Friday, December 30, 2011

Wrong-Way Street

So, in an attempt to be more contemplative, less aggressive, to maybe weigh the possibility that sneering at folks is not the best initial reaction to a given situation, when the guy turned the wrong way onto the clearly marked one-way street, I waved and smiled and called out, "Hey, buddy, you're going the wrong way." He ignored me entirely, and my spouse said, "He looks like maybe he's done this before," meaning he takes this one-way street faster than the speed limit as some sort of personal short cut, and did not need my help understanding the road signs.

That might be the case, and that might not be a big deal to most of the world, but as a father of four kids who are, for better or worse, rule following kids, I do not abide by folks break rules carelessly like that. The problem, for me, is that my kids, because they belive so whole-heartedly in rules, believe that other folks are going to obey them as well. And, while this is not a terribly big deal when some ignorant asshole cuts the bathroom line during recess, it's a pretty big fucking deal  when my kids are in the cross walks, obeying the rules of the human world.

At the same time, I have often criticized my kids who cross roads, sometimes carelessly, just because the sign says, "Walk." I have often had to repeat my very brief lecture: "The laws of physics," I tell them, "trump the federal judicial system." By which I mean: "Pay attention, because if you get hit by a car, it doesn't matter how damn right you are, you're still getting hit by a car." . . .

In my contemplativeness, I waved at the law breaker and smiled and mentioned he was making a faux pas. When I thought about the possibility that he had intentionally sped the wrong way down the one-way street, I immediately wished I had broken out my meanface, that I had, as I sometimes do, stepped into the street such that he must swerve around me and cinched my brow, so that he knew what the score was (or, at least, what I thought the score should be.

Still, I don't know if that would have made any kind of difference. I don't know how he would have reacted to me. Truth be told, I'd imagine some folks, seeing my meanface would think I was constipated or that maybe I just looked like that all the time.

It's a hell of a dillemma. With this background of being mean and / or tough in order to solve problems and this desire to be a better person and make the world a better place: I'm constantly damned if I do, damned if I don't. Ultimately, I want to just let such issues go, because I can't change that guy driving the wrong way any more than I can go back and tsk-tsk those jerks who cut the bathroom line in fifth grade, though I obviously want to.

For the time being, and, I hope, for all time, I'll simply keep working on it, hoping to someday be in charge of the world from street sign to bathroom lines to Geneva Conventions . . .

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Headlock (1993)

Here's another touching moment from my masculine childhood . . .



Jeff and I are not hip and we know it, but we both see a future in which we’ll be hip. We go on giving each other flattops and shearing team logos into our scalps. He spends the night at my house three or four days a week, even during the school year. Most nights, he asks for deermeat for dinner. Most nights he gets it. He’s one of few players in our school’s history to make varsity his ninth grade year and scores more points on the varsity team than I do on the junior high team. Which is neither here nor there, except that we played games of one-on-one to fifty almost every day this past summer, and I never lost by more than three points.
            His mom remarries the June after our ninth grade year, and he moves to a very nearby school, but still he moves. That summer is just like the last three, playing one-on-one to fifty, playing ping pong for hours, eating cookies late into nights while we play Nintendo, huddling in the dark until dawn talking about the great things we’ll do with women and other parts of our future.
            In the garage out back, we lift weights and throw darts and play ping pong and have an eight-foot-high basketball hoop we beat each up trying to score on. We keep a posterboard full of personal goals and competitions like most pushups in a minute, most situps in a minute, most pushups in a day, most chin-ups, height, weight, bench press, jump rope, most free throws made in a row, and anything else that comes up. He’s an inch taller than me, weighs half a pound more. He does sixty-one pushups in a minute, I do sixty; a hundred and fifty-six chin ups in a day, after I do one-fifty-five: the chart reads entirely like that, except for the mile time, which he refuses to measure.
            In the fall, his desk at school is empty and I survive, but I feel his absence. We talk on the phone and spend the weekends together and eventually we don’t talk on the phone and only see each other when he needs a haircut. He plays varsity at this new school, and I play j.v. Both of my school’s teams lose to both of his teams. He spends that weekend at my house, and we play one-on-one to fifty, win by two, which he wins 73-71. He asks about the tits and asses of all the girls he had crushes on at our school, though, to the touch, neither of us can tell a breast from a buttock with any real certainty. I tell him they’re wonderful. He tells me about the breasts and buttocks of all the girls at his new school. And they sound wonderful.
            He makes some new friends at school and tells me about Neil Sloss who’s new to the school and short but really strong looking. He’s a pretty cool guy, but some jock has a problem with him. The jock sucker-punches Neil in the gut, and Neil jumps up and puts him in a headlock. They hop around in a holding pattern for a minute or so, and finally Neil says, “Do you give up now? Do you want to be my friend.” The jock, on the brink of tears, yells out, “That’s all I ever really wanted.”
            Even into our thirties, Jeff’s on a short list of people I’ll schedule visits with when I return to PA. And it doesn’t make sense to me as a teen, but much later I’ll realize that every day for years, whether we knew it or not, Jeff and I held each other in submission moves like this, both of us knowing what we really wanted.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rec Center Pick Up

