Friday, February 27, 2015

Keeping Me Warm

It has been chilly down here in the “Sunny South”.  Not unbearable.  Last winter in Chicago, where my brother Dan lives, I think they had 20 days (maybe more) below zero.  



They know cold.  Our cold has always been double digit cold and pretty infrequent.  Still, since we have lived Up North, we do have cold weather gear.

We keep hats and mittens in this old bench with a lid that raises and holds about two cubic feet of stuff.  I still have hats from WAY back in the day.  One is from an ill-fated hockey team from our days in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The Grand Rapids Grizzlies only lasted a season or two.  That was circa 1979 or ’80.  Who knew a knit cap could even last that long?

Anyway, I found myself with a random hat and gloves out of the mix.  When I got back I realized that the hat was one that my mom knitted just before she died.  She was always a knitter.  And sewer. And quilter.  And for a while, she made the most exquisite leaded glass.  She never really watched TV.  Her hands were always busy.  And almost always, they were busy making things for other people. 

Just before she died she went into this frenzy where she was going to knit 100 little caps for newborn babies for this project my sister was helping to sponsor in Kenya.  I think she made it to 60-something before she let go.  I’m guessing most of those 60-something caps are still in use.

At the same time she was working on a quilt for my nephew Mike.  It is a beautiful thing.  But her hands were not working very well at the end.  She had this vision in her head of how she wanted it to be, but her poor old hands could not cut with scissors.  One of the last times I went to see her at her “Tree House” in Brevard, NC, she was so worried that she wouldn’t be able to finish that quilt before she died.  She couldn’t use her scissors any more, but she could improvise.  She would make just a little cut and then use her teeth and the strength in her arms to tear the strips she needed.  Those she could still fit into the sewing machine.  I don’t now if it was the most artistic of all of the many quilts she made, but to me, her last quilt was the most beautiful. 

The gloves I happened to wear that night were once my dad’s.  They were driving gloves.  Does anyone even wear driving gloves anymore (besides my brother John)?  Jack O’Keefe died in 1989, just about 6 months after he retired from The Inland Steel Company where he worked almost all of his adult life.  In the early 60’s he took a job as a technical service rep.  He drove all over creation representing that steel company.  He loved his work.  You see, he was a real personable guy, the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with, to have a drink with, to have lunch with.  I wouldn’t say he was a schmoozer, but he was well liked by his clients and his work pals.  And that man drove.  And drove.  I’m guessing he put 50 or 60 thousand miles on the company car every year.  He also had considerable arthritis toward the end.  So… driving gloves. 

The gloves are worn now.  The fingers are worn through in a couple of places and the stitching in the finger webs has come loose.  But I think I can sew them up a little.  Maybe get a few more miles out of them. 

There was something comforting about wearing that combination of Ruck and Jack O’Keefe on that chilly night; something besides that yarn, spun like magic from the fingers of my old mom, and that old worn out leather, the same leather that comforted my dad’s arthritic hands, that kept me warm. 

That night I had a dream about my mom.  We were talking on the phone, like we had done so many times over the years.  We talked of school, and the family, and her home in the mountains.  We talked of the old days when we were all so much younger.  And just before the end of that dream, I asked her when she was coming down again for a visit. 

It was that question that brought reality crashing through that dream.  It was the question that woke me with my mom’s voice still in my ear and the image of her pretty old face in my mind. 

The next chilly evening, when I need to wear a hat and gloves, my choice won’t be quite so random.  I’ll have that old Ruck and Jack keeping me warm.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Parallel Conversations

Remember those rambling conversations on Seinfeld when the characters are talking about two entirely different things – as if they are actually talking to each other?  If the sound were down on the TV it would look as though the characters are engaged in a thoughtful exchange, but when you turn the sound up, Jerry is talking about not liking greasy food and George is discussing how annoying it is to have a loose button on his shirt.   Writing that kind of dialogue probably wouldn’t be that difficult, performing it might be a challenge. 

