Everybody Gets A Trophy

A dresser covered with two dozen trophies from basketball, soccer, rugby, baseball and football. Some personalized, most generic.

Baby Bear was instructed to clear out his room when he was home for the Christmas holidays. It was to prepare for the rehab of the upstairs. He bristled when I mentioned his Tipman A5.

“That’s the one thing I want. Why do you start with threatening that with the dump?”

He had a point. He wasn’t angry. More hurt, I think. While I was attempting to convey my ignorance of the importance of his stuff, he wasn’t feeling the urgency I expected. I went for the jugular. It was my test case. He wanted to keep it.

Honestly, this was not the best way to build momentum for an unwelcome project. Note to self: Need to work on my technique.

My own mother used to annoy me by keeping me solidly preserved in amber as my 18-year-old self. It was as if I were stuck with my permed hair, big belled Levis and a limited palette of Jack and Ginger and french onion soup for a fancy date. Forever. I don’t think that she ever really knew me after I left.

Not that she was trying to force me into a box. Not even that she was indifferent to me. It was more like she was unable to move her point of reference to the present. To where I was now.

Every time I’d see her it was always a slide backwards. Even when I married. Even when I had kids of my own. There was still a part of her that related to me as if I were my high school self. Even when I could no longer remember the references that were, to her, au courant. Over the years it became a dull annoyance, but still.

Baby Bear did a good job clearing out his stuff. He bagged stuff to donate and stuff to toss. He left some things behind with the instruction that the disposal of the remains was up to me. He knew that I would go through the kid and young adult books on the bookshelves. I already said that I couldn’t actually part with the legos.

He emptied out all of his drawers. No oversized cargo shorts, t-shirts with images that were no longer funny or school ties left. There was a pile of random phone and other small electronics chargers on the top of one dresser. On the other was an array of trophies.

There were maybe two or three thousand trophies. Well, perhaps that’s an exaggeration. But for many years there were two seasons of soccer and one of basketball, each season ending with a requisite participation trophy. He did that for a bunch of years. Then there were camp trophies. And a science fair ribbon. And the Latin medals. And the football and  baseball markers. I think there was a letter for wrestling and rugby, too.

I looked at that display of accomplishment–because participation is an accomplishment, too–and wondered why they didn’t make it into a bag. Did he think they were important to me? Did he not want to be the one to physically let them go? But he did let them go. He was done with them. He took what he wanted and moved on.

I was using childhood tricks by poking Baby Bear with the one item I knew he wanted to keep. I was stuck in that oppositional place where I con him into an action. Actually, though, he’s beyond that. I looked around at the relatively little he left behind.

He lives seventeen hundred miles away. I think about him taking care of himself. Without my daily admonitions. He’s got this. He’s moved on. Me too.

I am renaming him again in this blog. Starting now, he’s Bear. Just Bear. He’ll always have a place to stay here. We are remodeling his room, which will remain his room. If he wants it.

Both Bear and Doc are on a growth trajectory. I’ll toss the trophies. He has other things to do.

That Sinking Feeling

The moment the SUV plunges into the thin ice on the mostly frozen lake. As captured on the local news.

“Oh man. Erich’s dad is so much fun.” The boy was breathless. They had a great time at the cabin. They made fires. They cooked on the made fires. They ran in the frozen woods at night with flashlights. Erich’s dad told the best ghost stories. He didn’t tell his mom, but Erich’s dad let him puff a pipe.

Mr. Bronch most definitely did not let him smoke, though. Sure, Erich’s dad was smoking. The boys asked him about it. Mr. Bronch didn’t want it to be a magical mystery, so he let all of them put their mouths on the lip of the pipe and suck or blow or whatever they did. It wasn’t a lesson in smoking, but a lesson that smoking wasn’t unknowable and wasn’t that important. But they were all sworn to secrecy. They very much liked that.

It was just an overnight trip, but it was the best day in the boy’s life. His own dad had many more rules, was always invoking said rules and was a big stick in the mud. You always had to do a safety check on your helmet before you got on your bike. You had to come in the house if it was thundering. You needed to do your homework before you could play your game–even though everyone else could do both. You had to go back and apologize to the second baseman you taunted after you stole that base. You always had to go to the bathroom before you left the house. Is there no privacy?? Just too much of the words “must” and “should.”

Mr. Bronch was good with them doing whatever they wanted. He didn’t intervene if they argued. He even jumped in on the one battle that got physical. That was hysterical. They all laughed so much they forgot what started the fight. But they remembered getting out of Erich’s dad’s headlock. And eating a huge bag of potato chips with a big jar of dip when they watched the movie that Mom did not want them to see. He got a little nervous, though, and looked away when they had that part with the lady without her shirt on. The guns, though, he was down with that. When that guy blew the other guy’s brains out? Erich’s dad told them it was all fake. They knew that mostly already.

“So can I go back to the cabin next week? Please?” His mom looked at him and shook her head.

“Not next week. Erich won’t be with his dad. Have him call me and we can figure out the next time.”

The next time wasn’t for a few weeks. But he was pumped and primed to go back. There would be him and Erich and Tom Jr. and Levi. And, of course, Mr. Bronch. They were going to bring their skates and skate on the lake.

His dad made him repack his backpack. “Where’s your toothbrush? Did you pack an extra pair of socks? It’s going to be cold. Here’s your ColdGear leggings. Just pack them!” Jeez. This was so annoying. He was sure that Erich’s dad didn’t poke in Erich’s bag.

Then his dad made him practice lacing up his skates. Seriously? And he went through a classic safety checklist. When he rolled his eyes, his dad grinned a little and said, “Guy, I just want you to be prepared. I trust you to do the right thing, but a little practice doesn’t hurt.” He went through the drills. He gave his dad a dap as he scrambled out of the car, his backpack swinging in his arm. He didn’t take the time to loop it over his shoulder. He was gone.

“See you tomorrow!” he chirped as he ran up the driveway to Erich’s dad’s big black truck.  The truck was running, but there wasn’t anyone in it. His dad parked the car. The boy rolled his eyes in his brain.

“What? Dad. It’s fine.” Erich’s dad came out the garage door, carrying some bags.

“Hey Tom.”

“Hey! How are you? Haven’t seen you for too long, man.” Erich’s dad grabbed his dad’s hand and pulled him in close for a hug.

