Friday, November 30, 2007

Parent Of The Year, Part 6

My youngest son's homework assignment last night was to fill in the blanks on a sheet entitled Rules For Riding on the School Bus. He doesn't ride the bus, having been a walker since '03. (We learned a lot that year, especially about crisis counseling and restraining orders.) Nevertheless, the school gave him the assignment along with the rest of his class. Anything to help him feel normal, I guess.

In any event, being a doting father, I offered to help him with it. He yelped with enthusiasm and after I chased him down and wrestled him back into the house, we settled in with a couple of pencils and our nightly snack of popcorn and bourbon. Our answers are in bold.

1. Every morning your bus runs a/an extraterrestrial route, so you must be sure that you arrive at your local haberdashery early.

2. While waiting, do not yodel in the middle of the street. You might get run over by a/an angry emu.

3. When you see the bus, wave your prehensile tail.

4. Before boarding, make sure you have all of your stolen books and your lunch meats.

5. When you board the bus, do not push or jostle any of the smaller beetles. Go to the nearest empty seat and hibernate.

6. Do not talk to the voices in your head while the bus is in motion.

7. Do not throw feces at the other students.

8. Instead of wasting time by breathing, use the trip to study your friend's exoskeleton.

9. Follow these rules and you will have a/an newsworthy ride and arrive shackled at your well-guarded school.

I found the assignment on the kitchen counter this morning after he'd left for school. He must have forgotten it. I'll bring it to him at school this afternoon so he gets full credit.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Batter Up!

It's the time of year when the annual Bake-Off spreads its metaphoric wings, the smells of victory and cinnamon mingling in the crisp, cold air. While the baking is good, imperative even, it's equally important to remember the origins of this hallowed ritual. Not the Bake-Off itself, that needs no explanation - as the Super Bowl is to football, the Bake-Off is to baking. No, I have in mind the art of baking itself. Join me in exploring the history of this glorious past-time.

Most scientists now believe that an early and statistically improbably accidental combination of water, egg, and flour led to the "Big Bake." After billions of years and lots of sciency stuff, a relatively young Earth saw the formation of a primordial batter. This in turn became the foundation for today's bread and cookies.

The Big Bake theory has led to other important discoveries as well. For example, black donut holes are now viewed as the most likely explanation for food's inability to escape Chuckles. Similarly, relativity was an offshoot of Einstein's early attempts to weigh the comparative deliciousness of German chocolate and devil's food cakes.

Baking is not just a science, of course. It is also an art. Consider Raphael's "Madonna with Lard," the Beatles "Sgt. Pretzel's Lonely Hearts Club Band," or Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Pie." The influence of baking on Western culture cannot be overstated.

There is a darker side to baking too, however. The Great Yeast War of 1906 left divisions that still reverberate through the shanty towns of Luxembourg. Vicious Somalian warlords have devastated that country's population with their efforts to monopolize the world's supply of baking powder. Cities throughout North America have seen their middle class neighborhoods destroyed by rampant muffin use.

But still, with all that, baking remains an integral part of our society. It is the tie that binds, that brings us together, black and white, rich and poor, fat and fatter. So put on your baking shoes, grab a sifter, and join the party!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Method To The Madness

I'm off to a hockey game tonight with some friends. We'll have a nice slab of barely cooked cow beforehand, maybe a martini or two to feel like big shots, then head over to the arena.

The least surprising outcome of this plan is my children's rage. One would think I was using their college funds to pay for this. I am, I suppose, although it's not as though there's much set aside for that purpose. I'll frankly be satisfied if the three of them make it to their mid-twenties without doing hard time. Anyway, it's not the adverse effect on their intellectual growth that has them upset, it's the fact that I'm doing something fun and they're not included.

As I've been frequently reminded over the last week, I've never taken them to a professional hockey game. College, yes, but not the pros. I've replied that I've never taken myself to a professional hockey game. When I've gone it's always been because someone else had tickets. The boys aren't interested in logic, however, they're interested in vengeance.

