October 30, 2014
I was four when I saw my first grown-up movie. Dad took me. We stood in line and got popcorn and a big Coke and he let me eat all the M&Ms I wanted so long as I promised to sit still and be quiet. It wasn’t easy.
Looking back now, I understand that I was only a body. My father isn’t the sort of guy who would ever go see a movie alone (nowadays, he’s not the sort of guy who’ll go see a movie at all). Mom wasn’t interested in coming along, my sister only a baby. That left me.
“I want to watch this,” he told me when the lights dimmed. “Okay? You won’t understand it, but that’s okay. Just eat.”
Dad was right—I didn’t understand that movie at all. Just people talking about things I couldn’t follow, punching and exercising and showing off muscles and cussing. The good guy? Boring. The bad guy? Not so bad, unless you count the fact that he had kind of a big mouth and thought he was pretty much the best person in the world.
I was the only one in the entire theater who spent much of the movie counting ceiling tiles and kicking the chair in front of me, though. Everybody else acted like this was the best thing they’d ever seen. The entire two hours came down to a fight between the good guy and the bad guy. They circled around and beat each other senseless. That’s when people started standing up in their seats. Started hollering for the good guy. Started cheering. I was a four-year-old boy whose entire life revolved around supper and baseball and the monster I knew lived under my bed, but even I understood the movie I was watching wasn’t real and the good guy on the screen had no idea people were cheering for him. But they all cheered anyway, standing up and waving their arms, and then I got into the act, too. Dad, he just sat there and looked at me.
I’ll never forget that. To this day, whenever I’m flipping around the channels and see Rocky on, I’ll stop and watch. I’ll remember all those people cheering in the theater and my dad sitting there stone still and silent, but I’ll also remember the way his eyes looked—wide and gleaming—and how I knew that on the inside, he was cheering Rocky on, too. Because Rocky was him. Rocky was all those people. Rocky was me and you and everybody.
I’ve seen the other movies, six of them total. Rocky beating Apollo and Rocky beating Mr. T and Rocky beating a big Russian, but none of them are as good as the first. It took me a while to figure out exactly why, but I have now. I sat down and watched that movie over the weekend, and it hit me in a tiny bit of dialogue between Rocky and his fiancee, the adorably awkward Adrian. Read this:
Rocky: I can’t beat him.
Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin’ around, thinkin’. I mean, who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.
Adrian: What are we gonna do?
Rocky: I don’t know.
Adrian: You worked so hard.
Rocky: Yeah, that don’t matter. ‘Cause I was nobody before.
Adrian: Don’t say that.
Rocky: Ah come on, Adrian, it’s true. I was nobody. But that don’t matter either, you know? ‘Cause I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.
There. Right there. That’s why people loved that movie, why they love it still. Because here’s a guy who knew he couldn’t win, but that was okay. All he wanted was to last, to go the distance with the champ, to hear that last bell and still be standing, because then he would finally knew he wasn’t just another bum. And we all have something like that in our lives, don’t we? We all have that one thing that could prove to us we’re not bums, we’re somebody. Living in that neighborhood or having that job or driving that car, and as long as we don’t have that, we’re nobody.
I know a lot of people who fall for that lie. I’ll raise my own hand and count myself first.
The truth is we all have something to prove, if not to others then at least to ourselves, and I spend a great deal of my time wondering if that’s such a bad thing or not. Sometimes I think it is. Other times, I think it isn’t. But I do know this: Rocky lasted those fifteen rounds. He went the distance with the champ. But I don’t think that happened because of luck. I think it more had to do with the fact that he wasn’t a nobody to begin with. He was somebody, and I think we all are.
October 27, 2014
My son is of the age when toys are no longer toys as much as they are necessities. That’s how he approaches me with whatever new trinket has caught his eye—“It’s not just that I want this, Dad. I NEED it.”
Rarely works, of course. No ten-year-old boy NEEDS a basketball hoop, not when there’s one on the street just next door for anyone to use, or a new video game, or a Nerf gun that will end up in the grass by the creek, forgotten.
For the past month, it’s been a cell phone. His reasoning has been strong—I’m not home right after school some days, you might need to call or check in, that sort of thing. He’s wise enough to leave out the real reason (all of his friends have one; they look like cyborgs, faces always stuck in some sort of screen). But his sister has a phone, and, well, every kid comes born with an instinctual knowledge that if you can’t convince your parents, you can always wear them down.
So: a cell phone. He carried it home from the store last week with all the care and love as a father would bring his firstborn. Not a smartphone (he couldn’t wear us down that much), but the sort that can only call and text, the kind my son associates with the uncool and the elderly.
Thus far, all has gone well. The phone hasn’t gone lost, hasn’t ended up in the grass by the creek. He hasn’t used it to call Brazil or Kuala Lumpur. But my son does text. My son texts a lot. And, for whatever reason, mostly to me.