“Yeah. Too long. You guys should come by. I finally got the direct gas line to the grill. We can put steaks and burgers on all winter.”

“Sure, but I think that your wife likes me not so much.”

“Don’t be paranoid. She can be friends with both you and your ex. She’d love to have you by. She was asking how you were doing.”

“Tell her I’m just fine. I talked to her last week anyway. She should have asked me then.”

“Sure, whatever. She was just doing logistics. Between my job, her job, the kids and her mom’s been sick.”

“No. Not her mom? That’s tough.”

“We think she’ll be fine. But it’s just a worry now until we go through the checklist of docs. Getting old seems to suck.” His laugh was a little hollow.

“We’re not going to do that, though. Get old that is. We have too much shit to do.” Tom’s laugh was full. They were interrupted by a yell from the tumble of boys in the front yard.

“Get OFF of me!” The boy’s dad looked over to assess the situation. Erich’s dad put his bags in the back of his truck.

“Hey, guys. Take it easy. I think Levi said he had enough.” The boy’s dad was good at deescalation. The pile broke up. The boy held out a hand to Levi. Tom Jr went behind him and lifted him up. Tom Jr was the youngest, but only by a Irish twin–ten months younger than his brother Erich, but bigger than all of them.

Erich’s dad clicked the remote to close the garage. The boy’s dad walked onto the porch and pulled on the front door to make sure it was locked. He stopped to give his son a quick hug before he returned to his car. “See you tomorrow!” The boy waved back. Then they all hopped into the truck. Erich had shotgun. The other three fought over who had to sit in the middle. Erich’s dad had them do rock, paper scissors and then told them to shut the hell up. They liked it when he cursed. They felt grown up.

They grabbed their backpacks and followed Erich’s dad into the dark cabin. It smelled of the fireplace and a little must. It was freezing.

“Okay, you guys go ahead and get your skates. I’ll get the fire started and meet you at the lake.” He flipped the top of a beer and shuffled through the branches next to the fireplace. “Erich, first go grab me a big log.”

Erich and the boy went to the back patio and pulled two big, for them, logs off the woodpile and brought them in. They found their skates. Levi and Tom Jr had already gone to the lake. Not like it was far. Just down a few steps, across the slatted cedar walk and down a few more steps to the dock. The other boys were laced up when Erich and the boy caught up.

The lake was plenty frozen. It was mostly smooth, too. As they skated across, it moaned underneath them. The moon provided the light for their games. They decided to run relays just as Mr. Bronch joined them. He skated out beyond their playground and they forgot about him as they swapped teams out for the next round of races.

Crack! Their was a fissure that was growing deep in the ice. Tom Jr. looked up to see if the rest of them were okay. The boy looked at Erich. This was his territory. Then they saw a dark figure racing towards them. He was coming fast. The boys locked their arms to be an impenetrable wall. They dug their skates sideways into the ice. Mr. Bronch was coming like a bullet fired from a gun. The boys steeled themselves and, just at impact, Erich’s dad snowplowed to a stop, showering the line of defense with ice. As the boys doubled over laughing, Tom Jr. lost his balance and fell.

Mr. Bronch pushed him along. Levi gave the next push. Tom Jr was laughing and couldn’t get up. The boy and Erich gathered Tom Jr by a leg each and swung him around the ice. His dad joined in and grabbed the boy by his arm and leg and swung him around and let go. Tom Jr. sailed across the ice and then disappeared. Out of their sight. The moon was behind the clouds. They were cracking up. Tom Jr flew off like a weird rocket.

“Tommy!” Erich yelled. They didn’t know where he was, not for sure. They couldn’t see Erich’s dad’s frown. “Tom?” He couldn’t have gone far. The ice cracked again underneath them.

“Dad, is he okay? Where is he? Is the ice gonna hold?”

“The ice is a foot thick. We are fine.” But he couldn’t see his boy. “Tom!? Hey, Tommy.” He raised his voice a little.

“TOM-MEEE,” Levi screamed. He was still playing. The boy joined in. “Oh, Tom. Oh Tom JOON-YER.” They skated out a bit. They couldn’t see very far, with the moon behind the clouds. It seemed like the wind was picking up. Or maybe it was the dark. “Tom. You okay? Say something.”

The clouds moved and let some moonlight through. Between that and their eyes adjusting, they could see a figure on the ice. Erich’s dad was surprised he was so far away. The four of them skated to the unmoving mass, the boys pulling up to let Mr. Bronch get there first.

“He’s okay.” They saw that Tom Jr was sitting up. Or maybe he was being propped up by his dad. “I’m going to take him to the cabin to warm up a little. You guys can skate for a while.”

Tom Jr was on his feet. He wasn’t talking but was responding by nodding to his dad’s questions. His dad supported him, really steered him, to the dock. “Man, you really flew!” The boys laughed. Tom Jr seemed to laugh, too. Then it was clear he wasn’t laughing, but throwing up.

“Gross!” “Jesus, what did you eat?” “I’m going to barf now.” “Does it taste the same?”

“Skate away from the puke,” said Erich’s dad. He sat Tom Jr on the dock and took off his skates. “He’ll be okay when I get him some water and get him warmed up.” Tom Jr couldn’t focus enough to get his boots back on by himself. His dad shoved his feet in his boots and tried to get him to stand up. Walking wasn’t working. Tom Jr threw up again. He wasn’t too big to carry.

The boy kept glancing over at Tom Jr and his dad. Nobody seemed to be very worried, so he worked to ignore his concern. The grownup had this. It was fine. It was getting colder and a big cloud was overtaking the moon. Erich pointed to the house, “Let’s get back in.” Erich grabbed Levi’s skate and the boy grabbed his boot so Levi had to sock skate after them for a little bit. It was too cold to play boot-keep-away for long. Erich tossed the skate back on the dock and ran up to the house. The boy waited for Levi to get his other boot on, and they raced back.

Tom Jr was on the couch in front of a big fire. He had a cloth on his head and a quilt over his body. His eyes were closed. He didn’t respond to any of them. The boy shook his shoulder. Erich grabbed his hand. “Dad. Dad. Dad. Tommy’s hand is really cold. Is it supposed to be so cold?” Erich’s dad had three microwaved hot cocoas looped on the fingers of his left hand. He put his right hand on Tom Jr’s as he handed the steaming mugs to the boys.

“Drink up. Then get your jackets. We’re going to take a side trip.”

