Wednesday, December 28, 2011

They're Onto Me: Basking in the Final Days of Superdadhood

I've been indulging in excess during this winter break, eating fatty foods and lots of bread, and drinking far too many beers. I wonder if heart fatalities go up as we let ourselves go at the end of the year, in anticipation of those New Year's resolutions. I'm sure I've put on a few extra pounds in the last several weeks. Last night as we were snuggling up in my bed watching The Polar Express, Jackson patted my belly and asked, "Why are you so fat?"
I considered a defensive response, but he was right and I knew it. When I made a face (the face anyone would make upon hearing such a question) he said, "Well, you are."
He then poked the gelatinous mass once more, as if to illustrate his point.
"Yes, but there are nicer ways to ask the question. I'm fat because I eat too much and drink a lot of beer." It wasn't my proudest moment. I know, from my own experience as a boy, that he is comparing me to his male physical heroes. I did the same thing with my dad.
During my childhood the male ideal was personified by a few different figures. The most sought-after men in popular culture at that time were the Fonz, Vinnie Barbarino, Butch and Sundance, and, later, Rocky Balboa. On the extreme side of things, there were the superhero bodybuilders (Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian). There were the guys from the world of sports too: Joe Namath, O.J. Simpson, and Jim Palmer were known to appear in commercials, often showing off their "attributes" in various stages of undress.
I'd look at them and then at my father who I idolized, then back at the idols. Comparing him against them confused me. He was quite athletic, playing tennis several mornings a week, as well as most weekends, but he had a midsection that, like mine today, hinted at "a life well lived," as someone once euphemistically put it.
For my boys the male physical ideal is embodied by the WWF and WWE stables. Try as we might, my wife and I have been unable to push back the testosterone tide of "professional" wrestling. It's like a drug for them, and every chance they get they are with their friends, playing with John Cena action figures or staging fantasy battles on the Wii between the Rock and Andre the Giant, or Seamus and Hulk Hogan. They giggle when they ask me to make a muscle, saying I look -- in their adoring eyes, anyway -- like Big Show. (Whoever that is.)
The midsection baffles them, just as my father's did me, when I was a svelte boy-child. Let's hope they can avoid going down the same genetic path.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Filling the Silence: Making Sense of the Dual Nature of Solitude

I've always been one for "Alone Time." I enjoy the opportunity to sit, walk, think, drink coffee, read and write on my own. In fact, it's probably the sort of restorative practice I should insist upon more than I do.

It was sort of "built into" my previous job, in my air travel around the state of Texas each month. I spent a good number of hours in airports and hotels by myself. Nowadays, with this new job that I love, there is no such thing as alone time. It's all about managing people and the community they make.

This evening my wife is happily indulging in a Zumba class with three girlfriends, and my sons are across the street, playing at their friend Dalton's house.

So I'm alone.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not a "loner" as such. Like many of us (I'm willing to bet) I both covet my time to myself while also being prone to loneliness. Maybe I've just described the human condition. I don't know.

This evening, as darkness descends on suburban Austin, Texas, the house is almost achingly silent, and it gives me a clawing sense of loss in my midsection. My dog comes to me, back end wagging behind her, and offers me her usual, undying love. Still too quiet, though. I try watching some obscure bowl game, presented by and named after a company I've never heard of. Having no affinity for or affiliation of any kind with either school, I switch over to a sitcom -- one of the "lovable buffoon married to the quick-as-a-whip wife" variety. This doesn't hold my interest either.

Now I write in my journal, listening to Kings of Leon and Michael Kiwanuka, trying to make sense of the dual nature of solitude. I know that soon my boys will burst into the house, and the decibel level will go up considerably. They'll start in with the "can we, can we, can we," and the conflicts will arise.

Or....I will do what my wife does so well. I will channel their energy and summon up my own, countering their provocations with humor. We will have SO MUCH FUN that they will say, "Daddy, you're the absolute best," when I tuck them in. And I'll say, "Oh please, it's what I do."

