Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Parental Guidance Suggested, Often Fallible

Dear Jack,

This morning I read the heartfelt note you left for me on the kitchen counter before you headed off to school and, after a long tearful pause, decided it’s time to let you in on a secret that has taken me decades to decipher.  I don’t know when you will be able to read and grasp what follows, but you are such an old soul, I suspect it will be sooner rather than later, and when you digest it, I hope you are not deflated.  On the contrary, I hope you see how level the playing field of life can be and understand that you don’t need to feel dejected over not always measuring up to the standards that so-called grownups have set for you.  I have a feeling you’re already piecing some of this together for yourself, but what kills me is that while you seem to understand that it can all be so riddled with dysfunction and hypocrisy, you feel pressured and compelled to contort your spirit so that you can blend in with it. 

On the first day of my freshman year at a Jesuit prep school, my English professor waltzed into the classroom and with no introductory comments read aloud the following poem by Philip Larkin:
This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.      
They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had    
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn    
By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern    
 And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.    
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,    
And don’t have any kids yourself.

The class of obnoxious teenage boys filled with so much insecurity naturally exploded with laughter upon hearing a teacher utter the word ‘fuck’ not once but twice.  When the roar settled and silence ruled again, he read it a second time to make sure we absorbed it, and the words punched me in the face the way your letter socked me.

Yesterday after school you sheepishly brandished a yellow slip from your 2nd grade teacher explaining that you did not complete that day’s class work.  This was not the first yellow slip I’d seen, as it had become a trend the previous few weeks, so the sight of another discouraged me.  Since tickets to that night’s Wizard’s game were already purchased and a lie to divert your little brother’s attention from his being left out already cooked, I refrained from raising any kind of hell because the last thing I wanted was to attend your first NBA game at odds with each other.  Instead we had a stern, relatively emotionless chat that still somehow left us both drained.  When the sitter showed and we both scrambled in a frenzy about the house, getting ready to leave, we collided on the steps and hugged it out.  Then you, mid-embrace, age 7, said: ‘I accept you.’

That's the one of the deepest things anyone has ever said to me and it left me utterly speechless, almost gagging on the sudden knot that developed in my throat.  A phrase like that feels just too nuanced, too heavy, too soulful for a kid your age to express, and I suddenly questioned the world and myself over putting you in a position to feel and say such a thing.  It really dressed me down, and I could not be more thankful for it.

It's clear this stuck like a rock in your shoe this morning, which explains the letter you left for me.  It absolutely slayed me with it's endearing misspellings, your cute use of ellipses and the random colon, and I remained preoccupied by it at the office.  I'm in the 9 to 5 business of relationship management, but the matter of our bond eclipsed all of that so much that I bailed early to come home and pour these words out.      

At the end of the day, I realize that being a kid often boils down to winning and retaining the approval of your parents.  What you might not know is, that concept is supposed to be a two way street, and too often parents falter at holding up their end of it because many of us are rudderless vessels in choppy waters fumbling both map and compass, pretending to have our shit together while behind the scenes feverishly trying to figure that shit out, perpetually afraid we're going to be exposed and hopefully one day happening upon something that ties it all together, an anchor for the whole production.  Speaking for myself, I am winging parenthood and learning as I go, often from my own mistakes.  I'm fucked up, and my biggest fear, which to some degree has already been realized, is that I will ultimately fail at harboring you from the rising tide of everything that composes me.  If there is any truth to what Larkin penned, it's a foregone conclusion that this tide will wash over you, and your brother.

If or when it does, may this half-baked attempt at perspective enlighten you enough to know that when it comes to us parents, it's cool to respect your elders, but don't let any of us fool you into thinking we are so much farther ahead on the curve of figuring out what the fuck this is all supposed to mean or how we're ever to find balance.  It's okay to stumble.  We're all doing it.   

I don't want to be on a pedestal; it doesn't suit me.  I love being your dad; it's an honor.  All that being said, sometimes I wonder if we're better off just being best friends who happen to be father-son.  Perhaps if we see it that way, with no titles or labels and undertones of status, we'll just live and learn from each other and not get hung up making mountains of molehills.           

