Dropping the Mask

Much of what keeps me from the page is an uncertainty of what I will write there, almost as if I must have the tale cut and trimmed to even sidle up. It’s as if waiting for perfection is an excuse for inaction. As a friend once told me about someone we both knew: “She’s no perfectionist — a perfectionist would get things done.”

And so I must wade into imperfection if I am going to put letters down, which I’ve found I must do or risk stultification; if I’m not doing it, be wary of my practiced smile.

So what story would I tell if I let myself slip into it? If I didn’t let precognition destroy my mission? I’d probably write about the joy I felt last night just throwing the football with Rio in the park as Stella sprinted circles around us, the early nightfall no reason to hem ourselves in. I’d probably write about a young friend I just made, his earnest curiosity so inspiring because he’s letting everything in; the way he described his parents, how truly loved he felt growing up. I’d probably write too of learning that an old acquaintance took his own life last week, how I sat there at the computer crying bitter tears of frustration and loss; not for me, because I scarcely knew him really, and not even for him, because I do believe that solution might have brought him some relief. No, I was really crying for his son, who in my heart was my son, and how losing a father like that would make no sense. No matter how flawed my friend was, he was surely still his young son’s hero. I never imagined as a child the pain of adulthood, and so adults’ odd behaviors often baffled me. Rio has seen me cry, but he most likely knows little of the ugly movies that sometimes run loops in my head. How are children supposed to understand when those internal cycles negatively affect our external actions? They will, in their own time, but meanwhile isn’t one of my duties to shield Rio from the sad math that never adds up?

And yet how fake this can be. It’s so rare to see authenticity, as if exposing weakness is not in fact a strength, as if life is not something we stumble through but rather a red carpet we must glide down.

Enough with the pretty pictures.

And mine is no sob story; the little I knew about my acquaintance is that his demons were louder and meaner than mine. A wise person I know recently said that the best he could do with his demons was to study them as though they were teachers. To imagine honing this skill such that what we learned could even be shared with the people around us! Talk about a service. But I tend to duck and hide when my demons show up — almost an adult version of what I did with my blankets as a child when I’d imagine scary monsters in my bedroom. It’s almost as if I have an isolationalist foreign policy with myself: don’t worry about those dark cells operating overseas. I dream of an alchemy where I meet those forces, not to conquer them, but to engage them in some diplomacy. At least then I would have something to show for my grapplings — not shadow-infused irritation masquerading as communication but some real stories from my trip behind the curtain.

I surely didn’t see this much in the men I grew up around, and I think that’s part of what made me so sad about my friend’s passing. There seemed something so male about it: his feelings of failure in a world of pressure; his dark pleasures in a world of prescription. There were a few times where he shared openly with me about his shadows, but I’m not sure he found a steady way to integrate these into his life, and so he locked them up so tightly he took away his own life. I cried both for his son’s pain and the way this lineage seems to be passed on so easily from male to male.

And so this all swirled as the ball sailed through the air between me and Rio. I can surface my painful stories in an instant, but unless I can transmute them into something useful they are really my own burden to carry. Not to say they should never be shared — in fact, to be trusted with another’s tribulations (and vice versa) can be an exquisite feeling — but I don’t think we should take this kind of downloading lightly. It’s instructive to hear body workers talk about the care they must take to avoid internalizing the pain they encounter in patients; it’s a fine, learned art to both share and receive our dark sides. We can give up the costume, but this doesn’t mean throwing our clothes on the floor. Or hitting kids with our shoes.

After Rio went to bed, I shared with Annie some difficult feelings I’d been carrying. She listened and offered comfort. My arms found her more than usual in our sleep.

The Wail

The other day my son and I and two of his friends were playing “three flies up” when I made a ruling Rio didn’t like. He expressed his dismay by kicking the ball away angrily, and, after I warned him to take it easy, talking back and then swinging a frustrated arm in my direction. Then Papa Bear laid it down: Rio inside; neighborhood kids home.

“What you decided wasn’t fair!” he kept insisting as I ushered him into his room. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about my ruling on the field or my decision to end the game. I did my best not to talk back and get in a war of words with a seven-year-old. He slammed his door and fumed in his room, and then his shouts of frustration turned to cries of dismay. “Where are my friends?” he screamed. Annie and I went in and calmly told our extroverted son they had gone home. His crying turned into heavy sobs.