And vengeance they shall have. If unslakeable's not a word, it would be if our Anglo-Saxon forebears had met these kids. I have been treated to everything from shunning to veiled threats that the new TV's remote will be hidden when I get home tonight. My responses have ranged from "Oh no, please, not that," to "I will kill you."

Eventually this will pass, if not forgotten at least tucked away with all the other slights and hurts I have allegedly inflicted over the years. Those are kept somewhere they like to visit often, a place of endless aggrievement and faulty justice. It's a place I know well, for I visit it too, when I deal with the phone company or the cable provider or people who cut me off in traffic and are not arrested or killed for their insolence.

There's something peculiarly comforting about old complaints. They're like agates, polished from being turned over and over. I give names to mine: "Idiot Clerk;" "Professor Jerkface;" "Ungrateful Client." I compare them to current offenses and slights, try to decide if life is still hosing me as much as it used to. So far the answer appears to be "yes."

With that, I'm off to the game. My children will stew about it and tomorrow I will surely hear more complaints. I will use that as a teachable moment, an opportunity to talk with them about the importance of nursing grudges and developing a soul-crushing bitterness. They will look at me in wonder for a few moments, and then walk away confused and unsure what to say, leaving me finally, blessedly, alone.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Greatest Story Ever Told

If you're only going to read one post this year, make it this one.

Youth Is Wasted On The Young

I used to work with someone who was in the movie "Rock 'n' Roll High School." It was a bit part, but it still made him one the coolest guy in whatever room he was in.

One of my kids and I watched the movie again the other day. Most parenting guides focus on teaching children to submit to authority. I hope mine learn to rebel a little too.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Snag In Love

The long Thanksgiving weekend passed as well as could be expected, with a great deal of food and relatively little bloodshed. We had almost fifty people through the house over the course of the weekend, first for Thanksgiving, then a Friday night dinner party, and finally Saturday's end of season celebration for our father/son fantasy baseball league. The winners (there was a tie) split the pot, although were required to accept their shares while wearing a tiara, pink boa, and waving a wand bearing a likeness of Daunte Culpepper. It was worth losing just to see that.

Continuing my tradition of bad parenting choices, I also took my middle school son to see "No Country for Old Men." Based on a Cormac McCarthy book, the film is set in the part of Texas I called home for two glorious years of military service and the cinematography well captures the desolation I remember. The movie is a classic of the Coens' form, dark, bloody, savage, and funny. My son is a fan of the their work, as am I, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the movie and discussing it on the way home.

Cormac McCarthy's an author with whom I still wrestle. His prose is often florid, but I like it fine and I recommend him to others. The only person I know who truly regretted trying him was my oldest child, and that was likely circumstantial. I gave him a copy of "All the Pretty Horses" for his seventh-grade literature class and it wasn't until afterward he told me that particular assignment involved rewriting the selected book as a children's story. Unless you're Maurice Sendak, it's hard to work with something like this:

His grandfather was the oldest of eight boys and the only one to live past the age of twenty-five. They were drowned, shot, kicked by horses. They perished in fires. They seemed to fear only dying in bed. The last two were killed in Puerto Rico in eighteen ninety-eight and in that year he married and brought his bride home to the ranch and he must have walked out and stood looking at his holdings and reflected long upon the ways of God and the laws of primogeniture. Twelve years later when his wife was carried off in the influenza epidemic they still had no children. A year later he married his dead wife's older sister and a year after this the boy's mother was born and that was all the borning that there was. The Grady name was buried with that old man the day the norther blew the lawnchairs over the dead cemetery grass. The boy's name was Cole. John Grady Cole.
My son did not appreciate the challenge and still uses it as an example of my failings.

Most important, though, I bought myself a big screen television on Saturday. It is the most beautiful creation I have ever seen and I already love it more than pretty much anything, as I pointed out to my children when warning them of the consequences of breaking it. At the baseball party, the other fathers made appropriate cooing noises and displayed the sort of TV envy I pretend I'm too good a person to enjoy.

