take me to any movie I wanted to see--as long as it was Kung-Fu Panda.

So off we went to see this animated spectacle which, if you haven't seen it, involves a number of anthropomorphized animals engaging in various energetic moments of chop-socky, culminating in a fight between Dustin Hoffman and Ian McShane, right before Jack Black shows up to save the day (sorry, but I have a memory for voices and once I figure out who's voicing which character, the animation magic falls away for me and next thing I know I'm watching Tootsie fight the evil whorehouse owner from Deadwood as they wait for the fat guy from School of Rock to put in an appearance).

Now let me say, in all fairness, it was a pretty funny movie, as these kinds of movies go. When I take my kids to the movies, I try to put myself in their mindset and enjoy it as much as possible, which helps me bond with my children, and also makes me feel immensely superior to the wise-cracking, eye-rolling, cynical adults around me, who obviously have forgotten what it's like to be a kid.

But yesterday, something happened that I didn't expect.

Because the movie has a kung-fu theme, it revolves around a lot of physical comedy. And as I was watching, I was suddenly reminded of the old Road Runner and Coyote cartoons that used to run on CBS when I was a kid (and as shorts in movie theaters decades before my birth).

My Dad loved slapstick and physical comedy, and the Road Runner cartoons were full of it. When I was growing up, if my Dad was home on the weekend, my brother and I had to be extra-quiet going out to the family room to watch cartoons. Often as not, my Dad had driven home late the night before and was still sleeping, and therefore not to be disturbed. It was understood that we were to wake him for only two reasons: if the house was on fire, or if there was a Road Runner cartoon on.

As long-time readers know from previous posts (which I don't have the heart today to dig up and link here), my Dad was an alcoholic who did not sober up until I was almost an adult. I won't guild the lily: he was erratic in his behavior and often abusive to my mom and us boys. He never put us in the hospital, but he beat us enough that today I can't imagine any situation in which I could bring myself to lay a hand on my kids (which I've heard runs counter to the conventional psychology regarding adults who were physically abused as kids, but I'm not complaining). Still, he was my only Dad and I didn't know what else to do but to love him and to live for those moments when he was kind and funny. And the best of those moments was when we watched Road Runner cartoons together.

And as I watched this movie with my kids, watched the hapless panda flop bonelessly down endless flights of stairs, or saw the villain fall from a great height or any of a dozen other moments of someone getting unexpectedly brained, I swear I could hear my Dad's high, harsh laughter echoing in the theater, as it so often echoed in our family room in the house in Goffstown, New Hampshire, as we watched the Coyote take his ten-thousandth fall from the canyon heights, usually with a large boulder or an Acme-brand anvil falling right behind him. "Ohhh jeezuz!" my Dad would cry, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. "That poor dumb bastard!"

Pretty soon my own tears began flowing.

Thankfully, we were in a darkened theater and I had plenty of napkins acquired as accessories to the greasy popcorn we'd bought, so I was able to wipe my streaming eyes and make it appear that I just really enjoyed the movie. But I came out of the theater--and spent the rest of the day--in a much more introspective mode.

My Dad was quick with a laugh, but taken as a whole, it would be hard to find any great abundance of humor and joy in his life. He grew up poor on a hardscrabble farm. He was the third of four children and, near as I was ever able to tell, not much favored in his family. He started drinking at a very young age (there are tales of him dancing a jig on the table in his house when he was four and had his first snootful) and had to work or fight for everything he ever wanted. His parents actively discouraged him from going to college and refused to support him when he went anyway, incurring debts and loans that he would spend most of my childhood paying off.

Later, when he wanted to buy 120 acres of timberland from his father--land my grandfather neither used nor needed--the old man came very close to refusing to sell it to my Dad, and then finally set a price that was stingingly high, but which my Dad paid, check after check, for years. My Dad had plans to build a house on that property--it was considered a matter of fact for years and years. But eventually, about the time Her Lovely Self and I started having kids, Dad had to admit that he was probably past the age of putting in a cabin on the hill. That was when he ceded half of the acreage of the hill to me, gratis, in the hopes that I might build a place where my family could stay when we came to visit.

