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This will be my final post on DaddingFullTime.
Part of me wants to spill gallons of ink telling you why. But when you read the final paragraphs, if you don’t agree it’s a fitting end, then there’s nothing more I can say. I have said my piece there.
I can tell you this: about a month ago, I wrote a sentence that seemed a good start to a story. It became the first paragraph of “Redemption.” A few weeks later, while cutting across the harbour on the ferry, jotting a few notes in my down time, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t seen the events I had been writing about for what they were. This is the story of that realisation.
I should also note: if you’re not familiar with the essay called “Salvation,” I recommend you read that first (ask me for a copy.) Even if you are familiar, you should recall the first line: “One of my earliest memories is of my father storming into the downstairs playroom with a stack of records that I loved listening to and snapping them into shards while I cried.” I spent a tremendous amount of time on that line, and it has bothered me that it doesn’t resolve in Salvation. “Redemption,” this essay, is the resolution. To add another word would be to interrupt the peace and quiet that should follow such a thing. Let’s just leave it there.
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When I was four years old I knew my phone number. Still remember it to this day. But I don’t remember much of my dad. I don’t remember him saying goodbye, but I wish I could. At least then I’d know for sure he did.
I remember fear, falling into a pond, struggling, giving up, drifting, floating away, saved by a stranger. My dad had already gone and he wasn’t there to pull me out.
I remember vengeance, frothing as he smashed a stack of my favourite records. He towered over me, tall and lean and angry. I remember his side-zipped leather boots, shards of grooved black vinyl tumbling against them, collecting in a pile, kicked away as he left me there, crying. As if I’d learn right from this second wrong.
I remember obedience, taking his empty beer cans to the trash bin, always bringing back a cold one. I remember wanting the last sip, to taste what my father tasted, to know what he loved. I remember swigging and getting a mouthful of cigarette ash. I remember retching and regretting and finally learning my lesson.
I remember sleep, together on the couch with the late night movie on channel three. James Bond something. I still don’t care for spy films, because for most my life I didn’t care to remember.
I remember frustration at the kitchen table. Walnut Formica, carrot orange vinyl chairs, imitation crystal juice glasses, and my mustard-trimmed choo choo train plate. I wouldn’t eat the Chinese food. He’ll show me. Open your fucking mouth. I remember forkfuls. I said open. My mom watched in tears, in horror. Her little boy. This was 1978. The year he left.
I remember Grampie, standing in his kitchen when my dad came to pick us up. We lived there for a while after the split. This was Grove Road, where he’d raised his little girl, my mom. Now, a cheating drunk no good son of a bitch had the nerve to darken the door to exercise his rights, one day a week, while his mistress went out shopping. Keep your goddamned hands clean and keep sober around them and so help me if they get a scratch. The good memories in that kitchen, the days of playing piano in the other room and singing Glenn Miller and shooting pool in the basement and dealing setback under the cuckoo clock in the dining room. They were gone then, and even further gone now.
I try to remember the good times, but I don’t know if there were any. Maybe the time my dad took me along to look at pickup trucks at the Chevrolet dealership. I liked the red one with the four wheel drive hubs. He got the blue one and put a camper shell on it and a mattress in the back. Drove us all to Virginia to visit his sister. Six hours. Had walkie talkies between the cab and the shell and I think everyone got along well enough. Except my brother smashed my toy phone when I pretended it rang and I answered it and said our doctor was on the line. I guess he had trouble with authority. And with his little brother. Kids those days, these days. We’re all the same.
These days when I put pen to paper, it’s to remember. But it’s all reconstruction and caricature, because I spent so many years regretting and hating. Now I think I’m ready to recapture all that’s lost. I want redemption. For my father. For myself. But it won’t be easy. This is no sugar coated story. The past can’t be compelled to cooperate against its will.
I wonder how it felt to pack up his stuff, his clothes, his record collection, and his CB radio and to think, I’m doing the right thing. To tell my mom he would leave, knowing she’d tell her dad, and knowing he’d be forever the villain, irredeemable, yet saying to himself, I’m doing the right thing. To tell his mistress he’d do it on Friday and they could start clean together on the weekend in a new town, and they were doing the right thing. To tell us, the kids, as he must have told us whether I remember or not, everything will be alright. This is the right thing. Tell us to remember the good times and the Christmas trees and the birthday cakes and the leftover pizza for breakfast, because this is the right thing. To pack the boxes in the blue Chevrolet and hang his clothes under the camper shell. How does one pick just the right outfit for doing the right thing? What did he wear that night? Is it his lucky shirt now?
He’d grab a beer from the fridge, for the road. He’d walk across the brown shag rug in the living room where we had our first camp out, by the fireplace, in the sleeping bags we got that Christmas. This is the right thing, he’d say. He’d walk down the stairs to the front door, which he’d open quietly so not to wake the kids, a final act of kindness, executed with immense love and care because to let those beautiful children sleep is the right thing. He’d whisper goodbye to nobody, amidst the muffled crying in the upstairs bedroom and the two sleeping kids across the hall. No matter whether they heard it, because that’s the right thing. That’s goodbye, knowing it might be forever.
I imagine when he got in the truck he felt naked. Exposed. Fresh. Everything on the surface. He turned the key and the truck chugged to a start in the quiet night and he flicked on the headlights and they lit up the tag on my mom’s Plymouth Satellite, AF2970, the white numbers shining against the patriot blue plate. It all went as planned. She had pulled in first so they wouldn’t have to shift cars around the driveway right at the bitter end. He pulled out and drove down the street past the creepy house that scared me my first three Halloweens, past the church nursery school I attended where I fell silent with the teachers and other kids after this night. He would have turned left on Queen Street past Tony’s package store, where we had walked to get lollipops and beer in the Blizzard of ’78, closed at this hour of the night no doubt. And he would have gotten on Interstate 84 and taken off to – – –.
Where? Could he simply fall into her arms that very night? Would he book a motel for a couple days and let it all sink in? Would he stop at that bar in Hartford – the one he took us those many times with the table-top arcade games and greasy french fries, where we would play Tapper while he drank cheap beer and ordered us cheeseburgers? And would he think of us kids at all? Would he pull a stool belly up and chat to the bartender until he ran out of cigarettes and patience? And how would it feel when he did? They might as well have lay spike strips all the way down Queen Street, because there was no turning back now.
What difference would the truth about any of this have made to me? The fact was, he was gone. And I wish I could remember crying for him.
After my dad left there was a court case. I don’t remember how long it went on or whether anyone ever asked me anything about what had changed or said anything about what was yet to come. I know they sold the house and I know we moved in with Grampie, three of us in the extra room upstairs with the old radios and Uncle Bill’s wing back chair and floor lamp and the creepy passageway that led to the attic. Don’t ever touch that door, they told me and I didn’t. I don’t remember whether we had beds or just mattresses or what. I don’t remember toys, but along the shelves next to the stairs were empty cardboard tubes of Wondra Gold Medal flour from years before. We could use them as building blocks and make towers up to the ceiling. There was an old plastic canister of Janitor in a Drum full of sand that’d prop the back door open in summer. The kitchen table was yellow Formica, perfect to slide playing cards across on snowy days, Grampie sitting by the window, waiting. He never said what for. He just waited.
By then the case was settled and we’d go on Saturday visits, just after morning cartoons. We had to be back in time for five o’clock mass, stinking of cigarettes and second hand booze. I’ve got good memories of watching movies and playing games and eating microwave popcorn and cheese hot dogs and Skittles and Starburst we’d pick up at the gas station in Newington, just off that industrial road near his apartment. There’s still something about artificial grape that takes me back. Most visits took this form. Babysitting with candy. I don’t know what my mom did those days, but I know if I were her now, I’d worry like hell about the kids, the one thing she had going for her, out on loan.
Sometimes we’d take a road trip before lunch. We weren’t but thirty miles from the state line and the Massachusetts liquor stores were a good bargain. We’d pile into my dad’s Honda Prelude, me alone in the back without a lick of legroom. He’d crank up the Johnny Cash and we’d sing along and when the tape ended he’d flip it over and play it again. In my mind, I’ve always known all the words, and I bet my bottom dollar I could recite them all right now, in tune and in time, not a pause to reconsider a phrase. I guess you could say I know his music by instinct, and that’s as good a memory as I can imagine.
Somedays we’d have an adventure, duckpin bowling at the T-Bowl, balls small enough for a couple of kids to handle, even if they were mostly gutters. My dad would give us each a dollar in quarters to try the video games. I thought Pac Man was a banana and I thought the point was to bump into the ghosts and you couldn’t tell me otherwise. My dollar went pretty quickly, and I never did get the hang of those machines.
Around Christmas time the insurance company my dad worked for would have a giant party for all the families at the headquarters in Hartford. Every kid got a wrapped present. Big building. Parking structure. Elevators. I remember if you took the elevator down from the ground level, you’d end up in a bowling alley under the building. Daddy you have a bowling alley where you work? This had to be the best job in the world. But it didn’t last much longer and he became a carpenter and money got even tighter.
Saturdays were well and good, but during the week was odd. It was enough that I was a skinny, pale, quiet kid. Gap between my front teeth. Terrible at sports. Uncoordinated. The kind of innocence that, if it weren’t endearing, would have gotten the shit beat out of it. I could accept all that. These were just things — things I didn’t figure I could change, so no bother. The thing that really hurt was that I was the only kid I knew with a visiting father. The little boy whose daddy didn’t play superhero in schoolyard boasts and didn’t drive him to little league. I didn’t even know how to play baseball until around about the tenth grade.
These were bitter, hard times, and it was made perfectly clear to us, despite what might be the truth or who might not agree, that even my father’s own mother wasn’t proud of that man. That’s why she sent us a dollar in a birthday card even when he didn’t, goddamn him straight to Hell.
My dad took us to see American history. I remember destinations: Plymouth Rock, Bunker Hill, The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Air and Space Museum, Boston Science Museum, Sturbridge Village, Mystic Seaport, the submarines in Groton, Old Ironsides. I don’t remember all the facts that made the places stand out of history’s pages, but I remember the trips themselves well.
On the trip to Plymouth Rock, we stayed in a cheap motel outside of town. My dad hadn’t brought any toys to keep us kids occupied, so we stopped at a dime store and I got a suction cup tipped bow and arrow. I remember trying to knock a soda can off the night stand, but I couldn’t hit a thing. I was maybe eight years old. My dad though, his aim was amazing. He couldn’t miss. Reminded me of a time at his parents’ cottage somewhere by a lake in the woods of western Massachusetts. He brought his pump action Red Ryder BB rifle and he shot his empty beer cans off the ledge of the upper deck. One handed, mind you, balancing the barrel on those side-zipped boots. Coolest thing I’d ever seen. He only missed once and you could hear the BB tink against the aluminum siding of the cottage across the creek. Then you could hear some goddamned cursing and you know what, kids, guns aren’t toys. We stood the Red Ryder back in the corner behind the glass slider and gathered up the perforated Busch cans from down on the lawn under the deck.
Next day we looked at the rock. 1620 with a rectangle chiseled around it. Then we drove to Boston. Took two rotations of the Johnny Cash cassette tape to get there and find parking.
At the Boston Science Museum we wanted to see the lightning show, in which a brave and smart man — scientists are smart and brave you know — would stand in a cage with lightning bouncing off it. Despite my bristling anticipation, when that first bolt hit, the clash was louder than I could scream and my dad gathered me up and ushered me out and it was going to be OK because it’s just a noise and we’re all alright. OK? He demonstrated how alright we were with ice cream sandwiches, and let me tell you, I learned a thing or two about the nature of proof that day.
I learned things by mistake along the way as well. Did you know you can get the other drivers to honk their horns by displaying just one finger?
Another time we stopped at Old Newgate Prison out by the airport in Connecticut as I recall. It was a copper mine that hadn’t paid out, so they barred up the tunnels and put miscreants in there. I loved those tunnels, scary as they were. I wondered what it would have been like, as a kid my size, to dig something as vast and complicated as this place — a place to hide even if you hadn’t done a thing wrong. I went home and started digging under the old cherry tree in our back yard, until it died and I had to chop it down. Then I started digging under the apple tree instead.
Anyway, after the tour of the tunnels we hopped into the car and buckled up and the goddamned son of a bitch wouldn’t start again goddamnit. My dad knew what to do. He got out and popped the trunk and we could hear him digging around and rattling back there. He slammed the trunk and he came back with a tire iron and reached through the open driver’s window and pulled the hood release under the dash and walked to the front and winked at us through the windshield. He unlatched the hood and lifted it and propped it with the support rod and leaned in deep and rap-rap-tapped on the starter motor to knock the gears back in whack. He saw us out of our seats inside and shouted to turn the key in the ignition and we did and it cranked over and he lay the prop rod flat and slammed the hood and checked it was latched and he got back in. We scrambled into our seat belts and took off down the highway and he didn’t shut the motor off when he pumped a couple dollars of gas a few exits down. I used the same starter motor trick to good effect a few times over the years. Turns out poor people devise some clever means to get through when times are tight. I didn’t realise then, but those few dollars for gas were the last he had in his pocket. Forsaking his bar money to buy back some time. I guess that’s the nature of sacrifice.
As I got older I started asking questions to which I had already been given answers. Why did my dad leave? He was a drunk. A womaniser. Only cared about himself. And gradually the small town stigma of being from a “broken home” stuck, which made me more and more angry, which bound me more and more to the stigma. Kids from broken homes are angry, you know. Don’t say that! Why are you so angry? Stop it! There was no escape but silence.
