Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From the Vault: In Honor of Memorial Day

A "Re-Post" of Hanno Fuchs, Psychological Warrior

Welcome to the "Tour de Fun": A Day Out With Daddy

J. had to work Memorial Day, for some inhumane reason (something about making up a Bad Weather Day, I don't know). It turned out to be a good thing for J, as she was able to get a lot done that needed doing.

Which left me behind with Those People. They actually treated me fairly well, in general. A few bumpy spots where my anger spiked and/or I had to count to three. Mostly they were low-key -- a few Boy Fights mixed in for flavor.

Eventually, after much lazing around, they playing video games, me watching French Open tennis, we made our way out of the house. Our first stop on the "Tour de Fun" was Cafe 290, our local greasy spoon. J can't stand the place, but I'm nostalgic, and it's the one bit of authentic, down-home cooking we have in our area.

It's not in as much of a time warp as Tom's Restaurant in Brooklyn. There is no equivalent to Gus Vlahavas, welcoming you with a kind handshake and showing you their high school yearbook from 1957. At 290, there's a sense that they stopped decorating at some point, and stopped dusting shortly thereafter. The antique BB guns, hand crank mixers and black-and-white photos on the walls almost make the place feel like a roadside museum in some tiny country town.

Tom's, on the other hand, is alive with electric light and music. The sense one gets in there is of time travel, as though you've stepped through a portal in the space/time continuum, coming out in 1954.

Cafe 290 is as much for those who have made the long drive from Houston as it is for the locals. My children love it because they can order macaroni and cheese or corn dogs, and because -- like at Tom's -- the milk shakes are these big, over-the-top monstrosities of whipped cream and cherries.

I like it not only for the nostalgia (Did I mention I'm nostalgic? I am, in case you hadn't noticed), but also for the grilled cheese sandwich, served on "Texas Toast" -- big, unhealthy and delicious slices of white bread with plenty of butter.

After our lunch, I drove us to Lifetime Fitness where Jackson and I had some pool time, and Diego sunbathed, waiting patiently until it was time to go to the Child Center and his greatest love . . . video games. Then Daddy got his two hours of time alone, to try and work off the grilled cheese and to soak in the jacuzzi.

I later "cooked" them a dinner of frozen cod, french fries and "fiesta corn" out of a can. Uncharacteristically, Diego said Grace. "Thank you, Lord, for this food, our family, our friends and giving us shelter. Thank you, Daddy, for making this dinner for us. And please keep Mommy safe as she drives home to us."

He was sweet and light-hearted for the rest of the evening -- unusually affectionate. J. organized a Dance Party, and I got some great video of both boys rockin' out. All in all, a very good day, as our days go.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Motorcycle Rallies: Annual Reminders of a Road Not Taken

There’s a pen and ink self-portrait I did in one of my earliest journals, the summer after my freshman year, at age 18. In it, I have a long mane of hair, swept back (by the wind, I suppose), a bushy beard, and there’s a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I’m wearing a leather jacket, and there’s a helmet under my arm. The helmet has lightning bolts on either side.

Now in reality I can count on one hand the times I’ve even been on a motorcycle. There was the time Russ Fiducia, our neighbor, gave me a ride on the back of his enormous Honda – the bike on which he would be killed in a crash on the Hutchinson River Parkway not much later. And I also have a foggy recollection of a mini bike to which my brother and I had some passing access – in Michigan maybe? I can’t recall.

And that’s it.

Yet there is still this call of the road that hits me when the Republic of Texas (RoT) Rally rolls into town in June. (The Central Texas HOG rally is this weekend -- a much smaller version, it's what got me thinking along these lines.) This call is not even real, in that it could ever be answered. My mother, even in death, brings out the newspaper clippings of horrible deaths suffered by motorcyclists, at no fault of their own. And those who know me well know I’m a coward at heart. That many cc’s of horsepower (or whatever – I don’t know much about internal combustion engines, either) would scare the shit out of me, I’m sure.

So where does this “call of the wild” come from? I can certainly point to two early influences right off the bat: Evel Knievel and Arthur Fonzarelli, on the wildly popular sitcom, Happy Days. In my youth, both captured my imagination. Every so often ABC’s Wide World of Sports would feature one of Knievel’s stunts. He became larger than life by virtue of how many cars he could jump over and how many bones he broke. My friends and I routinely set up ramps and jumps for our bikes, emulating him.

And then there was the Fonz. Any boy living in 1970’s America was enamored of the Fonz, unless they were raised in a Skinner box or something. He was the personification of cool – possessing the power to magically turn on both juke boxes and bobby-soxers, with a snap of his fingers or a flick of his wrist. Like 1950’s icons Marlon Brando and James Dean, the Fonz rode a motorcycle. During the opening credits, you could see Henry Winkler, the actor playing Fonzie, pull up unsteadily on a motorcycle.

I’m not sure if it was because of Winkler’s reticence, but they didn’t really play up the biker angle, initially. But then came Season Four and an episode called “Fonzie Loves Pinky,” in which the Fonz meets his match in a tough-talking, pink-wearing, pink-motorcycle-riding mama by the name of Pinky Tuscadero.

I fell immediately, helplessly, head-over-heels in love with her. I wonder now if this hadn’t been a brilliant move on the part of the producers of the show – as their core demographic reached puberty, they provided us with a heterosexual surrogate for the one we’d been in love with since the beginning.

