I’ve been looking for a way to explain how I feel about my father dying. It’s as if I were born on a continent, and I played there, and I grew up falling, and getting back up, and figuring out how I fell. I went back there when I was proud. I went back there when I was miserable, and it was always home.
That continent has fallen and disappeared into the ocean. That’s how I feel.
There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.
At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.
He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.
I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.
A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:
One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”
At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.
My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.
My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.
When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”
I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.
In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.
My wife never came right out and said she was distressed by our house and the fact that I live in it. I only became aware of her distress after years of examining various signs and back-trails. It was like tracking a bear that occasionally walks into your kitchen muttering and flashing grumpy looks.
I couldn’t decide which of my manifold foolish actions she was upset about, so I asked her. She answered. I didn’t understand. Perhaps I didn’t speak bear.
You should know that my wife lives and suffers and prevails according to her list. She has the words “Most Organized Person On The Planet” embroidered on her underwear. One day I noticed that she relaxed a bit every time she crossed something off her list, as if she’d just murdered a family enemy. Maybe that was the key.
I volunteered to help her clear her list, which made her grin. She began to send me on missions. “Strangle the dirty dishes.” “Stab the litter box in the eye.” “Shoot the grocery store in the back of the head and dump it in the lake.” I did these things, and she thanked me. Yet she remained disgruntled. I even began rubbing out some targets on my own, but that didn’t solve the problem.
I gave up. I decided I’d have to spend the rest of my life buying lots of flowers and watching Notting Hill with her an improbable number of times.
Some time ago I began working from home, and then later I began not working, still from home. Every day I was confronted by the items from my wife’s list, or as I now thought of them, “The Enemies of My People.” Whenever I became frustrated or bored I began attacking our enemies. After a while I made it my mission to eradicate them.
That was when my wife smiled. By accident I’d made myself just as accountable for slaying our enemies as she was.
My wife still performs her share of assassinations. We could never deny her the pleasure of the kill. But now she has an ally instead of a flunky. I had never understood why it wasn’t enough for me to just help out. As long as we shared the work and it got done, who cared? Well, somebody has to take responsibility for seeing that things get properly killed around here, and my wife doesn’t want to be stuck with the job by herself.
I know this is confusing, because it confused the heck out of me. Let me translate it into a form more understandable than bear language:
Say you and I go in 50/50 on an Chevy 429 V8 engine so we can rebuild it. We plan to put it on blocks and start it up once a day to hear how badass it sounds. As we work, every time I’m done with a tool I just leave it laying on the garage floor. Soon you’re tripping over wrenches and pullers. You justifiably chew my ass out, but after that I only pick up a tool when you specifically tell me to. You yell at me some more, and I finally begin picking up a tool on my own once in a while. But mainly you still have to tell me.
What am I?
I’m a lazy pain in the ass, that’s what I am. And I will be until I take some responsibility for the damn tools getting picked up. It’s not about how many tools I pick up. My job isn’t to pick up tools. My job is to make sure tools aren’t laying around on the floor, and that’s your job too. Then nobody has to get their ass chewed.
So, I stumbled onto that whole realization entirely by accident. It makes me happy, because I now have a happier wife, and because I expect to be watching Kelly’s Heroes on many future occasions instead of watching Notting Hill.
My mom passed away exactly 2.54 years ago today. To mark this anniversary I’m sharing a brief anecdote from her life, one involving violence, drunkenness, profanity, and murder. Incidentally, this explains a lot about my behavior.
Mom always detested one of her brothers, mainly because of all his lying, mooching, drinking, and screwing around. The rest of the family apologized for him and said it was because he’d been in the war. Mom said no, he’d always been a mean, no good bastard.
As a young man, this lying brother suckered someone into loaning him money to build a beer joint. A beer joint was a little bar where people drank beer, danced and engaged in unfortunate shenanigans. There weren’t many places in town to socialize, and the alternative was church. Most everybody hung out at beer joints.
One night Mom and some friends were hanging out at her brother’s beer joint. My not-yet-married father was absent, but he heard plenty of first-hand accounts later. My lying uncle got as plastered as Versailles, and he started knocking his wife around. Mom picked up some object (no one remembers what) and cold-cocked her brother with it. He was not entirely flattened, so turned and slapped his assailant. Then he saw who he’d slapped.
