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.”

Shoes

I was in fifth grade and had just moved from one side of Los Angeles to the other with my mom and sister following my parents’ divorce. It was November, so I arrived at Cleveland Elementary as the “new kid,” an identity I couldn’t shake the entire year.

I’d noticed in my first week that slip-on Vans shoes were popular among the cool kids, and I was convinced that a new pair would help me fit in. My mom conceded and went to the shoe store, where I eyed the light blue/dark blue two-tones that everyone was wearing.

“Yes, those are popular, but there are also these; they’ve just come in,” the salesman said, pointing to a pair of Vans with a  blue-green Hawaiian print.

At first I said no; I just wanted what everyone else had. I knew that conformity was the quickest way to acceptance.

“But those are so good-looking!” my mom piped in. “You should definitely get them.”

I remember my stomach clenching in the face of the decision. I didn’t want to be the new kid: the one who was living in a new house with a newly single mother and a new latchkey that burned in his pocket. I wanted to be the kid who hadn’t moved, the one with old friends in the neighborhood and two parents at home. Or at least the kid with the same shoes as everyone else.

And yet: the allure of the exotic, the different, the beautiful. They beckoned from the shelf, those Hawaiian-print shoes.

“Let’s get them,” I said impulsively.

The next morning, I was even more nervous than usual. The shoes looked so new I kicked them against my bedroom door a few times to create scuffs. I rode the bus feeling like my feet were covered in flashing lights. Would anyone notice? Would everyone?

I got off and found my new crew of friends who appeared to reluctantly be accepting me into their crowd.

“Look at those shoes!” one of them commented, and immediately they all looked down and laughed. “Those are lame!”

I put those shoes away after school that day and never wore them again. Not once. I think of them every now and then and feel an ache above my ribcage: at how sad those unworn shoes looked in my closet; at the thought of my mom, how little spare money she had and how much the new pair of shoes must have cost her; at the kindness of my mother wanting me to have that particular pair because she could tell I liked them and she wanted me to have beautiful things; at the salesman, who was probably just trying to do his job (what did he know of fifth-grade fashion politics?); and at my twelve-year-old self, who wanted so badly to fit in that he regretted for months that fateful moment when he’d strayed and listened to the louder voice that told him to choose the bold, relegating him even farther to the school’s margins. How long it took him to find solid ground.

And yet I simultaneously feel relief that I am no longer that child, the one so prone to doubt and insecurity, a boat with a broken rudder with no way to navigate the channel. I inhale and exhale something sweet knowing that that need to fit in, and the loneliness of not, gave way to a stronger calling to honor my quest for the exquisite; that as I write this, I’m wearing a shirt that has bold green and blue designs on it that look abstractly Hawaiian. I’m grateful that I have learned to leave the port of safety and push forward even when convention yells at me to turn back.

Two Hands Clapping

The dogs are panting. My house is empty except for three overheated canines. It is their nature to breathe these chants. Some days I want to curse them and say, “Leave me be! My partner and son are gone; let me float totally free.” But then I find the walk with them brings clarity: above creek I hear the crickets and see the fireflies. Their joy, free of leash on country road, makes me feel beneficent. If I were worthless they would get no freedom: floor-bound chez moi. But here we are, a veritable clan of creatures, trotting and smiling, a sniff here and there to investigate what the path has to offer.

But then the dogs fade to the background. I stumble into the nougat of me, unfiltered through duty and company, the twisting crawling snail that I must celebrate: see; see through; see into. Inside is an emptiness that wants to fill up — some nascent piece of me that still wonders about those breaking moments from childhood and fantasizes about replaying them. But rerun can’t provide the inflate — I must find air in these very moments.

One day I found my voice. It was wavering at first, but I spoke up and ears turned because I had something to say. Part of me was afraid of this light; I’d developed an innate instinct to self-dim. But then I met Jack Hirschman. He had a peculiar habit: after he finished a poem at a public reading, he’d back away from the mic, raise his hands, and join them in resolute claps. A casual observer might have thought it tacky for him to celebrate his own poems. But if you looked closely, you saw that Jack wore a slightly surprised expression in these moments, as if shocked but delighted by what had come out of him, by what his words had done to the night. It was not egoic: he was honoring what was moving through him. Jack taught me that getting out of our own way is sometimes the most noble act.

After one reading in North Beach, I watched Jack slip out of the bar. The crowd and praise is just too much, I thought. I peeked out to the window to see where he was going. I found him on Kerouac alley, throwing a tennis ball against the mural  — his own little game of toss and catch. He seemed so enraptured and childlike then, as if inhabiting his truest self and thereby transcending constructed ones.

The Man in the Park

The line between forgiveness and blame is creek narrow.

