Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Neighbors and Strangers

We hated the dog across the street, almost from the moment we moved in.

He was a mutt, about the size and color of an Irish Setter, but his hair was shorter and more coarse. He was a sneaky, mangy flea-bag that would charge at bike riders and pedestrians as they worked their way up the hill on Bell Avenue, but he'd hide and wait in the thick grass or under the porch behind the rotting lattice beside the leaning, creaking stairs of the old white farmhouse across the street until it was too late. People would jump and cry out, and had to wait for one of the snotty-nosed, milk-mustached kids to come out and wrangle the dog in; or for the fat, waddling old man to groan and limp his way out of the house, adjusting his ball cap eight or ten times and sweeping back hair that wasn't there anymore, shifting his weight from one hip to the other for his locomotion. We didn't know the dog's name, or the kids' names for that matter, but we saw them laughing and half-heartedly apologizing to the people the dog scared as they led him away by the collar. We didn't know them, but my father seemed to. He just never bothered to fill us in. My brother and I called that hated dog "Bruno." To this day, I can't remember why.

Being a stranger to your neighbors is something that our neighbors weren't used to. The kids across the street were dirt-smudged, bare-footed and bare-chested urchins with drink-stained upper lips and matted hair. Their eyes gleamed with impish evil and their words were strange to us, impossible to comprehend and decipher. It was like living in another country.

In the winter, the snow came. A thin, white layer covered the ground one morning when we got up, and we were amazed. The cold -- the coldest temperatures we'd ever experienced up to that point in our lives -- stayed around to help keep the snow on the ground. But the temperatures were near the freezing point during the day and in the mid-twenties at night, so the snow would partially thaw then freeze again, forming what I called snow-cone slush.

I was in the yard that Saturday, bundled up like an Eskimo. From across the street, the boy closest to our age beaned me clean on the cheek with a snowball whipped across Bell Avenue at me. When I looked, he was grinning and his imp eyes glinted, challenging me, daring me to whip one back at him. He was smaller than me, though not much (I wasn't a big kid for my age, and had been sickly growing up, so I never "filled out" completely), and he stood frozen in his follow-through stance after he threw the snow-cone mixture of ice and powder at me.

The yards seemed to crawl up to the blacktop of Bell Avenue as though in worship, their mighty, ancient trees majestically spreading over the lawns and drainage ditches and driveways like queens spreading their arms and robes over their fawning subjects. Seeds and leaves cascaded over dense lawns, used to thriving for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of years with minimal sunlight and moisture -- only what spilled through the canopy of the massive trees. I stood in my yard, which rolled away from the street to my front porch, and could not see the boy's knees. He was standing on the opposite side of the street and the rise of the road between us hid the ground from view.

I chose to ignore him and went back to whatever it was I was doing in the snow. He pulled the hood of his tattered, worn blue jacket off his head and tore the gloves from his sticky, lint-covered fingers and bent down over his feet. I couldn't see anything but the hump of his back rising over the road as he fussed over something for a few moments, then stood up with another slushy snowball in his hand. I tried to hide my irritation behind my thick glasses and long hair, but set my jaw as I willed him not to throw it, don't throw it, don't you dare throw it you little ...

He threw it.

This time, I was looking. I saw the shining white blob of frozen moisture arc over the street and took a single step back, watching it land in an explosion of sharp, needle-like shards of broken ice and glass-like frozen chunks. Georgia isn't a snowy place in general being in the deep south. What does fall is usually wet and heavy, and there isn't a lot of it. It was unusual that they got nearly 5 inches that winter, and my brother and I, who had seen snow perhaps two or three times in our lives, were ecstatic about it. We played in it, tried to build a snow man in it, took the keel off my mother's water ski and slid about in it. But we didn't throw snowballs. We'd never known how to make one.

I looked down on that splash of broken glass and mush and heard that dirty devil-boy cackle. I thought of that dog, chasing us and others up the street then hiding, the way they laughed at the people the dog harassed, and I thought about their dirty faces and clothes and feet, and the evil, impish glint in their eyes.

I knew, because our yard was steeper and lower than theirs, when I bent down he couldn't see me at all. I took my time, fishing beneath the pressed, compacted inches of snow remaining in our yard, feeling in the wet, brown and dormant grass beneath. When I found what I wanted, I placed it gently in my palm and packed the snow around it carefully, making sure none of it showed. I made the ball snow-cone sized, just like he did, and when I stood up, there was no way to tell there was a rock in the middle of that slush ball.

