Monday, January 15, 2018

High School Graduation: Times Past--Uprooted

This post is in response to Irene Waters’ blog post, High School Graduation: Times Past. And at Charli Mills' Carrot Ranch, here. I was part of what the MTV, or Boomerang Generation. Makes sense...

Here's mine: 

My senior year in high school was lost in a cross-country move. Friends, classes, proms, senior plans, ceremonies, and thankfully, senior pictures. All of it was lost back in 1992. 

It began that summer when my dad took a job in Texas. I may as well have been Mars. Give it a chance, was the mantra that summer. My dad kept saying it as we loaded up and began the 1,400-mile journey. It was just the two of us in that rig of a moving truck--packed to the gills with our every rattling possession. My stepmom and little sister followed behind with the pets.

Against it all, I arrived at New Braunfels High School on a blazing hot Texas day. It was August for crying out loud, and I was, feeling like a lousy freshman, a new face in the halls as all the other seniors were cruising through classes with easy smiles and big plans. Socially awkward and shy, still sixteen and about as mature as a fetus, I didn’t make it long. I asked to go back. I begged to go back. And by Thanksgiving, my father caved. I could go live with my mother in Virginia. 

A bittersweet moment, I’ll never forget that predawn trip to a San Antonio Greyhound station. The vast, black silence that sat like a passenger between us as we parked. I knew how much it hurt him, for years we'd been inseparable. Now it was coming to an end as the morning sun stretched over the Texas landscape. I think we both knew that bus would put more than miles between us.

My head against the window, a dull brown autumn landscape scraping past. Through chimney smoke and Appalachian fog, the bus wound its way to Virginia. Change came over me, and as hard as it had been to leave my dad behind, it was a buzzing anticipation that kept me wide awake for the entire thirty-hour ride.

Now her age, I can only imagine that collision of a lifestyle change for my mom when I moved in. A single mother to my eight-year old half brother, she worked nights and swing shifts as an emergency room nurse. She didn’t have the time, energy, or resources to deal with my comeback tour. I was free to run amok.

Amok I ran. I caught up with all the friends I’d left behind. I partied. I got in trouble. I reveled in good old, grunge-fashioned, Pearl Jam angst. And returning home in the middle of the school year, it was easy to get lost the shuffle. There was no cap and gown. Only bad decisions. Only suspensions.

Math was forgotten. Spanish was dropped as the curriculum was resettled. I took gym class, again. With such a light load it was easy to keep my grades intact. I drifted, right up until late in the second semester, when a fatigued assistant principal--a man to whom I own my sincerest apologies--noticed that my grades were just fine and you know, it might benefit us all if I simply stayed gone until exams. Just go.

To be honest, anything I learned that year came from those long days with my feet up on the couch, lost in the turn of the page, the house completely still as I discovered that suspension time was great for plowing through required reading. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Tortilla Flat. Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son.

When I returned for exams, my American Lit teacher pulled me aside and tried to get through to me. Small college was an option. Community college. I had potential, she said, pointing out that Native Son and Brave New World weren't required reading. I shrugged it off, pouting, looking to the floor, the cinder-block walls, anywhere but to those code-cracking eyes of hers. She was trying, but I was too far gone. I wasn’t college material. I was sharing a bunk bed with an eight-year-old.

Graduation came and went. On the following Monday, I pulled into the school parking lot, left the car running and bounded the steps with youthful invincibility. I strolled into the lobby, soles slapping as I passed empty classrooms, a few teachers here and there, whistling show tunes as they boxed up their things. 

At the admin office, I stated my name and, duh, why I was there. After some searching, the receptionist returned with a leatherette folder. I checked the name, that the card stock paper indeed stated that I’d successfully completed the required courses for graduation. Then I slapped it shut, spun off, and walked to my car where I promptly pitched it to the backseat.  

Another sentiment lost on me. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Fun & Games

The other day I was standing in line at the bank waiting to deposit a check. Off to the side there was this little boy, maybe three, hopping along a row of padded chairs. He was having a blast, giggling and drooling and content with his own game as his mother, I presume, was with the teller. 

Judging by the relaxed look on Mom's face, she was enjoying her mini vacation. Dad was in charge of the kid. And the kid's hopping was quickly turning into leaping. Dad stepped in, nicely, trying to get things under control. He was quickly steamrolled. 

The kid got back to his game. Poor Dad shuffled his feet and looked around, maybe for help or reinforcements, an instruction manual, some sort of guidance as people applied for mortgages and fought off pesky overdraft charges. The kid added some song to his game of leap chairs. 

Finally, Dad asserted himself. He took a seat in one of the chairs, cutting the kid off mid-hop. Kid wasn’t having it. He pointed to the floor. “Off, Daddy,” he said with practiced authority. Dad got up. 

I smiled. Because I’ve been there before.

The kid got hopping again. Dad glanced over to the counter before trying to corral the kid. He picked the kid up, tried the helicopter maneuver that i know from experience should not be attempted after a meal. One time around and the kid let go with a wail. He threw his hat on the floor and pointed to the chairs.

Dad tried, okay? He pointed out the window, Look, a truck! A car! A tree! But the kid only wanted his four-seater jungle gym. More climbing, more failed attempts to play the sitting game. Finally, I was called over to deposit my check. When I was finished, Dad had gone with the nuclear option. He and the kid sat together on the chair, watching a video on Daddy’s phone.