In silence I listened, and when I listened I heard prophesies. I heard that little boys become their fathers, and I heard that my father was not a good man. He’s addicted to drink, everyone said. A reputation for hard living, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up the same. It’s in the family now, so watch yourself. Don’t so much as start down that man’s path.
The trouble was I had learned for sure what I didn’t want to be — I’d been told over and over anyway, and took all that telling as truth — but I had no idea what positive actions might be worth a whit to take. When what you are is what you aren’t, you drift until you find something to hang on to. I had to stop drifting.
I set a goal. Get out. I’d do whatever it took to get away, mentally and geographically, from all I wasn’t supposed to become. From all this temptation. From fate. My plan was to learn my way out. Get educated. Pay for one year of school and perform as well as I could and find a source of full funding. Then, get into graduate school far far away. That would break the cycle. No more anger, obsession, and poor behaviour. Ultimately, I had internalised the droning indictments that my absent father was the one who made me so poor of pocket, and he had made it so I had to work so hard for so little, and it was his fault that I couldn’t even hit a baseball for chrissake. I believed the prophesy that boys become their fathers, but I would thwart that fate.
Through the years, without him present to defend himself, I put my dad on trial. Any time I felt robbed of opportunity, I’d round up the usual suspect and drag him through my personal court. I was the prosecution, armed with my own version of the facts and my own leading questions, and guilt was the only possible verdict. The more I prosecuted, the guiltier and guiltier he got, and the angrier and angrier I got.
It cycled like this for years, until one day I burst. It was a Friday in 1994. My mom and stepfather and I went out for pizza, as we did every Friday when we all lived together. We sat down. We ordered. We chatted. I sipped a root beer.
Then my dad walked in.
Considering the symptoms of my reaction, I suppose this was a panic attack. Really it was an eruption. A natural force. Every pore of my body opened at once, bathing me in sweat. Every gland in my body secreted at once, saliva, tears, and testosterone-fueled rage, pouring out across the table, onto the floor, flooding the parlour. I wrung out more and more, fists clenching and writhing. It was hate. It was fear. It was all the mocking, and the dreams of a good father, every slight and every sideways glance, neatly catalogued in my head, now upturned in a heap, unleashed in an instant. It was the death of a demon I had created and disgraced for years and years. When I opened my eyes, I saw he was not the demon I wanted him to be. He was only a man, waiting for a pizza.
I left out the back and he didn’t see me and he wouldn’t for years to come.
My brother, a liar, got married around about twenty years ago. Story is he told his fiancée that our father lived in Virginia and nobody ever saw him. I reckon he thought it easier to manage deceit than face up to his memories. My brother’s a method actor – takes on roles and lives them, truth be damned – and I reckon he’s crafted himself a damaged man in his audiences’ eyes. The thing is, he’s the one who damages, with falsehood and booze, and he’s purged apology from his vocabulary. His redemption will have to be another story, one whose ending I do not yet know.
His fiancée was more clever than his half-cocked tales – he’s not a particularly good method actor, as it goes with most con-men. She checked the phone book to clear up any confusion and worked out the truth of things right quick. My dad lived close by. She arranged a family reunion of sorts at his place. I was invited. I hadn’t spoken to my dad for at least a decade, except for a nasty letter berating him for sending a child support check that bounced. Cost me twenty dollars in bank fees and twenty two cents in postage, neither of which I had to spare. Fuck it, I thought. Might as well go, and maybe even get my stamp money back.
I remember showing up late, parking against the curb behind the electrical box and next to the storm drain. I shut off the car, whose head gasket was already starting to leak, and it sputtered a little and gasped a little and blew out a sharp white smoke. I got out and looked down and thought about the fact that I was holding my only ignition key and if I were to drop it all the way down that drain, there’d be no retrieving it, and I’d be stuck, no exit but maybe to run through the woods out back to the turnpike beyond, or maybe start banging on neighbour’s doors and please for the love of God let me in and let me curl up in a corner and let everything go away and let me start over clean, out of here, everything and everyone left behind, and I’ll change, I promise forever, if I can just hang on to this key this one time, and we’ll all be alright.
I quit thinking like that and I slipped the key into my front pocket and it jingled around with a few coins. I collected myself and walked past his car – still have the Honda I see – past the ceramic birdbath and the bamboo wind chimes and I looked at the screen door and I thought about all that it keeps out and all that it lets in all at once. I remember this place. I am here again. In the moment. The past doesn’t matter and the future isn’t happening, and I don’t need anybody, because I’ve learned to be alone.
When you hate your past and fear your future, you learn to live wholly in the present. During these years of estrangement from my father, I thought a lot about time and memory. About the nature of things and about our human existence. About how our world came about, where it might end up, and our place in the middle of the two. These were either the highfalutin ideas of a novice philosopher, or the coping mechanisms of kid deathly afraid of himself. Or maybe a little of both.
I couldn’t face my father as a hate-filled kid. And I couldn’t face the possibility that, come what may, I might be this man one day. A man without a past and without a future is no man at all, but if I were to get through this reunion, that’s the man I needed to be. I needed to be nobody.
I paused on the front steps and exhaled deeply, everything released. I raised my right hand and extended my index finger and said to myself “I do not exist.” I pressed the buzzer and my father answered and when he pulled open the screen door I saw his eyes, as blue and as lost as mine, and the past didn’t matter and the future wasn’t happening. Our redemption had started.
He shook my hand and pulled me in and we walked through the place and it smelled of smoke and food. I could hear the others out back, catching up, honestly, finally. I vaguely remember a few details. He uses a gas barbecue and there were new swivel chairs on the new deck, which he had rebuilt recently. Maybe the planter box was freshened up with petunias in the spring. Maybe a stone fruit tree that hadn’t been there before. Maybe a small patch of garden and a tomato. One detail counted above all else: my dad was there. Married to the mistress now. I’ll be damned. He does know how to commit.
I stayed later than everyone else and when it was just us left, we walked through his workshop and pointed to this and pointed to that and it was idle nervous chatter, as if we were on a first date. How about a root beer? Yeah. And we sat on the couch together in front of the coffee table he’d built. Nice finish. Careful and clean. I cracked open the A&W and leaned back and stared at the pictures on the wall. Pictures of trips taken. People met. People lost. Me. A model boat. The Regulator clock, ticking.
Idle chatter turned to honesty, then to apology, and then to regret. In the moment, I didn’t think to ask the tough questions. I listened. He said his piece and I heard it and I accepted it, even if it’s taken another twenty years to understand all we exchanged.
After all those defenseless years, my dad told his story. He told of hard times. Money was tight. He found himself in a dead-end job with two kids, a car payment, and a mortgage. He didn’t understand how he’d gotten there, but he knew he didn’t belong. He never said he didn’t love my mother. That wasn’t a question. The only question for them was whether they could make it work, and the mutual answer was no. Irreconcilable differences. Whether his bad habits caused it or whether they were the self-soothing of a man ill-equipped to face a life without alternatives was irrelevant. Was it right to leave a woman with two little kids? No. Did he have regrets? Yes. Did he miss us? Of course. Did he wish the past had been otherwise? Did he?
We didn’t need talk therapy. We needed to get to know one another, because not all apologies are spoken. We decided to take on a project and take up our Saturday mornings where they left off. Over the following year we built a guitar in his little workshop. We made mistakes. Together. We fixed them. Together. He taught me about machines and blades and geometry. We never got hung up on the past, because we both knew our peace was in the present. We finally had a chance at building something, and together we took it.
For that, we are lucky men.
Last year my wife and our little boy and I took a trip around the United States to catch up with family and let them gurgle over the kid they hadn’t seen since he was that high. Six weeks on the road, remembering these places, from the desert southwest to the plains of Wyoming to the curved and wooded hills of New England, we confirmed that we miss people dearly, but have no regrets about our new life a half a world from there.
We lugged around three checked bags, three carry ons, and three personal items, which left little space for new memories gathered along the way. My dad had two gifts for us, one for me and one for my wife, both flat and easily stored. He’s moved along a time or two and knows exactly what one can carry.
First was a photograph printed on sheet metal. Wombat standing in front of an art deco fountain one night in Napier, New Zealand. She’s back lit by a spray of green and red light, and though you can’t see it beyond, the west end of the Pacific Ocean was making a ruckus against the rocky beach. My dad remembered us saying this was our favourite place on our honeymoon some nine years prior. It was when and where we decided this corner of the world might make a reasonable place to settle down. And now here we are.
Second was a Franklin Mint collector set of Johnny Cash records. My dad knows my affection for Cash, because I inherited that affection directly from him. It’s a lovely set. Deep burgundy vinyl. A history book inside full of facts and stories. Just my thing. I figure he remembered also that I’d gotten a new turntable for my birthday a couple years back – the first higher-end machine I’ve ever had in my life-long love of records. I thought about the patience it takes to pick out perfect gifts. Here’s a man who’s taken time and paid attention.
He wouldn’t have known, given our history, but by the time I was in high school, mowing lawns and washing dishes and earning my first dollars, my mom would take me to the collectors’ record shop up the road and wait patiently in the car while I flipped through the M’s and the S’s, fishing for treasures, casting, dragging, reeling in until I hooked a catch.
Searching is its own thrill, whether records or antiques or archaeology or genealogy. I reckon we all know it in one form or another, and I reckon all my life I searched for the perfect vinyl, in mint condition, no dog-eared jackets, not a scratch or a pop on it. Beautiful sounds. Lost in the beautiful presence of music, the past be damned, the future set free.
It wasn’t until we got back to New Zealand that I realised all of my life of collecting hadn’t been to build up a larger and larger number of discs. It was my attempt to replace something I’d lost, but I had never yet found a substitute.
We got back to the house and I dug through my suitcase and checked the Johnny Cash records and they survived twenty hours in a cargo hold just fine. I figured we’d give a listen as we unpacked and settled back into our groove.
I powered up the amplifier and the speakers hummed to life. I put the disc on the felt-covered platter and I switched on the turntable motor and it spun up to speed and I set the needle into the groove and it clicked and popped and settled in, clean as a newborn, and you could hear the fresh strings on Johnny’s guitar, pluckin, croonin about this burnin thing. I knew every word. Still.
End of the song, in my head I hummed the notes of the next before it even started. Same at the end of this one, and into the third. Same the whole side and the next and the next through the whole set. I remembered every word of every song in this particular order of this particular collection purchased off a television advertisement some three decades prior. Then it occurred to me this was the source for the cassette tape my dad would play in the car on all those beer runs and all those trips to see American history. These very records. And now here they were, on my turntable in a little two bedroom flat three hundred metres from the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, nine thousand miles from the memories they conjured. And now a little boy dancing next to me, making memories of his own.
It wasn’t until recently, when I started writing this, I realised what my dad had given me. You see, I write to remember, and though the caricatures I create are as flawed as any memories, I’ve reclaimed much that I’ve pushed away over the years. I’ve got a little boy now and one day he’ll want and need to know all this history. All these memories. I’ve learned that accepting the past is the first step one must take on a path to redemption. To stop wishing the past otherwise is to accept the present and to liberate the future. To wish the past otherwise is to obliterate that wish, for it was the past that brought the wish about. To accept this truth prepares those who might be redeemed.
My dad didn’t simply give me a set of records I liked. This is no sing-along. One of my earliest memories is of my father storming into the downstairs playroom with a stack of records I loved listening to and snapping them to shards while I cried. One of my most recent memories is my dad replacing those records, thirty five years on, and teaching me something I couldn’t have learned had the past been otherwise.
I know myself as a father now, and with that I know myself as a son. And so I know that when he dug those records out of storage, his records that his son loved most, he said aloud words that would drift in the air until I heard them. I hear them now: Maybe this will make things right.
Some say it’s best to forgive and forget. To wipe clean and start again. I believe we all have the capacity to forgive, but I believe it’s a mistake to forget. It’s in memories where we find redemption. We find acceptance without submission, and to find that is to find strength and peace, and that’s all I wanted all along. After all these years, all this life, all we’ve shared and all we’ve missed, I can finally say what I hope one day my own son will say of me, and I’ll fight like hell to make it so. I’m proud to have this man as my father.
I called my mom on Easter Sunday, trying to bridge the distance between us and capture a feeling that I live nearby. But I don’t. Those days are past. I’m nine thousand miles away, though I might as well be on the moon, as she sees it. We communicate through outer space anyway.
To be honest, when Mom and I talk, our conversations are light on substance. A plucky catch up about how we’re feeling – allergies and sleep patterns are typical topics – what we’ve both been up to in the past week or so, how Noodle is getting on, his preschooler mischief and his bicycle tricks and his days at kindy making friends and drawing letters and colouring inside the lines. He’s a little boy, as I was, as she remembers. In the chit chat are filtered histories and memories, and that’s why we talk. To tie then to now, as close to in person as we get these days. But proximity is our only limit. In reality, we are one.
I dial zero one four four six to access our calling card network, then press one for English, then dial zero zero one to access the United States, then dial her telephone number, which is one of the few I know by heart. One should know mom’s number by heart, I reckon. The signal beams from the receiver in my hand to the base unit in the bedroom sitting atop my wife’s cedar hope chest, through the wires in the walls to the wires dangling from concrete poles dug into the footpaths along Lake Road, across the Harbour Bridge to the city substation, routed through a satellite dish, beamed to outer space, reflected from one satellite to another and to a ground receiver station closer to my mom than I’ve lived in twenty years. Her caller ID comes up with a scrambled mess of numbers that she doesn’t recognise, but a voice on the other end she does, satisfying a hope she holds every time the phone rings. I say “hello.”