So, in response to your letter, and in conclusion, since you already put it so perfectly, all I can say is: Ditto.

Love and rockets,

Friday, November 16, 2012

Unsolved Mystery: Paul Auster

When a close friend turned you on to Paul Auster eight years ago with a copy of Moon Palace, you happened to be in the process of sorting through the broken pieces of a personal crisis, wrestling with obscure matters of the soul.  In other words, you were completely vulnerable to the writer's haunting, literary, tractor beam and remain in its grip to this day.  When you hover near his novels amid the local bookstore shelves and run your fingers across the spines, your breath shortens and your eyes sting, and if you close them, you could just as easily be kneeling in a cemetery before a weathered headstone.  To you his words are the literary equivalent of a séance, his books ouija boards. 

Since you fortuitously discovered Auster in a valley, it's almost difficult for you to recommend that anyone pick him up during a shiny happy run of life.  That's not to say that you find his novels to be entirely bleak -- though most do tend to feature a protagonist whose world has crumbled -- because that would be denying the spirit that permeates his entire body of work: When we fall apart, when our support system fizzles, it doesn't have to be failure or the end; it can be a chance to see what we’re made of, to refresh and redefine.  So for you it was empathy in a bottle. 

Those wounds are now scars, and when you look back many years later, you are oddly thankful that things went to hell for a stretch because you believe it woke you up from so much sleepwalking.  And though it pissed you off immensely during the darkest days when friends dispensed the trite though well-intended cliché, they turned out to be right about the healing powers of time.  Today, when you pore over the latest Auster novel, which you always seem to anticipate with equal parts fear and excitement, you regularly pause to digest the language of certain passages, lingering, rereading, embracing a character, always wishing you could have a chat with the man behind these pages. 

The day Winter Journal drops, you call Politics & Prose, your favorite of the few remaining locally owned shops in town, to ask if they have the second memoir in stock.  The clerk offers to hold a copy at the front desk and, to your sudden delight, adds that the author will be reading and answering questions in the store a week later.  Your wish is granted, and suddenly you recall the phrase, be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. 

When the date arrives, the bookstore posts this tweet:

Your knee-jerk giggle yields to a ripple of panic over the scale of the crowd and the question of what time you should plan to beat it to score four seats.  You’ve never been forward or blunt enough to be that guy who saves seats and feigns ignorance over what a rude asshole it portrays him to be.

Since your local go-to spot, Buck’s Fishing & Camping, sits doors away from Politics & Prose, it makes perfect sense to linger over a Manhattan while you skim the memoir and glance at your watch.  The owner, who rarely graces the place, typically logging more time at his nearby hipster pizza joint, flutters about the Buck’s dining room fussing over flower arrangement and candles.  The last time you saw him in such OCD lather ahead of a dinner rush, Julian Schnabel was the guest of honor, who incidentally and inexplicably wore pajamas for the occasion.  It doesn’t take much foresight to guess who will be coming to dinner tonight. 

You see very few, if any, hipsters in Politics & Prose and no flannel whatsoever.  The audience turns out to be mostly senior citizens.  All the hand wringing over seats and timing was for naught -- yet another lesson about the futility of worrying that you will ignore.  You find space in the back row next to a hunchbacked, little old man clutching a duffel bag stuffed with Auster’s books.  You assume he resides in one of the assisted living quarters on a nearby stretch of Connecticut Avenue that is often frequented by paramedics – a corridor of decrepitude.  That is to say, you peg him as alone but clearly well read, and you wonder what void the writer fills for him.

Paul Auster comes to the pulpit, and you are frozen, entranced.  You’ve listened to readings online so are familiar with the warmth of his tone and cadence, even when the subject is depressing.  He does not waste time, just dives right into reading various passages from the memoir in no particular order.  When he launches into one segment about James Joyce, you know the vulgar direction it’s headed and brace yourself.