There was a moment, in my late 30’s when I went through a brief crisis. My father had just died, leaving me an orphan. I was single and not sure I’d ever find the Love of My Life, with whom I’d eventually settle down and have kids. Visiting a friend in DC, we walked down Constitution Avenue and suddenly the largest parade of motorcycles I’d ever seen – Rolling Thunder, as it turned out – rolled past, deafening us.

“Sometimes I think I’d like to just buy a motorcycle and leave everything behind,” I said.

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

“I should.” I smiled, and we went back to watching the bikers, their shiny machines glimmering loudly in the late May sunlight. I think we both knew it would never happen, but I enjoyed thinking back on my pen and ink caricature and imagining what that life might have been like.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Summer, Then and Now

Diego and Jackson have three more days of school until summer break. Both are reasonably excited to know the daily grind of book learnin' will shut down for a couple of months and their regimented days of walking in lines and staying quiet are coming to an end.

But they don't seem as excited as I remember feeling, and I think it's because they won't have the kind of amazing summer I used to have as a boy living at 18 Hartford Lane in White Plains, New York. As I remember it, we were given free rein of the surrounding woods and college campus. By "we" I mean our cast of characters: my brother, Mike, Miki Kasai, the Mahoney kids -- Guy and Richie, Jay Siegel, Brian and Henry Jackson, Brian Walker, Eddie Barham, and others from Whitewood Road, like John and Steven Ricci and Matt Karnes. There was Johnny Arndt, from the little colony at the end of our street. Their family had been there before anyone else, and were very different. There were three grown brothers -- Frank, John and Landi. They were like hillbillies compared to the rest of us, and I can recall Landi, the youngest brother, who had long, unkempt hair, patrolling the woods with his "squirrel rifle." Presumably he shot squirrels out of trees, then skinned, gutted and cooked them up.

Their parents -- Johnny's grandparents -- Frank Sr. and Katie, better known as "Oopa" and "Ooma," were Germans from the old country. They had thick accents and just one or two teeth between the two of them. The one time I was in their house -- I don't recall why I was there -- I was fascinated by how OLD everything felt, from the sepia-toned family portraits to the sagging, water-damaged ceilings. I'm sure, in retrospect, that the old house was on a list at the County Clerk's office of condemned buildings from the era before the developers bought up the strip of land now known as Hartford Lane.

Our little crew spent countless hours exploring the woods, which had become the property of Westchester Community College. Some of our favorite spots included a science building with a two headed fetal pig in a jar and two man-made ponds that were stocked with yellow perch and bass. Some of the large-mouth bass got pretty big, so that a mythology emerged . We told each other stories of a fish called "Bathtub." Bathtub was our Moby Dick -- the One That Got Away. Every time we snagged our line on a branch or rock, losing our tackle and bait in the process, it was blamed on the lethal jaws of Bathtub.

One of the ponds, behind the football field and down a nature trail, was our favorite. On it was the Fishing Lodge -- since burned down by some bored vandal or careless idiot -- built for Huntington Hartford, whose land this had once been. We used to climb up into the creaky structure and cast our line off the second floor porch. It was interesting to try and look past all the graffiti and used condoms and try to imagine what this building was like back in its heyday. We'd also discovered a hunting lodge, from the same era, nestled deeper in the woods.

Miki and I eventually even conquered the Hartford Mansion, now used by the college for storage. We jimmied our way in through a lower window into complete darkness, fumbling breathlessly around before finding a doorway into the house. There was graffiti on most of the walls, which told us we weren't the first to break in. Upstairs there was a room with dentist chairs in it. In the attic we found aging black and white photographs and papers we tried to decipher.

It was a fascinating expereince, and I loved the sense of adventure of my youth. I thank my parents for trusting me enough to have these adventures, and I'm saddened by the thought that it's unlikely I'll ever allow my own children the same amount of rope. I'm just not sure it's possible in the world as it is now.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mary Carolyn Runyan Fuchs, (Would Have Been) 80 Years Old Today

Today is the date on which my mother was born, back in 1931. On the other two significant May birthdays in my immediate family – Jackson’s on the 7th, and Diego’s on the 16th – I discussed their birth stories. Both were first-hand accounts, with varying degrees of accuracy, but, generally speaking, both were the truth. I was not around for my late mother’s birth, obviously, but I thought it would make for an interesting exercise to write the story anyway…

Just two days after Memorial Day, and it is already feeling like August in Little Rock. I am grateful to have been transferred, a few months ago, to an office job that requires no travel and comes with an electric fan that cuts the heat some.

I believe the transfer may have been Mr. _______’s doing; he is one of the railroad’s Vice Presidents, and runs the Little Rock regional office. Mr. ________ is a kind, church-going man, and when I mentioned to him in passing that Hazel was in a family way a few months back, he became very interested, making a point to tell me the story of his first-born, a son named James, whose acquaintance I have made. He will be attending West Point in the fall and Mr. _________ is very proud, and rightly so.

Less than a month later, I received the letter offering me my current position of Assistant to the Director of Human Resources at the Rock Island Railroad’s Little Rock office. The day I was unpacking my things at my new desk, Mr. __________ happened to be meeting with the Director. He greeted me warmly, congratulating me on my new post, before I thought I detected a little wink, as if to say, “Glad I could do this for you, Herman.”

This morning I receive a telephone call before I can even take my hat off. It is from the maternity ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Hazel is doing well, and the baby should be arriving soon.

I head on down there as fast as my old Model T will take me, which is not very fast. I find my way to the maternity ward and am met by a colored nurse who pats my shoulder in a reassuring manner and lets me know everything is going “just as it ought to be.”