Thinking back, being a kid wasn’t easy. My mom was single again when I was four – same age as Noodle now, and familiar triggers draw me back to this simple fact. My dad used to pretend to sit on me when I got to his chair before he did. The chair was black and leather with a high back, and in it you could swivel from the cigarettes on the left to the beer on the right. I grew up in the days before remote controls, and the chair was dangerously close to the television.
Now, usually when I’m cooking dinner, Noodle spreads himself out in my low-back blue leather chair, a bookcase beside it covered in notebooks – I’ve got my habits too. Noodle laughs as I sit down with my plate and pretend to crush him, unnoticed as the matchbox cars and popcorn I find wedged between the arms and the seat. He laughs when I “prickle” his cheeks with my whiskers, the same gut-deep laugh I used to give when my dad scrubbed my belly with his nineteen seventies flop of hair. Then all of a sudden I remember turning four and those days vanished. My mom could have given up or she could carry us forward, and, well, here we are.
Those days were damned difficult for us. We were low on money, time, and everyone’s patience was threadbare as our handed-down jeans. A poor economy rarely lifts spirits, and none of us were immune to the new pressures. I’d like to say I’m no stranger to grudges myself, and I feel we’ve all since made amends as best we can. Not always in declarative sentences, mind you, but in kindness and movements toward one another as the grips of our grudges loosened.
Mom worked as secretary to the principal of our elementary school. The pay was terrible and we learned to make the best of things. Rather than playhouses and indoor recreation venues, we climbed the stacks of sewer grates and manhole covers at the cement company that backed up to our house. They were towers and castles to defend against invading hordes of imaginary foes, until some municipality built a new street or refurbished a run down one and ordered a load of storm drains. The kingdom dismantled, loaded on trucks and spread around town. We’d thought they were indestructible, but on a long enough time line, even pain and memories are little more than star dust. It’s only spirit that perseveres.
We weren’t supposed to mess around in the concrete company, as you’d expect, but we did. Lucky we never cracked our heads open, as mom would remind us every time we got caught out. I’ve since learned that kids only do what they’re not supposed to no matter how many trinkets and admonitions you give them. Kids these days. Kids those days. Rich kids. Poor kids. We all scribble the same pictures, and carry on indistinguishably carefree around tripping hazards and heavy machinery.
Easter always meant Dunkin Donuts, as it’s a morning holiday. We started at breakfast, and our family friend, John, would show up with a glazed dozen and smoke as many cigarettes before the ham came out of the oven around noon, smelling of tobacco and cloves. We’d keep an ashtray for him at my mom’s spot at the kitchen table, right next to the cat you couldn’t get out of the rocking chair. John would sit there and tell us stories he’d read in the National Geographics he found in the Hartford Public Library’s discard bin. Sometimes he’d bring us a few issues to keep for ourselves. He drank as many coffees as smokes, and he looked to us like either an artist or an overworked man. He came from a long line of the latter. Between made up tales of Africa and the Amazon, culled from the pages of the discarded magazines, he’d tell of real rich people’s houses on the west end of town where he’d installed wall to wall shag carpet and solid oak baseboards. He’d been doing the same since he got out of the army, longer ago that we could imagine. He never told army stories though. Some parts of the past you just don’t talk about, and we respected him.
Grampie would walk from the next street over where he and Uncle Bill lived. Until Grampie had his big heart attack, he’d have a Manhattan and a corncob pipe, every holiday dinner. He’d leave early to catch Archie Bunker or Wheel of Fortune back at the house, sitting in his Morris chair in front of his black and white Phillips in a room unchanged since his wife died twenty something years prior. I never met her. He never talked about her. But I understand now why he went back home on the holidays. He couldn’t let us see his tears.
In later years it was just Uncle Bill relaxing on the couch after a slice of apple pie from St. Rita’s Bakery, talking about old times, old cars, how well the snowblower did this past season, and what he’d do to tune it come fall. This is how I learned about motors and family and the shapes appreciation takes. Often a glazed donut. Or a chosen family circle.
Sometimes I think about the grown-ups sending us off to bed so they could talk and laugh and make new memories. We’d have to wait until next year to hear this year’s after-dinner conversations. Only the past was fair game because that’s how you hand down tradition. But how I longed to be part of the present. Now I am and I find myself still longing.
These days I think about Noodle and how we send him off to bed, just when the fun ramps up. I don’t suppose he likes it any more than I did. But I convince myself he needs his sleep or he won’t grow, and he drifts off and dreams while the rest of us tell tales. He’ll hear the tales next year, or maybe read them somewhere down the line.
These days Mom and I don’t talk about the past, and only rarely about the future. It’s the present that interests her, because that’s what she misses. We all do, and it seems we keep missing it. Our Easter telephone call takes this form. The past extends back to last week and the future to next, and that’s as much as we need.
“Oh, it’s you! Hello Bri!”
“Happy Easter from the southern hemisphere.”
“Now what day is it there?”
“Sunday, noon. You’re Saturday, right?”
“Yes, and tonight we’re staying in and getting ready for mass tomorrow and going out to dinner. We thought we’d go out this year because I’ve had a little cold – but don’t worry, I got my B-shot and I’m feeling so much better today, but tomorrow we’re going out anyway, and what are you doing for Easter dinner tonight then?”
“Ah, just our own thing. We did the egg hunt this morning and it started raining. We’ll just take it slow.”
The conversation continues like this with talk of setting up the camp site where they spend summers now. The Pond House, they call it. We visited last year and got to ooh and ahh over the new plants and garden gnomes and she detailed how they cleaned up the leaves and fallen branches from the ice storm. Look at that tree next to the porch. See the split part? Came down over winter.
And on it goes, trading idle stories subject to neither space nor time. In the phone call, our separation is an illusion. An inconvenience that I could change in the space of twenty hours and two airplane rides. This phone call bridges the time until the next visit. When and where, yet undetermined.
As I see it, this isn’t much different from when I attended university. When I moved to California. Today we’re nine thousand miles apart, but that’s no different from nine if you never take the time for one another. I know my mom laments the space between us, but I know now – now that I’m a parent too – even moving back wouldn’t be enough. Even if we rewound to Sunset Drive and shared a kitchen and a dozen donuts every Easter, it wouldn’t be enough. Even if she tucked me and Honey Bear into bed and kissed my forehead and his fuzzy dirty stuffed nose every night, it wouldn’t be enough. The trouble is, no matter how much either of us insists, I’m not her little boy anymore. I never really understood how that must feel until now. Now I hear a four year old voice squeak at me and ask for a glass of milk and a cuddle before bed. And right now, as I’m writing these words, I hear him half snoring, surrounded by his favourite pillows and blankets and his huggie. Dreaming of his bike. Dreaming of tomorrow. But goddamnit he’ll always be my little boy, won’t he?
One day Noodle will come home for the holidays, or maybe he’ll call, or maybe I’ll not have made it that far. It’s not my place to speculate on fate, or hope to change what doesn’t yet exist. All I know is that right now I’ve got the present with this little guy, one day after another, and I’m hanging on to them as best I can, here on these pages. No doubt the future is his, and one day he’ll be his own man, shaping his own story with his own chosen family circle. That’s how history works. But these moments – all that’s here and now. This is our time.
On Mother’s Day, Noodle will hug his momma and cuddle up against her under their favourite wool blanket and she’ll nuzzle her nose in his hair and tell him he still smells like a pencil, like her little boy will always smell. For Grandma, we’ll take some pictures and send a card, then we’ll eat a family dinner, maybe take a ham out of the oven around noon, smelling of tobacco and cloves. Maybe we’ll head across town and get a dozen donuts, for old time’s sake.
On Mother’s Day, I won’t hug my momma. But I’ll hug her grandson and she’ll know. She’ll feel it. Separation isn’t what is seems between a mother and a son. I believe that now. I know that now. I guess sometimes it takes all this separation, all this time and space, to realise we have been together all along. That’s the good choice she made.
When we talk today, the call might be long-distance, but we’re not apart. We never will be. My mom is right here in my sandy blond hair, going grey. She’s here in my fair freckled skin and my blue eyes and the way I dote on my family because she showed me how to turn out the same.
I don’t mean to come off as sentimental. This is simply how it sounds when a son realises, forty years on, he’s still his mother’s little boy.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom. There’s none of this without you.
When my giggling four-year-old runs over to me with a scribbled blob of paint on construction paper, yelling “look look!” and I instinctively ask him “what is it,” his grin fades and he stops giggling and he has to think about what to say. An unwelcome interruption by reason. He isn’t excited about what it is. He’s excited that it is. It’s about showing me and getting me to be a part of it all, not explaining, not abstracting the joy of his expression with words and reasons.
Recently I read an old essay by Susan Sontag, the titular piece from her collection “Against Interpretation.” In it I found a perspective that, to my surprise, has improved my parenting. She says: “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” It’s a bit of an odyssey to explain how I got from art to parenting, and here I’d like to chart the journey.
Sontag was a maddeningly articulate and polarising figure, and reading her essays reminded me of my old academic life. Back then, we all seemed to think “getting it” carried with it an air of exclusivity, of membership in a club of superior intellects, as though those who get it, whether it is a joke or an argument or an interpretation of a piece of art, hold leverage over those who don’t. Reading the essay, I thought: How often do we take this tone with kids before we hear their stories?
“Against Interpretation” explores the relationship between form and content, questioning how distinctly they might be separated. In the end, as I read it, like colour and shape, the two seem less separate that we imagined at the start. To make sense of this, Sontag talks much of abstract art and some artists’ deliberate attempts to obscure content to a point that only form remains. This, in a way, democratises art. How funny, from this awkward angle, is intellectual handwringing over the true meanings of words and ideas and works of art. Look at, say, a red canvas with a thin orange line struck horizontally across the middle. What does it mean? What radical expression lurks behind that line? Perhaps the answer is “nothing.” And so what if it is?
It’s an occupational hazard for a philosopher, but it seems to me I’ve been asking too many questions lately when really I should be joining in the fun. Interpretation is no prerequisite for appreciation, I’m learning. At some point, enough is enough, and we’re best to carry on.
On Wednesday I took a trip to the Auckland Art Gallery. It’s a lovely walk through the city, one to be savoured on a sunny morning downtown. I took the ferry from Devonport, where we live, across the harbour to the central business district. I stepped out of the ferry building, which looks squatty with high-rises sprung up all around. It used to be the most imposting structure on the skyline, back when gentlemen wore hats and tram cars ran through the streets.
I exited the building with the crowd and waited at the crosswalk with business men and business women and tourists in their polo shirts and camera straps and students with their portfolios and good haircuts and an aging rock and roller in his flat front cowboy hat and threadbare denim jacket and crocodile boots. The light changed to a green walk signal, a starters gun, firing our race across the city in all directions.
I followed an elderly couple holding hands diagonal to the west side of Queen Street and lost them when I cut through Britomart train station. The station smells of sweet Subway sandwiches and diesel fuel. The space is an an odd mixture of cold stainless steel chairs in a warm glass atrium. Here are some of the tourists with their large-lensed cameras, and the college students with their pink hair and takeaway coffee, the bankers and the professors and the rough-sleeping anarchists. A writer in their mix now. I can’t understand a word of the announcement over the public address system, too cavernous a space for the mid-range tones of a human voice, sounds bouncing off every wall and window and the corrugated lift shaft. The sound fades as I cross the door sensor and a glass wall opens and a fierce wind cuts across the station and ruffles my notebook pages.
I walked out and around the round tile fountain by the taxi stand and took a right down Commerce Street, and crossed just outside the American embassy. The next block over is a gentleman’s club and brothel loudly advertising free entry through lunch, not the same sort of business as a government office, but bustling just as well. I continue past a couple of shuttered fast food lunch spots and backpacker hostels and street prostitutes. The sun cuts across Commerce Street and lights up the white lines between the delivery trucks and sports cars. I walk under an awning shading the path with advertisements for gift shops, gambling rooms, and yoga studios. I cross through a day parking lot with an exit to Shortland Street. I had never walked to the top of Shortland, so I did this time.
Here is a higher end. Real estate headquarters, thirty nine stories of offices, top cut clothing boutiques, investment banks, empty cafés with irresistible lunch specials. It’s a street full of professionals and it’s the setting of a soap opera, yet the gentlemen still don’t wear hats. I’m stopping every ten metres to take notes, conspicuously interested in the massive slabs of nothing cropping up out of the streets.
At the top of the street is a flash car rental, a Kiwi Post, and a swanky art gallery. I took a split in the road up and around another hill and I lost my sense of the places and people and I started navigating by feel. The road follows the volcanic terrain, up, up, interminably up it seems. I stop to lean against a machine that dispenses parking slips, taking a few notes, remembering on paper, and a woman stops to say “You’re writing an essay. I can tell.” As she continues on I shout, “You’re perfectly right, you know!” And I won’t see her again to ask her how.
I make a right turn toward the university, which I recognise from all the trees and old buildings. Immature trees are cut into the foot path and cars cross from out of parking garages. The trees ahead and to the right must be Albert Park, I figure, and so it is. I enter to the right and just inside the gate is a garden clock that’s been there since 1953. The time is set correctly. The sun is high.
I follow the paths to a sculpture that I know can be seen from the second level sculpture garden of the art gallery. It is a line and a curve jabbed into the ground in a D shape. I’m tempted to think “I wonder what that is?” But then it occurs to me: it’s a line and a curve jabbed into the ground in a D shape. Full stop. This is my mission.
In the distance the university bell tower chimes. A swarm of nondescript people bask in the sunny breeze at the top of a volcano in the central city. Autumn’s closing in.
