Saturday, November 22, 2008

Flashback 1995: Love, Despite the Heir

Another post from the days when I was still attempting to make money by writing.  Ha, ha!  Isn't that silly?  Instead I joined Corporate America, which doesn't traditionally embrace humor.  I count on all my Loyal Readers (I am making the optimistic assumption that Loyal Readers is plural) to embrace it instead.

      I've begun to court my wife.  You know, like in the olden days when dashing young squires on horseback would gallop up to the window of the local castle, singing ardent songs of love in hope that their maiden of choice would appear at the balcony and blow them kisses, and maybe the squires could get a peek up their dress.

      Well, I'm sort of doing that with my wife.  We're happily married and living together and all, but we also have an adorable energy-sucking five-month-old son.  Between his odd sleep hours and my odd work hours, somehow the missus and I keep missing each other at the bright witty romantic parts of our day.

      For example, Rufus will go to bed for the night and my wife will slink seductively into our darkened bedroom to find me waiting for her with my mouth open an attractive width, deep in sleep with the alarm set for work at 1:30 am.

      Or I will get home in the morning with the sun shining brightly, the baby playing merrily by himself, and all right with the world.  I'll sidle up to my lovely wife and breathe softly into her ear, causing her to say something sexy like, "My morning breath killed the azalea this morning and every time I try to brush my teeth your darling son shrieks his head off.  Do try to entertain him while I eat breakfast, please."

      It is this type of interaction that alerted us to the fact that if we were to stay married this year, then we had better restart some type of courtship.  To this end we have begun to refine the art of the flirtatious compliment. 

"My," one of us will say dreamily, "the redness in your eyes reminds me of the sunset over Hawaii," or "The paleness of your tired cheeks can only be compared to the ethereal beauty of the fog rolling off the Bay". 

      Rufus helps me put his mother in a romantic mood.  I'll pick out one of her favorite soft CD's and he'll whack the buttons on the CD player until music starts to play.  I massage her tired shoulders while Rufus slaps her skin to improve her circulation. 

      So that she does not forget why she married me, I make a special effort to remind my wife of the things I do that make me a desirable male, worthy of her attentions.  "I don't wear a diaper," I remind her.

      "Tell me more," she says, obviously aroused.

      "I wash dishes," I tell her.

      "This is important," she admits.

      "And," I remind her modestly, "I am a cool and stylish Dad-person."

      "In stained sweat pants?"  she laughs, "How do you manage that?"

      "Hey, no fair looking at my clothes," I tell her, "I dress this way only because I get puked on a lot.  But look at the outfit I dressed Rufus in today - there are dinosaurs on it.  Doesn't he look suave and sophisticated?  It takes talent to make such a young man look masculine in primary colors."

      She looks at Rufus sitting glassy-eyed in his swing, chin glistening with drool. He plays limply with a rattle, a look of bemused tolerance on his face.  "You win," she says, "He does look dashing."

      "And let us not forget that I have made significant headway in face-to-face communication with The Boy.  I have taught him to say 'Hi'."

      She frowns.  "He says 'AAAAAAA!'."

      "He means 'Hi',” I say quickly, “And wait, I am not yet done with reasons why you love me.  You also love me because I am a Man Who Cooks!  I made Rufus pears for breakfast, carrots for lunch, and sweet potatoes for dinner!  Everything a young boy needs to grow big and strong-- not whiny and annoying like your side of the family."

      "I fed him the carrots."

      "Perhaps. But while you and Rufus were out at the library I made dinner for the two of us."

      Her eyes go wide and her tongue darts briefly out of her mouth at the mention of hot fresh food not made by Gerber.  "Is it still hot?"

      "It's warm.  I've already eaten mine." 

I play my trump card.  No sensible 90's woman could resist: I massage her shoulders and tell her to "Go ahead and eat while I put the boy to bed."

      She dashes into the kitchen and yanks off the pot lid, putting most of her face inside the pot.  A slow smile spreads across her face.  "You truly are a Renaissance man," she says.

      "A lucky Renaissance man?"  I ask.

      "Come to bed soon," she says, "I'll slip into something a little less drooled on..."

      Hot diggety.  I didn't even have to climb the balcony.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

You know how sometimes little kids won't say goodbye because they don't want you to leave?

Most (if not all) of you reading this know that my dad passed away on September 29th. Although I have been by turns shocked, angry, disappointed, devastated, regretful, and disbelieving, I have for the most part stayed away from maudlin. I hope to continue to keep away from it.

We had a memorial service for my dad on October 11th, the day before the guy would have turned 62. We had it because we were supposed to, it's what you do when somebody dies.  We did it; I helped put it together, I contacted people, I got the flowers, but my heart wasn't in it.  It wasn't right; it wasn't what he would have wanted, and besides which I remained stubbornly unready to attend a memorial for my dad.   I did get a measure of satisfaction from giving the eulogy just because I got a chance to portray the man the way I thought he actually was, and I didn't think anybody else was going to do that.