It was a valiant effort, Dad.

It’s hard to be fun dad and stern dad. Sometimes the fun gets too fun and a cute wrestling match turns into a cage match and things spiral out of control. A sudden shift of gears usually has bad results. I know because I've been having dilemma since the kid turned one and began manipulating me. 

I want to be fair. I want to be fun. I want to be respected. Yet...I want to be sane

I too have gone through the public meltdowns. My kid has had them too. And to someone who sees his worst behavior would never know that I have a good kid on my hands. A bright, highly active, highly imaginative, highly uh, strong-willed kid on my hands. 

My kid knows when I’m bluffing. And maybe worse, he knows that I’m a sucker…

We can’t be silly all of the time. Even if being silly is my default setting. It's declaring those silly times and serious times that's hard for us. My son is not quite five, and even if he is a bright little guy he doesn't understand yet that there are times for silliness and times for well, banking.   

I’ve seen him at school, where the structure does him well. And sometimes I come home from work and he's coloring or even looking through a book and he sees me and suddenly it's a good idea to stick out his tongue or gouge my eyes out or maybe just hit me over the head with his sword. (I'm kidding of course--he'd never stick out his tongue at me). I'll ask Mom if he's been like this all day and she'll give me little smile and that look that means, Would it make you feel better if I lied?

So we have fun. Only sometimes the fun gets out of hand. It’s stopping the fun, or reigning in the fun that I’m no good at. I mean, who wants to be the party pooper. Ha Poop! No seriously. I need to be mature about this...

Lately I’ve been trying to sneak in some teaching moments to go with the chaos. He’s beginning to read, so we implement letters and sounds with our silly songs. I don’t so much mind if he makes poop jokes, so long as he can spell them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Stick Man

That’s not a real quote. It’s not even good. But no matter, you can frame just about anything written in fancy font and it looks official. 

And this stick business, it’s real. Take my kid anywhere and he’s going to find a stick and get busy. Be it whacking at a tree stump or drawing in the dirt, if he has a stick, he’s cool.

People ask me what he wants for Christmas and the list is scant. A compass. Walkie Talkies. He did say a camera the other day. There’s been some sword talk. But in the end, give the boy a stick and well, take a few steps back.

My wife recently took a trip to Virginia Beach with our son and friends, I had to laugh when I saw the pictures. The kid found a stick and went to work in the sand. Shirtless and wet in November, here he is posing with, are you ready? A stick!

On Thanksgiving weekend, we went hiking up a mountain. We loaded up the two dogs and packed a lunch. Our son took his favorite stick. To the mountains. Of course we found more sticks, which he stuck in the belt loop of his pants (because he’s only wearing pants with loops now). He studied the hikers who passed us, because we were usually off the path, searching for, well, sticks. A short stick became a pen—or a stylus—which was used on a piece of bark to record all the details of our stick-finding-hiking adventure.

Our front yard is littered with sticks. Not just any sticks. He knows each one by name. The balancer stick, for instance, cannot be confused with the hacker stick. The gun stick is not the spear, and the spear is not the whacker stick. Duh…

There are sticks in the bed and sticks in the car. Our dogs suffer from stick confusion, baffled over what is acceptable to chase and chew. This weekend we travelled out to the country to get our Christmas tree. And there, amongst the plaid and the hot chocolate, the spruce and the scarves, he found...wait for it....a stick!

We sword fight. We hunt for dragons. We are knights setting off on noble missions. We are Kung Fu Panda, and I’m pretty sure I could just wrap up a stick and be done with Christmas shopping. Hmm, an Artisan Christmas... I'll see what my wife thinks.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Junk Man

For the past few months, every Saturday, my son and I visit the Re-Store. It started when I was painting the unfinished basement. The Re-Store has all sorts of discounted paint and supplies and each Saturday I’d buy a gallon and go to work. Neither did I know that my kid would enjoy it so much, that he’d find the restore to be better than the toystore.

Now, they know my kid by name.

He sorts through the bins of junk, standing on his tippy toes, frowning with concentration as he searches for that extra special…something. A door hinge, an old light switch, electrical outlets, a few weeks ago we found a softball batter’s helmet. When something catches his eye he holds it up for the whole store to see. I have him take it to the front counter and haggle over a price. Usually something for a buck or two. It makes his day.

He has a name for everything. A piece of plumbing tube becomes a swatcher, a door stopper is a ploomer. His dresser is littered with finds—screws, nuts and bolts, springs. You can imagine just how thrilled his mom is about it. But most of the junk ends up in the basement, where we’ve cleaned out and set up his clubhouse under the stairs. He calls it his junk store, and offers to sell things back to me (at a hefty markup price).

We build things together, things that have no obvious use but—cue Hallmark music—are measured in the value we spent building them. We’ve built ladders out of pallets, birdhouses out of scraps of trim. We’ve built boxes out of decking planks and constructed ships out of cardboard boxes. Every secret agent needs his gadgets--even if they happen to be shelving brackets.

When I was his age I played with sticks and dug holes and played out fantasies. It's part of learning, creating, or whatever else makes me sound like someone with a firm grasp on child development. Whatever, he's inventing things in his head. He’s commanding spaceships comprised of rubber bands, oven knobs, and calculators. I love how he finds the most common gadgets, or jaggets, as he calls them, so fascinating.

It's fascinating to watch.