They will fall asleep, snug and exhausted from a good day of winter vacation, dreaming the dreams of happy children.

And I'll be alone again, happy for the quiet but a little nervous about all the silence. I'll make sure there are enough lights on in the house, so that I don't feel like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween sitting alone in the flickering glow of the TV set.

Maybe I'll switch on the Kindle and try to get back into David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a book that thrills me with its language and daunts me with its length. Or I'll find a good sporting event and continue my quest to take advantage of being on break by drinking as much beer as is humanly possible. Either way, I'll do so with one ear listening for my wife's key in the door, breaking up the wonderful horror and horrifying wonder of my "alone time."

Introspection Time

Yes, Christmas has just come and gone, and there are only a few days of the current calender year remaining. So, as is my bent, I turn my reflective eye inward and take a look at this year gone by.

So far, I have written 258 O.S.N.G. blog posts, something of which I am quite proud. The goal was to write 365 for the year, and I'll be about a hundred short of that. But I'm up from 11 in 2010 and 3 in 2009, so I'm happy about my productivity. Not every post is a pearl; some are downright clunkers as far as the writing goes. What these posts all provide, however, is a record for my children of what was important to their dad, as well as some real-time snapshots of who they were at ages 8 and 6 respectively.

There are some thoughts on education, a little bit of politics, maybe a dash of religion here and there, all of which will give Diego and Jackson a feel for what the world was like in their childhood days of the "early-to-mid-aughts."

This year I took a technique of my father's, scribbling ideas ("early tweets," I called them in a 2010 post) on 3 x 5 cards, and ran with it. For a while there I kept the cards in my pocket at all times, coming home with two or three good journal/blog ideas each day. For a few months I averaged a post a day on Blogger, and I've gotten encouragement from a range of people I respect. At my high school reunion in October, several people who have never left a comment on my blog made it a point to tell me how much they enjoy reading it.

Thanks to the technology available to me -- the Internet in general and Facebook and Twitter specifically -- my writing has an "audience." This humbles me and makes me aware of how important honesty is to what I write. Used to be that what I wrote was between me, the void, and whomever I chose directly to show my work.

Now I can pretty safely assume that if I put my writing out there, via Facebook status update or tweet, that someone will read it. So it has to be good, if I want those readers to continue to view my stuff.

In the realm of the professional, I've just recently changed jobs -- moving back into the school arena. I feel back in my "comfort zone," working with young people and their teachers, trying to help them through the maze of school. It's much more difficult than the work I was doing at Region 13, and the change is part of the drop off in my blog's productivity during the fourth quarter this year. But I like the hard work. It makes me think back to my foreman, the poet Keith Althaus, who was in almost constant motion when we worked together at the MarSpec warehouse in Provincetown, Massachusetts during the summer of 1984. He was always working -- so much so that I cannot recall Keith without seeing him walking quickly, or checking his paperwork, or operating a forklift, moving inventory. He wasn't joyless, by any stretch; in fact, I still giggle at some of the snide remarks he came out with, always in motion, with his nose to that proverbial grindstone. My favorite was his sarcasm regarding the Olympic Games that summer. The Soviets boycotted the L.A. games, bringing down the level of competition considerably. Keith came in one morning and said, "Did you guys see what we did to Guam last night? We crushed 'em."

I once asked Keith, over a quickly-devoured sandwich, why he never stopped moving. "Makes the day go faster," he said. And he was right. In the past three months, I've come to understand that a high school assistant principal's day goes by extremely fast.

And on the home front, the self-esteem that comes with the new job (although wrapped in a significant pay cut) has paid dividends. I'm able to be more "present" for my family, all of whom appear to be thriving, thank God. Sure, I have my goals, particularly in the areas of personal finance and fitness. All in all, though, 2011 has turned out to be a very good year indeed.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

"Tracking" Santa - And the Innocence of My Children


At some point not too long ago, someone thought it would be
cute to connect Google Earth and Google Maps with an application that would
allow children and their parents to track Santa on Christmas Eve. I have no problem with it, and actually find
the app a great teaching tool. The
little videos they post in various places around the globe are educational, and
give my kids a sense of global geography, while stoking their excitement about
Santa’s arrival.


