Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Real True Grit

I remember asking my Grandfather when I was young what the difference was between a man and a boy. He told me in his tough and graveled voice that a man has rough hands from a hard days work. His back hurts but he doesn't tell anyone or make a big deal about it. A man doesn't take shit from NO ONE! I said I wanted to be a man just like him when I grew up and I wanted to get started right away. He laughed and told me to go to the end of the drive way and pick up some loose gravel. He said if I grind the gravel in my hands a little each day then my hands will be ready when I need them to work. With rough sandpapered hands I would be able to put up a fence faster than the rest of the boys or dig a hole quicker. Why I could even take a steer down faster than anyone my age if I already had a working man's hands. I did just what he told me. It hurt but I didn't let anyone know. At 5 years old I was on my way to manhood.

To be a male in my family was easy. The only guide you needed was to watch as many John Wayne movies as possible. The Duke was the Lee family guru of etiquette. If someone gets in your face you show them the knuckles. If someone tried to take something from you, why you just flash the old double barrel. A man sees the whites of your eyes and knows the the hammer is falling rather than be hit from behind with a cheap shot. They only see your pearly whites smile when they go crawling away from you. I wanted to be that. To be honest a little part of me still does. I don't think I'm the kind of man my Grandfather would have been proud of. I come from a long line of war veterans. A man doesn't talk about his feelings. You bury them along with your buddy on the battle field. If your foot hurts you shoot the other one to keep it company but a man would be damned to sit in a doctors office waiting to be helped. Whenever a bully threatened me the advice my father gave me was not to put my thumb inside my fist when I threw a punch. Growing up I thought that in order to be a man there must be pain, and an underlining life of hardship around every corner to conquer. But I wasn't a fighter. I liked animals and drew pictures all day. I let my family lineage down. I talk freely about my feelings. I don't rule with my fists. Is it possible that a man of girth and bran stillness can coexist in the same mind with that of peace and inner perspective? If it can then I am failing miserably. I am a pacifist and a time bomb all at the same time.

You see I didn't grow up with just the Duke. I also grew up with men like John Lennon singing about all you need is love and give peace a chance. The roles that men played have changed dramatically over the years since my Grandfather's youth. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached to love and not hate. He chose to march instead of destroy. He talked about fighting the good fight. How do you fight without your fists or guns? Steve McQueen would have run over your ass if you got in his way. Clint Eastwood would have filled you full of lead if you asked him how the weather was outside. Geronimo the great Apache chief lead his people by running miles across Arizona and Mexico on foot everyday and destroying anyone who got in his way before he was finally caught and forced to sign a treaty. Charles Bronson took no prisoners. Bruce Lee was unstoppable. Today's men like Samuel L. Jackson or Jeff Bridges are tough but never take themselves too seriously. So what happened between my Grandfather's and my generations? Where did all the men go? John Wayne never asked for peace. He just laid people to rest.

As much as I don't believe in war I have often thought about enlisting. Deep down I feel like it is a family duty and an honor I must uphold. How can I really understand peace without fully understanding war. But I made a decision and I have to firmly stand behind it. That is another characteristic of a man. You form your morals and you live by them. No one or outside pressures should influence that. If they do then you have no real conviction. John Wayne was full of convictions. So am I. That is one thing the Duke and I have in common.

I was there when ever one of my pets died. One of my dogs had a disease and her organs began to shut down. There was nothing we could do but make her comfortable. A real man would have probably put her out of her misery by breaking her neck quickly or shooting her with a gun. I didn't. I tried to make her as warm and comfortable as possible. I noticed one morning that she was bleeding from the mouth and nose. I cleaned her up and brought the kids in to the room with her and explained to them what was going to happen to her and what I was about to do. They said good-bye. I took her to the vet. I held her the same way I held every pet I had that died in my arms. She continued to bleed as I cleaned the blood away from her face with my hands whipping off the excess on my shirt. I held her in my lap the whole time. The vet told me she might loose control of her bowels when they put her under. I told them I was holding her anyway. She went peacefully soon after. She was just a dog. She was just an animal. Men wore animals on their backs. Men smelled like leather or and any other catch of the day. And yet when my dogs eyes rolled back in her head I kissed her forehead and cried like I have done with every pet that has graced my life. I'll bet John Wayne never had a pet.