One of Rio’s assets, and challenges, is his intensity. On the soccer field, when he’s dribbling toward the goal, it’s a gift. When he’s staring at the world map beside his bed determined to figure out which way is faster from the U.S. to the Philippines, east or west, it’s an asset. But when he runs up against an obstacle that another kid might shrug off — “unfair” rule, say — his fire is an albatross.

Living a stone’s throw from a river, Rio and I do a lot of swimming and tubing, and Annie and I have used the Haw as a metaphor to help him when he’s only seeing red. “Don’t get caught on the rocks,” we sometimes tell him. “Flow like the river.” But words do little when he’s overcome with emotion. He can’t float when he’s flying down the rapids.

“Your ruling just wasn’t fair,” Rio kept repeating through tears and shoulder heaves. “And it’s not right that my friends went home!”

“Maybe, but it’s never OK for you to respond to something you don’t like by being a bad sport or by using your body in an aggressive way,” I responded. “We could have talked about it. But you just lost your mind.”

As Rio shed more tears, I saw that he was crying not because he was mad at me, but because he understood that his intensity had cost him time with friends. He was colliding with his own self and its jagged merging with the world. It hurts to be in these bodies and bang up against reality! I’ve always thought of Walt Whitman’s concept of the “barbaric yawp” as an empowered shout to the universe  — This is me, World! — but on this evening, as I watched my son sob, I understood that our yawp may also be a wail.

“Sometimes I don’t like how I am,” Rio managed to tell us. I understood. When I was young, I had plenty of moments when I felt in opposition to the world; in my case, it was often a feeling of being underappreciated and unseen. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when my sister walked me to my first-grade classroom and then moved on to her fourth-grade one (what more could she have done?); I remember too the time my mom left me with a babysitter and I cried for three hours straight because she didn’t say goodbye to me right. I was a shy kid most comfortable hiding behind my mother’s skirt. The world asked me to be bolder and I demurred. As an adult, I feel this less, and in fact relate more to Rio: there are times I’ve spoken up only to feel myself ostracized; times when I’ve stood up only to be told to sit back down. There are occasions when I can tell from the expression of the person I’m talking to that I’ve gone too far, that I’ve broken open a conventional unspeakable, and I’m left feeling exposed and alone. And so I’ve sat on both sides of this spectrum — sometimes too little for the world; other times too much.

It’s hard to know what parts of us are immutable and which can change. There is an inherent tension between stretching toward what we could be and accepting who we are. If we reach too far we might disregard our true nature and tear a proverbial muscle, or risk living in masquerade. If, on the other hand, we simply resign ourselves to our usual tendencies, then we stymie any chances of transformation. A friend recently told me that she was disappointed that she was struggling with so much jealousy in a relationship. “I want to be the person who can overcome it,” she said, “but if I’m really honest I have to admit I can only bend so far.” Meanwhile, her partner was frustrated by what he saw as her possessiveness, and he said he truly needed more freedom. Could she stretch to accommodate him? Could he stretch to accommodate her? In this case, no: she honored her cautionary voice and he honored his quest for a wider horizon. Perhaps their truest selves could not fully tango.

And so I ask: when is the voice of “this is me” limiting, and when is it a truth we need to hold? I suppose my own journey from timid (and all of its pros and cons) to bold (and all of its pros and cons) suggests that it is possible to change, that in fact there are layers to who we are that are ripe for the unpeeling. What a choreography, though, to navigate self-acceptance and self-growth, finding compassion both for the times we play it too safe and the times we stretch too far.

In Rio’s case, he clearly was feeling deep pain that he was a kid who reacted so strongly to his perceptions of fair play and things going his way that he lost the very thing he cherished: communion with friends. As he cried his hard wet tears, Annie whispered, “Rio, I know it’s hard, but look how much the world loves you. Can you feel it?” As she said this, I looked down to see that our dog Stella had jumped up onto the bed during the meltdown and that Rio literally had two hands and one paw touching him at the same time.

Spying

My father read a lot — usually World War II history or biographies — and he used to retreat to the leather couch in the living room after dinner with his tome in hand. I would pretend to disappear upstairs only to sneak back down the stairs silently. I learned early on how to inhabit the geometry of invisibility. Papa was gone so often at work or traveling that reading books on the couch, preferably in front of a fire, was clearly something that made him feel at home. I only wished the activity had involved me.

Not to say my father ignored me. He faithfully coached every Little League baseball team I was on when we lived together, and even the first one I joined after my parents got divorced and my mom, sister, and I moved across town. He led almost every one of those teams to the championship. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter to me as I wondered where he would put me. Years later Papa told me that his corporate boss never liked the hours my father spent away from the office coaching.