It does require a major paradigm shift for me personally,
however, to accept the fact that the Google people have put Santa’s travels
under the watch of NORAD. I’m of a
generation still old enough to remember when nuclear proliferation and the
threat of worldwide Armageddon were a constant in the news, and NORAD was one
of those scary acronyms, along with OPEC, NATO, and SALT. NORAD is the North American Aerospace Defense
Command and became something much more precious than it was when I was young.


Anyway, I’m not trying to be a Grinch about it. In fact, I’m still benefitting from the
mythology of Santa Claus, and I know it’s only a matter of time before neither
of my sons will believe in Santa any more. The wonder and magical nature of Christmas is written in their
expression with every shopping mall Santa they see. Sadly, that wonder will soon be gone (along
with my ability to mitigate and manipulate their behavior with same) and I just
have to accept this sad fact.


Diego sort of floated the idea, earlier this year that Santa
may not exist. I’m sure he picked up the
notion from one of his fellow third graders. Jackson looked at me during this crucial moment, his six year old eyes
truly incredulous. Thinking fast, I
acted as if Diego had blasphemed. “Dude!”
I said in my best stage whisper. “Do you
realize what could happen if Santa or ANY of his helpers heard you say that?”


“What helpers?” he asked, looking around the Chinese
restaurant where we were having our usual – Chicken Lo Mein and Won Ton soup –
as if he expected to see an elf stick his head above a neighboring booth to spy
on us.


“I’m just saying. Be
cool with that stuff. Believing is key
to staying on the ‘Nice’ list.”


Diego’s large eyes narrowed skeptically. Then he left it alone, turning his attention
to the noodles on his plate.


I don’t honestly remember when my belief in Santa went away,
because I don’t remember ever really believing in him. I don’t mean this in any tragic sort of way;
it’s just that I’m not sure how hard my parents ever pushed the myth on me and
my brother. They enjoyed putting cheeky “To-From”
tags on our presents, in the form of riddles that gave hints about what was
under the wrapping paper based on who’d sent each item. For example, a new baseball glove might have
been sent by Tom Seaver, or a set of “Planet of the Apes” action figures could
have come from Caesar, Cornelius or Dr. Zaius. Nerdy, I know, but we loved it, and it’s a tradition Jeanette and I
continue. Diego’s gorilla slippers are
from King Kong and Jackson’s Playmobile jungle set is from Tarzan. You get the idea.


There’s an innocence in my children that I’m especially aware
of during the Christmas season. They
remind me of myself and my brother and the anticipation that eventually gave
way to sleep.


“Diego wakes me up on Christmas morning,” Jackson told me
last night. “He says, ‘Jackson, he came!
He came! There are presents under the
tree!’”


He’ll say it again tomorrow morning, as the myth stays alive
for one more tenuous year of innocence.



Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembering Hanno Fuchs (Dec. 23, 1928 - April 18, 2000)

As I back my way cautiously down the fold-out ladder from
the attic, my son Jackson stands below, imploring me to let him up so that he
can “help me.” Instead of getting into
the first argument of the day, I employ my acting training, convincing him that
what I’ve got in my hands is too difficult for me to handle. Without his help. He reaches up, and I hand the album down to
him.


“What’s this, Daddy?” my six-year-old asks, and I take the
opportunity to walk him through the photos with which I’ve populated this
book. The first one is of my father as a
boy (pictured here) – probably not too much younger than Jackson is now. There are shots of him in the army, others
with me and my brothers and sister, one with our friends the Kasais on
vacation, and still more traveling in Europe.


“Today’s my father’s birthday,” I tell my son. He gets a puzzled look on his face, as he
tries to comprehend how someone could both be dead and have a birthday, as well.

