Wednesday, November 30, 2005


After I depledged the Fijis, I moved back to the dorm life, where I met Jay, who became my run-around buddy. We saw a lip-sync contest one night. Normally you would think the participants of this kind of venue make love to the microphone and thrash about the stage, making complete asses of themselves--and for the most part you would be right. Real musicians viscerally despise lip-synchers, and had I not participated in this brief fad I would have agreed. But this one night, Jay and I saw a performance that touched me--and slightly amused Jay, like a King approves the antics of his Jester.

This was back in 1985-ish, long before Karaoke entered the scene. Lip-sync gave people without musical talent a chance to feel the vibration of a roaring audience, a center ring spotlight, a vicarious three minute thrill ride aboard the rock and roll fantasy express--and the crowds ate it up.

I don't remember the man's name, so I'll call him Bill. Looking back now, I admire Bill. At the time I thought he was a lying prick. On a whim, my friends and I threw in our lot with the lip-sync contest, where all participants needed to do a song by Huey Lewis and the News, who were performing at our coliseum that weekend. Nothing fancy. We did the basic setup where four guys pretended to play instruments and one gummed the lead, while the others "sang" backup. The song: Working For a Living. Bill told us we were wonderful, and would win no problem.

Then along came Jason.

We all watched in stunned amazement as he performed I Want a New Drug. First, he was stage handsome. Not your normal, hey, that's a cute guy. During the instrumental, he pulled out various drugs, but couldn't quite get them into his system without tripping or sneezing. The audience loved him, and he was an absolutely stunning performer. Of course he won.

I asked Jay to put an act together with me, so I became Mick Jagger and Jay David Bowie. We imitated the video Dancing in the Streets. I did most of the work, which was appropriate because Jay had the looks, so naturally I was the clown. We entered a contest in far away Lewiston Idaho, but it was run by the same outfit. And so I met Bill once again. And much to my chagrin: Jason.

I was stunned by a Madonna look-alike that did Lucky Star, who had the shtick down cold. I knew we had lost again. Jason surprised me with his versatility, doing something other than the Huey Lewis routine. I asked Bill what song he was going to do, and he told me, "Some Chuck Berry tune." Thank God I thought, maybe we'll place second.

Bill knew damn well that the song was Reelin' and Rockin'. Jason was dressed in a red studded sport jacket and had an old Gibson acoustic guitar with an ornate metal plate in front. The song began and my confidence dipped. He looked like he was really playing the guitar, mouthing the words and never making a mistake--his timing was perfect and he paid attention to the littlest of nuances in Berry's speech patterns. There are two versions of this song: one that plays on the radio and the other for night clubs and racier audiences. Jason chose the version that describes a night of hot sex. One line goes something like this: "I looked at my watch and it was straight up eight. She made it so hard that it stretched out straight." Jason accented the word straight by sticking his guitar in the air like an erection, and the audience went crazy. His whole routine was brilliant, and again he won.

I became obsessed, which highlights my competitiveness--I can't stand to lose at anything. Bill told me that the best act he had ever seen came from a duo that did the Blues Brothers, and the John Belushi of the pair was there that night. He even looked like Belushi, and I was not dissimilar to Akroyd. I proposed we get together, so he had me over to his place and showed me a video of him and his old partner doing the routine, which involved a lot of dancing and synchronized back round-offs.

"Can you do that?" He asked me. His eyes had a faraway look, dreamy.

"Sure I can," I said with more confidence than I felt.

He explained to me how his friend had joined the service, and how I would almost certainly make a poor substitute. But I was determined to be a winner, and this was my best shot. He could smell my hunger and took advantage of it. He played coy with me for some time before finally agreeing to give it a try, but he made me kiss his ass all the while.

We took second on our debut, beating Madonna and a few sub-par acts. But Jason with that damn routine of his still beat us. But for the first time, I enjoyed some notoriety as a class act.

After I dropped out of college and moved to Seattle, I decided to do the Chuck Berry act where nobody had ever heard of it. I contacted a guy that ran a contest, and told him I wanted to do Reelin' and Rockin', an act I saw in Pullman done by a local performer called Jason.

"Jason Plute?" He sounded surprised.


"What does he look like," he asked me.

I described him and his act.

"That's him all right. He copied that act from one of the guys that competes locally. It's the best."

"It sure is." I hung up on him and my lip sync career.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Review: The Weight of Water

Post #100 - Wow.

I just finished reading The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, as part of a reading assignment given to me by my newest friend, Janie Harrison. I need to focus my attention on a particular genre, and my reading selections vary greatly. So Janie is having me read good fiction in order to determine what interests me most.

Shreve's book is interesting. My first reaction from the initial pages was complete awe and admiration for her prose. Shreve sees a person for the thousand details that compose her. One particular passage that impressed me was on page 77, where she describes a photograph that the narrator had taken of herself and her family. Shreve literally captures a moment in time, and reads the expressions and gestures of each person in the picture. I read that passage many times, as I did also with many others. She is a wonderful writer with a gift for scene painting.

This is really two stories told in parallel, but both share a common theme of jealousy and impending tragedy. The first is told from the perspective of Jean; a photographer who receives a commission to photograph the scene of a hundred year old double murder on a small island on the Isles of Shoals thirty miles off the Atlantic coast between New Hampshire and Maine called Smutty Nose. She shares close quarters on a sail boat, captained by her brother-in-law Rich, with her husband Thomas, five year old daughter Billie, and Rich's girlfriend Adaline. Jean's relationship with her husband is rocky at best; whose attention to Adaline becomes increasingly overt, causing a tension that builds to a breaking point that promises to mirror that of the tragedy Jean is investigating.

The second story is that of murders themselves. Jean finds a journal written by the only survivor of the Smutty Nose murders, a Norwegian immigrant named Maren Hontvedt, who lays out the tale from start to finish of what really happened on that fateful night. Maren describes her childhood in Norway, how she came to marry her husband John, and how they were enticed to move to America, where fish were so plentiful one needed only to reach into the ocean and pull one out. But the reality of course turned out to be quite different. Maren was close to her brother Evan, to the point of possible incest, but that urge was never acted upon. Maren and Evan are found in innocent embraces, which are mistaken as inappropriate, which causes others to separate them, and plants the seed of suspicion in the mind of Maren's sister Karen. Eventually, Karen moves in with Maren on the island of Smutty Nose, then so too does Evan--but Evan brings with him his new wife, the lovely Anethe.