The Auckland Art Gallery is free to the public and I entered through the café patio to the mezzanine level where piles of large cardboard tubes and boxes had been scattered for kids to build with. Blocks bigger than them. The sun cut through the atrium and cast long shadows of the preschoolers’ sculptures against a wall beyond the main staircase. Someone ought to chalk outline the shadows and curate it as an exhibit of shape – “Shadows of Youth” (Various Artists, 2014). Instead, parents and caregivers take photographs that they’ll later share on social media and muse about what the kids meant to build. As if there was a design phase.
My simple mission: quit trying to find content in forms. See the form as the content – the colour as the shape. And let me tell you, this is no easy task, especially given my academic training as a philosopher, where “meaning” is deified to a point that we often trot out theories of it and worship the most purely rational results. Here I reject this pedigree.
A broom of fibre optic bristles attached to a wall, head up, facing out. A spectrum of light oscillating through the tips. I laughed quietly. How fun it might be to sweep with it. (Is this an interpretation, or am I simply happier for having seen such a form? Is this what I’m looking for? Is a search for this feeling a betrayal of my goal? Question after question, and I wasn’t yet settled down.) I read about the artist. He used to sweep galleries. Custodial work.
A pile of discarded metal objects welded together into a clump. My gut reaction: “I don’t get it!” Ah! The intellect eeking out its revenge again! Here are objects given new, unexpected shapes. I squat down and watch the outlines of the form against the white wall behind. Then I stand up and the forms move, changing against the parquet floor. So many ways a thing can be what it shouldn’t be. A basket. A scarf. A fluorescent lamp.
In form alone you see materials and shapes, not objects. More and more I feel a release from interpreted, rationalised life. I like it.
An angled grid of rectangles. Beige. Some cut into triangles. Black and red.
A crisp painting of a machine. A beautiful machine from the middle of the twentieth century. A portrait of a machine.
Next to the machine a portrait called “Samoan Woman In Yellow” (1954). Mostly triangles. Golden yellow. Solar yellow. Dusty yellow. I didn’t get a picture. I am amazed at how much a triangle can achieve. And I wonder how joyful might it be to look at a portrait without asking “who is this?” So I do. I trace back to my pre-interpretative impressions. She is a Samoan woman in yellow. She is a collection of triangles. She is paint on canvas. She is inspiration. She is beautiful.
That is enough.
Later I picked Noodle up at kindy and as always he had a new painting in his bag. I asked him, “what is it?” Ack! Hadn’t I learned anything today? He struggled to tell me, because it isn’t anything. It’s abstraction. It’s technique. It’s only a shape, no interpretation needed, no tyrannical correct answer. I backed off the question, and wondered. What benefit will either of us realise if he answers?
I asked him “did it feel good to put paint on the paper?”
“Yeah.” He brightened. Same as when I put words on paper. Then he said “and we hung it up on the rack and it dried and we built a school.”
“Built a school?”
“Yeah.” Brighter still. “I said we need a big boy school coz I’m a big boy!” And he told the story of arranging the big wooden blocks and the plastic dinosaurs and how his two best mates got involved and they built a gate so the animals wouldn’t get out – the animals? Then they rearranged the toys and cars they had brought over and lined them up for no other purpose but to appreciate them as a line. Counted out the cars, one, two, three…. Named their colours. Vroom vroomed them around and around. Gave them sounds, voices, stories.
The teacher said Noodle asked her to help round up the animals and put them in the new big boy school he built. While she helped she asked him “do animals go to school?” She said he stopped and thought about it for a minute, and you might as well have asked him for the meaning of life. But he gave the right answer, I reckon. He told her quite simply “well, they do today.”
And that was enough.
Christmas morning always smelled of pine trees and new clothes, and it’s strange how April in the southern hemisphere reminds me of those days. The weather turned from summer to autumn on Monday morning, and with it comes a shift in wardrobe and attitude. I opened the front door and it didn’t stick in the jamb as it has since late December. The air had dried up overnight, the winds picked up, and there won’t be any sailing in the harbour until the door sticks again, right around Christmas.
I stepped out on the porch and the air wasn’t crisp yet, but the weight of summer mornings had lifted. A few folding beach chairs will need to be stored, but the boy will keep riding his bike through the cold and the rain to come. He’s too tough and young to be fussed. I’ll pull my hat down low and turn up my collar while I watch him at the skate park, inventing new tricks in the rain and puddles and mud and muck, earth caked on his shoes and in his pedals. He’ll stop at nothing. I’ll be bundled and squinting on the sidelines. It’ll be our last season like this, before he starts school and I lose my job.
Even if they didn’t have incandescent lighting, Imperial Lane Café would be the best downtown. It’s a space between two buildings, bricks and concrete and plaster exposed, unfinished. Used to be a warehouse. The ceiling is black steel I-beams and a lighting rig and a heater that runs to the firehouse doors that open to Fort Street, a few tables spilling out among the delivery trucks and refrigeration units of the adjacent towers. The acoustics should be atrocious, but the interior shape is just right to transform talk-waves into a din at arm’s length. The gentlemen next to me chat, animated, serious, and I can’t make out a word. I can work in din like this, enjoy it to the point that I invite it, blend into it.
Electric wires in grey flex conduit power refurbished green-rusted iron task lamps. I adjust one over the leather wing-back chair and settle into the filamental glow. Lacquered steel side chairs and round brass coffee tables dot the interior. Mid morning and they are full of power brokers and artists and tourists, some meeting, some mingling, some laying back unnoticed.
Much of the clientele are dressed business formal, on break from the office tower attached. The servers and baristas are in casual black. I am in casual black, writing in a black notebook with a black pen, drinking a black coffee. It is autumn for sure.
The floor slopes toward Fort Street and the stools at the counter rise higher and higher to accommodate the angle, all level at the communal bench covered in design and fashion magazines. The manager sits at the bench with a laptop, clicking, and a notebook, scribbling, monitoring sales and inventory while workers work around him. A delivery truck honks through the alley, scattering pedestrians, and its brakes squeal as it stops, and the steel doors swing open and clang against the sides of the truck, and the man loads the boxes on a dolly, and he wheels them to where the owner sits among the fashion magazines, and the owner counts the boxes while the man waits impatiently, and the owner signs an invoice and keeps a copy, and the man wheels his empty dolly through the espresso crowd and back to his truck and takes off, and through the conversational din I can hear a kitchen knife slice through the packaging as the owner checks the beans and mustard and spices, and a woman in black suede pumps clicks across the black brick floor to the till and orders eggs on toast and a flat white and the girl gives her a folded metal number to place at the edge of whichever table she chooses because she’s the first of her group to arrive, and the owner takes the boxes to the back, behind the chain-link cage that separates the beer taps from the kitchen, and the printer at the line cook’s station eeks out “eggs on toast” and he cracks two over the flat top, as a man in brown leather loafers shuffles across the black brick floor to the till, and the cycle continues. And yet I still can’t make out a word of the conversation two metres away.
My cappuccino arrives and it’s as I like it. A chocolate powdered meniscus. Decadence. Fuel. I scrape the edges of the mug with the tiny spoon and drop it on the saucer, adding to the clatter and clang of silver and porcelain, and I find some comfort in these sounds, so familiar. A tin pan tune of days past, I want to think. As catchy a beat today as ever. An old coffee counter out of a Rockwell painting, dressed up for the big city, like me.
I’m a lucky man.
“Everything you say,” he says.
Yeah. Everything. Now please stop while I write this.
I suppose it’s my fault, at least to some extent. I love to annoy him by pretending to mishear things.
“Daddy can I have a ketchup sandwich?”
“What? You want spaghetti and spinach? Yuck!”
“No! A ketchup sandwich!”
“What’s an apple ipswich?” And so on until he gives up and flings a full glass of apple juice across the carpet, as if the clatter might clear out my ears.
“I don’t want apples!”
I knew there’d be a consequence to all my word games, and repetition is my comeuppance. Of course, he’s also learned the humour of self-deprecation, so I can’t break his repeating with the likes of “I smell like a fart.” He’ll cheerfully repeat “I smell like a fart” and add an actual fart for good measure. He knows I can’t fart on command, so he knows I can’t fight this level of one-upmanship. And we all know the winner of this game is he who gets the last one-up-word. I’ll need a better strategy.
When I stop to consider things, our silly word games aren’t all that annoying. I’d go so far to say they’re endearing, because he’s taken on a part of me and he’s making it his own and showing it off. I’m a word joker. He’s a word joker. And our pride cuts both ways. I show him off, to tell the truth — especially at the skate park because he’s so far ahead of himself on his bicycle. I celebrate him, and I want him to celebrate me just the same, which he does when he plays with words endlessly. That’s fathers and sons.
Just last week I bought a new hat. (Now, this might seem off topic, but trust me. It’ll come back around.) This was the first time I ever really picked something out with Noodle in mind. I figure I’m at an age and stage where it’s reasonable to acquire things that will last the rest of my life. I’m half way through my run, assuming my chips fall into a neat stack, and anything that lasts the rest of that run will end up in Noodle’s care.
This gets me to thinking about acquiring things that are timeless and well-made. At this point, I don’t mind spending more than I would have in the past, because it’ll be the last time I’ll buy. It’s ironic, but there’s an anti-consumer edge to it. I take myself out of a consuming market — and in this case, I enter an artisan’s market. It’s better here.
I’ve been thinking about hats for a while. When we moved to New Zealand, I figured I’d get a wide brimmed one, since there’s that hole in the ozone layer and all. It’s true. The sun here, even compared to the California desert we’re accustomed to, is sharp. The beams sear through to your bones. So I got an Australian style outback hat. Crushable wool felt. Three inch brim. (Those who only distinguish two types of hats — ball caps and brimmed hats — thought my Aussie hat was an Indiana-Jones-style fedora. No.)
Wool felt hats are bloody hot, let me tell you, and with a cotton sweat band, it’s a sopping salty mess in no time. They’re fine for winter hikes. Mine’s a knockoff of a good hat — thought I was saving a few dollars — and it’s a bit out of shape right now. That happens. It’ll iron and steam back easily enough. But it surely won’t outlast me.
As a summer replacement, last year I picked up a Chinese-made paper trilby (as they’ve come to be called) at a street market in Takapuna. They’re certainly more breathable, but what junk. The thin brim is useless, rendering it solely a fashion accessory, and truth be told, I don’t find a sense of timelessness in a thin-brimmed design. The colour on it faded from black to a decrepit charcoal in about thirty minutes. It looked ready for a fire, alright. Well, I kept wearing this monstrosity while I researched better quality headwear, and I resolved that I wouldn’t waste any more resources on knockoffs.
I got myself a straw fedora for the summer, but now with summer fading to winter, and me sitting on a capital gain from selling the California house, I figure why not quit futzing about and get the best for once and for all. Get something that’ll last the rest of my days, and my son’s days, and generations after that as long as we all treat it right. I settled on three options and found a single local source where I could try them. Leo O’Malley right here in Auckland, and I can’t say enough good about the fine gentlemen who run the shop.
It was rainy last Thursday. You could see the clouds rolling across the city, headed right toward us at the skate park in the morning. I took Noodle to kindy after lunch and I debated whether I should risk the weather and take the ferry across the harbour and make the trek up Queen Street to K’ Road. I took the risk, and wouldn’t you know on the way across the rain started chucking down in sheets. But I saw clear skies behind the storm and it was moving fast, as island weather tends. I waited in the ferry terminal on the city side, but it hadn’t let up by a couple rotations of the traffic control to cross into the central business district, so I ran through the waterfall and got soaked head to toe. I ducked into the mall to dry off until it settled to a drizzle, then dashed from awning to awning all the way up the hills of Queen Street, turned right at K’ Road, and found the shop on the next corner.
I entered and walked to the side where they display the hats and there were the three on my short list. One touch to each of the three ruled out one brand, and I settled on an Akubra, the Bogart model catching my eye more than the Stylemaster. It’s a classically-shaped fedora — not quite the same bashing and creasing of the iconic Casablanca look, but certainly a timeless silhouette. More Cary Grant really. It’s made of rabbit fur felt, sourced and produced entirely at the Akubra factory in Australia. The interior is as neatly trimmed as the exterior, with a leather sweat band and a satin liner. One appeal of these hats is that you can always steam and reshape them to roll with changing times. When you get a hat of this quality, you can do with it as you choose.
I put on the Bogart and it fit like a dream. I set the front where I wanted it to fall on my forehead and pushed the back down, sending the air inside down the back of my neck. That’s how to put on a hat. The leather band makes an indescribably huge difference in how it sits on and sticks to your head. My decision was made. This is it. This is my heirloom quality hat. Noodle’s hat. Plenty of sun protection. The highest quality materials available. The southern hemisphere’s answer to Stetson.
No need to wrap it. I wore it out of the store, and by then the sun shone all the way down Queen Street’s hills.
Yesterday Noodle and I drove up to Takapuna to pick up his mom and as I drove, I set the Akubra on the passenger seat. We arrived and I parked and I picked the hat up to make space for Wombat. Noodle looked at it, and I thought for sure I saw him admiring it.
I said to him, “You know, one day this will be your hat.”
“One day this will be your hat,” he repeated, annoyingly.
“I’m serious little man.”
I stared at him. Then he asked when it would be his, and I told him “when I’m gone. Like Grandpa Hal. I won’t be here forever you know.” He knows.
He thought about it. “You have to write your name in it,” he said. He looked at me, his eyes as brown as mine are blue. “You know. For when you’re gone.”