The seats nearest the electric fan have all been taken; they’re filled by nervous-looking men of around my age and general appearance. They nod at me, as I hang my hat and jacket. I have managed to sweat through my shirt. To cool off, I fan myself with an abandoned copy of the Gazette. I try reading a story about the new invention of something called a wind tunnel, which will allow scientists to test aircraft on the ground. I am interested – having been a navy man during the Great War – but I find it difficult to concentrate under the present set of circumstances.

I am napping when the same nurse calls my name. She leads me through a door I hadn’t noticed before, and down a bright corridor. We stand before a window and look at a room full of newborns in bassinets.

“Can you guess which one is yours?” she smiles.

“I don’t believe I can,” I answer in a way that makes her laugh so loud the babies seem to hear it through the glass of the window.

She points to one of the cribs, and I see my little girl, Mary Carolyn, for the first time. She is a thing of beauty – pink and sparkling clean. I close my eyes and thank the Lord for His blessing. Then I tap the glass, attempting to get Mary’s attention, all the while trying to imagine how much my world has been changed.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Brush With the Law, continued

My day started yesterday at a most unusual location – the courthouse in downtown Fort Worth. I decided that if I didn’t take care of my speeding ticket right away, it was the kind of thing that could turn around and bite me hard in the ass later on down the road.

So there I was, going through the metal detectors, wearing my snappy black button down shirt with the Region 13 logo on it, as if to say, “Hello, fellow state workers. I am your brother. Please take pity on me.”

Then I just started letting the current of their system carry me along, and I have to say it was quite efficient. Impressive, really. Despite my offense being a mere traffic stop, there’s something about being in a courthouse that just makes me feel guilty of something.

After scanning my ticket and insurance information into the system on a nifty desktop scanner, the woman behind the glass – “Cashier Six” – sent me to the last in a row of little courtrooms. A dour Hindi woman took my paperwork and I sat on a bench in the gallery, watching other people go up to the judge as their names were called.

Then I heard a small, female voice call my name meekly, and I approached the bench in what I thought was a respectful way, even smiling at the bailiff and saying “Good morning” to him.

“Did you call his name?” I heard him mutter to the judge.

“No, I think the prosecutor did,” she answered.

When I realized what I’d done, disrupting the flow of this well-oiled glockenspiel of a courthouse, I was mortified. “I’m SO sorry,” I said, backing away from the judge.

I then went out and found “the prosecutor,” a woman who had walked right past me out the door and into the hallway, expecting me to follow her, just as I had made my way comically to the bench.

She looked about fourteen years old, despite her attempt at lady-lawyer attire, in a crisp white button down shirt and 1930’s-style knee-length skirt. I’d noticed her and a young man (equally youthful –looking, so that I’d assumed they were interns from a local high school or something) working busily at a computer screen and shuffling papers.

Anyway, we eventually figured things out, and I’m happy to say there will not only be no traffic school, but the infraction won’t appear on my record . . . if I can keep from getting a speeding ticket in Fort Worth in the next 90 days. So my day in (traffic) court was a success…

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Busted in Fort Worth

There I was cruising back to my hotel after lunch at Whataburger in Fort Worth. (What a pathetic set of words!) Suddenly, I see him, parked on the left shoulder. I hit the brakes to try and slow down a bit, but he's got me. I see the flashing red and blue lights come on in my rear-view mirror and say it out loud.

"Shit. You got me."

I pull over, and he takes a couple of minutes to run my plates, or so I assume. I'm aware of not knowing what to do with my hands. When he finally comes to my window, he looks very much the part -- flat-top crew cut, mirrored sunglasses and the whole nine.

But when he speaks, I'm thrown off by the unmistakable Irish brogue. Like most people in his position, he's all business. I appreciate, however, that he's not superior about it, as some cops can be. I have the sense he's even a little sympathetic, as if he himself has been in the position of getting caught speeding at some point in his life.

I'm polite, and patiently wait for him to finish writing out my ticket. Then I'm off the shoulder, back on to I-30 East, my eyes going from the road to my speedometer and back again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Take Me Out to The Ballgame (Just Don't Take Me OUT)

Weeks ago, I bought a ticket to tonight's Texas Rangers game against the Chicago White Sox. I'd been to a game last year, during their run to the World Series and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to being back in that lovely stadium.

After eating a nasty but cost-effective dinner at my hotel (Salisbury Steak, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn on the cob -- all of it too salty), I figured it would be a good idea to make my way, on foot, up to the ballpark, about a mile away. That way I would not only work off some of the heavy food I'd just had, I'd also get there early. The weather forecast was not good and did not bode well for the prospects of a full game. I figured I'd take in a couple of hours and then see what was happening at around 9, when the storm was supposed to move in.

Once inside the stadium, I had that same rush of excitement I've always gotten at pro ballgames, from my earliest memories of Shea Stadium in Flushing -- the way the expanse of green opens out in front of you, then unnatural brightness of the light stanchions, that fill the bowl with artificial sunlight.

According to the reports I'd glanced, the game promised to be a low-scoring pitcher's duel. That was dispelled when the Sox hit a solo shot to open up the scoring in the first half-inning of the game. Josh Hamilton, back from injury, was in good form, going two for two, with two stolen bases. So much for the pitcher's duel.

It was 4-2 Chicago when the weather started coming in. First the dust began swirling. You could see the clothing on the players and umpires billowing like sails on their bodies. Occasionally a player had to call time due to dust clouds. Then there was an announcement asking people from the upper decks to move down into the lower sections. This was due to high winds.

