Endurance

August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.

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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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Little Kid Surprises

In 1998 I stumbled into a part time job teaching art ed at a charter school in Micanopy, Florida.  I taught kindergarten, first and second grade students to use their imaginations while painting, drawing, and making rudimentary prints and collages.  I don’t remember many of the lessons that I taught, but I do recall the many times my kids surprised me.  What I learned was that each one of them was very aware and thoughtful, that they were busy soaking in impressions and information from the environment around  them, and that they understood much more about their lives than I would have expected.

Ronny was undersized for a kindergartner.   The staff wondered whether his mother had lied about his age when she enrolled him in school.  He had the cherubic face of an innocent young child but showed a precocious curiosity about the opposite sex.  When a girl got permission to go to the bathroom I had to keep an eye on him.  If I didn’t he would follow them into the restroom in hopes, perhaps, of seeing something unusual.  He also liked to defy me in little ways to test my reaction.  If I told everyone to get up off the carpet and find a seat at a table he would put his hands on his hips and give me a challenging look.  If he refused to comply I simply picked him up, tucked him under one arm, and hauled him to a chair.  He didn’t mind.  I got the impression that he liked the attention.

James did damage.  He would watch me carefully, and the moment I was distracted he would drift off to the side and break a piece of equipment or hurt another boy.  When I located him again he would be slowly walking away from a collapsed painting rack or a boy who was doubled over in pain.  One day we had a fire drill, and he intentionally lagged behind everyone.  I put a two fingers on his shoulder and gave him a gentle push forward.  He flopped on the ground, pointed at me and cried out in fake pain.  None of the other teachers bought his act, and no one accused me of hitting him.  One of the aides had noted his penchant for trickery and sadism and predicted a future in crime for the him.  One day his father came in for a visit, and all the teachers cringed.  We were used to having parents blame us for the bad behavior of their children.  (One mother had even defended her little boy after he attempted to bite a teacher.)  James’ Dad told us that his son was reacting badly to his parents’ recent divorce, and that he was aware that his son was acting up at school.  He apologized for James and promised to take him in hand.  He was as good as his word, and James calmed down considerably and began to make good progress.  He gradually became a much more motivated kid who no longer attempted to make the rest of the world as miserable as he was.

Shandra transferred to Micanopy about half way through the year.  We heard that the school she had formerly attended had been rough, and that her parents wanted to give her a better chance of getting a good education by moving her to Micanopy.  The first day I had her in class she stirred up a minor ruckus.  Jim came up to me and showed me a cut on his palm.  He said that Shandra had stabbed him with a pair of blunt scissors.  I asked her if she had done that, and she said, “He ain’t hurt.  He ain’t bleeding.”  I told her that she couldn’t stab other students or hurt them in any way.  She stuck out her lip and glared at me.  I told her that everyone in class had a pair of scissors, and that she didn’t have fight to get her share of supplies.  Her shoulders dropped and her expression changed.  She learned eventually that the art room was a safe place and began to enjoy the class.  She became very frank and open with me as the year went on, and once explained to me why she had an urgent need to use the bathroom.  She said, “My butt itches and I have to scratch it.”  I stood aside and waved my arm toward the bathroom door in silent acknowledgment that having an itchy butt was a very good restroom excuse.  I reminded her to wash her hands before she came back.

Mary’s social life was a concern of mine.  She walked up to me one morning and demanded that I take action as her advocate.  Rachel had promised to sit next to her while they painted, and now she was sitting by Charlotte instead.  Mary insisted that it was my job to make Rachel sit beside her and didn’t accept my explanation that mandated seating arrangements weren’t in my lesson plan.  According to her the world had to be fair and true, and everyone had to honor prior agreements.  And she was determined and sure that it was my solemn duty to make it so.

Abdul would look up at me with adoration at random moments, would throw his arms around my hips and give me a big hug.  I couldn’t figure out what came over him as I had not done anything extraordinary to earn that much affection.  But I would give him a pat on the head and wait for him to release me.  He seemed to become overwhelmed at times by a wave of love that needed immediate expression.

Some of the kids felt that my marriage vows were not that important.  One boy in first grade gave me his mother’s phone number when he came by my table at a school festival.  He  said, “You really should call this number,” as Mom stood a few feet behind him and blushed.  She seemed oddly willing to entertain the possibility of a relationship of some sort, and I hemmed and hawed until I managed to thank him for the number and to say that I would take his advice into account.  The children called me Mr. Dennis or Mr. D., and another teacher named Derry was called Mrs. D.  She was divorced, and we were on friendly but professional terms.  One day a group of children began to point at Mr. and Mrs. D as we did our playground duty, and they suggested that the two of us make the obvious move of getting married.  Then we would become a unit:  Mr. and Mrs. D.  I was embarrassed once again, but Derry gave me a strange look that definitely was not an outright dismissal of the idea.  Who knew that tentative opportunities for infidelity could be brokered by little kids?

A first grade girl named Sharon sat down at my table at the same festival where I had been given a mother’s phone number.  We weren’t in class and felt relaxed with each others’ company, and she began to tell me about her life.  Her mother was a single mom who worked at a local motel out by Interstate 95.  She worked double shifts some days as a maid and was often away from home.  Sharon told me that she couldn’t stay long at the festival because of her Mom’s schedule, and that she was lonely.  She looked down at the ground.  Her speech was simple and direct, and it eloquently told me that she was a very sad little girl who was looking for more love and attention.  She had appeared to me before that to be a dull, callous child.  But I learned during our five minute conversation that she was a sensitive person who saw her world without any illusions:  life was hard and showed no signs of getting better.  She accepted this with philosophical detachment, but seemed relieved that she could tell someone how she felt.