And so we have parallel stories running similar course. Anethe is Adaline, Jean is Maren, and Thomas is Evan. Jean and Maren are jealous, and all live in close, cramped quarters in extreme conditions, all in the harsh climate of Smutty Nose. Both stories are heading for tragedy, one of which we know will end badly, and the other, by implication, must also do.

The theme of water, as it seems to me, is a metaphor for guilt, which must in both cases the narrator feels can be shed by sharing the story with others. Maren eventually confesses her own guilt in her journal, which is particularly egregious because she let an innocent man hang for it. Jean on the other hand, doesn't seem to have much to confess. She is convinced that Thomas and Adaline are having an affair, which any reasonable person on this planet would also assume to be true. A storm ravages the sailboat and Adaline is swept overboard. Jean feels that if she had acted instead of hesitating, she might have saved her. That was her big crime. The tragedy of present day is that Billie, Jean and Thomas' daughter, is drowned instead of Adaline, who is retrieved and resuscitated. The affair turns out to be all in Jean's imagination.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The style of skipping between past and present was a little distracting for me, but I understand that we are in the mind of Jean, who is obsessed with the past, and so we follow along with her mind as it flits back and forth. I'm not sure it worked, but the book has been adapted to a movie, so somebody else certainly thought so.

In my humble opinion, Shreve fell short at the end. I think she wanted to trick the reader by dropping the bomb that an affair had never occurred, but the evidence was damning to the accused. Nope. I didn't buy it, and I doubt most readers did either.

This a good read from a great author, but the ending of the present day account was a let down. Historically speaking, this was well researched and a clever fictional interpretation of an actual murder case, one that has been the subject of much debate. The ending was weak, but not so much to overshadow a truly brilliant piece of work.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Lives To Work

It's been an interesting Thanksgiving break. We spent it in Ohio with my grandmother, who lives a mere six hundred fifty miles away. Our gas guzzling SUV still runs like a cheetah with over a 100K on the odometer, and the kids have become acclimated to these long trips.

My initial worry was telling my dad that we weren't staying with him. Never mind that his dog scared the shit out of us when he bit my littlest boy the last time, or that my step-brother, who drinks a continuous stream of beer to avoid withdrawal seizures, is living with them now and occupies one of the two rooms. Besides that, the master bedroom connects the rest of the house to the only bathroom, and to accommodate us the last time, my father hooked up a makeshift porta-potty by the guest bedroom, so that they were basically crapping in a bucket.

But dad took it well, but he did manage a stab of guilt, which missed any vital organs.

Beth got a full dose of Family Dynamics 101 this trip, which as it turns out lasted about one day too long. My closest ancestors and some of my living relatives rose from the hills of West Virginia, like the zombies of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. This is not a knock on a state I have never visited, only on the mentality of a people that haven't been exposed to modern social restrictions, which is good and bad.

I had to chastise my father once and grandma twice for using the n-word, which irritates me more because they know we don't allow it. We were watching Daddy Day Care with Eddie Murphy, and granny was laughing along with us. Then granny said, "That nigger sure is funny." My son was riveted on the television screen and hopefully didn't hear.

"Grandma, not in front of the kids."

"Well, what do you say then? Brown? Colored?"

"I try not to draw the distinction unless it's necessary. In this case I would refer to him as that guy, or that actor, or I would just call him Eddie Murphy."

She just grinned at me like I was a puppy doing a cute trick.

I asked questions. Lots of questions. I need to understand how dad came to be who he is, and of course, the key is my grandmother. She lives in a veritable clean room, and works like a machine. She hasn't a single interest, no hobbies, and doesn't watch television except for the news, nor does she go to the movies. When grandpa died, she had nobody to take care of, which is her sole function. Our visits give her someone to cook for and clean up after. There is a saying my dad coined: grab your plates, mom is done eating.

Her father died when she was two years old. He worked for Goodyear tire, like most of my Ohio family did. I plan to research this, but it happened in 1923 (or 1929). Something came loose and crushed him. The company paid my great-grandma five thousand dollars, which sounds small, but allowed for the house, which was only partially built, to be sealed up and livable. Great-grandma was six months pregnant, and had to go it alone raising three children in a two bedroom house, and so she slept in a bed with my grandma, and my great uncles shared a bed in the other room, which they continued to do until they were old enough to strike out on their own.

Since she was old enough to lend a hand, my grandma helped her mother clean offices and other people’s homes. I think her childhood was cut short, and it affected her in ways she cannot understand. To her, life is work. My great uncle, her brother, is nothing like her. His children are successful, one having played professional basketball in Italy, and now happily married and living in Switzerland. Grandma’s are miserable and sad. I asked my dad how his uncle raised his children. Dad said, "Like you do."

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Slowing the Buck

I've certainly generated some visceral reactions towards my father, which of course are well-founded. I'm not a man of faith per-se, but I once read a passage from Kahlil Gibran that managed to lodge itself in the brain of a boy who once thought that all people of Chinese, Japanese and every other flavor of Asian descent looked the same.

Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured, And still more often the condemned is the burden-bearer for the guiltless and unblamed. You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked; For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together. And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.

This passage has given me comfort, has helped me to forgive myself for some of the bad things I have said, for some of the terrible things I've done. I'm no weaver, but I can still examine a cloth for its flaws, just as a dissonant chord can cause my head to tilt and my lips to purse as if I had eaten a sour grape.

Dad comes from a different time, when the church sanctioned the belt and switch, and people commonly demurred to its moral dictates. Children weren't the treasures that some celebrate today; rather it seems they were a necessary burden that parents had to bear. If a child showed any sign of disrespect to his or her parents, or to friends of the parents, it was expected that the child be punished and otherwise chastened. Paddling, smacking, pinching and kicking the child was only right, deserved, and even godly in the eyes of most adults.