In my father’s words, “That’s when he knew he’d made a fatal mistake.”
Although petite, my mom proceeded to excoriate not just her brother but every other person in the building. She employed screaming, obscenities, moral outrage and physical intimidation to ruin everyone’s good time, followed the whole way by her brother who was crying and begging to be forgiven.
Dad arrived at the beer joint a little while after the calamitous blow had landed. There were no cars in the parking lot. The lights were off, and the door was locked. Mom had chased everyone out and closed the place down. It didn’t open the next day. In fact, her brother left town for a while, and his beer joint never opened again.
Mom had murdered it.
During her lifetime Mom told me this story two or three times, corroborated by my dad. Not everyone can say they’ve single-handedly slaughtered a place of business, and she told this story with lots of amusement. As well as pride.
Somewhere on the internet there’s a photo of me at a gargantuan beer festival. In this photo I’m young, and I’m sitting with my friends who are also young. They’re laughing and waving their beers and cigarettes in time with the polka music. My face is on the table, hands clasped above my head, and I’m praying for death.
The cruel universe did not kill me that night. Some of my friends hustled me out when the cops arrived. We journeyed hence with bail money, and then on to the living room floor of some guy’s apartment, where I slept the writhing sleep of the stupid. The next morning my mouth tasted like the inside of a wino’s shoe. My hideous backache was explained when I rolled off of the giant telephone upon which I’d been sleeping. Really, kids, they were as big as an ink-jet printer.
I’ve never seen this photo on the internet. But I know it exists, so it’s almost certainly out there. Our entire existence is online now, or will be once either Google or Facebook has stabbed the other in the heart and taken over.
A few job recruiters have recently advised me to sanitize my online presence. It seems the first thing a prospective employer will do is Google me, and if anything even a little weird shows up then they’ll toss my resume like it was on fire. So, I am attempting to scrub all the internet cracks and crannies I can find in an effort to wipe away the oddest bits of my life. It’s not that there’s anything out there that I’d be ashamed to show my granny, but I can’t be sure how persnickety employers are.
I feel like a bit of a light-weight for scurrying around behind myself like a cartoon mouse with a mop. However, I don’t think employers are doing anything wrong by searching for me online, or even by judging me. When I put something on the internet, it’s like I went to the mall, stood on a trash can, and screamed it as loud as I can. In front of a video camera that plays it back forever.
So I shall hie myself hence unto the very bowels to the internet, there to expunge all attestation of my prurient conduct. And feel kind of like a weenie.
A couple of weeks ago I was shamed into cutting my Facebook time down to 10 minutes a day. I experienced mixed success with that, which bothered me a little. So last week I decided on a whim to stop checking Facebook at all for a while–maybe a week. No announcement to my Facebook friends or anything. I looked at the clock and noted that I was quitting at 8:32 a.m. last Tuesday.
I swear, for the first day it was like laying off the hooch or something. Every time I checked my email I felt a visceral pull towards the Facebook icon. When I finished a task, my entire being wanted to check Facebook before I started the next task, like I needed a smoke break. It was that bad.
The next day I only had to fight off the Facebook compulsion a couple of times.
For the remaining five days my mouse/finger drifted towards the Facebook icon unbidden a couple of times, out of residual reflex, but I didn’t really care about it when I caught myself and did something else.
Across the whole week I guess I reclaimed at least four or five hours from my former Facebook habit. I devoted this time to other things like studying, looking for a job, writing, cleaning out my inbox, washing dishes, and reorganizing my wallet. I kept a log.
So, after the first couple of days, I didn’t miss Facebook at all. I quit Facebook and lived.
I’m going to cross-post this to Facebook. I know that sounds stupid, but the only people I know who can appreciate it are my friends still riding the Facebook merry-go-round of death. Or of wasted time, anyway.
I don’t plan to continue my 100% Facebook-free lifestyle choice, but do I think this experiment will go a long way towards helping me keep my Facebook time down to 10 minutes a day. I’m still looking for a job, and my glove compartment needs to be cleaned out in the worst way.
My wife and I have been scrimping for a while. We’ve always measured abundance in terms of shopping. In a stable financial situation, my wife can, on a whim, buy a shirt at Target. When things are going well, she can buy two shirts at Target. Right now the unrestricted purchase of Target shirts is prohibited.