When the grounds crew brought out the tarp and covered the infield, nearly losing the tarp to the high winds as they did so, I made the decision, prompted also by a text message from my wife, to get out of Dodge, as they say. I swiftly made my way to the third base exit, and ran across the street in heavy rain, waving down a trolley bus. The driver told me to hop in and drove me down to my hotel.

Once inside, I felt safer, but not completely safe, as I began to see reports of tornado warnings. The hail then began rapping at my window, and I thought about all the tornadoes that have been happening this spring, most notably this past weekend, when the town of Joplin, Missouri was wiped off the map.

I said a special thank-you to no one in particular, grateful that I was okay, that I would be home in two days, where I would hug and kiss my wife and children.

The Importance of Play (A Work in Progress)

It was time to stop what I was doing and be a dad by going outside and playing with my kids.

And I'm glad I did. It is essential to take the time to turn off the TV, the DS, the PSP, the computer, or whatever electronic device it may be, and get outside to play a bit.

This evening, after dinner, in the half hour they had before bedtime, my sons Diego and Jackson accompanied me out to our small backyard, where we played catch and "Monkey in the Middle," made doubly fun by the fact that we were throwing an actual toy monkey, instead of a ball. We ran, we threw, we caught. We dove onto the grass.

More than anything, we laughed. The laughter is so important. Without it, life becomes one mandate after the other. Threats followed by consequences.

So many of my childhood memories involve playing, with my friends, my brother, and my parents. Play was an integral part of my development, just as I know it will be for my own children, as well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"Tainted Gloves" or "Kiss My Asterisk": How the Cheaters Killed My Love of Baseball

The other night, while watching playoff basketball with a friend, we got onto the topic of baseball players. He, like many people, is a great admirer of Manny Ramirez, one of the most talented right-handed hitters ever to play the game.

When I mentioned as much, my friend’s voice dropped. “Yeah, too bad he’s tainted.”

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 15 years, he was referring to “juicing,” or the use of performance enhancing drugs, such as anabolic steroids. Since the mid-to-late 1980’s such use has been scrutinized closely in baseball. There are all kinds of theories as to why men have taken to “cheating” – from economics to peer pressure to “keeping up with the Joneses.”

My first awareness of steroids in baseball came in 1989, when I first saw Lenny Dykstra, one of my favorite Mets from the scrappy, dominant 1986 World Champion squad, in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. He didn’t look like the same guy. Okay, so he’d been working out, but something just wasn’t right.

Then came the “Bash Brothers” in Oakland -- Canseco and McGwire. Both were big men, but their muscles ballooned almost comically in the time they were teammates. By this time, if you didn’t smell a rat, there was something wrong with you.

But there were two events in contemporary major league baseball – both of which involved the long ball, the homerun, once the most basic display of unbridled power in the sport. First there was the cartoonish back and forth of McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as they surpassed Roger Maris’s single-season homerun record in a tit-for-tat battle that boosted baseball’s ratings and made fawning sycophants of once-respected sports commentators.

And of course the coup de gras was when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s total homerun record with number 756 in August of 2007. He has since been indicted for perjury and has had an asterisk branded onto his record-setting baseball that sits in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

As a father of two boys, all of this makes me think back to my own childhood. I remember watching the news as a ten year old that Hank Aaron, one of my favorite players, had beaten Babe Ruth’s lifetime record for home runs, by hitting his 715th. My brother and I had a fairly extensive baseball card collection . Our team was the Mets, of course, but we loved looking at all the men on those cards, reading their statistics on the back, while chewing on gum so stale it tasted like cardboard. There was no greater joy than sprawling on the floor and looking at our cards, trading for doubles and triples. Our father endorsed our enthusiasm with his own, telling us tales of his own favorites from the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson.

Today, thanks to all the doping and asterisks, I will find it hard to encourage the kind of love of the game my brother and I, and our father before us, had. Thanks to the poor judgment of a number of men, the game itself has been tainted. Don’t get me wrong; I know the men I looked up to were by no means perfect. But they reached their milestones, set their records and did their jobs on the strength they had, not the strength they acquired by shooting foreign substances into their veins.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture: What Will It REALLY Look Like?

All this talk about the Rapture and Judgment Day has led me down the path of wondering what the “end of days” will really look like when it does finally come.

My feeling is that we’re far more likely to go out with a whimper than a bang, and that we will continue to slowly bring about a man-made cause of our own extinction.

I don’t see widespread looting – the running joke on Facebook and elsewhere during this latest hoax – or a heartfelt announcement from Anderson Cooper confirming the veracity of the latest forecast of Armageddon.

Instead, I’m imagining populations of people being allowed, by the rest of us, to die off due to malnutrition and starvation. The so-called “fittest” will continue to survive, thanks to how superior we are to everyone else, all the while using our superiority to continue our contamination of the planet. Eventually our abuse of science will decimate a significant portion of the “haves,” either through some military mishap that involves weapons gone wrong, or by way of the toxification of our ecosystem to the point where it can no longer sustain us.

I could see this process taking hundreds of excrutiating years to play itself out. Life for the poorest among us will get more and more difficult, and those of us with resources will dig in our heels, fortify the ramparts and build our luxury bunkers (as featured on ABC'S Good Morning America).

I’m not all that familiar with the Bible. Or the Koran. I’m not sure whether or not either of them contain any verses that could be interpreted as the scenario I’ve just described. My point is that using scripture to envision a “televised” Rapture underscores our unique chauvinism as a species. The End of Days won’t be a dramatic TV event.

