When I was 14 my friend Matt and I were supposed to be sleeping over at Eric’s house, but we all snuck out the window. We didn’t have anywhere to go, or even anyone to meet, but it was summer, we were bored, and we were going to manufacture some adventure in any way we could. In my pocket I had a brick of firecrackers my dad had brought back from Wyoming where they were legal. We headed off for the gully where it was rumored devil worshipers held strange ceremonies involving kidnapped children. Where else would adventure seeking suburbanites go? When we got there we did not find the pagans, but we did find a lone cop, sitting in his squad car with the windows rolled down.
Eric told me to wait in the bushes and he would be back in a minute. I dumbly complied. About two minutes later a string of firecrackers lit up the inside of the cop car. I could hear the officer shouting in shock even louder than the pop-pop-pop of the Black Cats. Eric came hurdling over the bushes and ran down the street not waiting to see if I was following. I was.
That was more than 20 years ago and I have told that story a million times to thousands of people. Eric is a responsible well employed adult now- no harm no foul. Funny thing is this story gets different reactions depending on who hears it. Most of my white friends laugh in wonder at the foibles of youth. Most black people with whom I tell are at best, annoyed. Some are quite upset.
You see, most of my white friends, more than you might think, counter with their own stories. Thanks to them I have quite the collection of stories about idle vandalism and general teenaged delinquency; enough to re write American Graffiti ten times over. But this would be a very white movie. None of the black people I know have the same sorts of stories. No, that isn’t quite true. They do have those stories but the endings are very different. The black stories I hear trend towards much less actual destruction and much more police involvement. It is possible that the black people I know are just lames. Maybe they were blerds. I of course have not met all black people, nor do I represent all white folks, I am just a middle aged collection of anecdotes. But with that being said, we, my black friends and I, are all Americans but we did not grow up in the same world.
This reality was made even more clear to me, and more alarming, last night.
I attended a local public forum on race and policing. Up on the stage were a row of chiefs. There was the local police, the county sheriff, even the school district pd. The mayor, a black woman, sat there too, joined by another row of pastors and local clergy. Out in the auditorium the public lined up behind two microphones to ask their questions, make their comments, and the chiefs gave their answers. It was a mostly cordial event. I support having more of them. Yet there was a theme coming from that stage that troubles me.
More than one officer, and a couple pastors, even one black officer from the crowd, talked about how the youth are different today. They talked about how the youth of today don’t respect the police. One officer suggested kids are responding to things they see about cops in the media and two pastors said this is all a result of the lack of Bibles in school. There was a common thread that the police wanted to understand, more so to be understood, and that they are constantly frustrated by the public’s lack of cooperation.
The challenge of policing in a violent racialized society is definitely complex and difficult. I get that.
But I also get that American Graffiti was released in 1973. I also know that I knew all the words to that Officer Krumpke song from West Side Story when I was ten. That movie was released in 1961. I know that all through my youth the cops were the ones who got mad at you for throwing water balloons or eggs, chased you when you hopped the neighbor’s fence, and cops were the ones who stopped your car when they got calls of possible gun shots coming from a black Tercel. The car was blue, not black, and the sound wasn’t gun shots, it was the noise made when a bat hits a mailbox.
We were never respectful, we were too annoyed that our spirits were being oppressed.
But maybe I haven’t spoken to enough young black kids today. Maybe they are the ones who have changed. Maybe it is the black people of my generation who would never have dared to throw a lit firecracker into a cop car or who got arrested for being out too late. Maybe the black kids today would hit the mailbox or would throw the egg.
Does this mean things have gotten worse?
Maybe bad guys and cops have both been pulling triggers for generations and the only thing different now is cameras. Maybe the black folks who never threw eggs back then are more afraid of bullets and are now willing to throw bricks. I know that plenty of the guys I grew up with, the ones who did the same things as me, have grown up to be cops. These are great guys. I love them.
But did we forget? Where is the empathy? Why has the phrase “kids will be kids” been replaced by the word thug? Is it because these kids today, these thugs, are worse than we were? We, the Dazed and Confused kids were just messing around but these thugs are a real danger? Really?
I struggle with this. I struggle because in 9th grade I watched my classmates smoke weed and shoplift. In 10th grade I watched a bunch of kids hop out of a car at a strip mall and beat up a stranger for no reason. I saw one kid beat another with a bat behind the movie theater over a girl. Jed got stabbed at school. My good friends did meth, dropped acid, sold coke. Stole a car, drove drunk, walked away. I saw all of that. But we are all older now and we have learned our lessons. We have matured now and we teach our children better. We were kids.
Really, the biggest difference I can see between us back then and the kids today, is that for the most part, we were all white.
The seasonal passing of time is hard to measure in perpetual summer. The leaves do not change, snow does not fall, and your wardrobe changes consist of a jacket in the evening. Everything is a perpetual now.
Before you know it time has passed and you’re wheels haven’t turned. You remain where you were. Or so you think. Or so it feels.