Despite his drinking, and the attendant rages that followed, I know he loved his family, so I can't imagine how it must have pained him to have spent so little time with us. My Dad worked in construction and there was none in New Hampshire where we lived, so he spent months away from us at various job sites throughout New England and Canada. When I was older, I once tried to math out how much time I got to spend with my Dad throughout my childhood, and it figured out to something like one month a year on average. For 16 years. I can't imagine being parted from my family for that length of time, and I have no doubt the loneliness he felt contributed to his drinking, so that by the time he finally came back home to live with us, he was in an advanced stage of alcoholism that almost killed him.

When he eventually sobered up for good, both of his sons had grown up and it was too late to make up for lost time. But he went gamely on, doing what he could to make his amends, and I have to say that he succeeded on a remarkable level. I like to think he enjoyed a bit of a golden age: He and I made our peace and in that time of peace he got to see his grandchildren, if only for a little while. But to the end, things were never easy for him. A painful shoulder injury forced him into retirement a couple of years sooner that he would have liked, but he was accepting of it. And then, not 60 days after his retirement papers were processed he ended up dead--my mom along with him--on a highway a thousand miles from home, the victim of a careless truck driver looking for a cell-phone charger.

Holy shit, how tragic is that?

And yet, I knew my Dad well enough to know that he would not look back on his life and call it tragic, nor joyless. He derived his joy and pleasure from everyday events, both mundane and, occasionally, downright frightening.

Once, not long after my Dad had entered his final tenure of sobriety--which would last 22 years, right up to his dying day--I was visiting him in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he had settled after coming out of rehab and getting a job at the Seabrook power plant there. It was the first time I'd spent any time alone with him since his drinking days, and there was a certain stiffness and distance between us that neither of us could find a way through. I was on summer break after my freshman year of college, and so I spent my days driving around town in my Dad's car and my evenings hanging out with him, either in the single bedroom he rented at a boarding house, or at the AA meetings he was religiously attending most every night. It was an awkward few weeks.

Then one night, Dad got a call from a coworker in trouble. The guy had been trying to quit drinking, but he'd fallen off the wagon and was at a bar in town and could my Dad come and get him?

Technically, my Dad had no business going into a bar for any reason, not this early in his sobriety. But apparently the friend's sponsor was unreachable and there was no one else this guy knew in town who could help him. My Dad didn't hesitate to tell him he'd be right there. Dad did hesitate slightly longer when I insisted on accompanying him, but he eventually agreed. I'm not sure why I wanted to go, probably because I was still suspicious of my Dad and didn't want him to sneak a drink at the bar or something. But of course, I was also bored out of my skull and thought this might prove an interesting night's diversion. So off we drove to the bar to rescue my Dad's friend.

Despite my tender age--I didn't turn 21 until late in my college career--I had been to a few bars at school, but the bars I went to were nothing like this bar. When we pulled up, I at first mistook the place for a condemned shack, that's the kind of bar it was. Rusted-out pick-ups and cars with doors and hoods whose paint-jobs didn't match all adorned the dusty lot that served as a parking area. As we got out, I could hear the kind of raucous noise and chatter that made me realize I was about to enter a place where only serious, career drinkers ever went. My Dad loped ahead of me with an easy grace and I wondered how many such shacks he'd spent his time and his money at in his long career as a drunk.

Picture your standard seedy, red-lit, smoky bar from any of your favorite working-class hero movies, and you'll pretty much have the look of this place, plus the smell of stale beer and fresh vomit for ambience. My Dad told me to stand at the door and I was only too happy to obey him. Big lumbering fellows, smelling of axle-grease and copper and body-odor, staggered to and fro, all of them too busy getting hammered to give me a second glance. My Dad approached the splintery slab that passed for a bar and leaned in to say a quick word to the bartender, a sullen man with a greasy shiny head, who pointed to a darkened corner. My Dad looked--from the door I followed his motion--and there in the corner sat a reed-thin man with an amazingly long, scraggly beard, weakly putting a hand up to gesture to my Dad. Mr. Scraggly, I couldn't help but notice, was flanked on either side by two of the most genuinely meanest looking men I ever hope to see. One had a long, scarred face with a single snaggle-tooth hanging from his upper lip. The other had black, beady eyes, which glittered when he turned to face my Dad.