Children had no protection, because there was no such thing as child abuse, only good parenting. Self-help and parenting books and magazines weren't a billion dollar industry yet. What happened in the home stayed at home, and it was nobody's business but your own.

Take a look at the old Andy Griffith show. Andy Taylor, the sheriff of Mayberry, is the model human being. A single father--oops, who was Opie's mother anyway?--who raises little Opie, who would someday grow up to be the biggest director in Hollywood, with all the love and compassion that one could hope for. One episode ends with Opie happily skipping out to take his belt whipping after Andy explains to him why he must. Sure, Opie is scared, but he realizes that he did wrong and must now pay the price. Of course they didn't show the whipping. That would have been counterproductive to the message, nudging a sleeping audience already on the verge of waking up.

So it is no wonder that a spirited child like my father would have to survive until the day that he caught his fathers fist in one hand and pinned him to the shed wall with the other, and told him that he wasn't taking it any more.

If it sounds like I'm making excuses for my father, well, that's just what I'm doing. In my whole life, my father seriously struck me twice, both of which I have described before. And yes, they have made an impact on my self-esteem. But my life in comparison to his is as dramatically different as mine to my own children’s. In his own way, my father has taught me to stop the buck, even if he was only capable of slowing it down for a soft landing into my back pocket.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Lost Shoes

"What were you doing out there?" I asked. Outside a thick mist had settled on the lake, and a chill breeze blew in through the open slider as Brenner pulled it shut behind him.

"Nothing," he said in a guarded tone. Goose bumps were spread on his arms like Braille and his cheeks were flushed. My mind raced for a possible explanation, because clearly he was up to something. I decided to look for myself. Brenner stood in my way as I approached, but moved nonchalantly aside as I stood before him.

Visibility was poor due to the morning fog, and so were my powers of observation. We lived in a boat house, so the back porch was more like small lake-front dock, covered by a green, bristly astro-turf. A chrome-metal swimming pool hand rail rose from the water and clung to the left side of the dock, and all around the edges were cleats to which we tied our row boat when it wasn't docked inside the covered garage at the shore side section of the house. There was the usual clutter of snorkeling gear and life jackets, but nothing looked out of the ordinary. And it was too cold to go out.

I gave Brenner my best Clint Eastwood stare and was rewarded with a bug-eyed performance worthy of Rodney Dangerfield as he squirmed under my silent regard.

It was almost time to head out to the bus, so I got dressed and stuffed my backpack with a couple bologna and cheese sandwiches and a thermos of milk. I couldn't find my sneakers so I searched everywhere I might have left them, but still there was no trace.

"Brenner, have you seen my sneakers anywhere?"

"No," he said.

"Oh my God." My heart accelerated. "I'm going to miss the bus." I only had one pair of shoes, of any kind. I was lucky to have more than one pair of pants. Without shoes I couldn't go anywhere, especially for the mile walk to the bus stop.

"Well, that's too bad about your shoes," Brenner said, "but there is no sense in both of us missing the bus. I'd better go."

I let out an exasperated gasp, "Yeah, you'd better go."

A half hour later, I was still searching for the sneakers. I didn't know what to do so I went to dad's bedroom and gave him a shake. "Dad, wake up."

He grunted but didn't rouse. I gave him another shake. His eyes fluttered open and stared at me. "What the fuck are you still doing here?!"

"I, uh," I started. I searched for words that wouldn't sound so lame, but there was nothing else to say. "I lost my shoes."

"Well find them goddammit!"

"But I've been looking. They're not here."

"Well you better find them before you miss the bus."

Uh oh, here it comes. "I already have dad. Now I need a ride to school."

"For Christ's sake!" I left the room as he threw off his covers and I waited on the couch as he came out. He stood before me with no clothes on, looking at me like I had murdered his dog. I had trouble holding eye contact, but I did my best. He stepped towards me and smacked me with an open hand so hard that my head jerked to the side and hit the wall behind the couch. I swallowed hard as heat spread across my face like the feel of a hot water bottle.

"Now find your shoes. And next time you lose them, you go to school in your bare fucking feet!"

The slap should have knocked me senseless, but it had quite the opposite effect. Suddenly I knew where to find my shoes. I opened the slider and poked my head through. Just to the right they sat, soaked through by the morning mist, which by now was giving way to the late morning sun.

Friday, November 18, 2005

False Start

For those interested in what happened to Brenner, there really isn't much to tell. I've thought about looking him up on many occasions, and have even looked him up on Switchboard over the last couple years. I appears that he is now unlisted, but current background reports are available if I wanted to purchase them--which is just a little scary.

Actually, that's not a bad idea. He had my vote as being the most likely to be jailed. I see that he is currently living in a California town where I had once spent a couple months working with my father before I took my first professional programming position (say that ten times fast). A coincidence I'm sure, but a passing strange one.

My dad and Brenner's mom divorced after their short and tumultuous marriage. Like most divorces that I have experienced, they can be likened to a false start penalty in football. Once the flag is thrown, the ball is set back ten yards, but the lost yardage is usually regained--but not enough for a first down. And always the inevitable punt.

The false start happened in a house boat on beautiful Lake Couer d'alene.

"I have some bad news," Cynthia told us. She was sitting on the floor Indian style, facing us as we sat on the couch. "Your dad and I are getting divorced."

"That took longer than I expected," I said. Cynthia was my second step-mother. My first was abusive and Cynthia came to represent the entire institution to me, though she was innocent of any such cruelty.

"That sucks!" Brenner said. "So what's going to happen?"

"Well," Cynthia said, "I guess we'll go our separate ways, and you'll come with me and Scott will stay with his dad."

Finally! I will be free of the little shit.

Brenner's eyes were moist. "But I don't want to go with you! I want to stay with dad!"

My heart stopped for a moment. His cold-blooded comment to his natural mother made me regret my own. I felt like reaching out to her, to take back what I had said, but the damage was done.

Cynthia had trouble speaking, for the words had cut her deep. "We'll just have to talk about it when the time comes." She went to her room and slid the door shut.