It will be the snuffing out of a candle that has been burning, less and less brilliantly, for centuries.

Journaling and Blogging

It's an interesting, two-sided exercise in which I find myself engaged these days -- writing in my journal, longhand, each morning for about an hour, and ending my day by blogging on my computer for at least that long. Sometimes the journal entry gets transcribed and revised as the blog, but not always.

It's a bit like standing with one foot in one century, the other in another. One medium -- the journal -- feels archaic, anachronistic, even. The other is "cutting edge," or so I'm led to believe (although there is some debate as to the future of "long-form" blogging).

Blogging is innately public; the writing has "followers," as well as people who happen upon it during Google searches. My journals end up on bookshelves, or in mildewing cardboard boxes in the basement of my sister's hundred year old brownstone in Brooklyn, New York.

My hope, ultimately, is that all this daily reflecting (navel-gazing, if you will) will eventually lead me to write that dazzling piece of long fiction that I know is in that navel somewhere. I've unleashed the demons before -- the proof is somewhere in the aforementioned damp basement. It's time to release the beast one more time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

If You Knew My Father...

... you'd understand why this song moves me every time I hear it. I wish I'd had the opportunity to play it for him:

"Kind & Generous"
(Natalie Merchant)

You've been so kind and generous
I don't know how you keep on giving
For your kindness I'm in debt to you
For your selflessness, my admiration
And for everything you've done

You know I'm bound...
I'm bound to thank you for it

You've been so kind and generous
I don't know how you keep on giving
For your kindness I'm in debt to you
And I never could have come this far without you
So for everything you've done

You know I'm bound...
I'm bound to thank you for it

I want to thank you
For so many gifts
You gave with love and tenderness
I want to thank you

I want to thank you
For your generosity
The love and the honesty
That you gave me

I want to thank you
Show my gratitude
My love and my respect for you
I want to thank you

I want to...

Thank you
Thank you
Thank you
Thank you
Thank you
Thank you

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Et tu, CNN?

In yet another hotel room, after a poor sleep due to a lack of familiarity, I sit at a little desk, my early-morning CNN droning at me. The over-caffeinated jackals who host “American Morning” are doing their best to rouse me.

Their top “news” stories are both about men behaving badly – Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child with a “household staff member” and the head of the International Monetary Fund tried to rape a hotel maid.

I remember back when Bernard Shaw was the anchor of CNN’s Headline News, back in the early days of the network’s rise to fame. He was the face and voice of CNN, stern, somber and serious. He had what is called “gravitas.”

I don’t know what ever became of Mr. Shaw, but I can’t help but wonder, as I watch CNN’s new-look tripe, which feels a lot like everyone else’s tripe, what he would have thought of this. Sure, they’re proud of Anderson Cooper. And Wolf Blitzer still remains -- a vestige of the Shaw era. I doubt Bernie’s opinion would matter one way or another, as they are obviously taking their cues from so-called “media experts.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Being Awake Throughout the Journey

I’m sitting in the quasi-comfortable Southwest Airlines waiting chairs at Austin Bergstrom International Airport – big, imitation leather armchairs with outlets for all your electronic toys – watching people walk this way and that, to the gates that will lead them to the planes that will fly them to their destinations. A woman walks by, with a baby in a Baby Bjorn harness strapped on her front. The baby is about four or five months old, and is looking around, wide-eyed, at all the people that rush past.

“I remember that time,” I think. I had Diego strapped to one of those things during much of our first trip to Santo Domingo together, back in 2003. It occurs to me that, challenging though it was, that was a lovely time in life – a lovely “moment.”

Recently, by way of a two-day professional development session I attended, I made the acquaintance of a number of older parents with grown-up, or close to grown-up, children. This one’s in college, this one will be a senior in high school next year. The other one is about to make their mama and daddy grandparents for the first time.

“Wow,” I usually remark, “that must blow your mind.”

Almost everyone admits that time has flown to this point. The blink of an eye, one told me in heavily-accented “Texan.” She’s from a part of Texas I politely pretend to have heard of before.

Others say things like “You wake up one morning and they’re grown.” It’s the same idea.

Whatever the comment, I’m always left with a feeling of wishing time could slow down. But it’s not about that. It’s really about me taking care of myself and my business in a manner that allows me to be present in every single moment. As you might have noticed, I am prone to sentimentalism and “yearning.” I need to train myself (or get some help from someone else) to be better at being “in the moment,” as my acting teachers used to say.

“Waking up one day” implies sleeping through part of this journey. Life is too precious. I don’t want to sleep through it. So if you catch me “napping” (metaphorically speaking that is, as in missing out on key moments in my life and the lives of my kids), by all means, nudge, slap or pinch me. Just do whatever you can as my friend/family/loved one to help me enjoy every step of the way.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Diego Reyes Fuchs, 8 Years Old Today

Eight years ago today, without really knowing what to expect in the slightest, J and I became parents for the first time.

J spent the day “nesting,” putting final touches on what had been our office and would now be the baby’s room. She was up on a step-ladder, stenciling friendly dinosaurs along the top of the wall when I came home a little earlier than usual from work, due to the exciting/terrifying news that she was officially In Labor.

“Contractions are getting closer together,” she said from her perch on the ladder.

She had been timing them all day, and now, in the late afternoon on a Friday, we made our way, with my mother-in-law on board, to the Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center on West 14th Street in Manhattan, ironically just across the street from the creepy apartment where I lived a sad, lonely existence ten years earlier, during my first failed attempt at marriage.

