Tuesday, March 16, 2010

And These Are Only the Things That I Know About

He taught me how to shine my shoes and that cordovan is a color.  At the time, he also kitted me out with a shoe valet, a horsehair brush, a few tins of waxy polish, a dauber brush, and a buffing rag, all of which were at least several years older than I was.  It is a substantial sadness that I no longer have that kit.  It spoke of an older, more proper age.  His workshop tools did the same, many of which had belonged to his father.

I particularly remember the tools because I used to help him with handyman projects.  These undertakings were equal parts learning experience and bonding time.  Mostly I held things, handed over tools, or used my tiny fingers to retrieve dropped screws, washers, what have you.  My brother hated such things, (truth be told, he hated anything resembling work), and flatly refused to help.  I sought out projects, to the point where my father would sometimes give me a few scraps of wood, nails, and a hammer, and let me bang it all together, just to give me a project to work on.  Two decades later my brother still didn’t know how to hold a screwdriver and had a more strained relationship with our father than I did.  I’m no handyman, but I get by at least.  Now I’m not saying post hoc ergo propter hoc, but this example is both symptom and partial cause.

Before I was able to read, I remember my dad deciding one night, a weeknight, that he would begin reading to us a little bit every night before dinner.  The book he chose:  The Fellowship of the Ring.  I still remember how much the phrase “eleventy-first” tickled me, (being the age Bilbo Baggins was about to turn).  I remember the cover of the edition my dad held when he started.  I’m not sure how far into the book we got before the practice petered out, but it was enough.  The first night was enough.  The Lord of the Rings novels were the first books I read which weren’t kids’ books.  I was in fourth grade.  Actually, I had tried starting them in third grade, but couldn’t get past the chapter with the Prancing Pony.  I’ve read the trilogy seven times.  I also can’t stand to be without a book.  I’m always in the middle of at least one, and I usually carry one with me to restaurants.  I also wrote – handwrote! – a novella in tenth grade.  I followed up with a novel, also handwritten, in eleventh grade.  A B.A. in English Literature, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, also followed.  Not all of that can be traced back to my father trying to start a nightly practice of reading from The Fellowship of the Ring.  But some of it can be; enough of it can be.

Related to the previous paragraph, I have a very vivid memory of my parents taking us to see the animated Lord of the Rings movie in the theater.  This must have been before my dad started reading to us from the book, but I can’t be sure.  I remember sitting in our blue Pontiac afterward, and my dad asked me what I thought about it.  Specifically, he asked what I thought about the little boy and the ring that made him invisible (“little boy” must have been easier to explain to me than “hobbit”).  I remember the gesture his gigantic hands made, pantomiming putting on a ring.  According to IMDB, that movie came out in November, 1978.  I was three years, four months old.  I can’t remember what I had for lunch on Thursday, but I remember that day strongly.

There was a time when, of course, I wanted to be just like my big brother.  Matt was learning to read and write at school, and all sorts of other things that excluded me.  I remember him playing a game of hangman with my dad, and I wanted to play it too.  My dad gave me a try, but of course, I was about three or four and only knew my alphabet, but no vocabulary.  I think I felt left out.  I probably whined or something.  Hey, don’t judge me, I was four.  To make me feel better, my father told me a secret.  I believe it was this, “pine cones have prickly, pointy leaves.”  It might have been something else, but the content isn’t what’s important.  My dad constructed a fiction – that there existed a secret, which he entrusted to me – in order to give me something that could be mine, and not Matt’s.  It was a counter to all the new and exciting things Matt got to experience without me.  Sure, he got to talk about school and multiplication tables and other occult knowledge, but I had a secret.  Other secrets followed, and it became one of the games shared by my father and I and no one else.  “Pine cones have prickly, pointy leaves,” was one (though, thinking back, maybe it was pine trees…); “Yoda has a bumpy head, and long pointy ears,” was another (after the advent of The Empire Strikes Back).  There was also the story of Steve, (I’m not 100% sure his name was Steve, but I think that was it), a half-yellow, half-green grasshopper.  See, Steve had been sitting in the middle of the road when the line-painting truck drove by one day, rendering him half-yellow.  And there were others I can no longer remember.  I never told anyone any of our “secrets.”  Not until years later, when they became amusing anecdotes, and no longer served as Kid Brother Armor.

Every Sunday morning, when I was little and shared a room with my brother, my dad would wake us up by announcing that a purple kangaroo was out in the golf course behind our house.  We knew he was kidding; purple kangaroos don’t exist.  But as soon as he walked away from the window and left the room, we’d both get up to check.  Just to be sure, you understand.

During that same time period, my father started telling us bedtime stories.  In particular, he began a series of stories about “The Friends.”  The Friends were animals, usually oddly or at least singly colored, and in the beginning there were only two or three.  But each adventure brought them a new Friend, who joined the group for future adventures.  There was, of course, a purple kangaroo.  Can a truly great story be without a purple kangaroo, I wonder?  I guess Hamlet is pretty good, and I don’t recall any kangaroos of any color in it.  There was also a cow, the kangaroo’s best friend, whose color for the life of me I can’t remember.  Eventually came a yellow monkey, a green parrot, a gray and white dolphin, and others.  They picked up the parrot when they defeated some pirates and took the pirate ship.  Out on the ocean in their stolen liberated pirate ship they met the dolphin.  Eventually they came to a tropical island with a volcano.  The monkey had to climb down into the volcano because he was the only one nimble enough to do it.  I think he needed to retrieve a big jewel.  The binding characteristic of The Friends was that they all, every one, loved ice cream, and would do anything in the pursuit of ice cream.  More than one adventure was motivated by the acquisition of ice cream.  I wrote at least one scholarly essay on Ted Hughes, and today am unable to tell you a single thing about anything he wrote, but I remember The Friends.