Sunday was therefore dedicated to football. To tell the truth, I'm only a casual fan of the sport, but I thought it would be nice to spend the afternoon with my boys watching our spiffy new television. Which it would have been, had my youngest's logorrhea not been acting up. When he wasn't providing color commentary on the game we were in the room watching with him, he was singing a peculiar medley of Christmas carols, the Vengaboys' "We Like to Party," and obscure basketball cheers he picked up somewhere. All punctuated with regular descriptions of the neglect he's forced to endure in the form of being denied his own cell phone.

Finally I told him he had to shut up or he'd be banished from the family room permanently, which unfortunately simply prompted a long argument over why our dog isn't allowed downstairs. An excerpt from that conversation:

"Because I want one damned room in the house that's not covered in fur."

"You hate Katie. You're always mean to her."

"I am not. I pay for her food and she eats like a horse."

"See, you want her to starve."

"For God's sake, that's not what I said."

"That's what you meant. Just wait until you're old, we're not going to feed you."

"Good. I can't wait. Starving to death will be less painful than listening to you yap all the time."

I was comforted only by the fact it was better than last week's dinner at the local pizzeria, where my son's best friend was told by his father, more loudly than was intended, "Close your piehole or I swear to God I'm going to stab you in the lung with a fork." I've never seen a restaurant get so quiet so fast. Except for my son and his friend, neither of whom were fazed by yet another in a long list of empty threats and who merrily kept chattering away like the human magpies they are.

Perhaps there's no real way to get my boy to be quiet. At any rate, if there is, I haven't yet found it. What I do know, however, is that my new television can drown him out. For now, that's good enough.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My Kid Is Funnier Than I Am (For What That's Worth)

These are the things for which my middle son and I are thankful:

1. Meat. Without meat, we wouldn't have ham cake.

2. Signatures. Signatures protect our precious bodily fluids.

3. Children. A reason to drink.

4. The Sword of Gondor. For smiting my enemies.

5. Katie, my black lab. A living food shelf.

6. Paper clips. For all your organizational and piercing needs.

7. Socks. For want of a sock, a battle was lost. Or something like that.

8. Plasma TVs. We're buying one. Booya!

9. The Trilateral Commission. Your neighborhood source for world domination.

10. Sweet Sugar Kane.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Better Than A Pocketful Of Maize

Hoo-boy, it's almost Turkey Day and you can imagine what that means around the Snag household. Screaming, swearing, and vats of wine to fuel it all. Plus enough food to choke a moose.

We'll have a big crew this year, the biggest in recent memory. The Lovely Bride and our three hellspawn, of course. My long-suffering, gun-toting mother, who will spend the day wondering where she went wrong those many years ago. My sister, who offers her own unique take on the neuroses of the Snag family tree, along with her husband and daughter. Last but not least, two sets of neighbors so my family has doesn't have to talk to me.

We do have traditions besides nightmarish behavior. Not surprisingly for this holiday, many center on food. For example, every year the Lovely Bride asks me to make a simple dressing, like the ones with which she grew up. Every year I promise to try and then become entranced by some shiny new recipe. Over time I've tried oysters and andouille, raisins and chestnuts. She gamely pretends to enjoy it and then encourages me once again to try something simple next year. Perhaps this time I will, although I recently saw an interesting recipe that uses an artichoke base.

Much of the meal has become part of our tradition, however, and on this night at least, most of our traditions are traditional. I prepare cran-raspberry sauce and green beans, the Lovely Bride makes twice-baked potatoes and pumpkin and apple pies, my oldest son bakes corn bread. There are various additions depending on the guest list, like last year's Indian rice pudding, but the core food groups are pretty stable.

Most important is the turkey. We're cooking two this year to accommodate the crowd. I suggested poaching one and serving another sashimi-style but was overruled. Instead we'll be grilling one and deep frying the other. Live coals and gallons of hot grease, plus the aforementioned wine vats. Add eight children and a ninety-pound black lab and I expect our Thanksgiving to be the top story in Friday's newspaper. So be it. This is my favorite holiday and I want to do it right.