When the boy’s dad came to the hospital to pick up the boy and Levi, the boy was more than relieved to see him. His dad wrapped him up in his arms and was surprised with the tightness of his son’s grasp around his neck.

The boy stopped being frightened. He was still scared for Tom Jr. but now that his dad was there, his dull, methodical and careful dad, he was exhausted. And he felt safe.

You Get What You Need

Mini mobile characters by Alexander Calder. He made this small figures for his wife and gifted them in a wooden box. There is an amazing exhibit at the National Gallery in DC. You should go see it.

I was reading an article written by a mom who became newly enlightened on an important topic. So enlightened that she thought her lesson needed to be shared. And so enlightening that her post was passed on. It was in my newsfeed. Clickbait. God knows that’s the only way I read mommy bloggers. Click.

I’m not in their demographic. The mommy blogger demographic, that is. My kids are grown. I am without extant parenting angst. I did not take courses in hipster in graduate school. My idea of having it all was getting my kids to school on time and making it to my 8:30 a.m. meeting no later than 8:35 a.m. Bonus would be bringing my lunch–leftovers in a tupperware–and no coffee stains on my shirt. This scenario may have occurred twice. Maybe only once. If we skipped the lunch, the tally would rise to maybe five or six.

My failure was early, right at step one. We were usually–read every day–late for school. I’d get salty when they called me out on it. Having it all had nothing to do with homemade cupcakes with two types of icing for a school party, mani-pedis, mimosas and brunch, flexible workdays, antibiotic-free organic milk, educational screen time, choruses of Let It Go followed by all purchases emblazoned with characters from Frozen, finishing emails to my boss via Siri in my hybrid on the way to a practice, training and running a half-marathon or “me” time. Who the hell is “me,” anyway?

So, I’m reading this post that promises a great discovery. (Also, damn you clickbait. Damn you all to hell. Fake news is nothing compared to fake importance.)

I’m waiting to get to the punch line, because like with this here post, it’s all in the building of anticipation. Are you hanging on by your fingertips yet, Loyal Reader? Breath sped up a bit? Pulse quickened? Wondering, “What could it be?!?”

Yeah, well Prince and Princess, get used to disappointment. Her amazing parenting discovery was that it was better when she didn’t make her kids share.

That’s it. No forced sharing.

Now work with me for a minute. What the hell is compulsory sharing? Sounds like a simple and totalitarian redistribution of goods to me. Where is the agency in sharing when it’s a commandment. Sharing? Sounds more like stealing. From me to you via our mom.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I intervened more than once when a fleetingly beloved object became the impetus for a round of ultimate mixed martial arts–aka kicking, punching and biting. But my intercessions were both limited and clear. If you all can’t figure this out, I’m removing the object of the communal desire. Seriously, do I look like Solomon to you?  No I look like a stone totem. See my avatar.

There was a little girl at pre-school who had this warped idea of sharing down. She’d walk up to another kid and, like a cornerback forcing a fumble, grab the toy out of their hands all the while glaring and saying the word SHARE! She was learning English, but she had the idea that share was a synonym for mine.

So this mommy blogger had been divvying out the spoils between her kids based on who sounded the most put out. She would tell the older, usually, to share with the younger. She trained the younger to complain in order to extract the prize. This was not her intention.

My intention was to avoid the petty disputes between my kids. Maybe even squeeze in a nap. Just kidding!

My intention was to get them to learn to work things out. And, my intention was to encourage them to share from their hearts versus from a script, written by me. You see, sometimes you don’t get what you want. And sometimes you don’t have to give up what you want. And sometimes you find out that what you want isn’t a thing in your hands as much as something that you can’t hold–built from compromise and close quarters–and that is what you want to hold on to.

Roux the Day

A worn wooden spoon on a worn wooden cutting board.

She stood over the stove stirring. Stirring, stirring, stirring. She wasn’t giving up.

She was learning to cook. It was a grownup thing to do, and she was ready to be a grownup. She outfitted her kitchen with a few pieces of mid-priced cookware to join the battered pots that had been her stepmom’s. She was addicted to cooking shows and studied the mis en place and vino in mano of her favorite chefs on her favorite shows.

Between HGTV, YouTube and prodigious brunches around town she was growing her skills, her palette and her repertoire. She fancied herself the foodie friend. She had started inviting friends to stand up cocktails with cute things on skewers and bites on those silly appetizer spoons. She graduated to hosting her own brunches filled with fancy french toasts, egg custards, salads and mimosas. Last year she did Thanksgiving for the friends who couldn’t get home. The boxed wines she served were the good ones. Everyone said she did great.

She was ready to cross into new territory. The turkey dinner was a win, but she was ready for something from her own inspiration. She decided that she’d host her alumni squad for a fun dinner party after the game. Her solution? Gumbo.

Gumbo was like chili only more exotic. Like chili, it could make ahead of time, it didn’t need extensive staging and it was hearty. She figured she’d serve gumbo, a goat cheese and pear salad with candied pecans that Giada makes and a baguette from the local bakery. She’d lay out some of Emeril’s “kicked up” olives, that fancy cheese with honey, breadsticks and beers to hold her guests while she warmed up the stew. She was hoping to remind people of New Orleans. Her idea was to have a party that was theme-y without really having a theme. She expected maybe ten or so.

She hadn’t made gumbo before, but didn’t consider it beyond her domain. The ingredients weren’t unusual–save the okra, but okra is a vegetable. She hadn’t been challenged by a vegetable yet. She felt confident. She got up early.

First up, the roux, the key to an authentic gumbo. Ingredient-wise it’s just oil and flour. Not too complicated. All she had to do was heat it and stir it until it was a deep chocolate brown. It seemed triflingly simple. Stand and stir. And stir.

After about five minutes she could see the color change. She nodded to herself. Something was happening. She figured a few more minutes. All she could hear was the spoon on the pan. Her phone should be charged by now. She grabbed it off the charger in her bedroom. She swiped around until she found an appropriate Spotify list–1,600 songs from New Orleans. That was good for mood setting.

She walked back into the kitchen to a scorched pan. The roux was burned. She had stepped away for two minutes, okay, maybe five or six, but it’s supposed to cook for like fifteen. Crap! She only had one big pot. She had to wait for it to cool before she could clean it out.

