Stranger than Fiction

A pic of the columns in the National Arboretum. Someone else took this picture.

Everyone had their cameras out, snapping pictures of the columns against a blue sky on a late fall day. One guy stood in the tall grass, like a wildlife photographer trying to capture the lion on her hunt. A group had a big white umbrella to reflect most beautifully on their glamour shot. Don’t anyone tell them that to include the stately columns in the shot, nobody will be able to see her face. The guy with the camera wasn’t that good.

There were the folks with their phones. Some standing on the base of the columns. Others hugging significant others, a pair of cheesy grins. The one lady who kept backing up and backing up and backing up until she fell in a hole. She recovered before she hit the dirt. The parents broadcasting their kids on Facebook live–their kids racing around, jumping from one tile to the next, tagging each other and barely avoiding the couple sitting on the ledge of the cistern having an intense discussion about the failures of the Clinton campaign. He was earnestly trying to get her to care.

The Park Service had drained the fountain for the winter so there was no reflecting pool in the foreground. There were some crunchy leaves stuck to the bottom of the reservoir and some very sketchy looking liquid that The Beast lapped up before he could be pulled away. For those of you tracking, we discovered later that it didn’t sit so well with him. That’s all I’ll say about that.

When we first came to the arboretum, the columns were laid out on their sides, scattered across the top of the hill. From the road, it looked like the abandoned rejects from a rook factory. The hill was mushy and the columns sunk a bit.

Over the years we watched them stand upright. We came back once to see the foundation for fountains. There was a dirt path but mostly you’d walk across the mucky meadow to get to your personal interaction with the columns. Later, they built the winding paver paths and planted grasses and wildflowers. I can hardly remember when it was a ruin. Now people have wedding shoots there without fear that the bride’s white high heels will sink slowly into the mud.

We circled around the outside loop and stepped along the path to the back of the sculpture. There was a nice couple–funny how we call strangers a nice couple–him with an arboretum brochure folded, almost crumpled up in his hand. We walked past them as they were straining to see the tops of the twenty-two columns. Maybe the guy was counting them. She found The Beast entrancing and remarked on his very good looks.

That’s how it started. An exchange of pleasantries about the dog and then some remarks about the remarkable columns. The visitors were a little unsure about them, but The Spouse, with the authority of an arboretum historian, explained that they were actually ruins from the burning of the Capitol during the War of 1812. Wow, was all we could say. They were that old.

Except if the guy looked in his damn pamphlet, he’d see that they weren’t built until 1828 and were a key feature of the Lincoln inauguration. Oops.

“You really had me going there.”

“I had myself going there. It was a good story, no?”

Yes, it was. And hopefully the nice couple either read the inscription in the stone at the base of the columns or shared the incorrect information with others. The latter would be funny. Or maybe they had read the crumpled paper already. They were nice, so would likely not have corrected The Spouse. That is kind of funny, too.

“You know, it was as if you really knew.”

“I really did.”

Cool story, bro. Sheesh.

Spoiler Alert!

Three or four pretty ripe bananas. Not quite spoiled, though.

I asked the Big Guy if he watches Game of Thrones. He said he has, but not yet this season. And before I could form another word, he said he knew what happened. It wasn’t like I was going to tell him–although I heard about it, too. From the innerwebs.

He wasn’t concerned that I would tell. He just wanted to release that part of the conversation. Anyway, he said he doesn’t care about spoilers. He’s amused that fans get worked up. For him, the value of GOT is not plot–he says it’s all predictable and not that compelling. He watches it for the way it looks, the world created and the acting.

I met up with some friends who were in town from the middle of the country. We got together for a beer after they finished their Lincoln tour. Actually, the “Lincoln Assassination Tour.” The tour routes around a small circle between the White House and Fords Theatre and the house where he died.  In two hours they covered a mile and a half. They loved it.

The guide made it worthwhile. He was incredible. He told layers of stories with intricate and interesting details about Lincoln and the Civil War and John Wilkes Booth and probably some medical stuff, too. They definitely recommend it, and might even do it again. Even though, without a doubt, they knew how the story ended.

There definitely is something about being surprised at the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Even more of a twist–perhaps even a twisted twist after Leia planted one on his lips–when we learn that Luke and Leia are twins. But while you can only be surprised that first time, you can still enjoy Mark Hamill’s lousy acting when he overacts his reaction. You can even find yourself licking your lips in anticipation of his howling, “Nooooooooooo, nooooooo.”

I have read and reread the Harry Potter books and have watched and rewatched the films. I don’t like them any less on return. In fact, I reread them and rewatch them because I DO enjoy the story. Knowing the plot frees me from frenzied page turning and lets me focus on the characters, their relationships and motivations and the themes of loss, friendship and power.