But the divorce didn't happen until a few years later, after we had moved to Juneau. They left on a typical southeast Alaskan day, when rain fell like a foggy mist. We saw them off at the airport terminal, no tears, just empty promises to keep in touch.

I talked to Brenner on the phone once, maybe six months later. I don't know why I called. I guess I romanticized him for our shared time in the trenches, which wasn't all bad. But like facing an ex-lover that you wanted to kill but since have remembered only fondly, the memories came flooding back with a single utterance from his puss-spewing lips.

That was the last time we ever spoke, some twenty five years ago.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Momentary Thrill Seekers

"What should we call our club?"

The Thrill Seekers, Brenner argued. I personally thought it sounded perverted, and only branded us a group of kids that hid in the closet flipping through dad's secret stash of Playboy magazines, the ones he kept hidden under his mattress. True of course, but why advertise? Only yesterday I had chased my little brother John around the house with the centerfold dangling open, egged on by his horrified screams.

But Brenner was insistent, and being two years my junior at the ripe old age of eleven, he had a need to assert himself; and I felt, as a benevolent big brother, or step-brother as it were, that I should cede a victory once in a while. So Thrill Seekers it became.

We planned to build a tree house out back, where a perfect roost in a tall elm extended like a friendly hand. I could picture it perfectly, and sold my vision to the members of the nascent Thrill Seekers: we would build a base from which we would fight crime and protect the innocent. I showed them how we could build ladder rungs with scrap 2x4's, nailing them into the tree trunk, how we could hang a knotted rope from the branch as well. The corners of the treehouse foundation will go there, and windows will give us a perfect views of the river and down the street. It was so clear.

Then I realized I was assuming that I was in charge, and everyone else had too--except for Brenner, who looked gloomy indeed.

"I think," I said, "that we should decide right now who will be the president."

Brenner perked up. "Yes, that's a great idea."

There were only five of us. My little brother John, Brenner of course, and two neighbor kids Randy and Chris.

Randy said, "Well, I nominate Scott."

"Well I think it should be you Randy," Brenner said. He wore an expression that only I could read, because we knew each other oh so well. I'm gonna getcha.

God I hated him. His soul was a black, rotten, oily, dripping, gangrenous, festering wound. I wanted to smack his face, grab him by the hair and use him as a battering ram through the glass slider, tear his arms off and club him senseless with his dismembered limbs. He was my brother by my dad's third marriage to an ex-Vegas-wannabe-showgirl, now a disenfranchised bar fly, wandering aimless, waiting for a Prince Charming but settled for the frog. Brenner never had a father, but had borrowed mine for the last couple years. At times I felt sorry for him, but there was something deeply wrong with him, something dark. He was the kind of kid that tortured helpless animals, and liked to really hurt people, but he did so in a sneaky way, always leaving some doubt of his intention. Like the time I was looking through a telescope and he hit the other end with a pillow, driving it into my eye socket like a nail struck by a sledge.

We decided on a Secret Ballot. The candidates names were written in multiple choice fashion. When the votes were counted, I had come out ahead, but Brenner took everyone aside and whispered to them, all the while looking at me in sideways glances, smiling from the corner of his mouth that only I could see. A re-vote was called for, and Randy became the first president of the Thrill Seekers.

I was heartbroken.

"All right," I said to Randy, "what should we do first?"

Randy looked down at his feet. "I don't know, what do you want to do?"

"It's your call, not mine."

Randy shrugged his shoulders. "I'm going home."

The innocent would have fend for themselves.

The Thrill Seekers were no more.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Emmett walked into the bathroom today while I was doing my business--the standing up kind. When I was finished, he clapped his hands and said, "Again!"

Jackson found the Toyz R Us insert in the newspaper this weekend. His mom had him circle everything that he wanted. Yesterday I came down for lunch, my wife handed me the section and said, "You've got to see this."

The pages were marked-up like a bad English paper. He decided to shop for his little brother too, and so I found such items circles as Dancing Elmo and Baby Einstein items--the latter being crossed out after consultation with mommy. Jackson wants every remote control truck, boat, helicopter and plane. There are food makers, magic kits, tool chests, robo-raptors, race kits, boom boxes, video games and consoles, even a Gameboy--though he already has one--because it's yellow and has a picture of Spongebob on it. Roughly, we're looking at a ten thousand dollar wish list. Somebody is going to be disappointed this Christmas.

Every year I anxiously awaited the JC Pennies Christmas catalog, and pored over it's pages with the same intensity. Sure, Christmas has become a marketers holiday, and I understand the consternation of my fellow blogger Mr. Schprock, but the holiday for me has always been about just this. My step-mother used to remind me that it was about the birth of Jesus. Every year our nativity set had an empty manger until Christmas morning when my brother and I, alternating every season, would unwrap the baby Jesus and deliver him to the waiting Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, camels, and donkeys. Ultimately though, Christmas was about making a list and checking it twice. And now my own kids get to live the fantasy for a few years, and it is my honor to propagate the sweet lie.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Raking Leaves

My weekend in the late fall in New England was spent raking leaves, in full anticipation of the upcoming winter that took me by surprise last year, when an ice storm layered my steep driveway so thick that I had to get a running start to climb. California was so much simpler.

It's funny how life works out sometimes. Never perfect and yet ever so in comparative hindsight. We left California social pariahs from a matriarchy of mothers group hegemony, where right took a back seat to alliance, and privacy was jealously reconnoitered by neighbors bearing gifts and smiles--and hearts that churned black sludge. Our mortgage however, was a third of what we pay here.

I read an article in the paper this weekend that many New Englanders are living above their means, and plan to move away from the state. So too with us, as we consider moving south to Houston where houses are bigger for less, thanks no doubt to the low cost of building homes with illegal immigrant labor, and where resides the majority of my imperfect but loving family.

But here in New England we have a house surrounded by trees, from whence comes the occasional fox or coyote. Two or three groundhogs live in our woods and under a boulder in our back yard, and we make a sport of giving them a spook, then laugh as they strain under their weight, comically waddling away. We have birds, turtles, snakes, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, an occasional skunk. The kids love it here. My littlest boy even learned to hold out his hand for the dragonflys, that land on his makeshift perch without a care, as he says, "See, see?"

