After 50 Years, I Can Speak My Father’s Language

I became Harold’s (my father’s name) youngest son when he was forty-nine years old.  Forty-nine today isn’t what it was in 1958, especially when you lived life full bore.  By the time I became conscious of his presence (three years old) he’d already begun his initial descent.  He had the looks of Walter Cronkite, the physique of Jackie Gleason, the temper of John McEnroe, the contempt for women of August Strindberg (Swedish Playwright and infamous misogynist 1849-1912), the alcoholism of Johnny Cash, and a creative and innovative mind in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering.

There were just two of us (me and my older (2 years) brother.  That is, until 1972 (I was 14 years old), when the dirty laundry was aired: Our father had a previous marriage which produced two daughters and a son.  As I recall I was excited by the prospect (kind of like the “Brady Bunch“) and my brother was apprehensive and quite angry.  The confession of a first marriage only occurred because the eldest daughter had the strong desire to discover what happened to her “real daddy.”  The first wife’s precept that no one was to try to find their father until she had passed was strictly enforced and subsequently honored by all.  She passed in the early 70’s after which the eldest daughter’s search began.  As to why our mother or father kept this secret and never disclosed anything about it is anyone’s guess.

The marriage bond between my father and mother was broadsided by the wrecking ball in 1963 when the County Sheriff appeared at our front door to serve our dad his notice to vacate immediately which, we learned later, was a bitterly contested condition of their divorce. From that day on and until the day he died he expressed a cruel, ruthless and chronic acrimony and rancor toward our mother which he publicly and conspicuously displayed, especially when we visited on Sunday afternoons.  I don’t know if his brutish and vengeful behavior during our visits was aimed at my brother and I, or if he thought we’d run back to headquarters and repeat verbatim his vitriolic euphemisms such as “that god-damned pollock” (those were the only words he ever used to reference her).  I think his ruthless contention began after his first wife deserted him in the middle of the night with the children and his business partner and their business’s assets liquidated to cash.  The few things he treasured had fled in the night leaving him alone and penniless.

But he was not the victim; he was the perpetrator.

As I was to learn later in life, my father lived fast!  It took me a number of years before I could admit that my dad had already been someone else’s dad before he was mine.  What’s more, he was dad to three kids and husband to some lady some place and neighbors and club members and tavern buddies and business partners and customers all of whom I would never meet, but of whom meant very much or very little to him, and this whole other life never ever in a million years, not even for a split second ever imagined that somewhere some day in the universe there’d be Harold’s youngest child telling you their life story.  Well, until the age of fourteen I thought Harold being my dad was a one-act play; I was shocked to discover that there had been an earlier play, a one-man production entitled The First Dad is the Real Dad penned by his first family, which unbeknownst to me, devolved my one-act into a superfluous epilogue found in ancient Greek dramas.

Yet there were earlier chapters, when he was practically barbaric; young and handsome and strong and libertine.  Chapters in which he had pockets stuffed full of youthful immortality and adventurous hunger. Chapters which bore great resemblance to the stories of Hemingway or Faulkner or Steinbeck.  Chapters of male bonding and passage: acquiring the finesse of fly fishing; developing the patience of a deer hunter; learning how to set up camp.  Chapters about acquiring mechanical and electrical skills when combined with his creativity conjured up devices which awed his employers.  It’s these chapters that are out-of-print, those few siblings able to remember have long passed, names of friends or places or dates abandoned.  It would seem that my understanding of who and what my father really was would be conjecture, similar to explanations of figures in portraits painted by famous artists.

Except, there was one trail which we’d never bothered to follow: a couple of phenomenally heavy boxes which contained an enormous array of hand tools, parts, components, knobs, fuses, and rust.  These boxes had been buried in my brother’s basement for years, neither he nor I had any practical use for them.  In fact, they reminded both of us of particularly painful memories when both of us declined our dad’s invitation to study drafting in high school (and therefore follow his life’s path) and turned our attentions to the performing arts.  That was when I could feel my father’s pride drain from him as though he’d just been gutted.  But fifty years later, after I endured a break down and was determined to entertain my curiosities and creativity I spotted the art of wood working.  And I read a passage: “A Woodworker works wood with hand tools, he doesn’t machine wood with power tools.”  And so began my acquisition of various tools, all with specific purposes, and some which looked distantly familiar, as though I’d stumbled across them long ago but didn’t know what, if any, use they’d have.  What I didn’t understand then, I clearly understand now: Context was missing; meaning was missing; purpose and use and technique and discipline and understanding were all missing the first time, as an adolescent, I had found them.  But today, as I work wood with my hand tools I finally understand my father’s native language.  A language of tools and imagination and creativity.  A language of applied science.  A language which died the same day he did.

