For the first time in the just shy of 16 years that there
have been four of us, tonight all four of us will be sleeping under different
roofs, in different cities. It’s a very strange feeling. Elder daughter is
having what I hope is that magical summer after freshman year. It seems to
involve plastic flamingos and complaining about housemates who don’t clean, so
it sounds perfect. She’s not far away, but she’s not at home. Younger daughter
is off at smartycamp, though it turns out to be supersmartycamp, where young
men and women who are super-serious about becoming doctors are doing things
like watching knee replacement surgeries, touring hospitals, and discussing
medical ethics. This may put ideas in her head. I’ll be laying my idea-free head
down in the rough vicinity of Valley Forge, which suddenly is becoming another
of my haunts, though the actual name of the town I’m staying in is never
abundantly clear. And lovely wife will be holding down the fort, which these days
means reattaching the plastic wrap to the porch reconstruction project after
every windstorm. So this is how we end up scattered to the winds.
Remember that first summer away? I had a summer job on the
college paper that paid $75 a week for 10 or 12 weeks, and that was plenty to
live on. A small crew of us put it out every week, doing absolutely everything:
writing, photographing, editing, laying out, pasting up, and delivering. It
took about 3-1/2 days out of the week. The other 3-1/2 days were spent in a
lazy summer haze. I rode my bike and wore out a pair of flip-flops. I
discovered the city pools and parks. After an awful week rooming in the
basement of a frat house, I found a beautiful sublet well away from campus with
a lovely porch, one roommate who was indifferent to me, and one who couldn’t
stand me. I scoured garage sales for old vinyl, spent hours and hours writing
letters and ridiculous short stories, picked away at a guitar. We “borrowed”
the paper’s van and went out every weekend to see Next of Kin, playing, most
often, at the local Ground Round. I hid from the summer heat in cool darkrooms
and pretended I was a photographer. I discovered Jefferson Airplane and the
Animals. I drank too much sometimes but it wasn’t yet the problem it would
become, and that summer everything seemed to be in perfect balance. On top of
it all was the easy atmosphere of a college campus in summer, where no one’s in
too much of a hurry, things are relaxed, and you feel that by being there you
own the place more than the kids who come and go with every semester. So I’m
hoping the elder one is having that kind of summer.
For that matter, remember that first time going away without your parents? I had several opportunities like that, but the biggest one was essentially a journalism camp held at what would become my college, the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Two weeks away with other kids from all over the state and the country, all in some way into the same interests. It was so exciting . . . in the same day I heard my first authentic Long Island and Texas accents. We worked like dogs putting together a newspaper and a yearbook for the program. We learned writing, composing, and photography. We pulled all-nighters. We listened to “Hotel California” a lot. The thrill of finding others who were in some way like me, of opening up, discovering. It’s all so new and wonderful at that age, and I’m so glad the younger one gets to experience it this summer.
Other than that, for the parents, it’s a routine week. I try to understand electricity, and Lee comes home from work to put the saran wrap back up on the porch project I left behind.
I don’t seem to be able to think of my father at the
socially prescribed times, like his birthday or the anniversary of his death,
but Father’s Day is coming up and that has me thinking about my own legacy as a
father, and that makes me think of his as well. As the kids say, it’s
He was a good man, and not a terribly good one. He was
generous to a fault, and wasted much of his life in bars. He knew how to build
things but lacked patience. He was inarticulate, uneducated, and embarrassed
about it, and he was massively proud that I turned out differently. He’s been
gone longer than I knew him, but even at the time he died I felt like I had an
incomplete picture of him, and not nearly enough memories.
What was expected of fathers started to change in the ’60s
and ’70s, when I was growing up, and so it’s fair to say that the transition
was confusing for many men. For a long time I just accepted that that was how
it was, and he definitely did come from a different time. He was one of ten
kids in a family where the father, 50 years old when my dad was born, was often
working in a distant city. There wasn’t a lot of father-son bonding. Or any, as
far as I know. So to my father, the amount of time we spent together probably
felt extravagant. But for the most part, it wasn’t time together; it was time
when he needed to go somewhere, and I’d come along. Mostly where he needed to
go was bars, the old dank neighborhood bars that barely exist anymore.
Sometimes there were other places: auto repair shops, the lumber yard, the
barber shop. We fished together a couple of times, and two or three times he drove
us on my scout troop’s annual trip to Lake Placid, but otherwise he wasn’t
there. It was up to someone else’s father to perfect my Frisbee throw or to
give me my first good fishing reel.
It seemed perfectly normal to me then, something any kid
might do, to accompany my father into bars and wait while he drank. These were
all places that knew him, where he knew everyone, and he was welcomed and
greeted. I learned later that a barfly’s welcome isn’t worth much: when he
died, people I thought were his friends couldn’t rouse themselves to come to
the funeral, but instead waved at the procession as we drove past the tavern.