As I later found out, Scraggly owed some money to one or both of these men, had owed this money for some time, and had made the mistake of bumping into them at this bar, and that this was probably the real reason he had called my Dad to help him. They sneered at Dad as he ambled over, taking in this odd-looking, short, big-bellied guy with the funny red beard.

"Who the fuck are you, Santy Claus?" Beady Eyes asked.

Dad got to the guts of it fairly quickly, saying that he'd come to give his friend a ride home. "You come out of there," he said to Scraggly, as if his friend didn't have two thugs barring his way. As Scraggly stood up and edged his way around Snaggletooth, Beady Eyes made some noise about no one going anywhere until he got his fucking money. Whereupon my Dad reached for his wallet, his other hand out in a mollifying gesture. He dropped all the money he had on the table--about a hundred bucks--and said Scraggly would pay up the rest when he could get it.

Then without another word, Dad grabbed Scraggly by the arm and they both turned towards me and the door. But I couldn't help but see that, as my Dad and his friend started walking away, Beady Eyes and Snaggletooth exchanged a meaningful look. And then all hell broke loose.

Here's what happened (although it was all too fast to really follow at the time): Beady Eyes pulled a knife and made a move, whether for my Dad or his friend, we'll never know. My Dad, who'd been watching them through a mirrored beer sign hanging on the wall, saw the whole thing, turned, and caught Beady Eyes' wrist. The knife flashed in the air and someone screamed.

(Okay, it was me. I screamed.)

People looked at my Dad, at his goofy beard and his big belly, and they dismissed him as a joke. It made it easy to overlook his arms, which were as strong as any I've ever known (I once saw him crush a brick with his right hand). Once he had that guy by the wrist, he wasn't going anywhere. Dad spun, ungainly yet graceful, like a kung-fu panda, then yanked hard, pulling Beady Eyes off his feet. The knife fell harmlessly from Beady Eyes' hand. Dad scooped the blade up and, still holding the guy by his wrist, laid the knife upside Beady Eyes' nose (his friend Scraggly insists my Dad placed the tip of the knife in the guy's nostril. I didn't see that.) Snaggletooth didn't budge from his seat, his eyes like saucers.

"By Gorry, we gonna have any more trouble tonight?" my Dad asked, his voice booming in the briefly quieted bar.

"Huh-uh. Huh-uh," Beady Eyes huffed.

"Alright then. Get the fuck out," he said, letting the guy go. But he kept the knife.

Beady Eyes jumped up, and without so much as a backwards glance at my Dad, his friend or his crony Snaggletooth, bolted for the back exit.

And ran face-first into it.

It was a metal door with a push-bar latch and was apparently locked or something, because Beady Eyes hit it like he'd run full-tilt into a wall. He bounced off the door and fell to the sticky, beer-and-puke laminated floor, to the general laughter of the bar patrons, including my Dad, who hurriedly ushered me and his friend out the front and back to the car.

Off and on, while driving Scraggly back to his apartment and then taking us home, my Dad just kept chuckling to himself, while I sat in the passenger seat, a little shell-shocked.

"You all right?" he finally asked, eventually realizing I hadn't enjoyed the moment quite as much as he had.

"I guess," I said. "But, that guy could've killed you!"

"Oh hell, that fella couldn't pour piss out of a boot with the instructions writ on the heel," he said. And then he began chuckling again. "Oh Christ, did you see how he hit the door?" And then he broke out into fresh gales of laughter. "Jeezuz," he finally gasped, wiping tears from his eyes, "I do love slapstick."

Which pretty much summed up my old man's philosophy of life. If anything, he saw past the dangers, the everyday tragedies, and regarded the whole as one great physical comedy, which might explain his love for those old Road Runner cartoons, and his especial adoration for that poor Coyote. Because let's face it: as much as that bastard's plans went awry, as often as he ended up on the wrong side of a boulder or cliff face, he always got back up and continued his pursuit.