One day. One day he won’t remember this moment, but as I project ahead it’ll mean everything. Or maybe it’ll jog him when he digs through my stuff four decades down the line and he finds the Akubra with a little note permanently marked to the satin, next to the date. 3 April, 2014. Some crusty old rabbit fur hat that my dad loved, he’ll say out loud, and his little boy will say “some crusty old rabbit fur hat….”
I handed it to him and he put it on and it wobbled with about an inch to spare all around and he held it by the brim and yelled “Yee Haw!” and he pushed out a smile with every tooth in his head and he laughed and he danced in his seat. He knows the future as well as I do. Even what’s yet to come is no secret between us.
I told him “I love you forever, little man.” And he told me “I love you forever, little man.” He paused and pushed the hat up and looked at me and said quietly, “I mean daddy.”
I smiled and squinted from all the years and I could feel what he could see. I am getting older now. I repeated “I mean daddy,” and it rang just as true for me.
In the replica of the John Bain Toy Shop at the Canterbury Museum there is a doll house, known as the Historic Dunedin House, which on 22 February 2011 suffered damage in a 6.3 magnitude earthquake. Little replica people still look on in dismay at their knocked over china and chairs, frozen in time. One minute they were standing in their scale model cottage pouring scale model tea into scale model teacups and the next minute there were no teacups. Nor teapots. There still aren’t. The dolls’ expressions, once satisfaction and serenity, though unchanged, are now shock, frustration, and helplessness.
In this part, the whole.
The same quake shook the spire off the Christchurch Cathedral and levelled the central business district. One hundred eighty five did not survive.
New Regent Street still stands, more or less. It hasn’t been razed anyway and there are a few shops and businesses there. A café. A design firm. A souvenir shop. The pastel-washed Spanish Mission style buildings have been scrubbed to their brightest in years. No more loose bricks on the street. Fresh paint on the awning posts and the benches. A few planter boxes and oversized pots of flowers. Some closed down store fronts. Some urban stencil art. A clear blue sky.
New Regent intersects with Armagh Street, which was one of the main drags before the quake. It is dead now. I looked both ways for traffic before I crossed, but there was no need. There is no traffic anymore. A few buildings remain, but they are fenced off, shuttered, vacant. The remaining high rises have been vandalised. The windows that haven’t been tagged from the inside have been shattered, shards of glass and brick and the past swept behind the chain link barriers and posted warnings. The buildings fall eerily dark at night.
It is three years on and the tram is finally running again, but no longer on a loop. Damage to Armagh Street has cut the track in half. The tram route ends at the museum now. It starts in one direction at the intersection of New Regent and Armagh and ends on Worcester Street across from the Canterbury Museum. At that point the tram driver must exit the tram and swing the electric arm around to get the car moving the opposite way, just as we had watched him do at the corner of New Regent and Armagh as Noodle oohed and ahhed at the shining red and wood car.
Alan, the tram conductor, stopped at the seventh and final stop in front of the museum. He told us we would have continued down Rolleston Avenue to Armagh Street and loop back, before the quake that is. I remember this from our trip nine years before. Alan got out and swung the electric arm around and got back in and walked down the middle of the tram to the controls at the other end of the car, ready to make the run back down Worcester Street. The tram will pass the wreckage and construction and abandoned high-rises and vacant store fronts, giving way to traffic diverted from there to here after liquefaction undermined the streets, leaving them too lumpy and cracked for more than one lane in any direction. This would be Alan’s last run of the day.
Stop number six had been at The Arts Centre, which had been severely damaged in the quake. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority deemed all but one of the twenty three buildings unsafe. Red tagged. Originally the complex had been Canterbury College, where Ernest Rutherford, broadly regarded as the father of nuclear physics, first studied. By 1978, the now-University of Canterbury had moved to a larger suburban location, and the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust Board took control of the original buildings. The Trust Deed sets out the central aim of the Arts Centre: “to foster, promote, facilitate and encourage the interest of art, culture, education and other related interests….” I can attest that in 2005 they were doing exactly this. It’s different now, and probably will be different until their planned reopening in 2019. Now they foster and promote restoration and hope.
A few vendors from the Arts Centre remain in a square of shipping containers across the street. The containers are painted bright blue and have been refitted with rolling doors, which two shopkeepers were shutting for the night as we arrived. Most have either packed up and moved on, or simply moved on, nothing left to pack. None stay past regular business hours. There is no more regular business.
Tram stop number five had been in front of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetu which had only been open a year when we visited last. Now it is closed, but not because it suffered structural damage. In fact, Alan expressed his surprise that the glass atrium in front didn’t shatter in the shake. It remains without a crack. The trouble is that a corner of the building sank in the subsequent liquefaction. Now a contracting and recovery firm is working to jack the building, level it up, and install absorbing springs to help prevent future catastrophe. I’m still reeling at the idea of jacking up the corner of a museum. Alan treated it casually, a silent “of course” at the end of the paragraph in which he described the plan. I suppose the astonishing becomes pedestrian when you repeat the past present and future day in and day out.
Stop number four had been Cathedral Square. Alan pointed out an underground parking garage on our right, and on the rolling steel door in the bottom left corner under a devastating crack in the building was spray painted: UNKNOWN # CARS / UNRECOVERABLE / FLOODED. He reckons it’ll be a damned mess when they finally get down there. I thought how strange it must be to have your car submerged, trapped underground along with your compact disc collection and a change of clothes and a book of maps and maybe the last swig of a takeaway coffee that you’d get back to after lunch. Just sitting there. And you’d drive by every day in your now-three-year-old new car and this derelict building would remind you of those little bits of your life, tantalisingly out of reach, stuck in a structure full of if-only.
This was the point at which I thought I should write down Alan’s name, because it became clear to me that he was giving more than a tour. He was telling a story — a story whose narrator deserves respect. There aren’t many left to tell tales of this sort. Few people come here to listen anyway. Alan paused now and then when jackhammers ratted and tatted and rumbled and the diggers knocked against glass and concrete kicking up a crushing din. The air smelled of dust and damp buildings. On the horizon a crane quietly lifted a section of steel and concrete off the top of the tallest remaining structure. Within a couple weeks the whole thing will have been disassembled and the bits and parts will be on their way to other projects and purposes. Perhaps other buildings. So it goes.
At the front of the tram above where the conductor stands a sign says “Do not talk to the motorman.” I did anyway because I had a short conversation with him before we boarded and we were the only people taking off from stop one. We were some of the only people in the city, for that matter. On a Tuesday night around this same time of year nine years ago, this place was jumping. I remember.
I had asked the conductor about The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co., where I had gotten my wristwatch on the first Tuesday of April, 2005 soon after the shop had opened at nine in the morning. Somehow I had managed to hang on to their business card all these years and I was curious to see whether they had survived. Maybe show them that I still wear the watch and that it mattered then and it matters still. They would see there is something left and I will be its steward. The watch will remain.
Street View on the Internet shows the downtown before the quake, so I figured out from there where 184 would have been relative to the buildings at the corner of New Regent Street. Some buildings are cracked and crumbling, some are heaps of rubble, and some have been completely wiped out of existence and dusted up. Not a trace. 184 is the latter of these.
The buildings that were next to it are still there. To the right, at the corner of New Regent Street, was The Flying Burrito Brothers. They have relocated. The sign has been removed, probably moved to the new location I figure, but you can still make out the letters. The building is vacant. To the left was a bar and a bakery that had closed down not long before the quake, I deduce, because their sign had been painted over. Nothing has been painted since the quake. Certainly nothing red tagged. In the space between the two was one building with a Chinese Takeaway on the far right, an accounting and tax service to the left of that, and against a brick glass building vacant but standing, The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co. Its silhouette remains against the bricks of the adjacent building. It looks like a barn. When the shop stood, a dark red door led inside, set back from the sidewalk, tucked behind a couple of angled windows in which passers-by could browse for treasures.
Christchurch had been our first stop in New Zealand, and on the first Tuesday of April, 2005 we stood in front of Christchurch Clock & Watch Co. no more than a few hours after we had touched down. I realised that I had no way to tell the time but I needed a way. We had planned three full weeks of bed and breakfasts and homestays and hotels and day hikes and train rides and hired cars and water taxis and a tour bus and the Interislander that runs between the north and the south islands. With one form of scheduled transport after another, punctuality seemed a priority.
I had never been a watch-wearer, preferring to use public clocks throughout my university years, and I lived around enough chimes and spires to keep me on time. But here I was, six thousand miles from the familiar, starting an international adventure and a marriage, and I thought maybe I was ready to take on the responsibility of a personal timepiece.
We browsed the clocks and watches in the window and I said to my wife that I’d like to have a quick look. We pushed the dark red door open and a bell chimed and Lynn walked out from the back and asked if she could help. As all honeymooners do, I said that we were just married and travelling. I explained that I didn’t have a watch, but here we were and I needed a way to track the time. Nothing too fancy. I don’t remember exactly, but the Olma Allmaster might have been the first one she showed me. It had a plain pearl face with silver numbers at the twelve, three, six, and nine and two silver hour marks between each and four small minute marks between each of those. The case, lugs, and crown were all stainless steel. You could see where the radium had flaked off the hands, but no matter. Once Lynn explained that it didn’t need a battery because it wound itself kinetically, I was sold. She asked me which band I preferred and I picked a black leather one and she installed it. When she was done we paid and I buckled the watch to my wrist and it felt strange as my wedding ring still did. I’d get used to both soon enough. At this point, visiting Christchurch again nine years later, after all that all of us have been through, I can’t imagine my life without either.
Everybody, including me, thought the shop was on the other side of New Regent Street, but it turns out that had been a bookstore and a men’s shop. Now the bookstore is trees and planter boxes of flowers. A couple of kids in school uniforms sat there in the sunset, flirting over homework.
The spot that used to be the watch shop is now an information site and I talked to the pretty girl who ran it as she swept some scuffed gravel off the sidewalk, the sun setting behind the rubble. “This was a Chinese place and an accountant, I think.” I snapped a picture of where the building used to be.
I caught back up with the family on New Regent Street and Noodle asked me to hold him up to the potted flowers so he could smell them. Potted flowers in the midst of this, I thought.
Then the tram dinged and rumbled to the end of the street and Noodle shouted that he wanted to ride it. The conductor said he only had time for one more run and that it’s usually ten dollars for the whole day, but he’d charge us half price at this hour.
The conductor was smartly dressed in a white shirt with a name badge, charcoal trousers with a cherry red stripe up the side, a precisely squared hat, and shining leather shoes. Across his chest was slung a leather satchel of tools and in it, among tickets and maps, was an antique set of side cutters and a hole punch. He issued our tickets and punched the days and months and handed them back and fiddled with the side cutters as we talked outside the tram.
I asked him about the watch shop and he knew the place. He remembered it being next to Petersen’s Jewellers at the corner which used to be the bookstore. He said Petersen’s planned to return to New Regent Street after their temporary lease ran out across town. Three to five years. Then I told him I had gotten my watch at The Christchurch Clock & Watch Co. on the first day of our honeymoon and I was here to find the spot because, well, it made a difference. It was my first memory of New Zealand. My home now. We paused a few seconds and looked around together at what remained and what was yet come. I held up my left wrist and tapped the watch’s scratched up face and said quickly “ev’ry day.” I couldn’t muster any more words. He looked at my watch, then at the tram, then at New Regent Street, then me.
The conductor’s voice crackled as he told of the shop owners whom he knew by name and that they hadn’t relocated but he’d heard maybe one employee was still working on timepieces from home. The conductor was not a man prone to crackling. His conduct is his job, after all. He collected himself and his speech was steady, unaffected, professional. I probably looked a mess to him, scruffly next to his neatly-trimmed white beard, my watch face banged up with memories, my eyes tired from all this life, all this rattling and frustration.
We looked at one another and passed an emotion back and forth as we’d pass a parcel in a birthday game. I looked away from the conductor when I saw his eyes, great and blue and full as mine. Full of sadness. But goddamnit just as full of hope because I’m still wearing this watch and he’s still giving this tour and the two of us are standing here in the sunset on a warm Autumn evening surrounded by a skin of rubble in the heart of a healing city. I saw my son’s little green shoes kick against the seat in the tram while he looked out the window at the pastel-washed Spanish Mission style buildings, scrubbed to their brightest in years. Dazzled by the diggers just behind.
“Shall we carry on?” one of us asked aloud. We answered with actions and I felt I knew this man as I know myself. Connected in purpose. We live a certain way. We simply do as we must, called by memory and answering to fate.
We climbed the lacquered wooden steps into the tram and I took a snapshot that didn’t capture the moment and the conductor edged the car forward and spoke into a microphone, his stories amplified across the car and out the windows, drifting into the empty streets, the day fading from evening to night. He paused now and then when jackhammers ratted and tatted and rumbled and the diggers knocked against glass and concrete kicking up a crushing din. The air smelled of dust and damp buildings. On the horizon a crane quietly lifted a section of steel and concrete off the top of the tallest remaining structure….
I entered the Family Times Springfree Trampoline competition with no expectations. “Nothing to lose” isn’t exactly an expression of competitive enthusiasm, but that’s how I thought of it. I figured if I won, I’d take it as a sign that I was cut out for more than sawing wood, which I’ve already tried and failed at anyway.
You’re probably wondering what a Springfree Trampoline is. Obviously, it’s a trampoline. But it’s special because the mat doesn’t get tensioned by horizontally-placed coil springs. Instead, it’s suspended above a frame by a series of tension rods. This means you can jump on the entire surface of the mat and not slip through and gouge your leg on a spring or smack your head on hunk of steel. (Not surprisingly, Springfree pushes the safety angle pretty hard in their marketing. They should. It’s true.)