She fiddled with her playlist and made sure that her phone was connected to the speaker before she started again. She was glad she started early. She smiled and thought if it were later she’d have some cooking wine. Maybe it was better to be stone cold sober. She filled up her coffee mug, swirling in some of that hazelnut creamer. She dried the pan with a dish towel and put it on the burner to remove the last traces of water. She was ready.

Roux take two.

She measured out the oil and the flour and began the stirring process. She knew now that this concoction was a demanding master. She kept her spoon moving through the flour and the oil. It swelled and bubbled a little. She kept stirring. It went from vanilla to beige. More stirring as it passed from beige to taupe. It started to smell a little nutty. That was a good sign according to her recipe. She stirred and stirred. She swept the spoon in figure eights. She squiggled it through the mixture. She sipped her coffee from the cup held in her left hand as her right hand pushed the the darkening roux back and forth. She wasn’t stopping this time.

She had massaged the stuff in the pan for fifteen minutes. It seemed stalled. It wasn’t getting darker. It was stuck on caramel colored but she needed dark chocolate cake batter colored. She turned the heat up to make something happen. And it did. It went from a nutty smell to the stench of old fire pit. A few curse words sputtered from her lips.

Ruined roux number two.

She inhaled long. She exhaled from her nose and mouth at the same time. She needed to get this done and cooked before she left for the game, so she didn’t have time to get frustrated. She waited, again, for the pot to cool. It was a good thing, because she needed to cool, too.

She looked at the clock. She was running low on time. She googled “roux” and looked through a few of the entries. She found one from a site called BlueBayouCrazyCajunCooking that said it takes a half hour to get the right shade of chocolate and to lower the heat toward the end to avoid burning.

Well, she definitely knew how to burn it. She had two techniques for that. She shook her shoulders out and switched her coffee out for a coke. She measured out the flour and the oil and began the process again, hoping that the third time was the charm.


Zero to Infinity

Plymouth Satellite Sebring parked on an idyllic suburban street.

My Older Sib cracked up Dad’s car within ten days of getting her driver’s license. Twice. She lost her driving privileges after the second crash. She also lost my driving privileges–eighteen months before I could get my own license. Collateral damage.

Our suburb, like all Detroit suburbs, wasn’t walkable. It was a bedroom community for people who worked for the Big Three. There wasn’t any public transportation to speak of, I think GM blew up the bus system. This meant that for pretty much all of high school, I had to bum rides with friends to go to the mall, games, post-game grub and parties.

When I got my first job, Dad was my taxi–even though there was almost always a car available in the garage. He could have made this easier on himself if he didn’t hold me responsible for the Sins of the Older Sibling. The drop off and pick up ritual became less painful for Dad when my boyfriend began to cover many of the evening shifts. Dad always seemed to like that guy, maybe I just figured out why.

It’s not like I never, ever drove. It just had the same frequency as a blue moon. This made me an inexperienced driver. My friend Jenny drove everyone around. She was a good driver because she drove a lot. She also didn’t drink which was good for the rest of us piled in and draped all over each other in the front and in the back of her mom’s Pontiac LeMans as we went from the liquor store to find an old guy to buy us beer and then to the football game where we drank the beer in the parking lot and then to get some pizza to sober up and cover up the beer stink.

Dad had a true blue 1972 Plymouth Satellite with a big V-8 that spent the winter months stalling and not running well at all and the summer months barely holding back a vicious growl. It was a dud in the winter. It was ready to go in the summer.

On the day of a blue moon, I was gifted the great privilege of driving myself to work. I’m not going to lie. It was awesome. I felt like the most grown up and amazing person. I had the windows down and pushed the tinny speakers past their safety, blasting WRIF–the Home of Rock and Roll–so everyone would know that I loved Bob Seger, too. I pushed in the bulb of the cigarette lighter and waited the amazingly few seconds for it to pop. I almost stared at the red hot coils concealed in the lighter casing. I lifted it to the cigarette in my mouth, barely missing being clumsy enough to burn my cheek.

I used my mirrors and my blinkers. I stopped at the stop sign and waited for the light to turn green before making my right turn. I had Dad’s car parked in the lot behind the restaurant before I finished my smoke. I considered driving around the block, but these suburban blocks were not square. They were filled with squiggly roads that doubled back on themselves or deposited you in a cul de sac without a exit to the main road. I knew how the streets worked in my subdivision, but was ignorant of the worming in this one. I didn’t drive. I didn’t know.

I was closing this night. It must have been a Friday or a Saturday since we didn’t close until midnight. There was a little less than an hour’s worth of closing tasks. There was the teenage manager and the grill guy, me and another girl. I was over the moon to be able to offer a ride to my shift-mate.

It was a congenial crewe, full of the banter and bullshit of a group of teens who just closed the store. We were feeling our oats. There wasn’t anything to do. The only thing open was the 7-11, and we already had all the coke we could drink. It was time to go home.

The grill guy walked up to his dad’s car in the lot. It was a long, long, long red Cadillac with a white vinyl half-top. The street lamp shone off the chrome surrounding the squared off headlamps. The grill guy was feeling pretty powerful, too. He started talking smack about how fast the car was.

“Oh, really? Not faster than this big blue monster in the summer.” I then quickly copped to the fact that it was a winter lemon. The grill guy jerked his head up.

The grill guy was very tall. He was a tall guy with translucent white skin topped with a head full of more red than brown loose curls. He wore his hair unusually short for those days. He was jonesing for a promotion, perhaps even a hamburger slinging career. He tried to hide his height by scrunching his head into his shoulders and scrunching his shoulders as close to his hips as he could. But when I put out the challenge he almost straightened.

“Yeah? Right. That’s not going to beat this Caddy.”

“Let’s go.” I ran to the passenger side of the Satellite to unlock the door for my girlfriend. He ran to the red car, chased by the teenage manager that he was giving a ride home. We were going to head out on 13 Mile.

It wasn’t a real race. We didn’t have a start and we didn’t have a finish. We were just going to see who was faster.

I fumbled with my keys and with the ignition and with the locks. Nobody used seatbelts then. I turned up the radio and rolled down the window. But the Caddy was already leaving the parking lot, heading toward the intersection at a good clip. There was a red light in front of us, and nobody on the road. It was after 1 a.m. I turned left into the corner gas station to skip past the light and take the lead. Oh the cleverness of me!