Almost a month later (November 7th) we interred my dad's ashes with full military Honors at San Joaquin National Cemetery in Santa Nella, CA. Although I attended, I was no more ready for this ceremony than I was for his service in October, or his actual death in September.

So, the whole military funeral with Honors thing was a little odd for me. My dad loved playing Army the 
whole time I knew him- he hiked and camped in Army gear, he kept his pith helmet in the garage (handy for when a guy needs to take a pith), he wore his jungle boots in the snow. Yet whenever he talked about being physically present in the actual Army he always mentioned how much he had wanted OUT and just wanted to go home. Forever after, though, he loved the idea of being in the Army. I, of course, being an impressionable youth, also loved the idea of being in the Army - but since I never quite took to doing what I was told, I was not an ideal Armed Forces candidate. 

And I never really thought of my dad as an Army Guy, either. I mean, yes, he was an Army Sergeant once upon a time before I was born, but while I was growing up he was your basic ex-football/wrestling Corporate Suit Dad who went camping a lot and had a respectable collection of guns. So the level of surreal surrounding the ceremony was almost Salvador Dali in Wonderland. Firstly because there's a good portion of me that doesn't really believe my dad is dead (yeah, I know - unhealthy), and is expecting him to call my cell phone again while I'm sleeping one of these mornings. Secondly, because this ceremony is something I only see in the movies and it's always done the same way - exactly the way it wasn't done at my dad's service.

In the movies, the Honor Guard soldiers are chiseled and handsome and generic, and the son of the fallen soldier doesn't flinch every time they fire the rifles. They fold the flag and present it to the widow, and then everybody walks somberly away with their black umbrellas. That's how I've always seen it done.

In our version the day was bright and sunny, making us all sweat in our dark clothing. The men of the Honor Guard were real people (the kind of actual people who join the actual Army, not the folks who join the Movieland Extras Army for $20 a day plus sandwiches), and they required real effort to stand at rock-solid attention in the sun while my dad's Religious Leader Figure failed to both a) stay within his allotted 5-7 minute time frame and b) bring a prepared or meaningful statement. Both of these failings gave me the strong desire to walk quietly over to the Religious Leader Figure and mention that I was going to kick him in his Religious Leader Private Parts if he didn't find the end of his epic ramble. If my dad had known any primitive indigenous people who could have attended the ceremony with their blow guns, I would have given the signal about two minutes into the Blessed Speakingment - before the invocation of the poem written on the Post-Its. Irritated restraint won out over kicking, and I gripped my wife's hand really hard instead.

In our version of the ceremony, since my dad's best friend (my Uncle Colonel (Retired)) outranked everybody on the Honor Guard, they presented the flag to him; he was then to present it to my dad's wife. Sometime after I was done flinching but before the Honor Guard was done folding the flag (which they had to unfold first, making me think of my own house where we make my daughter fold the laundry but then each of us has to secretly re-fold it so it's less mangled and fits in our drawers), I noticed my Uncle Colonel (Retired) twitching over by the podium. I thought he was having a heart attack, which really wasn't going to make the day go any smoother or happier. Upon second notice I saw that he was twitching deliberately at me. His subtle, understated gesturing that had attracted everybody's attention was meant to communicate his desire that I should come over and stand next to him right now. Which I of course did; confused, yet fearing the lengths to which his subtlety would take him if I pretended not to notice.

So now I was in the ceremony along with Uncle Colonel (Retired). There we were: all the precise, flat-stomached Army guys, the impressive Special Ops Colonel (Retired), and me, Schleppy the Overweight Management Flack. With my uncle whispering instructions that only he and I and the front six rows could hear, together we received the flag and delivered it the entire eight feet from the podium to my dad's wife, at which point I retreated back to my own wife and gripped her poor abused hand.

Despite the intense feeling of NOT belonging in this ceremony, I will admit to gratitude that my uncle ranked high enough to make up his own damn rules without anybody arguing. The ceremony was already a powerful event (even a month after my dad's actual memorial service). Taking the folded flag from the Honor Guard and delivering it represented an overwhelmingly in-my-face experience of shutting the door on my dad's life, of putting the last period on the last sentence in the last chapter of the Book of My Dad.  Not ready.  My uncle felt strongly that this was a privilege I should share; maybe he actually planned his last-minute twitching because he knew there was no way I would have agreed to participate otherwise. Handling the flag and some of the brass from the rifle salute sure put a whuppin' on my denial, I can tell you.