My father-in-law's dying wish was to be buried on land that they owned. I was to help bury him. Can't man up any harder than digging a hole and putting a loved one in it, right? I didn't think I could do it. The memory is still there and I always think about it when the cool winter winds start to blow. The wood of the shovel digging into my hand. Moving earth and large rocks out of the way with just our backs. The brothers and I had amazing energy to do what we did in such a short time. We took one break and I lied down in the grave. I wanted to know what it felt like looking up through the twisted branches, earth, and rock. What did it feel like to be dead? I couldn't tell you. I'm alive. What I saw when I was on my back was sky. What I understood is that I'll never know what death is until I'm dead.

We laid their father down and spoke a few words. Men Don't cry. They just get the job done. I cried. After we said our peace the wind picked up and it began to rain and snow just a little. We finished burring him before the rest of the family showed up. I was so exhausted after that. I have never been so tired in all my life. My Grandfather's advice was meant to prepare me for this but you never really are. I'll bet John Wayne never did that.

I have raised my fists before. I have lost every time. My hands may be worn but there has never been massive strength behind my punch. I wish I could hit like a drunken sailor. Harrison Ford was my childhood hero. Every time I got in a fight I imagined the theme song from "Raider of the Lost Ark" going on in my head. Ford has this way of making fights look real. You can see the anxiety and frustration in his face as he punches his way trying to get himself out of another mess. Always thrown into the fire but never reluctant. I saw myself  that way for a while.

I remember a group of people holding this guy back from completely killing me and mopping up the floor with my toothpick body. I stood up and people were yelling at me to run. I start to stagger off when I heard, "HEY YOU LITTLE FAGGOT!" No one calls me or anyone else around me that! I turned into Harrison Ford all over again. I spun around for round two only to met up quickly with four knuckles. My head shot back so quickly I thought it broke off. I saw blood fly out of my mouth so fast I thought it was launched in outer space. My back hit the cold sidewalk so hard that it knocked the breath out of me and I passed out.

When I came to the person I was defending was standing over me. I didn't know him but these other guys were giving him a hard time and calling him faggot and pushing him around. I hated that term and felt like stepping up to the plate if no one else was. People always assumed I was gay and gave me a hard time growing up. It didn't matter if the guy was gay or not. I wasn't. I just felt that no needs to be picked on for being different.

"That was probably the dumbest thing I have ever seen in my life," he said as I came to.

"Your welcome," I said trying to feel my mouth.

"Do you really think violence is going to help anything? Suppose you kicked his ass. WHICH YOU DIDN'T! What is next. So what, you're going to go out and beat everyone up who utters a bad word. You're going to save us all Superman. Who to you think you are, Indiana Jones or something?"

How did he know. Anyway, he helped me up. I asked him, "So are all my teeth still there?" I half smiled.

"Yeah, your teeth still there," he said as he started to walk off. "It's your brain that's splattered all over the sidewalk."

After my head quit hurting I thought a lot about what he said. Not even Harrison Ford could take on the world. I doubt the Duke could either. But Ford and the Duke together! I didn't have someone that would get my back like that. So I had to think about how to fight in other ways. John Lennon came to mind about that time period. He fought with words and song. He was a force to be reckoned with. I could be a load mouth. Well, I mean that I could articulate how I felt and have a punch with the volume of my voice as much as he did. So that is what I did. John Wayne was a big man and could be in movies like the "Quiet Man" and get away with it. I'm a little man and had to get comfortable with who I really was. I didn't have my Grandfather's hands no matter how hard the grit I used to grind in the palms of my own hands.

It was a few days ago when I asked my 5 year old son how school was. He looked up at me and said, "I got pushed around today by a bully."

That old wound I had started hurting. I just gritted my teeth to hide the pain. I got angry. NO ONE shoves MY boy around! I could hear my Grandfather's voice loud and clear above my Mother's gentle "turn the other way" approach. Lennon was now getting his ass kicked by Metallica's "Seek and Destroy". I looked hard at him and said, "No matter how hard they push you, you stand right back up. Even if their bigger than you. You stand your ground Son."

"Do I push her back?" he asked.

"What?!... Push who?!" It took me a minute to register. "Oh no. No, no. She is a her? The bully is a girl?"

"Yeah! Should I push her back?"

I sighed, "No."

"Should I trip her and make her fall in a cactus?"

"What?! No! NO! Who told you to do that?"

"So what do I do?"

I sat down I held out my sandpapered hands. I looked at them both front and back. I could see the splinters from the days work. I saw bruises that must be weeks old.  My hands are so callused and have hurt for so long they numb now. I can't feel them anymore. I cut people when I try and touch them. I can't tell how soft a woman's skin is anymore or how fragile a child's hand is now. I just have to imagine how that person feels to me and then I know how soft I need to touch so that it doesn't hurt them. I have to touch now by remembering to feel. How was I going to feel my way through this one?