The light had turned just as I peeled out of the gas station. The red Cadillac was hot on my tail and looking to pass me. I hit the gas. He was gaining on me. My co-pilot was beginning to hyperventilate. Oh hell, there wasn’t time to begin to do anything. She started to scream. “SLOW DOWN! THIS IS TOO FAST”

I looked down at the speedometer needle that was moving past 65, past 75. The grill man still in hot pursuit. I was at 85, 95 and I knew he was, too. The needle continued to 100 and then 110 and up to 118. The Cadillac was lagging. I don’t know if he got over 100 mph, but when I checked my mirror, he was done.

I took my foot off the accelerator and the car slowed. Or at least it stopped going faster. I gently tapped my brakes. I didn’t want to fishtail. I don’t know how I knew that. Maybe I observed this as a passenger. Anyway, it seemed like it took a long time for the car to drop down to a normal speed. That’s when I realized that we were going fast. On a two lane road with a gravel shoulder. I was focusing on the race, not the speed. And the speed was exhilarating. To me.

My companion was no longer speaking to me. She had blown past her red zone. I don’t know when she stopped yelling, but her silence was worse. She was so angry. I had terrified her. I apologized. She never got in a car with me again. I never drove that fast again.

Me and the grill guy were just going to see who was faster. But that’s not what we did. What we saw was who was willing to push the risk. I am not saying we were testing our bravery, because the activity was stupid. It’s not brave to be stupid. We simply pushed each other in ways that people do when they are showing off. We had our hubris on full display. We were having fun and sped off like adolescents do. The grill guy listened to an inner moderator. Me? Not so much.

I didn’t drive Dad’s car into an accident, and it wasn’t the last time that I raced. But it was the last time I pushed a dare too far. But nobody crashed. Nobody was hurt and yet, it was too far. The truth is, you don’t have to drive off a cliff to go too far. Lesson learned.

Lean Wit It

A 1970's era Yamaha 250cc. It's blue. It's agile and small.

They were going to go to the movies and, afterwards, most likely to Big Boy. He was the friend of her friend’s brother from a neighboring high school. He had a dark mop of long loose curls and a friendly grin that showed a small chip in his top tooth. It was from a Little League accident. A misplaced baseball. He didn’t play sports now. He preferred machines. Engines, specifically.

She didn’t really know him, but they met watching a basketball game at her school. For the next few weeks they quietly asked about each other, until her friend gave her number to the brother who passed it on to his friend. That was a few weeks later, after basketball and baseball seasons. It was the end of the school year, with long days that closed in cool nights, by the time he was coming by to pick her up.

She looked at the clock. She needed to be ready to answer the door when he arrived. The idea of her father opening the door to meet him was too awkward. She had to get there first. But there was time.

Getting ready wasn’t a big production. She grabbed the hot pink tube and unscrewed the lime green brush. Great Lash. It was waterproof. She wasn’t very skilled with the wand. She wished it was more like a magic wand and she could conjure the eyes of the models in Glamour. Her lashes always ended up with clumps. Her sister used a safety pin to separate clumps. But she didn’t trust her clumsy self with a needle pointed at her eyeball.

Today there was only one clump. And it wasn’t that bad. She fumbled around on the dresser and pushed past the brush for her lip gloss. It had a little bit of color, lots of sticky shine and tasted like Dr. Pepper–her favorite soda.

That was it. She looked at the clock. Scheduled pickup in 10 minutes. She went into her sister’s room and sprayed some cologne. Maybe too much. It’d dissipate some anyway. There usually wasn’t any left by the time she got home but she definitely smelled of the juice of sweet, nameless flowers.

Ugh. Her dad was puttering around in the garage. He had the lawn mower out and a brown stubby bottle in his hand. This wasn’t her plan but it would make for some additional drama. She perched herself on the arm of the couch in the front room, closest to the door. She heard him coming.

His was a full-sized bike, but it wasn’t the biggest bike. It was Japanese, so it had that higher pitched whirr. He tuned it to be loud. It didn’t growl and pop like a Harley, but kids didn’t own Harleys. He swung it into the short wide driveway. She came out of the house before he turned off the engine and looked at her dad.

Hmmmm. No reaction. She was sure that he’d say something.

The boy removed his helmet as he swung his leg off of the bike. He had a worn but clean white t-shirt with the fading name of a band. He jeans were crinkled by his knees and at the top of his leg where he bent to sit. The helmet in his hand was white, and he rested it on the seat. Her dad looked up and nodded.

“What time you going to be back?” he asked him. She got there first and told him that they were going to see some ensemble racing comedy and then grab pizza or a burger. “Okay,” was his reply.

She looked at him sideways. He didn’t mention the chariot.

The boy shook the man’s hand and walked her to the blue motorcycle. He asked her if she knew how to lean in a turn. She lied and said she did, as if she always rode on the back of bike. He handed her a helmet. It was blue with a full face. She put it on and felt like she was wearing a goldfish bowl. She could barely hear and what she did hear was the echoes of her breathing inside. The weight of the helmet made her feel like a bobble head. She had to concentrate to hold her head steady.

He got on the bike and she sat behind him on the flat seat. He started the engine and she saw her mother come out of the house, into the garage. Her dad was back tinkering with the lawnmower and her mother smiled and waved as they tooled off.

Her confusion over the lack of parental reaction was overtaken by the lurch of the bike and the wind cycloning her hair. She felt a little weird with her hands around this stranger’s waist, but the gawkiness was sidelined by the rush of the ride. The boy didn’t show off. He didn’t take chances. He didn’t weave or speed. He knew that the bike itself was enough show.

She automatically leaned into the first turn. He looked back at her and nodded. She was happy that he couldn’t see her ear-to-ear ingenue grin. It wouldn’t be cool and she couldn’t help herself. She was sorry when they got to the theatre. The movie was funny enough, but ran long and he had to work in the morning. He rode her back home.

It was different riding in the dark. Not only was it much cooler, but the direct exposure to the lights of oncoming vehicles and the amplified sound of the engines–the one underneath them and the ones all around them–added a sense of danger. Not fright, but excitement.

He dropped her off. She didn’t want him to walk her to the door. She liked the motorcycle much more than the boy. And she was disappointed that she didn’t shock her parents. That was to be part of the fun.

She was done with that dalliance, and decided to concentrate on her regular beau. The one that her parents liked. His car was fast enough and it seemed there was no tweaking her parents. No danger. No excitement.

In her head, she heard the high whine of the engine just before the shift and remembered her head jerking back as she rocketed behind a stranger down a dark road.