He grinned at me and squared his feet to the blacktop, his crooked smile broadening on his dirty lips. I smiled wryly back, and then I threw the snowball, not knowing if I'd even built it so it would hold together in flight.

I was older than he was, and I could put a LOT more speed on the throw than him. Mine didn't arc lazily over the street and plop into his hood or onto his shoulder. Nope -- mine whizzed across the street like a fast ball, on a line and dead on target. I wasn't a great athlete, but I was better than I thought, and I was just starting to get the hormones going that would rage throughout my teen years. All of them were in that wet, hard, icy throw with a heart of stone.

It hit him square in the forehead before he could move out of the way. He probably only caught a glimpse of the projectile before it cracked loudly off the crown of his head. I was actually aiming for his face, dead-center in the nose was my goal, but I was happy with the hit. There was a sickening knock like someone rapping bare knuckles on a solid-core wooden door, and the weight of the snowball knocked him head over heels. I saw the holes in the bottom of his hand-me-down galoshes while he went head first backwards into the snow, but lost sight of him completely under the rise of the road.

I was already making my way back into the house when I heard the wail rise into the sharp, chilly air like a siren. I stepped up the pace and vanished with a bit of an adrenaline rush pushing up my spine, making sure I didn't hear the bang of the farmhouse door opening before MY door was closed ... and locked.

I stayed away from the windows and indoors the rest of the day, and only realized when my mother brought it to my attention that I was whistling a happy tune.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tall Grass and Monsters

It was all just a trick on Missy.

She was standing there in her little girl, 70s-striped multi-colored sundress, fingering her lower lip as the wood burned between her ears.  The three of us were hunkered down in the tall grass, ignoring the thick humidity and the dew-dampened stalks near the ground at the base of the tall, dense grass.  The sky was never really blue in Georgia; it was usually a cadet blue or grayish hue from the water vapor hanging around in the summer.  It would probably be too hot and stifling for me to do anything now, but then, at 12 years old, I was lying in the grass watching Missy wonder where we were.

The idea was Chubs'.  He was sick of his little sister; she was a pest, and he didn’t want her around anymore.  I could relate; my little brother Ryan was a pain too, and I half considered doing the same thing to him more than once over the summer.  Problem was, most times he was all I had for company.  Being outcasts and newcomers anywhere didn’t make for easy friends and welcome company; doing it in a small, tight-knit community of private school kids that all knew each other from years ago made it even harder.  Add in that we were from California, land of fruits and nuts, and it made us even weirder.  So we weren’t exactly beating them off with sticks.  Ryan was better than being alone.  Most of the time.

So when Chubs wanted to ditch Missy, I figured I could empathize.  But Ryan and Chubs were kind of buddies too, so Ryan was there when I spouted off that I thought we could do it.

Chubs’ real name was Ryan too.  He was portly and jolly, with a quick laugh and a slow brain and was a cousin of ours.  His drunk of a father and my drunk of a mother used to hang around and drink sometimes while my dad just laughed along with them and dealt with her belligerence later, when everyone else left.  He was always a pussy like that; no matter how bad my mom got, no matter how abusive – with him OR with us – he just found a way to excuse it and wimp out.  He never could stand up to her.  So the “adults” were in the house sucking down beer, and the heat of the afternoon was ours to play in, out in the large yards butting against the black-top of Ross Avenue.  The lot was deep, and the patch of grass between our backyard and the neighbors’ was no-man’s-land.  While Missy went to the bathroom we scrabbled over the wire and stick shoulder-high fence and shuffled down in the high grass behind the lot, just beyond the compost pile and the huge apple tree between the two houses that shared our lot.

The three of us slithered onto our bellies, with Ryan and Chubs on either side of me.  The fact that they were both named Ryan made using Chubs’ nickname more convenient.  That was how we found out what it was.  That, and the fact that his old man called him that more than anyone.  We were staring through the seed-topped grass watching Missy swivel her head back and forth in the heat looking for us.  The confusion on her face was enough to set us all giggling and shushing each other while trying not to give away our hiding spot.

