God, in sepia tones

May 7, 2013

Dani, who at one point considered herself a novice cell-phone photographer, posted (another) Instagram masterpiece.

Picture a one-dollar bill. The back of it. Under the ONE, someone at some point had scrawled a message in purple marker. Being hand-written, the message was barely distinguishable. The thickness of the marker further muddled legibility.

At first glance, it appeared to read “God is in Change”. Someone had taken the time to contemplate the phrase and then write it on a bill for strangers to see…so what does it mean? Some sort of money joke? God is in the small things? The spare change? The loose coins you miss between the big bills? The pieces you throw away because they just weigh you down?

The ambiguity of the writing nagged at my curiosity. With another inspection, it may have said “God is in Charge”. I rolled that possibility around in my mind. Another monetary satire, perhaps? Forget the bills, forget the future? Live now? God is in the spontaneity? The untouchable, the unreachable, the impulse buy?

Dani had laid the dollar flat over another small stack of bills, which were folded. She arranged them neatly on her nicest-looking table top and chose just the perfect image filter, after snapping the photo on her iPhone in the bright pink case with the plastic jewel sticker she had placed very carefully over the center button. She likely captured several shots, each one reproducing electronically the sound of a camera shutter.

My mom has, on several occasions (presumably during rare moments of particular adoration), proudly recounted one of her personal victories in parenting. Judging by how I turned out, I’m not sure she has too many of those, so this story is sort of big for both of us. “Your first public hissy-fit”, she calls it.

She and my dad had brought me along to Giant Eagle on a grocery shopping trip.* And no, this isn’t the horror story that every adult has tucked away deep in some fold of their memory, in which their parents lost them in the supermarket. Although that did happen. I won’t go into it.

*For the sake of clarity, any southerners can pretend we’re in Piggly Wiggly.

I was apparently being one horrible 2-year-old son-of-a-bitch, suddenly breaking down and screaming for no reason, as 2-year-old sons-of-bitches are apt to do. I guess I was really putting it on this time: tears, stomping, laying on the laminate floor so as to form a hysterical, embarrassing road block with no regard for hygiene, etc. Like I said, horrible. “Oh, you were going out of your mind!”

Now, my mom faced a serious decision here. Does she just give me what I want (whatever it was) and continue shopping? Does she yell at me in the middle of the store? Does she hit me, showing her son and every shopper nearby just who the boss is?

“Nope.” Her back straightens as the anecdote reaches its climax. “I picked you up, told your dad to finish shopping, and took you straight home. I put you in your room and left you there until you stopped being ridiculous.”

Bold move, mom. And the outcome? With a sly smile, she declares:

“You never once threw a tantrum in public again.”

Now that’s parenting.

.

Today I watched a kid throw the hissy-fit of his life in a check-out line. His mom, alone, was charged with corralling three children while attempting to pay for the coloring books she was probably planning on using to quiet them down so she could enjoy the smutty novel she’d also placed on the counter. But coloring wasn’t enough. Jeffrey wanted more.

[I don’t think Jeffrey was the kid’s name. In fact, I don’t recall the mother using his name at all in the whole ordeal, which in hindsight seems odd. But that’s some familial psychology I’m really not fit even to ponder. But he definitely seemed like a Jeffrey.]

“You’re telling me I can’t have a game? MOM! I CAN’T HAVE A GAME?!”

He wanted a Nintendo DS. Not a ball attached to a cup with a string. Not Connect Four. A Nintendo DS.

“Are you KIDDING ME?”

He had actually learned some very impressive phrasing in his short life, and his inflection and general way of speaking were probably better than average at that age.

“So you’re saying NO GAME?!”

She kept handing him whatever kick-knacks were sitting by the register in an effort to satisfy or at least distract him. No dice.

“I NEED THE GAME.”

She gave him a tiny LED flashlight made to look like a fun-sized Mr. Goodbar. “Here honey. Here. This is for you.”

“THIS IS NOT THE GAME!”

Exchanging wide-eyed looks with the other people in line, I wondered what kind of life Jeffrey would end up leading. If this is the sort of parenting he receives every day, how is this kid being conditioned to react to the boundless trials of the world? What if Jeffrey ends up being a real ass hole?

And is that what parenting is? A never-ending series of moments in which you need to decide, on the fly, what actions to take in order to ensure your offspring don’t turn into ass holes?

.

Are there bad parents in the wild, in the animal kingdom? It always seems like it’s entirely instinctual. Animals just know how to raise their kids, because they don’t have, you know, books.