Shiner Doc

This is the shore of Lake Superior, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. People are at the beach sunbathing. Those are NOT whitecaps but ice flows. Brrrr!

There was that time that I gave the Best Man a black eye. But I get ahead of myself.

When people think about Michigan, top of mind is cars and cold. Most folks don’t realize that in addition to the mitten–i.e., the Lower Peninsula–there is another slab of Michigan. It’s on the other side of the big Mackinac Bridge, which spans the four or five miles where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron kiss. It’s the Upper Peninsula (UP). The hearty people who live in the UP are called Upers.

It’s crossways the 320 miles between Wisconsin on the west and a narrow river separating the U.S. from Canada on the east. To the North is the greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. You can tell it’s the greatest lake because it tells you so. Superior.

My friend’s brother went to school in the UP. I never quite knew how he got there from Milwaukee, but he went to Tech. He studied business at a mining college. Tech is way up north in the Keweenaw Peninsula. [I know, yet another peninsula. What is it with these people?] This Peninsula juts deep into Lake Superior.

Another thing you should know about Lake Superior is that it is cold. Average Keweenaw water temp–when it peaks in the summer–is still less than 60°F. It’s big. It’s cold. And it has a reserved, maybe even a foreboding, personality. If you stare at it too long, it will brush you off. It doesn’t care.

It was at Tech, on the Keweenaw Peninsula, strutting out into that cold, indifferent, arrogant, Superior lake, where the brother met a girl. She was an engineering student at Tech. She must have come from that Scandinavian stock that settled in the UP. The immigrants that set up the saunas in every deer camp that encouraged a naked plunge into the snow. Her long blonde hair cascaded over her shoulder like Upper Tahquamenon Falls. She had a quick smile and a smart wit that was punctuated by the wink of her cerulean eye. And legs for days.

She was from Hancock, which was the town across the bridge from Houghton. When she and the brother decided to make it official, the wedding was in her home town.

So the brother was getting married, and we were off to the destination wedding. Destination far. But we knew some people along the way. And we had bug spray. Fact: the mosquitos can be as big as birds up there on some of the inland lakes. I don’t think, though, they stood a chance off the frigid, Lake High-and-Mighty.

As was our modus operandi, we were late. I think that’s why I don’t remember the rehearsal dinner. It was likely embarrassing.

We were in Marquette for a few days before the wedding and likely slept in or decided on more coffee. There may have also been a side trip to someone’s childhood memories at a lodge purportedly haunted by a murdered doctor of John Dillinger. The purveyor of that story, however, was the step-father who was known to enjoy an acid trip or two and would tell you about his out of body experiences, even without you showing any interest. We didn’t see any ghosts. But I was scared to death when my friend told me about the wild dogs that were on the premises. This was an odd story, too, because the feral beasts were the spawn of a beloved bitch from his childhood named Penny. When I heard a howl or maybe it was a rustle of a bush, I ran back to the car. It might have been Penny’s mad babies. 

It wasn’t my family. And it wasn’t my affair. And I was along for the ride. So we missed dinner. But we did not miss the bonfire.

I knew my friend’s mom. She was awesome. I knew why he loved her so much. She was very kind to me whenever I was on a visit. And she would always bum a menthol off of me. She and her floating spouse smoked regulars. I don’t know if she preferred the mint of my Virginia Slims or just wanted a change, but she was always a little excited to take one out of my pack and light it between her lips. She was pretty, but like a mom. She was probably 44 at that time.

I think we were hungry, but, like I said, blew through any food festivities. There were literally no food options at 9 p.m. in Hancock, Michigan. The all-night diner closed by eight. I bet it opened at 4 a.m., though. For the working folk.

The young people, that would be us and my friend’s brothers and the friends of the betrothed, were on the move. We tried to catch up with them by downing a few cans of whatever cheap beer we drank then. It was likely a Wisconsin brew, since we were close to that border. Somehow I am thinking that we also ate cheese balls for our dinner, on the way.

We left the SuperBeetle behind and climbed in the back of somebody’s truck. There were trucks and vans and cars in the caravan headed to the pitiless and Imperious Lake. For a bonfire.

I knew the groom-to-be. He was super amiable. He and his fiancée were gracious and begged off from the ongoing celebration. They had a big day coming. They took their leave.

This was the first time that I had met the other brother. He was the family favorite.

I had heard his name many times. He was the eldest. The smartest. The chosen. The most charming. He was a medical student at a prestigious Jesuit university in the east. I never thanked him for my introduction to Washington, D.C., which I met on a trip for his graduation. The ceremony was at the Kennedy Center. I was much affected by our nation’s capital and vowed to return. Spoiler alert: I did two years later, for the duration.

There may have been a few dozen of us, with coolers full of beer and melted ice. My friend and I were grubby from the drive and the {mis}adventure of the day, but nobody noticed. The cars rolled up to the Super Lake. Lake Superior. We piled out, grabbed beers, and stood between the fire and the water. The bonfire of driftwood was going as strong as it would. It wasn’t big, but it was a fire.

The brother was in our transport. He was erudite. He was also condescending to my friend. Maybe it was their relationship, the older and the younger sibling.

I thought the brother was obnoxious. He wasn’t my favorite. No, not at all. He wasn’t like he was advertised by his family. He was tall, but slight. I thought that he was throwing me menacing looks. And me, buoyed especially by a few downed cold cans, threw barbs back his way. I may have been rude. I likely was rude. But I was thinking that he was not boss over me, I was not part of the family dynamic that excused his vainglory. To me, he was an ass. Not an asset.

He was peeved by my disdain, and I liked that. I dismissed him by turning away and taking another beer from a cooler. They were less cool now.

A few people were stepping into the ice water that was lapping along the sand. Some rolled up their pants. One stripped to skivvies and jumped in. I found that amazing. I was not that drunk. I don’t think I could be that drunk. And if I were that drunk, hitting that cold water would reverse any drunk that made me that stupid. But, I was from downstate. These Upers were made of this Superior Lake, of the pines around us, of the dark gray smoke from the damp driftwood. Maybe the copper was in their veins. Not mine, though.