So did my Dad.

That's what I was thinking about this Father's Day.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

 

In Which I Am Gravity's Bitch...

Well, we've had quite a stormy season, as you know. After our recent near-tornado adventure, a day or so later Her Lovely Self discovered a piece of metal flashing hanging from the roof, blown loose--but not completely loose--by the ferocious wind. So she tucked the flapping end into the window and left it for me to find (and if you watched the video in the last post, you know that I did).

After much hemming and hawing, and drawing out excuses about windy weather and rain-soaked ground for as long as possible, I finally called up my neighbor and borrowed his ultra-long extension ladder to go fix the thing.

This is not the first time flashing has come loose on the roof, and so it is not the first time I have had to face--and overcome--my not-quite-debilitating but often-amusing fear of heights. But the last time I went up the side of the Magazine Mansion to fix something on the roof, I was closer to the garage and so had a Plan B in case I fell from the ladder, a Plan B that involved the garage roof, rather than, say, a tree, or the ground.

Not this time. This time, the flashing was on the other end of the roof, near a tree and a stone wall, neither of which I had any desire to hit.

So it was with my usual brand of growing terror covered barely by bluff humor that I prepared myself to fix the thing.





Of course, I brought my latest obsession, the Flip Mino, along. Thus it is that you will be treated to some very shaky video of my growing double-chin, not to mention my nostrils, and all my strange shaving/acne/unfortunate accident scars below my jawline.

This next portion of our show is noteworthy because, as one early viewer observed, I began channeling my dead father (listen to the distinct New England inflection in the words "gawd-damn-ya!"), almost as if he had briefly possessed me in order to egg me on (the man was fearless about most things, especially heights). Almost makes up for later, when I kept repeating the same words and phrases over and over, like the nervous nellie I was.





Luckily, even with the wind blowing somewhat strongly, and the ladder wobbling like an old lady who forgot her walker, I managed to complete my task. And no, I didn't impale myself on the scissors. But of course the adventure was not entirely without incident.






I know, I know, you were totally expecting that, weren't you? So here's the surprise ending.





Despite the little hiccup this footage shows (and wouldn't YOU hiccup after falling off a ladder?), all was well, and I was able to get my neighbor's ladder back to them, get home, and get cleaned up just in time to watch the news.

And learn that we're under another tornado watch tonight.

But if anything else gets blown loose from my roof, it can goddamn dangle there like metal confetti until the frigging cows come home. I'm done with aerial acrobatics.

And so, I think it's safe to say, is that poor camera.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Saturday, June 07, 2008

 

In Which We Flip Out...

So, just got the new Flip video camera and am testing it out. As I'm sure all the rest of you know (because I assume I'm perpetually late to the party with these kinds of things), the Flip makes it easy to post video online. I have to say, it definitely does all the heavy lifting: soon as I plugged it into my USB port, the Flip walked me through the process like I was an idiot--or my brother--and before I knew it:




so that part was definitely pretty much as advertised. Have to noodle with the onboard editing software next, but first, I've promised Artlad that he can play with it this weekend.

More soon, whether you want it or not.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Friday, June 06, 2008

 

In Which We Head for the Basement...



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If you've been following along in the margin, you may have realized that while I have not been very industrious with the blog-posting of late, I have been busy on Twitter, which has proven very useful and fun in the way of providing brief updates (in the assumption that anyone cares) when I've been otherwise preoccupied.

As in the case of this series of Tweets last night:



magazineman Tornado just touched down <10 miles. Sirens blaring. On TV urging everyone seek shelter. Wife + baby downstairs + just carried kids t ... ... about 2 hours ago from web

magazineman Sorry got cut off. Everyone safe in basement. Taking laptop down Siren sounds like end of world. Never seen a TV weatherman so pale < ... ... about 2 hours ago from web



Although we've lived in an area prone to tornadoes for some time now, this is the first time in ages I could remember being so close to one--indeed, I'd probably have to go back to my youth in Kansas. When we first moved there from New Hampshire, tornadoes were both wondrously real and strangely legendary. I remember well my first week at school there, which was also the first time I ever experienced a tornado drill.