But it’s been rediscovered and is as important to me as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I finally understand the language he’d been speaking, how he saw his world, what he’d use to solve problems, and why he was so devastated when my brother and I impolitely snubbed his advice about drafting class and joined glee club instead.  And while I’m overjoyed to finally uncover a common thread uniting me to my dad, it’s also bittersweet: It’s a reminder that he’s gone and a wish that I’d give anything if he and I could, for just one day, sit together in my work space and “talk shop.”

The attached pictures show my dad’s tool at the top or the left and my tool underneath or to the right of his.

March’s Centerfold of “Gimme Wood”

I’m not sure how many of you receive the monthly periodical “Gimme Wood,” but ever since March of this year when their centerfold was a beauty from Japan, I’ve been dreaming of getting my hands on one of them.  I was so determined to get one that I engaged one of those traffickers in Japan to arrange everything on my behalf and she’d be a welcomed addition to my household.

Well, lo and behold, I found her online, and while she’s not “new” she’s been gussy’d-up, had a face-lift, and, most importantly rehabilitated.  She arrived at my doorstep about three weeks ago, but I kept her in the basement guest room fearing ridicule from my friends.  It wasn’t until yesterday that I finally put my hands on her and fired her up!

Unbelievable!

A slow start but once she got going. . .Jeez, I’ve been wasting time on American ones. . .I should’ve got one from Japan last year!

She’s mine forever, and there’s nothing anyone can do to take her away from me.  At long last my mitre corners will fit and I’ll be able to saw wood 10″ wide!

I love my Makita 10-inch dual slide compound mitre saw with laser.

Deconstruction: Or, The End Is A Great Place To Start

I was never known to have an aptitude for or interest in any kind of creative expression which involved my hands (with the exception of typing).  My friends are surprised by my newly discovered passion for woodworking, and they’re especially surprised that my knowledge has been self-taught.  But it’s less about knowledge and more about three things: 1) Curiosity; 2) Failure; and 3) Experience.

I think I’m a builder by nature.  There’s no proof; actually there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Many friends are flummoxed by my very recent interest in woodworking.  Frankly it’s just a different way to express my curiosity and creativity.  I’m drawn to puzzling problems and paradoxical possibilities.

But I’m also impatient, prone to cutting corners, and okay with outcomes expressed by “good enough,” or “that’ll do.”

Why do we dream dreams we want, but are incapable of achieving?  Because we plunge headlong into a project long before we fully understand the knowledge or practical training required. It’s only when I encounter a surprise obstacle do I understand the depth of my ill-preparedness.  The obstacle can’t be avoided; it requires immediate attention (which in turn demands research and reading and materials) which dampens the initial excitement like a toy that breaks after 10 minutes.  Setbacks are a normal part of any project, but patience and an understanding of how your project is assembled helps in the long run.  

My self-education in woodworking stemmed from a pen stand a carpenter built into an exquisite barrister bookcase.  When I enquired if I might procure a pen stand from him, he replied in, what I was certain a foreign language:  All you do is put a half-inch core box bit in the collet of your router, adjust your cut depth, make sure your fence is square and both the in feed and out feed halves are aligned, check your speed, adjust the feather boards, and hit the switch! What?!?!? I sat on the internet for two hours deciphering his email.  Eventually I located the things he referenced and purchased them absolutely clueless as to what one does with them in order to produce the aforementioned pen stand.  I had decided to entertain my curiosity, put up cash betting that I could figure it out, and enjoyed for the first time in 20 years the brazen self-assuredness and absolute impunity (which, I bemoaned was carelessly frittered away by clodhopping, trust-funded youth).