Quickly a new school year is starting and the grind you never took a break from is beginning its cycle all over again and you stare at that date as it bears down upon you relentlessly, mercilessly, unyielding. Time does not tire despite its continual aging.I have done my best to follow time’s path but have been unsuccessful in both body and mind. The body I get, the mind makes no sense. A friend and I have talked about the need to always have something to look forward to, a goal, a destination, maybe even a carrot of some sort. Destination gives purpose and fuels drive. It makes a difficult now- easier to endure.I have jogged out to this tree on several occasions. I suffer from inertia and have realized that outside forces like gravity and laziness are hard to counteract. I set my sights on this tree, this destination, to get me to go just a little further, to prevent me from deciding I have gone far enough and aborting my much needed exercise just a little too early. It works.
I am not that guy who enjoys exercise. Of course I feel better if I do it, but the process is worse than drudgery, it is hard work. So are most valuable things.
Valuable things. Like views of lonely trees, mountain paths, and time.
Jogging to that tree I most often kill the value of the journey. No. Not true.
I don’t kill it but rather I trade one value for another. I sacrifice the view from solitude and joyful journey with accomplishment and the potential of one day seeing my own belt buckle.So in talking with my friend about looking forward, I wonder about the missing of now. Sometimes now is pretty cool and now never comes around again.Now must be harnessed and loved. Now must be carpe’d and capitalized upon. There must be a tenuous balance between the enjoyment of the present wrapped around the driving toward tomorrowWhatever balance I achieve, zen-like or teetering, what I do know is that the new school year starts way too early around here and I need to carpe before I run out of diems.
When and what to eat. Or not to eat. What to wear. Where to live and to whose family you belong. Everything is decided and dictated by someone else and you have no say in who that is. They decide if you are rich or poor, hungry or overfed, blonde or brown haired. Everything is up to them. They control everything and when you are young, your only hope is to eventually get taller. Getting taller takes time, it takes years, and years are the longest things there are.
When you are little the world is measured out from task to task. School comes right after breakfast which comes after you get dressed right after you wake up. Then you color, then a snack, and then a nap. You play. At the end you clean up and then you wait, and if the worst happens, you wait ten minutes because they forgot about you and you almost died because you knew they weren’t coming. But those horrible minutes are erased by cartoons which lead into dinner. After dinner they like to torture you. Sometimes baths but always bed. Bed, where you lie there in the dark being quiet forever until it all ends. Why do they make us do that? It is boring, it is scary, and most of all it is long.This is a day, and to grow up they want us to wait a year? How many bath-times is that? We all want to grow up faster but they won’t let us. They say it isn’t them, it is just how it is, but however it is, it is still out of our control. Just like everything.
They tell us to enjoy it and be happy. They tell us not to cry. They say they wish they could go back and be where we are, then turn around and give themselves another scoop of ice cream and stay up late watching television. We never got extra ice cream and always had to go to bed. They say they want what we have but they never do it. They stay up all night.
I am probably not the best parent in the world. I am definitely not the best parent in my house. I normally think of myself first, my wife second, and then there are these small people with these endless needs and demands that normally don’t fit neatly into my ideal plans on how to spend my day. I am currently working on being less self-centered, but it is hard to do since everywhere I go, I find myself tagging along. I am hard to shake. Not only am I hard to shake, but I’m also a little bit lazy.
This is problematic in that when the kids are too lazy to clean their room, I am frustrated because I am also too lazy to clean their room. There are those who will (and if they are reading, already have in their minds) retort that a good parent doesn’t clean the kid’s room because they need to learn to do it themselves. I make no claims at being a good parent and find myself in a pickle because teaching a kid to clean their room is much harder than simply cleaning it myself, and as stated before, I am too lazy to clean their room.
With this as context, I was sitting in the living room reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol II, when my six year old looked up from her note pad and asked, “Dad, what are these things called?” pointing to the door hinges. “Those are called hinges.” She went back to the couch and her note pad, then asked, “How do you spell hinges?” I answered appropriately.
She presented to me a drawing, plans really, of a house, complete with directions of where each “nale” should be placed and instructions on putting h-i-n-g-e-z on one side of the door. I was impressed with her level of forethought and terrified, not by the thought of saying no to this child, I’m good at that, but rather terrified at the amount of work building a house would take.
“Uhhhh, we already live in a house.”
“No Dad. Like a small one. Like maybe this big,” she said holding her hand about four inches above her head.
A child willing to do something I was unwilling to do is hard to turn down. Maybe I was enticed by the possibilities this principle might introduce, like maybe I say no to doing my taxes and she offers to do them for me. Paying bills? Going to my job? This had possibilities. “Sure you can build a house, but it’s going to take some planning. Where is this house going to live?”
“The courtyard out back looks very nice. What if I don’t want to look at your house? We are renting our house, what if we move? How will your house fit through the door when we want to move it? Nails don’t come apart.”