After dropping my wife and her mother off at the birth center, I found a place to park the car overnight, just in case. When I came back, J looked crestfallen.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked, holding back nightmare scenarios regarding fetal health and viability.

“It’s fine. The baby’s fine,” she said.

“What is it?” I asked again.

“I’m only one centimeter dilated,” she said. “They’re checking to see whether or not they can admit me.”

“What? But you’re in labor.”

I backed off, realizing I was arguing with the wrong person. Just as I was looking for someone to fight this out with, a midwife came through a door and said, “Okay, Jeanette, come right this way.”

They ran a few more tests, explaining that even though the contractions were coming closer and closer together, the cervix was nowhere near ready at its current dilation. They had sent women home in this situation. I muttered something about rush hour traffic, but the midwife cut me off, saying, “It’s fine. You can stay.”

So we “settled in” to what was a lovely little room. The Seton Center had gone to great lengths to create an atmosphere for their patients that felt far removed from what one thinks of when one thinks of a conventional hospital birth. There was a double bed, rather than the usual single. In addition, there were quilts and matching floral window treatments and a hot tub, to help the mother relax, and for the option of a water birth.

A couple of hours in to worsening labor pains, J began to express an interest in receiving some assistance with the pain in the form of an epidural. Obviously, this kind of place is set up for natural child birth, and the only way we’d be able to get an epidural would be by admitting J to the hospital two blocks south. The midwife explained all this to us in her hippie dippy way, and J chose to ride out the pains for a couple more hours.

Finally, at 10:17 pm on Friday, May 16, 2003, Diego Reyes Fuchs came swimming into a murky, warm tub in New York City. I got to cut the cord, my emotions pouring forth at the realization of what J and I had accomplished together.

As always, my mother-in-law was a great support and calming presence. J’s brother and sister were wonderful visitors that night, as well.

J and I spent the night bonding with Diego, lying in that lovely room, talking to lactation specialists about “latching on” and pumping, and trying as best we could to comprehend just how much our lives had just been changed for ever.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sad Car

At a local stoplight recently, I happened to look to my left, where the next guy was stopped just like me. And just like me, he rode alone in the front seat with a passenger in back. (I had my two, actually, heading to their final acting class at Zach Theatre, a “performance,” of sorts.) I did a double take, because instead of a baby or small child in the back seat, he was transporting a very old woman.

The other detail of this picture was that she had the exact same profile as her driver – a slightly hooked nose, and deep-set blue eyes. Both had mouths with thin lips, turned down in frowns. Both looked straight ahead, no words being exchanged between them.

Being the person I am, my mind began painting a scenario. I imagined this was the ride they’d known would someday come, when son had to put mother in the nursing home in Northeast Austin, the one just a couple miles further west from this very traffic light. Maybe the few things she still cared about -- and that would fit in her little room in the rest home -- had been stowed incautiously in the trunk of the car.

The notion saddened me, and I wanted something to happen to tear down the clichĂ© I had created in my imagination. I wanted the woman to break up laughing, or for the two of them to start singing to the song on the radio that I couldn’t hear. I wanted one or both of them to look over and catch me staring and flip me the bird.

But the two of them just sat, looking forward, one identical profile behind the other, until the light turned green and I eventually lost track of which car was theirs, as we made our way west, down the long highway.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Coffee Black and Three Sets, Not Two

This morning I checked in, as I obsessively do, on Facebook. The location was Shadowglen Amenities Center and the activity was “taking my coffee black this morning. Cutting out the cream and sugar.”

I’ve got a new commitment to my health, thanks to the two-day Influencer training I just went through at work. I read the book a couple of months ago with my team and was impressed with it then, as I am now. One of those rare experiences that assisted me both professionally and personally. It helped me focus on ways I’d like to influence my “clients” at work, as well as those aspects of my life that need attention.

Specifically, I’ve decided to focus on losing weight. I’ve got a target weight and a date on which I plan to hit it. I’ve also broken it down into chunks. Instead of saying “15 pounds by October,” which is the actual goal, I’m going to call it “2 and a half pounds a month for six months.” Then it becomes a question of looking at the different things that affect that, like personal ability and motivation, along with social and structural factors. Most importantly, I’m trying to be aware of those “crucial moments” – anticipating when I could make one choice or the other. I’ve already had some successes with that one – the coffee being one example. It’s the crucial moment when I could either pour in the sugar or not. I chose not to.

This morning, when I was done with my journal and coffee, I could have taken the usual leisurely ride home, I instead made my way to the fitness center. There I had a full three sets on each machine, plus three sets of curls with the dumbbells, and finally a full set of stretches. It was the best workout I’ve had in a long while, and I’m feeling it in the arms tonight.

So, in the spirit of vital behaviors and crucial moments, I’ll take this one to turn off the television and get into my bed, avoiding that urge to eat junk food in front of Saturday Night Live.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I Want to Believe

I’m superstitious and always have been. My mother brought me up that way. My dad always had a sardonic attitude about such things. Whenever Mom would get onto the topic of bad luck as it related to broken mirrors, umbrellas being opened indoors or black cats, my father would say nothing, but I always looked for the wry, private smile, and it was invariably there, nearly invisible to everyone but me.

His smile suggested that I should consider my mother’s beliefs ridiculous. But I didn’t. There was something in the way she discussed the supernatural – a confidence maybe – that made me a believer. I didn’t know the word just yet, but looking back now, I think she had “conviction” when it came to superstitions.