My father also loved cards and taught my sister and me the best strategies in blackjack and a slew of poker games I can still remember, ranging from “Night Baseball” to “Stud.” We’d stay up past bedtime anteing up pennies and fighting for the kitty. When I think of those moments on the den carpet, I recall the rough stubble on my father’s face and how potent the veins in his hands looked as he shuffled the deck for the twentieth time.

Still, my father was often remote to me. I remember once I looked at his face and asked him about the fleck of amber that appeared in one of his hazel eyes; he backed away and told me to leave him alone. I see now how desperately I wanted intimacy with him, reaching for it as he literally took steps away.

So it was a delight for me to sneak undetected into the living room to watch my father read. I felt so close to him then, in a strange and sad way. He was like a deity I could near but never touch.

I got so good at spying that I tried it all over the house; it was the best way to discover what was really going on. Eavesdropping on my mother’s phone calls to her friends, I learned how badly her relationship with my father was going. Once I found hundreds of dollars wadded up and squirreled away in my mother’s leather boot.

My sneakiness continued until one day when I stumbled upon something I didn’t want to see. It was a Saturday morning, and my mom and sister were out of the house. I snuck into my father’s den to see what he was doing. I thought maybe I’d find him reading, or writing on the yellow legal pads he used for work. Instead, in the dappled light coming in through the window, I found him bent over on the floor, sobbing with a might I had never seen.

I still don’t know what made my father cry like that, but whatever it was was the very thing that kept him from me.

River Repartee

A few days ago my seven-year-old son Rio and I walked down to the river for our daily summer swimming ritual. We passed a few guys chatting by their cars in the parking lot and made our way to our favorite swimming hole. There, Rio spied a fishing tackle box and asked me whose it was.

“It probably belongs to those guys we just walked by,” I said as I took off my shirt.

Just then Rio spied two men upriver and called out, “Hey guys! Is this your tackle box?”

“Yeah,” one of them yelled back. “Thank you!”

Rio turned his attention toward me. “You said it belonged to those guys in the parking lot. You were wrong.”

“You’re right, bud. I don’t know everything. I’m a human being just like anyone else.”

He eyed me and nodded. “Yeah, you don’t know everything. I mean, you don’t know, for example, very much about . . . bunnies.”

Throwing Faith

The morning started off as I like it: alarm firm but not rattling; opening my eye to slumbering sweetie and son; sliding my feet off the side of the bed and taking a moment to sit; then up for fifteen minutes with my homespun latte and the paper fetched from the dewy grass before Annie and Rio get up to join me.

I cherish my routines, partially because I feel lost without them. When left to walking without tracks I often land upside down in the air. I need ritual’s ruler to set my hash marks for the day.

Then: busy, rushed-before-school madness, Annie and Rio leave, and I again enter a few moments of silent, untethered bliss. The long shower, almost too hot, then another moment on the couch before I leave, just a few seconds really where I notice my breath and feel a tiny splash of nothing before the thoughts rush in.

But then my faithful Honda Accord, two decades old — the one of 200,000 miles and minimal repairs, the one that still looks good after all these years — decides to throw her automatic transmission. I know it the instant I hear the grating sound when I put her in reverse. I manage to get to work without backing up, but I know this problem isn’t going away.

When I get to the office, the day starts as usual, but then my colleague Holly comes back from an errand toting a little black puppy she’s saved from the middle of a busy street. Everyone is oohing and aahing, and I think, This damn thing looks so familiar. I keep noticing how serene and self-possessed she seems for a five-month-old canine, those intelligent eyes and that curious scamper. And I recall how just three weeks before, Annie had asked me, as we discussed our extroverted and only child, “Should we get a dog?” This came on the heels of Rio telling us, as we took care of our friend’s dogs for a weekend, that he wished they were his.

But I push this all to the back of my mind, certain that I don’t really want the kind of change that having a dog would demand; besides, this dog is so damn cute and well taken care of that someone will surely answer the many “found dog” messages Holly has put out around town. Just for kicks, though, when Holly sends out an email later to the whole staff with some pictures of the little lab/border collie pooch, I forward them to Annie. In minutes she writes back and says she’s “ready for a dog.” Oh my.