Frankly, not knowing how a bad movie turns out doesn’t make it any better. It’s still a waste of time. Actually, if you knew how it ended you might throw in the towel earlier and keep that time for yourself.

The topic of spoilers came up when I recommended that the Big Guy watch a hysterical White House video. I couldn’t tell him about it. I could, but then it would ruin it. Jokes are like that. You can spoil a joke. That is wrong. We agreed on that. You either tell the joke, or you don’t. Sure, you can retell a joke, but it’s never as funny as the first time.

Now a STORY, on the other hand…


An xBox controller with an array of confusing buttons. WTH?

Some of my best friends are gamers. I guess that’s how I’ll backhandedly describe the fact that I am, most definitely, not.

There used to be a game that the boys played with a friendly cartoon tiger running along a crumbling Great Wall. I played that. I could do three or four runs before it was beyond my skills. That was the last game they ever caught me playing.

I was pretty good at Pajama Sam and Putt Putt Saves the Zoo on the PC. That said, their pre-school selves were better players than me. I set the low bar.

I wasn’t anxious to buy a gaming system. Others in the house were much more anxious. We made a deal. If they could save up half the cost of the PlayStation, I’d make up the difference. Baby Bear got $1 each week and The Big Guy $3. They were required to request their allowance each week. The cash was lost to the nethers if the transaction wasn’t made by the end of the weekend. No back pay. Saved me having to remember and from doling out extra bank.

The Big Guy was quite lackadaisical about money. Not Baby Bear. He was on a mission. You could mark your calendar by his Friday night request. He made sure to get The Big Guy’s dough, too. His rigor soon fulfilled their side of the bargain, an annoying three weeks before Christmas. So they bought themselves the gift.

They are still bitter about the games I would not let them play. No killing games. That Star Wars game with the light sabers that My Sib bought them? Nope. Not even if they killed Jar Jar Binks. No killing games. I gave it away.

There were plenty of running and jumping and driving games. There was Mario & Luigi, Crash Bandicoot and that cute purple dragon. I even flew the dragon on occasion when they handed me the controller, just to be friendly.

The Toy Story game was a big puzzle that let them explore outside of a defined path. Well, until they got to the side of Andy’s room where there wasn’t any drawing left. Rendering. Rendering. Rendering.

My parental standard graduated to cartoon level mayhem, as long as the weapon wasn’t a gun. And no games rated “M.” The boys were disgusted with me. They were definitely out of sync with their peers. I was okay with that. They had Madden, and FIFA and some crazy basketball game.

My rules were harder for The Big Guy. I held him back a bit because Bear would play it, too. I know. Not fair. It’s always harder on the oldest.

I found a killing game cartridge when I was putting away underwear. Leaving aside why someone hides contraband behind their boxers–the most obvious place to hide stuff–I knew it was time to adjust. My response was to keep an eye on the gameplay. I would sit with them as they would play. I would ask them questions. And they would hand me the controller.

I would inevitably shoot my own feet, maim my teammates, and not be able to move. Seriously, the boys would shout, BOX, BOX, A, X or whatever. It didn’t matter. I have absolutely no controller-brain coordination. I would try. I would fail. We would laugh.

Over time, I watched the games change. First it was watching them play football in the rain–maybe the year Brett Farve was on the cover of Madden. The shadows of the players, the jerseys worn by the crowds, the options for play became more sophisticated.

Then there were the killing games. They became more realistic, too. It was stunning, and awful. But another thing happened. Some of the killing games had characters who had to make challenging decisions. The first-person missions became more morally complex.

I grew to like some of the characters. Some of them a lot. I cared about their success. In some games, there were real storylines. Characters had different personalities. You could do more than upgrade your weapon or change your armor. You could even reveal a different story if you played as a different cast member. I would check in to see not just how the game progressed, but what happened, what decisions were made and what were the consequences.

I went from the parent who railed against the violence and stupidity of GTA, to a binge-watching regular, like watching The Sopranos through a kaleidoscope where I get to spin the colored glass and view a new, crooked, yet beautiful, version. A good game is art–there is plot, conflict and denouement. A world is created. There are heroes, villains and anti-heroes. The gamer makes decisions that impact not only the gameplay, but the outcome of the tale.

As the boys play, I watch the games like a movie. They sometimes ask me which weapon to use or if they should buy more health or more cunning. I share my uninformed opinion, sometimes after asking questions about the options. I sometimes share my opinion about their decisions–like to not be mean. They usually acquiesce or explain why they need to be mean at that moment. They know that I’ll refuse to take the unfathomable controller into my clumsy hands, so they don’t pass that on. I sit with them to be with them, to watch the show and just to be friendly.


