That’s My Daddy

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I shared my first bedroom with my brother Tony.  The walls were painted a cheerful shade of buttercup yellow, and sun streamed in on a Sunday morning and lit up a pile of clothes resting on a Danish modern scoop chair in the corner next to my bed.  My parents bustled in and out of the bathroom across the hall, and I could smell my Dad’s shaving cream.  I lay on my bed, hands under my head and relaxed.  Today was going to be a good day even if we had to go to church.

Dad hits the brakes of our old Dodge, the one with the oxidizing purple/blue paint that shimmers with rainbow iridescence in strong light.  He’s found a side path that leads from the top of the levee down to a strip of concrete and gravel on the shores of the Great Miami River.  We gingerly descend the narrow track and park.  I can see a dam farther upstream and tall buildings across the river.  Dad, Tony and I empty the trunk and carry a minnow bucket and two seine nets to the river edge.  We’ve changed into old tennis shoes and wade into the water with a seine.  The river bed is rocky, slimy with moss, treacherous.  We make several passes, water up to our knees, and snare some crawdads.  I fall twice and twist my ankle. When we have a bucket full we stow our gear and change our shoes.  My shorts are wet, but Dad doesn’t care about the car seats.  One of the blessings of driving old cars is that they become more useful the less they’re babied.

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Dad and I go fishing at Caesar’s Creek a few days later with the crawdads.  We’re not getting any bites until we set our bait at a lower depth.  Catfish are bottom feeders, and soon my line bends over double and jerks in tight circles.  I haul a ten inch catfish out of the muddy water, and Dad snares it in a net.  I’m afraid of the spiked whiskers even though I’ve never been stung, and Dad obliges me by taking a pair of plyers out of his fishing tackle box to extract the hook.  The catfish looks up at me from the bottom of the boat and croaks.  He seems to be saying, “Hey, buddy, what did I ever do to you?”

My sister Carla and I are scraping paint off the side of a wood paneled house across the street from the Delco battery plant in Kettering.  The paint comes off easily in the blistered sections, but some flecks stay embedded in the ruts and crevices of the pitted wood.  We use a wire brush on the stubborn spots and worry whether we’re doing a good enough job.  Dad’s warned us that the new paint won’t stick to the side of the house if applied over a loose layer of old.  Carla and I talk as we work to pass the time as the job is boring and nasty.  Our shoulders ache, and scraped paint sticks in speckles on our sweaty arms.  We’re grateful when Dad shows up and appears to be satisfied with our progress.  He doesn’t say anything, but carefully scans the walls, points out a few patches that need work, and nods.  We hope that he’s brought some soda–it’s a high and dry summer day with feathery clouds floating in the powdery blue sky–and he tells us to look in a cooler in the trunk.  He’s bought a cheap brand of grape, but we don’t care.

I get off work at  three a.m. from a restaurant shift that should have ended at twelve.  A late rush pillaged a practically spotless kitchen and dining room, and it took two hours to restore order after we ushered the last customer out at 1.  We’re exhausted but hungry, and five of us go to an all night coffee shop to get breakfast.  We talk, smoke cigarettes and tell a few jokes, and it’s dawn when we walk out to the parking lot.  I pull up to the house just as the front door opens.  Dad trudges out carrying his lunch pail.  He stares at me for a minute, shakes his head, and gets into his car without saying a word.  He no longer thinks that a lecture would do any good, and it’s too early for a shouting match.

I shoot a photograph of my Dad for a class at Wright State University.  He’s wearing a t-shirt and work pants, and glowers at me.  Art classes are a waste of time.  I develop the 35 mm. film and make a large print.  A class mate asks me if I took the shot in a prison yard.  I said, “No, that brick wall behind the man is the neighbor’s garage, and that’s my daddy.”

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“Funny” is Cruelty in Disguise

once, just onceOnce, Just Once  (graphite)

Humor is often based on pain and discomfort.  How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers?  Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.

I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues.  It goes something like this:  “My father, he was tough, really tough.  One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim.  He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore.  But that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting out of the bag.”

I could relate to that.  My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming.  It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven.  Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.

Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed.  And he was tough, really tough.

The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous.  It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts.  The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.

Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives.  Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters.  In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman.  The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others.  She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself.  Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.

In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws.  He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental.  Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels.  It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.

South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch.  These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers.  But their humor often lacks realistic observation.  It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo.  Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun.  The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.

But in the end their humor has little power;  it shocks but does little else.  It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition.  There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.