The neighbors respect each other, and social life moves slowly. Nobody cares how much money I make, or feels inadequate because my lawn mower has a higher CC engine. Across the street is a subdivision of custom homes connected by a single-lane circuitous private road, beyond with is a swamp where duck hunters roam for two weeks of the year. There are no fences, reminiscent of a sweet expanse of childhood memory, when I could run across yards and get a smile from resident families barbecuing on back porches. The collection of yards forms a patch of green heaven, where kids have the length of a football field to roam, where dads play catch with their boys, and girls run and do somersaults, and borrow the neighbors dog for the day.

And slowly, but as steady as the incoming tide, we have friends, the kind that mean what they say and say what they mean. Gone are the automatons of yesterday, replaced by real and feeling people, whose only interest is living together and living well.

For the first time since I was a little boy, I understand full-well what I have to leave behind.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Like I said before, I wasn't at school for the education, though ostensibly I was an aspiring computer science major. At Washington State you needed to be accepted into the program based on performance in non-core classes during your freshman and sophomore years, which meant a minimum grade point average far in excess of mine. My first semester at the Fiji house, I earned all of a .8 average. I was spindling out of control, and more often than not, I just stopped going to class.

The proverbial snowball was still just a flake until the day I sat in Calculus class as the professor handed out midterm exams to the students--except for me; I missed the previous class. "Oh," I thought, "this is just one of those dreams." But it wasn't. The professor wouldn't let me make it up, and I had no choice but to take it again the following semester.

Assembly language. The class could have been called How to Talk with Your Computer with Just Ones and Zeros. If it sounds complicated, you're not alone. I was on my second iteration through the class, and determined not to fall behind again. We had to build over the course of the semester what is called a compiler, which converts a computer language into binary, or the ones and zeros that the computer understands. Not only that, but we were inventing the computer language too, and the work we did each class depended on the combined work from all previous classes. So if you fell behind, or did badly on an early portion of the project, you were guaranteed to be exponentially worse off as time bore mercilessly on.

"What was that?" I blurted a little too loudly as I popped my head up. Drool had started to run down my chin into a dropper-sized pool on the desk. In a smooth motion, so as not to attract attention to it, I ran my chin along my shoulder and wiped it off on the way up.

The teacher was staring at me impatiently. "I asked you to explain to me what a FIFO stack is."

"Ok, I know this one." I ran my fingers through my hair like Jim from Taxi.

She looked disgusted and pointed to a girl sitting behind me. "Terri, can you answer the question for our sleeping friend?"

"First In First Out," Terri said.

And so another semester of Assembler was ruined. My school loan would last me through the rest of that year, and with my sub-arctic GPA, it wouldn't be granted for the next.

At the Fiji house, I had what was called a Big Brother, somebody that I was supposed to look to for guidance. I don't remember his name if you can believe that, but he was very excited the day our names were put together. He wanted to help me, wanted to integrate me into the house, but his enthusiasm had its limits. He told me happily that my skirmish with two house members in the sleeping porch came to nothing.

"Don't worry," he said, "the members of the house have talked about it and have decided that you did nothing wrong."

"How very generous of them," I said. He looked at me with dawning surprise.

"It could have gone badly you know," he said. "It's serious business when pledges tangle with members."

"I don't give two shits what the members think. Right is right, and I don't need them to do my thinking for me."

A month later I was in his room to give him the news.

"Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I de-pledged."

"I see," he said.

"Sorry, I know you tried with me, but I'm not put together for this business. I can't take the bullshit."

"It's funny, but I know what you mean."

I should have just left, but for some reason, I felt bad that I had let him down personally. I patted him on the shoulder. "Listen, you're still my big brother, ok?"

A wry smile curled up the side of his mouth. The lie reflected back at me from his eyes, and the elastic of my tee shirt felt conspicuously tight as he stared. On the other end of the gulf that sprang between us, he turned his back without a word.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Five Easy Pieces

Just when I think Dad is a lost cause, he reminds me why I love him so much. He and my step-mother Di are both making enough money to pay the bills, and a little bit more. As it was in the old days, so it is today, that when Dad has money, we all have fun.

Jackson couldn't wait for his Grandma Di to come for a visit, and even compared his mother to her with unfavorable results.

"You should be more like Grandma Di, Mommy. She plays with me."

And so it begins. I remember when my grandparents came for a visit, like Mr. and Mrs. Claus they bore gifts and had the patience of the earth. They laughed when I was naughty, understood when I was mad, let me have treats when mom and dad weren't looking, and basically revved my little engine and left my parents, who looked on with that veiled promise of future retribution, to slow me down. Like Mustafa's circle of life--with a slight twist.

They arrived with a stuffed animal in the likeness of a St. Bernard, which Emmett thoroughly enjoyed for all of five minutes. His grandma and grandpa took Jackson to Toys R Us and bought him a couple of Hot Wheelz sets, then Grandpa set it up for him on the back porch, and both kids were consumed for the weekend.

Emmett is two years old and is basically a momma's and poppa's boy. If a stranger comes around, or even family, he clings to us until they leave. But something about my Dad got his attention, and within minutes he ran to him and yelled, "Up, up, up." Dad and Emmett are best of friends now. Emmett sat on his lap facing him and slapped Dad's face continuously, and Dad just made a funny face and pretended that it hurt--which it probably did. Now we have to break him of the habit.

They say you can take the boy from the farm, but you can't take the farm from the boy. Dad is a great example. He was on his best behavior for most of the weekend, and even decided to treat the family to some Seafood. When I was a kid, Dad's role model was Jack Nicholson from Five Easy Pieces. I didn't know that until I saw the movie.

The following scene happens at a restaurant, where Jack and three others are ordering breakfast at a roadside diner. Jack plays a character called Bobby:

BOBBY (looking at his menu): I'll have an omelet, no potatoes. Give me tomatoes instead, and wheat toast instead of rolls.

The waitress indicates something on the menu with the butt of her pencil.