In the event of a tornado, as I would come to learn over and over, we were instructed to open all the windows in the classroom (something about the change in air pressure could cause a building to implode if you didn't open the windows. Everyone knew that) and then repair to the corridors outside the classrooms. This took me by surprise the first time it happened. Having seen The Wizard of Oz on TV, I assumed we'd be marched out back to the root cellar. Except the school wasn't equipped with one. It had a proper basement, of course, but it was not one that was large enough to accommodate the student body. And so, once in the hall, our instructions were to simply sit on the floor and curl up with our heads down, arms clasped over our necks, and wait for the tornado. "They might as well tell you to bend over and kiss your asses goodbye," my father remarked with a mix of disgust and...something else...in his expression, when we demonstrated the tornado-drill pose for him that night.

As you can imagine, this kind of drill had a cumulative effect on the imagination of a child, especially on one like me, who had been raised on a regular diet of disaster scenarios. We saw tornadoes in school films and on the news, but now that we were in Kansas, the very heart of tornado country, I longed to see one for real, in person.

By the end of our first summer in Kansas, I came as close to a tornado as I (in hindsight) would ever like, when one briefly touched down on the roof of our house in the middle of the night. And while the damage (when we eventually discovered it) was impressive, I still felt a bit cheated, because at the time, I'd had no idea I was underneath a tornado, and also it had been pitch dark, so there was no chance of seeing it.

The next summer, though, was something else again.

My brother and I were riding our bikes up and down the driveway one afternoon shortly after the school year had ended, so that would put it in--what?--early June, I guess. It had been a hot day, but now a refreshing--and I must add, increasingly potent--breeze had sprung up. We delighted in pedaling to the end of the driveway against the wind, and then turning and stretching out our arms to see if the wind was strong enough to blow us back to the house. In the case of my Big Brother, who wore billowing t-shirts and had a lot more surface area than me--it actually worked.

And then the siren went off.

I'd heard the tornado siren maybe once before--it hadn't even sounded the night the tornado hit the roof--and when I'd heard it, it had been while we were in school and we were so busy opening windows and bending over to kiss our asses goodbye that I hadn't really noticed anything about the noise.

Such as the fact that when you're standing outside, the siren is really loud. The sound of it seems to almost go through you, shaking every molecule of your being as it passes. As I heard that powerful yet sickly warbling tone, as I felt it set every structure in town a-thrumming, I realized that I was listening to pure dread distilled in sonic form.

I wasn't the only one. BB half-jumped, half-fell off his bike and sprinted for the safety of our immense stone house. But I stood there, rooted more by fear than anything, I'll admit. I felt almost queasy as I tried to stuff that sense of dread back down my throat. But as I managed to get a purchase on my fear, I began turning slow circles there on the driveway, looking out across the horizon for something. To the west, some spectacularly purple clouds--where had they come from?--were filling the sky. The wind picked up and almost picked me up, so I hunkered down in classic tornado-drill position, but didn't bow my head. The siren droned on, my ears almost numb from the sound of it. The clouds kept rolling in. Trees in our yard were bent almost parallel to the ground.

And then, in the space of a blink, something strange happened. The wind just stopped. Just like someone had thrown a switch. Leaves that were swirling in the air in front of me just froze in the midst of their frenzied dance and then fell straight to the ground as though weighted. The air itself seemed to take on weight too. An unseen, oppressive force was suddenly pushing on me. I could feel it, especially in my ears, which suddenly wanted to pop.

It was then that I noticed something else: the sky had turned green. Not just the bruise-purple clouds, but everything else too, as though someone had replaced my glasses with lenses made out of old-fashioned green Coke bottles. The whole world was green.