Keats to begin with, but no sooner do you think of This living hand than you are reminded of a story someone once told you about James Joyce, Joyce in Paris in the 1920s, standing around at a party eighty-five years ago when a woman walked up to him and asked if she could shake the hand that wrote Ulysses.  Instead of offering her his right hand, Joyce lifted it in the air, studied it for a few moments, and said: “Let me remind you, madam, that this hand has done many other things as well.”  No details given, but what a delicious piece of smut and innuendo, all the more effective because he left everything to the woman’s imagination.  What did he want her to see?  Wiping his ass, probably, picking his nose, masturbating in bed at night, sticking his fingers into Nora’s cunt and diddling her bunghole, popping pimples, scraping food from his teeth, plucking out nostril hairs, disgorging wax from his ears – fill in the appropriate blanks, the central point being: whatever was most disgusting to her.

The sight of so many old folks squirming in their chairs, fidgeting with their collars, when he dropped that glorious C-bomb will stick with you for some time.  You bite a hole in your lip to contain your laughter.  The balls on him to throw that passage into the night’s mix.  It’s one thing to read filthy words in private, but to hear them read aloud in a room full of gray hair?  You applaud him.

However, when it all boils down, you blow it.  You don’t find the courage to approach the open microphone during the Q&A, despite the litany of questions you’ve been harboring for years, and when your turn comes to have your book signed, a last merciful chance at redemption, you wilt with some poorly articulated comment to the effect of ‘thanks for the insomnia,’ to which he replies while scribbling, ‘I can’t win.’  Eight years of literary crushing on this guy, and you are suddenly a nervous, pale-faced, loser tween backstage with Justin Bieber.  You are pathetic, so off you shuffle with your signed book to Buck’s bar where your wife and friends are dying to know how it went, since they know how monumental the moment was, or was to be.  Reluctantly you share the truth about how it transpired and feel generally lousy as you watch Auster and entourage enter the restaurant. 

Two hours later, your blood alcohol level surpasses your level of regret, and your recent moment-of-truth whimper fades into the shadows of the night.  Feeling loose and getting loud, you keep going back to that C-bomb, insisting to your crew that you should have just thanked him for that gem, scored the signature and moved along.  Soon Auster strolls by the bar with two crusty old jackals and out the door for a cigarette.  The decision is wisely made, not by you, to call it a night, so you settle up and stumble outside.  Suddenly you have a newfound, ill-advised craving for reconciliation and approach the patio café table where he and his companions are huddled.  You open with a caveman ‘Hey,’ but that’s as far as you get because you realize that both of the leeches flanking him, pressed against him really, point recording devices, like small pistols, at his face, and you have interrupted what suddenly feels like a seedy ménage a trois or gangbang.  All three of them look at you, but you are focused on Auster’s expression, which to this day you cannot decode.  Was it one of gluttonous pleasure?  Or was it the face of a listless, abused victim? 

Either way, the scene rattles and fills you with regret about ever venturing to look behind the curtain in the first place, so you retreat.  As you slink into the back seat of a cab you are clobbered by the epiphany that sometimes it’s just better to leave your idols on the pedestal, to give them space, to keep your distance and to embrace the mystery.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reflections on Sunday Sauce

The traditional collards, black eyed peas and swine are taking a culinary back seat today. Since this new year kicks off on a Sunday, that means one thing around here: Sunday Sauce. Even with a miserable cold, I can breathe and get high on the lovely aroma that permeates our home as I peck away at the keyboard here. My Sicilian grandmother introduced me to this wonderful tradition when I was very young, then disappeared from the landscape of my life with her son, my estranged father. When my talented wife channeled her cooking skills into reviving the tradition last year, it sparked emotions that are coming into clear focus today as I consider the year ahead.

Sunday Sauce (at least my wife's) is richness born of simplicity. It doesn't try to be more than what it is because it doesn't need to. It's a cluster of very basic ingredients that, when pulled together, give you pause, leave you marveling over how something so spartan could punch you in the mouth and make you forget about the fact that you have to dive into another work week tomorrow. In a fast-lane lifestyle in a rat-race town, its slow and low composition is something to emulate. I know, considering spaghetti sauce a role model is as backwards as a soup sandwich, but stranger metaphors have been bought and sold. When I consider that Sunday Sauce is a virtual tractor beam that brings together my wonderful family and friends, I smile and look forward to the next round.