But to him, these were his favorite places, and he probably felt sharing it
with me was a good thing. I’d get dimes or quarters to play the jukebox and the
bowling machine, I’d get the tiny glass of soda mixed with grenadine
embarrassingly and unfailingly called a Shirley Temple, and a bag of Wise potato
chips or Slim Jims. And then I’d just sit and wait and watch him leaning
against the bar, chatting with the other drunk men about nothing whatsoever.
And somehow I believed it was perfectly normal, despite the fact that I rarely,
if ever, saw another boy in those places.
My strongest memories of him are the smells: the powerful
mix of diesel and cigarettes that clung to his work clothes, the whiskey and
beer on his breath at the end of absolutely every single day, the pungent cool
smell of stale beer soaked into the floorboards of ancient taverns. Images of
him are harder to find (and actual photographs, in a family that viewed film as
an exotic and unjustifiable expense, harder still), but to this day if I smell
rotting lettuce, which he often reeked of after a day of hauling produce for
Central Markets, I instantly think of my father.
He was sweet in many ways. He tried to be interested in the
things that interested me, and was always polite and kind to my friends. He
adored my wife and insisted she would have a wedding ring even though we were
too progressive to believe in such things. He was supremely willing to help
when help was needed.
He was stupidly young when he died, 48, and he died because
he drank and smoked, especially smoked, despite very bad asthma and a lot of
signs from his body that maybe it was time to straighten up. He didn’t. A few
years ago I found myself at his grave in rageful tears, so angry that he wasn’t
here to see his grand-daughters, and it was entirely his doing.
And so I think about the legacy, the memories my girls will
have of me. I lived nearly 18 years with my father, he died when I was almost
25, and as I said, even then my memories were scant. I have tried, not always
with success, to be present, to be there when I’m there, and not to be
distracted by the electronics and things that make it easy to divert our
attention. We have done a tremendous amount of things together, close to home,
around the state and even a bit beyond, and each one seems to elicit a very
specific memory for them, and I just hope those memories remain. I was blessed
with a period of time when I was home nearly every day, and we learned to cook
and bake together, to dance around the kitchen, and to just enjoy each other.
I’m touched beyond belief when my older daughter texts me with a question she
could easily have Googled, and when she thanks me for teaching her to solder
and how to wash dishes. I’m touched beyond belief when my younger daughter
squees with excitement that we’ll be returning to a campground we visited many
times when she was young and fell out of using, because I know her experience
of that place, and our being there together will always be with her.
The challenge with house carpentry is that if you don’t do it all the time, you don’t really know how to do it. You just know how to figure it out. Figuring it out takes a lot longer. And because it’s my house, and my yard, I’m way more careful about the demolition part, especially the millions of nails and shards of glass that come from demolishing a glassed-in porch. I’d like to walk in the yard again someday, so I have to try to be careful about where the pointy stuff lands. (Can’t get that from a contractor).
A few minor technological revolutions have made this vastly easier than any other project I’ve undertaken. First, let me sing the praises of the laser-guided chop saw. Somehow I’ve gotten by for more than 20 years of home ownership without a chop saw, and no, I don’t know why, but man am I glad I have one now. There is a little red laser light that tells me precisely where the blade will cut. It is unbelievable. If I make a mistake, it is only in measuring, no longer in figuring out where the kerf will be. No need to get out the square and draw a cut line — just find the right measure, mark it, line it up with the laser, and chop away. Not to mention that I get the perfect square cuts that always seem to elude me on the table saw.
Second, I finally invested in a new tape measure with engineer’s marks. This means it’s in English measures, but provides decimal fractions of feet. Instead of having to figure out English fractions (and divide them, which is always the challenge), I measure something out as 4.1 feet. Still in feet, with the easy math of metric. Flaming brilliant. (Though I will ask, why have all tape measures gotten so thick? The smallish-handed among us can hardly maneuver the things.)
Third, I invested in a new Milwaukee drill/driver, with the hope that when its batteries can no longer take a charge I’ll be able to get replacements . . . which has not been true for the past two Craftsman drills I’ve had. And not only does this magnificent device show me how much charge is in the battery, it shines a brilliant LED light right on the space I’m drilling. Suddenly, I can see what I’m doing as soon as I put up the drill, instead of having it block the light. So obvious, so brilliant.
Last but not least, the very process of ordering the major parts, doors and windows, has become considerably simpler because you can download all the dimensions and specifications from the internet, figure out your spacing and what will fit there, and start to draw up your plans before you even set foot in the home improvement store. When you order windows every decade or two, it’s a bit of a daunting task, but being able to read through all the specifications and installation instructions makes it much easier.
So if you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m lashed to my laser-guided chop saw.