I tell Holly of our (mild) interest and head home, making sure to avoid any situations where I’ll have to back up. I stop by my mechanic and ask him to take a listen. He winces. He checks the transmission fluid and declares, “You’re pretty screwed.” Seems a fix here is going to run me the cost of the car. For a moment I entertain a daydream: I have driven secondhand family cars for so long that when I sit as a passenger in anyone’s new car I feel like I’m beholding the dashboard of some kind of spaceship. Isn’t it about time I bumped it up and got a little fancy? I deserve it! But then I remember annoying facts like cost and I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get to work this week. But then my mechanic says, “Well, as luck would have it, one of my customers whose ’94 Civic she just spent a good chunk of change on wants me to sell her car. She suddenly decided to walk onto a new car lot and drive away in one. So this car has got to move.”

I take a look: nice black colt, small and solid. Price she’s asking is below blue book.

So let me get this straight: a few weeks after my son and wife explicitly state their wishes for a dog, one appears near the tire of my colleague who just happens to be driving down that certain street on that certain Thursday morning. Said dog woos the entire office but no one is able to possibly take her except us. On the same day my car decides to die but another car that looks in a strange way like said dog appears beside my mechanic’s waving hand.

Is this what Rob Brezny had in mind in last week’s horoscope when he told us Aries to “be alert for a new most beautiful thing”?

I wish my acceptance of the unexpected came more easily, but my brain is adept at boiling questions down to tidy lists of pros and cons. With the car, I couldn’t find a good rational argument to say no. But the reasons to not take the dog were legion: 1) Who wants another being to tend to when we already have a six-year-old? 2) Who would take care of the dog when we went out of town? 3) Did we really want to be weighed down with another, possibly 15-year-long, responsibility? 4) All those damn books and videos and training classes!

The reasons to take the dog? There was really only one: love. My mind’s list chortled at my heart’s measly offering.

But then a funny thing happened. First, we found a way to experiment with the warring sides of brain and heart: we agreed to take the dog just for the weekend, no obligation. A test drive. We told Rio we were merely looking after Holly’s new puppy, which, um, didn’t yet have a name. (Poor guy didn’t have a clue.)

At first, Rio was intrigued but dispassionate. He probably figured it wasn’t worth it getting attached to an animal we’d only have for two days. And what I found for myself was a wild weekend of swinging moods. When I played and cuddled with the tender fur ball I swooned with the idea of her being “ours.” But when her little razor teeth pierced my skin and Annie and I started looking at our backyard and talking about fences and leashes and doggie doors and our neighbor’s ten outdoor cats, my neck muscles began to stiffen and I felt my blood run hot beneath my skin. I’m already a below-average multitasker with my hands full raising Rio, loving Annie, tending to my creative and spiritual life, working, and helping take care of the house. Who had room for a dog?

Annie seemed to fair no better, so by the end of the weekend we opted to let Rio in on our quandary. We explained what we were facing, and we truthfully weren’t sure what he’d say about this puppy whose boundless energy had intimidated him and whom he’d had no part in choosing. But his face lit up as the possible reality dawned on him: “Oh my gosh! If we could keep this dog I’d be the happiest kid in the world!” When we asked him why, he confided almost in a whisper, “She might make me feel better when I’m feeling sad or lonely.”

That was it. For all the logic of my rational mind’s lists, it paled when standing next to what my heart was increasingly certain was a more durable truth: that this animal would be a benefit to our family, another live body in our already rich experiment in love.

What is the anatomy of a decision? Sometimes it is merely determining quantifiable variables, almost like a mathematical equation, and seeing what they equal. But on other occasions, there is an incalculable x factor whose value appears almost like a dancing figure in the mist. When I choose to surrender to this mysterious invitation — when I throw my faith toward the vague notion that there is a method to the universe’s madness — then I often get to hold its juiciest parts.

As the weekend drew to a close, I remembered that in one of my journals from a year ago, I had drawn with Rio a series of domestic scenes: him and me, Annie and him, the three of us together. And in one, I had sketched a caricature of me in a field with the word “Rio” playfully scrawled in the sky above. Looking up at me from a spot next to my boot was a dog that looked just like Stella.

Rescues

Not my Pinewood Derby car...

My fallout with the Cub Scouts began with Mussolini and ended with a Pinewood Derby Car.

I was nine years old and living with my parents and sister in Los Angeles. My father was an avid reader and World War II history buff; he’d often sit on the couch by the fire, thick book in his hand, oblivious to the fact that I was spying on him from just feet away, trying to get as close to him as I could.