But then he asks me a pretty sophisticated question (and
with the best grammar I’ve ever heard him use): “How old would your dad have been if he were alive?”

After making a big deal about his sentence structure, and
use of the subjunctive conditional, I tell him his grandfather would have
turned 83 today, which, to him, sounds, of course like the age of Methuselah or
Rip Van Winkle. We leaf through the
pages together, and Jackson is more tickled at seeing my various “looks” – long
hair, pony tail, full beards, goatees and such.


Finally, I place the childhood portrait of my dad next to
Jackson’s and ask him, “Do you think you and grandfather look alike?” He grins his sparkling Hannoesque grin, nods and says, “He’s looking one way, and I’m
looking the other.”

I have no real way of knowing what place my father holds, or
will hold, in the hearts of my two sons. This is the nature of loss; it is highly subjective. The departed lives on, so to speak, differently
in each of his survivors. For me, I see
my father’s face in the mirror more and more with teach swiftly passing
year. For my wife, some of the photos
bring her back to a time and place where she can recall Hanno’s kind, paternal
embrace.


For my father’s siblings – an older brother and two younger
sisters – he’s someone else altogether. I’d imagine if he and his brother were anything like me and mine, there was
a period of rivalry and intense competition, followed by a peaceful and satisfying
acceptance of one another as friends. His sisters have both shared with me a deep admiration, described by
them as a form of hero worship that changed little over the course of their
time with him.

I don’t presume to know much more than this. My siblings and I have discussed his impact
on our lives from time to time. For my
own part, I can say that he validated me and my responses to the world around
me at every opportunity. He wasn’t
perfect; I know that now. But my father
was the person I need him to be – kind, understanding and forgiving.


As I’ve stated before, I believe the greatest gift my
parents gave me was the capacity to love. Yes, there are other things that are important in life, but none more
than this.

Happy 83rd, Dad. I miss you.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stopping by Roscoe


I posted yesterday’s blog, and it caused quite a nostalgic
stir on FBDC, with some twenty comments, and they’re still coming in. It’s gratifying when I touch on something – a
common memory that gets people talking as they themselves remember.


As I mentioned, I left a few things out – details not fit
for Internet posting and all the eyes that might fall on the sordid details of
a respected school administrator’s misspent youth. There was another, very specific item I omitted
– not because of fear of self-incrimination but because I didn’t know quite
where to fit it into the piece. The
Roscoe Diner was on my mind the entire time I was composing my post, but in the
end I’d left this detail out as well. Frankly, in the format I’ve been working with, I couldn’t figure out
where the eatery should enter into the narrative. As my college roommate, Greg King mentioned,
Roscoe, New York was the unofficial midpoint between home and school.


Perhaps I should have put it right in the middle.


When I think of Roscoe and the diner, the first image that
comes to mind is of a sign depicting a thick, meaty trout breeching almost
joyfully, someone’s skillfully tied fly imbedded in its cheek. “Welcome to Roscoe. Trout Town, USA.”


I suppose I could Google it, but back then you wouldn’t
have, and I remember being skeptical about that sign. Did they determine the moniker of Trout Town
based on poundage? Did the town keep records of all the lunkers that had been
pulled in within its limits over the years?


Or maybe Roscoe had simple decided one day they would
proclaim themselves the capital, based solely on how happy the fish on their
welcome sign seemed to be about being hooked.


Other images, in addition to that welcome sign, include a
wide parking lot, which was always packed with cars sporting license plates
from all over, from Montreal down to Florida. Because of the time of year my friends and I normally traveled home from
school and back, the diner was often full of men in loud plaid vests and coats –
hunters taking advantage of the abundant deer population in the area. Deer carcasses could be seen strung onto the
hood of many a vehicle in that large parking lot. Some were big bucks with elaborate antlers,
reaching up to slate-gray winter skies, while others were more delicate looking
does who seemed more peaceful in their repose. I can recall seeing one carcass that must
have been recently dressed, as I could swear I saw steam rising from the body
cavity there in the parking lot.