You might be wondering where to get one. Well, even though they’re a Kiwi invention, you can get them all over the world. For all you US readers, there’s a distributor near you somewhere. The Springfree website has all the information you need. But be aware, they’re not cheap. As is often the case, if you’re looking for the best, you’re not going to find bargains. Springfree is the best.
Anyway, about the contest: Every now and again I would give a shout out in my social media circles — thank you all by the way! — and though the circles are small, y’all are an enthusiastic bunch and I want you all to pop by and enjoy the spoils of your loyalty. Your response and votes turned out enough to warrant a call from an editor at Family Times.
– Hello is that Brian?
– Yes. Hello.
– Ah Brian, this is Rochelle from Family Times. I’m calling to let you know you’ve won —
I work with a Rochelle at Kiwi Families as well, so in my bleary head, I had to work out what was going on.
— the Springfree Trampoline.
-Whoa! Wow. Uh. Wow. That’s really cool ….
This was well-timed and very good news. We’ve had a trampoline on loan and Noodle loved it, but the loaner went to a new home. Noodle missed jumping whenever he wanted. But, our very own tramp was on the way!
Friday I heard from Springfree and let me tell you, they’re lovely people. I had watched their online videos so I knew plenty about the products and I had read all the documentation on their site. Seemed like they really had their act together, and they didn’t disappoint.
The gentleman (whose name I didn’t write down and have regrettably forgotten!) and I chatted casually about the tramp and accessories and safety and good old fashioned fun. He confirmed my details, assured me I should be able to set it up myself, and said the freight company would call soon, which they did. On Monday it arrived as promised. A crisp end-of-summer day as well.
A friend came by to help assemble it, and let me tell you, the videos make it look easy. It’s really a bit of a workout. If you’ll bear with a couple quick tips:
Install the net correctly! To figure out how, look at Step 8 in the manual. We had been struggling to figure this out, and when my friend went to pick up his son at school, I sat back with a beer and figured I’d combine the lessons from the video with the suggestions in the manual. I can recommend doing the same in a beach chair in the shade, if only to keep the beer cool.
Here’s the thing: Picture what will happen when you put the net up. It’s like putting on a sock from inside out to right side out. Imagine what it will look like later, and how it would look if you let it drop to the ground, past where it attaches to the mat. It’d be inside out, right? Get it oriented correctly NOW. You don’t want to re-assemble later. Give it a test run before you start the pad installation to make sure when the sleeves for the pole are up in the air, they’re on the outside and the “Springfree” logo is facing outward.
On to the pad installation. In the video, the inventor makes the rod installation look easy. I reckon they edited out most of the cursing and spilled beer for the final cut. Those buggers are under a lot of tension. Do the first four in the order they recommend. Then split the difference and repeat the same order. The split the difference, etc… until you’re done.
In theory it’s a push inward and slightly up then a click slightly back toward you. But the tension is so high that you end up pushing and lifting the whole structure! Sand bag it first or have someone brace it. And keep in mind that it’s damned hard to see the clips underneath when you’re grunting against the rod with all your might (and trying not to spill your beer.) A person under the trampoline, as suggested in the video, is invaluable.
Now, if you’ve struggled with squaring up the steel ring to start, as we had and I imagine everyone does, all this tension should have squeezed it into shape. In our case, a couple of the center braces were off so I whacked them back into place with a mallet, protecting the braces with one of the half million or so shards of cardboard it comes packed in. (The packing job leaves nothing to chance.)
The rest is simple. Just make sure everything clicks into place, because everything clicks. Got it? Click click click, or it ain’t in right.
Then go bounce!
* I don’t want to suggest that the assembly process is overly daunting. In the videos, you’re warned that the installation of the net can be confusing and the installation of the rods can be difficult. All I’m saying is: it’s true! Maybe try these tips of you’re struggling.
A couple of positive points about the trampoline:
The jumping surface of this smallest model (2.5m) is (within inches) the same size as a ten foot spring trampoline. Without the springs pulling horizontally, you save about two feet in every direction, as far as its footprint goes. Same jumping surface takes up less space overall. This is good.
Also, the bouncy sides are super fun. On a traditional horizontally-spring tramp, the sides simply catch you if you start to bounce off. On the Springfree, they’re an additional bouncy surface. Noodle is smitten with them.
Springfree trumps up the safety angle in all their marketing, and they’re right to do so. It’s clearly a superior product when it comes to potential for injury. But beyond that, it’s better looking! Downright stunning, I’d say. The quality of materials is a cut above. The frame is nicely powder coated. The net is neatly stitched. The door zipper is smooth. Just all around, it’s an attractive piece of engineering.
** If you’re new to DaddingFullTime or want to read more about where the trampoline lives, check out My Radiometer.
*** This is not a sponsored post. Springfree has no expectations of me, and they said as much when we spoke. Their deal was with Family Times, as I see it, and I’m under no obligation to say boo about the thing. I’m writing this because I appreciate good engineering, and I really like the darned thing. This is just part of my life, and I write about my life, and my life now includes a Springfree trampoline, so. Fair play, right?
I can’t say how my life would have turned out had it been cloudy the day my fourth grade class visited the Peabody Museum in New Haven Connecticut. I certainly wouldn’t be standing here looking out my kitchen window at a honey locust tree, a trampoline, and a little boy, a world away from where I started.
My mom had given me her last five dollars for pocket money, and I reckon she figured a few of those would come back. They didn’t. Instead, in the gift shop, I saw a radiometer in a beam of sunlight, paddles spinning like mad. “I should have this,” I thought. I got one off the shelf, still boxed up, sky blue background with yellow letters: “Radiometer. Powered by the sun.” This was thirty one years ago, and it was the best five dollars I’ve ever spent.
When I got home, my mom asked what the radiometer does. “The paddles spin around in the sun” I told her. She looked at it sideways as everyone else in my class had, wondering what’s the point of this ridiculous thing on the verge of smashing to a million little bits at the least bump or skitter. It looks like a light bulb but more fragile with a flared base and a needle-point post sticking up through the middle. Balanced on the post is a criss-cross of metal paddles, one side painted black and the other white. Inside it’s a partial vacuum. When you set it in the sun the paddles spin as if the light bouncing off the white side gives them a push, but that’s not why. It’s actually magic.
The day I got the radiometer we put it on the kitchen window sill and watched it for a little while and that’s where it stayed. Every now and again I’d take it out in the driveway in the sun and watch it spin as fast as can be, then move it into the shade under the big tree we used to climb all summer and rake up in autumn and hide behind when snowballs flew in winter. Didn’t spin as fast in the shade. Faster in the sun. Same result every time, as if I was gathering data to prove something nobody doubted. Then I’d put it back on the kitchen sill and wait until the sun came around to do the dishes and watch it spin some more.
We lived in the house another ten years and the day I saw the “For Sale” sign out front I kept on driving until I got out of town past dark and I went and punched a wall in an empty parking garage and cried out loud. It was the first place I really thought of as home. When you ask me where I grew up, I’ll tell you it was there. Half a mile from the golf course where I worked my first job as a dishwasher. Wore a pair of work boots flat walking back and forth over the years. Five hundred feet down the road lived my grandfather who rescued his daughter from a man I didn’t know much about except that he wasn’t around and I wasn’t supposed to end up like him. Lost a whole lot of years like that. It was Grampie who did most my early raising, impatient and grumpy and stubborn as a mule, doing his best if he did anything at all.
When we moved I wrapped the radiometer in newspaper and hoped it’d make it, but I had no expectation it would. Too fragile I figured. I put it in a box with the kitchen stuff because that’s what it had become, little different from a spatula or a slotted spoon.
We unpacked in Rocky Hill, a few miles up the road, now in a condo with my new step-father. I remember putting it in the kitchen, but I wasn’t home much to watch it those days. Time blurred for me, fired up by school, studying physics and dabbling in philosophy. Seems the things a kid with a radiometer would gravitate toward, when I think back.
A couple years later my mom and step-father moved to Atlanta and I stayed in Connecticut to finish school and look after the place while they put it up for sale. That’s how I left home.
When the movers came I kept the radiometer aside, wrapped it in some old Christmas paper that didn’t seem worth keeping, and put it in one of three boxes of stuff I had left in the world.
These were times of transition in other ways as well. I’d recently re-united with my dad who lived a couple exits down the highway and employed himself as a builder. On Saturdays I headed over to his workshop and he showed me the power of electric tools, a keen eye, and good old fashioned patience — something he didn’t have back when he needed it but now he knew better. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my father it’s that Forgiveness will wait until you work out how to forgive. Over a year we built a guitar and a relationship and I’m happy to report I’ve still got both.
My dad and I loaded my three boxes into his van and moved me to Waterbury Connecticut where I shared an awkward few months with a friend in a one bedroom apartment with a couple of cats I was allergic to. I can’t say exactly why it was awkward except that she was a she and I was a he, and though my only interest was a place for my stuff there was another he in her life who thought she was doing me more than a favour. Soon I realised I was her pawn and moving me in was her gambit. To win was to shade this other fella green. She won. I left. I hadn’t even unpacked the radiometer.
Not long after, my dad picked me up and we packed my three boxes back into his van and moved me to a rented room in New Britain down the street from Central Connecticut State University where I was finishing my last year. This house had a shared kitchen and I unpacked the radiometer and put it on the window sill because I knew I’d live there a while and that’s where radiometers belong.
I finished at Central and the next stop was California. Off on the adventure of my life to graduate school. My dream. I had a fellowship lined up when I got there but I had to figure out how to get there first. I worked a technical writing job all summer and saved up some money and put it toward a 1984 Chevrolet S-10 long-bed pickup, a landscaper’s truck with a lousy carburetor but easy to work on roadside and parts where cheap.
I packed up the radiometer and another eighteen months of books I hadn’t given away and my bicycle I aimed to keep forever but sold some years later for thirty dollars and loaded it all under the camper shell and locked it with a makeshift padlock system I’d rigged up. It was a hot August afternoon. Next morning was cool enough for my denim jacket and leather vest and hair tied back and down past my shoulders – I was a punk. I stopped at my uncle’s house that used to be my grandfather’s house back when I first got the radiometer. My mom and step-father were staying there because they’d moved back from Atlanta and now I was the one headed out. That simple fact didn’t keep any eyes any dryer than they’d been through the years of so-longs and goodbyes, and everyone figured I’d be back soon enough. Maybe even later that day.
We said what needed to be said and I’d surely be as safe as everyone prayed and I took a few snapshots and they took a few snapshots and I backed out and drove up the street and got gas on the way to the interstate and it wasn’t tearful for me until I saw the “New York Welcomes You” sign fading in the rearview. I convinced myself I was pulling off for breakfast but the reality of my situation was obvious to the waitress pouring endless coffee, to the couple with their kid fidgeting in the booth across the aisle, and to the trucker at the counter, his eyes gentle and unexpected and still squinting at the road. He said he’d see me out there, dropped his change in an empty coffee cup and squared his hat and climbed into a red rig with a Carolina decal on the door and took off west and I never did see him again.
I spent a week following a Triple A map and hoping for the best, too green to know what to expect and too dumb to be afraid. I was a twenty three year old kid living out of a working man’s truck with two spare tires, a canister of gas, and somewhere tucked away in a box, bouncing across America under a blistering hot and beat up camper shell, one very fragile radiometer.
The first place I lived in California was student housing at the University in Riverside. Bannockburn it was called. There’s a sub shop my age in the complex and it still tastes like home whenever I visit. First food I ever ate in California was there. Chopped chicken on a bed of lettuce. I picked off the carrots. I took it under a tree nearby on campus and watched the pretty people walk past and I wondered if they’d gotten there by acts of ambition and naïvety as I had. Now there’s an art building built on that spot and it feels like I can’t really go back every time I try. Funny how so many places used to be someplace else.
Anyway my first apartment on my own was a tiny one bedroom that cost exactly half my fellowship income, but I knew what I was in for and I lived easy. The trouble was this place didn’t have a kitchen window. Where’s a guy supposed to put his radiometer? I set it on the desk in the bedroom where the sun shone in late afternoons and sometimes I’d lay there and meditate on the spinning paddles and imagine the blank canvas of my new life and I sketched out ways I might fill it with colour and shape.
I lived there a year or so before I needed a cheaper place and settled on a dump down the road, also without a kitchen window. I moved again in my Chevy and the starter motor quit in the lot of the new place, so I always parked it on a slope out back pointing downhill, ready to take my one chance to pop the clutch and fire it up. After I found a second job, I fixed it in a parking space between an abandoned motorcycle and a dumpster.
Though the place had no kitchen window the sliding door in front opened to a balcony. These were wild times, so I put the radiometer on the railing outside and sometimes I’d sit and watch it spin as the sun drifted down behind the olive trees and bus stop and vagrants and the paddles would slow to a stop and I’d get dinner on before the nightly trouble started.
I had enough of the crime around there so I put the stuff I didn’t want anymore in my storage space behind the building and locked it. Next day it was gone. They had pried the lock off with a shovel and taken the used motor oil I’d stored in a milk jug and the canvas tent whose poles had already been stolen some months back. I borrowed some tools since mine had been stolen when they smashed out the back window of the camper shell and I took the shell off and left it between the dumpster and the motorcycle and they took that too. I kept their goddamned shovel.
The radiometer survived the earthquakes and the El Niño winter and I put it in a box with the kitchen stuff and moved it a few blocks south toward campus out of reach of such poor behaviour. Now I had a roommate and a higher style of living. My bedroom window overlooked a clean pool and a jacuzzi and I’d leave it open summer nights and never hear gunshots.