But I’ve been bemoaning wrongly.  It’s not that youth squanders audacious and foolhardy behavior, but that I, when the significance of adulthood grabbed me by the throat and squeezed, surrendered my curiosities like possessions to a customs officer, and drifted farther and farther and farther still away from the entertainment that life could be.  That adventure was supplanted by decades of slick marketing campaigns which led to the acquisition of goods the commercials told me I’d like.  And then, Kaboom!  One hell-of-a-manic-episode and like the iconic Chaplin tramp, I was thrown out of the club and into the street.

And feeling just as I did when my older brother told me to get lost when he didn’t want me to tag along with his older pals, I finally understood that life only looks the way it does, because that’s how I look at it.

So today and a year of days before today I’ve promised to listen to my curiosities, promised to try things I haven’t done, and promised to fail as often as I can because failure assuredly makes curiosity laugh.

 

The Crisp Season of Change

At last it’s arrived, like a visit from my favorite uncle who told tales of unimaginable childhood freedoms (having been raised on a fruit orchard farm).  At long last it’s arrived, the darkness of dawn mornings and the dimness of late afternoon twilights.  Finally, finally it’s arrived, the season of the apple and the pumpkin and hot cider.  And thank God they’re gone, days that grated like my cat’s yowling or, tortuous days akin to the incessant presence of my just-turned-teen sister and her coterie of screeching and cackling teensters (defined as a pimply, high-pitched, recently teened and obstinate-as-hell, alien transmutation); those chronically simmering days followed by feverous and languid nights, the forecasted but broken-promised breeze failed to arrive like those letters from your summer camp romance.  Relief has clocked-in, elbowing out a tireless summer which dropped anchor like a battleship of fervent seamen and remained well past dry-docking the sailboat.  The ease of fruit pie-like single-layered simplicity (shorts sandals shirt) has given way to the time-consuming layered bundling like wrapping grandmamma’s Chatsford teapot for shipping, encasing oneself with layer upon shedable layer.

I’ve recently concluded that I prefer seasons of change (Spring and Fall) over seasons of suffering (Summer and Winter).  I enjoy the initial imperceptible adaptations which occur in the early spring and early fall: Spring’s first cautious knock of Snow Drops; fall’s tentative nips of brusque breezes.  Of course these trepidations soon give way to Spring’s salvo of elevating stems topped with an eternity of color and Fall’s broad strokes of vividly colored canopies which subtly cautions us of life’s temporal cycle.  The seasons of change also highlight our world’s overwhelming beauty and diversity; it’s also a testament that every piece of (what we call) life patiently waits its turn to express its individual magnificence, it’s solo, when the world recognizes its achievement during the season’s glory!

If only we, as part of nature, would patiently wait for our turn to shine with respect for each other (and our colorful diversity).  And that we, as a Snow Drop or a stitch in Autumn’s auroral quilt, are an irreplaceable verse in life’s grand narrative.  

Recovery: A Saw Blade and Alpine Climbing (Journal: July, 2008)

I had thought that an increase in medication would signal a decrease in depression. But my psychiatrist corrected my logic and chose two separate metaphors to describe my recovery: 1) A hand saw; and, 2) Alpine Climbing.

Picture a well-made 26″ cross-cut hand saw with its blade facing upwards.  Don’t look at the teeth but look at the blades carefully honed angle-of-rise as its surface broadens to eventually equal the width of the handle.  And the teeth are hand-shaped on a grinder causing the familiar serrated edge which means there are several contact points (peaks and valleys) along the saws blade.  My mind when in major depression is like a serrated cross-cut hand saw blade. There’s a consistent up hill climb but in order to achieve the handle one needs to live through a number of peaks and valleys.

Similarly, the Alpine Climbing endeavor is peaks and valleys to which I am ignorant: I am not a mountaineer, having lived for 50+ years at or slightly above sea level.  But something odd occurred recently: my sea level suddenly rose skyward and I, lacking any previous experience went tumbling like poor Jill after Jack tripped showboating his coronet.  And then there it was, sea level, way up there, beyond tree canopies, even higher than some clouds.  It wasn’t until my psychiatrist explained that sea level remained fixed; it was I who had tumbled downward, spiraling like bath water down the drain.