Then there are the usual things.  My father taught me how to tie a necktie, play baseball, and ride a bike.  In fact, I have a necktie he gave me when I was five.  I was a nut for dinosaurs at the time, and one day a coworker friend of his, while at the Natural History Museum in New York, thought of me, and bought a tie – navy, with stitched triceratopses on it – and gave it to my dad to keep for me until I was old enough to wear it.  The point isn’t really that some guy I’ve never met bought me a tie in 1980, nor is it the point that I still have that tie (I do; I wore it a few months ago even).  The point is, some guy my dad worked with knew I loved dinosaurs so much that he thought of me when he went to the museum.  I wonder how he knew.

I’m certain my dad taught me how to shave, but for some reason I can’t retrieve the memory today.  He also introduced me to bay rum and sandalwood oil, which remain the only aftershave and fragrance oil I am willing to wear.  He showed me that driftwood can be art.  He taught me the wisdom of a fine wool suit.  He got me hooked on drawing.  He taught me to clean a gun, and more importantly, to use it to hit what I aim at.  On my car, I can change the oil, oil and air filters, and flat tires because of him.  He taught me how to split firewood, fix a leaky faucet, and eat a lobster. 

I have a memory of him that makes me recoil at myself every time I remember it.  He worked in NYC, a good two hour commute from our home in Massapequa.  For the first several years of my life, he was gone before I got up in the morning – though I often enjoyed poking at the detritus of his breakfast plate if it was still hanging about – and he got home only an hour or two before my bedtime.  Most nights, we had dinner, watched one TV show, and then I went to bed.  But my mom was with me all day long.  One night, I had a nightmare, woke up, and started crying for my mother.  At most, I was three years old.  I sat in bed, calling for my mother until an adult appeared in the doorway.  It was my dad.  I said, “I want mommy.”  He went back to their bedroom, and my mother came to comfort me.  I suppose I just knew her better at that point, and wanted to be comforted by the parent with whom I spent all of every day, not the one symbolized by toast-and-egg scraps left behind in the mornings.  And maybe it was a relief for him to go back to bed and let his wife handle the noisy rugrat.  But still.  I remember the night sharply, and I get a little sick feeling in my belly every time I do.  “I want mommy.”  What kind of kid says that to his dad?

Probably the most important thing he instilled, the tent pole of my adult life, was the desire to learn things.  Sometimes I confused this with the desire to know things, to be the holder of the knowledge.  I was an irritating know-it-all for much of my adolescence.  If you knew me then, I’m sorry.  Seriously.  He started quizzing me on state capitals years before the school curriculum called for it.  He taught me the year Gutenberg invented the printing press (1440), the population of the U.S. (220 million at the time), the highest waterfall (Angel Falls), the deepest lake (Baikal), the biggest animal (blue whale), and about the Battle of Agincourt.  Quizzing me became a game of ours.  In short, knowing stuff was cool, because my dad knew stuff, and he expected me to know stuff.  If you know me at all, you know that this is the core.  Subtract the accretion of a modern life and I am essentially a bag of meat with a desire to learn things.  Blame my dad for that.

Now, father-son relationships are complicated.  They are also paradoxically simple.  Most men I know go through a similar arc:  idolizing dad, pushing away from dad, resenting dad, becoming friends with dad, becoming dad.  Most men, not necessarily in this order, go through at least three of those five periods with their fathers, and it’s not uncommon to hit all five.  I went through the first three, and have no idea when it happened, but we’re in number four now.  For mostly ideological reasons, I am fairly certain I’ll never go through that last one, but that’s fine; it’s not a loss for either of us.  I have been neither a better nor worse man than he has been; there is no value to be assigned; we are simply different.  Of course, that’s not to discount the fact that elements of my character were carbon copied from each of my parents.  In any case, the point is, depending on at which stage of the arc you currently sit, you may alternately idealize or demonize your father in your head.  I want to point out that this whole essay has not, despite appearances perhaps, been an exercise in the former. 

I’m well aware of my father’s many faults.  After all, he’s just a guy, like many others.  Achieving infallibility only occurs at death.  Sure, at earlier points in my life, the faults were all I saw.  Perhaps because I hadn’t been aware of them in childhood, they loomed all the larger later in life.  Whatever.  The thing is, as I age, they just seem to matter less and less.  Don’t get me wrong; they don’t get glossed over.  They just become of lesser consequence.  And with that obstruction out of the way, it becomes easier to see the work that went into raising me.  Above I’ve listed quite a few of the bits that have gone into the making of me out of potential-me.  And these are only the things that I know about.

1 comment:

  1. A nice little sentimental side of you, Dan. I like it.