Every time Missy took a step in the right direction, we’d shut up fast, holding our breath to try and quell the laughs.  Ryan wasn’t exactly a quiet kid, either; he had one of the loudest mouths I’ve ever heard, and was keen to use it whenever he could.  It wasn’t easy to get him to be still, but knowing something was being pulled over on someone besides him helped.  We just lied still in the grass and she’d move off in another direction, calling out asking where “y’all” went, and then standing still and listening for the answer that didn’t come.

I saw movement out of the corner of my soda-bottle glasses, and glanced over to my left at the bent and flattened grass around us.  My breath caught in my throat when I saw it.

It was a spider.

This wasn’t any ordinary, spindly-legged, wisp of a spider.  It was a Georgia spider; it was robust and threatening.  You could hear them click with clattering exoskeletons when they walked, I swear.  They had faces you could see because they grew to B-movie monster proportions.  Georgia spiders had a long, warm, bug-infested spring and summer season to grow, and they got nice and fat preying on small birds and kids lying in the grass.  It was fast as heat lightning as it scrabbled out of the dense undergrowth and moved over Chubs’ hindquarters.

I couldn’t believe he didn’t feel it – the thing was the size of a beagle and stomping its way across the ass-crack-exposing jeans of the husky kid.  I threw myself backwards onto my hands and backed away as fast as I could, leaving an open space between Chubs and Ryan, both still staring and giggling at Missy.

That Volkswagen sized arachnid skittered through that tall grass and over Ryan’s outstretched legs before I could find my voice, but when I did – too late – I didn’t think through my panic about what I was saying.

I screamed “Ryan, there’s a spider on you!” at the top of my lungs.

See, the problem is, they were both named Ryan.

So, country-boy, Georgia-born Chubs hops up onto his feet, laughing his insane, contagious, easily-imitated laugh like a drunken hyena lilting and twisting, wiggling his big body in the heat and tall grass, hands working over his back and shoulders to swat the spider away.  My brother Ryan, city-born and sissy-raised, screamed like a girl on a county-fair ride and jumped up onto HIS feet, HIS hands swatting wildly over his shoulders and back, squealing like a stuck pig for me to get it off, get it off, get it off!

It took me a second to process the sight of the two of them writhing and shouting, one laughing, the other near tears, both seeming to move differently but somehow as one fat, hypnotic body, undulating like ocean waves of blubber, denim and stripes.

I burst out laughing.  Missy, of course, was standing there watching them dance, too, laughing with me as the two Ryans bounced and jiggled to loose themselves from the long-gone spider.  I couldn’t speak to tell them it was gone.  All I could do was wipe my watering eyes and hold my aching ribs as wave after wave of laughter tore through me.  I couldn’t stand, but was careful to make sure that when I collapsed in peals of uncontrollable mirth, I did it away from that tall grass where clicking beagle-sized spiders lay.

To this day, I smile when I think of that story.  There weren’t a lot of happy times for me in Georgia for a lot of reasons, but that was one of them.  I probably laughed for half an hour before I could tell them it was gone.  I promised myself before I died I’d write the story down.

Now I have.  But that was just the beginning.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sick Again

I'm sick, and I want to feel better.

I'm not terribly sick, the way I was last time ... which wasn't all that long ago. I figured I was done for the season. Not so, well-wishers, not so. I'm sick again, and I hate it. I'm determined not to let it get me, though. It doesn't seem as aggressive as the last bout of flu I had, so maybe this is a run of the mill cold. I can't tell yet. I'm pounding vitamin C and B complex, and I'm eating soups and drinking as much fluid as I can during the day to stay atop it. I'm a bit more phlegmy than I was yesterday, but it's not bad. I don't smoke while I'm at work, and maybe that will help too. I'm not traipsing out into the sub-zero or single-digit temperatures to indulge my dirty habit, but I do have to deal with it every morning and every evening when it's time to do the driving. Nothing can be done about that, unfortunately.


On a different topic, I'm considering writing a story. I don't know if it will be a story or a book, but it will be something like a story or a book. I have a new technique I want to try (okay, it's not new, but it's new to me and I've never tried anything even remotely like it). All I need is a good idea to support the style, and I'm all set. Heh. It will be a challenge to try and write in a voice I've never used before, but then again, I've never written in my own voice, either. I usually use what I've come to think of as my "writing" voice, but it's really not me. It's not hard for me to slip into it, but I don't really want to do that either.