I like to start with an organic turkey our local grocer gets from an area farmer. It tastes better and I know where the money goes. For the first few years we were married I experimented with different turkey preparations. Southwest chili. Maple glazed. This and that, depending on my normal whim and caprice. Eventually I settled on grilling.

Now I have a ritual. A tradition. The night before the turkey soaks in brine and then in the morning I start the charcoal, make a rub, and spend the day checking the fire and poking at the bird. I'm usually tired from pretending to clean and fight the resulting headache with an early visit to the old bookcase in the basement that doubles as a wine cellar

Besides tasting better, grilling offers the advantage of being an outdoor cooking method. That's no small benefit in this climate, where November weather typically keeps the family inside. I love standing next to the grill with a glass of wine, focused intently on staring at the turkey, while the kids silently fight and howl behind the thick glass of the deck door.

Sometimes my father-in-law comes from out of town to join us for Thanksgiving. He's among the nicest people on the face of the earth and for some inexplicable reason loves our boys dearly. They love him back equally and they can talk sports and play cribbage and spend time together until the cows come home. When the kids listen to his stories about seeing Ted Williams play or going to the Ice Bowl he might as well be telling them he was touched by the hand of God.

He was here a couple of years ago. I was outside, grilling and drinking wine. Hiding. He excused himself from his grandchildren and came outside with a beer of his own. We talked for a while, about baseball and politics and farming and the kids. When we got to the last, I said something like, "They're lunatics."

He smiled and agreed. We talked a little more and then he went back inside to find his grandsons and talk some more sports and play some more cribbage. I poked the turkey again and joined him. I'd never admit it, but I'm a little thankful too.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sound Of Silence

I'm out of town again for a bit, enjoying all our great nation has to offer. Like pork and rye.

Before leaving, however, I needed a bit more quality time with the angels God has sent to Earth in the form of my children. I got home the other night with a short few minutes to spare before I had to go make the world safe for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. As always, one would think I'd know better.

My Lovely Bride's cell phone broke recently. Note the use of a passive sentence construction, reflecting how it was destroyed by supernatural forces. In any event, she needed a new one now, before the contract ran out. How else would she provide me with regular tips on being a better person?

My oldest son's phone was also getting old, as in being the wrong color, and if one must renegotiate a contract, one might as well renegotiate two. The problem is that middle son has also been promised a phone for the class trip next spring. With negotiations going on, this is the time to get one, but early delivery would make oldest son's head explode. At the same time, seeing his brother get a second phone would make middle son's head explode. My children, Rock and Hard Place. Solution? Make delivery of middle son's phone contingent on good behavior.

It was into this house of horrors I walked.


Oldest son. "Can you blame them?"

Youngest son. Upstairs loudly singing holiday songs.

Katie the black lab. Headbutts me in the groin over the possibility of getting fed.

Lovely Bride, sarcastically. "Yay, Daddy's home."

For the love of God. I go to the refrigerator, scrounge around, don't find much. I grab a handful of shaved turkey, shove most of it in my piehole, throw the rest to the dog.

Middle son. "Why do you and Mom hate me?"

Oldest son. "Mom's cool. Dad hates all of us. He's mean."


Katie the black lab. Headbutts me in the groin over the possibility of getting more turkey.

Lovely Bride, looking at me knowingly. "I am cool."

I stuff materials in my briefcase, grab a Diet Coke, and prepare to leave.

Middle son. "YOU'RE IGNORING ME!"

Oldest son. "Ignore him Dad. He's stupid."


Katie the black lab. Headbutts me in the groin over the possibility of coming with me.

Lovely Bride, smirking. "Thanks for the help, sweetheart."

Pork and rye. Pork and rye.

Bon Appétit, Volume 7 - Poutine On The Ritz

Who doesn't love a good poutine? Besides the terrorists, of course. The rest of us know that any dish containing 33 grams of fat can't help but be good.

Even better than a routine poutine, however, are the variations I've come up with over the years. As you'd expect of a man of my refined tastes, I've scoured the world for the most exotic and delectable variations. Let's take a little tour.