Again, no kitchen window, but we had a decorative rock garden out front where we put a bistro table and a couple chairs. I set the radiometer there, still living the wild life, and wouldn’t you know one day the wind blew it off into the rocks.
Not a scratch on it.
By the next time I moved I drew a decent living and the sun was setting on my days as a philosopher. I could afford nicer digs now – a one bedroom with its own washer and dryer and a courtyard view. Felt like I had earned this kind of life, and I saw the apartment the same way I saw the drawers of artifacts at the Peabody Museum. To be admired. Part of a catalogue. On display.
Apartment architects mustn’t be keen on kitchen windows. Here the radiometer lived at the corner of my desk next to the computer monitor where I established, scientifically, that the radiation beaming off those contraptions is utterly unlike sunlight. I guess it was in the wrong place, and I was too busy those days with work and the remnants of school and a booming social life to give it the attention it needed. The paddles sat idle for a year. By now, the radiometer was nineteen years old with no more permanent a home than a sideshow. It deserved better after all I’d put it through. Hell, I’d been through the same.
Then one day I met a girl. It was the beginning of a new and beautiful life for my radiometer. We first met in person at the botanic gardens at the university where she snuck up on me amidst the cactus and peeked to be sure I didn’t have three heads, as she later put it. We walked. We talked. We lingered at the back of my Jeep, leaning on the spare tire, picking off bits of unfinished rubber from the treads. I knew times were changing when I said “well I’m getting cold and hungry, so either I go warm up and eat or we go warm up and eat.”
We warmed up and ate.
Within a few months she’d decorated my place with herself, which really spruced up the mood in there. I can’t remember if I showed her my radiometer. Pretty soon I realised I needed a kitchen window again, so I bought a house and invited her to come along and she did.
I packed up all my stuff in bankers’ boxes — the sort with handles and lids you can buy in bulk at discount office suppliers. I wanted the move to be as tidy as my apartment had been, so I wrapped and packed everything obsessively neatly and stacked the boxes in precisely dolly-high columns by the front door. The radiometer made it in with the scatterings from my desk, though I’m not sure I wrapped it, come to think of it.
A few friends arrived and it was the easiest move anyone had ever seen. Nothing beats a dolly and a good plan. Within three hours we had packed the truck with the precisely stacked columns and the couches and the bookcases, delivered the goods to now-my 1912 Craftsman-style bungalow in an historic district downtown, and we’d drunk a pitcher each of cheap beer by the time our cheeseburgers arrived.
Life in the house on Linwood Place made California feel like home, and if anyone asks me where I’m from now, I say that’s it, because the house and my wife are the best choices I ever made.
As a structure, the house is brilliant. True-dimension framing, all redwood, and a porch across the whole front, covered by the roof, pitched out eight feet past the solid mahogany door. The kitchen window over the sink looked out on a fenced yard, perfect to contain parties, dogs, and a toddler seven years later. I set my radiometer there to catch some afternoon sun, and it did so for nine years. I looked at it a lot, but you know how it is when you look at something and you’re aware it’s there but you don’t really take strong notice, as you would if it were gone? Some people call it “taking for granted,” but I don’t see how there can be much taking when you’re not giving attention. That’s how it was those days. We were both there. But just there. Spinning.
It wasn’t until we decided to move to New Zealand that it occurred to me I still possessed the radiometer, wholly intact, despite every odd stacked against it. For the first time in twenty nine years I worried about it. I packed it so damned carefully you could have run over it with the moving truck and punctured a tire before the glass so much as smudged.
The radiometer arrived via container ship to the port of Auckland some six weeks after us, and that’s the longest we’ve been apart in thirty one years.
We have moved once in New Zealand, and when I moved the radiometer I took it in the front seat with me, wrapped in an Egyptian cotton towel and buckled in with the shoulder belt and fully protected by the passenger side airbag in case of head-on disaster. I took it slowly because now it mattered more than ever if either of us got hurt. My son is sure to love that radiometer one day the way he loves his own hand, and all I can say is this fact makes things different. So I’m doing my best if I do anything at all.
Now the radiometer sits happily on our kitchen window sill overlooking a honey locust tree and a trampoline and the little boy. The other day I noticed it had a coat of grease on it from all the fried chicken I’ve been doing lately. I ran the tap until the hot water steamed and I rinsed it and poured a pea-sized dab of Sunlight Soap on a sponge and caressed the surface gently until an oily film rainbowed across the glass and I rinsed it again and again until the water sheeted off and I dried it with a microfibre cloth I reserve for dusting vinyl records and I set the radiometer on our front porch table and sat in the rocker overlooking the honey locust tree and the trampoline and the little boy, and I watched the paddles spin like mad in our new home, precisely eight thousand eight hundred and ninety nine miles from where we started.
Last week we sold the house on Linwood Place and it felt easy at the time but I figured out this morning it hasn’t been and won’t be as easy as it seemed. I figured out why I was so insufferably cranky with the boy on Tuesday at the beach when all he wanted was to play in my chair and dig a hole and laugh as the tide rolled in across his shoes. I figured out why I’ve been quiet at night and tired all day and why I wake up first in the mornings staring at the shadows on the wall as the sun comes up and just wondering. No topic. No words or pictures in my head. Wondering quietly.
Certain people and experiences and stories and dreams stick with you in this world, make you feel grounded no matter where you find yourself, and I’ve got plenty of those. My beautiful wife. My beautiful son. All the schooling and moving and a future more focused with every sentence I write.
But sometimes it’s nice to have something to tie your memories and stories together — to remind yourself it’s not all dreaming — to hold some physical thing, some totem, some part of it all. All these years. All this time and space. I’ve still got a manual egg beater I would use to whip up mixing bowls of water when I was a little boy and my son does the same with it now. I’ve still got a Stanley Works Philips head screwdriver made in New Britain that I used at Christmas to fix the bell to his bike. And when I stand there frying chicken in my cast iron skillet on a Sunday afternoon, looking out over the trees and the trampoline and the little boy, seeing New Zealand and my future crisp as a summer day, right there on the window sill I’ll always have my radiometer.
They tell me it used to be a bowling green, but now it’s sealed with asphalt and the kids come up here after dark and drink and smoke and grow up too fast. Half the perimeter is a concrete bench and I’m sitting here watching my little boy race around on his Christmas bike, his first with pedals, and I’m entertaining the possibility of taking off the stabilisers already. He’ll be four next month, he’s had the bike a week, and I’m not a man known for a saint’s patience.
I figure I’ll bring a first aid kit and a couple wrenches and we can remove the wheels together and patch up the bumps and scrapes to come. I won’t fool myself into thinking my boy’s going to maintain a scar-free perfect complexion all his youth. If he did, he wouldn’t have lived.
Before I was a dad I thought I’d be more sentimental about his skin and bones, keeping them protected and intact and free from harm at any costs. Then I remember my own younger years: that slash from putting my arm through the glass window on our garden shed at age seven – it’s freckled over but still there. That stitched up mess on my palm from a misguided chisel a decade ago reminds me to use the right tool for the job, and by all means take all the time you need. Scars are healed memories and lessons learned. Nothing wrong with that.
I thought the boy would be more sentimental about his old bike. Not so. He cast it right aside and took up the new one, shiny and red and white, with a gusto he usually reserves for pizza and ice cream and telling tales of a superhero dolphin he created in the bathtub and who now inhabits his wildest dreams. Calls him Zapho. And together they save the world.
We headed down the hill to the park and swings and slides and shade trees and the evergreen stand the kids call “the forest.” Up a slight rise off the path to the beach is the bowling green and we push the bike up the grass full of bees and clover. At the crest of the hill he hops on and wobbles across the lot in circles and eights.
I watch and breathe in the jasmine blooming after yesterday’s rain and he stomps the brake and skids from one puddle to the next kicking up a wake of muddy mist. I’m holding a wrench and some hope that the inspiration of his friend L___ will spark a pitstop to remove the stabilisers. He said he wanted to get rid of them so he could go faster after he saw his friend take off in a zip across the lot last week. Somewhere between letting him down and pushing him too hard is the right time to do it, and I’m hoping this is the moment.
After a lap he skids over to me, stops at my feet, and says “take them off.” I show him lefty loosey and he spins the nuts until they clatter to the blacktop and I pull off the wheels and line up the pieces as he tips the bike upright and puzzles over what to do next.
“Swing a leg over.” He straddles the bike and looks up at me and smiles and says “Go!” I remember that L____’s difficulty was learning to start on his own, so I show Noodle how to orient the pedals and his feet.
“See what you’ve got. One up and one down. Put one foot up on the pedal and keep the other foot down on the ground.” He wobbles but he’s doing it. “Push off with the down foot and down with the up foot, then it’s circles circles circles.” He starts and I push him by his shoulders holding him upright. He keeps pedaling no matter what because no-matter-what’s our mantra, whistling in his ears and through the bird chirps in the breeze.
He tends to wobble and tip to the right and I catch him and tell him to steer against the fall – not what to do at speed, sure, but we’ll get there. Twice around the lot and I’ve got a sense he doesn’t need me, but he says “I want to go back to the pits. Put them back on.” We head back and wrench together. Rightey tightey, square them up and he hops on and takes a half lap, cuts back to me and says “no no no take them off.” Again we work together and I let him yank them off this last time and toss them in the grass as far as he can reach. We orient the pedals, pushing the bike forward while kicking one pedal to position. “Off with the down foot and down with the up foot.” One lap with me as his stabiliser and I tell him to get ready to do it himself.
I hold his shoulders. I open my palms slowly and we separate, static energy and perfect harmony between us holding him upright. I run. He accelerates. I can’t keep up. He’s off. My boy is off. On his own.
“You crazy kid. Well what’d I expect.”
Nobody hears me speak my surprise out loud. Nobody needs to hear. Nobody witnesses the milestone but us. The two of us. In a magical moment I’ve dreamed over and over. A moment that drew us in, up here in an abandoned bowling green on a summer evening six thousand miles from where he was born three years and eleven months before. A moment both ineluctable and unsentimental, and he’s another step closer to becoming his father.
I walk back to the pitstop watching him wheel in circles and I sit down with my wrench and the idle trainers behind me and he skids to a stop in front of me and swings his left leg across the top bar and leans off to the right in a perfect dismount. “Look!”
Not a moment to waste, he straddles again, squares up the pedals, pushes off and down while looking behind at me and shouts “Back off suckers” as he takes off full speed.
What is sentiment but attachment to a memory? And what attaches to memories but people – people who perceive themselves in the world – a sense we call “apperception.” My little boy knows who he is. If you ask him he’ll answer readily and maybe even enthusiastically. And if you mess with him and insist that he’s “Frank” or a gaseous funny smell rather than a solid little boy you’ll ruffle him to pure frustration. “C’mere Frank and sit with me” riles him up to no end. He’s got a name and you better use it right because he already senses that it’s one thing nobody can take away and how dare anyone even try. Or sometimes I’ll sniff the air around him and pretend he’s not there and complain about a funny stink in the room. “Noodle where are you? Can you smell that, wherever you’ve run off?” Dadding days can be long and we’ve got to amuse ourselves however we can. Anyway his rebukes are swift and stern. He sure enough knows who he is, but I wonder whether he attaches to memories the way I do, or whether he attaches to things or to people or to the world as he knows it.
The speed with which he dispensed his old bike in favour of the new both thrilled and alarmed me. He loves the new one, and that’s good news. But wait – why isn’t he the least bit sentimental about the old? Not a nod goodbye. I think he even stepped over it at the bottom of the porch stairs, laying on its side in the wet grass, forgotten before his first new ride. I wonder if the new bike matters to him, really? Or whether it will suffer the same fate one day not too long from now, coming quicker every day it seems.
I’m plenty sentimental about my favourite bike, the one I ride now and probably will for the rest of my days. It’s been under me on some downright sublime adventures and those memories mean more than I can probably convey in a thousand words. We did our first century together, rode from San Francisco to San Diego in a week on a charity ride, and there’s the countless trips to and from work, to the grocery store, to the pub…. It’s part of my identity now. My favourite tires, favourite leather saddle, favourite bars and brake lever and pedals. It’s my bike, in all its dull purpled brown, one-speed glory.
But I hardly remember the details of my first bicycle. I remember the fact of a bike but the bike itself has no shape in my head. Coaster brake. #42 badge on the front. Might have been blue. I’m not sure. I remember in facts more than colours, these days.
I reckon this is something we pick up over time – this attachment to memories I mean. I’m not sure Noodle’s time has come. He tears the wheels off every toy car he owns, knocks over every model and every castle and every train track and station and city we’ve ever built. I guess that’s just being a kid, right? Yet I’m still surprised at his instant detachment from his trusty ol’ balance bike. If I didn’t know better I’d worry.
Last night I went out on a bike ride with a friend who’s training for her first triathlon. Noodle was awake when we left, but it was late for him and I figured he’d be out cold by the time we got back. Nope. In fact, when I walked in he called to me. So I went in his room and knelt beside him and brushed his hair to the side as he sat up straight on his bed, a bit wet-eyed even. I took him by the hands and we pressed noses together and inhaled one another as we do every night. “You’re still up” I said.
He looked at me for a bit. Studied my eyes in his and I could see he was thinking. He picked up my right hand in his two and fiddled with my fingers gentle as a bird as he said “Daddy next time before you go out on your bike you say goodnight right.”
I kissed his forehead, pinched his chin, and he drifted straight off.
The old man said to me “you’ve got to be careful” and he gestured with a slash to his throat and up his cheek. Might be he was reliving his navy days, 1963 Devonport, before houses hit seven figure prices and while it was still a rough and tumble fighting town of sailors, drunks, and alley rats. It sure doesn’t have the look of trouble on its face now.