Our penny-pinching leads to odd conversations, like the one we had recently when I decided to make a sandwich. I don’t make many sandwiches now because sliced turkey is $8.00 a pound. When I want a sandwich, I have to cook a cheap chicken and slice it into sandwich-sized slabs. I find it a lot easier to just eat a banana, which is cheaper than gravel.
Anticipating my sandwich, I opened an elderly loaf of cut-rate bread, looked at it, and called out to my wife, “Sweetie, I think we’ve had this bread for six or seven weeks.”
My wife was moving threadbare shirts from the washer to the dryer, and she answered from the utility room, “Why? Is it scary?”
“No, not at all. It looks fine. That’s kind of scary by itself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think it may not be real food. I mean, we only paid eighty cents for the loaf. Maybe it’s like one of those Big Macs that they left on a seat in the bus station, and when they came back a year later it looked exactly the same.”
“You’re just making that up.”
“How do you know?” I walked into the utility room carrying two terrifying slices of bread.
“Somebody would have eaten it.”
I wanted to say that nobody would eat an abandoned Big Mac off a seat in the bus station, but I realized she was right. Maybe I think we’re scrimping, but plenty of people’s yardstick for impoverishment includes “eating stray food from places where strangers’ asses have been.” Buying shirts isn’t even carved on their stick.
So I said, “You’re right.”
My wife smiled, victorious.
“Can I make you an object that looks like a chicken sandwich?”
Sometimes I need to say nice things to my wife. I won’t elaborate on the circumstances, other than to say that some involve electrical explosions, and some involve stains that will remain on the kitchen counter until the end of time. That’s not really the point.
The point is that I’ve learned a lot about saying nice things to my wife. Some of my attempts have failed, creating the need to say more nice things in a cascade effect much like a collapsing suspension bridge. But I know how to embrace failure. It’s one of my best qualities, so I have learned and can draw upon my failures in order to share with others.
I don’t get fancy. I limit myself to the classic compliment, which is comparing my wife favorably to something. Shakespeare did it a lot, so I’d say that makes it pretty good. To help you understand what I’ve learned, I have scraped up various things I’ve compared my wife to, categorized them, and indicated which choices are better than others.
Pretty Good Choice: Waterfall – It’s pretty, musical and whimsical, unless it’s one of the imponderable man-killing types like Niagra.
Deceptively Bad Choice: Glacier – At first it seems classy and mysterious, but it’s really just a giant, frigid mass that sits there.
Horrific Choice: Mud Flats – Nasty, featureless and barren. Almost any invasive medical procedure compares favorably.
Pretty Good Choice: Any Season – Especially Spring, because who doesn’t like to be told she’s better than budding flowers and baby squirrels?
Deceptively Bad Choice: Thanksgiving – I start off grateful for all the good things about her, but soon it’s all relatives who owe me money, plus sitting around watching football and farting.
Horrific Choice: Eternity – What am I going to say? She’s better than eternity because she won’t last forever?
Pretty Good Choice: Symphony – Complex, emotional and sensuous. Stay away from the Germans.
Deceptively Bad Choice: Mona Lisa – It’s a famous, beautiful woman, right? However, sixty seconds into this I’m struggling to say why my wife’s smile is better. Then I realize that to our modern tastes, Mona is kind of a troglodyte.
Horrific Choice: Die Hard (the original film) – This was a good idea, I promise. This movie is exciting, funny, touching, and you can’t stop looking at it. Yet I now know unequivocally that I shouldn’t compare my wife to something in which people get blown to pieces.
Pretty Good Choice: Her on the Day You Met Her – She is better today than she was the day I met her in every possible respect, without exception or hesitation of any kind.
Deceptively Bad Choice: Helen of Troy – This is a trap. If I’m comparing my wife to a mythical woman who’s the very definition of the most beautiful woman in history, she knows I’m just spewing easy bullshit. She begins wondering what I’ve broken, or what I bought without mentioning it to her.
Horrific Choice: My Mother – Even if I say my wife’s better than my mother in all ways, the only thing my wife can think about is how weird I am for even bringing my mother into the conversation.
Pretty Good Choice: Tigress – A beautiful, powerful and mysterious feline, which is good because I think my wife likes cats more than she likes me.