Too many people seem to think that cycling, like veganism,
should be an annoying pseudoreligion, with right and wrong ways to do it, a
feeling of moral superiority, and a need to proselytize. Bike commuters,
perhaps the smallest transportation minority in this country outside of people
who dogsled to work, are among the worst offenders. Well, I’m a bike commuter, and
I’m here to tell you there is no right way, it doesn’t make me a better person,
and I frankly don’t care whether anyone else does it. It makes no difference to
me whether you turn a pedal before and after your daily wage-slavery, but I will share a
few observations from a year of biking to work.
- The bus is cheaper. Much. Bus fare: $1.50, and I can carry
my coffee in with me. The bike sets me back as soon as I have to buy that first
cup of coffee in the morning. There’s also the matter of commuting shoes (I am
a pedal snob, and need to be clipped in with the ironically named “clipless”
pedals), rainpants, winter gloves, and an array of lights designed to confuse
motorists enough to notice that I exist. However, my bus is being cancelled, and
the nearest one is a 10-minute walk away, so this economic point is moot.
- It is a most unsatisfying ride. In my case, it’s under four
miles each way, barely worth the time it takes to prepare. The first half is down, there’s a hump over the Dunn Bridge in
the middle, and then a steep climb, all on a heavy bike with a lot of gear I
have to carry back and forth. The Dunn has the charm of a Soviet office block
and detracts from what should be a lovely view of the Hudson. In the dead of
winter I start by freezing and end up in a steam bath of my own making. There are logistics, with packing of lunch, making sure I have phones, carrying all I may need and nothing I don’t. After
every ride there are wipes and birdbaths and much changing of clothes.Any road ride is more enjoyable.
- Staying warm is not the problem. I have a neck gaiter, a
helmet liner and good long-fingered gloves, and wear a layer less than if I
were going to take a walk in the same temperature. Staying dry is more of an
issue, and generally if you wear rainproof gear, it rains inside as much as
outside.I now have rainpants that cost more than any dress pants I have ever owned.
- I used to work in a building full of athletes, and getting
on the elevator while carrying a helmet and perhaps in bike-friendly clothes
(and we’re not even talking spandex shorts) did not raise a lot of eyebrows. I
no longer work in a building full of athletes, and people go out of their way
not to share the elevator with me, even on days when I’m sure I do not offend.
- Rush-hour drivers are in too much of a hurry to fuck with
you. So while they won’t give you an extra inch to avoid horrible potholes or
sunken grates, they’re also not inclined to suddenly lay on their horns, lean out
their windows and scream, or throw things out their windows. Cyclists are the
battered spouses of transportation, and so we interpret a failure to try to
kill us as some kind of love.
- Riding somewhere for lunch is a tremendous delight. Being
able to get to a place that’s not even a mile away but just too far to walk
during lunchtime makes an enormous difference in my day, especially if I get to
sit outside and enjoy my lunch with my wheels. Thanks to CDTA’s bike rack map, I can always
find out if there’s a place to lock my bike, too.
I am not a better human being because of this. Many days, I
ride my bike across the river just to get into my SUV and drive right back over
to pick up my daughter from dance class. I know this makes Al Gore cry, and I’m
okay with that. I am, however, a happier human being, even after a miserable
hot or rainy ride, because I spent an hour riding my bike that otherwise would
have just been more time spent in my car. And an hour riding a bike is better
than just about anything else.
Now I know why we can’t wait. As this capture from Google maps (as fed to Mapmyride.com) proves, the failure to finish the South Mall Arterial finally led to a rip in the space-time continuum. One side of the Dunn bridge is actually U.S. Route 20 in Illinois, and the other side is U.S. Route 20 in Nebraska. Obviously, failure to fix this immediately could mean the end of life as we know it, or at least some very unexpected detours through the midwest. So now do you think that $20 million is well-spent?
Symbol of the “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice”, advocating book-burning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Eloquence in the face of stupidity, rage and hate touches me more than almost anything else. So please take a moment to read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s 1973 letter to the chairman of the school board in Drake, North Dakota, who felt that burning books was somehow what our children should aspire to. It’s not surprising to me, in that terrible, volatile time of war, racial tensions, and economic distress, that some would decide that burning books was the way to shape the world in their own image. But it’s endlessly distressing to me that, nearly 40 years later, hardly anything is different.
Here’s an excerpt from what Vonnegut wrote to that school board chairman:
“After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in
effect, ‘Yes, yes – but it still remains our right and our responsibility
to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our
community.’ This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise
that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh,
un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens
and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.
“I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry
from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have
discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your
fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an
uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred
to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought
against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American,
you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not
merely your own.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s books meant more to me as an adolescent than any other author. In his later years, he seemed to me to be a cranky old man, but now I’m starting to see his point. In any event, read his entire and entirely beautiful letter over here, at Letters of Note.