The other day I went to the local dog park with the shepherd Stella, the son Rio, and the ten-year-old friend Xavier. As we walked through the first gate, I asked Xavier to close it behind us. At the second gate, Rio was lingering and Stella was pulling, but  the three of us made it in.

Apparently, Xavier had forgotten to close the first gate and I’d neglected to close the second, because out of the blue a man walked over and yelled “Hey! Close the gates, man! You left both of them open! Jesus!” His tone was so sharp and aggressive my head literally tilted back.

“I will,” I replied. “But you could have said that a lot more kindly.”

“This is a dog park, man!” he screamed. “The rules are pretty fuckin’ simple!” As he shouted these words he took a few steps towards me.

As his words shot through the air, two dogs close by began to attack each other. It was one of those dog scraps when playfulness is not in play. The owners pulled their dogs back, but it was clear that the aggression of this man, and the one that was rising up in me, was not lost on the creatures around us.

For a moment I thought about dropping Stella’s leash and decking the dude. At least, so I thought: I have no idea how I’d really do in a fight. The last time I’ve had a real physical standoff was in fifth grade with a kid named Joel. I can’t remember why we fought, but I do recall that the lead-up was palpable enough to have the word “Fight!” screamed across the schoolyard and a circle of kids to surround us, egging us on. The fight was over in about five seconds: Joel clocked me with a hard right across my temple that sent me down to the ground in a crumple.

So I’m basically 0-1, with a loss by knockout. But I’ve thought about fighting plenty: heroic scenarios where I save the weaker from ruin. Truth is I’m usually quite tame in public. But I’d like to think I’d do pretty well in a fight: I’m not big, but I’m scrappy, and all those years of helping friends move and throwing Rio in the river and hauling beautiful things Annie has found has left me pretty solid.

But, on this day, right as I considered returning the man’s aggression with some of my own, salvation came from those around me.

Rio asked, “Why did that man talk like that?”

“I guess he never learned to talk to people,” I said.

A passerby muttered, “You got that right.”

We stayed at the park for about 30 minutes. Now that we have Stella, Rio likes to talk to other people about dogs. You know: compare notes. He likes to run with the dogs, too, and on this day one particularly beautiful tan-and-brown hound kept bounding over and nuzzling us. “She loves us,” I told Rio, and we rubbed her ears. She’d dart off and then return, tail wagging.  I leaned down to look at the hound’s tags: GRETCHEN.

Just then a woman approached me. “I just wanted to tell you that you didn’t deserve that,” she said. “I know that guy, and he’s…very unique. Let’s just say that his dog is his life. He was probably afraid she’d run through the gate, but, still, he didn’t have to talk to you like that. He might even apologize.”

As I walked around the park the next thirty minutes, eyeing this man occasionally, I thought about how quickly I can damn people for their transgressions: I’m compassionate until I decide someone has stepped over a line. My optimism and openness then drains. It’s like the game is suddenly being played by other rules, and I’ve spent years honing my responses to what I consider the agreed-upon ones. My friend Bruce once told me that we should respond to people only when they hit a shot over the net; when their volley goes out of bounds, it’s not our responsibility to hit it back.

And yet I thought about how much earth I’ve moved when I initiate apologies, even when I’m fairly certain I haven’t done wrong. To break the ice takes courage, and sometimes the gesture is what is pivotal: spirit of forgiveness sparked, the potential violator feels safer to speak. In this life with grey lines so often drawn, to persecute with certainty is a liability.

So I considered walking over to the man and seeing if we could find some peace. After all, I did break the park’s rules, and who was I to judge Mr. Aggressive for less than perfectly alerting me to my transgression? I could wait for Godot imagining that some perfect apology is going to come my way, but my real experience has proven again and again that transgression is a difficult but natural state. At times I am the transgressed: for certain I have been the transgressor. In other words, I must welcome the fuck-up and aspire to forgive.

But, on this Sunday morning, I felt too stubborn. I wondered if he would apologize, but it never came, and I couldn’t find the strength to cross that transom. We walked to the car, and as I drove out of the parking lot, I saw the man leaving the dog park, with Gretchen.

Artifacts

My mom and I were talking recently about the resurgence of traditional names in American culture: Eva, Hazel, Virginia, and Ida are back! As I gushed about how sensible it is to hold on to your dated clothes for the next cyclical trend and ranted about the cinematic remake of every good movie from my childhood, my mother got quiet for a second: “Yeah, all the names have come back — except mine.”

Yes, it’s true: Doris seems to have resisted the redux. My mom complained but also understood: she’d never really liked the name Doris. I was shocked when I was a kid staying at my grandparents’ house when I found my mother’s old high-school yearbook: “It’s been great to know you, Dottie!” her classmates had scrawled in the autograph section. I knew even then that my mother had never really liked her name and had done what she could to escape it.