These were glimpses into another life, one I read about in
the books I loved at the time – by Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Jack London, and
others. The images I took in at the
Roscoe Diner made their way into my own work, as well. In one of my short stories a boy is cornered
in a diner men’s room by a drunk man who is showing him a school photo of his
dead son, who the man says would have been about the same age as my
protagonist.


The story had its strengths, most notably in the description
of the place, but was ultimately highly derivative of Raymond Carver’s work,
probably to an embarrassing degree. But
I did get praise for its emotional honesty. And its setting. And I have the
Roscoe Diner to thank for that – a place as iconic and as real as any other I’ve
been to.


I don’t remember much about the food, except that it was
plentiful. And for a 19 year old young
man on a long winter drive home, sometimes in automobiles with no heat and
questionable safety standards, the portions were perfect. My friends and I devoured the large helpings,
fueling up for the couple of hundred miles to go before we slept.


Dedicated to Greg
King, the best roommate of them all.



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Perilous Crossings: Memories of Driving in Winter


It was this time of year back when I was young, some 30 years ago to be exact, that I would make the long winter journeys between Syracuse University where I studied and Westchester, New York, where I lived. I made some of those excursions by train, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post.

There were occasions too, however, when I made the trip between Purchase and Syracuse, New York driving. My mom and/or dad would drive me up, or I’d go with a friend or two. These trips were generally “uneventful,” as they say, in that no one was ever injured, killed or arrested in connection with any of them. Believe me when I say, with no hint of irony or hyperbole that any of these three eventualities could easily have come to pass during my five years of being a student up in the frozen tundra. It’s not something I say proudly, or even lightly; in fact I’m humbled and more than a little ashamed when I think back to my recklessness behind the wheel during my early driving days.

My friend Mignon Young (Hambrick back then) and I like to recall the time she, Pete Landau (pictured above in a photo by Mignon) and I drove home together in her aging Renault Fuego (as Mignon recently said, “I later determined that fuego was Italian for ‘biggest piece of shit on the road.’”). The car had no heat, and this was a five-hour trip in the snowy dead of winter. We
entertained ourselves in the freezing car by playing games like “Botticelli” and “the Movie Game.” The latter was of our own invention; one player names a movie title, the next has to name their own, starting with the final letter of the previous player’s movie title. It was a ridiculous, inane game, but one that made the minutes and hours pass more quickly somehow. Of course, the fact that we were young and had a joyous friendship helped too.

On that same stretch of road – Route 17 – I recall being stopped by troopers one year. There had
been a lot of snow and ice, so they were ushering cars over a particularly icy bridge one at a time. I was behind the wheel; my mother was in the passenger seat and my brother Mike was in back. The trooper looked at each of us and then, like the guy who straps you in to the roller coaster, he said, “Okay, man, just take it slow and keep those wheels straight and you should be fine.”
I nodded and, gripping the wheel, my forearms stiff as planks, tapped my toe lightly on the accelerator, then the brake, both of which felt suddenly unfamiliar, as if I were borrowing a friend’s car for the first time, instead of driving my mother’s LeBaron – the very automobile on which I’d learned to drive.

I’m not sure what happened next; I do recall the hundred yards or so of that bridge seeming much, much longer, and the moment when I silenced the unsolicited driving advice I was getting from my passengers, not by yelling but by evenly asking if either of them wanted to take over for
me. With the quiet I needed, I got us over that bridge and to our destination.
There are other stories I could tell on myself that involve that route, but I think I’ll wait until I’ve got less to lose. I like my job and my “place in my community” too much. Who knows? It might make for a good deathbed confession someday…….

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Exceptional Sleep Patterns of an Exceptional Family



It’s before sunrise, and I’m the only one awake in our
house. The thermostat has just kicked in above my head, somewhere in the
attic. There’s a humming, the collisions
of once still molecules, as the water in my coffee pot begins to sputter and
boil in the kitchen.