So, into yet another style I go. I'm still trying to do "find my voice" and that's not really a great way to do it. Like drawing, if I only mimic other artists, I will never be anything but a mimic. And, I will only amplify the mistakes of that artist, never learn why the artist (whom, I presume, I admire enough to imitate) made the decisions, took the shortcuts, and chose to do the things they did. Instead, I learn only what they do. So it is with a writing style, I would imagine. The prose you use is something unique to the individual, and developing that "voice" (within the confines of good general rules of prose, grammar, etc.) can only be hindered by imitation of others. I think. On the other hand, I really, really want to write like that, and I can't wait to give it a try. If nothing else, it may teach me that what I actually like is reading that style, and writing it is best left to those who do it well.

We'll see.

On the subject of art, I still haven't drawn anything, although I must confess I've been sketching occasionally at work. Nothing where I'm cheating the employer; while I wait for other things to happen during the course of my job, I often sketch. Just heads, or maybe hands, or squirrels (I'm obsessed with successfully rendering a cartoon squirrel for some reason). I don't do full body sketches, and don't let myself become so preoccupied with drawing that I don't pay attention to what I'm doing. Still, it feels good to do it, and yes, I am disappointed with the results because I've been absolutely stagnant for more than a year. Alas, such is my life and how it goes. Nevertheless, sketching is better than nothing at all, and since it feels good, I'll probably try to find time to keep doing it through the day. If nothing else, I can start taking lunch and doing it, so long as I don't go over my allotted time slot. No one will notice, or care, I don't think. Then I won't feel so guilty about drawing at home, when I know I should be completing the $400 training I've paid for but haven't used yet. Or blogging.

Guilt is, after all, one of the major reasons I don't draw. I know it's true, but I don't know how to eliminate it or even minimize it's impact. I've been in such an artistic funk for so long, I haven't even broken out my supplies. I can't begin to tell you how frustrating that must be for my wife, but I can't help it. I can always think of something better to do when I get home, be it play with the kids, study the training I'm supposed to be studying, reading a book (about drawing, usually), or watching my favorite show. Or blogging.

Well, I don't have much to say. If you're reading this and you're a praying person, please pray for me and my health. If you don't, that's fine -- I'll be praying for you. :)


Monday, February 12, 2007

"It was Beauty Killed the Beast."

All right, I’ve sat through King Kong one and a half times now, and I’ve got to say that, as movies go, this one didn’t annoy me anywhere near as much as others I’ve seen lately.

Maybe because the whole premise is so fantastic you have to at least partially suspend disbelief to even sit down to watch it. I don’t know if that’s the case though, because I thought that about Superman Returns and still had issues. Maybe it’s because the movie has had a soft spot in my heart since I was a child. Maybe it’s because the thing is a tragedy about a big gorilla misunderstood by the world. Or maybe it’s because the CGI of Kong was perhaps the greatest drawing I’ve ever seen, and it was magnificently animated.

Whatever the reason, the movie didn’t bug me … too much.

There were issues, of course. Why, on an island in the middle of nowhere, are there dinosaurs co-existing with gargantuan primates? What happened to the other primates? We see carcasses, but no evidence of what may have happened to them. We see huge sauropods, creatures that I assume were either Velociraptors or similar, and huge reptiles similar to komodo dragons. The bats are huge, the mosquitoes are huge, the millipedes are huge and the scavenger worms and insects are huge. Cockroaches and crickets and spiders, oh my! – all the size of small dogs. Can bats with a wing span of twelve feet even fly? Is that even possible physically? I know the fruit bat is big, but it’s not that big. This thing was like a hang glider.

Okay, so they’re big. And they’re in a completely isolated environment … on an island. Where things like FOOD SOURCES and SPACE are limited, and DROPPINGS from these extremely large animals are going to have to be broken down by something in a big hurry to prevent disease from running rampant. Maybe that explains why things that scavenge and come out in the dark are huge too. Huge and head-swallowing.