I decided after my year at Micanopy to give up my ambition of becoming an elementary school teacher.  I realized that I was much better suited for dealing with adults, and that the strain of learning how to react calmly to the irrational and unpredictable behavior of little kids was a bit too much for me.  But I knew that my year’s glimpse of teaching them had been a gift, and that each child I met was precious and had the potential to do wonderful things with his or her life.

 

 

 

 

Mistakes

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The other morning I finished reading Ann Patchett’s novel, “Taft”. The book is unusual in that the white author imagines the life of a black man who imagines the final days of a white man. You could accuse Ann of taking liberties in writing about an experience beyond her culture and gender, but she appears to have done her homework and makes her characters convincing.

I nearly abandoned the book about half way through. I got depressed reading about two families suffering through a death, abandonment, addiction and estrangement, but held on to the end. The author succeeded in bringing her book to a satisfying conclusion, and ended it with a flashback involving the white man fourteen years before his death. He is twenty six and is looking after his young children. He is sure of himself as he tends to their needs and protects them from harm. He does not know that he is fated to die young and leave his boy and girl behind when they are teenagers. He doesn’t see the consequences his early departure will have on those he loves dearly.

Those final passages brought to mind moments when my boy and girl were young. I feared for their future and hoped that I would be around long enough to see them properly launched in their lives. I’m pleased to say that they are making headway and are relatively happy.

Patchett stirred up a few more thoughts before I put the book down. It occurred to me that my choices in life were a series of risky ventures that could have ended badly. It was a mistake to love someone dearly and tie my life to her (all the eggs in one basket). It was foolish to bring children into the world and take on the responsibility of raising them (so much time spent preventing disaster). It was stupid to make friends with fellow travelers I met at church and in my profession (so many hypocrites and users mixed in with well meaning people). What was I thinking?

Some of my loved ones are going to leave me, and I’ll hurt the remainder when I go. Nothing lasts. Everything changes. This is terribly obvious to any one who has ever lost a loved one, but has become relentlessly evident now that I am approaching sixty.

I know that I would never trade away the richness of my family life and the sustenance I gained from my friendships.  I’ve met people in the later stages of their lives who never committed themselves to anything beyond narrow self interest, and their accomplishments seem dry, dusty and somewhat barren. But sometimes I wonder if the coming pain of separation and loss will equal the joys I received years ago.

It’s a bigger mistake to even think about trying to balance the accounts. I would have had nearly no life at all if I hadn’t taken all those risks.  And my time here would certainly have been boring and dull.  But gamblers generally lose in the end even after a long run of good luck.

Sometimes when I’m feeling down I recall scenes from when my children were toddlers. I call to mind a moment when my little girl ran to me across our lawn after I returned from a trip. She shook her golden, red hair and laughed, and she jumped into my arms and hugged me.

The comfort of that recollection is bittersweet: I was loved wholeheartedly by a child; that moment is gone and can only be partially reclaimed in memory. I feel blessed to have been given such a gift, but I long to go back and relive it in vivid, tangible reality.

How to Manage (Torture) Your Teenager: A Father’s Advice

Some fathers worry about losing touch with their teenagers. Don’t bother. You will. Your very existence as their father, as the man who did something (to their mother!!) that led to their entry into this world, is enough to make them cringe with embarrassment. If you are overweight and have hairs beginning to grow out of your nose and ears, your physical presence will act as a reminder that older people are gross, and they will be further repulsed. If you hug their mother in front of them they are forced to envision the possibility that your flabby flesh still comes into direct contact with their mother’s body.  They will turn their heads away and cover their eyes in disgust.

But don’t take on their embarrassment and make it your own.  Use their revulsion to your advantage instead.  When they start to get mouthy and belligerent drive them from the room by taking the simple, expedient measure of giving your wife a sloppy, wet kiss.  Murmur  “Oh, Baby” a few times and they might take their bad attitude over to a neighbor’s house where they can bond with other teenagers suffering from similar horrors.  You’ll be improving their social skills while enjoying some privacy with the woman you love.  Win win!

When your presence in their general vicinity doesn’t appear to disturb them you can always speak to them. Suggestions and personal questions can bring startling results. “Who was that girl you were talking too?” will silence your boy and give you weeks of peace. He won’t be asking you for gas money any time soon. Suggest to your daughter that she should meet a nice young man named Chris (any name will do) that you ran into at the Home Depot. She will scorn and ignore you for at least three days, three days in which her mother will have to deal with her whiny demands.

If your children misbehave at school and start running around with a bad crowd don’t make the mistake of threatening them with outlandish punishments. Don’t tell them that they’re not living up to the family name and that you’re embarrassed to admit to their teachers that you are their parent. Do something much more insidious and terrifying: tell them that you are concerned about their future and have resolved to spend all of your spare time with them until they graduate from high school (and perhaps beyond). Tell them that you will be their close and personal coach until they reach adulthood. And then watch in amazement as they go out and get part time jobs and buckle down at school. They won’t have enough energy to get into trouble while working desperately hard to get enough cash and education to escape orbit from your gravitational pull.

Don’t be obvious and yell and scream when they screw up.  They’ve heard it all before. Don’t give them space when they tell you that they need it.  Space is for astronauts. Insist on being a persistent presence, a pebble in their shoe until you drive them onward to greatness or, at the very least, out of the house. They’ll thank you later…much, much later.