1. Yarbled Poutine

Marinate one sack of lean yarbles in oleo for at least 17 minutes. Remove, reserving oleo. Cook two pounds frozen french fries. Top fries with yarbles and stir in oleo. Serves 2.

2. Poutine a L'orange

Purée the rinds of three dozen blood oranges (if oranges are unavailable, plain blood may be substituted). Stir in two teaspoons of macerated granite. Simmer over medium heat until granite liquefies. Cook two pounds frozen french fries. Top fries with sauce. Serves 8.

3. Roast Poutine

Trim fat from one large grain fed poutine. Boil poutine until well-roasted, approximately two hours. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Meanwhile, cook two pounds frozen french fries. When poutine has cooled to room temperature, thinly slice and spoon over fries. Serves 6.75.

4. Poutine Møusse

Using corn and eight pound test fishing line, trap two small møøse. De-antler and whip until creamy. Set aside. Prepare three gallons of hazelnut bouillabaisse and stir in two pounds french fries. Top with whipped møøse. Serves 1 Canadiadian.

5. Poutini

Chill one bottle Yukon Jack in freezer overnight. Pour fifteen ounces of chilled liqueur into a large beer mug. Add four ounces brown gravy and one medium-rare liver. Shake until thoroughly mixed and garnish with a french fry.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing

One of my many passions is music. Making it. Sharing it. Living it. I like to think of the Snag family as a modern day version of the von Trapps, with me in the role of Maria, leading our happy family in the gift of song. Here are some of my favorites.

1. Baby I Love Your Way - Peter Frampton
My love for this one is partly the result of my uncanny resemblance to Mr. Frampton. Beyond that, who wouldn't enjoy howling "But don't hesitate, cause your love won't wait?" And who wouldn't enjoy listening to that being howled? The neighbors certainly seem to, if one can judge by the way they point out our house to their relatives.

2. Never My Love - The Association
There's rockin', there's hard rockin', and then there's The Association. My Lovely Bride especially likes it when I put on my ratty old bathrobe, turn up my internal amp to 11, and follow her around the house singing this oldie but goodie. Tears of joy. Right, babe?

3. She's Gone - Daryl Hall & John Oates
"I'd pay the devil to replace her." Indeed. I'd pay the devil for the opportunity to stretch out "She's go-o-o-o-o-o-o-ne" for several minutes at a stretch. No sir, they do not write 'em like that anymore.

4. Love Shack - The B52's
As a song it may be nothing special, but when accompanied by my own version of a flamenco dance, it becomes a priceless memory. I'll often put on a batting helmet while performing it, an accessory that combines style and safety. My kids' friends eat it up.

5. Kung Fu Fighting - Carl Douglas
Speaking of performance art, this classic lets me show off my pipes and my moves. Regardless of what my children may tell you, Katie, our black lab, loves it when I karate chop her during the rousing chorus.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Eyes On Fire

When I was twenty, my friend B. and I hitchhiked across the country. We slept in forests and under bridges, ate Spam over campfires, and spent hours and hours on the side of the road, long-haired and bearded, hoping for a ride.

At one point we found ourselves in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Council Bluffs might well be a very nice town. You wouldn't know it by us, though. Twelve hours passed as people drove by, honking and flipping us off. It was hot, humid, and unpleasant.

Finally we gave up, pitched our tent on the outskirts of an industrial park, and tried to sleep. It soon started to rain, of course, and then the mosquitoes got inside the tent. We spent the night tossing, turning, and swatting at bugs, while I mentally added the trip to my long list of things that seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the morning, the sky had cleared. Unfortunately, I'd developed some hideous quasi-tropical disease during the night, and as I crawled around shoving things into a backpack I realized my muscles ached and the day had taken on the sort of tinge that I expected at a Grateful Dead concert. In the meantime, B. had been the focus of the mosquitoes during the night and awoke with a face that looked like, well, it looked like he'd been attacked by mosquitoes, lots of them. But, the road called and there sure wasn't much we could do about our woes sitting in a parking lot, so we hoisted our gear and stuck out our thumbs.