WAITRESS: No substitutions.

BOBBY: What does that mean? You don't have any tomatoes?

WAITRESS (annoyed): No. We have tomatoes.

BOBBY: But I can't have any. Is that what you mean?

WAITRESS: Only what's on the menu... (again, indicating with her pencil) A Number Two: Plain omelet. It comes with cottage fries and rolls.

BOBBY: I know what it comes with, but that's not what I want.

WAITRESS: I'll come back when you've made up your mind...

She starts to move away and Bobby detains her.

BOBBY: Wait, I've made up my mind. I want a plain omelet, forget the tomatoes, don't put potatoes on the plate, and give me a side of wheat toast and a cup of coffee.

WAITRESS: I'm sorry, we don't have side orders of toast. I can give you an English muffin or a coffee roll.

BOBBY: What do you mean, you don't have side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don't you?

WAITRESS: Would you like to talk to the manager?

BOBBY: You have bread, don't you, and a toaster of some kind?

WAITRESS: I don't make the rules.

BOBBY: Okay, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. Give me an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast -- no butter, no mayonnaise, no lettuce -- and a cup of coffee.

She begins writing down his order, repeating it sarcastically:

WAITRESS: One Number Two, and a chicken sal, san -- hold the butter, the mayo, the lettuce -- and a cup of coffee... Anything else?

BOBBY: Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, charge me for the sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.

WAITRESS (challenging him): You want me to hold the chicken.

BOBBY: Yeah. I want you to hold it between your knees.

The other three laugh, and the waitress points to a "Right to Refuse" sign above the counter.

WAITRESS: You see that sign, sir?!

Bobby glances over at it, then back to her.

WAITRESS (CONT'D): You'll all have to leave, I'm not taking any more of your smartness and your sarcasm!

He smiles politely at her, then:

BOBBY: You see this sign?

He reaches his arm out and "clears" the table for her.

So, my theory is that Dad saw this and took it as validation that every waitress on this planet is out to screw up his order, and he made me nervous every time we went out to eat. He once squirted a waitress with ketchup for delivering his sunny-side-up eggs upside down.

At the Seafood restaurant, our waitress misunderstood my father and didn't bring a glass of wine for his wife. When she came back by the table, his old self bubbled to the surface.

"Uh, miss?" Aggravation was splattered on his face as if painted by a three-year-old.

"Yes sir?"

"Are you going to bring out the glass of wine?"

"Oh, I thought you cancelled that."

He cocked his head and said with tight lips. "No, I didn't."

His wife looked over his shoulder from beside him. "Now John, it did sound like you changed your mind when you ordered the pitcher of beer."

The waitress didn't seem to notice the tension. "Well of course I can bring you a glass of wine. I'll be right back."

When she arrived, Dad had realized his mistake and, like the big fella he is, admitted it to the waitress.

"Sorry about that. That was a misunderstanding." This was said with the sincerity of a forced apology between siblings.

"That's ok," the waitress said, and went into the kitchen.

"Have you been taking anger management courses?" I said to Dad. "That's not the guy I remember." Then I told them all about the ketchup story.

"You were there for that?" Dad asked.

After we finished our main course, the waitress started to roll up the paper table cloth, which upset Dad's beer.

"Ma'am!" Dad yelled. The waitress, far from being startled or offended, seemed amused. "I'll let you know when I'm ready to go!"

"Dad," my wife said as she leaned over the table. "They always do this before they hand out the dessert menus."


Later that evening Dad and Di had a fight, and Dad decided to let us in on what it was about while Di smoked a cigarette on the front porch. I won't bore you with the details, so let's just come in at the end.

"It's all my fault," he concluded, looking at my wife Beth, "and I don't want you to be mad at Di."

"Oh, I know it was your fault. Why would I be mad at Di?" Beth said.

I laughed as Dad shook his head, hoping that something witty would fall out. But nothing did. He just doesn't get this crazy thing called life, but thank God he has a sense of humor about it--sometimes.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Ceiling Didn't Crumble

Dad was honored when I asked him and his wife to be god-parents to my son, and it didn't matter that he hadn't been inside a church since he himself was baptized some 55 odd years ago. Some would say it defeats the purpose, that a god-parent is supposed to be the child's spiritual guide on the path to Jesus; I say however, that if somebody needs to be sitting next to me in that pew, it might as well be my dad.

Uncle Jim summed it up when he said in the background, "Don't let him near that church, or the ceiling is going to cave in." I had to pull the phone away from my ear because the laughter in Grandma's kitchen where Uncle Jim and my aunts and cousins eavesdropped exploded in my ear.

The ceremony was nice, and Deacon Dan performed it with passion and care. Dad sat to my right with a furrowed brow, clearly uncomfortable as Deacon Dan said, "...and next I will ask the god-parents a few questions..."

I said to dad, "You do remember the names of all the saints, don't you?"

He shot me a panicked look, and I patted him on the shoulder. "Joking, ok? Just do what the other god-parents do."

He lifted an eyebrow and jerked his head back towards the Deacon.

The flock chanted "Lord hear our prayer" in a ritual volley with the Deacon Dan. Dad's lips were pressed tight till they were bloodless. I nudged him. "I can't hear you."

And unbelievably he started saying it, albeit with the enthusiasm of a groom at a shotgun wedding. A couple minutes later he nudged me back. "I can't hear you either." We both laughed and attracted an angry glance from a stern looking church mother sitting side-saddle to the right hand of Deacon Dan. We were already on her shit-list because we refused to sit in the prescribed order of mother, father, baby then god-parents--our oldest son felt left out and sat between us, so f--- her. When I told her that, sorry, the kids were in charge, she said, "Apparently." That's right be-atch, we do spare the rod.

Where was I? Oh yeah.

The god-parents gathered at the front of the church and dad was asked the dreaded question, which turned out to be multiple-choice. So he chose what the other god-parents chose and got an A+.