Seinfeld’s 25 greatest contributions to the English language

I think when my siblings and I get together we probably engage in parallel conversations a lot.  I might be talking about teaching and some funny anecdote from the classroom, and my brother Pat could be talking about fixing up a wrecked car that no one else would have figured could be salvaged.

The last time I was at the doctor’s office I was checking the calendar on my phone when this odd little conversation occurred on the bench next to me.  I am not very fast at the recording on the small keyboard with my thumbs.  But I didn’t have a book with me and didn’t have anything to write with.  I opened a new memo and text-typed this little exchange.  I missed a lot, I'm sure.  I probably looked deep in thought but was really just eaves dropping. 

An older gentleman is sitting on the sofa waiting to see the doctor.  Baseball cap, long sleeved shirt buttoned up to his throat, big worn out tennis shoes, age spots on the backs of his hands, big baggy trousers, rimless glasses, whiskery throat.

A little old lady walks in with a cane, parks herself on the opposite end of the same bench.  She has her snow white hair up in a bun on the top of her head, pretty, flowered, old fashioned dress, white cardigan sweater, the kind of little round spectacles that make her eyes look big.   Prim.  She wears nice shoes with stout heels.  Are they called pumps?  They look to be about the same age.

“Never been out of South Carolina.  Never saw the need,” she says, speaking in his direction.  “Nope, never saw the need.  Can’t see why people would want to wander around the way they do.”

“Yep,” says he.  “It used to be like Mayberry when I was a kid.  Mayberry.  Things were simple.  That kind of feeling is hard to find nowadays.  It’s just not the same.”  He looks straight ahead, but he seems like he is talking to her.  No one else appears to be listening.  He goes on.  “Got rid of my wife back in ’89.  She was always up to no good.  Didn’t give me no choice, really.  Just made a fool outta me.”

Little Old Woman seems to hear him and answers in her own fashion.  “My little granddaughter called me and said to look outside at all that snow.  I thought that was so cute.  She was all the way up in Michigan.  She just assumed that we had that same snow all the way down here.”

Little Old Man:  “I live in a old trailer.  It’s hard to keep that thing warm when it’s a cold outside.  It’s hard to live in a trailer."

Little Old Woman:  “Just imagine all that snow!  While our weather is balmy, down right balmy.  She looked out her window and said all she could see was snow.  She gets the day off school.”

Man: "‘Bout thirty years ago I did have me a house.  That thing was too much for me.  Of course my wife loved it.  She was always trying to make out like we was better than the neighbors."

Woman:  “I guess we haven’t had a good snow down here for many years.  Six years?  Eight years?  I don’t remember.  I’m sure glad we don’t have that kind of snow down here.”

Man:  “I would be a good maintenance man if my knee wasn’t so trick.  I did it for ‘bout thirty years.  It was ‘bout to kill me.  I didn’t have no benefits though.  No benefits at all.  At least now I got me a little pension coming in.” 

Woman:  “I was a school teacher for forty-two years.   Forty-two years.   Been retired for over twenty years.  Honestly, the kids have changed so much.”

Man: “I loved doin’ maintenance.  Wasn’t hardly nothin’ I couldn’t figger out if it got busted or just wore out.  They said I was a helluva fix-it-man.  That’s what they said all right.  One helluva fix-it-man”

Woman:  “Back then, kids were respectful.  Respectful.  They had to be.  If I whooped one at school, he got the switch when he got home as well.  Yessir, parents backed you up.”

Man:  “Never had no formal training at fixin’ things.  Just hung around my old man.  I suppose that was all the training a fix-it-man needs.  Real world trainin’.”

Woman:  “By the end of my time as a teacher you couldn’t even paddle the kids without signing a form and having witnesses and all.”

Man:  “Even fixed a heatin’ and air unit once.  Most people hadn’t even had no experience with air conditionin’.  But, yessir, I figgered it out just usin’ logic.  Logic is all it took.  Never had no formal trainin’ at all.”

Woman:  “Most times the principal did the paddling for us.  I would rather have done it myself.  That way the kids knew where it was coming from and for why.” 

Man:  “I fix all my own stuff now.  Couldn’t see hiring someone for somethin’ I could do myself.  Just takes a little common sense is all.”