I ran on the treadmill Tuesday and got a mean look from a stranger playing basketball. He was big with big muscles and an enormous floppy head. I didn't like him the moment I saw him, but not for his size. Rather, I didn't like him for the way he was manipulating players on both teams, intimidating them and pushing them around.

And he was not a good player. And he called fouls every time he touched the ball.

After my treadmill run, I stood and watched the game for awhile. I wished that I was nineteen, because he would not have intimidated me, and he would not have stopped me, but I'm thirty-four and slow and can hardly touch the rim . . . it's hard to be old.

I don't know why I caught a dirty look from this guy, except the ball came out of bounds, and I didn't touch it -- not my job -- and maybe he thought I owed him that much for all the iron he'd pumped. The meanface didn't touch me while I was standing there. I raised my eyebrows and kept my face still and gave him the dumbest look, I'm sure, he's seen for a while. As if to say, "Whatever, dude," and he knew what I was saying.

The meanface didn't touch me then, but, damn, it's been haunting me since. Why do I suffer this fool like he's got anything for me? He's barely running a court at a rec center in Athens, Ohio. He wouldn't have got scraped off the sidelines at Miller Sybly fifteen years ago. And why does that matter to me?

Ah, hell, I'm bound up in this.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Snowglobe (1994)

Here's one of my favorite pieces from my "Meanface" manuscript that I've been working on . . .