Deceptively Bad Choice: Unicorn – All mystical, graceful and elusive until I find myself trapped into talking about horns, virgins, and how many women I slept with before I met her.
Horrific Choice: Hobbit – I swear, it seemed so clever and playful in my head. Out loud I found myself comparing her to a chubby, pipe-smoking, hairy alcoholic who tells lies at the bar every night.
I hope that by sharing this I’ve helped someone avoid an embarrassingly inept attempt to be nice. I have no doubt I’ll continue to push the boundaries of my knowledge, because sometimes I’m a dumbass. In fact, I will now attempt to fix the coffee maker I busted last night, while at the same time considering new stuff to compare my wife to. I wonder how she’d like being told she’s better than Catwoman?
I am more ancient than most of my friends. In fact, I could be grandpa to a few of them. For others I’m old enough to be their dad. To the rest I could be the big brother who left home before they hit puberty. That’s all okay, because none of them asks me for candy or presents, and that’s what I really care about.
We’ve become friends because we like some of the same things, such as acting and computers and not worrying about the stock market. We’ve had some of the same fun. We’ve made the same stupid decisions. Then we looked around at each other through the suffering we had brought upon ourselves and said, “What the hell. Let’s bond.”
My young friends embrace new things more readily than my own age group, or at least they don’t have a seizure and swallow their tongue when a new operating system is released. That dang Windows 8 is an exception, of course. My young friends get out and do things. They’re a little less judgmental than people my age. They’re sure a lot less grumpy.
My wife, who’s also younger than me, finds it hilarious that I value having friends who go out and do fun things. That’s just because I don’t go out and do things with them. In fact, she met some of them before I did, and for a year they thought she was lying about being married. They never saw me, so they figured I was no more real than a dragon or a leprechaun.
However, my wife’s amusement is unjust. Even if I stay home, I can enjoy hearing about adventures later on, after the hangovers of youth have subsided. Whenever I do emerge from my lair, some of my young friends are often busy doing fun things, giving me the opportunity to tromp along and do fun things too. Just having that opportunity is worth a lot. Otherwise my only options would be cable news, Red Lobster, and fantasy football.
A gang of my friends is going out to drink and tell lies tonight. Although I’ll be sitting here fumbling around with plot points and internally inconsistent characters, if I wanted to I could be out having fun with them, and I’d be welcome. Like I said, that’s worth a lot.
Whoever said, “If you have lemons, make lemonade,” never met my wife. When you make lemonade, you can drink it, sell it, give it to friends who don’t really want it but take it just to be nice, or leave it in the fridge to become a chemical weapon. In any of those scenarios, by next week your lemons will rest in the mists of history.
My wife believes everything has an appropriate shelf-life. She watches expiration dates. If canned soup hits the “best if used by” mark, she tosses it. Aspirin that expires in November is in the trash by Thanksgiving. Consequently, she goes for things that will last a long time. When we buy regular milk it becomes clabber by the next morning. Organic milk stays good for weeks. Guess which one she buys.
My in-laws possess a lemon tree, and this year it bore enough fruit to fulfill any fertility commandment from the Old Testament. We ended up with lots of lemons. My wife didn’t squander them on something as ephemeral as lemonade. She went for shelf-life. We squeezed lemons, poured the juice into an ice cube tray, and made frozen juice cubes. We had one tray. It took about a week. But now we have zip-lock bags packed with lemon goodness that will fulfill our lemon juicing needs for years. Probably until I retire.
Knowing this makes me feel good. My wife has chosen me to fulfill her marriage requirements, despite the fact that we’re different in almost every way partners can be different and neither of them be a chimp. (If it comes to that, I will be nominated for chimp on the basis of my poor impulse control.) This is not a random happenstance. My wife thinks about these things.
Therefore, it’s my job to think of things she wouldn’t think of by herself. That’s a long shelf-life contribution, and it’s how I pull my relationship weight. For example, she’s been sick for a couple of weeks. She’s been coughing like a French Quarter junkie, and she had to work Saturday. Then one of her crowns popped off before she went to work.
In this situation, at the end of the day her thought process would go something like this: Illness + fatigue + pain + emergency weekend dental work = soup, aspirin and early bedtime
My thought process goes more like this: Illness + fatigue + pain + emergency weekend dental work = homemade brownies, scotch whiskey and dumb TV