From its approach I studied the aspect or face which I would climb to reach my first base camp.  The first leg I climbed alone (except for talk therapy and psychiatric medications) and joined my psychiatrist/sherpa at base camp where he was waiting with our racks.  We left the dark despair and feelings of hopelessness at base camp in mid-July, 2008.  We lightened our load by leaving behind my feelings of worthlessness and the idea that my life has collapsed, I am invisible in my own life and I would be better off dead. We both agreed that we didn’t need to drag those thoughts with us to the summit. We shouldered our racks and tightened the harnesses, checked and rechecked; thus began my apprehensive and cautious attempt to the distant summit of Peak Recovery.  The trek had been an exhaustive challenge across an unfamiliar landscape filled with dark crevasses of suicide and treacherous, newly fallen snow provided a dense foothold for our crampons, but which also hid the setbacks of insufficient dosages. But the activity of climbing and breathing the thin, cold air provided a sense of refreshment and newfound challenge.

Friends of mine and especially Nick have asked why I would’ve been so lucid for so long, then after meeting my psychiatrist it seemed as though my bottom gave out. It wasn’t until this afternoon as I write this entry that the reason occurred to me: I had spent the better part of two years in an utter state of unhappiness; unhappiness in my job, unhappiness in my relationship and unhappiness in my life. Yet, everyone in my life thought everything was swell and marvelous and happy! I had tried everything I knew how, from changing jobs, to self-medicating, to alcohol abuse, but nothing would erase that consistent gnawing pain I felt in my heart, or quiet those scratching, irritating noises in my head. Right up to the end I tried desperately to hold on, to simply hold on to the last end of rope, my fingers bleeding and numb. Until I saw my psychiatrist for the first time and he said, “there’s nothing to be ashamed of when you ask for help. You cannot possibly do this alone.”

It was then, right then, that I knew the futility of my fight; it was right then that my heart recognized kindness and a serene noiselessness smothered the incessant clamor filling my head.  This epiphany of surrender brought an end to my life as desperation.  When I released my hold my consciousness experienced a forced power-off; a reboot in safe-mode.  When I eventually opened my eyes there stood my psychiatrist who helped me to my feet and said “Now we can start at the beginning rather than the end.  The end which you fought valiantly to avoid never would’ve been avoided. Life starts when labor ends.  We all start on the heels of the end.”

My recovery continues to be slow with delays and disappointments along the way.  And yet, as we stop to rest I tell him of the anger and disappointments in my life. My psychiatrist/sherpa listened intently and then offered the most important advice of all: “Climb this mountain as though your life depends on it, because it does.”

Maybe We’re Just Like Ducks

It’s called imprinting, the rapid learning process by which a newborn or very young animal establishes a behavior pattern of recognition and attraction to another animal of its own kind or to a substitute or an object identified as the parent.  Ducks must be given full credit for bringing this natural attraction to the world’s attention.

We’ve all heard of some unusual attractions that ducklings have developed: humans, dogs, even beach balls.  So, if a duckling can blame nature for his predisposition for beach balls, perhaps our sexual proclivities are the combination of imprinting and sexual awakening: Love Potion No. 1.

My Duck Day coincided with the appearance of the concrete caravan and my budding sexual identity.

It happened during the dog days of summer, near the end of a blistering July, 1966 that the concrete caravan first appeared at the top of the hill on National Avenue and slowly made its way past Lapham Street, past the Roebuck house, skipped the alley, patched Elmer’s front walk and finally stopped to repair the crumbling curb in front of my house.

Most of the cement-men were career contract-labor: exceptionally efficient at chain-gang-hard-labor; blood-orange skin from the unrelenting sun, hints of aging hair poked from beneath hats, enormous bellies born from beer, and exhausted cigar stubs deeply wedged at the side of their mouths.  And then there was this one guy, unlike the others, this one guy resembled the older brother of everyone’s best friend; this one guy was the guy that came to pick up your sister, bewitched your mother, and worried your father; this guy, handsome in a blue-blood kind-of-way but absent of the sophisticated grooming; his countenance was basic, organic, and naturally simple; his body was whittled by the repetitious pounding of pick-axes; his age was disguised and  purposefully vague evoking my curiosity; he was a pioneer, trailblazing through his indecisive twenties.