I was ambushed from behind. Lifted above his head onto his shoulders. My swagger quickly displaced my shock. The brother started walking to the water, telling me matter of factly that he was going to toss me in. I was feeling the control leaving me as he stepped into the water. He didn’t even have his pants rolled up. I cursed him loudly, in my deepest strongest voice. He laughed. I told him that he was going to turn around–because now I was unable to leave his shoulders without having a dunk tank experience. He laughed again. That was when I took my fist, and I pummeled it into his head as hard as I could.

He stopped. He was very angry now. Too angry to humiliate me any further because he was being humiliated, too. He took the strides back to the shore, and I jumped off. I found my friend and we had another beer. The brother left in the next car. We left a little bit later.

I was ill-prepared for a wedding, and I was grateful that it wasn’t fancy. The wedding party dressed in gowns and tuxedos, but the guests were more relaxed. The bride’s sisters helped me with my braid, and my friend’s mother fretted over the use of the wrinkle cream she brought. None of us twenty year olds had any clue how to apply it.

The groom and his best man presented themselves to the mother. She screamed. Not loud, but not a little. The best man had a black eye. The pictures!?! I said nothing, but the story came out. And the mother was not a little angry with me. It was unfathomable that her favorite would have earned that shiner.

I, on the other hand, stepped away and lit up one of those Virginia Slims and felt very, very, very proud of myself. Almost, Superior.


Back in ‘Nam

A pair of rockers on a decaying porch. And a cow pitcher on the table in between.

It’s known that I’m thinking that maybe we ain’t that young any more. I’m reminded of it every day.

I look in the mirror and see that skin is hanging a little looser around my eyes. There are fine, and less than fine, lines cropping up around my mouth and striping my forehead. There’s really no hiding them. And the silver tinsel that is my hair is kept at bay by a colorist I see so often she’s now a friend.

I am having a tough time reconciling these outward signals with my mental self image. I say that I think that I’m still in my 20s. But really I don’t.

I’m a much wiser and much calmer and much more confident and much more accepting version of my twenty-something self. I was going to say more patient, but I’m still working on that.

My neurologist said that I have the brain health of an 18-year-old. That means that my physical brain still fills my skull. It isn’t shrinking. It still has lots of twists and turns, where my thinking is done. I wonder if it was even bigger before, and it actually has shrunk. But that wouldn’t explain the youthful folds and crevices of gray matter. It was the nicest thing anyone said to me. At least one of them.

You see, I’ve had many opportunities for nice–and sometimes not so nice–things to be said to me. It’s just a factor of potential volume of opportunities. Opportunities born of time.

There’s an extensive internship program at my current gig–with the youngins between the ages of just barely able to buy a beer to still covered on their parents’ health plan. [Thanks Obama!]

They have full heads of hair, barely grown in beards, skin that doesn’t sag at their upper arms and their first work wardrobes. They think that I came up with John McCain via their Tropic Thunder view of Coppola’s view of Viet Nam (“Wait,” they said, “That was a remix?”) They are… Millennials.

Now, I know I’m not supposed to like them. Especially in the workforce. They are lazy, entitled narcissists. They are disrespectful of their ancestors. They think things are easy, and don’t get why you don’t fix them, duh?! They get their feelings hurt too quick.

And then, Baby Bear told me that he hates Millennials. “I know, and I’m one of them.”

And I was all like, “Bear, you are wrong!”

See. I was impatient too. I knew much more than my bosses credited me. And they were doing things a dumb way. And, Jaysus!, I could do their job. Seriously. I had the smarts. It’s not that hard.

Every generation starts the same. It’s the trajectory we follow over a life’s course. Over a decade or two, I learned that if it were easy, it’d be done. That the battles are much less important than the war. That we have different preferences and styles, like I like the forest and you like the trees. I found out as Broadway Aaron Burr said to young Broadway Alexander Hamilton, “Talk less, smile more.” And, maybe most importantly, life is not fair. The best ideas, the clearest tones, the rightest right, the most honest truths do not win out. Not all the time. Sometimes the bad guys win. I really hate that. But it’s true.

The Bear and I went around and around and when we were done we landed on one big difference between when old people were young and his cohort. It’s the butthurt feelings.

Oh, Millennials! I recommend that you work to gather as big a perspective as you can. And use that vista to inform your view. Make it bigger than you.

My other millennial spawn, The Big Guy, took me to school and flipped my script. Turns out, I’m not the center of the universe. What? Who knew?

When people make decisions that aren’t about me, they are not thinking about me. Seriously. They are making a call for themselves. I might end up as collateral damage–and that may need to be addressed–but their focus wasn’t on causing me butthurt.

Someone else says it best.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.* –Hanlon’s Razor

People are not required to take your feelings or perspective into account. It’s nice and all, but not a requirement. Anyway, it’s a gift to have your perspective challenged. It makes a person think. Thinking is good. That’s something that my young brain/old self can wrap around.

Thanks, Youths, for reminding me that we’re alike, just at different times. Hope you’re not disappointed when you get to my place. Let me know. I’m not as old as you think. If you do the math, I’ll still be alive.


*Other people prefer “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity,” but I find it’s more likely omission vs. stupidity.

Sizing Up

Castle gate and wall. Imposing, no?

When I was a wee Doc we lived in The Old House. The house wasn’t especially old, but we called it The Old House to differentiate it from The New House. We moved to the new house just before My Older Sibling started kindergarten.

The New House was fully and completely new. It stood on what had been a part of a good-sized dairy farm that was subdivided into new blocks of varying sizes with twisty roads, half circles and a few cul-de-sacs. There were two very tall and very impressive trees. They were like Ents. The rest of the greenery was new sod and very young, very slow growing trees. When I left for college they barely provided shade.

The Old House, on the other hand, was surrounded by big old trees in the front and in the back. Indeed, the entire street was protected by limbs stretching and trying to touch their brethren across the street. Dappled gold and bursts of saffron would sneak through the small breaks in the big green canopy like specks of amber in hazel eyes. Closing my own, I can still see it, and feel it.

There were two very frightening things on the street with The Old House. First, the bees.

We were terrified of the bees. Someone told us that if they saw you move, they’d come after you and sting you. They were huge bees, the size of golf balls. No. Tennis balls. They would buzz back and forth among the flowers of the old lady down the street. We called her grandma. Her flowers were lovely, except for the bees that hung in front of the flowers. They looked like they were on wires that someone would occasionally move–either a small jerky up and down motion or a smoother left to right. We would spy them and very carefully, silently and slowly, holding our breaths, walk past grandma’s house.