She bit the back of her pencil and looked up at the ceiling. She didn’t have an answer. This was perfect, because I am not only lazy, but I am also a know it all. “What if you use hinges instead of nails? The whole thing can fold up like Ikea. Go re-draw those plans.” She re-drew the plans.
Were I to write a book on being a great parent, which would be fiction, I would recount all the events that followed. Not only did I allow my child to pursue her dreams but I let her use a power saw in the process. My theory on fatherhood is that if you are lucky enough to get a good kid, don’t mess them up. This is best done by getting out of the way. If getting out of their way takes effort, like getting off the couch, then by all means let the child get themselves out of the way by building their own house out back. This is what I did. Rather, this is what she did.
When you are small the world is bigger. When you are young everything is new.
Everything being big and new can be both wonderful and terrifying.
We only went to the beach as an afterthought. Our main intent was to visit the Ocean Institute. That was “our” intent, my intent was to see the tall ships. To me tall ships are wonderful. They stoke within me a primal wanderlust that I am finding increasingly hard to placate. But the institute and the two tall ships it operates, are not for me.
Its all for them.
And they love it.
On weekends it is open to the public and the weekend we went they made us feel welcome. I love to observe others doing things they love and the Ocean Institute appeared full of people doing what they love. What they do there is teach oceanography to kids.
A grey haired man walked us around a whale skeleton, another showed us how they practice driving underwater robots. A young woman showed us the tank where she was raising a colony of young jellyfish and another woman helped my kindergartner dissect a squid.
Make no mistake, this isn’t an aquarium or a museum. They don’t just show things here they facilitate doing things. It isn’t just to help people do things, its to teach kids how to do things. Big, new, terrifying, and wonderful things.
We as a generation would do better if we dedicated ourselves more to teaching our kids to do big new terrifying wonderful things.
Trent was the quarterback of the sophomore football team, lived about a block away, and was having a backyard party. Normally we would spend Friday night looking for girls-
but they were all at Trent’s party.
As we left my house and rounded the corner a Jeep came screeching to a halt, spilling out its human contents. “Where do you guys think you’re going?” the voice asked from behind the headlights.
It was the Seville brothers;
We could not hide our intentions, our cargo was conspicuous. What I saw next was so inspiring that all these years later I can still picture it, in slow motion of course. One of the Sevilles took a balloon from Johnny’s hand, hopped back up into the back of the Jeep, and proceeded to send said balloon 100 yards down the street from a launcher mounted on the roll bar. I’m sure the brass at the pentagon felt the same way on the stealth’s maiden flight, a mix of awe and giddiness.
We resumed our advance with new confidence. Our numbers were increased and our allies were obviously superior.
The sound of late summer fun could be heard on the other side of the fence as we all took up position. The signal was given and latex grenades took flight up over the roof, over the fence, and out of the best assault vehicle a suburban kid had ever seen. The advantage of balloons over artillery is that there is no loud boom, nor in-flight whistle to warn the targeted of impending doom; just sweet silence.
We could actually hear the first splash, followed by high pitched screams, and low voiced curses.
The plan was to run back to my house; fast.
It started out well but as we turned to bolt, the Sevilles turned on us. They were behind us, still had extra balloons, and shouted, “there they are,” pointing at us. We were trapped. Sophomores from the party in front of us, seniors behind us, time for plan B, the suburban scatter.
It is standard that when being pursued in a residential neighborhood you hop a fence and make your escape through back yards, trusting that you will regroup later. Every man for himself.
Proverbial wisdom says that when being chased by a bear you don’t have to be fast, you just have to be faster than the next guy.
I have never been fast nor have I ever been faster than the next guy.
Brian got to the wall right before the pack of angry football players caught up to us. He didn’t have time to hop over, but he did have time to dive into the bushes, I only had time to put my hands up in surrender.
There they were, a sophomore and senior coalition, holding me hostage with ammunition I had filled myself. They had me, but they wanted more. “Where’s the rest of ‘em?” they demanded, arms cocked, ready to throw.
I may not have been fleet of foot but that night I was quick. They did not know where Brian was, I did. They did not know Brian used to beat me up in elementary school, I did. Brian didn’t know what I was going to do, I did.
From his hiding place in the bushes Brian could not see me. I plead loudly, “I don’t know where they are, I swear!” all the while pointing to the shrubbery.
I was one of the proud few to finish that night with dry clothes. It was strange how all those upperclassmen had seemingly given up the chase and simply discarded their balloons in the bushes. How odd.
The party goers were drenched, my comrades were wet; covered in twigs, and I think the girls all went home in the Jeep. We walked slowly, and sloppily, down the street.
This wasn’t today, but I like it. I should probably not admit that I took the photo while driving.
I’m going to offer up that cinder block walls are close to my least favorite surface to paint on, but mother’s of elementary school kids are possibly the most doting art admirers I have interacted with. Not my best work, but probably my best venue, and by far my best company/teammate.