So, an isolated island yet to be discovered by western science in the early portion of the 20th century isn’t all that hard to buy. It’s the fact that the place seemed riddled with constructs of man. It’s the fact that somehow, someway, a mountain gorilla from Africa found its way there and then mutated into a 25-foot high monster that the natives worship. Okay, where’d the dinosaurs come from? Where did all these wonderful things come from? I guess they could migrate there from other places, and then over the course of millions and billions of eons as evolution requires they become the things they are. But there are problems with dinosaurs having survived on an island, and then mountain gorillas coming along in the same time line. Sort of a problem for the native life there too … or did they evolve from the mountain gorillas eventually? Did that occur before the gorillas became gargantuan? If so, what triggered that mutation? Africa is a large continent, and the mountain gorillas are only mountain gorilla sized there; on an island, is it the drinking water that makes them grow? If so, how come the native humans haven’t grown? And if they evolved from the primate life there, shouldn’t they be huge, too?

So I’m confused by the whole island thing. And the fog; what’s with the fog? In the previous incarnation of King Kong, the explanation for the fog was that it was produced by gases emanating from a vast oil store beneath the island. In this movie – there’s no explanation at all. (This movie, however, at least showed the audience that Kong was the last of his kind, a species on the verge of extinction for whatever reason. No one ever explained that in either of the other movies before.) That’s fine; ultimately, the fog bank is necessary to obscure the island and make it more mysterious, but there has to be some reason why ocean winds and tides don’t sweep the fog bank away. I lived in Daly City, for Pete’s sake – it’s foggy about 300 days a year, but even there they get a day or two of sunshine a month. A permanent fog bank? Please.

Jack Black, however, was great. He played about as slimy a character as I’ve ever seen him portray. This clever shyster was a performance equaled only by his portrayal of a nerdy arms construction technician in The Jackal, in which his arm is blown off by Bruce Willis while testing the device he’s constructed. He was good; very good. In the end, we don’t know if his character is the antihero or the villain, but he got away with everything he did. His character closes the movie with an attempt at a poignant line that only accentuates his own foolishness and P.T. Barnum-style spin on reality. (That is to say, he never accepted responsibility for the deaths of the movie crew, the ship’s crew, the citizens of New York, or Kong. He blamed Naomi Watts for Kong’s death, in fact.)

Some scenes in the movie were actually so well portrayed, they creeped me out a bit. When the movie crew is being accosted by the native population, I was able to actually sense the fear and confusion of the actors in the scene. It was kind of scary to see the islander pole-vaulting over breaks in the rock to reach the ship in order to abduct Naomi Watts. There was some really creepy undertones to the ceremony in which she’s offered to Kong. All of those things were very well done, and I think Peter Jackson really captured something so completely foreign to those of us that haven’t experienced tribal cultures that it frightens us. The language is alien, the religion is alien, the culture is alien, the entire setting makes us feel unable to protect ourselves and confused. We have no way to connect and relate to what the natives think, feel and believe, and there is no way to communicate with them to try to arrive at understanding.

They also don’t seem very interested in communicating. They attack with what seemed little provocation and with nothing in mind but slaughter. As an audience member, I was a bit horrified that the westerners had no way to say they had come in peace and didn’t mean any harm … and that the natives didn’t seem to care. Their dogged persistence in taking Naomi Watts was disconcerting too; the westerners weren’t even safe back in their own ship. Knowing they held superior fire power and technology did not deter the natives from taking what they wanted … we just never got to see or understand (and, there probably wouldn’t be any way to understand) why they so wanted her. She’s a pretty girl, but come on.

The plot’s a familiar one, so I won’t go into that. There were some clever things they did, though, that I really liked. They showed the desperation of the people in the depression, and they contrasted that nicely with the money and opulence of those that were successful during that time. The dichotomy was almost laughable, and that’s very accurate. There was almost a classe-style difference in the US at that time, and the brief look at the differences the movie gave was well-done. Also, the actress Jack Black’s character was trying to hire for the female lead in his movie backed out, so he was rattling off a list of actresses that he thought would make suitable substitutes. When he said “Fay”, the young “Preston” to whom he spoke said, “She’s doing a movie with RKO and isn’t available.” That was brilliant. (The only movie that Faye [Wray] would have been doing at that time would have been the original King Kong, in case you’re not aware. She passed away in 2004 at the age of 96, and her only real claim to fame was still being clutched in Kong’s hairy paw.)