He wore identical clothing each day: A clean, sleeveless white T-shirt absent of any distracting graphics; tattered by abrasions, the frayed front pockets of his torn 501’s gave witness to his desperate deep-hand searching for loose change to feed the pop machine; a thick, brown belt wormed its way through the faded-to-white belt loops and cinched the denim preventing its avalanche; a navy blue bandana was tied tightly across his forehead to restrain a chalky cowlick; and concealing safety glasses which rationed the gleam of his lapis colored eyes.  Draped yet suggestive, his broad shoulders were easily double the width of his narrow hips which plunged into the deeply concave impressions of his hindquarters which were kept aloft by fleshy legs challenging the denim’s restraint.

Each morning he would arrive fresh like today’s baked bread.  As the toil took its toll his sweat marked then saturated his T-shirt prompting its removal which resembled pulling peel from fleshy fruit.  From my perch on Mrs. Bower’s front steps I mapped the pathway of his perspiration, its headwater found near his neck where it gathered then overflowed and trickled south swallowing isolated beads of sweat and tributaries which first appeared on his capped shoulders and added volume and speed which breached the sinewy levee of his spine and flooded the darkening waistband of his 501 ‘s as well as the white cotton banding which sat low on his hips.

I watched him for more than a week when my mother took notice and opportunity of my afternoon routine of sitting on the front porch.  It was her idea that I take the hose and water Mrs. Bower’s flowers and front lawn.  Perfect, I reasoned, an alibi should allay any suspicion caused by my daily observations.   On Tuesday of the second week of their construction I walked through the gangway with the spitting hose and began to shower Mrs. Bower’s flowers.  By the time I started to water the parkway (grass between the street and the sidewalk) the man in the blue bandana ambled cautiously over to me like a slow, curious cow to a farmer holding a bucket of feed. I stood on the sidewalk and thumb sprayed the grass when he asked, “Mind if I have a drink from there?”

I stood dumbfounded and handed him the hose, his wide, thickly calloused hands reaching across the freshly poured concrete for Mrs. Bower’s  Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot garden hose, and moved the bubbling water to his mouth, drinking quietly, his lips pursed into a muscled “O”.  I watched with a great deal of curiosity as his Adam’s apple moved up and down with each quenching swallow, the dimples in his cheeks mirrored the rhythm of his bobbing Adam’s apple.  When sated he returned Mrs. Bower’s hose to my care and said, “Thanks; I’ve seen you watching us for a couple of days; thinking of a career in concrete?  What’s your name?”

“T.M.,” I said quietly.

“Thanks for the drink, T.M.” he said with a wink, then turned and rejoined his crew.

July, 1966 became known as The Summer of Eye-High Marigolds and Mrs. Bower’s Famous Flowers as reported in one local paper.  That July day in 1966 when Bandana Man put his lips to Mrs. Bower’s Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot hose and quenched his thirst, I, instantly developed an unfamiliar thirst rising from deep within, a thirst temporarily doused by Bandana Man’s proximity, but which would reignite moments after I switched off my bedroom light later that night; by morning I longed to be near Bandana Man.  My disquieting need to putter around the front yard required a significant diversion, an understandable reason why I needed to be there.  Which is why my camouflage became an avid interest in gardening.  I think Mrs. Bower’s was exceptionally proud, and I’m happy that she took all the credit.  It was her front yard of course which received my best intentions while I continued to catch furtive glances through the gardens towering stems.

It took the concrete caravan an unprecedented three weeks to complete its concrete repair from the Roebuck house on the north end of the block to the Nichols’ house at the south end.  It was a Friday, I think, that the inevitable happened: I ran out of hose.  The crew had just turned the corner and was heading west on Mitchell Street. I stood there, water pouring from the stretched hose, acknowledging yet not understanding life’s cruelty: Why were we both at the same crossroad at the same time, if all it meant was fame for Mrs. Bower’s flowers?  As Bandana Man turned the corner he stopped, looked back at me, dropped his pick-ax and trotted in my direction, his tanned torso rippling like sheets on a clothesline.

He untied his bandana and held it beneath the cold water, wrung it out, then wiped his face and neck, returned it to the cold water and said, “You look kind of hot.  You hot, T.M.?”

“Yes,” I answered while nodding my head.