I think my father regarded my sister and me more as miniature adults than as children. He took us to R-rated movies years before our time and regaled me not with nighttime stories of magical creatures or superheroes but rather with the finer points of Nazism and fascism. He told me how Adolf Hitler used to intentionally arrive late to Nazi rallies, the crowd’s impatience roiling into nationalistic fervor once the Fuhrer finally took to the stage. He told me about Mussolini, El Duce, how he adorned Italy with statues and posters of himself and trained black-shirted fascist youth in anthems and songs.

One night I was at my weekly Cub Scout meeting; we had just finished reciting the Cub Scout Promise, and as we lifted our fingers to our brows to give the Cub Scout Salute, it suddenly occurred to me that all of my pack mates were dressed the same: identical blue uniforms, identical gold scarfs around our necks; identical merit badges adorning our breast pockets. When I returned home from the meeting, I announced urgently to my parents, “I’ve got to quit the Cub Scouts!” When they asked why, I revealed, as if it were obvious: “Because they’re fascists!”

My parents didn’t disagree; in fact, they told me I could quit, as long as I finished out the year. After all, I had the Pinewood Derby to look forward to.

I was excited about the Pinewood Derby. Each Scout would arrive home with a small wooden rectangular block, four nails, and four plastic wheels. Our task was to transform these materials into a sleek racing car that would speed down a slotted wooden track against other Scouts on the appointed night.

Unfortunately, shortly before my Pinewood Derby packet arrived, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. On New Year’s Day, my father unceremoniously moved out with little more than his personal belongings, leaving my sister, mother, and me behind in a house that suddenly felt too big.

I remember one evening I was walking through the dining room when I sensed someone in the room. I took a few steps back to see my mother sitting alone in the dark. “When is Papa coming back?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, and she burst into tears.

But my mom was also a fighter. There were torrential downpours in Los Angeles that winter, and one afternoon my mom called my sister and me downstairs. She showed us how the water level on the back patio was rising so high that it was threatening to seep through the door, which would spell ruin for the house she and my father were about to sell. She made us get into our raincoats and handed us both outdoor brooms, and the three of us spent the next several hours pushing the water away from the door and toward the patio’s overtaxed drains. The water almost leaked in, but in the end we saved the house.

So I had no reason to think my mother and me couldn’t make a winning Pinewood Derby car. We worked on it in the breakfast nook; my mom wore a blue bandanna around her head, and I remember the smell of sawdust as we used our rudimentary tools to turn the block of wood into a race car: one handsaw, sandpaper, one paintbrush, and paint. In the end, it was a simple vehicle: triangular in shape (not a curve on it), and painted a chirpy orange and red.

The night of the Pinewood Derby, my mother was busy, so I caught a ride with my friend Greg Magnuson and his father. Mr. Magnuson knew me from sleepovers and was, I believe, aware of my parents’ recent divorce. When we entered the school gymnasium, I was struck immediately by the preponderance of Dads there, most of them showing off the cars their sons had supposedly made. I sensed from their prideful grins that they had been the ones most likely wielding the lathes.

I quickly found my pack mates, and we stood in a circle sizing up each other’s cars. It went well at first, but then one of my friends asked, “Hey, what did you guys do about weights?” Simultaneously, my friends turned their cars over to reveal that they had all somehow added weight to their wooden cars; some had carved out notches in the wood and glued in melted-down fishing weights. Others had used duct tape to fasten coins to their cars’ undersides. I had nothing.

As it turns out, you were just supposed to “know” that a heavier car meant a faster car on the Derby’s gravity-based track. My mother and I couldn’t have known this; it must have been some inside information shared among fathers. In a fit of anger, alienation, and panic, I threw my car down onto the floor and ran out of the gymnasium in tears.

I didn’t know where I was going, just that I wanted to get away from this world I didn’t feel part of. I ran until I started to tire. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was Mr. Magnuson, who brought me towards him and whispered, “It’s OK, Tim. Come on back inside.”

Mr. Magnuson and I walked back to the gym, where we found my car and the races I was scheduled for. I lost three times in a row, even the consolation round.

In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I did what we do with a painful memory: I pushed it down, let a thick skin grow over it, forgot about it. Until about two decades later. I was in my late twenties, in the midst of a surge of cathartic writing; I was feverishly composing a series of rants and screeds to my father, cataloging every crime he’d committed. I even sent him some of these poems.