The unveiling of Kong for the movie could have been done better, but the animation of the lead character was nothing short of spectacular. The way he moved, the way his fur reacted to his movements, the play of the light and shadow on his fur (each little tuft lit and shadowed and moving), the imperfections in his face (his head was a bit lopsided, one of his lower canines was larger and protruded more than the other, the wrinkles on his face and the folds of his skin weren’t symmetrical, his eyes were two different sizes … I could go on and on about the detail of the CGI), the way he did gorilla-like things – Kong was practically impossible to distinguish from a living ape. That is, until he interacted with Naomi Watts, at which time he became clearly an ape in love. Oh well … it is what the movie’s about, after all.

I haven’t seen anything as visually beautiful as Kong in CGI animation since Jurassic Park. Say what you will about that movie, its creatures were among the best drawn in history. It was really hard to recall that they weren’t actually dinosaurs in the movie. There have been lots of animated characters throughout the history of movies, and each time I see one they get better, but Kong was fantastic beyond my ability to express. Even Spider-Man (Spiderman) in Spiderman (Spider-Man) 2 wasn't as well-animated as Kong. If the producers and animators of Hulk by Ang Lee had done as good a job with him as this crew did with Kong, that movie would have been much more successful, I’m sure.

Okay, maybe not.

The movie was weak in places. Naomi Watts was a bit hollow and wooden, and she didn’t have a lot of speaking lines, considering. She also left me wondering with whom she was actually attracted, Kong or the male lead (whatever his name was … I honestly don’t know, but the character was referred to as “Driscoll”). But, that is by design, since the real story is not guy and girl, but girl and gorilla. The scene on the ice is the tell-tale for that, but the scene where she’s doing her vaudeville act for Kong is the one that tells us that they won each other over. They even watch the sunset together and express “beautiful” together, each in their own way. I thought the ending, for all the spectacular CGI involved, could’ve had more punch. Kong kept gettting larger and smaller throughout the movie. The other CGIs in the movie didn't seem anywhere near as realistic, in particular the stampeding sauropods. There is no explanation of how Kong was fed or his droppings handled on the voyage back to New York in a vessel that clearly wasn't large enough to house him. How did they keep him sedated? That much chloroform released on a small ship, especially in the hold, will probably kill the passengers and crew. The scene with Kong atop the Empire State Building was actually a bit anticlimactic for me, but overall, the movie did what it was supposed to do – entertain.

And for me, that’s really unusual. I liked it.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Days Gone By

I didn’t grow up like other kids. In case you haven’t noticed by now.

I read about the cliques of boys, tiny “gangs” of “Li’l Rascal” type ensembles, having adventures in small towns and experiencing the slices of Americana like those kids in the short story/movie “Stand by Me”. I hear about life-long friendships forged from grade school, the ones that make life complete, carried on over the distances of time and space by phone conversations and letters, or now, email. I hear about the ones that grew up to be successful and left town, going on to bigger and better lives, and those that stayed behind in the sleepy hamlets to live out their own lives not far from family and familiarity. I never experienced that.

I read books by folks that grew up in a different time, on a different patch of the country, and how they made life interesting. I read about their pre-pubescent longings and aches for the pretty girl sitting across from them in Mrs. Henderson’s 5th grade class, and the collection of friends with interesting nicknames like “Stinky” and “Socks” and “Slim”, and their wild plots to take advantage of her whether they knew what they’d do once they had her or not. I hear about them sneaking out and having hiding places and forts behind the empty lots near the junkyard by the river, exchanging stories about what Billy Stecker said and how that caused them to plot their way through a misadventure that made the summer of that year unforgettable for all of them. I read about the special places, like old man Claver’s farm, and the time they found the dead coyote on the lot. The way they thought that the strange, quiet old man from out of town was a sinister, underworldly creature of demonic or supernatural design come to steal souls. I read about the way they lived and spoke, and the ideas they had about the world around them, which usually never extended beyond the new shopping center off the highway just beyond the town limits, and how TV and radio played various roles in their lives. I hear about the quiet, tree-lined streets and sidewalks, the way that everyone knew the names and phone numbers of their neighbors, and the way that parents of children all related to each other. Everyone’s old man knew everyone else’s old man; sometimes the friendships were inherited.

I read it, and I’ve even heard it. I’ve never lived it.