He took the hose from me letting it drop to the ground, turned me around, and wrapped the navy blue damp bandana around my head and tied it snuggly in back.  He spun me around, studied me for a moment, then said, “Cool man, you’re one of us now!”  And with a tousle of my hair he turned and ran to catch up with the crew which from afar resembled a motley gang of vagabonds.  I remained at that spot and allowed the water to drip down my face, catching a few droplets with my tongue, detecting a hint of salt which I knew was my first real taste of men.

Quality Counts

I recall favorably the first night I spent in my spouse’s garret twenty years ago.  Naturally, I maintain this memory carefully, doting on it like a delicate photograph that’s aging, edges first, a creeping brown border and satellite-like spots threaten my recollection.  There are certain details which remain as crisp as a carrot because their impact struck me with tremendous velocity: his lingering fragrance hidden in the cotton of yesterday’s white shirt, the organization of his morning rituals: washcloth, cream shave, razor, brush.  I remember these sneak-peaks into his privacy because they played important roles in who he was daily.  All men have similar morning rituals but what impressed me, even back then, was his carefully selected instruments.  Many men could care less, but for him it was important to have the precise razor or brush or after-shave balm.

Another time we’d been invited to a business colleague’s home for dinner.  He orchestrated a wonderful meal which reflected skill, passion, and pride in what he presented to his guests.  But most amazing was the absence of commotion, replaced instead by ease and fluidity and sufficiency produced by efficient use of very few utensils.  I never ask for a recipe, but I did ask the secret to his efficiency.  His reply?  Limit yourself to four knives, but buy the very best knives: spend the extra money in the beginning, rather than repeatedly replacing them.

I allow myself the luxury of paying close attention to my private rituals and the tools by which I perform them.  Personal details or items (whether tool, accessory or peculiarity) does someone select?  These very personal choices provide a glimpse of who they really are, who they are and how they behave in private, when no one is watching or evaluating.  These details are the intimacies of an individual.  They’re not declarations or pronouncements or bravado; they’re not obvious, are often found in private rooms (bedroom, bathroom), are easily overlooked as an insignificant article or one of propriety’s niceties.  But I have found them to contain much more passion than everyday items.

Personal details are often sought out or surreptitiously discovered or introduced by way of kindred spirits.  They’re rarely received as gifts because their personal significance is concealed for fear of ridicule by friends for their dandiness.  Cost is rarely a deterrent; if a person has selected a specific item their determination to acquire it is very strong; they’ll scour the marketplace; they’ll participate in auctions; they’ll keep abreast of discounts; and if all else fails they will happily exchange money for the possession or, if it is simply beyond their reach, they’ll step away and always admire the item with the hope of a giddy teenager meeting her teen idol.

It’s possible to obtain objects which are more than capable of performing the same tasks.  For example fountain pens and ball-point pens; Bulova and Breitling watches; thermograph and letterpress stationery.  It’s not the price that assigns value.  Workmanship, materials, design, style, function and longevity all play important roles in my decisions.

A word of caution if the item is categorized as luxury: the old adage you get what you pay for is very important.  A replica of an item is not an inexpensive version of the item.  A replica is, at its basest, a forgery, misrepresenting itself as authentic at a 75% mark down.  If you find a deal too good to be true, it is too good to be true!  If you’re really in the market for luxury items do a lot of homework first; learn everything you can about the item; understand the difference between worth and value; and don’t buy as an investment unless you’re an aficionado.

These are my personal details: Grooming: Merkur safety razor, Niegeloh Topinox nail trimmer, Erbe scissors (Solingen, Germany); Kent hair brush (UK); Proraso shave cream and after-shave; Burberry Brit Eau de Toilette; Stationery: Letterpress monarch paper and envelopes, fold-over note card and envelopes, calling card, and return address label; Nakaya Urushi-Lacqured Long Writer fountain pen; Kitchen: Victorinox 10-inch Chef’s knife, 3-1/4-inch Paring knife, 12-inch Granton Edge Slicing knife; ARY Hot Gloves with red silicone grip; Polder Digital timer; Kuhn Rikon can opener; Audio: Etymotic Research HF5 in-ear earphones; Etymotic Research High-Fidelity ear plugs; Etymotic Research er89-2 Bluetooth cell phone headset; General: Fenix LED flashlights; Boker Solingen pocket knives; Barking Dalmatian Soap Dispenser.