And then I was yanked from the hunkering position to my feet. My mom, displaying strength and speed I didn't know she had, half-dragged, half-carried me back to the house. Just before we reached the door, the wind came back in one terrible crash and all the leaves that had fallen to the ground began blowing in their frenzy again. Dirt and debris suddenly filled the air as they hadn't before and I had to shield my eyes from it. I couldn't see, almost couldn't breathe. And as we staggered those last few steps to the house, I heard a squealing of metal from the west. I peered up and looked out across the yard, to the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks near my house. It was shaking in its foundations. And behind it, the great black wall of the funnel cloud was spinning towards it. And me.

It was the last thing I saw before my mom dragged me through the door and we collapsed to the floor. Every window in the house was open and so we heard the wind roaring through, heard doors being slammed open and closed upstairs, heard flower vases and picture frames falling from tables. We crawled to the back wall of the house, where the stone was laid thickest, and put our backs to it, curled up, arms over our necks--like the school, our house had no basement either.

The tornado passed right by, thankfully, missing the bridge (although it got twisted off-center and had to be fixed by the road crew) and our house and skipping off towards our neighbor's sorghum fields. But that cured me of my tornado curiosity forever, let me tell you.

So you can perhaps imagine my reaction last night when, for the first time in all our years at the Magazine Mansion, we heard the siren go off. The wind hadn't been kicking up all that much, but the siren put me on full alert. As I shook Her Lovely Self with one hand, the other was reaching for the remote. The TV blared to life and was tuned to our local news, where the pale weatherman was pointing to a map of the metro area and showing the radar overlay that clearly indicated a funnel cloud in the town next to ours. I left the TV on and bolted down the hall.

Having been raised by my mother, I naturally devised a disaster plan against this contingency, although really all it amounted to was agreeing that HLS would get the baby and I would get the other kids.

Unfortunately, it took some doing, as neither older child would wake and so I was forced to carry the Brownie under my arm and hoist Thomas on my shoulder, an effort that nearly put me in a tangle of broken limbs at the foot of the stairs. But at the last second, Thomas partially woke and walked himself down to the basement, where he promptly threw himself on the bed down there and went back to sleep. Ever the nervous one when bad weather is afoot, Thomas surprised us all by snoring through the whole thing. His sister did too, sprawled on the downstairs bed, one arm across her brother's back, both legs up on Blaze, who slept at her feet.

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It was a long wait there in the basement, as the siren droned on. Having brought my camera with me, I took a few pictures--and in a couple of these, you can see a shadow of the expression my dad had all those years ago, when I first demonstrated the tornado-drill position. I realize now his expression was one of disgust and stark terror at the thought of his children curled in a hallway while a storm approached. Then, having also brought the laptop down, I used Twitter to fritter my own terror away.



magazineman tornado <5 miles out. Spotter cameras showing something funnely. Havent been this close to one since age 12. Sure different when hav ... ... about 2 hours ago from web

magazineman Meant to say "sure is different when you have kids to worry about." Jesus. about 2 hours ago from web

magazineman Still here. Cable/power flickering but tornado appears to be moving away to the East. Please let everyone in that direction be safe about 2 hours ago from web




Eventually, after forever, the siren spun away to a murmur, then nothing. In its wake, a powerful thunderstorm rose up and shook the house with its rumble, but we already knew the danger had passed. I eventually got both older kids back up into bed while Her Lovely Self put the baby back down. When she came back into our room, I was sitting up in our bed, staring out a window while outside, rain lashed against the house.

"Why are you sitting like that?" she asked, and I realized that I was curled up, knees to my chest, head slightly down, arms clasped behind my neck.

"Oh, this? Just bending over to kiss my ass goodbye," I joked, unfolding myself. But a while later, as the rain continued to pour down and our sump pump began its subterranean roaring and the pale weatherman on TV now called out his flash-flood warnings, I found myself resuming the position. Not because I thought it would save my life, but because in its way, it felt strangely comforting. It surely was a different thing to experience storms now, with a family to worry about, and the knowledge that there really isn't anything you can do against the hard weather when it strikes, except perhaps to huddle up and hunker down.

Maybe the school administrators who came up with our tornado drills knew what they were doing after all.


Yours,
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From Somewhere on the Masthead


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