I had just sat down with a pint at a window seat overlooking the roundabout where the main drag meets the strand. Another pub kitty corner, a bookshop directly across, and a franchise lunch bar at the far side. All the folding windows were open, benches and stools in front of them overlooking the tourists and high powered barristers and students surfing through summer holiday. The old man walked by and glanced at me and he came in and stepped up to the bar and ordered a house white and a water and the bartendress said she’d bring it to him. I gathered he would sit with me by the window on the next empty seat.
When Melissa walked in, all heads turned except for the gentlemen, but you could see their eyes strain in their sockets. Hot pink spaghetti strap top, blue denim shorts cut above the thigh, four inch black heels, sun-bleached brown hair pulled in a casual knot, and a half moon jewel at the tail of her left eyebrow. I imagine there were more treasures to be found. Her voice was husky, brash, American, and she introduced her purpose before she introduced herself. She’d been in Auckland six weeks and was ready to work “anywhere on the North Shore.” Food and bar service interested her and her service interested the patrons, but not the pony-braided bartendress who kept glasses full just fine thank you very much. The owner asked her name.
“Pleased to meet you. I can make some inquiries.” But he wouldn’t. She knew and everyone in the place knew because we all listened and watched and wondered with her and about her. When she thanked him for his time and walked out, it was forever.
The old man shuffled against his cane. Overweight, underdressed, marginally groomed, tidy hair but a few days scruff on his cheeks. He looked the sort of bloke you’d expect to be clean shaven. Back when.
I felt him moving toward me and when he arrived next to me he gestured to the open space and I waved my palm face up, handing him the seat, and I said aloud “please sir.” He leaned on his cane with his left hand and slid the stool away from me and toward him with his right. He steadied himself, hung the cane on the bar, and leaned his belly forward over the stool and spilled into a seated position looking out the window as if he’d been there all day already watching this world from the inside out. As he sat, the bartendress brought his wine glass and water pint and a few dollars change, and he turned to me raising the wine glass and asked, as if toasting the possibility, “you live here now?”
“Just down the way. Devonport.”
He paused. He thought. He dreamed and imagined and pushed out a memory. “I was a navy man there. 1963. Before it was ——” He gestured upward with his empty hand and swirled his glass with the other. Took him a while to say “wasn’t like it is now.”
“I’ve heard that. Was pretty rough before the bridge, they say.”
Another pause. I sipped my pint and he his wine and we both stared at the girl crossing against traffic away from the pub in her hot pink and spike heels. I wondered about her past, her family, how she got here cold-calling pubs and eateries for jobs, her future, and how long she’d hold out before moving on or moving back. And how long will I? As long as the old man has and might still?
He told me “I’ve been trying to remember the old places. There. That corner. The Pita Pat — Pet — Pit — Pen —— what they call it. Used to meet the boys there, get fancy meals. Girls.” I found myself struggling with his accent. He was of the age that his Kiwi was still mostly English, and an older English than we hear these days, only flashes of modern inflection. He mistook my accent, asking where in Australia I was from.
“American. Only been here two years.” Just two years, I repeated. I found myself repeating. Repeating sentences as he repeated questions and memories. He asked what I do with my time. “Words. I’m a writer. Father too. Mostly I take care of my boy. He’s in school across there just now.”
“I’ve got three sons.” Animated, he articulated with his glass and his empty hand, pointing north. “But we lived them — moved them — Brown’s Bay and ——” He stammered, searched, put his glass down and used both empty hands to shape a sphere of energy in front of himself, crackling, and he stretched out his arms nearly through the open window into the crowds walking by, casually, not aware of this moment — his lucid moment of memory and family and joy.
He caressed the energy ball, studying it. I watched his eyes, cloudy as soapy water, sagging at the edges, and wet.
He looked at me and he tried to speak.
He looked back at the ball. Then back at me, and he pursed his lips and blew the sound pughooo, his hands exploding and his fingers nimble and young waving the energetic debris into the air around us. “They’re gone.”
I sipped my pint quietly. I thought of this man’s life outside this moment, back to the navy, on the carrier attending to planes taking off and landing and living through it all. The shore leave in the rough seaside village now a millionaire’s seaside paradise. The girls. The beer and scotch with which he’d toast his ancestors as a younger man. The fights. I imagined he punched another man or two at The Masonic before they shut it down in favour of waterfront luxury flats, defending his wife’s honor. And his wife, in America now, South Carolina he said, writing a book without him, and he without her, but not split up they both insist. His kids — gone — calling one another at Christmas, talking about dad. Have you seen him? How’s he doing? I haven’t the patience since mom left. I haven’t the time these days. I think he’ll be alright.
And I know that conversation well — the conversation that says “I’ll be alright,” the old man a metaphor, a vision, a living premonition. I won’t be him, they imagine. I’ll be my own man. This life is mine.
But it isn’t. It is his as much as theirs. They are his shape, his inflection and accent, his gestures and articulations, his desires and hurts and whatever dreams remain, dim as they might seem. The old man didn’t want to become his father either. Yet here we are.
I set my pint back down. Watched the beautiful people in their beautiful clothes and their beautiful bronze skin, coming and going to the beach, to the shops, to their jobs, their favourite cafés and bars. This life. This beautiful life of commerce and conversation. This quiet afternoon beer with an old man savouring what might be his last walk through his town, changed. Grown up. Moved out. Beyond recognition. Left behind, not making new memories so much as bleeding out the old.
I think to myself: This is my world. This is who I’ve become. Here.
But no. This is who I have always been and ever will be. I didn’t choose this man any more than he chose me. Yet in this moment, we are one another.
The old man picked up his glass, drank his last sip of pinot gris, swirled it to be sure this was the end. He looked at me. Looked a few seconds too long. We watched each others’ eyes and saw each other clearly and he said:
“That’s a good job you’ve got there. Good job with that boy. You go take care.”
Some years back I learned the chemistry of drying — paints and oils and sweat — and knowing that stuff matters plenty if you’re engineering or inventing or experimenting, but it don’t mean a whit when you’re joining and polishing maple and walnut and cherry and holly and good old fashioned oak into a little boy’s first rocking horse wrapped up and tucked under the Christmas tree. There’s an art to letting things dry, turns out. And it’s the same craft that’ll build you a good rocking horse that’ll make you a good essayist and probably a decent dad too — at least one who hears his kids speaking full sentences no matter how long it takes them to spill their toddling wants and wisdom. Any carpenter will tell you: takes a good long tick on the clock to work tables and chairs to a fine finish. Any father will tell you the same: dadding’s not a hurrying man’s game.
There’s as many ways to finish and polish wood as there are folks working in the medium, and every craftsman’s got his own technique, peculiar and sacred and the only way to conduct himself. Don’t go telling him otherwise. All else is something between ill-mannered and plain old wrong.
I’ve had plenty a joiner tell me I’m nuts for using any finer a grit than 220 per square inch on maple or walnut. They say it makes no difference and finishes can’t penetrate if you apply them to too smooth a surface. Well, that’s not true of urethanes since they’re non-penetrating anyway. And I can tell you it’s not true of oils either — full tung oil even — because I’ve taken some time and figured out otherwise.
It takes patience, not just science. I always wipe on finishes to a well-prepped surface. Sand the next finest grit you’ve got, wipe with a tack cloth then with a t-shirt sopped in mineral spirits. After about 600 grit, that step right there is spectacular because you start to see the grain texture pop. You start to see where it’ll be in a few days, after you work down to 12,000 microfiber.
Anyway, let the spirits dry, watch the texture fade down to wood again, and wipe on a thin layer of oil. I always used old t-shirts for everything. You’ll see dimensions start popping in the wood, the birds eyes of the best maple rising above the surface, hovering like they’ve separated off into their own new ether. As the spirits dry, it’ll fade back, but not as far this time. You watch it, study the changes. Look away then back, because watched paint dries no faster than watched pots boil. This is patience. Something you cultivate.
Powder dry your finger and run it down the wood and when it doesn’t rise up oily — takes a while to develop this sense you realise — then start the process again with the finer grit. Just keep working at it. Don’t give in to hurrying because it simply takes time and a keen eye.
Learning to watch paint dry is learning to see what difference it makes.
I guess what I’m saying is that a father is a sort of craftsman in his own right. He’s got techniques uniquely his own and if you tell him he’s doing wrong, he’ll just point to his results and give you a gentle correction: “You see, that’s what I’m doing.”
Dadding’s got its own aesthetic. So does writing. So does strumming a guitar and banging a drum. The pitch of your hat and the shine of your shoes — it’s all style. And that’s something you live more than learn. You can learn the chemistry of dessication and the ins and outs and theories of it all. But if you want to live, you’ve got to slow down, breathe easy, and take a little time to watch the paint dry.
My grandfather did a lot of my raising and my son was born a hundred years after him, nearly to the day, give or take a couple weeks. On a timeline that long, a couple weeks isn’t more than a cup of morning coffee.
I stand in between them, a bit closer to my boy’s edge, but not all that far from 1910 when you take margin of error into account. I bring the two together. I bridge a hundred years and I wonder what Grampie would say to that. He’d probably push his fishing hat down over his glasses and grumble, which would mean he’s proud. Damn proud to be a character in the story.
He wasn’t a particularly expressive man, often given to curses and grunts and he was one stubborn son of a bitch if I’ve ever tried to love one. I guess similars attract. When one won’t budge an inch in love, the other’s got to lay siege to that mule and wait it out. Sometimes it looks like nobody wins when all you do is butt unrelenting heads, but there’s no such measure as win or lose when it comes to family. That’s how it was and how it is and I’m not sure that’ll change in any generation. Doesn’t have to.
He’s dead 25 years now and the memories I’ve got are an adolescent’s memories, not as considered or reliable as those I’m making of my own son now, nor those I’ll add to the jar in years to come. I wish I’d written some of it down though. Now I’m left with a few snapshots. One at a barbecue. One at a wedding. One of him looking stern in a little boy’s camera, caught right between God and damn … thing down and get over here and help me. It’s a stubborn love.
I wish I could hear his accent again, now that I’ve got an ear for such things. Northeast American, turn of the century. “Drawer” truncated to “draw.” “Naturally” lost a few letters on the way out as “natchly.” I don’t remember much else specifically but there were others for certain and now they’ve dissipated, vanished. Even if they were catalogued somewhere, a dusty archive of grandfathers and curses and affection, I’d be the only one listening. Anyone else who’d care is either dead or lost interest. A couple more generations and it’ll all be gone, as his grandfather is to me. And that’s when the dead finally rest.
25 years. I’ve got good friends born after I saw him last. When I picture that on a timeline, it makes no sense. No sense at all that such a thing as a generation can even exist. If anything, generations only have purchase in the abstract and only as collectives. There are no individual instantiations, yet that’s what we all are, averaged out and named the same, lost in convenient taxonomies that let you talk about the whole world without knowing a soul. But he and I and my boy, a hundred years between us, we’re no different from one another no matter what studies show. As I see it, there is no kid these days any more than there is an average man. Hardly any data points fall on the best-fit-curve.
I’ve grown suspicious of chopped up timelines. There’s no logic in the chopping. Too often we divide up our world and our reality for one purpose, then imagine all purposes are suited to the categories and dissections. But the world at large ain’t like that. Doesn’t bend to our whims or to the way we talk. And we’re smart to keep a humble tongue in our heads when speaking of history and existence in any sorts of lofty terms. If there’s anything to be learned from kids these days, it’s that we ought weigh our world in modest units. What is wide-eyed wonder but enlightened humility?
I wrote A Thousand Words and learned some things about myself I didn’t expect. It’s been strange days ever since. I guess that’s what happens when you tussle with an unknown adversary, ignorant of its short temper and tendency for violence, and unafraid that it might draw first and leave an unpluggable hole with your life streaming out. I surely wasn’t quick enough to dodge its strike.
Turns out I’ve always been just hoping for the best, more than any higher aspirations, and now I have an inkling why. Regret or disappointment or righteous rage, I’m not sure. I see it for what it is, but I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve got no word to tag it, track it, tell it in a way that might make sense to anyone outside my head. At its heart it’s a feeling of being beaten in a fight you didn’t know you were in. A profound frustration. We haven’t a word for that, as far as I know. I figure we should.
Let’s say I’m frustruggling. I suspect I’m not the only one who has awoken in the midst of a frustrated struggle like mine, and surely I’m not the only one who feels as though he’s lost. Of course, who is to judge whether it’s a tick in the win column or the not when it’s a set of circumstances that doesn’t even have its own word beyond my silly mash. Since the beginning there’s been this. Naming it doesn’t give it any more power or take any away. Just picks it out from the muddle.
I’ve got a real knack for chasing unrealizable dreams. Follow me around and do what I don’t and I reckon you’ll die a happy man. Not that I’m not happy. Happy I surely am. I mean look at this place. But I’m in the midst of a pitched frustruggle and I don’t know the rules and I’d probably reject them even if I did. That’s my nature. Plus, if I reject it, I’m not playing and I can’t lose, and that’s just as good a guarantee as I figure I’ll ever get.
I don’t mean to be a downer. Just a shot of honesty. And in personal honesty we often catch glimpses of universal truths. Know Thyself say the philosophers, then proclaim unrufflable verities of existence. I’ve got a more modest purpose. In a hundred years, my little boy’s little boy will know my accent. He will know that “drawer” ends with a hard R and “naturally” has nine letters and I never did anything so well as love my son, stubborn as a mule.
And that’s all I want.