I grew up a loner. I was always outcast and made to feel strange. When other boys my age were ready to pursue girls, however platonic the relationship that blossomed from that pursuit turned out to be, I was shy and quiet and reserved, unable to speak to them intelligibly and to carry on like normal boys did. That was especially awkward for me when I crossed into 4th grade and for whatever reason, became popular with the girls in my class. I was without prior experience to fall on, and without courage to follow through on the “advice” I was getting from my “father”, whose sentences always seemed to begin with “When I was your age …” They were interested in me, and I didn’t have a clue what to do with them or about them.

All of that seemed to change in the 6th and 7th grade years; I couldn’t get their attention to save me. There was a kindly girl, a gentle soul, in the 8th grade – whose name escapes me all these many long years hence, but I think it may have been “Kathleen” – who seemed to express interest in me again in the 8th grade. Actually, it wasn’t until the dance at the end of the 8th grade year. Like all the others, she slipped into the vapor of history without ever getting so much as a dance from me, which is all she asked for as she tugged gently on my arm and said “please.” I just couldn’t do it; I didn’t have the guts then, and things didn’t get any better as I entered high school. I set my feet against the hard tile floor and stubbornly sat in my folding chair until she eventually gave up and went away. I don’t think I ever saw her again.

Stories like “Stand by Me” serve to accentuate the differences in the way that I grew up and the normal way that boys generally grew up. I’ve wondered, more than once, if there is a consequence that I pay to this day for the strangeness that surrounded my formative years. My difficulty in making and retaining friends is a combination of bad relationship habits and poor correspondence. I could have kept up with any of them, those friends that I have made as an adult, and kept those friendships alive. On the other hand, my phone’s not ringing off the wall either. No one’s breaking down my door to spend time with me. And the “friends” that I made in high school weren’t exactly prize-winning, textbook friends. I never finished more than a semester at college, so I can’t say what may have come from that time and those circles. The idea of friendship that I grew up with was far shallower and less meaningful and fulfilling than the examples of which I grew up reading and hearing.

My “friends” were people that tolerated me – for whatever reason – until something better came along for them. A new kid came to school; a new girl found interest in one of them; a new record was released. They had a clique formed well before I met them because they had a common grade school they went to; I joined them in 6th grade only to move on to the deep south (for another heapin’ helpin’ of being an outsider) for a year and a bit, then returned in 8th grade in time for all of my classmates to scatter to various high schools. Those that went to the same school as me formed new friendships with each other and with new people, and I was again outside, for the most part, looking in. I got popular briefly when I got my driver’s license ahead of most of them; when they received theirs, I was again left out. That’s just the kind of people they were. I was convenient. I was better than no company at all. And that’s about it. I can’t count the number of weekend evenings I spent with my “family”, doing things like watching TV and playing games with my “brother” because there wasn’t anything else to do.

I was more like my “parents.” They, were loners too, withdrawn to familial ties and establishing relationships prominently with each other and not extending them beyond that boundary. My “mother”, in particular, was isolationistic to the point that my “father” – due in part to being a gutless, spineless wimp – never got to see his distant family. At least not until they died. When I was a child, we’d make trips every few years to see them. As I grew up, those ceased. Eventually, the paternal relatives were dropping dead without his having seen them. I almost pitied him … almost.

My “mother’s” family, however, was ever present. At least, they were a lot more present than the other side. They all lived in uncomfortable proximity; sometimes within our own walls. More than one of them came to park a carcass in our “spare room”, which usually meant my room. I had to share a room with my “brother” and endure him, sharing in blame for the stink of the room, which was always a pig sty. There were drunken arguments and quiet hung-over days that followed every holiday, birthday, and sometimes just random weekends.

I can recall my “parents” visiting people they called friends (usually neighbors) for typical 70’s or 80’s style dinner/cocktail parties. The soirees usually ended up with my “mother” slurring, sloshing, falling down drunk and my pathetic “father” trying to get her home. The embarrassment that followed those episodes usually meant they were never invited back, or if they were, they didn’t accept. Farther and farther into isolation they receded, and even after the alcoholism was “healed” by their spiritual rebirth, their habits of clinging desperately to each other and shielding themselves from outside lives continued. It still does today.