But in the midst of this wreckage, I stumbled into a more-tender memory, the one of Mr. Magnuson and the Pinewood Derby. What lived with me from that night was not losing the races, nor my father’s absence, nor the fact that my mother had been with me at every step of that boyhood ritual except the final one, when I needed her the most. No, what stayed with me was the feel of Mr. Magnuson’s hand on my shoulder, the way it felt to turn into him for that tiny second.

Last week, I returned home to Bynum after being out of town for a week. I was flying in late, so when I got home, Rio was already asleep. The next morning, I went into his room to wake him up for school. I sat on his bed next to him, and he must have sensed I was there, because he lifted one eyelid and directed his gaze up towards me. He slowly brought his arm out from beneath the blanket, reached up to my face, and gently placed his hand on the back of my neck. More than any painful memory or imperfect moment, I believe it is these points of contact that make us who we are.

Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  – I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.

Family Legends

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I’ve had a number of memorable aunts in my lifetime, but only one was a badass who rode a motorbike: Aunt Cindy, who was married to my Uncle Richie for many years when I was a kid.

I’d see Aunt Cindy every summer when my parents would put my sister and I on a plane to Connecticut, where we’d spend the entire summer living with my grandparents. We’d spend part of the time at their house in Newington and the rest at their small cabin on the shores of Bashan Lake in East Haddam. My grandfather had started camping at Bashan Lake with my grandmother and their three kids in the 1940′s, stopping by the mansion of the landowner Mr. Smith to pay him a few cents a night to put up a tent. Gradually my grandfather worked up the courage to ask Smith if he could pay him a monthly sum in exchange for the right to set up a permanent cabin. When my grandfather got the go ahead, he built a tiny cabin up at his house in Newington and brought it down in sections to the lake, where it still stands today.

I liked Newington, but my sister and I would eagerly await the moment when we’d see my grandmother starting to pack a cooler full of food and my grandfather gathering his fishing gear. Even their dog Sam would howl in anticipation as he saw my grandfather heading down to load the station wagon. On weekends we’d usually be joined by my Uncle Richie, who lived next door to my grandparents with his wife Cindy. Richie, my mom’s brother, had become a paraplegic in his early twenties after doctors mishandled the removal of a tumor that had grown on one of his vertebrae.

Richie was a renowned fisherman on Bashan Lake. My grandfather had fitted their boat with a special chair for Richie, and we’d lower the vessel in and out of the water with a winch and chain. I’d accompany my uncle on most of his fishing expeditions, and we’d almost always return with a string of bass or trout.

Fishing became the tie that bound me to my uncle; with Aunt Cindy, the strands were numerous and ever expanding. Her curiosity and joy for life naturally aligned her with children. While other adults in my past might appear muted and gray in my memory, Cindy jumps out in vivid technicolor. She drove a baby-blue Chevy with a CB radio on which she was always talking to truckers. She rode a motorcycle whose color matched her car. She loved “fluffernutters,” spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff onto toasted bread and letting the two layers melt and commingle before biting in. She had red hair and a smoker’s laugh and a flowery bathing suit that looked out-of-place on her stocky body. She called my grandparents “Ma” and “Pop” with a sincerity that transcended “in-law.” She played the guitar and sang beautifully; she once told me that old posters from her hometown in Pennsylvania advertising shows with her band in it used to say “with a voice like Joan Baez” next to her name. Some nights Ernie Olson a few cabins down would host bonfires, and Aunt Cindy would bring us and her guitar and spend hours leading the group of revelers in song while we tried to stay invisible in the background, incredulous that we were getting to stay up so late.

As a kid, I knew nothing about her relationship with Uncle Richie, other than that they seemed like best friends. And so I was surprised at age 13 when my mother told me that Cindy had left Richie and that they were getting a divorce. I never saw her again.

But last week, Annie, Rio, and I were up at the cabin (a yearly summer ritual), and I saw my cousin Billy, now in his forties. We started swapping Aunt Cindy stories — he told me that she showed him how to properly smoke a cigarette; that she’d patiently tried to teach him how to play guitar. He also reminded me that she served a pivotal role in keeping the cottage in the family back in the early 80s. What  happened was that Mr. Smith and his wife had died and passed the land on to their children, who considered selling the entire lakeside property to a developer. Cindy initiated a series of meetings with neighbors who over the years had set up leases with the Smiths and built cottages that now lined the lake. Cindy researched home-owners associations and finally cobbled together a group of residents who pooled their money and convinced the Smith children to sell the land to the association instead of to the developer. Thirty years later, the Wildwood corporation still stands, and the cottages thrive.