So now both of my kids are safe from eternal damnation, even if their father and grandfather aren't. The ceremony went off well, and even Dad had to admit that it was quite beautiful. We might even start going to church on Sundays, with the understanding that we are joining a community of people that wish to do well by others, and that what we believe in our hearts can still be personal and protected. Maybe I'll turn a new leaf, and be a positive force in my small town, and be a shining example for all mankind. I'll donate half of everything I make to the church and make it my personal mission to stamp out homelessness and hunger, so that one day my name will be recorded in the same chapter as Ghandi and Sister Mary Elephant. The world will sing my name, in perfect harmony, from every rooftop, sharecrop and slum, each year from the anniversary of my passing. Maybe I can make a difference!


Now scram!

Friday, November 04, 2005

Irkle Finkle Butt

Work is going to be intense for the next couple days, so I'll resume my college thread soon. One of our customers hit us with ten times the load that we ever expected, and yours truly has to do some fancy programming and slide it through the back door, under the radar so to speak, before the customer pulls out.

Yesterday morning, my five-year-old Jackson came into our bedroom at six in the morning. My wife and I were playing dead for our two-year-old Emmett, who was thrashing about and scrutinizing our faces for signs of being awake.

Jackson said, "Irkle finkle butt." In his hand was a racecar toy we bought him a couple years ago that long since stopped working, but had been the source of many strange noises in the past. A while ago, I heard an eerie bell, the kind of ringing that plays off the walls making it almost impossible to find, especially because it was intermittent and random. Of course it was the race car, which had another toy splayed over the top of it, triggering the bell to ring at odd intervals.

"Irkle finkle butt," Jackson said again.

Beth and I gave up our sleep charade as Jackson jumped up in bed with us and jockeyed with Emmett for a space between us. Jackson propped himself on a pillow and put the racecar on his lap, then pressed a button. The batteries were nearly dead. A recording of a man's voice struggled to be heard, and what resulted was probably every other syllable, as if over a phone connection that cut in and out, "...irkle ...finkle ...butt--"

Jackson had reproduced the sounds perfectly. We replayed it over and over again and laughed at each others immitation, the best of which was mommy's. Now we are saying it all the time. I have a feeling a new phrase has entered into the family lexicon.

I'll have this to refer back to when someone asks me what it means. It's one of those you-had-to-be-theres.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I was buried.

My dad has always loved me, I think more than anything in this world. If it came to it, he would sacrifice himself so that I could live another day. But dad most likely suffers from Adult Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which causes the most well-intended person to hurt those around him. At the start of college, I was in many ways a newborn, a Hobbit on his first journey away from the Shire. All my young life I hoarded my essence, guarded it against all assailants. My dad couldn't touch it, not my mom, my step-mothers, the bullies at school, my teachers, the apathetic and bitter women I looked to for solace--nobody. At times they seemed like devils, scratching, clawing and digging for the secret place, trying to tear me down and remake me. So down I sank, down in a burrow where I waited for the long winter to pass.

My first day on my college campus, I felt a surge of euphoria, more than any drug can induce. I was free, free from the shackles of my family, free from the perceptions of my high school classmates, free to be whoever I wanted to be.

Nobody could stop me.

I didn't go to college to study, or to become anything. My only motivation was escape. And girls. My first year at Goldsworthy was a wash. It was an all-guys dorm and we all sat around and talked, played D&D, smoked pot and complained about the lack of opportunity. I moved to Stephenson Hall the next year into a co-ed environment, and that worked out a little better, but still I wasn't satisfied; I needed an edge. And that is when the brilliant idea of joining a fraternity hit me.

I rushed informally the latter part of the year at a few houses that had good reputations, but I committed a few critical faux pas that I do not wish to share. Let's just say, that "cool" for me was an act, and like my beloved Cowboys, I was good for 58 of a 60 minute game, and then my defense gave up the long ball.

So the next year I entered into the formal rush process, and as I described in previous posts, I became a pledge of the Fiji house.

And life there was good for the most part. I had a sort-of girlfriend almost from the start, but she dumped me cold, like she dumped the guy before me, and left me comatose on the couch for a few days, attracting a few God-He's-Pathetic looks from my brethren. Jeff introduced me to a friend of his girlfriend, and that worked for one night in a hot tub, then she dumped me because I was too chicken-shit to go all the way--I was practically if not technically a virgin, believe it or not. In fact, I was doing quite well at this point, meeting lots of girls--but I still wasn't satisfied. Now I was complaining about the talent level, like suddenly I was Don Juan.

I had one case of fatal attraction, a sweet girl from a sorority that shall remain unnamed. They were pretty much the only house that looked up to us and wanted to have joint functions. We had a dance with them and she took to me like a duckling to its mother, and I spent the dance with her. I walked her home and she obviously wanted a kiss, so I obliged, but only in a friendly way, minus all the mashing and grinding. She called to thank me the next day, and then called the next and the next. I finally told her that I had a girlfriend. If you have ever had to do this, you will understand what an awful feeling it is. I was awash in guilt.

From talking to members of other houses, and seeing the girls that hung out at and around their houses, I felt like I was really missing out. My impatience grew with the smallest of annoyances from my house. It was getting close to the time where pledges would become members, and little rituals were starting to occur. Each pledge had to face the entire membership that sat in the dark with candles lighting up their faces, as the president spoke in monotone and the mindless crowd intoned their ritualistic replies. It felt like a cult.

Little things, like getting us up at one in the morning to wash dishes, started happening. The pledges had to answer the phone when it rang, and we had duties to perform, such as waking up our brothers at times they sign up for, like a wake-up call from the hotel desk. Rituals became more frequent, and each made me feel just a little more stupid. I started fighting with the members.

We all slept on what we called the sleeping porch, which was basically what would normally be the attic. Dormers opened up to the outside, which had to be kept open according to fire code, so winters were quite cold. Two members tripped up the stairs and into the sleeping porch, drunk and stupid. I was fast asleep with most everyone else until they decided to talk to one another from across the room.

"So I fucked this bitch, and she had whopping hooters," Chris said.

"Nice!" Bill laughed like the over-loud drunk he was.

"Guys," I interrupted, "People are trying to sleep; can you hold it down?"

