Nothing special

This morning I took my almost-four-years-old grandson to school.

His parents are out of town and though he spent the night with his maternal grandparents they both leave for work very early. So, I had the pleasure of driving to their home at 4:30AM and being on hand when Tyler awoke around 7:00.

He was very pleased to see me.

“Oh, yeah!”

Still wiping the sleep from his eyes he suddenly remembered that I would be here for him this morning. He flashed a drowsy grin and ran to me, bare feet slapping the wood floor, his favorite soft baby blanket slung over one arm. His arms went up as mine went down and I lifted him high over my head. We hugged and smiled as is our habit and standard greeting.

I guess he thinks I’m sort of special and for that great honor I know he is right.

At first I just sat on the couch and held him on my lap, allowing him to wake up gently.

I don’t like brisk, lively beginnings to a day. I like slow, quiet starts and I think Tyler does, too. At least this morning he did. I held him in my big, bear-like grandpa arms and spoke to him softly.

“Did you sleep good?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready for a great day?”

“Yeah!”

We talked like that for maybe ten minutes, me asking leading questions designed to put him in a happy frame of mind, him responding affirmatively and with increasing animation. Finally, we decided it was time to get dressed and off to school with a stop at McDonalds for breakfast.

And that’s the way my day began. No big deal and yet quite remarkable.

As I look back on nearly sixty years of life I am always amazed at how little of it I remember with any degree of detail or certainty. I remember the big things but not much of the ordinary and that just makes sense, really.

On a cold, dazzling-bright February morning Tyler and I ate eggs and sausage at McDonalds surrounded by old men in ballcaps sipping coffee and solving the world’s problems.

He’s not going to remember this.

I will never forget it.

Confession of an American Heretic

The young man was clean, well-groomed and polite.

“Going to watch the game Sunday?”

“Isn’t everybody?” I replied glibly without a split-second’s hesitation. I don’t know why. I’ve never done anything like that before. I know from more than fifty years of living that lies corrode one’s soul. Besides, when you lie about sports or politics  you inevitably get caught in your own web.

“Who’s going to win?” he smiled.

“Steelers,” I assured him. Where was this coming from? What malignant spirit had taken possession of me? Why was I fibbing about something of absolutely no consequence? And yet, I wasn’t finished.

“Is it going to be blowout?” the young man pressed while guiding the courtesy shuttle toward my home, which suddenly seemed a continent away. We couldn’t get there soon enough to shut me up.

“I don’t know,” I said with wrinkled brow, the very picture of a man examining his superior expertise, “I don’t think so but Pittsburgh’s defense is just too good for the Cardinals.”

Ten minutes earlier I had no idea who was playing in the Superbowl tomorrow. When I’m sitting in the waiting room of the Toyota dealer’s service department I’ll read anything I can find. Ten minutes earlier it happened to be the sports page, which I never read anywhere else.

And now I was lying to a clean young man, well-groomed and polite.

I could brush this off as a victim of cultural insistence. I am an American man. We worship at the alter of the NFL. While I have boldly, even cheerfully admitted to preferring chick flicks to action movies and my inherent ineptitude when the subject turns to Motor Trend magazine this — this is beyond the pale.

I don’t care about football. Not even the Superbowl.

Those were the most painful two sentences I have ever written. The shame is coursing through my stomach. I can’t stop thinking of my father and my sons. They expect more from me. I am grateful my camping buddies aren’t here to witness this. Confession may be good for the soul but it can torture the heart.

I don’t care one whit about football.

Please, let me be alone.

The way we were.

Sometimes I wonder if I have changed much over the past, say, fifty years. Beyond the obvious, I mean. Sure, I’ve learned a lot and had as many personally defining experiences as I’ve had heartbeats. I just wonder if I am essentially the same person I was as a child, a teenager; a 20-30-40 something.

Do we really change over time or do our personalities simply undergo the same sort of superficial aging that our bodies do?

I’m always looking at total strangers and trying to imagine them as children. Transients for example, the people we used to call “bums.” When you see a dirty man in tattered clothing drinking from a paper bag or pushing a shopping cart do you ever wonder what series of misfortunes took him where he seems to be? I say seems to be because none of us can fairly judge the lives of others but still, it seems clear that this downtrodden man is not the current visage of a once happy, fresh-faced child. Surely somebody once loved him. Maybe somebody still does.