Even though the day has been usurped in popular culture by the slasher movie franchise, Friday the 13th still resonates with me. As I begin my day, I wonder what will go wrong for me. Nothing has in recent memory, but I do vaguely recall a pretty nasty bicycle crash happening on a Friday the 13th. Or at least that’s how my mind has arranged it for me.

My mother used to refer to herself as a witch sometimes. She only said it occasionally and it’s difficult now to remember the context. It was said in a semi-serious way, usually, I think, when she had known or “seen” something unexplainable. I never thought of it as a joke – not really – and I still believe my mother probably had “powers,” for want of a better word and likely had them since childhood.

In college, my friends and I would do Tarot card readings for each other on occasion. Speaking for myself, I really keyed in on the imagery of the cards. I saw it less as “magic” than an ancient form of psychology, predicated on an individual’s interpretation of the rich symbolism found in the Tarot deck.

As a teacher at Satellite Academy, I may have offended some of my students when, each late October, I would break out the Ouija board for any students who wanted to try it. Invariably, there was a group who said, “I don’t mess with that stuff.”

In that particular situation, it was more about the fun of a circle of kids sitting in dim light, more quiet than I’d ever thought they could be, getting more and more freaked out as they went. They often accused one another of pushing the indicator.

“I’m not! I swear!”

Great fun.

I guess in the end it’s very simple. I’m like Fox Mulder on The X Files. I Want to Believe.

I want to believe in a spirit world. I want to believe in the possibility that there is an “energy” that makes us more than just heavy walking bags of meat, bones and water that eventually expire. I want to believe that when this energy that some call a spirit and others refer to as a soul, has had enough with this body, it may find some simple way of communicating with the loved ones I leave behind. I want to believe I could be a breeze on my son’s cheek on a spring day, a panel of light coming through the window – some little sign that will make him smile, without knowing exactly why.

What They Will Remember II, The Sequel

Yes, there is an unfortunate sequel to the story of my stormy Tuesday with Jackson. We had our tender moment, described previously, when I made the choice to give him the affection he was asking for, so of course I dumbly assumed everything would be peachy when I went to pick him up from his after-school program at six that same evening.

Have I learned nothing these past six years?

I noticed that Mr. B., the head after-school teacher, was awarding Jackson’s older brother Diego with “Colt Cash,” a positive behavior incentive that they use to reward good behavior, good deeds and the like.

“Sorry, Jackson,” he said kindly to the younger Fuchs boy. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll get some.”

The fabled “Little Curl” appeared on his forehead, and once we got outside the tears came flowing. He was in full effect.

It was on.

I tried the Love and Logic stuff; I swear I did.

“You sound upset, Jackson,” I said. “What can we do to make you feel better?”

“AHHH!” he answered.

“Jackson, I’m going to need you to stop screaming. Daddy can’t drive when people scream in the car.”

“AHHHH!!” he replied, twice as loud.

Diego was looking out the window, going to his Happy Place, no doubt. He knew what was coming next.

“Let’s put that seat belt on, buddy,” I said, amid the swelling tantrum and screaming. My head was beginning to throb now. “Do you need some help?”

And that’s when it happened. He crossed the line. When I reached back to help him, he hauled off and hit my arm. Hard.

So I smacked him across his shoulder, three times. Hard. And I began yelling. Diego kept looking out the window all the while.

“You wanna hit?!” I screamed. “I can hit harder! You wanna scream?! I can scream louder! You wanna go down this road? We’ll go down this road. You treat me like a piece of garbage and put your hands on me, I’ll treat you worse and hit you harder! Because that’s what happens in life! You get treated the way you treat other people! Understand?”

Through his tears he said he did. And he stopped yelling.

The truth is I don’t want this kind of relationship with him, and as true and effective as my words may have appeared to have been, the fact is they won’t always be. Someday he’ll be bigger, stronger, and louder than me. But it won’t matter, because we won’t be speaking to each other by then if this keeps up.

It’s complicated. Something has to change, and soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What Will Our Children Remember About Us?

My complicated relationship with my number-two son, Jackson, boiled over this morning. In my crazed insistence that we NOT be tardy to school EVER, I rushed the kids out of the house. We were all made cranky and uneasy by the frenetic drive to Manor Elementary. When I was saying “Go, go, go, run, run, run” and pushing them out of the car, Jackson turned to me and said, “Wait, Daddy. I want a kiss and a hug.”

“There's NO TIME!” I implored him. “Go NOW.”

And his face changed. The light in his eyes turned off, and he frowned before slamming the door and heading slowly toward the school door behind his more compliant brother, who was already inside the building.

I stopped, realizing I had a decision to make. I could continue rushing off to work, or I could park the car.

I did the latter and ran up behind Jackson, throwing him playfully over my shoulder, running to the front door of the school. Both of us were laughing the whole way.

When we got to the front desk, I set him down with a couple of minutes to spare before the tardy bell rang. I knelt down to his level and looked at him, wondering if he still wanted the kiss and hug. Thankfully, he did. And it was one of the best kiss-and-hugs I’ve ever had.

I’m glad I made the choice I made. In my mind, it came down to a very simple question: What will my child remember about me when I’m gone? Will he remember the day I screamed at him that there wasn’t enough time to show him the affection he desired?