Most parents tend to scale back their social lives when kids enter the picture. Oddly enough, ours went pedal to metal in the wake of having kids. It has literally reached a point where we blush and put our heads in our hands upon viewing the Mint pie chart of our monthly expenditures, specifically the food/dining and entertainment categories. Fortunately we're hard working parents who can afford to pull this off, but the principal of this gluttony has been gnawing at me lately. Don't get me wrong - it has been a grand fucking run, as we've owned many nights for many years in this town, but when I watch my 4 year old son with a tomato goatee on his beaming face as he submerges another slice of crusty bread in sauce, I consider that none of my adventures (or misadventures) come close to trumping the spirit of this very basic and rustic moment. To put it another way, despite the title of this often neglected blog, it just might be time to grow up or at least act my age. Yes, it's time to go slow and low.

How exactly do I do that? Well, dinner is served, so I'll chew on it, wash it down with a red worthy of New Year's Day and wait for the second half of this epiphany to clobber me. Happy 2012 in the meantime!

@rcaggiano's Sunday Sauce:

Peel the cloves of an entire head of garlic. Slowly sautee garlic in cup of olive oil until golden brown (approx 15 mins). Add healthy pinch red pepper flakes and healthy pinch salt. Add 4 large cans whole peeled tomatoes (hand crush tomatoes as adding them). Simmer for at least 3 hours, preferably 5 hours. Meatballs, braciole, short ribs, et al an entirely separate topic.

Monday, July 18, 2011

appendix lost, perspective gained

It's not just any Friday; it's my last Friday in this sweaty District rat race for a couple of weeks. Next Wednesday I'm packing my wife and two boys into the roadster and heading south to the Low Country beaches for a solid stretch of disappearance. I've already mentally checked out - mostly going through the motions at the office and drinking too much with clients and friends at night, the latter of which I often categorize as 'work' to make myself feel productive during these spells. I believe armed forces types call the general apathy for what's in your face due to a preoccupation with what lies ahead as FIGMO - fuck it, got my orders. So, doing my best to ignore the annoying pain in my stomach, I look forward long term to vacation and short term to hosting two wonderful friends for dinner tonight. My wife and I have already agreed to cut our days short to meet at Whole Foods near my office to shop together for the feast, so the finish line is in plain view the minute I roll in to work fashionably late.

Bunched into a fetal position on my bathroom floor, late afternoon, a detour driven by the pain in my stomach that has become something of a force, I stubbornly tell myself it's probably just a bug while I feed my paranoia with a Google search of 'appendicitis' on my iPhone. Lately I am so concerned about my health that in the past 2 weeks I've done what typical males would not - paid attention to cues from my body and feasted on the opinions of many doctors, a few of them at Sibley Memorial's ER during a heart attack scare that turned out to be an embarrassing nothing. No way I'm going back to Sibley, I mutter to myself between short breaths. When my newly appointed nurse practitioner asks a few questions and decides I'm on the verge of a medical emergency, I decide to climb into the back seat and go along for the ride. I am no longer in control and, frankly, rather terrified. On the way to Sibley, now on the floorboards because I can hardly sit up, I attempt to distract myself from the twisting knife in my abdomen by projecting anger and cursing, through clinched teeth, the DC Department of Transportation for its shoddy job of road maintenance, as each bump blurs my vision with absurd pain.