Woman:  “Nosiree.  From what my niece tells me now you can’t paddle them at all.  Not at all.  Can you imagine trying to keep control without being able to paddle the ones who need it?”

Just before I left the waiting room, being called back into the inner sanctum, their conversations intersected. 

Man:  “Yeah, I guess that’s why I never felt so bad about never having no kids.  Never had to do none o’ that kind of stuff.  None at all.”

Woman: “Well I can tell you, sometimes a good paddling is just what those children needed. The good old ‘Board of education…”

If you had turned the sound down, it would have looked like they were conversating ‘bout somethin’ real interestin’. 

And I guess it was interesting for each of them to hear their own words, but I don’t think there was much of an authentic exchange of ideas.  More like two monologues running side by side.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Belt

“I didn’t mean it, Daddy!” said the little guy in the Lowe’s parking lot.  It was a pretty day.  Late afternoon, blue sky, balmy breeze for winter in the Southland.  “I didn’t mean it and I’m sorry!” 

“If you didn’t mean it then you shouldn’t have done it.” was the terse reply.  Dad’s voice was deep, low, menacing.  That voice held a promise of something dark. 

The child was three, maybe four.  He was being hauled along to Daddy’s truck.  Dad was moving faster than the little boy’s legs could carry him, so his toes were kind of dragging on the parking lot surface, sort of skidding along.  His left arm was being held straight up, his shoulder blade sticking out. 

Dad was grim.  We didn’t know what the child had done, but we had a pretty good idea what Dad would do.

“Daddy, don’t.  PLEASE don’t,” the little guy begged.  The mom trailed behind.  She had a resigned look on her face.  A satisfied look.  The kid was going to get what he had coming to him.  Heidi and I were going into Lowe’s.  I think we knew what was going to happen.  And it did.  Dad let go of the boy’s hand.  The little family was sandwiched between their truck and another car.   The child jumped around in panic and fear.  His eyes filled with tears.  Mom was behind him, blocking any potential escape.  When they were far enough away from the store, when they were in a place where few could see them, dad unbuckled his belt. 

“NO!” the kid said.  But Dad didn’t even hesitate.  They had been through this before.  “I’m sorry, Daddy.”  Dad pulled out his belt.  Slowly.  He was a big guy.  It was a long belt.  Black leather.  Then Dad grabbed the little one by the back of his shirt, up by the collar.  Again he lifted that boy almost off the ground. 

You know what happened.  You’ve seen it before.  We all have.

I am not saying that the boy was brutally beaten.  I suppose it could have been a lot worse.  He didn’t hit the kid bare-bottomed.  There probably weren’t any welts.  Mom stood there with her arms crossed across her chest.  Smug.  Satisfied.  The kid cried out.  I don’t know how many times Dad hit him with the belt.  A few.   It didn’t matter.

What mattered was that Dad hit his child with a belt.  Hit his child with a belt.  A belt. 

Heidi and I looked at each other and shuddered.  It was miserable.  What could we do?   Tell him that corporal punishment is wrong?   Ask what the kid had done and tell him that whatever it was – it wasn’t enough to warrant this kind of treatment?  Remind him that his child wasn’t an animal.  Tell him of the emotional residue he was likely leaving behind? 

And if we did intervene, how would Dad react?  Would he be embarrassed and toss the kid into the truck and whoop him even worse when they got home?  Would he tell me to mind my own f@%$ing business and hit the kid even harder? 

So, what we did, what I did, was wrong.  I didn’t do or say anything.  We heard the kid crying as we walked into the store.  It was haunting, you know?

I am not saying that I am the best parent.  I made plenty of mistakes.  Looking back – as both of our kids are men now, most of the parenting we do is being best friends, washing their clothes (as both seem to be laundry impaired), helping them pay rent and buy groceries and praying for them.  But when they were little they were never physically threatened or hurt as a way of disciplining.  I never spanked or pulled out my belt.  And they are OK.  They are better than OK.  They are good men.  We made it through the terrible twos, the sassy upper elementary times, the often self-righteous, indignant, in-your-face adolescent years.  We had some rough spots when we didn’t know what to do.  We were flying by the seat of our pants, right?  But hitting them never really crossed our minds. 