I put my hands on the table in front of me still looking at them. "Son, did I ever tell you the story about Davy and Goliath?"

"How is this going to help me?"

"Just listen. Did I tell you the story or not?"

"No. Can I go play?"

"No." He rolled his eyes and I began MY version of the story. "Goliath was this notorious giant who took whatever he wanted without asking. People were scared of him and they never stood up to him because they were afraid he would do something terrible. Everyone lived in fear while Goliath stole and lived off other peoples hard work."

"And then one day they shoot him with a gun," he interrupted.

"NO! Who told you... what is wrong with you? There are no guns. This is before guns were even made."

"Were there dinosaurs?"

"I'm not going that far back in time."

"Then they chopped him up with a sword."

"No. This my story and I'm telling it." I stopped long enough for the calm to return in my voice. "So one day this boy named Davy gets fed up. He is tired of being pushed around. So he walks across the town courtyard and calls out the to the giant who always sat at the end of the garden were people brought him whatever he wanted. Goliath stood up and cast a shadow a mile long as he approached the unruly boy. People stood all around the courtyard just staring at the commotion the boy was making, but not one of them interfered. The boy said he had had enough and he wasn't going to let the giant take anything else from his family ever again."

"So Davy beat him up?!"

I looked at my hands again. "No. There was a fight. The giant kicked Davy around like kick ball. But every time Davy fell down he would just get right back up again and shout "NO MORE!". The giant would kick harder and Davy kept getting up. No matter how hard Goliath hit Davy, Davy would just get right back up. Then Goliath hit Davy so hard it knocked him back 30 feet into a market wall. The giant thought he was done and laughed as he started to walk away. Then he told the crowd watching that was a lesson for all of them. Before the dust had settled out of the rubble the boy stared crawling back. He couldn't walk or stand but he was NOT giving up."

"So he got mad and beat the giant up?!"

"No," I said with a slight smile.  "The giant walked over to the crawling boy. You could feel the ground shack and rumble with each stride he took. He stopped right in front of the crippled boy and lifted the mighty sole of his shoe and crushed Davy like a bug in front of all the men, woman, and children watching. He killed Davy. No one interfered. They ALL watched this boy stand up to this mean nasty giant all by himself. The boy stood up for what he believed in even though he knew he couldn't win. He stood up for what they believed in too. And do you know what happened soon after that?"

"No, what?" he said now totally drawn in by my story.

"One by one people started standing up to Goliath. The giant would try and hurt them too but someone else would soon jump in or get in the way. News spread about the boy who stood up to the evil giant and soon people from all over were coming to tell the gigantic dictator what they thought of him. If a boy wasn't afraid then they could do it to. Soon there were too many people to keep off, even for Goliath. He took off running as the people chased him to the ocean. Without anywhere to go he jumped in the water and started swimming. He was a big man but it is bigger ocean. They never saw Goliath again. The moral of the story is that you are not going to win ever fight in your life. But you ALWAYS stand up for yourself and what you believe in. You never back down. You don't have to physically fight back. You just have to stand you ground. I real man can influence and unite others in his beliefs if he is strong enough to stand in the face of his own fears. Do you understand Little Man?"

My son thinks for a little bit. "Yeah. I guess I shouldn't push her back. I guess I get right back up again even though she made me cry and might step on me like a bug."

"Yeah," I consoled, "something like that."

The next day I asked my son how school went. He looked at me and said, "Fine."

"So the bully situation went better today?" I asked him.

"No. She took a ball from me and wouldn't give it back."

"So what did you do?"

"I told her I had it first and then she told me to move and get out of the way. So, so I didn't and she, she pushed me and I fell."

"I see. And what did you do?"

"I stood up and said no. And then Arlo and Max took the ball from her and gave it back to me. But then she looked like she got her feeling hurt so I gave her back the ball."

I felt proud. "See! There you go Little Man. That was very big of you."

"And then she threw the ball in my face real hard and I cried a lot."

"And that's my boy," I smiled back. "There is something I forgot to tell you. You can't win every battle. ESPECIALLY with girls. You gotta pick and choose and know which one's you can win before challenge a girl."

"So which one's can I win?" he asked looking for an ounce of wisdom.

I knelt down and said real softly, "When I figure that one out for myself, I promise you'll be the first one I tell."

"But I don't push back, right?" he whispered.

"Not physically. That one is a game you'll play your whole life." I whispered back.