Aa soon as we passed her property line we’d explode like a pinball out of the chute to our friend’s porch to play. I remember a bunch of cement steps to her porch. It was dark and cool, likely from one of those ancient elms. I don’t remember what we played, though. I think we launched ourselves off the steps.

The other terror was another neighbor’s dog. It would bark in a vicious manner. It was very loud. It’d throw itself against the fence to try and break through while full of snarl and howl to intimidate us as we walked by. And that monstrous dog was on the other side of the street. He really didn’t have to go to all that trouble. We weren’t allowed to cross the street.

One day I was walking back home by myself and the dog was banging against the fence. I was spying for bees and looking back over my shoulder across the street to see him break through. There was no worry and creeping past the bees. I took off as fast as I could to my house. The dog was gaining on me as I ran up the driveway through our open gate. I used all my strength to push the chain link gate closed, and it latched just as Cujo bashed into it. I lay on the ground for a second, catching my breath and watching the insane tirade of the evil dog. Worried he’d force himself through my barrier, I ran around the side of the house to the door and pushed my way to safety.

I was four when we moved. I don’t remember going back to The Old House for a long time.

The next time I saw the house, I was with my Dad. He was visiting our old neighbor, who was his best friend. It was maybe ten years later. I walked up our old driveway to the astonishing fence that saved me from that demon dog. Really, the fence wasn’t as astonishing as I was astonished. The gate that I remember breathlessly dragging to save myself from that ferocious canine wasn’t much more than two-feet tall. It would barely keep out a Jack Russell Terrier. So the dog that was chasing me was not a mastiff. Makes sense. Everything was bigger when I was smaller. I had a good chuckle.

I remembered this fence today. It came to me as I was thinking about fear. What are we afraid of? Do we let the objects of our fears grow huge before us? Or do we take a closer look and see them for what they are? Do we keep the images we had when we were most afraid, or do we gain perspective over time? Can we apply new knowledge to dissect and examine our experience and use that understanding to grow? Or do we stay stuck in that moment of terror, never to lift our heads again?

Shook Me All Night Long

Captain Jack Sparrow, offering, or at least toasting you, rum.

He was fit. In that way that the word is used to describe someone who is teetering on the top, but not yet quite over, the hill. Let’s call him Steve.

Steve was a common name in his elementary school. There were two other “Steves” in his fifth grade classroom and seven in all of the fifth grade. They would be called by their first name, Steve, and the initial from their last name. It would be Steve P., or Steve J. It would not be Stevie because you lost the diminutive form of your name before kindergarten–except with your aunts. It would not be Steven because people were never called by their full given name when he was in fifth grade, or even eleventh grade for that matter.

He was born at the very beginning of Gen-X, but was constantly confused with the Baby Boomers. His musical history was Stones, Zep, Rush, the Eagles and Journey to newer music like Bon Jovi and Genesis. Maybe some Men in Work and The Summer of ’69. For hipness there might have been some Elvis Costello and The Clash. Maybe not, though.

He missed out on grunge. He preferred reciting Jenny’s phone number over and over rather than the rhythmic dirge of, All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. All in all is all we are. Some of his friends just saw their dads on weekends. He came into an uncertain job market after college but did pretty well. He married the friend of his best friend’s sister. They don’t see their old best friends anymore, except on Facebook, to mark their own children’s proms and, most recently, graduations.

It was hot at today’s graduation party but the kegs of beer were on ice and tented with a tarp to protect the brew as well as the brew drinkers. He had a rocks glass in his left hand and a fifth of an artisan whiskey held by it’s neck and trailing down his leg in his right. He was holding it there like Kanye held that bottle of Hennessy the night he interrupted Taylor Swift with “imma let you finish.”

Steve purportedly brought the fine southern bourbon as a gift for the host. The bottle, however, never left his right hand. Sometimes he’d swap his rocks glass out for a clear plastic cup filled with beer. Sometimes he would offer someone else some of the amber booze. Only to men, though. And with a story about the rarity or the exquisiteness or the origin of this particular distillery, punctuated with the adjective “smooth” or the feature “no-burn.” Sometimes the tale included all of this.

He wore the bottle swinging against his thigh like it was a medal or an honor sash. It was almost like a marker of his own substance or significance. As the bottle emptied, his swagger was incrementally augmented. He stopped offering to share his bottle and stopped pouring it into a different container before he drank it. He was pacing himself, though.

The bright sun was replaced by multi-colored party lights hung from the tent poles, tiki torches–which gave everyone a quick rush when they were lit and burned off that petroleum smell–and the light from the French doors leading back into the house.

He drifted away, just on the other side of the tents where his peers were tipping back beers and refilling wines and sharing pictures on their phones from their recent trips to Italy and Ireland and Croatia. The music was loud and carried around from the back of the house past the rows of trees to the neighbors’ acre lot. They were invited and this level of noise was so unusual and it was two hours before midnight so there wasn’t a fear of a complaint. He was down to an inch and a half of liquor at the bottom of his bottle.

It wasn’t clear which woman in the floral sundress was his wife or which clean-shaven young man in a tropical shirt was his son. Nobody was checking in with him. When the tinder was torched for the bonfire, he moved into the circle with the group of people who were now all old enough to bring their own beer to the party at someone’s parents’ house. He sat down on the almost unstable white plastic folding chair. He put the bottle on the ground between his legs and soaked in youth.

He heard the air release from a beer can and called for one. There was a cringe from within a tropical shirt. There’s his kid. The youth next to the boxes of Miller Lite made eye contact with the oldster before he tossed him a can. Underhand rather than the rocket he just hurled to his buddy on the other side of the circle. You don’t want to bean somebody’s dad. Because no matter where the guy sat in the circle, he was somebody’s dad.

Steve pulled the last of the bourbon and opened his beer. Some in the circle around the fire were laughing uproariously. Steve was earnestly tightroping between hanging with the “kids” and dispensing fatherly advice. He was a father. He really couldn’t help it. But he was more than a little drunk, too, so he didn’t realize that he didn’t really belong in this circle. The youths welcomed him, but this wasn’t his tribe.

And then, the band started with the chords from an AC/DC tune. No, Steve. Not the air guitar. Yes. The air guitar.

Steve’s son’s girlfriend turned to him and whispered, “at least he’s not trying to twerk like Liam’s mom.” It was a small consolation, but the young man was consoled. By that and by the next rocket launch of a Miller Lite.