I love my dad and we were close, but a good portion of the day's surreality came with the height of the honor and respect shown for my dad's memory. In life, the man always got a kick out of the fact that I treated him not as my Venerated Elder, but as one of the guys. We played together, we went to ball games together, we made fun of each other. One of the perks of my childhood was always having someone my own age to hang out with and take care of me (although he didn't succeed at being a rebellious teenager with me - he had to reluctantly assume the role of Exasperated Old Fart while I was dressing funny and being outrageous). When my dad talked about his own death he was quite flippant about it. For him, his death was no big deal - he didn't even want a memorial service, much less two of them. Although I think he would have approved of the Army ceremony, I think he would have approved far more of the lunch we had afterward where his friends and family all shared stories about some of the stupid and funny things he did during his life.

I'm glad we roasted the guy in his absence. I think it was long overdue for me, but the right time for his wife and friends. I want so desperately to remember him with all his flaws as well as his good points - for a while I was afraid that we would all be so damned respectful of his memory that we were never going to be able to speak his name above a hushed whisper or laugh about the things he did that drove us nuts. I think this last ceremony was the very last bit of respect we could heap upon my dad without the irony spilling out of control and making a mockery of how he had lived.  The man was not a saint, and I don't want to be the last man standing that remembers him as a flawed, multi-faceted individual.

I will admit that even though I don't believe (and neither did he) that there is any part of him that resides with his ashes in the National Cemetery, I will return in a few months just to make sure the Cemetery folks spelled everything correctly on his memorial marker. If he's not going to be around to stick up for himself, somebody's got to do it for him.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Flashback 1995: The Stone Makers

From waaaaaaaaaaaaay back when my family was smaller (both individually and in number), I present - with mixed feelings - a sample of the drivel I sent to Features Page editors and syndicates in hope of landing a cushy column in a newspaper.

I choose to believe my failure to land one of these jobs (although the Sacramento Bee did offer me a job covering state politics) is due only to the fact that newspapers, even eighteen years ago, were dying and nobody wanted me to help them die quicker.

Anyway: The Stone Makers.

      It is the opinion of the Medical Establishment that "Some People are Stone Makers".

      Yes, the stoic and solemn Stone Makers are among the few enlightened members of society who possess the fortitude necessary to create, in the innards of their very own bodies, the miracle we call in hushed tones The Kidney Stone.

      It is not without great personal sacrifice that these modern-day marvel-makers work their miracle.  No, for not only must they endure crippling abdominal pain ("Intense Discomfort," says the medical establishment), but they also must endure the naked envy of their peers.

      "Hey, Big Mel," their peers say with undisguised awe, "I hear you're done studying for the kidney stone now-- I hear you PASSED IT!!!" whereupon they dissolve into covetous guffaws.  It is then up to the Stone Maker to wearily say, "Hey Peer-- why don't you go (insert graphic and bizarre sexual act) with (an obscure animal or close blood relation)?"

      Perhaps, once upon a time, I might have counted myself among the uncultured ruffians and engaged in a bit of devil-may-care mockery toward a Stone Maker, asking them if they were passing out cigars after the blessed event, and when could I see the Lil' Fella.

      This was, of course, before last Thursday, when I lay whimpering on the bathroom floor wondering when exactly my left side would erupt like a Hamas suicide VW Bus hurtling toward a US Embassy.

      This was before I lay shuddering and quaking on an emergency-room gurney clad only in my lobster-print boxers and some Lilliputian-reject hospital gown that did its uninterested best to cover only my left nipple; before I clawed my way over to the on-duty nurse and demanded with the righteousness of a dying man that I be shot in the rump again with enough narcotic to make me forget that I was bipedal.

      Oh yes, that was waaaaaaaaay before then.

      Now I know better than to make fun.  Now I know how much respect we all should have for Stone Makers.

      It is we Stone Makers who have looked our doctors straight in the eye amidst great pain and said "Ouch.  This hurts a lot.  Give me drugs."  Well, at least that's what I meant to say.  What I really said was, "Hrrrnniiih!" 

      "Yes," said my particular doctor, "I understand you're in some discomfort."  I looked at the doctor again, with greater scrutiny.  I suddenly became aware that he didn't really know I had a kidney stone-- he thought I had some other problem, like a hangnail, or appendicitis!  Panicked, I looked to my wife to tell her to go get my real doctor, the one who knew my diagnosis.

      "Blagggh," I said.  She squeezed my hand.

      "Nnnnghh!" I said, more urgently.

      "Doctor, how does one get a kidney stone at such a young age?" my wife asked, apparently sidetracked from the naked truth that I was GOING TO DIE.

      "Nobody really knows," said the doctor slowly, ponderously, while I lay sweating blood from my eyes, "We suspect it's caused by diet.  Some people are just Stone Makers."

      There it was.  The truth at last.  I had been brutally incapacitated because I was part of an elite.  I was chosen by the strength of my character to bear this pain. 

      "We see nine or ten of these cases a week," said the doctor, smiling slightly at me, "But I have to admit, it's unusual to treat a patient with such. . ."

      Fortitude, I whispered to him in my mind.  Courage.  Perseverance. 

      ". . .interesting boxer shorts."

       I am Lobster-Print Reddoch.  And I am a Stone Maker.