The world has changed a lot in the ensuing generation(s) I read about in those interesting books and articles. People are more cocooned, segregated and separate than they’ve ever been before in our society. They’ll as likely sue you as speak to you. There aren’t any parents at home with the kids anymore; they’re both working 70 or 80 hours a week earning a “living” (if you can call spending all of your time and waking hours accumulating your paycheck “living”), and there is no more time for friends and family vacations and backyard barbeques. There is no more time for forging those life-long friendships that stay with you from cradle to grave. There is no opportunity to have those influences in your life. Children play Nintendo and Xbox and PlayStation, they don’t play outside. There’s no one supervising them. When I was young, you still COULD play outside without parental supervision. Now, you’ll be abducted if you do.

Yes, the world is very different than it was in those wonderful stories and wonderful places. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have those types of things in my upbringing. What would I be like today? What would my life be like? Until recently, I still dreamed of the candlelit dinner parties with close friends around good food and wine, laughing and passing the night away each and every Friday or Saturday. I gave up on that when I realized that my life would never be a Michelob or Beringer commercial, and that, in general, people don’t seem to like me. Maybe I’m too much like my “parents”.

I guess I’ll never know what it is to have friends like the people who write those wonderful articles and books, and I’ve wondered if my upbringing has fashioned that for me. If so, am I going to forge that same binding for my children?

I hope not.

May God help me. And them.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Peace ...

May God rest the soul of Anna Nicole Smith in His bosom.

I pray she at last has the peace that she was denied in life.

Goodbye, Anna. May you finally find joy.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Great Tribute

My wife found this commercial again after searching for nearly five years.

This is, without any question, the greatest commercial of all time.


"It Rained on our Parade"

She walked to the tall, gleaming stainless steel rack and took one of the blue, hard plastic trays from the stack, yanking mightily to finally break it free. She shook her head in disgust as she stepped lightly to the shorter shelf loaded full with Chicago Sun-Times newspapers. She bent over the full-color front page, reading the grim headline.

"IT RAINED ON OUR PARADE", the paper pronounced, with a picture of a rain-soaked and saddened Brian Urlacher blazened across the tabloid-sized page.

"Yes, it certainly did," the woman softly muttered. At that, I could not contain the giggle that burst from my lips and shook me the whole way into the expansive cafeteria.

Most of the time, the huge area is busy with people chattering and ordering, gathering their sundries for breakfast, recounting their weekends. Friday, February 2, 2007, it was absolutely bustling with people abuzz about the upcoming Super Bowl, the blaring music of the long-dead "Super Bowl Shuffle" from 1986 roared over the speaker system and all the blue-and-orange clad workers were dancing and toe-tapping as they stood awaiting service at either the food prep counter or the registers. It was an absolute middle eastern market, filled with laughter, joviality and plans for victory parties and celebrations to come. There was much boasting and recollection of the "glory days" of the last time a Chicago team had gone to a Super Bowl. The anticipation of again returning as conquerors was tingling through the air.

Today, the cafeteria was an absolute morgue.

No one spoke as they moved monotonously through the register line -- which was short and somber. The food preparation area was nearly deserted. A few hushed whispers of those that clearly aren't football fans wisped through the air, drown out by the blasting furnaces working against the sub-zero weather in the expansive, high-ceiling auditorium.

I laughed aloud as I gathered my breakfast -- an apple fritter, a rare treat for myself, and hot coffee to warm the chill in my bones from the frosty cold outside. I saw the same shaved-headed lad who works the registers most mornings today, quiet but friendly, no longer pushing his audio bytes of various plays from throughout the Bears' season through the laptop he'd brought in on Friday. I chuckled from my belly as I moved through the line and paid my total, watching the downcast, hollow eyes, the long faces, the lack of smiles. The auditorium was so quiet; no one sat in the dining area. No one was laughing. No one was wearing any Bears jackets, hats, pins, ties, belts, buttons, sweaters. And no one seemed to be buying newspapers, for some reason.


"Yes, it certainly did," she agreed. And I laughed aloud again recalling it.

I laughed all the way back to my desk -- up a flight of stairs, a walk of a few hundred feet, and around a corner. I suspect I'll laugh a lot today, as people bemoan the death knell of the Bears' Super Bowl run. And I can see in their eyes, in their worried tones and furrowed brows, that they wonder if it will be another 21 years before they can boast and brag again about the "Monsters of the Midway."

I hope so.