Despite the numbing effects of morphine, then later dilaudid, my brain races around a story I read the day before about a father falling to his death from the stands of a ballpark as he tried to catch a baseball while his 6 year old son watched. I can't stop thinking about that kid and how my nanny told me 2 weeks ago that my own 6 year old confided terror of losing me when I went to the ER for the heart attack false alarm. Jack has still not vocalized his concerns to me - he's feigning taking things in stride, like a man, even though I don't recall suggesting that or setting such an example. He’s developing his own perspective on life, becoming a reflective, sensitive guy, and I’m suddenly clawing for way to stick around and watch where it takes him. Tears burn my eyes as I rock back and forth in this ER bed wrestling with pain and my own clear and present mortality. Then a hand grips my shoulder, and I see Rachel next to me, her expression solid, confident. How did a ball of perpetual anxiety like me land such a grounding force like her?

Love and prayers are floating in, she smiles. Hope you don’t mind that I posted news of this out there.

I tell her I don’t mind, though the concept of social media in this moment of crisis hits me with equal parts ridiculous and gracious. Ridiculous because, maybe as an aging father who participates in social media though often gets dizzy, I fail to completely embrace the medium as genuine. Let’s say I am an old school, meandering work in progress on that front. Gracious because, in spite of the above, I am touched that people I know well and hardly know at all are pausing to send well wishes. Later, between one of many dilaudid naps, I look up to see my dear friend Owen hovering over my bed next to Rachel, and I bite hard on my lip to contain my emotions. He’s been around hospitals too much the past few years, and I beat myself up for a moment over dragging him back to the dreadful sterile hallways of another. I struggle with being the cause for so much hand wringing.

Thanks to inguinal hernia surgery three years ago, I’m relatively up to speed on the nuances of general anesthesia, so I brush off the consultations and interrogations of so many doctors, nurses and technicians with one-word answers and painful grunts. How many times can a guy on serious narcotic pain meds answer the same questions over and over with any level of fluidity? At a certain point, when another nurse enters with another clipboard, I look to Rachel, and she knows to take the wheel on fielding these inquiries. A montage of corridor and elevator ceilings later, I’m wheeled into the OR where I reunite with the anesthesiologist’s forced smile. I’m finished with conversation at this point, so I lazily nod at her recap of what’s about to go down. While she wraps it up and tends to her mise en place, I close my eyes to meditate, to reflect on my life, to find and cling to some sense of peace with everything. I don’t care what they say about modern medicine; going under always comes with the risk of not coming back. This moment at the threshold of truth needs to be real, spiked with clarity and acceptance, but there’s this chatter, more like bickering, coming from every corner of the room like so much radio static – nurses, assistants, techs bitching at each other about one thing or another – and it’s dragging a rusty rake through my bonsai garden. I prop myself up on elbows to take in these jackals who, thanks to the goofballs in my head, look like Ralph Steadman renditions of scuffed-up cafeteria workers, nothing like the polished medical professionals I expect. This grates on me, makes me sweat profusely, and my thoughts become shouts before I know it.

How about some fucking harmony in this room, people?!

Heads turn in unison, and mouths gape beneath surgical masks.

I’m trying to find some peace over here, and your negative, petty shit is killing it, so kindly shut up!

The outburst drains me, and I fall from my elbows to the table where the anesthesiologist covers my face with an oxygen mask, either to contain me or regulate my breathing. I’m suddenly filled with regret over my words, but as the gloaming sets in and my grip on consciousness slips, I detect a hushed din of laughter around me and think maybe I lightened the mood and did everyone, including myself, a favor.

Less than 24 hours after I stumbled in, I’m wheeled out with a pain in my stomach that won’t allow me to stand straight for at least 48 hours and a prescription for narcotics that will leave me in a drowsy dream world straight from a slate of Raymond Carver stories. I know the sight of me in this wheelchair will rattle Jack and likely stay with him for a long time, but the nurse with her talk of hospital policy stonewalls my argument. When I pour myself into the car, as expected, he is a mixed bag – assessing me with quizzical looks, making little-to-no eye contact, turning his gaze out the window for long pauses. Our 3 year old, grasping very basic pieces of the situation, lends levity with cutesy questions related to boo-boos and band-aids. I’m thankful for his blissful ignorance and wallow in it the whole ride home where I crash hard in my bed and, between long spells of sleep, run my hand across the sutures on my stomach to remind myself that this really happened.