What happened?

The other day I was in line at the supermarket and the woman in front of me was taking forever getting through the process. The checker had finished totaling the woman’s modest basket of products but now the customer was digging slowly through the contents of her purse looking for coupons. She found plenty but apparently not the ones she needed. As we all waited patiently the checker sent the bag-boy off to find the manager who then began to search through his office for the correct coupons. Meanwhile, the lady in front of me seemed oblivious to the growing line of increasingly irritated people behind her.

I was fine. I was in no hurry and found it kind of funny. I had a small wager going within myself that once the coupon crisis was solved, then and only then, the woman would begin looking for her checkbook and spend another five minutes writing the check, entering it into her records and deducting it from her balance. She might even pull out a handheld computer.

The oblivious are truly oblivious.

Meanwhile, the man behind me was commenting on the procedure.

“Can we get this thing going?”

“Jesus Christ, is everybody on strike here?”

“What the hell’s taking so long?”

He crabbed a new sentence approximately every thirty seconds. None of us responded but the checker looked at me and slyly rolled her eyes. I smiled. The oblivious woman saw and heard nothing.

At some point in all of this I began to wonder why this man in his sixties or seventies was so grouchy. Sure, he had only two items and had been waiting, as I had, for an inordinately long time to get through the checkout but it was a pleasant day. I couldn’t imagine that he needed to get somewhere with a bag of potatoes within the next five or ten minutes. Probably he was just going home to park himself in front of the TV and crab at his wife while she fixed his dinner.

How’d he get like that? And if I, a perfect stranger, thought he was being an ass what must his own family and friends, assuming he has any, think of him? What lovely part of his happy, gentle nature am I not seeing? Did he even have another side to him?

Not that it’s any of my business, of course. But, keeping my thoughts to myself I worked the process through to a logical conclusion.

What nice things would people find to say about this man at his funeral? They’d probably say things like, “He was strong in his convictions,” and, “He never backed down.”

I could be completely wrong, of course. I may well have just seen an unflattering moment in the life of the most wonderful husband, father and grandfather who ever walked the earth. But it did remind me that the way we treat others has eternal consequences. We make ripples.

I want to be remembered smiling, tolerant, patient, wise and goofy. I should start working on that memory right now.

Oh, and I was right about the checkbook.

Notes from SaturdayVille…

Today is Monday in most places but not where I live.

About four days into my recent unemployment something happened. I lost track of what day it was and suddenly my world defaulted to Saturday, our perennial American favorite.

All through my working adult life I have adored Saturdays and felt glum on Sundays. I suppose it’s because I knew Monday was coming and I hadn’t finished my homework and would have to take a bath and go to bed early. That sort of thing stays with you as long as you’re on the rat track. Even when I worked weekends and had, let’s say Wednesday and Thursday off, I would get that special little thrill of anticipation in each Friday and feel a growing, depression on Sundays. It’s a psychological habit, I guess and I may never kick it.

Now I begin each morning before daybreak at my computer with a thermos of coffee and our little dogs snoring happily at my feet. As daylight grows I begin to think of all the ways I can be productive and happy today. I think of the things I no longer have to do.

In SaturdayVille nobody seems to be in a general hurry without good reason. Stress is a word applied to the poor working stiffs. Clocks are mostly meaningless.

I know I’ll go back to work eventually and I’ll be happy about it. For now, though, a long break from the demands and routines of Sunday through Friday is delightful. Carolann and I may take a long trip in our motor home. Maybe I’ll finish my book. Maybe I’ll just take a nap and then watch some TV.

Life in SaturdayVille is idyllic. I think you’d like it.

Rainy days and Mondays…

I didn’t go to work today.

It’s a dark, unusually cold and rainy morning in Southern California, a Monday. The first day of the work week is usually a bit of a struggle because two days of being out of sync with my workday routines tends to throw me just a bit. It’s not that I ever have a case of Monday blahs, it’s just a psychological phenomenon I’ve had to deal with for as long as I can remember. Monday mornings are like turning the clocks ahead to Standard Time every seven days. It’s not big deal but merely a nagging one day oddity which I shouldn’t have to worry about for awhile.

I lost my job this past Friday.