“I wonder where Cindy is now,” Bill mused. “Imagine if we could find her and invite her down here — how much she’d love to come back to the lake, and to see how we turned out.”

As I sat there looking out at the lake, I wondered if Cindy could even imagine that my cousin and I would be standing here all these years later, at that place she once fought for, getting all misty-eyed over her. If not, I wish I could tell her so, because sometimes the best way to remember who we are is to hear who we’ve been to other people; an experience that one person might have forgotten may loom as transformative in the life of another. One night Cindy woke me up at two in the morning and with a whisper and a flashlight led me down to the fishing boat. “We’re gonna get some bullheads,” she told me, and my eyes widened at the thought of catching this scary-looking cousin of the catfish who fed nocturnally along the bottom of the lake. As she rowed us out under the light of the moon, I felt raw and awake to the once hidden night.

Playing with Fire

The other day I went to fetch Rio from our friend Jeff who had been looking after him for a few hours. We met at a local biodiesel plant where Jeff has an office.

As Jeff and I caught up, I heard a loud noise coming from the corner of the grassy field where Rio and Jeff’s son were playing. My eyes landed on Rio throwing rocks at a building that housed one of the plant’s offices, complete with big windows and solar panels. Jeff had actually built it. Just the kind of structure you don’t throw rocks at.

“What are you doing?” I asked Rio as I approached.

“Throwing rocks,” he said.

I looked closer to see that a rock Rio had thrown had pierced the glass of one of the windows, creating a small hole with a web of fracture-lines emanating from it.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I asked.

I listened to his weak answer and then lectured him for a few minutes before calling Jeff over. “Yup, we’re going to have to replace this window,” Jeff said calmly. “It’ll probably be between $100 and $200.” I thought I heard Rio gulp.

Rio knew he was in deep. At one point he asked if there was such a thing as a “jail for kids.” I thought about my options. I knew I could punish Rio by taking away movies and playing with friends, or I could think of something that related more directly to his crime and that actually enhanced him in some way.  Because my wish is to have Rio learn from his mistakes instead of being haunted by them. This meant giving Rio some dynamic consequence he could work in his hands. In my politics I’ve long favored restorative justice over punitive justice; here was my chance to apply a grand idea to my own little court case.

First, I knew Rio had to acknowledge his mistake and apologize to the people it impacted. I had Rio apologize to Jeff, since he had built the house. I also told Rio we’d come back during the week to apologize to the women who work in the office. He’d have to look them in the eyes and say he was sorry. Finally, I told Rio that he would have to do community service to earn the money needed to pay for the window. I imagined asking friends to think of menial but skill-building jobs they’d be willing to pay Rio a little cash to do: Sorting recycling? Sweeping? Weeding? All the proceeds of course would go toward the window.

Rio seemed dismayed by the idea, which was a good sign. I think he intuited that this punishment would be much more taxing than losing a few privileges. “It will probably take you three months to pay back that money,” I told him.

Then his face lit up with an idea. “I know! I’m just going to go home, grab two hundreds from the Monopoly game and give them to Jeff! It’ll be over in about five minutes!”

Oh my, this was going to be a long three months.

As we drove home, I thought about my own childhood mishaps. One hot July day when I was thirteen my friend Rob and I were bored and starting wondering if inflammable paint was less dangerous than flammable paint. You know, like invalid is the opposite of valid? We decided to pour a little of both kinds of paint on piles of dried leaves to find out.

We quickly learned inflammable paint was very flammable! The two of us cheered as the flames crackled with technicolor. After 30 seconds or so, we beat out the fire with sticks and then moved on to the next pile.

On the fourth try, we laughed and frolicked a little too long, and when we tried to beat out the fire, it was too late.

“Get your mom!” I yelled.

Rob ran up to the house. “We started a fire!” he blurted.

“Oh Robbie!” his mom snapped, running into the house to call the fire department.

Rob and I raced back to the scene of the crime, only to find a greater inferno and a new witness: Mr. Pickering, Rob’s neighbor and my future high-school English teacher, who was trying to douse the fire from his side of the fence. He knew we were the culprits but would not deign us with a look.

As the fire inched closer to Pickering’s yard, the firemen finally arrived, hosing down the fire to black smoke in mere seconds.

As the fire trucks readied for departure, the chief pulled us aside: “You two are lucky — this whole block could’ve been up in flames!”