Later I wake to see Jack smiling next to my bed, clutching a summer bouquet of flowers on its very last leg. He'd strolled down to Broad Branch Market with barely enough money to score a Slush Puppy and negotiated these into his purchase. Since we're regulars and he's practically the market mascot, it doesn't require a stretch of imagination to buy his story. It's clear that this bouquet was tagged for the dumpster, and to any one else would be hard on the eyes, but to me the flowers are everything. Though I'm not supposed to strain myself, I can't resist drawing him close and breathing him in. He giggles, and I muster laughter despite the pain below.

You okay, dad?

I am now, buddy.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

birthday morning

This morning you wake up a year older and take in your surroundings through a blurred sheen of tears. You are on vacation in the Outer Banks, NC, so your wonderful wife lets you sleep in while she manages the family circus that your mornings inevitably become. You are utterly incapable of sleeping in, birthday or not. You're also prone to occasional bouts of reflective weeping on on every milestone day. So your 37th year begins at 7:30am with a steady trickle of salty tears and a series of deep breaths.

It's not that you're sad or even sweating growing old. You imagine it's more common than not for grownups to have wistful moments after running the gamut of another year. You've stated the obvious fact many times that there is one way into this world and infinite ways out. That said, when you make it through another 365, for some reason you don't feel like you should have. The odds are stacked so high against surviving that it's emotionally draining to consider how you ever did. Then there's the prospect of another marathon staring you down in your bed before your feet are even on the ground, before you even stretched.

The wave passes when your firstborn son, now 5, strolls into the room in search of your iPad. He wears a sheepish, half smirk, which you translate to mean he's embarrassed to broach the topic of your birthday. That makes two of you. He finds the iPad on your bedside table, but before he makes off with it, you pull him into bed, hold him close, and kiss his warm brown temples. He giggles and feigns a struggle to escape before breaking the news it's your birthday and asking what you want.

His rhetorical question goes straight to your head like so many champagne bubbles and inspires a smile. This moment is what you want and are so very blessed to have. Soak it up, old man, and live for it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

fear and loathing under a blanket of snow

For three days Washington, DC area residents have literally been under the weather. Close to 30 inches of snow buried the region over the weekend and, in the process, launched the populace into a considerable span of stir craziness. The National Weather Service is predicting another 10-20 inches tomorrow and Wednesday, a concept that makes me want to drink Drano. In any case, aside from sledding, foraging, and shoveling snow, most of us have been relegated to the confines of our homes (well, those of us fortunate enough to have shelter), where eventually our lives have begun to resemble the plot of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre's fantastic and dark play, No Exit.

In No Exit, in case you are not familiar, three characters are confined to a hotel room and, after driving each other up its walls, come to realize, in fact, that they are in Hell and will spend the rest of eternity together. The famous line, Sartre's epiphany, is dispensed at the end by the male resident: Hell is other people.

Unfortunately some of us, myself included, are occasionally known to carry that mentality around like a bag of bricks on our back, bristling when forced to interact with other citizens. This is especially true when we're all living in the midst of our own private Siberia, which brings me to today's misadventure.

As I've mentioned, we live in Washington, DC's Chevy Chase neighborhood - a part of town sometimes and hysterically referred to as Upper Caucasia. We've been in these parts for three years and, barring any dramatic shifts, will be for a long time. It's a kid friendly prairie, laden with cute families led by young parents who, for the most part, are happy to meander and figure it out as they go, eschewing text book guidance in favor of real experience. In other words, every mom and dad seems comfortable enough in his or her own skin, and if they fuck up somewhere along the line, they acknowledge it and move forward. At the far end of the spectrum is a faction of crusty neighborhood veterans - the goats who might be five days older than dirt and generally affect a suspicious scowl when I offer a smile and a hello. I know, that sounds ageist in flavor, but I will point out that there are some incredibly pleasant and wonderful elderly neighbors around me. Unfortunately, my awkward encounters with the aforementioned crusty neighbors cast a wider shadow. As they say though, it takes a village.