I have always had the odd (you can say “weird”) habit of viewing my emotional reactions to things from a perspective of detachment.

I watch and try to analyze my emotions even as I am experiencing them. Many years ago I started kibbitzing my marriage counselor about how she might help me survive and prosper through my divorce. Now I am trying to understand why I am having my standard workday Monday funk even though I’m not working.

It’s cold and rainy. Did I mention I lost my job?

I’m going to study this for a bit because introspection is a tricky business. False conclusions beg for sudden embrace.

I love cold, rainy mornings. Truth be told, I liked the people very much but that job was very frustrating. So, why the funk?

Did I mention it’s Monday? That’s all it is. Just Monday.

You can overthink this crap to death.

Merle

A week ago today we lost a dear friend and my heart still aches for him.

Merle was the cat who said his own name. We got him when he was a tiny, black as coal kitten nearly twenty years ago. He grew up with our kids and tolerated several other cats, dogs and even a pig in what quickly became his kingdom.

He was the coolest cat I ever knew.

Unexcitable, always able and willing to defend himself, Merle was never the aggressor. He put up with a lot of nonsense from kids and puppies. He grew to be nearly thirty pounds of impressive reflexes, muscle and sinew. But near the end he had withered away to merely ten pounds and was having trouble finding a reason to eat.

Merle wasn’t in pain but he was tired. Our backyard was still his domain but he patrolled it less often near the end, preferring a soft basket chair in the shade of an enormous avocado tree. We prayed for him to slip away quietly in his sleep but when he stopped eating altogether we knew it was time to say goodbye to one of our babies. Quality of life is a subjective call but Merle’s magnificent integrity deserved preservation. It was time.

He loved us deeply. He was purring loudly and looking calmly into our eyes as Carolann and I gave him our tearful goodbye kisses.

Even then he gave us comfort.

The backyard is awfully empty now. When I open the screen door I still expect to hear him calling his own name, “MURRRL!” and to see him ambling toward me with his graceful, regal gait so that he might allow me to scratch behind his ears.

And as I think of him now I am painfully aware of how the hearts of our beloved pets are so great as to selflessly wrap us in their furry, purry love when we are in need of compassion.

I wish I could hug Merle one more time. I certainly owe him that.

I get to.

A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.”  ~Author Unknown

These days teachers come under fire from all sides. They’re pressured by bureaucrats, abused by parents; disrespected and ridiculed by their own students. They work longer hours under more stressful, thankless conditions than anybody in any other business I can imagine. And, on those rare occasions when they’re forced to stand up for their own needs they’re often shouted down with scorn.

How dare they be so selfish!

“Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.”  ~Jacques Barzun

Some who become teachers can’t hack it, and how can you blame them? Overworked, underpaid, hardly ever appreciated, they continually reach into their own pockets to buy school supplies and to decorate and liven up drab classrooms in the hope that they can excite and ignite a fire in their students, many of whom would rather be anywhere else.

Those who do manage to hang on grow. The good ones grow large enough to find a higher regard for themselves and humanity. They become leaders. The occasional great teacher grows large enough to inspire greatness in others.

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  ~Khalil GibranEmily's 7th grade science class

This week my daughter-in-law, Emily Williams, was named one of sixteen Teachers of the Year for all of Los Angeles County. That’s sixteen teachers out of eighty (80) thousand!

To say we’re proud of her would be an understatement of the magnitude of saying it’s nice to be alive.

I could write pages of praise for Emily and the extraordinary, loving family that raised and still nurtures her. I could enumerate her higher qualities until I simply exhaust my own limitations in recognizing them and still she would have more. When looking for the right words to express gratitude for teachers even Shakespeare came up wanting:

“I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks.”  ~William Shakespeare

It’s enough for me to know that Emily is the perfect wife for my son, a truly wonderful mother for my grandson and a teacher of such high standing that she has earned the adoration of her administrators, her peers and her charges.

But what blows me away is how she does it in the face of all that pressure, abuse and disrespect. How she does it and why.

She is simply head over heels in love with life. She possesses an eternal wellspring of idealism and hope. She never thirsts for a dream.

And while the rest of us open our eyes each morning and think, “I have to go to work,” our Emily explains, with perfectly ingenuous wonder:

“I get to.”