They come in the mornings especially, when I’m on my way to work. A steady stream of smiley faces and winks that always end with HAVE A GOD DAY. Great kid, my boy, even if he is a little spelling-challenged. He says he’s still getting the hang of typing with his thumbs. But his texts to me? He says he reads those twice before he hits send, making sure every letter and word is right. Which means my son doesn’t want me to have a GOOD day at all. He wants me to have a GOD one.
I told him that sounded just fine but that I didn’t know what a God day was. Turns out, he has them all the time.
My son says a God day usually starts out like any other, meaning you still don’t want to get out of bed. But then you do, you get up and get dressed and have breakfast, and that’s when the God day starts—when you go out—because my son says you need God in your bed but you need Him in the world especially.
On a God day, you pay more attention to how the sun is coming up over the mountains than you do all the traffic. And when you have to stop for the train, you don’t mumble things you’re not supposed to near as much as you wave to the engineer and the people you’re stuck there with.
On a God day, you say hi to everyone and ask them how they are, because that’s what people need.
On a God day, you always do your best no matter what it is. That doesn’t mean you’ll always succeed (“This isn’t a fairy tale, Dad,” my son says), but failing doesn’t hurt near as bad if you know you tried.
On a God day, you pray. A lot.
On a God day, you always laugh at least five times, because even if the world is full of sadness, that doesn’t mean your heart has to be that way, too.
On a God day, you come home and hug the ones you love, because they’re the best things God has given you and that’s why you need to take care of them.
I like that. I think my son’s onto something. So no matter who and where you are and what’s going on in your life, I hope you have a God day.
October 23, 2014
I didn’t know him well but I knew him enough, and I’ll tell you what he once did on those warm spring and summer nights, and why he tried to repay a debt he believed was beyond payment. I’ll tell you what he once told me, and I’ll let you decide whether what he saw was the truth or the remorse that had come to well up in him. I have never answered that question for myself. I suppose it doesn’t matter either way. Real or not, he was still haunted.
He was what we in the country call a Good Man. He shied from neither work nor church, donated annually to both the rescue squad and the fire department. He raised three kids with a wife he’d met when they were freshmen in high school. He never made trouble. Don’t listen to those who say a person must do great things in life to be known as great. This world is full of great people. They are the ones who keep their heads down and a semblance of joy on their faces, who work hard at building their lives and wish nothing more than the freedom to do so. That was him.
And yet we can all be Good when we step beyond our doors. Inside our homes, hidden from the eyes of the world by pulled curtains and drawn shades, that is where we often find our truest selves. It is a hidden tragedy of life that we save the worst parts of us for the ones we most love, giving to them the darkness we take such pains to hide from others. That was him, too. It’s hard to keep a secret in a town this small, but that was one. No one ever knew he abused his wife until she passed.
The cancer took her—not his fists, but a lump of tumor that had lodged itself inside her stomach. I didn’t go to the funeral. I heard it was fine as funerals go, sadness with hope thrown in. It was all sadness for him. They buried her at the foot of a knoll where the oaks grew tall and wide, and all he said after was that his wife would approve of such a place to rest.
I don’t know when he began spending the nights by her grave. I suppose it was gradual, daily visits that turned into once in the morning and another time in the afternoon, first minutes and then hours. Her passing became a reckoning for him, and he vowed to care for his wife in death as he should have cared for her in life. All those nights of having her there in bed, of waking to the smell of coffee and eggs, gone now and forever. He said he slept in the cemetery to feel her again for the first time in years. It isn’t often, just when he feels lonely and sorry. Sometimes, those two feelings are the same.
He told me this, too:
Deep in the night when there was only the dark and the stars, the dead would sometimes wake him. He would sit up and stare at the crest of the knoll overlooking his wife’s grave, and he would see the shadows of the lost in the midst of a long walk that never ended. Those shadows never bothered him. He said he doubted they could even see him. But he knew why they wandered. He said those were the ones who’d lived their lives burdened by the things they’d done, just like he did now. Even in death, their burdens followed them.
That was nearly twenty years ago. I don’t know that I’d call him a Good Man now, with all that I know. But I can say he’s a better one. And I can say he still sleeps at the cemetery sometimes.
We all have our shadows. They linger in our memory, haunting us in the remorse of those things we’ve done and the regrets of those things we’ve left undone. We endure our sins. We suffer their consequences. We trust that time will put enough space for forgiveness between our Then and our Now. Sometimes, that’s just what happens. Other times, those shadows rise up again. That’s when we’re left with the choice to leave our past behind as a marker that reminds us of how far we’ve come, or falling for the lie that who we once were will always be who we are now.
October 21, 2014
We buried Henry last week. It’s probably safe to say that deep down my family didn’t want to; despite the fact he never spoke and was never seen, we enjoyed having him around. But there are some things in life you just need to let die. Henry was one of those things.
He first appeared over the summer. I was washing the truck, got sidetracked, and ended up leaving the hose running all night. My son found the mess the next morning and wondered aloud whose fault that was.