My office is in the Chevy Chase Pavilion, a mixed use center in the fold of several retail, dining, and hospitality venues on Wisconsin Avenue, five minutes from home. When the cabin fever vibe in the house reaches a boiling point and the boys are poised to off each other, I decide that my 4 year old Jack and I will roll over to my office for a change of scenery. Even though it's closed because of the weather, I need to bang out a few emails and scope out the work week, assuming there will even be one. Always the eager co-pilot, Jack is glad to join me, especially since I throw a Borders run into the package. He digs the kids section in the back, which makes me smile.

After an hour in the office and 27 times being asked if it's time to go to yet, I pack it in. As we stroll down the block hand-in-hand, my mind replays a montage from the night before of Saint's quarterback Drew Brees holding his son in the wake of the Super Bowl victory, kissing his little hands, soaking him in, tears of joy lining his eyes. That will go down as one of the most touching images I've ever witnessed, by the way, because as a father, I can relate to sharing real moments with my children. Walking down the street to a big box book store, allowing yourself to really feel your son's small hand in yours can be everything, and it is.

As expected, Borders provides a serene shelter from the elements, a peaceful change of venue. A friendly worker and I exchange opinions on David Benioff's City of Thieves, which I read a week ago. We both marvel at how the bitter winter and scramble for food taking place in town right now bares some resemblance, though not nearly as dire, to the plight of the novel's co-protagonists. Eventually he turns me on to The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (which has already reeled me in). All the while, my smiling Jack patiently endures our banter, in spite of the ants in his pants that want to hit the kids' section in the back. Finally I follow him back there and don't even mind that he's running in the aisles since the place is virtually empty.

In the end, Jack opts for a Spider Man Lego helicopter instead of a book. To my slight chagrin, half of the kids' section has become a toy store. Whatever, I decide, Spider Man it is. After all, he's killing me with cuteness. On our way to the front, I grab a new piece of foodie nonfiction for my wife -- Jonathan Safron Foer's Eating Animals - and we're ready to roll.

The Borders checkout protocol, which I assume to be universal for the entire chain, requires that a line form at a far end where customers wait to be called by the next available cashier. As Jack and I approach, an older couple, mid-50s, hovers about 5 feet from the waiting point. The wife, arms full of what appear to be coffee table books, wears an uncertain frown and snipes at her husband over their selection. To me it sounds like a case of pre-purchase cognitive dissonance in action -- debates to the effect of will so-and-so like this one, or should we look around more, etc. Either way, I don't sense they're committed to checking out yet, and since ample space exists between them and the queue, Jack and I stroll up and wait.

Immediately Jack spots a shelf of toys (yes, more toys up front) and candy opposite the row of cash registers and dashes over to check it out. Such product placement schemes can be the bane of parenthood, as they often ignite emotional and embarrassing debates between parent and child, which often end with the parent wasting $5 on some worthless piece of plastic just to quell the storm and exit with some shred of grace. I'm about to call for Jack when I feel her sweaty breath on my neck. "Are you aware that I was in this line?"

Willing to concede that I might have misconstrued her noncommittal vibe a moment earlier, I sidestep and turn around with the intention of letting her pass. "Sorry, I wasn't sure...I uh--"

"Yeah, right. Are you blind or just a jerk?"

Now I just want to get away from this woman, so I immediately move forward when the cashier calls, "Next in line."

From 20 feet away, she apparently decides this mole hill will make a perfect mountain and raises her voice: "That's what I thought! You're a jerk and a terrible father!"

Like I said, it's not a packed house, but the few heads bobbing around the area begin to turn toward the scene that's unfolding, Jack's included. He's holding some piece of junk -- was it silly putty? -- and "confused" is written all over his face. This sparks a hot flare in my stomach and gives birth to a slight ringing in my ears. I want so badly for this cashier to expedite and get us out of there, but she's handcuffed by inane policies that slow the process. "Do you have a Border's rewards card?"

"You heard me - pathetic excuse for a man!"

"Ummmm, I don't know, it's okay." I reply, imploring her with a desperate shot of eyes to drop it and let me go.