But really, out of all the species in the whole world making babies because that’s the only thing they know how to do, there have to be some individuals out there who just don’t have any idea what the hell they’re doing. They just vomit chewed-up worms into their kid’s mouth every time it chirps at them, and then never kick them out of the nest. There’s got to be a momma bear who, instead of teaching her cub to forage scenic babbling brooks and interstate camp sites, just catches bunch of salmon for him while he lays on the shore playing with himself.

There’s a pride of lions somewhere that gets quietly irked because little Simba never contributes to the hunt. His well-intentioned mommy Sarabi had always given him a little extra from her portion of the antelope carcass; and now, a teenager pushing adulthood, he’s come to expect still-warm flesh delivered to him after each kill. He just shoves himself right in the mix and bites anyone in his way. The other lionesses share knowing, annoyed glances and later complain about “Simba, the spoiled brat”.

But they never confront his mom about it. No way. You don’t just tell someone they’re raising their kids the wrong way. Because then somehow you’re the ass hole whose parents never taught you not to be rude.

3-Minute Fiction

April 2, 2012

NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a contest last month. Three-Minute Fiction aimed to inspire great prose by providing the first sentence, then leaving the rest (up to 600 words) to your imagination. The following is my submission, as I’m pretty sure I didn’t win anything.

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally decided to walk through the door. She started the car and reversed, dipping (as usual) into the pot hole in the concrete. The driveway was built with the house. Decades of weather had left a network of fissures that worsened every winter. Rolling into the street, she shifted to Drive. The hospital was the last place she cared to visit, but not showing up would seem selfish.

The hallway was silent. Artificially silent, somehow. She moved her weight from one hip to the other on a lightly-padded chair. It was an industrial-type chair, the kind that lasts forever and looks nice enough, but is never really comfortable. Not completely.

These situations were always unpleasant. Family events were so forced. For her anyway. The rest of them seemed to really enjoy being together, sharing the same anecdote again, laughing again, passing the potatoes again. She had never felt the closeness that supposedly makes up a family. The kind of ideal closeness that television would have you believe is the norm for households across the country, the backbone of American values. As far as she could tell, that ideal was another ploy by the writers and the networks and the advertisers to carry the emotions of the heartland straight to the bank. Television had always been so transparent.

She never spoke any of that to her family, of course. How could you? Not only morally, but logistically? How do you bring that up in conversation? That would be the hardest part. Just coming out and saying, “I don’t love you like I think I’m supposed to” is an awkward way to begin a discourse. Besides, she figured if she ever did manage to spit it out, they’d just tell her she was wrong. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” her mom would say. “You’re ignorant.”

Her father reappeared from a restroom across the hall. He sat next to her for a minute or two, hands crossed on his belly, pondering the ceiling tiles. “I’m going to get a drink,” he convinced himself.
“Need anything?”

“No, I’m okay,” she said. She was thirsty, a little bit. A Sprite would’ve been good. Why couldn’t she say that?

Those communication problems were instinctual at that point, deeply ingrained in and from every familial interaction she could remember. It’s not that she didn’t love them. Of course she did. You don’t know someone your entire life and not love them to some degree. She just didn’t like being with them as much as she liked being by herself. And even that was a chore.

Earlier she had passed the wing in the hospital where they treat children. Those families were probably close. Trauma brings people together. Tragedy binds them stronger. Perseverance gives them a common goal. A family is a team? She had always been healthy, though, so that didn’t happen.

This baby that was on the way—her nephew, her sister’s son—would have to deal with this family too. He would be meeting them all at any minute. He was in there right now, plotting his grand entrance. “Enjoy it, kid,” she wished him silently. She’d have to talk to him some day. At all these gatherings. “What am I going to say?

What’s he going to think of me?

How close are we supposed to be?

What am I going to say?”

The door next to her carefully swung open. Her dad had returned. A nurse leaned half-way into the hall and smiled.

“He’s ready to see you!”

A couple years ago, I wrote up a project that was intended to be a memoir about my life thus far. Having accomplished very little of any real consequence, I shamelessly and facetiously embellished a few small things that I remembered from my youth. I recently rediscovered said personal memoirs and have decided to present them to the world, for the entertainment of the masses, free of charge. Bon appétit.