“Henry did it,” I told him.
“Oh, you know Henry. He messes up a lot of stuff around here.”
It wasn’t the first time my son walked away from me shaking his head.
And thus Henry was born. He made another appearance two days later, when a certain little boy’s bedroom was discovered in disarray.
“Who messed up your room?” I asked him.
“Henry,” my son said. “He messes up a lot of stuff around here.”
It caught on. My daughter blamed Henry for all the toothpaste left in the sink. I blamed him for not mowing the yard. Even my wife got into the spirit of things by stating was Henry, not her, who had left the television on one Sunday afternoon. During Keeping Up with the Kardashians, no less. Henry loved trashy television.
Then came two weeks ago, when my son’s math homework clashed with an overwhelming need to finish the Lego town he was building. Addition and subtraction was no match for a new pet store. His homework wasn’t completed. So said the note from his teacher the following afternoon, which contained this postscript:
Who is Henry?
That was when we decided Henry had to go.
It was a tough decision. Because in his own way, Henry allowed each of us to skirt such things as duty and accountability. It was always easier to blame him rather than ourselves for the things we should have done but didn’t and the things we did but shouldn’t have. We didn’t have to be responsible. Sounds awful, I know, but few people truly crave responsibility. When something goes wrong, the first question always asked is, “Who’s responsible?” Who among us longs to answer that with “I am”?
But of course taking responsibility is something we all have to do. We all have to clean up our messes, we all have to do our jobs, and we all have to be careful of what we allow into our hearts. It’s easier to blame something else, especially if it’s an imaginary someone who can’t defend himself. Easier, but not better.
So rest in peace, Henry. I’ll miss you when the truck gets dirty and the grass needs cutting. I’ll have to do those things on my own now. I think I’m the better for it.
October 17, 2014
I’ve always been the type of person to show up early for a movie. Fifteen minutes at least, though twenty is preferable. It’s a matter of logistics, really. I need to sit in the back of a movie theater. Not only does it offer the best view, it allows me to see more people than who see me. That’s important. Wild Bill Hickock didn’t take that into account and got shot in the back of the head for his trouble.
The problem is that’s an awful lot of time to sit there in the semi-dark and keep yourself occupied. Conversation is an option of course, though there isn’t much that can be expounded upon in so short a time and in such a hushed environment. And though people watching is a hobby of mine, that’s a bit tricky as well. The dimmed lights offer just enough brightness to not trip over someone but not see exactly who it is you’re not tripping over.
Thankfully, theaters have taken to running advertisements and movie trivia on the screen that are accompanied by a horrible fusion of elevator music and movie scores. I take this as sort of a warm up for the eyes, like stretching before a workout.
I tackle this with the utmost seriousness. Especially the movie trivia. Knowing that the DeLorean in Back to the Future was originally a refrigerator or that the wrestler Peter Parker faces in Spider-Man is real-life wrestler Randy Savage isn’t quite valuable, but it can pass the time before the sneak previews well enough.
Occasionally, though, whomever puts together these little snippets of knowledge manages to sneak something in that really is quite valuable.
Between munches of popcorn and Twizzlers at a matinee the other day, I learned that whenever you watch a scene that includes a large crowd, the extras are often instructed to murmur the word “rhubarb” over and over again, giving the appearance of background conversation.
Why exactly “rhubarb” is used rather than some other word is beyond me and was not explained. Further research has revealed that often other words are used, “peas and carrots” and “watermelons” being among them. I think I understood a little better then. With the image-conscious, diet-crazed environment that is Hollywood, I’m sure there are a lot of hungry people on your average soundstage. Food would always be on your mind, too.
To be honest, I’ve always wondered what all those people in the background were saying. I felt pretty good about myself to finally have the answer to that. It was a tiny burden to lift off my mind, but a burden nonetheless.
But as with many of my unloaded burdens, it was replaced with a new one.
Yesterday I kept track of the people I spoke with and to. I answered over fifty emails, conversed with a dozen people on Twitter, spoke with five people on the phone, and actually had seven conversations with real live people.
That’s seventy-four people. For me, that’s a lot.
I tried to remember exactly what was said and to whom. I should add emphasis on try. Try. The problem was that I couldn’t remember what I had heard or read, nor what I had answered back. I could see the faces of the people I’d spoken to and the gist of what was said, but not exactly.
And that bothered me. It bothered me because I could only conclude that much of my interaction with people yesterday was much more shallow than deep and much less trivial than important. Which led me to ask this one question:
How much rhubarb was in my life?
How many of my words were just chatter, noisy emptiness to fill boredom or an awkward silence?
How many times did I say “How are you?” to someone as a simple greeting and not as an honest question?
How many times did I say I would pray for someone and then let it slip my mind as it disappeared among all the other cares of my day?
Our words carry meaning. They convey more than mere sentiment, but power and intent. Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can break much more. They can lift up or tear down, make right or make wrong.
Or maybe worst of all, they can just fill the air with rhubarb.