Run On Stories

bunch of sneakered feet running

Driving along the parkway I’m imagining the backstories of the runners I pass. There’s a lot of them and I’m driving 35 mph, so I don’t have time to get too deep.

First up a runner I call Twinkle Toes. He’s wearing a matched true blue jacket and sleek shiny running pants with a true blue cap. As he’s running he pushes through to the tips of his toes from the pavement. It doesn’t look wrong, but it makes him look light. That and the sleek pants. In his head he’s repeating Portuguese vocabulary and grammar because he’s heading there for a gig in a few weeks. His personal Rosetta Stone practice is interrupted by Thursday’s meeting that failed. He pushes that away and starts to say the foreign words out loud as he runs.

There were big puddles, almost lakes, on the trail near the Zoo. Runner #2 did a back and forth hoppity hop to avoid drowning in one. Her boo is likely finishing off a second mimosa during brunch. She prefers to run alone but ends up feeling a little lonely when they hook up later, one tipsy and one sweaty. Maybe she’ll cut her run short and join Boo.

The next runner I’ll call Cletus. Definitely was an athlete in school, but more in it for the social side. He’s lumbering along in baggy shorts and bare legs and sneakers that have definitely been used. He has a filthy Giants hat pulled down almost over his eyes. Some untamed ends of dark curls poke out underneath the sides near his ears and above his neck. He forces himself to run at least two times a month. Usually concurrent with a hangover. He shakes the marbles around in his skull and feels like if he just keeps going he won’t throw up. It works. For a while.

Then came along the unrelated dogwalkers. 

The first man I’m naming Thomas is wearing a red, yellow and green tam. His lanky frame is topped by a silver puffer jacket. He’s accompanied by his lanky Doberman, Diesel. They’re stopped on the trail, facing each other having a terrifically animated conversation. They’re laughing about the joggers that didn’t want to run past them but didn’t have an alternative on the narrow path. One guy ended up detouring from the path by trying to run up the slick hill. He slipped and skidded right to Diesel’s feet. Diesel wasn’t impressed and was unmoved. He turned head to the side–as if to provide embarrassment space– as the guy tried to crabwalk backwards up the hill. Thomas gave the guy a hand up, brushed the leaves from the guy’s shoulder and cheerily waved goodbye. Now man and dog are chuckling at the unnecessary circumnavigation.

Next there was a couple with two dogs. I saw them just after the bridge, and I don’t know how they went around the bridge. I guess the path swung underneath it somewhere. The man handled both leashes. One for the big dog and one for the little dog, a common dog configuration. The big dog was hers. When they moved in together, the BigDog started having anxiety issues. It wasn’t just the pooping in the man’s shoe, but it was that, too. Since she loved the dog before she loved the man, they got a little yappy companion for BigDog. Now both dogs crap in the man’s shoe. But he loves her.

It was a cold day, but I spied a grouping of men in short sleeves running towards the boathouse in the shadow of the Watergate. They had military do’s. They stripped down, not even wearing caps, to show off their strength and fortitude to each other. The one called his mom later and complained about his overly macho colleagues. She listened and said nothing. Turns out that she’s distracted by the dark spot on his Dad’s lung x-ray. She doesn’t want to burden her son with the looming unknowns. Not just yet. She tells her boy to wear his hat next time and not to be worried about the others. They wanted to wear hats, too.  I agree with her.

The parkway split away from the path, and so the fuel for my tales ran out, too.

Origin Stories

As part of the offsite, participants had to share their origin stories. It wasn’t put that way, but it was part of the ice breaker exercise.

One person spoke about an idyllic childhood in a communist country. Since there were so many constraints it was a simple time. When pressed, it might not have been all good. They did have to stand in crazy lines for hours and the shelves in the stores were empty.

Another person conveyed the challenges of being bi-racial. They didn’t know that it was important until high school when people started confronting them with “what are you?” This led to much soul searching. Someone else lost a parent at a very tender age and had to overcome being a nerdy outcast but found a circle of great friends on the way to great success.

It seemed everyone had a struggle to overcome–although everyone seemed to see their struggle as simply part of their origin. Made me wonder if there is something about the expereinces people have that draw them to different types of work. This offsite was at a non-profit.

What would this ice-breaker be like in the investment banking industry. Would participants talk about growing up with cooks and servants? About prep school, the tennis instructor and the golf team? Would they talk about meeting their future spouses at a Renaissance Weekend at an exclusive Hilton Head hotel? Would they talk about their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents preceding them at their Ivy League college? About getting a loan from Dad to start their first firm or build up their investment portfolio or to pay off a bad business break? Would they bemoan the challenge in getting a good apartment in Manhattan?

Just wondering about origin stories.