John Wayne had kids but I'll bet he didn't raise them like I'm raising mine. And then again maybe he did. Maybe the golden age of cinema got manhood all wrong. I mean men are arrogant, vain, and even stupid at times. But we are not without feelings. Emotions dictate our actions. We may control those actions so that emotions do not dominate the situation but we move on gut feelings. Even Rocky Balboa cried at the end of Rocky II after beating up Apollo Creed for the boxing heavy weight title. Maybe I'm the next John Wayne for my generation. Yeah, that was a stretch but I'm pretty confident when I say a man is more than the size of the pistol he is packing. My hands are warn but I still remember what it was like to be a boy. I always will.

I'm sorry Grandpa, I let you down. I'm not a man like you. I wanted to but it just isn't me. But even though we are so different I love you, miss you, and still hold in the palm of my sandpapered hands the teachings you gave me that helped motivate and mold my life over the years. The real question now is could you have been man enough to accept me for the MAN I became?

Tales from the Mushroom

I loved the circus growing up. I always thought I would end up in one. Maybe I will when I finally do grow up one day. Hehehehehehehe!

Captain Slurpee and the Great White Lie

It is funny how a song can take you back to a particular time and place. That was the case just the other day when I was going to work. I was racing down the back streets hoping to improve my all time record of dropping the kids off at school and beating the time clock with my boss standing over it counting the minutes. Then I heard this song I had not heard in years. It was Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together". It was the crowning jewel of the 70s. The Cheese Whiz of the cheesy variety. And yet I found myself being honked at as I was sitting through a green light just listening to this really dated song from yesteryear. As bad as it is it leaves me feeling really good. It takes me back to my innocents. I travel back in time to my childhood and the years spent living with my Grandmother. It reintroduces me to my first girlfriend. I was 5 years old and she was 6 in a world that felt like a Captain and Tennille song. Life was all light and fluffy. We both had families with problems, but when you are a kid it is just part of the norm and everyday no matter who is shedding tears. For us it was just one big recess.

My girlfriend and I (who used to just be my buddy) got into all kinds of trouble. She would usually start it by daring me to do something. I would do it because I was to stupid to realize that I would get caught and get into trouble before she had her turn. I would get yelled at and then hit with the flyswatter by my Grandmother when I got home. The flyswatter was the equivalent of the switch. I would cry. Shanna would go home laughing. And then we would do it all over again the next day.

I remember the first time Shanna asked me to go with her and her mom to the bank. Going to the bank meant that they usually stopped off at the local convenient store and got a Slurpee. I loved Slurpees and this was my first trip without my family taking me anywhere so it was a big deal. We sat right next to each other in the back seat of this giant car. You have to remember that this was in the 70s and seat belts were not in vogue yet. Every car on the road was enormous until the Ford Pinto came along. But let's not dwell on mistakes.

Shanna's mom drove up to the bank window. Shanna reaches over and grabs my hand. My first thought was "weird". I saw adults do this and I always thought it would be slimy and gross after a while. But then again it felt kind of nice and comfortable. It was like a warm blanket on a cold night when all you want to do is curl up in it. And that's when it happened. THAT song came on the radio. "Love Will Keep Us Together" was a huge hit that year. At least it was in San Angelo, Texas. Shanna and I didn't say much on the way to the corner store.

When we got there we rushed in to get our one of a kind Slurpees. Another cool thing about that beverage is that you got to make your own. As a kid you didn't get to do much on your own so this was waaaay cool. After we got our drinks we walked over to the pinball machine and watched the teenagers play. I loved the sounds and lights it made. I was completely in  trance. Shanna reached over a held my hand again. Why did she keep doing that? I guess I didn't mind so much because I don't remember pulling my hand away.

We got back in the car to go home after a quick emergency refill of Slurpee. Kids invented the refill. It wasn't legal back then. But how are you going to tell two troublesome kids no. So like I was saying, we get back in the car. We must have let go of each others hand in order to get in but I'm not sure when because we were still holding hands on the way home. Her mom asked us if we wanted to listen to some of her music. Then she plopped in an eight track tape. And guess who it was? Like I said, it was a popular year for Captain and Tennille.

Shanna looks at me and asked,"So what are you going to wear to our wedding?"

The question didn't even phase me as I quickly answered, "I really really want this Batman T-shirt and my mom says we can't afford it. So I'm going to save up and buy it. I'm wearing that to our wedding."

"That's stupid. You can't wear that to our wedding. You have to wear something fancy and nice," she scolded.

"Batman is nice! It is a real nice t-shirt too!" I shot back.

"You can't wear it to our wedding."