I lay on my belly on Matt’s parents’ couch with a pond of blood rippling on the back of my right knee. A steel spring has pushed a few inches of skin about an inch deep underneath itself after Whitey had jumped on me, because I had said something about his girlfriend. Most of our scars have similar simply histories. We’re at Matt’s house, and we do our best to leave his mom and dad sleeping upstairs. In part because it’s disrespectful to wake sleeping people. In part because Matt’s dad is six-foot-five with tattoos of naked women, who themselves have tattoos of swearwords and weapons. I’m the only one of us with a driver’s license, and I’m the only one of us who needs to go to the hospital.
            About a dozen of us started this evening watching college ball clear the hell out in this little farming community, eating pizza, telling stories about each other’s girlfriends. When Matt’s dad ducks into the basement to see what’s going on – shirt off, hair mussed, tattoos telling stories of their own – the room experiences a distinct and immediate paradigm shift. Our posture improves. We stop using sentence fragments. We hold the door open for one another. He strides over to me, ashes his smoke on his floor, squints, and says, “Get your coat.” He’s got a goatee and eye glasses you’d expect to see on a president or Genghis Khan.
            I say my goodbyes to my old friends, slap a few high fives. Whitey says, “I’m sorry,” the way one says such things when one means, “Farewell, dear friend.” Matt’s dad’s tattoos roil over old raised lines of scar tissue and have their own newer scars, reminders, one can only imagine, of seedy dealings and various warfares. No doubt if he’d have ended up with this little nick on his leg, he would have used it himself for an ashtray or burned it shut with laser beams from his eyes.
            When I suggest that I call my parents, he says, “No sense waking them. Wouldn’t make it through this blizzard.” In the garage, he hands me a towel, slips on a t-shirt, lights a new smoke, and plows his Jeep through a driveway layered with fourteen-inch snowdrifts. He says, “That hole needs sewed up.” I nod, and try not to act like we’re going to die on the side of this winding dirt road any minute. The snow still coming down hard, coming up from the road, coming off the fields to the sides.
            He adjusts his glasses and tells me it’ll make a good scar, regardless of how they stitch it. He laughs when I ask him if he’s ever had stitches, and says, “You’re fucking kidding, right?” I’m not kidding, and, though I’ve used the word “fuck” before, this is the first time I understand why we’re not supposed to. His Jeep pulls the icy dirt roads on its own, I’m sure of it, and he sets a size fourteen woolen foot on the dashboard to pull his pajamas up to the knee, revealing an interstate of white scar from his slipper to the top of his shin, two-fingers thick. He says, “Ever hear of Australian repelling?” I had. He says, “If you ever get a chance to try, make for damn sure the rope ain’t frayed.” He puts the sneaker back on the gas, turns off the light, says, “Goddamn shinbone ended up on a rock beside me.” The world snowglobes out around us, a whirlwind of tiny eternities, pushing against the future.
            The doctor hates me when he arrives, woken up at two in the morning to put four enormous stitches across a tiny chasm at the back of some kid’s knee. I walk out of the emergency room and see the wind blowing snow around Matt’s dad as he smokes cigarettes in his pajama pants, slippers, and t-shirt, so enormous at this moment that I know, I see it myself, even the elements duck their heads and avoid eye contact when they come near him.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Well, I Guess That'll Teach Me

Same coffee shop: I've received five phone calls since I've been here, and each time, I've walked to a spot where my voice wouldn't disturb other patrons.

Meanwhile, Loudy-in-the-corner has not received any calls. . . .

until just this moment when his very loud ringer started ringing . . . oh crap.

But my man carried his phone to my nondisturbing spot in another part of the coffee shop and took the call.

Success? Yes, in a huge sense. Then why do I still wish I had given him a dirty look earlier?

I guess I'll have to keep thinking about that.

Should I Scowl?

This actually does feel like an appropriate moment to break out a meanface.

I'm in a coffee shop -- and I don't expect the coffee shop to be a library; I expect it to be a place of human interaction, of conversation, of debate and laughter -- but the guy on the cell phone is too much.

Nor am I opposed to cell phones. I think we should all have them and use them when necessary and other times. But I also think we should use our inside voices. Why do folks suddenly think they have to yell when they break out Verizon? Or, if you do have to yell, go outside, right? Seems like there was more than one reason that we used to have phone booths. In part, sure, it was so other folks didn't eavesdrop on our conversation. But the other part was so that other folks didn't have to listen to our inane chatter about whether or not we might or might not, maybe, I don't know drive up to Columbus tomorrow or just stay home and do some work around the house, because we haven't decided whether or not we need something up in Columbus, did I mention Columbus, well, I might or might not . . .

Just go to Columbus -- it's an hour away. Shorter, quieter discussions have gotten people across The Atlantic Ocean.

So I would feel justified in baring my teeth and shaking my head with suggestive disapproval, but I realize that sort of behavior takes a kind of focused energy that I'd rather put into a different project right now.

Still, I wonder if maybe denying myself a quick scowl is somehow equivalent to approving of Loudy's behavior? I end up giving myself meanface instead, mad at myself, I scowl inward.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My spouse and I are heading over to the hardware store in a moment. In mentally preparing for this, I thought back to another time we were at such a place in a city we used to live in.

We were in the plumbing section picking up a couple of basic drain connectors for a sink that the previous owners hadn't put much thought into.