 Emily's award

The age of merging memories

Today I got an email from a longtime friend named Gregg Fishman. To protect his identity I’ll just refer to him here as “Fish.”

Fish is about ten years younger than me, give or take a couple of years. I love helping my friends who are about to discover paths I’ve recently trod.

Here’s Gregg’s — er, I mean Fish’s note and my reply:

——————————

My 12 year old daughter Jayna has a book report due this week for her seventh grade social studies class—and of course, I find out over the weekend that she read the book, and then lent it to a friend. Jayna could get started on the book report, but “It would be a LOT easier if I had a COPY the book DAD!”

 

Against my better parental judgment, I found myself in a foul mood, striding up to the customer service desk at the local Borders store and asking brusquely “Where can I find a copy of George Orwell’s book “Animal House.”

 

The clerk looked a little non-plussed.

 

Now I was sure that the younger generation was doomed—if this 20-something had never heard of the book—she’s a clerk in a book store for Chrissake.

 

“Animal House?—by George Orwell?” I repeated—

 

“Do you mean Animal FARM by George Orwell?” she asked.

 

Visions of U.S Senator Blutarsky swam before my eyes. Strains of “Louie Louie” wafted through my ears—I swear I could smell stale beer. “Was it over when the German’s bombed Pearl Harbor?” You bet it was.

 

I started laughing—and told the clerk that “Yes, I meant Animal FARM” by George Orwell.

 

 Jayna Finished her book report on Sunday…

——————————

Fish,

Welcome to the age of merging memories.

It’s a time in your life when your child finds out you not only don’t know everything, you really are a complete numbskull. Before you know it you will begin to agree.

Your brain will start combining actual, experiential memories with half-remembered black and white movies. Something your dad told you when you were six will suddenly surface in the middle of recounting a funny conversation you had last Thanksgiving at the dinner table. Your family will look at you oddly. Your daughter will correct you and roll her eyes. Soon after that you’ll start keeping your mouth shut in confused, self-conscious self-defense.

Then everybody will be talking behind your back, worried because you’re not as much fun as you used to be.

Dave

PS.Happy Monday!

 

Perspective

While on our recent camping trip my three-year-old grandson, Tyler, asked me to help him with his socks. He had taken them off and now had one stuck on his left hand and the other dangling uselessly from his right.

With the foolish pride of a man fifty-four years older, wiser and more experienced I took the dangling sock from his fingers and started to place it on his foot. He protested sharply. It was clearly not what he wanted.

This picture was taken a few minutes later when the situation had been rectified to his satisfaction and he was able to rest.

After I snapped the picture I looked at him, hands tucked snugly in his socks where they belonged. I looked at him and I saw my son, and then I saw myself.

And I just sat there and watched us all for awhile.

Going home

After a wonderful week and a half visiting family and friends while exploring the Pacific Northwest Carolann, Cricket and I are on our way home, relaxed but sensing a measure of home-based stress that increases by the mile.

We get sad when we have to go home. We look like a couple of little kids who dropped their lollipops in the dirt.

We’ve always been lousy at ending vacations. Once, while waiting to board our flight home from vacation in Hawaii we looked at each other and and knew what we had to do. We got out of our chairs and walked out of the airport in Honolulu to find a new hotel room and spend just one more day in paradise.

When Jeremy and Nathan were young we took them on a cruise to Mexico. When our ship returned to Southern California for our drive home to Sacramento we decided, in a burst of spontaneity, to take the kids to Disneyland, which we did. The next morning, preparing to drive home, I noticed on the map that the Grand Canyon was only about six hundred miles away, so off we went.

Thataway!

Driving south in July is a predictable experience. The air grows disagreeably warmer, the sky less blue. The forest-green forests of Washington fade in the rear view mirror. Mountain peaks give way to rolling farmland, scrub oaks and the mundane fast food and gas stops of I-5.

Yesterday we passed a sign that read, LEAVING MEDFORD. That made me laugh. Medford is nice enough but I don’t understand why Oregon felt it necessary to tell us we were departing the place. To me the sign said, LEAVING VACATION BEHIND. GO HOME, SUCKER. GET BACK TO WORK.

I know, I know… What good is vacation if you have nothing to compare it to? I’d love to find out and report back to you.