To our surprise and delight, a driver pulled over almost immediately. A midsized panel truck, refrigerated, bearing the name of some local company. We ran to the cab and climbed onto the bench seat, B. next to the driver, me next to the passenger door.

"Wow, this is great," said B. "How far are you going?"

The driver turned and looked at is. Except for his eyes, he was as nondescript as the truck, a middle-aged man in a work shirt and chinos. His eyes, though, behind his small oval-framed glasses, his eyes were whirling and frantic.

"Where I come from, it's polite to say 'thank you,'" he snapped.

"Sorry," B. stammered. "Thanks. We really appreciate the ride."

This seemed to mollify him and his eyes returned to normal. "My name's Fred," he offered, sticking out his hand. "I'm going a couple hours down the freeway. I can take you that far."

We introduced ourselves and while I tried to sleep, B. and Fred continued to talk. After all, a big part of the reason for the trip was to meet people and you can't do that by staring through a windshield.

When I awoke from a short nap I could tell something was wrong.

"So," Fred was telling B. "Someday soon I should have enough money to open it."

"Um, what exactly is it again?" B. asked nervously. B. was usually pretty calm, adept at settling me down when I flew into one of my periodic rages. For him to be nervous wasn't a good sign.

"I already told you," Fred snarled. "Weren't you listening?"

B. inched closer to me, almost sitting on my lap. I peeked at Fred. His eyes looked like pinwheels. I closed my own and leaned against the door as a shiver passed through me.

"No, no, I was listening," insisted B. "It's really interesting though. I'd like to hear it again."

"Alright then," said Fred. "It's going to be huge. Bigger than Disneyland. It'll have a roller rink, and rides, and a bookstore, and a restaurant. People can bring their campers and sleep there. There will be a bible store and exhibits from Revelations. You've read Revelations, haven't you?"

B. gave Fred his best smile and nodded that he had.

"Everyone should. The end times are upon us. The Beast is already here. It's time to get ready. Are you ready?"

"Yes," squeaked B.

"Good. Those who aren't ready will be flung into hell. The rest of us, we'll be saved. But first we have to prevail. Do you know how we'll do that?"

B. whimpered and leaned harder against me. I scrunched my eyes more tightly shut and started humming inaudibly to myself. I was sure the fever would break soon and my parents would be there, concerned, like Auntie Em and Uncle Henry at the end of "The Wizard of Oz."

"We'll do it with my iron rod," Fred continued. "I have it with me all the time. I've been training for this. I've been chosen to do this."

With that he shot off the highway onto an exit ramp, took a quick turn onto a county road, and plunged deep into farm country.

B. slumped down like the condemned man he was sure he'd become. Corn and wheat fields flew by as Fred gripped the steering wheel, rocking back and forth and muttering under his breath about iron and the Antichrist while his eyes rolled and sparked. I gazed out the window. I'm going to die here, I thought, buried in a windbreak. They'll find our bodies during spring planting.

Suddenly, Fred braked and the truck came to a stop. He turned and smiled at us, his eyes steady, every bit the small town gentleman.

"We're here," he said. "That was a little shortcut I know. You can get back on the freeway at the bottom of this ramp." He pointed. Sure enough, there was the interstate.

We climbed shakily from the truck and grabbed our belongings. Fred got out and walked over to shake our hands. "Good luck," he said.

"You too," we said.

His eyes started their dance again. "I don't need luck, I need strength. That's what Fred means, you know, 'strength.' I'll need all of it for the battle ahead." He got back in the truck and started the engine.

"We'll see you boys," he called as he drove away. "We'll see you very soon."

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Someone's A Wee Bit Cranky

Modest Proposals

Today is Election Day in our Great Nation, with all its attendant opportunities to vote for the crazy person of my choice. Using this cherished right prompted me to think about my dream candidate, and the platform he/she/it would support.

1. Abortion

Women will be encouraged to carry to term any fetus whose ultrasound indicates a winning personality. Excess stem cells will be given social security numbers and trained for entry-level jobs in the hospitality industry.