On our way out of the aisle, a heavyset man with a big gray and orange beard asked if I could help him. I said, "I don't know, what are you working on?" He explained his project and talked about this very specific piece he thought he needed and wondered if I knew where it might be. The piece sounded like the sort of thing that ought to exist, but I wasn't familiar with it. I told him that, turned to my spouse, and said, "Do you know what he might need?"

And before waiting for an anwer, the man looked at my spouse, crumpled his brow, grunted, and said, "Yeah, right." Then he turned and walked away.

When he was gone, I said, "Do you know what he needed?" And, of course, she pulled the piece off teh pegboard not five feet from where we were standing.

Moral of the story: I wonder how many times my very own, well-rehearsed, nearly flawless meanface has made me look like an enormous, fucking idiot in retrospect. My first guess would be: many many times.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

John McClane

Because nothing particularly masculine happened to me today, but I do have some other writings in a similar vein, I'm going to include something I've already written. I call it "Hero":

At one point, the helicopter has John McClane pinned down on the roof of the Nakatomi Plaza Building in L.A. Nothing indicates this, but I get the feeling the building is so tall that one could see the tip of the antenna on the Twin Towers from here. Automatic rifles fire at McClane. Thin steel barrels light up the night sky. He’s bleeding. He’s tired. He’s not even supposed to be here. Unable to communicate with the men in the chopper, unable to retreat, unable to engage this magnitude of firepower, he wraps a firehose around his waist and jumps off the building. The firehose reaches its full length and pulls taut against the spool as McClane crashes into the thick window. He shoots the window, kicks the window, splashes through the window, and crawls across the broken glass to relative safety. The heavy cast iron spool breaks away from its anchors on the roof and falls past the window. McClane struggles to untie himself from the plummeting fire hose, which pulls him towards the open air of a quarter-mile plummet. The hose drags him across the thick broken shards of glass. He’s barefoot. Tired. Bleeding. At the last second, he frees himself from the hose, turns toward the future, and continues to kick bad-guy ass.

As for me, I learn in high school to say, “I wouldn’t trade my game for his,” whether talking about basketball, running, writing, studying, or sexual intercourse. On the other hand, if I could be anything else in the world for just a moment or a thousand years, I would be John McClane, swandiving off the Nakatomi Plaza Building amidst gunfire and small explosions as the world rises up underneath my bare feet and strong arms, certain of just one thing: whatever happens next better be ready for me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Long-Sticking Anger

Okay, so here, maybe, is part of the problem with this training in masculinity. On my run today, I ran through an intersection where I had almost been hit once. I recalled that moment, and how the schmuck who'd almost hit me got pissed at me because his cell phone fell out of his hand when he slammed his breaks -- despite the fact that I'd had the right of way.

That was four years ago. In the middle of today's run, during a particularly blissful moment, I ran through that intersection and recalled that honking, swearing fellow. For the next mile, mile and a half, I obsessed about an altercation that never happened. I imagined him getting out of his car, some nasty words, a scene from Rocky, a culmination of me breaking out seventeen-or-so precise martial arts moves that (I hope) I've picked up over the years by watching Jean Claude Van Damme movies.

In reality, I tucked my eyebrows and gave him my most expressive frown, indicating neither that I was sorry or he was forgive, but that he's probably the dumbest person in this hemisphere . . .

To what end does my (real or imagined) response lead? The more I thought about what a jerk the guy probably was all the time, and certainly was that moment he swore and bird-flipped me, the angrier I got. I calmed down again as I reminded myself, as I had reminded myself during the earlier run, the guy probably had a bad day or, more likely, has simply had a bad life.

Beyond that, yes, okay, I was raised tough, but I don't fight. I don't lift weights. I don't do push or pull ups. I've, admittedly, and, rather happily, gone soft. What am I going to do if some meathead rips the door off his Blazer and beats me over the head with it?

Monday, December 12, 2011

I heard on the radio today that road rage might be an indication of some deeper issues. My first response: uhm, duh.