"Why not?"

"Because you are marrying ME! That's why not! You need to wear nice shoes, a dress shirt, and a bow tie."

I sighed, "Okay. So what color dress are you wearing?"

"I'm not wearing a dress. I don't like them. Not even for you. I'm wearing A nice white shirt and white pants. I have them in my closet now." She sounded very proud of that fact.

"You can't wear white. You'll get it dirty."

"Then what color should I wear?"

I looked at my lime green frosty drink. "I think you should wear green."

"Boogers are green. I'm not wearing a booger on our wedding day." She shook her head. Then she smiled. "Hey, you wanna see who can drink their Slurpee the fastest? I'll give you a head start."

"Okay!" And I took a big gulp. A few seconds later... "OOOOOOOOUCH!"

"HA HA! Brain freeze! Your so stupid." she began to slurp on her straw.

"No I'm not"

"Yes you are," she said with more confidence than I had used. "That is another reason we need to get married. It's so I can tell you what to do."

"I don't need you tell me what to do!"

"Yes you do. All boys need to be told what to do. That's what girls do. I tell you what to do and you do it. Very simple. So you just better just get used to it."

I couldn't  win with her. I never could. So I was just content in my Slurpee and holding her hand. She was content in being right as usual.

"Your so stupid," she laughs.

"No I'm not! And if I am then why do you want to marry me?"

"That makes no sense. You either are stupid or you're not." She shook her head as if a gesture could say a thousand words. Words I have heard from her before. Then she looked out the window. "Because I like you." She held my hand tighter. I was cool with that.

After a few moments and the end of the song of the year she turns to me and said, "So do you think your parents will come to our wedding? You know, since they're not around much now."

"Shanna," Her mom interrupted, "I think that's enough talk about a wedding. You both are to young for that anyway."

"Okay," we both said. It was quiet for a little while.

Shanna's mom turned down our street for home and Shanna holds my hand even tighter and said, "Hey you wanna see who can drink their Slurpee before we pull into the driveway? I'll give you a head start."

I looked at her and said, "Okay!" You can assume what happened next.

There were more trips to the corner store that year. I heard that damn click of the eight track tape in her mother's car to the song that wouldn't fade away over and over again. Shanna and I held hands, drank Slurpees, and watched the pinball tournaments in the back of the store by the bathrooms next to the bucket of mop water. Despite what was going on at home, I felt good.

Then one day she calls me over to her house. She tells me that things are going way to fast and we have to call off the wedding. She gives me her red Ronald McDonald plastic watch to remember her by. I give her my Lime green Hamburglar watch. She hugged me. Weird. At first. I went home to my Grandmother's house. Shanna didn't tell me they were moving. A few days later she was gone. The neighborhood felt different after that. It felt like winter all the time. Cold and empty. There was no one to get in trouble with. Shanna was right. I was stupid. I never really knew what she meant with all the talk about weddings. I thought it was just a game. Why did she hug me? Why did she always want to hold hands? I didn't have a clue. But I sure missed it when she was gone.

When you are a kid you are always caught in little white lies. Everything is little when you are a kid. But suddenly things start getting bigger. No one took me to the corner store anymore. Captain and Tennille lied. Love can't keep us together. Now Shanna was gone just like everyone else in my life. I started to realize how she had managed to show me how good life was... my life... our life. Then one day it's all gone and all your left with is a stupid song in your head.

My mom came back for my sister and me a few months later. My parents tried the family thing again a few months after that. I always thought my mom and dad needed to hear that song. Maybe there life together would have been as simple as mine Shanna's was. Maybe not. My parents are still together and now I have my own family. I wonder how Shanna's life turned out. All I know is that I'll always remember her whenever I walk into a convenient store that has a Slurpee machine. I'll think of her when I smell the mixture of mop water, motor oil, bad air fresheners, and cheesy nachos accompanied by the sounds and lights of a pinball machine. It is funny how some of the weirdest things help you to remember some pretty good times. And they may not have been long winded but they are times just as important in developing who you are. Apparently this song reminds me of my buddy Shanna too. It is such bad song, but It made me realize in my car that was stopped at the green light the other day that I AM stupid. Love does keep us together if only for a short moment in time in our hearts. Do you remember when the coolest thing in the world was holding hands. I do. I need to remember to do more of that.

So, for old times sake, as Humphery Bogart once said, "Play it again Sam."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tales from the Mushroom

I love B-movies! I hope to be in one some day. I have a lot of great ideas. Here is one I can't wait to star in. It is an Indiana Jones meets Planet of the Apes theme.