Still, I felt complicit with Dad’s crime.  I watched.  I listened.  I walked away.  The parents saw us standing there and it didn’t deter them.  Not at all.  So we just walked into the store to get our bird feed, our light bulbs, our HVAC filters or whatever.  But that image is left in my mind.  The sound of the little one’s pleading voice, the sight of Dad’s belt slowly unwrapping from around his waste, running through belt loop after belt loop until it was free and dangling from his fist.  The sound of the belt hitting that kid's bottom. 

And I wonder if that kid will grow up and whoop his own little kids for their petty crimes.  And what about when those kids are older and they have the will and strength to resist?  Will it go beyond a spanking?

Heidi told that story to our Colin, now 21 years old, when he came to visit last weekend.  He showed us this Louis C.K. thing on Youtube about parenting.  I won’t link it here as some of my younger friends stop by from time to time and it is filled with profanity.  Lots of it.  But I’ll include some of his words.  Because between all of the cuss words, there is a ton of wisdom. 

I like kids.  Parents, I’m not so crazy about.  Like this whole country, our thing is, it’s all about the children.  We have to do it all for the children.  And meanwhile, nobody gives a s#@t about how they raise their kids.  People put minimal effort into it.  They’re like consumers of their kids.  Like they want to call customer service, “Why does he play videogames all day?  I don’t understand why he plays videogames.”  Maybe it’s because you bought him a f*&#ing videogame.   You idiot.  Throw it away.  Who told you that was a good idea?...

And then the food we feed them tastes like insanity.  You used to be able to give a kid an apple, and they’d go, “Oh, thank you. I love apples.”  Kids can’t even taste apples.  Apples are like paper to them.  Because people force their kids to eat fast food.  I was in this hamburger place and this woman was like shoving french fries into this kid, “EAT IT!” 

The kid's like, “Mom, it’s salty, it hurts, I can’t eat any more.” 


We give them MSG, sugar, and caffeine.  And WEIRDLY, they react to those chemicals.  And so they yell, “AAhhh.”  And then we hit them.  What f&%$ing chance does a kid have?  We pump the stuff in there… “AHHhh!”


“’Cause I haven’t had actual nutrition in eight years, Mom.  I’m dehydrated.  Give me water.  Pepsi’s not water.  Give me a glass of water.  I’m dying.  I have sores on my tongue all the time…  Stop hitting me, you’re HUGE!  How could you hit me?  That’s crazy.  You’re a giant and I can’t defend myself."

I really think it’s crazy that we hit our kids.  Here’s the crazy part about it.  Kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit.  They’re the most vulnerable and they are the most destroyed by hitting.  But it’s totally OK to hit them.  And they’re the only ones.  If you hit a dog they’ll put you in jail for that s&%t.  You can’t hit an adult unless you can prove that they were trying to kill you.  But a little tiny person, with a head this big, who trusts you implicitly, f*&k them!  Let’s all hit them. 

And people want you to hit your kid.   You’re kids making noise and they’re like, “Hit him, HIT HIM!” 

We’re proud of it.  People say, “I hit my kids.  You’re damn right I hit my kids.”

“Why do you hit them?”

“’Cause they were doing a thing I didn’t like at the moment.  And so I hit them and, guess what?  They didn’t do it after that.”

“Well, that wouldn’t be taking the f$%&ing easy way out, would it?  How about talking to them for a second?  How is that…  What are you, an idiot?  What are you an ape?”…

“You hit him…  He’ll know.  That I’m stronger than him.  That it hurts when my hand hits his face.  He’ll know.  He’ll get some wisdom out of that.  Raising them right.”

I wish I could say that I am the perfect parent, that I know the answer to all of the difficult parenting questions.  I am not.  I can’t.  But doesn’t it make sense that if you hit a child; it also teaches the child to hit?  To wait until they can hit back?  To hit others who are weaker?  To get their own way through force? 

If we model violent behavior, doesn’t that make it right for kids to be violent?