2. Immigration

Illegal immigration will be outlawed. The Statute of Liberty will be moved to Wichita and used for natural gas storage.

3. Civil Rights

Civil disobedience will be mandatory.

4. Taxes

An annual lottery will be held in April. Winners will get a year's exemption from taxes. Losers will be stoned to death.

5. Capital Punishment

Stupid drivers will be killed.

6. Energy Conservation

See #5.

7. Gun Control

Community gun pools will be encouraged as a way to reduce the number of guns on the street.

8. Environment

Four legs good, two legs bad.

9. Arts

Bands of roving poets will be hired to accost strangers in malls and dark alleys. Professional sports will be renamed "performance art," making the United States the top art-loving nation in the world. Woo-hoo! We're #1!

10. Poverty and Hunger

A moose in every pot!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Flesh And Blood

Our high school cross-country team competed in the state tournament this Saturday. Although he wasn't running, my oldest is on the squad and asked me to bring him there to cheer on the team. Because it was conveniently located a short 90-minute drive away I cheerfully agreed. Certain the oldest would desert me in favor of his friends at the earliest opportunity, I convinced his youngest brother to come along to keep me company.

Sure enough, we'd barely parked the car before the oldest peeled off towards a group of female classmates like a pilot on a strafing run, the last we'd see of him for the next two hours. The youngest and I found a place to watch the races.

"Dad," he said, "I know what I want to do when I get older."

"Support me?"

"Don't be dumb. I'm going to play baseball at UNC."

"That sounds good. You better keep your grades up."

"Math is stupid. Mom says she never uses it."

"No, she said she doesn't use calculus at work. That's different."

"What do I need math for?" he asked.

"To count your money when you're a rich baseball player," I answered.

He nodded. "That's true. Hey, do you know what I'm going to do when I'm done playing baseball?"

"Support me?" I asked again, though less hopefully than before.

"You're still being dumb. I'm going to have rabies."

I'm dumb? "You can't have rabies. You'll die."

"I'm going to be a carrier," he said.

"Like what, a skunk?" I asked. "They carry rabies. You smell like one so you have a head start."

This seemed to please him. "That would be cool, if I could spray my enemies. You know what else I'm going to do? I'm always going to have a dog. Probably a black lab like Katie, because they're the best, Katie's a good dog, she's smart, she's not evil like you say, she doesn't like you anyway. . . ."

The first race hadn't gone off yet and my head already hurt.

Two hours of chattering later, the meet ended and my other son returned. "Hurry up, let's go," he said panicked his friends would see us together. Fine by me. At least in the car I can turn up the radio.

By Sunday morning, when my mother arrived for her weekly visit with her grandchildren, I'd forgotten much of my "conversation" with the youngest, not surprising given that I'd not paid much attention in the first place. The oldest took no time in reminding me, however.

"Grandma, my brother wants to be a rabid skunk when he grows up."

My mother isn't fazed by much of what she hears during her visits, but she raised her eyebrows at this. "You don't say," she replied noncommittally. She hates to criticize the boys.

"Someone will probably shoot him," added the oldest.

Grandma jumped at the chance to change subjects. "Did you know that happened to your father when he was a boy?" she asked, referring to the time a friend shot me while playing with a gun. "He's lucky to be alive."

My oldest looked at me. "I'm not sure he thinks so."

I nodded in agreement. "Let's just say I'm alive and leave it at that."

"Besides," said the boy, "Dad always tells us you shot him."

My mother glared at me. "My son thinks he's funny. He's not."

I whispered to my kid, "This is the way she was talking right before she drew down on me. Leave now, run. I'll distract her."

My mother is a 5'1" retired foundation executive who now spends her time with theater, international travel, and service on a local library board. She may be one of the few people in this country who has never seen a gun in real life. "I did not raise you to treat your elders this way," she said, shaking her head in disgust.

"I'm spiritually deficient," I said. "It's probably because you didn't church me enough when I was young."

"You're deficient, but not because of that," said my mother.

"Why do you hate God?" I asked her.

"How can I hate God if I don't believe in Him?" she replied.