"And," Chris continued, "I told her I had a vasectomy, and she got all worried when I came. She was all like," his voice went falsetto, "'I thought I felt something.' So I told her 'it's ok, even though I've had the operation I still produce the fluid, only it doesn't have any sperm.'"

"And she bought it?"

"Shut the hell up!" I said. Charlie, on the bunk next to me opened his eyes and looked at me with a grin that said go get 'em.

"Hook, line and sinker," Chris said as he laughed.

"Oh MAN! What a stupid bitch!"

I got up, went downstairs to the kitchen and got a pitcher of cold water and brought it back upstairs.

"Ok, who wants to talk now?" I heard Charlie giggle, but Chris and Bill had suddenly lost their rapier sense of humor.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Chris said. I walked over and turned the pitcher at an angle over his head and let a single drop fall on his face. He slapped at it and looked me a warning.

"Pledge, you are making a huge mistake."

"There are no pledges or members up here, only a bunch of guys trying to catch some sleep. Instead, we have to listen to your fascinating story about inpregnating some girl that was stupid enough to listen to your bullshit."

Charlie laughed out loud.

"You better walk away or you are going to regret it."

"And I better not hear another fucking peep out of you tonight, because there is plenty of regret for everybody."

I suppose that was the beginning of the end.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


The practice of hazing was strictly prohibited by campus policy, but much like the rhetorical fallen tree that has befuddled philosophers for ages, if nobody was around to witness, or in this case, bear witness, then did it really happen at all? Fortunately, the Fijis seemed to abide by the rules; although I wouldn't know for sure. I didn't stick around long enough to really find out.

The previous year, around the time that last year's pledges were indoctrinated into their respective houses, many could be seen around campus clad in pressed business suits with pen and notepad in hand. If asked a direct question, a reply was scribbled onto the pad, but not a sound escaped them. It's all in good fun I suppose, but any sort of debasement is over the line for me, and frankly, I won't do it. In the eyes of my erstwhile brothers, that made me a liability.

But things for now were still good. It was a little humiliating at first squatting on a toilet without a stall. There were five in all, side by side along one wall, facing the same number of sinks on the opposite wall, where you could watch yourself and your brothers wipe in the mirror. The showers were just around the corner, so you literally shit, showered and shaved almost in place. I can only imagine what life on a submarine would be like, but this must have been a close second. I know it sounds horrifying, but I had many great conversations with the guy squatting beside me, as if we were at a coffee shop having a latte and a scone. Toothpaste became synonymous with Lysol.

Every year, the pledge class has to engineer what is called the pledge sneak, where one or more members are kidnapped and ensconced to a secret location for an overnight campout. Under no circumstances can the member come willingly, and if a pledge is caught in the house once the operation has begun, he is detained by the membership and kept until the sneak is over.

Membership found us out and knew all our plans. The normal routes they took to class were abandoned for alternates, and the house may as well have been haunted, for there wasn't a living soul around. We were on a sneak without a member, and the rules were clear: until we had a member, the sneak would not be considered done. Translation: we would have to do it again.

That didn't sit well with me, so I took some of our biggest, Craig, Jeff and Barry, and went back to the house to find a straggler. Our first attempt nearly worked. I went in alone through the front door, and heard a few voices in the computer room. I knocked on the door and waited in the hallway. I don't remember his real name, but "Spin" had his back to me, watching two others playing a video game.

"Come in," he called out in response to my knock, but he didn't come to the door.

I knocked again.

"Jesus, just come in!"

I waited, and then knocked again. Footsteps came towards me.

"Who the fuck keeps knock--” His head peeked out the door, and I snapped him up from the back of his collar and slammed him into the wall opposite the door. I had to keep him disoriented and get him out quickly, because it wouldn't be long before others would come to help him. I didn't make the rules to the game, but I would be damned if I was going to get beat.

Spin yelled for help as I bounced him down the hallway like a pinball between the walls. Craig and company waited outside as I threw him through the front door into a heap at their feet.

"Please guys," he said on the street outside of our car. "I can't go. I have tests to study for and a lot of homework. This weekend is no good."

"Get in the car Spin," I said. The guys looked at each other doubtfully.

"Ok, just give me a minute," Spin said, "your really shook me up in there."

I let up my grip for a moment and Spin took off down the street. He was starting to pull away from me, so I leapt out and tripped him up, and he landed head first into the pavement, and an egg sized lump raised on his forehead.

We let him go.

An hour later we came back. This time I sent the guys in to get Tom, a member that we generally liked. But he was built like a Fullback, and we expected trouble. The guys went into the back door and I waited outside Tom's window, which was upstairs, but you could never be too sure. I heard sound like thunder from inside the house, which made its way to the back door. Tom burst through like the Incredible Hulk, eyes wild as they lit upon me. He didn't break stride as I intercepted him and cut his legs out from under him. The guys came out in time to see the takedown.

"Oh man," Craig said, "that was a perfect three point tackle."

We gathered around our vanquished prey, and we heard a now familiar refrain.

"I have a very important test to take on Monday. Guys, please! Please don't take me."

"Too bad, you're going," I said.

Tom looked to Craig. "I can't. I'm not lying. This will ruin me for the semester if I'm not ready."

Craig looked at me, his eyes all big and moony. "We have to let him go."

"NO!" I said. "We don't have anyone else. And besides, it's every member's obligation to bullshit about this, and haven't we heard this same blather before?"

"I'm not lying, I swear," Tom said. He did appear to be earnest, and my pledge brothers were waffling.

"All right," I said, but I was steamed. We all walked back to the car and drove a little while, when we saw one of the more soft-spoken members of the house. I got out alone and took a different tack.

"Terry," I said, "our sneak is not working out. I nearly broke Spin's neck and we let Tom go because he has a big test. But we have nobody for the sneak. Will you please just come with us?"

He looked at me for a few moments, possibly fighting the impulse to resist. I think he understood. "Ok." And he came.

He taught us a few new beer songs that weekend, and a little about our house history, which believe it or not was quite fascinating. Terry was our last choice, in fact he wasn't even an option we considered, but in the end, like finding money pressed between the pages of a worn and forgotten book, he was a most welcomed surprise.