“Bertha hasn’t made it back either,” I offered weakly.

So it goes the ebbs and flow of what’s hot and what’s not.

It got me thinking about other fashions that have fallen by the wayside. Recently at work, a photographer sent us a thick envelope of images that were clearly all from the seventies. I appreciated the grainy quality of the film, the large hair and sunglasses, and the preponderance of stripes. Among these gems were several photographs of men with mustaches. They looked so normal! When a guy sports a mustache these days it’s like a joke for Halloween that he shaves off the next day. But for these guys, and for most of the men I knew growing up, including my father, the mustache was a critical part of their eternal and dying quest to look good. My dad’s mustache was so ubiquitous that when he shaved it off we squealed “Ew!”

Occupy Upper Lip!

What else has gone wayward? Surely the smoky bar, which disappeared the day California passed the first anti-smoking ordinance, bless her heart. I certainly don’t miss coming home from a night reeking of cigarettes I didn’t inhale. But I do miss the cultural reference: the smoky bar was a place where anything could happen; where reality was obscured by slants of smoke and adults cavorted in some sort of divey harmony.

Last night, as I rose to clean the kitchen after Annie had cooked me and Rio a stellar meal, I flashed for a second on the mid-century man: “I’ve worked all day! I don’t need to do a thing!” I fantasized about  standing up from the table, walking out the door, and making a beeline to my friend Jeremy’s house to watch basketball and drink beer. Yeah, damnit! Dinner, clean-up, bedtime, dog care: why should that be my concern? Surely Annie could handle it. I thought of my mother in law, who’s always been impressed that I even know how to do the dishes, let alone iron shirts. But then I came to my senses, remembering that cohabitation and shared duties actually build collective freedom because all parties are invested and passing the baton and finding time to sit on a chair and do nothing, which these days I consider the closest thing to nirvana. So I cleaned the damn kitchen. Well. And then I recalled Annie’s standards and wiped a few extra corners. I had a wifebeater on. And a goatee.

The River in Our Eyes

Last weekend I attended a beautiful wedding at a farm near the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania.

As the crowd quieted and the groom and wedding party looked out from under the chuppah, our friend waltzed down the cottage steps in her flowing white dress. At the bottom of the stairs, her father waited for her in his wheelchair. As they began their walk down the aisle, I felt the familiar gush of warm tears falling slowly from my eyes and down my cheeks. Simultaneously, I felt an opening in my heart that rose like warm air through my chest and up my throat until it met those tears in some sort of emotional thunderstorm.

At the reception later, in two separate conversations with female friends about our favorite parts of the wedding, I mentioned how affected I was by our friend’s grand entrance, how quickly it brought me to tears. One of the friends responded, “Wow, Tim, I didn’t know about that side of you.” The other said, “It’s refreshing to hear a man talk about crying.”

All I can say is: What’s up with that? It’s not that I judge the women I was talking to; it’s just alarming that male tears are so rare that women take such note of them. I say this because crying, to me, is something I am infinitely grateful for. When I cry, I feel gratitude that I am touch enough with my heart that it can supply water. When I cry, I feel gratitude for feeling, because my mind can so readily chase away my heart’s evocations.

When did crying become something to be ashamed of for men? When Rio cries, I hold him to give him a safe container to let them flow, as opposed to hastening him to halt them. I know a mother who chastises her son when he cries — toughen up, dude — and I can’t help but imagine those stifled tears coming out later as angry outbursts, or at best reclaimed sadness on a therapist’s couch. The truth is that when I cry, I tend to walk away from whoever is around because I have internalized this association of male tears with weakness, but in secret I cherish each and every one. In fact, I’d say that crying for me is one of the most exquisite feelings in the world; it means I’m in touch with life’s shadow, which let’s face it deserves to be in the light. I don’t want a merit badge for crying: I just want it to be as common as a smile, for the world, and the human condition, is a trying place.

Sometimes when Rio and I watch videos, he takes a look back from his perch on my lap and takes note of my tears. At first he seems confused, because he associates water from the eyes with sadness. “Why are you sad?” he often asks. I tell him it is because I am happy. He has noted this apparent contradiction. We have usually watched something that bolsters my faith in the human potential. I am crying in part because goodness is not more of a norm, just as shedding tears isn’t. Tears come because I taste what could be; there is a hope and bitterness to that. A friend of Allen Ginsberg’s once described him as a “man with leaky eyes.” A mentor of mine once copped to a similar tendency, admitting to me that he is often “that guy in the car you see crying.” Damn I love a man’s tears.

May my destiny, and all my brothers, be so bold and  real.