"God believes in you and He's none too fond of your attitude," I said.

"Ignore your father," she said to the boy.

"I already do," he said.

"Good," she said, standing up to leave. "Try to teach him some manners."

"See you next week grandma," he said.

"Where are your brothers?" she asked him. "I want to say goodbye to them too."

"Outside. Eating bugs, I think."

She stared at him for a moment with the sudden recognition that he and I, we're not so different.

"Bye ma," I said with a gleeful smirk.

She walked to her car, muttering, stopping only to say goodbye to her other grandsons, who from my vantage point did indeed appear to be eating bugs.

"That was fun," said my oldest.

"Yes," I said. "Yes it was."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Them Bones, Them Bones

After making a 300 mile round-trip drive today to assure a client that his problem is my problem, I arrived home in time to make some dinner and get the littlest angel off to his school play.

"What are we having for dinner?" demanded the middle son.

"Hamburger Helper."

"Woo-hoo!" yelled the middle son, whose dietary preferences are limited to sugar, imported Parmesan cheese, and processed "food."

"Are we really eating that crap?" asked the oldest.

"It's all I've got," I said. "Besides, it's made with the good beef, the stuff we got from P.'s friend."

"What a waste," said the oldest. He had a point, but with thirty minutes to get them fed and get back to the school, I wasn't particularly interested in debating ethical eating choices.

Last year, the grade school play was about "Melton, the Warmhearted Snowman." My son, who played the lead, now calls him "Melton, the Dorkhearted Snowman." A big thanks to his brothers for ruining another nice memory.

Tonight, the play, a musical really, was about the human body. Not "O Calcutta." It had to do with bones and muscles and what not. My kid played a nerve.

"I suppose that's because you get on everybody's nerves," someone said to him last week.

"That's weird," the kid replied. "I've been hearing that a lot."

I ran into a friend of mine, a guy from India, before the play started. His son's playing a doctor. "That's stereotyping," I told him. "He should be playing an Italian grocer or something. You could sue the school district." My friend looked interested. He's getting acculturated.

The play itself was that odd combination of endearing and painful unique to elementary school productions. There was a lot of first-class wiggling by the nerves, a fine narration by a young lady destined to be the star of the 2014 high school play, and quite a stirring soliloquy from the neighbor girl I would have pegged as least likely to give a stirring soliloquy.

Most interesting, aside from my child's obvious and inherited talent, was the make-up of the cast. We live in what almost anyone, including me, would think of as a white city in a white part of a white metropolitan area in a white state in a white part of the country. It's a wonder we don't consider mayonnaise too spicy.

But there, up on stage, in addition to my Indian friend's son, were children with backgrounds ranging from Vietnam to Ethiopia to Nicaragua to a good part of the rest of the world. If they'd had a role for a penguin I think all seven continents would have been covered. Based on an admittedly rough count, my very white son might not have been in the minority, but it was close.

Afterward, I picked him up in his classroom, said hello to his teacher, talked with a few other parents. His classmates break down along similar lines, many of them with hard to pronounce names, some of them with accents I have trouble understanding.


My grandparents came to this country. They didn't speak much English when they got here, and by the time the immigration men at Ellis Island got done with it, their names were pretty hard to pronounce. My parents went to school in big cities with other kids from all over, then grew up and went to college and moved not far from here, to a white city in a white part of a white metropolitan area in a white state in a white part of the country.

When they bought a house, someone in the neighborhood circulated a petition to keep them out, because their name was hard to pronounce and their parents used to have accents that people had trouble understanding. My parents knew about it, but they moved in anyway, and after a while the rest of the neighbors didn't even notice anymore and my parents made friends that last to this day, and after I was born, so did I.

Now, my boys and their friends are on a stage, in a classroom, playing football, doing these things with kids who have hard to pronounce names and troublesome accents. None of them seem to think about it much, to consider skin color or nationality to be much different than eye color or a fondness for smoked fish. They're just things that make each of us who were are.

When I think the world is going to hell, and that's something I think a lot, I try to remember that.