I have that distinctly American (or is it distinctly male? Or distinctly American male?) satisfaction that comes with the knowledge that
your family is indoors, warm and safe, despite the chilly darkness just outside
the door. Everyone is present and
accounted for, even though it did get a bit confusing there for a while last
night. It would have been amusing to
watch time lapse photography of our movements. Jeanette was the only one who stayed in one
place.



We all started out – the four of us – snuggled up in the
king size master bed, watching the finale of the Next Iron Chef America. Diego was the first to give in to sleep, as
usual. I transported him over to his bed
without any problem. Jeanette fell out
shortly after learning that Geoffrey Zakarian would join the ICA Pantheon. “Should have been Faulkner,” she muttered. As I said, she stayed right where she was.



I then offered to lie down in our guest bed with Jackson
until he fell asleep. (He’d drifted off
for a power nap on the couch while his mother was preparing dinner and was now
energized as a result.) He liked that
idea, so I lay there with him for a time, both of us tossing and turning,
scratching and farting, until finally I informed him I would need to do the
dishes and that he could either stay where he was with the door open, or sleep
in his room, along with his brother, but with the door shut.



After briefly weighing the options, Jackson chose the guest
bed, knowing he could listen to me in the kitchen, which soothes him for some
odd reason. I did my bid in the kitchen,
watching the conclusion of the Ravens-Chargers game in the process.



When I was done, I went back to the guest room and checked
on Jackson who had succumbed, proving there is a God and that He is merciful.



I then went back to the sala
and lounged on my easy chair, where I watched a bit of Conan’s “Best-of”
special before dozing off.



I made my way into my own bed and went to sleep. At some point in what I can only refer to as “the
middle” of the night, I was aware of being crowded, and I could hear the not
unfamiliar sound of an extra set of miniature lungs breathing in my air.



Jackson.



Rather than move him, I chose to move myself. Back to the guest bed. Which was, of course, occupied by our dog
Ally, who will take any door left open by a sleepwalking child as her
opportunity. I shooed her away and sat
directly on Diego, who was also in the bed.
I then carried him to his bed (for the second time, mind you) before coming back and collapsing on the
guest bed one final time.




Monday, December 5, 2011

The Reason We Had Two

Yesterday morning I caught Diego and Jackson in a lovely, unguarded moment. They were seated together in my comfortable leather chair in the family room, with Diego's "Snakes and Reptiles" book open over their laps.

"Look at this one, Jackson!" Diego said again and again, to which his younger brother replied, "Whoa!" or "Oooh!" or "Wow!"

It was a rare glimpse, and I did what I could to preserve the moment, snapping a few pictures on my phone, but not so conspicuously as to cause them to scatter like Brooklyn roaches. When they leafed upon a picture of a creature that looked particularly creepy, scary or interesting, Diego read aloud to Jackson, who sat there more transfixed and still than he ever is with me when I'm reading to him each night before sleep.

I cast no judgment or aspersion on anyone who has chosen to have only one child. Believe me. There are moments -- regularly -- when I envy them. Like my brother and me, and my father and uncle before us, Diego and Jackson fight almost constantly. Mutual combat is their preferred mode of expressing their love for one another.

It's in these rare, peaceful moments, however, that I'm reminded of why we chose to have two. I can count on one hand the number of "lifelong" friends I have. My brother Mike is always first on that short list. It's a comfort to know, as someone who won't be around all that much longer (I'm speaking relatively, of course. No veiled "threat" intended.) that Jackson and Diego will have each other's backs, so to speak.

They may not always see eye to eye on every issue; in fact, they may grow up to be two very different and divergent people. I have a feeling, though, that their friendship is being forged in the fire that is their childhood, and that the iron being cast will be strong indeed.

Oh and by the way: in case you're wondering, Diego and Jackson have no new "friends" on the way. Nor will they. Ever. As a great man once said, I may be dumb, but I ain't stupid.