That evening Rob’s father, an Episcopalian minister, came home and calmly took in the news. In his car on the way back to my house, he offered to come in and explain to my mom what had happened. I accepted his offer immediately, knowing my mom’s reaction might be tempered by his mellow nature.

Reverend Rankin and my mom talked in private for a few minutes and then he bid a kind adieu. My mom sat down and looked at me. “Today is Friday,” she said. “By next Friday I want a ten-page report on the subject of fire, with a table of contents, a section defining words like “flammable” and “inflammable,” and a bibliography with at least six sources in it. I want the whole thing put in a three-ring report folder and in my hand by noon.”

I think I remember this event so clearly not because of the error I made but rather for the path my mother laid out for me in the wake of it. This is the beauty, and the labor, of restorative justice. It would have been easier for my mother to punish me through a grounding than to administer her rather complicated plan. And surely it would have been simpler for me to endure the loss of a privilege than to delve into encyclopedias and check out books from the library for the damn bibliography. But then there was that memory, guiding me as I stared down Rio.

Sorry About That

When I lived in Johannesburg, I was struck by South Africans’ tendency to apologize for occurrences that weren’t their fault. Early on I remember walking along a sidewalk and stubbing my toe against a root that was bursting through the cement. “Sorry, sorry,” the friend I was with said.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked. “You didn’t do it.”

“I know,” my friend replied. “I’m just sorry that that happened to your toe.”

Thus my introduction to what I now call the South African Sorry.

I grew up equating an apology with an admission of guilt. In the charged arenas of family dramas, school popularity contests, and romantic relationships, I would hold back sorrys until I was good and sure something was my fault. And when I felt wronged, I’d often take someone else’s apology as evidence that I was in the right. It always felt like the supreme gotcha.

The South African Sorry was different; it implied no guilt necessarily; just an acknowledgment of pain.

These different approaches to contrition stem in part from the varied ways people and cultures approach the individual versus the collective. The United States surely must be the capital of I; sometimes I feel like I’m moving among a mass of people who are each trapped in a bubble, oblivious to the fact that other people are actually fellow humans that compose a “we.” I fall prey to this as much as anyone; I often think, If everyone takes care of themselves, individually, we’d have a pretty good collective meld going on. Take care of your shit, and I’ll take care of mine. In this context, there is no need to apologize for anything unless it stems from one’s actions as an individual.

In contrast, in a more collective culture, which South Africa arguably is, despite its dark history of apartheid, it’d be fitting to apologize simply because a misfortune occurred in your midst — the collective has taken a hit, and it’s only sensible that witnesses to that would express sympathy. A friend once told me that she still harbors painful memories from childhood of tripping or banging her shin and no one in her large family offering any words of comfort. She wanted to know someone had noticed her misfortune.

I suspect America’s litigious culture also plays a role. Because lawsuits are so common and courtroom dramas have populated our screens for decades, I wonder sometimes if we go through our days subconsciously perceiving our interactions almost like court cases. We don’t want anybody to “have” anything on us; a record of an apology might just be used against us someday.

In the big picture, it’s not surprising that South Africa followed the end of apartheid with its extensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established to help heal rather than assign blame: victims of politically motivated (read racial) crimes were able to tell their painful stories, and perpetrators of such crimes were invited to come clean on their transgressions.  The commission traveled around the country and was broadcast on national television. It was an imperfect process, but there were many powerful moments: former president F.W. de Klerk apologizing for apartheid; chairperson Archbishop Desmond Tutu weeping uncontrollably at the words of a former Robben Island prisoner describing his torture in the hands of security officers; a white policeman apologizing to a distraught African woman for killing her son. I’d never seen anything like it.

The only U.S. equivalent I’m aware of is the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to help that North Carolina city heal from the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, in which five African Americans protesters were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during a political rally. As the Commission came to a close in 2006, the Reverend Peter Storey, a South African who participated in both reconciliation commissions, concluded, “So long as the darker events of our communal past lie buried and unacknowledged, they act like toxic waste, seeping continually to the surface to poison the present.”

This resonates to me on a personal level;  I have found that apologizing, even for events that were only partially my fault, addresses that which was festering, both in me and in the other person. It also serves to acknowledge someone else’s pain. Most importantly, when I issue a South African Sorry, I undermine my own ego, which loves to keep appearances of perfection up. With him off the scene, I’m able to feel fallible, which is exactly where compassion and empathy live.