Part I


Part II

Growing up, I often heard Frank Sinatra’s mellow voice floating and echoing through the rooms of my family’s house.  It was the same when I went to my grandparents’ place, and when I was dragged along to meet their old, Italian friends.  Frank was a big deal to me, always familiar.  I loved the musical images of Aprils in Paris, bars in far Bombay, and particularly the city that doesn’t sleep.  I didn’t know what it was (and I still don’t), but something strange would come over me when I would hear him belting out “New York, New York”.  The song was so dramatic and just cheesy enough to really get me going.  I felt a little restless thinking about the Big Apple, the center of it all, the cultural Mecca of the western world, as I sat on the floor of my living room trying to thwart Bowser and his army of Koopas.

Life in the suburbs really was like the cliché of living in a bubble.  Every morning I got up, my mom handed me my bag lunch, and I hopped on the school bus to my quiet little elementary school.  I saw the same kids every day, and I knew all of them.  After school, I’d play with some friends in the backyard or watch TV until it was dark outside.  Then the day was essentially over and I would go to bed.  Nothing happens in the suburbs past nine PM.  As far as I knew, the rest of the world was the same way.

Because I had only had this perspective my whole life, I couldn’t really guess what New York City was like.  To me, it was a faraway place so shrouded in fantasy that it might as well have been a fairy tale.  I figured I’d never see Times Square because I was partly convinced it didn’t actually exist.  Of course, my naivety was proved wrong when my parents announced we would be going there to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I think I was about ten years old when my little brother and I were loaded into a rented minivan and embarked on a nearly seven-hour drive to New York.  That was the longest trip I could ever imagine taking.  It was unfathomable.  I tried calculating how much Nickelodeon I could have watched in that span of time.  I determined it was a lot.  Now it takes me almost six hours to drive to or from school, and that seems like nothing anymore.  Funny how perceptions change.

Anyway, I ended up sleeping through most of the ride.  I nodded off somewhere in central Pennsylvania.  The last thing I remembered seeing was a big, green sign for the Harrisburg exit, where I had been before to visit my uncle.  The next thing I knew, it was dark outside and the distant city skyline was fast approaching before our van ducked into a long, dim tunnel.  My parents told me we were traveling underneath the Hudson River.  I figured that was some sort of moat.  I was still drowsy.  Several minutes later, we emerged before the towering New York City, in all its grand majesty.

I wasn’t sleepy anymore.  In fact, I was suddenly wide awake.  There were so many people, so many lights, so many buildings, so much going on!  How could I sleep?  Why would I want to?  All this time I had been going to bed at night…look what I was missing!  I remembered all the great things Frank said about this place, and he was right.

I stared wide-eyed out the car window, mesmerized by everything around me:  the neon lights, office windows, women in high heels, taxi cabs, giant billboards.  Try as I might, I couldn’t even see the tops of some of the skyscrapers.  It was overwhelming and over-stimulating, but I loved it.  Unfortunately, we arrived at our hotel much too soon, and it looked as if I’d yet again be going to bed at night.  Rats.

When the morning came around, I was revved up and ready to go.  That nap the day before did me well.  My family and I had breakfast in the hotel.  Boring.  Soon enough, though, we stepped through the revolving glass doors and onto the bustling sidewalk.  I did feel pleased with myself for knowing how to navigate a revolving door; my mom’s work had one, and I had been trained well.  The similarities to home ended there.

Once outside, I was in a world I had previously only hazily imagined.  The crisp air smelled vaguely like hot dogs, and wisps of steam rose from manhole covers on the street.  And then there were the people.  Look at all of them!  As far as I could see, bodies were hurriedly moving up and down the sides of the street, no doubt off to do very important things.  I could only speculate the significant business deals these people would be making today.  I had no idea who they were, and they didn’t care who I was.  I was okay with that.  At home, everything was familiar, safe.  Here, everything was brand new.  Everything was exciting.  It was an adventure.  Until then I had never comprehended how many people were in the world – I was surrounded by the same ones every day.  Now I was realizing how big the world really was.

All at once, I realized how boring home was.  Sure it was comfortable, but it sure was stale.  How could I be bored in a place like New York?  What were other places in the world like?  Carmen Sandiego really hadn’t prepared me for this.  I had a brand new point of view.  I was beginning to appreciate the scope of the world, and at the same time I was stunned and baffled by its utter enormity.  There was so much to experience, so much to explore, and so much to discover.  Tally-ho!

A couple years ago, I wrote up a project that was intended to be a memoir about my life thus far.  Having accomplished very little of any real consequence, I shamelessly and facetiously embellished a few small things that I remembered from my youth.  I recently rediscovered said personal memoirs and have decided to present them to the world, for the entertainment of the masses, free of charge.  Bon appétit.