Or maybe he’ll remember something else. Maybe he’ll recall that morning he was feeling sad and alone when suddenly, unexpectedly, his father came back for him, swept him up in the air, weightless for a moment, before giving him a kiss and a hug, and making him feel so very, very loved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Remembrances of P-Town Past

This morning, as I put the cream and too much sugar in my coffee, after riding my bike over to the donut shop, I flashed back to the summer of 1984, when I followed my girlfriend's dream to Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

While the majority of the summer population – a number that bloats by a factor of ten every year between Memorial Day and Labor Day – slept in, gearing up for cocktails, Tea Dances and beach time, I was getting up to go to work. I would get on my bicycle every morning and ride from our apartment at 8 Pearl Street, down Shank Painter Road to Route 6 and the MarSpec Warehouse, which supplied Marine Specialties, “Provincetown’s Most Unusual Shop,” and its mail order customers with everything from plastic lobsters to surplus German Mannlicher rifles from World War II.

I worked there as a shipping/receiving clerk. Even though I was not packing sandwiches and beers for the beach, the taste of the salt air was a treat on my lips. I absolutely loved the taste of that place.

Sue and I must have been quite a sight to see for the regulars there – this nubile young hetero couple who chose to come live in the middle of a seaside Bacchanal.

While others were partying at night, I was working my second job, scooping gourmet ice cream into cups and cones for a mostly drunk clientele at “Glaceteria,” right next to the historic Town Hall building. Run by a surly French Canadian couple, it stayed open way too late each night, and catered to customers coming out of the closing bars and clubs on and around Commercial Street. I found that if I smiled shyly at the glassy-eyed men who ordered ice cream for themselves and each other, my tips would increase, at times exponentially.

Even though it was only a few blocks down Commercial Street from the Pearl Street place, Susan would sometimes express concern for my safety, due to how late I worked.

I brushed off her worry; it was a five minute walk home, if that. There were occasions, though, when, after closing up shop at 3 or so in the morning, my walk home was a bit eerie, particularly for a starry-eyed ingĂ©nue of 21 with feathered, sun-bleached hair and honey-tanned skin. I looked straight ahead in the direction of my destination, all the while occasionally aware of men doing things, to themselves and each other, in the shadows at the edge of my vision. To this day I’m not sure how much of this is real and how much is a product of my imagination. Even though it would be another year before the death of Rock Hudson, and another six until Magic Johnson’s historic announcement, people were very much aware of AIDS, so the all-night party that had been P-Town was a bit of an anachronism, even then.

Still, there was one night when I became aware of a figure in the shadows that began to move toward me as I made my way home. I quickened my pace, but each time I looked back, the figure was there, the same distance behind. When I finally made it upstairs to my apartment, I turned out all the lights and peeked out to see a man standing under a streetlamp, his features peppered by shadows, straining to get a better look at the Young Thing in the darkened window above.

He lost interest and wandered, stumbling, I now saw, up the street and out of sight. Eventually my heart slowed to its natural rhythms, and I was lulled to sleep by the sounds of the pre-dawn coastal morning.

Monday, May 9, 2011

My Reticence Regarding "Distance" Learning

Don’t jump to conclusions. Yes, I’m a bit of a dinosaur, not quite comfortable with all the technology by which I now find myself surrounded. And yes, I remember the days when I asked my students to hand in “typed” final drafts of their papers.

In the past ten years or so, as I’ve heard the discussion of “distance” or “on-line” learning go from a murmur to a roar, from a seldom-chosen option, to one that is now expected to save the world (or at least a lot of money), I have to admit to always having felt a bit uneasy about the concept. At first I’m sure it was just a case of Fear of the Unknown. But even now that I know a bit more about the topic -- and granted, I need to learn even more -- I still find myself unsure of the idea.

I wasn’t sure where this was coming from, until this morning, when I found myself in a meeting with some local district people, talking about dropout recovery. Distance Learning entered the discussion at one point, and my Edu-sense started tingling once again.

And then I understood where my misgivings were coming from.

It goes back to my days as a teacher at Satellite Academy High School, where I worked with some of the most disaffected, disappointed and generally disengaged students in the New York City school system. We didn’t succeed with all of them; many of them were too far gone, thanks to previous experience, by the time they got to us. Try as we might, we could not reverse the tide for those students, sadly.

But we did turn the tables for many. Our task was to reintroduce them to school and to convince them that there was a better way for them than what had failed for them previously.

So much of this was about people and relationships that it’s hard for me to imagine doing that work via the Internet. We needed to be in a room with our students. I wrote my graduate thesis on advisory, and called it (rather pretentiously, I now believe), The Magic Circle.

But that’s what it was. That’s really what the whole school was. It was about young people and adults sitting in the same room and looking at each other, confronting each other about what they could and couldn’t do. Arguing. Reaching compromise and consensus. For those of us – adults and students alike – who let Satellite work for us, it was a transformative experience, one that changed us for the better.

Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t trade it for all the Internet access in the world.

There may be some situations in which isolation on the Internet can be a good thing. I’ve seen it work first-hand, for example, using the Hallway Project, a model that has truants and classroom disruptors taken out of their regular classes and placed in highly individualized project-based work, with ample face time with a teacher/coach.

But those kids still need interaction. They need to be able to meet with their peers and talk about what excites them, disappoints them, challenges them and invigorates them. They need the Magic Circle that a good school should always provide.

I do see Distance Learning as a potentially positive evolution in schooling. My fear is that people – particularly the number crunchers – will try to use it as a panacea, to cure all the ills of public education.

For at-risk students and dropouts, isolation is not the answer. Put them in front of a computer screen for part of their day. But don’t deny them the benefits of human interaction in the process.