She doesn't catch my hint, nor does she seem rattled by the nasty comments polluting the air around us. Like me, perhaps she's used to the elderly, entitled bands of snobs that litter the neighborhood. "What's your email address? I can look it up for you."

"Next in line please," calls the cashier to her right. I recognize his voice and look up to see the clerk I chatted with earlier.

From the corner of my eye I catch her approach and turn. She's tall, broad across the shoulders, hair crisp from too many blowouts and bad dye jobs over the years, and she lurches toward me like some Frankenstein drag queen. Only she doesn't stop to confront me; rather, she lunges toward Jack. Suddenly all bets are off.

Let it be known that I make a regular practice of chivalry. I'm old school in this regard and take a certain degree of pride in the fact that I still hold doors, pull out chairs, listen intently, rub feet, write letters, et al. I have incredible respect for women. Add to it that my wife is a rock star executive who commands respect and looks damn good while at it, and you could say I'm something of a worshiper. It goes without saying that I view laying violent hands on women as reprehensible.

Here's the catch: if you threaten or intentionally harm my child, to me you are no longer man or woman; you are a monster. At the risk of coming off like some lame action hero spewing hyperbole, I think (hope) I speak for all parents when I say that without hesitation, I would kill or die for my child if the moment called for either.

Jack's face wrinkles with fear and I can see his eyes watering when she grabs his shoulder and screams, "Don't you grow up and be like your horrible father!"

Instantly I grab a handful of her black leather jacket and spin her around to face me. As she turns, she stumbles and leans against a candy shelf to collect herself. Her eyes are darting everywhere, but they freeze when she catches my cold stare. "Don't. Touch. My son."

Jack edges past her and hides behind me. I can feel him shaking, which incenses me even more, but I'm trying to maintain a grip, trying to salvage a shred of a good example out of this.

"He assaulted me! You witnessed it!" She shrieks to the clerk, but he has no sympathy for this devil. He's my ally; he has my back.

"I witnessed you attack his child, miss."

"Noooooo!" She tries to convince herself that she didn't just project her anger on an innocent child, but her tone suggests to me that she can't spin this one.

"What the hell's going on here?" I'd forgotten about her husband since he disappeared after she hen-pecked him earlier. Now he's coming to her defense with an unmistakable limp in his gait, and I'm thinking, I hope this doesn't escalate physically, but if it does, this motherfucker's going to be an easy out.

I stand tall, and when he draws near, I put my grill right in his and explain in my best Dirty Harry tone, "Your wife went after my child because she thinks we cut in line. It's ugly enough already, so you should just walk away."

Thankfully it works. He limps away, and I suspect he wanted nothing to do with having her back in the first place. Part of me feels for him because, if his wife attacks strangers so viciously over perceived line cuts, she probably castrated this poor guy long ago.

"Don't be like your father!"

"Do not talk to him. Go home and take your meds." I jabbed.

"Miss, you need to pay or leave now." The clerk has had enough of her. We all have.

Outside, I zip Jack's coat then hold him close to me as I gulp the cold air. It cools the fire in my throat, but my head still pounds. We hold hands as we walk to the garage. His grip is intense, palms sweaty. I look down to see that he's studying my face, so I flash the silly buck-toothed grin that always induces a giggle or two.

"Did you protect me in there?"

"Yeah. Did you feel safe with me?"

"I always do."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Through stinging tears I have stared at this image of my father (first row, second from right, embracing a cigarette), surrounded by his platoon mates in Viet Nam, and choked repeatedly on the sad irony that unfolded this week when he died in a hospice room surrounded by not a soul. I also find myself marveling at our uncanny resemblance and cursing the fact that I've lived my entire life to this point unaware that I am his virtual clone. As I blogged before - really the last time I blogged about anything significant - he was estranged to me for nearly 20 years until we recently and awkwardly crossed paths again in a hospital room last March. Now it's clear that what might have been will never be, that so many unanswered questions will be interred with him, that I will still mourn though I expected to be okay when this day arrived. I am not okay...