Part I

It was November 1992.  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  I wore a red sweater with dinosaurs on it pretty often at this point in my life.  The sun was out when my dad picked me up from daycare, the same as every day.  I ran out to greet him wearing my oversized backpack, same as every day.  This time, though, he had something special in store.  He knelt down so I could talk to him at my own level.

“Do you like hockey?” he asked me.  I think he probably knew the answer.

“Yeah!” I responded enthusiastically.  I barely knew what hockey was.

“Well I’ve got a surprise,” my dad said as he reached into the front pocket of his brown leather coat.  Candy?  Crayons?  What was it?  His hand emerged holding two slips of paper, decorated vibrantly with black and gold.

“We’re going to a Penguins game!”  He seemed pretty excited about it, so I got pretty excited about it.  This seemed important.

Some time later – it could have been the next day or the next month for all I knew – I bundled up in my winter coat and headed into the city.  I was really warm in the car; the coat had to go.  I needed to put it back on when we left the parking garage.  Novembers in Pittsburgh are always cold.  I didn’t mind because even at that age, I was fascinated by the tall buildings, colorful lights, and people all around.  The city always seemed warm, even when it was freezing.  By the time we entered the arena and found our seats, I was hot again.  My dad helped me take off my coat and stuff it under the seat.  He got us settled in and ready for the game.

I had to go to the bathroom.  And I was thirsty.

After I was taken care of, I nestled back into my seat.  It was almost game time.  I had to go the bathroom again.  That drink was a bad idea.

Back in my seat a few minutes later, I sat taking in the scenery.  All the lights, the sounds, and the fans.  I had never seen so many people in one place before, and they were all wearing the same colors.  The rows upon rows of cheering fans in a ring around the ice formed a black and yellow hurricane, moving and roaring with exhilaration.  I didn’t know what was going on, but I sure knew it was big.

Armored men clad in white were now racing around on the ice as a deep voice boomed from above.  The thousands of devotees responded emphatically.  The voice called out the names of the armored men, but I didn’t recognize any of them; then came the one name I did:  Mario Lemieux! My little heart jumped at those two words.  I was familiar with that name.  He was the only celebrity I knew of.  Mario was a superstar in Pittsburgh.  I was star struck.

At that moment, something clicked.  I somehow related to what was going on around me.  I was now intrigued, engaged in the event.  I was inclined to yell and scream and imitate the rest of the crowd as closely as possible.  Some new armored men made their way onto the ice, dressed in red and black.  “Who are they?” I asked my dad.

“The Devils.”

The other spectators began booing these new men.  They didn’t like the Devils.  I booed too.

Throughout the whole game, the crowd was overwhelmingly loud.  We didn’t stop yelling.  I still didn’t know what was occurring on the ice, but I could tell when something good happened.  We cheered with each goal our men in white achieved.  The Devils scored, too.  Aw, rats.  We jeered at them.  We all knew we were an integral part of this game, and we took our role very seriously.

Our Penguins ended up winning the game.  “We Are the Champions” blasted from the rafters high above, and we ate it up.  Suddenly I realized that I was part of something.  I, like every other person in this arena, had put forth my tiny piece of effort to accomplish something as a group.  That night, it wasn’t all about me.  It was all about us.

Seaquest

January 23, 2011

Set during the turn of the 20th century, the song tells a tale of hearty dock workers clad in moustaches and a country overflowing with burgeoning exuberance working hand-in-hand to assemble the finest seaworthy vessel ever constructed.

When the craft is completed, it is outfitted with a proud captain and a handful loyal crew members.  They ambitiously set out toward the blue horizon, resolved to conduct ground-breaking research and to explore the mysteries of the glorious sea.

After several days of ardent progress, our adventurers happen upon a particularly deep yet inviting area of the ocean.  Certain that the most fascinating specimens of nature would be found there, the crew prepares to embark on their important fact-finding expedition immediately.  The boat showcases its grandeur by transforming into a submarine, and the crew plunges into the azure abyss.  They encounter wonders never before dreamed of; witness colors from every inch of a rainbow; experience a calm that is at the same instant exhilarating; and behold the elegance, rugged formidability, and awe-inspiring beauty possessed by the sea.

Having conducted what they deem to be sufficient research, the ship ascends to the surface and emerges–glistening in the light of a most triumphant day–boasting a successful maiden voyage.  It returns to the dock, where it is greeted haughtily with cheers and applause.  Good work, everyone.

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