These are the symptoms: aggression, depression, and what someone is calling Intermitent Explosive Disorder. Which lead me to my second response: now, I watch a lot of movies . . . aren't these responses the way that I've been told to respond to dumbasses? Yes, they are. One of the things the article claims causes road rage is seeing other drivers who are distracted. This pisses me off, I admit. Still, I have a hard time imagining Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson responding to some idiot: "Pardon me, I see that you're distracted. Could I trouble you to stop shaving and texting and focus on your driving. Thank you. You look great today."

What this article is calling "temper tantrums," I think Hollywood (and therefor the rest of us) would call "standing up for oneself."

We might even call intentionally ramming our car into a stranger's car completely natural. After all, what would John Wayne do?

I pulled into a parking lot the other day, and was greeted by a goatteed man, screaming "fuck you" and tossing me a very aggressive bird. While I'm certain I was abiding the speed limit, and I know I had my turn signal on, I think maybe it was a late turn signal or, perhaps, I hadn't slowed into the turn.

As for me, I never think fast enough to honk or flip off or even swear much, but I do feel my face go flat and my eyes go dead when I drive around idiots. I know that meanface is its own kind of aggression.

I'm not entirely convinced it's natural or right to respond this way. Why do I do it? I'm conflicted. Why do I sometimes feel like being powerful and reasonable are mutually exclusive traits?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Parking Ticket

Okay, so last evening, I stopped by the local law enforcement place, the Police Station, as it’s called here. I had to pay a ten dollar parking ticket for a meter that had recently expired. The ticket dropbox is inside the front door on the left – I’ve been there before. Because it’s a small parking lot, there were no spots available. Because it’s a small town, I shrugged. Because I’m not real big and my car isn’t either, and because dropping this ticket will take me somewhere between thirteen and seventeen seconds, I parked directly in front of the Police Station.
            Now, look, before I get too far into this, I was wrong. I know that. I should not have parked there. I get it. I am a law follower, a rule abider from way back. I loved standing in line in elementary school. I always appreciated the piercing rattle of a refs whistle. I should not have parked there – my bad.
            So: give me a ticket. Tow my car. Arrest me and chain me to the floor of the Police Station – I will abide.
            Instead, this happened: a cop who had been parked in the parking lot, chased me inside the Police Station and says, “Is that your Kia?”
            We're the only two people in the building. He saw me get out of the car. He had done quite a piece of detective work. I said, “Yes.”
            He said, and this is what gets me, “Don’t you think it’s kind of stupid to park your car beside a yellow curb in front of a police station?”
            My fingers were, as he spoke, cramming the parking ticket – the parking ticket that I was paying without complaint – into the dropbox, and I was turning on my heel to run back out to my car. I could have made excuses. I could have said, “Well I’m only going to be a second.” Not to mention the fact that I had the impression this door would be locked soon, and I was on my way to pick up my preschooler. Still, did I think it was dumb. Fucking-A “Yes,” I said, about the dumbest fucking thing I’ve done all day.
            But I just said, “Yes.” And turned on my meanface. No reason to turn on my meanface, just an impulse I’ve been taught. I dropped my chin, let my eyes go dead, stared through him and the cinder block wall behind him. I don’t even mind being called stupid. Simply this, and I remember this from even elementary school: I do not abide being lectured. Give me a ticket, officer, but do not lecture me.
            He said, “I strongly suggest you go move your car soon.”
            I knew who had the power there. I knew that he was likely to see my car and me going twenty-six in the twenty zone on my way to preschool soon. I know where he sits, and, despite the fact that there is always a row of six or ten cars trying to pass me at forty in that twenty zone, I know what’s at stake for meanfacing a cop. But, like I say, I don’t abide a lecture. I said, “Thanks for the advice,” and stood staring through him waiting for another wisdom nugget to issue forth from his claimhole.
            He turned on his heel, though, and fidgeted with cop things on the bulletin board, such that it was clear the only reason he’d come into the building was to let me know I was an idiot.
            The joke’s on him: I already knew.